Chance meeting leads wondrously to second chance


January 07, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I met Suzy Ricklen in the produce section at the Giant, when she leaned across the alfalfa sprouts and called me by another guy's name.

"Aren't you so-and-so?" she said, invoking the name of a newspaper columnist, who shall go nameless here because, what the hell, he's got a column of his own.

"Ha, ha," I declared, summoning up the rapid-fire ability to ad lib that has taught me to mumble self-consciously into my shirt at such nervous moments as this.

We began chatting our way down the various supermarket aisles. I found her bright and sensitive. She found me tall. I found her funny and adorable. She found me mumbling self-consciously into my shirt.

I maneuvered behind her at the checkout counter and, as she left, she waved goodbye.

"That woman likes you," said the cashier, watching Suzy vanish out the door.

"She does?" I said, with the same unique ability to size up human relationships as I have at ad-libbing in supermarkets.

"Trust me," said the cashier. "I'm a woman."

"How fast can you get me out of here?" I asked.

"Just watch," she said.

I caught Suzy on the parking lot, and two nights later we had our first date.

That spring, we went to an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium, where we sat in a light rain and didn't care. It felt like youth. The Detroit Tigers brought in a rookie relief pitcher, newly arrived from Latin America, who threw one pitch and hit Joe Orsulak in the ribs.

"Hey," Suzy cried toward the mound in mock outrage, "we don't play like that in this country, buster."

Late one night, we drove from downtown in separate cars. At a long stoplight, I motioned to her to roll down her window and played the most romantic song in the world loud enough for her to hear: the French sparrow, Edith Piaf, singing, "If You Love Me."

I called through the car windows, "Have you ever had such a moving musical moment?"

"Not since 'Sugar Shack,' " Suzy replied, deadpan.

She made me laugh, and therefore worried me. Laughter removes defense mechanisms, and I'd imagined mine were strong and secure, and likely to keep me in safe isolation.

But now, I see by the calendar, it's three years since we met.

And now, I see by the looks on our faces -- mixtures of delight and disbelief and sometimes vague terror -- that we're about to marry.

"I've spent a lot of my adult life stuck around 1963," I jokingly told her one night a few months ago. "Where have you been?"

"Waiting for this," she said.

Aren't we supposed to be too self-defensive for such talk? I make my living wearing cynicism on my sleeve; she makes hers, as a social worker, hearing of lives that have come undone. Shouldn't we know better?

Each of us carries cautionary tales: I had 15 years of marriage, and 11 years of bachelor-fatherhood. She had 12 years of marriage, and a daughter now 13 years old.

And yet we find ourselves on the verge of inventing brand new lives, and feeling a sense of wonder at how comfortable it seems.

In an old book, I find John Leonard writing about second marriages:

"How unlike the first time, when we were all promising, confident, stupid, graduate students of ourselves, unblotched copybooks. Your friends now are halfway through the novels of their lives, and worried about the next couple of chapters. And yet, after all the jokes, they are genuinely happy for you, for the surprise twist in your plot. Weddings are nice; maybe it's part of the nostalgia craze."

No, not nostalgia. More like a second chance at getting it right. The first time around, my young bride and I were two children programmed for a wedding but not for a marriage. We were simply products of a certain time. Nobody meant it, but we took different directions into adulthood and lost each other.

Second marriages, someone said, are the triumph of hope over experience. It's more. It's the great fortune to feel emotions I didn't think I'd feel again.

After three years, I look at Suzy and still see the same woman I met that day in the Giant: bright and funny and adorable. And she still thinks I'm tall. And I'm mumbling into my shirt a little less.

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