Who do you call on the worst day of your life? These days, I call person after person, crying out when they pick up, "I'm having a crisis!" and I'm met with an even-toned, "I'm on the other line. I'll have to call you back." It might be my mom, my sister...even Joe. It's like they know me or something.
But in a true emergency, I call Joe. Always. Somehow, he has the most calming effect on me. Something in the reasonableness of his voice, in the fact that I can hear, through the phone lines, the way his eyes are twinkling at me, and that maybe--probably--he is trying not to smile at my pain. And if can smile at me, everything will be okay.
On the worst day of my life, which wasn't today (or last week, or last year--it was years and years ago now), I sat in my parents' kitchen. The lights were dimmed; dinner had been over for a couple of hours. In the next room was the sound of the TV, blaring at top volume. My dad insists he can't hear it otherwise, but if he's in the kitchen reading the paper and you have the volume on a whisper, he hollers, "Turn down that noise!"
My mother was seated at the kitchen table across from me, a cup of coffee in front of her. She was staring at me. I think she was waiting for me to crack into a million pieces and fall to the floor, and at least she'd be able to vacuum me up, and then she'd be useful. But for now, all she could do was stare.
On the worst day of my life, I probably didn't look the greatest.
She leaned forward suddenly, closing the gap between us. Her eyes were round and intense as she said, "Now don't be mad."
Of all the ways for your moral support to start a sentence on the worst day of your life, that's probably not the one you'd choose.
"Well, I was just thinking," and her eyes darted away here, so I knew it was going to be a doozy, "did you think about maybe calling Joe Bielecki? You know, just to--"
"I emailed him an hour ago," I interrupted.
She froze, her eyes still earnest, and we held the stare for about ten more seconds before we both started laughing hysterically. True hysterical laughter, with gasping and bellyaches and burned calories. The idea of contacting Joe Bielecki--someone I hadn't spoken to, had avoided, for a long time--was so absurd, and yet both my mother and I had both known he was The someone to find on the worst day of my life.
"Did he respond?" she asked when we were finally calm.
I shrugged a shoulder. "I just emailed him an hour ago. Probably not."
"Should you check?"
I rolled my eyes. But I knew she wouldn't relent until I did it, so I said nothing more and got up from the table. In the next room, her desktop computer sat sleeping, all starry and cosmic. I plopped down in front of it and wiggled the mouse until it woke up. My email window was still open, and I punched in my password.
One New Message.
For a moment, my heart was swinging back and forth on my uvula like an out-of-control monkey. Then it dropped down into my stomach and waited for me to click "Open."
All breath was gone from my lungs.
Good to hear from you, kid. Here's my cell number. Call me.
I was given momentary pause by the use of his first and middle initials. Was that something he was doing now? His new nickname used by friends who had not abandoned him? I felt my heart root itself in my stomach as I considered this. Perhaps so much time had passed, I didn't even know his name anymore, and Joe Bielecki was not the answer.
But what had he said? Call me.
I poked my head out into the kitchen. My mother had not moved from the table. She looked sort of funny, sitting there all alone with her coffee and her eyes all big and round. Maybe she was still waiting to vacuum me up.
"Well?" she asked.
"He wants me to call him."
"Now?" she said.
I looked at the clock. It wasn't quite eight o'clock. We were young. We were hip. Eight o'clock would be nothing for him. I mean, the email didn't say, "Call me immediately, I've died without you," but it also didn't say, "Wait three days and then call me," which is sometimes considered a rule, but then--
"Call him." The command in my mother's voice could not be messed with. As I jumped and began the search for the cordless phone, I considered the irony of my own mother, the Judester, practically forcing me to call a boy when my entire adolescence was spent hearing her drone over and over, "Girls don't call boys! They let the boys call them! If he REALLY likes you..."
I found the phone, and left the kitchen.
"Hey, wait!" she shrieked behind me. But I was nervous enough. I couldn't have my mother hanging on my every word while I made what was sure to be an awkward phone call. I tried to think how many years it had been since I'd deliberately sought Joe out. Four? Almost five? I wasn't sure. I didn't think it mattered. Call me.
I looked at the Post-It note on which I'd hastily scribbled Joe's number. Carefully, I punched in each digit and waited for the ring.
I lost my breath. Not my nerve, but the ability to breathe.
"This is Joe."
I swallowed. Not spit. Inopportune as ever, air re-entered my body and I swallowed that. I choked.
"Um, hi, Joe," I said. I'm so smooth. "It's Mary Pat."
The change in Joe's voice was immediate. "Hey, kid!" he said, and I knew, instantly, he'd meant, Call me as soon as you can. I was glad I did.
After some quick, and much needed, catching up, Joe asked if I could hang out that night. I looked at myself in the mirror. Frizzy bun. No makeup. Crisis clothes: ratty tee shirt and pajama pants. Nice.
"Of course, that'd be great!" I said.
"Well, I'm leaving work in about ten minutes. Can you give me the address of your apartment and I'll be there in forty-five?"
My eyes widened. Of course. My apartment. What lame-o says, "Oh, hey, pick me up at my mom and dad's?" when they've been living on their own for a year? Well, I usually did, but still. Not now.
"Sure, I can swing that!" I said.
"Good," he said. "And Mary Pat?"
"I'm glad you called."
The smile filled my body before it hit my face, and all I could say before we hung up was, "Me, too."
But there was no time to lose! Forty-five minutes?! And at my apartment--across town?? I raced down the stairs. Oh, good God. My parents were in WORRY mode. It was the worst day of my life, remember? This would be tricky.
"I gotta go!" I said, breezing past my mom in the kitchen. My father was now leaning against the counter beside her, probably discussing me and the worst day of my life. When I rushed through--because confidence and speed are key--he stopped leaning and stood up straight.
"Well, now wait a minute," he said in a voice that completely ignored my confidence and speed. I stopped short, and tried not to tap my foot. My dad's not a fan of that.
"Where are you going?" asked my mom, thoroughly bewildered. "What happened on the phone?"
"She was on the phone?" asked my dad.
"Yes, with Joe Bielecki."
"With Joe Bielecki?" repeated my father.
"Yes, with Joe Bielecki," she answered. No one was being snappish or sarcastic. This was a serious exchange between them. My mother looked at me with concern. "Did something happen on the phone?"
"With Joe Bielecki?" my father added.
I rolled my eyes. "We're going out. I have to go home and change."
My parents' eyes widened. "You're going...out? WHERE?"
But there was just too little time. I threw my arms out to the sides and said, "I don't know! He asked me to go out. I want to. I just had the worst day of my life, and a really nice guy wants to go out. I'm going!"
My father said, "But--"
But I interrupted with, "Bye!"
It was winter. The roads had been slushy, but had iced over in the frigidness of the night. I wanted to make my car fly, but annoyingly, I had to drive carefully. I looked at the clock on the dashboard. How much time had I wasted with my parents? Five minutes. Five minutes!
I reached my apartment building, fumbling with my keys as I skated up the front walk. Through the doors, up the stairs, down the hall, and at my door. Fumbled with the keys some more. I could hear my mother's voice on the answering machine inside. "Your father and I are a little worried...." She hung up before I turned the key in the lock. Opened the door, flew inside, into the bedroom, dug through my clothes. Panic! Horror! Everything had that, "I live alone and can't take of myself" wrinkled look. I finally found a purple sweater and a pair of jeans I hated. But they were clean. I pulled them on. I really did hate them. My brother, insanely, had gone shopping with me once and, to speed things along, had said they looked, "Good. I don't know, good," when I'd come out of the dressing room. I rued that day and rued the jeans, too, but I realized there was nothing for it. Plus, didn't they always say guys didn't even notice stuff like jeans?
Into the bathroom, I threw on some makeup. I took my hair out of its bun and shook it. Not too bad. It had been done, earlier that day, in its usual style, but, well, you know. Worst day of my life, blah, blah, blah.
And, just as I had time to dig out my favorite perfume, my signature perfume from high school, the one that had been discontinued and whose numbered squirts forced me to rank all life events on a scale of use-it-or-lose-it importance, my doorbell buzzed.
Joe Bielecki was at my door.
I gave my useless hair one last shake, sprayed the perfume not once but twice, and went to the buzzer to open the main door downstairs. I heard it swing open and then slam shut. I stepped to my apartment door, flung it open, and went into the hall.
Joe's face crested the stairs as he made his way up. First his eyes, then his smile, and then his arms opening wide for a hug.
"Hey, there, beautiful," he said as he brought me in close for a bear hug. And then...complete calm. As he let me go he said, "You smell like you."
Inside, I had nothing to serve. I had no food or beverages in the apartment, and didn't trust the tapwater. Or the cleanliness of my dishes. Instead, Joe (seemingly unfazed by the lack of served eats) sat on my couch as we talked about everything we'd missed in the last four, maybe five years. He asked about the worst day of my life. I told him. He said, "I'm meeting some friends out. Someone we know is in a band. Would you like to come?"
Only in your twenties does that sort of thing happen. I look back now and think, it was nine-thirty at night and there was still more fun to be had? The insanity of it all.
"I look terrible," I said, glancing down at my jeans. Joe couldn't know how angry they were making me.
"Nobody will notice," he promised. "We're accountants. We're dorks." I laughed at this and grabbed my coat.
Off into the night we went, driving past the city of Buffalo, all lit up and sparkly. We had to stop because Joe was driving with a friend--who ended up being a girl named Lisa, and it occurred to me this might be a date and I was totally crashing, me and the worst day of my life--and reached our destination (let's call it a "pub," because it sounds nicer) shortly afterward.
Inside, the air was smokey because that sort of thing was still allowed back then. The band playing, the one Joe said he knew, featured a leather-pants wearing lead singer, which I found intriguing. Leather pants? In Buffalo? It seemed so...so...out of place. But there the fellow was, rocking hard in leather pants. The audience, a fair turnout, I thought, was hooting and applauding in a noisy pub way. While Joe went to get us beers, his friend/date Lisa leaned against a pool table near the back and gave me a huge, winning smile. Was she his date? I didn't know. I didn't know if I should like her, either. I mean, why was she smiling at me? Who smiles at the girl that her date brought along? That's not even...what? There's not a word for it.
But then she started talking to me, this Lisa, and besides having a big, friendly smile, she was nice. Like, super cool, even for an accountant. I glanced around, wondering where Joe was. I found myself wanting to be this Lisa's friend, and if this was Joe's date, I felt like there might be a rule against it.
Suddenly, Lisa interrupted my thoughts by saying, "I'm going to run to the ladies' room."
"Okay!" I said, relieved. And then, glancing at the dingy door that held a sign reading, "Dames," I added, "Good luck."
I took this chance to find Joe at the bar. He was leaning against it, all suave and cool and "I get drinks for my two dates" in his leather jacket. When did he become this cool? Accountants are dorky my ass. Joe Bielecki looked anything but dorky right now.
He smiled, kind of dazzling, when he saw me approach. I tried to swallow air again and felt my cheeks get hot as I came to stand beside him.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Is Lisa your date?" I blurted. Joe's eyes widened. "Because I'd feel really--"
"No," he interrupted, his smile turning to a smirk. "No, I didn't bring you along on my date." He looked at me pointedly.
I opened my mouth to say something more, but then thought better of it. Yeah. There was really nothing left to say once he put it like that.
I glanced back at the leather pants singer, who was shaking his head violently up and down in time to the drums. How did he not get a headache? I looked back at the bathroom where Lisa was emerging, now officially a "Dame," I supposed. I looked at Joe, and found him staring intently at me. More intense than my mom at the kitchen table.
"What?" I asked, lifting a hand to my hair.
"What-what?" he asked playfully.
I sighed. "Do I look okay?" I asked. The bartender handed Joe three beers, one of which--Labatt Blue--Joe gave to me. I looked at the beer instead of at Joe, deciding that maybe someday I'd strangle my brother with my awful, awful jeans.
When I looked up, Joe had leaned close to my face. I sucked in breath, surprised.
"No," he said gravely. "You look awful. You look so bad, I'm embarrassed to be seen with you."
I felt every fear inside rise up to my cheeks, which were burning in horror. Was it fixable? Was it my hair? A giant booger? My JEANS, for the love of God??
Joe leaned closer still, a smile in his eyes and forming at his mouth. He whispered fiercely, "You. Are. Beautiful."
He moved to go give Lisa her beer then, and left me standing alone. I marveled at the Labatt Blue in my hand, wondering how I hadn't dropped it, wondering how a person could affect my respiratory system this way, and wondering how on earth the worst day of my life just became...awesome.