Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother, and this year, for me, is a year I really want to hold on to all the moments my grandma made special. When we were little, I vividly remember sitting in the back of her giant Lincoln, driving at 1 mile per hour through the rainbow-lit streets of her neighborhood (which was just her usual speed in the Lincoln). My parents never put lights on our house, which could have really dampened my spirits if it hadn't been for all those rides with Grandma.
Joey and Noah have a favorite neighborhood to drive through. There are three houses clearly in competition with each other, and Joey and Noah start shouting, "I see them! I see the lights!" when we're about a mile away. These people must have the tallest ladders and the biggest electric bills, but I appreciate how happy their efforts make my children. Noah made me drive by, at 1 mile per hour, about five times. I had to keep coming to a stop, and I was really afraid of holding up traffic until I realized these people must get this a lot. Why else bedazzle their homes this way? I wondered how many people still drive around oohing and aahing over Christmas lights, and I remembered the only other time in my life that I'd done it myself, besides my Grandma, and besides these last few years with my kids.
I was a senior in high school, and I had liked the same boy for two years. He had blond hair and blue eyes, he played football and was captain of the wrestling team. Once in awhile, he stayed up late night on the phone with me listening to my problems and telling me his, and always reassuring me I was something special. Then one night after two years, he asked me to go on a date.
He wasn't actually able to drive me, because when you're seventeen years old having a license, ability to drive past 9 pm, and access to a car add up to too many conditions. But I was so excited that I eagerly volunteered to pick him up in my mom's super-cool Ford Contour (I had plastered Winnie the Pooh decals in the back windows, to my father's horror; I called it the Pooh-mobile). My parents would have been adamantly against me driving a boy on a date, except that when they asked where I was going and I said, "Out with Joe Bielecki," it was just no big deal. He was a person, a name, a friend they had known for years and took for granted. But I didn't.
I did my hair and put on my makeup with serious care, certain that tonight would be the night that would change our relationship For. Ever. I took the long way to his house, my palms sweaty and shaking. I checked myself in the rearview mirror at every red light, every stop sign. My right foot trembled against the accelerator, but I couldn't help but press on it a little harder than usual. I'd known Joe for two years, but tonight felt different. He'd never asked me to go out just the two of us, and since I didn't think he'd ever known my real feelings for him (because I'm NEVER obvious about my feelings), I couldn't help but feel a little magic was on my side.
When I pulled up to his house, he was already coming down the front walk. He was wearing jeans and his awesome varsity jacket, white leather sleeves and all. He climbed into the car, smelling like cologne and outside. The cold rushed in as closed the door, and I felt my whole body temperature rise against the snowy air. Ridiculously, I wondered whether I could possibly be giving off steam and thank God for the darkness.
"Where to?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said, trying to sound breezy, like this was just another night of hanging out for us. Except that we were alone, so it was really, really hard to be breezy. "Are you hungry?"
"I could eat," he said. "Friendly's?"
"Sure, we could go to Friendly's," I said. I flipped the car in reverse like I'd been driving waaaay longer than six months, and carefully backed out of his driveway.
I couldn't possibly hope that we'd hold hands this soon into the date, because it was just too weird that magic was hanging all around us, practically singing. I deliberately cranked the heat up so that Joe reached for the dial to turn it down. When he did, I pretended I was reaching for it, too, and his fingers brushed mine.
"Sorry," he said easily. I, on the other hand, was nearly hyperventilating from the contact, and decided such bold moves weren't safe to try while driving.
The restaurant was pretty empty; maybe it was because it was only eight o'clock or maybe because it was an ice cream shop in December. Either way, the waitress seated us in a tiny booth along a wall of mirrors. As I wiggled out of my coat in the super small seat, I had to mentally tell myself, "Don't look in the mirror. Don't look in the mirror." Mirrors are my mom's primary decor, so I grew up unable to avoid my reflection and became rather fond of the convenience of it. I liked to think of myself as Mary Pat-neverhasfoodinherteeth-Michalek. But to be caught checking myself out by Joe, well, that just wasn't an option. So instead, I focused on his face, and the way his eyes crinkled when he laughed at his own goofy jokes, and the way his eye would catch mine and hold my gaze a second longer than a friend's should.
We opened our menus, the tall skinny laminated kind that have miscellaneous mysteries smeared crustily across them. I quickly chose a basic hot fudge brownie sundae. I put the menu down and focused on Joe instead of the fact that a large and promising mirror was two inches to the left of my head.
Joe peered at me over the menu. He turned his head a little, like he was about to say something, but he said nothing. His right eye squinted slightly, searching for mine. When our eyes met, I went cold in the head as my body grew warm. I had goose bumps. The waitress came over.
"What can I get you?"
"I'll have the Brownie Mountain," I said. She scribbled it down and turned to Joe.
"Well, I have a problem," Joe began, looking the waitress seriously in the face. She looked slightly alarmed. "You see, I'm completely torn between the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and the Pieces. What do you recommend? Cups or Pieces?" The waitress blushed and self-consciously fussed with her hair. I watched the whole exchange with a bit of awe. He had just charmed a complete stranger by making her believe she was involved in this decision.
"Well, Cups are good, but I 'd definitely have to go with the Pieces," she said. Her whole face reflected hope for Joe 's approval. I, too, was anxious for his decision.
"Okay, then," he said. "The Pieces." The waitress beamed and hurried away.
When she left, Joe put his full focus back on my face. His eyes roamed liberally and carefully over my entire head. It was exasperatingly unnerving, and it made me desperate to check my reflection. I tried to pretend I was just crossing my legs and casually noticing that Oh, hey, there's a mirror there, but I nearly fell out of the booth so I decided to just look back at Joe.
It was a mistake, of course, because now his eyes locked on mine. He took a breath, and again it appeared he wanted to say something. I wanted so much for it to be some kind of an admission. A Look, we've come so far. I know now that I want to be with you. The only thing that came, however, were two ice cream sundaes and a now confidently flirtatious waitress.
Joe paid for the ice cream sundaes. I couldn't help but think that made the entire night Official, but I just thanked him and walked out ahead of him. I started making my way to the car when I noticed he had stopped walking just outside the door. I turned around. He was staring up into the dark winter sky.
"It's such a clear night," he said. "Want to go for a walk?"
I froze. Friendly's was located on an extremely busy main road complete with four lanes and a median. I had never, ever walked down this road or any like it because my parents were strict and because growing up they had put the fear of God in me that I might be killed by crossing any street, never mind a suburban superhighway. So of course, I blinked up at the stars, looked back at Joe and said, "Okay."
I walked near him with my hands in my pockets. The snow covering the ground blanketed all sound, even the noise of the cars whizzing past. I was aware of the gravelly chomp beneath our boots and of the air puffing from our noses as we moved through the night. I thought he might hold my hand, but it was cold and he had pocketed his own hands. I tried to stay close enough that we might bump elbows, and maybe share a little warmth. The icy breeze made my cheeks numb and I hoped my nose wasn't running.
Across the street from the restaurant was a playground. It was dark and icy and abandoned, but Joe headed toward it anyway. It was the kind with all the towers and secret staircases and tunnels. The swings had been dismantled and stored for the winter, but everything else was intact. I climbed up a tower alongside the monkey bars, the one at the top of the slide. I leaned over the side and peeked down at Joe, feeling childish but content. I was a princess. Granted, I grew up believing this was true, but in that moment my knight was down yonder awaiting me.
Joe made his way immediately to the monkey bars. He hung upside down from his knees, swung and did a flip, and then climbed all the way to the top. I watched him. He had all the spunk of a little kid and he knew I was noticing. I wondered if he would want to kiss me. A moment did not pass that I did not think about the fact that we had never kissed and probably should.
I was just noticing a strip of ice on one of the monkey bars when I heard the loud squeak of a sneaker. Before my eyes, Joe slipped from the bar and landed on one just below him with a thud. He was straddling the bar and looked...winded. He gasped.
I went thundering down the metal tower staircase to his aid. "Are you okay?" I asked, not sure if it was funny or not. In my head I was laughing uncontrollably. He shrugged and got up, limping slightly.
"Yeah, why?" he asked, his voice only a little strained. He walked into the tower and climbed the steps to the top of the slide. I did not follow him. He seemed to need a minute.
It was not a full sixty seconds before he was leaning out of the tower. "Where are you?" he called. I ducked through a tunnel and made my way up to him. The tower was narrow and we were standing very close. The wrinkled leather of his jacket sleeves was brushing my hands. He looked at me. His eyes sparkled in the streetlight. He smiled and then walked back down the steps toward the road. I felt all the air go out of me in disappointment as I followed him.
It was strange. I had never been on such a date. Conversation floated between us all along, and yet I have no idea what we spoke of. I only can say it was...us. To anyone else, it probably sounded meaningless, but to us, every word, every moment was so interesting. I don't think these kinds of conversations are common in life, or that you can have them with just anyone. At least, I can't. They require comfort and a sense of safety. No matter what I said, it was okay. But what I wanted to say, I didn 't.
It was getting pretty cold and we were a fair distance from the car, so when McDonald's came into view and Joe suggested hot chocolate, I was relieved. The blast of heat hit us as we entered and we immediately unzipped our coats. Joe stepped up to the counter and ordered two hot chocolates.
"Three seventy-three," said the bland cashier. She was a girl who looked like she loathed her job. Joe put four dollars on the counter. The girl scooped it up and began counting the change out very slowly.
In this time, Joe had miraculously come up with seventy-three cents. He placed it on the counter and busied himself examining the display of recent Happy Meal toys. I watched the cashier triumphantly produce the change, still from the even four dollars, as she noticed the seventy-three cents on the counter.
"What's this for?" she demanded. Joe started, and faced her.
"Uh," he said. He looked at me sideways as if to say, What does she think it's for? "That's just for being you," he said seriously. The girl looked side to side in confusion and then said finally, "Thanks?"
We hiked back to the car and, though I didn't want our weird enchanted evening to be over, I felt I had no choice but to start driving back to Joe 's house. His parents tended to be unreasonably strict like mine were, and he needed to be home by ten. I headed toward his neighborhood.
"Wait," he said. There was a flutter in my stomach. "Let's drive around and look at the Christmas lights. "
Dear God. How freaking romantic. I was dying. Dying, and it was spectacular.
The Pooh-mobile rolled slowly through the streets of our town, making loud crunchy noise over the salt and snow on the roads. Joe knew all the jazziest neighborhoods, and interrupted our loud silence to periodically say, "Turn here," or "Don't miss the next street. It's a good one."
At ten-thirty, worry began to creep in. What if Joe's parents associated me with his lateness and thought I was a floozy? I turned the car back in the direction of his house. He did not object. When I came near, I pulled up in front of the driveway so he wouldn't have to get out in the snow. At first, he did not move to get out. He only stared at me in that unsettling way, the way that made me feel exposed and beautiful at once.
"I had a really good time," he said. He wasn't smiling. He looked as uncertain as I felt.
"So did I, we should do this again." I stopped before I started speeding along in my obvious chalance.
He unclicked his seatbelt. He looked at me. I held my breath and blinked. He leaned over and hugged me. He opened the car door and stepped out. He waved. He turned and began walking toward the house. I let my breath go and put the car in Drive.
As my foot sank down on the gas, movement caught the corner of my eye. I turned slowly, uncertainly, to find Joe peeking in the passenger window again. I slammed my foot on the brake. He opened the car door and leaned in. Oh my God, I thought. Oh my God. He has returned for the kiss. Finally. My heart raced as he opened his mouth to speak.
"Do you know how to get home?" he asked.
"I, uh, yes."
"Okay," he said. He paused. He looked deeply into my eyes, and then walked back out onto the driveway, closing the car door behind him. I watched him walk all the way into his house.
Oh my God. Oh my God.
I drove all the way home imagining myself turning back. I replayed the last moment when he returned to the car and leaned in. I replayed it again and again. Could I have changed it? Could I have initiated something more? Was Joe in fact initiating it and had I done something stupid and irrevocable? Most importantly: Would I get another chance?
These questions seem beyond silly now, fifteen years later with two little boys in my backseat shouting, "I think I see Santa! Look! Mommy, do you see him?!"
I am so lucky that I have TWO Joe Bieleckis, plus one very special Noah.