I met my wife at the Yankee Trader Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during Spring Break in 1986. I was with my friends Peter and Kevin, horsing around in the lobby while we waited for the slowest person alive–our friend Angelo– to finally come downstairs for breakfast. But when the elevator door opened, it wasn’t Angelo who exited…it was prettiest girl I had ever seen in my life.
She was a perfectly fit brunette sporting a tiny bikini. Even the Carrera sunglasses she was wearing couldn’t hide her porcelain, doll-like features. She had a beach towel draped over one shoulder and walked with a purpose. I broke free from the guys and ran to catch up with her.
When we were shoulder-to-shoulder, I mindlessly bent down and whispered in her ear the only thought that was running through my head, “Nice buns,” completely oblivious to the fact she was wearing headphones. Even though a giant guy with a goofy smile had just invaded her personal space, she politely pulled out her right ear bud and said, “Excuse me?” The idiot in me thought ‘why not just repeat the same horrible opening line?’ So I said it again…only louder and creepier: “Nice buns!”
Just before she could run off as fast as her perfectly toned leg could take her, I heard someone from behind me call out, “Stella?” To my pleasant surprise, my slow-as-molasses friend Angelo had finally joined the party. Turns out the beauty named Stella was his cousin.
While the two reminisced, I positioned myself behind Stella and used every facial expression and hand signal I could think of to get Angelo’s attention so he’d invite his pretty cousin to join us for breakfast. But he was equally slow at getting hints, so I just interrupted them and said, “hey why don’t you come to breakfast with us?” And she did.
Stella and I spent the rest of that magical day in Fort Lauderdale together. Lucky for me, she also lived in New York. Although once we got back to the City, seeing her turned out to be a monumental problem, because Stella was Greek and I wasn’t. Just like in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Stella’s family preferred she meet a nice Greek boy. So if we were to going to continue seeing each other, our relationship would have to be kept top secret.
When I look back at the hoops I had to jump through to be with her, it makes me laugh. But back in the day, it wasn’t that funny.
For starters, I wasn’t allowed to call Stella at home. This may not seem like a big deal today, but it was 1986 and there were no cell phones or social media. So the only way for two kids to communicate was to call each other at home. So, we came up with a plan. Since our biggest nemesis was going to be Stella’s stepdad, Themis, our plan was that if I called Stella at home and he picked up the phone, I would hang up on him and she would call me back when the coast was clear.
It didn’t take long for Themis to catch on. One day I called her house and a little girl answered. Assuming it was Stella’s younger sister, I said, “Hello…can I speak to Stella?” But it wasn’t her little sister…it was her stepfather, pretending to be her little sister. Like a caveman with a heavy Greek accent, he yelled back into the phone, “NO, DON’T CALL HERE ANYMORE!” and slammed the phone down on me. I was infuriated, but I just had to deal with it.
Then there was the fact that I didn’t have a car or even a driver’s license yet, so Stella had to pick me up when we went on dates. We had to be extra careful when we drove through my Astoria neighborhood, because she had a lot of extended family living the area. We had a plan for that, too. If we drove down a street where Stella’s family could be, I would duck way down in my seat so we weren’t spotted in the car together. The problem with that plan was that Stella had cousins living on every block, so I spent the first half of every date with my huge 6’4” frame uncomfortably folded underneath the dashboard of her tiny red Subaru.
Our escape was driving into Manhattan, where no one knew us. Once we were there, we were free to be a normal couple. We could walk through SoHo holding hands. We could sit outside of Caliente Cab Co in the West Village and have frozen margaritas. We could go dancing in Chelsea at the Limelight t. We could even smooch in the back of Angelika’s Film Center during a matinee screening of Citizen Kane.
After two years of playing “Operation Hide Me,” I was thrilled to finally meet Stella’s family. Her grandmother Yia Yia Vivi coordinated a luncheon, where I had a chance to meet Stella’s mother, Joanne. Both women were as kind and loving as I could have ever imagined. I remember sitting in the living room of their lovely home thinking, wow what was all the fuss about? Then an unexpected visitor arrived – Stella’s stepdad, Themis. He had come home early from work that afternoon…not to meet me. I had heard many stories about the man and none of them had to do with how friendly he was. Before I could swallow my pride, muster up a broad smile and offer him a handshake, Joanne apologized and showed me out to the portico. Lucky for me Themis always entered his home from the back door of the house. The flowers and potted plants on Joanne’s portico were perfectly manicured, but nothing was more attractive than that front door I used to run out of the house that day.
In August, my wife and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We have two beautiful teenage children. My in-laws turned out to be wonderful people who are always there for us…especially Themis. I would love to take my wife away on an exotic vacation for this milestone. She deserves it, but money’s tight right now. I’m thinking maybe we could take a ride into the City, just the two of us, for a night on the town. Maybe we can recapture a little of that magic we had back in the day. But this time, I’m driving.
Featured image courtesy of Mark DeMayo