The Joy Before the Storm
This is the thirteenth chapter of Love Song by Julienne (ft Cancer). The other ones are listed below.
Prologue – Julienne
Chapter 1 – Meeting Julienne
Chapter 2 – Finding Julienne
Chapter 3 – A Kiss, and a Confession
Chapter 5 – Brioche French Toast
Chapter 6 – Halloween with Becca
Chapter 7 – A Ring, and a Conversation
Chapter 8 – Her Woods
Chapter 9 – Christmas, and a Chase
Chapter 10 – Alantimes Day
Chapter 11 – A Dress and a Concert
Chapter 12 – Graduation (or, Freeeeddddoooommmm)
I just want to begin by saying that this one has been a real challenge to start. Revisiting this time, a two-month span that felt like the beginning of something amazing and turned out to be just a pause before the start of the end, has been a real challenge. I think I’ve been holding off on writing it because this is the last one before the Rest Of It, when an uninvited guest would crash into our lives and slowly but relentlessly snuff out everything but the memories and the could-have-beens. We had about 68 days living together before it all changed. As of today, as I write this, she’s been gone 96 [and now that I’m finishing it, it’s been 99]. It’s all so incomprehensible to me.
On May 17th, 2015, Julienne, Lewis, and I pulled into the parking lot of what was finally, truly our apartment complex. She was free of Miami, of law school, of her master’s program, and now she could take a nice break from all of that.
Just kidding. She had three days before her bar exam prep courses started.
Now, as a non-lawyer person (although when I first went to college, fifteen years before I actually graduated, I was pre-law and had every intention of becoming an attorney and politician, which is kind of mind-boggling to me now, honestly), I had only the vaguest notion of what the bar exam was like. I had done some prep for the CPA exam back before I realized that I wasn’t going to be allowed to take it (for needlessly complicated reasons that literally no one cares about or craves an explanation), and it was challenging, since like most students I forgot just about everything the moment I took my last final. So, in my mind, it was kind of like that. A lot of questions about things that you learned in school, to make sure you have a basic grasp of the job you’re looking to practice.
In fact, it is not like that.
I mean, it is, sort of, but a) every state has their own laws and vagaries and differences that do not get covered in law school and b) the bar exam is essentially for a single state (it’s more complex than that but it’s a place to start because the details aren’t terribly exciting) and c) the exam is multiple days and covers things that may or not have been covered in school. It’s like having an exam for doctors when no one covered, say, arms in medical school. So there are courses like Barbri that specialize in preparing a graduate for the exam. Also, the bar is offered like, once or twice a year, so if you blow it, it’s not like you can bone up on where you struggled and take it a week later.
So Julienne was basically back in school full-time again on May 20th. There were in-person and online lectures, workbooks, stacks on stacks on stacks of books, and thousands (literally) of flash cards. On the one hand, it sucked because she was finally free of that shit in theory, having graduated, but the necessity to do it right after graduation was hammered into her early. Taking it right out of law school while hopefully retaining some of the knowledge from it was essentially a best practice that was impossible to ignore. She griped about it but got to work on the California bar prep. The test was at the end of July, giving her just over two months to prepare for the biggest exam of her life. Jules bitched about some of the professors (I remember one being so awful that I was shocked he was able to be paid for the gig) and the workload, but she was absolutely determined to pass it the first time. It was a pride thing for her, and also a fervent wish to never, ever have to do all the studying again.
Obviously, Julienne still made time to be, well, Jules. She made a lot of dinners for me, handing me a glass of wine as I came in the door from work like it was the fifties, but oftentimes we’d meet at the store and pick stuff up then cook dinner together. It was still a big thing for us, and always was thereafter, being in the kitchen together, having fun. She’d usually stop studying when I got home and we’d veg out on the couch with Lewis, who was insistent that I throw a ball for him most nights. We established our home life patterns that we’d carry with us for the rest of the time we’d be together. Whatever we did, we tried to do it together.
Of course, Julienne also needed to take a lot of breaks during studying or else she’d go insane. So wedding planning was definitely something that occupied quite a bit of that time. She’d already found the band during exams, like I’ve said before, and she also found a vintage furnishings place that had a huge array of tables, chairs, glassware, all kinds of things that fit exactly with the vision she had for the wedding just over a year away. I remember one night she saw that someone had covered their tentpoles (we’d also be having a tent for our reception) with stuff that made them look like trees. She loved how it looked and so she started making some calls. She found a place based in DC that had been written up quite a lot and was all the magazines, so she requested a flower quote from them for the 130-150 person wedding we were looking at. The result is this text exchange.
So… yeah. There would be a bit more shopping around to do.
I personally was super excited for something else. At the end of June, my favorite LARP (live action role-playing) event was running. Before, she’d helped me film scenes for a movie based on a larp, and agreed to do it the next time it came around, so this was our chance. Because Julienne is amazing and wonderful, she still wanted to do it with me. I started teaching her some basic fighting techniques and then quickly had to teach her to not hit quite as hard. She could swing a mean sword. Unfortunately, one day we were practicing at her parent’s house with her brother Nathan, who was also going to go, and she turned her ankle. She went down and screamed in pain. Julienne had a huge pain tolerance, to her detriment sometimes, and so to hear her scream like that scared the shit out of me. After a bit she got a handle on the pain, and we went back to Delaware to go to a walk-in clinic near our place.
This was my first time at the doctor with Julienne, and it was something. We waited for a little bit before being sent in to a room. She sat on the little paper-covered bed thing, swinging her feet and rapidly becoming bored. After about five minutes she started telling me things like open that drawer. I want to see what’s inside. I was reluctant to rummage around, since the doctor or nurse or whoever could be there any second. Then she threatened me. I’ll get up and walk over there and do it, is that what you want, me walking on my injured leg? So I did it. She had me open everything up, made me hand her things to put in her purse, hung those long swabs out of her nose and made goofy faces. We laughed and fucked around like kids until they finally showed up. (I learned later that this was all behavior learned from her mother, who gets bored just as easily and cannot stand waiting in a room for more than five minutes for a doctor.) Julienne got her ankle wrapped and was told it was a sprain, but she suspected then that it was worse (it was, of course. She ended up looking like she had two ankles on one side of her right foot forever after that, but it didn’t stop her from doing things).
It sidelined Julienne from running for a bit, which wasn’t ideal. We were both trying to get prepared for the half-marathon in November at Disneyland. Since it was the Marvel Avengers Half-Marathon, we knew we’d need to dress up for it. We decided on the Punisher and Lady Punisher, mostly because the Under Armor shirts were easy to find for them. So instead, for a couple of weeks she needed to find something else to keep her occupied.
Luckily, Father’s Day was approaching. Julienne was planning on giving her dad a compilation of songs from Mary Poppins, one of his favorite movies. She set up a recording station on the treadmill (don’t ask me how, she made it work) and recorded them while I was working. One song, though, was going to be a duet. With me. Who cannot sing. At all. No problem, she said, I’ll give you some basic voice lessons.
God bless her, she tried. And succeeded to a degree, although I imagine not as much as she’d have liked. I knew no music terminology at all, so when she used words like “pitch” or “note” I seriously had no idea what she was referring to other than in the very vaguest of notions. I did instinctively know how to pitch-match, however, so that made it a lot easier for her. Unfortunately for me, I was singing Dick van Dyke’s part. It also involved a lot of Cockney accent. So, not only can I not sing, I have to also try to not be terrible while singing with an accent. It took a few takes, but Julienne displayed something she didn’t always: patience. She was very good at walking me through things, encouraging me, making me feel better about my part then I probably deserved. She was Julienne, at her sweetest, kindest best.
(I’ve always regretted not being able to do more musically with her. I wanted to keep getting voice lessons to be able to join her in one of her prime passions, music, but time just really was never on our side. Like, not fucking once. I’ve spent quite a bit of time since deeply regretting all the things I didn’t do for her, and that was high on the list.)
Much more fun for me was the creation of the CD cover art. Julienne wanted to use our faces on the original cover in place of Mary Poppins and whatever Dick van Dyke’s character is called (I never saw it). So we sat on the couch trying to take pictures that would work. I was trying to do a normal smiling pic, when she made my favorite photo bomb face of all time:
After that we just fucked around, gurning for the camera like the delightfully insane people we are. Being goofy came naturally to us both, and I feel like the results speak for themselves.
We ended up using the goofy faces on the card. Both the CD and card were well-received.
(Starting that day, and to this day, I carry two pictures of her in my wallet. One of them is her photo bomb that started it all. It never fails to make me smile. Also, I’d happily upload the song but I don’t know where her old laptop that she recorded it on is located. I desperately want to find it for all the songs and pictures that are on there, but I still haven’t been able to find it. It drives me a little mad.)
Prepping for a larp wasn’t the only nerdy things we were doing. I also taught her how to play Magic: the Gathering and she absolutely loved it. She’d bug me about playing it when I got home from work as a way to get her mind off bar study. She even started playing Mass Effect, my absolute favorite video game, because she knew how much I love it and wanted to be more familiar with it (the way she threw herself into my interests, and I into hers, was really a huge part of our relationship. It didn’t always work – the Big Trouble in Little China screening did not go so well – but we were always willing to try on the other person’s favorite things). Calling it my favorite video game somewhat cheapens how I feel about the Mass Effect games – they were instrumental in keeping me sane and literally alive as my first marriage ended, and three of my four tattoos are from the games. So her willingness to try it meant a lot to me, and led to one of my favorite text exchanges. (If you’ve never played Mass Effect, the first bits won’t make sense, but stay for the cute murder/suicide at the end.)
Her ankle healed in time for the larp, too. She was a natural, because of course she was. For that game, we were the cast – basically, we were part of the group that played all the non-player characters in the game, from the bandits demanding payment for safe passage to the friendly villagers helping the players to the demonic warriors seeking to destroy the players, whatever was needed for the game. The extras, if you will, providing a bit of knowledge or just there to die gamely (and loudly and theatrically) when the players bested the Forces of Evil to win the day. She fit in so well, and was instrumental in what I, and many of the people who were there to witness it, consider the best scene in any larp ever.
Yes, I’m about to describe a scene at a larp, and you have to read it.
OK, so we were at a private campsite in the woods with a bunch of simple cabins everywhere, usually used by boy or girl or non-binary scouts to do whatever it is they do. It was like 11 pm, so it’s dark as shit because we’re in the middle of BFE Pennsylvania. The game is set in 1100s (or so, don’t @ me) in England, and the players are a mix of Templars and magicians and priests and other folk who are doing their best to save the world from bad demonic folks. The premise was that the players were all staying in this village, and sometimes the villagers (played by us cast members) would need help.
Like, say, a possessed villager.
Julienne was playing a girl who became possessed, Exorcist-style. She and Christian (runner of Legends of the Mark, best larp ever) went to an empty cabin near the players. The rest of us were hidden in the woods around it. Our job was to be shambling undead trying to stop anyone performing an exorcism. So we’re waiting in the woods, in the dark, and we knew that when Julienne screamed, the players would go into the cabin where she was to help, because they’re the Good Guys. So Christian told Julienne to scream as loud as she could.
Well. Let me tell you. As loud as Julienne can scream is really, really, really fucking loud.
Her scream, which I knew would be coming at some point but not exactly when, scared the ever-loving shit out of me. Like, it reached deep deep down in my primate brain and set every neuron there to NOPE. Here I am, an adult who knows he’s in a game and knows exactly what is going to happen, absolutely scared shitless and looking around me in the dark wide-eyed and ready to climb a fucking tree.
It was a hell of a scream.
Julienne actually blew out her voice on the scream, so you know she went for it all. I managed to gather myself and perform my duty as a zombie attacker. The next 30 minutes were spent attacking the people trying to exorcise the demon, while Julienne shouted obscenities that would have made the Exorcist girl blush. I wish I could remember some of them, because they were inventive as hell (see what I did there). Blowing out her voice actually made her rasping insults even better, because I could barely recognize her voice. She thrashed on the bare wooden bed, and the heels of her boots drumming on it were like fucking gunshots. It was so immersive that the players were hitting us like they were really fighting, slamming into us bodily (generally a no-no during games, but none of us cared because it was awesome) and not caring how hard they swung. It was fucking glorious. Julienne was justifiably proud of her performance, but I don’t think she ever understood just how stellar she was. It was fucking incredible.
(She grew to love larping, even though she wasn’t able to do very many more games. After we got our house she wanted desperately to run a Cabin in the Woods style game, pure horror for a small group of people. We came up with some great ideas and workable mechanics, but never quite got to do it. Like so many things, time just wasn’t ever on our fucking side.)
Julienne didn’t just use nerdy things to take breaks from bar study. She also decided one day, after shopping online for fairy wings and seeing how either a) expensive, b) shitty, or c) a combination of both they were, that she would make her own pair. Of course she’d never done it before, and of course she was really quite good at it. They turned out so well that she decided to make another pair for her niece, along with a tiara.
Mind you, she did all this in a couple of days. She just thought about it, bought things that inspired her, and built them. Julienne is nothing short of extraordinary.
As July rolled around and the bar exam inched ever closer, she turned her mind towards our engagement party. She was pondering whether our engagement party would be on Friday the 30th or Halloween itself on Saturday. She did know we’d be having it at her parents’ house and that formal costumes or black-tie with mask would be required (she always wanted to have a party where top-notch costuming would be mandatory) and was working on her costume idea. At first, she wanted to be an angel while I would be a demon of the less-red-and-horned-and-more-diabolically-alluring type (the picture she sent of her inspiration for mine showed that she had great confidence in my ability to develop six-pack abs).
Of course, as time went on she started experimenting with different costumes (which would also save me from approximately nine-billion sit-ups). She played with a fascinator and makeup one day, found a beautiful dress for cheap online, and was leaning that way. On the 15th, her sample invitations arrived, inspired by an image she’d found and adored.
Julienne had also decided that she was going to decorate the front living room like a mausoleum. Inspired by the Haunted Mansion (of course), she came up with plaques made of wood and stone paint that she was going to put up on the walls with funny epitaphs for the whole family.
On July 17th, a Friday, she was working on the plaques while I was at work, and took the above picture. She’d been dealing with some cramping that was bothering her over the last few days, but she thought it might be ovulation-related because of her ovarian cysts. Later, though, as my workday was coming to a close, she sent me a message:
It was the last normal day we would ever have.
The irony and coincidence of the planned engagement party, and so much else in her and our life, is not lost on me. The room she wanted to turn into a mausoleum was the same room that, just five years later, she would lie in honor as those who loved her paid their last respects.
This is the longest it’s taken me to write one of these. It took a long time to start, and still took me four days to finish. I’ve been dreading this one, the last days before the word “cancer” was anything but an abstract fear or a wound from the past. It’s been a joy to bask in these pre-cancer memories, and also painful for so, so many reasons. I think I’ve been delaying getting to this point, because of fear. People have been telling me for “strong” or “brave” I am to tell these stories, while I’ve felt anything but, and telling these has been an opportunity to show how we were before the days of illness and treatment and terror. The next part, though, involves opening wounds that reach deep into the well of pain and sorrow that has festered inside of me since July 2015. I have no idea what it will be like to start typing those words. Typing these, while I dance on the edge of it, has tears running down my face and my hands shaking and I’m so terribly afraid of the demons inside of me that I’m going to have to tear out of my own heart in order to put them on a page. I have no idea if I can do it. This may be the last chapter of our love story.
But I’m going to try. Wish me luck.
But one thing is for sure. As always, she was right. Til Death Do Us Part is for Quitters. And I’m not a fucking quitter.