It used to be that memories of 420 elicited only smoke-filled binges of sex, drugs and alcohol, rowdy confrontations with police, and hippie activism. Now I will forever think of 420 as the day that Rob landed in Manila and re-entered mine and Riley’s lives – whole, real, and in the flesh.
We’d been lucky. It had been raining for several days and the summer weather wasn’t nearly as oppressive as it usually was. It also helped that Rob’s plane landed in the wee morning hours, before the sun had a chance to punish us for living in the tropics.
I’d dressed in a cleavage-baring, retro-print cotton dress – the kind that drew attention from all corners of the airport despite its simplicity and comfort. My go-to black flats showed off the tattoo on my foot, and my hair and make-up were flawless. Security guards smiled at me and held their gazes longer than they ought to; women recoiled at my blatant exposure of skin; kids balked and tilted their heads to sigh in confusion and delight; men of all ages gulped, stared, and got slapped by their significant others. I felt like I’d gone back in time, to before my stomach had been ravaged by stretch marks and my breasts had shrunken from DDs to Cs.
I had never lost my old swagger, my catwalk strut, or my fierce attitude, and in that moment, as I waited at the gate and imagined my reunion with Rob, it all came together: the past, the present, and the future. I could trace our steps exactly. I knew without a doubt that I’d cry – hell, I was already crying. And then I saw him, and the tears started to fall rapidly and carelessly as he swept the crowd for my face. A bolt of recognition and we ran to each other and held each other close and danced in small circles just like he promised we would do. I took in his familiar smell of sweat and deodorant, the feel of his skin and stubble, the taste of his kiss. He’d dropped his luggage. I’d smeared my lipstick. That perfect movie moment felt like the culmination of all of our hardships and arguments, misunderstandings and miscommunications. At that moment, we’d proved to each other that we were in it to win it. That this was It. The Real Deal. The Stuff of Legend. Not just Love. But that crazy, reckless, fly-to-the-other-side-of-the-world, abandon-everyone-you-know, ride-or-die kind of Love.
It’s been six months since Riley’s seen Rob, and I’m holding my breath as they embrace for the first time. Rob’s hands reconfigure their position: he is no longer cradling a two-month old infant, but an eight-month old with four teeth, hair a third down his back, and a punch that has earned him the nickname “Little Pacquiao.” Riley is tentative, unsure, studying this man who resembles the man on the computer screen who calls him “Riwey” in a baby voice and serenades him with off-pitch lullabies.
I forget that I’m holding in my breath, that waiting for Riley’s reaction has caused me to stop thinking, breathing, blinking. And just as I think that Rob will be disappointed, that he will turn to me with large and wet eyes and a trembling lower jaw, a huge smile breaks onto Riley’s face and he holds on to Rob, squeezing tears from all of our eyes as he babbles incessantly.
It’s the first night that Rob’s here, and he’s sleeping. Riley is playing in his crib, and when he babbles at me to pick him up, I oblige and bring him to our bed. I make sure to place him on the opposite side of the king-sized bed from where Rob’s sleeping, but Riley won’t have it. He crawls over to Rob, looks him in the face, and starts hitting him. His open fists have the loud smack of determination. “Dad,” he seems to be saying, “you will wake up and play with me.”
And so it goes: Our eight-month old, who stands up on his own, gets angry when people poke fun at him, and simply must have things his way, has continued his streak of stereotypical Leo-ness. Rob wake up, smiling at the sight of Riley’s crossed eyebrows and set jaw, and begins to play with him. Riley is rolling, crawling, standing, trying to take his first steps, and falling with laughter every time gravity gets the best of him. Rob is amazed and amused, loving the way his son has been growing and learning, taking pride in his lack of fear and his dogged determination, and bathing him in hugs and kisses.
Three nights later. A routine has developed. The three of us are in our bedroom, and Rob is playing songs from the Glee Soundtrack off of YouTube. They are ballads, and as he dances with Riley and his feet lightly step on the colorful foam learning mat, tears reach my eyes.
I am lying in bed, watching them dance, wondering if I should search for batteries so I can record this moment. I choose to take it all in, savor the feeling of affection that clogs the room, cherish the simplicity of a father looking down lovingly at his son. And just as I can imagine the future unfolding before my eyes, this song plays on the computer, and Rob is singing along, changing some of the lyrics, making it fit us perfectly, and pulling me to join them as they dance. In the soft glow of mood lighting, we are gliding in smooth circles, slowly, softly, treading lightly on this fragile road of promises and good intentions, building up the tenacity to take sure steps into tomorrows I’ve only dreamed of.
In the next few days, we are making love all the time, breaking out in impromptu slow dancing in public, and playing in bed with Riley. We are laughing, talking, reminiscing about our past in New York and planning our future in the Philippines.
Our plans, aka a montage of too-good-to-be true: In the next two months, Rob will start working and I’ll go back to school. In two years, we’ll have another baby. Then, we’ll talk about having more babies. I want to adopt, but Rob is against it. We’ll do a lot of traveling – Japan, India, Malaysia, Thailand, etc. – then earn nursing degrees. We’ll move back to New York, buy a house, go back to school, work, raise our family, buy more property, move to Europe…
The stuff of dreams seems almost tangible now that our little family has been reunited in the Philippines. We worry about finances and health, and Rob and I joke about faking his death: He has lots of life insurance, and Riley and I would be set for life.
Then Rob is singing Celine Dion to me. He croons, “‘Cause I’m your lady and you’re my man” and I’m doubling over in laughter as his voice breaks and Riley joins us in laughter, revealing his two front teeth, which are big with a huge gap in the middle.
It’s all rainbows, evenings on the balcony, and trips to the mall. Dancing in small circles, making love and straight-up fucking, and laughing at each others’ jokes. And then we’re arguing again. No, I’m arguing again. I’m fuming mad and very irritated, and I’m realizing as I’m snapping at Rob that I’m doing it for no better reason than that I’m used to doing it. I have anger management issues. I have a short fuse. I am high maintenance and find joy in the little things: I want things exactly as I want them, down to the finest detail, and only then will I truly feel certain that things are okay.
But that’s not really true. I only ever need that kind of reassurance when it comes to love, and that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that all of my therapists can base best-selling novels on.
And just as the argument is reaching crescendo and I’m thinking, “Oh God, Rob, please prove to me that we’re on the same page. Please show me that you get me. Please tell me that everything’s going to be-”
“Love, I’m here and we’ll fix everything and I won’t let you down,” he says to me, reading my mind. “Everything’s going to be okay because I love you and I’ll do anything to make you happy.”
And that’s when I realize: The good times are really good, but the bad times prove that things can only get better.