I was 23 and had cringingly low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, a trifecta that led me to a therapy group that met monthly in Costa Mesa. On my first day there, I noticed a young man. He was quiet and sat with his arms crossed self-protectively over his chest. I thought I glimpsed a gold band on the ring finger of his left hand. I remember feeling a little stab of disappointment, and that puzzled me: I was dating a guy who worked at the same social services agency I did, and we were in love and exclusive, or so I believed.
During that first session, the young man didn’t say much. But in subsequent sessions, when Rick did speak, his words always cut through anything obscuring the truth, going directly to the heart of whatever was being discussed and sinking straight to the bottom, like a rock dropped into clear water.
Then my world collapsed. It was a humiliating “I-got-dumped” story: I found out my boyfriend was cheating on me with another co-worker. Everyone else in the agency knew about it before I did, which explained a lot of uneasy conversational lapses with co-workers in the week leading up to my unfortunate discovery. So in addition to the hurt and confusion were all their pitying looks.
I wasn’t just heartbroken. I was crushed, devastated, annihilated, hollowed-out and really, really depressed. I couldn’t eat; I had trouble sleeping. I could barely drag myself to the next group therapy meeting, but I’d felt safe there, so I went.
One by one, people took turns sharing what they needed to talk about. But I was uncharacteristically silent and withdrawn. Finally, someone looked around the circle of chairs and commented, “It seems like someone’s not here.” I took a deep breath and said, “It’s me. I’m really not here today. I just feel like I don’t have anything to give.”
I was just staring down at my hands in my lap. I think my pain was obvious to all of them. A quiet fell over the room, the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop kind of quiet.
And Rick spoke into that silence: “Well, I think you’ve got a hell of a lot to give.”
I looked up at him, stunned.
As I sat there, I heard in my head a clear, loud voice saying my first name coupled with his last name. A definite voice, a voice that had no doubt or equivocation in its tone.
I left therapy that day with my head held a little higher.
Outside, Rick invited me to his apartment in Newport Beach for lunch, where he made me a grilled cheese sandwich with a glass of milk. (He cooked. For me. No guy I’d gone out with had ever cooked for me, although I’d prepared meals for several. And the ring? I was mistaken. It was on his right hand.)
Before I left that day to make the drive back to the desert where I lived with my parents near Indio, we exchanged phone numbers and addresses. Yes, addresses. This was before email and smartphones, and landline phone calls could get expensive.
Within a few days, I received the first of many handwritten letters. Unlike Rick’s reserved demeanor in the group, his letters were warm and chatty, full of questions about the things I liked and revelations about himself — the usual trivia that new couples engage in.
One endearing thing he said when we were exchanging “What’s your favorite fill-in-the-blank?” questions was about our favorite flowers. He said, “Today, I like pansies,” which somehow told me that there was room in his worldview for liking lots of different flowers, lots of different things. I found that answer absolutely charming..
At our next group session, we sat together. Later that day, we went for a walk on the beach and stretched out, enjoying the warm sand. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I woke up to find him just sitting there, watching over me with a little smile on his face. I had felt so safe, so comfortable in his presence that I’d drifted off.
We went back to his place — and again he cooked for me, this time, a delicious sticky baked chicken with honey and soy sauce.
At this point, I should tell you a bit about my dating history: I had gone out with several young men whose main objective was sex. Like most young women, I was used to it. Which was why I was surprised later that evening when Rick put sheets on the couch and offered me his bed. He knew intuitively that I needed to take things slowly. He knew how hurt I’d been and that I’d been made to feel like an object, and he wasn’t about to treat me like everyone else had.
The next morning, he wowed me again with pancakes he made — from scratch. No box of Bisquick for this boy. His pancakes were so good that I ate a huge plate of them and then had seconds. The next time I went to see him, he made brownies, but he didn’t put sheets on the couch.
Eleven months later, we were married. As for that voice I heard in my head back in the early days of therapy? I like to think of it as my heart trying on his name like a wedding dress. And it fit, and I never looked back.
The author is a poet and painter in Orange. Her website is KateMacMahonArt.com. She and Rick have two adult children and two grandchildren and are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here.