Gym Rats

“December?  Really?”  My sister looked over at me from her Stairmaster, next to the one I was climbing into nowhere myself.

She had met me at the gym that afternoon; if I raced out of school at dismissal, I had enough time to get in a fast workout before picking up Z at the after school program he attended.  The need for the exercise as all the more important now, with a wedding in my future.  I’d always worked out sporadically, but since R had moved in, I’d put on a few pounds with all of that bread and wine with dinner business.  It was time to step it up.

“I’ve always loved the idea of a Christmas wedding,” I answered my sister, panting slightly as my heart rate increased.  “All of the decorations at church, the red, the green you can use in the arrangements, the lights…I just think it will be beautiful.  And since December isn’t a huge wedding season, the church was available.”

My sister raised an eyebrow at me.  “But it will be cold, and possibly snowy.  Don’t you want to wait until the spring?  Or go earlier in the fall?”  She had been married on a cool day in November, when the cloud bank was thick.  I remembered at the time thinking she was crazy for planning a wedding then, when the sun never shone.

“Earlier?  No way.  It’ll be hard enough to plan a wedding in eight months as it is.  And honestly, it will be harder to find availability in the spring even though it is further away, because everyone gets married in the spring.  I really think it will be beautiful.  That early in December, the snow really hasn’t kicked in yet, either.”  I had booked the church for the first weekend in December; early enough that it wasn’t high Christmas party season, late enough that decorations would be up and in place everywhere.

“And R’s cool with that?”

I laughed.  “He is.  What is funny is that you’d think as a guy he wouldn’t care about all of the details.  But he wants to be a part of everything; choosing the invitations, the flowers, the cake…all of it.  Totally surprised me.”

“Yeah, my husband could have cared less,” my sister answered, kicking her Stairmaster up two notches while I adjusted mine down a level.  She was hard to keep up with.  “He let mom and me do the whole thing.”

I gulped.  It wasn’t in the forefront of my head all of the time, but it bubbled just under the surface often, the words my mother had said in her last week of life:  “I am so sorry I won’t be there for your wedding.” I bit my lip and looked forward.

“Sorry,” my sister said.

“That’s OK, I was just about done here anyway.  I’m going to go do weights for a few,” I said, slowing down the machine until I could step off.  I knew she would feel badly if I didn’t just shake it off, the comment about my mother, but I just couldn’t do it.  I wasn’t above feeling jealous that my mother had been alive for my sister’s wedding and wouldn’t be for my own.   I wandered over to the free weights and started hunting for the five pounders.

“Is that you?” I heard as I plucked two of the shiny silver dumbbells off of the shelf.  I looked up and saw Pat, looking back at me from across the mat.  Pat, who was Zachary’s great aunt.  Pat, who had told me in no uncertain terms that her nephew would never be a part of my son’s life.

“It is,” I said, my head reeling.  I didn’t even have it in me to try for positive, or calm.  When we had parted after our coffee meeting two years ago, Pat had said she would talk to her family and be in touch about where to go next in our awkward family connection.  I’d never heard back from her.   I supposed I could have called myself, but the whole situation was so uncomfortable.  I’d reached out, and the reception I’d received was lukewarm at best.  I wasn’t about to repeat the experience.

“I guess you’re probably wondering why you haven’t heard from us,” she said, slowly walking towards me so the entire gym wouldn’t hear our conversation.

Suddenly, I was hit with a burst of anger mingled with confidence.  “I assumed,” I said in my most dignified voice, “That it meant that you weren’t interested in pursuing a relationship with Zachary.”

She nodded, but tried to look sympathetic.  Unfortunately, it fell a little short.  “It just was such a strange situation.  And Joe made it so clear that he wasn’t interested…”

I held my hand up.  “You don’t need to say anything else.  I get it.”  I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation while wearing sweats and my old Corey Hart T shirt.

Her face twisted a little bit.  “I know you must think we’re awful people.  I probably would if I were you.”

I just didn’t have it in me to give her any sort of out.  “You know, it’s fine.  Zach and I are doing well; I’m still teaching and I actually am engaged now.”  There was so much I could say:  that at least my fiance wanted to be a part of my son’s life, that just because Joe was an ass didn’t mean the rest of the family had to be, that standing by watching an injustice was just as wrong as doing it yourself.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I kept pushing the five pound weights in my hands behind me, making it clear that the conversation was over.

“Well that’s great news,” Pat answered.  “I’m happy for you.  Maybe I’ll see you around the gym sometime.”

“Maybe,” I said as I switched to bicep curls.  I watched as Pat waited for me to say something further, realized that I was done speaking, and slowly turned and walked away.

“What was that about?” my sister said, coming up behind me.

“Nothing,” I said through tight lips.  “Nothing at all.”

Engaged

“Where have you been?” I asked R, as he settled down on the sofa next to me.   It was the day before Easter, 1996.

I knew what he’d been doing, of course.  It became obvious to me when my sister stammered out a not very well played lie as I called her house during my egg dying disaster.  She had mentioned something about needing to go out and get ingredients for the recipe she was making to take to her in laws for Easter dinner tomorrow;  she couldn’t name what she was making or anything she’d spent over two hours shopping for on one of her husband’s rare Saturdays off.

When I pressed her, she made me swear not to tell R what she told me.  She’d met him at a jewelry store earlier that day, to help him choose my engagement ring.

“Best Buy,” R responded to my question. ” Today is the last day of the sale week, and they had some of the 80s compilation CDs I was looking for on sale.”  R could deadpan with the best of them; he really should  have taken up playing poker or something.

I turned my attention to the TV, wondering how he would play it out.  My mind raced; where was the ring?  Was it in his pocket?  We weren’t going anywhere today, was he going to give it to me over dinner?  Or was he waiting for tomorrow, when we’d be with his whole family, including people I hadn’t even met yet from Toronto?

Oh, God.  What if he proposed to me in front of his whole extended some of them not even speaking English family?  15 first cousins, five aunts and uncles, plus everyone’s significant others.  A lump rose quickly into my throat.  I wasn’t sure I could handle that.  I could feel the sweat and bright red cheeks breaking out just thinking about it.

“What’s got you in such a state?” R said, taking in my obvious change in demeanor.

I looked at him, my eyes full of knowledge.  “I hate surprises, you know that, right?”

He nodded, blankly.  “Yes, you’ve made that abundantly clear on many occasions,” he answered smoothly.

“So if you were say…planning some sort of big surprise for tomorrow…that would freak me out right in front of your family.  You know that too?”

Something flickered in R’s face.  He knew.  He knew that I knew.

“What are you trying to say?” he asked, a note of suspicion blackening his tone.

The darkness of his tone threw me.  He was indeed planning something for tomorrow.  Maybe if I just had a preview, I wouldn’t be as tense tomorrow.  “Do you have it?  Do you have it with you now?”

“Have what?”  He was going to hold out as long as possible.

“I know that you went shopping with my sister today.  I know that you bought a ring.  And I’m begging you to please not spring it on me in front of your whole family tomorrow.  You know I hate being the center of attention, and you know that I hate surprises.  Please…if you have it now, please just tell me.”

I could see R deflate in front of me.  Clearly, I’d just ruined his plan for all of this, for the ring, for the moment, for everything.  Why did I have to be so neurotic?  Why couldn’t I just go with the flow?  Why did I have to ruin everything?

He reached into his pocket and took out a small box.  Irritated, he dropped it into my still open hands without a word.

I looked at the small box, a ring box.  This moment should be different.  I should give back this box and let him do this right, his way, however he saw fit.  I should be able to swallow my discomfort, for this, for him, to remember this moment without a stain on it.   But I couldn’t.  I couldn’t stop myself from opening the tiny box and seeing the perfect, half carat solitare ring staring back at me.  It was real.  It was an engagement ring.  In my hands.  R sat across from me, still looking irritated.

“Do you want it, or what?” he asked.

My cheeks glowed.  “I do,” I answered quietly, trying to not hate myself for ruining the moment and not succeeding.

R slipped the ring out of its satin home and onto my finger.  “So we’re engaged,” he said simply.

“We’re engaged,” I answered.

Ts and Balls

I looked at the flyer sitting on the kitchen table.  Z had pulled it out of his folder and placed it on top of the pile of mail, so that I wouldn’t be able to miss it, or at least say that I’d missed it.

Little League.  T ball.  Inwardly, I panicked.

After school activities were foreign territory for me.  My own mother had always worked, and we’d never been enrolled in any sort of extra curricular activities until middle school, when I’d insisted on taking on the flute.  My mother hadn’t argued because by then I could walk to and from the afterschool practices that it sometimes entailed.  I’d never taken dance as a little girl in a pink tutu, or piano lessons, soccer, or catechism.  I heard other kids talk about these things and I’d listen like a foreigner on a trip to a far away place.

This was the kind of moment that I’d vowed to do differently as a parent.  I’d set my career up on purpose to allow for things like this.  I’d be available to take Z to practices after school; in a pinch I could be back home by 4pm if necessary.  But still, not having any personal experience with this kind of thing made my fear of the unknown set off like a warning siren in advance of a storm.

And what if Zach wasn’t athletic at all?  He wasn’t exactly the most coordinated of kids; we were still having trouble mastering riding a 2 wheeled bike.  His glasses slid down his nose sometimes and he would forget to push them back in place, marring his vision.  What if kids made fun of him because he wasn’t any good at it?  What if the other kids made fun of him for not having a father around to coach the games and practice throwing a ball with him?

I certainly couldn’t ask my brother for any fill ins here, and my brother in law was always working and would never be able to do that sort of thing with Z.   Ugh, I thought.  This was the kind of thing that still pissed me off about being a single mother; just when you think you’ve learned to live your life and have everything down, yet another thing comes and reminds you that someone left you to do this All Alone.  It wasn’t fair that Z didn’t have a father to do things like this with him.  I supposed I could do it, though my hand eye coordination wasn’t exactly stellar either.

I sat down at the table and picked up the flyer.  I could ask R, I thought.  Should I?  I’d never seen R engage in any athletic activity, though, and he never watched baseball at all on TV.  Were we there in our relationship yet?  Could I ask him to play the father role in a sports situation?  Did I even want to do that?   Would he?  I wasn’t sure.

My son wanted to play T Ball, for heaven’s sake.  This shouldn’t be that hard.   These are little kids.  This isn’t life and death.  I grabbed a pen and filled out the form, quickly folding it in three and putting it into a business sized envelope.  Enough.  I’d figure out the details later.  My son should be able to play some freaking ball without me having a full on panic attack.

Enough.

Making a Tough Job Harder

I sat with Carol in her classroom that January, calculating grades.  The school district had called a snow day, but in our urban district, that meant that staff usually still had to report to our buildings.  I had dropped Z off at my sister’s house for a day of fun with his cousins and then made the hour and a half long extended trudge through the snowy highways to work.

“Can I ask you a question?” I asked Carol, my brow furrowed as I looked at my grade book.  The students were an interesting mix of city kids.  Some were studious and motivated; but they were the vast minority.  A good chunk of students were here because their parents had made them attend; they could be motivated with the right mixture of parental communication and interesting lessons.  They of course would test the new teachers to see how far they were willing to go to make them do the work; I’d discovered this the hard way during the first marking period when a good third of my students had failed and more than half had Cs or below.  I had been called into the principal’s office and told in no uncertain terms that I was to fix this problem with my students’ grades, pronto.  Whatever it took.  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

But there was a third type of student at our school too; the completely uninterested student.  Their parents weren’t involved, and it was a miracle that someone had even bothered to take the time to enter them into the lottery to attend our magnet school.  This group of students, in each and every one of my classes, could be the difference between a day that went sort of OK versus a day that was a complete disaster.

“Sure,” Carol responded, looking up from her grade book and bubble sheets.

“I feel like I’m going in circles,” I started, trying to find words for the frustration I was feeling.  It wasn’t just the kids, although they presented enough of a challenge.  “I don’t know how to say this, but the kids don’t feel like my greatest problem in this school.” I paused and lowered my voice.  ” Do you know what I mean?”

Carol nodded knowingly, leaning in.  “I do,” she said quietly, encouragingly.

I went on, ready to say more with the affirmation.  “It takes me all hour to calm the kids down when they came from the other English teachers’ room.  And I can HEAR them through the walls in the science room next door.  I don’t know what is going on upstairs but they are like wild animals sometimes when they come down from the second floor.  How much learning is really going on with these kids?   Have you noticed that the kids really are going nuts for some of the other staff?”

Carol smiled at me and put her pencil down, pausing to choose her words carefully.  “I hear you.  It’s a lot harder to do your job when other people aren’t doing theirs.”  She too lowered her voice and looked out her open door.  Seeing no one, she continued:   “One of the math teachers upstairs is not teaching at all; the principal doesn’t know it yet because he just gives out As and Bs so the parents are happy. The kids told me that they turn in papers and he just puts them in a cabinet, never checks them, never returns them.”

“How can they get away with that?  I got called in for having too many Ds on my students’ report cards last fall!”  My sense of fairness rose up in my chest like a five year old who has been reprimanded for someone else’s wrong doings.

“The kids tell me, but their parents don’t know because they don’t want to have to do any more work, so they don’t say anything to anyone else.  For some reason, they trust me.  It’s like they want to have someone know about it, but not any one with any real authority to do anything.”

I swallowed.  “It explains why I have such a hard time motivating the kids to do social studies.  They aren’t even tested on that on the standardized tests at this level.”

“Exactly.  When I make them do their work and tell them why, some of them counter with the fact that Mr. O doesn’t make them do work in there.  I have spent hours talking to them about why that feels good now but it really isn’t in their best interests in the long run.”

“Really?  What do they say?”

“Well basically three different things.  The ones that are pissed that they’re not learning are grateful that someone actually said something and thank me.  The middle ones, you know the ones, the ones that pretend not to care but know they will get their asses kicked for a C or below?  They front and talk big but then they get down and do what I’ve asked them to as well.  Because at the end of the day they too know they need to know things to get anywhere in life.  The ones that don’t care because their parents don’t care, they still misbehave and I spend the rest of my time keeping them at a low boil so the rest of the kids that give a crap can get their work done.”

I thought for a minute before I spoke.  “I never thought that part of the difficulty in teaching would not only be the students and their behaviors, but also the other teachers too.  When there isn’t a uniform level of expectation or discipline, it makes it that much harder for those who are expecting more than those who are accepting less.”

Carol nodded.  “Listen, these kids aren’t stupid.  They know they’re getting away with something, but some of them also know that they are losing opportunity with every day they don’t learn what they are supposed to.  Work with those kids and just manage the rest.  That’s how I get through it.”

I nodded and went back to my bubble sheets, the silence between us easy and comfortable with shared outrage and experience.

Still Going

I wondered as I lay there in bed that cool, winter morning, where this all was headed.

R snored noisily next to me on “his” side of the bed as I lay there, watching the clock, knowing I’d have to get up from my cocoon of warmth and comfort in a few minutes.  No sense in sleeping any more, but I couldn’t motivate myself to get up from my warm nest any earlier than was necessary.  I let my mind wander lazily as I watched the minutes tick down.  Listening to the noises next to me, my mind conjured up him and I.

We’d spent Thanksgiving with my father’s family out East and Christmas with R’s family in Canada.  My own family thought R was warm and friendly; they accepted our living together as a matter of course.   More than anything, I think my family was relieved to see me in a stable relationship that would provide some groundedness for my son.  I suddenly was now officially Just Like Everyone Else, with a partner and a child and a job to go to every day.  I was an adult.  My grandmother smiled broadly as she looked up at the man I’d chosen, noting his dark eyes and hair were similar enough to that of my son.

At Christmas, R’s large extended family was kind and over the top in their attempts to make Zach and I welcome.  Overwhelmed to find no less than four different languages spoken amongst the more than dozen of visitors to the holiday celebration, Z and I curled up together on the sofa playing I Spy to calm both of ourselves down. R’s traditional, non English speaking grandmother was allowed to believe I was a widow, and she congratulated R on his kindness in taking me on.   I worried endlessly what they all must think of us, but the demeanor of all couldn’t have been more gracious.

So now that the holidays were over, and we had both passed muster with each other’s families, I wondered.  Was this what I wanted to have?  Was I ready for the long term ramifications of what we were doing here?  Because this was no longer dating, by any stretch of the imagination.   This wasn’t an overnight stay or a few too many glasses of wine one weekend.  This was serious commitment of a level I’d never experienced before.  I’d never intertwined my life so much with someone else’s before.  I felt like I was in a car going 85 miles an hour without being entirely sure where the brakes were.

Being a worrier, I started picking apart the man who slumbered unawares next to me.  There were certainly things that concerned me about him.  He had a sarcastic wit that cut just a little too deep, often.  He clearly had some differences in opinion on child rearing than I did.  He’d already made very clear to me that he’d prefer a mother at home with her children should we ever reach that point in our relationship.   He seemed rigid about certain habits and routines.   I wondered how much each of us would have to smooth off our edges to fit a little more neatly together.

I was willing to find out.  I had dismissed so many nice boys based on little things.  I had a chance here to have the life I wanted to deliver to myself and my son.  I was ready to not have to be the one who gathered up Z’s things every morning to take him to daycare.  I was ready to not have to sit down alone each month and wonder where I was going to pull the money out of to pay the Visa bill.  I was eager to have real meals at my kitchen table with bread and wine and phone calls from extended family wondering how we all were that day.

As I rolled over and looked at R again in the gathering morning light, I sighed.  He was not perfect.   Not by a long shot.  But so far, in all the ways that mattered to me, he was exactly what I wanted.

I decided to let it ride; maybe this time, my gamble would finally pay off.

Meeting the Parents

Panic rose fast in my chest as I saw R get out of the car and walk around to my side of the vehicle.  His parents?   I was mentally unprepared for the occasion.

R opened my door.  “See?  I can already see you’re freaking out.  Think of it this way; if you had known about this, you’d have spent the last hour freaking out.  Now you’ve only got thirty more seconds of it before you’re done.  I’ve done you a favor by not telling you ahead of time.”

Unamused by his logic, I slowly rose out of my seat and accompanied him to the back door of the house he’d apparently grown up in.

“Welcome!”  An older gentleman swung open the door and reached out to hug me.  Before I knew it, both of my cheeks were being kissed, European style.  I remembered that R had told me that his father had emigrated from Eastern Europe in his late teens; I could hear an accent in his words as he walked us in and led us into the kitchen.

R’s mother was waiting for us in the smallish kitchen, all sorts of dinner preparations clearly in full force around her.  Cutting boards full of chopped vegetables, pots simmering on the stove; it was a full out dinner from scratch being pulled together.  “Well, finally, we meet!”  R’s mother exclaimed, gathering me in a warm embrace, but keeping her hands carefully off of my clothes so as to not stain them.  “It’s so nice to have you here.  Did he let the cat out of the bag at all?  Judging by your face, no.”  She smiled warmly, in a clear attempt to ease my obvious discomfort.

“No, I’m still in shock, actually.  This was a complete surprise,” I stammered, slowly easing into the warm atmosphere.

From the dining room, another face emerged, a woman.  “R, you are so cruel.  I can’t believe you wouldn’t warn her ahead of time that she was coming to meet  your family.  I’m this jerk’s crazy sister.”   I laughed at the obvious sibling rivalry as she gave R an easy punch to his upper arm.  “Papa, let’s get this poor girl a drink before he does anything else to make her want to run far and fast.”

I laughed and relaxed a bit.  They were trying very hard to make me feel comfortable, so I forced myself to swallow down the anxious fear that had brought a bright red glow to my cheeks.  “A drink would be great,”  I answered, trying for casual as I surreptitiously wiped a sheen of sweat from my palms.

R’s parents served us appetizers and before dinner drinks along with easy conversation.  I learned that R had grown up in this charming 1920s bungalow in Canada, attending Catholic schools and enjoying a large extended family that all lived within a four hour radius.   R’s sister regaled me with funny, self depracating stories about their childhood, giving R the starring role in some of them, telling me embarassing tales in others.  Before I knew it, we were sitting down to a restaurant quality meal in a well appointed dining room, served with the same bread and wine that R had put on our own shared table ever since he moved in six weeks ago.  Classical music played quietly in the background.

I was entranced by the whole experience.  What would it have been like to grow up in a place like this, with family dinners around a dining room table, two parents who worked together to create a meal, talking of exotic places (R’s parents had met in Spain) or rehashing family adventures together.   I tried to picture how this man who I was now sharing my life with would react to sitting down to a meal with my own family.  Our experiences were as different as night and day.  I craved knowing more about this family and being a part of this wonderful, relaxed atmosphere with people who clearly liked and respected each other.  As I answered R’s family’s questions about my own family, I found myself glossing over the sharp edges and painting a quieter, more palatable picture than reality provided.   I didn’t need to give out the gory details on the first night; I wanted these people to like me.

And they seemed to.  I sat back as R’s mother and sister brought baklava, dark chocolate squares and orange slices to the table for dessert.  R’s father poured a dessert wine; the raspy voice of worry in the back of my consciousness faded as I took sip after sip until it finally melted away.

Sweetest Day Surprise

“But where are we going?” I persisted when R put the car in gear and pulled out of my sister’s driveway.  We’d just dropped off my son for the evening, because it was “Sweetest Day”.

In the years since, I’ve discovered that Sweetest Day is a Midwest version of Valentine’s Day that occurs on the third Saturday in October.  It’s an excuse for people to buy more cards and fancy dinners and flowers than they normally would in the fall.  Having grown up in Michigan, I took Sweetest Day at face value, a given:  a time to celebrate if you were part of a couple, a day to be bitchy as hell if you weren’t.  I’d been part of a couple exactly one other Sweetest Day in my life:  1988.   Joe had bought me flowers and enclosed a card that said, “Flowers for My Sweetest, Today and Every Day.  Love, Joe.”  We’d been at Michigan State then, and he’d bought them at the florist near the semi off campus drug store that I would later purchase my pregnancy test at.

So I was kind of looking forward to this year’s Sweetest Day.  I was not only dating, but actually living with R, which I figured would merit a really special recognition of the day.  Sure enough, R asked me to have my sister babysit for us that evening, but told me nothing else about how we would be spending our precious child-free hours.  I hated surprises, so I was carefully keeping track of every turn the car made.  “The freeway?  Are we going somewhere downtown?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” R responded, a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth as he drove south and west.  “You’re not really very good with surprises, are you?”

“No,” I answered.  “I am a planner.  I like to have everything laid out in advance, be prepared for contingencies.  Surprises don’t go very well with that part of my nature.”

“Well, I hate to break this to you, but I love surprises.”

I glared from the passenger seat while R continued to drive.  “Am I dressed appropriately for this place?” I asked.  I was dressed in clothes I would have worn to work:  a pair of khaki slacks and a long sleeved, knit top.  If it was a nicer restaurant, I probably should have worn a skirt.

“It should be fine,” R answered, noncommittal.  “Nice try, though.”

“Crap.”  I looked around.  R was taking the turnoff for the Tunnel to Canada.  “Oooh, Canada?  Fun!”

Michiganders like me who live just a short drive from Canada always think of the foreign country next door as a fun place to visit.  For one, most of us spend our 19th birthdays there since their drinking age is lower, and then the next two years frequenting their bars.  You can also watch male strippers (and female, I supposed, though I’d never done it) take it “all” off there, something that apparently isn’t allowed in the States.  Plus your money is worth more (or it was, traditionally, back in the 80s and 90s).  All in all, going to Canada nearly always meant a good time.

We passed through customs, R handling the agent like he’d done it a million times before.  I remembered, somewhere in the back of my head, that R had told me that he’d worked in some of the same bars I’d gone to in this town.  That was where he’d been bitten by the DJ bug, back in college.

R drove down the main drag, parallel to the Detroit River.  I watched down the road trying to guess which place he’d finally turn into.  But the restaurants slowly peeled away and the area became more residential.  I shot my confused face at R, who studiously kept his eyes on the road while pretending not to look at me.

The car came to a stop at a 1920s bungalow on a quiet boulevard of well kept homes.  “Where are we?” I asked, panic starting to rise in my chest.

R looked at me, turning off the car.  “My parents’ house.  You kept saying how you thought it was strange that you hadn’t met them yet, right?  Well, Happy Sweetest Day!”

I gulped.

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