Novelist Lee Martin's Improbable Second Chance at Love

Lee Martin

My wife, Cathy, tells me she’s not sure she’ll ever get used to hearing the clicking in her artificial knee when she walks. I tell her to take it as a sign that the new joint is working. This is what you do when you love someone. You let that love convince you that nothing but bright days lie ahead. Of course, we know that isn’t true. We know there will be trials and obstacles, but we tend to ignore that fact when the here and now is so gosh-darned wonderful, as it is for Cathy and me. In a sense, we’re still newlyweds, having reconnected 34 years after our teenage romance ended, and then taking our time before deciding to marry.

“Hi, kid,” I say to her some mornings when we wake, and she says, “Hi, kid.” And like that, we start another day.

Love in the later years can be straightforward, easy, modest and down-to-earth. A love that doesn’t have to try too hard. A love with a good deal of confidence in itself. A love that clicks along with very little pain or discomfort.

“Hi, kid,” we say to each other, but those two words say much more than that. They say, I’m filled with thanksgiving. They say, You saved me. They say, We saved each other.

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In a more conventional story of redemption, I’d be able to say that a tremendous wound—the loss of a child, the death of a spouse, a spiral into addiction—brought Cathy and me back together, but the truth is, this is a story of rough edges and hurtful decisions, a story involving other people who didn’t ask to be a part of it. For their sake, there are things I can’t say. You’ll have to trust me when I say there was cause for the fact that after many years apart, I searched for, and finally found, Cathy’s work email on the internet. I held onto it for a good while.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, I used it. My words traveled through the ether from Columbus to Cathy’s home in northern Mississippi, just outside Memphis, Tennessee. I asked if she might be the Cathy Hensley I remembered from Bridgeport, Illinois.

She answered right away. “Yes, it’s me. I’ll write more tomorrow.”

I can’t tell you everything, but I can tell you this: There are no heroes or heroines in this story. There are only human beings driven by loneliness, their despair sounding in the ticking of a clock inside a house where once upon a time two people loved each other, the silence between them now oppressive, or in the hum of a swimming pool filter in the Mississippi dusk while a woman, alone, scans the sky for the first star so she can make a wish that her life might be different. I can tell you how this despair found Cathy and me wanting, each of us living with angry words and voices raw with misery until we felt ourselves surrounded by darkness. When a glimmer of light appeared, all we could do, if we wanted to save ourselves, was move toward it.

To be more direct: Cathy and I were both in long-term marriages, and we were unhappy and had been for some time.

Of course, I didn’t know that about her when I sent that first email and she responded. I only knew I wanted someone to hear my misery, and she was the one I chose. Over the stretch of what now seems a foreign and misbegotten life, I’d never forgotten her, and now we were talking, or at least typing, which to me was a glorious thing. I’d feared she wouldn’t want to talk to me, wouldn’t want her life disrupted. As thrilled as I was to have her brief response, I imagined the next day she might tell me not to bother her. She might tell me to go on and live the life I’d made and not make her a part of it.

Her email the next day, though, was full of memories from our younger years: the poems I wrote and read to her by candlelight; the music we listened to—Jim Croce, Cat Stevens—at the end of a date when we sat in my Plymouth Duster in her driveway, and her mother finally flipped the porch light on and off, signaling Cathy it was time to tell me good night; the Sundays we spent together, going to church, having lunch with my parents or with hers, taking a drive later or maybe a walk. We were teenagers in the rural Midwest. We spent sleepy summer Sundays together, thankful that we had what seemed like all the time in the world.

“What did I call you then?” she asked in her email. “What pet name?”

“Sweets,” I told her. “You whistled the S’s and called me Sweets.”

She gave me her phone number. “Just in case you ever want to use it,” she said.

I didn’t know what I was hoping when I sent that first email, but, looking at that phone number, I sure knew I was in the middle of something thrilling, something that would eventually lead me, even though I considered myself an ethical man, to step out of one life and into another.

After a few months of emailing, I called Cathy at her office. I was as nervous as I’d been when I called to arrange our first date. After all the years, I finally heard her voice, lower and huskier and tinged with a drawl acquired from a long time living in the South.

“Hey Sweets,” Cathy said, and, yes, she whistled the S’s.

We first fell in love when she was 16 and I was 18. One night, some friends and I sat behind her and a group of her friends at a high school basketball game. After a while, for whatever reason, my friends and I decided to move up to the top of the bleachers. I can’t remember a thing about the game itself because I spent most of it looking down at Cathy. I still recall the way she turned her head from time to time to look up at me, and there we were, staring into each other’s eyes—Cathy’s were the most brilliant blue and were made even more stunning by their contrast with her brown hair—and just like that, I was smitten. I was head over heels. I was lovestruck.

I lived in a town 5 miles west of where Cathy lived, but we didn’t know each other. My school consolidated with hers, but by that time I was finishing my first year at the area community college in another town 12 miles from my home. I was on spring break at the time, but one of the friends with me that night was still in high school.

“What’s her name?” I asked him.

“Cathy Hensley,” he said.

“Think she’d go out with me?”

He shrugged.

“Ask her,” I said.

The next day, a Friday, he did just that, and she said yes, yes she would.

That evening, we went to the Avalon Theater, and we watched “American Graffiti,” the iconic George Lucas film about a group of teenagers cruising the streets of Modesto, California, looking for that special Johnny Angel or Venus in Blue Jeans on a high-voltage night in the early ’60s. A movie, so the trailer promised, about “romance, racing, and rock and roll.” Where were you in ’62?

I was 6 years old in the spring of 1962, with nary a thought about romance. Twelve years later, though, I was in the dark Avalon Theater with Cathy Hensley, and I was holding her hand.

Cathy and I dated for four glorious months in 1974. Now, when we tell our story, she always says, “We were in love, but I was young and dumb and thought someone else might be more to my liking.”

Despite my protest, we went our separate ways. I was about as low as low can be, but eventually life went on, and within a year I met someone else and married her. A short time later, the phone rang in our apartment late on a Sunday night, and I was surprised to hear Cathy on the other end of the line.

“What did you do this weekend?” she asked. Her voice was cheery.

I told her my in-laws had come for a visit.

“Just a minute.” I heard muffled voices in the background, and I knew she wasn’t alone. “I have to go,” she said in a rush when she came back on the line.

“Wait,” I said, but it was too late. She was gone.

Still, she’d reached out to me. Whatever the reasons for her abrupt end of our call, the fact remained: I’d heard her voice. I’d have years and years to wonder what might have happened if she’d kept talking. I wouldn’t know the answer to that question until the day I called her in Memphis and she said, “Hey, Sweets.” We were no longer talking the talk of starry-eyed teenagers. We were two people making the turn into their later years, people who’d been hurt but had never forgotten love, people who carried a sweet yearning beneath their scars, people who quickly discovered they were still connected.

“I’m just going to say this,” Cathy wrote to me in an email one evening, “and if you don’t answer me, I’ll understand. I love you.”

“I’m not sure I know what love is anymore,” I wrote back.

But I did know. I couldn’t say the words, not yet, but I knew what I felt for her, and I wanted to trust it was genuine and true.

“Are you going to kiss me?” Cathy asked when we were about to meet face-to-face for the first time since we were teenagers.

“I am,” I said, and I did.

“I knew then,” she told me later. “I knew everything was going to be all right.”

As time went on—time spent together here and there—it became clear that we weren’t just infatuated with nostalgia. We were fully living in our adult lives, and what we were finding there was joy.


We’re no longer young—Cathy’s knee, my sciatica, our various aches and pains—but we’re young enough to get a little giddy in each other’s company and to hold faith that something elemental begun in youth abides—to know, at last, the comfortable pace of love past middle age.

“Here we are in what some might call the autumn of our days.” It was a November night in 2016 when Cathy and I married, and I said these words to her in my vows. “This is our night of beginnings.”

And Cathy said to me, “From this day forward, I will walk, not as an individual, but as your partner.”

The summer of Cathy’s knee replacement, the CAPA Summer Movie Series showed “American Graffiti” in the Ohio Theatre. How we wanted to go, but Cathy was in the first month of her recovery and didn’t feel she could manage it. We had to make do with the memory of the first time we saw that film, our hands pressed together, a first kiss waiting for us at the end of the evening, neither of us aware of the journey we were about to begin.

“We have places to go,” Cathy said to me when she decided to have her knee replaced. “We’re making up for lost time.”

A year after the surgery, she still has a bit of a hobble in her gait, but she’s up and going—we’re up and going.

Cathy and I steady each other. After lives of turmoil, we’ve found peace and balance and support. Today when we walk into the Grove City YMCA, and she says, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to that clicking in my knee,” I hold her hand. I tell her everything is fine. Everything is just as it’s supposed to be. That clicking may be the marking of time passing, or—and I prefer this interpretation—it may be the tempo of our steps matching up as we go through time together, older now and wiser and better able to appreciate the blessings of a life lived in a house full of light where our orange tabby cat, Stella, a rescue from Columbus Humane, divides her day moving between Cathy’s office and mine in search of a lap to curl up in or a pat on the head or a belly rub or just to lie in a patch of sunlight and drift off to sleep, content to be in this house with her humans—this house of love.

Those times when Stella does a somersault while chasing a toy mouse, or arches her back in a scary cat pose, as if she’s never seen us before, or when she lies in our loft with her legs hanging down through the spindles, I tell her she’s a goofy kid.

“Yeah, but she’s our goofy kid,” Cathy says.

Here we are, a trio of rescues moving through life together, thankful for one more day.

The first spring we spent in our new home, a wren made a nest in a wreath that Cathy had hung on our front door. A dove made a nest in our gutter. A mallard hen did the same in the catmint of our landscaping.

“They must feel safe here,” Cathy said.

The wren, the dove, the duck—they came to us in good faith. I didn’t need then, nor do I need now, such signs to tell me that trust binds us. Years ago, I looked into the blue eyes of a brown-haired girl, and it was all I could do to make myself look away. I look into them now, and even though 45 years have passed, I see the girl who captured my heart in 1974.

Morning comes, and I say to Cathy, “Hi, kid.”

“Hi, kid,” she says.

Yesterday is behind us. A new day lies ahead. We rise to meet it.


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Lee Martin is the author of five novels, three memoirs, two short story collections and a book on the craft of writing. His 2006 novel, “The Bright Forever,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Ohio State University.

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