A date that literally changed my life completely. (A version of this story was posted five years ago in my Leap Day thread but this seems like a logical place for it.)
Folks often criticize novels and films for having seemingly unbelievable coincidences that set the plot in motion or wrap things up neatly. What I find fascinating, though, is how often life really can be
novelistic.It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
In 1968 I was 19 and a student at Ohio University in Athens Ohio, a town surrounded by Appalachian wilderness. I had recently broken up with the woman I thought I'd marry. We'd been together two years. The last time I saw her she went suddenly silent in the middle of a conversation and literally walked out of my life forever with no explanation other than a short letter a few weeks later, saying she couldn't make me happy. On Leap Day my best friend drove down to Athens for a visit, and to commiserate.
That evening we were in my dorm room, preparing to go out to a bar, when the phone rang. It was a woman I didn't know; a woman who didn't know me. She and her roommate were bored and wanting male company. Tradition says the female can make the first move in a Leap Year. So she'd randomly dialed a men's dorm room and got me. At first the four of us took turns talking but after a few minutes Marlene and I were in our own world, hogging the conversation, laughing, discussing film, classical music, Shakespeare and my Sophia Loren poster. She was incredibly attractive to me intellectually, and she had a humorous personality. I begged her to meet me at the bar but she refused. She also wouldn't give me her last name, her dorm, or her major. After an hour the conversation ended with her wishing us a good evening. Several days later I got a Peanuts card from her:
Other than that I never heard from her again. A complete mystery woman.
The depression continued for several months, not helped by the death of my German-born grandfather. I stopped going to classes. I dated four women that spring and early summer but each relationship came to a dead end for different reasons. Eventually I pulled myself together. I decided to go to the second summer term to make up for the failed courses. The first three weeks were hell. None of my friends were in town. I was alone and had no luck meeting anyone new.
Three times a week I would climb the hill to the music building for a theory class. Almost from the first day, I noticed an attractive woman who came out of the music building as I was going in or was walking down the hill as I was going up. She was slender, very
short, dark hair, with a face resembling Joan Baez. She carried a French horn case....my favorite instrument! But she never noticed me; our eyes never met. She seemed lost to the world, and infinitely sad. I was utterly intrigued (What do I care that you are wise? Be beautiful! And be sad!
--Baudelaire) but afraid to say anything to her.
Three weeks into the term my best friend once again came to visit. I was outside my dorm, in the early evening, waiting for him to arrive, when I noticed the horn player about 50 yards away. She was talking to a guy, arguing with him, obviously, but too far away to hear what was being said. After a few moments, she left him, walked towards me, and then past me just a few feet away. She was crying. I followed her.
Now, that was so completely unlike me I marvel to this day that I actually did it.
I caught up with her, asked her if I could be any help. She was so startled she didn't scream or slap me
Instead, she confessed her boyfriend had just broken up with her. We continued to walk while I talked. I don't remember what I said but I had her smiling within a few minutes. Then I asked her about her music; she was quite surprised I knew she played horn. (Today she'd probably call campus security to come arrest the stalker
) She said the school orchestra was rehearsing the Dvorak 8th...which I'd heard the Cleveland Orchestra perform at the university the previous quarter. Within fifteen minutes she'd reluctantly agreed to a date the following monday (a walk to the duck pond on the far side of the campus--I was penniless). By that time we were back at the dorms. My friend pulled up at that very instant. I introduce him to Marlene...my new girlfriend.
No, at that point I didn't know who she was. I didn't make the connection to the phone call. But a week later she left a note in my mailbox; I recognized the tulips and musical notes she always added to her missives. 10, 000 coeds on campus and the woman who had randomly dialed my number turned out to be the horn player I secretly had a crush on. See, Hollywood, and novels, aren't so unrealistic after all
I don't remember much about that first date at the pond but it went well and we spent an exclusive, idyllic, and often pastoral (in the surrounding fields and woods) three weeks together until the end of the summer quarter. She seemed to be my ideal woman in almost every way. She once played Siegfried's horn call from the roof of the music building as I was coming up the hill to class. She knew how to please a Wagnerite
So five months after our telephonic meeting, I met and dated her in person through sheer coincidence...or, as I like to call it, merciless fate. Because, you see, (this is another novelistic coincidence), she had the same birthday as the woman who'd broken my heart: 25 February. Marlene was another destructive Pisces. Two months after meeting her, I was once again dumped, and I was devastated. I literally gave up. I quit going to class, knowing this time it was terminal. No possibility for probation now if I failed another quarter. One demon Pisces I could handle. Two, though...well, that was just God kicking me in the ass, showing me the way to my true profession
While home during the Christmas holidays, the university sent me a letter, saying I need not bother returning to campus. I enlisted in the army six weeks later...and that led to a career I hadn't expected, and led me eventually to Germany and the girl who would become Mrs. Rock.
Epilogue: Marlene became a professional hornist. She was, is, a member of several east coast orchestras and chamber groups. And she teaches at the university level. I met her once more, by accident, five years later at Severance Hall in Cleveland at a Bruckner concert (Barenboim conducting the Ninth). That's an interesting story too....well, interesting to me.