I guess I met Van when we were both 18 at Columbia College Chicago where we would spend the next four years simultaneously struggling through identity crises, heartbreak, and music theory classes.
I had performed a Beyonce song at a small open mic the fall of our freshman year. He said he sat toward the back of the crowd and introduced himself to me after the show. I don’t remember this interaction but for the next 3.5 years of school, I would vaguely recognize Van as “cool violin guy” with whom I shared mutual friends but never hung out with directly. Today, he likes to make fun of me for “not giving shit about him because I was Leah Jean” when in reality I just didn’t get to know him until senior year when my roommate asked us both to play in her senior recital.
In the rehearsal room, Van was mostly quiet until you got him cracking jokes. Van’s sense of humor ranges from confidently morbid, to sarcastic, to just plain absurd. Van is very sharp and will quickly deliver jokes with total confidence, even if the content came straight from the depths of hell. These were the first moments I began to realize just how funny Van was. His wit and presentation combine forces to create a brilliant sense of humor and I would be laughing myself into tears. He was simply a joy to be around, and I would consistently look forward to seeing him at rehearsals.
What also struck me about Van was his intelligence and maturity. Van is a killer violinist for multiple reasons and a big one is that he knows how to prepare. He knows what to bring, what to ask for, and how to execute. Excuses don’t exist in Van’s world. Lack of action doesn’t either. Words he jotted down on a post-it note stuck to the wall behind his bedroom desk read “What you water will grow” and this has always been an important truth for Van. He is responsible, hard-working, detail-oriented, and consistent. These qualities became evident to me from the first rehearsal. I felt like a dingus sitting next to Van with my “maybe this guitar riff could work here?” mentality when he had every song lead-sheet cued up in the right order on his iPad and came with A-game ideas that actually made sense. I wasn’t necessarily intimidated but I was impressed.
I didn’t think it was possible for a 20-something boy to impress me but he did. We began to develop a friendship via our mutual friend Matt who would invite us both to social gatherings. Looking back, Van and I often had our own side-dialog, separate from the group, infused with particular things we both found hilarious or interesting. Last summer, Van asked if I wanted to play guitar for a country gig he was on. Hesitantly, very hesitantly, I agreed and found myself trying to learn lead guitar parts for 30+ country songs. It wasn’t going well and it wasn’t going terrible. Nonetheless, I was ultra-stressed. Luckily, country is a relatively easy style of music to play but what I most enjoyed about the gig was getting to see Van at rehearsals. One time he came over to run tunes with me and when we were done, we ended up eating dinner together and making fun of old Usher music videos. I was not crushing on Van, but I valued our friendship and his company. I remember thinking that very thing when he left that night. He left me feeling light and inspired, the way a good friend should make you feel. Little did I know, Van was actually crushing on me.
At the end of our country performance at around midnight, Matt, Van and I sat down and shared a few per diem appetizers as people were clearing out. We were sipping on whiskey, munching on loaded nachos, and talking about life. At one point, I asked them “Hey guys, why don’t men like me? What is so scary about me?” I was kind of kidding, but I was also kind of curious to see what my two best guy friends thought. Van paused for a moment before he said “Well you have this intimidating thing about you. You’re confident and you’re really good at what you do.” Van is good at a lot of things, and something he really excels at is pretending like he is not feeling what he is feeling. So, thinking Van had no interest in me other than to be my friend, I probably shrugged and said something like “Well thanks!” and continued to shove nachos in my face. That night I headed home relieved, filled with nachos and the encouragement of Van’s comment; not a bad place to be.
A month later I started seeing a guy I met in a rideshare. Van had invited me and some of our friends to an underground comedy show, hoping to get to know me more that night. I ended up bringing new boyfriend and my mother along and Van might have been discouraged. We headed to Matt’s place after to play some drinking games and I noticed Van’s jabs toward new boyfriend were towing the line between playful and harsh. Nonetheless, again, I felt myself connecting more with Van than the guy I was dating. Low and behold, new boyfriend became ex-boyfriend within in month.
Flash forward to late-October. I hadn’t seen Van in awhile. I was doing a study on metal music in Chicago and needed to go to a punk/metal bar for my research. I went with my friend who knew Van’s roommate so we decided to invite them as well. I remember a specific image of Van finishing his dinner as I barged into their apartment (in the loud, extraverted way I do), wearing my dark lipstick, and all black for the occasion, excited that I got to hang out with Van as he had agreed to come with us. The following sequence of events occured over the next few hours:
Entered punk bar. Ordered PBRs. Drank the PBRs.
Punched a thing attached to a machine that would generate a unitless number indicating how hard you punch for $1.
Left punk bar.
Walked with Van to Jewel Osco to get ingredients for White Russians while our other friends got Chinese food.
Returned to Van’s apartment and sat on the couch with friends to watch the Big Lebowski and drink White Russians.
Sat right next to Van because I wanted to sit right next to Van because I liked Van.
Van attempted and succeeded to discreetly hold my hand until the end of the Big Lebowski (a two hour film).
When Van touched my hand, my body did this: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and that’s truly the best way I can describe the feeling. For some reason, the sensation was totally electrifying. Something was happening between our hands and I didn’t know what. Looking back, I think part of it was shock. This was Van, my friend, holding my hand. Up until that very moment, I had absolutely no idea Van was interested in getting himself involved with any woman or man, let alone loud and crazy Leah Jean. I thought he wanted to keep me an arms length away at all times because I was his friend and nothing more but the instant his hand found mine, everything changed and five months later I am so happy and proud to be Van’s girlfriend.
My mom says “You guys just get each other.” It’s true, we do. Sometimes in the morning, we’re waking up my roommate loudly laughing about some weird shit one of us just said/did. I feel like I can be 110% myself around Van. The 10% accounts for the parts he gently pulls out of me; all the darkness and sadness that I try to hide even when I’m alone. “I want all of it,” he says. What I have grown to love about Van is the way he balances his work life and his life with me. He loves to love me and he loves to watch me do what I love, making sure he is building a life of his own. He is romantic, gentle, and wonderfully caring. He is resilient, assertive, and protective. He knows what he wants which is incredibly refreshing. He loves me for my brain, not my body, yet tells me I’m beautiful every day. He’s sharp as a tack and is constantly buzzing with a bouncing energy until the minute his head hits the pillow at night. He is a deep feeler, thinker, and a brilliant musician. He claims he is lucky to have me, but I am constantly in awe of Van and I can’t believe I get to be his lady.
Van had asked me twice if I wanted to date him. The first night, we had been drinking with friends and I told him to ask me again the next day when we were sober. When he did, I wasn’t even scared to say yes. It felt comfortable, and it felt right. Like, obviously this is the right guy for me, I just had to tell myself to not be an idiot and date someone who might actually fuel my flame instead of burn me out. I don’t feel anything less than me with Van and that is such a blessing. He is a blessing; a truly special individual that is hard to hate and so easy to love.