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2001-06-30 (flashback) - 11:26 p.m.

Northeast Odyssey: At Last

JUNE 30, FOREST PARK

All over the northeastern Cincinnati suburbs. All kinds of soft, sweet ballads and charged dance songs at the reception.

Julie and Randy’s day. Kathy needs to be up at 9 a.m. to get her hair done and Bryan, Lee and I sleep in until close to 11, when Bryan suggests we leave so the staff can clean the room. We head out to get a gift at Circuit City, gas in the car – $1.18/gallon! – and cards. Bryan and I get burgers at Fudrucker’s while Lee returns to the hotel.

Back in our room at 12:15, we’ve already seen bridesmaids Kathy and Kelli leave for the church, as well as Julie B. and Jen, not to mention the parents of the bride as well, Debbie and Jim. As we iron our clothes and clean up with 45 minutes before our planned departure – we’d been told to expect a 45-minute ride to the small church for the 2:30 wedding – Bryan says it’s great to be guys, with so little to do to be ready.

I unfold my new shirt and iron it, then hang it while I shower. As I pull the shirt off the hanger, it seems to wrinkle before my eyes. Then I put it on and learn a valuable lesson – always try on new shirts before wearing them 90 minutes before a wedding that’s 600 miles from home. The sleeves are too long. The shirt wrinkles and bunches along my upper arms and looking in the mirror I look hideous. But with no options, I realize I’ll just have to leave my jacket on until the reception, when I can roll up my sleeves.

The three of us leave for the church, Laura’s parents following us sine they’d not remembered their directions. The drive to the church takes us nearly halfway in the east/southeast direction around the I-275 beltway that encircles Cincinnati.

At the church we meet up with Mia and her mother and grandmother, the perfect picture of a sweet Southern belle. Louise talks softly with a smooth Kentucky accent, speaking of fine young gentlemen and the like.

I sit in the third row on the aisle, Laura, David, Bryan and Mia to my left. Later, Debbie and Jim are seated in front of me and the bridesmaids in front of them. Before the wedding party processes in, Todd – a high school friend of Julie’s we’ve met before – and another groomsman begin unrolling a white carpet down the aisle. It is rolled up against the steps to the altar, a rope meant to be pulled by two people, unrolling the carpet as they walk down the aisle. Only it doesn’t work very well. The rope slides underneath the roll, so the two readjust it and roll it a few more times. It happens again, and again ... and again until they give up on the system and try kicking it. That still inefficient, the two groomsmen decked in tuxedos bend over and unroll the carpet the length of the small church – about 30 feet – as the guests chuckle in amusement.

Lost in some memory, I forget for a moment where I am after the wedding party’s seated. I’ve looked at Randy, whom I’ve not yet met, and wondered about him, wondered what he’s like, how he won over Julie. It’s been just three years since we graduated college, when I knew Julie so well. It’s been just eight months since Julie called me at work to tell me of the engagement, though they’ve known each other for years working for the same company. I’m happy for the moment, happy for the day, happy for Julie and Randy but sad for myself, sad that after three years so close in college, the last three years have pulled Julie and me apart. I’ve never visited Cincinnati, not seen her since a football game back on campus in 1999 – it may have been 1998, so long I can’t remember. I just find it heartbreaking that I’ve let this happen. I fear I’ve let work get in the way of friendships, something I said I’d never do. Working nights, weekends, and holidays have kept me from close friends and loved ones. After three football games in ’98, I saw one on campus in ’99 and none in 2000. It’s at those games that most everyone had met Randy before. I was jealous and mad at myself.

But then I remember Julie and look down the aisle to see her in the doorway with her father. Her hair is done up and I can tell it’s considerably longer than the neck-length cut she wore through college. Her dress has somewhat thick spaghetti straps and a ruffled top along with a long, smooth satin skirt that follows behind her as she passes with a smile. Jim kisses her and hands her off to Randy with a hearty handshake.

Mia – nervous beforehand because of a lack of instruction – reads through her passage flawlessly and the priest gives a short message before the ceremony. In it, he tells a story of a couple sitting down to breakfast on their 55th wedding anniversary. Just as he has for 55 years, the man cuts the first slice of fresh bread and hands it to his wife. Only this time she breaks into tears. Shocked, her husband sits silent for a moment before asking, “What’s wrong?”

“Fifty-five years of marriage, and you always give me the crust,” she says.

The man sits for a moment stunned, then explains:

“But that’s because it’s my favorite part.”

I watch closely as Julie speaks softly and smiles during the vows, her sisters Jill and Kristen to her right as maids of honor. I’d actually imagined this day, back during those few months at the end of sophomore year when Julie and I dated. When I get to know a girl, when I start falling for her, my active imagination leaps ahead of where we are. If we have class together, I think of lunch in the dining hall or dinner out; if we eat together, I think of parties and dancing; if we’re dating, I think of kissing and sleeping together, taking vacations and traveling; if we’re hooking up and spending more and more time together, I think far into the future, of marriage and family. I get ahead of myself, but it keeps me fresh, excited, inspired to work at the relationship, experience new things, new feelings, and one day allow the relationship to catch up to the imagination.

So while the first marriage of a former girlfriend has no difficult emotional hurdles for me, I’m a little more emotional than I’d anticipated. Maybe I can see the extent of Julie’s love for Randy and I can see he’s good for her. Maybe I’m just glad Julie’s my first ex-girlfriend wedding (and likely the only one) and not High School Heather, who was the first of just about everything else when it comes to women and me. I find myself clenched with emotion, my heart swelling inside my chest, my throat tight, my eyes welling just a little. I feel happy and pleased with the world, with everything about the day.

A sudden and swift shock of emotion comes during the prayer requests when a guest reads off the list. One is for Debbie and Randy’s dad, the two of them stricken with cancer and defeating it. I’d forgotten all about it. Debbie shows no physical signs, she’s happy and healthy and we’re all thankful for her recovery. Throughout college, she was a surrogate mother to us all, someone on site and in town, a hug and a smile for those months we’d go without such comforts from our own moms.

The ceremony ends just before 3:30, giving us two hours before the reception, so after chatting with others out in the sun, we head back to the hotel for an hour before leaving for the reception hall. They’ve chosen a hall on a man-made lake, a deck and gazebo behind the lodge and a swimming area off to the side. It’s called Lake Lyndsay, the kind of lake that sounds like long-time summer memories. “Now we’ll be able to say, ‘Remember that summer on Lake Lyndsay,’” I tell everyone as we walk across the parking lot.

The receiving line is inside the door and as I approach Julie (I’ve made myself the last in our group as we walked in the door), she smiles and says, “There he is!” as I come to her. Our embrace is long and tight, a long-overdue reunion for us. I kiss her on the cheek and congratulate her. “Here,” she says, taking my hand, “meet Randy.” And I see that he, too, is glad we finally meet after way too long.

The reception, for lack of a better description at the moment, rocks. Mia, Bryan, Laura, David, Lee and I sit at a table next to the parents, along with Dana and a couple I don’t know with us. The music during dinner is soft and sweet – “Make Someone Happy” comes on and I say it’s probably right off the “Sleepless In Seattle” soundtrack. When “Stardust” follows, Mia remarks that it’s the soundtrack in order. I add that next we’ll be hearing “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” which does, in fact, follow. All day my head was filled with Casey thoughts, since at this point I wasn’t completely sure I wouldn’t visit her, and I pictured her there with me, as my date, dancing and drinking. “At Last” comes on and I look for Carol and Ed ...

The DJ stops the music for a moment and directs everyone’s attention to the video screen, where we watch a collage of photos of Randy’s and Julie’s lives set to music. The college photos – hers at ND, his at Cincinnati – are accompanied by the respective fight songs. Notre Dame’s is so much better and has all the Domers clapping along. Various cheers arise when people see themselves in photos, and one is of Bryan, Julie and me after graduation.

We remark at the table that the drinks are served in plastic cups – preventing any clinking for kisses. The newlyweds also did not make the rounds to each table and got the flower and garter tosses out of the way early, all allowing for more time on the dance floor, which is precisely Julie’s way. She likes to boogie.

The last event of the evening that pulled us away from the bar and dance floor is an announcement to go outside to the patio and gazebo. Julie and Randy stand in the gazebo and we crowd the rest to watch fireworks set off over Lake Lyndsay (“Remember that night we watched the fireworks over Lake Lyndsay ...”) It provides just one more solemn moment for reflection – quite nice, of course.

The rest of the night consists of dancing – Julie and me to “ABC” and the Fight Song; Mia and me to some slow number since we found ourselves together as the song started; Jen’s mother and me, and then she spun me around to grab Mia’s mom for a spin. We get a modest conga line going at one point, to a song that escapes me – but was not “Hot, Hot, Hot” – and, true to all previous weddings of peers, we were among the last to leave.

Kathy’s father drives my car back to the hotel with Mia and me (with a stop at the Radisson, but no sign of the gathering of which we were told) and we change and watch Julia Stiles on SNL until Bryan calls from the lobby. Whatever was supposed to happen at the Radisson fell through, and most people in the lobby – including the bride and groom – sit around drinking beer and champagne from the cooler that was in the limo. I get Randy to tell me their honeymoon is in Cabo San Lucas, since Julie won’t know until getting to the airport. Some of us – Kathy, Lee, Bryan, Mia, Ned, Julie, Randy and myself – want food and plan to order Papa John’s. Bryan goes upstairs to call and argues with the lady who says they shut off their ovens at 1:30 – two minutes ago. She doesn’t budge, even when Bryan offers to pay $100, and he delivers the bad news. We – sans the newlyweds – then decide on Steak-n-Shake. We bid goodbye to Randy and Julie – she and I saying “I love you” – and make our way (missing the sign for the restaurant on the first two passes) – to Steak-n-Shake, where I’m pleased to no end with my vanilla Coke.

Back at the hotel, I grab my phone and walk back out into the cool night. In the dark by the pool I call Casey but only get voice mail. It’s after 2 a.m. in Chicago, so I figure she’s asleep and leave a message. I linger along the sidewalk, not expecting to talk to her but wanting to, and wishing for more stars.

I begin to walk back inside when the phone, still in my hand, rings and I look down to see that 814 area code of hers and her name. We talk for 45 minutes, me there in the dark of the AmeriSuites parking lot, she in the dark of her Lincoln Park bedroom, and I tell her of my plan (now dashed) to visit the next day. It’s better that I won’t, since she’s busy (but would see me anyway), and then she expresses some surprise and regret: “You were really going to come see me?” she asks sweetly, softly. Through all the drinks of that night, it is that question I will remember most clearly days later.

I figure everyone will be asleep by the time I return to the room at 4 a.m., but they’re up, still talking, and we continue our late-night drunken ramblings until after 4:30 in the Cincinnati suburb of Forest Park.

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