I was twenty-four years old. I was engaged to be married to the most wonderful person in the world. Our wedding was two weeks away, and I spent every night crying. Why? Well, it was late July. And he'd been traveling for work since early May. Possibly late April. He came home on weekends, of course, and if he wasn't too far (like Corning), he would surprise me by driving back at midnight and sneaking into my apartment (there were a few almost-911 calls with that; he's terrible at sneaking). But none of it could make up for what I really wanted: to just be together. Because when you're twenty-four and madly in love and getting married in two weeks, you just can't fathom being apart.
Joe was in Chicago this fateful week, or rather, about an hour outside of it staying at a conference center in a charming little town that was trapped in some sort of creepy time warp. It was like Pleasantville. He called me when he arrived and said, "I booked you a plane ticket. I paid for a limo to take you from the airport to where I'm staying. Please say you'll come." Because when you're twenty-four and madly in love and getting married in two weeks, he doesn't want to be without you, either.
It was all so empowering. Packing my own suitcase, arranging for a family member to take me to the airport. It was also incredibly romantic. A flight someone booked for me? A limo waiting? Good God! I could hardly breathe when I arrived at the airport. I had printed my tickets the night before, so I could avoid the terrifying check-in counter, but security was all on my own. When I survived that, I felt like I could handle anything.
I was met at the Chicago airport by a gentleman holding a sign with my name. So cool! I walked up, unable to keep from smiling, and he smiled back. "Mee-how-eck?" He asked, pronouncing my maiden name in the traditional Polish way.
"Michael-ek," I corrected.
"But you are Polish?" he asked, still smiling hugely. His accent was thick.
"I am Polish!" He was excited, grabbing my suitcases with enthusiasm and walking bouncily to his shiny black car. I followed him. He turned suddenly, and I almost bumped into him. "You speak Polish?"
"Uh, no." I laughed a bit. "Not really."
His smile faded immediately. "Oh."
Still, it didn't stop him from playing jaunty polkas all the way out of the city, from Chicago-O'Hare into Pleasantville. I sat quietly in the back of the car, my hands folded in my lap. I was filled with anticipation and excitement; I couldn't wait to see Joe. I was wearing my purple cotton dress that he loved. I knew the rest of me was probably a bit of a mess from the plane and everything, but I also knew he wouldn't care.
We were twenty-four and madly in love and getting married in two weeks, after all.
He was waiting outside the main entrance of the hotel when we arrived. He was already smiling, and the fading summer sun made his hair glow like an angel and his eyes shine brightly. I couldn't stop myself from smiling, too, so much and so big that my cheeks hurt. When the car rolled to a stop, I didn't wait for the driver. I burst out of the car and ran to Joe, throwing my arms around his neck.
When I finally managed to let him go for a second, we found our driver friend waiting.
"Mr. Bee-let-ski?" His voice was unsure, hesitant.
"Uh, Bielecki, yeah," Joe said, reaching into his wallet for his credit card.
"You are Polish?!"
"You speak Polish?"
"Oh." Again, the poor fellow was crestfallen, but kept up his bouncy walk as he hurried to process Joe's payment, good chap.
When he returned with the card, Joe offered, "I know some of the foods," and he began naming all of the various things his grandmother had served over the years, things I couldn't even begin to try and spell here.
The chauffeur was instantly cheered. "Yes! Yes!" He bobbed his head and shook Joe's hand with vigor. "Thank you! Thank you very much!"
This being my first time traveling alone in this way, my first solo limo ride, I had no way of knowing my jolly Polish driver was not run-of-the-mill. I'd never even been in a taxicab, so I mean I really had nothing to compare this experience to. This might explain my shock when the car returned to pick me up a few days later.
First of all, let me say that the few days I was able to spend with Joe in Pleasantville were magical and wonderful, despite the fact that he had to work during the day. I read books! I took naps! I tied up wedding plans. Then at night, we stormed Pleasantville with our love and our enthusiasm for life and our public hugs and smooches. But it wasn't enough, of course. I wanted Joe to come home and stay home. I loved him so much, so much more than was regular love, you see. I didn't want to spend another day without him.
So when the limo pulled up to take me away, it found me on the curb in front of the hotel, enfolded in Joe's arms, sobbing violently. And grossly. I was all slobbery, swollen-faced, and full of snot. Joe couldn't seem to calm me down (he was annoyingly calm for someone who was twenty-four and madly in love and getting married in two weeks, to tell you the truth). We waited for the driver to emerge from the car, fully expecting our happy Polish friend.
It was not. It was an unsmiling Indian fellow who gave me, The Mess, a disapproving glare and wordlessly moved my bags from the sidewalk to the trunk of the car. I sucked in air and tried to steady myself. It would be a long, lonely ride to the airport, much less exciting than the drive that had brought me here to the hotel, and I needed to breathe. You know. For life purposes.
Of course, when Joe went to kiss me goodbye, I started all over again. He hugged me tightly and got me into the car, and stood on the sidewalk as the car pulled away. Alone in the backseat, I cried openly. The partition between the driver and me was up, so I felt very safe in my own little world.
Until he lowered the partition.
I looked up in surprise to see a pair of brown eyes glaring at me from the rearview mirror. I sniffed noisily, which made me then cough.
"You are upset, miss?"
Duh. "Um, yes." And then, because I felt uncomfortable, I stupidly added, "I'm sorry."
"Take this to wipe your nose." He thrust his hand back. It was filled with McDonald's napkins.
I swallowed and felt myself grow embarrassed as I leaned way forward to reach for the napkins. I was even more chagrined to hear how loud my nose-blow was in the silence of the car. I began hiccuping, and the driver turned up the radio, playing what I presumed to be Indian music, to cover my noise.
I tried desperately to calm down, staring out the window, shuffling through my bags for a book, anything, but it was no use. There was a giant hole in my chest named JOE IS GONE! and I began to cry all over again. I tried to stay silent, but the blubbering was noticed by my happy chauffeur.
"Crying is silly!" he declared from the front. "Blow your nose. Dry your eyes. I leave my wife two years ago. I see her every three months. I do not cry. She does not cry. It is just the way it is!"
I was so mortified by his over-share that I froze. I blubbered only a bit more as I tried to catch my breath, and then settled back in my seat in miserable silence. I felt like the elementary-school principal had just caught me cheating and I was waiting for him to call my mom and tell. I don't think an hour ride ever took quite so long in the history of car rides, and when we arrived at the airport, I leapt from the car to escape.
I had to wait for him to retrieve my bags, however, and when he did, he placed a firm hand on my shoulder. "You will be okay?" he asked, and his eyes went suddenly from hard judgment to kindness.
Afraid I might begin again, I nodded, thanked him, and hurried off to find my flight information.
I've traveled alone a few times since then, but of course there aren't many more stories in my memory that carry the amount of bittersweet (and amusing) heartache that this one does. Eight years have passed. Two houses. Joe changed jobs. He traveled more, then less. And now, hardly at all. Thank God.
I laugh now because if Joe had to go out of town I'd probably do a happy dance. Not that I wouldn't miss him, but somehow the idea of breaking down into tragic sobs doesn't seem like a remote possibility. Living together, working together, growing together, and of course, raising children together changes you. Love is still mad, but it is larger and different. It is accepting and full of something that being twenty-four can't ever understand. Experience.
But I must say. Eight years later, houses and jobs and children later, it is almost like we are back at the beginning again. A new baby we never expected is on the way, and it is like another chance. My handsome husband brings me flowers and buys me Jim's Steakout French fries at nine at night. I never forgot exactly, but I am reminded of why I married him, how much I love him, and how very lucky we are. Not everyone meets their soul mate when they're fourteen.
But I did.