It was a Sunday morning in September of 1998. Joe’s sister called and asked me to pick her up by the Garden City Hotel in Long Island, New York, because she had gotten a flat tire. I got dressed, collected my keys, and ran out the door; two hours later I reached my destination – and not because the gazebo by the Hotel was two hours away — it was only twenty minutes away from the apartment I shared with Joe off Bell Boulevard — but because I got stupidly lost. I was driving around in circles for about an hour before I had to call her and ask for directions. Meanwhile I felt like an idiot because it took me two hours to “save” her from unfortunate circumstances.
Once I got there, I parked my car, and seeing her car nowhere, I walked towards the gazebo, as she had instructed me to do. She said to wait for her in there. Of course, I thought nothing of that request. I was looking forward to sitting inside the gazebo with its collection of vibrant flowers encircling its foundation. I have always loved gazebos. There is something so romantic about them, so ethereal. They always reminded me of old musicals I watched as a child, with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, or from “The Sound of Music” scene where the eldest daughter is singing her “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” song and dancing with the soldier boy that will betray her and her family to the Germans — but before that, they are in love, their bodies coming close and pulling apart in rhythmic cadences as they dance and sing their love for one another inside an old-fashioned and elegant gazebo, the gardens and their shadows lit by a full moon.
I always wanted to be married in a gazebo — not the makeshift and commercial one that I was actually married in at a Country Club in Long Island, but a real one, just like the one adjacent to the Garden City Hotel. So, imagine my surprise when, while walking toward this dream-like and historic landmark , I come face to face — not with romance and serenity, but with a homeless man.
As I neared the gazebo, I detected a shape rousing from the center of the floor. I stopped dead in my tracks and leaned forward to get a better view. It didn’t look anything like Joe’s well-maintained and small-figured sister, but something, someone bigger, bulkier, and my legs refused to go any farther. I pulled out my cell phone and placed it against my ear, pretending to make a phone call, because as sad as it is to admit, I didn’t want whoever was in the gazebo to be offended by my quick departure. I mean, I was walking toward him, but when I caught a glimpse of him, I stopped dead in my tracks and refused to get closer. I would be offended. I am way too polite, even for a big city girl, and insulting people without meaning to always stayed with me. Thus, I pretended to call someone while I checked out the presence in the gazebo that had stood up as soon as I had begun to get closer to it. That was too odd and scary for me.
After a few seconds, the shape began to take form, and I realized it was a bum, a homeless man. He was dressed in dark green, loose pants, with combat boots that were worn and caked with dried mud. He had on a few layers of clothes, his overcoat stained with strange shapes and faded colors, and his face was painted with lines and circles of dirt and grime. I couldn’t see his eyes because he wore large, dark-rimmed shades, the glass part of one of them cracked. His hair was dark, nappy and long, much of which he covered with an equally grimy hat. And that was all I needed to make me turn completely around and walk the opposite direction, phone or no phone, politeness be damned.
And then the strangest thing happened. He began to walk towards me, so I made my short legs move faster, but knew I couldn’t go far since I still had to find Joe’s sister. I couldn’t imagine where she had disappeared to. Always needing a direct destination, I decided to walk to the corner store, thinking she had gone in while waiting for me; after all, I had been two hours late in picking her up. As I neared the corner, I started chastising myself. I was running away from some homeless guy, in fear, in shame, and I would be damned if I let anyone, even if he was scary looking, chase me away. With great determination and my pocket full of spunk, I made my way back to the gazebo. But as I reached halfway down the block, I noticed a slight movement beneath the trees. It was him. He had been sitting under the shade of the trees by the gazebo, and as soon as he saw me, he jumped to his feet, as if he had been waiting for me. At this point, my heart was racing and my knees were finding it quite difficult to raise themselves upward and give me flight. I managed to turn around and I ran in the opposite direction. I ran past a white corner house with children’s toys strewn upon the grass, and I wanted to scream at the lady to take her children inside because there was a maniacal homeless man on the loose, but my voice was too busy gasping for air as I sprinted along the block, far, far away from the crazy man. I made it to the store in the corner and vanished inside it, circling the aisles in search of Joe’s sister, but she was nowhere in sight. I knew I had to make my way back to the gazebo, in case she was there, and I did so with a heavy, aching heart.
By the time I reached the gazebo again, I had made a complete circle around the longest block in existence (.75 miles long). My eyes were darting all over the place searching for either Diane or the homeless guy, and just them I caught sight of his hulking figure trotting towards me. Luckily there were two older women in their sixties nearby, and I grabbed their arms as they were about to cross the street.
“Please, help me!” I beseeched them, tears in my eyes, my voice gasping. “This man is following me.”
Somewhere in the background, beyond the noise of my fear and my pounding heart, I heard my name.
“Kathy, it’s me!” (This was when I had been known as Kathryn, long before I reclaimed my birth name).
“Oh, my God,” I yelped, digging my fingers into the woman’s arm. “He knows my name!”
The two old women were ready to charge him for me. They pushed me behind their bodies and turned to face the strange figure of a man that somehow knew me.
“Kath, it’s me.” I looked at him, in fear, in confusion, and then it dawned on me that beneath this odd being, beyond the stench of booze that emanated from his clothing, beyond the mask of a homeless man that had made me fear for my life and my well-being — because I was sure he was going to rape me — was a familiar voice, a familiar person — belonging to someone I loved. He took off his glasses and his wig.
With quiet relief, I looked at the women apologetically and told them that I knew him. It was Joe.
Just then, still in his foul and malodorous costume, Joe bent down on one knee, not in the gazebo as he had intended — because what retarded woman would step foot inside a gazebo with a strange, foul smelling, and dirt-encrusted homeless man — but on the corner of Stewart Avenue, the picturesque gazebo set in the background, held a diamond ring that he had designed himself in the grimy palms of his usually long, clean, and tapered hands, and asked me to marry him.
Of course, I said yes, because here we are, about to celebrate our eleventh wedding anniversary. We have been together for fifteen years, and we have been together through good times and bad, through financial and emotional highs and lows, through miscarriages and in-vitro’s, and through various losses and gains. We love, we fight, we kiss, we laugh and cry, and we parent side-by-side, arm-in-arm. We ground each other, and while people come and go in our lives, we remain strong, hard, and resolute. We are best friends, and we are one another’s family.
Happy Anniversary, Joe.
As for you guys, my readers, loyal and patient with me during my tirades on female inequality and such, I shared Joe’s proposal because it is a funny albeit terrifying anecdote. One we can share with the kids and grand-kids. If you feel like sharing your engagement story, please post it as a comment, or just email it to me. After years of marriage, it’s nice to look back, at the beginning.
Copyright© 2010 by Marina Delvecchio. All Rights Reserved.