By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; E08
Every afternoon in the spring of 1974, Jeffrey Storck would sit at his desk in high school and watch the clock, anxious for the minutes to pass. When the final bell rang, he would rush to his part-time job at the grocery store and pray for a visit from the smiley redhead with the bright green eyes.
"She was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen," he says.
She'd come in with her mother, navigating the aisles of the A&P in Northport, Long Island, stealing sidelong glances at Storck. One evening she came in by herself and Storck followed her to the parking lot.
He told her that he'd gotten something that day and that he wanted her to have it. In his hand was a class ring, just out of the jeweler's box. "I asked her to go steady with me. We'd never even gone out on a date," he says. "I just had to have her."
It was a bold move considering that Storck didn't know that Denise Pavone-Brooks was constantly looking for reasons to go to the A&P, harboring a crush on the cute boy who worked in the produce department, although she never had the nerve to say anything to him beyond, "Can you weigh my bananas?"
That night, she took the ring and agreed to be his girl.
For the next year and a half, the two, who went to different high schools, spent all their spare time together, sailing, taking photos, meeting each other's families and going to the prom.
"We never had an argument or a fight. Never once," Storck says. "In my head, I was going to ask her to marry me -- I wanted to. But I knew her parents and my parents would say, 'Oh, you're too young.' "
So Storck decided that once they got through college he'd be ready with another ring, this time a diamond.
In fall 1975, he headed off to Southern Illinois University; she was enrolled at Clarion University in Pennsylvania.
"And I was really worried about this," she recalls. "I was worried we'd break up or something. And then he started talking about how school was going to be so much fun and all these parties and all these girls, and I thought, 'Oh, he's breaking it to me easy.' "
They wrote a few letters, talked on the phone occasionally and, without her parents knowing, Pavone-Brooks bought a plane ticket to visit Storck in Illinois. But something wasn't right. To her, he seemed removed and uncaring.
In truth: "I was lonely -- and I was lonely for her," he says. But he never told her that, or how much he loved her, or that he wanted to marry her someday. "I didn't say those things to her, but really where it came from was my own insecurity."
Pavone-Brooks thought she was doing Storck a favor when she wrote him a Dear John letter -- saving him from being the one to call it off. She also secretly hoped he'd tell her not to do this, that the relationship was worth fighting for.
He never wrote back. "I remember checking the mail every day to see if I'd gotten something, but after a few weeks, there was nothing," Pavone-Brooks says. She took that to mean he didn't care.
But Storck was devastated. "I didn't leave my dorm room for three days," he says. "I just kept reading it and balling it up and throwing it away and rereading it and balling it up and throwing it away."
It would be three years before Storck would date somebody new and a decade before he could go out with a woman without comparing her to Pavone-Brooks.
After college he settled in the Washington area. Unknown to him, she did, too. At one point in the early 1980s, they lived in developments across the street from each other in Fairfax and shopped at the same grocery store but never ran into each other.
Pavone-Brooks eventually married and had three children. Storck came close to tying the knot once, but the wedding was called off. After her 14-year marriage ended, Pavone-Brooks focused on being a mom and building a career in the satellite industry. Storck, who works in sales and marketing, was mournful but resigned to a life alone, especially after a tough breakup in 2005.
But last fall, a former girlfriend contacted him through Facebook. It prompted Storck to wonder whether his first love, Pavone-Brooks, could also be found on the site. A quick search brought up her profile. "I thought: 'My God, it's Denise! I can't believe it!,' " he says.
In November Storck e-mailed her, asking whether she remembered him and marveling that they lived so close. "My jaw hit the floor," Pavone-Brooks says. "I was crazy about him. But I didn't know if I wanted to answer -- the way things happened at the end left a bad taste in my mouth."
She did respond, and after a few e-mails catching up on life, they decided to meet for lunch. Sitting across from each other at a pizzeria in Reston, they encountered the past. Each had put on a few pounds and about 35 years. But she still nodded sweetly as she talked. His deep voice was just the same.
Two and a half hours later, he left wanting more but was wary of falling twice for the woman who'd hurt him the most. They hung out once more before Christmas, exchanged messages over the holidays and met up on New Year's Day. What began as a fun outing to his marina turned into an intense marathon conversation about what happened between them. Both said the things they'd never had the courage to say as teenagers.
"It was just sort of an epiphany," he says.
"I was blown away," she adds. "I had no idea how he felt about me."
That day, for the first time in more than three decades, Storck kissed his ex-girlfriend. And they decided to drop the "ex."
Six days later, Pavone-Brooks left for a two-month-long project in Kazakhstan. They talked for three hours a night and "wrote books to each other" via e-mail, Storck says. He made offhand remarks about marriage, and then she asked what he was waiting for. Just before Valentine's Day, he proposed over the phone.
"I'm 52," she says. "Why waste time?"
Storck's brother urged caution at first, saying: "Oh, be careful. She dumped you once,' " he recalls. "And I said, 'No, man, you don't understand -- I should've married her 35 years ago.' "
Both say their relationship feels much the same as it did in high school -- with some significant improvements.
"It's like 35 years never happened. But it's better because we're both older and more mature and we talk to each other," he says. "I'm not a 17-year-old boy anymore. I'm not afraid to tell her how I'm feeling."
On June 5, Pavone-Brooks was beaming as she walked down the aisle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Arlington. Throughout the ceremony, Storck never took his eyes off the smiley redhead -- still "the prettiest girl I've ever known."