Paul and I were friends for 16 years before we realized we were in love. After that, it took us less than a week to decide to leave our spouses for each other.
Wait, it’s not as simple as that. Let me explain.
First, we weren’t “friends” in any traditional sense of the word. In reality, we barely knew each other. Our entire friendship had existed entirely within the confines of a burger booth where we both worked at the Oregon Country Fair, an annual three-day summer festival.
Every July, the Oregon Country Fair ― or just “Fair” to the over 20,000-member “family” that has been putting it on for the last 50 years ― temporarily turns a few thousand acres of oak grassland into the third largest city in Oregon. For the uninitiated, Fair is an arts and music festival born out of author Ken Kesey’s tricksters and the early days of the Grateful Dead. On the surface, it’s the predecessor of Burning Man ― a glow-in-the-dark, hippie-filled, psychedelic playground. Beyond that, Fair is a place where people go to search for something new in their lives, to find some kind of higher meaning, or to just find something that will shake them out of the complacency of their daily existence ― even if that’s just a good time.
Paul and I were relative outsiders to the larger party scene and essentially acted as two worker bees who kept the machine running. We both stumbled into the experience as teenagers through the vast and complicated local network of underground businesses and social circles that drives the Fair. We met because we were early risers by nature, a rare find at festivals. I worked the breakfast shift each morning, cutting potatoes at the concession stand while Paul sat on a nearby cooler drinking his coffee and chatting with other people. Later in the day, he worked the grill, frying burgers in the summer heat for masses of hungry hippies and the other people who would come to stare at them. Though working in such close quarters meant we were friendly with each other, with all the stimulation and constant rotation of staff, it was at least three years before we were actually able to remember each other’s names.
Eventually, though, we did.
When we finally fell in love, it was over that potato table — in one look, held so long and so hard that it stopped a teenage boy who was passing through the kitchen in his tracks. To this day, I can’t remember what triggered that look — but I do remember the way Paul staggered, nearly dropping his cup of coffee, and the way I held my hand to my throat, which had blushed so deeply it practically burned to the touch. One of us said something about betraying our cool exteriors. One thought from someplace deep inside my heart forced its way into my head: Maybe it’s Paul. Maybe after a life of trying to make it work with other people, the one I was supposed to be with had been there right in front of me for years. Maybe it was Paul.
We went on about our day ― potatoes and burgers ― but in reality, it was a devastating discovery. By that point in our lives, both of us were partnered, in our mid-30s with real jobs and heavy commitments. Neither of us were happy. Worse than all of that, he had children.
One thought from someplace deep inside my heart forced its way into my head: “Maybe it’s Paul.” Maybe after a life of trying to make it work with other people, the one I was supposed to be with had been there right in front of me for years.
Later that week, with his wife and kids away on an extended summer vacation to visit family for the rest of summer, he invited me to meet him for lunch in a blueberry field on a rural property near his house. It was the first time we had ever seen each other outside the Fair.
Over the course of the next few days, we laid ourselves bare. What we found were two ambitious people on the verge of new beginnings — I was about to publish my first book, and he was starting a new business — who were being held back by unsupportive partners, toxic friends and an overwhelming sense of duty to how life “should” be lived. But we knew that we had to be with one another in a deep-down-feel-it-in-your-bones kind of way that made it painful to be apart. Even though we had spent a considerable amount of time together over the years at the Fair, we still knew so little about each other. It seemed crazy to think that we could be in love in any kind of real or lasting way, but everything about being with him felt right, like he had somehow been there next to me all along.
That same week, the first night we spent together, we fell asleep with our foreheads resting side by side and woke up eight hours later without having moved at all. Hours passed by as we sat in silence, watching a blue moon cross the sky. This was not a thing we could ignore. Knowing that we couldn’t face lives of deception ― that truth is always better than fiction ― and that unhappy parents make for unhappy children, we decided we needed to jump. Fast.
Over the next four weeks, as we tried to figure how to do what we were going to do, my psyche and conscience screamed at me. Married men never leave their wives, I could just hear my friends ― and most movies of the week – telling me in my head, especially if they’re devoted fathers, which he was. The message from the few friends that I did eventually tell was unified: I could walk out of my relationship if I wanted, but Paul wouldn’t be there. But then, a few days later, walking out was exactly what I did. I packed my stuff with the help of friends while my prone-to-anger partner was out of town with “the bros.” We passed like ships in the night. Thirty minutes after pulling away, I got a predictably emotionless text from my newly minted ex: “I guess that’s it then.” He never spoke to me directly again, and his near-total refusal to engage serving was all the proof I needed to know that leaving was the right thing to do.
My friends’ voices still clamoring in my head, I holed up in a friend’s guest bedroom, waited for Paul and trying to be brave.
A few days later, he was there with me in that tiny room. He had broken the news about us the moment his wife had arrived home from vacation. She forced him to tell their kids after less than a day in hopes that the guilt would be too much for him and he would change his mind. After he talked with them and she still wouldn’t accept that it was over, he took a hard line, telling her directly that this was no affair or fling ― he intended to be with me for the rest of his life. Fifteen hours later, he packed everything from his life into his work truck, kissed his kids and promised to come back for them, and drove away from the life he had known up until that moment.
Judgment came in a chorus of righteous voices saying that while they understood that we may have been unhappy in our old relationships, our new relationship was doomed. They had seen our misery ― our struggle to make it work with our previous partners ― with their own eyes, but we just weren’t allowed to do this.
The short term was brutal. Judgment came in a chorus of righteous voices from people who said that while they understood we may have been unhappy in our old relationships, our new relationship was doomed. They had seen our misery ― our struggle to make it work with our previous partners ― with their own eyes, but we just weren’t allowed to do this. And despite any transgressions in their own lives, they meant it. As if, by that point, going back was even an option.
Judgement, though, was the least of our worries. We were dealing with Paul’s hellish legal battle with his ex, the logistics of starting a new life together, and the total lack of time and focus we desperately wanted to give to his kids.
In spite of all this, we were happy. There were bumps, to be sure. We had lucked out after just a couple of weeks of crashing at our friends’ house, and we were able to move into a house Paul owned after the renter unexpectedly decided to move. But the suddenness of it all and the predictable and ongoing conflict with our exes meant we had to leave many of our possessions (and some of our friendships) behind. We had no pots and pans and no kitchen table, and the tenant had left several gaping holes in the bedroom walls. We had new commutes to work, new neighbors, new banks and grocery stores, and very little money.
Life was so chaotic during the first few weeks we were living together that I got disoriented one day on the way home and had to circle the neighborhood, unsure of which street I now lived on. And we had all the little things to learn about one another: when we ate dinner (early), what kinds of movies we liked to watch together (none, we’re readers), and what we did on a Sunday morning (walk). It took several months of switching places to figure out what side of the bed we really preferred to sleep on. What surprised us the most was of how little consequence such things are when you know you’re with the right person.
We married one year to the day after a long, fiery look at that same booth we had circled around for so long at the Oregon Country Fair. We worked one more year of Fair after that before giving it up for good, content that we had both found what we’d been looking for all those years.
This year, we’re celebrating our fourth anniversary, which seems like both a lifetime ago and no time at all. This is the first year together that we are free from legal battles and back on our feet financially — issues that caused some early tension and arguments between us.
Happiness, we have learned, changes everything, even if you have to lose everything first ... It’s a kind of happiness that isn’t the hard work that people claim relationships should be and isn’t made up of thrills or highs and lows. It’s a quiet kind of contentment that arises out of a relationship whose participants are at peace with one another.
The house is now in good repair, but it needs a coat of paint for when the rain finally passes. We grew enough in our garden last year to make it through the winter with homegrown fruits and veggies. We’re friendly with the neighbors and know the local grocers. I don’t get lost on my way home. Neither of us is very social, but we keep a small group of friends that stuck with us and some that we found along the way. We don’t miss the friends we lost, which weren’t many. My parents and extended family have adopted Paul and the kids with open arms while I remain a bimbo and a harlot to his. We didn’t win all our battles.
Our marriage is a happy one. We both changed careers shortly after marrying, and the shift to self-employment made it easier to craft our new life together. We traveled a lot in the first two years ― including road trips, camping, and the publicity tour for my first book ― which helped us get to know each other better and learn one another’s histories.
What’s been more challenging is integrating the kids, who still suffer some culture shock when they arrive to a house with few screens and what they decry as “old hippie food,” even as they shovel it down. But we’ve become a family. On weekend mornings we walk to the park, and in the evenings we read a book aloud (we’re working on Laura Ingalls Wilder now). They have friends in the neighborhood, most of whom also come from blended and two-household families.
Time has given us perspective. Happiness, we’ve learned, changes everything, even if you have to lose everything first. And love, especially late-life love, leaves room for adaptation, for crafting an intentional life, for friendship and equality in partnership that doesn’t often exist in bonds formed out of lust or a stereotypical idea of how life should supposedly be. It’s a kind of happiness that isn’t the hard work that people claim relationships are supposed to be, and and it isn’t made up of thrills or highs and lows. It’s a quiet kind of contentment that arises from a relationship in which both partners are at peace with one another. And because of that, it’s sustainable and expansive, big enough to wrap around the kids who, to their credit, were able to see their parents’ unhappiness together and their father’s happiness with me and take things largely in stride.
I’m still not sure exactly what happened that day at the potato table, but I do know that I wouldn’t go back and do it differently. And all those old couples that have been married for a thousand years? They’re right ― when you’ve met your person, you just know it. Years later, Paul and I hold steady to each other and our faith in knowing who we are as individuals and as a couple. We did the right thing, and I know I can always be brave and he will always be there.
Ruby McConnell is a writer, geologist and environmental advocate whose work centers on the intersection of the landscape with human experience. She is the author of “A Woman’s Guide to the Wild” and “A Girl’s Guide to the Wild.” You can almost always find her in the woods. For more of her work, check out @rubygonewild on Instagram and Twitter.