The first time Michael Ramirez set eyes on Mary-Claire McDonnell, he was on his way to an interview at Hat World in the mall. It was a blazing hot Thursday in the middle of June. The bus ride had been short but sweltering and the mall air conditioning felt like magic, cooling the sweat under his brand new oxford shirt.
Michael wove his way past storefronts full of neon tank tops and Flashdance sweatshirts, Duran Duran mixing with Muzac, mixing with the theme from “Ghostbusters," mixing with the smell of baking pretzels. He rounded a corner, approached the food court, and noticed a group of girls clustered around two tables under a skylight. Their heads were bent over cups of frozen yogurt, blonde permed curls spilling over suntanned shoulders. As Michael walked by, they all laughed at once, and the most beautiful girl in the world lifted her face to the ceiling. A beam of sun bathed her in an otherworldly glow.
In that moment, Michael knew that he had to meet her or lose her forever. He adjusted his tie, walked over to the group and held out his hand. “Hello, I’m Michael,” he said, his voice cracking, just a little.
Seven faces, almost identical, turned his way like sunflowers. Mary-Claire leveled her blue eyes for a second, scrunched up her nose and, finally, smiled. “It’s nice to meet you, Michael,” she extended her hand in mock seriousness.
“Um, where do you go to school?” Michael stammered.
“St. Cecilia’s. I mean, I’ll be there next year.” Mary-Claire looked back to her friends, all of them still staring. An audience of Madonnas.
“Ok, I have an interview now. For a job. And I’m going to be late. So…” The girls giggled, all at once. “Bye.”
“Bye Michael,” Mary-Claire waved.
“Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.” He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t think. He hadn’t gotten her name. He didn’t get the job.
When Michael got home, his mother greeted him at the door. The house was warm, it smelled of roasting meat. “Mijo,” she said, brimming with excitement. “You got this in the mail.” She said softly, producing a letter from her pocket, a cream linen envelope, maroon script looping across the top corner.
The words swam in front of Michael's eyes. Congratulations. St. Cecilia’s. Full scholarship. The neighbors could hear him whooping three houses down.
Michael got a job packing fruit and for the rest of the summer he came home sticky, prickling with peach fuzz. When September rolled around, he had enough money take Mary-Claire to the best restaurant in town, including bus fare. But first, he had to introduce himself properly.
St. Cecilia’s, with its vine-covered buildings, arched walkways and Spanish style courtyards, was a different planet from Michael’s public school. He stuck out like a sore thumb. Pushed along the breezeway by first-day of school crowds, he searched unfamiliar faces looking for Mary-Claire. When he spotted her, his heart skipped a beat. She moved easily among the clusters of kids, waving and smiling, stopping to chat and hug. As Michael lifted his hand to catch her attention, Mary-Claire walked up to a tall, athletic boy, who settled his arm comfortably around her shoulder before high fiving another tall, athletic boy.
Michael trudged to first period, found a desk and sat down, busying himself with his backpack. The desks around him filled, leaving the one next to him open. As the bell rang for the final time, Mary-Claire rushed in, glanced at the empty desk, scanned the room for a seat next to a friend, then rested her gaze on Michael. Her eyes widened with surprise.
“Well, if it isn’t Michael from the mall,” she plopped her books down and slid onto the chair. “You didn’t tell me you’d be going here.”
“I didn’t know,” Michael replied, opening a notebook to hide the red creeping up his cheeks. “I got in on scholarship.” Thankfully, the teacher took her place at the front of the class and started speaking.
Mary-Claire was in five of Michael’s six classes. They barely said a word to each other for the entire fall, mostly because Michael was too embarrassed to speak and Mary-Claire was too busy being Mary-Claire; joining cheer squad, the debate team, honor society. She was crowned homecoming princess by the freshman class. She broke up with the tall guy and started dating the captain of the football team.
Then one cold January day, when the fog was so thick you’d feel alone in a crowd, everything changed. It was third period, P.E. Soccer. Michael had played since he could walk. He was enjoying the foggy solitude at the goal when Mary-Claire appeared in front of him, panting. The ball shot out of the swirling fog and straight for her forehead. Michael dove, bouncing it expertly out of the way.
“I could have gotten that, you know.” Mary-Claire said, hands on hips. It was just the two of them in a pocket of fog.
“Just doing my job, ma’am,” Michael deadpanned. “Soccer tattoos are not attractive.”
“Well then,” she replied, “You, Mikey from the Mall, are my hero.”
Without thinking, Michael blurted, “And my heart, Mary-Claire is forever yours.” His cheeks flamed.
They looked at each other without speaking for a long second, then Mary-Claire burst into laughter, plopped down on the damp sod, and said, “If that’s the case, then you’d better tell me a little bit about yourself.”
After that day, Michael and Mary-Claire became fast friends. They fought fiercely in debate club, competed for the best grades. They talked on the phone, to compare study notes at first, then whenever something significant happened at school, then almost every day. Michael was soon Mary-Claire’s first call after a break up. By senior year, they were voted “best couple that’s not a couple.” They shared the title of class valedictorian. Michael wanted to tell Mary-Claire how he felt about her, but he never found words that wouldn’t ruin what they already had. He kept a picture of them together at graduation in his wallet when they went their separate ways for college.
When Michael arrived in Berkeley for freshman orientation, he found a letter from Mary-Claire waiting in his mailbox. “If you write me, I’ll write back,” it said. So Michael sat down at his dorm room desk and he wrote Mary-Claire a letter. She made good on her promise. A letter arrived from San Diego the next week. They worked out relationships, breakups, tough professors, and plans for the future on 8 1/2 x 11 notebook paper, week after week. As school got harder and busier, the letters slowed to a trickle.
After graduation, Michael bought a plane ticket, packed a backpack, and got himself a Eurail pass. He was staying in a youth hostel in Barcelona when a beautiful girl from Sweden found him in the game room. “You have a phone call,” she said going back to her magazine at the front desk. Michael took the receiver from her outstretched hand. It was his mother. “Papi is sick. Don’t fly home,” she said, “It will be ok.”
Michael left the hostel in a daze, wandering La Rambla until he found himself in front of Sagrada Família at sunset. Staring at the otherworldly spires of the unfinished cathedral in red-orange sunlight, one thought repeated itself over and over. Go home. Go home.
Michael spent the next six weeks in the hospital, drinking stale coffee, taking turns sleeping in a hard chair, listening to the soft beep-beep of the monitor. His father passed away on a cold, windy day in March. The funeral was at St. Cecilia's. When Michael spotted Mary-Claire sitting alone in a pew, he felt like he could breathe again. She found him after the service. “Michael,” she whispered eyes brimming with tears.
“You came,” he said.
She took his hand. “I loved him,” she said. Her finger sparkled. It was the biggest diamond Michael had ever seen.
Michael felt a familiar flush creeping up his cheeks. Mary-Claire knew how to read him like a book, her story tumbled out in a nervous flush. She’d moved home, was working at an insurance agency downtown. She’d fallen in love with her boss, Kenneth. They were getting married in June. Michael thanked Mary-Claire for coming and excused himself.
When he got home, Michael sat down at his boyhood desk and rubbed his eyes. Exhaustion swirled like a thick cloud, memories fluttering. The sunlit moment in the mall, the packing house, the soccer field, the debates, the phone calls, graduation, the letters. Each moment, every missed opportunity laid bare. “You can’t lose her. You can’t lose her," beat his heart. He opened a drawer, pulled out a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 lined notebook paper.
Dear Kenneth, he wrote. You don’t know me but there’s something you need to know…
It was a perfect day, even for early May; the kind of day that sent puffy white clouds scudding through a deep blue sky and set birds to singing just because. The morning rain had cleared and now it was as if God himself had rolled down a backdrop to the rows of round tables lined up on the expanse of emerald lawn. Fragrant mounds of lilies, hydrangeas, roses and peonies sat in antique cachepots glimmering with stripes of gold. The band played Miles Davis as servers in white shirts passed trays of champagne. A light breeze sent ties and skirt hems fluttering.
Michael stepped away from the crowd and took his place under the spreading branches of a hundred year-old oak. He held his hand out to his bride, and as the most beautiful woman in the world stepped to his side, Michael raised his glass and looked at the faces in front of him.
His whole world was out there. Three beautiful daughters, so talented and accomplished. Grandchildren; slouching teenagers, little girls in starchy dresses, boys making their ties into silent battle swords while dads bent to shush them. Family and friends from every era, the good ones who had hung around through the choppy waves of a long marriage, bringing casseroles or bottles of wine, depending on the circumstances.
Mary-Claire raised her glass, wrinkled her nose and smiled. “Fifty years! Can you believe it?” A ripple of laughter. Michael looked down at his shoes.
“It has been an adventure,” she continued. “We have so many wonderful memories with each and every one of you. Good times, bad times and everything in between. Here’s to you, and to my love, my Mikey.” She turned to him. “Honey, marriage isn’t easy, but you’ve given me this life, these beautiful girls, a wholeness that I never would have dreamed of. I tell you this all the time, but I can’t say it enough. I’m so lucky that you fought for me.”
Michael kissed his wife to the cheers and applause of his family and dearest friends, and all he could think about was the best lie he ever told.