I’m less than 2 weeks away from bringing in my 30th birthday and as I find myself approaching a landmark birthday, I’m reminded of how I felt down the stretch towards another landmark birthday: my 18th birthday. Those months and weeks leading up to October 24, 2002 were some of the best times of my youth. Almost all of it was due to a special somebody who was by my side at the time. In today’s post to The 24 To 30 feature, I’ll cover the story of Valorie Drew…
THE BACKGROUND. If you let me tell it, the day I met Valorie Drew was just another normal Saturday on the calendar. The July 6th post of Triumphs & Tribulations II reveals a different tune, however. I was working my 9am-4pm shift at Domino’s Pizza and it wasn’t a very busy day. In fact, I was the lone insider and I had a couple of drivers at my disposal…just the 3 of us for the midday and afternoon rush. Right around lunch time, I had a couple of walk-in customers. One was a hospital worker—evidenced by the scrubs—who had come to pick up an order that she called in minutes before. After I finished with her, the next customer was a very beautiful, light-skinned woman. She was wearing a royal blue dress…she was bad and I mean that in a very, very good way. She came in to make an order: a small pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. As I was collecting her money, I complemented her on her dress for which she was thankful. I then shifted over to the makeline to make her pizza and put it in the oven. While her pizza went through the oven for 7 minutes, I made enough small talk with her to learn that her name was Valorie and to discern that she didn’t have a man. After I finished prepping and cutting her pizza, I walked it up and made more small talk…this time, it was enough to get her phone number. As she wrote her number on one of the box stickers, I told her to wait up before leaving and that I was going to give her something, too…just to be fair. I ended up giving her a 2nd small pepperoni pizza…for free. She smiled and responded with a “call me later, Mr. Juan” while pointing at my nametag. After she left, both of my drivers—who were just hanging around the prep area since we were slow—gave me mad props for how I played that entire scenario. I called her the next day and we had good conversation. I learned that she was 19, from an Atlanta suburb called Lithia Springs, and had just finished her freshman year at UAB, where she majored in Psychology. We eventually agreed to a date the following Friday evening. The time between Sunday and Friday seemed like an eternity but that first date was awesome. We went to spot off US Highway 280 called Petruccelli’s Italian Eatery to grub before heading to a dorm party. I remember it well because the guy who hosted it called his place The Red Kangaroo. It was a really good time. We kept each other laughing and smiling. We went out a couple of more times in July and talked on the phone quite a bit…enough for me to have to purchase a couple of phone cards from T-Mobile, which had just taken over my phone carrier (VoiceStream Wireless). About 5 weeks after we first met at my job, we were an item. Those first few weeks were amazing to me…a true whirlwind romance. We had our detractors and all. People questioned me still being in high school and her entering a sophomore year in college. But there was no denying that her and I had a very strong chemistry. As the school year kicked in and our schedules became loaded, we found ourselves scheduling our free time to be with each other. I relaxed my work schedule to create more of a time window for us. A big momentum shift in our young relationship occurred around Labor Day Weekend in September 2002, when I took my first trip to the Pacific Northwest for a campus visit at the University of Oregon. I was gone for only 4 days but I missed her dearly…so much so that I was rushing to get an earlier flight from PDX. I sort of detailed it here. Valorie is the only girlfriend to ever meet my parents. On my 18th birthday, she actually came to my house to fix me breakfast. As the months pressed along, we got closer…we spent a lot more time together. We had moments that were special to us…like us holding hands the entire time she got a butterfly tattooed on her shoulder or how she turned me getting a manicure into a photo shoot. One of our best moments happened in March 2003. We were on one our all-day dates. On that particular day, we were supposed to start at the McWane Center in Downtown Birmingham in the AM followed by canoeing on the Cahaba River in the afternoon, finishing it up with dinner and a movie in the evening. The AM portion of the date went well but the canoeing part didn’t necessarily go as planned. I was doing all the paddling of the canoe and she was sitting there enjoying it all. It was all good until she leaned over to try to kiss me and somehow, we ended up falling into the river. Even though she was, by far, a better swimmer, she immediately started panicking even though we weren’t that far away from the shore. We both got to the shore and I swam back to get the canoe. We laughed about it before realizing that our clothes were all wet and sandy. Instead of cancelling the evening portion of our date, we simply went to Wal-Mart and bought new clothes before proceeding on with the evening portion. Our relationship wasn’t all sweet roses, though. Like almost every couple, we had our rough moments…like the argument we had while we were driving on I-459. I was so mad at her that I pulled over and made her get out. I think I drove away for maybe 20 feet before I stopped, reversed, and apologized. Even in times where we were mad at each other, there was a lot of love there. She was there when I graduated from high school and it was in her presence, the next day, that I boldly said that I’d have a doctorate by the time I’m 30 after feeling as if I left a lot on the table in terms of GPA and academic honors in high school. I was actually on track for that timeline until I decided I couldn’t commit to a military career and pursuit of a doctorate degree at the same time. When I went away for college and Air Force basic training, nothing slowed down for us. She even came to visit me while I was in tech school. We went to the State Fair of Texas and attended an Amel Larrieux concert. As she was leaving to head back to Birmingham, we hugged, kissed, and told each other “I love you” much like we did all the time. The moment actually would’ve been perfect for me to propose to her but I hadn’t purchased a ring though I did have $800 saved up at the time. That moment actually ended up being the last time I got a chance to hug her and kiss her. Just 2 weeks later, as I was returning home to Birmingham on Halloween Night, she was on her way to pick me up from the airport and a drunk driver crashed into her Kia Sephia. She didn’t survive the injuries.
THE MOMENT OF IMPACT. If I’m being honest with myself, every moment with Valorie was a moment of impact. But in reading through everything tied to her in Triumphs & Tribulations, the first time I took her up to the overlook on Stratford Road looms large. As we sat on the grass, sharing a Green Acres 5-piece all-the-way, I told her that I loved her. And she said she loved me. That was the 1st time I had got to that point in a relationship. But even more than that, it let me know that someone actually cared about me just as much as I cared about them…something that was definitely lacking in the relationship prior to me meeting Valorie.
HOW IT GOT ME TO 30. Having found love and having lost love in such a short time—especially while still in my teens—probably would’ve turned me off to future love had Valorie been just a normal woman. But she wasn’t normal. She was special…definitely the kind of woman you marry. As I moved past her death and into my 20s, I got back into dating. It was a lot of failure, a lot of mistakes, a lot of heartbreak in my dating life throughout this decade that’s about to end. But despite it all, I remember what it felt like to truly love somebody and they love you back the same way. Even though it happened late in my teens, it still feels fresh in my heart. That’s the primary reason I, despite the horrible turn my dating and relationship life has taken since Valorie’s death, hold out hope that I’ll find a special somebody for a 2nd time and get past just the “I love you” phase and into the “let’s get married” phase. Until then, I’m constantly preparing. That $800 I had saved up for an engagement ring in 2003: I banked it and over time, it has swelled into quite a bit of cash. Some lucky woman will have a nice ring on her finger and they’ll be some money left over to prepare for a nice wedding ceremony.