Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In The Beginning

Originally uploaded by Hanna L.
I got married on my 21st birthday.

Back then, I thought it would be clever and romantic to have a wedding cake as a birthday cake.  At that age, you think a lot of things are clever and romantic that turn out to be nothing of the sort.

When I was young, I lived the way my parents expected me to live.  I didn’t stay out late, and I didn’t drink or party or sleep around.  I got decent grades, had a lot of friends, and was on the cheerleading squad and volleyball team.  I was even chosen as the Homecoming Princess in high school.  I was one of the square characters from a John Hughes movie.

Looking back, my father once said that he grieved when I started dating Mike.  My father was a Lieutenant Colonel Marine from German stock, and not one to use a word like “grieve” flippantly.  He said that he blamed it mostly on the fact that I had seen the movie “Flash Dance.” He was convinced that it had somehow etched itself into my psyche.  I’d be lying if I said that he was dead wrong.  I was intrigued by the fact that the heroine in the flick lived in a very cool warehouse and fell tragically in love with an older man, but that was the only thing that resembled what I was looking for in my young-adult life.  Back then, I knew I was not interested in the typical college life, including the sororities that so many of my high school friends seemed to be joining.  I wanted to be independent, to live downtown after having grown up in the country.  I wanted to take a few risks and not “play it safe,” like I had the majority of my life.

I enrolled at Portland State University and roomed with a woman I met while waitressing at the Good Earth restaurant.  The free staff meals and tips from customers supported and sustained me while I was in school.  I rode the bus everywhere, late at night and downtown, subconsciously courting danger and thumbing my nose at it, since I’d never tried that before.  I felt like a grown-up – a real life grown up.

A few months after moving into a tiny little house in Milwaukie with Jane, she introduced me to an old high school friend of hers.  I was intrigued for a few reasons.  First, Jane was nine years older than me, so I figured that her high school friend would be about 27 years old. “Worldly” and “mature” were qualities that appealed to me, so my interest was piqued. Second, he had a two-year-old son.  You would think this would have scared me off, but for some reason, it had the opposite effect.  Third, my parents would hate it, and that was part of the appeal.  It is not your average pairing -- an 18-year-old girl fresh out of high school and a guy who is a full-time single dad -- and that also appealed to me.  I was curious, challenged, and mentally putting on my hero cape.  I was a rescuer, and this was someone who needed my rescuing.

Mike met me at the restaurant where I was working.  I waited on him and Jane.  They told me I was coming with them to the Mt. Hood “Pray for Snow” party after my shift.  I sat in the backseat of Mike’s classic yellow Volkswagen bug (I found out later it actually belonged to his brother), and we headed up to the party on the mountain.  I couldn’t stop smiling.

Every bar in Government Camp pulsed with music.  Mike took my hand, led me through the crowd, and ordered me my first alcoholic drink ever.  I was three years from the legal drinking age, but I played along.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that he had no idea that I wasn’t 21.  As the alcohol (quickly) took effect on me, I began interviewing him about his life -- about Ryan, about his graveyard-shift job at the Fred Meyer warehouse, even about his taste in women.  I was fascinated at how his life, his reality, was so vastly different from mine.  I was buzzing at the prospect of having a “grown-up” boyfriend in my grown-up life.

Jane found a ride home with someone else and disappeared into the night.  Not long after my interrogation of Mike ended, he escorted me back to the VW and we headed back down the mountain.  He pulled into Joe’s Doughnuts in Sandy, and we sat across from each other in the booth until three in the morning, drinking coffee and talking about his life.  He had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.  I decided that he was brave and heroic, being a single dad.

Within the week, I met his son Ryan, whose eyes were every bit as blue as his dad’s.  I spent as much time as I could with them and found myself babysitting Ryan anytime Mike worked or couldn’t find someone else. Within a couple months of meeting Mike, I moved in with him and Ryan.

Life was completely different than anything I’d ever known.  The tiny house I moved into was sparse, to say the least.  Wood paneling, circa 1970, lined the walls of every room.  An inescapable mildew smell permeated the house, giving the dwelling a distinctly dungeon-like quality.  The brown, shag carpeting was oddly firm and crunchy and stretched from wall to wall, except for the kitchen, where torn linoleum covered parts of the slanted floor.  Nonetheless, I felt needed.  Ryan needed a Mom and babysitter, Mike needed a companion, and they both needed a cook and cleaning lady.

It took some months, but we finally moved into a slightly bigger house in the nearby Sellwood neighborhood, before moving back again to Milwaukie, into a home owned by one of Mike’s former stepdads.  With every passing day, my college classes and the future I’d once dreamed of in journalism became less and less a part of my immediate reality.  Just shy of the last credits I needed to graduate with a degree in English, I quit school.  I applied for and accepted a full-time job at the local daycare Ryan attended so that we could receive free tuition and childcare for him.

Shortly after my big decision, we moved to yet another location.  The neighbor at our apartment complex in Clackamas, a recently widowed young woman took an abnormal interest in Mike and his son.  I responded by demanding that Mike make a commitment to me.  I told him that I had lived with him and had taken care of Ryan for the past two years and was still “just a girlfriend.”  I told him he should marry me or I would leave. He told me that he had always hoped to remain a Bachelor Dad.  So I moved out.

The freedom from one month of living alone again was suffocating, and I went back to Mike.  I felt lost without taking care of him and Ryan, and I missed what I considered our family.  He took me back with what amounted to an emotional shrug of the shoulders, and I assumed he had succumbed to my plea of getting married.  In retrospect, I think he accepted my condition if it meant that he could return to watching TV.

I planned my wedding carefully.  I invited friends and family and proceeded with a budget of zero dollars. My best friend and mentor Sharon helped.  The wedding would be at her house, with a makeshift altar in front of the fireplace.  I would wear her wedding dress, which we adorned with a beautiful ribbon sash in the colors of cream and evergreen.  The food would be a cooperative buffet.  I bought my own sapphire ring on credit at the mall jewelry store and pushed forward.  I asked my parents if they were glad for me.  My father refused to answer.  My mother sighed and nodded yes, but her body language told me otherwise.

Nobody tried to talk me out of my decision.
The day of our wedding was also my 21st birthday.  I had it in my mind that anything younger than 21 was much too young to get married.  After all, marriage is the ultimate commitment.  You can’t change your mind. Loyalty and commitment, I confirmed to myself, were the most honorable traits humans possessed, right up there with honesty, love and responsibility for family.  I was ready for all of those things and wanted to give them to this man and his son.  I had made up my mind.

Mike spent the day golfing.  I spent the day at Sharon’s getting the house and meal and myself ready for our vows.  My mother, Sharon, and my sister Bridgette helped me into my dress, curled my hair, and powdered my nose.  I felt beautiful and ready for this next step.

My father walked me down the aisle, which was a short ten feet, most of it in the dining room.  We reached the far end of the living room, in front of the fireplace, and I looked up, expecting to see the assuring and loving blue eyes of my love and soon-to-be-husband. There he was, eyes glazed and red and mouth slightly open.  He was drunk.  Ryan, now five, our ring-bearer, sat on the fireplace behind him looking up at the ceiling and picking his nose. I was on the threshold of my future.  I had made a choice, and I just assumed the little voices of doubt getting louder in my head were normal, so I shushed them and when asked, responded dutifully.

“I do.”

{Excerpt from Before the Light a prequel to ILLUMINATION}

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