The One I Didn’t Write

A few years ago, my husband was in a minor fender-bender that totaled his car. He was unharmed and the car was old, so truth be told, the accident was actually a relief. It finally gave us the excuse to upgrade to a truck.

I always intended to write something sentimental when the day finally came to bid that car farewell. It was such a big part of our early life together – the most romantic memories of our relationship are somehow connected to that little two-door Honda Civic.

But when the ordeal finally happened, I was silent. My husband and I had had a big fight. Not that day. Not even that week. It had actually been quite a long time since the fateful argument. But as we all know, arguments are rated on a scale. Some end within minutes. Others take years – not before forgiveness (hopefully), but before everyday moments stop making the irreversible decisions so obvious, a consistent reminder of what was said, as if your life were on some cruel time loop.

When it came time to eulogize the car that had taken us on our first date and driven us from the wedding chapel, I wasn’t really in a place to take a romantic stroll down memory lane.

Life continued and was mostly good. In vulnerable moments, the same argument popped out of dormancy. But eventually, time always makes the needle move, and we were forced around a bend that at least kinda-sorta resembled moving on and letting go.

John and I switched garages last summer. We have two single-stalls in our rural yard and didn’t properly think through which one should be “His” vs “Hers” when we first bought the property. If we’d fully anticipated the amount of work switching would be, we may have decided to just be content. As it was, our yard spent an embarrassing number of days looking like a tornado dump site as we emptied both buildings in order to rearrange.

Like so many middle-class folks, John’s garage isn’t really about protecting his vehicle. Instead, he uses it as a wood shop. Even after we’d finished moving all his equipment over, it took him nearly another month to get fully organized and set up. When it comes to his beloved shop, John is pickier than a homemaker with a Pinterest account.

I have to admit, it looks pretty cool. His squat rack and freeweights are tucked in the back corner. Mismatched, homemade workbenches run along one wall. The opposite wall is lined with his large standing tools – saws, a surface planer, and the like. In the center of the floor, his lathe sits like a kitchen island. Extra wood is stacked in the rafters, with clamps and assorted hooks hanging down for easy access. He’s decorated – if I dare call it that – with old, sentimental items – what this great Miranda Lambert songs affectionately calls “old sh!t.” There are broadswords he made at the age of 12 that he and his brother used to fight with. A boxy, 1970s panasonic radio that once sat in his grandpa’s shop. A cleaned deer skull from a recent successful hunting season. A copper-plate print of a half-mechanical man that his brother made him while in art school. And tacked on the wall above one workbench are the old license plates from his first car – the same one he drove when I met him. The one I never got to fully say goodbye to.

I go out to John’s sanctuary fairly often. Our chest freezer is out there, so sometimes it’s just to grab a pound of beef or frozen pizza. Other times, I wait for our son to fall asleep, then head out with a coat and baby monitor to sit in a chair and watch John work. The meditative scraping of a blade against wood provides a relaxing backdrop. Sometimes we talk, other times I just listen to the intellectual voices of whatever latest podcast has his attention. Each time I go out there, though, those old license plates wink down at me from their lofty perch.

There are so many moments where that Honda Civic was in the background. Its headlights had a front row seat to some of my most cherished memories. Mining those memories would have made for a great essay. So now those license plates make me think of missed opportunities instead of road trips and make-out sessions.

I tried to go back and write an essay about his car anyway. Better late than never, right? The problem is, I have never been very good at re-do’s. Once the inspiration is gone – or the timing has been missed – I never experience it the same way again. John and I are similar-yet-different in that regard. We are both decisive people, but with opposite attitudes. John is an optimist. He makes each choice assuming everything will work out in the end. Mistakes happen, but not without opportunity to correct. Then there is me, who sees little gain in taking a second pass on ground that’s already been plowed.

Lately, John and I have been discussing disappointments and failed goals. What decisions have we made over the last few years that got in the way of previous expectations? Truth is, we lost a lot more from our “Big Fight” (and the many other arguments that happen in marriage) than a sappy blog post that only my Facebook friends would have read, anyway. And it’s not only about fighting; it isn’t just negative choices that come with a cost. Where would be today if we’d taken This Job vs. That One? If we’d had kids at an alternate time? Bought a different house? It can be overwhelming if you dissect your life with too high a magnification.

After examining our past dreams, there are some we decided to pull from the rubble and others that we’ve grown beyond anyway. We are trying to have an attitude that reflects the best parts of our respective personalities. To not write anything off just because it didn’t happen how we originally imaged. To treat life with the hope and freedom that comes from writing in pencil. But to also be people sober-minded enough to feel the weight of each decision. To allow ourselves to feel consequences and make sacrifices so we can fully appreciate the end result.

The Honda Civic was a good car. Perhaps not as safe as a 4-wheel-drive or as comfortable as anything even slightly bigger. But that is what made the memories so entertaining. It would have been fun to write about the adventures in that car, but I don’t want to resurrect that particular idea. Perhaps moribund, I actually like feeling its ghost hover in my computer screen. I will go back and hit “re-do” on other, more important things; with those, I will let go of my propensity to wallow and try take a few pages from my husband’s playbook. But this missed moment is mine to ponder and regret and use as a cautious metaphor.

Strawberries

If I were a better writer, this would have been written by now. I wouldn’t look at the calendar, realize a month has nearly gone by, and be content writing old news. I value stories enough to want to share them and immortalize them, but am far from that clichéd image of the tired writer plucking words out in the middle of the night or pushing off work and family obligations because, you know, personal writing deadlines are important, too.

Nope. I’m Midwestern: somehow both busy and lazy simultaneously. And every once in awhile I remember, “Oh that’s right. I blog, don’t I?” So I reach back into the mental file for a story. Usually I can disguise it pretty well, make readers believe it happened yesterday, that my fingers pounded it out so fast they bled. But when the story is about Valentine’s Day and the stores are currently selling St. Patrick’s items, such deception isn’t fooling the most blonde among us.

I don’t really like Valentine’s Day. I know I’m in the one category that should: the happily and healthy married. And I do think that love is worth celebrating. But my eye rolling and mumblings of “fake holiday invented by greeting card companies to make money” rival any crotchety man – a la Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec or Luke Danes from Gilmore Girls.

So suffice it to say, we didn’t go out on Valentine’s Day. As I had told a friend the day before: Valentine’s Day is the one day to not go out; go out on a random, quiet Wednesday instead, then you can get the restaurant to yourself. We did celebrate, but minimally. I made John a nice supper; he bought me flowers. We were just finishing our meal, the fake holiday coming to an end for one more year, when John asked, “Do you remember our first Valentine’s?”

It wasn’t meant as a loaded question. He was planning to reference something obscure. But suddenly I did remember our first Valentine’s and looked at him in horror. And then he suddenly remembered, too.

See, we do have a Valentine’s Day tradition. Every year John makes me a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries. It’s not original, perhaps, but it is something simple we’ve worked hard to cultivate. The strawberries are not a surprise gift. I’ll remind him or even pick up the ingredients myself some years. But we have always made the effort to do it.

This tradition has provided us with many comical memories and sweet moments. It started that first Valentine’s Day, when we were barely a couple and still unsure what the dating rules were. We were in college and had no money for something fancy anyway, even if we had felt comfortable going out together. And we were too young to buy wine or champagne. So John showed up at my dorm door holding a plate of chocolate covered strawberries that he’d personally hand-dipped in the crappy little kitchen in his own dorm. We ate them sitting at my desk in Dahl Hall.

And since then, chocolate covered strawberries are the only part of Valentine’s Day I’ve ever felt attached to. We’ve improved the tradition each time after several valuable lessons: Use actual dipping chocolate, not almond bark or chocolate chips. Don’t even try white chocolate, cause it’s gross. Let them harden on parchment, not a plate, or you’ll need a chisel to get them off.

But this year, we didn’t make strawberries. Somehow both of us had forgotten. John looked out our window, into the darkness, and asked, “Well, what do you want to do about it this late?”

And of course, I said, “Go pick up the ingredients at a store. Walmart, at least, will be open if nothing else. We can salvage this!”

See, I may be a crotchety old man about certain concepts, but when it comes to the personal, I am full sentimental girl. (I mean, c’mon, I do blog…) “John, a tradition isn’t a tradition unless you do it every year!” I said. “It’s not something you did a few times once. If we don’t make them this year, then we’re done. It’s not an actual tradition anymore!”

I’m not sure if he agreed with my extreme reasoning, but he went uptown to get our ingredients anyway. We successfully salvaged our strawberry tradition for another year. And it meant more than the generous bouquet of flowers delivered to my door that morning or the incredible salmon fillets I made for supper. We ate those strawberries, reminisced, and laughed at ourselves.

I certainly saw the humor in the whole thing, but also felt a tinge of guilt. It’s a pretty poor tradition if both of us found it so forgettable. Apparently I am as bad at sentimental details as I am at writing regularly. But we got a good laugh and another story out of the ordeal. And I figure, if you’re gonna forget something important, it may as well be tied to Valentine’s Day. It’s not like we forgot a Christmas tradition. It’s only Valentine’s Day…

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Chapter 3

When John and I moved to New York, I wrote a blog post called Chapter 2. Now that we’ve circled back to Minnesota, I figured it would only be right to follow up with another reflection and record of anticipation about our next phase.

It’s a Monday afternoon, a wet and miserable day. The rain isn’t hard, but it just keeps falling! It’s been raining off and on for about a week. On the sunny, in-between days, I got some yard work in. Good thing, too. The weather is really dictating what I get done. Every morning that I wake up to sunshine instead of rain, I immediately grab the rake or pruning shears or Roundup. I’m still waiting to till a spot for my garden and the rain just keeps taunting, singing, “Welcome back to the Midwest, Emily!”

Our new house is only partially put together, despite long work days, help from my mother, and an easy drive to Walmart and the Home Depot. I forgot how systematic decorating and homemaking is! You can’t do Part B until you finish Part A, but as fate would have it, Part A is not in stock at the store and your order won’t arrive for two weeks. Grrrr. So a less-than-desirable amount gets accomplished while I wait for everything to arrive in the correct order. Lucky for me, my last job was editing for trade magazines, so I have been practicing this very type of patience.

Despite my dismal rant, Chapter 3 continues to fill me with excitement and anticipation. How could it not? Everything thus far seems ideal – and Bemidji itself is quite picturesque. Last night was the first in several without rain and John and I broke out our bicycles. We found the bike trail that circles Lake Bemidji but we only made it part way around, stopping at a park instead. We spent dusk sitting in plastic Adirondack chairs watching the chilled lake lap towards us, waves coming within feet of our tennis shoes. Enjoying the sounds of nature while not moving a single muscle is my new favorite type of exercise!

I’d be dishonest if I claimed the only thing I feel is excitement, though. I am less innocent than when I left for New York and common sense and maturity warn that there’s plenty ahead to make me nervous, too. In New York, I sometimes felt like my life was on pause; that I was on an extended honeymoon and nothing I did had consequences because it wasn’t part of my overall character arc.

But we’re in full motion now – and in a big way! Chapter 3 is a more permanent plot point. This isn’t just a scene to establish the personality of the characters. The first turning point is here. The risk happens here. I don’t expect failure; I’m too confident for that (or just cocky). But I know I will need to make adjustments, because I anticipate that this will also be the longest chapter thus far. So I must train for a marathon when I prefer to sprint. And learn to write entire novels instead of blogs and short stories. This chapter will be about patience and pacing, both of which are predominant weaknesses of mine.

To summarize: I enter this phase gladly but carefully, testing the ground a little, because roots sink deep and seeds either drown or grow too fast when the soil is as wet as it is here.

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My Priest

My husband has a very unique gift: people talk to him. I don’t just mean they converse; I mean they open right up and confess to murder! You have no secrets once you shake hands with John. Somehow, despite your best reservations, your mouth loses its filter and all your well-hidden motives tumble out.

It makes him a darn good reporter. (Or a terrible one, depending on who you are. Recently, one of our local legislatures grudgingly but good-naturedly called him The Troublemaker, which made me bust my buttons.)

I confess, I did not notice his talent immediately. But the hidden nature of this skill is part of its effectiveness. If you fully realized what you were saying, you’d probably stop talking. Ask him someday about the woman who told him, fully on the record, that her last words to her deceased husband were “Fine, go drop dead, then.” That’s not the stuff you admit to if you’re thinking about it! 

Suffice it to say, we don’t have many secrets in our marriage. At least, not from my end.

I am not the only person to notice John’s sleuthing ability. After viewing a photo where he’d posed a group of gang members around candles at the vigil of their now-dead comrade, John’s editor looked up from her computer and said, “So…pretty much everybody is okay talking to you, huh?”

I, like most people, do not possess this talent. It’s probably my tactlessness. Or my inability to hide judgment from my eyes. Or my avoidance of confrontation. For me, a typical conversation goes something like this:

Random Person I Met in College: “I think we descended from aliens but it’s a complex thing to prove. They’ve laced the food supply with a gene that keeps them invisible to us.”

At this point, I’m thinking Would you like more weed on that granola, sir? But this comment is quickly funneled through my Midwestern Mouthguard, which insists nothing mean or inflammatory cross my lips, so all that comes out is:

“Oh.”

And that word just hangs there in the room awkwardly. The guy shifts back and forth in the silence, feeling judged. He’s right to feel that way, because I’m in the middle of some hard-core judging. Moron is everywhere these days.

But therein lies John’s secret: lack of judging. Because he finds interest (or, at the very least, humor) in everything, there never is that awkward silence period. People confess to him because once they start talking, he never gives them reason to stop.

John and I ran into friends while out shopping a couple nights ago. We don’t know them very well, but she and I started talking and somehow ended up in slightly controversial territory. Territory less black-and-white than alien ancestry. As soon I saw the ‘I Really Disagree With This’ written on the wall, I looked around for my smooth talking hubby. Usually in this scenario (yes, it’s happened before) he’d slide in like the proverbial White Knight to rescue me. He’d act all fascinated and intrigued by her very cliché point of view while I smiled silent but stiff next to him, like some bimbo without opinions.

But this time, I couldn’t catch his eye, couldn’t pull him from his conversation with her boyfriend. I panicked. I knew awkwardness was about to commence. In a decision so quick I didn’t actually consider, I squared my shoulders and decided to take a page from my husband’s playbook. After all, I’d see him do this plenty of times. So I took a deep breath, grinned wide, looked at her and lied:

“That’s so interesting!” I said.

I feigned ignorance on the topic and peppered her with questions as several little voices yelled “traitor” in my head. But she seemed to feel appreciated and we parted without baggage. It was a refreshing surprise.

After we left the store, I looked over at my husband and took his hand. “You make me a better person,” I confessed.

Hiding

 It’s a crisp late afternoon and I just put on a pot of tea. I’m watching the first snowfall of the season as the day stretches into dark evening. I’m in a reminiscing mood.

Last week, I posted something on Facebook that resulted in a larger response than I anticipated. It wasn’t anything profound, I just referenced some of John’s and my backstory. I confessed how hard John worked to convince me to date him. I truly thought most people knew that; apparently not. Apparently we give off a love-at-first-sight vibe. And that makes me laugh. So, since it fascinated so many folks — and because right now, the mood seems right — I thought I’d give the whole story with all (eh…most of) the juicy details.

As two writers, John and I should have met in an English class or a writing workshop. That would have been poetic. Instead, we met in an eternal, soul-sucking music appreciation class. Not the interesting kind. The kind where the auditorium-filled class has to listen to Latin operas for 3 hours and afterwards, write down how it made them feel. (I don’t want to guess what some of the jocks wrote down…)

Fast forward a bit, skipping how he actually introduced himself (an interesting story in its own right, but for another day.) It was only a once-a-week, evening class. By the end of the semester, I had spoken to John only a handful of times. But I’m not a moron and John isn’t subtle. So when John asked me which events I was attending to fulfill the “live concert” portion of our credit, I knew what he wanted.

We had to attend a total of three specifically-recommended concerts during the semester. And of course, none of those concerts were the interesting kind either. What can I say? My “well-rounded” liberal arts education is well-deserved… But John earned his even more. Because, as it turns out, he attended FOUR concerts. By the time he asked me which ones I was doing, he’d already fulfilled his. So, in an attempt to choreograph an “accidental encounter,” he had to attend one more.

I had been avoiding John. I didn’t hate him; he seemed nice. But I just wasn’t interested. And his “hey, which ones are you attending?” seemed waaaaay too high school. If I could have switched and attended different concerts than what I told him, I would have. Unfortunately, the semester was nearly over. My procrastination had consequences.

I got to the concert before he did. It was in Weld Hall on our college campus. Weld is actually the English building and both John and I were much more at home there than any other spot in Fargo-Moorhead, let alone MSUM. I went in without waiting for him. I have rules and expectations for dates. Namely: if I’m not sure if it’s a date, then it’s not a date. I owed nothing to the semi-awkward but eager kid I talked to maybe three times and walked with from class to dorms once.

I knew it was cruel. Especially when I saw him standing at the back of the room, looking around, craning his neck to see all the way to the front row. I could have stood and waved him over. Instead, I watched him give up as the lights dimmed and make his way to the opposite side of the room, where friends of his sat.

The concert was loud. It was the professor’s trombone recital. Actually, it could have been a different instrument. I don’t remember. I’m not big into the brass family. I prefer instruments to be made with strings. Plus, I was thinking more about John than timbre, tone, or tempo! (I’m sure whatever kind of reaction paper I wrote for that concert was pretty generic!)

After the concert, I fled. Apparently, so he’s told me, John stationed himself at the back doors right away to catch me leave, but he missed my exit. Of course, I did intentionally mix with a crowd exiting the far side of the room, opposite where he had been sitting. But I wasn’t quite good enough. Outside the auditorium, he somehow caught sight of me heading down the big staircase.

And then I, in turn, caught sight of him follow me. I knew he’d catch me if I continued my bee-line out of the building. So I seamlessly altered my plans.

Growing up, the bathroom was often my hide-out. This was for dual reasons. The obvious: everyone assumes you’re “taking care of business” and leaves you alone. Also, it was the only room in our house that had locks on the doors. Every smart kid knows that privacy is not found in the bedroom; it’s found in the bathroom.

So I went straight for Weld basement and into the ladies room. I wasn’t there too long and I don’t remember all I did. I’m sure I did “take care of business” while there. Probably ran a comb through my hair — but I certainly wasn’t primping for him. Then I just kinda sat around, wondering how long I should wait.

When I exited, John was in an empty classroom directly in my line of sight, talking with another student. He waved. My wave back was like a white flag. There was no running now. I’d been bested.

We didn’t hang out. He just walked me back to my dorm. I wasn’t surprised when he asked for my phone number. I’m sure he was determined never to be caught in that scenario again. I gave it to him.

I know it’s crazy, considering all I’d gone through to avoid him. Plus, I was mad at him — following me to the bathroom seemed inappropriate, not to mention creepy. I didn’t want to give him my number. But I had always known I would when he finally asked. The seriousness of that is what I had been hiding from in the bathroom.

One semester later. I didn't make it much easier then, either, but by this point we were finally "official."
One semester later. I didn’t make it much easier then, either, but by this point we were finally “official.”

Gifts

John came home from work last night with a “surprise.” Apparently he was offered some industrial-strength fridge magnets at work. (See photo below.)

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He was displeased with my nonchalant thank-you, however. “Why aren’t you more excited that I got you something?”

Sigh.

I always assumed women made things pretty easy on men. We have the list of staples that are fool-proof, for when your Significant Other just isn’t a rocket scientist: Flowers. Chocolate. Jewelry.

Once upon a time, John was really romantic. I’m talking how-did-I-get-lucky, do-you-read-Nicholas-Sparks romantic. He once held a single apple through an eternal classical music concert because he knew my favorite food was fruit and that I hated performing in the Orchestra.

Another time I convinced him to wash our hair in the rain because I’d seen it in a romantic comedy.

Now I’m the wife that gets free fridge magnets. Oh well. Love was nice while it lasted…

Scooped

Scoop: Originally journalistic lingo, it means someone else “dug up” a story before you did.

We stumbled into the porch, our arms laden with bags. John was carrying his big work satchel/computer and a million little things he’d needed at work that day. I was sporting my own giant bag with purse and lunch kit plus a plastic bag full of fresh corn that we’d just picked. We were tired and hungry, the stop at the garden pushing us past our dinner time limit. And there, blocking the door, was a large box from the mailman.

“Oh no,” John mumbled.

“What?” I asked, misunderstanding. “We’ll just walk around it and make another trip.”

I didn’t know what the package contained, but I knew its intent: my birthday is this weekend.

“No, I forgot to get ice. Your mother specifically texted me today and told me to buy ice. I’ve just been so busy lately, it slipped my mind.”

I looked at the box, then back at my husband. “It can’t need ice immediately or it wouldn’t be something that goes through the mail.”

“Let’s just take it inside and open it so I know how much ice we need before I bother going to buy some,” he decided.

And then, in an impressive shuffle of bags that hadn’t been an option when I’d needed a hand with the corn, John shifted the weight of his current burden and picked up the box right then and there. He’s not really a “make two trips” kind of guy.

In the box was a canvas bag and attached to the bag was a typed card that read something to the effect of “enjoy delicious smoothies and lots of healthy foods.”

“Oh no,” John said again. “She did, didn’t she.” What he mumbled under his breath next may have been a swear word or just unintelligible nonsense. I’m really not sure. “She stole my idea. I know she did.”

When I saw what it was I laughed, immediately knowing what he presumed was true.

It was a Ninja blender. And not the big, hulk of one that is sold in Target, whose giant display has been my reason for avoiding the entire brand. My mom had found a normal sized Ninja that I won’t have to wrestle into a cupboard spot, as well as an accompanying small food processor.

Last week I became the humus queen. I found an awesome recipe (See here if you’d like to try it). Everyone knew that I was in love with this recipe. My coworkers. My mother. And John. And they all knew my only complaint was my blender. I never use the thing. Mostly because it scares me. When making the humus, I made John man the blender. I was sure the thing would explode and if so, I would rather he be the one to lose an eye.

Back when we were engaged and registering for wedding gifts, we thought we were being kind when asking for a cheaper-end blender. We didn’t want to be presumptuous. That was a mistake. There’s nothing kind about waking up your neighbor’s children every time you make yourself a late night snack.

But now, all my blender problems disappeared. I was thrilled. John was not.

“I googled a specialty kitchen store in Albany today,” John moaned. “The directions are in my pocket. I was going to run out there on my day off tomorrow.”

He never went to get the suggested ice because I forewent the recommended smoothies and made my humus instead. John was pretty game, despite the constant muttering of “I truly have no idea what I’m going to do now.” He has one day to come up with something else.

In the past five days, John’s had five A1 [front page of entire paper] and two B1 [front page of Local section] stories. These included breaking information no other reporter knew about and interviews at places that shut out all other media behind John’s exit. It has possibly been the best week of his career.

Until, of course, he arrived home after his last workday only to find out he’d been scooped by his mother-in-law.