Marriage and the power of luck

She nibbled, and I didn’t understand why. I came from a family of people who took fresh bites of their food before fully swallowing what they’d just chewed. Michelle, a petite girl who played with a southern drawl after one beer, could make a piece of pizza last for an hour.

It was, to that point in my life, the best pizza I’d known. Shakespeare’s sat on Columbia, Missouri’s 9th Street. It was as old as I was and already an institution for a couple generations of University of Missouri alumni. Long-hairs in Birks sat alongside buzz-cuts in Docs. The counter guys shouted out customers’ names over the din. Lit in the right nostalgic lens, it was the perfect place to share a first meal with a girl I’d already decided to marry. Shakes seemed like it had been there forever and would last just as long. In that spring of 1996, I’d known Michelle for less than a semester, and it turned out she was a nibbler.

I learned too late that it wasn’t a date, but it didn’t matter. The months of my pining and moaning that sat ahead didn’t occur to me that night. So, when Joey Two-Hands met Michelle and raised his eyebrows, I said, “No!” in much the same way you might speak to a bad dog with a roasted chicken in its mouth. If I’d had a newspaper, I would’ve rapped him on the nose with it. (Note: I don’t cotton to people who hit animals, but if you knew Two-Hands, you’d be with me on this one.)

Two-Hands was among the most charming and charismatic guys I knew. He was like a superhero, one fitted with ceaseless confidence and a half-grinning vulnerability that made him all but irresistible. Our friendship was unbreakable, but that didn’t mean that more than a couple unfortunate young women hadn’t found themselves caught in a weird spin cycle of Two-Hands’ charm and my affected brooding. They all deserve apologies.

With Two-Hands (circa 1995)

With Two-Hands (circa 1995)

What we both should’ve known then, and what we certainly came to learn, was that what happened going forward had nothing to do with what we wanted. Michelle was a different kind of young woman, one who packed a lot of living into 21 years and somehow managed to hide an acute sense of world-weariness behind an elfin grin. It didn’t matter whether Two-Hands played nice and moved on or turned on his superpowers. It wasn’t up to either of us. See, it wasn’t just that Michelle nibbled her food. She nibbled everything until she was sure it was right. What I thought of nibbling most people simply would’ve called “deliberate.”

But my point remained. Two-Hands was as hopeless a romantic as I, but he also seemed to operate in a different atmosphere, one of a perpetual bachelor, the type of man who could breathe in the potential for romance and exhale happiness. I wasn’t interested in fleeting potential. When it came to Michelle, unlike almost anything else in my life, I was interested in permanence.

The rest of the story is unimportant for the purposes of this missive. There were other false starts, a meddling roller blade salesman, no small amount of self-destructive behavior, and a lot of other stories that can’t be told. But then some months later, just a couple blocks further down 9th Street at Columbia’s Blue Note, Michelle finally conceded to a kiss. Graduations, long-distance relationships, several jobs in different cities, and other unplanned turns would follow on the long road to a hot day in 2000 on the very top of the Eastern Continental Divide where that young woman said she would stay with me forever.

Some 15 years later, I feel confident that neither of us had any idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Michelle (and a sketch of her by Scott Schmidt) and me (circa 1998)

Michelle (and a sketch of her by Scott Schmidt) and me (circa 1998)

So many people-especially in recent years-have held themselves out as defenders of marriage, experts on how it works, soldiers in a war for sanctity. With the right amount of love, they say (usually neglecting to consider the many moving parts love involves), marriage can survive. This is, as most married couples know, a bunch of hooey.

No one-not even successfully married couples-has any idea what it takes to make an individual marriage work. If we are to accept that we are all unique people, we have to accept that every marriage is something akin to unique-squared. Over time couples will try and see how else they can add something to their marriage by changing things up, this can help and be a positive support for them as the years go by in their marriage. Some couples may incorporate couples therapy, pheromones oils, taking on new hobbies, the list is endless. Marriage takes work and couples have to take the rough with the smooth.

Once a marriage begins, there is no guarantee one of the two people in it won’t change. Love can gird our resolve, and it can give us superhuman patience, but it doesn’t protect us from the calamities that can occur when an individual part of a marriage changes. When that happens, there is no accounting for the future.

Once Michelle and I had been married five years, I thought I knew a thing or two about marriage. After ten years, I was fairly sure I had it down pat. I was, as you might have come to predict, clueless. The past five years have proved to be some of the most difficult in our lives. Somehow we woke up today having been married for 15 years.

The rational part of me has tried to take an inventory on how we made it this far. There is love, certainly. There has also been no small amount of effort, dedication, and personal evolution.

But among the most important factors that marriage books and experts don’t talk about?


We got damned lucky.

We got lucky with good careers, healthy kids, and an amazing set of friends. We got lucky we shared a way we looked at the world. We got lucky that, even 15 years down the road, we still share the same dreams. We got lucky that neither of us ever changed so quickly or dramatically that the other couldn’t pivot and keep up.

Marriage is a frightening, untethered ride, an agreement to try to manage what happens when two people try to weather two different storms at once. Every once in a while, those two people are lucky enough to find an umbrella under which they can both fit until they figure out which way the wind blows.

What neither of them will ever know, however, is how quickly the wind can shift. For that, they have to count on not just the power of love, but the power of luck.

It’s a mistake to believe things will never change.

A few days ago, Shakespeare’s Pizza packed up its ovens and moved out of the building it had been in on 9th Street since the early 1970s. Developers are demolishing it in favor of a new mixed-use building. They say they are saving a spot for Shakes to return, but no one will be able to replace the smell of a place with 40 years of pizza cooked into it.

And Joey Two-Hands? The man who might have remained a bachelor his entire life? He fell in love. I’m going to his wedding this summer in the high country of Colorado. I couldn’t be happier for him.

Somehow-against the odds-the marriage and subsequent life Michelle and I put together outlasted both the place we first shared a meal and Joey Two-Hands’ eligibility. I can’t think of a bookie that would’ve ever taken that action.

I don’t know what the next 15 years will hold for Michelle and me. I don’t even know what the next 15 weeks will hold for us. I can only hope we remain as lucky as we have been since that day Michelle spent an hour on a piece of Shakes’ pizza.

Anniversaries cast everything in a softer light, and sometimes it’s easy to pat myself on the back and forget that, if not for a lot of luck, this day would never have come. As I get older, I try to remind myself each day how lucky I have been.

Of course, on days like this, I like to think of this life and how I got here as something other than luck.

I like to think of it as fate.

Probably my favorite photo ever of us (by Tim Whims)

Probably my favorite photo ever of us (by Tim Whims)

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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