Well, who knew?
I had heretofore entertained zero romantic feelings for Al. He was my friend, my brother, my hero. That kiss of his held me in a state of frenetic mystification for weeks thereafter. Of course, I immediately wanted to know, "What was that for?" Gently, Al explained that that was for me. For us. That he loved me and was in love with me.
Flummoxed, dazed, thunderstruck and slightly embarrassed, I began to try to comprehend these words of his. I listened. I heard what he was saying, but my brain (heart?) simply could not clutch the concept and drag it into my own practical perspective. Weeks hence, I wandered in a haze of Wha?, repeating his proclamation to myself like a mantra, struggling to comprehend its origination. I clamored around in my own head grappling with this notion that Al. AL! is in love with me. In love with ME. In LOVE with me? Until finally, I cornered it and wrestled it far enough into reality to sit down on it and ponder, chin in hand, what I was going to do with it.
This man, whom I came dangerously close to worshipping, who had guided and mentored, coached and cajoled me through my career and my life for 5+ years, was asking for a new spot in my life. To be honest, as I reflected over my past dating relationships, it seemed like he was actually asking for a demotion. In many ways, dating and getting involved romantically seemed like they would cheapen our relationship. I wasn't sure I would even be able to seriously BE romantic with Al. We had so much history, had laughed together about so many details of my dating life. In short, he knew me too well, and I felt I had moved PAST the emotional point in our friendship where a romantic relationship could begin, much less survive.
But how COULD I pass up the chance to explore what might be the love of my lifetime? I was 34 and terrified that the crumbling relationship with my current boyfriend was my last hope for love and family. I was growing lonely and restless and falling into habits that felt pathetic and mid-lifish to me.
Gradually, as he'd done a hundred, no, a thousand times before, Al helped me visualize a new set of possibilities. He spoke of laughter and fun, trust and security, closeness and partnership. He drew on my heart a picture of the life I'd dreamed about since childhood. A man who adored me, a partner I trusted and respected, a cozy life of peace and contentment. Health, growth, joy and comfort. Gradually, I put the two of us into the picture together, like the pink peg and the blue peg in the little plastic car on the gameboard of LIFE. We seemed to fit.
One night after a workout, we sat eating salads and rotisserie chicken and drinking wine, and I asked him, "But Al. What if we date and then get married and have a daughter? I won't know what to do with her hair!"
He laughed. And said, "Is that all there is standing in the way? We'll take her to the hairdresser once a week."
His laughter sealed our destiny. We began dating and otherwise pursuing an intimate, loving, relationship. And as amazing a friend as Al had been to me, he was absolutely brilliant at dating! He insisted on the best restaurants and the symphony, nights on the town and romantic weekend getaways to beautiful mountain retreats and seaside resorts, Hawaii, London, San Francisco. He swept me away!
I didn't need all that though. The shapes and colors and sounds that fill my mind when I think of our courtship are the crackle of the fall leaves underfoot along our favorite hiking trail, the smell and feel of our new hiking boots, the crunch of barbecue potato chips over the sounds of a Clemson-Georgia Tech football game viewed snuggled on my couch, sipping wine on my veranda as we spit muscadine skins over the railings into the woods, eating cheeseburgers in the office cafe on Fridays, planning our weekends together, playing poker and drinking champagne on New Years Eve because we just wanted to relax and stay in, curling up by the fire after a hike, drinking hot apple cider with a little rum, and being told over and over again how much he loved me (and reciprocating shyly), preparing elaborate dinners that took hours in my tiny little apartment kitchen while Al sat perched on the dryer behind me, proffering a kiss or a sip of wine when there was a break in the culinary action, waking up to a knock on my door and being greeted with flowers, hot coffee and a lumpy-throat-inducing I love you card, just because; answering another knock on the door one Halloween night to find a very affectionate and adorable black and white spotted cow grinning from ear to ear, asking sweetly, Got Milk?
Yes, the whirl-wind, hot spot dating was fun, but the real falling-in-love was done right where we'd built our deep friendship: in the easy, funny, simple corners of our lives, wearing jeans, sweaters and hiking boots.
Love came quickly and cozily to us. A new passion sparked and burned as if it had been smoldering for a hundred years and finally got a breath of air.
But health issues arose again, the atmosphere at work intensified and threatened, and we were in for some turbulent times ahead.
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