"Well," Marie says, pushing the sleeves of her red and white snowflake sweater to her elbows, "Tom and I met right after I left the convent."
The entire room cracks up. We're Up North, hosting a Boxing Day dinner party for our neighbors and their families. Ten of us are gathered around the fireplace with plates full of chicken gruyere gratin and chocolate fondue. Jen and I are by far the youngest but are practically falling off our chairs laughing as the room full of Boomers exchanges "How-We-Met stories." It doesn't hurt that the assembled group has gone through about five bottles of Toasted Head by this point.
"I hadn't gotten my dispensation from Rome yet," Marie continues, "and so I was still technically a nun! I got a grant to go to Wayne State University, and I joined the Newman Center there-- you know, the Catholic student group on campus? Well, one day one of the fellows there says to me, he says, 'Marie, we went fishing the other day and we caught all this smelt! You should come over and we'll have a smelt party!"
This is greeted with actual cackling. "A 'smelt party?'" Jenny hoots. "Don't think I've heard that line before."
"So I go to the guy's house for the smelt party," Marie continues-- apparently, smelt parties are actual events that people have attended and whose existence they have not questioned-- "and so I'm in the kitchen, and I just smell awful, like fish guts and boiling water." She waves her fondue fork in the air for added emphasis. "I mean, I just smelled hideous. And then I see this guy walk in, with this gorgeous, DISARMING redhead on his arm."
Tom rolls his eyes and smiles the kind of grimace that can only be directed at one’s partner of thirty-plus years. “I mean gorgeous!” Marie emphasizes. “And so we chatted, but I didn’t think a whole lot of it. But then I went to another party a month later and in he walks. With the same disarming redhead!”
My mother laughs so heartily she rocks back and forth on the ottoman. “Woot!” she laughs. “Love at first sight!”
“But at that party everyone was dancing!” Marie’s eyes are wide as she gets to the juicy part. “And so I found myself dancing with him. And Tom says, he says ‘how is a girl like you not married yet?”
“Well,” our neighbor Debbie interjects, “you had a hell of an excuse.”
Marie grins. She’s really getting to the fun stuff now. “Well I tell him I just haven’t met the right man yet. So he says ‘mark my words, you’ll be married in a year.’ And I swear, I didn’t say it but I thought to myself ‘And I’ll be married to YOU!’”
“So we go out for our first date, and Tom takes me to a movie and the whole time he’s trying to touch me or hug me and I’m just—“ Marie pushes an imaginary twentysomething Tom away with her hands. “He had this little red Carmen Ghia, and I would just shrink into the corner of the seat, because, well, I was still a nun! As long as I hadn’t gotten my dispensation I was still held to my vows.”
“Well, about a month later I finally got my dispensation from Rome. They released me from my vows. Of course it was all in Latin and I couldn’t read it, but I knew what it said. At the time I was living on the Wayne State campus with another girl; she was studying to be a nurse. And the day I got that letter I told her: ‘Get out.’ I told her, ‘just get on out of here tonight!” So Tom came over for dinner that night and I put the certificate on his plate—and Tom can read Latin, so he picked up the paper, looked it over, and then he came over and picked me up—“ Marie mimes scooping her arms in the air “—and kissed me!”
She looks over at Tom, who is folded into the armchair across the room. He lifts his glass ever so slightly and quietly nods. “And,” she finishes, “we were married six months later.”
We all sit for a moment, enjoying the lingering scent of the story. Then my father speaks up: “So what happened to the redhead?” My dad has a thing for redheads. A condition of my parents’ marriage is that he gets to openly lust after Ann-Margaret.
Marie mock-questioningly looks over at Tom. “Oh honey, didn’t she get drunk and throw up in your car?” For a former nun, Marie is damn sly even thirty-nine years after that particular triumph.
“Yup, honey.” Tom clearly does not relish that memory so much as Marie.
Everyone laughs the fireside laugh of congenial, wine-toasted Midwestern friends. And as I look at Tom and Marie, sitting across the room but still dancing together, I have something wonderful to aspire to.