I was new to the North Country, and he was newly single. He had been widowed the previous summer, and although he wasn't officially ready, there were already a few women circling.
I went to his house because we were colleagues and I assumed this was one of those invitations that old-timers extend to the newbies. Another couple, Sid and Mo, had been invited as well, and they seemed not to be aware that it was Valentine's Day either. I brought a bottle of my favorite French red wine. Kerry would later tell our friend Eve that his days of buying box wine were coming to an end, and he had me to blame. He served his signature dish, steak au poivre, but I was a vegetarian so I went home hungry that night. We talked about students we had in common, our favorite books, and movies, and the evening rolled along pleasantly. As a first date, it was not particularly romantic or auspicious, but as a non-date, it was a success.
And then something very strange happened, something completely uncanny and unexpected. I was in the room we like to call, for lack of a better word, the wood stove room, getting ready to leave, when his boys came home. I had walked to the house from my apartment, which was a mile away, but it was a cold night, and Sid and Mo were about to drive me back. The kids were 11 and 13. The younger one had just been to a hockey game on our campus with his friends. The older one had just gone on his very first babysitting gig. I didn't take the ride, because I wanted to talk to these young whippersnappers. And somehow, as the four of us stood chatting around the wood stove--standing because there was no furniture in the room, only the stove and bookshelves, standing also because I was on my way out and had my coat on, and they had just come in--I found myself glued to the floor.
I am not someone who stays late at someone's house on my very first visit. I don't like to overstay my welcome, and I like to get up early to write. But some kind of spooky gravity took over. It's like my feet knew the score, and the rest of me knew squat. Soon I was overheated--the coat, the stove--but I couldn't bring myself to leave.
Like me, the boys had no inkling that I was going to start dating their dad. I was just one of his friends from work, and they were the children in a college town in which people of both genders and of all ages are always popping in and out for dinners and parties. I don't remember what we all talked about, but if it was hockey, I would have had no prior experience to bring to the conversation. I do know that by the time Kerry and I were officially seeing each other, the older boy seemed to think it was his idea. Maybe he liked what I had to say about babysitting.
It took another three weeks and six days for us to realize that we liked each other and for us to set forth into the world on our first official dinner date. (See Day 30: Two Weddings, A Book Launch, and a Funeral.) That was 21 years ago.
Truth be told, neither of us is all that big on Valentine's Day. He's suspicious of all commercial holidays, and my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, especially since I've learned how to brine. We do have a date tonight, but we're staying home.
We're having roast salmon, risotto with leeks and mushrooms, arugula, and the lemon tart with raspberries my husband made last night. I bought the flowers. Zoe will be stationed near us, hoping for bits of fish to fall. And then we'll watch Downton Abbey on my laptop, which we never see on Sunday night because I can't stay up late enough. (See Day 64 Hooked on Downton Abbey: In Love with Love.) I can't wait.
The thing about having a non-date or a real date at home with the person you are married to is, well, that you have to both enjoy being together at home. This winter, more than ever, we both do.
It's so nice to set the table, put out the candles, the flowers, and open the non-box wine. We hardly ever think about the years that have passed, and we don't speculate much about the future. So instead, each date, or non-date, is just another evening. We're in it for the food and the company. And we're sharing it with the dog.
When I retell the story here, my first dinner in this house sounds like a date with destiny. But on that long-ago night, I had no glimmer that love was on its way, or the desire to have a family and settle down in one place, this house on the river. But my feet knew what the rest of me didn't. What they were saying was, this feels like peace.
Wishing you all a lovely Valentine's Day, gentle reader: dates, non-dates, and everything in between.