I was seventeen years old and driving down the Skyway of Buffalo for possibly the first time ever. It doesn't really matter, since it never gets any easier. The Skyway is about a billion feet up in the air, careening around the outside of downtown, and if you're afraid of heights and/or bridges, it's not for you.
I was on it because I was heading to a basketball game at Buffalo State College with four of my friends. Canisius High School was doing well that year, and it was a big game, so they were playing in the college venue. I wasn't a particularly big fan of basketball, or sports in general, but I was exceptionally fond of going anywhere with good friends. Even if it meant taking the Skyway.
My friends Christine, Alice, and Pat were smushed into the backseat. The game was Pat's idea, since Canisius was his school. And since Pat was going, he'd invited along his friend Joe Bielecki, too. Joe was in the front seat next to me.
I was sure no one knew it, but I had been secretly in love with Joe for two years. In that time, he had loved me, loved me not, and loved me again more times than are necessary to count. At this point, he had loved me not enough times that I felt complete hopelessness (and helplessness) where he was concerned. Truthfully, the only real reason he rode shotgun this day was because he lived closest to me and I'd picked him up first on my way to the game. It had nothing at all to do with the fact that I was pretending we were on a date.
"Hey," said Alice suddenly. "Why is the radio off?"
"Because I need it off right now," I said. My hands were locked on the steering wheel in a death grip at ten and two o'clock. I sat ramrod straight, my back not quite touching the seat.
"Why do you need it off?" asked Joe.
"Because I'm concentrating," I said, trying not to notice how close the edge of the highway was. There were cement barriers, but still. What if my mom's car was powerful enough to plow through and go over the edge?
I became aware then of movement out of the corner of my eye, and suddenly our local station, Kiss 98.5, blared through the car.
"Hey!" I shrieked, slapping the radio off. I was terrified to take my eyes off the road, but I did so for a flash of second to glare at Joe. "Did you really just do that?"
He chuckled at himself, like I was amusing him. I felt my nose wrinkle slightly and my blood start to race.
"It's not funny," I said, my teeth gritted. I prayed mentally for the end to come quickly--of the Skyway, not of life--while taking deep breaths.
"What's not funny?" asked Joe. The laughter in his voice made his feigned nonchalance more annoying. "This?" And on came the radio again.
My heart pounded in my ears. My friends giggled in the backseat. Did no one understand that we were so high up it felt like there was no road beneath us at all? Like I was on a cloud that provided no stability or control for my mom's really cool Ford Contour and that if I messed up, we'd all die and it would be Joe's fault for turning on the radio?
I slapped the radio off again, trying not to blink. What would happen if I blinked? Oh, I don't know. Certain doom, perhaps?
"Cut it out," I said.
"This?" he asked again. The sound of the Spice Girls filled my car.
"I mean it!" I yelled, turning the radio off. "I can't drive with it on right now!"
And just as I said it, the Skyway ended. I took a deep breath and gave Joe a glare I hoped meant "I hate you and I want you to go far, far away forever." He just smirked and turned the radio on again, clearly knowing the worst was over. Pat and Alice gave me directions the rest of the way to UB, and by the time we stepped onto the bleachers that surrounded the huge basketball court, I'd nearly forgotten the radio incident.
Pat and Joe walked up ahead of us, looking for the right seats. I walked between Alice and Chris, talking and laughing about school and friends and boys. Suddenly, in the middle of our conversation, I must have stopped talking. I'd become distracted by something.
It was Joe. He had his keys attached to a long key chain on his belt loop, and with each step he swung the keys around and around like a cowboy with his lasso. I must have been grimacing, because Chris nudged me with her elbow.
"That was really annoying in the car, wasn't it Maris?" she asked. Maris was a nickname I'd gotten at school because of the character on Frasier. I never actually approved it (who would?!), but it stuck with some of my friends. Chris was one of them.
"Ugh," I groaned. "I know! Who does that? I mean, I was really petrified of the Skyway, and--"
"You still like him, don't you?" she interrupted. Alice smirked.
"What? I don't," I said. It sounded weak, even to me.
She leaned in close to me, so I could see that she was seeing what I saw. "You know you really love someone when they do something like that--" she gestured at Joe's key swinging action-- "and you love them anyway."
I swallowed. I'd never actually had anybody acknowledge my feelings for Joe as more than a silly crush, and the way Chris had just spoken, I felt my heart both sink and soar at the same time.
I swallowed a second time and said, "He was a total jerk in the car. Who could love him?"
Alice didn't even break stride. "You do," she said.
I felt my face color and I smiled sheepishly, but I didn't say anything more about it. We found Pat and Joe down near center court, and climbed down over the benches to sit behind them. The game was apparently going well, since the Cansius fans, identifiable by their blue and gold flags and attire, cheered wildly and often.
I didn't pay much attention to the game, and could barely focus on the conversation that continued around me. Chris and Alice had kind of freaked me out. Were my feelings that obvious? Of course I had mentioned being crazy about Joe here and there--I'd even taken him to my junior prom--but the whole thing was so on-again, off-again and I definitely hadn't mentioned him that way in months. I had even been telling myself I was over him, though I clearly wasn't. I didn't want my eyes to wander to Joe, but I couldn't help it. He wore his varsity jacket, its sleek white sleeves crisp and clean and inexplicably begging me to touch them. His cheeks were pink because it was chilly, and he was holding what looked like a dirty yellow hand towel.
"What is that?" I whispered to Alice, pointing at Joe's rag.
"It's called a rowdy rag," she replied. She giggled. "It looks like it's from a bathroom, doesn't it?"
"Just what I was thinking," I said. Something exciting had apparently happened in the game, because Joe was waving his rowdy rag all over the place. I seriously hoped this was the only thing he used it for, because it looked pretty gross.
The guys turned around and looked at us. "Having fun?" Joe asked.
"Oh, yes," said Chris.
"What about you?" he asked, locking his eyes on mine. Don't blush, don't blush, I begged myself.
"Loads!" I said. Yeah. Because basketball games were totally my cup of tea, and definitely when my two close friends called me out on my secret love and made me feel self-conscious. I could feel their eyes on me right now.
"Mary Pat just loves basketball, don't you, MP?" asked Alice with a laugh.
"Of course," I said.
Joe's eyes dropped to my shoes. They were new and very, very cool. Chunky high-heeled penny loafers. With the pennies.
"Nice shoes," he said, shoving his rowdy rag in his pocket. It didn't fit, so it was hanging off his pants in all its filthy glory. What a dumb idea.
"I know," I said, glancing down at my shoes to distract from his rowdy rag.
"So you like them?" he asked.
"Do you need them both?"
He cut me off by grabbing my shoe. Off my foot. I looked at my white ankle sock in disbelief, and then at Joe. He waggled the shoe at me. The crowd cheered around us. Probably not about the shoe, though.
"Don't you need to watch the game?" I squeaked, diving for my shoe. He easily moved it to his other hand, holding it out of my reach. I turned to Alice and Chris. Alice shrugged and Chris held back a laugh. Neither helped.
"But I've got this great shoe," he said. He stood up, still holding it out of my reach. My beautiful penny loafer shimmered in the bright lights and seemed to cry out for my now cold foot.
"Joe, just give it back," I said, gritting my teeth. People were starting to look. Love? How could I love this person? First the radio on the Skyway and now this shoe stealing nonsense?
"You really want it?" he asked, dangling it over my head. I didn't want to flail around like an idiot, but I could help but jump for it. I missed.
"Yes, now give it back!"
"Go get it!" he shouted, and threw the shoe down about ten bleachers. I watched it thonk, ka-thonk, blam! land about ten feet away from a group of irritated onlookers. I couldn't blame them. They seemed interested in the basketball.
My gaze flew to Joe in shock, and then back down at my shoe. Joe had plopped back down in his seat, all lounge-y and comfortable, a huge satisfied smile across his stupidly handsome face. I wanted to hit that face.
I looked at my friends, and they were just as shocked as I was. I stood, one shoe on and one off, and considered climbing all lopsided and crooked over the benches to retrieve my shoe, but I honestly could barely manage it with both shoes on. I was really clumsy and a little afraid of bleachers.
"I'll get it," Alice said, standing. She wasn't mad, she was trying not to laugh, but I could tell she thought Joe was a total weirdo. Well who wouldn't? I mean, who does that??
Alice easily retrieved my sad penny loafer and sat a little closer to me as I placed it (what I hoped was) securely back on my foot.
"Why do you think," she whispered, "a guy would steal a girl's shoe?"
"I have no idea," I said, shaking my head in bewilderment.
"Because he likes her," Chris hissed, leaning behind Alice's back. My stomach flipped over.
"Come on, guys," I said, shutting my eyes at the absurdity of what they said. "We know that's not how it is. At least not with Joe."
"Oh, come on, MP," Alice pressed. "All that waving the shoe around so you'd jump all over him?"
"I didn't jump all over him."
"Oh, okay," she said, rolling her eyes.
I let the subject drop, but this time I couldn't help but stare at Joe. Why would someone do something so completely stupid?
Probably because as much as I loved Joe all those years ago, he kind of loved me, too. I think about this story on the days when my husband drives me the most crazy. I remember that he stole my shoe at least two more times the next year when were in college, right in the middle of campus. I remember how absolutely mad he made me--really mad, not even angry--and then I think about how all he had to do was smile at me and say, "You really are beautiful," and I didn't even care. How stupid was I?
I think love is more the penny-loafer days than anything else. Being married isn't easy at all, and anyone who says otherwise is lying or...just lying, really. My husband could not only still be counted on to steal my shoe at an inopportune moment, but he also leaves dirty socks on the family room couch. He leaves dirty dishes in the sink instead of placing them in the dishwasher. He interrupts ALL THE TIME, constantly contradicts me (especially about our kids!), and he has this way of just sitting in a chair that screams, "I'm so SMAHT" (not smart, SMAHT) and makes me completely insane. I mean, sit like a normal person!
But then he'll get up to leave the room, or he'll come home from work, or he'll throw our son over his shoulder...and I'll see him all over again. That goofy guy, swinging his keys, all those years ago. And I'm lost.