Friends. They're the people who ground us, keep us steady, smack us upside the head when most needed. They're the reality check when our heads are in the clouds, the ones who know us best, sometimes better than we know ourselves. True friends will tell you when you have spinach in your teeth, or cat hair on your sweater, or when you're dating an asshole.
Darren asked me to meet his friends first.
"Hey, so I know that we were supposed to go to dinner tonight..." Darren started on the phone. I could already sense the blow off happening. I braced myself for disappointment, waiting for the (hopefully) gentle let down. We'd been on several dates already, each more amazing than the next. We were old friends who stayed up all night talking on the phone while he worked late, or texted until I dozed off. We were cutesy, cheesy, and in all other ways sickeningly adorable with each other, much to the chagrin of anyone who overheard our conversations. I felt kind of terrible that his EMT partner got stuck listening to many a mushy midnight call between us, the product of him working overnights and not being able to see each other on a regular schedule. I made a special batch of cookies for his partner as a means of apology / thank you for putting up with us. (We were quickly forgiven!)
"Anyway, I really wanted to take you out to a nice restaurant tonight but Mark and Michelle called and invited us over for dinner instead. They're my best friends and they really want to meet you. Is it too soon?"
No, no it's not too soon. That's really sweet. Yes, let's go.
"Great, it's just gonna be us and the kids will go to bed soon after we get there. I'm really looking forward to you meeting them. Their opinion means more to me than any of my other friends, even the firehouse guys ... or my parents."
This sentence was followed by a substantial pause when I realized what he was saying. These friends were IT. They were THE friends I needed to impress. They were the deciding factor in us continuing to date. They could make or break our fledgling relationship.
He picked me up in the Jeep as usual, chattering on the whole way over to Mark and Michelle's house. Darren was no stranger to talking, but this rambling...what was this? Was he nervous? Was he shaking? Oh holy crap - he's nervous about me meeting his friends. Or them meeting me? Or what happens if they don't like me? Do we keep dating? Ok. Officially freaking out.
I had to find a way to calm him down. We'd only been together a few weeks and things were going really well. There was nothing to be nervous about. We were happy and if that wasn't enough for anyone else, then I didn't care about their opinion one way or another. "Babe?" I blinked up at him as he took my hand, getting out of the car. "Yeah babe?" he looked petrified. "It's just us, ok? I'm sure I'll like them. And I'm sure they'll like me. You're ok. We can do this. It's just dinner. Just us."
In that moment, I swear Darren took his first real breath of the night. It hung half frozen in the chilly darkness between us, a sigh of relief. He squeezed my hand, kissed me quickly, and into the house we went.
Mark and Michelle were the kind of friends whose house Darren didn't need to knock to walk into. Their kids attacked him with flying hugs and killer kisses, refusing to let go of Uncle Darry. Two toddlers in cartoon print footsie pajamas wrestling the grown man you're dating may very well be the cutest thing a woman can see on a Thursday night. It's not fair! Little kids are my kryptonite!
He finally put the children down and introduced me to them as their future Aunt Kim. My heart melted. He held my hand as he said it, and I squeezed back, reminding him that it was "just us." He smiled as the girl toddler stomped her foot and stormed off to her bedroom with a huge "harumph!" and a slam of her door.
Holy crap! What just happened???
At that moment, Michelle walked in and said "She thinks that she's marrying Uncle Darry. You stole her husband." Wow. Did not see that coming! Nothing like disappointing someone's kid as a first impression. This didn't stop Michelle from hugging me hello and introducing herself. She had a huge smile and teased me again, "So you're the girl who's been breaking Darren's heart for twenty years!"
Oh heavens, I hope not! I have no intention of breaking his heart, and I'd be truly grateful if he didn't break mine either!
Mark walked in from the barbeque (yes, even in the dead of winter) with a tray of sausage and an ear to ear grin. "Hey, you must be the girl stealing all my bro's time! What's your secret? He's been retarded over you for weeks."
Michelle punched Mark in the arm as Darren blushed and looked down. He wanted to defend himself but was clearly caught out as the-guy-who-really-likes-a-girl. No worse fate for a man!
Wine was poured, snacks were laid out on the table, kids were tucked into bed, laughter and conversation ensued, the night was going splendidly. And then, the doorbell rang. Again. And again. And again.
Darren invited me to dinner with Mark and Michelle. Mark and Michelle invited everyone on the block to the Darren-brought-a-girl-over party. Before I knew it, there wasn't enough room at the table and people spread out through the living room, hallway, kitchen, and some of the guys even hung out near the still-fired-up bbq in the backyard. I circulated as best I could, helping Michelle clean up dishes, pour more wine, set out food as it was cooked, and meet and mingle with everyone who walked through the door. They all had the same reaction of back slapping, handshaking, and goofy grinning at Darren. I was asked a hundred questions, introduced a hundred times, told the story of how we met all night long. I hardly even saw Darren, I was so busy entertaining his friends and bustling around the party. When at long last, the guests finished the ample amounts of wine and started to make their exits, I had a few minutes alone in the kitchen with Michelle, my original hostess. I asked her for some Tupperware to keep the pies fresh when she turned and gave me the strangest look.
"What's your story?" she glared at me. I felt my face flame. What did she mean, my story? Hadn't I been the perfect guest all night, helping her host a party I didn't even know I was invited to??? "You and Darren - is this for real?"
Absolutely. I mean, I think so. I hope so. I like him. I like him so much.
"Good," she declared, very matter of factly. "Because we really like you too. A lot. You're good for him. This is the happiest we've ever seen him."
"Didn't you like his other girlfriends? Wasn't he happy with any of them?"
Michelle almost dropped the plate she was loading into the dishwasher. "Oh honey, what other girls? You're the first person he's ever brought over here."