February is a month short on days but long on love. Perfect timing to recall how my late fiancé Ben and I first connected.

People often ask what is the best way to meet someone. My answer is always the same: the way that leads to the desired results. For Ben and me, it was the Personals section of the newspaper.

Sadly, I lost him in 2003 to pancreatic cancer. Yet, in no way does that diminish the Harry and Sally path our story took before it solidified into Ben and Barbara. We would still be together today if life had not made other plans. A love story that has ended needs nevertheless to be told, and so I begin with:

Chapter One: February 1996. I saw a personal ad in a local paper that read something like: Empty Pedestal: SJM short, fat, bald and ugly searching for someone special to love and pamper. I didn’t know what to make of that. Was this a Jewish Robert Redford trying to play the role of modest stud muffin? Or was his self-description right on target? I left a message. The call was returned, and a slightly awkward first conversation took place. Ben told me a little about himself, including the fact that he was a coffee aficionado; Safeway’s Coffee Bar was one of his favorite hangouts. There was just one important element missing in that initial getting-to-know-you exchange: Ben didn’t ask me out. “Jerk,” I mumbled to myself, while hanging up the phone.

Chapter Two: Several months later, I just happened to be doing a little shopping in that particular Safeway and suddenly remembered my phone conversation with Ben and how he loved to stop at the coffee bar. Glancing over to the bar, I noticed a short, pudgy bald man. Could it be? I walked over. “Are you Ben Wiesman?” I asked. Indeed it was. I teasingly told him tidbits of information gleaned from our phone conversation, while he had absolutely no idea who I was. He did ask me a few times, but I was having way too much fun to answer. There may have also been a little sweet revenge that I was now in control after his initial rejection of me.

By the time I was ready to reveal my identify, Ben had had enough of my cat and mouse antics and said he really didn’t care at that point and I would forever remain his mystery woman. Another blow to my ego! I walked off in a huff, glad to be rid of that guy but secretly berating myself for having played the game a little too long.

Chapter Three: A few months later, on Yom Kippur, I went to Yiskor (memorial) services for my mother held at a local hotel. I arrived a bit early to see people milling around. You guessed it, there stood Ben, alone, who, I found out later, was planning to attend the very same service for his father. Not that he was so religious. His mother had encouraged him to attend because, as she said, “It’s a great place to meet a nice, Jewish girl.” Mother’s intuition was right, as that is exactly what happened.

We started to talk. Of course, he remembered me, the mystery woman from the Safeway. I filled in the blanks by telling him that I was also the Barbara who had answered his ad in the Personals. We sat together in the service. I even asked him to hold my hand when I was getting a little emotional. He complied. Finally, the third time was the charm. Ben asked me out that night.

Chapter Four: This was no love at first date or even second or third. Among other non-negotiables, Ben was several inches shorter than me, had a large Doberman pinscher (I am skittish around that particular breed) and was a member of the NRA, probably the token Jew of the whole organization. I told Ben as gently as I could that he was a nice guy but not a fit for me.

Most men, their ego full throttle, would have uttered a few obscenities and told me to have a nice life. Ben took a different tack. He accepted this with grace and added that if I ever needed a friend I should call him. Little did I know that one day I would.

During the next year or so Ben and I did run into each other a few more times, at concerts and such. Pleasantries were exchanged, nothing more. Fast forward to February 1998.

Chapter five: My dear uncle, though genuinely interested in my welfare, nevertheless had a propensity for inserting foot in mouth. One Saturday morning, he blurted out some hurtful comments to me on the phone, which sent me to bed in tears. I needed a shoulder and remembered Ben’s words. It was only 7:30, but I called. Ben was up, told me to dry my eyes and said he would pick me up in half an hour. I had absolutely no idea where we were going, but I got out of bed and got ready.

When Ben picked me up, I told him I was too upset to talk. “No problem,” he reassured me, and then proceeded to drive to beautiful Roosevelt Lake near Phoenix. Needless to say, we talked the whole way there.

But it was while we were lying on the sand at the lake, watching the water skiers and boats going by, that those first sparks I had felt on the drive up to Phoenix ignited. Ben was aware that he was no heart throb and turned that to his advantage in the form of self-deprecating humor. Knowing that I was a French teacher, he fashioned a tale about going to school at the Sorbonne with his pal, Victor Hugo. As I wondered where he was going with this, Ben continued to embellish the story by stating poker face that he had been Hugo’s role model for the famous character of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At that moment, I knew that I liked him.

From then on, Ben and Barbara became an item. With all the ups and downs of our life together, I know that had he lived, many more chapters would have been written. Though this story ended all too soon I am comforted in the knowledge that Ben loved me unconditionally, even admitting on more than one occasion, that he loved me more than his late wife Gini, to whom he had been married for 25 years. A girl can’t hope for much more than that.

Barbara Russek is a French teacher and freelance writer.

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