“Sit down, Ellie,” Pap Pap would say while Grandma started to wash the dishes. Or sometimes, “Hey, Ellie, I’ll get it.”
She’d refuse, but he was more persistent. He would move to the sink in front of her, pick up a dish, and start washing, gently edging her away and forcibly doing her a favor. This was how they expressed love—by battling each other over chores, trying to relieve each other of the burden, no matter how small or insignificant, rather than trying to pass them off on each other the way sitcom couples or my own parents might.
Pap Pap and Grandma became my romantic ideal, almost making up for my own parents’ difficult marriage. Pap Pap and Grandma still held hands in their 70s. They exchanged quick, light kisses during the Sign of Peace in church. They rarely fought, at least that I saw, and I couldn’t imagine what they’d possibly have to fight over.
Instead of the leading man in a romance or a Prince Charming, I wanted to find a man like my grandfather—respectful, considerate, and loving, yet relaxed and funny, the kind of man I didn’t think existed anymore. As much as I wanted that, I thought it was some relic of the past, from a time when men were different. After all, “Men only want one thing,” I’d been told over and over again. I thought I’d have to settle for someone mediocre, but mediocrity was better than loneliness.
I never expected to find a boyfriend at my younger brother’s high-school graduation. In fact, when I first met Paul, we barely spoke. What I did expect was we’d rarely see each other or speak in the future, aside from fleeting, casual encounters involving our siblings, who were friends. I thought Paul was just another guy who wouldn’t bother talking to me again, which was okay. I wanted to stay single, especially with my senior year of college approaching. I told myself I wouldn’t have time for a relationship and didn’t need any added stress. I didn’t like guys my age, either—I found them obnoxious, annoying, and immature. My ideal partner was a few years older than me, who wouldn’t laugh at a double entendre in class or brag about a kegger, and I figured I wouldn’t find a man like that until after I graduated and started working.
These were also just well-reasoned justifications. I was giving up after having little romantic interest paid to me and a few crushes and flirting that went nowhere.
But Paul ruined my plan.
“How’s Eleanor doing?” a post-office employee asked Pap Pap.
Grandma had Hodgkins Lymphoma. The chemotherapy took her hair and left her tired, weak, and drained, which left the family thinking the Hodgkins would win.
Pap Pap shook his head, tears in his eyes.
Fortunately, we were wrong. Hodgkins lost, at least temporarily.
Paul fell for me before I fell for him. I’d see his name pop up on my computer, indicating he was online, and within seconds, he’d message me. My friend Terra and I made a game of it, trying to guess just how much time would pass before I’d get a message. He usually got to me before I even told Terra he’d signed on.
But still, I fell. I spent the summer not just talking to him but talking about him, bringing him up almost constantly to the point that I was self-conscious of just how much I talked about him.
“I think I like Paul,” I told Terra.
“No shit, Sherlock,” she said.
Pap Pap died a week before Thanksgiving.
We sat around the table enjoying each other’s company but still raw—still shocked by the suddenness, still hurting, still grieving.
By Christmas, Grandma hadn’t decorated the house—she said she didn’t feel like it. The big tree in the yard Pap Pap always strung with lights was dark, and the loveseat was still in its usual corner, unmoved to make way for the Christmas tree.
Decorations were only put up because my aunt put them up herself. She offered to host our annual Christmas celebration, too, making it the first Christmas I hadn’t celebrated at my grandparents’.
My cousin Meredith and I woke up the morning after my 21st birthday party in her bed and groaned. I’d spent most of the night alternating between throwing up and lying on the cool, soothing bathroom tiles, with an interlude of crying out of frustration. I’m only an emotional drunk when I’m sick, and I’m usually emotional about being sick.
We went downstairs, ate some pasta salad, and went back to bed. After a few more hours, I went home, took a bath, and slept on the way to Paul’s brother’s graduation party.
I felt terrible, and I probably looked pretty terrible, too. I was groggy, quiet, and never took my sunglasses off. I was also surprisingly grateful to be in a place with lots of food. Nutrients needed restored.
“Her 21st birthday party was last night,” my dad said to Jacob and Paul’s parents when we arrived.
“Want a beer?” their dad asked.
Paul shyly followed me around all night, sitting hear me and making small talk. He sat next to me instead of his friends.
I thought I was arrogant to assume his attention translated to a crush, but by the end of the summer, we were dating, just before I went on vacation and he went off to college three hours away.
Two months after I decided to stay single because my senior year of college would be too busy and I wasn’t interested in guys my age, I was entering a long-distance relationship with a guy a year younger than me.
Grandma was suddenly silent. We were in the living room—me on the floor, her on the couch—with the front door open, letting the spring sunlight and a breeze in as my mom watered Pap Pap’s flowers in the garden. We had been talking about the flowers, about him.
When I looked up at her, her head was in her hands and she was crying.
People talk about the moments they know they were in love or when they felt truly loved, but I don’t have either. I have no idea when I fell in love with Paul. I do know I fell gradually. I do know I had lots of clues, which I ignored.
I was scared. I’d never been scared by the thought of being with someone before. I realized in a brief panic I could end up heartbroken. But so could he. By entering a relationship, I was taking the biggest risk I ever had. I was trusting him more than I had ever trusted anyone. I was trusting him to not hurt me, and he was doing the same with me.
Fear is powerful. Despite many great reasons to be with him and the fact that I was probably in love with him before I knew, I had plenty of excuses not to. They were all shallow and stupid.
My only legitimate reason was my fear I just liked the attention. I didn’t consider the fact that I have never fallen for a guy just because he paid attention to me. In fact, I usually got sick of guys that I talked to daily, and I stopped talking to a friend who could not accept that I did not want to make out with him. Ever. Not even that one time I did make out with him.
Fear should’ve been a sign I was falling in love with Paul. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so irrational. I wouldn’t have cared.
But I really knew I was in love because I stopped wondering what love felt like and wishing I’d experience it.
Paul was the greatest guy I’d ever met. I never ran out of things to say to him. I never got annoyed with him or tired of him. I was incredibly comfortable with him, even in the awkward early days of dating. He was sweet, funny, and respectful. He was just the kind of man I wanted—a man that had the same qualities as my grandfather. A man I had convinced myself didn’t exist.
“Kiss?” Paul asked quietly after a few dates.
I quickly agreed, and he gave me a swift peck that was more on my cheek than my lips.
I was used to kisses being messy and stolen.
Grandma never took off her wedding ring.
After my mom told me she’d died, I thought of my grandparents reunited in the afterlife. The thought made me cry—not because I was mourning, but because I liked to think of them as being together forever.
“Jim’s up there rolling out the red carpet for her up there,” my uncle said at her funeral.
Paul made me happier than anyone else ever had. He’d brush snow off my car in the winter, cook for me when I visited him in college, tell me I was beautiful, take my hand and kiss each one of my fingertips. I couldn’t imagine a life without him or with anyone else.
“I wish Pap Pap and Grandma could’ve met him,” I said to my mom. “They would’ve loved him.”
“I think Pap Pap is responsible for him,” she said.
“So do I.”
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