We stared at each other with an intensity I had never felt before.
Ready. Set. Go.
I took off blazing down the trail, like I was running on fire. My breathing was steady. I had to beat him. We’ve been racing damn near my entire life, and I’ve never beat him.
We were on each others’ heels…he had slowed down in his “old” age. Only a few more steps until we reached the fire hydrant, the stopping point. I looked over, and I screamed to myself “I am actually going to beat him…” Then he sprinted forward and left me in the dust, his laughter so loud as he passed the fire hydrant that it pierced through my ego.
He knows I have ego issues...
Breathing hard, he tells me good race, and we sit down on the sidewalk sharing water from the same bottle just like we've done for years. Our fingers grazing as we pass the bottle back and forth. I think I feel his touch linger slightly, but I tell myself it's just my imagination. I'm still a little irritated about losing the race, but our easy conversation about nothing on the sidewalk and the distraction of his touch takes away the sting.
After about ten minutes of casual chatter, Gene reaches in his pocket and hands me a small folded sheet of paper, "I have 5 tasks for us to complete today, the race was number one. I'll hand you a new sheet of paper after each task. Okay, Tayla Ray?"
I don't think anyone has ever put this much thought into a date with me before. Maybe I've never even been on a date...I quickly decide I'm game, "okay." I open the first folded sheet of paper, and read it aloud.
"One...Race to the fire hydrant (check)...Two...Find a mural that reminds you of love."
I look at Gene with inquiring eyes, "how are these two things related?"
"They're not. I just wanted to see if I could still beat you young blood." His still kinda creepy, but mostly beautiful, gray eyes dance in the sun as he laughs heartily and hops off the sidewalk. He reaches down to lend me a hand up, "c'mon, let's find your mural."
He never lets my hand go. I guess I wasn't imagining things.
We wander around for about 30 minutes hand in hand quietly admiring walls, and going down familiar alley ways. He doesn't say much as we pass from mural to mural, he seems to be content to just watch me as I think. Finally we come to one that touches me.
"This is it."
Gene stands back and stares for a second, and takes a photo, "why this one?" he asks.
I recite my favorite lyrics from rapper Big Krit's song Third Eye,
"It'd be a lie if I didn't say you were something classic, far from average
I apologize if I'm oh so ol' fashioned
But I'm passionate about your passions
More intrigued with your mind
And you ass and your assets
I'm asking how you feel
If I told you that I knew Heaven was real
'Cause only God could create something that gives me chills
So angelic and so surreal..."
He raises his eyebrow in an inquisitive manner, "You saw all of that in this painting?"
"Yea...Well...Krit is my favorite artist, and I always wanted someone to speak of me in that way..."
He grabs my hand tighter, "someone will..."
Reaching down in his pocket, he pulls out another folded sheet of paper and hands it to me.
"Three...Find an old married couple and ask them 3 questions."
I think I'm friendly enough to pull that off. We just have to find the couple.
We walk a few more blocks, people watching, looking for a cute old couple to politely interrupt without much luck. We stop at a hot dog stand to get a quick bite to eat, and to brainstorm about where we can find this couple. I don't actually know any other old married couples other than my parents, so I'm not really sure where they hang out, but I do know my parents like to go on ice cream dates, so I suggest that we go to an ice cream shop.
Cold Stone is just another block away, so we head in that direction walking in a comfortable, familiar silence. It's not that there's nothing left to say, I'm just diligently thinking of the questions I want to ask.
We walk in and spot two older couples immediately. One of the couples seems to be fussing about something so we decide they probably aren't the right couple to ask. The second couple smiles at us in a familiar way...jackpot.
I order a like-it size birthday cake remix, and we walk over to the couple. I'm a little nervous, they are strangers after all, but it's time to shoot my shot.
"Hi, My name is Tayla, and this is Gene," they smile and nod, and my nervousness subsides. "I'm sorry if we're interrupting your date, but this lovely man created a scavenger hunt for us to complete today and I'm supposed to find a long time married couple and ask them 3 questions. Do you mind if we chat with you for a second?"
The couple smiles sweetly at each other, and the woman speaks up first in a soft, but strong voice. "Hi Gene and Tayla. My name is Betty, and this here is Tom. We've actually been together 30 years, but we're not legally married. However, we hope we still fit the bill as we love each other very deeply, and we'd love to answer any questions you may have."
I look up at Gene, and he winks as if to say, "this will work."
After all of that thinking, I of course ask the obvious question, "So...why didn't you ever get married?"
Mr. Tom clears his throat, pats Ms. Betty's hand, sits up in his chair, and leans in a little...I know we're in for a story.
"I've been in love with Betty since the day I met her, but I was too afraid of what other people thought. We grew up very differently. I came from a family that was very wealthy, and her parents abandoned her. I was educated, and she had to drop out of school at a young age to take care of her siblings. My parents always thought she was nice, but not good enough. I didn't understand it because I felt she was perfect. She worked harder and was smarter than anyone I knew, including myself. But I just didn't want to let my parents down. Socially, I dated other women. Women of my "status." Educated. Professional. From important families...but I always ended my nights by walking Betty home from her night shift.
My love here was no fool though, and dated as well. She eventually married another young man. He was nice, and at the time I used to say he had nothing on me, but that wasn't the truth. He had something I didn't have, the courage to love freely, and to marry the woman I said I loved. They stayed together 20 years, and then he passed away suddenly. And there I was, straight away, pretending like I cared he was dead," Mr. Tom chuckled to himself, "Despite my feelings, I remained respectful of her need to mourn, but do you see how fine this woman is? I had to make sure no other man got close. So I was right there every night to dry her tears."
Mr. Tom pauses briefly to take a sip of water, and I glance at Betty trying to read her expression. I'm sure she's heard this story a million times, but she is listening just as intently as Gene and I are, like she's hearing it for the first time all over again. Her eyes glisten. I ponder what has brought on the tears...the thought of losing her husband, or her long time beau's introspection and honesty. I snap out of my thoughts, to make sure I don't miss what happens next as he continues.
"One day, Betty was complaining about how things were getting a little tough for her financially. Her husband was a hard working man, but they never had much money. I asked her to quit her job and move in with me. I promised to take care of her. I promised to do what I never had the courage to do before...to marry her. She said she didn't want to get married again, but that she would trust me to take care of her, and to love her. It wasn't what I wanted, but I agreed to her wishes at the time, and honestly it's just never come back up again. I didn't want to push her away with my demands. Her love was enough. That's not to say that I don't believe marriage is important, I do...my parents were married for over 50 years. We are 80 years old, and I would still marry her tomorrow."
Ms. Betty grabs Mr. Tom's hand, her face damp from the tears that now flowed freely from her face, "Well today's as good as any day Tom. I would be honored to marry you, I just never thought you would ask again after I told you no. Gene and Tayla here can be our witnesses."
Gene and I stare at these beautiful strangers bewildered. Is this real?
Mr. Tom replies, "I meant every word I said. There's a courthouse 15 minutes from here."
I whisper in Gene's ear and ask if he's okay with our scavenger hunt ending a bit early to attend a wedding, and he whispers back "This is a much better ending to our date, than I ever could have anticipated."
I throw away my melted ice cream that I barely had the chance to touch, and we start to head towards the car of our newfound friends. As we walk, I ask Gene what were tasks four and five, and he hands over the next task.
"Four...Find a toy in Target that describes your love life."
I bust out laughing, “Easy, a Chucky doll.”
Gene joins in on my laughter, shaking his head, and then asks if I have a pen as we step into the backseat of the car. He tells me to close my eyes as he scribbles quickly before we get to the courthouse. Ms.Betty and Mr.Tom are so excited about their pending nuptials, that they aren’t paying us any attention.
I can hear Gene sigh deeply, and I know it's okay to open my eyes. He hands over the final task with a furrowed brow. I unfold it and it reads...
Go on another uncomplicated date with me. Let's not make the same mistake they did. Forget what everyone thinks. Be brave enough to fall in love with me.
I kiss Gene on the cheek and nod slowly. So much for uncomplicated...
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