If you find yourself awakened by an eccentric, foul-tempered neighbor called el Jefe in the hallway of an apartment building known for its vermin, with a thoroughly installed vodka hangover and reeking of pizza-flavored snack treats, be as pleasant as possible. Especially if you are seeking assistance in the forcible entry of your own apartment. Especially if it is Thanksgiving and you have a diamond ring in your jean pocket.
The Blonde in the Brown Jacket, as I shall refer to her, looks like a movie star, a Saturday matinee gal, and is often mistaken for an Australian actress by both strangers and close acquaintances. Most would argue that a redneck like myself would be fortunate to gain the attention of a girl like the Blonde in the Brown Jacket, and I tend to agree, although my conformity with that opinion usually has to do with the hour of the day, the lunar cycle and the quantity of jubilations my liver is negotiating.
Negotiation has become a crucial term for our relationship. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket is a sparkplug, a firecracker and a cowgirl, all before breakfast. Most important, and why the word negotiation is poignant, the Blonde in the Brown Jacket was raised a blue-Texan, a soft shadow of a young Anne Richards. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket shoots first and inquires whenever. She takes no prisoners. She jumps to conclusions. She also demonstrates a delicate side, dragging me to Lincoln Center to watch Ethan Stiefel, out to Brooklyn to catch Pina Bausch and on peaceful cab rides up the Westside Highway at night to see the Jersey lights across the Hudson.
The Blonde in the Brown Jacket and I have been together for seven years. But we dispute when and where we met, when and where we started dating, when and where it all came together, if it ever did. I claim I saw her in a line of fresh students at Columbia University, waiting to have her picture snapped for an I.D. She will tell you our first meeting was at a weekend exercise where I insulted the Columbia Theatre faculty with a satirical stab at The Tempest, lampooning our teachers as characters from the Shakespearian comedy. Both are true.
The debate on when we started dating is just as foggy. I will claim we started dating in late April of 2000, at a loud Mexican restaurant called Rio-something on Amsterdam between 81st and 82nd. We had guacamole and margaritas and had to yell at each other just to be heard. She will tell you it was a date located sometime between February and May, when I gave a her a toy raccoon packed in a soup can which I haggled from eight to six dollars off a street vender on the corner of Broadway and 107th. Rocky the Raccoon would ultimately be liberated from his shell with a Swiss Army Knife by a man called the Good Reverend. The Good Reverend would slice his thumb in this act.
But, I insist when and where things came together for us was Thanksgiving, 2000. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket was alone trying to cook herself a meal with no butter, while I was swamped with my roommate's drunken amigos, most of them mathematicians and French cooks drinking bountiful amounts of Dewar's, playing poker and wolfing down lamb and yams. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket and I hadn't spoken in several months. We had disagreements during the Good Reverend's birthday bash that summer, and I retaliated by dating a nursing student, whom I met at a bookstore until that Halloween.
I can't place the reason I called the Blonde in the Brown Jacket that Thanksgiving night. It must have been murmurings of scotch-soaked calculus that drove me to the phone. I asked her to a movie, a faked documentary on dog shows. She told me to meet her on 116th and nowhere. We went to the movie. We negotiated our issues. We made up.
Thanksgiving has become exclusive for us. In 2001, we did it right. The mathematically inclined roommate hopped a red eye to the left coast and the Blonde in the Brown Jacket and I had the joint to ourselves. We roasted a turkey, made two kinds of potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, cornbread, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole. We rented a John Cusack flick, strolled down Riverside Park, and watched the Dallas Cowboys with the volume turned low. The meal didn't matter; it was the company, the down time, the quiet, the being together for one brief day that made it all magic.
The next Thanksgiving was rough. We moved into a cute little place together, dreamlike really. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket was temping at a law firm, but I couldn't find work. I spent my days interning for Richard Foreman in the East Village, making no money, watching Foreman work the same scenes repeatedly, then walking back to Harlem every night, because I couldn't afford the train. We started saving for Thanksgiving in September, picking up nickels and dimes off the sidewalk. I ate two meals a day to save money, a bowl of All Bran in the morning and a Lipton noodles for dinner. It snowed brutally that Thanksgiving. We couldn't afford a turkey, so we bought turkey parts we marinated in sugar, an old lemon and a cheap Kentucky bourbon I can't bring myself to name. We made mashed potatoes, one kind of stuffing and no dessert. And we got into a fight. Something ugly, something inappropriate, something football, something about food. I blame her. I am sure she blames me.
The next year, things changed. I got a job at a SoHo theatre and the Blonde in the Brown Jacket left the law firm for a gig at an upscale ballet company. Her job was difficult and lonely, negotiating failed artists. I loved my job. I was only averaging $6 an hour, but my coworkers were a blast. We danced at 1:40 every afternoon, sneaked swigs of the donated fundraiser vodka, and I met one of my closest friends, a lighting designer and comic artist hired to fix the toilets. He was always the Rosencrantz to my Guildenstern. I wish I had a fancy name for him. For this story, we shall call him Chris.
Things were still hard, we still had to budget Thanksgiving carefully, but the Blonde in the Brown Jacket and I could keep ourselves from drowning. We had a good Thanksgiving. We watched the Packers and Lions. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket was learning referee signage. Holding. Safety. Unnecessary rougness. It was quiet. It was romantic. And I cannot remember what we ate.
The next year became quieter. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket would fight with me about nothing, and then let it all abruptly go to the wayside. We would have isolated moments of thrill, mostly during football games and movies, but she wanted me to read her mind. The lease on the cute little place was up, and she threatened to move to Houston to be with her family, and to get away from me. This was not to be negotiated.
I moved out of the cute little place on Duke Ellington Avenue, and relocated 110 feet down the street to a nasty, smelly, humid joint that was the size of a French elevator. Now I was living with the Good Reverend. Little did I know, the Blonde in the Brown Jacket bluffed and had moved to a brownstone six blocks to the north. My new apartment was not quiet, it had barking dogs beneath the floorboards, and there was a curious neighbor, el Jefe, who dressed in O.R. scrubs and cut holes in the top of his Air Jordan's to "let his toes breathe." This apartment was not cute. It was covered in stains and cockroaches.
The Good Reverend obtained his namesake by purchasing a theological degree from an ad in a pornographic magazine. He looks like George Clooney and relaxes like Ernest Hemingway. Living with the Good Reverend was odd. We never fought, we never cooked and we drank too much. When we watched football, we didn't pay attention to the referees. Living with the Good Reverend was never quiet, and my mind was never calm. It was always on the Blonde in the Brown Jacket six blocks away. I called her. We talked. We negotiated. We made up.
The summer came and went without much sound. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket and I went to Coney Island, the Natural History Museum and talked about nothing. September came sweeping in, we watched football and we watched the leaves change. October came. I wrote two plays, one about squid, another about the A train, and while sprinting between rehearsals I decided it was time to pop the question and give the Blonde in the Brown Jacket a ring, for no reason other than wanting.
I'm not too proud to say I found a rock online. It was small, silver and in my price range. I had it FedExed to work, where Chris would sign for it just one day before Thanksgiving. Everything was set. The Good Reverend was in Atlanta. My Colts where to play Detroit on Thursday. And I was to put the ring in her mashed potatoes. Knowing that it would be the last night of single-hood, Chris and I cracked open a bottle of Irish vodka, chewed on pizza-flavored combos (a hopelessly addictive snack) and watched cartoons on the office iMac. We laughed, we joked and talked openly about what married life was to be as the night slipped away into a cab ride up the Westside highway.
I crawled up the stairs to my third-floor apartment, placed the key in the door and heard the deadbolt snap. With the Good Reverend away and my landlord in Vegas, I was locked out of my apartment, stranded early on Thanksgiving morning, the day I was to ask the Blonde in the Brown Jacket to marry me. I yelled. I slapped the air and slammed my head against the door. It wasn't fair. I had waited for years and asked for so little until now. The food was in the fridge, my team was to play, and I had the ring in my pocket. With no money for a locksmith, and no other choice, I laid on the stained, soaked carpet in the hallway, glaring at the ceiling. It was all quiet. Until el Jefe awakened me with a kick. "I got a crowbar. It's blue. It's good," he said. I was pleasant to him and we popped open my door with a bang and a clatter, metal on metal, to greet Thanksgiving, my day with the Blonde in the Brown Jacket.
And in a day that seemed to move like water, Peyton Manning threw to Brandon Stokley. The Blonde in the Brown Jacket signaled touchdown. We ate bourbon-glazed turkey, and Jeanne pulled a ring out of her potatoes. She wore a brown jacket that day. Four years have passed now. We've canceled the wedding twice. We have different jobs now. I live in Austin. She lives in San Antonio. But we still see each other. Sometimes we fight. Sometime we negotiate. Sometimes it's quiet. We may never get married. But we always have our "one-day." We always have Thanksgiving.
This essay originally ran on Mr. Beller's Neighborhood.
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