Four tales from the heart in the modern age

Our city's greatest literary lion had mixed feelings about love. “The most dangerous food is wedding cake,” James Thurber once wrote. It's hard to argue with the sentiment. To find The One is to find incomparable joy. But the search is a gamble that leaves us exposed and vulnerable. And it's gotten more complicated since Thurber walked the streets of Columbus. Loss, regret, longing, passion—Thurber would recognize all those things today. But career mobility? Work-life balance? iPhones? Not so much. In honor of Valentine's Day, we offer four stories from the frontlines of romance in our city today.

The Fan Who Loved Me

By Nancy Richison

When I married Marty, I also married the team he loved.

Baseball was Marty's first love. I knew that going in. He had grown up listening to the Cleveland Indians on the radio and could recount the unique, if not downright comical, pronunciations of the legendary former player and '70s Tribe TV announcer Mudcat Grant: “Now at the plate, a young man from Fahs-toe-REE-uh, Ohio …” As I fell for Marty, baseball became a part of my life, too. And I soon discovered that diamonds can be a girl's best friend. As in softball diamonds. Our first dates were at places named Berliner, Tuttle and Linden parks, since Marty played or coached softball seven days a week.

When Marty wasn't playing or coaching, he was watching or listening. He loved the Tribe and had survived every unfulfilled promise and dashed hope since the curse of Rocky Colavito in 1960. Every April, it was, “This is the year,” and every October, it was, “There's always next season.”

Not long after we were married in 1990, things actually did start to get better for Cleveland. We were watching on Oct. 17, 1995, when the Indians took Game 6 in the ALCS to beat Seattle and an ecstatic Mike Hargrove told Herb Score, “Hey, Herbie, guess what? We're going to The Show!”

I told Marty he should go, too, but tickets were hard to come by since the Tribe hadn't been to the World Series since 1954 and hadn't won since 1948. A story in the Dispatch mentioned a train enthusiast who was trying to get people excited about rail travel again. To entice riders, he offered a trip to Cleveland and tickets to a game. We gathered a group of friends and took to the rails. It was a memorable experience—including the fanfare along the way with old-timey brass bands playing as we pulled into small junctions from here to Jacobs Field.

The '95 Indians lost in six games to the Braves, but two years later, they were back in it. Once again, I told Marty he should go. My previous argument, “What if it's your only chance to see the Indians in the World Series?” wasn't as believable anymore now that they were contenders, but he had yet to see them win it all. This time, he managed to find a friend who could get us two tickets. They lost the series that year again, in the seventh game to the Marlins, but we were starting to believe we might go to The Show every couple of years.

I kept hoping that the Indians would pull out a World Series win for Marty. Throughout our marriage, Marty was in and out of the hospital every few years battling Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia, a cancer of the lymphatic system. I would get frustrated when the Indians would start the season promising and then fade. Unlike my fair-weather tendencies, however, Marty was a stalwart fan, watching or listening to every game he could, even during the down years.

Marty tried not to let his cancer interfere with his life and even played softball despite his hemoglobin being at dangerously low levels. He was a pitcher, and I worried every time there was a ball hit straight up the middle. He often had bruises on his shins that simply never healed. If he could play ball, even get injured, it meant he was alive. That's how he preferred to live. That is, until he became a father, and there was suddenly a lot more at stake. He hung up his cleats, boxed the trophies and stored them in the basement.

In early August 2010, Marty entered the hospital for what would be the last time. Following complications from a surgical procedure, he needed a ventilator to help him breathe, so he wasn't able to speak to us. Most nights, I sat by his bed and held his hand as we watched the Tribe together. I can't remember any of those games, but I do remember one night he motioned for the paper and pen that he used to communicate. “I'm better when you're here,” he wrote. “So am I,” I told him.

I never wanted those days in the ICU at Riverside Hospital to end. But cancer has no season, and there isn't always next year. We held his funeral on Aug. 30—the day before his 57th birthday. Before the calling hours, despite the video filled with family memories and the framed photos on easels around the room, something was missing. I couldn't feel his presence. I went home and found his favorite Cleveland Indians baseball cap. I placed it on the wooden urn that held his ashes. I felt better. He was there, still supporting his Tribe. Of course, by this time, they trailed the Central Division-leading Twins by 22 games. Somehow, it's fitting that they lost that night, 10-6, to the White Sox in 11 innings.

It was hard not to think about Marty as I watched the Indians charge through the 2016 season. They swept Boston in the playoffs and fended off Toronto to get to the Cubs, creating a battle of the perennial also-rans. Friends commented on how Marty would have loved the 2016 Indians. I realized I needed to share the season with those who loved him. We organized a get-together at Miller's Ale House to watch Game 2 and raise a glass in his honor. Damn, if the Indians didn't lose that game. Just when the Tribe started making it look easy by going up three games to one, they blew it again, allowing the Cubs to win the Series in Game 7.

But, oh, what a glorious season it was. And with pitchers and catchers reporting this month, I'm excited for another one to begin soon. As Marty taught me, a new year always brings hope.

Lost & Found

By Molly Willow

Getting fired was my chance to abandon Columbus. Then John gave me a reason to stay.

In 2009, I was one of 45 people cast off by the Dispatch. It was before getting laid off was the cool thing to do in journalism, and I had absolutely no idea it was coming. I should have, given the economy. But I was young and had a high opinion of myself.

I was the TV critic and had been there almost five years. A couple years earlier, I even won Best Critic in Ohio from a journalism organization, so when “the D” announced that there would be layoffs, I naively thought that talent would matter, and that I had it. Instead, I got an email with the news at 7 a.m. and ended up in a puddle on my floor, heaving with sobs. I scared my dog.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and came out to Ohio for college. I meant to move home. My parents certainly meant for me to move home. If I was going to leave Columbus after eight years, unemployed and single was my moment.

Because of John, I missed it.

John and I had been on two dates when I got canned. After we were introduced by mutual friends, he called on Valentine's Day to ask me to a Blue Jackets game. We huddled for warmth with my big fuzzy coat draped over our knees. I'm pretty sure he was actually cold, and this wasn't just him making a move. But either way, well played.

For our second date, he took me to Hyde Park steakhouse at Crosswoods. The prices made me nervous, but I also was relieved. He'd been so casual, putting off a friend-zone vibe at the hockey game—I think we waved goodbye at the end of the night—that I wasn't really sure it was a date. But a $40 steak cleared that up. As we sat in the booth together, I remember willing him to be as funny, smart, kind and interested in me as he seemed. And he was. After dinner, we saw a movie neither of us remembers at Marcus Theatres (I wanna say “Taken”), and as music blared before the movie, we bonded over our shared dislike of U2.

Our third date was a few days after I lost my job. We had planned to celebrate John's birthday before I got the news, and the evening turned into a wake for my career. We went to the dearly departed Betty's in the Short North, and he let me pay, seeming to know how important it was for me to pick up the check, even though I was about to stop earning one. After that, we went on a fourth date and a fifth, and then we were sort of never apart.

John always told me at the end of a date when he'd call or see me next. At a time when my future was so uncertain, he never left me in suspense. It told me a lot about him that he didn't bail on a newly unemployed chick. I should have been going through a horrible period of self-doubt and grieving over the career I lost, but he distracted me with nights out in the Short North, nights in on my couch and all the support I needed, without ever making me feel like a charity case.

I'd like to say that we explored some of Columbus' free diversions, like the Metro Parks or libraries, but really we just watched a lot of Reds and Cavs games, and, for some reason, Forensic Files. At first I missed happy hours and live bands, but our “leisure lifestyle,” as we called my forced free time, was close to perfect.

After we'd been dating about six months, John bought a house in Westerville. During my time in Columbus, I had lived in Grandview, North Campus and the Short North. I loved being able to walk to nightlife, surrounded by activity. But he had been living with two dudes to save money and couldn't take the shared bathroom anymore.

Eventually, I became a suburbanite. Instead of walks around Goodale Park with my dog, Lennie got to play fetch in a giant backyard where he could run around like the maladjusted gazelle he is. I switched to watching Ohio State football games from the couch and had to admit, the view was pretty good.

John proposed in our backyard, which we both considered ours even before he offered it to me with a ring. We got married on the same day as Will and Kate in 2011 and, two years later, had our daughter, followed two years after that by our son. Our kids are wonderful, exhausting, hilarious, infuriating and adorable. Thanks to them, we eventually got around to exploring those Metro Parks and libraries and got memberships to the Columbus Zoo, COSI and the Columbus Art Museum.

I've lived many lives in Columbus: broke unemployed college grad, single young professional, broke unemployed professional, stay-at-home mom and now, working wife and mother. I moved to Ohio for college, wanting to find a way to write for a living. I had no expectations of staying here, or ever getting married or having kids, mostly because my parents now have been married 47 years and still seem to genuinely like each other. It seemed like a practically unattainable standard to meet.

Turns out it's not. I found my love, and my best life, in Columbus, Ohio.

Love Can Wait

By Holly Zachariah

I gave up on romance to focus on my son and career. Was it the right choice?

At first, everybody thought it was funny. Starting in my late 20s, it was all just one big joke, and every weekly visit to my grandma's house started out the same.

“Have you had any dates?” asked Grandma.

“No,” I'd say with a smile. “No dates.”

She would rock back in her faded recliner, give her white-haired head a shake and let go that deep, you-silly-child snort that only a wise old woman can pull off.

At holiday dinners and summer cookouts, the rest of the family would join in.

“Hey, Holly. Got a boyfriend? Met anyone special?”

“Nope,” I would answer. “Not yet.”

Laughs all around.

The years went on. I turned 30, then 35, and the questions never changed. The laughter did. Somewhere along the way, it turned nervous, maybe even a little uncomfortable. And after my 40th birthday, no one was laughing anymore.

Except me. This multi-decade drought didn't really bother me at all. Truth be told, I had nothing but heartache in my rearview mirror and more important things visible through my windshield. At first, this aversion to romance wasn't conscious. Frankly, I just didn't have time for it when my son was a baby. I was a single parent working three jobs and taking care of my dying mom and a brother. Trust me, my priority was just finding the time and money to get breakfast on the table each morning; there was no energy left over to worry about how to get a man in my bed at night.

Then somewhere along the way, it simply became a lifestyle. I told pretty much anyone who would listen that I was determined to raise a husband, not a son. After all, our kids grow up to be someone's partner, right? Don't we want them to be the good, loving and responsible ones who are strong and independent?

I wanted my Justin to know how to do his own laundry, cook his own meals, clean the house, pay the bills. Consequently, I made a decision to stay laser-focused on being a mom, on making sure this tiny bundle of cuteness and clumsiness grew up to be a man who put others before himself and could take on the world alone if he had to, no matter how ugly it may turn.

And all the while, I was equally committed to my career as a journalist. I wanted to be—no, I needed to be—the kind of reporter who was good at her job and made a difference.

So this was the life I chose, with only the rarest of exceptions. No candlelit dinners, no hand-holding in theaters, no long walks, intimate vacations or even Saturday morning quiet over a shared pot of coffee and a newspaper.

As my son got older and started spending less time with me and more time with his friends, I adjusted. I was content to spend evenings alone at home and occasionally even eat macaroni and cheese (homemade with three kinds of cheese; I am not a barbarian) straight from the pan.

Slowly, my confidence grew, and I learned to do most everything alone. Go see a movie, hike on Sundays, visit the zoo, take in a Friday night play at the Ohio Theatre or buy a single ticket to a couple of concerts each year. And yes, friends, I am even brave enough to eat by myself at a restaurant on a Saturday night.

But I also have to acknowledge something else at work besides my desire to avoid shaving my legs every day in the winter to impress a man. I'm a crime reporter. If I intersect with you professionally, there's a good chance you're experiencing your darkest moments. That kind of work helps me count my blessings and look for the hope and light in even the most heartbreaking of times. But the reality is that I have spent a great deal of my career watching parents make decisions out of desperation that tragically change their child's trajectory forever. I learned young lives can be destroyed when adults put their own needs first.

So you know what I decided? I would rather spend my free time when I get settled in at the end of a hectic day by reading. Or writing a letter to a friend. Or weeding my garden. Or relieving stress by pulling on my boxing gloves and whaling on the heavy bag that hangs from my basement rafter.

None of this is to say that single parents who date responsibly and meet wonderful life partners—or even just a mediocre Saturday night one—are doing it wrong. On the contrary, most of them may well be happier than I am. But I also know my personality requires that everything I do gets 100 percent of my focus all the time. I don't do well when I divide my energies; a kid and a career had to be enough.

Make no mistake, now that I am staring down 50 and my son will graduate from college in May, I have second-guessed myself aplenty. Was I wrong to so rarely expose him to a healthy relationship, or to any relationship at all? Was I wrong to not let him see that it is OK as a parent and a human to take time for yourself, that adults have wants and needs? Was I wrong to not let him see me love?

I ask the questions, yes, but my answers always come back “no.” We have talked about my lifestyle and, while he admits he worries about me being alone now that he's gone from home, he respects my past choices. He says he admires the strength it took to raise a family alone. He is happy, well-adjusted and has had only healthy relationships of his own. For that I am grateful. And who knows? Maybe it isn't too late even for me.

Reconnecting...

By Chris Gaitten

When Emily moved 9,000 miles away, technology made our separation bearable. Except when it didn't.

I'm sitting in a bar in Franklinton, a week before Christmas, when I realize I'm the jerk now. I'm with a friend I haven't seen since Memorial Day, my head down, texting while he talks. I don't care. It's 6:15 in the evening, and my girlfriend just woke up. I need to tell her good morning.

Emily has been gone since April 14, the day she moved to Sri Lanka for work. Her boss asked her to go for a year. I didn't want her to go at all, not even for a month—we'd been dating for about a year and a half, and the longest we'd been apart was three days. But the opportunity was too good to pass up; she knew it, and so did I.

So we planned and packed and completed a whirlwind tour of her favorite Columbus restaurants. Our friends held a farewell party to celebrate all the holidays she'd miss. She ate a smoked turkey leg for Thanksgiving, and we shot Independence Day fireworks into a chilly April night.

A week later, she boarded a plane bound for Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, 9,000 miles away. I drove away from the airport alone.

I often wonder what this experience would have been like any time before now. I imagine maritime cargo once included precious bundles of love letters, meticulous cursive notes whose fate was at the mercy of the tides. In the Netflix series Chef's Table, Lara Gilmore described the art of the international romance circa 1993: She wooed her future husband Massimo Bottura by sending hand-drawn faxes between New York and Italy. It seems quaint now, just 24 years later, when the other side of the world is only an app away.

Instantaneous mobile technology has made our far-flung lives much more convenient. Emily and I can message each other so seamlessly that she may as well be at Easton instead of in Asia. The ability to maintain the connection, those little stolen moments of the day, makes the separation more tolerable. Yet Columbus is muted without her, and my head lingers somewhere overseas.

Sri Lanka is nine and a half hours ahead during daylight saving time, and though iPhones are useful for spanning the distance, they don't help with time travel. We've used Apple's FaceTime video-calling app to talk during countless Sri Lankan breakfasts, and I've helped her decide between outfits for work. She put me down to brush her teeth, to pull clothes from the washer, to combat the ants scurrying across her counter.

I've watched her navigate mornings on a tropical island while the familiar dark of an Ohio night closes around our quiet Grandview house. It's lonesome, but I can't even begin to fathom how lonely those evenings would be if it wasn't for the sight of her face, the sound of her voice and the frequent buzzing of the phone.

In October, Emily was brought home six months early to work in the Columbus office. But nine days later she was reassigned to Hong Kong until Christmas, throwing our relationship back into international status without warning. Our near-constant messaging alleviates the continued ache of being apart, but it has a tendency to make our extraordinary circumstance feel routine. The conversations aren't that different—we discuss mundane workday details, tell inside jokes, chat about her unyielding love of puppies. The difficulty comes in conveying the real, immediate emotion behind “I love you” and “I miss you” via continual daily texts. Repetition becomes an enemy, rendering everything less meaningful.

The ease of digital communication also means that every tiny crisis is transmitted in real time. It's nice to have an outlet for the daily stress, to share it with the person I care about most, but the distance prevents us from making each other feel much better. Nothing I say has the same healing effect as cozying up together for a night of wine and mindless TV. Sitting through meetings with my pocket vibrating, knowing she's upset, is torture. Idly waiting around for the phone to buzz is worse.

And like doomed, seafaring love letters, even the latest technology fails sometimes; our phones stopped sending and receiving messages recently, without us realizing it. I spent three unnerving hours wondering why she'd never responded or texted when she woke up, while the darkest parts of my imagination churned. Then, like magic, the buzzing returned.

These glitches strike frequently. My FaceTime calls only go through about half the time now, waylaid by some nefarious Wi-Fi ghosts haunting her Hong Kong hotel. Our conversations also stalled regularly after her arrival in Sri Lanka, her expression freezing in place on my screen. Then a “reconnecting…” message would appear and leave us both staring at our devices, waiting.

Emily's time abroad is nearly over. We've been using FaceTime during my morning routine because Hong Kong is 13 hours ahead, just one more wrinkle in managing an intercontinental love affair (which sounds so much more intriguing than a long-distance relationship). I called while finishing breakfast a few days ago, and the first thing I saw was blackness. Then I saw the ceiling of her hotel room, and then her beautiful face, laughing. She'd forgotten it was a video call and picked up while holding the phone to her ear. Eight months in and we're still adjusting.

Modern technology has been essential to our time in limbo, unequivocally. But it still has limits. It creates the illusion of proximity with none of the closeness. I've fallen asleep more than once with my phone grasped tightly, anticipating the telltale vibration, a poor substitute for the real thing. Emily often twitches just as she's falling asleep, an electric jolt that runs through her muscles and into mine. She whispers an apology then pulls me closer. These are the irreplaceable, idiosyncratic moments I miss most.

She's in the air as I'm writing this, 30,000-some feet high, hurtling eastward. She'll land in a matter of hours. Then she'll text me. I'm waiting for the phone to buzz one last time—waiting, waiting, waiting—to drive away from the airport whole again.