Today, March 16, 2016, marks the tenth anniversary of the day that Cara and I first met in person. March 16 wasn't an anniversary we celebrated, not like November 4 (our dating anniversary) or June 12 (our wedding anniversary). I had to look up the exact date to verify it. I think if she were still around we'd have done something to mark the occasion this time, perhaps gone to Steak 'n Shake (read on to learn why), but alas, she's not. Despite March 16 not being a date we took much notice of over the years, I think an argument could be made that March 16, 2006 was the most important day of our lives. Because I think that once we had met each other in person, it was all but inevitable that we would eventually fall in love and get married.
Before I recount the story of that day, some backstory is in order.
Early in the year 2006, I think that Cara and I were both people who were looking for something, but neither of us was aware of it at the time. No, neither of us even knew that we were looking for something, much less that what we were looking for, we would find in each other.
She had recently separated and was still working on divorce proceedings after a short marriage that she considered a mistake. In fact, as she later told me, she had settled and decided to get married – at the age of 25 – because she feared she was getting too old! She was also unemployed and looking for a job while earning a little money on the side by making soap. She was always a very creative and artistic type, and it's unfortunate that it's so hard to earn a living doing that sort of thing. As she confided in me years later, Cara was not a very happy person in the time just before we met.
I did not consider myself an unhappy person, but my life was definitely missing something. I was a first year graduate student, and that winter I was closing out my collegiate running career by using a final season of eligibility in indoor track. Outside of the track team, I was a rather antisocial person – I had some friends, but rarely spent time hanging out with people. There was no one in my life who I considered a really close friend.
Cara and I both spent most of our free time on the Internet, and it was there that the initial sparks of our relationship were lit. We both really enjoyed playing a game called Psychobabble. This game was based on magnetic fridge poetry. In each round, the players in a room of up to 12 people would each arrange tiles from a random set of perhaps 60-70 words in order to form sentences. The sentences would then be displayed in a list, with no names attached, and each player would vote on his or her favorite sentence. After the voting, the names of who made each sentence were revealed, and points were awarded based on the number of votes received. The game emphasized verbal skills, quick thinking, and wit, and Cara and I were both excellent at it. Popular sentences in the group we played with were often quite crude or dark – some of it I find embarrassing in retrospect, but hey, I was young. Still, I continue to find something funny about taking a set of innocuous words and creating something really twisted from it.
From the room-wide chats that went on during the games, we realized that there was an unusual concentration of regulars within our group who lived in Central Ohio. (I already lived in Cleveland, but still regularly visited Columbus to see my family, while five others, including Cara, lived in the Columbus area.) Some time early in 2006, an idea was hatched to have a real life meetup of the Central Ohio Psychobabblers. I don't remember whose idea it originally was, but I do know that Cara and I together spearheaded the planning. In chats on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), she and I discussed inviting all the Central Ohioans to a get together.
Back then, whenever I had a chat of any significant length on AIM, I saved a chat log. I think I started doing this because I had previously, in high school, mostly used another messaging client, ICQ, and it saved chat logs automatically. I found that I sometimes enjoyed reading old conversations I had had, so I decided to start saving the logs on AIM, which didn't do it automatically. And now I'm very glad I did, and that I held on to all my files over the years, because it's very interesting for me to be able to look back at the earliest interactions between Cara and myself.
My AIM screen name was jeff3263827. During the very oldest chat I have saved, I asked Cara if she knew what the number represented. She did not. “3263827 is the number of the garbage masher that Han Luke Leia and Chewie were in in Star Wars: A New Hope,” I explained. “How's that for an obscure geeky reference?” So obviously, at this point, Cara knew that my name was Jeff, because it was right there in my screen name. I did not yet know what her name was, and the way she told me was unconventional – and cute, I might add now. She had just switched to a new AIM screen name, Amnesiac Army, and as she explained:
Amnesiac Army: my new aim name is an anagram
Amnesiac Army: it's an anagram of "My name is (my name)"
jeff3263827: i see
Amnesiac Army: i like anagrams.
(This meant that, after taking out the letters from "Amnesiac Army" that would create the words “my name is,” her name consisted of a C, an R, and two As – hence, Cara, because no other name would work.)
Our earliest conversations were largely focused on two topics – Psychobabble, and music. I introduced Cara to the band Ozma, a “geek rock” group with a similar sound, especially early in their career, to Weezer. They had recently become my favorite band, and Cara quickly became quite fond of them as well. Later that year, Ozma would became very significant to our growing friendship when, in August, we traveled to Washington, DC together to see them perform.
In the first months of 2006, we chatted only occasionally. The big breakthrough came when we organized our in person meeting. We invited all of the Central Ohioans in our Babble group to go bowling in the middle week of March, which was picked because it was my spring break so I would be home in Columbus. (Actually, at the start of that week I went to Los Angeles – by myself – to see Ozma play their reunion show in Hollywood – so I was pretty excited to get to tell Cara about the experience in person!)
One funny thing I remember is that, before the bowling meetup, I asked Cara how her name was pronounced – did the first syllable sound like “care,” or like “car”? It's the first one, but for some reason, some people who knew Cara for years never did figure that out.
And so it was on the evening of Thursday, March 16, 2006 at the entrance to the Palace bowling alley in Columbus, Ohio that I first met Cara.
Only one other member of our Psychobabble group actually showed up - Jon, although at the time we didn't really think of each other as Jon, Cara, and Jeff. We thought of each other by our Babble screen names - I was Vogon (short for Vogon Poet, a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference), Jon was goku (short for slickgokubaby), and Cara? I thought of her as Commie, which was short for Communista.
I remember once that my mom saw the Communista screen name on Cara's Flickr account and asked me, "Is… this person a communist?" Like me, Cara was quite liberal on the American political spectrum, but she was not a communist - as she explained to me once in a chat, she "originally got it because of a class [she] was taking in college, also [she] wanted to impress a guy."
Jon and I were the first two to arrive, and we stood there making some uncomfortable attempts at small talk until Cara showed up to complete the trio. Once all three of us were there, we went inside to enjoy some bowling. We were an awkward little group, but we had a good time. We bowled a total of four games, as I recall. Jon won twice; Cara and I once each. We also enjoyed some Galaga in the bowling alley's arcade. The funniest memory from that night came courtesy of the middle-aged Slayer fan named Chuck bowling in the lane next to ours. "Hey," he said, approaching us, "Skinny" (looking at me), "The Nerd" (looking at Jon), "and…" (here he seemed to briefly stumble over what to call Cara) "You." He went on to tell us that we needed to learn the "etiquette of bowling." Apparently one of us had made a faux pas by bowling at the same time as Chuck instead of waiting our turn, and he was upset about this.
Jon and I were both a little scared, I think, but Cara had no trouble settling the issue politely with Chuck. Later, in the parking lot, our group was approached by a drunken man - I don't remember what about - and again, Cara stepped in to handle the conversation like a pro. Both of us shy, nerdy guys were undoubtedly impressed by this short woman's ability to stand up to and converse with anyone.
After bowling, the three of us went to Steak 'n Shake to hang out and talk. Steak 'n Shake would later became a tradition for Cara and me - whenever we drove to New York (usually to the Adirondack Mountains for family vacation), we would stop for dinner at the location in Erie, Pennsylvania. That night, we spent hours just talking and getting to know each other. Cara carried the bulk of the conversation (no surprise there), but she got me talking quite a bit as well. Jon said much less and probably felt left out. Cara and I, on the other hand, were becoming fast friends. She said later that she thought we "could have talked all night." I was very aware then that I was too shy of a person, but there were indications from the start that Cara was bringing me out of my shell.
It was well after midnight when we went home, Cara to her apartment and me to my parents' house. Even though it was the first time we'd met in person, and our relationship at that point was strictly platonic, the lives of Cara and me were already set on a course to becoming intertwined.