"Would you grow extremely old with me?"
In the manner of any dejected romantic comedy heroine, Julie Avetta endured a dark night in a lonely apartment -- just her, drinking, and the cat, commiserating -- before the dawn broke, the music went up-tempo and a gentle man showed up with a dog.
Avetta's nadir came on Jan. 9, 2008. It was the first wedding anniversary she would spend as a divorcee.
"I cracked open a bottle of champagne and raised my glass to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," she says. But soon the bottle was empty, Avetta was still alone, and a conclusion had been reached: "This is stupid."
It was time to start dating, something the 32-year-old hadn't previously done. Ever.
Avetta was 23 when she married her high school sweetheart, the only man who'd been in her life since 1992. They were both ambitious workaholics whose relationship had endured career changes, cross-country moves and time apart when Avetta decided at 27 to go to law school.
Working her first law job in Boston, Avetta found herself -- for the first time in a long time -- not overwhelmed. "I took a step back at that point and was able to look at my life," she says. "And here I am with no hobbies and my only friends are my friends from work and all I do is work, work, work, and all my husband does is work, work, work, and we don't really talk to each other very much. And you know, when we do talk to each other, we kind of don't like each other very much."
Avetta moved out on Thanksgiving Day 2006, and when the papers were finalized the following August, she moved to Washington to work at the Justice Department.
Avetta is spirited and loquacious, but the prospect of dating was paralyzing. "I was terrified -- terrified," she says. "I had no idea how to interact with men."
But after her champagne-for-one anniversary, she signed up for the Web site eHarmony. A series of misadventures with men ensued. There was the White House staffer who stood her up. The guy she liked who called after one date to say he was getting back together with his girlfriend. The chef who kept trying to make out with her -- badly -- while she was watching the New England Patriots lose the Super Bowl.
"Okay, eHarmony, what have you got for me now?" she remembers thinking after that one.
Two days later a profile of a "law librarian/professional know-it-all" showed up as a match when she logged on. At 8:30 in the morning, Andrew Martin expressed interest, expecting not to hear back for several days, if it all. He was a "diplomat brat" who'd traveled the world with his parents, studied medieval history in college, Egyptology after college, and had been using eHarmony for several months, with mixed success.
Avetta replied immediately and thus began, she says, a "tennis match of short answers and multiple choice and long answers," which the site requires singles to complete before opening up e-mail communication. They finished all those steps by 10 a.m. that Wednesday, and by Friday, the day of their first date, they'd exchanged 75 e-mails.
Martin worried that the woman he was about to meet wouldn't be as good in person as she was online. Then, sitting at a Mexican restaurant, he saw her dash pepper sauce into her salsa. "She's sitting there putting hot sauce on her hot sauce and I'm like, 'Oh God, I think I might be in love,' " says Martin, a 34-year-old connoisseur of spicy food.
What's more: She liked the Three Stooges, could quote "The Three Amigos," baked him cupcakes with great frequency and agreed to go gargoyle-hunting with him at Washington National Cathedral. "I don't know how long it was before I was like, 'Maybe she is as good as advertised,' " he says.
When they introduced his hound, Beauford, to her cat, Moxie, the two promptly ignored each other, leaving their owners to move, Martin says, "full-speed ahead."
Their relationship since, he says, "has been like soaring." Quoting a friend, he continues, "All of a sudden, it didn't feel like I was trying to ice-skate uphill. . . . All that stuff that was so hard before becomes easy."
The communication that began as such a gusher didn't cease. The two talk constantly, completing each other's sentences and delivering punch lines in unison. "Rare is the day that we don't e-mail at least four or five times an hour," says Avetta, now 34.
Within months Martin wanted to propose to Avetta, but she'd pledged to never marry again. "I said, 'The institution oppresses women. . . . I never want to be put in that position again,' " she recalls.
The last Tuesday of September 2008, he took her back to the cathedral, where they'd become regulars at a lecture series, for a labyrinth walk. Having completed the walk, they stood at the center of the maze where Martin handed Avetta a ring and asked, "Would you grow extremely old with me?"
That was an offer she could accept. Ninety minutes later they found themselves somehow alone in the cathedral. Avetta, a trained soprano who'd sung only once in the previous 12 years -- "the ex-husband didn't like noise," she says -- serenaded Martin with Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise."
Over the next few months the couple's architectural interest in the cathedral became a spiritual one. Avetta's first wedding was a civil ceremony; for this union, she eventually decided, "I want to have everybody on board -- including the divine."
That meant receiving the sacrament of marriage. On Oct. 24 they returned to Washington National Cathedral to wed. Avetta walked down the aisle unescorted, repeatedly closing her eyes along the way, as if to crystallize the scene.
"He is the greatest gift I've ever been given," she says. "Beyond dreams, beyond imagination."