Almost everyone who knows me has heard the story of how my husband and I met. The response to the polite inquiry at a cocktail party invariably leads to a longer story. The Reader’s Digest version: Yes, we’ve known each other since we were twelve. No, we were not high school sweethearts. Yes, he’s my twin brother’s best friend. No, we didn’t start dating until we were both in graduate schools 150 miles apart. Yes, we’ve been married for twenty years. Yes, it’s a lot like When Harry Met Sally.
The first time I saw Eric, he was buzzing down Indian Woods Drive on his Honda Express, feathered hair flying in the breeze, sporting a Levi’s denim jacket (with faux shearling collar, of course). It was 1978. It was not love at first sight.
All elbows and orthodontia and corrective lenses, I disapproved of this hoodlum friend of my hoodlum brother. While they were off backpacking and plucking at guitars and trying to figure out how to buy beer, I was singing in the chorus and getting straight A’s. I didn’t even care enough to dislike him -- he was just a guy who lived down the street who, over the next several years, became a fixture in our household, much the way a piece of furniture does.
The next time I saw him -- and by saw him, I mean noticed him in more than a passing way -- we were nineteen. He was at our house with my brother getting ready to go to a formal and paused in the doorway of my room to say hello. He was wearing a tux. And instead of tossing off a casual “hi,” like I had a thousand other times, I blushed and stammered and stared. By then I had shed the glasses and braces and prissy attitude, and I even sometimes voluntarily spent time with my brother and his friends. Still, this moment took my by surprise. Since when had he had such beautiful eyes?
The next summer, he and my brother went to Maine in search of summer jobs, and for lack of a better plan, I followed them. The three of us lived together in my family’s summer cottage, and while various cousins and aunts and uncles and parents came and went over the course of the summer, most of the time it was just the three of us. Perry worked days, while Eric and I worked mostly nights, so the two of us were often home together during long, lazy afternoons. It was then that we discovered how much we liked each other. There was, (I thought), no potential for romance, as he had a girlfriend back at school. The only phone in the house was mounted on the kitchen wall, so I was forced to listen to his end of their frequent tete a tetes. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone of them irritated me for reasons I couldn’t have explained. He was under my skin.
What I did not know for some time thereafter was that I was under his, too. We roomed together again the next summer; we didn’t always get along. I remember a typical roommate spat when he professed helplessness in the kitchen and I stomped out, telling him how much I pitied the poor woman he married. (This part gets a laugh at aforementioned cocktail parties). But we got to be better friends. We confided in each other, had drinks, went to movies, teased each other. He took me to the emergency room once when I had an asthma attack and sat with me in the exam room while I waited for the breathing treatment. We didn’t know it yet, but we were laying a foundation that would keep our house standing.
It was more than two years later that the phonecalls started. We had never stayed in touch between summers, but when I picked up the phone and heard his voice one November evening, I was more delighted than surprised. For once, we were both unattached. The way was clear. The rest took care of itself. Our first date was a week before Christmas. He cooked me dinner to prove (he told me later) that he was not, in fact, helpless in the kitchen. Our second date was New Year’s Eve. I embarrassed him by insisting he kiss me at midnight, even though my brother was nearby and no one knew we had been seeing each other. But I had a script in my head. I had just seen When Harry Met Sally, and I harbored a secret and admittedly juvenile superstition that if I kissed Eric at the stroke of midnight, we’d get married. Two years later, we danced to “It Had to be You” at our wedding.
I don’t know if I identified so strongly with the film because Eric and I had a friendship like theirs, or just because I was an overly romantic 22-year-old who favored enormous hats and tweed jackets with shoulder pads (I had several of both). I haven’t seen it in years, and if I were to watch it now, I might find Meg Ryan irritating and her desperate yearning for a husband marginally anti-feminist. Many arguments might be made about whether or not men and women “can be friends without the sex thing getting in the way,” but that’s not really a central question in the movie; rather, it’s something uttered by an immature Harry at an age where sex gets in the way of everything. There’s no smouldering sexual tension between them, they just really, really like each other, and they are great together. Even the movie’s tag line: “Can Two Friends Sleep Together and Still Love Each Other in the Morning?” is slightly misleading. It is precisely because they love each other that their first encounter causes a rift. We know it will be temporary.
For me, the enduring appeal of When Harry Met Sally is less due to the questions it asks and answers (which will always be different for different couples, but largely the same in all rom coms) than it is to the power of storytelling. The most charming moments of the film are the real couples, clearly still in love, sharing their how-we-met and how-we-knew stories. These narratives are what hold couples together, and now Harry and Sally have one, too.
When our own marriage was in crisis a few years ago (as every marriage has been or will be at some time), we found ourselves telling each other our story-- remembering bits and pieces that the other had forgotten. Reliving favorite moments. Laughing, again, at the unlikeliness of it, the irony of it, and ultimately marveling at its inevitability. We regarded with wonder the winding trajectory that brought us together, the breadcrumbs we dropped and followed without knowing it, the elegance of the timing, the knowledge that we were not ready for each other at 12 or at 19 or even 21. We weren’t ready until we were. And by that time, we were already friends for life. Telling our story helped us find our way back to where we belonged.
I hope we are not bores at parties. I don’t know why the Reader’s Digest version rarely suffices. Maybe we sometimes get carried away with ourselves while friends are privately rolling their eyes and thinking, “there they go again.” But often, the very people who could say that are the ones entreating us to “tell So and So how you met. It’s a great story.”
So was When Harry Met Sally. Thanks, Nora Ephron. You will be missed.