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Henry and I never described ourselves as soulmates. We didn’t really believe in that sort of thing. What we were was eternally comfortable. We were compatible. We loved to laugh. We weren’t the couple you would see at the beach, draped all over each other like we lived perpetually in a Sandals commercial. We were the old couple you’d see at the park, content with talking to each other or not, watching the world go by and happy to have each other to watch it with.
“We were both in the right place at the right time,” Henry would say when people would ask how we met. And although that phrase implied that it was some sort of clandestine meeting, what he really meant was that we met at the right time of life, when we were ready to find each other.
We were both seniors finishing our last week of college at Colorado State University. Henry had been accepted into law school at the University of Houston and I was doing what I do best: fully functioning without any permanent plan whatsoever. I had planned on finding some meaningless job over the summer following graduation, possibly still up in Ft. Collins, waiting tables or bartending, and putting off the fact that I was a college graduate for a few months. I felt like I deserved one more summer of irresponsibility before I entered “the real world” and Henry was hoping to enjoy one more summer, humidity-free, before he headed off to Texas.
We met at C.B. & Potts while we were both filling out an application for the same job. It was 10 AM so the restaurant was closed and everything was quiet except for the employees getting ready for the lunch rush at 11:00. He was sitting at the table next to mine, bent over his application with a concentration I didn’t really think it deserved and I kept sneaking glances at him, wondering if he was about to be serious competition.
He finally caught me looking and before I could help myself I blurted out, “No offense, but I hope you don’t get this job.”
He put down his pen for a minute and said, “No offense taken and right back at you.”
“I hear Perkins is hiring.”
“Well, why don’t you go over there, then?”
My level of irritation was at its peak. The whole point of getting a mindless job was so that I didn’t have to think about it. And already this guy was making me worry if I would get it at all and worrying was making it feel not as mindless as I was hoping for.
“I have five kids to support and the tips are better here,” I said.
“Yes, but it would be more appropriate to have all of your kids visit you at Perkins rather than at a bar.”
I decided that further conversation with this guy was useless and I turned back to my application, giving the impression that I had countless people I could count on for references and so much job experience in food service there wasn’t enough room to list it all. A few minutes later, I could tell that he was finishing up, so I completed the application with a flourish, stood up quickly, and confidently walked over to the manager to hand him the paperwork so I could get to him first.
“We’ll call you,” he said, not even looking at me as he grabbed the packet and stuck it behind the bar.
“Thank you,” I said in my most professional tone. “I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”
I walked out of the restaurant with my nose in the air, not even looking at my frustrating competitor. I squinted a little in the bright sun after being in the dimly lit bar for so long and I stopped for a moment to look in my purse for my sunglasses, fishing through an entire year’s worth of receipts that I have no idea why I kept because I hadn’t balanced my bank account since my freshman year. I heard the door to the restaurant open behind me and fearing that it was my new nemesis, I started walking toward my car while still looking for the glasses.
“Hey!” I heard behind me. “Wait up!”
I had no intention of “waiting up.” I kept walking and I heard the sound of sneakers on pavement, jogging up behind me.
“Hang on,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder.
I wheeled around and looked at him
“What do you want?” I said, slightly hostile.
“Well, I was wondering what you and all of your kids were doing tonight,” he said. “Maybe we could go to dinner or something.”
“Are you…are you asking me out?” I asked in disbelief.
“Yeah,” he said. “But if all of the kids can go, we may just have to go to Beau Jo's for pizza by the slice. I’m on a budget until I get this job.”
“What job?” I said. “You mean, my job?”
“Think of it this way: If you come to dinner with me, you might be able to talk me into applying for that job at Perkins.”
I paused for a moment and really looked at him for the first time. Not too bad looking. Kind of cute, if he’d update his glasses. Typically bland outfit of a male college student, in khaki cargo shorts (probably one of ten pairs he had in his closet) and a golf shirt that I suspected was not his usual attire and that he was “dressing up” to make a good impression.
“Well, when you put it that way, it might not be such a bad idea. The kids and I can be very persuasive.”
“Great,” he said, breaking into a smile. “How about if I pick you up around 6:30?”
“I’ll just meet you there,” I said. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable getting into a car with you quite yet. You may just be setting me up so that you can bump me off to get this job.”
“That’s true,” he said, thoughtfully. “Very wise of you. I was just reading in the paper the other day about how a guy chopped a woman up into tiny little pieces so that he could get the inside edge on a job at Target.”
“See? A girl can’t be too careful.”
“So meet you at 6:30?"
“Okay,” I said, allowing him to see my smile for the first time.
“Henry,” he said, sticking out his hand.
“Jane,” I replied giving it a shake.
We both turned away and headed our separate ways. I went back to my apartment that day, feeling that internal glow that women get when the possibility of a new relationship is on the horizon. And it must have showed because when I walked in the door my roommate, Charlotte, looked up from her People magazine and said, “What’s up with you?”
“I met a new guy,” I said. “We’re meeting up at 6:30 at Beau Jo's.”
“Beau Jo's?” she snorted. “Jesus, Jane, have some standards.”
She had a point, but I didn’t really care. There was something I found suddenly endearing about Henry and even though pizza didn’t require much in the way of dressing up, I found myself putting in as much effort as I could to look good that evening without looking like I’d put in any effort at all.
And the date didn’t disappoint. When I met Henry that night, I couldn’t help but immediately feel like I had met my match in some way. We talked on and on, until the restaurant kicked us out. And then, both not really wanting to leave, we spent an hour in the parking lot, leaning against our cars and fumbling with our keys, reluctant to end the conversation.
“I’m glad I got this opportunity to talk to you before I met all of your kids,” Henry said as we were getting ready to leave.
“It does get a little crazy when they’re around,” I said, trying to be serious. “It’s been hard since their daddy went to jail. Little Cletus has been rebelling lately by making giant spit wads and throwing them at people walking by the trailer. And I just don’t know what to do with Elrod ever since he discovered his boy part.”
“That does sound overwhelming,” Henry said trying to match my seriousness but unable to hide his grin.
“Thank God for the triplets Henny, Penny, and Lenny. They’re my oldest kids. Had them when I was 10. So they help me out when I go out shopping for Baby Daddy #2.”
When we talked later that week, we found out that CB & Potts had decided to hire us both due to a recent change in personnel (which we later learned meant that two of the waitresses had split a joint behind the restaurant. This would have been overlooked had they not then gone in and eaten their combined weight in jalapeño poppers).
That summer, Henry and I had such a great time, sometimes working the same shift, sometimes not. When we didn’t work at the same time, we got into the habit of waiting for the other person outside the restaurant until their shift was finished and hanging out late into the night. By the third week, we were practically living at each other’s apartments, taking turns so that our roommates wouldn’t get too annoyed with the situation.
We would cautiously bring up the subject of August, the end to our irresponsible summer lifestyle, when Henry would have to leave for Texas and I would have to do…well…something. My degree in Communications made me either a jack of all trades or not qualified for anything. I noticed, during my college career that Communications seemed to be what all of the jocks took and I decided that was because it was preparing them for a future in sports broadcasting and not because it was the easiest major a bunch of guys who concussed themselves every weekend for fun could earn.
Henry was quickly becoming my best friend and the person I wanted to be around more than anyone else. And even though we didn’t often talk about our feelings for each other, as the end of the July drew closer, Henry surprised me with three little words.
“Come with me.”
Weeks later, I found myself packing a bunch of boxes, loading them into a U-Haul, and following Henry in my little Toyota Corolla down to Houston. I applied with a temporary employment agency and started my first in a series of jobs just as Henry was beginning law school. He ended up finding a job bartending on the weekends at this little hole-in-the-wall sports bar housed in a strip mall just walking distance from our apartment. Our weeks were busy, both of our schedules seemingly completely opposite, but we enjoyed every moment we had together. I didn’t even mind the times we fought because we could usually find something to laugh about later.
“What do you mean you lost $100 to some guy at pool last night?” I asked him one Sunday morning. “I thought we were going to use your tips from this weekend to buy that table we saw at the consignment store!”
“Well, my shift was over and the guy was loaded. I thought it was a sure thing,” he said, somewhat sheepishly.
“That actually doesn’t make me feel better,” I said. “Spending the rest of my life with a hustler is not really what I had in mind.”
“Jane, you would have found it hilarious if you were there. The guy kept coming up to me at the bar and saying, ‘I’ll bet you $18,000 and a brand new CD that I can beat you at pool.’”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. “A brand new CD?”
I thought for a minute. “Were you going to get to pick the CD?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t get that far in our negotiations.”
“Well, as a future lawyer, I’d have thought you would have covered that. Now I feel worse. And I feel kind of bad that I’ve kept this from you all this time, but, sweetie…you suck at pool.”
“Yeah. I get that now.”
“Good. Besides, if you’re going to bet money on a game with someone that drunk, you should at least make it darts. It’s a lot harder to aim and there’s less opportunity for a lucky shot.”
“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”
Years later, we found that story hilariously funny. Any time we were faced with any sort of competition between the two of us one or the other would pop off with, “I’ll bet you $18,000 and a brand new CD that I can do this better than you can.”
I still have a drawer full of $18,000 IOUs and at least half of the CDs in my car are the products of bets lost by my husband.
What we lacked in fiery passion, we made up for in comfortable compatibility. We just fit and we knew it. There were no battles over the meager closet space in our first tiny one bedroom apartment. We didn’t fight over what to have for take-out. We would sit and read the paper on the weekends, occasionally pointing out the craziness of the world or the amazing sale on mattresses that the local furniture store was having.
All of our parents seemed to seamlessly fit that way, too. I was an only child and my parents had had me later in life, so they had their eye on the prize (retirement) and were looking forward to living a life that was entirely theirs. Henry had two older brothers who, upon graduating from college, had decided to move back home in order to “find themselves” which was code for “I want to sleep until noon and, Mom, please don’t forget to use fabric softener when you do my laundry.” So they were pretty happy with the fact that, not only was Henry furthering his education, he was working towards something that might actually make him employable. Our parents enjoyed the partner that we had each chosen, but for the most part, they left us to our own devices, confident that we had made the right choice and all living too far away to really be affected by it if we hadn’t.
By the time we got married, it really wasn’t a question. Henry had just finished law school and was offered a position with a law firm in the city. I was already working at Claron, not really sure if it was my dream job, but for the most part too content in my overall life to really care. Henry came home from his third day of work, handed me a little ring box, and said, “What do you think? You ready?”
I didn’t get all breathless in my response like all of those women in jewelry store commercials do. I just looked up at him and said, “You’re on.”
We ended up at the Justice of the Peace a week later, in shorts and flip-flops, made a life-long commitment, and then went to the Denny’s around the corner for a Grand Slam breakfast celebration. Upon hearing the news, my coworkers set up a celebratory Happy Hour at the dive bar near our office where a few of Henry’s associates in the law firm joined us. A high-stakes dart tournament began between the two offices and my usually reserved boss, feeling no pain after two Purple Hooters, stumbled up to Henry’s friend John, positioned herself nose-to-nose with him, and said, “I’ll bet you $18,000 and a brand new CD that I can make this shot.”
Henry and I never confirmed it, but we think Michelle and John slept together that night.
It was during our honeymoon weekend that Henry found out my secret.
I was standing on the balcony of our hotel, looking up. It was as I was breathing in a making my wish that I felt Henry come up behind me and put his arms around my waist.
"What are you doing?"
"Wishing," I said, a little embarrassed and feeling like a child. "I make a wish on a star every night."
His laughter shook us both. "I didn't know that you did that."
“You’ve never seen me looking up at the sky?”
“Well, sure, but I just thought you were looking for signs of life or something. I kept expecting you to run in and tell me that you just witnessed your mother going back to her home planet.”
I elbowed him in the ribs. “She’s not that bad.”
“I know,” he chuckled. Then suddenly in a rare moment of seriousness he asked, “Did you wish for me?”
I paused. “I wished to be happy. So, yeah, I did wish for you.”
And since moments of solemnity never lasted long for Henry, he began to give me a list of cosmic demands.
“Ask for a Ferrari.”
“Ask for a beefcake husband and let’s see how I look in the morning.”
“Ask to be more flexible. Think of what a siren in the sack you’d be then.”
These requests were met with a playful slap from me. In that moment, with Henry’s arms around me and our life together stretching out as far as I could see, wishing seemed unnecessary. I was so sure that Life wouldn’t throw anything at us that we couldn’t handle together.
I just had no idea that when Life finally decided to take its shot, it would have such good aim.
Grief is tricky. In the weeks after Henry’s death, if I had shaved my head, bought fifty cats, traded my car in for a Harley, and had Henry’s face tattooed across my back…no one would have probably thought anything of it.
“It’s okay,” they would have said to each other in hushed tones. “Don’t mind her. Her husband just died.”
But since I hadn’t done any of that, any justification I might have had for going completely nuts had expired around month three – just about the time I felt like I had enough energy to go completely insane. The thick fog that had been hovering around me since Henry’s death had burned off a little and for brief spurts of time, I felt ready to make changes. But that had, unfortunately, given my friends and family enough time to read every grief book on the market so that they could bombard me with tons of useless tips.
“Don’t sell your house or do anything big like that for at least a year,” my mother said during one conversation. “I read about that in Grief: The Aftermath.”
“Now, don’t get crazy and spend all of your money on unnecessary things,” advised my accountant during the appointment I had with him a month after Henry’s death. “I’ve seen that happen before and I’m working on a pamphlet about it: The Overspending Widow: How One Death Can Lead to Financial Destruction.”
And then there was the conversation I had with my second cousin, a woman I hadn’t seen since I was 10 years old and who hadn’t even attended the funeral. In order to make up for her absence, she called to “check in” on me and left me with, “I know you think what you’re going through is hard, but it’s nothing compared to divorce. If I had had the choice between your Cousin Jack leaving me or having him dead, believe me I would have preferred him six feet under. So just get out there and get another one, that’s my advice. Move on. I read about it in A Bitter Divorce: Why You Wish You Could Kill Him.”
Oh, how I missed Henry when all of that advice started pouring in because no one would have thought all of that was funnier than him. I started having conversations with him in my head, imagining what he might say and laughing right along with my visions.
“What does she mean ‘divorce is harder than death’?” He laughed in my head.
“Well, you never met my Cousin Jack,” I thought back to him. “He walked around with perpetual armpit stains and always had some sort of cigar residue in his teeth. It wasn’t that he left her that was so shocking. It was that he left her for someone else. No one in my family could believe that another person on the planet would sleep with that hot mess.”
“Well, she obviously doesn’t know how hard it must be to lose a catch like me,” Henry would say.
“That’s true. Some women can say that the man in their life has 6-pack abs, but how many can brag that their husband has a keg?”
Henry’s laugh would echo through my mind, as real as if he were standing next to me. But he wasn’t. The little smile on my face from our imaginary conversation would start to fade when I realized that I had been staring at a blank wall during our entire mental exchange. That he was gone and had taken with him the person I could share all of this inside information about the sometimes demented relatives I had without sounding snarky or shallow…was something I found constantly astounding.
“No one gets us but us,” Henry had said to me once when we were dating. His voice had a note of amazement in it as if to say how is it possible that we’re so perfect together? But I knew what he meant. After only a few months of seeing each other, I had more inside jokes with Henry than I did with anyone else in my life. Many of our discussions were highly inappropriate and something that we could never repeat to anyone because of the circumstances in which they happened.
One of the first times we were intimate, Henry, in the throes of passion, accidentally let loose with the most outrageous fart I’d ever heard. I mean, it just about shook the room. Both of us were slightly embarrassed and didn’t say anything at first, trying to recapture the mood, but it was obvious that it had been broken. And it didn’t help when Henry rolled over and suddenly started laughing so hard he couldn’t stop.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, gasping for air. “I can’t believe I just did that.”
“Well, now I know what to get you for Christmas,” I said, propping myself on one elbow to look at him.
"A bottle of Beano and a box of condoms."
This sent Henry into another round of laughter. I rolled over on my back and began to laugh next to him, the bed vibrating from our hilarity. “You know the worst part about this?” he said, wiping tears from his eyes.
“We can’t tell anyone this story. And this has got to be one of the funniest damn things that has ever happened to me.”
Our moments of intimacy were often like that. Not gassy, but tempered by humor. And I liked that about us. That we could laugh about life. One of the strangest feelings I’d had since Henry’s death was that he wasn’t there to share it with me. Because I had a feeling that he would have found certain elements of his passing hysterically funny. Without him with me - his face wide open in a smile, his joy of life infectious no matter what was going on – I felt like the bubble of perpetual laughter had been burst.