No one in France ever asks me how my husband and I met. I suspect it is a cultural convention, since private life is very, well, private here. But I often offer the information anyway. After all, it is the logical segue between "Where are you from?" and "Why are you here?", both of which are questions considered far less delicate to ask.
Whenever I'm back in the US, however, I'm asked it all the time. Which is just as well, for it's a story I love to tell. So here is the long version, not the three-liner I give at the coffee machine at work, offered in its multiple-post entirety just in case you, too, were curious.
Longer ago than seems possible now, I was a very timid young student in her senior year at Mount Holyoke College, when a job interview brought me to a computer hardware company in the suburbs of Boston. As my future boss gave me the grand tour, he brought me to visit the computer lab. When we opened the door, rock music blared and a lone young engineer hopped up and scrambled to turn the volume down on the stereo.
"No no, it's ok," my future boss insisted. "They like to play music here sometimes while they work," he said apologetically, little suspecting that in my book, Stone Temple Pilots was a pretty good recruitment advertising. He then pointed out the servers and the sea of cables, and I nodded appreciatively and left without exchanging more than a brief smile with the timid guy behind one of the screens. The music isn't bad, I thought to myself as we closed the door, so maybe they aren't just a bunch of geeks here, after all.
Three months later it was my first day of work, and I was disappointed to find that what felt like the Biggest Day Of My Life Ever barely made my new colleagues look up from their keyboards. People nodded, mumbled, and weakly shook hands as I was shown around by my boss after I arrived, but only one person bothered to come to my cubicle to welcome me.
With his accent I only understood one word out of five, but his warmth needed no translation as he introduced himself and handed me a corporate t-shirt he'd just brought back from a conference.
"I thought you might like this. I brought it back from L.A." He pushed his gift into my hands as I blushed.
I didn't recognize him as the engineer in the lab at my interview months ago.
I couldn't know he was my future husband.
I didn't even catch his name.
This became quite embarrassing when a couple weeks later, as I was working alone in the lab, the phone rang.
"Could I please talk to A," the caller asked.
"A?" Though I was slowly sorting out my colleagues' names by then, I'd never heard of A. What's more, "A" sounded like no first name I'd ever heard in my life, more like syllables pushed through a potato masher.
"A. You know, the French guy. He works in the lab a lot."
I had the caller repeat the name then spell out the letters, and with a post-it note in hand, I sheepishly went off to find someone who could interpret. When I tried to read back what I'd written, I inversed the vowels and slammed down hard on the normally silent final consonant. I'd studied Spanish, and hadn't the slightest clue about French pronunciation.
Once I knew who he was (and learned to pronounce his name correctly), "A" and I started spending lots of time chatting together in the lab as we ran tests and disassembled computers. He listened patiently to my sighing complaints about my boyfriend, and consoled me as my first summer in the real world veered from elation to depression. Then one day I learned that he would be leaving the company. It turned out that the very week I'd started working he'd accepted a job offer with a company in Paris.
The going away party was a traditional software geek affair. We took him out for lunch at a local brewery, gave him a baseball cap and a glass beer mug, praised him in rambling speeches and bought him more pints of beer than was entirely reasonable at noon on a weekday. We split the bill equally, and I remember grumbling that I'd have to pay $20 for a burger when I hadn't even had anything to drink.
That afternoon we said goodbye to each other and made the standard empty promise to keep in touch. "Maybe we'll see each other again if you're ever, you know, in Paris," he offered. I agreed, thinking secretly that there was nothing more appealing or more absurd. In Paris? Me?
As "A" headed to the parking lot, the contents of his cubicle in a cardboard box, he hesitated just before turning in his badge at the reception desk.
He was moving back to Paris, and was honestly relieved to be leaving the US, a place where he'd been lonely and unhappy ever since he'd graduated from the University of Connecticut and started working. And from our long conversations in the lab, he knew that I was just as lonely and unhappy, but I was also in a relationship and engaged to be married. It couldn't work. It was stupid and senseless to think otherwise. But if he didn't try, he knew he would wonder for the rest of his life What If.
It was much later when I learned all that, of course. All I knew was that less than five minutes after saying goodbye, "A" was back in my cubicle, mumbling and staring at his feet while asking me if I'd like to go out to dinner with him before he left town. I accepted with the unexpected relief of someone who moments ago thought they'd said goodbye forever. A dinner out with a good friend. An excuse to try a new Mexican restaurant in Cambridge. With a little luck, a chance to make my neglectful fiancé a little jealous. All excellent reasons to say yes. There was no reason to think that it would lead anywhere, or delay our goodbye more than one evening. There was no reason to think that his what-if wager would become a serious twist of our respective fates.
I don't know if it was the extra pints of beer that gave him the nerve to do it, but if so, it was the best $20 I'll ever spend in my life.
(To be continued.)