He: A white high school quiz show champ from Kentucky, separated from his wife, wearing a shiny new cancer survivor medallion on his lapel.
Me: A serial man-eater with a preference for dark-skinned men from various corners of the globe, and trips out of Dodge always in the works. Embroiled in an on-again, off-again, decade-long love affair with the son of an erstwhile political revolutionary from South Africa, where I was planning to relocate and become a first lady of sorts.
Mr. Kentucky and I sat a few hundred feet away from each other in the newsroom at washingtonpost.com, where he ran business and technology news and I wrote food and travel stories. He may as well have worked on the other side of the world. If it weren’t for his shiny bald head, the result of chemotherapy, I may not have noticed him from my cubicle. And yet, as John Lennon sang, and many other famous people have publicly observed: Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.
Along with a mutual pal from the office, we squished into a booth at a local dive and exchanged barbs over beers. What began as a friendly gesture to cheer up a down-on-his-luck colleague quickly turned into a flirtatious tête-à-tête that was frankly a bit unnerving. My tough-love team of inner voices was equally perplexed, giving me a piece of the other side of my mind: “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
That was just it: I wasn’t thinking. Or plotting, or prognosticating. I was feeling — my pulse quickening and my clavicle tingling — and I let the exhilarating rush of energy pedal me home.
What I told no one then — and for a few months hence — is that I would not be going to South Africa to marry my longtime lover after all. One pre-dawn morning a few weeks earlier, I woke up from an intense dream, sat up in bed and realized I had to put a cork in this all-encompassing relationship with a man who had a passionate love affair with the bottle. At that crystalline moment I knew that moving to South Africa, and to my lover’s liquid universe, would surely sink me to the bottom of the sea. I can’t place all of the blame on Mister South Africa (or any of the other men who came before him); after all, it takes two to do the dance, and for many years, I was a willing partner, aiding and abetting the destruction that lay at our feet. But I was ready now to take off my dancing shoes and walk away, on my own terms, even if it meant going barefoot.
In the weeks that followed (and led up to meeting Kentucky), I walked around trying out life without a plan (or a man) and being at home rather than on an airplane. I felt more space between my toes, the earth beneath me, the early summer breeze dancing under my skirt. Breaking up with my past was the metaphorical key I kept seeing in my dreams, and now that I had said goodbye, I felt as if I were standing in a doorway that I didn’t know existed.
By then I was 38. With three near-marital misses now under my belt, perhaps I was not the marrying kind. I was getting used to the possibility. My life was full and plenty interesting and I earned a good living all by myself. Shucks, I had even married myself with a ring — a silver band studded with cubic zirconium the color of the Caribbean sea. My personal totem to the lasting power of self-love.
In the hours following my chance encounter with Mr. Kentucky, as well as over that weekend while cranking out a story about fried chicken, I thought about how I’d like to sit next to him again. Monday morning, I wrapped a piece of leftover chicken in foil and handed it to him, rather abruptly, in the break room.
“Here,” I said, interrupting his conversation with another colleague. “I brought you something.”
Immediately I felt my cheeks get hot. What had I just done? Admittedly, it was a weird offering, but it felt as right as anything I’ve ever done. Besides, his reaction to my gesture would give me valuable insight.
Not more than 20 minutes later, an email appeared in my inbox.
Subject line: “Fucking awesome.”
The note went something like this:
“That is some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, and I’m from Kentucky.
Your future ex-husband”
I imagine most people would have been spooked by the “ex-husband” reference, but it was the husband part that got me. After all, you gotta do the deed before you can un-do it, and was he trying to say he loved me at first bite? And that a “little itty bitty thigh” (his words) is how we would start our life together?
I was dazed, confused, and dying for him to ask me out. And so he did. And so we did go out into the world together, a palpable excitement in surround sound, without a stitch of worry of what our time together would mean and where it would lead us, or if there was even an “us” to ponder.
The sudden death of my father when I was 16 instilled in me an appreciation for today, but always with one eye open and the constant concern of when the other shoe might drop, when my good fortune would run out. But with Kentucky, I shushed all the doubting, prognosticating voices in my head and just let everything be, as I stood in that new doorway (or was it a breezeway?) of mine.
Even if we had never married (which we did, in 2007), this would still be a great love story. In meeting each other when we did (and not a moment too soon), we broke down barriers in ourselves that we both had been standing guard for too long and tasted the joy — free and clear — of loving kindness. Gone were the days of hand wringing, worries of betrayal or secret lives or STDs, the calling cards of my past relationships, and if that’s all I got out of this so-called chance encounter over a piece of fried chicken, I – no, we – would still come out on top.
As many of you know, the marriage part is far from easy, or perfect. I’ll admit to a change of heart in that first year, 40 years old and wondering what the hell I had just done and where I hid “Ms. O’Donnel.” I stopped being and resumed pondering. Was I really cut out for this stuff?
When I remembered how Kentucky and I arrived at “I do,” I stopped working myself into a lather. Six years later, I’m no more wiser on how to make a marriage work or whatever else they tell us in Cosmo. Statistically, I suppose I’m a late bloomer, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It took a whole lot of wanderlust and several pairs of goggles before I could see the beauty and expanse of my own backyard.
Will we have tomorrow? As the song goes, it “may never come for all we know.”
But as long as Kentucky will park his shoes alongside mine, I’m okay with not knowing. Because at long last, I am home.