One year from today, lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I will don a wedding dress, pick up a bouquet, and walk down the aisle to marry my mid-life love Steve. Those last few stately steps will total just a few yards, but it’s taken me nigh onto forty-five years to stroll, saunter, sprint, and sweat my way to that moment.
I figure it’s my own fault. And not just because of a few questionable decisions made and frequent detours taken along the way, though those have certainly played a role. No, when I was young and particularly dumb, I inadvertently threw the universe a karmic challenge. And the universe, I think, felt it had no choice but to teach me a lesson.
The summer I was eighteen, I worked part-time as a student assistant in the Math and Science division of Gainesville College, then a two-year community college located in northeast Georgia. My father Garry had taught chemistry there since the year before I was born, so I’d grown up conducting science fair projects in his lab and selling Girl Scout cookies to his colleagues. Even before I enrolled as a student for my freshman year, I’d become acquainted with many of the department professors: the married Mayhews, environmental biologists always dressed in Birks and khakis; the mustached John Hamilton, an A&P prof who seemed to burst with kinetic energy; lab coordinator Linda B., whose bold laugh echoed down the terrazzo-floored halls. Once I started working in the division office, I got to know more about them: mathematician Dee Fuller always had a joke at the ready, and ex-Marine Dr. Rogers, geologist, department chair, and dead ringer for Ernest Hemingway, could shift from stern to smiling so quickly you thought you’d imagined feeling intimidated.
I particularly admired Christy Gregory, a tall, willowy math professor who’d painted her office bookshelves periwinkle. A color aficionado myself, I appreciated the pop of purple and the streak of independence it implied. Still, she puzzled me: obviously smart, beautiful, friendly, and genuine, Professor Gregory remained single. For my romance-obsessed teenage self, that equation was harder to understand than any that required solving for X.
Then, one afternoon, not long after she’d celebrated her fortieth birthday with a cake and cards from the staff, I was tending the front office phone while several faculty members chatted by the counter. Professor Gregory came in wearing a million-watt smile. After dropping off a handout for me to copy, she turned to announce she was engaged: she’d been active with the singles group at the local Methodist church, and she and the pastor had fallen in love. She was getting married!
I’d like to say I felt pure joy, that the only thought in my mind and thrill in my heart was for her happiness. But as my mouth smiled and said “Congratulations!” my brain was seized by that naïve self-absorption that is the special purview of the young. Oh, my god! it exclaimed in horror. I hope I don’t have to wait until I’m forty.
And as hugs were passed all around, the universe nodded sagely: Hey, kid, no problem. Happy to make alternate arrangements.