Friday, July 16, 2004

You Don't Know Me

Sometimes a story just seems too good to be true.
Have you ever done something that was so off the wall that afterward you look back and ask yourself, “Did I really just do that?” Those kinds of scenarios usually involve taking some sort of risk. The rush, that spike of adrenaline one can get from “living on the edge” can be a powerful thing. Taking the occasional risk every now and then can make life fun and exciting.

On the other hand, the fear of rejection can be a powerful thing too. How many times are we inspired to do something, but end up not doing it for fear of being rejected or thinking we’ll make a fool of ourselves? Oftentimes those consequences just appear to us to be too much of a risk for us to take.

The fact is, life is all about taking risks. Some, we take every day and don't give a second thought to. Things like driving to work or walking across a busy street. We can usually control our own actions, but what about the other guy? Do we know that the 18-wheeler on our tail is going to be able to avoid plowing into us if we have to suddenly stop short? No, no we don’t — we assume that he will, but we don’t know. Such are the calculated risks we take every day of our lives. Sometimes we calculate correctly, and sometimes we fall flat on our faces — or worse.

As for me, I’ve never considered myself much of a risk-taker. I’m a fairly conservative guy. Now that might sound strange coming from someone who spent the better part of fourteen years taking his life into his hands on a regular basis doing dismounts off the rings. But I can assure you, for most of my life I felt a helluva lot more secure doing a double-pike than asking a girl out on a date.

It has been said that “it is better to have loved and lost, than to have never to have loved at all.” Well, with all due respect to St. Augustine, losing in love sucks. It sucks so badly that sometimes never having tried in the first place sounds like a pretty wise course of action to take.

That’s about how I felt in 1978. I was fresh off of the rollercoaster ride that was my relationship with Gabrielle, when I embarked on a series of dating disasters and “thanks, but no thanks” relationships with five different women over the course of about seven months. What I didn’t realize though, was that the maze of frustration I was wandering through that year was somehow creating a path that would lead me to my life’s ultimate destination: Michelle.

My inspiration for telling this story came from a phone call I received from my daughter Amy this past May. One of her best friends from high school who attends college in Utah was visiting her in Chattanooga for a few days. They were talking about love and marriage (heh, go figure THAT, eh?), when the story of her Mom and my courtship came up. Amy had heard it a dozen times over the years, but couldn't quite remember all the details. But because it was so unusual, she called me to ask if I would retell the story so she could relate it to her friend.

As I told the story to her over the phone, I knew right then that it was something I had to write about eventually. And with of all the recent heavy, emotional stuff that has dominated my blog for the past few weeks, I think now is an excellent time, because this is a story that makes me feel as light as a feather.

It's the story of how Michelle and I came together. And the way I chose to reveal my feelings for her is one of the scariest, yet most likely the coolest thing I've ever done in my life. And talk about taking risks — geeze louise — taking the tact I did was the biggest risk I'd ever taken in a relationship. It came completely without warning for Michelle. I knew that it was going to either make or break our friendship.

I hope this story makes you smile as much as it does me — and has, every time I’ve thought about it for the past 25 years.

My anthem of despair
Between his four-year collaboration with Jim Messina in the early–mid 1970s and his coronation as the “80s Pop Movie Soundtrack King,” Kenny Loggins released his first solo album in 1977, called “Celebrate me Home.” I was a big Loggins and Messina fan back then, so I bought the album soon after it came out. I really dug it, not only because the sound of Loggins’ solo stuff was very much a different musical experience than that of his collaborations with Messina, but particularly because of one old country pop song that Loggins covered on the album. The song was written and originally recorded in Nashville back in the 60s by Eddie Arnold. It’s entitled "You Don't Know Me."

The Loggins version is a soft, torchy, and obviously melancholy love song. It’s sung from the perspective of a guy lamenting his “just friends” status with the woman he secretly loves. It's the quintessential song of unrequited love, which was something I was excruciatingly familiar with back in those days. The song never got a tremendous amount of radio airplay, but upon first hearing it instantly became my personal anthem during that very melancholy period of my life.

It was about that same time that Michelle got a job as a checker at the grocery store I’d worked for since high school. We became friends, and soon began seeing each other, platonically at least a couple times a month. We would get together for coffee and talk about each other's failed relationships, school, work, the usual. We prayed together, laughed together, and supported each other. Unbeknownst to her, I had been attracted to Michelle from the get-go. I would never admit to myself that I hoped our coffees together would eventually lead to something more, but deep down, I did. However I tried to concentrate on being her friend, because she needed one as much as I did.

This went on for nearly a year. Finally I was unable to lie to myself any longer. Listening too her pine about finding the man of her dreams became difficult for me to listen to. She would complain about one guy in particular whom she really had a thing for. He just wasn't giving her the time of day, and it was breaking her heart. So many times I just wanted to say, “Hey...I'm right here,” but I just didn't have the guts. I soon reached the point where I felt my guts would burst if I didn’t say something.

From the time I first got to know her, I had equated my relationship with Michelle to that song, “You Don't Know Me.” I was beginning to grow more depressed each time I saw her, and knew that something had to give. I couldn’t find a way to conjure up the words in conversation to tell her, yet that song just spoke to my feelings so eloquently. I don’t know how I thought it would be a good idea, but I decided that I would sing the song to her, and let her decide how to interpret it.

This was clearly a huge gamble for me, but I was willing to spin the wheel, roll the dice, whatever cliché you want to fill in the blank with, but I just had to do it.

Taking a long walk off a short pier
Other than getting together for breakfast and coffee, one thing we often did together was walk on the beach at night and talk. So one warm August night in the Summer of 1978, we were walking on Seal Beach in Southern California, when we arrived at the little playground that was set up right there beside the pier. This was my opportunity, I decided. I stopped Michelle and told her I had something to say to her. She sat down on a swing, and I sat down on the one beside her, and I began...

You put your hand in mine
And then you say, "Hello,"
and I can hardly speak,
my heart is beating so
And anyone could tell
You think you know me well
Well you don't know me

No you don't know the one,
who dreams of you at night,
And longs to kiss your lips,
and hold you tight
To you I'm just a friend
That's all I've ever been
You don't know me

I never knew, the art of making love,
though my heart aches with love for you
Afraid and shy, I let love, let it pass me by
And the chance that you might love me too

You put your hand in mine,
and you say, “Goodbye”
I watch you walk away,
to some lucky guy
To never ever know,
the one who loves you so
You don't know me

To never, never, never know,
the one who loves you so
You don't know me

Well I sorta thought it went well — at least my voice didn’t crack — but Michelle just sat there staring at the ground, saying nothing. I think I mumbled something like, “That's how I really feel, you know…”

“Oh,” She responded, and became suddenly distant.

I immediately started looking around for a shovel so I could dig myself a hole to crawl into.

“I'm just going to need some time to think about this,” She said. We started walking back to the parking lot, and I honestly don't remember if she said another word all the way back to her apartment.

Fast forward to a day or two later, and she stopped by my apartment after Wednesday night church. The youth group at her church was where she knew this guy named Peter, who she was so hung up on. She came into my apartment, sat down on the couch and immediately started going into how she was so annoyed by this guy not paying attention to her.

Now I'm a pretty patient guy, but the apparent rejection of my song to her had my innards in a half hitch to begin with. I mean I was in HELL, here, okay, and she starts talking about this loser GEEK (oh and yes, you shoulda seen him...Dude…he was sad) right here in my apartment?

I became incensed. I stopped her in mid sentence and said, "MICHELLE, STOP. I CAN NOT TAKE THIS!

“Look — our relationship has changed. I can't sit here and listen to you talk about some other guy you’re in love with when I've already told you how I feel about you! I just can’t do this any more. You've got a choice to make. Is it gonna be Peter, or is it gonna be me?”

Her eyes got all big while I was delivering my little diatribe, but then a solemn look came over her face.

She smiled, and looked at me and said, “You're right.” Tears began to well up in her eyes as she said, “I choose you.” She stood up and walked over to me and kissed me. We must have held each other for five minutes.

Five weeks later I proposed, and exactly six months later, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1979, we were married. We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this year, and every day that goes by convinces me more that some risks are definitely worth taking.


AJ & Michelle — 1979

Michelle & The Mullet — 1994

Michelle & AJ — 2004
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