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OUR FIRST LETTER
It was a storybook summer. We spent our days walking train tracks, riding in truck beds, sneaking through train tunnels, jumping off bridges, picking berries, playing fugitive, climbing hay bales, exploring old barns, playing harmonicas, watching drive-in movies, and losing track of time. We capped off nearly every evening by the campfire pit, permanently saturating our clothes with the smell of smoked Pacific Northwest pine and sacrificing sleep to be together—even when togetherness meant simply sitting in silence and waiting for the sound of the train to echo through the rolling hills of Helvetia, Oregon. As the country song goes, this was the “summer I turned a corner in my soul.” It was a summer unhindered by time and full of adventure. It was the summer I finally let myself fall for the farm boy who had patiently pursued me for two years. It was a summer of “winning moments” that consistently affirmed we were falling in love.
As September drew near, our summer of timeless perfection was coming to a close, and we both had different finish lines. I was heading back to college at Oregon State in Corvallis for preseason cross-country training, and Jeremy was transferring from Portland Community College to Brooks Institute of film and photography in Santa Barbara, California. All summer, we had chosen to ignore the fact that our relationship would eventually be complicated by 900 miles of separation. It made the fifteen-minute commute from my parents’ house in the suburbs to Jeremy’s family farm in the country seem like nothing. We both anticipated a defining good-bye, but neither of us was sure if it would mark the end of a summer love or the beginning of a lifelong love story.
In the weeks leading up to Jeremy’s departure, we felt increasing pressure to have the DTR—the define the relationship talk. We both agreed we needed to talk about expectations for our relationship before we went back to school. Would we be just friends? Would we begin a long-distance dating relationship? Or would we just raise our glasses to an epic summer and move on?
After heading home from another evening by the campfire, I got a text from Jeremy. Auj, we need to talk about what we are going to do.
I knew what he meant. Yes, we do.
Tomorrow, I’ll pick you up around five, and we’ll go to the trestle to talk. We won’t leave without discussing the future of our relationship.
With butterflies in my stomach I typed, Sounds like a plan.
That night, I nervously scribbled my unfiltered thoughts in my journal. All summer, I had been praying for discernment in anticipation of the day we would inevitably have the DTR. For me, there was a lot more riding on our conversation than whether or not Jeremy and I would officially start dating. Two years previously, I had made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t enter a serious dating relationship with someone I couldn’t see myself marrying. That made saying yes to dating feel like saying yes to Jeremy for the rest of my life.
Looking back, despite all my efforts to be intentional, I realize that in some ways I had put too much pressure on dating. After all, how are you going to figure out if someone is worth marrying if you avoid or turn down every guy who looks your way? Maybe I needed to be more willing to experience a few awkward no’s before I found my yes.
When I woke up the next morning, I analyzed every possible outcome of our conversation. Would he ask me to be his girlfriend despite the long distance? Or would we shy away from that level of commitment and agree to just “see what happens”? We were both aware of all that was riding on our conversation, which made the hours leading up to our DTR feel like days. Unlike our summer of timeless days, this day was completely pressured by hard-stop time—our five o’clock meeting and our impending back-to- school dates.
I heard the rumble of Blue Moon accelerating into my neighborhood long before it reached my street. Blue Moon was Jeremy’s rusty, dented, pale blue Volkswagen van. Every time I heard Blue Moon—or any of Jeremy’s old cars—pull up to my house, my heart beat faster and my hands grew shaky.
Even though I could hear him coming from a mile away, I waited upstairs for him to park and come to my door. Unlike most guys I had dated, Jeremy never sat in his car and texted, I’m here. He always came to the door and knocked. When I opened the door this time, I could have sworn he’d gotten cuter overnight, which spiked my nerves and my heart rate even more. We greeted each other with blushed faces and flirtatious smiles. Jeremy walked me over to the van and opened the door for me. As he did, he said, “Hey, we should try to throw our shoes before we talk. I brought them!”
Jeremy and I had decided we wanted to timestamp our summer in a concrete way. True to unconventional form, we had this idea to tie together two of our old shoes—one of his and one of mine—and toss them over a wire under our beloved train trestle, one of the longest wooden train bridges in North America. The train trestle had become “our spot” that summer, and we wanted to leave our mark. Although we didn’t say it out loud, I think we both hoped that the shoes would become a forever reminder of the summer we began a lifelong love story. “Oh yeah!” I blurted. “I’m glad you remembered!” This quirky task calmed my nerves. Now we had something else to do besides have “the talk.”
Our nerves made for a pretty quiet twelve-minute drive to the bridge. Once we arrived, Jeremy parked Blue Moon on the gravel road just up the way from the trestle. He opened the side door of the van, and we sat on the floorboard prepping for our shoe mission. We firmly tied our shoelaces together, and on the bottom of one of Jer’s shoes we wrote, “Jer and Auj summer 2011.” Then we walked the quarter mile to the opening in the railroad beams where the bridge arches over the road. This is where we had scouted the perfect spot to throw our shoes in hopes that they wouldn’t be easily discovered and would be nearly impossible to take down.
A thin wire ran underneath the railroad tracks about sixty feet up. As we stood beneath it, I felt only a grim hope that we would accomplish this mission successfully. In contrast, Jeremy looked up at the wire with confident assurance. He immediately kicked off his Birkenstocks and began climbing up the wooden beams, staining his feet with creosote as he ascended. Once he reached a beam with a good tossing angle, he launched the shoes at the wire. One of the shoes struck a beam, sending them ricocheting back down onto the hot summer blacktop.
I quickly retrieved them and tried to fling them back up to Jeremy, but my aim proved horrible. Jeremy had to climb down and then go back up again. This time before throwing our shoes, he closed his eyes and playfully prayed, “Lord, help me make this!” On his second attempt, the laces caught the wire perfectly, and the shoes wrapped around it multiple times. He did it! I was stunned. I’ve always been wary of signs, but the shoes sure did feel like one. Jer climbed down, and we stared up at our shoes with pride, both of us secretly hoping this would be a permanent symbol of a beginning rather than an end.
We walked back through the unharvested grass fields that surrounded the trestle beams and up a sloping hill until we reached the top of the tracks. We sat on the sun-warmed rails, and Jeremy suggested we start our conversation with prayer. We bowed our heads. I don’t remember everything he said, but I do remember he prayed for the Lord’s will in our relationship.
As we said amen and lifted our heads, I felt simultaneously hot and cold—a rush of heat filled my face, and I was frozen with nervousness. I’m usually a pretty decisive person. I pride myself on being a fast outfit picker, and I’m always the first to order at a restaurant, but when it came to dating, I experienced a change in cabin pressure. I knew that dating Jeremy meant three years in a long-distance relationship, and I felt apprehensive about the burden that long distance might become. Doubts swirled in my mind. I was afraid that the distance might ruin our love story. Would we have a better chance at forever if we just stayed friends until we could be in the same city again? I liked Jeremy. He was husband material, and I was beginning to envision a future with him, but what if it was just bad timing? I had spent the morning journaling and praying about how to express my concerns to him, but in the moment, I couldn’t recall any of them. To my relief, Jeremy initiated the conversation.
He started out by recapping our glorious summer. We both beamed with joy as we relived all the memories we had made. Then there was a pause. With a more serious tone, Jeremy looked me in the eyes and said, “I know we both said we would never do long distance, but I think I’ll always wonder what could have been if we don’t at least try. I don’t want to look back on this summer as just a blissful memory with that girl I once knew. Audrey, when I go off to school in Santa Barbara, I want to be able to call you mine. Will you be my girlfriend?”
“Yes!” I said with my whole heart. While he was talking, an overwhelming sense of peace had come over me. All the worries and uncertainties I’d had about being in a long-distance relationship suddenly vanished. We sat in silence for a moment, realizing that this marked the culmination of a two-year patient pursuit. Although we didn’t know it at the time, it also marked the beginning of an ongoing pursuit for the rest of our lives.
Bursting with adrenaline, we held hands as we trekked back down the sloping hill into the now starlit fields. When we reached the road beneath the trestle, Jeremy stopped and suggested we take in the night sky for a moment. We lay down on the pavement and gazed up. There was a full moon that night, but it was a massive shooting star racing across the sky that forever sealed the moment in our memories.
Finally we were officially dating, but we only had ten days before Jeremy had to leave for school. We savored every minute together during those ten days and ended each night by the campfire pit. We held hands, shared our first kiss, and gave voice to the thoughts we’d had about each other but had concealed for so long. As we talked by the campfire on Jer’s last night, we committed to writing letters to each other. Yes, letters. Real pen and ink on paper, folded into stamped envelopes. We wanted more than text messages and nightly phone calls. We had a deep desire to add excitement and creativity to our communication and also to chronicle the growth of our love. Letters seemed perfect.
On August 25, 2011, Jeremy left for his new home in Santa Barbara. I drove to his house to watch Blue Moon kick up dust as it rumbled down the long gravel driveway at Roloff Farms, packed to the brim with his belongings. Before we said one of our first drawn-out good-byes, Jeremy handed me my first letter. It was wax-sealed in an old brown envelope. I felt like a starlet on the set of a 1950s romance movie. He asked me to wait to read it until after he had left and then to mail my response to his new apartment in Santa Barbara. He wanted something to look forward to. Holding his first letter made me feel like I was holding the immunity idol in Survivor. I wasn’t naive to the fact that we would endure many Tribal Councils in our years of long distance, but something about holding that first letter gave me confidence that our torches would keep burning.
In our final moments before good-bye, we both felt a whole gamut of conflicting emotions. Unsure, yet confident. Nervous, yet at peace. Heartbroken, yet excited. One thing we wholeheartedly agreed on was that love wouldn’t just happen to us. We had to pursue it. We were committed to writing our own God-inspired love story. Jeremy’s first letter was the start of our love letter life.
Well, this is the beginning. Such an amazing feeling. I just want to say I am really excited. I am looking forward to our next chapter as God is on our side. I will be praying for you and for us.
I really want you to speak your mind with me. I want to know what you’re thinking. It makes me feel better because I didn’t know for so long.
As always there is so much I want to say to you, but I just get lost in my thoughts. It’s okay though. We have plenty of writing to do. And Skype!
I feel the need to emphasize the concept of being open with each other through this process. We went two years with keeping things bottled up, which I believe worked out for the better, but it might have become a habit. However, we’re dating now, so the rules have changed. If something bugs you, let me know.
We had so much fun this summer, Auj. I really enjoyed getting to know you more. One of these days, we will get our notes and thoughts together and write a screenplay, or a book!
Well, I’m gonna keep this one short because I don’t have time (you’re on your way over). If you ever cannot read or understand what I’m saying, text me, or we will Skype-date it.
- You’re beautiful.
Two years earlier, I almost missed my chance to meet Audrey. It was during winter break of my freshman year of college when I received a text from an old friend named Mitch: Jer, I have someone you need to meet. A girl. You free Saturday?
I was still recovering from a failed three-year relationship, and this wasn’t the first time a friend had tried to set me up. I promptly shut him down. Hey, man, good to hear from you. No, I’m busy. Sorry!
This happened during the peak of Little People, Big World, a reality television show about my family that had been airing for five years at the time. I had gotten used to people asking me to meet friends and friends of friends. I always felt uncertain about the motives behind the meetings, so I rarely obliged. However, Mitch was a good friend, an old friend who had my trust, and he insisted.
Reluctantly, I agreed to a blind date with some girl named Audrey. What made me say yes? I still don’t know. I spent the rest of the week looking for reasons to bail, even up to the last minute. Before I could cancel, Mitch texted me the address of Audrey’s parents’ house. It was just a couple hours before we were supposed to meet up, so I was too far in to back out now.
That evening, I tried on five different outfits before I climbed into OhSo, my little orange 1971 BMW 2002, and headed down the misty driveway. Although I was reluctant to go, there was something thrilling about going on a date with someone I knew nothing about, and I wanted to make a good impression. I arrived ten minutes early and parked across the street from Audrey’s parents’ house. The front lawn was perfectly manicured. A brick archway stretched thirty feet high and framed the front door, which was covered with perfectly arranged Christmas decorations. A fluffy white cat was perched in an upstairs window and looked down at me as though he knew what I was in for. Everything seemed too tidy. Goodness, she’s probably a straight-A student type, I thought. Awkward. Boring. High-maintenance. Now I felt even more apprehensive.
I had never gone on a blind date before, and to be honest, it just felt embarrassing. I wasn’t desperate. I was doing this for a friend because I trusted him and he had insisted. I was convinced there was no way sparks would fly and zero chance I’d hit it off with some random girl from the burbs.
I walked up to the front door, knocked, and waited. No answer, no sounds of stirring, nothing. I raised my hand to give it another knock when—shebang!— the door flew open while my hand was still in midair. Before me stood a girl with frizzy red hair wearing running buns and a sports bra. Her petite frame was dripping with sweat and speckled with mud. What in the world kind of girl opens the door dressed like this when meeting a complete stranger? She was slender and pretty and had a big smile on her face. I thought she was probably expecting me to be Kelcey, Mitch’s girlfriend and one of Audrey’s best friends, who was going to be joining us.
“Hi,” I said, “are you Audrey?” Some part of me hoped this mess-of- a- girl was Audrey’s sister or something.
“Yeah, hi!” she said. “You’re Jeremy. Nice to meet you. Sorry, I’m running a little behind. Kelcey and Mitch aren’t here yet, but come on in.” The words flew out of her mouth almost as fast as the run she’d apparently just finished.
“No worries, I know I’m a bit early.”
The words were barely out of my mouth before she turned around and bolted up the stairs, calling back something like, “I’ll be ready in a few. Just wait in the kitchen and . . .”
Her voice trailed off as she rounded the corner. Still standing in the doorway, I let myself in the house, took off my shoes, and placed them neatly next to the others under the entryway bench. I found my way to the kitchen and sat down. Well, this is awkward. Looking around the house, I concluded that the family seemed normal enough. The house was clean and organized; sports trophies lined the shelves; Scripture cards were posted on the fridge; and a tray of homemade desserts filled the counter. Okay, maybe this won’t be too bad.
A few minutes later, to my relief, there was a knock at the door. Before I could get up, I heard the door open and shut and someone kick off their shoes. From around the corner walked Kelcey. I knew of Kelcey, but we hadn’t met. Mitch and Kelcey had been dating for a while, and both had gone to high school with Audrey. Kelcey was in Audrey’s tight group of best friends, whom I would later come to know as “the God Squad.”
Mitch showed up a few minutes later and joined us at the kitchen table. While we chatted about the plan for the evening, I got the feeling Mitch and Kelcey both had higher expectations than I did. The plan was to eat dinner at the local Macaroni Grill—where we were sure to engage in some thrilling conversation—before heading to the opening service of Solid Rock. Solid Rock was the church they all attended, and a new campus was launching that night in downtown Portland. I had been there occasionally, but I was in a season of spiritual complacency and wasn’t regularly reading my Bible or committed to a church.
Audrey eventually walked down the stairs, and I looked over from across the room as she approached the kitchen table. Her beautiful red hair was pulled to the side and cascaded down the front of her floral ruffled blouse. She wore black leggings that formed to her athletic legs, and black lace-up boots. Her lips shimmered with a generous gloss of red lipstick. Okay, fine, she’s hot.
We all piled into Audrey’s red Mazda and headed off to dinner. When the server came to take our drink order, Audrey casually looked up from her menu and said, “I’ll take a glass of milk.”
Milk? Who is this girl? Who orders milk at a restaurant . . . and on a blind date!
Over dinner, we talked about a wide range of topics, and I found myself both perplexed and intrigued by Audrey. Her thoughts, interests, and mannerisms were peculiar, and I couldn’t get a read on her. She was unlike any girl I had ever met. Our curiosity was mutual. She would later say she felt she had met the boy version of herself—that I was quirky like her and we were interested in many of the same things. Prompted by Mitch, we discovered that we even shared the same favorite movie—Stand by Me. There was no neat box I could fit this girl into. And there was zero mention of Little People, Big World. The show was usually one of the first things—and sometimes the only thing—that people I’d just met wanted to talk about. That alone threw me off guard and piqued my interest.
After dinner, we headed to church, where I met the rest of the God Squad. When I asked about the name, they explained that some boy in middle school had called them the God Squad as a way to poke fun, but the name had stuck.
The service was routine—pray, sing, sermon, pray again—but there was a lot of energy in the room. Everyone was excited to celebrate the beginning of this new campus. I, however, was preoccupied with this unusual girl and also a little self-conscious, knowing that her best friends and Mitch and Kelcey were constantly looking in our direction to see if anything was happening between Audrey and me.
After church, we drove back to Audrey’s place and said our good-byes. It wasn’t a sparks-flying kind of night, and yet something about it had felt so right.
I was curious about this girl. She clearly marched to the beat of her own drum. I liked that. Her confidence and strong sense of herself were refreshing. Something about our meeting felt “meant to be.” Even though I couldn’t get a good read on her, there were uncanny moments when I felt a deep sense of connection and a longing for more.
Who is this girl?
I decided to press on and find out. That blind date marked the beginning of my patient pursuit of Audrey Mirabella Botti.
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