Bloggers note: This was originally planned to go up in August of last year. There were some things that transpired at that time that made me feel that telling this specific story would be inappropriately timed, as it would have hit too close to home for some people I knew. I am going to dance around some things here do to the subject matter, and I hope you catch the drift because I won't have a direct conversation regarding this moment. I almost deleted this entry entirely, but Jess herself wanted this to be published, though she thought that I was too subtle with it. Her point was that this specific moment in time is probably one of the most important ones for how our relationship evolved, as you will see. I wrote this as a narrative directed at her, so it will be a departure from how I typically write these. I think moments like these require a personal approach, and this was the best way I could think to do this type of narrative.
" .. in despair can come a seed of hope, planted through deeds of love."
Clarity of memory is a strange phenomenon. There are moments that I can recall every detail with remarkable vividness, hell there are days that seem to be have every facet of them permanently etched in my mind. I can't remember what I did that day before seeing you on the payphone, and try as I might, I cannot remember what I did after our conversation - outside of the general feeling that I was actually worried about you. The cloud of that day remains persistent and immovable, but from the moment I walked up to the entryway of one of our old haunts, I can pick out every detail from what would become a seminal moment in our life together. I saw you there, dialing on an old Bell South payphone. The familiarity of your posture was there. You know how you stood at times, right? A ever so slight forward lean, made more pronounced due to your left arm resting on the bottom shelf of the phone box. Your right foot was slightly behind your left, and your toes pointed downward nervously tapping the cement floor. You gave off the impression of a balletic posture - a dancer preparing to be lifted. Your attire (tights with flats) probably furthered that visual. If your hair didn't slightly obscure your face, I may have noticed that the nervous tapping and tight posture of your body was a soothing technique. I may have noticed the tears.
I waved at you as I entered the building, greeted by the pleasing sounds of the arcade and the smell of concessions. I found the rest of the group and noticed immediately that Geoff and Brett were absent. I was immediately asked if I had run into you. Apparently you showed up after skipping school - with them in tow. Not unusual as they often ditched class. This was also where we congregated on specific days, so all of this felt normal. Apparently there was a bit of a verbal fight that broke out, and the two guys were asked to leave. At some point you left to use the payphone, and from the way everyone was talking about it, they think you dumped your boyfriend, but you were apparently dealing with something. I suspected a simple high school relationship issue, and almost shrugged it off, except ... you don't make a public issue of things. That is not like you at all. When I found out that none of our mutual friends had followed you outside or even checked on you, I may have snapped at them. I know you have always said that I should go easy on them, but that was a dick move to just stand there with their thumbs up their ass. Yes, I am biased as hell, sue me. I decided to go chase you down and see if you were okay. I fully expected you to launch into a sarcastic tirade about boys and bullshit high school drama, and part of me welcomed that. You were always a blast to verbally spar with, especial when I was winning. *wink*
Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be
Exiting the building into a parking lot bathed in a Florida winter's sunset, I still wasn't used to the fact that it was almost Christmas and I could comfortably wear a short sleeved shirt, but I had to admit that the sunsets in Florida seemed more captivating. I turned and saw you weren't on the payphone anymore. I almost didn't see you. You were sitting against the outside wall of building across the way, a bit out of sight. I recall sighing internally and being a bit annoyed that I had to walk a little longer. I weighed the possibility that just being seen with you may be taken as me 'moving in' if you and Geoff had broken up. As I closed the distance between you and I, trying to come up with a joke or something to break the ice, I started to notice something felt out of sort. The way you were sitting, almost as if you were folded into yourself, and the slight bobbing of your shoulders - this had bad written all over it. It made me stop for a second or three. You know I've told you in that moment I considered just turning around and even went so far as to try and guess whether or not you had seen me. You lifted your head up and looked at the fading daylight, and ... when I saw your face any chance of me going back shattered.
I casually walked up to you and said your name. You didn't acknowledge me. No matter. It didn't stop me from sitting down next to you. Still nothing. Silence. You did not move other than to move your hair out of your face. It wasn't that I wasn't sure what to say, its that I was starting to become vaguely aware that this wasn't mere high school romantic drama. There was a severity about you that did not feel ... like you. Something happened, and at this point the only concern I had was to make sure you were okay, or that you weren't alone. So I sat. Only a minute or two passed before I realized I may be creeping you out. I broke the silence.
"Do you want me to go?"
There wasn't even a slight hesitation on your part. I swear before I finished the word go, you were shaking your head. I nodded mine. We sat.
"Waiting for your parents?"
A pause and a slight nod as you kept looking up. Here is where I started to see some things that ... bothered me. You had a laceration on your hand, your tights had a slight pull to them, your white shirt had tell tale signs of dirt as did your shoes. I'm not Sherlock, but I put shit together real fast.
"So is our little group going be be down two people? Do we hate them?"
At this you turned to look at me. Your eyes were almost pleading as they teared up. At this moment if I would have given anything to be able to you wrap you up in a blanket of 'nice and happy' to smother whatever the hell happened to you. You opened your mouth to say something, but instead ... you broke. Before I knew what was happening you were leaning on me, in a half-hug buried-head sort of way. I must have gone on autopilot at this point because I vaguely remember putting my arm around you and you grabbed my hand. I sat there and let you break, saying nothing. My mind was in panic mode. I wasn't the person I am now. I have been told that I have a way with people. You have told me that countless times. Me circa teen years, not so much. My mind raced through a million possible things to say, and everything was either Hallmark card garbage, or inappropriate humor. I felt completely and utterly useless at that moment. You recovered enough to sit up again ... though you forgot to get the tears a break. You looked at me and I said something that to this day I am still unsure if it came from empathy or as an admission of not knowing what to say.
"Jess ... I'm sorry."
To my surprise you started to open up a little at that. We both remember this part of the conversation differently, but you pulled a 'you'.
"No. Don't. You can't apologize for any of anything. You can't. I swear to God if you apologize for what happened it ... you are the only decent guy in that black hole of a school. Don't own any of this. If you do, then I won't have anyone." You said that with an almost fluidity ... conveying more emotional states in one packed sentence than I thought possible. You continued, "Why did you come looking for me?"
Still a little taken aback I thought back to when you showed empathy for my father's illness. A moment that caused me to act like a rat bastard about. Funny, I don't recall you ever suggesting that I did act inappropriately. You were always weird like that. You were slow to point out my flaws in most instances. Anyway, me being me, I sidestepped the question, and mentioned, honestly I might add, that I was concerned. There was a pregnant pause that I felt extreme discomfort at. I broke it and told you that regardless of our bickering, you were the most 'real' person I've met in a long time, and if there was something wrong it was probably not something to take lightly. I thought that compliment, again honest, would have turned the discussion away from me a little. I didn't like it, especially in light of my suspicions and anger at what I thought happened. You shouldn't have been focused on me. I never understood that about you. You could be dealing with your world collapsing and you take an effort to make other people feel better. I closed that little piece with something remarkably cheesy - along the lines of ... 'its what friends do, right?' At some point during this exchange your tears slowed. You weren't shaking as much.
As a friend, as a friend, as and old enemy
Also, your pregnant pause turned into something ... else. Your look became puzzled and then you relaxed and very audibly sighed. There was the weight of the world powering that sigh. I know, I made it myself from time to time. We sat in silence for a few beats as you turned to look away. You said a few other things, apologizing for your appearance which I waved off. You then started to talk about your family, some issues at home, and somehow that segued into your intentions for the future, college, career aspirations. I remember being vaguely embarrassed that in all of our arguments I didn't know you wanted to be a Psychiatrist. I didn't know that you would be the first one in your family to have collegiate hopes as your parents were both high school drop-outs. I also wasn't aware how modestly you lived, and found it admirable to know that the reason for you working so hard after school was for your family.
I recall thinking all of this, because my next move was to add some levity based on all of that. I stuck out my hand and laughed internally when you almost reached for it. Almost. That brief flicker of "awuh" that crossed your face was adorable.
"I realized that I thought I knew you, but I really know almost nothing about you. Not your favorite film, book, music, or pizza topping. You really can tell a lot by what flavors a person prefers on their pizza. I suspect that you may not know me either. The facade of our teen lives tend to hide the better ... and worst ... parts of us. I don't think that most people our age open up to the luxury of getting to know each other. Basically, Miss Smith, name's Joe. Pleased to meet you."
I would have preferred the pregnant pause to the look I received from you. You were staring at me. No ... not staring. It's closer to say that I think you were studying me. There was something weird about the moment, and I hoped it was just my odd humor that made you replay what I said in your head trying to make sense of it, but it was a few years before I found out what you were thinking at this moment. You finally took my hand and smiled, and ... you briefly had this look that was a mix of confusion, exhaustion, relief, and the melting pot of the shit you suffered through earlier. You then hugged me and softly said "Thank you." You withdrew and I asked if you were going to be okay. You said you thought so. I also found a few awkward words floating in my brain and combined them to create a few sentences about not hiding whatever happened, if it was bad, I said you need to say something to someone. You nodded. We simply smiled at each other ... for a surprisingly long time. You made some stray comment about how you found me oddly easy to talk to. I came back with a crack about just being easily odd. Your parents pulled up to where the payphone was at this point and we both started to stand up. I walked you to the Supra your dad was driving, again wondering if you would be alright. Your dad opened the passenger side door and before you got in you turned to me and said, "Ham and pineapple." To which I replied, "Well, we can always work on that, right?"
Your, 'shut the heck up dork', look cemented in my mind that you were definitely a person who I could easily call a friend. You were genuine. One of your favorite novels is the first Harry Potter book. There is a line in the book where Harry, Ron, and Hermione survive a troll attack. Afterward there is a line of narrative that says the three became best friends - inseparable is how I think it is put in the novel. From my perspective our friendship started at this point. Your perspective was a little different. I have always wondered what would happen if you acted sooner. I know you said that you were a bit confused by how you felt the beginnings of something, and were worried that it was just an artifact of someone being supportive during what was a impossibly difficult tragedy for you. You wanted to be sure it was real. Regardless, From this moment on - we became inseparable.
Afterword - Take a rest as a friend as an old memoria
Jessica actually had a reply typed up for this blog. This was planned to go up in July of last year, and she wrote a few paragraphs from her perspective that she was going to use a response for this one, adding a bit of color. After reading them, I have decided to incorporate them elsewhere, as they actually work better when you see them when things finally start coming together.
In the years that followed this conversation, I finally got the whole story about what happened that day. That day altered lives forever. It laid the foundation of a strong bond, yes. It also made Jessica a focused advocate for appropriate crisis counseling. Her concentration in college and beyond was due to her inaction. As far as the other guys, karma happened. Let's leave it at that. For me, I found that it became easier to drop pretenses and social masks after this. I talk about being an ass in my youth, having a scalpel precision in going after a persons pain points. Jess used to say it was because I have an innate gift for empathy, and she would almost always thank God I used my powers for good. I don't know about that. I did start to soften at the edges though. I credit Jessica for that. Just being near her made you want to put your best self out there. I digress, this was the moment she saw something in me. It would eventually evolve ... faster on her end than on mine as it turns out.
That brings me to another point - contingency is something we rarely consider when looking back at our lives. We tend to see things as a series of causes and effects, but we also imbue purpose in that equation. It can lead us to assume something along the lines of destiny and pre-ordination. I am not here to suggest there is no such thing, but I firmly believe in and am at times guided by a similar concept called serendipity. I know where this story is going, and now so do you. Writing the first articles in this blog, I tried not to give an indication that there was a sense of destiny or fate in any of the prior entries, but its hard not to feel like there was something bigger at work pushing us together. Honestly, if you didn't know how this worked out, it would be hard to derive something grander had started from spilled drinks and me arguing with a girl constantly. I sure as heck wouldn't. If I turned back or someone else had spoken with her, it all likely ends here. I easily could have done just that.
You as the reader of this may see 'signs' and 'clues' in these stories, helped along by knowing full well that we end up married and happy for a long time. As these events happened in real time, I didn't expect anything would happen. At no time during the next few years in this story, did I have any inkling that we would fall in love, get married, and start a family. I never thought that a romantic relationship would be an option, and I certainly didn't see Jessica that way at all. Jessica is a different story though, as I would find out early in college.
I know the last two entries in this blog about us have been light on the silly moments, considering the weighty material. I promise that will change when I get to the next entry.
Story of Us (Chronological Order)
All Apologies - Summer 1993
Ordinary World - Fall 1993
Come As You Are - Winter 1993
For Good - Jessica's Passing - Jan 2017