I stand surrounded by wreckage once again. Scraps of linoleum and shards of tile lay strewn about. The options here are remove or remediate. Demolition dust has settled in my lungs, and my chest feels tight. I should wear a mask. Sledgehammer and crowbar in hand, I kneel into a crouch and pound the flat steel tip between aged flooring and the underlying wood. The impact of reinforced metal pops against my inner ear. A familiar dull pain constricts from hip to hip. I have been at this for hours.
“You’re handier than I’ve been told,” Rebecca appears behind me. I look over my shoulder and find the smile I’m looking for. “I’m not afraid of a little hard work. I should finish shortly, think about what you want me to cook for dinner.”
Bex runs a hand through my hair and retreats to the kitchen. I turn, eased, and bear back down to the job. Smiling inwardly, I run through the timeline of her birthday. Run, early brunch and a brief rest. Leave her alone unexpectedly at 1:30pm. Send the first video at 2pm after her sister arrives at her house where Bex will get ready. Driver pulls up at four. Tulips and champagne on the way. Finally, her parent’s video reveals the final destination, and I will be there, ready with the ring.
I’ve kept a file on my computer named “Please don’t open this Rebecca.” It holds everything about the proposal down to the finest detail. And yet it tells nothing of the deeper story of why a man, who struggled for years with love, would leap toward commitment again in less than a year.
Girl Below the Waves
My suite mates and I chat in our dorm, eating Bruno’s pizza once again. We plan on using our dinner table for ping pong later. I am a typical college sophomore, until my phone rings. I don’t remember much about the conversation beyond four words and the crushing tide that followed.
“I kissed someone else…”
Air is sucked from my chest. I can’t speak but to release a moan I instantly regret and cut short. This woman, known as Original Mary to all my future loves, goes on to describe the moment she receives and returns another man’s affections. From this point, the relationship, our shared first love, will rot away over two years to a writhing and pitiful end. Several life changing events occur in succession: 1) I declare comparative religion as my major. 2) I quit running for the cross country team. 3) I am forced into academic leave because I stop going to class, and 4) my father dies.
With my world disintegrating around me, I could not win Mary back. The stain of this failure leads to others. The good news is I will eventually recover from this blow. The bad news is it will take 32 years, doom two marriages, one engagement, five lesser long-term relationships and a career.
A Simple Cure
The world spins on, dragging you along, even if you are not ready for the ride. Forced to take time off from school, I find a job waiting tables. There is relief in racing to please others. Once alone, however, I am drawn by the gravity of loss. I seek out women to fill the pit, attempts to resuscitate first love, but they are little more than journeys through memory. The real girl is drowned inside of me.
How do I hold my head, listening to her laugh?” Remember running a hand through her hair, to pull it back over an ear. A softly planted kiss. Note her scent, linger, transfer it to memory. Close your eyes, know where each curve begins or ends. Consume the grace of her walk. Bury the pout of her lip.
So begins my history of surrogates and the ruin it leaves in it’s wake. Like a method actor, I commit original scenes to heart, charting a route to my needful destination. I can return now, or years later. Constructing love, I build it around other women. With some affairs, I succeed far more cleanly than others, only to watch them crumble under the weight of unnatural expectations. One almost survives. None deserved the manipulation of a hidden strategy, even though I was right there with them in the dark.
Once More With Feeling
Bex likes say that I threaded the needle perfectly. After choosing each other on a dating app, we chat in text about seventies music, the thrill of travel, untimely deaths, and saving Chris Evert from a giant water bug on live television. I ask her to meet. “Let’s see if we have chemistry.” Turns out we do.
We breeze through two dates with a sense of growing inevitability. On the third, we kiss. I am open about my history with love, sharing all that I understand about the string of broken relationships that trail behind me. She listens, flinching at times, and tells her own story of loss. These are the first steps of our intensifying duet.
I pull up at her place. It is date number four, and she greets me at the door with an eagerness that says she is excited, but not yet comfortable. We carefully negotiate the space between us. Gathering and unpacking my wares, I prepare to cook, having planned this meal for days. There is an awkwardness to working in a new kitchen, so I take my time setting up. Arranging an eggplant, two leeks, a bottle of Riesling and fresh garlic on her kitchen island, I pull out my chef knife.
“Do you have a sharpener?”
Bex stops what she is doing and rummages through a drawer. She pulls out a black box by its curved handle. I can see the two slits that accommodate the blade. She turns and grabs something else from the counter. “Will this work?” she grins, offering the sharpener with one hand, a vodka and tonic with the other. I nod.
The kitchen fills with the scent of roasted vegetables. We play a game as I roll dough for the pasta that will become ravioli. “Play me a song that you associate with high school.” Bex eyes me, strolling forward. She places her hand an inch from mine, rests her weight there and arches her back slightly. Blonde strands fall across her face. This is a move, and it is working. She has my full attention.
“Are you flirting with me, Mrs. Slaton?”
“Yes, sir. I am.”
The world narrows. I need to breath, gather myself, but I do not want this moment to end, so I take the long way around the island. Approaching Bex from behind, I catch the scent of her hair and hesitate, oddly imbalanced. I have been here before, far too many times, the agent behind a first act of betrayal. I do not want this.
And yet I do. Something new arrives, distinct yet familiar, a distant itch. It grows into a pull, a silencing of everything that is not Bex, not felt for half a lifetime. I cannot deny it any longer, so I surrender and fall into what I feel for this woman. Leaning forward I raise my hand, slowly guiding her hair over an ear, brushing my nose along the line of her jaw. I kiss her there. And this time, it is the real girl.
There are loves that produce all kinds of magic. Some, dark and edgy, form a unified defense against the world, celebrating battles and brandishing scars. Some, grow like hot house flowers, delicate fantasies tightly enclosed in their own bubble. Beware the burst. And then there is what Bex and I have found. Since that kiss, countless more have followed, each as life affirming as the first, enough to build a life around.
Months later and we are bathed in the pink light of a French restaurant. The escargot arrives and Bex is beaming.
“Waves flow off you.” I say, overwhelmed. “I am basking.”
She tilts her head, releases a devastating smile and gives words to what we have felt for weeks. “Tell me what happens next, Mr. Angell. We get married, or is it too soon?”
“Too soon?” I laugh to myself. For this I have been waiting 32 years.