Neither of us is a stranger to marriage. We collectively have 28 years of marriage experience under our belts. (She 15, me 13; we both got married at age 24; no kids.) We both have a pretty good idea of what marriage is. Or, more importantly, what it isn’t. While we were probably the last two people that would’ve ever entertained the idea of remarrying, it seems fate decided to prove us wrong.
It’s insane, really. M’s a lawyer, and the first time we met in person, we sized each other up and quickly learned that we were both recently divorced. As we compared stories, she told me that the first piece of advice she ever gives a client is to never get married. Ever. Just don’t do it. Why bother? That day was May 17, 2009, and her words echoed my sentiments exactly.
But alas, life isn’t so simple. I guess once the right person finds you, you’re done. Forget everything you thought you knew. The universe has its own way of unfolding. All we can do about it is either get busy loving or get busy dying.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to back up and start from the beginning.
In May, 2008, I received news that I was going to be in another book called Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak, scheduled to hit shelves on Valentine’s Day, 2009. As was the case with its predecessor, there came with it an influx of mutual friending on Facebook. It was within this window of time — Mon, Oct 20, 2008 at 4:45 PM to be exact — that I received the ol’ Facebook email notification: “Milena Oh added you as a friend on Facebook…”
I accepted the friend request, figuring this Milena Oh person was just a co-author.
That was about it for a while. As the next few months unfolded, this Milena Oh person was pretty much just another stitch in the fabric of the blurry virtual universe we all know as Facebook. She and I never talked one-on-one, and I didn’t even know what she looked like. She kept it all very stealth. This was her profile pic:
With a last name like Oh, I thought this person was probably a Korean girl, young, maybe a college student or something. I do recall a handful of times where she’d sort of swoop in from the shadows and make a comment or two on my wall that I found to be sharp and witty. I figured she was probably a writer. She undoubtedly had some communication chops, and it was no surprise to me that she was in the Six-Word book. (I would eventually learn — luckily too late — that she actually was not an author in the book.)
Throughout the 2008 holiday season, I was informed via Facebook notifications that Milena had Superpoked me, bobbed for apples with me, thrown a turkey at me, and thrown a snowball at me. That was of course common during the early stages of Facebook, and I thought nothing of it. Never even looked twice.
But then there was the Quick Poll Factor. I’ve been conducting random quick polls for years, long before Facebook. They’re a great way to break ice at a party, pass time standing in line at Disneyland, or shake up the monotonous silence in a crowded elevator. Facebook and Twitter are perfect platforms for quick polls, and I’ve taken full advantage of them since the beginning. For instance:
QUICK POLL!!!: Pencils or pens?
QUICK POLL!!!: Beatles or Stones?
QUICK POLL!!!: Rug burns or paper cuts?
And so on. I never put too much thought into them; I’ve just thrown them out there. If nothing else, quick polls are a simple way to provoke conversations. And I love conversations if they’re good.
On February 17, 2009, I returned home from a trip to New York for the book release party. I remember walking to my computer and realizing that I’d left it on while I was out of town. Before I even dropped my bags on the floor, an email came through my already-open Gmail account:
Date: Tue, Feb 17, 2009 at 7:50 PM
Subject: Milena Oh wrote on your Wall…
Message: “What happened to the ever-popular quick polls?”
I remember thinking, wow, that’s kinda cool. It never occurred to me that anybody really cared about these quick poll things, let alone noticed that I hadn’t conducted one in weeks. At that moment, Milena Oh — whoever she was — became the #1 fan of the quick polls, bringing her lower on my radar. She was an audience I didn’t realize I had for a show I didn’t realize I was doing.
I humored her, and tossed out a quick poll via Twitter. Within moments, Milena countered with: “Stale potato chips or burnt popcorn?”
And I think that one, right there, was what convinced me that she got it. Stale potato chips or burnt popcorn? The exchange was on. This person, Milena Oh or whoever she was, GOT IT. The quick poll itself wasn’t what she got; the quick poll was just evidence that she got it. She got the whole thing. I totally dug her mind.
As the next few months rolled on, the quick polls became more frequent, if for no other reason than to keep this audience of one entertained. Or perhaps an audience of two, counting myself. A fondness for quick polls was something Milena Oh and I shared; if you had asked me who I’d want to be stuck with in a 14-hour line at the DMV, I probably would’ve picked Milena Oh. Just because I knew the conversation would be good, and would never end.
So that was the extent of our relationship between February and May, 2009. Quick polls on Facebook. NOTE: I was particularly active online during this time, as I was in the early weeks of the Under Angels blovel project.
Okay, enough back story. One day in May, 2009, mid-week, I received an email from Facebook:
Date: Wed, May 13, 2009 at 3:37 PM
Subject: Milena Oh sent you a message on Facebook…
Milena sent you a message.
“Going to see my dad in Pedro on Sunday. Where does a decent girl get a drink around there?”
I was at work, dealing with the noise of a busy afternoon. Seemed like an honest message. Cordial, professional. It didn’t really occur to me that Milena Oh was asking me out for a drink. I instinctively mentioned a few places in town, of which there are many. A place like Crimsin sports a trendy urban vibe, while one of many dives may be the better choice if you feel most comfortable around one-toothed hookers asking if you can break a five. I think I probably rattled off names of every bar I pass by on the way home from work; my office at the time was in the Northrop Grumman building in downtown San Pedro.
A night or two later, while I was getting way up into writing Under Angels Chapter K (now Chapter Eight), Milena Oh hit me up on Facebook with an instant message. It was the first time we conversed in real time. She asked if I’d be around on Sunday night, explaining that she had plans in Pedro during the day and would like to meet me. I said sure. Why not. We exchanged numbers, and she signed off.
Before I continue, allow me to say a word about my writing schedule in 2009. It’s relevant, as you’ll see later.
As I embarked on blogging the 26-chapter novel over the course of the year, I put myself on a schedule of one chapter every two weeks. The night each chapter went live happened to be a Thursday. I’d typically take the following Friday off to clear my mind, and use the weekend to begin beating out the next chapter. As I got into the groove, I’d usually hit the ground running on the following Monday, where I’d finally print out the outline for my next chapter. This would give me a 10-day window to get the chapter written as scheduled. I’d read the outline at lunch, make notes with a pen, and then apply the changes to a working draft of the chapter using an online private bulletin board I have in a back door. The bulletin board (like a forum) allows me to have a thread for each chapter of the novel, and then give myself notes using the threaded comments. Once the changes are applied, I print the draft out again, sleep on it, and repeat it the next day. Each chapter goes through about four or five of these cycles. By the time the scheduled Thursday arrives, I will have printed a hard copy of the chapter, read it, edited it, and applied the changes to the electronic copy about a half dozen times. At that point, the chapter is ready to be posted.
But here’s the thing: as I get closer to completing a given chapter, the following chapter gets lower on my radar. With the last couple drafts of a chapter being pretty much mechanical editing, my mind is beginning to design the details of the chapter that follows.
What the hell does this have to do with meeting Mick? Good question. I’ll explain:
On that weekend of Sunday, May 17, 2009, I was wrapping up Chapter K, and working on the editing. My mind was beginning to get into the chapter that was to follow, Chapter L. In Chapter L, according to the outline, my two characters were to be on the way to the location of a tunnel entrance. While en route, the story takes them to a real-life dive bar in town called Harold’s Place. While at Harold’s, my outline indicated that something was to happen — a diversion — that was going to complicate their plans of getting to the tunnel entrance as planned. What this diversion was, I didn’t know yet. All I knew was that I had about a week to figure it out.
To do so, a field trip to Harold’s was on my list. The sense of smell is a key element in the Under Angels narrative, with the story being told from a dog’s point of view. To write Chapter L, I had to lay down the setting, which was to be Harold’s. In the next few days or so, I’d planned to drop by Harold’s alone and take some mental notes in order to authentically flesh out the scene.
Sunday May 17 arrived. Late afternoon. I was polishing Chapter K at home, and my cell was charging. I heard it buzz, and realized that Milena Oh had left me a voicemail. It was short, something along the lines of, “Sorry I missed you; maybe next time.” I felt uncool for missing the call, and dialed her back immediately. She answered, and asked where we should meet. I knew 100% that I wasn’t going to be inviting a Facebook stranger to the house, so I suggested Harold’s. She agreed. I asked if she needed directions, but she said she’d find it. I told her to give me fifteen minutes.
I grabbed a hat, threw on some shoes, and drove down the hill, parking across the street from Harold’s. Right in front of the bar — parked in the red zone — was a black MINI Cooper. In the back of my mind, I suppose I felt something was cosmically weird about it, as I used to have a black MINI. I’ve never known ANYBODY other than myself that had a MINI, let alone a BLACK one that wasn’t a Cooper S.
I knew the MINI had to be Milena Oh, so I walked to the driver’s window from across the street. It was late in the day, and I remember seeing my reflection in the window. It wasn’t until I blocked the sunlight that I could see somebody lounging back in the driver’s seat, as if sleeping. A woman. Must be Milena Oh. But definitely not Korean. I rapped on the window, startling her. Sporting a dress that matched her hair, she scrambled out of her car with her purse, locked her door, and wore a look on her face like she’d just seen a ghost. I felt like I’d totally weirded her out.
We launched into small talk immediately. I asked if she wanted to move her car out of the red, but she blew it off and said she’d just pay the ticket. We went inside, ordered a couple cheap drinks, headed to a pool table, and she came right out and rattled off the basics:
“I’m Milena, I’m a lawyer, I’m forty-two, I’m divorced, and I’m your Facebook stalker. You have the best Facebook page. I can’t stop looking at it. Your timing kills me.”
I’d been completely disarmed. What else did I need to know? Searching for comeback questions, I asked her what kind of law she practiced. She said family law, and I cracked a joke about how I could have used her a couple years earlier. As I mentioned earlier in this post, we compared notes, and learned that we were both recently divorced, with no kids. Sporting a collective 28 years of marriage under our belts, that had to be some sort of record. I then brought up her surname of Oh, and asked if her ex-husband was Korean. She laughed. “No.” It is in fact a shortened version of her real surname, which she keeps off Facebook for understandable reasons.
SIDENOTE: We also noted something in the number of two and a half. She’s two and a half years older than me. While we were both married at 24, she got married two and a half years earlier than I did, and was married two and a half years longer than I was. Two and a half has been a number that keeps popping up, as if to remind us of each other. We also learned that we share the same middle name. Daniel, Danielle.
Back to Harold’s. Nothing that was happening was what I’d call love at first sight. The vibe between us was loose, casual, friendly. She also broke out a pack of Marlboro Lights and lit up, which immediately turned me off. In an odd way, this contributed to a more comfortable conversation from my perspective. There was nothing really to lose as far as I was concerned. Nothing to preserve, nothing to ruin. I don’t like kissing smokers. Especially the ones stuck on the Marlboro Lights.
After a couple games of pool, she suggested we go grab a corner and talk. We scooted over to an isolated part of the bar near the shuffleboard, grabbed a couple stools, and started talking about art, muses, and the creative process. Informing me that she got her UCLA undergrad in English Lit, she asked me where I was going with Under Angels, and what was coming up next in the story. (FYI: Well-read women are hot.) I confessed that the reason I had her meet me at Harold’s was that I was in fact taking notes of the place, loading my arsenal with visuals to describe the events that were to unfold in the upcoming Chapter L.
In Under Angels, the narrator is particularly tapped into the sense of smell, and a different smell is described at least once in each chapter. I had Milena close her eyes, and asked her to describe for me what she smelled. She obliged, as if knowing where I was going, and closed her eyes. She blurted, “Wet carpet and fermented pineapple juice.” I closed my eyes and went there. It worked. It was perfect. Wet carpet and fermented pineapple juice. I’d use it.
I then explained to her that my outline was very loose, without much detail, although I knew that there was to be a complication that was to unfold in the bar. My two characters, Pete and another guy who happened to be named, of all things, MICK, were to enter Harold’s and have a problem leaving. I wasn’t exactly sure how that was to happen. I figured it could be a hold-up, or a fight, or a fire. Something. I pointed around the bar, pondering out loud with Milena, brainstorming. I pointed to one guy and suggested, “How about if that guy pulled out a shotgun?” Then I pointed to a girl, suggesting, “How about that girl hits on Pete, and then her boyfriend gets mad, and then a brawl ensues?” Milena sat there, playing along, nodding. I told her, “It doesn’t really matter what happens, exactly. I just need a circumstance, something extraordinary, something to rally around so that I can write the chapter…”
And then, as I was saying that, I kid you not, WE HAD AN EARTHQUAKE.
Dead serious. The billiard lights were swinging. Our stools were shaking. Milena grabbed my forearm and dug in with her fingernails. We just looked at each other and shook our heads. No comment was needed. We were spooked. Something extraordinary had just happened, and we knew it.
Within moments, she grabbed her purse, and said, “I have to go.” Just like that. “I have to go.” I offered her another drink, but she said something about getting disbarred. No problem. I walked her out to her car.
The goodbye was quick. It was dusk. I remember thinking that I must have really freaked her out with that whole pineapple juice thing, with my mouth going a million miles an hour talking about a novel that I was in the middle of writing. Not to mention the earthquake thing. Probably too much for her to handle, which I understood. But I honestly didn’t really care what she thought of me.
As she got in her car, she told me that if I’m ever up in Hollywood I should give her a call. I shallowly said I would. She laughed, called bullshit, and said I wouldn’t call her. In the back of my mind, I realized she was right. I had no intention of calling her again. She saw it. She was a sharp one. She got it. She got me. I kinda liked that about her. But the smoking thing sucked. I gave my new art-minded friend a peck on the cheek, told her to drive safely, and said we’d, you know, talk later on Facebook or something.
That was that. On my short drive home, I received a Facebook notification from Milena Oh. It was just moments after she’d left; she probably wasn’t even on the freeway yet:
Thank you for showing me all things Jace.
Hmmm. Whaddya know. Perhaps I didn’t freak out this Milena “Oh” chick as severely as I’d thought.
I went home and immediately wrote Chapter L (now Chapter Nine in Under Angels: The Novel), which includes Harold’s, a red curb, a pool table, shuffleboard, cheap drinks, a girl whose dress matches her hair, and a smell the narrator describes as a combination of wet carpet and pineapple juice. There’s also an earthquake. I’ll never forget writing that chapter. Or, more accurately, typing out that chapter. The whole thing was a gift from above. A literal product of my life. It wrote itself, which is almost what I can say about the whole story. The parallels between the Under Angels story and the events of 2009 would take up a whole other blog post.
QUICK SIDENOTE: In the blovel version of Under Angels, as already mentioned, there’s a character named Mick. It turned out that Milena’s nickname is Mick, given to her by her best childhood friend Vicki. V’s got two beautiful twin daughters, named Milena and Cassandra. My Milena is the godmother of the younger Milena, and the family calls the two of them “Big Mick” and “Little Mick”, respectively. As for the Mick character in Under Angels? Don’t worry, brother. He’s still there, but was subsequently renamed to Mag.
As the next week or three unfolded, my Facebook relationship with Milena Oh continued, but in a new way. We picked up where we left off, but with a whole new understanding of each other. It got more personal. Funnier. Inside jokes were developing. We jammed on each other’s energy. I liked her. She was cool. The coolest Facebook friend I had. Too bad she was a smoker.
About a month after our first meeting, I received another message from Milena Oh via Facebook. Again, it was cordial, professional, and straightforward:
May I be so forward as to ask you out for another drink?
Aha. Confirmed. I wasn’t as weird as I’d thought! So at least I had that going for me. I told her, you know what? Sure. I mean yes. Yes, you may. You may be so forward as to ask me out for another drink. Let’s hook up and laugh together in person. (I also privately reasoned that there was an outside chance that she was, you know, just a “social” smoker who “only smoked when she was drinking” to take the edge off the anxiety that comes meeting strange people in bars.)
We set aside a window of time again for Sunday, June 14, 2009. It had turned out that she had been coming down to San Pedro once a month for years, as her father lived just a minute from my house. (At least, that’s what the story was. I hadn’t really accepted it as truth yet. Dad? A minute from my house? Yeah, right.)
That day, June 14, was a glorious day. Just beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky. Perfect weather, and it really felt like the first summer day of the year. I’d spent the first part of the day at Royal Palms for a funeral for Tony Adams, and had already been drinking since before lunch. She called me that afternoon as I was editing Chapter M (another coincidence?), and I picked up. She was full of positive energy, and already laughing. No longer a stranger, I told her she might as well just come over to the house. We could have a drink on the bar, I could show her the place, and maybe…
“I have a bottle with me,” she interrupted.
“Oh, well, in that case, where are you?”
“Twenty-fifth and Western,” she said.
That was right around the corner. I told her to come down 25th, make a right on Patton, another right on 27th Street, a quick left on 27th Drive, and to park in my driveway. Blue house on the left. Front door’s open.
“Is Kona there?” she asked.
The dogs weren’t with me that weekend. But I thought it was so awesome that she not only knew who Kony was from my blog, but wanted to meet her.
“Not this time,” I said. “Next time.”
“On my way.”
I saved my draft, wrapped up a few other things on the computer, and her MINI pulled into the driveway. I hadn’t even gotten off my barstool. The door was open, and I figured I’d just let her walk in. A moment later, she came walking through the front door. I didn’t even recognize her. Whoever it was, it wasn’t the girl I’d met a month earlier. I think maybe it was the smile. A smile she never showed me while we were at Harold’s.
The details of that night will stop there.
That brings us to today, November, 2011. In ten days, almost exactly two and a half years since we first met, we’ll be hitching it up for good. Remarrying. Becoming a unit, as we were destined to be. We’re doing it in Hawaii, where I was born, and where we were both conceived. It’ll just be the two of us. The way it’s always been.
Nearly every day we talk about how lucky we are to have this kind of chance. It’s as if we’ve been in love forever in both directions. It just took us a while to finally cross paths. I’m still in shock about it all. I probably always will be.
PS: On April 30, 2011, Milena attended the Allen Carr program and smoked her last cigarette. For me, for her, and for us. I’m proud of her, and I love her for it.
UPDATE: For her side of the story, click here.