Oh, shit. I am in so much trouble.
~My first thought upon seeing Dustin for the first time.
I saw him before he saw me, and I knew, from the second I laid eyes on him, that everything would be different. The sun was shining during an unseasonably warm October day, and it played over his hair, his broad, muscular shoulders, his narrow waist, and the suggestion of a rear end I could already tell was going to cause me heart trouble. Hormones were rocketing around my system, and all the hair stood up on the back of my neck.
We were meeting for coffee, cliche of all cliches. We had met online, and spent the last two weeks getting to know each other on the phone. I had made him wait so long because I had been putting in insane hours at my job, and that first weekend I had available I intended to spend in the fetal position on the couch, and told him so. He found that both frustrating and hilarious.
He didn’t see my initial reaction. I was sitting at an outside table, reading my kindle. Behind my sunglasses, I saw him coming across the parking lot. He didn’t see my eyes widen, my lips part. He didn’t hear my breath catch or the soft swear word I hissed. I let him go into the cafe, let him send me a text to let me know he had arrived. I didn’t get up to meet him, but sent him a text to let him know where I was.
Frankly, I needed a minute. I pretended to read my book, trying to get my breathing under control, struggled for calm. I was in a heap of trouble, but I didn’t yet know if he was.
He took my picture while I was pretending to read. I didn’t realize it, but I was smiling.
We talked for hours. We went from place to place. He helped me pick out my smartphone, phones being an obsession of his. We went to my favorite tavern for lunch. And we went to one of my favorite places on the planet: the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The Garden has been special to me for years. My aunt June took me the first time when I was nine or ten. I remember being fascinated by the Japanese Gardens-the largest Japanese garden outside Japan. The Climatron left me amazed-a tropical jungle housed in a geodesic dome. I loved it, and I loved her. She had a childlike wonder for the world that made every experience with her a kind of revelation, a romp, endlessly special.
While I was living outside Detroit, June got sick, diagnosed with breast cancer. I was already working to come back home after my cousin Steve had died in 2002. I got back just as she finished her final rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
For her birthday that summer, I took her back to the Garden. She was still weak and tired from her treatments. We had to make frequent stops, but she loved every minute of it. She hadn’t been to the Garden in years, and she exclaimed over every change and new design, and wondered over the rose gardens, her favorites.
We went back every year for her birthday after that. She got stronger, she got better, and she looked forward to the trip, would talk about it for weeks afterwards. But three years later, she suffered a bad fall, broke her leg. And we discovered her breast cancer, thought to be in remission, had metastasized to her bones.
Bone cancer is terminal. Every time. No get out of jail free card, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. It may take a while, it can be held off – slowed down – delayed – but make no mistake, sooner or later, it’s going to kill you. And it is a horrible, drawn out, terrible way to die.
That year, she was too sick to go back. So I went alone and took as many pictures as I could. The next year, she was gone. And now, the Gardens are sacred to me, hallowed ground. If she is haunting any place on this earth, she is there.
For me to decide to take Dustin to the Garden during our first date was a significant choice. For him to realize how special the place was to me simply by watching my reactions to it was even more so.
I touched him for the first time in the Ottoman Garden, tucking my hand into the crook of his arm.
We held hands for the first time at the tulip beds.
And in the Climatron, buried in a jungle in the middle of the Midwest, beside a waterfall, he kissed me for the first time.
There, we fell in love.
Title quote courtesy of Oscar Wilde.