“Are You Ready?”

I woke up early that morning.

I don’t remember the exact time but it was probably around 5:00 AM. I shut off the alarm, blinked a few times as my eyes adjusted to the dark hotel room, and made my way to the bathroom to shave and take a shower. There was no stumbling or grogginess; my body knew what was coming and it woke up immediately to get ready.

I was practically alone as I ate breakfast in the hotel lobby. I watched as hotel staff and a few guests walked past sporadically, moving luggage and cleaning carts and trays of food for the breakfast buffet. The scrambled eggs and pancakes were standard hotel fare but I was so distracted that I barely tasted them. My mother walked over to me as I was finishing and asked me how I was doing.

“Fine,” I said with a smile. “A little nervous, but really fine. I’m ready.”

We spoke for another minute or two before I picked up my bag and clothes and made my way out to the car. I don’t remember what was on the radio; either way, it was nothing more than background noise. I made the turns on autopilot, preoccupied with speeches and dances and the fear of tripping. The sun had just started dimly backlighting the heavy, ominous clouds when I arrived.

The building was dark and quiet. “This would be a great place to play Manhunt,” twelve-year-old me thought. There were a couple of lights on at the end of the hallway to my right and I thought I heard voices – laughter, in particular – from behind the door I knew was there. I turned left, though, and walked through the large space, weaving between tables and chairs that had all been covered with white cloths. A single light bulb hung by the front door, casting a dim glow over the lobby. I turned the knob to the room that had been set aside for me and grimaced slightly when I realized it was locked.

The fluorescent lights in the men’s room were not as harsh as I had expected them to be. I hung the garment bag on the door of one of the stalls and placed the shiny black shoes on the sink counter. I began changing, doing my best to keep the clean suit off of the floor. I noticed my heart beginning to beat slightly stronger and faster as I dressed; I had to stop at one point to force my trembling fingers to relax so I could maneuver the cuff links. I threw my other clothes back in the bag when I had finished, gave myself one last once-over in the mirror and came outside.

The lobby was brighter now; someone had turned on the lights while I was getting dressed. The small tables around the room and the art on the walls were much easier to see. I also was no longer alone; two young women were sitting nearby in long, dark brown gowns getting their hair done. They greeted me as I came out and we spoke for a minute about how early they had arrived, everyone’s lack of sleep and the scarcity of electrical outlets for the stylists’ hair dryers and straightening irons. I joked about the symbolism of blowing a fuse in such a large building, today of all days. The young women laughed; the stylists did not.

I had just started to make my way back into the large room with the white tablecloths when I was stopped by a short, dark-skinned woman. She wore a plain black pantsuit and her curly hair had been pinned back behind her head. She was cradling a camera in one hand and directed me back into the lobby with the other.

“You clean up nice,” she said with a smile. “Do you want to see her?”

My heart started pounding again immediately.

“Now? Already?” I asked.

“You have someplace else to be?” she asked with a wink.

“What? No, of course not,” I stammered as she chuckled.

I inhaled deeply and held it for a second before letting it out. My heart was still beating heavily but it no longer felt like it was using a battering ram on my ribs. My fingers trembled for a second before I shook them out. I closed my eyes, took another breath, exhaled and looked her in the eye.

“I’m ready.”

She shooed the other women out of the room and positioned me with my back to the doorway where we had been standing. I closed my eyes again and tried to control my breathing. My heart had begun using its battering ram again and it was going to be too long a day for me to let that continue. I heard the photographer speaking behind me, followed by the swish of fabric and lace and the closing of a door. The photographer came around in front of me, snapped a few photos, told me to close my eyes and had me turn around.

“Whenever you’re ready,” she said.

I opened my eyes.

Trudy was standing in front of me. Her hair grazed her shoulders with a slight curl at the ends. Her eyes were gleaming with happiness and her diamond white dress was shining in the light of the moment. A smile crept across her face as she watched my reaction to seeing her.

I felt my breathing come back to normal and my heart put its battering ram back down. My fingers were no longer trembling and I was no longer aware of anyone or anything but the unbelievable woman standing in front of me. I took a deep breath and my smile widened.

I was ready.