It was a Friday night, tonight's a Friday night, too, but one with much less potential than that one all those years ago, me and Lauren about to move from our first apartment into the bottom flat of a two story two family owned by our good friends Brian and Deb, yeah, they lived up and we lived down, and everybody jokingly referred to us as "The Honeymooners," but then, damn, it was the truth. Movin' on up, so to speak, to a deluxe three bedroom with freshly finished hardwood floors and plenty of sunlight, damn though, we couldn't wait, we loved the place and we thought living downstairs in this great place, with our buddies upstairs, and just a year or so after the pain of a two and a half year long distance romance that featured eons of time spent living thousands of miles apart, we counted our blessings, believe me.
So the four of us piled into that car and we hit a bar first, My Place, for a coupla dozen wings and close to a dozen pints on our way out to see Paul Westerberg at a club called Saratoga Winners. I'd taken a couple of days off from work, the Friday and the following Monday; on the Friday I had planned a pilgrimage to Saratoga Race Course for Opening Day, but on Thursday night the rains came and made the track a mess, and I never seemed to have much luck when they raced over sloppy tracks. I cursed the weather, cursed the goddamn rain, as I drove Lauren to work that morning, and then when I got back home I bagged the plans to attend the races and instead spent the day finishing the packing for the move into the new place.
To blow off some steam we all decided to go to see Paul, a big hero to me and Dan, we thought then, and maybe we still believe, that The Replacements were the greatest band in the history of what they call rock and roll; Lauren didn't agree, though she liked them plenty and loved the new album he'd just released, "Eventually." Michele didn't know the 'Mats, or Paul, from Adam; she came along for the ride, to see what might happen.
We got to the show early, some warm up band on the stage, OK enough but nothing to write home about, so the four of us bellied up to the bar and hit it hard; me and Dan, fully steeped in the legend of the Replacements, figured that we needed to do the show justice, in the form of getting liquored up.
Several drinks later the opening act finished and out came Paul, all dolled up in, if I remember this right, a dark pair of pants, a dark jacket, and some sort of bolo-type tie. We rushed up as close as we could get to the stage and he ripped into the opening chords of "Waiting For Somebody," I turned to my left and looked and saw this beautiful woman standing there and thought, holy jesus, that's my wife, and he sang out, "all my life, waiting for somebody, ah ha ha, come and take my hand...," I thought, hell, the wait was worth it, for moments like this.
Later, after the show ended, me and Dan talked Lauren and Michele into waiting out by the tour bus. Neither of us were the autograph collector types but the line wasn't bad and we just wanted to say hello to Mr. Westerberg, to thank him for putting on a hell of a show, to thank him for gracing our troubled early years with the healing music of The Replacements.
By this point all four of us were the proverbial three sheets to the wind, and it occurred to me that somebody would have to drive home, but what the hell, we were young and silly and anyway, we were gonna live forever, and if not forever well then, for a very, very long time to come.
Me and Dan tried to think of clever things to say to Paul while we waited on line, but when the big moment came, we both choked.
I had a little picture of Lauren in my wallet, and I pulled it out and asked him to sign the back of it; I thought it only fitting that my musical hero sign the back of the picture of the love of my life that I carried with me everywhere.
"It's not big enough," he said, laughing.
I told him to just sign his first name.
He took the pen and wrote "P." on the back of that picture, and handed it back to me.
I still have that picture in my wallet.
And tonight, while digging it out, I came across something else.
The remnants of a leaf, an autumn leaf from a maple tree. Something else I have carried with me for many, many years; since 1992, in fact.
I wish I could say the leaf had something to do with Lauren, but it does not. It is from another night, with another woman, before her. A rainy night, October 1992. I went out to some bars with some friends that night, in sort of a pissy mood, for whatever reason. I had low expectations for the night, figured it as one of those pint or two and then on home to bed type of nights, but to my surprise I wound up meeting this woman and we hit it off and we wound up walking through the rain for half the night, stopping to make out under the roofs of various closed for the night businesses.
I wanted to walk across the foot-bridge that runs over the middle of the lake in Washington Park, but as we got close to the bridge she told me,
"I have a confession to make, I know this is going to sound weird, but I don't like bridges, they scare me, I can't walk over that bridge."
She reached down to the ground and picked up a leaf and handed it to me, for some reason.
And that's the leaf I keep, to this day, wrapped in plastic, in my wallet. I know why I've held onto it all these years: it reminds me of a basic fact of life, namely, that you never know when you might stumble into something good and beautiful. Indeed, I never expected that just two months after that rainy night in the park, me and my good friend Lauren would change each other's lives forever.
It has been a rough week.
I got through Monday alright but then I hit the skids on Tuesday, I fell almost all the way back to back-at-the-beginning levels of grief and sorrow. I felt nothing but dread at the thought of living through the rest of my days without Lauren, I felt doubt that I alone could raise the three children we created together, and, for the first time since she died last November 20th, I felt guilt.
Last weekend, as I continued on reading the letters we wrote to each other during all our time apart, a process which has proved healing and comforting to me, I came across the one letter I feared: the last one I ever wrote to her.
Postmarked April 12, 1995, just five days before she finally arrived her, five days before the end of the nearly nine month separation we endured after our wedding, the letter sang with my excitement and joy over the fact that we finally stood at the cusp of starting what I thought would be a long, long journey together through life.
As I read the letter last weekend, it brought back very vivid memories; memories of seeing her walk throught the arrivals gate at JFK that day, memories of the limo ride back upstate, memories of the second honeymoon we took, on the coast of Maine, that week; memories of us finally moving in to our first place together, the first night, of boxes all over the place and wine and Chinese takeout and collapsing together into bed, our bed, in our place, and thinking, my god, I've died and gone to heaven.
As I read the letter last weekend, it brought up something else, too; it brought up guilt.
I read that letter and thought, if I'd known then what I know now I would have given you a big hug, my dear, and sent you on your way on the next flight back home; if you'd never met me, if you'd never come to live here with me, perhaps you would have had a chance, perhaps everything would have turned out differently, perhaps you would have met another man and had another marriage and perhaps you would not have lost your life so terribly, and so young: I think, I've boiled it down to this: my love, I may have cost you your life.
I do the best I can; sometimes that's just fine, and other times, I know it is not enough.
Today Bailey had a half day at school and I picked him up at eleven thirty, and we drove over to a toy store to get a gift certificate for a birthday party he's going to tomorrow. Yeah, Lauren woulda found out what the girl likes and found some perfectly fitting present for her, even if it took her all day: as my sister put it, purposeful giving, that was Lauren. Me, I figure I'm doing good if I get him to the party on time with a card and some sort of gift in his hands.
Anyway, this particular toy store, me and Lauren had walked through there many a time, we purchased Bailey's first car seat there, we bought his first bicycle there, too, and anyway, as we walk in Bailey wants to look around, what nine year old boy wouldn't want to look around in a toy store, and as we walk I think of me and Lauren in there, buying his car seat, buying his bike, and it takes a massive and total effort for me to avoid just breaking down right there, I can feel the sobs rising up from my stomach and into my chest. Bailey does not want me to cry in front of him and I have been assured this is a normal reaction for a nine year old who has just had his world crushed, and I have done very well on that front, but at that moment in the toy store I think, I wish he'd give me a pass just this once.
My sister agreed to take him overnight tonight, her son is his age and she had two slightly older daughters who have taken a shine to him; he likes staying there, he likes it a lot. But after we leave the toy store we still have a good ninety minutes until my sister's ready for him, so I take him out to lunch, at a diner near where my sister lives, which also happens to be near where our first apartment sits.
I drive slowly by the old place, our first place together, I look at it longingly, I think of the day we moved in, and the weekend we moved out, and the Paul Westerberg show, and all of that, combined with the rough week and the trip to the toy store, well, it all gets to me, so that by the time we sit down at the diner, I figure it will take a miracle of Biblical proportions to keep me from openly weeping within the next thirty minutes.
Bailey orders a cheeseburger and fries and I order the fish fry special, and we wait for our food, and I realize I fail miserably; I can't say much of anything, all of my effort expended on the avoidance of tears. Through a straw he blows bubbles into his glass of soda, and I can't even bother to tell him to stop it.
The food comes and we eat in silence. He avoids looking at me, and I think, failure, he knows and the only thing he can do is look away from me so as to pretend that his dad is not collapsing in front of him.
Lauren always used to say to me, dear, why do you obsess over the past, yes, we all have regrets, but there's nothing you can do about it, other than go on and try to live as well as you can.
Tonight, when I came in through the back door, I thought of my failure with Bailey today, I thought of the past, and I thought of the future, a dismal one, but a future nonetheless; and my two babies, Evie and Riley, squealed with delight and ran toward me, and I picked them both up, one in each arm, and I thought to myself, well, good thing I am strong, I thought to myself, how in the hell will we make it, I thought to myself, the past is gone, keep going, the past is gone, what else can I do but keep going and wait for this rain to end.
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