Note: Today is the one year anniversary of the death of my late husband M. I’ve been trying to think of a way to acknowledge him on this day without being too maudlin. I’d also like to do it in a way he would have liked and still share our lives together in a way that I feel copacetic about. Hence M. Stories. Here’s my favorite. Written down for the first time for Ms. Z and posterity. If you know me well, you’ve probably already heard it, since it really does have the distinction of being my favorite story of all time while also telling almost everything you need to know about both of us as a couple.
It was November 14, 1984 when M proposed before our first date. By day I was working a variety of dead-end jobs. I was an actor so there was a lot of that. That day I’d been taking my regular Wednesday acting monologue class in Chelsea. Afterwards it was an hour and half ride home to the Bronx. I love trains but I hated that ride. It was endless and no amount of reading made it any less so. The class was solo and intense. I liked going to get some food and a drink after it to fortify myself for the long ride home, but I didn’t like doing it alone.
I called M who lived in the nabe. He was an odd duck and a good talker. I knew he’d be up for a drink or willing to talk about anything. We’d met through a mutual friend. We’d even briefly lived next door to each other while I sublet our mutual friend’s apartment the summer before. I thought of him as an interesting acquaintance and very much a platonic one at that. I liked him even though we had almost nothing in common at all. I was a Democrat but apolitical (or at least I thought I was until we met). He was an extremely well-informed political cartoonist and a libertarian. We were both creatives though and we both loved to play games to pass the time: poker, chess, scrabble, mancala.
If that wasn’t enough to hold my interest, it helped that he was “wicked smart”. There wasn’t much he couldn’t speak intelligently about. I’ve never felt particularly intellectual myself, but I’ve always had a keen interest in the smartest person in the room. I practically have a tractor beam coming out of my head for it. It helped that he was usually that person no matter what room he went into.
He was an incredibly tall, thin, fairly pale Irishman, with green eyes the color of new leaves and the fullest lips I’d ever seen on a white guy. He had a beard, wore wire rimmed glasses and always wore a hat, but by then I’d seen a brief glimpse of his hair which was very thick, wavy and such a dark brown it almost looked black. In retrospect he had some beautiful hair for a guy, I think that’s one of the reasons he always kept his head covered.
M asked if I minded having a friend of his, Gordon, whom I’d never met come with us for a drink at the Irish pub a block from his house. I didn’t. Gordon was black and the full-scale embodiment of a traditional beatnik. I swear the moment I laid eyes on him I wanted to loan him my beret and ask him to read me a poem so I could finger snap. We all went to the pub to eat but mostly to drink. M sat directly across from me and Gordon to my right. We were there for several hours and the waitress had just dropped what I didn’t know then would be our last round of drinks.
This is a streamlined excerpt of what I remember about our conversation.
M, was looking at me and smiling. “Hey you haven’t answered my question.”
“Will you marry me?”
“What?” I think I’ve misheard him.
“I’m asking if you’ll marry me?”
“You asked me to marry you?”
It was then I did what a woman shouldn’t really do to any guy who is remotely insecure. I burst into a loud, uncontrolled fit of raucous laughter, compounding the hilarity by nearly falling out of my chair from laughing so hard. To his credit, M watched me do it saying nothing but still smiling. He glanced at Gordon briefly but then looked back at me and waited for me to get hold of myself.
I was pretty drunk but despite the spectacle I made, I wasn’t wasted. I immediately decided that the guy was playing games with me so I’d play along.
“What’s this about? You want to have sex with me?”
“Well that’s a good idea but no, that’s not it. I respect you too much for that.”
Ding, Ding, Ding.
That was the first warning bell. Because you see I totally believed him when he said that last part about respect. M, was many things but the main thing I gleaned from knowing him was that he always endeavored to be honest. He didn’t make a big deal about it. I don’t think he could help it. He just was – honest. Many times to his own detriment. It meant he sometimes didn’t say very much because being honest can destroy friendships and other relationships but quick and he’d learned that the hard way.
Still in denial, I took a breath and decided to play some more.
“Okay, but why do you want to marry me then?”
“You’re beautiful, kind, smart, funny.”
I rolled my eyes.
“And best of all, you’re not a snob.”
“I’ve known a lot of them. All my life. You’re not one and I like that immensely.”
“Okay, well you should know I really don’t want to get married.”
“Why do you want to?”
“Well my parents have a great marriage. They complement each other perfectly. I grew up believing in marriage and committed relationships because of them. I want a marriage like theirs and I think I could have that with you.”
“You don’t believe we could have that?”
“Nope, I don’t believe in marriage. I believe marriage is an institution where you sign a piece of paper that says you have the right to crap on each other. “
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“No, I guess not but my parents didn’t have a great marriage so that and the current divorce rate are all I have to go by.”
“I do want kids though.”
M reared back as if I’d slapped him.
Laughing again I said, “Because I like kids. I’m good with them. I’ve always known I’m supposed to be a mother.”
“But you wouldn’t get married.”
“No, probably not. After conception I could probably do it alone. My mom did from the time I was six.”
“I think that would be hard.”
“I don’t want kids.” He said.
That surprised me so I looked up at him the obvious question in my eyes. M looked awkward and uncomfortable for the first and last time that evening.
Then he said, “I have recurring nightmares about what my kids would be like.”
“Recurring?” It felt like my eyes were popping out of my head.
“Tell me one of them.”
“There’s a short one but the kids are the same in every dream. They’re blond, blue-eyed cherub types and they’re just perfect.” M shuttered and went on, “In this dream, they are sitting on the floor playing and I stalk into the room and leave it again almost immediately slamming the door behind me. One of the kids says to the other: “Oh dad.” And then they giggle.”
“That’s the whole dream?”
Silence for a few moments while we all take another sip of our drink. Something to note here is that Gordon is still sitting with us and listening but hasn’t said a word since the waitress brought us our last round.
“Well I suppose that’s another reason you want to marry me. There’s no way in hell you’ll have blond, blue-eyed children if we get married. “
“Hey, that’s true.” This time he laughs and leans into me. “Good, I like brown eyes. Yours are very cool.”
Silence for a few more moments and I’m looking at him now because I can almost see the wheels turning in his head. He’s got an idea.
“I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we do both?”
“Yeah, get married AND have kids.”
Ding. Ding. DING!!!
This was my second warning bell. I’d come out to have a drink with someone who was barely a friend and suddenly the conversation had devolved into the most elaborate attempt to hit on me. And frankly, I thought he was taking the game a little far now. My face must have reflected my simmering ire because then he said,
“I mean it. That way we both get what we want. It seems like the perfect compromise.”
“Are you nuts? Who compromises on things like this?”
It was then I needed a witness to the crazy. Someone who could put this increasingly bizarre conversation in perspective for me. I turned to the only person who I didn’t have to explain the details of how queer this all sounded.
Gordon turned his sleepy gaze and upbeat face towards mine.
Pointing at M I said, “You’ve known this character for a lot of years right?”
Gordon nodded. (Does this guy talk?)
“Does he do this? Often I mean. Is this how he hits on girls?”
Gordon put his drink down then looked me dead in the eye and said,
“I have never seen him do anything like this before. Ever. Never heard of him doing it either.”
Then he laughed, shook his head, and picked up his drink to watch the rest of the show.
M started talking again and by now I was feeling uncomfortable. Why? Because there was a chance that something hadn’t occurred to me. M could be serious. So naturally I got scared and blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“But you don’t know me.”
“Actually I think I do.”
“How? We haven’t even had a real date.”
“That’s true. Can I take you out for a dinner date tomorrow?”
“Well it doesn’t really matter. We’ve known each other for almost two years if you think about it. You’ve come to one of our poker games and that didn’t scare you off. We’ve had drinks together for weeks now since you started your class. I didn’t know how you felt about marriage but I do know a lot about you and all of it I like a lot.”
“But marriage M?”
“Why not? Why wait? I know what I want.”
“So you’re suggesting we do this now?” I scoffed.
“I think we could get the blood tests and go to City Hall in the morning.”
He’d said that last part wistfully as if he’d suggested a picnic overlooking Belvedere Fountain in Central Park.
“How … how do I know you can take care of me?”
That question was a clear sign of my evolving sense of panic. I had already signed a blood oath with myself long ago that I would always make sure I could take care of myself and if a man wanted to do it too? Well then ‘the more, the merrier’. But M had an answer for everything.
“You know I’m an artist but did you know I make a really good living on my sculptures? I’d like to get a comic strip syndicated but it’s hard to do. So, I’m also a copy editor. Some years are better than others but I’ve been supporting myself from my work since before I graduated from high school.”
I decided then I had to nip this game in the bud. It was an exciting game because I didn’t know what to expect but it was still scaring the crap out of me.
“Well M, this is all wonderfully flattering and all but it isn’t terribly romantic. You don’t have a ring. You haven’t gotten down on one knee. We’re in the middle of a crowded pub. What the hell kind of proposal is this anyway?”
M looked hard at me then. The corners of his eyes crinkled and his eyebrow cocked like a gun. The pub was packed for a Wednesday night and everybody around us was loudly engaged in their own conversations, which I seriously doubted was half as interesting as ours.
Then he did it. M slowly unfolded his large 6’3” frame out of his chair, straightened his shoulders, and came round to my side of the table. He then got down on one knee right next to me, took my hand and said,
“I don’t have a ring because I hadn’t really planned to do this tonight. But I want you to know that I’ve fallen in love with you and I want you to marry me. Will you be Mrs. M–?”
DING! DING! DING!!!
Do you ever have one of those moments when your vision gets really screwy and your tongue is tied in knots? But you know you’re still alive because your heart’s beating rapidly or you’re panting, so maybe you’re okay but you’re just having a stroke.
“I have to go.” I said. “It’s late and I have a long way to go.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“No. Absolutely not. I have to go.”
I took some cash out of my bag fast. Then I told them I had to go to the bathroom and if they could pay the bill I’d meet them outside. I was so desperate for fresh air at that moment I would have mugged someone for it.
When I got outside, they were waiting for me. The laconic beatnik and his tall, fascinating friend. M offered to walk me the two blocks to the station.
“Can I walk you to the station?”
“No, it’s out of your way.”
“I don’t care about that.”
“It’s only a few blocks. I’ll be okay.” I snapped.
“Well I guess this is good night.”
He took my hand again but this time it was for a different reason. Bringing it closer, he bent over it and kissed my hand gently. Our first kiss.
Then I got the hell out of there as quickly as my wobbly legs could carry me.
To be continued…