The Second Date

A Surfside Beach Short Story © Kelly Capriotti Burton

“Mimi, Aunt Brittney said we don’t have to watch Disney. I want to watch this one, okay?”

I set our ginormous plate of fresh-from-the-broiler nachos on the coffee table and squinted at the screen. Then I scrunched up my whole face at my youngest daughter.

“Really, Brit? I’m not sure she’s quite ready for this one.”

“Oh, Mama. You let Kayla and me watch it at her age. It’s fine. She’s fine.”

“Really? At 10?” I loved Patrick Swayze, God rest his beautiful soul, as much as the next hot-blooded American woman, but Dirty Dancing was not exactly a family movie.

“Well, we watched it at that age, whether you let us or not. And we’re fine…”

I rolled my eyes and wished for the eight-millionth time that I could raise a single eyebrow, which was my late husband’s signature response when one of our four kids said something absurd. He’d probably built up brow muscles that way. “Define fine, Brit.”

“Come on. We can fast forward the racy parts,” Brittney said, winking at her niece as though I couldn’t see.

“Fine. We will skip those,” I insisted, settling on the couch between them, deciding that risking the wrath of my eldest, Sam, and his normally mellow wife, Abby, was probably worth it. I loved girls’-nights-in with any combination of our little tribe.

I needn’t have worried about Summer, anyway. She was 300 times less naïve than I had been when Dirty Dancing premiered in the ‘80s. The moment “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” began to fade into the credits, she started her questions and rants.

“So what is going to happen now? What are Johnny Castle’s prospects, y’all? Is Baby – which is a stupid, stupid nickname, by the way, going to give up on the Peace Corps? Is she going to go to college? Is it not obvious to anyone else that Penny is in love with Johnny? Is that really over? Is Dr. Houseman really going to just accept him into the family? He’s going to invite some housepainter to spend Christmas in the city and summer in the Hamptons with them? Will Lisa possibly ever shut up about it? I just don’t see it. The dancing is very nice and he is very, very beautiful, but I don’t see a happily-ever-after here.”

Brittney was cackling. And Summer was, probably, right on. I had had the same thoughts myself upon rewatching an ‘80s story about an early ‘60s story with my own daughters. A future for Johnny and Baby just didn’t seem feasible. But, I’d reminded Mikayla and Brittney back then, just because things are complicated doesn’t mean they can’t work out.

“Summer, you’re right on, sister. Real life is not like an animated fairy tale, and there are no wands or fairy godmothers to make all the problems disappear. But there are still happy endings even when they don’t seem possible. And your daddy and I have our own story about that, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” she said. “I know that Grampy married you and Daddy when Daddy was just a baby, and he adopted Daddy, and you all made just the best family ever. No offense to Poppy Paul.”

I smiled with immediate gratitude and sap over my soon-to-be new husband and our ridiculously complicated family structure. “No offense at all, Summer. And I do want you to know all about how your Grampy was an actual, real life, romantic hero. If you want to hear.”

“I do,” Brittney said, with enough surprising emotion in her voice to choke me up for a second.

“Then so do I!” Summer agreed, pulling a blanket over all over us.

“I’d love to tell it,” I said, and thus began.

Approximately 37 Years Ago

“Jess, I would cool it on the hairspray. If he asphyxiates before dinner, there won’t be no dessert or kissin’ afterwards.”

I blew out all my remaining breath in a huge sigh. I had not done my hair in approximately twelve months, and Sam had been up partying, or perhaps teething, the whole night before. I had lost all my pregnancy weight, but breastfeeding made me friggen hungry and my C-section had made my youthful belly all jiggly, so all my pants were tight. This was probably a lost cause.

“I should tell him to forget it,” I whined.

It was Maggie’s turn to exhale with exuberance. “You ain’t telling him anything except, ‘Let’s get two desserts.’ C’mon, Jessie. It’s not even your first date. Get a grip!”

I set down the purple can and turned to face her. “First of all, Maggie, I don’t think pizza at the house with my parents and the baby counted as a date. This is him picking me up. This is ordering from menus and trying to decide whether I offer to pay for myself or if I should let him open my car door since he’s like, a hundred years older than I am. And what is with you and desserts? You pregnant?”

She rolled her eyes and, though I probably wasn’t supposed to notice, glared briefly down at the wedding ring my own brother had placed on her hand the previous year. I didn’t exactly think Tony was causing Maggie to fret over her hair much lately, but I didn’t have the time or energy to ask her about it.

Besides, what a disaster it would be if my only sibling and my very best friend got divorced. How would I ever keep from choosing sides in that?

“Of course I am not pregnant, Jessica.” Using the full name I didn’t actually have (my birth certificate actually reads ‘Jessie Rose Oakley,’) was Maggie’s equivalent of middle-naming me and of shutting me down from pursuing any conversation about her marriage, the rare topic that even she was uncomfortable exploring. “I’m just hungry. Your brother is supposed to be bringing Chinese home tonight. So I have to leave soon. Are you good? You look good.”

I turned back to the mirror. I looked so very Brenda Walsh with my dark, straight hair (though my bangs were much less severe than hers and teased off my forehead as if praising Jesus on high), my high-waisted jeans were doing a pretty good job camouflaging my mama-belly, and a bright pink baby tee flattering the upper body that Sam’s existence had enhanced rather than tried to destroy. (I know moms aren’t supposed to say things like that, but being 19 and having stretch marks and leaky boobs gives you the right to say whatever you want).

“This doesn’t look very date-ish,” I said, tugging at the shirt. “I look like I’m going to the grocery store, just without a ponytail.” I scrunched up my face in the mirror. “Nope. I need a plan B. But don’t say my sunflower babydoll dress, because that makes me look like I’m still pregnant.”

“I’m gonna start charging you for every mention of pregnancy, baby, and breastmilk.” Maggie was rummaging in my closet. She pulled out something black and a little shiny and definitely more interesting than a T-shirt.

“Ugh. A bodysuit? I don’t know if I can.” But even as I whine about it, I was shucking off my top and pants and getting ready to shimmy into one of the worst trends of the early ‘90s, all while considering which oversized, man-blazer from the thrift store I was going to wear with it.

I faced Maggie again once fully dressed, and her smile was wide.

“Your pregnancy-baby-breastmilk boobs look fantastic in that!” she laughed.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m wearing a jacket over it!”

“The hell you are,” she said. “Jessie, he’s a grown-up. And a professional. You can’t go showing up on the first date wearing some AMVETS suitcoat. For all you know, it will be one he donated!”

We cracked up. Everything felt a little surreal, and even though I was a mom, I felt very young and super apprehensive. I turned up the volume on my En Vogue CD and tried several more combinations on to “Free Your Mind.” In the end, I stuck with the black bodysuit and an off-white cardigan with little pearl buttons that contrasted perfectly with my off-brand black Doc Martens. I also wore metallic white eyeshadow and dark red lipstick for dramatic effect. Maggie whistled and pinched my bottom before she left the house.

When I walked into the living room to snuggle and maybe feed Sam (I had 15 minutes to spare before the anticipated arrival of my date), my mom stared wide-eyed at me. The shock of my going on a date had been softened slightly by the fact that she and Dad liked Randall; how could they not after our first date? After meeting my dazzling self for five minutes while I was out to dinner with Maggie, Randall had asked for my number, called the next day, and two days later brought over pizza for my parents and me, even feeding Sam his dinner so I could eat while it was hot. We were all charmed.

Even so, Mom remained a bit unconvinced that her wayward daughter, a single mom at 19, should be dating anyone, even if he was a stable, polite gentleman who hadn’t been a truck stop customer of mine and hadn’t accused me of being a slut and a liar the moment I told him I was pregnant. She seemed to think I should either stay single until Sam was 18 or that perhaps Dad could arrange a marriage for me with some nice family at church (as if they’d want their sons marrying a lying slut toting an Ishmael…)

So I did my best to ignore the passive-aggression and picked Sam up from his playpen. My sweet boy was sleepy, but he smiled up at me and started his baby-chatter. Thankfully, he did not pull at my top, because I had not thought through how I would quickly nurse him with a bodysuit on. Just thinking about it was making me sweat. I took a deep breath and held him close for a moment, before he grew playful and wanted to be bounced.

“Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy…” I murmured into the feather-soft beginnings of brown hair on his head. He smiled and stuck his fist in his mouth. Mom pretended to be watching Wheel of Fortune, but I could just feel the tension in the air. Maggie had been helping me practice not to let my mom get to me so much, not to feel like I had to break toxic silence with trumped-up sunshine, but it was hard when every single thing I did that wasn’t holding Sam, feeding Sam, playing with Sam, or justifying his existence and my own seemed to require Mom’s approval or assistance.

As soon as I saw headlights in our driveway, I kissed my baby’s head for a lingering moment. I was not exaggerating; he really was so pleasant and easy, and I was extra grateful for it, because when Mom did act put-out over keeping him, I knew that she secretly enjoyed it.

“He’s here,” I announced brightly. (Shut up, Maggie). I handed Sam to Mom. “I won’t be late at all. Just dinner.”

Mom’s grasp on Sam was gentle, but her voice was tight. “He’s coming in, isn’t he?”

“I’m sure he is,” I answered, checking my hair again in the mirror above the stereo. Eh. It would do.

I reached the door just as Randall rang the bell. Dad came moseying out of the bathroom in time to help me break the tension that was either present or only in my brain, although Sam was the champ at making things light. I would miss him for those few hours, but I couldn’t get Randall out into the fresh air fast enough. I couldn’t get myself out fast enough. And if I really was honest with myself, I wish Sam could have come with us, too.

The car made me so nervous. I might have seemed all experienced, being that I had a kid, but the truth was, all I’d ever had were boyfriends, and most of them didn’t take me anywhere. There’d been Steve, my freshman year, time-waste of a crush-on-inappropriate-senior. All I ever did was make out with him in the back of the school bus. There’d also been Aaron, an on-again-off-again boyfriend I met in P.E. and went to the dances with for most of junior year.

And then there had been Eric, who eventually helped me make Sam. He hadn’t been a date or a boyfriend, or really anything worthy of a title.

Plus, Randall was thirty-freaking-one years old. He didn’t just have a car; he had a really nice silver Ford Taurus with leather seats. He was wearing jeans, but with a dress shirt and a fitted blazer and black shoes that were not tennis shoes but also not dress shoes and also not Docs. He seemed so sure of himself but also not condescending. My palms were sweating when, after turning the radio volume up during  “Get Out of My Dreams, Get into My Car,” he reached over and took my hand.

We pulled up to Scrementi’s, a pretty popular Italian restaurant that my family ate at a few times a year. They served the only salad I actually liked to eat, because their house dressing was so good I would eat paper if it was poured on top. Randall had made a reservation (I didn’t know they took those), and there was a booth in one of the smallest rooms of the sprawling, dimly lit, converted house waiting for us. 

“I hope you like it,” Randall said. “I took a risk bringing an Italian to an Italian restaurant, but this one is definitely the best.”

I smiled. “It is,” I said. “A risk… and the best. My Nonni Romano likes to eat here when she actually goes out.”

“Sounds like a seal of approval,” he said, smiling down at the menu. “So what is her favorite? And what is yours?”

I smiled, too, and started pointing out more than a half-dozen menu items that Nonni liked and I loved. I’d been cooking with her my whole life, but since I was younger and quite a bit more American, I had a longer list of favorites. Per my recommendation, Randall ordered Shrimp De Jonghe and tomato bread for appetizers, and roast chicken and potatoes and lasagna to share for dinner. There would also be house salad and minestrone, because that’s how it’s done. I would probably have to be hoisted out of my seat.

“It’s nice to be with a girl, a woman, who doesn’t pretend she doesn’t eat.”

I felt my cheeks redden, very aware of the six “Sam pounds” I still held on to, right around my middle. “I don’t mind ‘girl,’” I said, looking down at the table.

“Hey. Jessie?”

Why did it feel so strange for him to say my name? I met his eyes and had never felt more shy or more intrigued.

“Yep.” Yep?

“I know we don’t know each other that well yet.” In spite of two-to-three-hour phone calls every day for the last ten. You’re safe with me. I promise.”

How did he know to say that?

My second job, after my first at Heights Park Florist, where the two elderly female owners absolutely hated each other and made everyone around them miserable, was at a diner just off the I-80 exit. Mom and Dad hadn’t been happy about it at all, considering all the wayward travelers and people running from the city that might stop through. But a friend of mine made excellent tips there for fewer hours than most of the working-through-college jobs that were available. I wanted time to write really good essays for my lit classes and see movies and write reviews of them for the local paper in hopes they’d let me take over their entertainment section one day. Not grand plans, but not bad for a suburban girl with no particular star talent and no desire to get buried in student loans by going away to school (though I really, really wished I was at University of Illinois, hangin’ at the underground library).

So I worked at Two Brothers’ Diner every morning, Thursday through Sunday. There were definitely travelers passing through, mostly truck drivers and a family or a honeymooning couple now and then. And there were a handful of rough looking individuals who might have been running from the Chicago police. But mostly, there were blue collar types, construction workers, toll booth attendants, a few teachers, retired firefighters, who came in every day for the cheap eggs and strong coffee and no one hurrying them out like they did at the fancy new DeeDee’s Café down the street. (Though DeeDee’s served grilled blueberry muffins, cheese-filled hash brown patties, and French vanilla cappuccinos, but I didn’t tell anyone at Two Brothers’ that I went there at least once a week with Maggie…)

Eric stood out among the customers, at least in my fresh-into-supposed-adulthood mind. He owned his own store, vintage crap, he said. I drove by it once. Looked like home furnishings and actual furniture and possibly car parts. There was a dozen of those in any given town in any given strip mall that surrounded us, nothing special, but still. It was his own business.

My dad worked for the department of transportation (IDOT was part of our daily vocabulary), and my mom worked very part time at church once Tony and I were teenagers. Owning a business was foreign to me. He could have run an ice dispensary in Monee and I would have thought it was exotic and amazing.

Eric came in every day and ordered coffee, almost always just coffee. Black. I hated black coffee with the passion of an inexperienced teenager who drank it for the sugar and perceived sophistication. He would sit at the counter and drink one, then take one to go. It cost him a dollar and he always left three, which seemed sweet and generous. And he always complimented something… my shirt (we were allowed to wear basically whatever we wanted, with black jeans and hunter green waist-aprons), my hair (always in a high ponytail), or my eyes (blue. Nothing special, really). He made fun of me for singing along to Pearl Jam (he preferred Zeppelin. Because he was a hundred years older than me, but I just thought he was cool). After a few weeks, he started staying longer. Ordering toast or a donut. Watching me walk away. Overtly flirting.

Two months into that, he finally asked me out. It was a Thursday, and he asked for Friday. All I ever did on Fridays was go to a movie. What else was there? So I made the call to blow off the community college gang and meet him. He said to come to his store and we’d head for dinner from there. It made sense to me; a business owner couldn’t always control how late he would have to stay. As far as Mom and Dad knew, I was doing the same thing I always did. I wasn’t sure how old Eric was, and I was a legal adult, but I knew they would give me a hard time, or they would straight-out forbid it and a fight would ensue. Best to avoid the whole thing.

When I got to his store, there were indeed no customers. There were no co-workers. Eric was still in some splattered work pants and boots, with a soft flannel, a little scruff on his face, and a manly smell that was a little musk, a little paint, a little tobacco. I loved how he looked at me, like he was starving and I was an irresistible plate of piping hot goodness.

I stood shyly in the doorway for a few minutes, watching him tidy up and letting him carry a fairly awkward conversation. How was work? Did I get a lot of tips after he left? Were Manny and Tory ever going to bring the Monte Cristo back? What did I usually do on Friday nights?

And then he turned up the radio. I smiled. “Stairway to Heaven” was playing. Sexiest song ever.

I was not an innocent girl. Aaron had been my first, right after junior prom. There was no fantasy or tragedy to it. It just was. We broke up for the last time a few weeks after graduation, more from boredom than anything. He was going to Illinois Wesleyan and I was staying home; I had a really old car and he didn’t have one at all, and we were not worth an attempt at long distance.

But there is a chasm between virgin and experienced, casual and attached. I didn’t know it then. I was just flattered that this much older and sophisticated guy wanted me around. So it didn’t occur to me to think twice that there was no mention of a dinner plan, that he didn’t appear to be in any sort of hurry, that he locked the door behind me, that I didn’t know his last name. I was as good as buzzed on the dim lights, the music, and the steel blue eyes looking me up and down. Before the stairway to heaven was fully ascended, Eric was kissing me, and I was kissing back.

It happened that his home furnishing store had plenty of couches.

It happened that the next song was Aerosmith’s “Angel,” which was even better.

It happened that I melted into him, our shirts still on, our shoes still on, and one song later, it was over. We lay for a while and said things I don’t even remember. I was warm and excited and felt far away. After an hour or so, after more kissing and touching and Monster Ballads, we mutually agreed we were tired and would call it a night.

For a few weeks, I remained starry-eyed and Eric remained flirty. But fall had turned into winter, and everyone gets depressed in the gray Midwest winter, and neither of us was an exception, I guessed. I shrugged off his lack of appearances at the diner. I figured he was just tired when he finally came in and took his coffee to go. I happily said “Yes!” when he asked me to meet him on a Friday night three weeks later. I stopped short of sleeping with him again, mostly because I was feeling sick to my stomach that night and ended up leaving.

It was another two weeks of sporadic coffees-to-go for him and bouts of nausea for me before I took a test and discovered the inevitable: condoms don’t always work – I couldn’t be sure he’d even worn one, if I thought about it hard enough, and I was, sure as Julia on Party of Five, pregnant.

Sweet Jesus. The rest of that story played out like an Afterschool Special, complete with a disclaimer for adult situations. I told my best friend from high school first. Kim came with me to tell my parents. They asked her to leave and hit not only the roof, but the sky. My brother Tony wanted to find and kill Eric. Dad yelled and paced. Mom started researching adoption agencies.

And Eric? When I told him, he nodded and smirked. Smirked. Through the years I’d forget a lot of things about him, most of the things I liked, many of the things I didn’t, but I would never forget that particular look on his face, as if I was teasing him or daring him or just walking away from him. Which inevitably, I did.

“So that’s the summary,” I said, looking shyly at Randall over our appetizers and taking a discreet sip from the wine he’d poured for me. Yes, I was only 19 and I actually looked a few years younger, but I guess when someone who was clearly a grown-up orders, they don’t question so much. No one carded me and no one gave my glass a second glance. I shrugged, far enough removed from Eric and so completely enamored with Sam that I didn’t have many feelings at the surface about it anymore.

“Wow.” Randall took a sip and reached across to take my hand. “Just based on what you’ve said, I’m surprised your parents didn’t push you to pursue financial assistance from him.”

“One I made it clear I was keeping the baby, they tried. But they don’t have the means to pay for a lawyer, and I certainly don’t. And why would I want to force someone to pay for a child he doesn’t want? I would rather work three jobs for the rest of my life. I would rather owe my parents. There is a huge list of things I’d rather do than take a single cent from him.”

Randall nodded. “I guess I just can’t imagine. I can’t imagine being so irresponsible, but also being so cold. A child is a child. I would… well… Most people want to have children anyway, regardless of if the situation or the timing sucks.”

I giggled in spite of the solemnity. “Everything about it sucked; that’s for sure! But… Sam is better off without him, and I was never really with him. So I agree. A child is a child, and Sam is my child, and I have plans, and one day it won’t be so hard, and I still won’t have to share him with the likes of Eric.”

“Did he sign away his rights, then?”

I was a little startled at the question, but I was also armed with the answer. Because one of the guys Dad worked with was married to a paralegal, and she explained the whole process to us, and it ended with Eric’s name not even being on the birth certificate. The line for Sam’s father was left blank, hopefully to be filled in someday but some man who would love him and adopt him. It was a weird way to do things. 

I also thought that blank line was very, very sad if I stopped to think about it. So I didn’t stop to think about it much. Who had time? Mostly, I’d been taking care of Sam, and taking two classes at a time, and working four early mornings a week at Baker’s Square, with a crowd right in between the truck stop kind and the fancy café kind.

I looked at Randall, who was tall and very, I guess, burly was the right word. He wasn’t overweight or even overtly muscular. He was just solid, like you could lean into his chest and if he put his arms around you, you could disappear from your enemies.

At 19 and now living mostly in a bubble, I didn’t really have any enemies per se. But I still felt like hiding a lot, and mostly, I would have liked to start over somewhere else completely.

He had dark eyes that twinkled with kindness and interest. I didn’t get it. I never had felt particularly interesting. I was an above-average student, I sang second soprano in choir, and I tended to sparkle mostly in class discussions and small gatherings over big parties. I could bake apple pies from scratch and occasionally I’d made money in high school by writing people’s essays for them. Writing the same information in different voices was a specific natural talent I seemed to have, although I had no idea how to channel it into anything useful.

Randall was hanging on my every word. He refilled his wine glass once but barely touched the delicious-smelling food that kept appearing before us. I took a break just to dip some warm, crusty bread into seasoned olive oil and listened to him describe his job at a 40-year-old accounting firm over in the Heights. It sounded so boring – I hated math, but he seemed to like it well enough. He’d bought a townhome a few years prior and was saving money, thought maybe he could start his own firm someday, but wasn’t sure he wanted to stay in Illinois, where it was windy, damp, and cold in the winter but also gray for half the fall and spring.

“Where would you go, if you could go anywhere?” I said, twirling some pasta and thinking about the mountains in Colorado Springs, where my parents had taken us just a few summers ago.

“South for sure,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I hate the winters more every year.”

“Me too!” I said. “Ever hear of Seasonal Affective Disorder? I really think I have it. Really, really.”

He laughed, giving me that adoring look again that felt startlingly disarming. “I think we all have it! And the days are still short in the south during winter, but at least you can console yourself on the beach, without a coat, with no slush in sight.”

“Better kind of salt, too,” I murmured. I hated how it caked our cars and rubbed off on our clothes all winter long. “So where in the south?”

Randall started a very accountant-like comparative analysis of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. He thought coastal living was what intrigued him most. Me, only having seen the ocean once in my life, thought it sounded even more exotic that owning a business or being an accountant. It sounded like somebody else’s life, like a movie or a dream.

Something about my expression must have given that thought away, because Randall’s next question was, “So where would you go, if you could go anywhere, and more importantly, Jessie, if there weren’t any limits on you, what would you do? What does your life look like in ten years?”

It was the kind of question you get all the time when you’re a senior in high school, but not one person had asked me that since I became a pregnant teenager. All anyone saw for me was limits, and so that was all I saw for myself: sitting in the back pew of the church so as not to remind anyone who I was or what I’d done, taking Sam to the lease-populated park in town so I likely wouldn’t have to make small talk, praying he would be a pleasant baby while I was at work or at school so my mom wouldn’t resent watching him, her first and adorable but also illegitimate and ill-conceived grandchild.

Yes. I loved my mom, and I knew she loved Sam and me, but those were words she’d actually used. And as far as I was concerned, no matter what stupid mistake I’d make with Asshole Eric, nothing was ill about my baby boy. He was perfect.

“No one asks me that anymore,” I told Randall, surprised at my own honesty. “I have hopes for ten years from now, but I have no idea how to get there. I know I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in my parents’ house. I don’t want to keep trouncing Sam around while wearing a scarlet A on my shirt. I want to be successful and happy and have a happy kid, but what that means is still a little fuzzy. Other than trying to save every penny I earn, I don’t know how to plan for it.”

At that moment, Randall reached across the table again, scooting the remains of our delicious but mostly untouched limoncello out of the way, and clasped my hand. Like him, his grasp was firm and reassuring. He caressed me with his thumb. He looked so deeply into my eyes that I was blushing again.

“Just because nobody asks you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect more for yourself. And it definitely doesn’t mean you don’t deserve more. Everything you say sounds smart and funny and thoughtful, and I know I just met you, but I believe you can do anything you set your mind to. And I’m sorry if no one has told you that lately, but if you’ll let me, I’ll gladly remind you often. And I will help however I can. You’re young, but you’re not stuck.”

I squeezed his hand back. I wouldn’t know it for a while, but those words began rebuilding my foundation. His telling me you’re not stuck was exactly what I needed to hear, because seasonal disorders aside, emotionally distant parents aside, absentee father-of-my-baby aside, I had come to believe just that, that I had to make my life as simple and pleasant as possible because it could not really change. And here was an attentive, admiring, successful man telling me it could, telling me he wanted to be there for it.

 “I appreciate that,” I finally said. “I just… I don’t feel like I have much to offer you. This… tonight… is special. I can’t do a lot of dating. I’m not… I mean, you’re living a very different life than I am.”

“I know there’s a big age gap here,” Randall said, almost apologetically. “But the biggest difference I see, Jess, is that I know what I want. I have done the youthful fun. Didn’t really find it fun. I don’t need a lot of special dates and certainly not any game-playing. I want a nice girl – a good woman, I mean – who wants to talk and listen and support each other and have some adventures and yeah, have some kids. That’s what I’m looking for. Not to scare you, and I’m not asking anything of you, but I don’t want to date. I want to have a relationship. So it’s not about what you have to offer. It’s about who you are, and who we can be to each other.”

It was a lot to take in, and it all honestly sounded good. I made myself be silent to a 10-count (it was a coping mechanism that Mary Ann, the free counselor at the adoption center, had taught me. Mom and Dad had no idea I was still seeing her, even though I’d decided after our first meeting I was a Madonna song who was, you know, keeping my baaaaa-bay). Then I resorted to my default response for the last almost-year.

“I think I would probably really love to be your girlfriend.” He smiled. Beamed. “But I am Sam’s first. That’s just the way it is. He will be one in a week! And it’s been the hardest year of my life, but also the best. If I never have anything else in my life, he will have made my life worth living and amazing. So anyone who wants me has to understand that and has to want him. There’s no negotiating that.”

My ears were burning at that point. I did not have confidence over most things but when it came to Sam, I had it all.

Randall was still holding my hand, and now he covered it with the other. “I love everything you just said. And I would love for you to be my girlfriend, and I would love to take you and Sam out this weekend. I would be honored to be a part of your lives.”

I felt tears stinging the corners of my eyes. Could he be for real? I was so used to feeling like Sam and I were a nuisance, somehow to the whole world. Why was this handsome, successful near-stranger willing to shower us with not only acceptance but affection? Could God really be that good to me?

“He’s never been to Chuck E. Cheese,” I smiled.

Randall reached up and wiped the tear that was threatening to fall. And probably at that moment, I fell in love with him, his solidity, his tenderness, and his protection, for the very first of many times.

“It’s a date.”

When we reached the house, Randall offered to come inside. I didn’t want him to. For the entire ride home, I felt removed from every complicated about my life, the humiliation, the tension, the broken sleep patterns, the seasonal-or-not depression. The air felt romantic and a little magical, and though I was trying to mute the excitement I felt over his wanting to be in our lives, I also wanted to keep him in the bubble, let him be a fantastical knight in shining armor for just a little longer.

The car was warm and the radio was softly playing something slow by Chicago. He took off his seatbelt and turned toward me, his hands reaching for mine again.

“So I’ll pick you guys up Saturday at 11?”

I smiled and nodded. “Sounds perfect.”

“Just call me if you need anything to change.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” I said. “Um, we’ll just have to move my car seat…”

“I’ll buy one tomorrow,” he answered, smoothing my hair behind my ear.

“You don’t have to do that, Randall,” I said.

“Not everything is about ‘have to,’ okay? Sometimes it’s just about wanting to, or making things easier, or doing something nice. I promise.”

I started to feel my face get warm again, but I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to believe him and enjoy him.

Before I could think too much about it, his hands moved to my face, and he drew his closer, and he was kissing me. He kissed me with all that he had already shown me about himself, the strength and grace that was so evident in everything he’d said to me. It was not a kiss from a teenage boy in the back of the field trip bus. It was not the ill-conceived kiss of a guy with a singular, seedy goal who would never want me again. My fairy-tale loving self would call it true love’s kiss.

“And my life changed. Forever. In spite of all my doubts, in spite of him seeming too good to be true, I believed him. And he believed in me. And we lived happily-ever-after.”

Brittney was attempting to wipe her eyes discreetly. I didn’t think there was anything in that retelling that she didn’t know, but I was sure I’d never shared it quite that way, and certainly not since Randall had died.

“So it really happens that way sometimes, Mimi? Just like a prince charming in a fairy tale?”

I thought of that young woman, still a girl really, clinging to her baby boy and her dignity and a very shapeless hope that life would get better. I thought of whom she’d actually be ten years later, a mother of three, a wife who was supported and had resources, harried but happy, stressed but blessed, out of the gray Midwest winter and living near the warm and bright South Carolina coast, no longer depressed but holding on to anxiety and insecurity in spite of all the reasons not to. And I thought of who she was, who I was, now. Suddenly independent, though almost married again. Finally confident and free of expectations. Full of love and giving it away lavishly. Forever changed by the man who offered to share his life with me, forever changed by his life ending, and made ready to love, again.

“Summer, baby,” I started, putting my arm around her and willing her to believe with me, “It does. It usually doesn’t stay that way. No one is happy all the time, but inside of us, it can last forever. And ever.”





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