A month or two after Steve and I got engaged, I had lunch with a friend and former colleague, Thomas. Thomas and I go back almost fifteen years, having met the day I started my first full-time faculty position. He and I had both joined the Language and Literature department of a small state university in Georgia in the fall of 2000, I as an assistant professor fresh out of grad school, he as the new department head established in his academic career. He became a valued mentor as we bonded over our shared status as newbies to the college. We’d left Georgia at the same time, as well, when he and his wife Anne Marie moved to Switzerland, where he’d accepted a professorship, the year I moved to Virginia.
We’ve stayed in touch and have found opportunities for the occasional reunion, the last a family holiday gathering in 2011. When Thomas emailed he would be stateside and passing through my stomping grounds in June, I made plans to meet him. Over sandwiches at Panera, he caught me up on his new book and Anne Marie’s library and translation work, and I filled him in on my memoir-in-progress and my engagement to Steve.
Then, Thomas asked me a really interesting question.
“So,” he said, setting his cup on the table and peering at me through wire-rimmed glasses. “I have to ask. After all these years, how did you know?”
“That’s Steve’s the one?” I said. Thomas nodded.
The cynic in me was tempted to reply, because he asked, and no one else ever did. But that wasn’t entirely true, and it wasn’t the real answer to the question, anyway. “Well,” I said. “I guess the first thing that comes to mind is—because of how he treats me. He’s a genuinely good man, and he’s good to me, and it’s…well, it’s easy.”
Thomas gave a nod of recognition and smiled.
“It’s funny,” I continued, “because all these years, people have been telling me things like, when it’s the right one, you’ll know. It will be easy. And I would sort of nod along, yeah, sure.” I sipped my tea. “But I think that’s true. It is easy. Not in the sense that there aren’t complexities. But there is a sense of ease, of rightness. There’s an effortlessness to being together.”
Thomas nodded more vigorously and said, “Yes. Yes, that’s good.”
“And then there’s this other piece that’s going to sound kind of weird,” I said. “Sometimes it seems a little weird to me, anyway.”
Thomas raised his eyebrows.
“Well,” I said, “Steve is the man most like my father of any man I’ve ever dated.”
At that, Thomas burst out laughing. But he kept nodding.
Funny story: the first time Steve met my dad, we were in Asheville. My mom had just spent a week with me, and Steve and I were delivering her back to my dad at about the halfway point between Virginia and Georgia. We’d planned on lunch together, and Steve had worn a short-sleeved, blue-based-plaid button-down, jeans, and running shoes. He usually went untucked in casual settings, but he’d tucked his shirt in that day, he later said, because he figured my dad would be a tucker. Steve, my mom, and I arrived first, and we saw Dad drive by and park down the street from the small city park where we were waiting. He emerged from the car and began to walk toward us—wearing a short-sleeved, blue-based plaid button-down, tucked into his jeans, with running shoes.
Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that there was any physical resemblance between my father and my fiancé, though both are tall and lanky, with bright blue eyes and beautiful smiles. (And, apparently, a penchant for plaid.) In fact, science supports the idea that people are often drawn to partners who resemble their parents in various ways, both in physicality as well as personality. The “prototype hypothesis” acknowledges—minus any icky Oedipal overtones—how parent-child relationships may well provide a template for future relationships. One study published in the July 2007 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior revealed that a woman is especially likely to be drawn to men who look like her father if she had a good childhood relationship with him. (If not, she may be more inclined to reject suitors who bear a strong resemblance.) And according to a University of Iowa study, men tend to marry women who share traits with their mothers, especially when it comes to education and career choices. Steve’s mother and I—both born in the South and fond of pretty tchotchkes—share a love of language and writing, and she trained and briefly worked as a journalist.
Steve is very much like my dad, and not just in his sartorial choices. Like my dad, he is a genuinely good and caring man. Both are solid, stable forces. Each is quick with a hug, quick to lend a helping hand. My dad is a bit more stoic, but Steve’s temperament is also even-keeled, a good complement to my more mercurial nature. Both men are mathematically-minded and prone to pore over maps. Both can also be overly invested in their work-life, and each leans conservative in some areas, characteristics that sometimes challenge me. Neither is a banterer or jokester, but each has a way of surprising you with a funny or clever comment when you least expect it.
There are differences, too, of course. Steve is more of an outdoor adventurer than my dad. Steve hates anything related to yard-work, while my dad plants a garden every year; my dad enjoys watching sports, while Steve follows only his home team, and pretty loosely at that. They have different ideas about religion, travel, and retirement. Their early histories are poles apart—my dad lived from childhood until college in the same rural Texas town, while Steve, the son of a Navy officer, moved often and, literally, around the world.
Still, they share some of the best and most important qualities. Both men have generous hearts and lively minds. They each treat others with kindness and respect. And both place great value on lifetime learning, and taking care with and of the ones they love.
I could do worse (and I have…) than falling in love with a man like my father. Given how much respect and love I hold for my dad, it was hard to imagine I’d find someone who more than lived up to his example. Then Steve showed up, and all that stuff I’d dismissed as empty assurances—it will be easy, it will feel right—was suddenly real and true.
So, that’s the real answer to Thomas’s question: how did I know, after all these years?
It was easy. And I just knew.