It started with a car crash.
It was the last weekend of the 1982 U.S. Senate race between San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson and California Gov. Jerry Brown. (Some people mark life’s passage through the rituals of birth, graduation, weddings and the like. My totem is elections.) I was relatively new to Los Angeles, a 22-year-old United Press International reporter transferred from Phoenix and headed to a Wilson appearance at the Los Angeles Press Club — or maybe it was a speech by Brown — when I got lost.
For reasons I’ve since forgotten, I’d swapped cars that morning with my then-girlfriend, which proved fortuitous. In my haste to make up lost time, I tried to beat a traffic light. That’s when the crash occurred, destroying my girlfriend’s tank of a Buick. (Who knows if I’d be around if I had driven my rattle-can VW that day.)
I never made it to the Press Club. My girlfriend picked me up and we went for dinner that night at our favorite Chinatown restaurant, which is where I proposed, in a manner of speaking. The conversation went something like this:
“I’m hosed,” I said over the moo shu chicken (or words to that effect). “I’m under 25, single and just totaled your car. My insurance is going to go through the roof. Why don’t we get married?”
“OK,” she said.
“Your mom’s coming out from Chicago for a visit in January,” I went on. “Let’s do it then, and save her a trip.”
“Fine,” she replied.
(An important parenthetical note: We’d already crossed the commitment line, as far as I was concerned, when my girlfriend agreed to move with me from Phoenix, where we had met at a Houlihan’s. The rest — rings, ceremonies, exchanging vows — were just details.)
In the 2 1/2 years my girlfriend and I had been together, she had never gotten sick. Not a cold, not a sniffle. But the morning of our wedding — one of those heaven-kissed days you can see clear to Catalina from the top of Mulholland Drive — she woke up with a raging fever and churning stomach. She spent most of the day on the couch, incapacitated, while her girlfriend put curlers in her hair and her mom fussed and fluttered over the bride-to-be. She had a small bite to eat and barely managed to keep it down. By the time my intended arrived at Stephen S. Wise Temple, she was pale as the proverbial sheet.
Thankfully, our wedding was a small affair. We footed the bill ourselves. I had gone to the Flower Mart early the morning before, buying our decorations wholesale. We baked lasagna for the reception. The invitations were limited to close family and a handful of friends.
As the rabbi read our vows, his wide eyes nervously flickered between his notes and my wife’s ghostly face. “I need to sit,” she said suddenly, and we edged over and plopped onto a small retaining wall. The rabbi continued, excising whole sections to speed things along. “Excuse me,” my bride interrupted a few seconds later.
She stood up, wandered over to some nearby rose bushes and emptied the meager contents of her stomach.
We quickly finished the ceremony and, newly wed, drove back to our small Burbank duplex, her head resting on my lap. My wife disappeared for the night, crashing at our next-door neighbor’s house. (Lucky for us, they were gone for the weekend and left a key.) I cut our wedding cake with the 5-year-old daughter of my best man, who stood in for the indisposed Mrs. Barabak.
By the next morning, my wife was fine and we went on our honeymoon: A day at the beach in San Diego and a night at a Super 8 motel next to the freeway in Mission Valley, where we shared a room with my mother-in-law and a brother-in-law. (It was all we could afford.)
Doubtless the story of our betrothal and wedding is one of the least romantic you’ll ever hear. But as of Jan. 9, our marriage will have lasted 30 years. (In June, we’ll mark 33 together as a couple.)
My wife is one of the kindest, most decent, giving, loving, patient and good-hearted people I’ve ever known. That said, she has firmly instructed our two daughters more than once to never, ever marry a guy who proposes the way I did.
I tell them to elope, to spare the expense of a big wedding.
If they’re smart, they’ll listen to their mom. I hate to admit it — and, worse, commit the words to print — but she’s usually right.
Mark Z. Barabak is a political writer for the Los Angeles Times.
L.A. Affairs chronicles romance and relationships. Past columns are archived at latimes.com/laaffairs. If you have comments to share or a story to tell, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.