I went to the Renaissance Festival for the first time when I was nineteen. It was strictly off limits, even to the imagination, when I was a child because my righteous father (who had never been) told tales of the salacious nature of the event and the abhorrent behavior of all in attendance. As soon as the opportunity presented itself I followed my curiosity to the infamous event. I found the outrageous price of everything beyond the gates the most sinful part of the whole thing, but the cleavage was, in fact, impressive and the feeling of walking through a woodland village was worth the crowds and aimless quality of our whole experience. The thing I took away from the fair that had an impact on the rest of my life in a way I never could have guessed, was the handcrafted silver owl ring.
Fast forward three years. I’m back in my hometown, everything I had built upon leaving, now seen in reality. A life collapsed, my mind recoiling while my body went through the motions of keeping things afloat.
And then he shows up.
I knew Jesse in high school. We met when we were fourteen. I became new friends with all his old friends as he was silently transforming into a boy wise beyond his years, who knew the rest of us weren’t ready for the things he was discovering. So he just kept it all to himself. He was strange. Awkward. Didn’t say much. I had a messy relationship based in teen angst and drug addiction with his best friend. Jesse helped us get together, staying characteristically quiet about his own feelings for me. I was charismatic. Chaotic. Smart and mouthy and a tomboy who felt it useless to try to find a place in the teenage beauty hierarchy. Jesse never told me how much he appreciated that quality. He ended up dating my best friend.
Because of situations that arose from my activity with my boyfriend, my parents transferred me out of district for my junior year. In a fun twist, my boyfriend’s mom moved their family to that district at the same time. I only saw Jesse a handful more times. He visited me at my new school and got in trouble with the principal for standing on the school mascot statue out front, and we were all asked to leave. Most notably, he was there when I ran away and stole his mom’s car to deliver me to my planned hide out, where we shared the devastation of seeing his girlfriend, my best friend, for the last time before she moved out of town. We held each other and cried. Who could have guessed how often we would do that in the years to come?
We didn’t see each other for five years.
And then turns of fate brought us to pause in our hometown at the same time. I was in no position to start a new relationship but, long story short, he was everything I needed and he knew that. I didn’t fully understand what I felt for him, almost immediately upon reuniting, something I had never felt about anyone before. I told him it couldn’t happen, I wasn’t ready, I was a mess and I would just drag him through it. He had a trip planned to the west coast and he didn’t know how long it would take. He told me he would come back for me, but if I still wasn’t ready he would go on his way and who knew when we would see each other again? You can’t put a spark on a shelf and have a fire later.
He left. All I could think about was him. We talked every day. He made the fog in my life seem to clear, but I was afraid to jump into anything, especially anything that meant letting someone else take care of me at a time in my life where it was vital for me to know that I could float on my own. He was back three weeks later. His first stop was my house. What followed was a sort of organic fusion, and I don’t think it was conscious for either of us. It was just natural to be in one another’s company and it felt like it had always been this way. Nothing was stated, nothing assumed, we just were.
It was the end of August, after a handful of fairly serious shared experiences, that we realized, and spoke aloud, what exactly our bond was. Summer tipped gracefully into its usual, golden pre-winter attire, and found us taking hikes and long evening drives, lying about on sunny afternoons and spending hours at the skate park. We even spent time with one another’s parents and even they acted like it had just always been this way. There are a multitude of places my mind goes at each season’s turn, and as this summer fades I return to this place. I lost my job not long after Jesse returned from the coast and it was my first stretch of joblessness since I started working. You know the feeling when you have a couple days off in a row and twenty four hours seems endless and doing nothing is a luxury? My life transitioned into that place and as Jesse and I blossomed I realized I had never loved or been loved, with the exception of my children, in all my life. Everything from before seemed so dull and lifeless and base. It was like just being in his presence opened up this wealth of knowledge whose existence I had never come anywhere near.
I remember telling him I no longer believed in the permanence of love. I saw it as a formless, floating sort of thing, like smoke drifting from a constantly shape shifting flame. We were sitting on the orange leather couch in his parents’ garage and I said, “I feel like we should tell other people, ‘I love you right now,’ and only tell our children that we truly love them.”
We had spent night after sleepless night talking, sharing every minute thought, and just looking into one another. We had developed this habit of just staring at one another for a while and one of us would ask, “What are you thinking?”
Later on the night I made my statement about the transience love, we were in his old room, his head in my lap. He looked up at me and just stilled, his mossy amber eyes gentle and inviting. I knew what he was thinking, but I was afraid to say it. Instead I asked, “What are you thinking?”
His response was so comforting…It’s hard to put into words how it felt. Not quite comforting even, but comfortable. Like I was coming home in a way I had never been able to in all my existence. Every facet of my life is peppered with, or altogether steeped in some sort of horrible shade. All shapes and sizes of trauma, abuse, emptiness, disappointment, total lack of love, security, trust or ease. When he answered me I felt relief, like this was the beginning of what I had always been so desperate for- a place I could truly relax, knowing I was safe, knowing I belonged.
He kept his eyes locked onto mine and said, “You know.”
I did, and he felt it, but it was one of those moments where crippling self doubt crept over the knowledge and made me afraid to say something stupid; to say I knew and be mortifyingly wrong. I couldn’t say it out loud. He felt that too. He could read me like a book, even then. But he waited. Silently challenged me to try, to trust myself.
I smiled a little. “Do you love me right now?”
He said, “I just love you.”
At the time I didn’t even understand how full bodied and true a statement that was. If I were to say, “I left him x number of times,” I would have to sit down and really think through the last four years. I ran from his truth and his peace so many times. But every situation in which I left had three things in common- One, as soon as I was gone I knew I couldn’t live without him, and my thoughts were always on him because, Two, he just loved me. And Three, I was always running from an opportunity I saw only has a threat. Out of that pure love he challenged me again and again to rise to the occasion. To burst out of my old skin and be the person he saw me keeping down, denying in favor of whatever was easier. We’ve all heard the phrase “brutally honest,” but never had those words been so thoroughly defined. His truths were like crushing blows to the skull. Like knives to the gut. Like looking into the eyes of a boa constrictor and thinking, “So this is how it ends,” as you feel your ribs give way. PC was not his MO. “Putting it nicely” was not his thing. And what I couldn’t appreciate was that he loved me enough to trust I could handle the things he was saying. That he saw me as someone who, even at her weakest, could catch the meteors he hurled at me and hold on while they burned down everything I thought I knew.
He almost lost me. I didn’t think I was as strong as he already knew I was. And now I’ve never been so thankful for anything as I am for my crushed skull, spilled guts and punctured lungs. We’ll leave phoenix metaphors out of this, because even my cheesy metaphors can’t do justice to what my husband did for me.
And now, summer is winding down and in my mind I’m back on my sun dappled street, outside the little brown house where I restarted my life, experiencing that weekend-off feeling and remembering those eyes on my soul, sizing up my potential. Jesse met my little, tattered family and knew he was home. No matter how hard I fought, how far I ran, how lost I felt, he was there, whittling off the useless bark and taking whatever undue retaliation I dished out. If I had tried half as hard to help myself as he has always helped me, we would have known years ago that I’m bi-polar and progress would have been a lot easier to make. We tell ourselves that ten years from now we won’t feel the weight of how things all started out, hell, maybe even five years out, but right now it’s like a long storm has stilled its raging and we’re finally piecing things back together.
I never took that owl ring off after I bought it, except for one of those times I ran off. Jesse found out I was planning to leave, I don’t even remember how, and he said, “At least let me take you myself.”
I agreed, but he also told me I should let him have my owl ring, so he could at least have something beautiful to hold onto out of all this. I really didn’t want to, but I felt guilty and agreed. I regretted it the whole time we were apart, although it wasn’t the greatest of my regrets from the moment I watched his car disappear around the bend. When we reunited I asked for my ring back. He was upset, I’d told him he could have it. I felt it was unfair to keep a relic of something you still have. As begrudgingly as I had first parted with it, he returned it. We both have a deep appreciation for owls, and it came to be “one of those things” that’s a deeply meaningful shared detail. That ring was a lot more to us than just a band of silver, in a lot of ways.
That year I scoured the internet, in hopes of finding a ring similar to mine. I used any and all keywords I could find, discovered all kinds of unique sites I’d never heard of, and found a lot of cool jewelry, but it seemed my handcrafted piece had no equal. Until, some time after I had given up hope of fulfilling my quest, but habitually continued the search, I happened upon a ring almost exactly like mine. It was glorious. It was fortuitous. I was ecstatic! I ordered it, intending to give it to him for our anniversary, but I couldn’t wait.
We were married that winter. His parents gave us their original gold bands that they’d replaced years ago as they grew older, but had always held onto. It was a deeply meaningful gesture, especially since it was my father in law’s idea, and he’s the prototype of the hardworking, emotionally distant male who is chronically disappointed in his sole heir. (Secretly he liked me. I always knew it!) We wore them proudly, but over time it just sort of came to be that we wore the owls on our left hands. It has become a symbol of affection to make a fist and rub their little silver faces together.
It was always going to be him, strolling in with a deep seated and well justified hatred of all mankind, yet carving out a space for the one person he thought could go against that belief. That first night we came back into each other’s lives we walked from my house to the river and sat on the bank hurling stones into the racing sludge. I tried to skip mine, impossible on that water, but he grabbed all the biggest rocks he could find and launched them like Zeus hurling smiting thunderbolts. I tried to argue with him on behalf of humankind. Ironic, considering what I’d just, and really always, been through. Years later I realized he hated everything because he was such a sweet and benevolent person, but no one ever seemed to prove worthy of the depth of his ability to love.
This is the first year in a while I haven’t faced the prospect of winter with some sense of dread. I can appreciate this autumn as a time of relief while rich colors wash over the land. This time four years ago was when I first happened upon “Wild Geese,” just flipped a book open to a random page and there it was, embodying everything I needed to hear, and when I shared it with Jesse it was like a piece of understanding of all things that we held between us. Right now, however, the wild geese are headed out, and the world goes on. Tarantulas come out in late summer here, and ticks start to consider leaving us alone for a bit. The air thins and no longer insists on being quite so soupy. And my head is full of images of my first meeting with deep, life changing love, and my place in the family of things.