“I understand feeling as small and as insignificant as humanly possible. And how it can actually ache in places you didn't know you had inside you. And it doesn't matter how many new haircuts you get, or gyms you join, or how many glasses of chardonnay you drink with your girlfriends...you still go to bed every night going over every detail and wonder what you did wrong or how you could have misunderstood. And how in the hell for that brief moment you could think that you were that happy. Sometimes you can even convince yourself that he'll see the light and show up at your door. And after all that, however long all that may be…you'll go somewhere new. And you'll meet people who make you feel worthwhile again. And little pieces of your soul will finally come back.” ~The Holiday
And so it came to pass that on my third day in New York, this small-town Tennessee girl found herself and her broken heart that had been shattered by her true love on a bus to go see her first love...the object of all my childhood fantasies (and some of my adulthood fantasies, to keep it 100% real)…Mr. Donnie Wahlberg. He was hosting a party in Philly that night, and I was meeting three of my girlfriends to go; one on NYC, the other two in Philly.
A little backstory on these girlfriends of mine…
Over the past two years, I have had the GIGANTIC pleasure of meeting some of the most amazing people through The Single Woman Twitter page. I’ve also unfortunately encountered a few crazies…but we’ll save that story for another day. One of the most amazing people I’ve met is my friend Melissa. I can look back in my Twitter logs and see that she was following and supporting The Single Woman back when I had just a handful of followers…and she always stood out to me, both because of her funny Twitter handle and her sassy responses. We would often tweet back and forth to one another…and over the course of about a year and a half, she jumped off the page from Twitter friend to real-life friend. The most ironic thing about this is – I have yet to meet Melissa face to face. But I have met her “family”…a colorful and spirited bunch of ladies who, like me, are massive and unabashedly unashamed New Kids on the Block fans. These ladies fly in from all over the country for NKOTB events, less for the face time with the guys than the face time with EACH OTHER. That’s how special their bond is. If you ever doubted if the kind of friendships you see on the screen in Sex & the City exist…I can tell you unequivocally that they do. These girls are proof of that.
In August when I traveled to Virginia Beach for Donnie’s birthday party, though Melissa wasn’t able to attend, being the person that she is, she had asked the three members of “The Family” who were there to find me and introduce themselves. After five minutes, I felt like I had known these girls my entire life. I think a bit of magic happens in that first moment you meet people who are destined to become good friends. I am thoroughly convinced that there are some people in this world who we are just meant to be friends with.
Now, feeling like I had been run over by the N-Train Mr. Big had just put me on, going on no sleep, and struggling to keep the pieces of my broken heart from falling out of my chest and onto the sidewalk in front of me, I was en route to meet one of the ladies, Chanda, to hop a bus to Philly and meet up with our other two friends – Katrina, who I had met in Virginia Beach, and Celeste, who I had not yet met.
In other words…though you usually put your best foot forward in new friendship encounters, just as you do with new relationships…I had left my “best foot” somewhere back in Queens with Mr. Big and his non-proposal. So these girls who barely knew me were going to get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth version of Mandy.
Little did I know at the time…they wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I arrived at the MegaBus stop a few minutes early, so I GPS’d my way to the nearest Starbucks, feeling like quite the Big City girl. When I got back to the bus stop, it was nearing time for our bus to leave, and I started to fret. I had only actually met Chanda once. What if I couldn’t remember what she looked like? What if I got on the wrong bus? What if I had the wrong bus stop all together?
I soon realized my worrying was all for naught. A minute later, a taxi came screeching up to the curb and out hopped a tall, striking woman who I immediately recognized as Chanda, rolling behind her the biggest suitcase I had ever seen. So big, in fact, that I wasn’t sure if I should hop on board the MegaBus or Chanda’s MegaSuitcase. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, bystanders scurried out of the way of this suitcase, it was so large and intimidating. But the girl rolling it was anything but. With a huge grin on her face, Chanda greeted me with a hug. We climbed to the second level of the MegaBus, settled in, and were soon gabbing away like old friends as we headed out of Manhattan and onward toward Philly.
With each mile we left behind us, I started to feel like, as the quote from “The Holiday” says, another piece of my soul came back. My heavy heart grew lighter in the presence of this smiling, big-hearted new friend of mine, who had only spent a total of about an hour with me in her entire life, but accepted me without question.
Within a couple of hours, we arrived at the 30th Street Station in Philly and were greeted by Katrina, a feisty redhead with a huge grin on her face and even bigger hugs for us both. Soon we were whisking through the streets of Philly, and I couldn’t help but smile at the prospect of yet another new city and new adventure stretched before me. As I pulled out my compact to check the status of my very sparse makeup that had been applied hastily (at best) that morning, I suddenly caught a glimpse of my chest. What had yesterday been a perfectly even spray tan was today a rather curious-looking mosaic of Hawaiian Tropic-style tanned patches mixed with Casper the Friendly Ghost white patches. This was the very same spray tan that I had paid handsomely for that was ensured to last at least a week. I couldn’t see my teen idol looking like I should be in a zoo somewhere running with a pack of leopards! I mean, I am ALL about some animal-print when it comes to fashion, but this was taking it a bit far. My gasp of horror alerted Chanda and Kat that something was amuck, and they whipped around to see what was going on. The look on their faces told me all I needed to know. It was bad.
Within minutes, they had started the damage control. Chanda called Melissa for back-up, who quickly began firing out suggestions for removing the tan-gone-bad, while Katrina whipped into a drug store for supplies. We tossed loofahs, rubbing alcohol, body scrub into our cart…anything and everything we could find that might restore my skin to its natural state.
Back at the hotel, we were greeted by Celeste, who as fate would have it, hails from Memphis, just three hours away from me in Music City. As with all the other girls, I felt an instant camaraderie with Cel. There was no awkwardness, no shyness, no cliquey-ness amongst the girls to leave me feeling like an outsider…and though I had left New York feeling like I might never smile again, as with everything on this trip so far, I was surprised to find that the exact OPPOSITE was true. It seemed the further I ventured out of my comfort zone, the more at home I felt.
Over the next couple of hours, I filled the girls in on the roller coaster ride I had been on for the past two days as we got ready for the party. And instead of crying as I relayed Mr. Big’s hurtful behavior, I found a million reasons to laugh with these silly, warm, fun-loving girls whose acceptance helped ease the pain of Big’s rejection. Thankfully, I was also able to scrub off most of my botched spray tan (along with the top layer of my skin) and looked more human than leopard by the time we hopped into a cab to head over to the bar.
As with most events that involve Donnie Wahlberg or a large group of New Kids on the Block fans packed into one small location, the scene was mayhem when we arrived at McFadden’s Philly. For the next five hours or so, we mingled, danced (at one point, finding ourselves boogying on top of a booth with Donnie), giggled, took pictures, and chatted with the man of the hour when he could spare a few moments between photo ops. The party was scheduled to end at 2:00 a.m., my bus back to NYC was scheduled to leave at 7:00 a.m., and in my mind, I kept thinking: “If I can just grab two or three hours of sleep, I’ll be golden.”
As it turned out, sleep wasn’t in the cards for me. For another 24 hours.
At 3:00 a.m., I found myself still standing in the bar, swaying back and forth from exhaustion, ruing the fact that I hadn’t paid more attention to my ex-boyfriend the Marine the time he tried to explain to me the art of sleeping while standing up with your eyes open. And though the amazingly still refreshed, wide awake, and dapper-looking Donnie Wahlberg was only standing three feet away from me, he could have proposed marriage to me and I probably wouldn’t have been able to decipher what he was saying in my hazy fog of delirium. Well…that is, until he walked over to say his goodbyes, swept me into a huge hug, and planted a kiss right on my lips. Just call me Sleeping Beauty, because that kiss jolted me awake, and just as it had three years before at the NKOTB concert in Nashville, left me standing wide-eyed and goofy-grinned, the 32-year-old Mandy suddenly replaced by the 13-year-old Mandy. I know Donnie kisses a lot of fans, and that kiss doesn’t make me anybody special…but boy, does the man have a way of making a woman feel like the only person ALIVE. And just as Donnie’s very unexpected concert kiss in 2008 put the pep back in my step after a bad break-up (see my column “A Girl Never Forgets Her First Love: Part 3”), his unexpected McFadden’s kiss did the same. It’s amazing to me how after BOTH of the most gigantic romantic crash and burns of my LIFE, my childhood Prince Charming swooped in on his white horse and took me back to a time before promises, and hearts, were broken. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think it is life’s way of showing me that even after our BIGGEST heartbreaks, the sun will shine again, often in the most unexpected of places. There, in a bar in Philly that I had never been to and would probably never visit again, surrounded by friends I had just met that somehow felt like family, the final piece of my heart found its way back to me.
It was approaching 3:30 in the morning when we finally called it a night, darting through the chilly night air to our car, only to discover that Kat had left her phone inside the bar. One circle back around to retrieve it and we were on our way, singing NKOTB Christmas songs to the top of our lungs as we cruised along the almost empty Philly streets. We arrived back at the hotel around 4:00, just in time for me to realize that I had left my check card back at what was sure to be the now closed bar. And I was leaving Philly to head back to NYC in three hours!
We all raced back to the car in a flash, Celeste pushing the pedal to the medal as the rest of us shouted out GPS directions. Wrong GPS directions, as it turned out, because we wound up going in circles for what seemed like an endless amount of time. Meanwhile I was frantically calling McFadden’s, only to keep getting hung up on by the same drunk guy. What in the WORLD was I going to do without a check card or any way to get money, 15 hours away from home?! When we finally screeched to a halt in front of the club twenty minutes later, the parking lot was empty and the club dark. I dashed out of the car and up to the glass doors, pounding on them with all my might. I could see a couple standing right inside the club, making out…so I banged even louder. They looked up at me in annoyance, then continued their round of tonsil hockey. My exhaustion, frustration, and the prospect of living the next 24 hours on hot fries from rest stop vending machines pushed me over the edge.
“I AM LEAVING THIS CITY IN TWO AND A HALF HOURS AND MY CHECK CARD IS INSIDE THIS CLUB!” I bellowed. “NOW OPEN UP AND GIVE ME MY CARD!”
Within moments, another guy had appeared from nowhere, opened the door, and handed me the check card, not without giving me a few weird looks. By this point I had been awake for 24 hours and probably looked like something the cat dragged in that the dog didn’t want.
Check card safely in hand, the girls and I were famished by this point and went in search of food…which, at 4:30 a.m. in downtown Philly, is curiously hard to find. The only thing open was a McDonald’s in a scary-looking part of town with bars on the windows and an odd drive-through contraption that they slid our food to us on like we were making a bank deposit. Not surprisingly, the food was about as fresh as week-old milk. There were probably fries in the garbage can warmer than the ones they gave us.
We arrived back at the hotel at 5:00 a.m., exactly one hour and fifteen minutes before my alarm was set to go off. At least I thought that was correct. None of us could really agree on the correct time, since we were all coming from different time zones.
“So if I didn’t set my clock ahead when I got to NYC, and my phone is still set on Central time, I need to set my alarm for 5:15 a.m., right?” I asked.
“No, you’d set it for 7:15,” one of the girls piped up.
“But my bus leaves at 7:15. Wouldn’t that put me an hour behind?”
“Oh, right! No, you want to set it for 6:15.”
This conversation went on for about twenty minutes, until we all decided that we actually had no idea what time it really was or what time I needed to set my alarm for…and what did it matter anyway, since by the time I shut my eyes, it would be time to open them again? I lay down in my clothes, resigning myself to my “And miles to go before I sleep” fate.
Having given up on catching any shut-eye, I started to flip through my camera, looking at all the fun, silly pictures we had taken that evening. “Ooh, pictures!” Chanda said, scooting over from her side of the bed to look.
Suddenly, we sensed someone looming over us. “Pictures?” we heard an otherworldly voice say into the darkness. Chanda pointed the light from her cell phone up into the air to see who – or what – had spoken and we both jumped about a mile. Having not made a sound getting out of she and Kat’s bed and apparently floating across the room to ours, Celeste appeared to now be levitating above our bed in search of pictures. “What the hell, Cel?! Where did you come from?” Chanda asked as we all collapsed into giggles, startling Katrina, who had just started to snore quietly.
The giggles lasted well into the next half hour, the girls all drifting off to sleep just as I quietly eased myself up from the bed to head out. I quickly freshened up in the bathroom, gathered up my stuff, and tiptoed out the door, closing it silently behind me. The cold Philly morning air greeted me as I exited the hotel and hopped into an awaiting cab with a sleepy cab driver at the wheel. A short time later, I was on a bus bound for Manhattan, the sun peeking through the clouds to warm my face as I gazed out the window, leaving yet another city and another priceless adventure in my rearview mirror.
I was dozing somewhere along I-95 between Philly and Manhattan when a quote from Sex & the City startled me awake.
“Today I had a thought. What if I had never met you?”
It’s a line that Carrie says to her girls as she is getting ready to begin her new adventure in Paris…an adventure that starts off as a search for love and results in her finding something so much better…herself. An adventure not unlike my own adventure I had been on for the past three days, one that had taken me far away from everything I knew…but had brought me home to myself.
What if I hadn’t gone to Philly? What if I had let my broken heart keep me from venturing out into the unknown? What if I had never experienced the last 24 hours of sheer madness, and laughter, and JOY?
If the past three days had taught me anything, it was that in life, we often go in search of one thing…and end up finding something so much better. Something unexpected. Something that we never knew we wanted, but now we couldn’t imagine our lives without. Going in search of Mr. Big’s heart had led me to my own. I had opened myself up to fearless love, and fearless LIFE showed up instead.
And then it hit me.
I might not be leaving New York City with the family I came for…but I was leaving with The Family I was meant for.
And that was enough for me.
When I returned home from New York (which, by the way, I had been awake for 42 hours straight by the time my head hit the pillow back in Nashville) I didn’t hear from Mr. Big for eight days.
When I searched the headlines in New York City and determined that he hadn’t fallen off a skyscraper or been plowed over by a rogue taxi, I called him.
“Are your fingers broken?” I asked.
“Was your voicebox damaged?”
“Were you abducted by aliens? Lost at sea? Entered a monastery and took a vow of silence?”
No. No. And no.
“So what you’re telling me is that you were choosing, every day, for EIGHT DAYS, not to call me? After you took me to look at engagement rings?”
“I guess so.”
Needless to say, I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of his behavior and hung up the phone. Then, just in case he didn’t get it, I fired off an email, telling him everything I had needed to say to him for the past five years. I held nothing back. NOTHING.
We didn’t speak again for nearly three months.
Then, on Christmas Day, a little over five years to the day that I met him, my phone rang.
We talked for about 45 minutes and managed to come to a place of peace with one another. Though I knew in my heart we would never be together, I also knew in the history books of our relationship, I wanted the last page to be one of forgiveness and healing…not anger and resentment. In his own way, I think Mr. Big did love me, and he DID try to make the grand gesture. It just wasn’t enough.
And as for me?
I’m on to the next adventure.
If you enjoyed the colorful cast of characters I introduced you to in this column, stay tuned…because in two weeks, we’re hitting the open road for what is sure to be an unforgettable road trip. Nine girls…three days…three cities…one RV.
I don’t know what we’ll find…or what will find us…but whatever it is…I’m ready.
Because I’ve discovered that this whole Happily Ever After thing…It happens one moment at a time, one unforgettable adventure at a time. And it might not look the way you thought it would. Maybe Prince Charming will find me some day…maybe he won’t. Heck, maybe he got lost somewhere along the way. Or maybe he, like me, has a few more miles to travel before he settles down.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for me...you’ll find me riding off into the sunset in an RV.