Valentine’s was the anniversary of the evening Jimmy pulled off the perfect proposal. Until the cancer, Julie had been able to tell the story in great detail to anyone who asked, and many people did. Storybook engagement tales are the stuff on which unrealistic expectations and bitter comparisons thrive.
She’d worked late, having been coerced into manning the scoreboard for a ninth grade girls’ basketball game at the last minute because the shop teacher had left early with the flu that day. In her single days, Julie had been the go-to whenever coverage for a colleague was needed, but since moving in with Jimmy and Brecca just before Thanksgiving, her focus shifted. She was still a team player but only from 7:35 until 3:15. The rest of her left belonged to Jimmy and his little girl. It neither surprised nor angered those around her as much as it did her. She was twenty-five and captivated with her career and carefree life.
“I’m not looking for a boyfriend,” was her response to Jimmy’s first attempts at pinning her down. She was not interested in a 30 year old man with a small child.
But that evening, she only agreed to keep score at the game because several of the girls on the team were students whom she’d idly promised before the season began that she would come out to cheer on at least once. Julie was impatient to be home. It was Valentine’s Day. The first ever being in love. With anyone really. And even without anything to compare it to, Julie knew that Jimmy was it for her.
“That’s why we’re perfect for each other,” had been Jimmy’s response to her rebuffs. “I’m not looking to be anything less than your match.”
He hadn’t won her over in those first weeks, but he hadn’t tried either. Jimmy’s patient confidence in his own suitability for her fascinated Julie in spite of her objections. Like rapids over rocks, he subtly directed her bubbly flow and she wore new grooves in his constant as bedrock persona and their ebbs and flows aligned like planets.
“I don’t play house,” he told Julie when he asked her to move in. She’d voiced her fears just moments earlier. Her sisters were victims of living together syndrome, in her opinion. Women who took on living in sin arrangements in hopes of a wedded upgrade only to find themselves years later with nothing but a roommate without the tangible benefits for which they’d compromised.
“I wasn’t looking for this,” she explained, “but having found it – you and Brec – I’m not going to settle for less than what I know is right.”
“I don’t play house,” he’d said. “I know what I want, but you have to be sure. I’m part of a package. What I am offering is more than lovers. More than just the two of us. I know who I am. This is for you to make sure you know too.”
They set a deadline. Easter. They would announce their wedding date to family as they made the obligatory family loop that day.
But Jimmy couldn’t wait.
Though Julie was the first off work every day, Jimmy picked Brecca up from daycare and brought her home. It was their routine before she’d been a part of their lives and until they were officially engaged, they both agreed it was a routine that shouldn’t change. But it was their only concession to practicality as Brecca absorbed Julie like a sponge who’d never before known water’s influence.
That Valentine’s Jimmy arranged an overnight at his father and step-mother’s for the little girl and promised Julie a romantic dinner and evening on the town.
“Not John’s,” she tried not to make her request sound like pleading. She didn’t want to be known as one of those girlfriend’s. The kind who separate their men from friends and haunts with the surgical precision of a serial killer with a chain saw.
“You don’t think that’d be romantic?” he teased. “Cozying up by the pool table with a plate of curly fries and a pitcher of Bud Light? But Babydoll, that’s how we met.”
“We did not!” she said, knowing from his grin that he was hoping for a heated reaction and in love enough to give him one. “They moved the table that night to make room for the band. And we danced.”
To a hairy garage band she later discovered were high school buddies of his. She’d been talked into going by her recently divorced older sister, Gemma, who never was one for letting the grass grow. Feeling prim and out of place, Julie burrowed into the far corner of the booth her sister had secured for them when they arrived. Gemma always had a table. She was not the kind of girl who stood with her drink in the middle of a crowded bar looking for shelter. Gemma was shelter.
Julie watched her on the dance floor, gyrating between an earthy pair who where as heartbreakingly aware of her as she was oblivious to them. Gemma danced like the red-shoed girl but she was searching for herself that night, not another man.
“Would you like to dance?”
He startled her, appearing as if summoned by a genie’s lamp. Medium height and build, Julie realized with dismay that she was a bit taller and wondered what that fact would do to his wide, though half-hidden under a full bushy brown beard, smile if she stood and accepted.
“I don’t dance well,” she admitted, hoping he would back away with grace.
“I’ll tell’em to play a slow one, just for you,” he countered, turning and heading into the throng towards the tiny stage but stopped, came back and leaned in towards her, “You can sway, right?”
She smiled. And that was that though she didn’t realize it.
Four months later, he greeted her at the door with a kiss and a caution,
“Stay out of the kitchen,” he said. “It’s a surprise.”
He led her to the couch and sat her down, handing her a long stemmed wine glass she hadn’t noticed when he greeted her.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, scurrying back to the kitchen like a little boy with a secret far to big to contain.
Julie nearly disobeyed. An aroma, spicy and warm, poked her empty tummy until it grumbled at her lack of initiative. Instead she sipped the wine and called after him,
“I’m sorry to be so late. I just couldn’t get out of duty. I’ve been a bit of a slacker and I needed to make it up,” she said.
“It’s okay,” his voice floated back to her with the delicious scent of fresh from the oven bread.
“Did you make breadsticks?” she asked, delighted by the turn of events. Jimmy needed an entourage to feel right in the world, but Julie just needed him.
“Yep,” he said as he reappeared at her feet like the Prince’s page in Cinderella.
“Are you going to help me out of me shoes into a pair of glass slippers now?” she asked playfully.
Jimmy smiled. Julie noticed for the first time that he’d shaved his winter beard down to the goatee she so loved to pull at the end. She reached up and stroked two fingers down the side of a smooth cheek not noticing at all that he had reached under the sofa and removed a small green velvet covered box.
He pulled back just a bit and opened it.
“Will you do me the honor of being my wife?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. And that was that again.
On the 11th anniversary of that long ago Valentine’s, Jimmy went to bed and never really got up again and Julie stopped telling the story though she hadn’t forgotten it at all.
It was on that same day that Karen and John’s old house was infested with the new neighbors. Brecca watched them unload one pick up bed after another piled high in a style that would have made the Clampett’s blush.
“They have velvet paintings,” she rushed into the downstairs bedroom to report as Julie and the hospice nurse worked to settle Jimmy into the newly installed hospital bed. He no longer had the strength or breath to climb the stairs to the master suite directly above. Air whistled in and out past his graying lips with a mucous drenched gurgle.
“Elvis? Or dogs playing poker?” he wheezed.
“It looks kinda like space porn to me,” she replied before hurrying back to her spying.
“How does she know what space porn looks like,” Judy, the hospice nurse, asked curiously.
Curious herself, Julie mock scowled at her husband who feigned his most innocent look before shrugging and nestling with a slight grimace into the nest of crisply white pillows that propped him up. He couldn’t lie flat and catch his breath.
“Well,” Judy said, “that’s that for now so I think I’ll go take a peek at space porn before I leave. Call if you need anything.”
She patted first Jimmy and then Julie before leaving.
“Everyone pats me now,” Julie said, sitting on the edge of the bed, stroking Jimmy’s patchy beard.
“Get used to it, Babydoll,” he whispered. “Flat handed pity and stiff awkward hugs are your future.”
Julie smiled with her mouth and he reached up to pull at her chin.
“Happy Anniversary,” he managed before a violent cough nearly dislodged him from the bed. Weakened though he was, he gripped Julie’s forearms trying to steady himself as he fought to expel bloody yellow phlegm and find air at the same time.
Julie smoothed his thinning hair without any outward reaction. The first time Jimmy had been seized with a coughing fit, she’d nearly wet herself with fear but now she alternated between hoping he would break through and wishing he would simply quit trying so hard.
Gradually he relaxed as the slimy sputum ran from the corners of his mouth and he was able to catch his breath again. She plucked tissue from the box on the nightstand and wiped his chin and lips.
“Happy Anniversary, baby,” she said.