I think  Joan Wickersham is my muse.

Wickersham is an American writer – most famous for her memoir, The Suicide Index – who also writes regularly for The Boston Globe. An essay of hers about how married couples communicate sparked a post of my own entitled, The Secret Language of Long-Term Marriages which I shared here last month. And now she’s published another essay about marriage – How We Met – in which she describes the universal fascination we all hold with the story about how couples meet.

In Wickersham’s own case, her initial meeting with her husband was a total dud. They met at a party; she was friendly, he was aloof. They didn’t speak again for 18 months. She also recounts the tales of other couples she knows, some of whom experienced the proverbial “love at first sight,” others who met via a personals ad (“I like to walk in the rain” apparently turned out to be a big draw.)

As Wickersham points out, the reason we’re all so fascinated with the “how we met” narrative is that it’s always about something deeper. These stories are, as she puts it, “fated yet random… Behind every “how we met’’ story is the unspoken question: What if we hadn’t?”

What if, indeed?

Like Wickersham, my husband and I also got off on the wrong foot. We first spoke during a graduate student reception at Stanford University in the autumn of 1993 where we were both pursuing our Ph.Ds in political science. It was one of those horrible affairs where the faculty mill about and speak with one another jovially, while the grad. students hover over in the corner by the food, stuffing as many cheese cubes into their mouths as can decently fit while downing the cheap red wine that’s on offer.

Despite having been at Stanford for over a year at that point, I didn’t actually know my husband, who was a couple of years ahead of me in the program. I was pretty much a hermit at that point in my life, rarely emerging out of the dungeon (yes, that’s what it was called) in the basement of the political science department where they stuck the first and second year students in one giant, communal “office.” (I use this term generously.)

But at this party – where I, too, undoubtedly came out of seclusion in order to gobble down some cheese cubes – I was first introduced to my husband via a mutual friend. He made a joke about something – I no longer remember what – which I took (mistakenly) to be misogynistic. I left that meeting with two thoughts about him: a. he’s cute and b. too bad he’s a jerk.

Fast forward a few weeks, to our second meeting. This time, it came at my initiative. I was putting together a dissertation committee and someone suggested that I consult with the “jerk” who was to become my husband, as he’d assembled a very diverse group of scholars for his own committee. I remember thinking “Ugh. That guy?” when his name came up. But work was work, and I decided to put my first impressions behind me. So I asked him if we could meet for coffee to talk dissertation committees.

Somehow, because of scheduling conflicts, coffee morphed into dinner. We met at an Italian restaurant in Palo Alto. We were in the middle of talking about god-knows-what scintillating aspect of political theory when he turned to me and said something about my eyes. Suddenly, I became aware that what I’d been thinking of as a business meeting was actually…a date.  “Oh my God! I’m on a date!” ran through my mind as I tucked into the lasagna. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What I learned from that date many moons ago is that you should always give people a second chance. The first time I met my husband, I thought he was a loser. That was just so wrong. (He was cute, however, so I got that part right.) I also learned that you always need to be open to suggestion in life. Because sometimes even when your head’s stuck in a book (or a dimly lit basement office, or an Italian restaurant menu), your future is sitting right before your eyes. You just need to open them long enough to see it.

And finally, I learned – over time – that the “What if we hadn’t met?” question is an unfathomable one for me. My husband – who is now also my best friend – technical advisor – father-to-my-kids – fellow consumer of DVD commentaries all rolled into one – might, for want a cheese cube, be just another stranger I once met at a party. As a die-hard control freak, it’s nice to know that once in a while, fate really does matter.

OK, your turn. How did you meet your husband/wife/partner (past or present) and what did you learn from that experience?

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