Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chapter 15: On Butterflies and Fireworks

I have been thirty for well over a month now, and if the remainder of the year goes as well as the last seven weeks have, my quest to go “From Nerdy To Thirty” will likely be deemed a success. I have seen myself go from the depths of depression a mere six months ago to a font of optimism today. And how could I not be optimistic? I am in love, and someone is in love with me!

When last I wrote, I was proclaiming that out of the blue I have a boyfriend, and now suddenly I’m in love? I guess for Ramón and me to realize what we almost missed out on makes us appreciate all the more what we have. That awareness fostered an overall openness that endeared us to each other quickly and our mutual endearment in turn begat love and its proclamation. And the best part is: he said it first. I know I am historically the type to fall too hard, too fast, so when those three little words started tempting my vocal chords, I stifled them.

I didn’t want to complicate the good thing we had going by professing my love, only to have it unreciprocated. The moments of free-fall while skydiving are far less intimidating that the ones in which the words “I love you” float unanswered in the air. Ramón is a particular mix of sensitive and sensible and I couldn’t be sure how he’d respond to the L-word, and didn’t think I could handle a negative response to my effusions. Besides, I was pretty certain that he knew how I felt about him because I felt pretty certain I knew how he felt about me, so it could safely be left unsaid.

One day we were lounging on my bed, just staring into each other’s eyes like in some Bryan Adams or Peter Gabriel song. I was enveloped by a warm and peaceful sense of contentment. As we lay there, Ramón repetitively opened his mouth and inhaled, as if starting to say something. After a few minutes of him behaving like a grouper out of water, and of me suspecting what might be on his mind, I said, “You seem like you want to say something.” He mumbled a reply to the contrary, so I left it at that.

A few moments later, my intuition was confirmed when he said, in a voice barely audible, those oh-so-sweet three little words. Even though I saw it coming, the way my body reacted was something I’ve never experienced. I am a girl who enjoys the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. They can be induced by seeing a guy I am falling for, nerves, or going over a hill in the road or apex of a roller coaster. While Wikipedia has the entry for “Butterflies in the Stomach” filed under its “Disease” category, it is something I couldn't live without.

When I was a child, my brother and I would seek out the thrill of those butterflies like junkies seeking a fix. The road behind my grandfather’s house, aptly named Hillside, was a rolling thoroughfare. At family get-togethers we would beg our Auntie Betsy to take us for a drive on that road. When you hit the crest of the hills just right, butterflies would follow. As a young woman, I found great joy in the butterflies induced by a newfound romantic infatuation. I realized one day that the only time I’d felt butterflies with James was when he intentionally sped up before the small rise in the West Side Highway near 96th Street. While this was a sweet gesture, its artificial induction was no replacement for the real thing. It was an instance when I truly should have listened to my gut.

With Ramón, my gut is telling me a different story. When I walked up to the café to meet him for our reunion in April, my stomach was all a-flutter. From that point on a simple glance or touch from him (or even a wanton thought of him while sitting at my desk) could send my stomach somersaulting. None of those errant butterflies compared to the bevy that was released upon hearing him profess his love for me. In chorus with the butterflies, my heart leapt into my throat. It was a jolt I can only compare to the time I accidentally laid my hand on the electric fence wire surrounding the paddock housing my Grandmothers horses, albeit entirely more pleasant. Oh, and in case it isn’t obvious: Once my internal organs realigned themselves, I told Ramon I loved him too.

As if in some reverse-Lenten fever, over the last forty days we have seen each other almost daily – spending well over three hundred hours in each other’s company (yes, I counted). Working a block from each other means we can meet up for a quick coffee and a kiss, lunch, or an after-work rendezvous. Our outings are varied, but generally standard date material: dinner and a movie, a hike through the woods, hanging at friends’ houses, an overnight trip to the North Fork of Long Island, brunch, and a museum visit. Ramón has been spending some weekend evenings at my house, and I have been spending an increasing number of weeknights at his place.

Throughout our adventures Ramón continues to give me reasons to fall for him. Ever the gentleman, he is quick to open the car door for me. One day I was alone in the office and could not leave for lunch, so he brought me over a sandwich. He reaches for my hand any time we are walking somewhere. He gave me the CD containing the lovely song he had set as my ringtone so I could listen to it. When he says he will call me, he always calls. The dirty clothes I leave in the drawer he emptied for my use are magically returned freshly laundered. And in a particularly charming gesture, en route to my first visit to his apartment, and in an effort to encourage future visits, he presented me with a gift. It was a “SmartLink” card that is automatically replenished with fares for the PATH train that goes to New Jersey from Manhattan. I sometimes wonder how I came to be so lucky and try to figure out ways to reciprocate.

So while I am falling head-over-heels for this man, the wounded pragmatist inside me, having been once bitten, is now sadly twice shy. I want to navigate this relationship with my eyes open and to know that, while it may be rainbows and unicorns right now, ultimately it takes work to make any relationship succeed. I recognize that “falling in love” is the easy, fully enjoyable part. It is dictated in the subconscious by a mix loneliness, lust, readiness and hormones. It is building a love-filled and loving relationship that requires the effort, and that is what I hope Ramón and I are cultivating with our exchange of affectionate gestures.

In building our relationship, Ramón and I have independently and jointly envisioned our future together. While we cannot be certain what exactly that future holds, we both enjoy relishing the possibilities. We talk about it in “ifs” not “whens,” but the mere fact that our future is an accessible topic of conversation gives me great relief. Being able to discuss what we want out of life and finding that in general we are on the same page only solidifies my feeling that this is a much different relationship than my marriage was. I wouldn’t say I am learning from my mistakes but rather learning to appreciate what a true relationship – and the actual relating that creates it – can be.

To our disservice, James and I rarely talked about the important issues that create a strong foundation for a marriage. We each filled out a brief questionnaire before meeting with the pastor who was to marry us, but beyond that we never broached subjects such as finances, children or our grand life plan. Many things that should have been hashed out well before our engagement were never discussed. Those that were brought up more often than not resulted in a disagreement. To prevent further altercations, I refrained from mentioning the difficult subjects on which I knew we had disparate viewpoints. I decided somewhere along the way that in time James would grow to be a responsible family man, and all I had to do was stick by his side until that time came. I only hoped it was sooner rather than later. One example of the different pages we were on was our views about starting a family together.

I think around high school I began harboring the desire to have my first child by the time I was thirty. My mom and dad were young parents, twenty-five and thirty respectively when I was born. Granted, it’s not prom night childbirth young, but they were always active and energetic with my brother and me. I wanted, as a parent, to have the energy to chase a toddler around; to stay up sewing the child’s Halloween costume long after she went to sleep but not be bleary eyed in the morning to feed her breakfast; to not embarrass the poor kid with my out-of-touch fashion or music preferences; and to ultimately be around when my grandkids and great-grandkids were born.

My twenty-fifth birthday came and went, along with one boyfriend after another. At twenty-seven I realized that if I were going to have a baby before I turned thirty-one, I would have to meet the father of my unborn child that year. It would leave me one year to date, one year to be engaged and one year of newlywed bliss before conceiving. Simultaneously I realized that I was in no position to be raising a child at that point. A broke waitress living in Manhattan is not exactly set up to become Mother of the Year. But I figured if the balls were in motion at least I could set my eyes on motherhood at thirty-one, thirty-two, or thirty-three.

When I met James it felt like he was the right guy coming in to my life at the right time. In retrospect, if the life plan I’d concocted was a square hole, James was the round peg I was trying to force in it. Certainly my resolve to make the relationship work, if only to fulfill some great scheme I’d concocted, did nothing to further its cause.

However, James was wary to reproduce again. Jamie was such a perfect child, he said, that he didn’t want to risk having another who turned out to be a lemon. In my eyes, I knew that having a child with James in the near future was inconceivable (excuse the pun) as he was barely a father to the one he already had. I was willing to wait until the time was right for us, when he (and I) had matured enough. Rule number one of relationships is you can’t change a man (or a woman, for that matter). Why I thought James would change on his own or under my coaxing is unclear. It wasn’t until we were in couples counseling that I was bitch-slapped with the realization of just how ridiculous my “if onlies” were.

“If only we moved in together(I pepper my entries with links, and even if you don't click on any other , I beg you to click this one)

“If only he didn’t go out with his friends so often.”

“If only he became a better father and let me be a step-mother to his son.”

If only I hadn’t expected him to change. Just as the discussion of children was shelved, so were all others of any significance. I avoided the confrontations and therefore avoided the reality of my situation. I honestly don’t think reflecting on our future was a priority with James as, in his own words during the dissolution of our marriage, he never saw us growing old together in the first place.

In stark contrast, when Ramón and I discuss our future together, it comes very naturally as part of our everyday conversations. Nothing is forced and nothing is a battle. I think most women browbeat their men with persistent nagging to settle down and procreate, and the men do their best to avoid these discussions. In a refreshing and somewhat startling role-reversal, it is Ramón who often brings up these fairly sensitive domestic topics. His matter-of-fact way of interjecting them into our exchanges puts me at ease. As a result I generally feel comfortable telling him about my dreams and aspirations without fear of ridicule or avoidance on his part. In the last six weeks we have shared many of our considerations for our future together.

Over dinner one evening, Ramón casually asked me how many children I wanted to have. I answered, but was so surprised by the inquiry that I don’t think I posed the question back to him. The query came during a conversation about parenting, during which I asserted, “I think I’d be a good mother,” to which Ramón replied, “I wouldn’t be with you if I didn’t agree.” This was not a conversation I would have expected to have with a man who’d only that morning called himself my boyfriend for the first time, but I guess at thirty, with one child and one divorce under our respective belts, these sorts of things can be discussed matter-of-factly. Heck, the on-line dating services ask these sorts of questions, why shouldn’t the actual guy you are dating?

With the “number of children” question out there to break the ice, our discussions continue to share our visions of our shared future. I mentioned at one point that I wasn’t sure what I would do in December when my lease expired, whether I would want or be able to afford to continue living in my Inwood apartment. Ramón replied “Assuming we are still together when your lease comes up in December, I doubt I would be happy if we didn't move in together.”

We’ve even discussed what our wedding would be like. I think Ramón is in a way grateful to potentially marry a girl who has already had her dream wedding as he doesn’t seem to be one who would make a big fuss about that sort of thing. During a discussion in that vein, I quipped, “We could just walk down to the courthouse on our lunch break one day and get hitched.” True to the nature of our relationship, he responded “I was just thinking that.”

Other topical issues pop into our conversations: the use of diamonds in engagement rings, the option to terminate a fetus known to have Downs Syndrome, the idea that baby food should be homemade rather than from a jar, an individual’s right to bear arms. I think we listen to each other’s opinions knowing that the answers are more than just political but also personal. Because the conversations are started casually they are easily revisited, even if they didn’t result in us completely seeing eye-to-eye the first time around. And even if I disagree with Ramón on a topic, I definitely enjoy hearing his arguments because they are always well thought out and clearly articulated.

The crazy thing is, after three years together, I don’t think James could have articulated my stance on any of these issues. In fact, I sometimes wonder what the hell we talked about for all that time. Because of his overbearing nature, I often felt too intimidated to bring up anything of a delicate nature. And goodness knows he never bothered to ask.

In relationships past, I would normally fret for hours or even days over how best to ask the guy’s feelings on an issue, big or small, or how to tell him my own. I would become overwrought trying to build up my courage and then blindside the poor fellow with whatever it is that was weighing on my mind. With tensions thus raised on both sides, the likelihood of an argument increased dramatically.

To avoid these face-to-face conflicts (and not just in my romantic relationships), I often prefer to address my concerns in writing. The advent of word processing, e-mail, on-line chatting and text messaging has created forums far less formal than the pen-and-paper days of yore. Electronic messages can be conveyed casually, yet precisely. Often when I am angry or hurt, I feel like a frustrated child, unsure what exactly it is that is making me unhappy. I just know I am upset. Typing out and editing a letter helps me sort through my feelings (much like writing in this blog does) and ensures that I say what I mean rather than simply say something mean. Perhaps writing as a means of conflict resolution (or outright conflict avoidance) is a crutch propping up my awkward nerdiness, but it is one I value nonetheless.

My relationship with James had no written component (aside from mundane text messages about what was for dinner or when I would be home from work). Over the course of our entire relationship he sent me exactly thirteen e-mails. Most of these contained material he would normally have texted, but as I had a penchant for leaving my phone charger at home I was often rendered unable to receive texts. The very first e-mail he sent me said simply, “There, I've sent you an e-mail. Now hopefully we can a cyber couple, and go on AIM dates and play online games together when we should be working.” His opinion of e-communication was pretty clear (and frankly downright mocking), which left only our flawed verbal communication.

As nerdy as it may seem, I cherish the e-mails, texts, Facebook messages, YouTube forwards and yes, even the occasional hand-written note, which Ramón and I exchange. A simple “Thinking of you!” beamed up to a satellite and back down to the earth only a block away from the message’s origin gratifies me as either sender or recipient. On days that we can’t meet for a post-market close coffee, in Ramón’s words, these “nuggets of intraday joy … add a bounce to my step.”

I have used e-mail to ask Ramón questions that were overlooked during a tête-à-tête but later still piqued my curiosity. My nonchalant questions are met with nonchalant answers. In another example, Ramón e-mailed me one day to air a concern that was “not a big thing, small enough that I didn't want it to consume any face time together and small enough that I felt comfortable emailing about it instead of [discussing it in] an in-person conversation.” (Of course his comment was in response to a misinterpreted, poorly worded text message I had sent, so the lesson here is clearly that electronic communications lack the nuance and inflection of their verbal counterpart). Yet clearing up that misunderstanding meant that when we met up later that day, we spent the entire time enjoying each other’s company and not working out some conflict. So, despite the possible pitfalls, I value our e-lationship.

Despite our open channels of communication, Ramón has, on a few occasions, seen my unfortunate tendency to dramatize the raising of concerns. Recently I sent him a long e-mail outlining a concern I had that I feared would be a deal-breaker for him. I had spent far too long lost in my own head running over how to present it to him and what his possible responses would be. I spent hours crafting a letter to him, pasted it in to an e-mail, and clicked send. I waited nervously for his response, and when it came I was overwhelmed by the kind, calm and rational response. His reassuring reply (and I quote verbatim) included the following words of support, “Calm the f@$k down. I'm not going anywhere! We'll figure it out together ... I love you!” After breathing a huge sigh of relief, I thanked any deity who was listening that this man was in my life.

And securely in my life, he is. We are becoming more entwined with each passing day. Last weekend I met his nine year old daughter. Yes, this is the same daughter who I was told “would never meet a woman I was seeing until a ring was on her finger.” But given the fact that I have been spending time around his apartment, Ramón decided it was in everyone’s best interest if I was at least introduced to her as his “friend from the dorm at college.” I enjoyed meeting her over lunch and a couple games of “Go,” followed by ice cream. She is a thin, pretty girl, who is intelligent with a shy giggle. Upon meeting her I immediately thought of my young cousin Sierra, and making that connection left me much more at ease.

I had met Ramón’s baby mama in passing one day, and just last night Ramón and I met up with her for a little while. She is very laid back and quick to laugh, and in no way seems threatened by my presence. Next week Ramón’s parents will be in town, and he is arranging for the four of us to go to dinner. Getting to know the people in Ramón’s life is helping me understand how he lives it. He’s asked me to keep the specifics of his family life private, but I think I can say that it has taken me some getting used to, as his arrangement is not the typical “dad gets the kid on the weekends” type of deal.

Not only am I becoming immersed in Ramón’s family life, but I have welcomed him into mine. In early May I invited Ramón to go home to Chicago with me for the Fourth of July holiday. I am optimistic about our future together so felt comfortable planning for an event that was two months away when we’d only been together for one month. I am excited for our trip, but he is understandably nervous to have to follow in James' disappointing footsteps.

Our Fourth of July trip will be a pretty emotional and hectic weekend. Not only am I bringing Ramón with me, but my brother is bringing his girlfriend of over a year home for the first time. My maternal grandma will be up from Florida and will also be staying with my parents. Family from Texas is flying in to celebrate the holiday with my dad’s side of the family. Plus, my paternal grandmother is trying to convince my Great Aunt Mindy and her husband Jumpin’ Jack Flash to fly in from Vermont for the holiday. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Mindy and Jack that they never even met James!

In addition to the family events, my brother and I have decided to host a pool party at my parents’ house on third. We have invited all our local friends – from grade school through high school, and in my case the handful of college friends who landed in Chicago after graduation. Many of my childhood friends I have not seen since I was fourteen, but we have gotten back in touch through the wonderful world of Facebook. It would be such a blast to see some of them again. Many of the visiting family members will also be invited, including my aunt Crystal and the cousin we had lunch with at Christmas (along with my cousin’s mother, whom I have not seen since she divorced my mom’s now-estranged brother some fifteen years ago).

I am looking forward to being surrounded by all these friends and family. I know if I were alone that weekend, I would likely spend it on my sofa in tear-soaked flannel pajamas, as though I were some Yankee Bridget Jones. My faithful readers will recall that the upcoming Independence Day (ha!) weekend will mark one year since James told me he was leaving me. One year! Part of me can’t believe it’s been that long, since I have come so far and am so happy, and yet part of me feels like the wound is still fresh. No one is more aware of this dichotomy than Ramón, and I often wish I hadn’t been hurt the way I was, if only for his sake. Yet whether it passed quickly or arduously, one year seems significant. I hope that when that day passes I will be able to let my relationship with James go once and for all. At this point I think I have learned all I can from it, and to dwell on it only prevents my current relationship from developing organically.

I know that, as Leona Lewis sings, “it will all get better in time,” and each milestone I have passed in the last year has helped me take one more step towards happiness and success. I am so glad that those steps forward now lead me into Ramón's waiting arms. I am thrilled to bring him home this year not only to introduce him to my family and show him where I grew up, but to create some joyful new Fourth of July memories with him and to feel some fireworks under the fireworks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It sounds like it must be pretty great to be Katie Jeffreys these days. It makes the rest of us really happy to see, so thank you for that, Katie.