In Providence: Love and WaterFire

“He was shaking so bad I thought he was going to pass out,” she said laughing, while he nodded his head with a good-natured smile. “I was thinking, Oh no, this is not the man for me. Look how nervous he is. I will destroy this man.

I ask him what happened next.

“Well,” he said, “she destroyed me.”

When he read my first column, he reached out to me and asked if I was going to write anything about love or relationships in Providence.

I said that it was going to be a Man About Town column — kinda — so eventually I would probably get there, but did he have a story for me now?

He said it was about Love and WaterFire.

That’s exactly how he put it.

“Okay,” I said. “Tell me more.”

They went on their first date when they were in tenth grade.  He got dropped off by his mother against her better judgment. She was one of those people who believed that downtown was full of murderers and kidnappers (Renaissance City propaganda notwithstanding), and it had taken a full week to convince her that her son — her pride and joy — would be fine provided he stayed inside the mall, went directly to the movie theater on the third floor where he was going to meet three of his friends, and came right back out again when he was done.

He was to keep his phone on him at all times, and if it rang, and he didn’t answer, the FBI would be contacted within minutes.

The three friends, the movie and just about every other detail in the story he had cooked up was a lie, but he figured all he had to do was put on a show of walking in the mall and stay there until his mother drove away and then be present at the same location a few hours later when she came to pick him up.

Was all this trouble worth it?

It was if you wanted to take the most beautiful girl in your class out on a date.

It was if she asked you to go to WaterFire with her.

It was if you didn’t want to seem like a sheltered boy from a big house with a cleaning woman who came twice a week and a father who collected cars just for fun.

She, on the other hand, walked downtown without having to come up with any kind of falsehood about it.

Her mother worked double shifts at a hospital on Saturdays, and oftentimes when she got home, she didn’t even bother to open her daughter’s bedroom door to make sure she was there.  Instead, she’d fall down on the couch, and in the morning, she’d get right back up and do it all over again.

That meant she could walk downtown and back 10 times in a row if she wanted to.  Supervision wasn’t a key part of her upbringing.

She was happy to have someone to meet at WaterFire.  Her father used to take her to it when she was younger, but one day her mother called her into the living room and said he wouldn’t be picking her up on Friday afternoons anymore.  Weekends with him were now going to be a thing of the past. He’d gotten into some trouble, and that was all anybody would tell her about it. Years later, she’d learn that her father wasn’t the man she thought he was, and a different sort of pain settled into her.

But the moment when she heard he wouldn’t be coming around anymore was two years before the date with the boy from school who stuttered a little when he spoke and wore sneakers she knew cost upward of a hundred dollars.

It was two years before the date when she learned that sometimes men tell you they’ll always be there until one day they’re not, and if you prepare yourself for that, maybe it won’t break your heart the second or third time it happens.

What was she wearing?

“I threw on a t-shirt,” she says now. “That’s all I remember.  I threw on a t-shirt, and I had some jeans on, and, uh — You know, I didn’t really — I never really cared about clothes?  I wasn’t that kind of girl.”

That was the girl who showed up on the sidewalk overlooking the Providence River, at the agreed-upon meeting spot, wearing–

“It had Usher on it,” he said. “And the jeans had two rips — two holes — over the knees.  She had her hair back in a — in a clip. I don’t remember what shoes she was wearing. She may have been barefoot.  It didn’t — It wouldn’t have mattered. I remember she looked beautiful. I remember being like — Okay, this is it.  I was 15, and it was like — Yeah, this is it.

I ask him if he remembers what she was wearing.

And he was shaking.

He’d lied to his mother, he’d never been downtown without one or both of his parents, and now he was on a date with a girl who could probably tell that he was in no way prepared to sweep her off her feet the way he believed she should be.

“He bought me a rose,” she said. “I almost laughed.  Not because it was funny, but because I didn’t think people really did that.  It was –everything he does is always very kind. My mom had a lot of boyfriends and I could tell — I could always tell — that she liked these guys who did stuff to make her laugh, to, uh, to give her that little bit of magic that makes you feel special, but it’s, like, You’re going to tell your friends about meYou’re going to know how lucky you are to have me because of all this stuff I do for you.  It wasn’t like that with him.  He bought me a rose and right away he was looking at me to see if I was happy.  To see if that was something that would put a smile on my face. Nothing was about him.  It was all about me. I never had that before — not even with my dad. It made me want to laugh, because, you know, who could believe it?”

They did what teenagers in a city do.

They walked around.

Up to the East Side to grab pizza, back down the hill, up and through the streets of downtown, and all the way over to the jewelry district and back.

“If you did that much walking, how did you make it back to the mall in time to meet your mother?” I asked him.

Even now he cringes.

“I was an hour late getting back,” he said. “I called and gave her every excuse in the world.  You ever been panicked and happy at the same time? I was scared of my mom, but I was also — I was in love too.  Right then, I was in love.”

That date lead to many more.  In fact, they dated all throughout high school, and they went to every WaterFire together.

“That was after his mother let him leave the house again,” she said.

When they graduated, he went to a prestigious school outside of Rhode Island, and they agreed it was best to take a break.

She’d be staying here to go to CCRI, and then maybe URI — her mother had recently become ill after another divorce, and there was no way she could go very far.  Her life seemed pre-determined before it had even begun.

“How much did you think about each other when you were apart?” I asked them.

One of them starts to speak and gets choked up.  The other tries to take over, but they have the same problem.  Then, the two of them burst out laughing at how neither of them can talk about what it was like being away from each other.

“I had a picture of her and me together on my phone,” he says, fighting to get the words out. “And I looked at it — maybe every hour?  It was that much. It was all the time.”

They would connect every so often through texting and messages online, but it was difficult.  Neither one wanted to admit how poorly they were doing so far from someone they loved.

He had started drinking a little bit too much at college, and she was buckling under the weight of the anxiety that comes from being a caretaker.

Years went by, and when he graduated from school (just barely), he returned to Rhode Island to regroup and float in the middle of a pool like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

“I saw that movie just a few weeks ago for the first time,” he said. “And I was like, Damn, that was me.  I was in rough shape.”

One Saturday night, on a whim, he reached out to her.

“He goes, You doing anything tonight?” she says, looking at him with a little smirk on her lips, “I knew he was back in town, and I thought about texting him, but I just…I wasn’t sure.  Then he texts me, and says You doing anything tonight?  I say No.  My mom was doing better at this point, and I could leave her on her own, but I hadn’t really done that very much.  Just a few times to go out with my girlfriends. So he goes–You want to do something?  And I said, swear to god, I go–Well, it’s WaterFire.  That was two years ago.”

She holds up her finger and wiggles it a little to show off her ring.

I start to ask them if they plan to get married on a Saturday night with the gondolas and the street performers and the whole city lit up.

“We talked about it,” he said. “But we haven’t really planned anything.  Right now, we’re just enjoying each other and being — having made a commitment to each other.  Plus, we got a lot of work to do on ourselves, you know, it’s not like you meet the person you’re going to be with and everything about you is fixed.  There’s a lot about me I want to work on and she feels the same about what she has going on with her, but, you know, now we can work on it together. We don’t have to do it alone.”

I ask him how his mother feels about the whole thing.

“Oh, she loves her,” he says.

She nods her head.

“His mom always tells me,” she adds, “I’m glad he’s with you.  I feel like he’s safe with you. I know you two look out for each other.”

He puts his arm around her.

“But–” he says, “She still doesn’t trust downtown.”

This makes them burst out laughing again.

And I get the sense that laughing together is probably their favorite thing to do.