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Sunday, October 6, 2013
Once upon a time in the fall of 1983, a guy blew into College Park, Md., after a Seattle-to-New York bicycle trip. He was making his third try in eight years to earn his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland. The other attempts had not gone too swell.
He was lean and tan from the summer’s journey. He slept on friends’ couches while he looked for a room to rent. He found one in a Cape Cod about 2 miles from campus where three other students lived. And that’s where he met the gal he would later marry.
I’m that guy, and my wife Donna is that gal. We’re out of town this weekend celebrating 30 years together. But like with almost everything else, there’s a lot more to the story.
People always ask her “Why are you slumming with him?” The corollary, posed to me, is “How the heck did you land her?” I hope what follows will clear up some of those questions.
The answer involves cheap beer, red fingernail polish and a wonderful, inspired prank. Here is that story.
I had learned from a University of Maryland classmate named Dana that her student house had an open room for rent. She invited me over for an interview with her roommates. Donna was one of them and there was a guy, Tony, living there, too. They had to approve before I could move in.
I wanted to make a good impression, so I brought along a case of Shaefer beer. Back then it cost $5 or $6. As I drank it during the interview I regaled them with some escapades from that summer’s cross-country adventure.
One was about a Swedish cocaine smuggler I met on a Greyhound riding west out of Chicago. She and I made fantastic mischief once we hit Seattle, much to the embarrassment of the two guys I was traveling with. But that’s another story.
Another involved me and my two bike trip buddies being ordered out of Browning, Mont., by the police. A cop escorted us for 5 miles as we headed east with our loaded-down bikes on Highway 2 — so nobody would kill us. That’s another story, too.
Anyway, after I left the house my future roommates took a poll on whether to let me move in. I found out much later that Donna was the only “nay” vote. She told them “he’s too weird” and “he’s too wild.” But Tony and Dana prevailed. They needed the money.
A couple of days later I moved in. Donna’s room was right across the hall from mine.
If truth be told, she was not exactly my cup of tea either. We were very different. She’d grown up on a small chickens-and-goats subsistence farm in Prince William County and seemed remarkably naive at age 20. I grew up in a suburban house outside tony Annapolis.
She was an A-student who went to bed at dark (no kidding). I was a two-time flunkout who never went to sleep before midnight. She was a real girly-girl who read Glamour magazine and was seeking a business degree. I was a slob English major who read Shakespeare and Kerouac. She loved Kenny Rogers (I can’t stand him) and abhorred Root Boy Slim, my all-time favorite musician.
In particular, I loathed her painted and polished fingernails and toenails. I teased her incessantly about that and her bedtime-at-dusk routine, too. Donna blushed easily. It was fun and easy to get a rise out of her.
One evening when we were both home I passed out on the living room couch, my bare feet propped up on one end. And that’s when a devilish inspiration seized Donna. She went to her bedroom, grabbed a bottle of nail polish, and painted my big toenails screaming red while I snored.
She and Dana were laughing hysterically when I woke up. By then, the polish was dry and Donna had hidden her nail polish remover, so there was no way to get it off. It was hard not to admire the prank. I totally deserved it.
It was long-lasting, too. The polish took a few weeks to wear away during that warm fall. Imagine the strange stares I got on campus, walking around in sandals with those bright red toenails. That was uncommon on guys in College Park back in 1983.
Anyway, the sense of humor behind the prank bowled me over. It caused me to look my at my very different roommate in a different way. She returned the favor. Toenail night was just the beginning.
It also was my introduction to the purest heart I’d ever met. I learned that this housemate I’d been teasing for the past three or four weeks didn’t have a cynical or unkind bone in her body — at least not until she met me.
We got married three years later, in October 1986.
Our eldest child, Caitlin, was born in October 1987. Erin came in July 1990 and Anna in July 1993. We moved to Roanoke when I got a job at the paper in 1994. The girls are all out of the house now. Zach, our youngest, was born in 1998. He’s 15.
In my wildest imagination, I couldn’t have dreamed up a better mother for our kids.
So here we are, 30 years later. There have been lots of laughs and lots of tears in those three decades, as with any couple who’s been together that long.
My mother, who once spent a whole year going to Mass daily and praying for me, believes Donna’s an angel God sent to the rescue. We never told mom that Donna wanted me out of that student house before I ever got into it. But part of me agrees.
The early infatuation waned, of course. It always does. In the best cases, it matures into something a lot deeper: compromise, respect, commitment. It’s a lot of work, especially when two opposites are involved. And we definitely fit that bill.
Once, at the urging of a psychologist, we each took a detailed personality test. The results were unsettling. We were 100 percent polar opposites in every way the test measured.
We both fretted that spelled doom for the marriage — at that point we were less than 10 years in. But the shrink said, “not necessarily. If you play to each other’s strengths, it can be the strongest kind of union there is.” So that’s what we did, and it worked.
One night last week I was tucking her in, right around dusk. I was rubbing her back and she said, “Wow. Thirty years. Can you believe it? It seems like yesterday.”
“Remember the toenails?” I said. Donna laughed. “How could I forget?”
She hasn’t worn finger or toenail polish in years.
Not that it would make any difference.
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