On my way to pick Cory up from med school, I got updates from a few others that they weren’t going to make it out to dancing. It was just going to be Cory, Noelle and me (the makings of a love triangle if I ever saw one).
I pulled my BMW up to the fountain Cory had indicated in the center of campus and waited for him to emerge from the lecture hall. As his tall silhouette strode toward me, a book tucked under one arm, I was struck by the oddity of the situation. As much as Cory and I had messaged back and forth over the prior week, I felt like I knew him well, but in truth, I’d only ever spent five minutes physically in his presence.
“Sweet ride,” he commented as he approached before giving me a quick hug. “Thanks for picking me up.” I studied him as he slid onto my passenger seat. What an unusual life I lead.
I felt like a mom (or a wife?) asking Cory about his day as I drove him home. He told me briefly about that evening’s lecture, pausing temporarily to exclaim, “God, I love your car!” as I zipped onto the freeway.
Once at his complex – an older set of buildings probably built in the ’60s – Cory ushered me into the second floor apartment he shares with (surprise!) the guy who played bagpipes at the talent show. “I helped him tune them last night,” Cory mentioned as an aside just before I was pummeled by a blur of black fur.
“Stout! Stout, calm down,” Cory laughed as I was greeted by lots of wiggles and slobbery kisses from his two year old puppy.
I let Stout sniff my legs and lick my hands before I started to scratch him behind his ears. He laid down and rolled over for a belly rub. “Oooh, he loves you. He doesn’t normally trust people that fast,” Cory mused aloud before disappearing into what I assumed was his bedroom to change clothes while I tended to Stout.
Once Cory reappeared, we took Stout for a quick walk around the block, ensured he had food in his bowl; then returned to my car to go meet Noelle at the sweet shop that hosts swing dancing every Thursday night.
When Cory and I reached my BMW in the parking lot of his apartment complex, Cory walked past the passenger side of my car and started to accompany me toward the driver side. Confused, I subconsciously tilted my head to the side as I gestured, “This one is my car, right here.”
“Oh, I know,” he explained. “Don’t worry, I’m not driving. I’m just going to open your door for you.”
Shocked, I clicked my fob to unlock the door, and good as his word, Cory opened my driver door for me with a confident “M’lady” before escorting himself over to the passenger seat.
On the drive over to the sweet shop, Cory mentioned that he wouldn’t be able to dance because he’d just finished up his most recent tattoo the day before, and the skin was still healing was on his right foot. “I suppose I could be talked into sitting out a few dances to keep you company,” I teased him.
“How kind of you,” he drawled with a wink across to me. Man, but he could be charming.
I asked about the stories behind each of his tattoos and – after warning me that such a topic could get pretty serious and deep – Cory enthusiastically plunged into a twenty-minute exposition of his astrological sign intermingled with his dad’s, a couple logos from his favorite bands, the cross on his back to which he hoped to incorporate a few Buddhist symbols (this drew a raised eyebrow from me) and the most recent one, representing those who have struggled with mental illness. Only later would I discover the true depth and intimacy of each of these sentimental markings with which he had chosen to cover his body.
Cory finished up his explanation as we pulled up to the venue, and the two of us were just getting settled at a table beside the dance floor when Noelle skipped up to us. “Hey, guys!”
She looked adorable, as always, and I was just about to tell her so when I got pulled onto the dance floor. Cory had never seen me dance before, and I glanced over my partner’s shoulder a few times to catch him watching me from afar. I smiled to myself. I was in a swing dancing society in college and was glad to be able to showcase one of my strengths that night.
Stop it, I silently reprimanded myself. He’s just got the allure of the bad boy persona, but you heard him in the car! He says he’s a Christian, but he’s also adopting Buddhist principles into his beliefs. He clearly stated that he doesn’t believe Jesus is the only way to heaven. He’s a universalist and therefore not God’s best for you. You don’t need another “project.” Snap out of it!
By the time I’d finished my set, Noelle and Cory had just returned to our table with cups of ice cream. Cory wordlessly scooped a spoonful of his into my mouth as my eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Mmm,” I approved his choice as I tasted chocolate ice cream accented by earthy almonds and tart cranberry pieces. Over the next several minutes of conversation, Cory occasionally scooted his cup of ice cream toward me, encouraging me to share with him. A few times, I thought I saw veiled hurt in Noelle’s eyes, and I felt badly. Cory was not overly subtle about his preference, and I knew it couldn’t sit well with her. After a time, I actually tried to deftly encourage some flirtation between the two of them, partially to keep Noelle from feeling left out and partially – selfishly – because I desperately needed those perceptive eyes of his to stop peering deep into me from across the table.
When Cory looked at me, I knew he didn’t just see my dark, expressive eyebrows and the freckle in the golden-brown iris of my left eye. His expressions told me he saw all the things I didn’t want him to. He has walked through enough darkness to be able to see into the hearts of people and, throughout the surface-level conversation casually going on over ice cream, I felt like Cory and I were engaged in another realm, having a nonverbal conversation all our own.
An hour or so into the evening, Cory mentioned one time he went dancing with an ex. I’d seen several photos of him on Facebook looking cozy with a blonde girl, so I asked if she was the dancer. Cory had been looking at Noelle in that moment, but at my question, his head snapped around to me, and his face registered both shock and pain before he shuttered his expression. “No…” was all he said.
“She’s another ex, isn’t she?” I asked gently. He just nodded, looking stoic. There was obviously more to the story, but as I resolved not to press it, Noelle got asked to dance. I watched her weave her way to the dance floor with her partner and turned back around to find Cory looking at me intently. “She’s my ex-fiance,” he said softly.
“The blonde in my photos. We were engaged. She broke off the engagement in July.”
Without thinking, I reached across the table to cover Cory’s hands with my own. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know…”
“I know…” he shrugged, looking down at the table before looking up at me again. “It’s such an awful word isn’t it? ‘Ex-fiance.’ I hate saying it out loud.”
I paused, wondering how deep I wanted to go with him; then I ventured tentatively forward. “I was engaged once, too. He broke things off. Last July, actually. A year and a half ago.”
Cory looked surprised, and I went on, “We don’t have to talk about it, but if you ever want to process your thoughts and feelings with somebody who’s been through a broken engagement, I’m here for you. It will get better.”
My heart went out to him. It was still fresh for him. And, unbidden, another thought came into my mind: He is SO not available. We don’t share the same faith, don’t have the same world view, and he is only recently single after having his heart ripped out of his chest by an ex-fiance …So why does my heart feel full when I’m around him? Why am I so drawn to him? God, why is this my pattern, again and again? The bird with the broken wing is my personal Achilles’ heel. Heaven help me.