Saturday, November 3, 2018

Scenes From a Marriage: First Sight


It was a perfect late May morning: the air was crisp and cool as the other side of the pillow, clouds were a garden of white blooms, and birds were soundtracking the day with every ounce of air in their tiny lungs. Everywhere you looked in Jackson that day, the molecules of the air sang This day will be bright as a Colgate smile. The town felt ripe with possibility.

I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

*   *   *

I’d returned to my hometown after my sophomore year at the University of Wyoming—nine months during which I got a girlfriend, lost a girlfriend, longed for a girlfriend, stared too hard and creepily at certain girls in my psychology class, snaked my fingers into one girl’s pants and under the bra of another, and then—finally, finally—lost my virginity in my dim dorm room….only to have that girl, Becky, drift away with disinterest in a matter of less than two weeks.

Becky was the one who finally undid me. She burned my heart until it tasted bitter and angry. Romance was now nothing but a charred piece of meat on a plate in front of me.

After being dumped by what I thought was my first true and committed lover, my eyes stopped wandering and I clenched tight inside myself. I vowed to have nothing to do with women. Ever again.

“I’m through,” I told my friend Randy. “I’m done, done, done with girls. From now on, I focus inward, taking care of myself, looking out for Number One and all that crap.”

Randy slid his gold-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose and did his best to hold in a knowing smile. “Sure,” he said. “Whatever you say.”

This was near the end of the spring semester in Laramie and to Band-Aid my heart, I plunged headfirst into my classwork. I roused myself from a spiritual torpor that had seemed to spread like cancer in me for the past eighteen months of collegiate life. It’s like I’d broken out of a fever that had held me in a sweaty dream, demanding my attention at the cost of everything else. I felt renewed in my fresh determination to forge ahead as a single person moving through life unencumbered and free from distraction. Girls were the disease I no longer wanted to catch.

*   *   *

When the semester ended, I returned home to Jackson, reluctant and dragging my feet. Moving back in with my parents was contrary to my new life plan as a footloose and fancy-free single man (determinedly single). I didn’t want to return to living in my bedroom with its childsize bed and all its humid teen love agonies.

But I had to go back. It was strictly a financial decision. I had $200 to my name and couldn’t afford to pay rent anywhere in Laramie, so I prodigaled my way back to Jackson. My father, the Baptist minister, gave me one of his trademark one-armed sidehugs and grunted against the top of my head, “Good to have you back.”

I consoled myself with the thought that it would only be for a short time. I’d already laid my escape plans. As a theater major, I had Hollywood dreams (what theater major doesn’t?). My friend Tupper Cullum, a fellow actor from the previous summer when we’d both appeared on stage at Dirty Jack’s Wild West Theater in Jackson, had found work in Denver and invited me to come along on this budding-thespian adventure.

Tupper, a tall, muscular fellow with a smooth-as-cream-cheese Southern accent, was fun to be around. He had a soft manner, but was always quick with a dry-wit joke and wry grin. I looked up to him as a big brother, a potential mentor who might bring me along with him on whatever breaks in the acting profession were to be had in Denver. This could be the start of something big, I told myself. That’s how I thought in those days, in wide-eyed naiveté like I was a backstage ingénue in a 1930s movie about a small-town girl longing for a big-city break. In my crazed young mind, I seriously thought of Denver as a stepping stone paving my way to H-wood. It was a tiny paving stone, but a stone nonetheless.

Press the Pause button, buddy. Tupper couldn’t go to Denver until the end of June. He’d already planned to be in Alaska for a theater repertory workshop and wouldn’t be traveling back through Wyoming before the end of the month.

“That’s okay,” I told him on the phone. “I’ll just hang out at my parents’ place in Jackson until you’re ready.”

All the time, I wondered what I would do with myself for the next month and a half.

How’s that saying go? Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans…

*   *  *

As I walked into my father’s church that perfect May morning, the lawn sparkled with diamonds of dew. I’d cut the grass the day before as a favor to my father and I could still smell the slightly sour earthiness rising from under my feet. The morning felt like it could turn out to be beautiful with birdsong, moist grass blades, and crystalline skies.

As I walked up the steps and entered the church, I noticed none of that beauty.

I was thinking of charred and smoking hearts.

I was thinking of girls betraying me with flamethrowers, scorching my earth.

I was thinking of avenues of escape.

I was thinking of doors and windows, how when God closes one He opens another.

What I wasn’t thinking about was destiny and fate and the random intersection of lives.

I’d celebrated my 20th birthday two days earlier by going to see Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life at the Jackson Hole Cinema. But right at this moment, I felt like my own life had no meaning. Two weeks earlier, I wrote, inscrutably, in my diary, “Someday soon, I’ll just step into the elevator of blackness and hit the button for the ground floor.”

I was handed a church bulletin by an avuncular usher who greeted me with a too-cheery, “Welcome home! Glad to see you’re back for the summer.”

I nodded and thought to myself, This is only a whistle stop, buddy. I’m just pulling into the station to catch my breath before I head on down the tracks to my destination.

I took my place in my usual pew—halfway back on the right hand side—so that I could be inconspicuous but not appear to my father that I was looking for a hasty exit after the service. Which, truth be told, I was.

By this point in my life, I treated church attendance as an obligatory, check-the-box chore I performed for the pleasure of my parents. They suspected I had spent my college years wandering away from the flock, a black sheep exploring a different meadow on his own. What they didn’t know, and never would, was that I’d lost my virginity a couple of months earlier—desecrated the holy temple of my body without the sanctity of marriage. I’d also started going out to bars and smoking cigarettes—habits I tried to keep hidden from them, but deep down knew it was futile. I mean, my clothes reeked of nicotine. And it was impossible not to hug my mother. She’s just that kind of person.

When I returned home that summer, I was different—and proud of it. I’d seen James Dean on screen for the first time earlier that year, when the tiny arthouse theater in Laramie, Trout Cinema, showed all three of his movies in a mini-filmfest. He was the coolest, the ab-so-lute coolest dude I’d ever seen. I started modeling my behavior on his: I cupped my cigarettes in the palm of my hand like he did; when I wore my winter jacket, I flipped up my collar and smirked at the world over its edge like he did; I squinted my eyes and adopted a tortured look like he did. I was a rebel with a cause: I was no longer the polite, sissy preacher’s kid. I was the new cool kid on the block.

I was too blind to see my tough James Dean persona was just a thin veneer over my ongoing insecurity.

As I sat there in the church pew waiting for the service to begin, I squinted my eyes and hardened my face against the rest of the congregation: kind old ladies I’d grown up with were now smiling in happy recognition of my homecoming; and their husbands with thinning hair and once-a-week fancy church clothes were likewise grinning and winking in my direction. I nodded back coolly and then pretended to have a sudden interest in reading the church bulletin.

The log-built church smelled of lemon-scented furniture polish, dusty hymnals, and once-a-week wardrobes. Its thick timbers creaked and groaned as they expanded with the day’s growing warmth. All around me came the rustle of bodies and the crinkle of wrappers from hard candies older ladies gave to their grandchildren quiet them during the service.

My father entered and mounted the steps to the pulpit. He looked out across the congregation, found me in my usual spot, and gave a curt nod of recognition. I was where he wanted me to be.

But I was far from wanting to be where I was at that moment.

I sighed. Only another fifty-five minutes to go and then I was out of there.

The organist struck the first notes of the Prelude and, on cue, the choir members started filtering in to the room. My father had a showy tradition of having the robed choir members enter the area behind the pulpit from entrances at the front of the church, one on each side of the pulpit area. As the organist and pianist started playing the first hymn, the choir would climb from their backstage waiting area in the basement, two lines of amateur singers who forced the notes from their throats with all the lusty fervor of the birds outside. They filtered in single-file from each side like a line of ants, then took their places in the choir loft.

I glanced up from my bulletin and saw they were the same old crowd of the usual suspects: the heavily-permed ladies, the tall thin men, the altos, the sopranos, the baritones, the thickset men of the bass section. I’d grown up watching them week after week, leading us in the hymns and performing the once-weekly “special music” when the offering plates were being circulated by the deacons halfway through the service.

The line of familiar ants marched into the choir loft and I started to yawn.

But then, but then, but THEN!!

My mouth froze mid-yawn.

There was a new choir member.

A girl, a woman, a beauty.

Thunder clapped across my heart, my brain went blank, my eyes melted.

She was in the back row, half-hidden behind Steve C., a county surveyor, and Barb T., an elementary school teacher. I shifted in my pew, straining for a better look.

Holy crap! There was a new girl in town—someone close to my age—and my parents hadn’t bothered to mention her to me in the week I’d been back? What the hell?! I’d have to have a serious talk with them when I got home.

I suddenly hated the fact that “love at first sight” was a cliché because it had just come true and I knew that no one in all the years to come would ever believe me when I say it happened to me on that gorgeous dewy day in June in the Year of Our Lord 1983.

Her eyes, her eyes, her eyes. Even from halfway back in the congregation, a distance of fifty yards, I could see them, rounded and darkly-lashed with mascara. I could tell right away they were eyes that engaged with the world, peering into life and drawing unsuspecting souls (like mine!) into their orbit.

That mouth, that mouth, that mouth. It was full-lipped, but not too wide, not too tight. It was the kind of shapely mouth that, I suspected, held back a deep and wondrous voice.

Her hair, her hair, her hair. Dark blonde curls cascaded and tumbled and rolled down to her shoulders. Those strands beckoned my hands and I knew, if given the chance, my fingers would romp with delight in the soft folds and ringlets they found there.

By this point, my James Dean coolness lay in smoking ruins at my feet.

I realized my mouth still hung open in the unfinished yawn and I snapped my jaws shut. The bulletin was a soggy sweat-mess in my hands.

Oh my Lord, I whispered—and not in a reverent churchy way.

Needless to say, I heard nothing of my father’s sermon that day. The only part of the service which had my full attention was the special music during the offertory when the choir stood—when she rose!—and delivered the day’s song, adding her voice to the choir’s overall off-key-ness, which to me at that moment sounded as perfectly tuned as an angel’s harp. My heart kept beat with the one-two-three, one-two-three syncopation of the choir director’s arms. For me, church was over when the choir sat down and my father took the pulpit for his sermon.

My life had just ended and begun afresh at the same time. It’s like God took a pen and pressed it against that tiny red reset button at the back of my head.

I had no idea who this mystery girl was, but I would employ every skill I’d learned from Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and Hercule Poirot to find out.

Little did I know that six months later—almost to the day—I would walk out of that church with that woman beside me. She’d be wearing white and I would be the happiest man alive.

Excerpted from the early draft of my current work-in-progress, a memoir about my marriage to Jean. Spoiler: we celebrate 35 years of marriage exactly one month from today.