How the Man I Married Was Different from All the Rest

“Marriage is like mountain climbing,” he says, “sometimes I throw you a line, sometimes you throw me one.”

Cropped shot of elderly couple holding hands while sitting together at home. Focus on hands.Jacob Lund/ShutterstockReader’s Digest editors asked the Reader’s Digest contributor network to tell us their stories of first-time love. The following piece was written in response to that prompt. To share your own 100-word true story for possible inclusion in the magazine or on RD.com, click here

My measurements were 19-19-19, and I had long, stringy dirty blond hair the year I turned eight and started searching for true love. Maybe I’d read too many fairy tales or watched too much television, but I expected Prince Charming to come and transport me into the life I was meant to live. A faint voice in my head said I’d find him, but it would take time.

A decade later, now a college student but still skinny with stringy hair, my first prospect arrived. We had met minutes before, in the university’s computer center. Even in the greenish glow of the fluorescent lights, he looked like he had been ripped from the pages of a romance novel, with blazing blue eyes, full lips, wavy brown hair and mustache, and bulging triceps.

Darkness fell while I worked on a project, and my car was parked across campus. My mother had warned me not to walk alone at night. No one volunteered when I asked my friends for a ride. That’s when Ted swooped in and offered to take me. I wasn’t one to accept rides from strangers, but the exact meaning of the word was blurred. I’d seen him before in the lecture hall. I evaluated my options—walk alone in the dark or accept a ride with Adonis? How could those eyes, those triceps be anything but good?

I got my answer to this question right away. Sensing my anxiety, he joked, “Gorgeous little girls shouldn’t accept rides from strangers.”

He’d be the first to call me gorgeous. He’d be the first to kiss me passionately.

A freshman in college, I followed the rules to keep safe. I knew not to drink to excess. I knew not to take illegal substances. I knew not to smoke. I knew sex was sacred.

Maybe my innocence made me a flashing target for oversexed older men. I remembered the anonymous love notes left on my windshield; the English professor who wrote on my test, “I like having you around. Come to my office any time;” the advisor who asked me to meet him at his motel room, so he could teach me “acrobatics.” Seriously?

A gentleman that day, Ted delivered me to my car as promised. He began sitting beside me in the lecture hall. He memorized my schedule and waited outside all my classes. We drank Pepsi and ate messy subs together.

He turned up in the unlikeliest of places and screamed, “I love you,” from his car window as he sped away. When he sang “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” I felt a peaceful, easy feeling all over.

I thought he might be the one I’d wished for since second grade. I didn’t yet know he was studying me like a scientist studies his specimen before slicing it open. I should have bolted when he told me he read women’s magazines to learn what women wanted.

Ted had a girlfriend, a beautiful yoga instructor with substantial breasts and bouncy hair. To his credit, he didn’t keep this a secret, or ever say he’d leave her. “He has a girlfriend,” the voice in my head wouldn’t let me forget. He gave me a key to his apartment. He started to undress as I pretended to study. “You have a girlfriend,” I reminded him, just before he pinned me to the ground. “You have a girlfriend,” I repeated. He backed off, as if recovering from a temporary bout of amnesia. Assuring me that every man cheats, he said his father calls his mistress while his mother prepares dinner in the next room.

I tried not to let on that I was entranced by his attentiveness. Even though he had an award-winning physique, I knew a cheater was no prize. Still, I longed for the day he would choose just me.

We walked to my car after an evening of studying and he caught me off guard. Leaning in, he kissed my lips as I took my place in the driver’s seat. My body stiffened, my feet pressed against the floorboard. He grabbed my butt, while his tongue rolled in my mouth for minutes like an Olympic kisser. Smiling, he asked me to come back inside. “No,” I said, “it’s late.”

Driving home, I believed that my unspoken wish had come true. He was finally leaving his girlfriend for me.

Only it wasn’t true. When he tried to kiss me again in his apartment the next day, I reminded him of the other woman. He had nothing new to say.

After his expert kiss didn’t get him into my terrycloth shorts, we were at a standoff. So the manipulation ended. His melodic tones became sharp and staccato. He quit popping up outside my classes.

Though I was distraught, the inevitability of this ending outweighed magical thoughts of a vanishing yoga instructor. I remember the last day of our relationship in slow motion, as if watching a bad movie with a predictable plot. I was sitting outside the lecture hall when he appeared out of nowhere, just like the day we first met.

He asked for his key to give to his brother. We both knew brother was code for “next girl in line.” The grand illusion was over. He exited my world just as he had entered it.

I wondered if I’d ever find true love.

A couple of years later I met Tom, a boy who didn’t have a manipulative neuron in his brain. At age 23, he lived in the dorms and ate macaroni and cheese or ham sandwiches for lunch every day. He didn’t think to wait outside my classes for me, if he could even find them. He didn’t have a car. Instead of women’s magazines, he read Car and Driver and Popular Mechanics. Though he was tall, blonde, and handsome, the only thing ripped about him was his underwear.

We met on the first day of my new job as a teaching assistant when I couldn’t unlock my desk. Like Ted, he swooped in to rescue me. The key magically turned when guided by Tom’s hand. His green eyes flickered when he said, “Just jiggle it.”

Yes, perhaps I’m a romantic with competency issues, and rescue fantasies. But the little voice in my head had no reservations this time: “He’s the one! He’s the real one! He’s the one you’ve been waiting for!”

Tom and I married. The fairy tale had come true.

Passionately in love, we were naïve to love’s tests.

When our daughter Jillian was born, Tom burped her and swaddled her with textbook precision and love. Anyone could tell they were father and daughter, her blonde hair, her round face, and even her left foot, which turned slightly inward.

Magical father-daughter trips to the aquarium, the zoo, and the mall halted at 23 months of age, when she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a deadly solid tumor.

A rule follower all of my life, I held the naïve belief that really bad things couldn’t happen to me.

For one year, Jillian underwent the most aggressive treatments available, including chemotherapy, radiation, and two stem cell transplants. Her oncologist warned us the divorce rate was high among parents of children with cancer, even higher if the child dies.

Tom had to work days, so the night shifts were his. How he did both, I’ll never know. Every sleepless night, he cradled Jillian in her hospital bed.

As the oncologist predicted, the more I worried about Jillian, the more I lashed out at Tom. The angrier I got, the more withdrawn he became. I threatened divorce, but beneath the surface I knew we needed each other like never before.

A psychologist once told me that marriage works like an accordion, sometimes you’re close and sometimes distant; it’s okay as long as the distance doesn’t exceed the breaking point.

Jillian went into remission and we went to every theme park in Florida. At the Florida State Fair, we ate messy subs, which Tom had learned to enjoy. Jillian rode every ride without a height requirement.

On my 39th birthday, 3-year-old Jillian had a seizure; the cancer had spread to her brain. She had weeks, maybe months left to live.

On the last day of her life, Tom carried her around trying desperately to comfort her. He never believed she would die. But she did. Right there in her Winnie-the-Pooh bedroom, on her pink and purple hearts comforter, each of us holding one of her hands.

Beside the bed, we cried in each other’s arms.

I blamed myself. What had I done to give my child cancer? Maybe I’d unwittingly exposed myself to pesticides while pregnant. I should have given her only organic foods. Lying beside me, Tom held my face in his hands and said, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. Repeat after me, it’s not your fault.”

While I mumbled incoherently and shed tears without end, he signed us up for a marital workshop. I called Hedy Schliefer, the psychologist leading the workshop, hoping she’d tell me I was too fragile to take it. But instead Hedy said, “If not now, when?” After the training she said to us, “When a child dies, some parents choose to die along with their son or daughter, some choose to live. You have chosen life.”

Tom encouraged me to live again and to follow my heart. Despite the plunge in income, he encouraged my decisions to transition from studying computer science, to psychology, to writing.

Surely I’d have been one of those statistics the oncologist warned us about if I had married someone like Ted. Sometimes I wonder why I ever let him in my life and other times I feel blessed to have known him. Ted was my litmus test. He taught me what love is not. So when I found Tom, I knew he was the one I’d been searching for. Tom kept my dreams in mind, not just his. He wanted to grow as much as I did. (Don’t miss these surprising secrets of happily married couples.)

Our life together is not what I would have scripted, but Tom is the love I have always needed.

“Marriage is like mountain climbing,” he says, “sometimes I throw you a line, sometimes you throw me one.” Together, we’ve climbed and we’ve stumbled. Sometimes we forget, but when we remember, we help each other.

Our ascent out of grief’s abyss truly began on the one-year anniversary of Jillian’s death when I took another kind of test. It was positive.

Sylvia Johnson is a Reader’s Digest reader from Tampa, Florida. She is also a member of the Reader’s Digest contributor network.

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