My first conversation with Dugan was in September of 2003 around a campfire in Green Lake, Wisconsin. I passed the guitar to someone else, and suddenly he was sitting on the bench next to me. He said, "I was in that tree over there, watching you sing. You're good." I tilted my head to the side, raised one eyebrow, and turned to face him.
"I mean," he continued, "I wasn't WATCHING you from a tree. I was just in a tree. Watching... You." He lurched into an imitation of a creep who sits in trees and watches girls, which was intended to assure me that he himself was not a creep who sits in trees and watches girls. It worked.
"Hi, I'm Dugan," he said.
"I know," I said. "We've met before. On my birthday, actually."
"Really? I have no memory of that."
"That's okay. You wished me a happy birthday at the time."
"Good," he said. "I'm glad to hear it."
"Why were you in a tree?" I asked.
The next evening, in the middle of a small field surrounded by tents and campers, I had my second conversation with Dugan Sherbondy. I had mentioned at the campfire that I had never seen a shooting star, so we were staking out the sky until I spotted one. We talked for hours about everything. I guessed his middle name on the first try, with only the letter "E" as a clue: Earl. (He's still impressed, six years later, or at least pretends to be when I ask, "Hey, remember how I guessed your middle name on the first try?")
That night I returned to my cabin convinced that Dugan and I would simply nod to each other across the church auditorium, or else fall in love and spend the rest of our lives together. So when he called me two days after the retreat, I assumed it was the latter.
After about a week of phone calls, coffee shops and movies, I felt a pang of confusion. I was was crazy about him, sure. But instead of the fun tension that usually accompanies that era of a relationship, there was just... fun. One evening I started what was doomed to be the first of many mental debates with myself over what he was thinking and feeling, when--out of nowhere--he interrupted my thoughts to tell me what he was thinking and feeling. I was totally off-guard.
"Listen, I've been thinking," he said, putting the car into park. "I'm really enjoying hanging out with you, and I want to keep hanging out with you, but I'm not interested in dating you. How, uh... how do you feel about that? Where are you at? What do you think?"
Still surprised, I started to nod. "I... think... that's great. Really. Thanks for telling me. I think we're on the same page."
"Okay, good. I hope I didn't make things uncomfortable? I just prefer to over-communicate whenever possible."
"Really, I appreciate it," I said. "I'm not used to it, but it's good."
And it was good. I had never had any guy address our friendship so straight-forwardly. I continued to fall head-over-platonic-heels for Dugan, and a while later I reconnected with someone else who had a flair for open communication: Pete Neal. He asked if he could walk me to my car and then said, "I like you, and I'd like to spend time with you. What do you think? How do you feel about me?" Having had my eye on him for years, I responded with a demure translation of, "Hell yeah." Two weeks later we were dating--fun tension and all--and two Septembers later we were married. Dugan emceed our reception and introduced us as Pete and Joy Neal, and this past October I stood for Dugan as he married Lindsay.
Mystery in a new relationship is fun, but mystery shouldn't be confused with confusion, clever deceit, or misunderstandings, all of which are the key ingredients in the romantic comedy plot line. Nearly every romantic comedy would be rolling credits within 20 minutes if the main characters had a real conversation at the right time, but we'd ask for a refund on our way out of the theater. ("Everyone stated their feelings clearly, no one sobbed to her best friend, no one made a fool of herself--preferably on stage or at a crucial moment in her career--roughly 15 minutes before the explosive yet finally honest conversation that solved everything. What kind of crap entertainment was that?")
Dating and marriage is hard work sometimes, and meaningful friendships with the opposite sex usually require "over-communicating whenever possible." But when I meet someone who I know I want to ally myself with for the rest of my life, (whether it's someone who came down from a tree to talk with me, or someone I want to sit in a tree with while k-i-s-s-i-n-g), it's worth the effort and the honesty it requires.
Dugan picking me up at my house.
An improvement, definitely.
This was the first time I met Lindsay, and within half an hour I had sent Dugan a text message from across the room: Marry her. I once told Lindsay that I had kept Dugan around in hopes of meeting her; which, now that I know her, would have been a totally decent ulterior motive.
= 1,000 words.
Pete and Dugan reindeer humping.
One of D & L's visits to Grand Rapids