This year marks the silver wedding anniversary for my wife and me. We’ve had many fond memories together over the years, especially the births and raising of our two wonderful children. Our first meeting was not mere happenstance, it was pre-arranged by a mutual friend. And it is a fond memory to recall and retell…
My job after college was working as a professional picture framer at the largest mall in New Hampshire at the time. Retail jobs were about the only positions open when I graduated and as far as retail work goes, it wasn’t a bad gig and was somewhat related to my college degree. Being a studio art major was not an ideal income scenario under most circumstances, but made even worse when graduating amidst a recession that took nearly a decade to fully recover.
There were only women that worked at the picture framing shop, apart from me. That was rather fascinating. In fact, I grinned widely during the job interview a few years earlier when the owner asked if I’d mind that kind of environment. The smile was more of an indication that I had suspected as much, not that it meant potential dating opportunities for me. Fortunately, my smile was perceived as more charming than creepy, because I did get the job. And while I did hang out with some of my co-workers from time to time, I never dated any of them. It just seemed like it would be awkward, especially since all of them had significant others of some sort or another.
One of the more challenging aspects of working retail is having a reasonable and consistent schedule. To overcome this challenge, I volunteered to take the 2nd shift all the time and have Sundays off. This timetable also worked for me because I’m not a morning person and starting later in the day made it possible to avoid all rush hour traffic situations. The primary downside with the closing shift was that I couldn’t meet up with friends until about 10pm on working days, which typically included Fridays and Saturdays. Additionally, this arrangement made fitting in time to date rather inconvenient.
Fortunately, it helps to have friends who are always looking out for you. One such friend was attending UNH, a few years delayed after serving in the Air Force overseas. He also worked nights delivering pizza at the most popular delivery and carry-out chains on campus. Other friends and acquaintances of mine had previously worked there. Virtually all of the workers were male, chiefly because it was sweaty work running several pounds of hot pies and cold 2 liter bottles up flights of dormitory and apartment stairs to maximize tips for the evening.
There was one exception to the predominantly male occupancy at the restaurant. She had graduated a few years earlier with a studio art degree as well, but found it similarly difficult to find other work. And, as it turned out, she was coming out of a long-term relationship. My friend, Rich, told her that he knew of someone and felt we would really hit it off. After a little convincing by Rich and a proposal to meet on neutral ground, she agreed.
The game plan was to join up after work that Friday at a Chinese restaurant a few exits up from the mall. It was still winter break at college, so pizza deliveries would be slower and okay to miss a night. Not only would Rich be there at the Chinese restaurant, but so too would a few of other people she had either met or worked with before. Basically, it would be like a mini reunion for her, but with me tagging along. If things went well, we could set up another time to meet alone. If things didn’t go so well, then it would still be just a nice time connecting with former co-workers and some of my friends.
You have to understand this was in the days before mobile phones were ubiquitous and prior to instant digital, social everything. So, even having a photo of people was uncommon. And I’d be going into this introduction essentially blind and so would she.
Rich only told me three things about his co-worker. Her name is Rhonda. That we have a lot in common. And if he wasn’t dating someone already, he would’ve asked her out. That wasn’t much, but it was enough to pique my curiosity and agree to meet.
That Friday, Rich called me at the store to tell me Rhonda might be in the area for her sister’s birthday and pop in the mall before meeting us at the restaurant. This was a little unfair, since I’d be easy to pick out among my co-workers, but I’d have no way to know who she was among the other foot traffic. Rich assured me that I’d know when she came in. To ease my mind a bit further, he eventually disclosed that she had brown hair, brown eyes, and was about five and a half feet tall. He had no idea if or when Rhonda would actually drop into the store. Resigning to the fact that no more information was forthcoming and that worrying whether she would or wouldn’t show up was pointless, we ended the call and I returned to work.
The layout of the store consisted of three principal areas that customers could see. The majority of the shop floor had large bins and shelves of artwork, mostly reprints of famous paintings. Along one side of the store was the design counter and cash register. Toward the back wall was the assembly area, which was open to and faced the store, but was separated and raised somewhat like a pharmacy counter. It was an excellent vantage point to see anyone enter the shop from the mall and where I typically could be found finishing up custom orders for our clients.
After a few hours into the shift, my co-worker let me know she was headed out to get some food for her break and would be back soon. This was a customary warning since it would leave only one person tending the shop for a brief period. As I began inspecting the next order on the clipboard, I caught a glimpse of a woman entering the store. I paused briefly as one thought raced through my head, “there is no way I could be that fortunate.”
She looked like a model from a clothing catalog – elegant and demure, but not vapid. Her hair fell in delicate, wavy brunette whorls just past her shoulders. She was wearing a long, charcoal gray wool coat and a soft, burgundy scarf was draped around her slender neck. What really captured my attention was the way her shy face lit up when she smiled.
She was accompanied by a girl with similar complexion, but about half her age. The younger girl seemed too old to be her daughter, but possibly a sister. They spoke softly to each other as they wandered randomly around the store. Obviously, they were close.
Tamping my expectations by repeating “that can’t possibly be her”, I continued with assembling the next order. We didn’t usually approach folks in the store unless they appeared to be in need of assistance or were close enough so that we didn’t have to shout across the shop. But curiosity was killing me and I had a perfectly innocuous question to ask any customer. So, I wrapped up what I was working on and brought it down to the check-out counter.
“Is there something in particular that you’re looking for?” came from my lips as she made eye contact with me. It wasn’t until that very moment that I realized how much that sounded like a cheesy pickup line from a bar. Fortunately, my question came off as courteous and not creepy.
In a beautifully soft, reserved voice she introduced herself as Rhonda, a mutual friend of Rich. She also introduced her sister. Rhonda’s exact words in the moment were hard to discern over the increasingly louder beating of my heart in my ears. But her face had all my attention.
Eventually my senses returned to normal. Then after some cordial and pleasant conversational exchanges, Rhonda mentioned that she had to leave to bring her sister home, but that she was looking forward to meeting up again at the Chinese restaurant later that night. Never before had I so eagerly awaited seeing someone once more.
In record time that evening, the shop was cashed out and locked up and I was at the restaurant, but I was still the last to arrive. Everyone was there seated at a long table with an open spot next to Rhonda. As I approached the table, I heard a vivacious laugh, which could only have come from Rhonda, whose back was to me. Another mutual friend and co-worker, Tim, was a boisterous, animated story-teller and had Rhonda in stitches. That infectious laugh of hers makes me smile everytime I hear it or think about it. That was a definite plus on the compatibility list – CHECK!
Without her heavy coat on, I could see that she looked particularly slender, wearing a long, white poet shirt and dark blue, pleated slacks, tapered at the ankle and revealing her adorable, black loafers. Because she was thin, I was thinking she’d drink only water and eat only salad – nothing more. But I would let that slide, if necessary, since she was so charming. CHECK
Soon after sitting and greeting everyone, a waitress appeared and asked if we’d like to start with drinks and mentioned the specialty cocktails list. I knew most of the group were not big drinkers when it came to alcohol, but soft drinks were another thing. And because Rhonda was one of the few women at the table and nearest to the waitress, she was prompted first. As politely as possible, Rhonda asked if they served Mountain Dew. My face slackened in astonishment. Not only did she drink regular soda, but we shared the same unusual preference in beverages! CHECK
After I ordered the same, Rhonda turned and asked if that’s what I really wanted. I reassured her it was my favorite and went on to say that I wasn’t much of a drinker. She smiled modestly and revealed that she wasn’t either, even one drink might make her tipsy and she still had to drive home. Responsible and plans ahead – CHECK!
Rich and Tim wound up ordering most of the food for the table as appetizers and shared dishes. I worried if there would be enough leafy greens to satisfy Rhonda. To my surprise she went for the dishes that were rice or meat or fried or both. When I offered her some veggie dish, she graciously said “No thank you.” Then gently added, “I’m a meatatarian. The only thing I eat that’s green is Mountain Dew.” Wow – I don’t know how she managed staying so lean, but that was a CHECK PLUS!
Later on, during a lull in the chatter at the table, Rhonda exhibited mild delight at a song that was playing over the speakers at the restaurant. “Oh, I like this song.” It was something by The Police. When I probed what other music she liked, she claimed to like all kinds. Except for country music, because it’s too twangy. She mentioned a few bands she enjoyed or had seen in concert – Sting, The Cure, R.E.M., David Bowie, and U2. Those were right in my wheelhouse – a preference for alternative rock and a strong dislike for country music! CHECK
As the evening wound down and people were leaving, I offered to walk Rhonda back to her car, even though it was likely nearby and close to where most of us had parked. She accepted, which I took as another good sign (she had so many opportunities to bail on me up to this point). And as we exited the building I asked where she was parked. She said, “Under the light over there, that’s my blue pick-up truck.” Once again I was amazed. Even if that had been the last vehicle in the lot, I simply hadn’t anticipated someone so graceful climbing into it. It was clear that she was so proud of her truck. And I thought to myself, “How cool is this woman?”. Handy and not helpless – CHECK!
We talked about the pleasant evening and next steps, like talking on the phone or having dinner alone sometime. At this she said that her idea of dining out was going to Taco Bell. It was affordable, predictable, and they always had her favorite drink. Frugal minded (aka a “cheap date”) and straightforward! CHECKMATE
Oh, it wasn’t right then that I proposed to her. That would take place much later, on her birthday. But that’s a tale for another time.
You never know when fortune may come your way. But you’ll know when you behold it. If you’re brave enough to reach out and hold it dearly, it could endure for a quarter of a century. And perhaps we’ll be fortunate enough to share this journey together for another twenty five years.
With all my love…happy anniversary, Rhonda!