The Stranger Who Changed My Life: A Short Love Story

In this true short love story, a party girl meets her match as she passes through Montana with a traveling show.

by Joni Rodgers | from Reader's Digest Magazine

Joni and GaryThe sun came up, and we emerged from Four B’s to discover a warm chinook blowing in. Already the eaves were weeping, icicles thinning on trees and telephone wires. This is what Montana does in midwinter: clears off and gets bitter cold, and then suddenly it’s as warm and exhilarating as Easter morning. Don’t believe it for a minute, you tell yourself as the streets turn into trout streams, but the sheer pleasure of the feeling makes a fool of you. You forget your scarf and mittens on a hook behind the door. You know it’s still winter, but that’s just what you know; the chinook is what you believe in.

The bear held my hand inside his coat pocket as we walked in silence back to the parking lot to meet my company’s bus. Before he kissed me, he asked me if I was ready. Ready for what I have no idea, but ready is how I felt. I was stricken with readiness. Humbled by it.

“I hope you have a wonderful life,” I told him.

“You too,” he replied before nodding stiffly and walking away.

The bus lumbered through the slush and labored over the mountains to a fading Highline town where we were booked to play a quaintly shabby old opera house. The guy at the box office immediately pegged me as a party girl who’d been up all night and invited me to go to the bar next door for a hair of the dog before the show, but I could not for the life of me remember why that used to sound like fun.

Later that evening, as I did my shtick out on the foot-lit stage, I heard the bear’s distinctive baritone laughter from somewhere in the audience. After the show, he was waiting for me by the door. I didn’t bother asking him how he’d gotten there. He didn’t bother asking me where I wanted to go.

I can’t endorse the idea of love at first sight, but maybe there are moments when God or fate or some cosmic sense of humor rolls its eyes at two stammering human hearts and says, “Oh, for crying out loud.” I married the bear a few months later in a meadow above his tiny cabin in the Bridger Mountains. We weren’t exempted from any of the hard work a long marriage demands, but for better or worse, in sickness and in health, that moment of unguarded, chinook-blown folly has somehow lasted 30 years.

We laugh. We read. I do dishes; he bakes bread. Every morning, we work through the daily crossword puzzle. Our daughter, Jerusha, and son, Malachi Blackstone (named after his great-grandfather and an island in Chesapeake Bay) tell us we are agonizingly dull.

We listen to their 20-something diatribes and smile.

Joni Rodgers is the author of the bestselling memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair.

  • Your Comments

    • Travis Woodhouse

      Great story and very well written.

    • j.k. lerroty

      It’s a wonderful story .

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