- 1999 -
One day in fifth grade, I had a snowball fight.
It lasted almost all day. My friend Mark and I barely came inside to rest, eat, or drink from morning until evening. We built snow forts in his front yard, waging war on each other with powdery bullets, pretending we were soldiers on the front lines of an icy, expansive battlefield. Mark didn’t have the biggest front yard, but our worlds expanded; everything had the potential to look so much bigger when we were small.
After dinner, Mark’s family got dressed for mass and called us inside, and we finally came. The front door ushered us back into reality; we shed our combat uniforms on the threshold and got dressed also.
Before that day, I had never stepped foot in a church, except on the occasion of a wedding or two. I didn’t know what sorts of things usually went on inside them; the secrecy of it all made me a little uncomfortable — and perhaps rightfully so. Any religion practiced exclusively in a confidential manner, behind closed doors, is bound to make outsiders queasy, I suppose.
But I followed anyway. I was curious, after all.
Aside from a few families scattered throughout the pews, the sanctuary stood mostly vacant. The group made its way instinctually to some seats near the door — the kids in one row and Mark’s parents behind us, walking to their places as if they’d done it a million times before. I stayed close to Mark, gazing around me, eyes and ears wide.
Soft music came from the front of the room. I couldn’t follow along with the words. I wasn’t even sure that they were in English.
And if they weren’t, what was I to do? If I was attempting to speak in a different language altogether, what was it I was trying to say? My stomach climbed up into my throat.
I subtle change happened in the service and all the kids took the queue, dropping to their knees upon the cloth kneelers on the backs of the pews, their hands folded together for prayer on the wooden backrests in front. I obediently followed suit, watching my fingers lace themselves together in a sort of helpless hypocrisy. They’d never prayed before.
The stained glass went dim. Outside, the sun must have set, but the music continued. Mark was singing and praying beside me and suddenly I got the horrible feeling that I didn’t know him at all. My stomach clenched; I felt like vomiting. In an effort to calm myself, I fixed my gaze on a flickering lamp fixture dangling from the ceiling and tried to block everything else out.
But I couldn’t. Music. Prayers. That softening cylinder of orange light swam like smoke above my head, warping reality as I knew it. A sort of feverishness came over me as I watched the light, focusing harder, until everything else faded away.
That light was the last thing I remembered before blacking out. My head knocked against the back of the pew and I fell limp to the ground.
I’ve lost consciousness many times before in my life. Blacking out seems to be, as I’ve already shared in this blog, by body’s favorite coping mechanism in times of duress.
This was the first time it ever happened, though. And it was different from the rest.
Visions of flames filled my mind’s eye, whipping, licking around me like snakes. The tension in my gut had somehow carried over into unconsciousness; the very deepest of my suspicions — ones I hadn’t even been aware that I’d had, though uncomfortably familiar — sprung up through the haze, wild and undeniable. Swirling around in a flaming despair and the distant groans of church music, I thought myself lost. I had to be.
But the vision passed quickly. Gradually, the face of Mark’s father came into view instead of the lake of fire. He looked down at me, his eyebrows furrowed.
“Blake.” I saw his lips moving right in front of me, but heard him as if from the bottom of a well. “Blake.”
“Are you alright?”
“You passed out.”
I stared at him, confused. I didn’t know how long. My seconds struggled to return to their proper lengths.
“Let’s go get you some water, alright?”
We rose and slowly made our way to the back of the building. Mark and everyone else were staring so I stuck my hands in my pockets and tried not to look as I exited the sanctuary.
For the duration of the service, I sat outside on the curb, sipping water from a plastic cup. More than ever before, I got the feeling that church — whatever it really was — had no business with the likes of me.
- 2009 -
Nothing had ever made me more nervous than the miles between our apartment and the Nashville airport.
Most musicians become fairly well acquainted with nervousness; they play shows and bite their nails until they bleed, wondering how that one note might come out or whether anyone will notice how they’re still pretty fuzzy on that second verse. But most of them learn. Like with anything, you develop ways to combat it and after a while, being nervous barely phases you.
Having spent a year and a half in Nashville already, I’d already started to learn how to treat those nerves. Not too many things rattled me anymore.
But this was a completely different animal. Coping with pre-show jitters had done little to prepare me for pre-engagement jitters, no matter how many shows I played.
When Ashleigh texted me that she’d exited the plane and was headed to baggage claim, I freaked out a little bit, streaking across the BNA parking lot in my Jeep.
I double-checked everything in a matter of moments while driving: rose petals covering the seats of my jeep, ribbon tied along the outside door handle, diamonds glistening in the moonbeams as box and ring lay open on the back seat. My hands trembled on the steering wheel while I searched the lot for the brightest lamppost I could find. She’d be able to see it all that way.
I found a place near the terminal and parked. Taking one of a thousand deep breaths, I let the heater blow over me for a few more moments before stepping out into the cold. This was it.
My phone buzzed again in my front pocket. It was a text from Troy:
Dinner ready. Good luck man!
I thanked him and put my phone back.
Troy had moved with us to Nashville at the beginning of my sophomore year. Since housing plans with my former roommate had fallen through that spring, Ashleigh and I had found a small two-bedroom apartment in Nashville on our own and put a deposit down. Despite the hiccups, she always had it in her mind to come with me.
We struggled a while that summer about whether or not we thought it acceptable living together before we were married. We had long resolved to wait until we had exchanged vows before becoming intimate, but in that setting, keeping ourselves from each other seemed an absurdly impossible thing. But even with the odds against us, we managed it because of Troy.
By the end of the summer, just before we packed up to leave, he had decided to move with us to Nashville. Troy and I bunked together in one room and Ashleigh took the other. In this way, we took good care of each other, and together helped honor and keep all the commitments we’d made. He would later be a groomsman at our wedding.
When the sliding glass doors at baggage claim opened, I immediately caught sight of her by the conveyor belt, standing with a backpack slung over her shoulder, watching the carousel go round. She’d gotten a haircut. I remember thinking that it looked like it used to, in high school or something, back when she always seemed happier. I hoped the haircut would make her happier now.
She saw me at last and we embraced. She smelled like her parents’ house.
“How was it?” I asked, trying desperately to conceal my growing anxiety. I’d already had a phone conversation with her about her trip home, but it seemed the right thing to say anyway.
“It was good,” she said, nodding. She rarely ever said more than that.
We waited for her suitcase to come around and I got it for her. It felt much heavier than it had when I’d dropped her off a week before — that was because of the presents, no doubt. Ashleigh had gotten a new job as a bank teller when she moved to Nashville, and as a result, had last dibs on the holiday vacation list. They made her work straight through Christmas, so she ended up taking her own break later in January, after I got back in town for school.
I had never really been sure why, but something about my going home for Christmas while she and Troy stayed in Nashville had maimed her. A glimmer that had been alive in her eyes before looked dead forever after I returned. I figured her going home for a season herself could resurrect it, but I realized as soon as I saw her at the airport that her scars ran much deeper than I knew.
Despite this, I tried to stay focused and excited. The big moment was approaching, after all.
I wheeled her bag out the doors and to the escalator. My Jeep came into view in the distance, once we made it to the bottom. The ribbon on the door twinkled under the light just enough for me to see, but only because I knew where to look. I diverted my gaze, hoping she wouldn’t see it too soon, near ready to explode. One last time, I envisioned the game plan in my mind:
She would get in the passenger’s side, I told myself, where she always rode. Even when Troy was in the car, she’d never ride in the back. There stood a long-running joke amongst the three of us that she always had to have the front, and if she ever protested (as she often did) Troy would simply say, “The wife always sits in the front seat,” and we’d laugh about it, and that would usually settle things.
Now, my entire plan depended on that one inside joke.
I loaded her bag in the back while she sauntered, unsuspecting, to her door. Quickly making my way around to the driver’s seat, I fiddled one last time with my belt, my shirt, and hair, making sure everything looked right. I pulled the door handle and looked through. Like in the movies, I stood there, transfixed by her silhouette moving along the outside of the windows, freezing my world in slow motion.
She opened the her own door. Roses spilled onto her feet, her mouth fell open, and I caught a triumphant glimpse of that dead thing in her eyes beginning to stir just a little. Phase 1: accomplished.
“What is this?”
“It’s for my wife,” I said. “Only she sits in the front.”
The joke registered immediately in her expression, and the implications of it immediately after. She stood, silent, suspended in the wonder of the moment.
“Go on,” I said. As she opened the back door also, I came around the front and knelt down on the pavement before her, my heart beating faster than ever. These words had been waiting to fly from my lips for eternity:
“Will you marry me?”
Her eyes glittered with tears. “Yes.”
Phase 2: accomplished.
I slid the ring on. She used the other hand to cover her mouth and wipe her cheek. At what age had she started dreaming about this day? Ten, eight, six?
I stood up. She could only just stare at me, and a strange moment passed between us — was she excited? Afraid? Just simply dumbstruck? I couldn’t tell. I leaned in to kiss her, but she didn’t move.
I pulled back awkwardly, fighting not to feel discouraged, searching again for that halfway-dead thing in her eyes and any sign that it might again rise to new life.
“Give me a kiss?” I asked.
She seemed to snap out of her daze and leaned in. Our lips met for the very first time in the parking lot of the Nashville airport.