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Romance Creative Nonfiction

That’s the thing about this city, no one stares or cares. There’s real freedom in that. Want to wear every piece of clothing you own on a muggy summer day? Go for it. Want to sing gospel on the corner? Some may scoff and tell you to shut up, but others may dance. You be you! 

I didn’t even know I was craving that freedom until my parents drove off and I realized I didn’t know a soul for miles in any direction. Not one. It was glorious. No one to say, “I’ve known you since you were 8 years old – you can’t do that!” No one to report to or justify my time or actions to. It was intoxicating.

I made myself three promises that year:

1)  Always, ALWAYS, be me – authentically me. If the joke’s not funny? Don’t laugh. If I don’t understand? Ask questions. No more trying to remember that with this person I’m witty, with that one I’m serious, with the other I’m the problem-solver. I had a clean slate. From that moment, I would know that any friends I made were friends because they liked me, the real me. And if we didn’t become friends?  Great. No guilt. Move on.

2)  If someone invited me to do something and it was neither illegal nor likely to cause physical harm – say yes! Whatever it was. “Wanna go see Vampire Lesbians of Sodom?” Absolutely! “Free African dance lessons?” Sure!

3) If it’s less than 30 blocks – walk. More than 30? That justifies the $1.25 for the subway or bus.

My Dad had a real hard time with that last one. He’d been a police reporter for our local paper for almost 20 years and had too much knowledge of how things could go bad quickly. When I told him of my plan to spend my Junior year of college in the city he asked me to promise to never ride the subway. I countered with a request for $500 a month for cab fare. I rode the subway.

A day or two before classes started, the school arranged for us kids to do a walking tour of Greenwich Village. Most of our group was acting a bit shy, hanging back, not wanting to appear too eager. All except this one guy. He was the opposite. He was walking right next to the tour guide, excited all over again each time she said, “…and Edna St. Vincent Millay lived here from…” It was charming. I’d seen him a few times in the dorm, and again the evening before at the orientation meeting, but we hadn’t met yet. 

During a break on the tour, I approached him. I fully intended, as I’d done with others that day, to stick out my hand and say, “Hi! We haven’t met yet. I’m Julia.” Instead, I stuck out my hand and said, “You’re going to be an incredible husband and father someday.” I think I was just as surprised as he was. I followed this with, “Do you play soccer?” I’d noticed his shoes. “I do, why?” he grinned. “Just curious. I’ve always found soccer players attractive.” 

It took him four months to ask me out. 

By the time he did, it was already March. The school year ended in May and we’d all be heading back to our home schools. I had zero interest in a long-distance relationship, so I convinced myself that we were just going to the theater together, a one-time deal, and that would be that. 

But, if I was going out, might as well look my best, right? I drove my neighbor nuts asking his opinion on everything from dress to hair to make-up. As I walked to the elevator, my neighbor rushed into the hall yelling, “Julia! Perfume!” 

There were rarely cabs in our part of town. Not much business for taxis in a neighborhood crammed with mental patients and college kids. But I got to the corner, put my hand up, and like a cliché, a taxi skidded to a halt in front of me.  

“42nd Street Theater, please.” 

I noticed the driver looking at me in the rear-view mirror. I was starting to feel a little nervous when he smiled and said, “This is a special night, isn’t it?” 

The play was amazing. I still couldn’t get over seeing actors like Dustin Hoffman live on stage! After the show, Mr. Hoffman addressed the audience. The cast had all signed one of the show posters and reproductions were being sold for $20. All proceeds would go to research to help find a cure and treatment for AIDS. Between the two of us we only had $23. We agreed that we’d get one poster now and that one of us could come back later to get a second. 

Years later he confessed to me that he thought to himself as he bought the poster, “If you play your cards right, you’ll only ever need one of these.” 

Six weeks later he told me he was going to marry me.  It was a game we often played – the question game - “Tell me your three favorite kinds of ice cream?” or “Tell me about your first friend?” This time, as we watched a movie in his dorm room, I asked, “Tell me about the next five years of your life?” 

“Well, I have to go back to Texas to finish school. Then I’m going to marry you. Then I’m going to go to graduate school.” 

Jokingly, I replied, “Oh! You’re going to marry me before you go to graduate school, are you?” 

“I may be in school for the next 3-5 years and I’m not willing to live without you in my daily life during that time.” 

……………………………………..

He passed away this last December. Peacefully. On his houseboat. Surrounded by his girlfriend, his best friend, and his brothers. 

We’d reconciled a lot over the last few years. The hurt and confusion from his walking away from our 20-year marriage was still there sometimes, but softer now. The love and friendship that had been at our core remained, but quieter.

I’ve not been back to the city since the end of that school year. For years we just never found the time – too busy having adventures. After the split, it was too raw and painful to even consider. 

Now I find myself again craving the freedom it represented so long ago. Perhaps that’s a part of all endings and beginnings – a desire to again be where no one stares and no one cares.  

March 17, 2021 20:50

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