My boxes are packed, the movers are scheduled, and my timing royally sucks.
It seemed like a great idea to pack up my Chicago apartment and move home to Washington State in the days Before Jeff. It’s a no-brainer from a work perspective since I’ll be closer to my Silicon Valley headquarters and since I spend more time in airports than I do in my high-rise apartment anyway.
In the last month alone, I’ve pitched prospective clients in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Denver, Spokane, Wash., and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The West Coast just makes more sense from a logistics perspective.
From a love-life perspective, though, not so much.
“Sorry I’m leaving, love” I text Jeff as I turn in aimless circles inside my empty walk-in closet. “My timing is terrible.”
“Neither one of us planned for ‘us’ to happen back in August and you already had all of these wheels in motion,” Jeff texts back. “There’s no need to apologize.”
He is certainly right that we didn’t plan this. There is no way to plan for two lives to collide this way. Jeff and I are a sudden but solid “we”. Inseparable when I am in town, we walk in lockstep, inside jokes bubble effortlessly between us, my hand seems to belong inside of his, our bodies seem to fit together as though they are returning home.
I’ve learned a lot about him. Enough to know that I want to keep him around.
I know, for instance, that he is not a teacher but an administrator at a school for kids with severe developmental disabilities and trauma-related behavior issues. He loves “his kids” as he calls them and tapes their drawings to his refrigerator even though they consistently test him.
An innocent text-message inquiry such as “how is your day?” might get this response from Jeff:
“So far, so good. One girl drank a bottle of body fragrance and another kid stabbed a staff member in the stomach with a pencil but, you know, pretty decent as we hit noon.”
I know that he completes the New York Times crossword puzzle with ease, pulling a red ballpoint pen from his pocket to fill in the squares with his perfect penmanship. I know that he is irrepressibly optimistic with an inherent morning-person disposition that causes me — a night owl — to cover my head with a pillow to drown out the sound of his pre-sunrise shower-time concerts for one. I know that he loves music and that if I’m having a bad day, he’ll send me a playlist to cheer me up.
I know that I love him in a way that makes me wonder if I’ve ever really loved before.
“I’m really enjoying falling for you,” Jeff tells me later that evening, his arm wrapped around my waist, holding me close to his warm body in protection against the cool October air that rushes to meet us as we walk out the doors after an early evening concert at City Winery.
It’s my last Saturday night as a Chicago resident and Jeff wants to make the evening special, but he’s also balancing his annual Halloween bash, which is currently raging inside his home.
As we hurry back to the sprawling Lakeview apartment he shares with friends, I curl into his side in the cab, feeling the warmth of his skin beneath the maroon- and gray-striped sweater he often wears on date nights. I’m glowing from the intimate show, the shared bottle of pinot noir, and the knowledge that I’m falling for him too.
Nah. I’ve already fallen.
It’s probably time to tell him, I think as we pull up to the curb on the corner of West Stratford Place and Lakeshore Drive.
We can hear the sounds of the party before the elevator doors open, and I wonder if the tiny, sour woman riding to the sixth floor with us is going to call the cops. She is anger exuded. I’m not the least bit surprised when she bursts out of the elevator before the ding finishes dinging and heads straight for the propped-open door to Jeff’s apartment.
But I am a little surprised when she bursts through that door too.
“Excuse me,” Jeff’s voice is the firmest that I’ve ever heard it and his words freeze the woman in place. “Can I help you?” He does not sound helpful.
She spins on her heel in surprise. We are not (yet) costumed so she didn’t expect us to be going to the party. A raging party I can see from peeking around Jeff’s back. He has firmly planted himself in the doorway, blocking the red-faced woman from a quick retreat.
She huffs something about unauthorized gatherings and Jeff’s voice is now the coldest that I’ve ever heard it. And the loudest.
“Funny,” he fumes. “I don’t remember authorizing you to enter my home.”
I can see that the woman wants to flee. The people inside — men dressed in flowing capes and women dressed in little more than sparkles and paint — are turning to stare, and she is trapped between pointing painted ladies and one looming, incensed resident.
I put my hand on Jeff’s arm, feeling the furious heat of his skin beneath the date sweater. He calms slightly with the touch and makes just enough space for the woman to squeeze past him and back to the elevator. All the while he looms.
The entire time that it takes for the elevator to return to the sixth floor, where it disgorges another group of costumed partygoers, the woman and Jeff are yelling at each other.
I do not like this scene. I don’t like it one bit. That tiny, angry woman should not have entered the apartment, but Jeff towers over her. He should not be yelling. Or looming.
Once inside and sans intruder, we head straight for Jeff’s room where I tuck a skin-tight, off-the-shoulder sweater into a flaring white-and-black skirt before shoving my thick blonde braid into a curling, red wig.
For his part, Jeff is busy both ranting about the woman barging into his apartment and trying, unsuccessfully, to cram his 6-foot-three-inch frame into a far-too-small onesie that we found in the back of my closet while I was packing moving boxes. It takes him a while to realize that I’m not speaking at all.
“Are you…OK?” he asks uncertainly. I’ve yet to get angry with Jeff, so he isn’t sure what to make of my silence.
Wordlessly, I kneel to pull the cuffs of his onesie up to his calves, giving him the necessary room to wriggle into the bold, red-and-white maple leaf now emblazoned across his chest.
Stepping back to survey my work, it is seriously hard not to laugh. Jeff is dressed like a trussed-up Canadian flag.
But I still emit no words as I brush on bright red lipstick, tie the bow of my high-heeled shoes around my ankles, and set a wooden baseball bat on my shoulder.
With a disapproving glare over my shoulder at the Canadian flag, I flounce out the door and into the party. I’m certain that the dignified Annie Savoy from the movie Bull Durham would not put up with such uncouth behavior from her lovers.
There is a Playboy Bunny rolling around on my boyfriend’s bed. Her black corset stands out against her white-blonde hair and her pink bunny ears are tangled in the sheets.
Wait, no, those aren’t sheets.
Her pink bunny ears are tangled in the white bonnet of a handmaid whose ankle-length cloak blends in with the deep red of Jeff’s comforter. Both the white bonnet and the red cloak are still attached to the handmaid, but Offred doesn’t notice the bunny ears tangled in her bonnet wings because she is passed out cold.
It takes me a moment to register the scene, so I stand frozen in the doorway for some time, unsure whether to back out of the room or continue on to retrieve the little lipstick-covered joint that my friend Joy and I stashed on the bookshelf.
My eyes turn to a foot propped up on the other side of the bed, and I trace the impossibly long, bare leg of a woman who is all shiny skin and glittery paint. The leg is attached to Jeff’s gorgeous 20-something roommate, Angelica, who huddles with said boyfriend, and their other roommate, who is also named Jeff.
My Jeff notices me first and straightens, pulling away slightly from the roommate huddle to meet my eyes. He takes in the look on my face and then takes a scan of the room, wincing at the scene.
Angelica places her propped-up foot back on the ground and straightens as well.
Good lord. What is she? Six-feet tall? And what is she anyway? A fairy? A nymph? Whatever she is supposed to be, she is definitely an absolute goddess.
I start to back out the door when the male roommate stops me.
“He’s sorry,” he says earnestly to me. “He’s sorry for yelling at that lady.”
I know my face must have hardened because my entire countenance calcifies. The fact that they were talking about me does not help this seriously weird situation.
Jeff winces for a second time and puts on his firm voice again.
“OK,” he announces. “Everybody out.”
He uses his Yeti stride to cross the room, gently pulling the door I’m gripping from my fingers and opening it wider. Reaching his other hand out to me he guides me into the room.
“Not you,” he says quietly. “You stay.”
We stand by the door as the goddess, the Playboy Bunny, and Jeff Number Two file out of the room. Jeff stares at the bed and the handmaid passed out there.
“I guess you can stay, too,” he says to the unresponsive heap of red cloak and white bonnet.
Shutting the door, he turns to me and wordlessly holds out his arms. I am still a little salty, but I rest my head on the maple leaf of his chest and he wraps his soft, red-flagged arms around me.
“I am sorry that I yelled at that lady,” he says, pressing his lips into the curls of my red wig.
“You didn’t just yell,” I correct, my voice muffled by the maple leaf, “you –”
“ — loomed.” Jeff interjects. “Yeah, I know. Joy told me why you’re mad.”
“Look, I overreacted, I know. It’s just that I’ll always protect you and my friends,” he keeps his arms wrapped tightly around me.
I remember how he stepped between me and the angry woman and how he pivoted his body to keep a barrier between her and me even as she retreated for the elevator.
“You can’t yell at women that way,” I say firmly and feel him nod against my wig.
“I’m sorry. I just got protective of my people,” he extricates one hand from our embrace to wave it toward the commotion on the other side of the door.
“Your ‘people’ are Playboy bunnies and nymphs who roll around in your bed,” I sniff, still buried in the warmth of the maple leaf.
I can feel the rumble of his belly laugh and this makes me stiffen and pull away to glare up at him.
“Hey,” he says looking deep into my eyes and tilting my chin up with a finger. “I’m not going anywhere. Ever.”
I melt. He sees right through me and into the fear of abandonment that sometimes whips up unreasonable jealousy within me.
“I love you,” the words just burst out.
We’ve danced around the sentiment, we’ve even written the phrase in text messages, but it’s the first time those three words are stated out loud between us.
Jeff’s hazel gaze never wavers. “I love you, too.”
Offred doesn’t stir on the bed, but I swear the whole world shifts beneath my high-heeled shoes with the bows.
Author’s note: This essay is adapted from a memoir I’m writing about traveling through the globe and through grief. Most names are changed to protect bunnies and nymphs. All costumed humans in this story, including goddesses, handmaids, and Playboy bunnies, are now dear friends. All supported Jeff throughout his illness and death from cancer at the age of 40.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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