By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The program for Kerilyn Fox and Peter Russo's wedding ceremony bore a passage from "Captain Corelli's Mandolin."
"Love is a temporary madness," it begins. "It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision."
Apt words for a bride who describes the journey that brought her to the altar as "part fairy tale, part 'Jerry Springer' episode."
Fox, 34, and Russo, 38, met first in 1996. Russo, a native of Queens, was living with a cousin in Morgantown, W.Va., and working as an auto mechanic. Fox, a West Virginia University student who also spent her early childhood in Queens, was plotting a transfer to a school in Savannah, Ga., where she could study interior design.
Friends introduced them during an all-you-could-eat crab feast at a restaurant and Russo was immediately taken with Fox's big smile and open-book demeanor. They began hanging out as friends. Fox was aware of Russo's interest, but distracted by her impending move. When the day came, he showed up to help her pack her belongings and waved as the moving truck drove away.
For the next 3 1/2 years, the two had almost no contact. Fox got her degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design and relocated to Arlington. Russo developed a love of cooking, graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York and found work at a restaurant in New Jersey.
After a conversation with a shared friend, Fox asked for Russo's number and decided to call just to catch up. He was at the dinner table with another woman when he answered the phone. He was thrilled to hear Fox's voice and when she asked if he was going to a WVU homecoming game two weeks later he answered, "I'm gonna go now."
They had dinner after the game; this time the attraction was mutual. The following weekend Russo visited Fox in Washington, beginning a long-distance romance that would last more than a year, until Fox said she needed more. Russo agreed to move to D.C., got a job at TenPenh in the District and -- after an apartment of his own fell through -- moved in with Fox.
Six months later they broke up. Fox had been laid off and was anxious about her unemployment. Russo was working incredibly long hours to prove himself at the restaurant. Their lives were full of friction, so he moved out.
They spent the next few years being together -- talking constantly, spending nights at each other's apartments -- but not officially dating. Fox wanted the relationship to progress, but Russo was intensely focused on his career. "I knew that once he was ready, he was going to come looking for me," she says. "But I just couldn't wait."
In 2006, she told Russo she was moving on. A few months later she met someone new. And, as Fox had predicted, Russo soon came calling.
"She was in a relationship, but that didn't matter to me," says Russo, now executive chef at Lia's in Chevy Chase. "Because I knew that I was going to marry her. I knew we loved each other and I knew it was going to happen."
Fox's love for Russo hadn't faded either, but she was, by then, nearly a year into a relationship with another man and felt it deserved a fair chance. Russo persisted with calls and entreaties. He bought her an engagement ring. Fox refused and in January 2007 moved in with her new boyfriend.
To drive home the point to Russo, she went to his house, sat on his couch and told him, in no uncertain terms, it was over.
"She said, 'If you e-mail me, I won't answer. If you text me, I won't reply. If you call me, I won't pick up,' " Russo recalls. "I was devastated."
So he gave up, grieved and tried to envision a life without her. Meanwhile, Fox's relationship began to crumble. No matter how hard she worked at it, it wasn't working. Collapsed on her bed in loneliness one afternoon, Fox got a call from her sister, Kristine. She had maintained ties with Russo and acted as a go-between, asking if he would meet with Fox, who wanted to apologize for her cruelty.
A few days later, in April 2008, they met at Oronoco Bay Park in Alexandria. Russo, who was also in another relationship by then, sat in the park's parking lot for almost 30 minutes knowing that if he got out of the car, "my entire life now is going to officially change." Because despite his heartbreak, "I was going to do whatever I could do to get her back."
For two hours they argued and cried and talked and embraced. That afternoon, Fox told her live-in boyfriend she was getting back together with Russo. "He said, 'You knew, Kerilyn. You knew it was always going to be Peter,' " she remembers. "Even he knew."
"And this," she continues, "is where it really gets 'Jerry Springer.' "
Two months later, she and Russo got engaged. She continued to live with the other man for two months after that and paid rent for their shared house until December 2008. It was awkward, but she was ecstatic. Life with Russo has felt, she says, "meant to be."
They planned to return to Oronoco Bay Park for their Sept. 26 wedding, but a cold rain forced a switch to a ballroom at the Hotel Monaco in Alexandria. There, they both wept through their vows and dried each other's eyes with tissue.
"It's such a crazy story. With on ramps and off ramps and detours," Fox says. "But in the end it's a fairy tale. I'm marrying the man of my dreams."