A Slow Dance at the Courtyard by Marriott
Jack Renouf feels ten feet tall. Jack Renouf, philanthropic millionaire, prestigious religious figure, metaphorically Abrahamic progenitor, and yet, a somewhat playful, occasionally surly, grandpa. At twenty he left a position assembling welding parts after penning a letter to the owner of said welding company about mismanagement and general inefficiency. His boss paid no heed and discarded the letter, so Jack left on his own accord. Jack and his brother took out the biggest loan offered in sleepy San Fernando Valley then, and produced a welding company that eventually usurped his previous employers, a fact that Jack would sometimes recount with a boyishly crooked smile. Jack grew wealthy, but I’ve seen his legacy of wealth in donations to various local businesses, hospitals, charities, and on more than one occasion, his children and grandchildren. Jack is, in this way, prolifically Abrahamic, a father to many.
If Jack is remembered as taller than he is, Barbara Renouf is always remembered much shorter, standing somewhere between four and five feet. Barbara is small and quiet, but is built with an ironclad moral ethic and an immovability from fairness despite adversities. On one long drive to visit a friend, she ran out of gas on the interstate hours away from home, and was offered a ride from the fire department. The firemen gifted her two dollars and a carton of gas. Barbara never forgot the kindness, vowing that if she ever passed that way again she would repay their department. Twenty years later, Barbara took the time to swing by that town on a family road trip. Despite the moans from her children that the trip was now hours longer, she returned with a carton of gas and two dollars, debts paid, thanking the fire department for their service.
Somehow Jack and Barbara have made their relationship last, for themselves, and for their family, too.
My grandparents called on us to gather amidst the frenzied fever dream that is my final semester of school this year to lead a substantial portion of a parade for the quasi-holiday known as “Swiss Days.” My grandparents offer a lot of themselves, and do not ask for much in return. If all they wished for was a moment to show their family off to their friends, or to participate in a local parade, they deserved as much from us.
We were to congregate at the Courtyard by Marriott in Saint George, Utah, and meet roadside prior to the parade to be allotted candy and candy-wagons. This parade would be led by my grandparents in their principal horse-drawn wagon. We would distribute candies by the bunch to onlookers as part of “the biggest family in Saint George” section (dubbed so by the directing parties of the parade). We’d rejoin for a family reunion held in a rented conference room at the Courtyard by Marriott off the freeway. Why the Courtyard Marriott? Why a massive corporate conference room? One of my aunts had planned the after party, I imagine they wanted a grand gathering space for a momentous occasion.
To my knowledge we are not any percentile Swiss. My father is Samoan and my mother is Italian, thus my five siblings and I are a variegation of vague ethnic features. We are big; long-limbed, fairly well-muscled, a little heavy. I couldn’t imagine how we would fit in the parade.
I work fifty hours a week. I’m taking fifteen credits this semester. My wife works thirty hours and has the same credit load. We just managed to budge out space for a two-day trip. I would get off work at midnight, nap for three hours, and then we’d traverse the sparse expanse towards southern Utah to arrive in time for the morning parade. Somehow Tanika maintained passion for the parade. I was already too tired to even imagine the event.
This defines Tanika, however. At every obstacle there is a choice. I have found that Tanika rises to the occasion, not as a cliché, but simply as an instinctual mode. Tanika serves life; she is a florist, procuring budding flowers and trimming organisms to meet their prescient potential. Tanika is in school to become a P.E. teacher, preaching activism in health and self-care, an intrapersonal learner and intrapersonal teacher. Tanika is a traveler– despite the nausea and motion sickness which accompany most trips she takes each voyage in high spirits. Tanika is so dependable that she’s the chief emergency contact for all of my siblings still in K12. She is always willing to offer rides or to lend an ear, actively empathetic in a way that I can only murkily imitate.
Tanika and I left in my compact car on the pitch-dark journey together, with Tanika driving, as she usually does. The drive was solitary; no one on the road, no energy to make small talk. All that could be heard was the smacking of spearmint chewing gum and the sipping of medicinally-bitter energy drinks. The cloying pungency of the sweets coupled with the dark winding drive made me dizzy. By the time we crested the final hill of Saint George I was addled, woozy, and sluggishly sleep-deprived.
Finding the hotel and room was unceremonious; we pulled off of the freeway and took a sharp right and we were there. The sun rose then and the heat was dry, immense, and enveloping. The hotel lobby was made up of many windows, amplifying the dryness not dissimilar to how a heating lamp dehydrates stale wares at a franchise buffet. We took our key card and stepped into the elevator with a leathery old white couple. The two dressed in the bejeweled Ed Hardy’s of a decade prior and emitted a mottled odor of cheap booze and alcohol-based colognes and expired makeup and dampness that seemed to permeate the cramped elevator. They smiled at us. I attempted to smile back but in my current health and sour mood I simply drew a contemptible smirk.
The room’s PID controller was dismounted, uncovering the underbelly of the mounting bracket and the hairy entanglement of wires– it couldn't have been less than eighty degrees with shades drawn and it retained a latent scent of disinfectant.
There was no time for a shower– I changed clothes, rerolled my deodorant and spritzed my face with water at the sink, quickly scrubbing my sugar-coated teeth. Tanika peppily stretched and slapped her cheeks, ready to get into the spirit of a parade. I limped back to the car, following post-haste.
My siblings and I were the first there at 7:30 A.M. Slowly my aunts, uncles and cousins trickled in. We strapped on plaid long-sleeves and bandanas, already begriming collars and armpits with sweat. We gathered on a dusty hill adjacent to a plot of farmland just beside the main road, waiting. Apparently we were set to meet ninety minutes before the parade would begin, scheduled as relatively earlier than the other entrants. So began our two hour wait of stagnant shuffling in a dirt lot, stuffed in the cluster of red-faced, plaid-ridden families.
There was some residual anxiety about our precarious position in a parade about Swiss heritage, but the fear was fruitless. The other participants assembled in pulpy groups, and I can safely say that not a single group was Swiss-associated: behind our family was a drill team of two-dozen tweens from a local dance academy, trailing them was an ice-cream float with workers passing out ice-cream sandwiches to attendees, then followed a Tundra truck with a tracksuit outfitted family of gold-rimed accoutrement waving a pawnshop banner, and then a plumber sat on a toilet throne bedecked in Elvis attire, and so on, and so on.
The affair was, as most American gatherings are, flashy, kitschy, well-packaged. Commercial.
I was drained but giddily anxious to begin the walk, unaware the trek would be a rote three miles over hot tarmac during the Indian summer. The march began a turgid sludge southward. We had time to drop candies into the hands of toddlers sitting roadside, handing handfuls of Skittles and Starbursts freely.
About halfway through, the pace quickened, picking up an uneven stride, as we tossed candies at the vague proximity of youth. The crowds grew larger further along, late viewers piling up, and the candy became scarce. There was a hopeful hunger in the outstretched hands of the children waiting, but I was out of the good candy, simply left with melted chocolates and Smarties. Guilt spurred my eyes downward as I remembered the handfuls passed out at the beginning of the march. Thirty minutes later we neared the end, the crowds were suffocating, smothering, families literally chanting for candy. We were now hurling candy at the masses, hucking leftover bubblegum into cloudless skies, sprinting towards a seemingly endless finish.
I saw shoe marks smudged into green horse droppings. I saw hard prill-ish pellets of Bazooka bubblegum thud bombastically off of the unsuspecting faces of sleeping infants, waking babies and angering parents. I saw youth ripping candy from the hands of smaller, weaker toddlers. And then we reached the end.
We waited briefly at the end of the street before recognizing that we would either need to wait for a trolley some hours later to loop us around the parade or cram our way back through the airtight crowd. So, we walked, squeezing with empty wagons through miniscule pockets of sidewalk space.
I understood that my grandfather is immensely proud of his family–a studious empire of genuinely good people–but after this exhaustive morning, I wasn’t quite ready to rejoice in a job well done.
Tanika, on the other hand, was cracking up. “Let’s do it again! Gather some candy, I’m ready for round two!”
Tanika has always been a general optimist– and when she is not, she’s a damn good sport about her situation.
Roughly an hour later, we managed to work our way back to our car. We drove to the hotel, through the balmy lobby, up the cramped elevator, clambering in with other family members located on the same floor, back into the room, left to work on homework until the party.
We eventually met in the Marriott conference room which had been decorated for the party. The room was bedecked with shimmering streamers, glimmering balloons, snapping photo booths, a projector playing photos of the families accompanied by the warbling drawl of pop music from two monolithic speakers, and tables for family seating, and tables of framed family photos, tables with knick-knacks, memorabilia and mementos compiled from family trips, more tables of foods, some tables of truffles, other tables topped with silver trays of finger foods and chips, dips, and other hors d’oeuvres, and tables with heaving, steaming charger plates of marinara and meatballs and white sauces and a variety of pastas. The space was voluminous, but full, and still being filled. Family was entering, intermingling loudly and gesturing in large, sweeping motions– we are, after all, Italian. Italian-American.
I tried to clear my throat to make small talk only to find my throat was sore, realizing that I was coming down with pharyngitis. I smacked my lips to realize I had cotton moth, dehydrated from the march.
Renoufs, in an image of Jack and Barbara, are generally erudite, busy people, often attempting to become influential individuals in the image of their parents. The nature of opening conversations are usually good-willed, but, as small talk amongst distant family can be, self-interested. Some discussions began by taking the form of small talk regarding personal successes. Looking about in my sick fever, their talk sounded thick in my ears.
I saw my sweet and kind family as voluble, garrulous, abstruse, obfuscating– subfusc clothing tugged into the sore crevices my sick, tired flesh. My eyes felt like tight mollusks in the cold white LED lighting– in a bilious synesthesia I grew angry at the whole affair.
Disney music rang in the vacuous space, kids jived to echoing music, family photos snapped sharply, spaghettis, pastries, chocolates and candies overflowed in decantive tiers from trays onto tabletops. I tried to block it out, pulling out my laptop to tend to an unfinished paper. I could not tune out the tones, however– the emcee, my cousin’s husband, is sweet, but guilty of poor taste in music, and guilty of shouting into the microphone to ear-splitting, raucous effect. He moved from Disney to disco to some hashed-to-death, hacky nineties line dances. I imagined the kids enjoyed it.
I persevered, wrapping up the final paragraphs, but Tanika called me back out to dance. I slid the laptop away, moving into the humid mass of cousins mid-dance, and I pulled out my goofy, half-assed shuffle – the entire time, mentally formulating the end of the paper.
The music faded, family wiping perspiration from hairlines, unbuttoning necklines, removing jackets. My emceeing cousin motioned for a space to be made in the center of the floor. I looked to return to my laptop.
He played a familiar old tune, calling Jack and Barbara to the center of the family for a slow dance.
The two began their dance. That’s all this was, a September evening in a corporate conference room in which two people shared a dance. The song played over the hotel audio system with sibilance, a little harsh at times, but it resonated with intangible sentiment forgotten over the course of the semester, over this year. The song was, “As Time Goes By.” My wedding song.
I remember standing at the altar as my pulse ran away, but I stood there, never ready, but there just the same. The moment was vast, strange, sublime– rows and rows of people whose names and lives I have known as primordial figures, smiled at me, with the wedding party made up of the people whom I have never loved deeper than anyone until that moment, behind me. And Tanika, in front of me. A veil, soft, white. A blur. Those were tears. I still remember the slant of warm light pressing through the window panes, autumnal tone coloring my memory as “As Time Goes By” played. Both the weight and the permanence and the fleeting motion were overwhelmingly present – but for a moment, I was deeply, deeply happy.
I am not one for the mawkish. I can be critical, skeptical, cold – I begged Tanika beforehand to not hold a wedding, the normal line of reasoning skeptics make falling into our daily conversations, “Weddings are medieval! Don’t you feel like it’s an archaic economic exchange for sex?” Or, “Weddings are expected, trite, like, who are we doing it for? We don’t have to prove anything to anyone.” Or, “A wedding would be costly, we’d save more money just buying house supplies and getting on with our lives.” I had always felt that people float in and out of lives like the weaving twinery of an involuted loom, and we were together and would be together as long as we were happy, and we were happy now, so yeah, I was afraid to be concrete, to step forward with something heavy.
You don’t have to say it. Behind all the words, I was just another scared asshole.
And yet Tanika chose me anyway, sage in her discernment to push resiliently on for a wedding.
I just cried, standing there, Tanika grinning, shuffling, a little fluttery, but holding my hand so tight, waiting. I couldn’t bring my face up. Not yet.
Instead I saw a thousand little wind-blown photos on my lap, all of these fragmented moments– a memory from some months prior to the wedding, sitting on my apartment porch as we attempted to pick an “adequate” couples photo for a cheap invite, but we wandered, sifting through photo scraps.
A dashboard of a cockpit, my fist protruding from out of frame, gesturing a thumbs up– a photo taken on our first serious date, after I managed to beg a student working at the Provo airport to allow us to sit in an airplane unsupervised during a late-night rainstorm. Tanika makes me want to do grand gestures– to go out and make life happen.
A rust-encrusted bridge over mossy waters– a photo of the bridge spanning the Provo River Trail and the nuclear Utah Lake. We posed on the bridge, I threw up a double-biceps, and Tanika threw up the peace sign. We traversed rusty bridges and swam carp-infested waters daily, journeying our own mini-adventures for our final late-teen summers. Summers before were made up of football practices and drawn out naps. Now things happen, events transpired around her, because of her.
A snowglobe-esque hailstorm hitting a Honda sideways, the blithering scene lit by a solitary lamplight– a photo taken by a close friend during a witching-hour sesh of sledding at Rock Canyon park. We ran out of time in the day due to work and school, so we made time that night to hang out. There was and has never been a lack of things to do when it comes to Tanika – she is the motion in my still and stagnant life. The only issue has ever been time.
I looked up, face blotchy and snotty, and said “I do.” We were married two years ago.
Perhaps romantic love is simply this– the musings of twenty-something year olds held together by a gluey collage of good moments. Perhaps love is when people stay together because they are better together than without. Perhaps love is substantial, immemorial, and eternal, or perhaps love cannot be defined, amorphously unbound by any consigned expectations of gender, culture, or exchange, or perhaps love is all an inexorable byproduct of epigenetic physiology, a mechanism of humanity’s symbiotic survival. Perhaps love entropies as naturally as snow melts– that may be statistically accurate. But in the end, I don’t care.
Whether love exists in our normative romantic parameters or whether love exists at all, Tanika believes in love. She loves, and has loved me, and that changes me in every way.
In the end, I do not care. I am in love.
We’ve been working towards all our aspirations ever since– never resting, never looking back. I wrapped myself up in the abstract, in the act of writing, in pursuit of goals ever-distant. And here we were, in the now, in the midst of an ever-moving family.
Here we were, jabbering noisily, flailing sagged arms and jabbing animated hands, bouncing our jaws, sharing convivial-yet-heated armchair ball-talk of bygone days, sharing vignettes conflated to reality-television-level drama over diminutive church callings, boasting of social media successes, academic accolades, or burgeoning careers, attempting to make marks of permanence. Just beyond us a slow dance took place, wholly removed from the scene.
Our language is poorly suited for love. The best I can do, so many of us can do, is to show love in metaphoric acts, or, in our American dialect, in money spent, in gifts given, in parties prepared– or sometimes in steps measured on a family march, or in time spent during family gatherings.
The families grew silent, seeing their dance.
Our many families gathered around Barbara and Jack, swaying sheaf-like during their fiftieth pas-de-deux, backlit by a slideshow of family portraits and old photos of the two as highschool sweethearts. Here was little-bodied and strong-hearted Barbara, with the curving intimation of a smile and a glint in her eye, calmly leading the soft-spoken, ten-foot-tall Jack, with wetness on his eyelashes, malleable in the arms of his love, swaying on and on.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)