In celebration of our 21st anniversary this month, I am sharing our love story. All these years later, we still love to tell this story to willing listeners in our own “Harry Met Sally” story-style.
Names have been changed to conceal identities.
“Honey, you never know, you could meet someone and be engaged in six months,” my mother tried to reassure me with the fantasy scenario. At 23 years old, I wondered how supportive my parents would be if that really happened, but I knew she was just relieved that Dave was no longer a husband-possibility.
If I were being honest, I was relieved, too. We had held on to the summer relationship only because we both moved to New York City that September. I had let myself swirl into a beachside romance. I betrayed myself to be with him. The breakup was right, I knew, but it felt like a failure and it still made my heart hurt.
Alone in my new room, leaning against the boxes and wiping at my tears with wet fistfuls of tissues, I hoped neither of my roommates were home. No one wants to live with a sobbing girl bringing in drama the first week, especially not two guys. I peeked out my door, sliding my arm across my eyes as if that would conceal the swelling and redness. The living room was empty and the apartment was quiet except for the distant car horns and city drone from fourteen floors below.
Meandering through the empty apartment, I sought clues about the two men I had just agreed to move in with. I examined the posters in the living room, the titles of the books, the few framed photographs. There were photos of my new roommate, Nick, smiling with a long-haired brunette and a picture of the couple among friends with Tim, my other roommate, towering in the background.
How odd it felt to be living with strangers. Yet it was intriguing, too, the idea of flipping things upside down, of moving in together before knowing one another. It felt a little like freshman year at school, hoping the college computers matched you with a compatible roommate. At least here it was temporary if things didn’t work out, and in less than 45 days, the lease would end and we’d all be packing.
Peering into the fridge for a cold drink, I felt the stretch of my salted cheeks as I grinned at the bare shelves. It was empty except for cans of beer and a jar of mayonnaise. Boys. It figured. Closing the fridge door, my eye caught the bumper sticker that crossed the face of the microwave. When Dave had dropped off some things a week earlier, before the breakup, he’d burst through the apartment criticizing everything.
“These guys are losers,” he’d concluded. “Who still listens to them?” He had said pointing at the bumper sticker. He dropped my stuff in my room and headed back to the hallway.
“Let’s go. I’ll teach you how to use the subway.”
“I know how to use the subway,” I told him, “I’ve been working here for two months and I’ve been coming to New York my whole life.”
Dismissing me, he marched ahead to the elevator, saying over his shoulder, “You’re not ready to use the S train, let’s just start with a simple line.”
The S train is a shuttle between two points. I thought, how much more simple does he think I need? But I followed him anyway. As I stood in my new kitchen remembering, I felt a dread in my stomach lurch up and kick me, another acknowledgement that Dave was not the right man for me. Anger fought against shame, disappointment entwined with betrayal. I hiccuped and let the water run in the sink. No more tears for Dave, I decided, and gulped down metallic city water from a pilfered bar glass.
Later, out with some friends who had also moved to the city after college together, Holly asked me, “Who are you living with? How did you meet these guys?”
I explained my long commute home to my parents’ house in Newtown, Connecticut while working twelve hour days and trying to find a place to live in Manhattan. A co-worker, the guy who’d recruited me, concerned with my hours and extended train ride, suggested I meet with his friend who had an open room for a month before the lease was up.
Recalling that afternoon when I knocked on the strangers’ door, I told Holly about the dark-haired, thick-browed guy named Nick who’d answered. His eyes seemed to widen with his smile as he welcomed me into the three-bedroom apartment, clearly decorated by bachelors. As we toured the small space, the other roommate nodded and muttered, “Hi,” from his bed, not bothering to look away from the television. I thought I heard Nick whisper a reprimand to him before he led me into the bedroom that would be mine.
“Wait, did you say Nick DeCesare?” Holly gasped as I recounted the story. “I know his girlfriend, Sue. Oh my gosh! Nick would make the best boyfriend or husband,” she said, her face falling into a dreamy stare.
I’ll never know, I thought vaguely, he has a girlfriend.
I hadn’t yet met her but it wasn’t long after that night that I did. They were watching a movie on the VCR when I came home. Nick introduced us and I noticed that he kept his gaze away from mine. He busied himself in the open-walled galley kitchen while she and I politely asked the basic get-to-know-you questions. Holly’s words circled in my head as Sue edged toward Nick and laid a hand on his back, visibly claiming him. He glanced up, his eyes not meeting mine, and invited me to watch with them. Sue flinched.
“Thanks, but I have plans, I’m just home to get changed. Nice to meet you, Sue.” I scooped up my work bag and slipped into my room hoping my exit would comfort her. How could I let her know that her boyfriend wasn’t on my radar? He was taken and that was enough for me, no matter what Holly proclaimed.
One night, about a month after Leah moved in, I made Tim cancel his plans so the three of us could watch the football game down the block. I needed an excuse to spend some time with her before we all moved out. She was so interested in learning the game rules and plays and, I swear, every time she turned over her shoulder to ask me a question, I worried that she’d catch me staring at her back. There was this little spot which was exposed between her scarf and the scooped neckline of her shirt and I just couldn’t stop looking.
Ever since that Thursday when she knocked on our door, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. When I saw her standing there, I felt like I’d been struck. I never believed in love at first sight, not until that day. I couldn’t even look at her I was so afraid that she’d see what I was feeling, and then I thought I’d never see her again.
Tim came home the next day with a check from some other girl and he’d already told her she could have the room. I made him tell her it was taken. Tim and I had been friends for a long time, but this was something he couldn’t understand. He’d never seen me act so decisively and irrationally, but he did it for me. Without even knowing if Leah would agree to move in, he gave the check back. When Leah finally called to take the room, I admit I did a little private Elvis dance.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think about Sue. Of course, I did. I mean, we’d been together since the beginning of college but we were more just convenient friends than anything else by then. It was easy to stay a couple since we had all the same friends and were always together. We were hanging out because it was comfortable. She felt that way, too. The night she first met Leah, Sue even whispered to me, “She’s so pretty and nice. You two would make a great couple.” Though I was thinking the same thing, I realized it was a strange thing for a girlfriend to tell her boyfriend.
There was one night a few weeks after that when Tim was away and only Leah and I were in the apartment. I’d been working so many late nights that we hadn’t seen each other much, though I often declined going out with friends to be home, just be around her. Some nights, when I got home late, I would see the light on in her room and I would wait up, staying in the living room, making up things to do, hoping she would come out. I stared at her door until the line of light beneath it went dark.
In the mornings, I lay awake in my room listening to her get ready. She was just on the other side of the thin wall from me, but so far away. Leah was thoughtful and quiet but I strained to hear the familiar clicks of her lipstick opening and closing, to hear the sound of her brushing her teeth. Once I heard her heels cross the room and the door lock behind her, I would get ready in the cloud of her steam and perfume.
So the night we found ourselves alone, I asked her if she’d like dinner and when she agreed, I put everything into that meal. My mother’s pasta sauce recipe, salad, bread, and wine. We ate slowly and talked for hours. I felt something I’d never felt. Ever. It was electric and I knew I wanted this. When she stood to go to bed, words and thoughts were jumping through my mind but I just sat there until, as she stepped to leave, I blurted, “Want to watch a movie?”
We viewed her choice with a couch cushion’s length between us, then said goodnight and went to our separate rooms. I felt like I had been treading water, just going through life, and it was like God knew that I needed a change and put her right into my living room.
Finally, I mustered the courage and shook off my stagnation. I was afraid to hurt Sue’s feelings but I did what I had wanted to do for a long while. She cried a little, but agreed that the time to split up was past due. We had been good friends, but we were not in love. I knew I was in love, but not with Sue. When Leah walked into my apartment, something awakened in me, I felt the shift and I didn’t want good enough anymore. Walking home from Sue’s, unattached, I felt light but unsure of how I would find my way into Leah’s heart. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew I had to try.
As the fall wore on and the New York air grew crisp, moving day arrived. I found a friend of a friend to live with and we spent weekends rejecting available apartments until we found one we both liked. Right before I left, Nick asked me again, “Are you sure you don’t want to stay on and the three of us can sign a new lease here?”
I smiled, tempted. Over the few months together, I had gotten to know the guys better, especially Nick. It was fun and easy living there but I wanted to be in an apartment with another girl. I wanted to decorate together, to comfortably walk around in pajamas, or a towel. By then, I recognized that twinge. I was realizing that I liked Nick a little bit.
Sue wasn’t around very much, but then, neither was Nick, so I couldn’t gauge if it meant anything. Sometimes I heard him come home late after I was already in bed reading. I would listen for him and try to think of reasons to emerge, but then I thought of Sue and turned off my light to sleep, moving out was the best decision. One night he made me dinner, we talked and laughed until late, it felt right. Except for the girlfriend. I thought of the post-breakup rebound warnings and worried that I was only interested in him because of things ending with Dave, but it seemed like more than that. Though I also wondered if Nick was just being friendly and I was reading too much into an evening between roommates.
One weekend, both my roommate and I had friends visiting, our small apartment overflowed with air mattresses and sofas became beds. Under the guise of wanting some guys to join us out, I called Nick and asked if he and Tim had plans. Nick said he’d gather some friends and meet us. At the small bar with live music blaring in the background, our friends intermingled, but Nick stayed beside me. In an impromptu game of sorts, periodically, everyone shifted around the table, changing who they were talking to, but Nick and I never moved. It was as if being out of our apartment freed us and we opened to one another, shouting into each other’s ears over the drums. He told me he broke up with Sue, and before we said goodnight, he had asked me out.
My friends teased me because I couldn’t stop smiling. I didn’t care, he asked me out.
She said yes when I asked her. It took me all night but I finally asked her out, and she said, “Yes.” I couldn’t believe she’d called that night. Tim and I had plans to go to a show, but I persuaded him to forget it and come with me. I got a few more guys to agree to skip it and come, too. There was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass.
I didn’t wait the standard two days, I called her the next day to make plans and we went to dinner and a movie that week. I still remember what she was wearing. It was so easy to talk with her, I was happy when we were together, and yet, in the theater I felt like I was twelve again. I hesitated over and over before finally reaching out to take her hand. With her fingers between mine, it was simple but it felt like my chest was exploding. I couldn’t concentrate on the movie, I only thought of the feeling of her skin against mine.
She lived in midtown and Tim and I had a new apartment uptown, I got us a cab and we drove to her apartment building. Standing on the sidewalk, those schoolboy inhibitions washed over me, I was so afraid to mess anything up.
“I had a good time tonight,” she said, looking up at me.
I leaned forward, wanting to kiss her, moving to kiss her. I had thought of this moment, this kiss, for months, and I closed the space between us. My lips neared hers, hovering, prolonging the incredible tension, until she shifted, moving her lips into mine.
It was the perfect kiss. I had fallen in love with this man. This man that Holly had prophesied would make the best boyfriend or husband.
I knocked at his door and our love story began. It was the day that changed my life. We moved in together as strangers in September. Our first date, our first kiss, was in November. In March, Nick and I were engaged. It was exactly six months after that phone call. My mom turned out to be right.
© Copyright Leah DeCesare 2015