Paula and Randal
When Paula Derrow was 44, she gave herself a diamond ring.
The ring came from her late grandmother, who had wanted it to be used for Ms. Derrow’s engagement, as did Ms. Derrow. But finding herself single after several long-term relationships, she decided in 2007 to stop waiting — for the ring.
Her desire for a partner remained undiminished. “I was never going to give up on finding love,” said Ms. Derrow, now 48, an articles director at Self magazine in New York who specializes in personal essays about the pursuit of happiness.
Even so, it was somewhat out of character for her to flirt blatantly with a stranger, which is how she met Randal Chinnock one evening in August 2008, while they were on vacation on Block Island, R.I.
Not that it was very typical flirting.
“You have the profile of a Roman emperor,” Ms. Derrow recalled telling Mr. Chinnock as they sat on the veranda of the Atlantic Inn. She had hoped to convey her admiration for his aquiline nose.
Mr. Chinnock, divorced with two grown children, was surprised by her frankness but impressed: “She knew what aquiline meant.”
He was also enticed by her “100-watt smile.” They were both on the island with friends, but they lingered over glasses of wine and spent the next day together at the beach.
“It was chemistry at first sight,” said Mr. Chinnock, now 56. “We’re not teenagers, so we don’t say love at first sight.”
Ms. Derrow was more circumspect. A self-described late bloomer who grew up on Long Island, she was taught to be cautious from an early age, by parents who were the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia.
In contrast, Mr. Chinnock, who can trace his New England roots to the 1830s, had been riding motorcycles since he was 14.
At that age, she was struggling with her weight and the self-doubt it prompted. She focused her attention on her studies and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. Quite unlike Mr. Chinnock, who dropped out of Johns Hopkins at 19 to hitchhike from London to Katmandu, in Nepal.
He eventually received an engineering degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is now the owner and chief executive of Optimum Technologies, a company in Southbridge, Mass., that designs biomedical optical instruments.
“We are exotic to each other,” said Ms. Derrow, who had never before met a man who was book smart and could also fix a toilet.
Before leaving the island, she asked him if he ever visited New York.
“I will, now that I have a reason to,” he said.
He was at her doorstep a month later for their first official date. They spent the day together, then he took her to a Jackson Browne concert, where he introduced her to his sister and his older brother, who were in town to see the show.
“He doesn’t do anything halfway,” she said. “That’s an exhilarating person to be with.”
By the end of 2008, they were seeing each other almost every week, either in New York or at his home in Southbridge. Yet Mr. Chinnock made it clear from the start that after 18 years of marriage, he was not looking for matrimony or even necessarily an exclusive relationship.
He tried to couch it in more appealing terms, suggesting that he was offering them both freedom. Ms. Derrow said she had experienced freedom “ad nauseam.” Still, she had never experienced a relationship where she felt so secure and cared for, she said.
“Randy makes me a priority, and he always makes me feel like he wants to be with me,” she added. After more than two decades editing women’s magazines, including Brides, Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar, she knew what a rare quality that was. “After every phone call, he says ‘I love you,’ and he says it to his kids, too.”
So she accepted his parameters, noting, “How much dating could he be doing if we were on the phone every night and going out every weekend?”
Mr. Chinnock said that “even though I was telling her I wasn’t ready to be exclusive, I was acting exclusive.” So much so that in August 2010, for the second anniversary of their first meeting, he planned to propose to her on Block Island.
“Planned” is the key word. He put together an extravagant surprise that involved getting people on the island to hold up placards with letters that spelled out “Marry me, Paula.”
But instead of being elated, he became increasingly anxious. He has been known to drive his Porsche Boxster at 150 miles an hour, but the engagement (or rather, preparing it) gave him severe jitters. So he told Ms. Derrow about “the surprise,” and that he could not go through with it.
“As soon as I told her, my stress went away,” he said. She couldn’t say the same.
They still celebrated their anniversary on Block Island and found themselves entwined on a hammock looking for shooting stars in the night sky. Feeling happy, and a little tipsy, he spontaneously proposed.
Ms. Derrow said she felt whipsawed. “I was confused,” she said. “In his mind, he resolved the whole issue. In my mind, I was still trying to catch up.”
That did not prevent her from saying yes.
“It’s not a storybook proposal,” said Ms. Derrow, who had waited a long time to find the right relationship, not a storybook one, “and that’s O.K.”
On Aug. 15, they were married by Carissa Templeton, a minister affiliated with Rose Ministries, during a short ceremony at Ms. Derrow’s New York apartment.
Two days earlier, she donned a tiered ivory gown at the early-19th-century home Mr. Chinnock recently bought in Eastford, Conn., near the Rhode Island border. The vast lawn sweeping toward the still pond was reminiscent of the inn where they had met.
Her brother-in-law, Roy Kaufman, led the couple in their vows as neighboring fishermen cast lines from bass boats in the late-day sun. The couple shared a symbolic glass of wine and then a passionate kiss, and as their 130 guests cheered, the bride exclaimed, “I’m so glad I waited!”
Learning to Lean In Together
The first night my husband and I lived together, we had been married for two years. His work was in a small town in Massachusetts, where he and his ex had raised their now college-age children. My work and life were in New York City.
Early in our relationship, after we had been dating a few months, he said, “Eventually the distance is going to be a problem, isn’t it?”
I didn’t think so. The distance suited me. I had always believed I had it better than women who were dependent on men. Or maybe I was jealous. A zaftig and insecure teenager, I never thought I would marry or even that someone could love me enough to let me lean on him.
Instead, from my early 20s on, I leaned in, Sheryl Sandberg style, focusing on my career and surrounding myself with other serious young women, all of us trying to get ahead. Marriage wasn’t high on my priority list.
I had seen what could happen when a woman traded in her independence for a spouse’s support: There was the fashion-designer acquaintance whose wealthy husband left her after she developed a brain tumor, and a lawyer friend whose venture-capitalist mate encouraged her to quit work to write, then walked out on her after the birth of their second child
I took their experiences as cautionary tales and instead partnered with men who were dependent on me: a bespectacled journalist who asked me to proofread his articles, a divorced father who regularly needed me to spot him cash.
By the time I met Randy at age 45 on the porch of a Victorian inn where we were both vacationing with friends, I was used to men coming and going, and even more used to being on my own. Several years earlier, I had bought an apartment, a one-bedroom with a tiny kitchen, perfect for a single person who didn’t cook.
I got busy creating a cozy, colorful home, my mostly empty refrigerator dotted with crayon drawings by my two young nephews who lived blocks away. To the boys, I was the adventurous aunt: Aunt Yes, they called me, because why should I say no? I wasn’t weighted down with the responsibilities and obligations that marriage and motherhood seemed to bring. I was a free woman beholden to no one.
Randy said he appreciated my independence. A guy who liked to lean in himself, he ran a small medical-device company — a chief executive, yes, but one who wore shorts to the office, bought his shirts at Sears, liked little cars with big engines and had no need for a loan from me.
He was doing fine on his own, as was I. Which is why when he brought up the geographical distance between us, I was uncharacteristically blasé.
“What’s three hours?” I replied. “A car ride!”
Each week we alternated, three nights at his place, four at mine, every reunion a first date, with lingering kisses and predawn drop-offs at Amtrak. We took turns paying for things, too, not in a calculated way, at least not on Randy’s part. I always kept score: Was I letting him pay for too much? Was it my turn now?
Yet as the months passed and Randy didn’t disappear, it was hard not to lean on him simply because he could do so many things I couldn’t: fix a toilet, whip up a dinner without a recipe, suss a car problem by listening.
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Randy didn’t need me in any material way. What he needed, it seemed, was to take care of me. Within months of our meeting, he had added a pot rack to my minuscule kitchen. I didn’t own a microwave so he bought one, popped it in my never-used oven (the only available space) and wired it up.
“You hardly ever cook, so this will be more convenient,” he said.
Not that he expected me to make dinner for him. Instead, he did the cooking. He also carried my suitcase when I met him at the train, never failing to open the car door for me before we sped off in his convertible. Yet he clearly delighted in my strength, cheering my successes at work and taking pride in the life I had created for myself.
Things worked so well, in fact, that after dating for two years, I married him in a lovely ceremony at his new house on the edge of a pond. Still, I was determined to keep things separate when it came to money.
His home on the water was his; my city pad was mine. Two households, two bank accounts, no chance of anyone leaving me in the lurch. Wasn’t my independence part of the reason he chose me?
Then, at the start of my 49th year, I was laid off from my magazine job, as were a bevy of others.
Randy was unruffled. “You’ve been thinking about freelancing,” he said. “Now you can try it. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Instead of being grateful for his optimism, I resented his telling me not to worry. After all, he still had a paycheck. (His money, not ours.) I even ungenerously wondered if he secretly wanted me to have a flexible schedule so I could be a more traditional wife, doing most of the laundry, dishes and cooking.
Rather than decamp for the country with him to contemplate my options, I stayed in the city, paying the mortgage and co-op fees, scrambling for assignments and worrying about cash flow.
A few months into my new routine, a former colleague called to ask how I was doing in my new freelance life.
“It’s a huge adjustment,” I told her. “I’m anxious about money all the time.”
There was a pause, then she asked, in a quavery voice, “Are you … still married?”
I laughed. “Of course! Why wouldn’t I be?”
But her question jolted me. I had found a man who liked taking care of me, yet I couldn’t accept his support, opting to lie awake nights crunching numbers in my head. Suddenly, my stalwart solo-mindedness seemed a little sad. A little stubborn.
“This is what marriage is for,” a friend told me.
Reluctantly, I decided to sublet my apartment for a few months and move in with Randy, a big expense off my plate while I tried to make a serious go of a freelance career.
As I worked from my new desk with a view of the pond, I fumed about the lack of air-conditioning and the sounds of buzz saws outside, more intrusive to my ears than the sirens of the city. Instead of joyful evening reunions and lingering kisses with my husband, I remained at my computer when he got home, calling out a halfhearted hello.
I missed my friends. I missed that competent person with a packed calendar I had once been. In the country, I was mostly stuck at home. Always a nervous driver with an atrocious sense of direction, I had a license but hadn’t driven on a highway in years.
“I can’t merge,” I liked to tell people, a phrase that now took on new meaning.
On nights Randy and I had dinner out, I willed myself to sit still when he reached for his wallet. Once home, I retreated to my side of the bed, creating the distance geography no longer provided. “What have I done?” I thought.
After yet another restless night, I asked Randy, “If something terrible happens and I can’t pay my bills, you’ll help me, right?”
“Of course,” he said. “That’s how marriage works. You’d do the same for me, right?”
Would I? I had gotten hitched on the cusp of 50 because Randy felt like family. But, long accustomed to dividing things and holding fast to what was mine, I wasn’t really letting him in.
As Randy predicted, assignments gradually began to come my way, and I found I didn’t mind working to my own rhythm, no meandering meetings or e-mail avalanches to interrupt me. Nights, I moved nearer to my husband, letting him draw me close.
As my business picked up, Randy offered advice on billing and price points (“Don’t undersell yourself,” he would say sternly). When I hatched a plan to teach a writing workshop by the pond, he put the finishing touches on a gazebo he had designed with a soaring cedar ceiling and stone fireplace. I imagined students in conversation, drinking wine as the sun dipped over the water.
Maybe that’s why, after a productive day at my computer, when I spied Randy’s convertible coming up the drive, I closed my laptop and met him at the door with a vodka martini, bone dry, rimmed with slices of cucumber, the way he liked it.
“Don’t get used to this,” I warned, but his smile was worth the cliché, even as he said with affection, “My little wifey.”
I gave him a punch but didn’t really mind. Then we leaned together until our lips touched, like two sides of a triangle, each trusting that the other wouldn’t give way.
..Paula Derrow is a writer and editor who divides her time between New York and Connecticut…