What Are The Odds

“Do you ever wear it?” he asked me, looking down at the ring, not meeting my eyes.

What a question.

No.  The answer was simple.  No.  I never, ever wore the ring.

I’d actually forgotten that I’d kept it, for many years.  Which seems rather amazing, considering all that the simple band of gold symbolized.

Ray had given me the “promise ring” (I called it an engagement ring) late, late one night in August, 1991.  He’d arrived home from Iraq via Germany.  We’d been corresponding via letter and a few stray late night phone calls while he served in Gulf War I.  After our on again, off again high school relationship, the moment had seemed wonderful and perfect.  We spent his three weeks of leave inseparably, slowly letting my family in on the depth of our commitment.  But then he’d gone to his new assignment in Georgia, and then things fell apart.

But I still had the ring.  I must have put it away in one of my velvet jewelry boxes back then, keeping it as the one, tangible reminder of moments of happiness we’d shared that summer.  The promise and the weight and the surety I’d felt at our future together.  I pulled it out every so often, just to make sure it was real.  But then it was put away again, locked away, like the memories I’d had of him taking my virginity and everything else we’d shared.

I was unprepared for the emotion on his face when I sat next to him and showed him the ring.   Sitting next to Ray at all is an event of note; he now lives in Germany with his wife and daughter, and the odds of our paths crossing are as remote as one can imagine.  But somehow, we managed to meet at the most mundane and American of places as Starbucks.  There were pleasantries, hugs, emotionally charged small talk, as if this kind of chance encounter could happen any time.  Never mind that it had been fifteen years since we last were in each others’ presence.  Never mind that we were now both married, with children, and lifetimes in the gulf between us now.  Here we were, me with my mocha and him with his chai tea, as if this kind of thing were an every day occurrence.

I’m not sure what I thought his reaction would be at the sight of the ring.  Surprise, perhaps, that I hadn’t chucked it in a fit of rage after our engagement was called off.  Or pride, maybe, that I still had kept it all of these years, that this small bit of gold and diamond had meant so much.  But it was neither of those things.  It was pain.  Physical pain, that I’d brought rushing back to him, in the middle of our perfectly wonderful, normal, meeting up again after fifteen years.  He seemed surprised, taken aback, moved.  Moved in a way that I simply hadn’t anticipated.

“No, I don’t wear it,” I answered slowly.  “I never have been able to.  At first it was painful,” I said slowly, acknowledging his own pain, “And then life just sort of moved on, and it didn’t make any sense to.  But I kept it, still.  As a token, a reminder.  Something to hold onto.”

He reached out for the ring, taking the small circle of gold in between his fingers.  “It was a promise ring.  A promise I didn’t keep.  I guess I understand why you don’t wear it.”

“It’s not like that,” I said, trying not to remember what those dark days, twenty one years ago almost, were like.  “I look at it as a lovely reminder of the time we were happy.  It was brief, sure, but it was a wonderful time.  That’s what I try to remember when I look at this ring.” I paused.  “I suppose I should ask if you want it back.”  Wasn’t that the right thing to do, the protocol after a broken engagement?  Or did the 20 plus years remove that statute of limitations.

“No, keep it,” he said sadly.  And he looked at me then, his pale blue eyes full of all twenty years that stood between now and then.  Twenty years of living life, growing up, moving on, having regrets and coming to peace with all of it.  “Keep it with you,” he said huskily.

I tucked the ring back in my bag, my face glowing red with all of the things we both were leaving unsaid.

The News

“Mom, I have some news for you.”

I gulped, holding the phone.  It was a cold day in March, and I wondered what my boy, standing in his apartment seven hundred miles away in college was about to tell me.

I remembered uttering those words to my mother as well, from my dorm room 100 miles from home.  They were life changing words.  I was 18 years old.  A lifetime, my son’s lifetime, flashed before my eyes in the pause before I said, “Sure honey, what’s up?” as if I wasn’t shaking a little.

“Well, I have a girlfriend.”

A girlfriend.  This was indeed news.  Poor Z had never really had a serious relationship in high school; there were some crushes back and forth, and a long distance thing he’d carried on via the Internet with some girl out west, but he’d never really had anyone special enough to confidently give that designation to.

“Wow, that’s great news,” I responded cautiously.  “How long have you been seeing each other?”

“Two weeks,” responded my son with the seriousness that only a 21 year old can muster when speaking of a relationship.

I sighed.  I remembered the days when two weeks seemed like a lifetime.  When you thought you knew that your entire world had changed and that you could confidently say that this person was going to be there for you, forever, after only two weeks.  I stifled the matronly words that leapt into my head and spoke:  “Wow, OK.  What’s her name?”

And just like that, things were different.  My son had a girlfriend.  My son was an adult, graduating from college, looking for a job, and had a serious girlfriend.  I have friends that are married to the people that they met when they were where my son is.  More than one.  As if I wasn’t quite sure that my son was growing up, moving on, getting ready to start a real life, the news brought it all into very sharp focus.  And that’s a good thing.  This is what parents work towards, hope for, make sacrifices for their whole lives for.  To see their children happy and moving forward.

Fast forward six months and my son has come home with his girlfriend for the weekend.  They are still together, they are still serious, and they hold hands under the table at dinner.  She is polite, she is respectful and she loves our younger children and our dogs.  Her parents are closer to my father’s age than my own, but I suppose that is to be expected.  I can’t tell who is more nervous:  her at staying with us or us worried that she’ll find us somehow less than her own experiences.

Either way, we’re all trying.  Who knows where it all will lead, but for now, it’s good.

Beach Musings

I was sitting on our patio at our beach condo, the day after Christmas, huddling against the chilly breeze.  I loved our Florida Christmases, with R’s parents and my father all together; it was our new family tradition.  Most people went to the beach in the summer, but we went for our Christmas holiday, and I looked forward to it every year.  Up in CT they were expecting a Nor’easter today with at least a foot of snow; while it was cold here for Florida, the breeze was still warm enough to be relaxing, not biting, on my face.

I loved these quiet moments watching the sunrise while my family still slept in their vacation beds.  Sometimes my dad would stay over a few nights and he’d sit here with me on our patio, the world not awake yet, and watch the sun coming up.  I remember my mother used to do the same at her friend’s beach house, and it always reminded me of her, being at the beach.  I breathed in and out and let my mind wander.

I thought of Joe, still.  Over the weeks my anger had continued, but as life had continued in its usual routine, I found myself not obsessing on my new found knowledge every minute of the day.  But as my thoughts passed over Joe and what he was doing this Christmas, they landed on someone else whom I’d known during that time in my life.  I wondered where Ray was, right now.

Ray, my first boyfriend, the first person I’d ever agreed to marry, the man who brought to me my first real love and my first hearbreak.  We’d kept in loose touch over the years; I’d last seen him in the 90s.   We’d met for lunch one warm summer day right after R and I got married.  It turned out that Ray had gotten married after the demise of our engagement, but divorced a few years later.  He’d left the army and lived with his parents for a while; this was when I’d last seen him.  I didn’t hear from him for a few years after that, but sometime when I lived in Ohio I’d received an email telling me that he now lived out west and had a daughter with a woman in Utah.   I didn’t hear from him again until I lived in CT, when I received another email.  By now he’d lived in Key West sailing boats, traveled to Russia and France and Canada and all over the Carribbean and lived a full but crazy life.  He had just settled down with another woman, who’d borne him a second child, and now lived with her in Germany.

I’d reread that email dozens of times, feeling that tinge of regret and questioning of life.  I’d long ago stopped being angry or resentful of his treatment of me during our dating years; I’d accepted my own responsibility as well.  But there had always been something about Ray; his gruff, masculine exterior masking a warm, caring person underneath.  I was grateful to hear he was happy with his life now, though I had to admit, quite jealous of it.  He’d traveled the world; I’d hardly been anywhere.  My life had seemed full and pretty fortunate until I looked at it through the lenses of my old friend, who’d done so much more since we’d last seen each other.  Hearing from Ray brought into focus all of the ways that my current life wasn’t the life that I might have had if one choice either of us had made had gone differently.

He was actually here, right now, in Florida.  I knew he wasn’t far away, just down the road really in Clearwater.  Every person who walked by on the beach, I wondered if it was him.   Unbelieveably, his parents were “snow birds” (those who spent summers up north and winters in Florida) and had a place about twenty minutes away in Clearwater.  The thought of Ray and his wife and daughter away in Germany made communication safe and satisfying; the ability to have questions answered from this person who’d known me for so long was a gift.  But the idea of running into him at the Publix where we bought our groceries for the week made my skin prickly warm.  What would I say if I saw him?  What would he say?  I looked out at the beach in front of me and imagined him walking towards me during one of my morning walks.  Like a scene from a movie, me walking north and him walking south, each of us out of focus until the other knew exactly who was in front of them.  What would happen then?

The picture stayed fuzzy in my head; it was probably better that way.

Internet Searches and Quiet Moments

It was quiet in the house on the mornings the kids were at preschool, and Z was at high school.

It was strange , after years of working for Rick while trying to keep the babies occupied so I could spend hours on my computer, that now that I finally did have the time, there was a lot less to be doing.  Sure, I was still compiling information on radio stations and sharing promotional information with the fans, but there was none of the website updating and work.  With my email address no longer on the official website for questions, the amount of email I received asking about this or that related to Mr. Springfield was greatly reduced.

I found myself often in the stillness of it all, lost.  Shouldn’t there be something to do?  Shouldn’t there be a phone call to make or a digital file to create?  The phone even rang less and less, without the updates from management or the stream of drama laced phone calls from my friends.  It was as if everyone had already realized that my bloom was starting to fade and had already gone in search of greener pastures.

Which is how one morning I found myself actually watching a movie on TV instead of sitting at my computer.  The children were at school, the house was (reasonably clean) and my email box was well under 100 messages.  R was out of town for a few days, so I relaxed and popped in a video I’d rented from the library with Colin Firth in it.  I hadn’t really read the premise on the library issued plastic casing, but I knew that my favorite English actor was featured in a father role.

I sat, numb, as I watched the storyline unfold.  It should have been cheesy ‘tween fodder, a girl who reunites with her long lost father only to find out he (and now she) is a member of British high society. Except  as I watched her internal struggle with the absent father she’d never met, my heart sank.  Was this how my son felt?  He’d never met his father, either.  Did he conduct internet searches as this girl did, looking for information?  Did he look wistfully at the few photos I’d given him looking for signs of himself, as the girl in the movie had?  And if Zach actually did go to the trouble of finding him, as the story went in the movie, would Joe and his family receive him well?  Would there be new siblings?  A stepmother? Would he tell Zach stories of our short time together in a fond, wistful tone as depicted on my small screen?

I wasn’t sure if Zach ever still really thought about his biological father.  He certainly hadn’t mentioned him in ages.  I got up from the television screen and went back to the my computer and brought up Google. I typed in every name I could think of related to Joe, but of course it was a needle in a haystack.  There would be no way of finding someone who didn’t want to be found after all of this time.  I typed in my own name next, the maiden version of it, to see how hard it would be to find myself if someone were so inclined.  Of course, it took exactly two clicks to find an email address for me, thanks to my work on Rick’s websites since before I was married.  Both married and maiden versions of my name were floating out there in various places.

I closed my eyes and tried to think of the aunt’s name, the one who had met me for coffee a few times and had come over to my house with Joe’s grandmother.  What was it?   Pat, with a strange last name.  Her married name.   A few different search term strings and I’d found her posting recent messages on a gun rights website.  A click of her profile revealed a current email address.

I got up from the computer and went to the bathroom to splash water on my face.  What to do with this information?  Should I write her, or should I leave well enough alone, knowing that if anyone in that family (including the obviously web savvy aunt) had wanted to find Zach and I, they would have done so already.

I stared back at my reflection in the mirror for a full five minutes, not finding any answers in my sad, tired eyes.

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.

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.

Dinnertime

R was cooking a steak on the little hibachi grill I bought a garage sale last summer for six bucks.  It was the only grill I owned; my mother had never, ever cooked outside on a grill, so I had never learned how to do so either.   I watched him through the kitchen window while I prepared a salad and Z set the kitchen table.

We’d spent all day with his friend moving in R’s things.  He didn’t have much in the way of furniture (most of what he’d used at his apartment had turned out to be his roommate’s), but what he did have was tucked away in the basement bedroom, turning it into kind of a den.  I thought that was a good idea; it would give R a place of his own to go and chill out and be alone.  I’d finally moved some of my things into Zach’s bedroom closet (he certainly didn’t need all of the space) to make room in my closet for R.

It seemed strange to me that I still hadn’t met any of his family even though he was moving in with me.  R had told me that his parents lived about forty five minutes from where I did, that they were both college professors, and that he had a large extended family.  His father taught at an entirely different university in the summers, somewhere in Vermont, and R thought that it might make more sense to meet everyone all at the same time, after his father returned.    I suppose this should have bothered me more at the time, but since my own family was disjointed, spread out and fairly dysfunctional, I didn’t think that much about it.

“Are you ready for the best steak of your life, Z?” R asked my son as he came in with a warm plate full of meat, holding it reverently in front of him.

“Sure,” Z answered, going along with the game, but I could hear the question in his voice.  We hardly ever ate steak.  It was expensive and I’d never mastered the art of cooking it under the broiler as my mother had always done.   I tried to think back and remember the last time Z would have tried it.  Maybe out East with my family at some point.

We all sat down together at the table.  R poured red wine in small glasses for him and I; a glass of milk sat at Z’s spot.  A loaf of Italian bread had been cut up and put into a basket.  All of these things were foreign to Z and myself; I had never drank wine with dinner before unless I was eating at a restaurant.  But R explained in his family, there was always wine at dinner.  Bread on the table was another staple that I had never considered essential but that was his custom.  He’d happily recounted to me his favorite New Year’s Eve meal had been when his roommate had come home with a big block of cheese, a good French baguette and a bottle of wine for dinner.

I was intrigued by all of the differences between R’s way of doing things and my own.   It felt borne of years and years of dinners at a table with a cloth, drinks in glasses with stems and real chairs.  The majority of my meals growing up  included TV tables parked in front of sitcoms, drinks in plastic cups or perhaps the glasses that McDonald’s had given away that month with their Happy Meals, and more recently, stools at a breakfast bar rather than sitting at a real table.    I liked the idea that perhaps both Z and I were going to have something different in our experience than what we’d had so far.

I lifted my glass of wine.  “Cheers!” I said, offering to clink my glass with Z and R.  “We’re glad you’re here with us.”

R smiled and clinked back.  “I’m glad too,” he answered.

%d bloggers like this: