There is a sense of accomplishment in every relationship that comes when you hurdle over that first big thing. Everyone's "thing" is different. Maybe it's spending a holiday together. Maybe it's the death of a pet. Maybe it's a new apartment or new job or big promotion. That thing is what takes you from "just dating" to "dating" - as in, dating exclusively. Not dating anyone else. Because together, we survived the thing.
For Darren and I, the thing was meeting his friends. We got through it together. He had successfully introduced a woman to the people who mean the most to him. They loved me and I loved them. We all got along and his relief was palpable. I couldn't believe that it had taken him the better part of thirty years to bring a woman into his circle of friends, but in his words "there was never anyone else worth introducing before."
Darren wasn't a serial monogamist, like I am. He dated here and there, but it was mostly short term relationships. In fact, he never used the phrase "relationship" - that was all me. He'd had a few flings, a few girls he was interested in, but most of them were "hot enough but dumb as a stump" and thus, did not warrant any interaction with additional people. So why bring me around? "You're hot and smart and funny and sweet and people like you. I like you."
I knew that "I like you" was the most I was going to get out of him, at least for now, so I replied with my sweetest "I like you too" and sealed the sentence with a kiss. Several more dates went by; dinners, a few movies, drives around the island, nights out at the bar with guys from the firehouse. Every time we saw each other, I got those same butterflies I'd had the first night we reconnected. He flip flopped my stomach in unexpected ways. Who ends up with their Junior High school crush? Who gets to date someone today who's even more amazing than you thought they were all those years ago? Who doodles the same name in their grown up journal that was surrounded by hearts and Lisa Frank stickers in the Trapper Keeper two decades prior? Could I really be this lucky? Could Darren really be it?
"Babe?" he texted me, always the precursor to a question he didn't want to ask me. "Yeah babe?" I texted back, unsure what to prepare for next. "It's supposed to snow tonight, so I was thinking we shouldn't go out to dinner too far away." "Ok, no problem," I wrote back, waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Wanna come pick me up? We can stay close by."
I didn't do much of the driving while we were dating so this was a strange request, but I was happy to oblige. Being a modern, independent woman made me incredibly happy. Even more exciting was dating a man who appreciated these things about me. I packed a snow brush and shovel in my car (always be prepared!) and drove over to his house. When I got there, Darren invited me in to meet his parents "real quick before we left" --- yet another surprise meeting. I was getting used to him springing things on me at the last minute. He had done it once at the firehouse and once at the bar since the meeting of the friends party he didn't warn me about either. It seemed to freak him out less to introduce me to people if he didn't have to think about it too much beforehand. I realized that tonight, meeting the parents was no different.
As soon as I walked in, I smelled it. Dinner was in the oven. His parents were busy in the kitchen, his mom checking the potatoes for doneness, his dad chopping the salad. I was greeted with warmth and kindness, open arms from both his mom and dad, very reassuring and inviting. When all the pleasantries had been exchanged and my coat had still not been taken off, his mother looked at me with her head tilted to one side and said "Aren't you kids staying for dinner?" Darren sighed, "No mom. I told you we were going out." His mother looked deflated. "Oh. But you said she was coming over. We're so excited to meet you dear, we were so hoping you would stay so we could get to know you a little better."
I pleaded with Darren through my eyes, the uncertainty of the situation resonating between both of us. He shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets, not wanting to decide either way. If he said yes, we should stay, he was admitting he wanted me to forge a relationship with his folks. If he said no and insisted we leave, he was suggesting that no relationship was necessary between myself and his parents. Plus, he'd be disappointing his mom. If there's one thing I know about Jewish boys who still live at home, it's that they despise disappointing their mothers.
"Are those sweet potatoes you're making?" I smiled at Mrs S. She nodded with delight. "I guess I can't pass up sweet potatoes. We'd love to stay!" She clapped her hands together and practically squealed with delight. Dinner was almost ready and Darren was grabbing glasses for wine and setting four places at the table. I saw a deferential side of him that had never come through before. The obedient son side. The respectful family man. The tough guy at the firehouse, the bigshot with his friends, the romantic lover with me, they all gave way to the man he was brought up to be. A good son.
"Darren said you don't eat red meat, so I made chicken instead. I hope chicken is ok?" Mrs S chattered on in the kitchen while I stood against the counter, sipping my wine. "And he told us that you can't have red wine, only white so that's Chardonnay you're drinking. Chardonnay is good, yes?" I nodded my approval, feeling my cheeks flushing bright pink. "Oh, and don't worry, we know you're allergic to peppers so there are no pepper in the whole meal. I made everything pepper free!" She smiled at me so earnestly that I realized this had been the plan all along. I was simultaneously flattered at the amount of effort she put into a making a Kim-friendly meal and positively humiliated that he hadn't warned me this would be the first ever Dinner With His Parents. I would've made dessert! I would've brought the wine! I would've worn a different outfit. I at least wouldn't have been so shocked when she acted like the world crumbled around her when she thought we were going out to a restaurant because I thought that we were, in fact, going out to a restaurant. Darren saw me flushed and flustered and excused himself for a few minutes.
"He likes you, you know," she half whispered to me once he walked out of the room. "He won't admit it, but we can tell. A mother always knows."
Really? How can you tell if he won't say anything?
"For starters, you're the first girl he's ever brought home. In fact, you may be the only girl he's ever talked to us about. We know he goes out, he dates, he does his own thing. He's a grown man, we don't ask too many questions. But you...he can't seem to stop smiling over you. It's very sweet actually, finally seeing your son so happy with a woman. Encouraging, you know? You'll understand someday, when you have children of your own. You two do want children, don't you? His sister has children, obviously and we love them to pieces, but I simply cannot have enough grandchildren."
I wanted to shrink down like Alice and dive headfirst into my wine glass to hide. How could he leave me like this? How could he put me on the spot like this? And why on earth hadn't he brought any other girls home? Ever???
Mrs S sensed my hesitation and apologized. "I'm so sorry, Kim. I didn't mean to embarrass you. It's just that seeing him so happy lately, it's been very reassuring. We want him to find love and have a great life. I know he'd have that with you. You're good for him."
Thank goodness, the timer on the oven buzzed and the men came back into the kitchen, sensing it might be safe to return. We sat down for dinner and the conversation continued to be about how Darren and I reconnected, what we'd been up to while dating, where we wanted to go from here. They'd heard his side of our story but hung on my every word. I loved knowing that I wasn't the only person who thought this relationship might really go somewhere. It just might be the real thing after all. Darren and I might be the story to end all stories. We could make it work. We could make it last.
He cleaned up after dinner, clearing my place and his parents' places too. He loaded the dishwasher and wiped down the counters and put leftovers away in the fridge while they asked me about work and my family and my writing. They were so genuinely curious that I couldn't be mad about sitting through their personal version of the Spanish Inquisition (at least it was over wine!) Darren had that kitchen spic n span by the time his mother jumped up to make us tea and his dad peeled clementines and cut up fruit for dessert. While they took over, he showed me around the house, pointing out photos of him and his sister, his niece and nephew, family vacations, holidays, and childhood memories. I loved seeing him in his element, his home, his world. This was where he lived when we went to school together and I couldn't believe I got a sneak peak into that place. It felt like going behind the scenes in someone else's life.
When the tea and dessert were over, Darren said good night to his parents and we escaped with our mugs to his room for some much need snuggle time. There was a Top Chef marathon on tv and cuddled up in his arms in front of my favorite show was exactly the decompression I needed after the intense evening we'd had. His parents were incredibly nice people, I thought as I settled back against him, and I'm so lucky they're open to us being together. My ex husband had a dreadful family who never accepted me and my ex boyfriend's family was simply awful. They never liked me nor I them, so this whole "getting along with the parents" thing was definitively new territory for me. I could get used to it.
Two hours later, I woke up to alarm bells ringing. Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Women and children first! What the fuck is that noise?!?!
I didn't know where I was. I didn't recognize anything around me. Who was this person next to me? How did I get here? What are those alarms going off?
Darren reached over the bed and lowered the volume on his firemen's walkie. "Sorry babe," he said slowly, stretching out, completely unfazed. "Guess we fell asleep." It all came back to me. The television was still on Top Chef, the volume turned way down, the lights lowered, the half full mug of now cold tea on his night table. "You dozed off and I must've followed soon after. That was some good snuggling though. I needed that."
I couldn't focus. I was still shaken up from the Abandon Ship sounds reverberating through my head. "Be right back," he kissed the top of my head, took his Walkie out to the hall, and I laid back down. I sank back into the pillows he'd gotten off of, feeling his side still warm and inviting, smelling his comforting scent on the sheets, the fear receding as I knew I was safe with Darren. Maybe it was just the firefighter thing. Maybe it was just his size and strength. Maybe I just loved knowing he'd protect me, take care of me, no matter what. Maybe it was the fact that he'd been a gentleman despite having me curled up in his bed. The combination of factors intoxicated me and I found myself drifting off once again.
An indeterminate amount of time later, Darren came back into the room and brushed my messy hair away from my sleepy face. He kissed my cozy warm cheek and said "Babe? You wanna get up?"
"Mmmmmm," I grumbled, "why?" (I've never been easy to wake.)
"It's a blizzard," he said, "I got called into the firehouse. We have to go shovel the engines out and I'm on emergency standby. You can stay here til morning if you want. I'll let my parents know. I just thought you might like to go home."
I begrudgingly opened one eye. It was two in the morning. My life suddenly flashed before me, a life of Darren getting called into work at every hour of the day and night. Always being on standby. Always having to wake up and leave me. But that's the thing about everyday heroes. They don't get a day off.
I tugged my boots on, zipped up my coat, wrapped up in my scarf, hat, gloves, and searched for my keys. My mother's voice as I left the house, warning to "take a snow brush Just In Case" echoed in my ears and I was immensely grateful she always reminded me to take things like extra sweaters and a spare shovel. My bag was on the chair where I left it, but the keys were nowhere to be found.
"Oh, sorry," Darren whispered. "I warmed up your car already. Hope that's ok."
Stepping outside into the arctic chill, I saw that he had not just warmed up my car. He had completely cleared it of all snow, started the engine, defrosted the whole thing. He'd also cleaned off his Jeep, his parents cars, and shoveled the walkway up to the house.
"I'll be at the fire house all day if you need me," he smiled, kissing my still sleepy forehead. "Let me know if you want help shoveling out tomorrow. I'll get the guys on the engine to come by with the snow blowers so your dad doesn't have to break his back."
Like I said. Everyday hero.