Not Quite Meet-Cute
People often ask how my husband and I met, confusing meeting with meaning.
I tell them the meet-cute version; it happened at a New York Giants football game, two teenagers who forgot umbrellas and shared an improvised over-sized black trash-bag poncho. It is true, this story, and you can get by with this story, entertain and please people who want to know it is still possible to be sleeping beside the love of your life some thirty-eight years after he first made you swoon.
But it’s not that simple.
I first saw and heard my future husband when I was twelve and he sixteen, filling multiple roles in a high school production of My Fair Lady: dreamy looks, a swath of dark curly hair, and that last name – Frank Romeo. When we finally met at that football game three years later, I was with my best friend Anne, and he with his best friend Jeff. About five weeks of double dates followed, but I failed to notice Frank’s distracted twitch. I had forgotten that I first encountered him as an actor. Soon, he fled the stage.
I was an early bloomer. I sprouted serious breasts in the seventh grade and figured out quickly that the right bra and two open buttons at the top of my white school uniform blouse got me the attention of the right boys, the ones with slanted, mischievous smiles, unruly hair, and the ability to talk to girls without stammering, not the ones with neat Ken hair and the job of clapping Sister’s erasers at recess.
I snuck off with Danny Cooper into the woods behind his house – when I was supposed to be playing next door with Rebecca Edwards. We French kissed three times before my mother’s Cadillac horn blasted terror through our bodies. After two weeks, Danny turned in his desk chair to say, “I don’t like you no more.”
A month later, Robbie Restuccio and I snuck out the side door of the town movie theater during The Hot Rock, into the woods where Robbie had earlier that day laid out a scratchy old blanket. Robbie was Danny’s best friend and he and I lasted a lot longer, five weeks at least, before I moved on to high school boys, whom I would not see each morning at Mass, and then on to boys I’d meet on frequent family vacations. My father’s 1970s fortune from a polyester finishing factory provided a trove of airline tickets, hotel suites, and towel boys. I figured I could have all the fun I wanted, as long as (at 13) I didn’t have actual sex, and (at 16) didn’t go all the way, which I didn’t until (at 18) I officially fell into something I mistakenly called love.
My parents often invited Anne along for company, I suspect because she was a mature two years older and seemed much less interested in boys. At the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach’s Bal Harbour, she and I tilted giddily through our own personal playground of 24-hour coffee shops (where we had only to sign our names to score milkshakes and gargantuan cinnamon buns), and moonlit shuffleboard decks (where we’d play with abandon the game my mother implored us to try in daylight only to meet with rolling eyes).
Sometimes, we met boys — two at a time if I was lucky — so that while Anne talked quietly with one of them, I grabbed the hand of the other, waiting to yank me toward the beach, an empty poolside lanai, or the soft ground beneath the palm trees along the edge of the garden walkway.
Back home, I was on the lookout for bad boys to have a good time with; there seemed nothing else to do in our lethargic suburb where my mother still pointed out the Meadowbrook, site of 1950s Frank Sinatra concerts, every time we drove to the mall. I was a straight-A student, took drama classes, read three books a week, knew how to sew, and volunteered at the library. Boys, as far as I could determine, were my only secret garden.
When I was fourteen, I met a seventeen year-old named John, and we dated, completely in the open; my parents by then recognized it was better to know with whom I would otherwise be sneaking off. John was the first nice guy I dated, and that, combined with my parents’ liking him, and his not trying to feel me up until the fourth date, spelled the end of the affair.
Then friends’ older sisters and brothers got their drivers’ licenses and the suburbs seemed to crack right open. We left Cedar Grove behind, where the only action took place on the windy dark road behind the reservoir, to find fun and boys, of any color, age and type, everywhere — a party at a cousin’s house in gritty Paterson, a high school basketball game in downtown Newark, an ice-skating arena in farm-rich Sparta where we found that farm boys could be bad, too.
The summer I was fifteen, Anne and I took the bus to Manhattan on Saturdays, and walked to the passenger ship terminal to keep furtive appointments with the two Italian waiters who had served us on my family’s April cruise to Bermuda. I’d head off to some remote corner of the ship with twenty six-year old Adriano, while Anne walked around midtown with sappy Mario, eating hot dogs and pretzels and listening to his homesick yearning for Naples.
Later that fall Anne and I met Frank and Jeff. Jeff practically moved into Anne’s family room while Frank drifted off, as it turned out, with Jeff’s girlfriend of six years.
Despite my having sliced Frank’s photo from the yearbook in the school library, slipping it into my wallet and calling him my boyfriend, I convinced myself that it was better that way. Two best friends dating two best friends was just a little too weird. I put the yearbook photo away in an old briefcase of my father’s where I kept my secret stuff and told my girlfriends we had broken up. I decided I had been wrong about Frank all along, that he wasn’t so special, just another guy, maybe even a jerky one.
Then, I moved on in the relationship department: My father bought me a horse.
It is true what books and clichéd television movies have to say about a young girl and her horse. For the next couple of years – no, for a decade – I was intensely interested in an on- going relationship with only one dark, tall, and handsome creature. Horses were complicated enough to engage my curiosity, and riding was physically challenging enough to slake my restlessness. Handling horses put me in control, at least that’s how one feels atop a galloping, snorting sweating half-ton of heaving muscle.
Guys still mattered, throughout the rest of high school and all through college, but in a more peripheral way, and only if they felt like trailing along while I spent entire weekends and every school vacation at horse shows, and all summer at the stable, 24/7.
When they didn’t, the equestrian world was full of lovely, pouty boys who would one day realize that they were really and truly and only gay, but for the time being, were available for satisfying make-out sessions and awkward thrashing in empty horse trailers.
Channeling all of my free time, lots of my father’s money, and most of the passion that needed expression in my life, I learned the nuance of partnering a twelve-hundred pound animal over four-foot fences without breaking stride or landing in the dirt. It was electrifying, and at times, erotic even, holding the reins and all the cards, a horse between my legs. On a good day, we could read each other’s minds. On a bad day, I was the one, always, who could walk away – and withhold the carrot too, if I felt like it, though I rarely did. My parents joked that I lived in the barn, but to me it felt like the horses lived in me. I was beginning to think that was the way it was meant to be, that unless I found a fellow rider, I’d be alone, but that was okay: Saddles are built for one.
The next time I saw Frank was the summer following my college graduation, both conscripted into the bridal party for Anne and Jeff’s wedding. It had been six years since the double dates; Frank and Jeff were friends again, and two years before, Frank had married Jeff’s old girlfriend. Our aborted dating six years before just didn’t seem important, at least that’s what I told myself. Anyway, I was just passing through, headed to California with a new, more accomplished show horse to ride with a top trainer and to start a reporting job.
The bridal party gathered in the back of the small church where I feigned intense interest in what Anne’s cousin Carol was saying, to stop myself looking in Frank’s direction. How could I still want to gaze at those deep dimples, those brushed suede eyes? Why was I straining for the lilt of his voice? He said hello; I smiled, silent. Then a curvaceous, pretty older woman in a low-cut grey gown stepped through the heavy wood door and caught the eye of all. In his earthy rich voice I heard Frank remark, “Did you see the chest on her?”
All eyes swiveled to me.
“That’s my mother,” I said, turning away.
When we awkwardly walked back down the aisle together an hour later, Frank mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and I momentarily wondered if he meant for shattering the romantic hopes of a fifteen year-old girl six years before, but he continued, “for saying that about your mother.”
“No problem,” I said. “She does have a great chest.” I thought we might laugh, but we didn’t.
We danced at the reception as we had to, dutifully and stiffly, me staring at the blue ruffles on Frank’s tuxedo shirt. He tried to make small talk, but the sound of his voice so close to my ear, a mixture of gravel and anchorman silk, was too much and as soon as I could, I pulled away. I did not want to discover if his dance moves were as good as I once thought from my seat in the high school auditorium. I was afraid if I answered his innocuous questions I might keep that voice in my head, that it might flare up unbidden when I was supposed to be counting down strides to a fence, or writing brief and breezy headlines, or finding a suitable young man to introduce to my parents.
I tried hard not to, but could not help watching him that evening with his wife, who had a great chest too, but in my opinion was neither beautiful, interesting, nor mysterious enough to move most men to deceive their best friend. I had to remind myself that just as Anne and I were only silly teenage girls back then, Jeff and Frank were not men either, only nineteen year-old sacks of testosterone.
I could have, I should have, forgiven Frank then and there, let it go, and maybe in a small sense, I did. But there was still a disquieting quickening in my own chest when I listened to him give the toast, and it sent me fleeing mentally in the opposite direction, unnerved.
Three years later I moved back to New Jersey and within days encountered Frank at Anne’s kitchen table.
I dragged her down the hall. “What’s he doing here, why isn’t he wearing a wedding ring and what the heck happened to his skin?”
“She decided she didn’t want kids after all, and there was other stuff,” Anne said, then killed any possibility of the tiniest schadenfreude moment, adding, “Then he got a bad burn and it triggered this weird skin condition called vitiligo.”
So there was my Romeo now: Cheated on, looking like a splotched abstract painting in tones of pale pink and olive brown, his mass of Frampton curls now shorn, thinning, already receding at twenty-seven. I was no longer interested, I told myself.
Then he spoke.
My husband once sang a solo of the Hallelujah Chorus in Carnegie Hall. He has near perfect pitch. Back then, his tenor slid easily to falsetto, equal parts Hall and Oates, Lennon and McCartney. His voice hit me that day square in the chest like a velvet truck. The dark olive skin was disappearing, the once shoulder-length locks were clipped, but the timber of Frank’s voice reached me viscerally like the rippled surge of my horse’s neck muscle under my chest when he rose to hurl himself over a four-foot fence. Silk and sinew, James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, Neil Diamond and Davy Jones, comforting yet seductive, smooth but sex-edged; clear, safe but intoxicating, teasing and daring.
I was, against my will, charmed.
While I had been chasing jobs and better horse trainers across five states, the interesting men I met all had consistently disappointed me with mediocre voices. None of them stirred in me what I felt at fifteen when Frank had once, while waiting in line at a diner after another movie double-date, sung in my ear along with the radio about silver spoons and missed opportunities. Ever since, when Cat’s in the Cradle came on the radio, I would jab the button, angry for some indefinable reason, switching stations. During those years, especially when riding wasn’t going so well and men who mattered were scarce, I sometimes pictured Frank with some imaginary small curly-haired boy, tossing baseballs and talking about how to properly condition a mitt, before I caught myself and wondered what the hell I was doing thinking so much about a jerk who once dubiously dated me just so he could distract his best friend and steal his girl?
Yet I had dragged that old briefcase of my father’s to every new apartment, stuffed with mementos from sweet and bitter boyfriend moments, including that yearbook photo of Frank, the boyfriend who wasn’t. Now, at Anne and Jeff’s kitchen table, we met again, maybe not so cute, but also not so careless, aware by then of the lies we conceal and the truths we tell in the sloppy human experiment called dating. For me, there had been the dreamy bisexual grand prix jumper rider who did not want his wealthy gay sponsor to know he dated girls. The quiet junior insurance executive whose heart I may have broken. The firefighter who wouldn’t leave his alcoholic mother alone on a Saturday night. All the time, in some part of me where I hear only clear sounds, I sensed some voice, calling me ahead—or, back.
Dates ensued. I thought we were heading somewhere until Frank drifted off, again. Months went by, a year. My mother told me what to do with a vacillating beau, what she said had worked with my father in the 1940s: Next time he bites, reel him in but this time, you toss him back. Then wait, he’ll bite again.
So, I waited.
Meanwhile, I did what I always did when people let me down — got back in the saddle in a serious way: Weeknights at the stables, every weekend a horse show hundreds of miles away – and sporadic evenings in the company of a man twenty-one years older than I, a senior executive at work, rich and as different from Frank as possible. He talked about flying to London for a play opening, weekends at his Berkshires house, hinting at what a spontaneous life we might have together. Then he forgot my twenty-fifth birthday and I picked up the phone and punched in Frank’s number.
“Listen,” I said, “I feel like dancing and you are the best dancer I know. How about it? Dancing. No strings attached.”
We fell into a routine, Frank and I — dates and talking, dancing and hiking; we skied, played racquetball, learned each other’s secrets. There were strings, of course. Could we determine how to knot them together? I was no longer a fifteen year-old who, despite her experience with boys, would not have known what to do with a man; he was no longer a selfish nineteen year-old with swarthy good looks and a case of girlfriend envy. Neither of us were even who we were a year earlier.
A few months later, I prepared Frank the first of what would become five thousand- plus dinners, and after I layered chicken marsala on his plate, I looked him in the eye:
“Keep something in mind. Three strikes and you’re out.” I was never any good at fishing.
When our friends have affairs, when they divorce, we shiver, and talk about it. Frank’s tone is rougher now, a little raspy. We’re in our fiftiess, after all. Or maybe it’s just how I hear it after twenty-seven years of daily negotiation, conversation, and the occasional, awful arguments that scrape me raw. When we don’t talk for days, when our teenage sons want to know what’s wrong, I sink deep in the saddle and hold on, hands on both reins, fingers ready to ease out a little, or close imperceptibly tighter. Frank always speaks first, or he sings in my ear, always an old Beatles song, often “Michelle,” the one that declares he’ll get to you somehow. But never Yesterday.
In his voice, I still hear something charmed. Because, aren’t we?