This was my first attempt at writing a fiction piece for Scribes, and the assignment was to write a story about wine. You will be temped to think these stories are about J and I, because you’re not used to a fictional voice in this space, but don’t do it. Although I weave parts of our own stories throughout, much was absorbed from the experiences of those around me, including friends, family, and the good ole ER.
Among the mess of gift bags, wrapping paper and brunch, under the last tent standing to shade them from the morning sun, with sleepy eyes and brand new rings, they came across the last wedding gift: a bag containing four bottles of wine with notes attached.
He lifted the first bottle from the bag—a 2009 Barefoot chardonnay. The note, tied to the neck with ribbon, on a tiny piece of green construction paper, read: Open this on your first anniversary. May you dance Barefoot and enjoy the great memories of your beach wedding.
She smiled, and selected the second bottle—Big House Red. She flipped over the little blue note, tied with a yellow ribbon. Enjoy this as you celebrate closing and moving into your first house together. What a wonderful adventure is ahead of you.
The third was a bottle of Little Penguin Pinot Grigio. He read the yellow note out loud: Celebrate and rejoice after the birth of your first child. What an awe-inspiring miracle. Many blessings to your new family.
The fourth was a bottle of Fat Bastard with a red note attached: Your first fight… don’t call her fat, don’t call him a bastard, or trouble is sure to follow. Enjoy this when you make up.
They passed the bottles back and forth in wonder, imagining how these events would unfold.
She pictured their anniversary on a beach in the Caribbean with 360-degree views of the island, a front porch hammock, and one—maybe two—weeks of R&R reflecting back over the last year and how much love had filled the space of it. It would be so romantic. They would open the bottle and dance on the beach, barefoot. She could hardly imagine what the year would hold—family Christmases and Thanksgivings, living in the same house, city, state, and country together. She looked at him and wondered how they’d appear to each other after a year had passed.
He, too, imagined their beachy first anniversary. They would kayak and sip wine. Dance under a full moon, in that top floor condo with the porch hammock and the rooftop hot tub. They would open those French doors to the beach each morning and have at least one amazing dinner at the expensive restaurant down the street. He would wake up early to snap pictures of the sunrise, and catch a glimpse of her sleeping softly in the morning haze. Or maybe they’d go back to the mountains like they did on their honeymoon. They’d returned home just a few days ago, in time for their stateside reception last night. Either option would be great. As long as they could get away and do something special.
Passing the Big House Red, she imagined the closing of their first house together—what the house would look like and how cozy they’d feel, how home they’d be.
Right now, they lived in a little one-bedroom apartment on a canal. It was adequate for the two of them, bright and spacious, but too small to host anyone else or invite friends over for dinner. They didn’t even have a kitchen table. In the table space sat a desk, which they’d clear off on those rare occasions they didn’t eat on the couch ottoman. Once, they’d had a dinner guest and he sat on an exercise ball because they only had two chairs. The entire place was new—the city, their jobs, the apartment. They weren’t sure how long they’d stay; they’d each only come here for jobs. But she thought they might end up in a big house near her family up north, or a trendy loft in Chicago, maybe. That would be the exact middle between their two families in Michigan and Wisconsin. They’d want to be in a good school system, not too far from the city, but not too close, either. They’d probably close on their first house when they had their first kid, or settled on long-term jobs, or were ready to be committed to a place. She didn’t care where it was, but she figured it wouldn’t be here.
He imagined by the time they were ready to close on their first house together, they’d already be back in Wisconsin on 10 acres of rolling hills in the country. They’d have a kid or two, so they’d need to fix up and sell his old two-bedroom bachelor pad currently being rented by graduate students, and buy a bigger family house just outside city limits. Or maybe on the east side—it’s getting more trendy there. He thought she’d probably like the east side.
As he put the Big House Red back in the bag, she picked up the Little Penguin. She secretly couldn’t wait to uncork this bottle, signifying the birth of their first child. They would wait two years, probably. They’d spend time traveling and enjoying one another, get their lives and finances in order first, and then take the plunge. What would their first little baby look like, she wondered? It would be a girl—his eyes, her hair. A snapshot moment played in her mind, the two of them holding hands in the hospital as everyone passed around their new little baby, cooing and rocking and arguing over who she looked like most. The kid would be an athlete. And so perfect.
He imagined a boy, decked out in Brewers or Packers gear. They’d play baseball together, or, you know, whatever the kid wanted to do, he’d support it. He knew before he’d even met her he wanted to have kids. It would be tricky timing, though. He wanted stability, friends and travel first. On the flip side, he didn’t want to be an old dad, either. He was pushing 40, and friends had told him he would never feel entirely ready. He imagined about two years from now they’d be opening that bottle, excited and nervous and thrilled while the baby slept soundly next to them.
Smiling at the last bottle, she wondered what would do them in. What would cause the uncorking of the Fat Bastard? In her wildest imagination, she couldn’t even conjure up an image of the two of them fighting. The closest they’d come was after the earthquake in Haiti. He had an opportunity to respond with a medical team for six weeks right before their wedding, and she created a position or herself on the French-speaking team they both thought was brilliant. The team didn’t buy it. He had to decide whether to stay or go, and she supported either option. But here is how they dealt with stress: She needed to talk it out eight different ways, and he needed space to process internally. They stewed separately for four hours and met for dinner. Over soup, he verbalized intent not to go. She agreed. Done.
He thought it would be money, for sure. Spending habits would open the Fat Bastard. Either that, or the need for alone time. She was extroverted; He was introverted. Having never lived together, he wasn’t sure how it would all play out, but they took extra care in fleshing out these differences before the engagement. He was confident whatever the issue, they’d communicate their way through it straight to the make-up bottle of Fat Bastard.
A year later, they sat with 18 friends and family members around the kitchen table/desk in the one-bedroom apartment by the canal. Their one-year anniversary happened to fall on the day of a biking event in the city, and each of their family members from all sides and states came to participate. Everyone stayed with the two in their 900 square foot apartment. There was no barefoot beach dancing or wine-sipping; there were no French doors or 360-degree island views. There were no rooftop hot tubs or mountains of any kind.
Instead, there were bowls and bowls of veggie pasta, friends and family gathered on chairs and stools and milk crates on the deck. There were air mattresses piled floor to ceiling. There were breakfast spreads and popcorn parties, lots of grilling, laughter and story telling. They toasted their waters and beers and Gatorades high in the sky on the deck of the little apartment, under stars and twinkle lights, marveling over the rare gathering of almost the exact same group of people who had lined up on a beach for a wedding a year ago, wishing the two another great year, and reminiscing over stories the couple had never heard—stories about skinny dipping and champagne surfing after the ceremony.
Although not what they imagined, they uncorked the bottle of Barefoot chardonnay on a Monday night, after all the families had left and enjoyed a slice of freezer packed chocolate wedding cake. Their anniversary had been meaningful, if not tropical. A month later, they went to the mountains. Four months later, they went to the beach. The celebrated their anniversary 4 times that year, which was a different kind of better than they had imagined.
The following November, six months after their anniversary, they sat with friends, wrapped in blankets and flannel, in a lake house on the northern border. They had accidentally purchased a house. They weren’t looking, but a friend was selling who offered a good price in a neighborhood they loved, and the mortgage for a three-bedroom home would be less than the monthly rent of their one-bedroom apartment downtown. It was a no-brainer. No realtor, and the signing happened over a beer. The owner had given them access to the house before the closing to re-paint, tile the bathrooms, and replace the carpet with wood floors. On the day of closing, while He was at work, after they had signed and taken ownership, She flooded the house. That really happened. She was trying to figure out why the master bath only reached lukewarm temps, and somehow wrenched the entire fixture off the bathroom wall. The bathroom, bedroom and hallway were ankle-deep in lukewarm bath water in about six seconds. Her brother and the plumber directed her to the water shut-off, and each came over to pry up wood planks in an effort to save the floors. But the floors were ruined—the floors her brother had installed two days earlier. She didn’t know what to do. She called Him at work, and He reassured her. They would call the insurance. Everything would be okay. This is why She loved Him. Everything was okay.
The next morning, they set up industrial sized fans in three places, grabbed the bottle of Big House Red and drove three hours north to meet a another couple for a weekend at the lake house. There, in the cozy glow of a fire and s’mores, they opened the bottle of Big House Red and toasted the closing of their first house together. This was not how they imagined it, but in the span of life and death and disaster and fulfillment—life was good. They were home. Just not right this very second. Right this very second, they were in a different home three hours away with the best of friends, wrapped in cozy blankets toasting the moment while their real home was drying out.
The flooded house would hold a thousand firsts: gardens and furniture, friends and kids, small groups and family Thanksgivings, job changes, bike routes, budget changes, lost rings, vacations, sick days, bonfires, grill outs, Christmas trees—it would hold the entire first chunk of their marriage, after the little apartment on the canal. They would outgrow it quickly, but hang on to it as long as possible: their little bungalow on Main.
Years later—three, to be exact—she could just cry thinking about the Little Penguin bottle, gulped down in some throw-her-arms-up battle through 18 months of infertility and a desperate need for a bottle of white because company was coming. She would immediately purchase another bottle of Little Penguin in the morning. The next day they would begin fertility treatment.
The treatment worked quickly, and they became pregnant within the first three months of injections and monitoring. They were ecstatic and began decorating a nursery in the little house on Main—forcing His office into the living room area. He didn’t mind. They would find out the gender next month and teased about which sport the child would play, and what the name would be. Every sign or menu item He saw, He would say: Hey! Let’s name the baby that. For example, Stromboli—Strom for short. They each began making arrangements to shift work schedules to 30 hours per week in order to care for the baby equally without a sitter. He would work Mondays and Wednesdays, She would work Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they would alternate Fridays.
At 16 weeks, though, the worst of the worst happened. She sobbed in the ER holding her 5-inch, 4 oz. baby with 10 fingers and 10 toes in a little pink kidney-shaped emesis basin. Everything had happened so fast—He was on his way to the ER from work. They had only told family they were pregnant three weeks earlier. He sat next to her in the hospital bed, as they looked at their first child, genderless and nameless. They asked for a picture, but the nurse had no camera. They looked to the Social Worker and the Chaplain who had come into the room for support and resources, but nobody could do anything. The Social Worker called the Forensic Nurse, knowing she had access to a camera for evidence collection. But the Forensic Nurse would not permit the camera to be used in this way. She only wanted to document this, the birth of their first child. They were devastated.
When everyone else left the room, the Social Worker offered up her cell phone. “I could take a picture for you, right here, and send it to your phone or your email. I don’t know what the rules are for this, so we’d have to delete it right after it’s sent.” They agreed, through tears, took the picture, and sent it to themselves at home. They deleted it from the Social Worker’s phone and said goodbye to the little baby.
They spent several days holding hands, but not talking or eating. They spent several more days watching TV and going on long, solitary bike rides. Sometime during the second week, they started eating snacks and taking walks. They went back to work. They took deep breaths and were very careful with each other. During the third week, He brought home a bottle of Little Penguin. They poured a glass and celebrated the brief life of their first child. He kissed every place the tears fell, and she again knew everything would be okay. Everything was okay.
The following spring, they gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Waiting for them at the house was a chilled bottle of Little Penguin and two glasses. They gave each other the longest hug ever in the world and toasted to their healthy little penguin.
Two years later, they gave birth to twins and immediately purchased an entire a bottle of gin.
On the 96th floor of the Hancock building in Chicago, several decades later, they sat at a corner table, surrounded by their kids and grandkids to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. After rounds of appetizers and meals and desserts, She pulled the bottle of Fat Bastard out of her giant purse. In 45 years, they could not bring themselves to open the Fat Bastard, which would have meant they’d had THE fight. The first one, the worst one, the one you had to make up over.
They’d had moments: stressful moves, budget veers on both sides, parenting struggles, a constant battle over who would let the dishes pile up the longest until someone broke and unloaded the dishwasher, and there was that one time he threw away her entire bag of dry cleaning because she’d put them in a black trash bag and he assumed it was trash. Whoops.
But they never opened the Fat Bastard until this very moment, in celebration of their 45 years together, having made it so far and so long. They opened the bottle, poured a glass for everyone, and drank until it was gone. They looked at each other, smiled and swallowed the last gulp hard. They’d consumed the worst, and they were okay.
What neither disclosed was that each had replaced the bottle an average of 3-4 times per year, having emptied it without the other knowing.