Early into 2016, I took myself out for a drink on a very cold January night in St. Louis. It was well below freezing and with my gal pals partnered-off, I didn’t blame them for wanting to stay snuggly indoors and flaking on me. But I had spent too many winter days cooped up in my high-rise studio downtown and a girl can’t wait on her friends forever, damn it, so I put on my coat and headed to the Central West End.
I parked in front of the big glowing windows of Brennan’s and made my way in from its street entrance hoping to find a big leather chair to just sit pretty in and drink whiskey. It’s a popular place though and all the tables and chairs were taken except for two stools front and center at the bar. So I sat there instead, looking across at the dozens of bottles tapped upside-down on the wall and finding their descriptions on the drink menu.
A minute or two later, the front door opened and whipped in a cold gust. I looked over to see who the culprit was and saw him smiling at me as he closed the door behind him. He walked right up to me, brushing some snow off his hair and said, “Hi! How are you? How’s your night going?” like an old friend would. He introduced himself and casually took the last seat next to me as if it was meant for him. So I told him my name and slid him the menu and asked what him what was having. He said he heard this was a great place to try whiskey but saw a bottle of Zacapa on his way over that he knew was good. I hadn’t had it or much of any rum before so I ordered the first round, “Rum always tastes like vacation to me.” Tall, dark, and handsome with an accent that hinted at Latin America, I found out that Alejandro was from the Dominican Republic where rum is just a little more common. He laughed saying he had not thought of it as a vacation drink before but he liked the thought of our first drink being a vacation with me. A year later, we were married less than a mile away at the Jewel Box in Forest Park.
Our families met for the first time at our wedding inside the botanical conservatory and though the ceremony took place in the middle of a bona fide blizzard, the tropical setting seemed the perfect little winter wonderland oasis to have our twenty-four nearest and dearest gather to celebrate with us.
St. Louis had been a pitstop for Alejandro, I had learned, who was moving from Barcelona back to his hometown of Santo Domingo that winter. His family had traveled from the Dominican to visit his oldest brother and his wife to welcome the birth of their first child and celebrate the holidays together. Alejandro had been stuck out in the suburbs where they live and after a couple weeks, he was also beginning to feel a bit of cabin fever. I could imagine that after living in Barcelona, St. Peters, Missouri would be a stark contrast to the cosmopolitan setting he was used to and told him he had come to the right place to get a better idea of the real city of St. Louis (and that he’d have to come back when it was warmer).
We spent that first night together effortlessly; swapping travel stories and sharing our impressions of the places we’d been. While living in Europe, Alejandro had traveled across Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine and I had traveled to the continent a lot for work with a business trip in Prague coming up. He gave me some recommendations and showed me photos he’d taken of the truly impressive St. Vitus Cathedral. He imagined Asia would be a totally different world and I agreed, having taught English there for a year, and finding it wonderfully so. He admitted that outside of grade school, the only other time he’d used English before meeting me was asking locals for directions on his trips. I could see he was a bit embarrassed when he hesitated to connect a word or phrase occasionally as we spoke, but his ability to laugh at himself and how he was both interesting in every way and interested in everything drew me in. He was unlike anyone else I’d met before. I knew I’d have to see him again.
We were inseparable over the next few days, Alejandro’s last in the city. It was brutally cold, but we managed to make it to some of my favorite places to eat, drink, and play in St. Louis. The day before he left, we met up at The Book House in Maplewood where we found a travel book about Barcelona. In my puffy coat and mittens, I sat on his lap as he walked me through maps and pictures of the place he had called home for the past three years. Barcelona immediately went to the top of my list of places to visit, it seemed so unique and beautiful, and exploring it with him became one of my favorite daydreams. We left the book shop and headed for Foundation Grounds for something to warm us up, both feeling a bit anxious and all too aware of the sun dwindling into the late afternoon.
Sitting together inside the cafe, Alejandro pretended not to have burned his tongue on his scalding hot chocolate. His muted reaction was comedic to me and the image would play in my mind and make me smile when I was missing him – and whenever I saw a steaming cup of coffee, chocolate, or tea. I tried to take him seriously when he told me, with chocolate on his upper lip, that it didn’t feel right to leave so soon after having just met. He thought he should stay so that we could keep getting to know each other and though I was beyond flattered, when he said he was thinking of changing his flight to a later date, I told him that was crazy and that he’d have to keep his flight. Later I found out that he was flying standby so switching flights wouldn’t have been the hassle I was imagining. I also found out later that my quick reaction stung him a bit, but it wasn’t that I wasn’t crushed too! I felt like I’d waited my whole life to meet him…but I thought I knew how the story would end. So when we kissed goodbye, I simply told him I couldn’t be sad because at least I had met him; I was happy just knowing that he exists.
I was sure I’d never see him again, so when he texted from his connection in Miami to thank me for showing him St. Louis, I thought *Boy is scot-free, why is he texting me?* Then the day after that, when he was settled in back home, he texted me over my lunch break to see how my day was going. Texts turned into phone calls and phone calls turned daily and those got to be four or five hours every night. We talked about everything under the sun; from our daily grind to what we wanted from life, from the time I got home from work usually until I fell asleep.
Oceans apart, I didn’t expect anything when Valentine’s Day rolled around and was surprised when a delivery from Alejandro came to my apartment. “He’s my brother.” Javier playfully shrugged when I told him he didn’t have to drive all the way downtown for me, “Of course I did.” We chatted about Alejandro and family and I decided Alejandro’s was just as genuine and kind as him. I took my surprise valentines back to the elevator and up to my apartment giddy as I hugged my gifts. The morning light from my east-facing window whitened my eighth-floor studio as I stood facing the Gateway Arch. I carefully set the flowers and packages on my desk and hovered there opening Alejandro’s card. I read the words printed in Spanish, “Cuando converso contigo…” with his handwritten message appearing in Spanish within. I tried to recall my four years of Spanish classes in high school and laughed at the thought, “If I would have known the love of my life was going to speak Spanish, I would have studied more!”
By the end of February, I had booked my first flight to the Dominican. It was time to see if this was possibly the real deal. As my plane began its descent on Santo Domingo, a woman next to me asked if I’d ever been to the island before. I heard myself answering that I was visiting my boyfriend there for the first time and wondered if that was true. Despite having shared our life’s stories with each other for nearly two months, had I gotten it wrong? I hadn’t thought about what to call our relationship and suddenly wanted to answer the question. It remained in my mind until Alejandro greeted me at ground transportation, lilies in his arms (my favorite; he had been listening). He hugged me and held me as we walked across the parking lot and the question evaporated from my mind into the island’s hot and humid air.
We rented a second story apartment in the Zona Colonial the colonial village, founded by the Columbus family in 1498 and is said to be one of the first neighborhoods of the New World. I arranged my bouquet in the kitchen window facing the street below and the adventure took flight!
It was a two-week swirl of late afternoon strolls down colorful streets of orange, pink, and blue homes, popping into cramped bodegas – neighborhood hubs known locally as colmados – meeting Alejandro’s friends, the family, and holding my own during all the dancing! We moved to everything from salsa, bachata, merengue, to reggaeton in a sea swaying bodies in the liveliest clubs I had ever seen.
I remember water as far as the eye could see, sunrises and sunsets on the beach, getting lost on winding roads and in thought just listening to the ocean waves. We had hand-squeezed jugo de chinola (passionfruit juice) every morning and honeydew melon drinks for a treat from a tiny shack with, “La Coolvida” painted above its drive-thru window. My favorite feeling came from coastal joyrides with the windows down, sea breeze cooling our necks. Only late at night would we return home to our little apartment in the old part of town.
One particularly hot afternoon, I had my first taste of pastelón, a Dominican casserole that combines sweet ripe plantains with creamy potatoes and melted cheese. Alejandro’s mother, Doña Mari, had prepared it and given it to us the day I met her, and it was everything our honeydew-melon-saturated heads needed that day. Paired with an ice cold bottle of Presidente, a local light lager, it was the cure we needed and made for the perfect meal and my most memorable on the island.
Sweaty and sticking to the sofa, we shared bites from the aluminum tray of cheesy goodness. I felt deeply happy in a way I hadn’t realized was missing in my life and thought, “In the very least, I could always teach English here.” At some point, we dozed off on the couch we were seemingly attached to and didn’t wake up until the street lights came on. There in the dark, we exchanged three words that suddenly made it no longer enough just knowing the other existed.
Alejandro returned to St. Louis again the following April and I flew back out to him once more in August (it was adventurously expensive courtship). On my last visit, I stayed at his family home where Alejandro lived. I was comfortable there, already acquainted with his mother, La Doña, as I liked to call her, and his brother Guillermo. They made regular appearances on Skype, waving to the camera from behind Alejandro’s shoulder and updating me on the goings on of Dominican life. Everything about the place began to feel familiar to me and I started to feel like a part of me belonged there too.
One hot and humid morning, the sirens and traffic blaring on the busy streets of Santo Domingo below us seemed to fade away as we sat amongst the hanging tropical plants and paintings in Alejandro’s childhood home. Happy and content with nothing to do but stay in bed and enjoy the feeling, we looked at each other from across the room and smiled. “Let’s get married,” we said. The rest – besides a mountain of U.S. immigration paperwork – as they say, is history.