In February 2007, Melissa Oliver went to a job fair, landed an interview and was hired to teach at a D.C. public charter school. Within 72 hours, the 23-year-old packed up her life in New Jersey, drove to Washington and dropped her bags on her best friend’s doorstep, assuming she would “figure everything out when I got here.”
She arrived on a Sunday and was slated to start work the following morning, but instead of unpacking, she and her friend sat down to catch up on their favorite show, “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Oliver’s friend didn’t have the final episode, but knew that her buddy Jake Kohlman recorded it, so the two women hopped in a cab to his apartment. Kohlman, a reserved 25-year-old Washington native who worked for a union, was taken aback by Oliver, who spent the whole night telling him what to do. “Pause it here,” she said more than once during the episode. “Let me cry here.”
Oliver didn’t think much of the interaction, but when she saw Kohlman two weeks later at an Adams Morgan bar where he worked, she was so happy to see a familiar face that she hugged him.
Oliver wasn’t sure what shifted for her that night but after a couple of glasses of wine, she returned to Kohlman. “Will you be my Derek?” she asked, referring to the “Grey’s Anatomy” heartthrob. “And I’ll be your Meredith.”
Kohlman didn’t know how to respond, but when Oliver asked if he had a bed she could sleep in that night, explaining that she’d spent two weeks on her friend’s floor, he gave her his phone number. But Oliver ended up back at her friend’s place and the next morning she texted Kohlman. “Is it weird that I’m disappointed that I didn’t wake up next to you?” she wrote.
“Actually, me too,” he replied.
Oliver assumed that meant the crush was mutual, but then nothing happened. They would meet at bars with friends and chat online during the day. They even kissed on St. Patrick’s Day, but for months Kohlman never asked Oliver out or made the next move.
“I tend to go a little slower in relationships,” Kohlman says. “All of a sudden a tiny little blond person started disrupting my life. Not in a bad way. It just seemed like she was going to be involved in my life unexpectedly, but for a very long time.
In April he called and asked if she’d like to go to dinner. Oliver styled her hair and brushed on a fresh coat of makeup, and then was surprised when Kohlman drove her to California Tortilla for burritos. Still, they sat outside and talked for hours.
When her school year ended six weeks later, he invited her to celebrate with a fancier meal at Cafe Atlantico. They continued to see each other, but it was never clear where the relationship was headed.
Normally this would have driven Oliver mad. She’d always been quick to fall into serious romances. And since her father’s death when she was 19, she’d grown dependent on boyfriends and often felt anxious when they left even for a night.
But with Kohlman, she never worried.
“It always felt okay, which is weird,” she recalls. “He was making me be this person that isn’t depending on him to call me everyday, and I was okay if I didn’t see him every weekend.”
But he took her to Lake Tahoe for her birthday in February 2008 and told her he loved her that May. The relationship progressed until the summer of 2009 when Oliver learned Kohlman was considering joining the Army.
A worrier by nature, she wasn’t sure she could live a life where she feared for her partner’s life on a daily basis. Kohlman said he always felt he’d led a privileged life and needed to give back.
For months they talked about the decision and Oliver began adjusting to the idea. In April 2010, Kohlman left for 10 weeks of basic training. Oliver wrote once, sometimes twice a day. Kohlman replied with as many letters as he could.
“It was hard,” Oliver says, “But it was never not do-able.”
For more than a year they were apart, as Kohlman went through one training school after another to become an airborne platoon leader. In August 2011, Oliver moved to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to be with Kohlman. During a long weekend in Atlantic City that October, he proposed as they looked out at the moonlight.
The pair began to plan a wedding even as Kohlman prepared to deploy to Afghanistan. Before he left for war in February, they decided they would marry at Nationals Park.
For seven months Oliver held her breath, waiting for any communication from Kohlman. Making decisions about the wedding seemed fraught, she says, “because I was so afraid of something happening.”
In September, he returned to North Carolina, where the couple will stay until Kohlman gets his next assignment. “There aren’t words to describe what it’s like to see that airplane touch on the ground,” says Oliver.
On Nov. 10, a brilliant, unseasonably warm day, Oliver and Kohlman exchanged vows in a courtyard overlooking home plate at Nationals Park. Their 254 guests included several soldiers who had been injured in the war. Cocktail hour was held in the dugouts and batting cages before the reception started in the club dining room overlooking the stadium.
“If you were to tell me I was going to go through a deployment and marry someone in the Army six years ago, I would’ve said, ‘No way, you could bet a million dollars against it,’ ” says Oliver. “But he’s just always allowed me to do what I never thought I could do. He really makes me a better person.”