Chapter 18

(1995)

The next Monday after Choir, as I was putting up my folder, Laura approached me. She looked serious.

“Hey, James. We need to talk. Maybe we could get lunch over at O’Connell’s?”

“Ok. Like, right now?” I said.

“Yeah, if you’re available.”

“Is everything ok?”

“Come on; we’ll talk about it outside.”

As we were walking out together, I saw Zach leaning up against a wall in the hallway, talking with a freshman girl. He looked up, gave me a wink, and continued talking to her.

We stepped outside into the cool, autumn air. The leaves on campus were turning, but I didn’t pay much attention to them. I was focused on Laura.

“So, what’s up?” I asked after we crossed Boyd Street, which ran across the north side of the music center.

“Well, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. Giving us a lot of thought,” she said, then paused.

“Oh, yeah?” I said, prompting her.

“I’ve just been having a lot of feelings lately.”

“About what?”

“About you. About us.”

My pulse went up a few beats. “Yeah, me, too. I can’t stop thinking about you,” I said.

She stopped walking and turned to me, still serious. “Me neither. I mean, it felt so go to be with you the other day, as terrible a day as that must have been, what with your mother and all.”

We began walking again.

“You know,” she said. “You really hurt me…at my party…with Stacey.”

“I know, I was such an idiot. I saw you with Chad and jumped to conclusions and—”

“I don’t know, maybe it was an honest mistake, but why didn’t you just ask me about it?”

“Look, I was really crushed. I thought we would get back together. I was feeling like shit, you know?”

“I know. And I feel bad about that. I didn’t want to hurt you. I just needed some time, James, and I wish you had just given me that.”

“What can I do to make this right?” I asked. We checked for cars, then crossed the street to the next block.

“Look, we never had an exclusive deal. I dated other boys at school, and I assume you dated other girls. It’s just that seeing you with her felt really different, and now everything feels different. We go to the same school. We’re even in Choir together. I’m not used to you being a part of this part of my life, you know? It’s like if we got back together…”

“We might never break up…or we might screw it up and break up forever,” I said.

“Yes! That’s exactly it. This isn’t a summer thing or a high school thing anymore. We’re about to be twenty-one. We’re about to graduate college. A girl in my music theory class like just got married. I mean, she’s fucking married….and she’s our age. James, people are getting married.”

I stopped and took her hand and said, “Would that be so bad?”

“I don’t know, James! I mean, no…or yes, I’m not sure. I just know that I’m falling in love with you in a new sort of way, and it scares the shit out of me. Seeing you with her drove me crazy. I know, I know, I kind of cut you lose, but seeing you with her…I don’t know. I mean, I was like. HEY BITCH! That is MY man!”

I laughed, but she didn’t.

“No! I’m serious, James. I’ve never felt that way about you…about anyone.”

“Look,” I said. “I want to be with you. I’ve been hoping that all semester. My friends have been helping me try to get you back. They think we belong together…and so do I.”

We walked in silence for a few minutes, she took my hand, and we walked some more.

When we got to the restaurant, I stopped at the door.

“James, if we do this, that’s it. There will be no more Staceys. There will be no more other boys for me. There will be no more you and me…we will be an us. Do you understand?”

I understood. It’s what I’d wanted all along. I never wanted to share her with another boy to begin with. I never wanted her to leave Oklahoma to go to that college, but I could see now that all of that needed to happen. We couldn’t be together like we were in high school again. We couldn’t date in the summers casually anymore. We were becoming adults. We were adults now. This needed to be an adult relationship.

“I feel like I’ve wanted this my whole life, Laura. This is what I want. I want to be with you, and nobody else.”

“Are you sure, James?”

But I didn’t say anything else. I took her by the hand and our fingers intertwined. Our eyes met. I kissed her gently on the lips.

“James. I love you,” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek.

And even though we’d said that to each other a hundred times, it never meant what it meant right then in that moment.

“I love you, too,” I said.

“Ok, then. Let’s get some burgers.”

As we ate and talked and laughed, I felt a rush of euphoria and relief. I didn’t realize how tied up in knots my stomach had been on a constant daily basis until then. I felt like I could truly breathe again.

After lunch, I drove her back to my apartment, put on some music, and we made love. We took our time with it. We knew each other’s bodies so well, but it was different; it meant something more than it had ever meant before. There was something in the way we looked at each other in the eyes–so deeply and assuredly…with a sense of eternity.

Afterward, we snuggled in my twin bed, naked and under the covers.

I turned to face her, and she did the same.

Perhaps it was just an impulse. Perhaps I’d been hoping to say it for months or years. I’ll never be sure, but I said it without hesitation and without a second thought. “Laura, will you marry me?”

She didn’t blink. She didn’t flinch. She put her hand on my face, kissed me, then nodded.

“Then say it,” I said.

“Yes, I’ll marry you, James Michael Roberts.”

In a fit of glee, I rolled on top of her and kissed her madly on the lips and face. I wasn’t sure if this was all a big surprise like I would never have expected this to happen today, or whether it was fate and it was always going to happen this way. Either way, I was ecstatic about it until a thought struck me. I stopped and said, “Your dad. I need to talk to your dad.”

“Like, to ask his permission?”

“I dunno. Like, shouldn’t I talk to your dad?”

“I don’t need his permission to marry. This isn’t 1955.”

“No, but what about his blessing. I mean, we’ll get married no matter what, but wouldn’t it be a considerate thing to ask his blessing?”

“That’s up to you. You’re right,” she said, rolling off me. “He would appreciate it. Then we can tell all the parents.”

“Ok. I gotta do this now. When does he get off from work?”

Frank Welch, her dad, was an architect for a local firm. Laura checked her watch. “It’s 12:45 now. He gets home around 5:15.”

“Okay, okay, okay.”

Suddenly I was very nervous. My bowels started to loosen. “Um. Will you excuse me?”

“Don’t leave. I like you here.”

“Yeah, well you’re not going to like what’s about to happen. I have to go to the bathroom.”

She giggled, “Yeah, ok. Take care of business.”

I felt that seeing Laura’s father was something I needed to do alone, but I was never really a man-to-man kind of guy other than when I bought my truck, and even then, my dad was there the whole time. My mother raised me to be a feminist, but Laura’s dad was not a feminist. He was a traditional, Oklahoma man. I wasn’t even sure that coming to him after we had already pledged to marry was going to be enough. I worried that he would feel disrespected, but there was nothing to be done about it. If he did not bless this union, we were going to do it, but I could, at the very least, face him and ask for his blessing on something which I had just done. And I felt that this must happen before we told anybody else.

Laura and I lazed around for the rest of the afternoon, blowing off our classes. We shared a box of macaroni and cheese and drank some Little Hug Barrels. My dad had cut me off financially except school expenses, so I was living on whatever I earned at Arby’s. We watched The Andy Griffith show and whistled along with the theme song, all the time thinking about what I would say to her dad.

I checked my watch. It was time. “Ok, I’m gonna do this, babe,” I said. “Any last-minute advice?”

“Look him in the eye and call him by his first name.”

I’d had many interactions with Frank Welch over the years I’d known Laura; most of them polite and genial. I knew he was an architect. I knew that he’d fought in Vietnam. He was strict about curfew, and there were several times when Laura had been grounded for coming home, too late. I had probably been on his bad side since the pool party. The event, however, that was occupying my mind was the night when he kicked me out of his house.

It was the summer before Laura would leave for college for the first time, and I was over at her house late one night. We were watching one of Laura’s favorite movies: To Kill a Mockingbird, which we agreed was a great summer movie even though the climax of the film was set on Halloween night. We’d seen it every summer since before our sophomore year in high school, one of our traditions, and so we weren’t paying very close attention.

We were lying on the floor, making out. I had my hand under her shorts when I heard a voice say, “Laura, can I speak to you for a moment?”

I quickly pulled my hand away and looked back to see Frank Welch standing in the hall at the edge of the living room. Laura quickly got to her feet and went to see him. He spoke softly in a very low tone, then walked back down the hall.

She came back and said, “My dad would like you to leave.”

I had felt like such an asshole in that moment. This was his only child and his daughter, and here I was, violating her in the middle of his living room floor watching a beloved classic.

And now, as I drove to that same house to be in that same living room less than six years later, I could still hear that low voice filled with the protective instincts of a father as clearly as if it had been the night before.

As I approached the house, I could see his white BMW 7 Series in the drive. Panic struck me suddenly, and I nearly stopped the car to turn around, but then I thought of Laura and what she might think if I chickened out.

I pulled in, killed the engine, said a quick prayer, got out of the car and walked to the front door. I debated whether or not to ring the doorbell or knock. It seemed as though it might be a little more familial to knock, but I also wanted to make sure that he heard it, so I rang the bell and stood back.

Mr. Welch answered the door himself, which likely meant that Mrs. Welch was not at home.

“Well hello, James,” he said, opening the door, “I’m sorry, but Laura isn’t here.”

“Frank,” I said, looking him solid in the eye, “I’m actually here to talk to you.”

He frowned an ok then frown, nodding, and opened the door wide for me to enter.

“Can I pour you a cup of coffee? Maybe something stronger?” he said, headed for the kitchen. Frank Welch had never offered me a drink at all, much less an alcoholic one. It was as if he sensed the gravity of what was happening, perhaps because I had never called him by his first name before.

“Umm,” I hesitated, deciding not to press my luck, “Coffee is fine.”

But he did not bring coffee; he brought a bottle of Seagram’s 7 and two glasses of ice.

“If you’re going speak to me as a man, then we’re going to drink as men,” he said with a wink.

I’d never had a drink with my father; he rarely drank, so this was something new to me. In fact, I’d never had a drink with someone other than my peers. It emboldened me.

I took a sip and said, “Frank, I’ve been in your house many times over the years, and your daughter and I have basically grown up together. As you may know, we did not date when she returned from school this summer, and I wasn’t sure what that meant until today.”

He took a sip of his drink, looking at me steadily, perhaps even reassuringly.

“So, what I discovered–what we discovered–is that we really…um,” I said, clearing my throat, “ that we really care about each other–I mean, we really love each other.”

“I see,” said Mr. Welch.

“So this afternoon, I asked your daughter to marry me, and she said yes…and I just wanted to —”

“You did what?”

“I asked Laura to marry me…Frank.”

He sat back in his chair and stared at a point in the air right above our heads for five or six seconds. He seemed to be gathering his thoughts.

“Nancy and I married young, James. Just out of college. Did you know that?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“We eloped. Her father never approved of me. I have regrets about that. I never asked her father for her hand. I was afraid he’d say no.”

“Well, I would have asked, but–”

“But you didn’t, son….but you are here now, so what exactly is it that you want?”

“Frank, I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. We haven’t told anyone about our engagement. I wanted you to be the first to know. I’m here to ask for your blessing.”

He nodded and took a sip of his drink. “James, that means a lot to me. It took some guts to come here today, I know. Here’s what I think. I do give you my blessing. I think you’ve got potential. I only ask that you consider waiting until you graduate, and you have a job before you tie the knot.”

“Ok, I will give that some thought and talk it over with Laura.”

“And what will you do when you graduate? What about Laura’s career? She wants to be a professional singer. Who knows where that will take her. Will you support her?”

I hadn’t really thought about it. “I suppose I can pretty much get a job in any major city. I might even be doing consulting work when it gets closer to Y2K. Of course I’ll support her.”

“Good, good. So this Y2K stuff. It’s for real?” he said, taking another sip.

“Yes, sir. It could cause a great deal of devastation with any software that uses date calculations; which is pretty much every business; banks, oil companies, insurance companies, power companies, financial firms, you name it.”

“And there’s money in this?” I said.

“I could make a lot of money in a short period of time, and it could help me really establish my career if I play my cards right.”

He poured us each another drink and raised a glass. “To you, son, and to Laura. May you be as happy as Nancy and I are…and as rich!”

“Cheers!” I said, and we drank.

“No need to mention this little drink to Mrs. Welch,” he said, winking and turning the glass side to side. “She’s a little stricter than I am about this. I thought it was fine that you brought a little something to Laura’s party last summer.”

“Ok, then!” I said, feeling more relieved by the minute, and we had another drink.

We talked about Y2K more and my career and his golf game until we heard someone at the door about to enter.

He gave me another little wink and swiftly poured our drinks in the sink and put away the bottle. It was Laura’s mom.

“Hi, hun,” said Frank, his speech just slurred enough that I might notice but not she. “We have company.”

She was carrying a paper bag of groceries and said, “Well hello, James,” as she put the bag on the kitchen counter. She turned around, and took a good look at us, lifted her head a bit and sniffed the air. Her face turned stern, and she said, “Have you boys been drinking?”

“Now, now, Nancy, we have good cause,” he said. “Maybe you ought to have a seat,” he said, gesturing to an empty chair around the kitchen table.

She stared hard, first at Frank, then at me. “Actually, Frank, I don’t feel much like sitting.”

“Ok, ok. I’ve just had a very interesting conversation with James here.”

“Oh, what about?” she said.

“Well, it appears that he has asked our daughter’s hand in marriage. He’s here to ask for my–our–blessing.”

“Oh. I see,” she said, giving away no sign of emotion.

I shifted in my seat uncomfortably, and Mr. Welch glanced at me with his eyebrows raised.

“Yes, Mrs. Welch–Nancy. Of course, we’ll wait until we graduate, but yes, I’m in love with your daughter, and we are engaged.”

She walked into the living room, which was open to the kitchen with her hands on her hips. I was having a hard time reading her, but I didn’t think it was a good sign. Finally, she turned and faced us.

“So, it’s decided, is it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I asked her earlier today…wanted you guys to be the first to know.”

She walked around in a slow circle before turning to face me, and said, “What do you know about being a husband? What could you possibly know?”

I was not sure how to respond to this, but I spoke anyway, stammering, “I…uh…well, you know my parents have been married for 25 years. I’ve learned a lot about marriage from them…like…” and it struck me again that my mother was dying, and how my father had not even blinked when they told me, how they seemed to be doing it together. She wasn’t just dying, he was doing it with her….not dying himself, but they were still a team. “Like, in sickness and in health. My mother is dying, Mrs. Welch. And do you think my father is going to let her go through that alone? No, he will be there every step of the way….well, I guess what I’m saying is that I would do the same for your daughter….if she got sick or if….if no matter what, I will stand by her, with her career, with anything.”

Hands still on her hips, she looked down at the carpet and stirred it a little with her foot before saying, “Yes, James, Laura told me about your mother. I’m very sorry. That’s terrible.”

Then she walked to the table where Mr. Welch and I were still seated, me stilling buzzing from the alcohol, let out a breath, and said, “You two are very young.”

I wanted to point out that she was young as well, that she had eloped, and at least we weren’t doing that, but I decided that an honest answer would serve me better. “Yes, I know. We are very young.”

“And you realize that she will probably be going to grad school. We’re not paying for that. If you do this, you’re going to have to do this together. You’re going to have to support her. There’s no way of knowing how successful she will be at first.”

The truth was, I had not thought of any of these things, but I knew in that moment with all certainty that I was up to the task, and I said, “We’ll figure it out. I already have recruiters looking at me. I won’t have any problem getting a job.”

She walked around the table and stood behind her husband, placing her hands on his broad shoulders and said, “And what will you do if her dreams are dashed? What will you do if she never sings a note as a professional singer?”

“Whatever dream she fights for, will be my fight as well. If she fails, then we will do it together. Look, I love your daughter. I will support her. I will be faithful to her as long as she is breathing. I will do everything I can to make her happy.”

Something cemented in me as I spoke these words. These were the words that made me into a man, not buying a car, not calling Mr. Welch by his first name, not alcohol, but these words. I knew that they were true with no basis in fact other than me saying them and meaning them.

“Ok,” she said, as if then and only then was the matter settled. “I suppose now would be the appropriate time for that drink.”

Perhaps even more surprised than I was, Mr. Welch pulled out the bottle of Seagrams again and poured her an ounce of it, no more, and the two of us a short round, and we raised our glasses. Then, simultaneously, and without forethought, we said in unison, “To Laura.”

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