Wednesday, August 30, 2006

burning love...(Part II)

Casting aside my grade-school training to 'Stop...Drop...and Roll', I made my way through the thick black smoke pouring out of the breakroom and started mashing the buttons on the microwave until it finally sputtered to a stop. All right, yes--in 20/20 hindsight perhaps 5 minutes on full power was a bit much to warm up one pound of gourmet popcorn. But in my defense, a microwave oven was relatively new technology to me as a 20-year old male college student in 1987. I had only just recently got the hang (more or less) of cooking frozen pizza in the toaster oven.

After the sizzling, crackling, and hissing finally died down, I tried to break through the hardened, pitch-black shell of what had moments (well, 4:48 minutes) ago been the centerpiece of my gourmet anniversary treat. I was able to pry a few pieces of semi-scorched popcorn from the innermost molten core, but they turned out to bear a striking resemblence in both texture and flavor to a Kingsford charcoal briquet. The entire mess was unsalvageable. The irony was that had the whole carbonized mass continued to break down through its molecular structure for just another minute or two, I probably would have ended up with a nice diamond to give her for an anniversary gift.

I'm pretty sure I went out and bought chocolates or some other non-combustible substitute for the gourmet popcorn, and hoped that the other gifts would still make the occasion special for her. I know that a 3-month anniversary might not seem like a such a big deal to most people, but Karen and I had been in unique situation. We had both arrived from different parts of the country to take part in the same semester-long internship program that ran from February through May. We knew that any potential relationship was predestined to end on a specific date, but the attraction was so strong between us that we decided to go ahead in spite of that and make the most of each day we had together.

So this single anniversary would be the only one we would share before we both headed off across two time zones back to our homes in less than a month. It was actually my first anniversary with anyone, ever. Karen had been the first girl I had ever dated. Not for a lack of effort on my part, but up to that point all through high school and college the girls had considered me the funny, smart-aleck boy in the nice sweaters and courdoroys (...thanks, Mom.) They had all been vying to become the next girlfriend of the star quarterback or all-star point guard. Apparently, dating the sixth man on the golf team didn't hold quite the same social cache...

But Karen told me that it was my sense of humor that had attracted me to her in the first place. For me, it was the way her eyes would light up whenever she smiled. She was the first girl that I fell in love with. And one night as we stood beneath a brilliant moon on the end of a pier overlooking the dark ocean, she was the first girl to tell me, "I love you." The cold February wind that swept up from the waves at that moment didn't stand a chance.

Our anniversary turned out just fine in spite of my little mishap earlier in the day. In fact, it wound up making the day even better. As soon as I met up with Karen at lunch to celebrate, the tell-tale wisps of smoke still lingering about my body were a dead-giveaway that something had been up. By the time I finished describing the calamity in the employee break room, there were tears of laughter streaming down her face in delight. She let me know that as far as she was concerned, that little fossilized lump of charred popcorn meant more to her than a dozen boxes of chocolate from anyone else.
* * * * * * * *
We both knew that a long-distance relationship wouldn't be practical. I saved up and flew out to Chicago once towards the end of the summer. For two more days I was able to experience that feeling of sheer happiness just from being with her. We kept in touch less and less over time, calling each other up once every couple of years around a major event. She is now a very successful attorney with her own firm in Chicago, and is married with two boys.
Once, sometime after her wedding, she shared something very special. She said that until she had met her husband, none of the other guys she had dated had come close when she compared them to her memories of me, because she had known that my love for her had been heartfelt and sincere. That meant more than anything else she could have said, because I had felt the same way. My first time in love may have lasted for only a few, brief months, but somewhere deep in the quiet of my heart, the memories still remain like a warm ember--forever glowing and never to be extinguished.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

burning love...

Everything was just about in place. I was in Washington, D.C. during the spring semester of my junior year working as an intern at the Securities and Exchange Commission. On this particular day in April I was hard at work putting the finishing touches on a very important project: the celebration of the third-month anniversary of my first date with Karen, another intern who I met on my first night in the city and had quickly fallen head over heels for.

Karen was from Chicago and had introduced me to the wonders of gourmet popcorn. Her favorite kind was caramel and cheese popcorn mixed together in a microwave until both melted together into a sweet, warm chewy mass. Earlier that morning I had hopped on a bus over to a shop in Georgetown to pick up a half-pound bag of each flavor, and later went down to the employee kitchen/lounge at the S.E.C. to put the mixture into the microwave. I punched the numbers into the timer and then went up two floors to my cubicle to gather up the other gifts: a white, plush Gund teddybear (also her favorite), a Boynton coffee mug (coffee + Boynton=double favorite), and flowers.

As I stepped off of the elevator on my way back down to the lounge, a strange premonition slowly came over me that something was amiss. A smell almost identically similar to that of burning carbon hit my nostrils and immediately confirmed it. As the heavy black clouds began to roil along the top of the ceiling out from the kitchen and spread into the main research library, I had a vision of the popcorn, the anniversary, and potentially my entire college semester, going up in smoke before my very eyes.
* * * * * * * *

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Val had come down with a fever and had gone straight home after her last appointment for the day. She asked if I could stop by her office to pick up her laptop. I had just begun to shut down the open programs when a new email in her inbox from an exboyfriend entitled "re: Last weekend" caught my eye. My curiosity won out, and as the message unfolded before my eyes, the world as I thought I had known it suddenly flew apart.

* * * * * * * *
She had apologized over and over and swore that it had been a reckless act that was never meant to hurt me. I knew in my heart that she was sincere in her regret and anguish. She moved out that weekend and over the course of several emotional and difficult months of separation we agreed to attend counseling together while still living apart. After a number of months we both reached an honest understanding of how things had come to that point.
The truth is that our marriage had been in the process of unraveling long before things came to light that day in October. In addition to the love that we genuinely felt for each other, we both shared an equally powerful shortcoming: a desire to avoid conflict. I knew it had been a huge change in lifestyle for her to move into my house and try to adapt to living with a young child. On top of that, almost immediately after the wedding she had been promoted to a challenging new position with enormous added responsibility.
I would look for every opportunity I could to do things to ease her stress and make our home a place of comfort to return to at the end of the day. I know that she appreciated all that I did and she was just as determined to make sure that Brendan and I felt just as cared for.
But over time, one thing after another began to pile up. I have attention deficit disorder, and late bills, forgotten appointments, and never-reached items on the to-do list are just a few of the things that can come with that condition.Too late, we saw the importance of confronting those situations head-on as they occurred, but back then we were each privately worried that raising them with the other person would only amplify the stress around the house.
I know that none of those things are a justification for what happened, but I realize that they were the major factors that led up to Valerie taking an irrational action. Its possible to forgive something without making an excuse for it. And with the act of forgiveness, it is our self that we are truly setting free in the first place.
* * * * * * * *
Valerie and I met in October 2001, were engaged in February 2002, married in December 2002, separated permanently in October 2004, and officially divorced in March 2006. She's since moved to a new job in another state several hours away and now we keep in touch only through sporadic emails. It's not the outcome either one of us ever pictured up on the altar as we exchanged our vows, but we've both come to realize that it was for the best.
I certainly never imagined that I would be widowed and divorced before I even turned 40. But I try to take away at least one positive thing from each event as it occurs, and now I see how vital it is to be willing to address conflict head on with open communication. Romantic gestures, both big and small, are important throughout a successful relationship. But in the end, even a Valentine serenade can turn into a terrible cacophany if just the smallest dissonance is allowed to remain ignored.
I have no idea what the future may hold in terms of other relationships, or what form may be best suited for me. I'm still pretty much a work in progress. But I'm getting there. For now, I'm just going to focus on trying to make the right choices for myself in each situation, so that I can continue to grow into a better person.
Come what may.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Come what may (verse two)

I was down on one knee, holding the ring out before me. I had just asked Valerie to marry me, and she was sitting there in stunned silence, her hand covering her mouth and her eyes brimming with tears. She nodded her head until she could catch her breath, and then finally said out loud: 'Yes.' The lobby burst into applause as I slipped the ring onto her finger, and I can remember the people on the second and third level balconies leaning over and looking down on us with smiles.

After the concert, we had dinner at a fancy french restaurant, and then went over to a hotel to check into a suite that I had reserved just for the occasion. I had arranged for roses, chocolate-covered strawberries, and champagne to be already in the room waiting for us. Valerie was beside herself, still trying to take it all in. I jokingly said that Plan B had involved me popping the question on the Jumbotron between innings at a Phillies game.

We set a date and got started on all of the details of the wedding planning. We were married at the main chapel at Villanova just after Christmas in 2002. Brendan was the ringbearer and after we had exchanged our vows, the priest gathered the three of us together for a special blessing. The day was filled with joy and promise.

Valerie moved in and we began to redecorate the house room by room so that it would start to become ours together. We quickly came up with a good way to split up the routine chores, based on each of our strengths and weaknesses. We made it a point to travel to someplace new each year to get some time away for just the two of us. We were very much in love and committed to growing together with each passing day. It was the most content that I had felt in a very long time.

* * * * * * * *
I was sitting alone in Valerie's office, her laptop open before me. It was almost three years to the day after we had first met. I had just discovered an email and was sitting there in stunned silence, my hand covering my mouth and my eyes brimming with tears. I shook my head until I could catch my breath, and then finally said out loud: 'No...'

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Come what may

The lobby began to fill with people at the start of intermission for the Philadelphia Orchestra's Valentine Concert. I was there with someone that I had been seeing for several months, and that night also happened to be my date's birthday. The crowd continued to fan out beneath the sprawling glass and chrome ceiling of the newly built Kimmel Center. We made our way over towards an enormous grand piano placed off to the side, where two young women in formal dresses were running through some scales and leafing through pages of sheet music. I sat the birthday girl down on a nearby chair and received an inquistive look as I walked over towards the front of the piano. I nodded over at the two women and stepped up to a microphone as the first notes began to play.
* * * * * * * *
Valerie and I met at a Halloween Party in October 2001--she was in a bridesmaid’s gown for her costume (“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride”) and I was wearing an authentic WWII paratrooper uniform. We went on our first date the following week and we both agreed early on to skip the usual dating games and just let things develop naturally at their own pace. Things took off pretty fast from there and we soon realized that there was a genuine connection between us.

Since Valerie’s birthday was on Valentine’s Day, I wanted to do something to make it truly special. We had recently watched ‘Moulin Rouge’ together and the song “Come What May” had been stuck in my head for days afterwards. The lyrics seemed perfect and thankfully it was within my vocal range. I contacted the manager of Kimmel Center to get permission to perform the song in the lobby during intermission, and made arrangements with some local musicians to rehearse together a few times before the night of the concert. When the actual performance began, the first half of the program was a total blur. I spent the majority of it sitting in my seat constantly repeating the lyrics over and over in my head.
* * * * * * * *
The grand piano gave the notes a rich, clear sound that soon rose above the ambient noise of the lobby. One by one, several heads throughout the crowd started to turn in the direction of the music. I began to pat the outside of my pant leg in time with the rhythm as the introduction reached its final measures. I was doing it partly out of nervousness and also to help count off the beats until the cue for the first vocal entrance. But mainly I wanted to reassure myself that the box holding the engagement ring was still right there in my pocket.