My First Lady

By Brad Meltzer

Our story starts like this: She was the captain of the cheerleaders; I had just moved to Florida from Brooklyn. She was wavy hair, green eyes, and a red scrunchie; I was in puberty. She was popular; I was unknown. She was beautiful; I was entranced. She liked to laugh; I was (somewhat) funny. In time, we met. I was fifteen.

Like most of us at that age, I really didn’t think I would marry the person I was taking to my junior high school prom. I was far more concerned with the pressing questions of that now-gone time: Can I afford this limo? Does my hair have enough mousse in it? And if I pin the corsage on her chest, does that mean I got to second base? Even though the answer to all these questions was yes, I still didn’t think we were going to get married. Why? Because of the most obvious assumption that currently exists about high school sweethearts: They never get married.

Scoff if you must, but the assumption is real. To prove it, I conducted my own independent survey. Randomly dialing seven-digit phone numbers, I called five people and said to them: “I married my high school sweetheart. What’s your reaction?” The responses were as follows:

FIRST PERSON: “Who cares?”

SECOND PERSON: “Who is this?”

THIRD PERSON: “I’m not answering that.”

FOURTH PERSON: “Who is this?”

FIFTH PERSON: “What are you doing a survey for?”

Clearly, not a single person believed I had married my high school sweetheart. But quite honestly, I don’t care.

When I first met her, Cori was fourteen. Today, she’s twenty-six. We’ve been dating the entire time. Corny? Yes. For real? Absolutely. Make you sick? Perhaps. But whenever I tell people we’re high school sweethearts, the reactions are surprisingly similar. They go something like this:

FEMALE STRANGER: “Oh, that is so wonderful. I love hearing stories like that.”

SELFISH MALE STRANGER: “I hate to say it, but that’s pretty cool.” (Subtext: “I wish you were dead.”)

NORMAL MALE STRANGER: “Wow, that’s great. That’s really great.” (Subtext: “I wish you were dead.”)

The questions people ask me about our relationship also tend to be similar. Roughly generalized, they are usually one (if not all) of the following: (1) When did you know she was “the one”? (2) Don’t you feel like you missed out? And (3) How did it happen?

And now, so you don’t actually have to find someone who married his high school sweetheart, here are the answers.

QUESTION 1: When did you know she was “the one”?

ANSWER: The moment I saw her. When she walked past my history class, I was immediately smitten. But did I know at that exact moment that she would be my wife? Did I imagine the wedding and the reception and the four unreturnable Crock-Pots? Of course not. All I knew was that I wanted to know her. I wanted to be near her. I wanted her to know me. And that’s how it is for many couples today: Whether they’ve known each other for twelve years, twelve minutes, or twelve seconds, first contact was more visceral than cerebral. When I first saw Cori, I wanted to meet the cheerleader. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I knew I wanted to be with her forever.

QUESTION 2: Don’t you feel like you missed out?

ANSWER: Nope. In college, (I went to Michigan; she went to Harvard), we put our relationship to the real test and decided to see other people ­ to make sure we knew what we were missing. If we were going to get married, the last thing we wanted to do was look back at our college years and say, “Damn, why didn’t we take advantage of that?” Like most living, breathing human beings, we wanted to lick the lollipop of life. So we did.

It wasn’t easy. Although we never broke up, I didn’t visit her when she was dating someone else, and she didn’t visit me when there was someone I was seeing. Without question, it was the hardest and worst part of our relationship. If I called her room on a Saturday night and no one answered, she got the interrogation on Sunday morning. If she couldn’t reach me, I got the same.

When I look back on it, it was a twisted game—a sort of self-inflicted agony that was endured for an unguaranteed future opportunity. But what an opportunity. And when our four years were over, the experiment complete, I had my answers: Other women were always fun, and usually attractive, and sometimes wild, but none of them made me laugh like Cori. None of them made me as angry as Cori. None of them made me as happy as Cori. They may’ve been nice and cute and pretty and all the other positive adjectives, but none of them could ever touch me, down to my core, like Cori.

QUESTION 3: How did it happen?

ANSWER: To me, this question is the most interesting of the three. Not just because of what it asks, but how it’s asked. When people ask Question 1, their tone is one of natural curiosity. When they ask Question 2, their tone expresses disbelief—as if they can’t accept the fact that anything can ever be that perfect. But Question 3 is usually asked with a heaping dose of delighted—and sometimes envious—amazement.

In today’s world of fractured and hard-to-find relationships, people seem genuinely excited by the idea that a couple could last through the awkward and mercurial stage of life known as teenagedom. As if somehow the existence of high school sweethearts means that stability and commitment and true love are indeed possible for all of us. And that society’s quest for simpler ideas and times will finally, joyfully, be achieved. In this third question, people aren’t just asking, “How did you do it?” They’re also asking, “How can I do it, too?”

So how did we do it? Like most relationships, ours took time to progress. There was no single, magical, warm, mushy, fuzzy-bunny, Hollywoodized moment. Slowly, over time, we stepped forward together. I knew I loved Cori’s laugh, and the way she completes my sentences, and the way she looks when she wakes up in the morning, and the way she picks a fight when she disagrees with someone. But is that what makes a good relationship? Of course not. True love is more than a few trite examples.

Eventually, I simply realized that no matter how many women I dated—no matter how interesting, no matter how pretty, no matter how new and exciting they were—none of them could offer me what my high school girlfriend offered me. Unlike my college flings, Cori knew me in a way no one else ever could. She knew my history. This history, however, can’t adequately be explained in a mushy narrative. It takes an anecdotal narrative to do it justice. So here goes:

*My wife and I were driven to our first date by my parents.
*She knew (personally) all of my high school friends.
*She knew me when I wore parachute pants.
*She knew (personally) all the people I didn’t like in high school.
*She knew me when I liked Journey.
*I saw The Breakfast Club with her (in the theater, smart guy).
*I was there the day she got her license.
*We studied for the SAT together.
*She helped me paint signs when I ran for student government president.
*She was in the car when I got my first speeding ticket (the cop called my parents—it was a laugh riot).
*I knew her when she was into that Flashdance look.
*We celebrated together the day I was accepted to college.
*She knew my dad when he had hair.
*She was there when the captain of the football team wanted to beat me up.
*She was there when my grandfather died.
*We went to the senior prom together.
*I was her first; she was mine.

Years ago, when I graduated from college, my roommate and I loaded up a U-Haul and drove our belongings to Boston. On the way, we stopped by his parents’ house in Dix Hills, New York. I had known him for four years. He was my best friend from college. I knew most of his fears, hopes, and dreams. Without question, I knew who he was. But it wasn’t until I walked into his house and saw the room where he grew up that I finally understood where he came from.

Not only did I experience the smell and texture and reality of his childhood—I also saw the pieces of his earlier years: the dozens of trophies he’d won on the track team (he gave up running when he left for college), the clothes he used to wear (lots of suspenders), even the Knight Rider poster that still hung on his wall (hey, we all had a freaky stage). For all of us, the minutiae of our childhoods are the building blocks of our current identities.

For my wife and me, and for most high school sweethearts, the results are the same. Since we met at such a young age, our identities are intertwined. We’ve spent most of our years together and internalized the word “we.” Indeed, our wedding was perhaps the best allegory for our relationship. When we were married, no one asked, “Bride’s side or groom’s side?” There were no “sides.” Because we’d been together so long (twelve years, for those keeping score), there wasn’t a person there who didn’t know us as a couple.

Does it mean we’re more in love? No. Do we understand each other better than most couples? Not necessarily. Do we have better sex? Maybe (think cheerleading skirt). Do we have a better relationship than every other couple on the planet? Doubtfully. In truth, marrying your high school sweetheart is kind of like spending the day with a longtime friend. You have multitudes of shared experiences. So if you pick the right person, you’re going to have more to laugh about; if you pick the wrong person, your day is going to suck. Period.

Whenever I meet someone new, I love asking about his or her childhood: where they grew up, where they went to school, what their first job was, what their parents were like. We’re not all just the sum of our individual experiences. But if you find out that your girlfriend used to dig the Smurfs, you’re probably going to be standing in line at a few too many Disney movies.

As for me and my wife, our ten-year high school reunion is coming up next year. Neither of us is dreading it. I don’t need to give her the lowdown on everyone; she doesn’t have to introduce me to everyone she encounters. With my wife, I share my unwritten history. And because of that, she already knows I used to dig the Smurfs.

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