The Story of Us

I was supposed to be at my cousin Lynn’s bridal shower, but I had just gotten back to school and really didn’t want to go back home, let alone schlep up to Long Island. I was having the best syllabus week ever, despite my 20th birthday looming ominously in the near future, and I wanted to keep raging. I had spent the summer nannying for a wealthy family on the mainline and making out with boys I knew from high school. I was not ready to be twenty.

It was Friday of Labor Day weekend. I was with Amber and Maddie and Ida. Maddie and I weren’t close friends yet. Our first stop of the evening was Kaela McLaughlin’s 19th birthday at Calder Commons. I’m not sure how we ended up at a party thrown by Collegian kids on South Atherton- it was on the complete opposite side of town, but there we were. We were all on the porch drinking out of solo cups when I saw him- Zack, I mean. He was wearing glasses and a button up and jeans. We made eye contact and stayed there for a little while. The bluest eyes I’d ever seen. It was, as my mother will tell you when she tells the story of us, “smoldering eye contact.” The girls were nudging me to leave- they wanted to go smoke a bowl at our guy friends’ place at Highland Tower. “I’m going to go say something to him,” I told Amber.

“Hey,” I said as I walked up to Zack. “My name’s Allison. Me and my friends are leaving, do you want to come with us?”

Turns out he did, and he brought Brian too. Ida recognized Brian. “We had CAS100 together and hooked up at a frat freshman year. He was cute, I liked him, but he was a republican.” Zack and I talked a little bit on the walk downtown, but he ended up chatting with Amber for the most part (everyone always had a thing for Amber). I left the guys’ place early and went home.

A few days later I was at the HUB planning the Good Life show for SOMA. I had opened up my Facebook on the computer at the front of the classroom and saw a little red flag over my inbox. I opened it. “Who the hell is Zack Hartman?” Danny Greene and a couple other SOMA kids gathered around me, curious. “Oh god,” I said. “He’s that kid I met at that party.”

Image

I was a real bitch in return. Totally holier-than-thou. Embarrassing. Honestly I can’t even believe he wanted to see me again.

Image

Cringe-worthy, but he still invited me to a party, which was on the same night of my 20th birthday party. I got blasted, threw up in the bathroom at the hookah lounge and didn’t want to see anybody (but I did survive).  Zack swears he called me and tried to come, but I don’t remember that at all. Monday morning we ran into each other on the corner of Pollock and Burrowes. We made a coffee date at Webster’s and I told him he should come to Feist at Messiah College with me and Kelly Murphy and Ted Wheeland that Friday. Most of our correspondences were via flip phone; those initial text messages were so cautious and sweet. At the show, I got onstage and danced with Feist. I crawled down from the stage and she sang “1 2 3 4.” Zack put his arms around my waist and kissed me.

We hung out for ten days straight after that, and I was in love with him come January.

Spring semester, Zack was accepted to a summer study abroad program in Beijing and I had applied to go to Amsterdam in the fall. When we broke up at the end of the school year, we knew we’d get back together later. We weren’t really breaking up, we were just “on a break.” We instated the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule (which always fails) and continued on with our lives. I spent the summer in Manhattan, interning at an indie music PR firm and serving pastries and coffee to tourists in Union Square. I could always expect drunken phone calls from Zack around 2pm, just as my shift at Tisserie would begin. Those ten weeks went by so quickly. I spent most of my days with Ida and Maddie and new friends from my job. We were always doing something; our New York to-do list was a mile long. We ate and drank as much as we could (I can still remember all of Maddie’s stats from her expired driver’s license) and we went to shows, museums and parks whenever we felt like it. My 20th year was coming to a close, and it had been pretty fucking amazing. I don’t know what I had been so worried about.

Zack and I reunited in August and I started having second thoughts about going to Amsterdam. I went to State College 48 hours before my flight, which was a horrible, stupid idea and I didn’t want to leave. “I will be here when you get back,” Zack told me.

In Amsterdam everything was beautiful and I felt cultured and independent, but it rained a lot and I was homesick often. Over the course of the semester, I spent nearly every dollar to my name traveling. I explored Switzerland, Spain, Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden. I thought about Zack all the time. My darling 26-year-old Dutch RA had a thing for me but I couldn’t bring myself to let anything happen. “I don’t want to marry you, I just want to see you,” he said to me when I explained my situation with Zack.  I know, I know, but still. Matt Wanetik passed away at the beginning of October and St. George Hunt shortly after. My anxiety surrounding death was at all-time high at that point and by mid-December I was so ready to come home.

Back in State College, everything fell back into the way it had used to be. My living situation was hell, but Zack and I were an item and I spent most nights at his giant house on West Prospect anyway. It felt like my senior year even though it wasn’t. I drank five nights a week and still managed to lose the beer/cheese bloat I gained when I was abroad. I was writing poetry and keeping a daily journal and feeling pretty on top of my shit. Zack and I would fight when we were drunk (which was, frankly, too frequently). He had already secured a full-time job in Dallas, Texas and we both knew that we’d break up for real when he graduated. Zack wanted to spend his final weeks in college amongst all his friends, always and forever, and time for “just the two of us” simply wasn’t a priority. This was by far the ugliest and most tumultuous time in our relationship. Zack moved back home before he left for Texas and I stayed in State College for the summer. We said goodbye for the entire month of June, thinking that every time we saw each other would be the last.

That summer was the “Summer of Women,” which were three glorious months of being surrounded only by females (and Conyers). I became super tight with a bunch of girls who made me feel empowered and sexy, interned at the State Theater and waited tables at the Golden Wok. I missed Zack but was having too much fun drinking outside and flirting with anything that walked to think about him that much. Zack, on the other hand, was wildly lonely in Dallas and called me a lot. In August I went to visit him. The car ride from the airport was awkward and I didn’t know what the heck I was doing there. In his studio apartment, there was soy milk and turkey bacon in the fridge, just for me. All of our feelings towards each other were good ones, and I looked forward to his visit to State College in September.

In October, I booked another flight to Dallas over my week-long Thanksgiving break. A few weeks later, I met a really nice boy who was on litmag with me, and we started hanging out a lot. I timidly told Zack, who was, oddly enough, seeing someone too. I didn’t believe him- how could this happen to both of us at the same time? I canceled my flight but still made plans to see Zack when he was at home for the holiday. When he pulled into my parents’ driveway, I started crying immediately.  We had coffee at the Gryphon in Wayne and oh god, it was so over. I was so sad and felt empty and relieved at the same time. I could finally move on, I could keep dating this really nice boy who was on litmag with me and I wouldn’t have to feel weird or apprehensive anymore.

But Zack and I didn’t stop talking to each other. In fact, every time we were on a break or broken up, we never stopped talking to each other. Four weeks after thinking we were done, it was finals week and I was drinking at the Phyrst. I so wish that I had my old text messages somewhere, because I don’t remember how or why Zack and I were talking at that moment. All I remember is being crouched in the corner, huddled by the coats with my finger plugged in one ear and my cell phone pressed against the other. “I’m still in love with you.” “I’m still in love with you too.”

And so it was decided: we would get back together, do long distance for one semester, and after I graduated I would move to Houston, Texas, to be with him.

Over winter break I spent some time at the Hartmans’ in New Jersey. Mr. Hartman loves to make a good cocktail, and I was pounding gin and tonics. I wanted to be able to tell the Hartmans our grand plan by dinnertime.

“What are you going to do after graduation, Allison?”

“Well… I’m going to move to Houston. How do you feel about that?”

“Houston?” Mrs. H said, surprised. “That’s where Zack lives!”

Yep.

My parents were oddly okay with it as well. I expected more of a backlash, especially from my mother, who didn’t want me to grow up AKA refused to let me make a gynecologist appointment when I was 19 years old. Of course, the decision to move was ultimately mine- but if it came down to it, I wouldn’t have risked my relationship with my parents for the one I had with Zack. My mom and dad liked Zack, and they trusted me. Some family members were skeptical and tried to tactfully imply that I was too young, or brushed me off as naive. On June 30 my bags were packed and I had my one-way ticket to Houston. Zack was waiting for me at the bottom of the escalator at baggage claim with a bouquet of flowers. A gaggle of women watched and cheered as I jumped into his arms. I had moved halfway across the country for love. Here I was. I was ready.

Zack had made me a “Welcome to Houston” mix that we blasted along with the A/C during the car ride from the airport to Montrose, my new neighborhood. It was unbearably humid in Texas and would stay that way until the last few weeks we lived there. My first 30 days in Houston were spent unemployed and felt like an eternity. I didn’t have a car but I did have a bike. I went to coffee shops and yoga class. I cold-called PR firms looking for work until someone decided to interview me. In retrospect those 30 days should have flown by in a hot minute but it’s hard when you don’t know anyone or the area at all. Living with Zack didn’t feel weird at all, and I don’t remember having that many arguments, mostly because we didn’t have any family or friends to attend to. We had our neighbors, and a few friends from our respective jobs, and that was it. There were no set plans or obligations, and we always spent our weekends outdoors and exploring.

Texas was kind of a culture shock. I worked for a small PR firm with a bunch of girls around my age, most of whom had been married right out of college, or were engaged (but absolutely, definitely not living together). Texas overall is conservative; Houston not as much.  Zack and I lived on a crack corner in the heart of the gayborhood (nestled between an autobody shop and a leather bar) but outside of Montrose, the city was pretty ho-hum. Because Zack’s job had him on a rotational schedule, I knew we wouldn’t be in Texas that long- we were going to move at the end of October. I had my fingers crossed for California, but when Zack called me at work in the middle of the day to tell me we were moving to Philadelphia, my eyes welled with tears and I could hardly gchat everyone fast enough.

In Philly, Zack and I lived in a first floor apartment on the cusp of Rittenhouse Square and Graduate Hospital, which was a far cry from our old digs on Hyde Park Boulevard. Suddenly we had this massive social network of family and friends (from Conestoga and Penn State and Chatham) who we could hang out with whenever we wanted! It was in this apartment when I told Zack I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. We were happy together. Shit was serious.

We moved to a less expensive apartment in Queen Village in the spring, right as I was fired from my part-time job (which I despised). I started interning for Yelp and nannying for an Orthodox Jewish family that summer. I was broke as a joke. Zack was there for me and supported me in every way, but freaked out every time I brought up getting married. The two years we lived in Queen Village were a blur, partially due to the fact that I wasn’t writing anything down at the time, but also because our lives became so routine. Not in a bad way, just in a more permanent this-is-adult-life kind of way. I felt depressed for the first time in my 24 years. I had been on over a dozen interviews in less than 12 months and couldn’t land a job. I felt worthless because all my friends had “careers” and I spent my days in leggings toting elementary schoolers to and fro after-school activities. I was getting 10 hours of sleep a night (too much, man). I had all the time in the world to write, and I didn’t. My brother Michael had lost three friends in a matter of six months, and I was constantly thinking about death. I had horrible anxiety whenever Zack or my mom or dad didn’t pick up their phones, and I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering. Therapy helped.

In 2012, I finally got a full-time job in social media/marketing for a tech start up in Center City. This was it! It was all happening! I was infinitely happier in my mental state- now why hadn’t Zack proposed yet? Oh my god, we had been living together for two years and had been dating (on and off, whatever) for almost five. What was the hold up?

I was ready to get engaged a solid year before Zack was. And there was nothing I could do about it. (Pro tip: Every time we fought during this period of our lives, I had usually been drinking and it was almost always about getting engaged. I know it’s easier said than done, but guys and gals, whoever’s in more of a rush: you gotta stop nagging. You gotta stop bringing it up, you gotta stop weaseling the topic into conversation. It will happen when it happens, and when it happens it will thrill you).

This past April, we were at a family friend’s wedding when Zack cornered me at the bar at the after-party. We were sobering up with chicken wings and water.

“Guess what?”

“What?”

“I did it. I asked your dad.”

“For my hand in marriage?!

“Yes!”

“Why are you telling me this?!”

“I don’t know. I’m just proud of myself. And I’m really excited!”

It was so damn endearing.

Three weeks later, we didn’t have any weekend plans. The first Saturday in months where there was absolutely nothing on our calendar, but when Zack asked if I wanted to go on a bike ride, I didn’t think too much of it. When he asked if I wanted to pick up a bottle of wine first, that’s when I had my suspicions. It was barely noon. We threw our bikes down in the grass like little kids, and set up camp in the Azalea Garden at Fairmount Park. Just as I pulled out the novel I was in the middle of reading, Zack put his arm around me and looked at me a little funny. Then I knew, it was really happening.

Afterwards, as we were staring into each other’s eyes with utter joy and happiness, Zack still down on one knee, I saw a figure behind him coming towards us. Did he hire a photographer for this? I wondered to myself. Nope, it was just a little old lady. “Oh my god,” she said. “Am I really seeing what I’m seeing?” We smiled. “Yes!” “Oh my god,” she continued, flabbergasted. “I’ve never seen one of these before!”

After we made all the phone calls and I posted a photo of our smiling faces to Instagram (sorry I’m not sorry) Zack took me to Vetri, where I had one of the very best and most special meals of my entire life, all while being transfixed on the engagement ring of my dreams, which fit so perfectly on my finger. We toasted to our future together, over and over again. 

When I opened the door to our apartment that night, Zack flicked on the light and in front of us were all of our favorite people. Friends from Philly, New Jersey and New York, and of course both of our families. Zack (my fiance!!) had meticulously planned a surprise party for our engagement, and he pulled it off without a hitch. I felt (and still feel) overwhelmed with love and gratitude.

Zack and I will be married on August 29, 2014, seven years to the day after we met at that party on South Atherton. Friday of Labor Day weekend.

You, me and the Shins

The girl behind me in the second row had been crying nearly the entire set. The show was almost over, and as James Mercer sang the opening line to “New Slang,” I took a look over my shoulder. High-waisted jean shorts, a blonde top knot with a streak of purple at the base of her neck. Wing-tipped eyeliner, which was starting to glisten at the edges, and teeth that looked like the braces just came off. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen.

I was sixteen the first time I heard The Shins. Lloyd Cargo, that motherfucker, he put “Young Pilgrims” on the ever-famous “California Mix.” When my father saw the jewel case casually strewn on the kitchen table, he picked up and squinted. “With love? Is that what that says?”

Image

Later that year, I snuck into Garden State by buying a ticket for Open Water (which, it turns out, was also rated R) and I was convinced I was falling in love for the first time. When he kissed me I felt fireworks, and even though he was only the second boy to have his tongue in my mouth, I was sure it was the real thing. He burned me the Garden State soundtrack in addition to both Shins albums onto CDs that played in my 5-Disc changer on heavy rotation. He left for college a few weeks later and I started my junior year of high school in the deepest yet most delicious depression I had ever experienced. The first few notes of “Caring is Creepy” sent my face into a histrionic place of heartbreak and I reveled in the pain. To this day I have never shed so many tears over a record.

Half a year later I was “celebrating my three-month anniversary” (wasn’t high school funny?) with my boyfriend, who also gave me these so-called “fireworks.” We had tickets to see The Shins at the Electric Factory. It was April 27, 2005, and I was convinced I was going to lose it (control of my teenage emotions- not my virginity, come on now). “Pink Bullets” (acoustic) rocked my world and I bought this t-shirt, which had a bleeding heart over my own.

ImageThe first time I got drunk it was that coming August, and I was wearing that t-shirt (at Lloyd Cargo’s house- full circle, right?) I know it sounds crazy, but the beers I drank during a game of Kings completely destroyed that shirt. The fabric looked bleached in all these weird places and I eventually ended up cutting out the Shins design and sewing it onto super worn-in and perfectly fitting undershirt I found in a drawer at my great aunt and uncle’s.

A year later I left for college. A few weeks after I was dropped off at Penn State, my brother Michael texted me. “Mom cries every time she listens to that Shins song you love.” I had left some of my CDs in the car. “Kissing the Lipless” was the opening track on “Chutes Too Narrow,” and it was bringing my mother emotional turmoil about me growing up and getting older. If you only knew, ma. If you only knew.

I didn’t listen to the Shins very much after that. “Wincing the Night Away” came out my freshman year, and I thought it totally sucked. I hated that the Shins changed after I was the one who went away to college and wasn’t changing at all (at least, I didn’t think I was changing- wasn’t college funny?) My mom still listened to CDs I had left behind in the family Expedition, but I barely touched my MP3s at school.

At the Tower Theater last Thursday night, I was front row and center thanks to my friend Caroline. I had been listening to the Shins latest release, “Port of Morrow,” after being offered a ticket to the concert, and I was enjoying it very much. Most of the concert was spent sitting down, as there’s really no reason to stand up when you’re eye-to-eye with the band. But when “Kissing the Lipless” started booming from the speakers that were right in front of my face, I jumped up and started singing. Though I know the song is really about sex and breakups, I like to think of it as a homecoming song. “Called to see/if you’re back…” When it came to a close, James Mercer looked at me, and then the keyboardist. “That was a good one, that was a good one,” he said quietly. I had been smiling the entire set. A band that used to bring me to tears at the drop of a hat brought me only a look of sheer joy that night. As the lights came up after “One by One All Day” and people started collecting their things to leave, Caroline grabbed the setlist and I looked behind me once more.

“I have to know,” I asked the long-haired girl standing next to the blubbering top knot. “How old are you guys?”

“I’m 22,” she said, “but this concert is my sister’s 15th birthday present.”

“Perfect,” I said, nodding. “That’s perfect.”

On Mononucleosis

When we were younger, it didn’t matter when we got sick, when our noses got stuffy or our glands were swollen. A pile of cough drop wrappers meant nothing, and when we fell under the weather as temperatures rose, nothing stopped us from touching, from feeling a gentler skin to the other’s burn.

In the first few weeks at Penn State, I came down with a case of mononucleosis. “Let the kissing jokes begin,” I told everyone, and they did.

My mother wanted me to come home as soon as I called her with the diagnosis, and I got on a Greyhound immediately. Three hours later, I began crying as the bus drove past the King of Prussia Mall, continued to sob as we got off at the Devon exit and drove up Valley Forge Road. I cried in the driveway and when I walked in the front door. I hugged my brothers really hard. I ate challah french toast that my mom cooked for me at ten o’clock at night. I took a shower without wearing flip flops, unafraid of athlete’s foot. I walked around my room naked. I put on pajamas and walked down the stairs and heard that familiar sound that my feet make on our hardwood floors. I cuddled with my mom in my room, on a bed with four posts and a frame. It was a homecoming I hadn’t expected.

When I returned to school, I was still lethargic. I mustered up just enough energy to go to a Halloween party, but not enough to get into costume or to drink anything at all. On a balcony overlooking Beaver Avenue, in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, I puffed on a small cigar I connived out of a drunk boy whom I had just met. We kissed a few days later, after I warned him more than once. “I’m just getting over mono,” I told him, our lips already touching. “I don’t care,” he said. My best friend from home claimed that if he didn’t care about getting mono, he was the real deal. He and I only saw each other four times after that.

Five years from then, I find myself in a new home, where I live with my boyfriend, who’s been asleep all day, feeling tired and achy with a painful sore throat. Chicken soup has simmered on the stove, water boiled, tea steeped. We’ve watched hours and hours of television together, not talking, just listening to other peoples’ dialogue. He rubs my shoulders to thank me for taking care of him, not wanting to pass along whatever it is that he’s got. At night, he lays an arm across my body, careful not to breathe too close.

We haven’t kissed on the lips since Monday. I don’t know why everyone was so unafraid of getting sick in college, I don’t know why we always chanced it. No real responsibilities, I guess. We shared sticky solo cups with a hundred people. We passed around backwashed water bottles and soggy joints and of course, wet mouths. I suppose no one really cared about each other like we do, now.