July 20 was a Friday in 2001 and Valerie was in Richmond to move more of her stuff into VCU’s West Broad apartment complex. We had been hanging out and flirting since around April, when our mutual friend Kenny asked me to intervene in their friendly bickering about his long, luxurious eyelashes. Joking over AOL Instant Messenger led to group hang outs and awkward, nervous chats in real life. But I had a plan for that night. I was going to ask her out.
I think maybe nine of us met up to catch a screening of America’s Sweethearts, the sort of coordinated group effort you just don’t see after the days of campus ministry gatherings. Afterward the whole lot of us met up in Richmond’s Meadow Park to enjoy the summer weather and continued conversation. I kept looking for an opportunity to speak privately to Valerie so I could share my feelings but there was a hitch: her sister Elizabeth, 16 at the time, had travelled with her to Richmond. And she talked. A lot. Almost endlessly.
Eventually we walked back toward the block where many of our group lived and my friend Jake (one of the best men at our wedding) seized the moment on my behalf and pulled Elizabeth into conversation so Valerie and I could speak one-on-one. On North Morris, right beside the corral of apartment building trash cans, I glanced sideways at Valerie and muttered, “I like you.”
“I like you, too,” she said.
I sheepishly asked if I could hold her hand and, after she assented, we walked on to sit and chatter in the shadow of Captain Q-tip (the now-removed Confederate artillery monument by VCU’s performing arts building) the way new lovebirds do.
The early days of our relationship were pretty corny, but they kept going. I learned to shut up and be okay with silence, and Valerie learned to open up and tell me what’s on her mind. She taught me most of what I know about art and I introduced her to some of New Jersey’s finer pleasures.
It’s remarkable enough that our marriage has lasted nearly 17 years (not bragging—marriage is hard!), but it’s also wild to me that Valerie stuck around for the 2.25 years that we dated. People change so much between the ages of 19 and 22 that it’s a wonder she still liked the person I was by the time we stood together at the altar.
And here we are twenty years later, aging together with our growing children. We weathered growth into adulthood together. I like to think that our time dating prepared us to face (and sometimes even welcome) the changes in each other for years after. I still like her. She still likes me. And I still think that’s cool.