You know, I can’t remember meeting J. He can’t remember meeting me either. I like that. It makes it seem like we’ve always known each other.
How do I tell this story? It starts with a sandwich, many years ago.
J was a “friend” of an ex-boyfriend. I use “friend” loosely, as I’m not sure they ever really liked each other. They ran in the same circle. They went to the same college. They pledged the same fraternity.
I’d say that’s about where the similarities end.
I’ll avoid characterizations of the ex. We were introduced by Grace. After about a month of dating, Grace and I found ourselves in the car, driving somewhere.
“I want out. I don’t think I’m that into him,” I say. I’d woken up that morning with my mind made up. I was moving back to New York for senior year in a few weeks; I didn’t have time for dating. Certainly not for dating boys I was only minimally interested in. I explain this to Grace.
“Well, if you really don’t like him, then end it,” She says. “But if you’re just doing it because you’re leaving, why not stick it out and see what happens?”
I think about this. Grace is seeing the ex’s roommate. It is nice to be spending so much time with her lately…
“We’ll see,” I say.
I don’t make a decision yet. I move back to school.
And then, well: September 11, 2001.
I often wonder how my life would have been different, had it never happened. The reality is, the day changes me. It shifts my foundation. I am still me, just different. For a long time, I am weak. I am clingy. I am sad. I am angry. I am paranoid.
The personal ad writes itself, no?
Somewhere in all this darkness, I must meet J. J is very cute. He’s also very sweet, and kind. We get along immediately. And though I don’t look at him romantically in those early days, I always prefer him to be around. I enjoy talking to him. He feels like a kindred spirit.
One day, I get to the ex’s house (which later becomes J’s house when the ex moves out). I am dressed in a denim skirt and the red and purple top I adore from Urban Outfitters, as we’re all headed to the Manayunk bars for the evening.
When J sees me, he says hello, then adds, “Wow, Melissa, you should be a model.”
He probably doesn’t remember saying it, but I swear: I’ll never forget the compliment.
Another time, J pulls up to the house and realizes he’s forgotten something at his apartment, a few minutes away.
“Do you want to see my place?” He asks me. I immediately acquiesce. We talk amiably the whole time. His home is cozy and clean. I pour over his old high school football photo album. Eventually (reluctantly?), we head back.
After I’ve graduated school and moved back to Pennsylvania, I visit J’s house (now the Manayunk home) again to meet the ex. I’ve spent the weekend in New York, and am in a wonderful mood, and also bloody starving.
When I arrive, I find that everyone's already ordered lunch, and they've just finished. Of course, the ex wouldn’t have called me or ordered me anything. Though admittedly, this is one of the lesser offenses he’s ever committed.
But then there is J. He must see my face fall as I am once again a casualty of the ex’s patented selfishness.
“You want me to make you a sandwich, Melis?” He asks. I nod gratefully. He pulls me into the kitchen with him and chats with me while he fixes me ham and cheese with mustard, on toast. I don’t eat plain white bread because I’m weird. J doesn’t judge.
I find out later that afternoon that the ex has lied to me yet again. This time, he’d told me he’d had a guys’ night out the weekend prior. I learn that there was no boys’ night; he’d actually gone to a party that he didn’t want me to attend.
Any guesses why he wouldn’t want me around?
My blood boiling, I take off for home. I tell myself this is it; that I need to break it off and get him out of my life for good!
But you know I don’t. Am still weak. It’s not an excuse; it’s just that I haven’t found my way out of this mess yet.
I choose instead to wait for him to do it. He breaks up with me for the 278783 time a few weeks later.
Then, after he has his weekend off, he asks to get back together, because who else can he take to the David Gray concert next week?
The reason I mention the show at all is because J is there. I get to call him to meet us in the venue. He is dating a nice girl, whom he likes very much as a person but is never really into. I think she is nice too. We have a beer with them before the concert, then part ways.
But it’s always good to see him.
Months later, we’re in Maine for a mutual friend’s wedding. We’re sitting on the couch in the home the couples’ rented, and J’s strumming his guitar. I tell him that my absolute favorite song ever is “More Than Words” by Extreme (shut up).
“If you could play that, I’d marry you in a minute,” I tell him.
Of course he knows how to play it. Naturally.
We dance together at the reception. We probably think little of it. We’re friends. We enjoy each other’s company.
Months after that, we attend another wedding. I’m stuffing my face with snacks at cocktail hour and chatting with a few friends, when J’s roommate’s girlfriend, P offers, “I think J loves Melissa.” I giggle. “No,” she says again to the table, “I think J really loves Melissa.”
I have no idea what we were talking about before her comment, but I blush and feel deeply flattered. She may not remember saying it; but again, it’s one of those moments I’ll never forget.
Time passes. Any time we find ourselves at a party together, I inevitably gravitate towards J. I want to hear all about who he’s dating, what he’s been up to lately. We have lots of conversations, and I always appreciate the way he looks me in the eye when he’s discussing his latest bad date or his vast appreciation for The Twins from the Coors Light commercial.
And because I am so fond of him, and because I find him so freaking adorable and sweet and wonderful, I decide that it’s a good idea to set him up with my lovely roommate, Vanessa.
The short version of that story? Yeah, not so much.
Nothing much happens with that, except perhaps future, painfully awkward conversations and general unease and discomfort.
What happens shortly thereafter? Well, I finally (finally!) get wise and make changes. I get out of that bad relationship once and for all, and I move back to New York. I feel Fantastic. Better than that; I feel Invincible. Am single, charming woman left alone in the city to my own devices! It’s a wickedly exciting time.
And soon, I am heading to another wedding. This time P and J’s old roommate are tying the knot. The wedding’s in Princeton (which is a helluva long way from Queens, y’all), and I make myself pretty and primp and hop in the Hyundai (shut up) to get to the reception on time. I’m apprehensive because the ex is going to be present, and since I am driving I need to avoid cocktails; but I am terribly excited to see Grace, and all of the old crew.
And, well, of course: J.
He’s in the wedding, and he looks very handsome. In the ceremony program, there’s a short, hilarious bio about him. It describes him as a bachelor who enjoys long walks and cuddling by the fire; as a homeowner who is studying for his pilot’s license.
Damn, I think suddenly, huddling awkwardly in the back of the room with Grace’s mother. I should be with J.
Am a bit startled by the thought. At dinner, J comes over to my table and kisses me (chastely on the cheek, mind you) hello. We smile and talk for a brief moment, and then he is gone again.
Most of my evening is spent avoiding the ex at all costs. Grace drags me out to the dance floor at some point, where I find J nearby. I grab his hand for a dance.
He immediately snaps it back and looks at me as if I am mad.
“Whoa,” he says seriously. “We can’t dance together.”
I chuckle. “And why not?”
“Your ex is here. It’s just... Against the rules. The code.” (We all know that this “code” speak becomes obsolete soon enough. Still, the rejection stings.)
“Fine,” I say, and get the hell off the dance floor as my drunken ex starts jabbering in the background, settling down on a chair for a lap dance from one of the burliest guys in the wedding party (Yes, you read that sentence correctly).
I tell Grace’s mother what J’s just told me. “If it’s possible, I feel even more awkward now,” I say.
An hour later I make to leave. I say my goodbyes and rush to the exit, pleased to have made it out of the party virtually unscathed.
And who should be standing there, at the door?
“You taking off?” He asks.
“Yup. It was good seeing you,” I say honestly.
“Well, when you’re in the city, you should give me a call,” I say.
“Sure,” he says. And we say goodbye.
And uh, in case you’re wondering, he never calls. I continue dating in the city, and only occasionally let my mind drift back to J.
One idle Friday morning in July 2005, I email him to say hello.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Sometimes I look back on those days and can’t quite believe how surprising life is. Sometimes I ask J if he thinks we’d still be together today if we’d started dating 5 years ago, around the time we first met. We swap stories from our shared history, and wonder if maybe we always knew on some level? I’ll wonder aloud what was I thinking back then? Why did I stay in a bad relationship for so long?
But then J assures me that everything worked out the way it was supposed to. That every thing that happened in the past led us to where we are today. And today - today is pretty fucking great.
A few months ago, we were at the 7479 wedding together; only this time, J was all mine.
And I finally got my dance. Better late than never.