We’re so conditioned to think we know what love looks like, how it feels, that sometimes we miss it. Love stories in books, on TV, and in movies typically tell us the same things about what love is. It’s big. It’s loud. It’s incandescent happiness. It’s a stun gun to our hearts.
In fiction, romance starts with those thunderbolt moments, but in real life, the less dramatic weather events are the ones we can sustain. So for me, and I’m guessing plenty of others, it was more sun on my face than claps of thunder, and I’m grateful to my (much) younger self that I had the good sense (or the good fortune) to take a chance on it.
I was 22. I had just moved to San Francisco from New York City to be the features editor at T3 magazine, and I was living on the adrenaline of reinventing myself in a city that was bursting at the seams with the excitement of the first dotcom boom. I made two instant (and lifelong) friends in my two roommates, and I was having the time of my life.
So when I was introduced to my executive editor Sean Downey, a warm, clever grey-haired guy with the loudest and most infectious laugh I’d ever heard, romance wasn’t really on my mind. But we became almost instant friends, and he challenged me at work, knocking some of the 22-year-old smugness right off my face. He was quick-witted and genuine, and it was the easiest friendship of my life. We just got each other. We’d spend hours drinking coffee and Bloody Mary’s at our favorite brunch spots, go out for drinks after work, and see movies together at the Embarcadero.
I know what you’re thinking because my friends said it at the time. It sounds like you were dating. But still, to this day, I swear it wasn’t like that. We were attracted to each other, but I was so worried about risking the incredible and vibrant friendship and the work relationship that had become invaluable to me that I didn’t want to act on it. He had become my career mentor and my best friend, and I was afraid of ruining it.
The day it changed was a blink-and-you-can-miss-it kind of day, but you could have filmed it, set it to a pop song, and made a killer rom-com montage out of it. It was a Saturday, and Sean was supposed to go to a friend’s wedding in Santa Cruz. He asked me to go to the mall with him to find a gift because he liked to wait until the last minute for that kind of thing (read: he still does).
We spent the rest of the day roaming around the mall, talking about everything and nothing, making each other laugh until we cried (or maybe that was just me). At one point, he grabbed my hand as we walked, and I remember thinking it felt really good to hold his hand. And instead of going to the wedding, we went to the movies and saw a really dumb Cuba Gooding Jr. movie.
But still, for a long time after that (really long time, if you ask Sean), I resisted the idea that we were more than just friends, because it just didn’t feel like what I imagined being in love to feel like. It was too easy, too obvious, and too plainly in front of me.
In the end, I had to be beaten over the head with it. T3 magazine went under, and we lost our jobs, right around the time the dotcoms came tumbling down, and I had to move out of my apartment. I moved in with Sean, and the attraction that had been possible to avoid when we lived apart suddenly became impossible to ignore. I finally embraced it, and we spent that summer going broke and falling in love.
Once it started, it was a freight train barreling through our apartment on Downey Street (seriously)—we couldn’t stop it. We drove up to Napa and Sonoma, I made him watch most of my favorite childhood movies, and we adopted a stray lab/chow mix named Phoebe. The experience of falling in love with my best friend was less like falling and more like floating high above the rest of the world.
So when, a few months later, I contemplated making the move back to the East Coast where I could be closer to my family, we decided to go together, to roll the dice, to risk it all.
Now, today, nearly 15 years since I moved in with him, that friendship is the foundation of our marriage, but it’s blossomed into so much more. Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and looked over at him, and I felt a warmth swell inside me because I get to share my life with my best friend. And I said a silent thank you to my 22-year-old self for finally coming around to the possibility that love might look and feel different than what she thought it might.
Because really, it’s so much more than what she ever imagined it could be.