Today I was debating what to write about. I’ve wanted to write something, but the last couple of weeks or so were tough. Tough in a slightly different way than the last month has been, at least. See, the day after my last post, Labor Day Saturday, was the day Julienne and I regarded as our anniversary (because we got married on Labor Day Saturday and a three-day weekend is a great way to celebrate our love together) and it was the day we renewed our vows every year afterwards. The next day, September 1st, was the five-year anniversary of when we got together. A few days later, on September 4th, was the anniversary of when we were legally married in front of a judge in a courtroom. The next day, September 5th, was the actual date we wed in front of our family and friends in a small (by today’s standards) ceremony full of love, joy, and hope.
That was a brutal run to go on for me. I missed her presence, her touch, her smile, her laugh, the way she would lean her head into my shoulder when we hugged or sat on the couch or in bed, the smell of her hair, the feel of her hand fitting into mine, the way she would greet me every day when I got home, the way her eyes looked into mine…. Well, everything. I missed it all more intensely with every day that passed. I still do. It hurts inside in a way that I cannot describe. I would also do it all over again, without question, because no matter how bad I feel right now, Julienne made every day a great one. Every day. Whether we were at home, in France, in a hospital room for chemo, in the woods, wherever, every day was a great day because I saw her first thing when I woke up and the last moment before I slept, and in between she made sure I knew she loved me and I did everything I could to make sure she knew that I loved her more intensely than anything in multiverse. I still do.
So it took me a while to get to the point where I could contemplate putting words down again. I thought about writing about grief, the way it feels, the things I’m going through. But during this time of complete depression and utter anguish, I had a therapy appointment. Going to therapy once a week was one of the things I promised Julienne that I would do, along with cooking at least once per week, as part of a list of things she made me draw up and sign, and she added legalese and witnessed it. She’s a lawyer through and through.
My therapist saw me on Labor Day itself, when I was feeling wrung out and empty and hollow. We talked for a little bit about my abject sorrow, and then she pivoted. She told me to tell her the story of how I met Julienne and our whirlwind romance. So I did. For 45 straight minutes (I had to skip through a lot. Everything I have to say about that will take a long time to say). And even though I’d been thinking about that a lot, it helped to express it not as something torn from my life, but a way to revisit the intense joy of it all. It didn’t help right away, but gradually I thought more about the past as a comfort rather than an open wound. And because of that, I decided instead to write about meeting Julienne. And here we are. I imagine this will be a little easier to read than my original idea.
Here we go.
I’ve said before that I met Julienne at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Now, this isn’t a normal place to meet people. At least, not a place to meet normal people. As my friend Holly said (she was quoting somebody else but I don’t know that person so Holly gets the credit here) when discussing the romantic possibilities available at the faire, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” She’s 109% right. And don’t get me wrong. Some of the greatest people in the world that I know and love go to the faire regularly, some of whom I met there, and they are among the kindest, most creative, funny, and fun people in the world. I mean, I met Julienne there, for crying out loud. But also, many of the weirdest, drunkest, stupidest, and worst people in the world I also met there, so it’s a mixed bag.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
While I have been going to festivals and faires since I was a young teen (best field trip ever), I’d never anticipated working at one. As an adult, I worked full-time Monday through Friday, I was married, I had no skills that would lend themselves to employment there beyond rudimentary leatherworking and carpentry experience (I am a larper and basement bar enthusiast, after all). I am no slick-talking salesman and talking to strangers is not my thing. I knew a couple of people who worked there (that I knew of), so the idea of spending the weekends there working just wasn’t something that seemed likely.
In 2013, circumstances changed. I was separated from my wife (a story that is long and I won’t delve into here because who the fuck cares) and living in a one-room extended stay hotel for the month of July. It was miserable. It’s one of the darkest times of my life, isolating and utterly lonely, and I was having a hard time getting through. I was waiting to start or had just started a new job that I would grow to hate very quickly. It was very unpleasant.
One day, though, as I paced in the 7 or 8 feet of room I had to walk, I got a phone call. Normally a phone call is a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. I hate talking on the phone. It makes me restless and agitated, possibly because I can’t see body language or communicate that way, and I’m terrible at getting off the phone so I pace in agony. Five years as a phone support tech was torture and diminished my capability to stand a phone call even more afterwards.
So anyway, phone call. I picked it up because it came from a friend, one who I hadn’t talked to on the phone before. Matt. I’d larped with him for a couple of years at this point and he knew my situation. He had an offer for me. His girlfriend, Holly, was the apprentice blacksmith at a booth at the Maryland Ren Faire. Matt worked most weekends with her, selling his leather goods and helping generally with the booth. He knew I wrote and thought I might enjoy going down with him, seeing how an old forge and blacksmith operated as info for future stories, hanging out at the faire, and generally getting away from life for a bit. It wouldn’t start until August, but he thought he’d make the offer. No one would be paid, but it would be a thing to do.
Now normally, this is the thing I don’t do – commit to a long-term plan in the future. But my present was very up in the air and fucked up, so I did a very uncharacteristic thing. I accepted the offer. It felt weird doing it, like I couldn’t understand why I was agreeing. It was as if someone took over my mouth and brain and said, “Yeah, OK, Matt, that sounds cool. Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks.” I mean, I was planning on going back to my house on August 1st to try to repair my marriage, and being away most weekends starting at the end of the month until the last weekend in October didn’t seem to be a good fit. But I accepted anyway. Very weird and uncharacteristic behavior for me.
By mid-August, though, it became clear that my marriage was all over but the crying, drinking, and paperwork. I got an apartment with a year-long lease. We were “separating” again, but one doesn’t get a year-long lease if one thinks one’s marriage is going to get fixed, does one? This one didn’t at any rate. So when Matt called to ask if we were still on, I didn’t hesitate. I was going to work, for zero pay (I’m an accountant, this is an important point for me), at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. On the weekends he was available to work the faire, he’d pick me up on Friday night, we’d drive down to stay with Holly in Baltimore, get up way too early, drive down to Crownsville, and spend ten to twelve hours working a booth for no wages. I was strangely excited for it. Nervous as hell, too. I was going to be selling weapons and jewelry and shackles and odds and ends to either a) people who thought I was a carnie or b) drunk people who thought I was a carnie or c) drunk people who thought I was too normal. None of this was in my wheelhouse.
I was prepared in advance for what to expect. Not the faire in general – I’d been to a lot and was ready for that aspect – but the unique challenges involved with being in a booth full of sharp implements that drunk people could pick up and act the fool with while working for a cantankerous older blacksmith with OCD who resented when people bought things from him. At least, Matt and Holly tried. It was so much worse than I ever anticipated.
I was issued one (1) red rag. I was to have that red rag on me at all times. I was to oil and wipe down every steel object with said red rag. Anytime anyone placed a finger on steel, it was to be wiped right away with my red rag. If I lost my red rag, I would be stabbed. If I dropped my red rag, it would be yelled about in front of everyone like I’d dropped a baby. All of the signage and weapons had to be placed in the exact right spots that Rorik, the smith, had laid out in his head and didn’t tell you about. Every receipt had to be filled out by hand legibly and correctly or Scott, the man who managed the books and put a boot in everyone’s ass who needed it, from Rorik to me to customers, would give you The Look over his glasses and shake his head.
Then, the patrons. Dear god, the patrons (we didn’t have customers, you see. People at the faire we sold things to were “patrons”). Every inane question possible was thrown out. “What kind of steel is it?” they would ask, knowing nothing about steel and therefore unable to understand the answer. “What kind of wood is it made from?” How the fuck would I know, and who gives a shit? “What’s it like to be hit with that?” Let me show you. “I’m not 18, can I buy this knife?” Kid, you’ve got cash, and that’s old enough for me. How your parents feel is your problem.
People would pick everything up despite signs every 4 inches telling them not to without permission. They’d set their drinks down next to the stuff despite signs every 2 inches telling them not to. People of all ages would tell me about their fucking D&D character. I’ve played D&D off and on since I was 10 and never in any of those considerable number of years have I ever given one flying fuck about anyone’s character. Drunk people – scratch that wasted people – would lean in and breathe nasty breath in my face as they slurred whatever thing they thought I should hear.
God, I fucking loved it.
It took a little bit, probably into the afternoon on my first day, when everything clicked for me. It’s probably around that time that I had a couple of drinks, which helped a lot. See, as long as we didn’t get drunk or fuck around or disappear when things got hectic, we could roam around or have a few drinks and everything was fine. The people-watching was utterly unreal. We could just sit back and let the beauty and oddity and hilarity of the festival and its patrons come to us. Actually, there was very little sitting. All of the seats were taken by the old hands at the booth who would grow roots on a stool and throw out the occasional “if you have any questions about anything, just ask” instead of doing anything helpful.
Matt and Holly, however, did things differently with the patrons. Matt especially, because half the time Holly was starting the forge, working on the forge, trying to convince Rorik to let her start the forge, and also being our resident jewelsmith, shortening chains, lengthening chains, all that. Matt thought it would be a good idea to engage the customers – excuse me, patrons – while they perused, to see if they were someone inclined to buy something, which seemed like a novel approach compared to the old-timers. I watched him work, chatting, smiling, answering questions, then turning around and muttering about the drunk assholes who swarmed us like flies.
I started trying it. I was no salesman, not at first, but I started trying to do the same. I was nattily dressed (as a larper I had a lot of garb. Like, enough to not wear the same outfit twice in a season), I had a decent smile, and once I realized that no one knew who I was or what I did, I discovered an ability to flirt. Nothing overt, but a bright smile and a twinkling eye and a few kind words not only helped sell but was fun. I’d never had the ability before, but in a puffy shirt, tight leggings, and a jaunty hat, I felt at ease. I was playing a role, and that was a hell of a lot more fun than playing Alan Edwards, accountant and miserable bastard.
I had a great time my first weekend. So much so that, a couple weeks later when Matt was working at his real job for a weekend, I came down anyway. It rapidly became the best part of my life. Instead of spending weekends in my drab apartment, I got to drink and flirt and tell patrons that the haft of this hammer was made of oak from the Black Forest in Germany (total bullshit), actual historical knowledge about some of the replica swords (the gladius being taken from a Spanish weapon used against the Romans and incorporated into the legions by Scipio Africanus, the greatest general in Roman history, yes, better than Julius Caesar), and to drop that weapon lest I cut off the little finger of their left hand. Since I worked a weapon booth, I could carry a sword on my back or at my hip, unlike the patrons, and I liked that.
Then, one day….
It was October, I know that. I believe it was Saturday, October 12th, 2013. I was dressed well. Very well. I had the jauntiest of jaunty hats (title disputed – Matt and I had a Jaunty Hat Contest as the season went on, adding feathers and accoutrements with abandon every weekend until by the end I had a tumble of feathers nearly touching my butt, but neither of us would concede to the other), black leggings with cross-lacing up the sides, black leather boots, and a lacy white shirt. I felt great. And I thought I looked good, too, which was not usual for me. I had no sense for what was fashionable in the Real World, but garb allowed me to explore all kinds of different looks and clothes. Half-capes. Over-the-knee boots. Vests. All kinds of fun things.
It was a gorgeous October day. Sunny but not too hot. I was looking out over the field in front of the booth, just casually people-watching. I had a slight buzz, the better to sell swords with. The booth was quiet, for a wonder, probably because Johnny Fox’s show was going on just a couple dozen yards away. I watched the milling crowd, and then….
I can still see it. The crowd parted. I saw her.
There’s this cliché in movies where someone sees someone, and suddenly everything around the person they see gets dim and the person they’re looking at gets brighter. You’ve probably seen it. Well, whoever did that first and created the cliché saw someone that made them feel that way. That is a real thing. That’s exactly how I saw Julienne for the first time. It was like a unicorn just calmly walking out of a forest in front of me. I was paralyzed.
She was wearing this:
I just stared at her as she walked diagonally across the front of the booth, getting closer all the time but on a trajectory that would take her past me. She was breathtakingly staggeringly painfully beautiful. She was walking arm in arm with someone that I assumed was her mother, smiling and talking and looking so happy. I was drowning in a flood of endorphins and going under with a dumb smile on my face.
Then she looked over at me. She met my eyes for a couple of seconds, smiling. My heart started beating so fast it might as well have been stopped. Then she did it again, her smile a little bigger, just before the crowd swallowed her up. I saw a couple of glimpses of her blonde hair but that was it. The unicorn just walked back into the forest.
I remember saying something to Matt or Holly or Scott or a wooden post or a hallucination about her, because I had to say something about her. How this vision of beauty had smiled at me – AT ME! – and then vanished into the crowd leaving the show across from us. I was stuck in the booth and couldn’t…. Nope, that’s a lie. I could’ve gone after her, introduced myself, done something, anything, but there was no way I could’ve done that. I have no game. I have less than no game. Plus, I’m, you know, a married-and-currently-separated 41 year old guy enchanted by an absolutely stunningly gorgeous 20-something woman, and what could I say about that? I had to content myself with the fact that I’d been lucky enough to see a unicorn.
Then, maybe fifteen minutes later, Matt or Holly or Scott or the wooden post or my friendly hallucination said, “Uh oh. Look who’s coming.” I turned and there she was walking towards the booth with her mom, smiling at me. I’m fairly certain I stopped processing anything mentally because the next thing I knew, her mother was standing by the left-most corner of the booth asking for help.
Meanwhile she was a few feet away to my left. I don’t know exactly how far because I couldn’t look at her. I looked straight at her mom and kept my eyes on her because I knew looking at the vision of beauty directly from that close proximity would kill me on the spot. Happily, my pupils were so dilated from my reaction to her being nearby that my peripheral vision gave me just about a 360 degree field of view. I wasn’t able to look at her, but I could see her very, very well.
I went over to help her mom, a big smile on my face. I suddenly felt… calm. By this point, I was used to selling things and helping people. As long as I didn’t have to talk to her I could do this. I asked the very-good-looking-in-her-own-right mom if I could help her. She didn’t want a knife or necklace or wrought-iron chandelier. She wanted a hook from the wall.
Well, I didn’t know what to do about that. We used the hooks to hang swords, and the sword the hook once held was gone so it was just a hook, and I wasn’t mentally prepared for this. Luckily, Rorik was nearby, so I asked him. I really really wanted to help this customer – errr, patron. To my relief, he just said, “Sure. Five bucks?”
Happy I was able to help the mother of the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid eyes on, I walked back, told her the price. The matter was settled. I found a screwdriver and we talked amiably and, I have to admit, a bit flirtatiously. It was mild banter, but it took a while for me to get the damn screw off the wall because the walls might have looked wooden but they had the consistency of granite. Getting the damned screws in or out was difficult with power tools, and we couldn’t use that in front of patrons. So I chatted happily as I worked on a great case of carpal tunnel. Then the following exchange took place:
“Does the hook come with the screw?”
“Madam,” says I, to the mother of the most beautiful woman I have ever (and will ever) laid eyes on, “every good thing comes with a screw.”
We laughed over our banter, and I’m pretty sure something was said about the length of time it took to remove the screw and how it’s always worth taking time, I bagged up the hook and screw, took her five-dollar bill, and looked at her and smiled. She was smiling back, clearly amused by the fact that I’d been flirting with her mother, and the glint in her eye told me that I’d done a good thing. They walked away, and I’d earned a couple of over-the-shoulder looks and smiles (she called it her Over the Shoulder Smolder, and boy did she have a great one).
Meanwhile, I felt great. I’d just had the best flirty banter I’d ever had in my entire life. The fact that it was with the mother of the person whose affections I was interested in didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d been charming! To a real human person! This was new territory for me.
A little while later I wandered away from the booth to talk to a friend, still within sight of the forge. I came back a couple of minutes later to discover that she’d bought me a beer and left it for me since I wasn’t there. The way Matt tells it, when he told her I wasn’t there and pointed to where I was standing talking to another woman, she said something about buying me a beer and slamming it on the counter and walking away. Julienne disputes this and says she just set it down and to tell me it was from her, and knowing both of them and Matt’s delight in torturing his friends, I believe her.
Now, I’d only had his version of the events at this point, so I was worried. I tracked her down and thanked her for the beer and explained where I was and who I’d been talking to. She smiled and said it was no problem, and told me that she’d be at the White Hart Tavern (right in front of the booth) for the ending sing-along they did every night as the festival closed (they have since stopped doing this, because people stayed past the closing cannon too long and people like Rorik complained about it. It’s a crying shame) at 6:30 if I’d like to meet her there to talk.
Meet. Her. There. Meet HER there. ME, meet her there.
Of course absolutely thanks thatsoundsgreat okthenI’llseeyouthenokcoolyeahcoolokgreat. Whatever charm I’d had earlier was gone, long gone, vanished like it had never been.
As I waited for the appropriate time, I was nervous. No, that’s a lie. I was freaking the fuck out. The prettiest girl at the fair had bought me a drink and asked me out. I was, to reiterate, a married-and-currently-separated 41 year old guy. She was so far out of my league that I didn’t know if I was supposed to hit the basketball through the goalposts for a hat trick or what. I was going, make no mistake, but I knew where this was going, and it was going to be over quickly.
I made my over at the appropriate time, looked ‘round and there she was (driftin’ on air she was, with ribbons and braids in her hair she was, the prettiest girl at the fair) standing, a beer in each hand, and we started talking. Small talk at first, each of us putting little fragments of information out in as charming a way we could. Her name was Julienne but her friends called her Jules. I was Alan and no one gave me nicknames. She was in law school in Miami, I was an accountant in Delaware, she was visiting her parents, I was working with friends on the weekends, she was 24, I was 41 record scratch
No way, she said. She didn’t believe me. I had to pull out my driver’s license to prove it to her. There it was, I thought. It was a good run. Fifteen minutes can be a good run, right?
Jules laughed, said wow, handed me back my license. Never would have guessed, she said. Then she shrugged. I don’t really care about that, she said.
Oh shit. OK.
I bought the next round. We were both nervous (I learned this only in retrospect. Julienne told me later that she was nervous as hell and felt like she was babbling like an idiot, but she definitely was not) and both could drink very quickly so the first round was long gone. She was witty, charming, funny, expressive, and smart. I was babbling like a brook but had less insightful things to say than one. I was enjoying myself so much that time was flying by. But I knew. I knew I had to tell her.
I’m married. Separated, currently, but on the road to divorce.
A pause. Any kids?
Another pause. Then a shrug.
I’m coming back for another visit in a few weeks. Want to grab dinner one night?
Yes, yes I would.
My head was spinning. The faire was closing, she had to leave, I had to close up the booth. I had a date. We exchanged numbers. I was levitating approximately four inches off the ground. We hugged. The wind picked me up and I drifted over to the booth, keeping her in sight as long as I could.
We started texting a bit that night and the next day, getting a few more details. We had tentative plans but would keep texting and nail them down.
Then I didn’t respond to anymore of her texts and deleted her number from my phone.
A few days after we met, maybe that Monday, I got a call from my still-current wife. She’d gone through my phone bill (we had a joint account still, because separated, not divorced) and had questions about some numbers that she didn’t recognize. She asked me who they were and that she was going to call them. This one number, she said, had a Baltimore area code, so she assumed that was Holly, so she wouldn’t bother her. The number was Julienne’s, but I didn’t volunteer that bit of information.
When I got off the phone, I deleted Jules’ number and our texts. The phone call was a reminder that I had unfinished business, and I didn’t need this poor beautiful charming incredible person to get a weird ass phone call from my then-wife and get involved in some shitty drama. So I ghosted Julienne. I thought about sending her another text to explain why, but I left it alone. I didn’t want to risk it, risk having her get involved in my shit. And I knew I had to deal with this shit, every last bit of it. Before I could go on a date with someone, I needed to finish and close out my previous life. I had to go through the grief of a lost relationship, the depression, the drinking alone to the point of literally falling down (leaning against my apartment wall one second, carpet flying toward my face the next), the fear of dying alone, the darkness, the anger, the suicidal thoughts – that was something I needed to deal with first.
I wouldn’t talk to her for almost a year.