Years later, I still told the undergraduate students in my research methods class the story of my first date with Corey to help them remember the concept of regression to the mean — how something that is extreme on a first measurement will become less extreme, or regress to the mean, on a second measurement.
It’s one of the reasons we congratulate ourselves on finding a great new restaurant, recommend it to all our friends, and then find it mediocre on our second visit. Sadly, it is a statistically normal thing for an average experience to follow an exceptional one.
After Corey walked me home that first night, I was giddy with my attraction to this stranger. He had entered the bar in a beanie, hoodie and baggy jeans, and his smile revealed two missing front teeth.
A while ago, I heard on the “Hidden Brain” podcast that it takes the average 40-year-old several months to laugh as much as a child laughs in a single day. That night, Corey provided me with a child’s density of laughter, and I ran up my steps whispering, “Please don’t let this be regression to the mean.”
It wasn’t. On our second date, we walked miles across Philadelphia for the grilled green beans at Grace Tavern. When I neatly sidestepped a potential argument, he grabbed my hand and said, “I came here to meet with Sarah, not Sarah’s representative.” We walked home more slowly, the wet yellow autumn leaves on Spruce Street spilling across the sidewalk.
On our third date, we sat on my couch and talked awkwardly about probable friction points of our past and future selves. He was a transient artist living above a skate shop who grew up listening to hardcore punk. I was a bookish psychology professor and single mother who grew up listening to hymns. Sobered by our differences, he left earlier than perhaps either of us wanted.
But on our fourth date, again walking around the city, he told me that he wasn’t going anywhere, that I was where he wanted to be.
Corey introduced me to Pearl, his affectionate pit bull, whose overeager welcome was responsible for Corey’s missing front teeth. He won over my two young children at their first meeting, when, while waiting for food at a diner, he took the crayons offered him by my 8-year-old and turned the butcher paper covering the table into a sprawling city.
I refused to talk on the phone for a month after we met, fearing that without body language my social awkwardness would be too much for him. I learned later that he talked his friends into giving the skate shop and its tiny apartment a thorough cleaning before my first visit, fearing my reaction to the typical goings-on of bachelor skaters.
From there, our lives unspooled together. I met his best friend Becky at a late-night party above a bar in Old City, and we drove for 14 hours one weekend so he could meet the friend who had demanded relationship veto power after my divorce.
Corey spent New Year’s Eve playing board games with my children and teaching them how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. I graded papers behind the register at the skatepark, watching the staff tagging stickers that would find a home on stop signs across the city. He made me vegetarian jambalaya. I learned that sneakers are not “just shoes.” We made jokes about worlds colliding and laughed and laughed.
A few months later, as we stood in the kitchen above the skate shop chopping greens, pears, walnuts and Gorgonzola cheese, Corey said he would like to grow old making salads with me. Rings and a baby followed.
It wasn’t always easy. Though we laughed about our different backgrounds, we brought some deeply contradictory expectations to our marriage. I insisted that no age was appropriate for “Grand Theft Auto” and didn’t understand why a grown man wanted to play video games anyway. He couldn’t understand why I spent months running experiments to satisfy my academic curiosity instead of using my education to solve pressing real-world problems.
I woke early; he stayed up late. For me, being outside was essential; unless Corey was skating, he had no use for anyplace with bugs or dirt. I grew silent in the face of loud, direct argument; he was frustrated by the way I buried my feelings in layered discussions. And after our son was born, we were not immune to bickering over household annoyances magnified by sleep deprivation.
But even on days when my journal was filled with frustration, my last line was always one of gratitude for my husband and our life. Why? Because he looked past the words I thought made up the core of me and saw my body, instinctively kneading my hunched shoulders without me needing to articulate my stress. Because even though I had made peace with my lack of physical charm, the look in Corey’s eyes said that somewhere in me was the capacity to dazzle.
But mostly because of this: I have spent my whole life asking why, second-guessing, saying, “Yes, but — ”. This has made me an excellent scientist and a terrible romantic partner. With Corey, my brain stopped at “Yes.”
And how he loved our son! After discovering the surprising fact that the sight of a school bus halted even the worst crying jags, Corey would park outside the “bus zoo” near our house at dawn so they could watch the procession of school buses emerging for the morning run.
Three days a week, a Baby Bjorn joined the beanie/baggy jeans/hoodie ensemble as the baby accompanied Corey to the grocery store, the skate shop circuit, the home improvement errands. And where I saw a tedious complexity in syncing an ever-changing nap routine with the school schedules of the older children, he saw beauty in the rhythms of a family life he had never had as a child nor expected to have as an adult.
On the night of Corey’s 40th birthday, shortly after our son turned 2, we stayed up long after our friends returned home. My head rested on Corey’s chest as we laughed at the loud messiness of our lives and marveled at our great good fortune at finding each other, at our ages, across such difference.
And the next morning, our world changed. I returned from the bus stop to see my husband standing on the front porch, his face drained of color, complaining of a numb foot. I drove him the mile to the hospital.
Strangely, I couldn’t understand what the nurse said to me after they pulled him from the car. Her eyes were impossibly blue. A clump of mascara in her left eye set one group of lashes awkwardly against the rest.
I did, however, understand that a kind social worker was pulling my son away. I understood the chest compressions and frenetic activity I saw through the window the nurse had led me to. Hands at his chest. Hands holding paddles. And I understood what it meant when that activity stopped.
The poet W.S. Merwin wrote: “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
My oldest, in college now, can still solve a Rubik’s Cube. My second wears a beanie and flannel to school and asks to bring his skateboard on every summer trip. Months after Corey’s death by heart attack, I found an album on his phone labeled “heart” with pictures of me: bent over the table in my pajamas, reading; staring out the window with the baby; covered with dirt as I prepped the garden beds.
And our son. Our son is 9. When he trips on the sidewalk, he is more concerned about the dirt on his hands than his bloody knees. At dinner one night, he asked me why my words said I was happy when my body said I was sad. His laugh starts in his belly and travels to everyone else in the room.
And every night as I read with him before bed, I look at the unruly cowlick that spills his hair into his eyes, and I hope it’s true, the research about how, even though you can’t remember them, those first two years of your life shape you. They teach you to think of the world as either safe or threatening, to see a stranger as either a potential friend or an enemy.
Because if that’s true, then our son really will have his father with him for his whole life, those many trips to the “bus zoo” and the skatepark having taught him that the world is full of love, that every tight spot is a time to laugh and every stop sign needs a sticker.