Twenty years ago today a really nice boy took a chance on a rough around the edges girl.
We’d met a few months prior at Coconut Joe’s and Sneakers – a double bar on infamous 3rd Street in downtown LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I was a cocktail waitress who swore too much. You were a bartender with the brightest blue eyes.
We were both small town kids from southern Wisconsin who had landed in LaCrosse for college. You, at UW-LaCrosse, majoring in business and marketing. Me, on an academic scholarship at Viterbo University, studying criminal justice and psychology.
We’d chat a little at work before the evening rush of college kids came pouring in around 10pm to start their night of drinking and debauchery, and then maybe we’d chat a little more at the end of night, post bar time while we cleaned and restocked for the next day. One night you tried to talk me out of making the three hour drive to my dad’s house after work because it was so late and snowing so badly. It was the first of many times over the next twenty years that you were right and I was wrong. (I will say, though, it was pretty cool joining that Amish family for breakfast and then watching them use their horse to pull my car out of the snow at 5am.)
Sometimes we’d end up in the same living room together at 3am, joining co-workers for afterwork drinks, followed by mornings at The Mug – a bar that opened at 6am and served up greasy food and great songs on the jukebox. Occasionally, the “after bar” party was at your apartment and we’d crank up the music and I’d dance on your coffee table made from a LaCrosse population sign you stole one night with your buddy Jim.
(We still have that coffee table.)
I didn’t work at Coconut Joes and Sneakers very long. This was all back in the late 90s when there wasn’t much focus on boys keeping their hands to themselves. It turns out I had a talent for not spilling trays of drinks while drunk boys grabbed my ass. Turns out I also had a talent for smacking them across the face.
I decided to quit before I got arrested.
I got a new job as a cocktail waitress at The Freight House – an upscale restaurant in downtown LaCrosse with better hours, better pay, and significantly less ass-grabbing. After four months of working together, our paths still crossed thanks to our now mutual circle of friends and shared desire for fun. (That jukebox at The Mug wasn’t going to play itself.)
I met your parents before we ever started dating. The three of you came to The Freight House for dinner, and I had butterflies in my stomach the second I saw you. I can still remember what I was wearing when I met them – a black maxi skirt with little pink flowers and buttons up the front, and a light pink cropped cardigan. Your dad ordered a cocktail, your mom ordered a glass of wine, and you ordered a milk. Despite my desire to make a good impression on your parents, I couldn’t resist teasing you about the milk. (And still do.) You later told me that as I walked away to get your drinks your dad nudged you with his elbow, motioned to me and said, “What about that one, son?”
We were just friends, but of course I had a crush on you. One day you delivered flowers to my apartment, tied to a 12-pack of Orange Crush soda with a note that said “I have a ‘crush’ on you.” Turns out your feelings were mutual, and I was absolutely giddy.
Twenty years ago today we had our very first date.
After six months of being friends and hanging out in groups, you asked me out on a lunch date. We went to Riverfest – an annual food and music festival that happens on the banks of the Mississippi River every Fourth of July week in LaCrosse. I wore a blue dress. You wore a breathtaking smile. We walked around for a little bit before choosing a food vendor and sitting down to eat. I set my keys on the picnic table and you noticed my “Class of ’97” keychain.
“Class of ’97?” you asked with surprise.
“Yep!” I replied with enthusiasm. (And also, to my horror, added, “Class of ’97 rules!”)
Finally, you said, “So you were, like…really old for your grade.”
“Nope!” I replied cheerfully. “I was actually the youngest person in my class. I got moved up a grade.”
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen,” I answered, thoroughly confused.
“You’re only nineteen?” he replied with shock. “Didn’t we all go out to celebrate your 21st birthday last month?”
“Oh my gosh, no!” I quickly explained. “That wasn’t my 21st birthday…that was my fake ID’s 21st birthday.”
I added a bright smile and a few witty remarks to try to make light of the situation, as you slowly processed the idea of starting to date a teenager a few months before you’d be graduating college. It was a completely surprising situation for both of us, and once I realized this wasn’t what you had in mind, I offered you an out.
“I’m so sorry,” I apologized. “I had no idea you didn’t know my age! Would you like a take back? We can forget this date ever happened and just keep hanging out as friends.” Please say no, please say no, please say no…
After considering it for a few seconds, you decided not to take the take-back, and I decided to take the Class of ’97 keychain off my keys.
We then walked to one of the benches overlooking the Mississippi River. You nervously reached for my hand as we started truly talking and getting to know each other.
Exactly three years, two college graduations, and our first house purchase later, we returned to Riverfest on the 4th of July and once again sat on a bench overlooking the Mississippi River. This time you nervously reached for my hand and asked me to be your wife.
Twenty years ago today, over pizza at a picnic table, you decided to take a chance on this teenage farm girl with a fake ID and a fondness for dancing on stolen street signs.
Thank you so much for our life, baby. I’m so glad you didn’t use that take-back.