While swimming double workouts—AAU and high school—and plowing through the Orangebelt Conference swim season, Paul Grabiak’s perfect pecs popped into my peripheral vision.
Senior prom had come and gone without my attending, despite the promises of the weight-lifting team to find me a date. I’d sacrificed countless minutes watching them clean and jerk hundreds of pounds. I attended their meets, counted the bananas they ate to make their weight classes, and recorded lifts on Coach Schilsky’s clipboard. Their sympathy was touching, but I’m sure it never crossed their minds that one of them could take me to prom. Guys!
Instead, my pretty red dress from the 5, 7, 9 Shop in the Volusia Mall hung in my closet and Susan Sigler and I went to dinner in Daytona.
But I wasn’t missing Grad Nite at Disney World when seniors from all over Florida would swarm the park all night.
I chewed on my lip and cracked my knuckles as I stood beside the plant-less planter in G-Building. My eyes locked on Paul exiting Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry—his lips turned up like math meant something other than minutia.
I stepped in front of him and blurted, “Do you want to go to Grad Nite with me?”
His brows shot up. His eyes rounded and I thought about how I’d had to ask James four times before he agreed to be my Homecoming escort.
“Sure. I’d love to go! Thanks!” He shot me a brighter version of his smile that billboarded his dad’s dental skills.
Not perfect was Paul and varsity cheer captain Sue Shelton falling epically in love—Love Story-minus-the-dying love—during the month between buying tickets and the event.
To Paul’s credit, he didn’t break our date. But I pictured him shooting furtive looks off the Skyway to Fantasyland for a glimpse of Sue, counting the hours until he’d see her again.
I didn’t want to think about the last time I’d been to Disney and royally ditched Mike Zwicker. If the World operated on an eye-for-an-eye mentality, I’d earned a miserable Grad Nite. Mom bought me a new outfit, pale yellow, my favorite color, with a rainbow blouse. At least I’d look cheerful.
But Sue stayed home to work and Paul surprised me with his chivalry.
On the night of the event, Paul admitted he was a little nervous. Despite the awkward circumstances, he wanted a magical night in the Magic Kingdom for us. He was the kind of kid who made things happen. The guy had worked his way to the top of Florida competitive swimming and been invited to California to train for the Olympics. He shouldn’t have worried.
Conversation carried us through Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I groused about trig. Paul needled me with all its uses in navigation and building. No big surprise he wanted to major in math. But we agreed that pouring red “Barracuda Tide” (cherry Kool Aid) into the pool before meets had sharpened our team’s mental edge. Paul, starting pitcher and third baseman, lamented losing the baseball conference championship. The night waned, but our comradery continued.
After the KC and the Sunshine Band concert we sprinted through Cinderella’s Castle for the Main Street Electrical Parade—our hands linking as we ran.
The feel of skin on skin gunned a Daytona 500 of thoughts around the track in my head. I wanted to yank my hand away. Holding hands with someone else’s boyfriend was wrong! I wanted to tell him he didn’t have to take chivalry this far. I wanted to die of embarrassment. I wanted to grip tighter and pretend the date was going the way I’d envisioned the day I invited Paul. My hand stayed snugged in Paul’s.
We stood on the curb and my breath returned to normal.
Dopey and Sneezy and the rest of the Seven Dwarfs imped their way down Main Street. Fireworks burst overhead and fell in a pretty rain of reds and pinks and blues. The taste of cotton candy lingered in my mouth.
The night did feel magical.
A bus ride back to New Smyrna Beach later, a glimmer of sunrise warmed the treetops.
Paul followed me through the dew-heavy air, up the three brick steps to my house.
One of my quirky talents was scooting around the screen door before a guy could pucker up. I wasn’t kissing any toads. My reflexes must have relaxed from being up all night.
Paul landed a kiss on my lips. “Thanks for inviting me.”
I slid past the screen thirty seconds too late, and pressed shut the heavy glass and wood door between us.
A pity kiss to add to the pity hand-holding. Ug. My cheeks burned.
But at least I hadn’t kissed a toad.
Recently, Paul told me his side of Grad Nite.
When Paul picked me up, he glanced across the seat of his Mustang at me. The former altar boy checked off the boxes of beauty, intelligence, and Catholicism. He shook his head, mystified as to why he hadn’t asked me out sooner—before his epic romance.
Yes, he had a serious girlfriend, one he’d date for a year and a half. But he was 16 and hadn’t been thinking about chivalry while holding my hand. He wasn’t deciding if there’d be a kiss on the doorstep, but debated which variety.
While gratified to hear Paul thought as highly of me as I did of him, in the crystal clear vision of hindsight, I can’t help believing the spark never flared between us because God knew we weren’t “the one” for each other.
Before I was cognizant of God’s orchestration of my life, He was busy keeping my heart safe for Jim. Dad had shattered some essential part of me when I was a little girl and it would take a lifetime to piece me back together. God knew I couldn’t withstand a second crushing.
Paul’s wife, Laurie, said, “I am so thankful Paul came into my world, for if he hadn’t, I’m sure I never would have known the kind of happiness he’s brought into my life.” I echo her sentiment about Jim. And Sue Shelton, port manager for Disney Cruise Lines, also landed in a long, successful marriage.
We all weather suffering of one flavor or another. Most of us would choose our own over someone else’s. And our own joys. I’m glad I get to count Jim as mine.
I choose to believe six imperfect people, due to the kindness of God, found in their partners a piece of perfect.