Author’s Note: I’d been a single mother for 12 years with a group of women friends, rarely lonely, planning to remain single the rest of my life. Meeting my second husband, Kevin, was a shock. It felt as though the differences between us would be too great to bridge, but it’s been 35 years, and we’re still hanging in there.
When I First Met You
WHEN I FIRST MET YOU, I lived in a house of women. We went sandals in summer, thin cheap sundresses with trailing hems that tickled our calves and shawls we wrapped around ourselves if we were cold. We were always peeling from sunburns, never tanning. In winter we wore thick woolly socks, Frye boots that left deep prints in the snow and oversized, heavy sweaters instead of coats, snowflakes glistening on them like sequins in the frigid air. Our cheeks were always rosy from the cold. We wore berets that never kept us warm, but we liked how they looked, when I first met you.
When I first met you my friends and I danced to local jazz bands on the weekends, flamboyant in our black leotards, skirts swirling like whirlwinds about our legs, hands waving above our heads, hair framing our faces in wildness. We flirted with men we had no intention of giving our phone numbers to, though we let them buy us dry white wine in crystal glasses. We shopped yard sales and thrift shops for clothes nobody else wanted: vibrant ripped silk tops we carefully repaired, Indian print skirts dusty with wear that we washed in warm sudsy water, lacy camisoles just this side of modest. We bought worn corduroy pants with the knees thinning or wool pants we donated back when they needed cleaning. We bought cashmere sweaters with holes for two dollars that we mended with whatever thread we had when I first met you.
When I first met you, my friends and I roller-skated on sidewalks by the beach, charged by salt-water air and hair whipping into our eyes. We traveled to Boston, shops and galleries on Newbury Street, pretending the Boston Common Public Garden was the Tuileries Jardin. We ate spicy spring rolls from the food truck owned by the oldest man we’d ever seen and walked fearlessly through the combat zone. I sat on a bench in the sun reading Giles Goat-Boy and a man who wanted to pick me up said, “You must be very smart,” and I answered, “Smart enough to not get picked up in Boston.” We went to art openings and drank cheap wine and ate soft cheese and pretended we wanted to buy the art when I first met you.
When I first met you, we went to Brattleboro, Vermont, to buy seconds from the boot factory and fresh salad from the food co-op, then drove home the same day. We lived in a rented, overpriced, old house in Maine with big drafty windows that were always too cold in winter, walls that needed painting, and wide planked floors embossed with years of footsteps. We bought two cords of wood and took turns splitting it. The schedule of whose turn it was to feed the woodstove was always getting lost. We lit bonfires like shrines in the backyard, leaning toward them for heat and light. We wore denim jeans and jackets we painted slogans on. We spoke about our children, our hopes and fears for them. We shared our pasts like folktales. We reassured each other that we would always be there and that we were all we’d ever need when I first met you.
When I first met you, we housemates marched for women’s rights, our shouts the loudest. We exchanged information about future marches, hugs and tee-shirts with women who marched beside us. We hiked up mountains in silence, shedding layers as we climbed, listening to the world that lived there. Soaring hawks that gave no quarter, blackbirds flashing scarlet wings like flags, tiny singing vireos with drunken red eyes. We ate whole wheat crackers and soft cheese and danced when we reached the top. We drank bourbon from mason jars while we prepared homemade yogurt and hummus and messy stir-fries. We baked our own dark, grainy bread that we slathered with Irish butter. We grew tomatoes in tall pots and bought lettuce and arugula and cucumbers from farmers’ markets. We came home exhausted at the end of each weekday but were passionate about our work: counselor, teacher to the disabled, organic farmer, artist for the people, nurse’s aide. We shared our money and paid the bills together, and if one of us was sick, we took care of her with herbs and tea with honey and lemon and miso soup. We viewed ourselves as remnant pockets of sixties idealism, living in a sort of delirium at the freedom we clothed ourselves in when I first met you.
When I first met you, my housemates and I went to happy hours every Friday night, following listings like we were on scavenger hunts, free food the prize. We bought the cheapest seats at the symphony, kids asleep on our laps, eyes overflowing with tears at the beauty of the music. We wandered through preserves and forests and parks, marveling at the iridescent leaves, rolling on the grass then standing up covered with green stains, betting on who’d see a rabbit first. We strolled through the biggest cemetery in the state and saw coyotes, shy and swift between the stones when I first met you.
When I first met you in that wealthy, pretentious tourist town, you were a hologram from a hippie past in a capitalist present. People flowed around your bench as if you were invisible in your old green barn coat, and black watch cap pulled low. You played old blues songs on a harmonica as if in defiance of the present, eyes closed in a bubble of music, an almost hallucinatory moment of stillness in the frenzied push of shoppers eager for the next boutique. When you opened them and noticed me, I knew we could have things to say to each other. I waited for you to begin that conversation. I liked your voice, a blend of southern, midwestern, New England accents as though you didn’t know where you belonged but were hopeful that could change when I first met you.
When I first met you, I was still too thin, and your hair was still auburn. We weren’t old, but we weren’t young either. My sons were off in college, the women in my house exploring new paths as they realized we were growing older. My life was a bridge I was crossing to wherever came next, filled with hope that I’d arrive somewhere safe. You liked what I told you about my work, liked my dedication. I liked what you told me about the earth, about botany, about regeneration. I liked that you seemed to always be fighting your way to something better. I liked that you cooked all your own food, bought secondhand dishes, and were tired of being lost. I liked how much you liked me when I first met you.
When I first met you, we hiked, cooked, shopped thrift shops and flea markets. We looked for hidden waterfalls and first- growth forests and ice age rockslides. We went to big-city, important museums, and small-town-proud ones. We traveled together to centuries-old churches and synagogues and mosques, though neither of us believed in God. We ate Navajo fry bread, Polish perogies, Ecuadorian arepas, Mexican empanadas, Slovenian potica, Russian borsch. We shopped in supermarkets for ingredients we’d never used before. We met on the street, but our relationship happened on green-leafed walks, in noisy coffee shops, dimly lit bars, dinners alone, dinners with friends or my sons, bookshops, art galleries, bedrooms, when I first met you.
When I first met you, I knew there would be problems. I’d grown up in the morass of American poverty and you in relative affluence. You were well traveled; I was street smart. You were naïve, I was cynical. We both had first marriages trailing us like bad dreams. We were cautious. We expected nothing, trying and giving up then trying again. You moved in cradling your life in old suitcases and carboard boxes tightly sealing in belongings and old wounds. We worked our lives into each other’s, not smoothly, not quietly, not without anger. Yesterday in bed you asked about memories, what I thought was real, what I thought was a wistful dream. I answered that it didn’t matter; what we feel and what we remember, whether it is real, is what shapes us and I remember knowing that my life would be different when I first met you.
Michelle Cacho-Negrete is a retired social worker in Maine and the author of Stealing: Life in America. Four of her essays were selected as most notable of the year, two have won Best of the Net, one has won the Hope Award. She is also in five anthologies. Her work appears in The Sun, Under The Sun, New England Review, and Solstice, among others. She says she is especially pleased to be in the Delmarva Review.
Delmarva Review is a national literary journal with roots in the Delmarva Peninsula. It has published the new writing of 550 authors in its sixteen-year history. Editors read thousands of new submissions annually to select the most compelling original poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Almost half are from the Chesapeake and Delmarva region. It is available in paperback and digital editions from online booksellers and regional specialty bookstores. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org