My place

“He came here for you,” his Lovely Wife, Denise says to me.

I’ve heard these words before, almost exactly, and so I pause. I take them in, the words and Denise’s expression, looking for signs of distress. It’s what I do. Because I am careful. But I don’t see anything to worry about in her megawatt smile.

We are at a small gathering of high school friends. I have only just been introduced to Denise. Husband Emilio and I were classmates one thousand years and one minute ago, a couple of silly kids in an English class, made legendary by the inimitable “Uncle Bernie.” Like good Roman Catholic school teenagers with the fear of God a constant presence, we addressed him as “Mr.” and his proper last name, but the tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed, somewhat disheveled man allowed us the occasional term of endearment. Bernie was that kind of magical beast, one who inspired respect without fear, affection without confusion. At least once a week, his bright eyes and dark moustache, all of which sloped downward at the outer edges, would stop me dead in my tracks on my way out of class and plead with me.

“Young lady, are you fluent in Spanish?”

“Yessir.”

“Do you have Don Quixote in Spanish?”

“Nosir.”

“You must read Don Quixote in Spanish! Another language…this is a gift!”

He would speak the words and then gaze out the windows at the back of the classroom, his head rocking in deep disappointment, the tragedy of my wasted privilege bearing down on the corners of his moustache.

“Yessir.”

And off I would go to my next class, hating to disappoint him, but of course, never doing the damn thing.

Emilio loved Uncle Bernie too. There was a lot to love. The epic interchange that stayed with Emilio for decades? Well, despite knowing what the exact repercussions would be, Emilio neglected to read one of our assignments, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. On quiz day, having defied all warnings, Emilio decided to not go silently into that big, honking Zero he was about to receive. He went down with this battle cry, written boldly on his quiz sheet for Bernie to see:

“High school is wack. I want my money back.”

Bernie was not to be outwitted. Outpoeted. And so, right next to that big, honking Zero, his final rebuttal:

“Emilio is a crook. He does not read a book.”

I didn’t get to know Emilio well. We moved among our other 500 classmates without crossing much more than a crowded maze of hallways. We didn’t have many other classes together. What’s more, with our last names on opposite ends of the alphabet, even in the classes we shared, we were several rows – and therefore, planets – apart. But for some reason, at the start of Bernie’s classes, Emilio decided that he would continue to defy the system and sit next to me.

I don’t remember if he did it once or a hundred times. But I have a clear memory of the sight and sound of Emilio ever-so-matter-of-factly standing up from his side of the room, gathering his books, and marching over to my side, maybe four or five rows over. Don’t ask me why or how the chair to my left was often empty. Next, I hear the sound of the chair being dragged over mine until the edges bump. Then, as if nothing odd has occurred, Emilio sitting down, adjusting his glasses against the bridge of his nose, and then crossing his hands in front of him. The final touch: A gentleman’s nod to Bernie. Class may now begin.

Clearly, Bernie didn’t mind this scene. No small miracle in this little corner of the Bronx, where detention was doled out for things as insignificant as wearing the wrong color socks. But as a man of literature and a father of young sons, Bernie was likely either amused or charmed. Equally as miraculous was my own ease in it. I was outwardly joyful and open and engaged in high school, but as plagued by insecurities as the next adolescent girl in the throes of hormonal chaos. I could not receive attention that wasn’t strictly brotherly and playful. Something like this – a rare occasion – should have sent me either straight into the girl’s bathroom or behind a wall of embarrassed cackling. Somehow, though, it was ok.

Maybe it’s because it was all there was. Nothing else. No notes. No whispers. No hidden agenda. Just Emilio changing his place.

We blinked.

And over 40 years later, Emilio is a husband, a father, and happy ex-classmate walking toward me in this local restaurant. We are a long way away from that endearing 1980’s scene, and we’re all joy and hugs and heartfelt Oh-my-Gods. I am so pleased that he is as happy to see me as I am to see him, and I immediately wonder how much he remembers. We all keep different memories. But in this moment, it seems that at the very least, the details don’t matter. We remember each other.

After our affectionate hello, I tell him that he must introduce me to his famous wife, please. Her smile on his social media posts is as potent as a Broadway spotlight, and to top it off, she has recently let her stunning gray hair reveal itself. Not a big deal for men, I know, but for us women, a revolutionary act.

Emilio walks me over to where Denise is already seated. Her gorgeousness and authenticity packs a mighty punch.

From behind the megawatt smile, she says, “He came here for you.”

Oh. “Did he?”

She looks over at her husband, tells him what she’s sharing with me, and they both look back at me, heads nodding, fingers pointing, true sentiment confirmed.

I have no words, really. And don’t want to gush. But instinctively, my hand comes up to my heart. It is grateful.

Denise has no way of knowing my history with those words, spoken so matter-of-factly in this happy moment. But there are other “here for you’s.” Complicated ones delivered by Bitter Wives, who would just as soon deliver an elbow to my teeth. Defensive ones delivered by past loves as they explain my place in their lives to their wives.

But on this night, at this fabulously noisy table among my fellow high school crazies, my heart recognizes something different. A gift. A “here to see you” that sticks in its truth and simplicity. Nothing else. No notes. No whispers. No hidden agenda.

As I step away from the light of that Friday night and the weekend unfolds, my heart marinates in these words. Somewhere in between Saturday and Sunday to-dos, I take a mindful break, allowing it reveal other gifts, other truths.

I have never been a wife. It’s the way my path has unfolded. And I believe I’ve carried its gifts and burdens gracefully. Some of the heavier burdens, though, have not come from the likely places. I don’t have a parent who told me I had to be married or that my worth was contingent upon a man’s romantic attention. Where did the burdens come from? A thousand random places. And they live somewhere inside of me. So I scan my body for all the aches and tight spots, noting that some of them pebbles, some of them boulders, are firmly lodged in the spot between my heart and stomach. I don’t blame myself for it. Don’t try to fix it or tell myself what I should or should not have listened to. As a matter of course in my existence as a human being, it’s what I do. What most of us do unknowingly. We absorb things, especially the ones that touch that sensitive spot, the one that holds all my other fears and judgements. They sit, waiting for the Truth to dissolve them.

How is a rock formation built? Slowly but surely. It begins with the question that has no quick answer, the one posed by everyone from caring family members to curious coworkers to chatty hairdressers, asked at just about every single turn for a full two decades. “Why aren’t you married?” It is held firmly in place by every hideous bridesmaid’s gown created, every toss of a bouquet, at the endless string of wedding celebrations in those family-building years that are your 20s and 30s. As the years pass and the questions subside, the hope of white gowns and offspring shifting from Search and Rescue to Recovery, a new rock arrives. It comes in the female form, sometimes from the spouse whose husband likes to chat with me. I am the conversation they interrupt, without so much as an “excuse me.” Sometimes it’s the younger, single friend, for whom I am the outcome they dread. Sometimes it’s the elderly family member or random acquaintance, whose mission it is to fix my course. Sometimes it’s the creature in a devastatingly sad marriage, who considers the alternative even sadder.

Self-pity need not apply. The truth is that the world does not celebrate an unmarried life. It pities it. Despite its own potential for Divinity, there is no Sacrament of Singlehood. If I’m chosen, only God knows it. And so, more times that I can count, I’ve found that my place at this Earthly table is often forgotten. Interchangeable. And when it can’t be forgotten, when “my place” exposes itself, I’m often shoved into hiding. Or flashed as a warning. Or contorted into something menacing.

But suddenly, My Place has cleared itself. Revealed itself to me. As I lay with my eyes closed, thinking of the words and all the times I’ve heard them, I know-see-feel-hear a spot, like a patch of Spring grass in Central Park where the sun hits just so, and it’s perfect. I suddenly know-see-feel-hear that I’ve chosen who and what can reside here. And I know-see-feel-hear that its existence marks its worthiness. Nothing else. As my chest expands with a deep, grateful breath, I see other places I reside, places in other people’s hearts, sacred and untouchable. What magic it is to visit them all, past and yet-to-be-cleared, here, today, yesterday, and tomorrow, for me.

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