I had doubts about grad school for at least a year at that point. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue and figured this was as good of a breaking point as any if I was going to do something else. I applied for jobs in Washington DC because I’d always loved the DC area and there were a lot of job opportunities in meteorology there. I also knew at least one person in that area.
I applied for jobs in meteorology, public relations, copywriting–pretty much anything I thought I was qualified to do and didn’t sound like it would make me completely miserable. I intended to leave Illinois as fast as I could and start anew somewhere else. My time at Illinois had some ups and a lot of big downs and I wanted to leave the bad stuff behind.
Of course I talked to Jeff and Nate about my attempt to escape Illinois. They gave me advice on how to improve my applications and wished me well in my job search. I submitted at least 30 applications, probably many more.
I never even got an interview. Nothing.
In the mean time, I continued going to every jujutsu practice I could and stumbled through my PhD research.
Jeff and I had grown closer throughout the year I’d been in jujutsu. Our friendship wasn’t based on my dad’s illness, but Jeff’s support throughout that difficult time showed me the kind of person he was. Thoughtful, pragmatic, caring, and smart, to name a few qualities. I’d mentioned to him a few months prior that a new BBQ restaurant in town was really good and he should try it. He’d said, “We should go sometime.” I assumed at the time he meant the club.
He and I met at the restaurant for dinner in early November 2010. He wore a black button up shirt hanging over his jeans and black leather shoes and looked quite dapper. The restaurant was busy, as always, so we accepted seats at the bar. He ordered catfish, being a southern boy, and I ordered smoked pork. As we chatted, one thing struck me and made me want to spend more nights like that: he turned his whole body towards me when I talked to him. All of his attention was on me and he really listened when I talked. He also held doors, spoke politely and directly, and was generally old-school chivalrous. What a way to make a woman feel special!
I found out later that he was intentionally vague in his response about trying the restaurant. He didn’t want to presume anything about me and he’d be happy to try it just the two of us or with a group from the club. He just enjoyed visiting with me in whatever capacity.
After dinner neither of us was ready to say goodbye. We walked to another restaurant nearby where he ordered decaf coffee and I ordered hot chocolate. I don’t think we quite shut down that restaurant, but it was close. It was at least 11 p.m. when I said goodbye to Jeff in the parking lot, wrapped in my winter jacket and trying not to shiver. I didn’t want to appear too cold and rush our goodbyes.
Less than a week later we met at a Japanese restaurant and less than a week after that we made dinner together at my apartment. I wanted to make him some Puerto Rican food a friend had once made for me and share some coquito. After that third dinner, I asked him if he’d be willing to have more children. He already had two teenage sons and he was 49 years old. If we were going to even consider dating, I needed to know. If he said no, that was a deal breaker and I would have no interest in a long-term relationship with him.
He said yes, he always wanted a big family. That single response opened the door to a future I never could have anticipated.
My dad’s death didn’t send me in search of a new father figure, as some had guessed. I have a dad and he was a good dad. I don’t need another one. However, his death showed me that there are no guarantees in life. I could marry someone my age and he could die in a couple years or our relationship could fizzle and I’m left with the wreckage of a divorce. I could marry someone 24 years older than me and we may enjoy decades together. Jeff was 49 on our first date and I was 25. Age is not just a number, but it makes a lot less difference than one might think. I wasn’t going to pass up a chance at happiness simply because he was 24 years older than me.
For Jeff’s part, he always says he knew I was a keeper when he threw me and I kept coming back.