When Danielle came into the bar that night, I had only expected to hear some kind of news that would jar me slightly and not the sort that set unstoppable wheels into motion.
For a moment I was back in high school as I saw her walking through the door as if I was waiting for her to return from the cool table with a reply from the girl I liked after I had sent her over with a note asking her out.
But Danielle and I never went to high school, I was 31 not 18 and I would have preferred the rejection.
Rewind 9 years prior, 1997, September 23rd to be most exact. A Tuesday night around 10pm.
She was sitting at the bar, wearing black slacks and a white women’s oxford style shirt with brown and red stains on them, food stains. She was drinking a glass of beer and casually laughing while smoking a cigarette. I don’t recall the name of girl sitting next to her, I mean I know she wore the same uniform and they worked at the same restaurant together and I even remember her red hair, but I can’t for the life of me remember her name.
But the girl with the red hair was the one I walked up to, very cavalier like and had asked how their night was “over there”. It was common to do between restaurant folk, you know, ask each other about their night and if it was busy.
We had small talk about tables we served and such, who was still on and who had been cut and what time I was done or if I was closing. I had my hand on the back of her chair and was slightly positioned away from the woman drinking her glass of beer. I recall being confident and not wanting to be rude and turning to her right as Red said, “this is Casey.” I shook her hand.
She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in all of my life.
Sky blue eyes unhidden by short brown hair which was cut close up the back of her neck and medium lengths that fell slightly to the sides of her cheeks but were brushed over the backs of her ears.
The close scent of a perfume that I had no familiarity with then but would recognize instantly today in the midst of a crowded outdoor Wrigleyville game day… Chaos by Donna Karan.
That perfume would haunt me for years. And I suppose it still does. But that night it was mixed with Marlboro Light Cigarettes and Sam Adams beer. Alluring none the less.
A brief conversation. A brief exchange of wit. A brief class of confident quips was how it went.
We left the bar together that night.
We went back to her place and sat on the couch, then laid on it. We quickly yet softly began to feel our way through the romantic advances and exchanges of two total and young strangers who found excitement and passion while cast in the glow of a late night showing of the 1976 version of King Kong that was playing on the tv. Picture, but almost no sound. Just enough to keep any waking family from suspecting that we were doing anything other than actually watching tv.
It was the feel of the cotton blend of her shirt as it formed to the curves of her body, the smell of her skin and the pressure of her soft lips against mine that kept me in pause with this girl, almost frozen, powerless… no, not “girl”, this woman. She was only 22 but she was a woman.
I unbuttoned the third button of her shirt, opened her collar slightly more and kissed where her sternum met her neck. Her head leaned back, she let out a breath of approval, then pleasure and then recovery. She softly placed both her hands on my shoulders, one on each. Her touch gentle, then firm, then authoritarian. She pushed me back as she used my pressure to prop herself up, while simultaneously turning her body over to the arm of the couch.
The pull of the chain flooded the room with an all exposing power of a 60 watt bulb that just washed out the blues and soft reds with yellows that fell from the tv right as she snapped her turn back to me and I watched as those blue eyes of hers squint to an accusatory yet inquisitive dilation as she asked me,
“What’s your purpose?”
The rest of that night where I tried, no struggled to answer that question of her’s, is mine.
And all of those moments after that night, from 3am conversations that were held only as long as your eyes could stand to be open, to having to leave her my shirt to wear because it smelled like me, all the way to the begging, the arguing, the planning, scheming, the holding, praying and hearing, “don’t leave until I fall asleep” are all mine.
I could never truly write about those moments anyways. I can still see them, still see the crooked bend of her ears, the scar on her ankle and even the way her mouth parted as she opened it right before she spoke, but I can never make you fall in love with her the way I did.
I loved her. And I hated her.
She made me everything that I was… everything that I am. And none of that was good enough.
Just as fast as she appeared into my life, she vanished, never seen again.
And all that she left me was a watch, an introduction to eggnog lattes from Starbucks and an unanswered question… “what’s your purpose?”
My purpose was formed that night and drives forward still to this day.
I started my first company because of her, became a cop because of her, started writing because of her, everything that I did was because of her and the undying need for approval from her, she who had left on a cold February afternoon, without so much as a goodbye. Like so much of all that I do in life, that moment and story that you are not privy to, was “unfinished.”
If only to be temporarily held by her eyes as she drove past me on the street without stopping as if to say, “you know can’t come where I am going.” And I knew I couldn’t.
I hated her. Dear God, I hated her for abandoning me, yet hated myself for being someone who could be so easily abandoned.
No social media, no text messaging, no real emails back then. There were only letters sent to her aunt’s house in hopes that she would forward them to where ever she was… and if they ever were, I never knew. I never once got a response.
I stopped writing in 2002 and tried to move on. Achievement in finding my purpose was my obsession. Somehow, some way, making such a noise as to be heard around the world was my way of sending a “letter” out into the universe that her aunt couldn’t stop me from forwarding. She would know that I had found it, I had found my purpose and she would approve… perhaps even come back.
So, that night, another Tuesday in 2006, just around 6:30pm, Danielle came through the door of the bar and walked up to me. Danielle and I had met just one week prior. Danielle was Casey’s cousin and up until that very moment I had never met anyone who was any sort of connection between the two of us. I had spent the last 9 years wondering, daydreaming and even spent a little time hoping, all the while still empty. Still without a purpose.
One week later, Danielle had said that she would ask Casey if it would be okay if I called her and actually was able to hear her voice again… my God, even as I write this, I can hear her speak. I can hear her voice scold me, praise me, even hide from me. She was tough, direct, strong. She also was mischievous, child like and often purposely elusive just to see how far you would seek her.
Danielle walked up to me, took my hand, looked at me with genetically similar eyes of blue, shape and inquisitive gaze and she apologized…
“Casey,” she began, “Dom, I’m sorry… Casey died.”
And just like that, from 9 years of wondering, wishing and even passionately obsessing, to finding someone who could finally open the door to me just hearing her voice again; she had died.
I don’t know what my purpose is anymore as it were written in the context of that cold 1997 evening at 3am. I don’t know what I am supposed to do or become as a man in her eyes, and I know I will never know.
I know that in achievement, in truth in self, while living to my fullest potential and being the absolute best man I can be to strengthen and inspire others, is what she wanted and what she expected out of me… and I never had the chance to show her how far I had come. But I can’t stop now.
20 years have passed since that night on the couch in the soft glow of the tv.
20 years of never settling for anything less than what she would have been proud of. 20 years of fighting all obstacles in my way as she would have sat on her bed with me until three in the morning while playing the strong woman behind my path to overcoming them and then demanding I hold her so she could fall asleep.
20 years of feeling thirsty for life and never once finding that which would quench it. 20 years of a longing which no matter how many challenges I take on, face and defeat would never fulfill that which a single look from her blue eyes could do with a single look from across a crowded room.
And just like never being able to know what she thinks, I will never finish striving to become.
Asking a man to define himself, his meaning or his drive is something you should only do if you have the focus to listen to the meaning behind what his true purpose is. The hidden secret of his truth which he dare not tell anyone for fear of losing it like trying to grasp a wisp of smoke as it fleets past him in the breeze.
20 years later and all I know of myself is to fight that which needs to be fought, to help and to try to make the world better now than it was yesterday.
Because I feel that if I do so, if I strive for over achievement and I succeed in any fashion or way, I will know that she will see it. She has to, she just has to.
And I’ll know, in that moment of whatever I do that makes life more meaningful, she will smile, reach out to pinch my nose and whisper with her raspy Casey voice, “that’s your purpose. Now hold me.”