He was leaning against the remains of a torn-down bridge, the late April afternoon darkening around him. We swatted away the flies and mosquitoes that had come out early to enjoy the beginning of spring. My shoes, as always, were inappropriate, dust and young grass creeping into the space between my wedged heel and my bare foot. I was doing my best to appear casual, non-chalant, older. I was nineteen.
A cool wind ruffled his dust-brown hair, the bright sun reflected off of the Delaware River and made him squint. His squinting revealed to me, for the first of many times, the crow's feet nestled into the corners of his blue eyes. By just being there, he made me nervous, and conscious of it; I repeatedly tucked my long hair behind my ears, I laughed too much. I didn't know him yet, but I could tell that he was nervous, too. It was the way he kept adjusting his posture, kicking the loose dust at his feet, looking at me and then quickly away.
My pulse was racing, the perspiration accumulating the small of my back, under my arms, on my upper lip. I smiled often, to try and offset my anxiety, to give at least the impression that I was at ease. I worried that my shirt, carefully chosen for the occasion, would betray me and reveal my nervous sweat, give me away. I kept my arms tight at my sides.
We were furiously selling ourselves to each other, highlighting our good points, and skimming over our bad ones, the way everybody does on first dates. Absentmindedly, I kept touching my left hand, the ring finger that was bare for the first time in over a year. A week before he and I were standing by that dilapidated bridge, I had discarded the engagement ring I'd been wearing when I first met him. I had handed it back to my fiancee over a table at a local restaurant, not quite sure of what I'd do with myself later.
He asked me about Vegas, his high forehead tilted toward me, his eyebrows pinched in an effort to block out the glare of the setting sun. I talked about my family, he talked about his. We touched on our histories. We were hungry for knowledge - That's what happens when you lust after someone for months before you finally get them all to yourself, you gorge on their details.
While we spoke, I made sure to stand up straight, accentuating my flat stomach, my round behind, my young breasts. I looked out over the river when I was sure he was looking at me, not because I was interested in anything there, but because turning my head just so drew attention to my long neck, my bared collarbone. I wanted him to want me.
The conversation moved effortlessly, and before I knew it, we were talking about the fresh break of my engagement. I hadn't wanted to touch on that particular topic, but too much of my history and who I was then was wrapped in the betrothal I'd just ended. He asked me how I felt about it. I said that I felt good.
I didn't know then that, a few days later, I'd be sitting on the front porch of my parents' house, taking a sick day from work, crying and staring at the first blank page of a new journal, Gladys Knight & The Pips Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye) pouring from the speakers in the house, sliding out of the opened windows and all over me. I didn't know yet that I wasn't giving myself enough time to grieve over it, over the loss of us - That, years later, I'd be dragging the guy leaning on the remains of that bridge into my inner turmoil over it. I rationalized, when he asked me how I felt, that the relationship had really been over for a while, and ending it had just been ceremonial, that I was ready to move on. I was afraid to admit then that maybe I wasn't as ready as I thought.
After relating my story, he shook his head and told me he never wanted to get married. He was thirty-two. "It's like waking up every day, and..." He searched the air around us for a good analogy, "eating cornflakes. And who wants to eat cornflakes for the rest of their life?"
Yes, I thought. But you haven't met me yet.
Well, he met me then. He fell in love with me. We dated for nearly four years. He knew me. And he still didn't want it.
I think about that moment quite often. A younger me, a child in so many ways, but a woman just the same. Stronger then, though, than I would be in the years to follow. It's like a flashback sequence in a movie. And when he tells me he'd never get married, the camera freezes on my face, just as I'm thinking I'll make you want to marry me. And I toy with what I'd do, knowing what I do now. Would I not date him again? Would I keep it casual? What would I do?
But I think I'd keep it exactly the same. The freeze-frame would end, the moment would whir back to life, and I'd go ahead thinking I could - would - change him. And I'd laugh the same laughs, shed the same tears, flow through the exact same good times, suffer the exact same broken heart. I'd go through all of it again.
Because, despite his faults, despite my own, we were good for each other. We needed one another then. Because every moment with him made me who I am now. He taught me what I loved, what I hated. What I could tolerate, what I could not. How to be less selfish, more giving. Sure, his teaching methods were unorthodox, and I hated the lessons, but they worked. He taught me to appreciate the small things. To be grateful.
And now, I am grateful.