Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face



We got married in a blizzard.

December 3, 1983 was supposed to be our day, the date we had set for the wedding ceremony in my hometown of Jackson, Wyoming; instead, Mother Nature laughed at our puny human plans and said, “Watch this.”

The storms began in early November and never really let up, dumping record amounts of snow across the peaks of the Grand Tetons and blanketing the valley. The morning of our wedding dawned cold and bright with a surprise appearance from the sun reflecting off the white landscape. It was a Saturday, the end of “a week of almost unending snow,” according to the local newspaper, which went on to detail the snowpack inches with the kind of exuberant joy reserved for ski resort towns like Jackson Hole: 62 inches at the summit of Rendezvous Mountain in Teton Village, 26 inches at the base. The valley’s ski bums were dancing with glee.

Not us. We weren’t dancing...yet. Jean and I had invited more than 500 people to the ceremony which was due to begin at 5 p.m. that day. My father, the pastor at the First Baptist Church and a pillar of the community, had a wide network of friends and he expected to see most of them sitting in the church pews that evening as he officiated the ceremony.

But the snow had other ideas.

By noon that day, my mother was already getting phone calls from people who said they were very sorry but it looked like they wouldn’t be able to make it to the wedding because they were too busy digging out from the week of relentless snow. Nonetheless, we drove the decorations and the catered food (enough for 500 mouths) to the reception hall across town, tires spinning and slipping the whole way there. We were determined to reclaim this day for ourselves. We were gonna get married, dammit, and not even snow and ice could stop us.

Late that afternoon, Jean put on her wedding dress and I donned my tuxedo. I took my place at the front of the church as Jean waited at the back in the vestibule, just out of my line of sight. Bridesmaids slow-marched up the aisle, smiling at the brave and hardy souls (150 of them, as it turned out) who’d struggled through the snowdrifts to reach the church.

I rocked nervously and impatiently in my black dress shoes. My bowtie strangled me. My heart beat like a timpani drum. I was swollen with anxiety and joy and hope and fear. I thought I would burst through my skin.

Outside, clouds heavy and dark with a fresh, frozen mix moved in. Snow started falling, again, as the organist lifted his wrists and the first notes of the organ prelude filled the church.

Fourteen inches of snow would smother the town in the next twenty-four hours, but neither Jean nor I cared. By that time, the rings were already on our fingers and the world was ours.

*     *     *

How did we get here? How did these two imperfect people come together to form this perfect union? It had happened so quickly, like we were caught in a whirling gust of circumstance, blown forward into each other’s arms.

After all, we’d only met six months earlier....

*     *     *

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, birds soundtracked the day with every ounce of breath in their tiny lungs. Everywhere you looked in Jackson, 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 eye 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 and fellow actor 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 shit.”

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. 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 sweaty 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.

I consoled myself with the thought that it would only be for a short time. I’d already laid my escape plans. My friend Tupper Cullum, a veteran actor from the previous summer 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 her big break in Hollywood.

But 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 making 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 grassblades, 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.

Bitterness and anger hurricaned my heart.

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.

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 just a whistle stop, buddy. The train is only pulling into the station for a few minutes before heading on down the tracks.

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

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 was that I’d lost my virginity a couple of months earlier: I’d 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 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 couldn’t see that 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 squinched my eyes and hardened my face against the rest of the congregation: kind old ladies whom I’d grown up with me who were now smiling in happy recognition of my homecoming appearance; and their husbands with their thinning hair and once-a-week fancy church clothes who were likewise grinning and winking in my direction. I nodded back at them coolly and pretended to have a sudden interest in reading the church bulletin.

The church smelled of lemon-scented furniture polish, dusty hymnals, and once-a-week wardrobes. Its pine timbers creaked and groaned as they expanded with the day’s growing warmth. All around me there was the rustle of bodies and the crinkle of wrappers from hard candies older ladies gave to their grandchildren to keep them quiet 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 loud notes of the prelude and, on cue, the choir members started filtering in. 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 semi-professional-but-mostly-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 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.

*     *     *

At this point in the story, I’ll let the words written by Ewan MacColl in 1957 and recorded by Roberta Flack in 1972 describe the storm swirling in my head and heart:
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies
*     *     *

She was in the back row of the choir, 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 time with the one-two-three, one-two-three 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. I was already out of there and heading back to my bedroom to cancel my plans with Tupper—my temporary bedroom which now looked like it would be my permanent bedroom, at least for the summer.

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 same church with that woman beside me. She’d be wearing white and I would be the happiest man alive. And love, like those blizzard-blown snowflakes outside on that December evening, would continue to fall and blanket us for the rest of our lives.

June 1983: The first photo ever taken of us as a couple

This is an excerpt from my current work in progress, Happily, a memoir about my marriage. It’s also a gift to my beloved on our 36th wedding anniversary.


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful! I love the way you build the suspense. I kept waiting for Jean to appear. Also, your depiction of the 1983 culture feels spot on to me. I can see those congregants and I can remember Monty Python and Roberta Flack!

    ReplyDelete