When Beginning A New Relationship, I Believe In Putting My Worst Foot Forward: A Love Story

Last month, The Queen and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. Holy cow! If you’d been with us the night we met, you probably would not have expected us to make it this far.

Want to hear a funny story? Grab a beverage and pull up a chair…

Twelve years ago, my youngest brother (the always entertaining Joey of How ‘Bout Joey fame) and I were both living in New York City. We’d each taken a very different path there – him via the wandering actor’s journey, mine writing the post-military chapter of my life – but this was the first real opportunity to spend any real time together as adults. I’d left Syracuse seven year earlier for the Air Force and Joey was still just a kid when I left.

I enjoyed every moment of my adventures with Joey. I’m blessed with three wonderful brothers but as Joey and I were farthest apart in age we had spent the least time together. I love Joey and had supported him in his journey but just hadn’t spent a lot of time with him grown-up. Until we got to NYC, that is.

I’m a fan of the neighborhood bar. In NYC, I fell in love with the charm of the slightly decaying Coyote Ugly. (A Sunday afternoon with Kim tending bar? Fuhgeddaboudit. No place better in the world!) I dragged Joey there one night and he was hooked as well. He also immediately fixated on getting up on the bar for a dance.

For the record, I will NOT say that Kim allowed Joey to dance on the bar one particular night. That would be ridiculous – it was clearly against the rules for men to EVER dance on the bar there. If a particularly wonderful bartender/manager happened to be deeply engrossed in her closing rituals one late night, who’s to say exactly who that charming young person was who jumped up on the other end of the bar just long enough to say he’d done it… but I digress.

Living in New York City was a continual search for that feeling of “home”. I never felt it broadly there but had found a few pockets where I was content. Knocking around the city with Joey was one of them. Another was any time spent across the bar from Kim swapping stories. (Thinking about it now, Kim demonstrated that same commitment to excellence that I’d seen recently getting my boots shined. Her particular craft was hospitality, not shoe shines, but I think that proves the point. The pursuit of excellence in what you do – no matter what your craft may be – has its own inherent value and pushes back the chaos of the world one moment at a time. If you’ve ever had the distinct pleasure of being made to feel at home by the magnificent Kim, you know exactly what I mean. I went back to that bar time after time and followed her when she went to the Gold Rush in Hell’s Kitchen.)

Joey and I were in the Gold Rush one afternoon, if I remember correctly, when he announced that he had the most amazing friend, that she and I had to meet, and that he would set it all up. He told me her name which I vaguely remembered as being someone that he had done theater with back in Syracuse years ago but had never met. At this point in my life, I’d been married unsuccessfully twice and had a 4 year old son who was the joy of my life. I had pretty well adjusted to the idea that I would just be alone as a man but would be the very best father that I could be. I wasn’t against the idea of finding a partner in my life; I just didn’t think that was in my future. I had my little moments of happiness in the big city and the precious time with my son. I figured that was all I could hope for.

Joey was working one of the many transient jobs that actors hold between the real moments of their vocation. He was checking coats at an upscale place in Times Square. He worked out the logistics and announced that we’d all be meeting him at his work the next Friday. Sounded good to me.

I was working in construction at the time so when Friday rolled around I got home to Queens as quickly as I could, got myself looking presentable – showered, shaved, polo shirt – and made my way into Manhattan. I was the first arrival and Joey told me plainly that he still had a couple of hours of work before he could leave but I could sit at the bar and wait for his friend. He stepped out of the tiny coat check room and walked me up to the bar. I looked around and knew right away that this was not the place for me. (I’ve never aspired to be trendy.) I thanked Joey as he headed back to the closet (the coat check that is – he had not seen the inside of a closet for quite some time) and ordered a Scotch. I couldn’t picture myself drinking a beer in that place.

I think I sat there for about an hour and a half by myself. I had a drink or two and waited. The time I spent at the bar did nothing to make me feel more comfortable in this decidedly-not-a-neighborhood-bar. I was a few drinks into the night when Joey returned. Standing next to him was a gorgeous red head. The first thought – 100% truth – that went through my mind when I saw her: “What a fox!”

Joey made the formal introduction and again apologized that he was still working. He told us he’d be back and left us alone. I bought a drink for the foxy lady and starting chatting.

We had a delightful conversation for about 30 minutes. She was as intelligent and confident as she was beautiful. I kept asking myself why Joey had never introduced us before. I was smitten. The conversation went back and forth. I had another Scotch. She’d grown up in Syracuse as Joey and I had. Like Joey, she’d left Syracuse behind many years ago as a performer.

Now – it is important to note that if you speak to The Queen about this night, our recollections will begin to diverge…

To be fair, I was well ahead of The Queen in my beverage consumption that evening. I suppose that may factor into your assessment as to the accuracy of my memory. So be it. This is the story that I’m going with.

My recollection is that our 30 minute conversation was wonderful. The Queen will tell you that right around that time I started to slur my words a bit. (A dead giveaway that the Scotch was starting to catch up with me? I plead the fifth. Amendment, that is. Not drink tally.)

Joey’s shift ended and he joined us at the bar. I gave him my very best I’m-totally-sober-and-this-is-going-so-well wink. I’m sure it was entirely subtle and unnoticed by The Queen.

I think, for context, I must point out information The Queen has since shared with me but of which I was unaware that night. When Joey had pitched the idea to her of meeting his brother, she flatly refused.

“Forget it,” she said, “I’ve met your brothers.”

This was a partially true statement. Joey and I are the bookends, oldest and youngest of 4 brothers total. The Queen had met our middle two brothers years earlier at a time when our brothers were fans of Beavis and Butthead, the Grateful Dead, and other pursuits that hadn’t made the most stellar of impressions on her. (Hey, everyone was young once!) As far as she was concerned, she’d seen all she needed to see about Joey’s brothers.

Joey immediately clarified his idea. “No, you’ve met my other brothers. You’ve never met Todd. You’ve got to meet him.”

The Queen agreed, with one condition. She didn’t need to be fixed up with anyone. She had her life in NYC and was just fine. She’d join a group of friends going out together but no way was she going anywhere near a blind date. Joey assured her that was no problem. Just meet Todd. There would be a whole bunch of folks going out as a group. No problem.

So when she showed up at the bar that night and Joey brought her to the bar to meet me (just me!) with no one else there, Joey was not high on her list of favorite people in the way that Ned Stark was “not quite a fan” of King Joffrey. That is to say, not at all. While I would normally consider myself rather insightful, it is possible that I was so smitten with this enchanting woman that I failed to notice her lack of enthusiasm for the situation. (Once again – does Scotch make me an unreliable narrator? That is probably up to you to determine.)

In either case, let’s sync up these two narratives…

I got to the bar and started drinking. Some time later, The Queen got to the bar and Joey walked her over to where I was sitting. Joey returned to work. The Queen and I had a 30 minute conversation. Joey finished working and joined us at the bar. It was time to go, he announced. Let’s go somewhere.

Our trio left the bar. Off, somewhere, into the great city. (South, perhaps?)

I’ll condense the next section. We made our way through the cold February night. Along the way, I kept slipping into the big-brother-picking-on-little-brother routine. It is my understanding – now – that this act is not very attractive to women. Especially not red-headed foxes originally from Upstate NY and now living in New York City.

Along the way, The Queen made a phone call and we were joined a short time later by a friend of hers, Steven. He and Joey exchanged some pleasantries and seemed mildly interested in each other. I thought nothing of it. We continued our trip through Manhattan’s nightlife.

Another phone call by The Queen. We were joined by yet another fabulous friend of hers, Jay. Joey, Steven, and Jay – all fabulous. The slightly homoerotic vibe within our group intensified. I was blissfully unaware in my Scotch fog. I never stopped to consider why we kept picking up gay guys as our night unfolded.

[Editorial note: The Queen had lured both Steven and Jay out into the cold night with the enticing promise of my charming brother Joey being in attendance. She may have also pleaded with each of them that she was on the worst blind date of her entire life and that they needed to rescue her. Again, in my drunken state, I continued to drink and break Joey’s balls. I was convinced that I was the definition of charm.]

We ended up at some bar way downtown. I think it may have been a gay bar. I honestly don’t recall but can state definitively that I couldn’t have cared less. “I’d really like to take you out some time when we don’t have all of these gay guys around,” I said. She nodded politely and smiled but agreed to nothing. I’m sure it sounded suave to me.

No matter. I was firing on all (alcohol-fueled) cylinders. The Queen mentioned that a friend of hers, also from Syracuse, happened to be attending the Actor’s Studio. Immediately, the Scotch-soaked synapses made a connection and suggested an immediate Will Ferrell impression. Or more accurately, an impression of Will Ferrell doing an impression of James Lipton, he of the Inside the Actors Studio fame. (This was 2003. Will Ferrell was killing it on SNL.) My brain recognized how absolutely appropriate a point in the conversation this was to launch said impression. Explaining what I was doing, though, would only break the magic.

“If God exists, what would you like to hear him say?”

I leaned in and gazed at her, wide-eyed, as I delivered the masterwork impression. Nailed it. Totally sounded like Will Ferrell sounding like James Lipton. Take it from me – women love random TV references/impressions. Especially when you do nothing to set the context for them. Just charge ahead with the impression. Don’t worry – it will make sense to her eventually…

…unless she doesn’t watch TV, hasn’t seen Inside the Actors Studio, and isn’t up on what Will Ferrell is doing on SNL. Yeah. It that case you’re going to sound like a raving lunatic.

Surprisingly, at that moment, The Queen decided that she was done being nice to Joey’s brother. She laughed in a way that managed to convey both scorn and pity at the same time. The evening was over for her.

“Ha – OK, that’s it for me. Good night.” She gathered up her stuff and started to don the cold weather gear for the early morning Manhattan air.

“You’re leaving? You can’t go by yourself. Let me take you.” Drunk but chivalrous.

If there is one thing that my wife likes more than drunken pop culture references, it’s drunken guys telling her what she can or can’t do.

“I can go by myself. I’ll take the subway and be fine.”

This made no sense – even in my intoxicated state. A woman taking the subway from one end of Manhattan to the other at 1 AM on a Friday night? By herself? Ridiculous! “I’ll get you a cab,” I said.

I followed her out of the bar over her attempts to decline my offer. I’d lived in NYC long enough to know how to flag a cab. One pulled over as soon as I raised my hand. (To be fair, I don’t know how much I can brag about this. I’m white.)

The Queen, always a lady, thanked me for the cab. “Maybe we can catch a movie sometime,” she said as she got into the cab. “Call me.”

I gave the cab driver $20 and told him to make sure that she got home OK. I waved good-bye and went back into the bar. The night was over for me. Joey went 0 for 2 that night. Jay and Steven, both lured out that evening with Joey as the potential reward, went home together. Joey and I caught a cab back to Queens.

The Queen will tell you that upon her realization that I was going to pay for her cab home she knew she was stuck. Crap, she thought. He’s an idiot but he seems like a nice idiot. I should go out with him one more time. Then I’m in the clear. She figured that a movie was a safe bet. We get some popcorn and wouldn’t have to talk to each other for two hours. The movie would end and she would have done her due diligence. She’d never see me again after that. I can’t fault her logic.

***

I woke up Saturday around noon. What follows is the exact transcript of my phone conversation with Joey.

Me: [Dials phone]

Joey: [Hungover] Hello?

Me: [More hungover] Joey…

Joey: I know.

[Call ends.]

I may have fallen back to sleep at that point. I called The Queen a short while later. The call went to voicemail.

“Hi, it’s Todd. Joey’s brother. I am very sorry for how drunk I was last night. I’d really like a chance to make it up to you another time.”

***

I think we spoke later on Saturday. She thanked me for the apology and affirmed her willingness to give me another chance at a movie. (But unbeknownst to me, her plan was clear – and definitely closed-ended. Some popcorn, two hours of us not talking, and she’d be in the clear, never to see me again.)

***

Sunday afternoon, Joey called me. He was going into Manhattan that evening for a friend’s birthday celebration. Did I want to come? We’d be near the upper west side restaurant where The Queen was a night manager. We could stop in and say hi before the birthday celebration.

A chance to make a better impression? (Honestly – how could it NOT be a better impression than Friday night?) Absolutely!

That evening, we were going to places more my speed. Nothing trendy. I dressed like I normally would. Dark jeans. Boots. A black Harley-Davidson thermal shirt. My motorcycle jacket. I was me. Comfortable. It had to go better than Friday night.

We got to her restaurant Sunday evening after 7. The place had some diners at small tables and a few folks at the bar. The restaurant’s trade moved at a measured pace. The Queen saw us as we came in and grabbed a couple of seats at the bar. She waved and went back into the kitchen. We ordered a couple of drinks (beer – no Scotch tonight) and said hello to the bartender and fellow patrons at the bar.

The Queen came out a few minutes later and came over to us. I think I apologized again for the other night and we made small talk for about a minute. She introduced us to one of her regular customers, a nice woman a few years older than me, sitting next to us at the bar.

“We’ve started a book club here at the restaurant,” The Queen said. The woman was one of the members. The Queen resumed her managerial work and moved away from us briskly.

“What are you reading now?” I asked my new acquaintance.

“Brave New World,” she answered.

“Cool!” I replied. “Utopia-as-dystopia literature. I love that.” We started talking about other literary themes and perspectives.

The Queen, oddly, didn’t spend much time near us. She was working but the restaurant wasn’t busy. It was definitely after whatever dinner rush it had on a Sunday evening. There wasn’t much new traffic coming in. Customers were lingering over coffee or dessert. It was slowing down. But she would come stand near us, listen to a few bits of the conversation, smile, nod, and rush away after only a few moments.

“I don’t understand, Joey,” I said at one point. “I swear, we had a real conversation the other night before I got drunk. I swear. We were both talking. Now it’s like she’s been struck mute or something. I don’t get it.”

The Queen later told me that her trips back into the kitchen were for quick discussions with the other employees peering out to the bar.

“This is the guy that you had the nightmare date with the other night? Him?” they asked her.

“He wasn’t like this the other night,” she told them. “He didn’t look like this.” All of a sudden attracted to me, she was now self-conscious. Our easy conversation from Friday? She had no interest in me and didn’t really care what I had to say.

She sidled up next to Joey as I was talking about the book club with my bar neighbor.

“Joey, he wasn’t like this the other night,” she said.

“I know,” Joey said. “I told you. He’s really smart.”

We stayed for another beer and then headed out to the birthday party. We said our goodbyes. I told The Queen how much I was looking forward to going out with her. She agreed and we decided to catch a movie in the next day or two.

The Queen was smitten with this Todd. My apparel was authentic – although I didn’t ride my Harley as much as I’d like in NYC. I felt comfortable in her restaurant. Certainly, sitting at the bar talking about literature was something I was always comfortable with. I was really just being me – and apparently I’m a bit attractive when I’m put together right. (Cut me some slack. This was 12 years ago.)

We went to a movie a few days later. She let me pick the movie… from a pre-filtered list she presented to me. (It was Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, if you’re interested. Great movie.) She was wearing a ¾ length sleeved shirt and, during the movie, I absentmindedly stroked her hand and wrist – but only below the edge of the sleeve. Apparently, that was the right move. We wandered out of the theater, found a place still open for a quick beer before parting ways at the subway platform. A quick kiss goodnight and I knew that I’d be calling her again.

Our dating moved quickly. We had a real connection. A few weeks later, she went on a prior-committed cruise with her mother and 2 of her aunts. On that trip, she told them that she had met the man she was going to marry someday. I didn’t know that yet but it didn’t matter. I was smitten with that red-haired fox from Syracuse.

***

Now, we’ve been married for 10 years. We have 2 boys of our own and I could not have gotten any luckier with a better stepmother to my then 4-year-old son.  We’ve had our ups and downs, and have alternately liked and been annoyed by one another. Regular married couple stuff.

We’ve had rough patches. Kids. Kids! Holy cow – they are the ultimate stress test for a relationship, no? We’ve built a new home and moved my father and her mother in with us. (No, they are not together. Yes, that is another story.) Through it all, though, I’ve had one consistent barometer.

We still laugh together. And as long as we’re laughing together, we’re OK.

So happy anniversary, Aubry. I love you and I treasure the life we’ve built together. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

We enjoy telling the story of how we met. We both love to make people laugh. And for my part of the story, my perspective is always the same: from the moment that we met, Aubry had the benefit of seeing me at my worst. That night was as bad as I get. From there, there was no place to go but up!

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5 Comments

Filed under Funny- ha ha

5 responses to “When Beginning A New Relationship, I Believe In Putting My Worst Foot Forward: A Love Story

  1. To

    Great story, or actually a great history. (P.S. Tell your editor that I found a typo)

  2. This story makes me smile as much as it makes me uncomfortably laugh. Great re-telling.
    And I was there!
    Love you both!

  3. Kim

    This makes me SO happy-2 years later! 🙂 Happy Anniversary to both of you and always sending my love to the Panek brothers and their families 🙂

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