Of Spaniel Day Lewis, Parents, and Dothraki Love Nests
This is the fourth part of the fairytale I’ve lived for 5 years. The story went in directions we didn’t expect or want, but it was still our fairytale.
That weekend with Julienne were the best and happiest days of my life up until that point. Since she’d come up on a Thursday, I had to go to work the next day which was brutal and took forever to end. But it was worth it for the sight of her when I got home. It’s an image that seared itself into my brain like my memory used a cattle brand. I can pull it up anytime that I want it:
I come down the short hallway inside my apartment door and she’s standing there, waiting, like a femme fatale from a black-and-white noir film. She’s in a long black satin robe that almost looks like a wrap dress. Her blonde hair is parted on one side and wavy. She’s got on a beautiful smile that looks like the promise of an oasis after a decade in the desert. In each hand she’s got a glass of bourbon. “Hi baby,” she says, the words as soft and smoky as the liquid in the glasses. She holds out a drink and I take it, then I set it on the counter. She’s in my arms and we’re kissing and right then I know that all I want out of life is to come home and see her every day for the rest of my life.
It’s been five years and eleven days since that moment. It was my real life. It happened to me. I felt like I had to be in a dream then, since the real world could never be this good. It feels like a dream now, too, all of it does, a dream I was so unspeakably lucky to live through, all the greatness and joy and wonder and happiness that life had to offer was right there in my arms for 5 years. The pain and sorrow that is now my every day is worth it, because in September 2014 I became the luckiest man alive. We found each other.
She flew back to Miami on Sunday, and we each knew inside that it was a fait accompli. We were going to get married. It may sound crazy, but it was 109% true. From first kiss to complete belief that we’d found our true match in four days. The next day, as we expressed our amazement at how the weekend was and our longing for the other, we had the following exchange:
After that, we both knew we were on the same page. I started calling her Tinúviel as I drove her to the airport, after she’d played a song she’d recorded and had on her phone. The song is Lament for Maclean of Ardgour, an old Scottish tune, and the second I heard her voice tears started streaming down my face. I was always what they called a “sensitive boy” when I was growing up. My mother collected music boxes, and sometimes when I was young – and continued during off and on my whole life – I would wind one up and listen to it and cry. There was something so incredibly sad to me about the tinny sound of these songs that I didn’t recognize, and it just pulled at my soul so much that I had to sit there and quietly cry. Anything that was beautiful could move me to tears. I learned to stop doing that, because the only emotion that men are allowed to express in public is anger so I stifled that for many a long year (thanks, toxic masculinity!). Unlearning that behavior was one of the things I needed to shed before I could be ready to be the person Julienne needed and wanted.
After hearing her sing and begging her not to spring that kind of thing on me when I was driving because it was dangerous for both of us, I immediately thought of Tolkien’s greatest love story, Beren and Lúthien (because, in case you’ve forgotten, I am a huge nerd). In the story, a human named Beren is lost in the woods after his father and companions are killed. One day he hears singing, and this beautiful voice becomes all he can think about. He follows the song until he comes upon Lúthien, the most beautiful creature who ever lived in Middle-Earth, the daughter of an Elf-King and, for all intents and purposes, a demigoddess. She sees this strange wild-looking man come charging out of the forest after her and wisely runs away, but he calls after her, shouting Tinúviel, the Elvish word for nightingale, because he doesn’t know her name. She then falls in love with him and – well, it’s the best story Tolkien ever wrote, and in The Lord of the Rings Arwen and Aragorn’s love story is a deliberate echo of their ancestors’. I will now stop nerding out for a while, but long story short Tinúviel and Strider (she liked him more than Beren) became our nicknames for each other.
(After a long, hard day in hospice, when her lucid moments became more infrequent, she said to me in the saddest, quietest whisper, ‘I can’t remember our nicknames for each other anymore.” I told them to her and sat on the bed with her and cried. It is one of the most painful memories I have and I can barely keep typing but it persists and I wonder sometimes if the stabbing pain of that moment will ever leave me and part of me, most of me, hopes it never does because then I won’t be feeling the loss and hurt and pain of losing the most wonderful person who ever lived as much and I don’t ever ever want that.)
Whew. OK. Sorry. That took a bit to come back from.
So she’s back in Miami and now our need to spend time with each other is even worse. She’s coming back in two weekends, when we’d originally planned to have our first date, but that seems like forever away, an insurmountable amount of time. Again, we are adults at this time. But we were like kids being told they had to wait TWO WEEKS for a present or something they really want. It might as well be two millennia away. It’s an impossible amount of time, it’s untenable, and it simply won’t do.
So we don’t.
I buy a ticket on Wednesday (thank you, Southwest, for essentially running a Julienne-to-Alan and vice versa shuttle service for most of a year) and I’m going to see her on Friday. The only plan that she doesn’t cancel is a 5k that she will be running with a friend and, more importantly, Spaniel Day Lewis himself. It’s a person-and-dog 5k and I have no idea if running with a dog in a 5k is a bad idea or the best idea. I imagine that it depends on the dog’s opinion.
I was excited as hell to go see Julienne, but I was nervous about meeting Lewis. See, dog owners tend to put a lot of stock into how their pets react to new people. If someone comes to my house and my dogs don’t like them (I mean, they bark their asses off for three straight minutes until they are petted, but that’s just part of their greeting speech about where the food and water bowls are, where the bathroom is, and their favorite places to get snuggled, but so few people speak Dog nowadays, which is a real shame), then I am immediately suspicious. So I knew I was about to be vetted by one of the most important people in Julienne’s life, and it was no laughing matter.
(An aside about dogs. Early on, Julienne asked me how much I would spend to save my dog’s life if it came to it. I told her about my first dog [as an adult], Smeg, and how she was diagnosed with cancer just after I moved to Delaware and in-between pet insurance policies. I took out a line of credit on my house in the amount of $30k for her care. So after the story and in response to her exact question, I said, “Whatever I can afford.” She said later on that was the exact moment she knew that she was going to marry me. It may have been before our first kiss. Shortly after I met Lewis I began using a voice and talking as him to her. She loved it because it meant she could converse with him finally. We had so much fun.)
Now, I’d seen Lewis aplenty during our Skype sessions. I know his favorite foods (steak, chicken, kale, spinach, Pupperoni, in that order), I know where he sleeps, I know his favorite toys, the whole nine. I am going to be loaded up with gifts for him to woo him over to my side. Well, I bring a squeaky toy and a bag of Pupperoni and hope that it’ll be enough.
I land in Fort Lauderdale airport, a place I will soon know as well or better than houses I grew up in, and there she is, waiting for me just past security. My heart swells in my chest like the Grinch’s after hearing Whoville sing. That feeling, the leap of my heart when I got my first glimpse of her after landing, or when she came into baggage claim at BWI, never abated or lessened no matter how many times we did it. It was a lightness of spirit and an easing of tension that I didn’t even know I’d been carrying.
(It’s back, now, the tension. The only place it seems to fully lift is the site where she is buried. It is beautiful there and I feel her presence there so strongly it’s like she’s standing behind me, calming me like she always did, making me feel like it’s OK, it’s terrible and crushing and painful but it’s OK, that’s how life is sometimes, and it’s OK. She has that power still, and I am grateful.)
She drove us to her apartment in her black VW Beetle, a car she loved (although she loved her previous one just a little more, because it was bright yellow and convertible, but she loved her black one too). Every time we did that drive I would just look at her profile and be in awe that I was here with her and I don’t know what I did right to earn that but I was lucky to have done it. This time, though, I was nervous and keyed up. It was like going on set to your favorite show and meeting the actors and walking around the set. And I had a serious audition coming up. She laughed at my nervousness (you’ll be fine was her light assertion at those times, like when I would meet her parents for real, in the real world and not the faire) and held my hand and everything was amazing.
Then it was showtime.
We walked into the apartment and there he was, excited because Mom was home and whoa what the hell who is this guy. I crouched down onto my heels as Julienne introduced me to him and I waited there thinking please like me please like me please like me. He paused, looked at me, and back to Jules, and back at me, then he ran over and put his paws on me and licked my face and I gave him Pupperoni and his toy and we were good. I was so relieved.
It was another amazing weekend of pure love and being together and doing nothing else. We didn’t go anywhere except when we would walk Lewis. We drank wine and she cooked duck breast and we fell even more in love with each other as we talked and held each other. She had bought me a bottle of scotch (she wanted to find Edraudor, my favorite but couldn’t, to her disappointment but not my own) and we sipped that in Miami, leaning on each other on her brown couch. We talked about California, and how excited she was to graduate and go out there, and one thing was very very clear: I was going with her. Again, this is three weeks into my reintroduction to her, and we’re already planning to move across the country together, without reservation. When we were together, the world didn’t matter. Nothing did but each other (and Lewis, says Lewis in his surprisingly deep Lewis voice. No one and nothing matters but Lewis, and you guys I guess).
(I’m so grateful we never lost that, the bubble we created when we were together. It didn’t matter if we were in a chemo pod, the DMV, the grocery store, wherever. When we were together, we were OK, and there was nothing the world could do to change that. Lord knows it threw everything it had at us. Still unbowed and unbeaten, motherfucker.)
Having met Lewis, and been approved, I now had a new target for my nerves. On the following Saturday, we were having dinner, just like we’d planned on the first of September, but now we were having dinner at her parent’s house. With her parents. I was meeting them all over again but without the festive presence of the faire to lighten the mood. On the days leading up to it, she’s sending me houses and apartments in Sherman Oaks to look at and help choose. We’re missing each other worse than ever. We were addicted and only being together every day could keep us happy. But that would take a while.
Finally she’s coming up, and bringing Lewis with her. He’s her emotional support animal, and anyone who gripes about service dogs for anxiety getting to fly on planes can take their bitching elsewhere. I’m excited because I’ll have another ally there, someone I can point to and say, look, he likes me, so I’m likeable, right? She comes to my office for lunch and then is waiting at home, and it was always an amazing feeling when I would get the wine or scotch? text from her, knowing she would be there when I walked in.
The next night is Meeting the Parents Eve, Friday night. I meet two of the most important people in her world (and I am proud to say that they are now two of the most important people in my world, and have been for a long time), Gabe and Savannah, on a hillside in Baltimore where people gather to watch movies projected onto the side of a building. The movie was Fantastic Mr. Fox and we missed the vast majority of it. Savs had brought a picnic for us, including wine, and we were talking so much and so loudly that we felt obliged to get up and move all the way to the back before we got smothered by a crowd of angry hipsters. We ended up on a tiki barge before Jules and I went to a hotel she’d always wanted to stay. As Savs would say (and in fact did just now, when I messaged them of our upcoming anniversary, three days from now), it was the best double date ever.
The next night, though, was showtime. The big deal. Julienne is very close to her parents. Her love and devotion to them was more than any other child I’ve ever met. I was incredibly close to my mother, since she raised me essentially single-handed (my stepfather being worthless in every sense of the word), but Jules had managed to keep in essentially constant contact even as an adult, which I didn’t do as well. The bond she had with her mother is incredible to behold. They were best friends and confidants. I was happy to know that Julienne’s mother already liked me, between our initial meeting and Jules’ keeping her mom up to date on how our relationship was going.
(It was her relationship with her mom that made me want to have a daughter with Julienne most of all. I wanted her to have that relationship with her own child, for the three of them to share it. But that’s a story for another time, when I have more strength to tell it.)
Dad was the one I was worried about.
It’s a trope, a cliché, but there has got to be at least some truth to the idea that fathers are protective of daughters. Here I was, coming into their house, sixteen-and-a-half years older than his daughter, who I met by FLIRTING WITH HIS WIFE, and I knew I was going to be weighed and measured by an attorney who had every reason not to like me. Plus he looked like James Gandolfini and could look like he’d just decided that you weren’t worth the effort to take out. Still, I’ve got Lewis on my side. Julienne’s parents are huge dog lovers, so having SDL on my team would hopefully tip the scales a little bit my way.
I worked the faire that Saturday the 27th with Holly, giving me a welcome distraction from worrying about her parents. Afterwards, I shower and drive up, nervous but ready. I can do this, right? I can do this. I park my car and walk to the door, and there is my ace in the hole. Spaniel Day Lewis. He’s going to help me win them over. “Lewis!” I say happily, getting ready for my face lick.
He takes one look at me and starts barking like I’m an army of Huns coming to sack Rome.
I mean he absolutely sold me out, faced me right there in front of everyone. I’m talking to him and he’s just getting louder, running inside to let everyone know that whoever approaches is not only a stranger but someone who is clearly up to no good. Jules sees me and gives me a hug and makes me feel relaxed and better. The little traitor settles down and then begins acting like he knows me again. It’s not a disaster, but it was not the scale-tipper I thought it would be.
We have dinner, which is delicious, and I’m pretty quiet throughout. See, when you have dinner with three attorneys (or soon-to-be attorneys), you don’t talk much. When you have dinner with three attorneys (or soon-to-be attorneys), all of whom are used to verbally sparring with one another, you don’t say anything at all. There’s no room. The only thing more impressive is when you add a brother who is also an attorney. Then it’s just a nonstop barrage of opinions and precedent and arguments about things that I vaguely know and what I mostly know is that it was a thing mentioned in school once that I didn’t pay any attention to.
Joking aside, it was a good time, although there was quite a bit of time where I didn’t talk, which was just fine by me, thank you. Less of a chance to put my foot in my mouth. I made it through the Parent Gauntlet and came out the other side. The dinner plates were cleared around 10:30 and I figured it was time for us to head to the couch for TV or something, since I knew we’d be staying the night.
Not so fast.
After dinner, Julienne tells me that she’s got a surprise that she needs to finish working on (she’d been doing stuff for it all day, which I didn’t know at the time). Earlier, when I was driving up, she told me not to look in her car or I would be punished “and not in the good way,” as she put it. She made me go outside and sit for a bit while she did something, then sent me inside where I sat, alone, at the kitchen table. For an hour. Whatever it was they were doing, her mom was involved too. Her dad (I have not referred to them by name because it would be some time before I would refer to them as something so casual as their actual names. Sir and ma’am were my standard references for a long time) had gone upstairs to bed.
(Aside time once again. I was, as I said, completely nervous meeting them. However, they are without question the best in-laws anyone could ask for. They became our best friends. We had dinner together, went to movies, or just hung out. Julienne’s biggest fear, even more than dying, was that her parents and I would drift apart or not be there for each other after she was gone. I’m glad to say that hasn’t happened. They are two reasons that I can go on after losing Julienne. I see Jay and Sharon almost every day, and we agreed to have dinner together at least once a week every week. Their company is a balm that helps me carry on.)
At midnight, I get a text from Julienne. Come to the bonfire. Then follow the lights. The bonfire was a spot in their yard outside and to the right of the front door in a large patch of open grass where they would have – surprise! – bonfires at night on occasion. Just past it was a gate in their fence that led to open fields. I went to the door as her mom came in and said, “Have fun!” I had no idea what was going on. Not the first clue. But I was going to go to the bonfire, then I would follow the lights.
I walked out to the unlit bonfire and saw, by the gate, a group of LED candles. I headed over to them into the night. Outside the gate, I saw another group of candles in the distance. I headed toward them. Then another, and another, all along the long fence. Then the next was at the edge of the woods. And the next. I was led along the perimeter of the woods Julienne had played and sung in from when she was a child. And I kept going, following the candles sitting at intervals along the way.
Finally I got to an opening in the woods and a path. There were several candles there and I could see light in the woods ahead of me. I was walking like a character in a fairytale, being led into the woods at night, wide-eyed and unbelieving what I was doing. I stepped through the opening in the trees and saw to my left a scene that I will never forget. I can’t believe there are no pictures of what she did that night, what she pulled off. But it was at that moment that I began to believe in magic, because I saw it, and most importantly, felt it.
In a clearing inside the forest, Julienne waited for me. Lights slowly faded and reappeared in the tree branches above me as I approached. There was a firepit with a low warm fire crackling. On a small table stood a decanter of wine and a pewter goblet sat beside it. There was a bed, an actual bed, covered in furs. And most importantly, on the bed sat a forest nymph, clad in a white chemise, legs tucked beside her as she smiled at me, her own goblet in hand, beckoning me to take the other cup and join her. Entranced, eyes and heart filled with awe and wonder, I did as she bade me, joining her on the furs.
It’s still the most incredible thing that has ever happened to me. We spent the night there, under the trees and stars, looking as the glowing fairy lights above and all around us as they faded then reappeared elsewhere. That night, Julienne proved to me that magic is real, and that she was, without question, the most incredible (as in, essentially, not credible. I would not believe this story and how amazing it was if I hadn’t been there to witness it. It is too incredible to be believed, but I was there) person who ever was, the most thoughtful, whimsical, beautiful, and otherworldly creature that could ever be. She laughed at my expression as I just stared in complete bewilderment that something so wonderful could exist, and that someone – not just someone, the most magical and beautiful person that ever was – put it together for me. She was glad, she said, that I liked her Dothraki Love Nest.
I miss her. I miss her so much. I carry the magic from that night and all the rest of our time together in my heart. I try as hard as I can to spread it to others. But I am not Julienne. She was effortless in that endeavor. I try to keep her site, where she lies forever beside a grove of trees, as magical as I can. Just about every weekend (I missed one) I go there and hang fairy berries in and among the trees, flowers, and rocks that surround her. I sit there after sunset, and see the lights all around us, and I talk to her, or listen to her sing, or just weep quietly, mourning my Tinúviel and missing her light and magic with every fiber of my being, and she calms me and tells me:
It’s OK. I love you.