Friday, August 8, 2014

How I Met Their Father

{Previously published on my old blog July 2013}

For as long as I can remember, there were four words that were just about enough to send me into a panic attack.  No one else seemed to have a problem with them, and that almost made it worse for me.  But they formed a question which, for me, there was just no easy answer.

"Where are you from?"

But gosh, how do you answer that when you're born to American parents, in Bangladesh, you spend your formative years mostly with the Australians who work with your parents and the Bengalis all around you, you move to Thailand at age 11, then go to boarding school in Malaysia?  And in between all that you travel to twenty-something countries?  I still have no idea.

At fifteen, though, I just wanted to be normal.  And when I started trying to explain my complicated and rather abnormal answer to that question, people would either glaze over and tune out or act like I'd grown a second head.  I remember one girl nodding, all smug, and saying, "I knew there was something weird about you."

Gee.  Thanks.

So I never felt like I belonged.  After moving to California when I was fourteen, a move that was supposed to stabilize my life, I felt more lost than ever.  I wasn't just your average white girl from Suburbia, even if I mostly looked that way.

I had a few friends at church -- because there I didn't have to just fit in with kids my age.  Somehow the older girls had less hang-ups about my peculiar past.  So it was there that I fit in -- at least a little.  The summer I turned fifteen, one of these older friends would not stop talking about this guy Matt Nicholas.   Matt had just graduated from high school.  Matt was taking her out to a movie that night.  Every other sentence out of her mouth was about him.  (And here's where I feel a little bad about how this is going to make me look, but...)  She had a thing for him.  Big time.

Finally, one Wednesday night we were sitting on the grass eating dinner (because our church had a Wednesday night dinner) and I said, "So who is this Matt Nicholas guy?"

She smiled, her hazel eyes twinkling a little and cheeks flushed.  "If he's here tonight, I'll point him out to you."

A few minutes later, this guy with sandy brown curls and blue eyes walked around the corner of the building.

"There he is," she said in a low voice.  "That's Matt."  I looked at him, and you know how there are those scenes in movies where the hot guy walks past in slow motion, and there's a golden light shining on him as if from heaven itself?  It was exactly like that.

"Matt!" she called out, waving and standing up.  She ran over to him, and they started talking earnestly.  And my heart, after having a short conniption fit, sank down cold into my stomach.  Because there was no way -- just NO way at all -- he would ever fall in love with me.

So the year went on, my sophomore year of high school.  My freshman year had been bad, but my sophomore year was almost tied for awfulness.  Every day I got out of the family car, after begging the whole way not to have to go to school, and prayed hard that something good would happen.

It didn't.

Well, not until the end of March, anyway, when I finally got my braces off.  I'd had them 3 1/2 years!!! My teeth felt so new and perfect, and I literally smiled that whole cheek-aching day.  It was a Wednesday, and that evening, I went with my big sister Jenny to the church youth group.  I hadn't really gone since the night my friend pointed out that cute guy she had a crush on, but I didn't have anything else going on, and I figured, Why not?

It was cold and rainy, and the meeting room for the youth group was crowded with junior highers, high schoolers, and college-age kids.  And then, way across the large room, I saw him -- that guy my friend liked so much.  He was just so darn cute, his curls a little wet from the rain.  He was looking down, but all of a sudden looked up -- right at me!  And I -- well, I was in such a great mood with my "new" pearly whites -- I smiled.  He looked confused for a second, like he couldn't place me.  But then -- oh, were my eyes playing tricks on me?! -- he smiled right back.  A big, honest smile.  I kept looking at him because I was feeling strangely bold, and we just smiled at each other, and for a few blissful moments, it was like we had this secret just the two of us knew.

But then I looked away, and later walked out of that room without talking to him.  The magic of that moment was lost in the sludge of horrible that was that school year.  And so it went for two months.  I started going out with this one guy with very little personality who used way too much hair product, just to kill time.  That guy Matt?  Who knew what he was up to.  It didn't matter because he would never be interested in me.

Then Mr. Hair Gel and I broke up (painlessly), and once again, the night before Jenny's high school graduation, I found myself back at the Wednesday night service at our church.  I was secretly hoping Matt would be there again, just to make the evening a little more interesting.  I could just look at him, and that would be enough, but if he smiled at me again... oh my goodness.  It would, like, make my week.  Even more than school getting out for summer the next day -- and that was really saying something.

He was there!  Oh my gosh, he was there!  I smiled, more shyly this time, and he smiled back!!!  Amazing!!!  So I was in a great mood as we walked out to the parking lot, my sister and I, talking to some friends.  Then I saw him come out of the building.  My heart started going crazy again, and my mind tried to tell it to shut up and settle down.  He was walking toward me!!!  HE WAS WALKING TOWARD ME!!!!!!!  AND SMILING!!!!!!!

"Hi," I said and at the exact same moment, he said, "Hi" to me.  Then he said the world's best pick-up line ever: "Nice shoes."

Friends.  Let me assure you.  They weren't nice shoes.  This was 1994, in that weird, grungy time, and I was wearing these terrible yellow-ish brown construction-worker-chic boots.  They were hideous.  But I totally thought I was rocking them, and his comment just about made me swoon.

"Thanks,"I said, as casually as possible, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear.  "I'm Joy."  I stuck out my hand.

"I'm Matt," he said, and I was thinking, I know, I know!!!  I know who you are and you're so cute, but you're never going to go out with me!!!  "So..."  And then he said those cursed four words, the words that I hated ever so much, "Where are you from?"

Ugh.  Here it went.  My second head was about to appear.

"Well," I sucked in a deep breath and said, "it's kinda complicated, but I was born in Bangladesh."

"Oh, really?" he said.  And without missing a beat, he went, "I was conceived in Guam."

I think at this point, one of the people standing in the group snorted and rolled her eyes, like it was the stupidest thing she had ever heard.  And I guess it was a little awkward, you know, bringing up his parents' baby-making in the third thing he'd ever said to me.  But I laughed and said, "Wow.  No one has ever said that before!" and all I could think was, He doesn't think I'm weird!!  He's still talking to me!!

We talked for maybe an hour, maybe longer, there in the parking lot, as the group around us dwindled.  But we didn't notice because it might as well have been just the two of us.  We talked about everything -- how I was going to Australia in a few weeks to spend most of the summer, how he was worried for me (he was worried for me!!!) because funnel web spiders live there, how he had only been to Mexico on a mission trip but wanted to travel more, and on and on and on.

Finally, the sun was setting, and Jenny said we really had to go.  I said, "Nice to meet you.  I hope we talk some more sometime," and he said, "Me too."

I don't know if there's such a thing as a "soulmate."  But what I do know is, I sat down in the car with a strange ache in my heart, like I was leaving home, a place where I belonged completely, and it was not just okay, but rather great to be me and all the craziness that I was.  I had at least a thousand more things I wanted to say to him, and I wasn't sure I'd ever get the chance to -- what if that evening had all been a silly fluke?  Like Cinderella at the ball.

Jenny and I rolled the windows down and let the cool evening breeze of the the San Joaquin Delta blow on our faces.  And I said -- though I knew I sounded crazy, "If I can't marry Matt Nicholas, I better find someone just like him."

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