Love

The 28-Year Setup: Why It Took Us Three Decades To Fall In Love

Photo: Courtesy of the Author
Our Journey to Each Other

1990

“Mom? Freshman prom is coming up in a couple of weeks and I really want to go,” I said, hopefully. “Everyone’s going and, I mean, what else do I have to do on a Friday night?”

“Do you even have a date for this thing?” she asked.

My silence answered her question. Well, that and the fact that I’d never had a date in my life at age 14.

She shrugged and said, “Well, I guess you go to school dances all the time. What’s the difference?”

My dad piped in with his thoughts. 

“You’re not getting a tuxedo,” he said firmly. “Who are you trying to impress, anyway, without a date? So decide if you want to do this.”

“What can I wear then?” I asked, trying not to sound as mad as I was. “All I have is jeans and a couple of button-down shirts, Dad. I can’t go to prom like that.”

So Mom took me to Walmart. Yeah, Walmart. Due to my weird adolescent body type, I wound up with an ill-fitting pair of navy blue trousers that hung way low on my hips and were far too long. After a brief stop at Payless Shoes for a pair of loafers, we headed home so I could get dressed.

Why was I so determined to attend this function? I cuffed my pants a couple of times and slid into the loafers. Mom had to tie my tie; I had never worn anything but a clip-on before.

I psyched myself up on the way over by believing that everyone else was probably going to be as casually dressed as I was.

Everyone there was decked out in tuxedos and prom dresses, including the faculty. I cannot understate how humiliating this night was.

Well. Too late to turn back now. I squared my shoulders, set my chin, and walked into the suffocating embrace of late-80s dance music with the false bravado of a man facing execution.

2018

I sat on the couch in the complete quiet of my living room in New Jersey with a thick envelope gripped tightly in my hands. I didn’t want to open it. I wrestled with the sick feeling in my stomach and the painful buzzing in my head, trying to find the inner strength to get this over with.

The contents were in Spanish. After five years of marriage to a woman from Puerto Rico and three years living on that island myself, I didn’t need a translator for this — they were divorce papers. The sick feeling was one I had become all-too-familiar with; it was my third divorce in 15 years.

“I will never do this again,” I vowed. “I will never trust another person or my own feelings again.”

1990

The Prom dance floor was tightly packed, so guys were elbowing each other and head-jerking in my direction. I didn’t notice the ripple of laughter until it reached a couple dancing about 10 feet from where I was sitting.

“Frankie!” the guy shouted. “Are you lost, man?” he asked. “This is a prom, not a Goodwill fashion show!”

Now I had my movie moment, as he somehow belted out that one-liner right as the music stopped. I winced in pain as the impact of his words slammed home. 

I got up and slinked along the wall to the other side of the cafeteria, where I thought maybe I would be okay. I grabbed a chair behind a pack of kids that were sitting out, so at least I had a shield between me and the emotional assassins on the dance floor.

There was a Burger King across the street, and a burger with a side of restored dignity sounded really good right about then. I got up to leave.

For some reason, I scanned the dance floor one last time. As my eyes ran over the mass of writhing humanity, I caught a blurry vision of blue moving in rhythm to the music. When I saw her face, my heart stopped.

As my senses began to return to me, I realized this was the girl who rode the same bus with me every day to and from school. I would find out later that she actually lived just three blocks away from me.

I sat back down, trying to get the feeling back in my knees. My stomach was roiling with nervous energy. I don’t know why, but I decided to skip Burger King and go for big air. I was already the laughingstock of the whole event. Why not go down swinging?

I slowly made my way toward her, hoping she might at least take pity on me and grant me a dance. What did I have to lose at this point, right?

  

“Hey, Jeannine,” I said meekly. “Would you maybe dance with me for just one song?”

“Um, no, but thank you,” she said as gently as she could. “I’m just hanging out with my friends tonight.”

The sting of failure punctured my heart. My cheeks flushed with shame as I went back to where I was sitting. The thought occurred to me that I was such a dork that even a dateless (although very pretty) girl wanted nothing to do with me. I didn’t know for many years that I was wrong.

I was shocked when I went back to school that Monday and nobody really teased me about my very bad night. In fact, other than one good-natured ribbing more than a year later, I never really heard about it again.

I didn’t have the guts to speak to Jeannine again after that for the rest of the school year. I regretted that the next year when I showed up for my first day of high school and learned from her brother that she was attending a magnet school in a different city. It would be 28 years before I saw her again.

2018

“Walkabout Purity has posted an update.”

I had been following Walkabout Purity for more than a year on social media, which was odd. It was a ministry of a girl I hadn’t seen in nearly three decades.

Jeannine Smith was crossing into New Jersey on her walk from California to Maine. 

I had not thought much of the night we did not dance at the Freshman Prom since the early 1990s.  I was too busy living through wars — both figurative and literal — to focus much on lost opportunities from junior high school.  I learned later that she has been through spiritual warfare much of her life as well.

I debated whether to reach out to her. I mean, how weird would that be? But she was passing right through the state I lived in, and I was sure she needed support at this point of her journey. Then again, I was just some punk kid she didn’t even want to dance with in ninth grade.

I sent her a Facebook message offering my support.  Jeannine answered later that evening that she wouldn’t mind meeting for a hotdog along the trail, which surprised me.

The next morning arrived, bringing sunshine and plenty of heat with it.  I got dressed and turned my car north toward what was supposed to be a hotdog and a brief visit. 

I had no idea I would be making that trip again a week later to return Jeannine to the Appalachian Trail.

I continued to follow her journey up the AT until she reached Maine. Every two weeks, I drove north to meet her in towns along the route, bringing her supplies and equipment she needed to negotiate the increasingly difficult terrain.

We didn’t talk very often between those visits; cell phone power was a precious commodity reserved for emergencies. When we saw each other, we spent our time getting to know each other.

It was on one of those trips that she told me the truth about what happened the night I asked her to dance all those years ago.

“I wasn’t rejecting you at all,” she said. “I don’t even remember what I was wearing that night, to be honest.”

“Blue dress,” I said matter-of-factly.

“I was too scared to say yes," she said. "I was shy when it came to guys. I would never have been mean enough to just reject you like that for laughs, I promise.”

I can’t adequately describe the dysphoric feeling of nearly three decades of faulty assumptions flaking and blowing away in front of my eyes. Turns out, I was just a dumb teenager grasping at a narrative that was both wrong and unfair. I apologized then and there; she graciously accepted.

My last trip north came when she reached the edge of Maine.

After more than 3,000 miles of walking — and with Mount Katahdin still looming in front of her — her knees gave out. She was highly emotional when she called me.

“I cannot believe I came this far for this to happen now,” she said, choking back tears. “I have to finish this trip!”

“So, let’s finish it,” I said. “I’ll be there tomorrow, and we’ll  —what did you call it? — ‘yellow blaze’ the rest of the way.”

I learned from her that “yellow blazing” is hiker code for hitching a ride.

I left out early the next morning, picked her up, and we continued on until we reached Bangor, the end of the journey.

Once there, we had dinner to commemorate the end of her long journey across America.

Little did we know that our journey together was just beginning.

Two weeks later, I asked her another question: “Will you marry me?”

This time, she said yes.

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Frank Vaughn is a regional Emmy and Associated Press Media Editors Award-winning journalist from Little Rock, Ark. He is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas with a degree in Speech Communication, and the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., with an emphasis in journalism and media relations.

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