Twenty-one years ago tonight, Coley and I had our first date. That’s exactly half our lives. From here forward, we’ll have been together more than not.
We met at the local Barnes & Noble. She was the music department girl. I was the café boy. She claims to remember me from months earlier, when I was only a customer, and she asked her manager, “Who was that in the oversized barn jacket buying an obscure classical CD and acting all writerly?”, or something to that effect.
I don’t remember that first encounter.
I do remember the week I started working in the B&N café, where I’d been hired because the café manager — an R.E.M. fan — thought I resembled Monster-era Michael Stipe.
Coley walked up that week, introduced herself, and gave me a strong, warm handshake. This thrilled and depressed me.
Thrilled because God, she turned my stomach into candlewax. She made fantastic eye contact. She dressed like a 90s thrift-store Gypsy. She was vivid, smart, voluptuous, and fun. Had I ever met someone so immediately lively?
Depressed because I was fire-scarred in love, having spent most of college unrequitedly pining for my best friend, and I didn’t want to suffer anymore. I’d sworn off dating. Now this.
I asked her out anyway and she said yes. Before the date could happen, she had a family emergency and skipped town for a week. When she came back, she didn’t call me for days and I let the whole thing go, assuming she hadn’t been truly interested after all.
We ran into each other in the employee kitchen shortly thereafter. She insisted on giving the date another try. I begged off, convinced she was throwing me a pity bone, but she insisted with such intensity I finally agreed, feeling awfully confused because I hadn’t thought — and struggled to believe — I’d made an impression on the voluptuously smart, vividly fun music-department girl.
Our date was on a Monday night. I picked her up at B&N, much to the entertained enthusiasm of our coworkers. Inside my Buick Regal, I gave her a gas-station rose (still in the plastic) and we drove to the local Café Dolce for coffee.
We parked a block away and walked. Halfway to the café, I turned my head mid-conversation and she was gone.
She’d tripped on cobblestones and hit the street hard. I helped her up, laughed along with her mortified laughter, and gave her my arm for the rest of the walk. It was one of those lucky deals where offering my arm might normally have seemed preposterous, but suddenly seemed both gentlemanly and essential in light of her spectacular fall.
We talked a long time in the café. No joke, we spoke of marriage: not seriously or deeply, but as if such a thing were distantly possible and we needed to acknowledge the weird, strong aurora rippling between us. We were dreamers from the start: reckless, naive, optimistically together.
Later we went to her apartment, a place so crooked the refrigerator door sometimes opened on its own. I met her cat Max, my future cat-son. We sat together on her couch and talked a lot longer. I’d worn my best socks that night, in case I got a chance to take my shoes off.
I took my shoes off.