My date, your step-brother

On our third date, Mike asked me to go on a trip to the Virgin Islands with him. Some friends of his–a couple–had invited him some time before he met me and, since he wasn’t dating anyone at the time, he originally intended to go with his sister. I think he’d even gone so far as asked her, tentatively, to go. But in the time between the initial suggestion of the trip and actually beginning to make plans, he’d met me. And suddenly, he no longer wanted to take his sister but the girl who he’d met across the foosball table at a party called Woodchuck.

Our third date was in fact just a few weeks after Woodchuck. Our second date had been to my cousin Gary’s party–also famously named–G-Bash. We had been quite a shocking hit there, arriving at G-Bash together, discovered kissing in various locations around the house, not a one of them very private, which wasn’t saying much considering the party had well over 200 people sprawled over every space of the house and lawn. My cousin, who had not been privy to my change of heart on the goal to date as many men as I could, had cautioned me, “Um, this is very nice with you and Mike. But I think you’re scaring away your other potential suitors.”

I had laughed, patted his shoulder reassuringly, and replied, “That’s okay. I think I’m going to see what happens with this particular suitor for a while.”

For our third date, we decided to go hiking by the ledges in the Hinkley Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. We hiked an easy trail, then climbed with the glee of children to the top of one of the rock walls. There we rested, sitting together, surveying the world below. He put his arm around my shoulders and started telling me about his family. His dad had just bought a theater in Colorado he planned to restore and direct shows within; his sister had just moved to California; his mother and little brother lived in Florida. Though Mike had grown up in Ohio, his family had scattered to the winds, which made me wonder what had kept him here for so many years. I’d always sought a way out of Ohio and though I had not done it yet, I hoped that the first opportunity I got to leave, I would.

I admit I was a little intimidated by his descriptions of his family–he made them sound so worldly, especially his father. I wondered how I could fare in a family in which a father had the money and time to invest on owning and running a theater. I didn’t know much about his mother or his sister at the time, but he made them sound like bourgeois wanderers who just went wherever they felt the urge. Because Mike had a careful, confident demeanor, he seemed very knowledgeable of the world himself. I was impressed by his suave and careful language. He thought before he spoke and I could already tell he was not one to–as I’m so often prone to–find himself chewing his own foot. He almost always seemed to know the right thing to say. I admit also that I was quite impressed with his apparent worldliness which, on my part, was a bit immature, like a pupil harboring puppy love for a teacher. I’d just graduated from college; I barely knew anything of the world. And here, in Mike, was someone six years older than me who seemed to have it all figured out. I was undeniably lured by his charisma and the sense that he could take easily care of me–not with money, but with a physical stability that I didn’t think I had at the moment. I was so impressed with him that I even began to fret that he was completely out of my league.

This fear intensified in the moments after he’d asked me to the Virgin Islands. “I have this opportunity,” he said. “My friends are renting a villa on St. John in August. I’d love it if you came with.”

My dating life heretofore had been simple. In high school, no one could afford to go anywhere; our dates consisted of roller-skating rinks, driving around in a car, hanging around at friends’ houses. In college, dating had been chatting until the dawn hours in dorm lounges, walking with each other to class, late night Taco Bell runs. Those were the years when we barely had enough money to pay for simple pleasures such as laundry and food. I’d never in my life dated any man who’d asked me to go anywhere with him–not even out of the state–and now–at the age of 23, just newly a full-time employee for the law firm–a man was asking me to leave the country with him (well, technically, still within US boundaries as the Virgin Islands are a US territory). I was really enamored.

And, at the same time, disappointed. How was I going to explain this one to my mom? Unfortunately, I still lived with my parents and, though I was an adult, I still felt like I was under their jurisdiction because I lived with them. I didn’t truly have the will to stand up to my parents and tell them I was going. I had to ask permission to go. Which made me feel like such a child in front of a man who was so much more experienced than I was with dating. He was an adult, he’d dated women as an adult; meanwhile, I still dated men like a teenager. This relationship would never work as long as the tables were tipped so heavily. I would have to grow up to be a match for him.

“Well…” I replied slowly. “I will have to see if I can get the time off. I don’t know if I can.”

Mike grinned, shrugging nonchalantly, not realizing that his casual tone just made the struggle within me worse. “If you have the time off, you’re allowed to take it.”

So easy for him. Though as a full-time employee of the law firm I now had two weeks of paid vacation, I’d never actually used the time yet. At that point in my career, though shoddy as my career was at the moment, I felt indebted and devoted to my employer. I felt guilty asking for time off, even though it was mine to take. I hadn’t been in the ranks of the employed long enough to realize how vacation time actually worked–that I could ask for it at will and would most likely get it. I worked 6 days a week voluntarily to make extra salary. I worked hard. Up until this point, it had never really occurred to me that I could take a week off to do something as ordinary as go on a vacation.

“I really want to,” I admitted to him. “August, though. That’s two months away. How do you know we’ll still be dating?”

Mike’s grin got wider and he shrugged again, “I don’t know. But I’m taking a chance.”

I laughed. “I’m sure you’ll be sick of me by then.”

“If anything, we could still go as friends,” he said earnestly. “But if we’re still dating, then it’s a chance for me to get to know you better. You said you’d love to travel.”

“And what if you’re some axe murderer?” I teased. Then, more seriously, I pointed out, “I barely know you.”

Mike laughed this time, “Well… I could give you some references if it would make you feel better. But obviously this trip would give us both a chance to get to know each other.”

How I wanted to just throw all caution to the wind and run off with this man to the Virgin Islands or anywhere at the drop of a hat. I probably would have immediately agreed had I been living on my own and not had a very protective mother to deal with at home, though I still would have done so pensively, feeling as if I were partaking in a slightly scandalous activity. It’s funny how looking back on this situation from the perspective of an older, more experienced woman, I realize taking a trip with a boyfriend is no big deal. After a second date is still a little soon, but his invitation would have had less of an impact on me as a thirty-something than it did back then.

“I need some time to think about it,” I told him. I began plotting a half-truth to tell my mom in order for her to condone the trip.

* * *

The next day on our walk from the Terminal Tower to the Key Bank Building where we worked, my friend Diane inquired about my date. I could not contain the smile that radiated in wide, shiny pulses from every cell in my body.

“Oh. My. God.” I breathed, struggling to contain all of that energy. And then the words just started gushing from my mouth like a river released from a collapsed dam. “This guy is perfect. He loves to sky-dive, backpack, travel. He’s got tickets to the theater. And, last night, he asked me to go to the Virgin Islands with him!”

Diane screeched. I screeched. Two college graduates screeched together in unison like teenagers.

“What?!” she shouted in surprise. I was startled to see that her exclamation was congratulatory and impressed, not accusatory or disgusted as I had expected. I could tell in an instant that if she’d been asked to go to the Virgin Islands, or some similar trip, with a man she knew for only a couple of weeks her answer would have been an immediate yes. Since Diane tended to be conservative about dating–we shared a similar upbringing–I tended to look to her reaction for guidance in seeing a situation more clearly. Had her reaction had been more cautionary and less supportive, I might also have started to look more cautiously at the situation. But her reaction was a green light indicating to me that there was really nothing unusual about going on a vacation trip with Mike.

“I know!” I replied, feeling braver.

“What did you tell him? Are you going to go?” she asked.

Before I could answer, another girl–a coworker from our office who both of us barely knew–interrupted. She’d been walking behind us from the Terminal Tower, having gotten downtown on the same train as us that morning. “Excuse me. But–can I ask?–what’s this guy’s name?”

I hadn’t realized she’d been listening to our conversation and I felt a little put off by the interruption. A little panic set in as well. I barely knew anything about Mike and, if she knew him, did she know something awful? Was she about to burst my bubble, giving me that one piece of the puzzle that would destroy this bastion of the perfection I saw in him? Or, worse yet, what if she was an ex-girlfriend?

“Mike F——-r,” I replied uncertainly.

The girl blanched. Then laughed slightly. “Oh my God, that’s my step-brother!”

“WHAT?!” Diane and I screeched yet again, in unison this time.

“Yeah,” she replied. “His father is married to my mother, Kathy. You are the girl he’s been talking about.”

He’s been talking about me!? I thought, that warm, giddy feeling of ardor balling up in my stomach. I wanted to say it out loud, but it sounded too childish, too vain to ask. Instead, I exclaimed, “Wow!”

“I heard ‘sky-diving’, ‘theater,’ and ‘Virgin Islands’ and I knew you had to be talking about the same person,” she explained. “It was too much of a coincidence.” She shook her head as we started walking again. “Oh, I can’t wait to tell my mom about this…”

It was the oddest sort of coincidences. Synchronicity. First, our meeting in which my cousin, Mike’s best friend Jon, and Mike shared the history of having gone to high school together. Now, the new girl in the office turned out to be Mike’s step-sister. It was enough to make an atheist believe in destiny…

***

Date: June 9, 1998 9:55:55 AM
To: Mike F. (Work)
From: Heidi E. (Work)

Hey Mike,

Good morning (for me;).

All my items of identification pretty much read “Heidi A. Emhoff” with the exception of my passport, which I think has my middle name.

Now I need to know a few things.  First of all, I looked at the department calendar, and there are a lot of people taking vacations in August, which is bad.  We are only allowed to have two operators gone from the department at a time.  I need to know which week exactly we are talking about.

I guess we should talk about it some more Friday or something.  I can’t think of all my questions right now.  Too groggy, haven’t had coffee…

You were right, though.  People at office (including my friend Diane) say GO.  Ummm… especially one person who overheard me talking…. She’s our new PDS coordinator… Name of Bonnie L——–.  Sound familiar?;)

I was innocently talking to two of my friends this morning on the way to the office.  Bonnie, who also happened to be following with us (she rides the same train), pales and asks, “What a minute.  What’s this guy’s name?”

I answered appropriately.  She tells me that she is your step sister!  Weird. Small world.  She then launched into a summary of the sort of activities which you, your father, and Melina (sp?) have done over the years… ;) She also said that I should go to the Caribbean with you… ;)  I guess that’s a heavy vote in your favor.

Well, gotta do my work.  I’ll call you later — as soon as I find out about Friday.

Always,

Heidi

Mike’s reply, pieced together from excerpts in a later message from me to him, time-stamped 11:36 AM the same day:

As for Bonnie, Tis amazing how I have you followed. :)  That is Kathy’s daughter.  Kathy is may dad’s current and last wife. :)  You should listen to complete strangers.

As for the dates, we are looking at Aug 8-15.  That can change if you need it, but I need to know when is better.  Betty [the wife of Mike’s friend] called last night and they have already started to make arrangements, so sooner is the only way this will work.

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