It’s probably impossible to guess how much we needed each other. She was still horribly shy. I was completely awkward in everything imaginable, but I played the part like I knew what I was doing.
The fact that we were dating was semi-miraculous. I’ve mentioned it to her often that she didn’t give me a single clue as to whether or not she liked me. There were no obvious flirts, no batting of the eyes, and none of the silly girly things that in any number of ways would confirm a young man’s suspicions that he was the object of her affections. I was basically just rolling dice and hoping on twelve. Of course, I realize that probably wasn’t true. In her way there were probably plenty of signs. It would just take time for me to learn her and understand what those ways were. Regardless, I was probably too inept to have noticed either way.
In fact, we almost never went out at all. I got her number. That was great. Good for me. Of course, social media didn’t exist back then and texting was luxury that no one I knew would waste the money on. No, you only had one option. You had to call her. It might be an evil and overprotective older brother on the other end, a wicked baby sister, or worse her mom or even worse than that, Dad. Dealing with whoever else answered was a fearful enough event in and of itself, but that wasn’t even the hard part. Then you have to ask her out all over again.
Yes, you got her phone number. Bravo, but now the courtship ritual progresses and you must ask her out a second time on more actionable terms. You have to commit to a real date at a real-time with actual activities.
Better have a plan there, too. A friend of mine invited me to a double date with him and his girlfriend. It seemed safe enough. This plan had potential.
I thought it would be smart to go bowling, a spur of the moment decision, calculated in the unexplainable battle focus that takes place in a young man’s mind during the hyper-alertness that happens directly before he asks a woman for a date. I decided on bowling for one reason, I am not any good at bowling. I thought that there wasn’t a better way to make a girl warm up to me than to fail gracefully in front of her, laughing the whole way through. It also seemed a good idea to work as a team for a period to build some closeness and comradery. Anyway, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I hoped she didn’t change her mind, get a boyfriend or get married in the last five days. I held on to the number for nearly a week, too afraid to do anything about it. Finally, on Wednesday as I remember, I called her. I invited her to the date, movie and bowling.
She hadn’t decided she was furious at me for stalling so long, though she was anxious and wondering why in the world I wouldn’t call. She was fine with me picking her up the next day and sounded happy to go out. By the way, up to this point in the time, we were probably still only up to about twenty or so words which I can positively remember her sharing with me. She was still the beautiful mystery whose shell I was beginning to crack. The phone call probably put it closer to thirty.
Our first date was something rather special. Perhaps it wasn’t, compared to the first dates of others. Perhaps it was just another one of millions that millions have experience and not special at all. It is special to me though. At the very least, it went much better than most first dates did for me.
Our first date movie was “Old School” staring Will Farrell, Vince Vaughn, and Luke Wilson. It was a hopelessly awkward experience for a first date movie between two teenagers. If you’re not familiar with the film, just know that it is a very odd choice for such an occasion, most especially the carrot class scene featuring Andy Dick. That’s all I will really mention about that.
More than the movie, looking back I remember the way she held my hand. I honestly didn’t know if she was really into me when we walked into the theater, and then she held my hand. It was so tight and all-encompassing, almost as if she was afraid I might suddenly escape and run away if she ever chanced letting me be free. I became very nervous. I had never really had anyone show me attention and affection in a romantic sense yet. No girl ever made me feel special without playing games. This was the first time, and even though I wanted it, more than anything, it scared me very much. Still, I was smart enough to just accept it. Being loved too much is a kind of concern that fades with time, and you really learn to enjoy it.
After the movie we went bowling. At the lanes we hit a snag. It turns out there is such a thing as “league night”. No exceptions for star-crossed lovers. I was a bit flustered. I had no plans from this point. We all decided to just wing it from this point on. My friends went off together and Jennie and I went together as well. I suggested a local pizza place not far away. We sat down and started to talk. I was really afraid that it would be just me talking in silence the whole night, but she opened up nicely. It turned out, she confessed to me, that she was terrified at the idea of going bowling. I asked her why and she told me that she just assumed that, since it was the first thing that popped into my mind, (and that it was so weird, which I found out years later) I must have loved bowling. I must have been great at it. She must have imagined me with the odd shoes, eyes focused and with a determined look on my face, gliding up to the lanes for a release with perfect form. She just knew that she would show up, lob the ball like a drunken duck and I would be furious with her for making us lose. I realize that she couldn’t have known that I had planned on being terrible, but I can see how she would have been afraid that I’d be mad at her. She really is terrible at bowling. I would find that out later. I just couldn’t believe how wrong she was about my motives. It’s worth a laugh.
We talked about the nothings that people do on their first romantic evening together. She reminded me of things I had forgotten. For example, I had forgotten that on that day during enrollment, it was her that I had shown around the school. As quiet as she was, it seemed I had forgotten altogether that it was her. And again that same year, I had forgotten about my confession I gave about not getting a girlfriend and the following counseling I took from her during art class. I would have forgotten a lot if not for her. She told me what her real first impressions were on that first day, she thought I was an arrogant jackass. She also told me how ironic it was that I would confess all those things about never getting a girlfriend to her when she had such a crush on me the whole time. We laughed about what it would have been like if I had only asked the question. I never knew at all. We joked for a while. I told her about how this restaurant was where my mom had brought me to teach me how to take a girl out on a proper date when I was ten. I hoped Jennie wouldn’t think that was off for talking about something like that, but she thought it was sweet. Honestly, men don’t know how to handle being called “sweet”, but I considered it good thing. We talked about when we were little we both used to play the games in the back corner and enjoyed our pizza.
I remember thinking about how so much of our lives we shared so many of the same experiences living in the same tiny town. We were dragged to the same grocery store with our moms, went to the same daycare, and played the same arcade games at the same pizza places. We had likely crossed paths hundreds of times, never realizing that we were more than just background in the crowd to each other. Eventually, we would matter to one another, that other random girl in the crowd would be grown and sitting opposite me at this table.
Eventually, it came time to go home. One thing to know about where we lived is that nothing is close. Everything good is twenty miles away at least. It’s a hassle when the economy is in the tank, but the silver lining is that there is always a lot of time to talk on the way to where you’re going. I don’t know at all what we talked about, just that I didn’t really want the conversation to end. We reached her home and I walked her to her door. I had a decision to make that I just knew I was going to screw up. I told her goodnight and that I had a lot of fun. I asked her then for a second date and said goodbye. No kiss, just goodbye.
We didn’t have our first kiss until the next date. It was my first. It was in my room on a bean bag that would be a very important part of our life for far longer than it deserved. The movie we were watching didn’t really matter all. It wasn’t very interesting anyway, not nearly as interesting as melting through this mysterious girl’s icy walls.
I was hers from then on.
I don’t remember a time where we weren’t trying to be together from that day on through the end of high school. Even through hard times, of which there were many.
Many times we would be alone in my room. She would be very silent and very distant. I could tell something was obviously wrong. She usually had just come from spending time with her father. She would clam up and it was impossible to get her to talk. It may have been perhaps a poor decision for most, but I wouldn’t let her not talk to me. I feel I have to always express myself. I don’t know how someone could live not doing so, especially given what I would find out she was suffering through.
She would lock up for maybe an hour at a time. Jennie would just lay there crying silently and motionless, looking as if there was something she wished to say, but couldn’t. I finally discovered the trick to unlocking her. I promised I would stop asking her.
“This is the last time I will ask you, and then I promise to leave you alone.”
I don’t know if it was some sense of avoiding abandonment, or the desperation that I put on her that she wouldn’t get another chance, but she opened up, always. She told me about what had gone on between her father and her mother over the last few years. Without going into details, it was a very ugly time. Divorce of parents is a terrible burden to endure when you are young, but a common story among people my age. We all seem to be raised this way. I was a child of divorce too, only my story ended happily when my father wasn’t part of the picture. Jennie was going through something altogether more terrible. She loved both her parents. Watching them dissolve was a horrific ordeal for her.
It was worse than that actually, as I would come to understand, much later. Jennie’s room next to the living room, where her parent’s fought nightly. She was in the middle of it all and completely alone. She was the older of two sisters and did what she could to prevent her younger sister from knowing what she could. Their parent’s relationship had grown bitter and their rivalry tore the girls apart. It also explained a great deal of the idiosyncrasies I was growing to know in this girl lying beside me. Every day, she was beaten with the knowledge that her parents were not the people she thought they were. They were less. They were human with human flaws, human weaknesses, human cruelties and human failures. She had lost the naïve worship of a child looking at the perfect people who raised her. The worst of it happened in freshman year. Now it made sense that the girl never talked.
I also came at a time when she really needed it. As it turned out, I asked Jennie for her number not a week after her parent’s divorce was final. After four years of heartbreak, I just arrived on the scene.
I didn’t understand the scope of it all. I just listened. I didn’t need anything from her, besides a kiss from time to time, I just wanted to help her. If anything, I think those afternoons talking on my bed were probably the wisest investment of time I have ever made. We built our relationship during those times; not the enjoyable memories you visit on cold winter days, but the foundational emotions that make up the true bedrock of a relationship. She knew that she could trust me with her deepest needs, even if it was difficult for her to express them. I just knew I wasn’t able to idly do nothing. At that time all I could do was listen and try to give her some new perspective, some advice, distractions, silver linings. Jennie told me once that she was apprehensive about opening up to me in the beginning. She was just sure that I would break up with her because she was a crazy person and that she was very thankful that I never did. I couldn’t believe she would think that. I suppose some guys might have, but the thought never crossed my mind.
The truth was that I needed her too. I was lonely and needed someone to need me back. Honestly speaking, I could have ended up in a very bad situation with a lot of very girls with far less character than Jennie. I probably would have been the type to fall for any of them. I’ve seen many a lonely individual give in to the temptation of women not worth their attention, but that, however, wasn’t my bad luck. I found Jennie. For whatever reason, she was perfect, as least the perfect I needed. She was soft and she was gentle and supportive. She was a steadiness that balances my erratic and irrational randomness. Most girls I probably would have fallen for would have left me devastated, but Jennie was exactly who I needed and who would be able to make me happy. We really did need each other and ways I can’t fathom, even today. I just didn’t realize it then.
We were the perfect couple, though and had many wonderful memories from that first month. One of my favorites from our brief courtship was the first time she cooked for me.
She invited me to her house for dinner. It was the first real-time I met her mom and her sister, Katie, officially anyway. I’d met her mom briefly before our first date, but I didn’t actually know her yet. I knew Jennie’s sister from school. She was only fifteen months younger than Jennie so there was the very strange situation that they grew up together almost as twins. Katie gave me the finger once after Jennie and I started dating. I wasn’t fond of her back then. A vial creature Jennie’s sister was back in those days, but that’s a different story. Today though, it was about me eating from Jennie’s plate. Jennie was cooking her chicken enchiladas. I was really nervous because I had never had enchiladas and was terrified that I would hate my girlfriend’s favorite dish. Turns out that wasn’t a problem. Jennie is a master chef, at least in my eyes. More importantly my stomach was in complete agreement. It was so good. Absolutely delicious. I love my mom and my grandmother, but my poor mother never stood a chance in the kitchen. I don’t know what it was about those days, but all of my mom’s tutelage in kitchen affairs came from a long line of Depression era survivor women who thought “burnt” was the only palatable way to eat food without death by salmonella. But Jennie, her food was marvelous. It was how I might imagine chewing on the wings of baby angels. Just thinking about it is so good you start writing nonsense. I don’t even remember what we had for dessert. Those enchiladas were divine.
I had gorged myself to the point that I had to have something more to drink. I pulled myself away to get something from the fridge. Among the things I noticed was the milk. There were two gallons; one Skim, one 2%. Now, this may seem a bit odd, to some rather stupid, but I really love milk and it is one of those things which I am very particular about. I don’t like 2% or 1% and certainly not whole. Keep it away, don’t bother me with and yes, I do think less of you if you do partake in such things. I sorry if this offends some of you, but a person who doesn’t believe in anything is simply not a person. It simply isn’t a negotiation. I looked and considered the gravity of the consequences that lay before me. If Jennie drank the wrong milk, to put it simply, we had no future, even considering the enchiladas.
“So… who drinks Skim?”
“I do,” said my beautiful flower.
I smiled and said, “Me too.”
In my mind I smiled to myself and thought about all the miraculous ways in which we were perfectly compatible in every way that mattered. I laughed inwardly and said to myself in jest that I was going to marry that girl.
It was completely in jest. Completely.