The story I want to tell is one that is asked of me all the time; mostly when people meet me and my wife for the first time. It is often asked with a palpable note of incredulity. If you’ve never seen us, my wife and I, at first glance, make for an odd visual. And that is solely because of me. To say that I married way out of my league is no small understatement. And people are often baffled at first sight of us together. I am short, roundish (fat); been bald since my early-thirties. Glasses. Big fucking Italian nose. Definitely not matinee idol material here, folks. My wife, on the other hand, is tall, slender, absolutely fucking gorgeous. She looks like she doesn’t even belong in this world. And, standing next to me, well…. The word “incongruent” comes to mind…
In the arena of personality, most people think we couldn’t be more polar opposite. I’m a fucking arrogant loudmouth with a penchant for obscenity and the most inappropriate humor. She is quiet, calm, cool and gracious. Deeper than that, we meld on levels of perverse logical that is unique to us and that I couldn’t explain to you even if it weren’t privileged information. Suffice to say that we are more alike than anyone who knows us would ever guess.
There is quite a charming story as to how we met; how we got together, and as the calendar tells me we are approaching our 14th year together, I would like to tell you that story. Because it’s nice. And heartwarming. Like kittens and puppies and rainbows and all that other happy shit.
Whoever said stalking was a creepy thing that only ends badly with fire and restraining orders and usually a corpse or two didn’t know the value of persistence. Yeah, I stalked her when I first saw her; stalked the shit out of her for almost a full year. That was somewhere around the summer of 1993. I was 21; svelte and had a full head of glorious hair and just thought I knew everything about everything. I was armed with a backpack, a newly-broken heart (I was still trying to recover from that world-crushing destruction that comes when your first “real” love stomps out your soul by having drunken, sloppy, dorm-room sex with some douchebag frat guy named Rob… FUCKING BITCH!!!!) And batches of bad, bad poetry. Yeah, I was that dude.
Anyway, I would spend a lot of time as a third wheel with a good friend of mine and his new lady-friend as they were discovering their own new love. I bitterly resented them and their stupid happiness, of course, but it was OK. We would frequent a certain Irish dive bar that is well-known in Philadelphia for its cheap drinks and cheaper random hookups. I would try like crazy to get laid; to fuck her out of my memory (ahhhh…the revenge fuck. Nothing better) but the cloud of abject desperation I projected kept me well protected from any amorous advances. There is no better chastity-inducing, female-repelling cologne than utter defeatism. So I would sit with the happy couple, espouse my pronouncements on the futility and failure of the happiness quest, and drink cheap liquor.
And then, one Friday night, I saw her. Wow. I had been hit by Michael Corleone’s thunderbolt. I’ll spare you the over-prose of the ode to her rapturous beauty, but man… she was it. This may be poetic hindsight, but I’m pretty sure I said to my friends; “I’m gonna’ marry that girl.” Not that I even believed it at the time, but I wanted to say something that sounded like I was in a movie. Of course they urged me to go talk to her. That was a fucking joke. I was neither drunk nor stupid enough to initiate some sort of conversation with her. I just sat and watched her like a true psycho. By the time last call came, I decided that if I ever saw her again it was meant to be. And if I never saw her again then hopefully I would quickly forget her. I gathered my pitiful self, backpack and all (who the fuck brings a backpack to a bar?) and went back to my parents’ nice suburban home.
The next Friday night was the same routine. Back to the bar, third wheel in place, but this time I was drinking like a maniac. She came in. Good old liquid courage; I knew I was going to speak to her that night. Fuck it. At one point, feeling pretty well-lit, I stepped outside for a breath of fresh, Center City air. And there she was, just standing on the sidewalk like she was some mere mortal and not the most beautiful vision of gorgeousness and gorgeosity that the universe ever created. And I couldn’t think of a single fucking thing to say. I looked at her, she was wavering. I’m pretty sure she was as drunk as I. Fuck it. I stepped in and laid my smoothest rap on her:
“Uh… hi.” Yeah, I was good, baby. Real smooth. Commence the swooning.
She looked at me like I was some kind of insect. Not having an ounce of self-confidence (or self-respect, for that matter) I just started gushing. I told her she was beautiful. I told her I had spent every day since I’d first seen her writing poems to and about her. Yep. I went that route. Fucking embarrassing. I think she was slightly amused. Slightly. She smiled indulgently, she may have even thanked me, and we both went back to our respective drinking.
Another week went by. I geared up for the following Friday night. In full stalk-mode. I didn’t care if I got to speak to her; I would be content to just watch her. But I must have been planning something, because I stuffed my stupid backpack with stacks of coffee-stained papers. Yep, the poems… And I did see her that Friday night, right on schedule. I followed her outside and told her that I didn’t want her to think that the poem thing was just some empty, cheesy pick-up attempt (of course it was) and I handed her a riotous stack of unkempt, overly-florid words that didn’t rhyme and told her they belonged to her. (It makes me nauseous just remembering it). I quickly turned to leave and she stopped me. She was so drunk, I almost had a shot. She asked my name. I told her. Then it got even more awkward. Silence. I asked her name. She told me. OK, now what? I had no idea what to do or say (man, I was fucking smooooooooth). I asked her if maybe I could call her sometime. And, she said to me (with a straight face):
“I don’t have a phone.”
Now, I’m no stranger to polite rejection, so I know very well what “I don’t have a phone” means. I’ve been turned down by the best of them I once met a really hot girl who worked at one of those fancy hair salons where I went and got 5 haircuts in like a 3-week span before I finally realized that she was just trying to get new clientele. Again: I know rejection when I sees it. So, when my future-wife gave me the “I don’t have a phone” rap, I knew where I stood. It was cool, though: I was happy just spending every Friday night watching her from afar, and I was prepared to make that the rest of my life.
Well, life moves on in unforgiving ways, and when I returned to the bar the following Friday there was no sign of her. I lasted well beyond last call, my eyes glued to the door, waiting for her entrance. Nothing. No sign of her. Her friends were there. She was nowhere to be seen. I was crushed. The same thing next week: no sign of her. I would hear rumors during the week. Some of my friends, who had become attuned to my obsession, would torture me with tales of spotting her. On South Street, at Dirty Frank’s… they would see her all over the city and report to me, almost delighting in my discomfiture. It was horrible.
I never saw her in that bar again.
4 years went by. I’d like to say that I spent every waking moment of those 4 years thinking about her, but we all know that ain’t true. Eventually I came out of my misery and had a good run. Mid-20s and I was living the life. I lived and worked on South Street. I was a coffee-guy, working in a little shop off of 2nd Street. I had an apartment right above the coffeeshop. I was out every night; single, still svelte, still with a full head of gorgeous hair, banging everything in sight. I’d work nights at the shop, then rage until dawn, then pass out in a fitful haze. Drugs, booze, loose women, dangerous nights… it was a beautiful time. I would stumble out of bed usually around noon and wander down to the shop for a cup and a perusal of the Daily News. Back then you could still smoke indoors and I always took the last table at the back of the shop and chain-smoke Marlboros while I caffeinated. I was (and still am) a miserable morning person and most folks knew to leave me alone while I read, smoked and coffee-ed. One day, I noticed a woman sitting in my usual spot. I was pissed, but said nothing, and took the only other smoking-section table in the back. She was reading and had headphones on. I barely noticed her, more concerned about the sports page than I was in any human being. After a time, she removed her headphones and I could feel her looking at me. Oh, Christ, what now? I thought. She turns and says; “excuse me, I know this sounds stupid, but I think I know you.”
In my bleary, miserable morning-mode, I was offended. How dare this woman interrupt my coffeeand? How DARE she? Did she not know that I was Coffesehop Dude; the God of South Street. How could she not know that I banged girls two at a time and ran with the hippest crowd and was on my way to becoming a famous writer/music mogul? HOW DARE SHE INTERRUPT MY SOLITUDE? I turned to her with something just short of contempt and told her “um, NO, you don’t know me,” and went back to my paper. HA! That’ll learn her…
Well, it wasn’t until maybe 45 minutes later that my stupid, stupid brain cleared and I was hit with the realization of just who she was. It was HER. And I had just fucking dismissed her like a total jackass. Well done, sir. Well done indeed. My stupidity was Costanzian in its epic-ness. I ran out the door and spent the next 3 hours walking up and down South Street, hoping against hope that I could find her again and profusely apologize. Nothing. Again, she was gone, and this time I was certain it was forever. I had my shot, and not only had I royally blown it, I did so with an arrogance that was stunning. Even for me.
And so I was left, in all my ineptitude, to ponder fate, chance, karma and all that mystical bullshit in which I really don’t believe. I was still living it up, but something was missing. I felt like an asshole. As summer turned eventually to winter I was still king of the coffeeshop and one Tuesday night I was schlepping milkfroth when in walked this couple. A tall Italian Vinnie-looking dude straight out of South Philly and an attractive woman. They were both laughing. I was barely paying attention when Vinnie or Paulie or whatever the fuck his name was, gave me his order. He was still smiling and I kind of looked at him questioningly. “Yo, my crazy friend here thinks she knows you, but she’s too embarrassed to say anything,” he said. “I don’t think so, man,” I had started to say, when all the triumphs of revelation and enlightenment struck me in a symphonic bolt of jarring clarity. There she stood; a dreadlocked vision of smiling dark eyes and secret summer sonnets. A muse, an obsession… she was right before me. Five years after I had first spied her in a dank pit of booze; she was real.
We talked. After half a decade we finally talked. She told me about her life. It was beautiful; an adventure that was rich with detail. She had lived; had traveled the land and found herself in all sorts of unbelievable situations. She was a roamer; a gypsy who had run across the country several times in search of meaning. I loved her for every hair-raising adventure she encountered. There was the tale of being on the bum in Texas; of a car loaded with guns and weed and dogs and a stopover in what turned out to be some kind of half-assed cult. She talked of California; of its solemn beauty of beaches and camping. She spoke of highways both less and more traveled and sleeping under skies whose expanses were vast and humbling. And I loved her life. She still claimed, even after all these years, that when she had told me of having no phone she had been speaking the truth (a claim she still holds to be true to this day, though you and I both know it’s bullshit). We laugh about it now.
I asked to see her, and we agreed to meet on the following Saturday afternoon. She would come back to the coffeeshop. I had never been more excited in my life and I somehow lived through that long, long week. Saturday came and I spent the morning having breakfast at a diner with an old friend; I was killing time until the afternoon came and I could meet her. My friend, the cynical prick that he was (and still is, god love him) was so sick of hearing me gush about her. When we went back to the coffeeshop she was there, waiting at the same back table she had occupied six months before. And I was such a pussy, I was afraid to go in and see her. It wasn’t until my friend physically pushed me in the door that I went up to her and sat down. What began that afternoon was a dialogue that has lasted 20 years now. At the time she was staying with a friend. In fact, she was only in Philly visiting and was due to leave in a few days. I was dismayed. We did the whole stay up until the sun rose having deep, meaningful conversation. Every cliché you can think of: I lived it in that night. I was so distraught at the thought of her leaving that I asked her to move in with me. It took about three days, but she decided to take the plunge.
We haven’t been apart since.