It was a blip of a moment in an overly air-conditioned bedroom.
Joe was wearing a souvenir alien T-shirt from Area 51. I was wearing his heaviest red sweater. We both had our glasses on, which doesn’t happen often because Joe hates wearing his glasses. He says they make him dizzy.
Stubborn, fiercely independent, and at times straight-up flighty, I couldn’t promise him that. At least not in the beginning.
When he asked me about myself, I told him how my family had installed a corn-burning furnace in the basement of their Western New York home, and how when it burned, the whole house smelled like Orville Redenbacher’s.
The second time we met, I told him I was outta here, that I was moving to Oregon or Idaho or Montana. I told him I was writing a book about a girl who spends her days righting ordinary wrongs, who makes a living on a ranch and sleeps in a hayloft that smells like manure and maple syrup.
“I have to live it if I want to write it,” I said nonchalantly.
We were at a birthday party in Sarasota, at a bar with a punching bag. I was dressed as Courtney Love – pink baby doll dress, combat boots, mascara smudges, the whole getup. The theme was “high school flashback,” and I was never so happy to resurrect the 90s. A 1993 graduate of an all-boys Jesuit high school in Tampa, Joe was wearing a too-tiny suit and tie that made him look like Ben Stiller.
I told him I was reading a memoir by Mary Karr that was written like none other I’d read before. He asked me if my novel would be a memoir and I replied that it was pompous to write a memoir at the age of 25.
“Not that what I’m writing isn’t mostly true anway,” I conceded.
I was chugging too many Miller Lites, filming the party for my roommate Zac, confessing on camera in a slurred lisp that I was fed-up with doing his dishes.
Joe drove me home that night in his blue Honda Accord. Unlike most of the cars that belonged to people I knew, his was immaculate.
We went back to our friends, Max and Meredith’s house – a beach cottage – where we drank some more, played games and ate leftover pasta from the fridge. Joe heated up a bowl of bow tie macaroni with red sauce, and in between rounds of (was it Taboo?) he offered me several spoonfuls, which I found comforting.
As we sat there on the steps leading into Max and Meredith’s 10-by-10 living room, our knees touched. Joe was still dressed in his Jesuit uniform. I was still dressed as Courtney Love. Spooning noodles out of his bowl and into my mouth, it was as if I had slopped off his plate for years. When he walked outside to have a cigarette, I stumbled out of the living room with my roommate and left. It was late and I was tired.
The third time I saw him we were on an actual date. At the urging of my roommate, who had observed our Lady and the Tramp pasta moment, I went ahead and asked Max for Joe’s phone number.
“Tell me he’s not one of those too-nice, sappy guys,” I said.
“No, but he’s not an asshole either if that’s what you’re asking,” Max replied.
For four days his number sat untouched. Written on a Post-It note and stuck to a cardboard-box-night stand by my bed, I agonized over making the first move. I was nervous. Feeling sheepish. Feeling like perhaps I drank too much that night, or that I had left coldly without saying goodbye.
When I finally called, he answered on the second ring. He knew right away who I was and why I was calling. He fired off date plans like a semi-automatic weapon, as I joked that simply willing your phone to dial on its own never works.
“Lucky for you, you picked up on the second ring,” I said. “I probably would have hung up on the third.”
This phone call was huge for me. I was still hellbent on moving to Oregon, or Idaho, or Montana. But if the way we shared pasta was any indication of things to come, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, all of it would scarcely measure up.
However, none of these moments were as compelling as the one I mentioned earlier that came two months later, a week before my Jack Kerouac-ian gallivant across the country.
We were lying on his bed – Joe in his souvenir alien T-shirt, me in his heaviest red sweater, and the pug curled up like a Roman snail beside us. He was questioning my blind love for the Dakotas. I was romanticizing The Badlands.
Reaching around my side, he kissed me somewhere near my armpit and said, “If your body were the United States, this would be South Dakota.”
Though not in agreement, I let him go on.
Next, he kissed my elbow. Called it Iowa. Then my wrist. Called it Missouri. My spine – Oregon. And on it went. Lazily, languidly, and with no regard for geographic accuracy, he mapped out my road trip with kisses.
When he finally reached my lips, our glasses clanked together like timpani drums. He didn’t say it, but I knew. In that overly air-conditioned bedroom, in that heavy red sweater, in our similarly prescribed eyeglasses, his lips were home.
PS. Joe proposed last week. I said yes.