When I was 20, a man I barely knew proposed without a ring. I said yes.
Our friends were alarmed about our fast decisions to marry and move from Tennessee to New York City. I got a handwritten letter from an elder at church suggesting I wait to get to know my fiance better. His friends held a tearful intervention. One of our beloved professors questioned the decision. My mother referred to my fiance not by his name – David – but by the nickname “rank stranger.”
But we were in love. After refusing pre-marital counselling (we didn’t need it, we insisted), David and I got married and moved to Gramercy Park. We could see the Empire State Building at night when it was illuminated, if we craned our necks while sitting on our creaky fire escape.
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My life was as romantic as a love song. Then, after one week of marriage, the phone rang. “May I speak to David?” asked a sultry-voiced woman. Reluctantly, I handed my new husband the phone, which he quickly hung up. “Wrong number,” he said.
A few hours later, it rang again. Another woman. I dusted near the phone, so I could eavesdrop. Did my seemingly loyal husband have a double life? Another wrong number, he said. I believed him, until the phone rang at 3am. And 4. The calls became more regular, at all hours of the day and night. It got so common, I was no longer surprised when the breathy voices on the other end of the line morphed into sighs of disappointment.
He always got off the phone, exasperated. Or was it an act? I took messages when he was out. Desiree. Brandy. Jill. In some cases, they were testy when I said he wasn’t there. One woman started crying: “We were together just yesterday.”
“Where?” I demanded.
“In SoHo,” she said. I thought about this. My husband worked at a Midtown law firm during the day, or so he told me. Had I made a terrible mistake? My friends were right; I didn’t even know him. Maybe our relationship was all a ruse. I’d heard stories of people getting married only to realise their spouse had a double life.
“Are we talking about the same David? Tall, blond?”
“And handsome,” she added sarcastically. “Are you going to tell me I have the wrong number? I’m looking at the note he wrote me now. 212…” She read the number. It was definitely ours.
I was confused and hurt. Instead of hearing the female callers’ voices on the phone, I heard only the unheeded warnings of friends clanking in my head. “What’s really going on?” I finally mustered the courage to confront him. “Wrong numbers usually don’t ask for you by name.”
But David was just as confounded as I was. At least he appeared to be. Finally, a man called.
“Sorry, he’s at work,” I said.
“All work should go through me,” he spat. I wasn’t sure how law firms allocated cases, but apparently David was doing it wrong. I began to take a message.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’ve known David for years,” he shot back. “The real question is: who are you?”
He had a point. I was the new addition. I wanted love so badly that I ignored any inconvenient details – like barely knowing the man I married.
“I’m his wife.” The new label felt heavy in my mouth. Silence for a beat. Then two.
“Why didn’t he tell me about you?” he exploded.
“It was spontaneous,” I said, before launching into a defence of getting married quickly, but with less enthusiasm than I would have before the calls started.
“I’ll be right over,” he said. “Don’t talk to anyone. We have to fix this.”
“I am not a problem to be fixed!”
“Are you…” he paused, then lowered his voice. “Pregnant? Expecting a little David Lee? A kid will really hurt our comeback.”
“Lee?” I asked. “My husband’s middle name is Austin. What comeback?”
“I know my own client’s middle name.”
“Client?” I asked. “I’m talking about David French, the attorney.”
“I’m talking about David Lee Roth, the singer.”
Even those who spent the 1980s trying to figure out the Rubik’s Cube were aware of David Lee Roth leading Van Halen to worldwide fame. He had a long mane of golden hair, acrobatic stage moves made possible by his brightly coloured spandex. The rock star was always surrounded by gaggles of women. My David wore glasses and suits and sometimes dressed up for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movie premieres.
There’d been a big mix-up. Apparently, the rock star had changed his number right before we moved to Manhattan but still gave out his old number to women he met but wanted to let down easily. Later that year, he appeared on MTV with Van Halen. When rumours of them getting back together started flying, our phone rang with congratulations and invitations to exclusive parties.
That’s how – for a brief period of time – we became David Lee Roth’s answering service and romantic liaison. “Do a lot of other women call here?” a teary caller asked, but my husband let her down gently. At one point, we even fielded a call from Roth’s dad.
Once we put this puzzle together, the man on the other end of the phone line – his agent, I realised – sighed in relief. Soon, we were both laughing. Neither of us had been betrayed. But during the short time it took for David Lee Roth to transition to a new telephone number, I’d started to doubt the man I married. How precarious love is, I thought back then. Surprisingly, it turned out to be quite resilient.
Ours outlasted Manhattan; Ithaca, New York; Philadelphia; two cities in Kentucky; and three cities in Tennessee. Our love survived a harrowing deployment to Iraq. It survived two parents with cancer, a lump in my breast, a chronic disease. It lasted when jobs, friends and vehicles didn’t. It survived when the months lasted longer than the paychecks. It’s thrived through one difficult pregnancy, one premature birth, an adoption that spanned two continents, horrible heartbreak and unspeakable joy.
Over the years I’ve learned that our desire for others does not mean we are an inconvenience or a problem to be solved. As beautifully described in the immortal words of Van Halen’s hit song: “You got to roll with the punches and get to what’s real.”
I’m very glad that, when I was 20, I made the decision to marry the “rank stranger”.
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