Actually, that guy - let’s call him Dick - was just a screwed up kid who was the product of bad circumstances or rotten genes or whatever bad Zodiac sign makes you an asshole. In any case, he had a string of bad luck that led him right to me, where I was patiently waiting for a total jerk to treat me like crap. The table was nicely laid for my trailer trash romance.
Dick stole wallets out of people’s cars. Dick wanted me to do stuff I didn’t want to do. Dick adored his deaf mother, hated his stepfather and slept in their cold basement on a mattress on the cement floor. Most of all, Dick wanted the life he’d envisioned at college before he’d lost his scholarship; he wanted to make something of himself and didn’t know how. Anyone who had more than he did –more money, a car, a better place to live – made him mad.
Growing up, I believed that I had the perfect family and regularly announced how lucky I was. I reminded my friend Vicki about that a few years ago and she admitted that she’d thought I was a little off my rocker. In retrospect, we had a lot of love in my family with a big side order of weird stuff, like everyone else. But my parents often declared that we were lucky to be us, and I believed every word.
When greedy, manipulative Dick came along, I felt sorry for him and figured I had a surplus of love to share. Plus Dick had one of those Superman clefts in his chin.
I shouldn’t go too far into the Dick stuff when this story is actually a Father's Day fairy tale about my husband Joe and how he saved me. But you can’t entirely appreciate Joe’s rescue unless you get a good whiff of what a kiss-ass mess I was. I would fake-cry on a daily basis to stave off Dick’s verbal abuse. I did what Dick asked, or implied, even when I knew I shouldn’t. I drove my first new car into the ground, driving 60 miles round trip on a near-daily basis to Dick’s dumpy house, carting him around wherever he demanded like I was Morgan Freeman.
When I playfully tried on Dick’s jeans one day, they were almost too tight. His lean angry frame was no match for my Swedish expanse and that’s just bad news for an insecure girl. His jeans were like his affection… confining and humiliating.
I rarely share exactly how bad it got with Dick, despite my usual habit of over-sharing. I won’t tell you either, but it was bad. I’ve spent half a lifetime cringing.
When Joe and I met at MicroAge, my first job out of college, Joe couldn’t believe I was dating such a jackass. I couldn't believe that my advertising degree had only landed me a job at the 90's equivalent of Best Buy. Joe was the new service guy, and he was a piece of work – 6 foot 8 inches of big brown plastic glasses and twanging nerves like a child’s toy guitar. He had a constant rocking motion that I initially mistook for more nervous stuff, but that's just Joe. He rocked his crib across the room as a baby.
My fabulous coworker and beloved friend, Mary Ellen, got a kick out of him. Joe took one look at M.E. and me with our snarky laughs and our constant commentary and thought, “Those two will be my best friends or they’ll ruin my life.” Not to worry - we adopted Joe as our gigantic girlfriend and dragged him out for beers and girl talk regularly. He hadn’t had much luck with the ladies. Like a dog hit by a newspaper too many times, Joe just wasn’t sure how to make a move.
One night at the bar after work, it was just Joe and I telling stories the way new friends do. Joe told about the time he flipped off his mom at 16 and got caught by his dad. Instead of berating Joe, his dad talked to him about maturity and good choices. He told Joe that he loved him and that he was proud of him. Ninety minutes later, his mother returned from the hospital to tell Joe and his younger brother and sister that their father was gone. A sudden heart attack had ripped their world apart. And that brief father/son conversation was suddenly a precious, unexpected good-bye.
It was such a deeply personal story and Joe told it with such trust and honesty, it made me cry. I started to fall for him a little. We made a couple friend-dates to watch movies like Turner and Hooch on his brand new VCR. I patted myself on the back for spending charitable quality time with my lonely girlfriend, Joe. One time, I had to leave in a hurry to pick up my mother from somewhere and Joe stopped me at the door.
“I’ll kick myself if I don’t ask you what I’ve been wanting to ask you all week,” Joe said, looking down into my eyes. My uh-oh alarm went off immediately. Things had taken a friendship U-turn.
“Can I kiss you?” Joe asked softly, hopefully.
Oh no. I was still slumming it with Dick and somehow never saw this coming. With a stunned, frozen smile, I apologized if I’d given him the wrong impression, embarrassing us both with all sorts of demeaning, “let’s be friends” crap. Yet another newspaper spank for my sweet, funny Joe. He muttered something or other about oh well, gave it a try, and I left. Standing in the doorway, Joe half-grinned farewell at me with a forced “no big deal” look on his face. He was crushed, and the memory of his face just destroys me.
We spent the next seven months enthusiastically avoiding each other, which was tough in an office of 18 employees. We were a pathetic pair of freaked out individuals, much to M.E.’s inconvenience. Slowly, we got over it and cautiously warmed up to each other again.
It was finally over with Dick when he gave me not one, but two porcelain dolls for my 25th birthday. After I opened the first, I saw the second, same-sized package and felt actual fear.
He thought I could start a doll COLLECTION.
|Insert creepy horror movie music here.|
I hate dolls. Not to mention, I was 25, not seven. He might as well have taken those dead-eyed dolls and beat me over the head with them. He didn’t know me, he didn’t love me, and he represented everything that was wrong with me and insecure women like me. I'd wasted FIVE YEARS with him. Enough. He could shove those dolls up his ass sideways.
From then on, I was going to date whoever I wanted. This went badly. Joe got to hear all about it since he had regained girlfriend status. He couldn’t believe I was dating more tools, while ignoring my obvious future husband every day for almost a year. He needed me to get past his nervousness and see him. Joe was hilarious; he’s the funniest person I know – and I like to think that I know funny. Unlike the stud he is now, back then he was a bit desperate and he wore suspenders. I was confused. Besides, he wasn’t an asshole and that meant he was not for me.
Over the next twenty years, I would learn that Joe tends to be right about most things. You may have a different opinion, but Joe sure as hell can back his up, so you’d better be sure of yours.
The tide finally turned when Joe invented a girlfriend. He mentioned her here and there, quite convincingly. I was outraged. He knew he had me hooked when I casually asked him what was up with that tramp. After work at the bar, M.E. began a cunning campaign of encouraging him and then encouraging me to give us a try. “He loves you,” she slurred in my equally drunken ear one night. “Go for it,” she told him another, toasting her own brilliance with our beer aquariums.
Thus bolstered, Joe gave me a handwritten manifesto on goldenrod notebook paper, written with so much certainty that we were right for each other, so much emotion and hope, I would have been heartless to turn him down. I read it, gave a half-ass rebuttal and gave in. We kissed for the first time in his pickup truck, a bit self-consciously, but with promise.
“I’ll hurt you,” I told him. “I’m not interested in anything serious.”
“That’s okay,” he said, happily. “It’s worth it.”
I was such a bitch. I tried to train him to be a jerk, telling him to stop saying so many nice things, that he missed me, couldn’t wait to see me. I pushed his buttons and pushed him away. I refused to go to one of his beloved softball playoff games because I’d felt like he’d been too clingy and went out with a friend instead, where I talked about Joe incessantly.
“It sort of sounds like you would rather have gone to his game,” she observed with irritation. And suddenly I couldn’t get to the game fast enough. Ditching the friend, I giggled over how surprised Joe would be. I’d been resisting so hard, this was the first time I was making a clear gesture in return. As I snuck up to the field, delighted with my own stealth, Joe was standing at the fence, anxiously watching for me. He rushed to wrap me in his big arms and hugged me hard.
“Hey!” I snapped, annoyed. “Why were you looking for me? I told you we’d spent ENOUGH time together this week. You were supposed to be SURPRISED.”
“I am surprised,” Joe said tenderly. “Things like this never happen to me. But I always hope.”
That was the beginning of the end of me being an idiot... in love, anyway. Even though I felt the pull toward something right, I kept waffling, resisting, unsure.
“Sleep with him!” my mother helpfully suggested, thankfully not in front of my dad.
And then I finally tumbled over the cusp of friendship into love, where Joe had been waiting since the first day we met.
We couldn’t wait for the rest of our lives to start. From then on, Joe has made me laugh every day for 20 years and sometimes it feels like a soul-transforming laugh… where you feel so much joy you can’t even believe that you’re laughing that hard, that life is this good, that this man is so damn sweet and funny. M.E. was our maid of honor.
I would have married Dick if he’d asked. I’d been hinting about moving in. I was so ready to be a wife and a mother, I would have put up with just about anything in order to make it happen. It was true love that was hard to accept. I had to stop focusing on all the things I thought Joe wasn’t and embrace all the wonderful things that he is.
When I have a headache, Joe gently rubs my head with his big hands. He makes fart noises when I bend over. He pays the bills because he knows money stuff freaks me out. No matter how bad I look, Joe makes lewd suggestions that make me feel beautiful. He told me I should draw for a living instead of finding another corporate job to worry and worry over.
And when I put his gigantic jeans on, they fall down around me and I finally have all the room in the world to be me.