It wasn’t quite a meet-cute. Well, maybe it was. You be the judge. It went like this.
I was new to town and, to make some connections and see some performing art, I volunteered to usher at a dance festival. I knew no one. I went to the opening night party and did what I could to impersonate an extravert. This mainly meant conversing briefly with anyone who took it upon themself to converse with me. I managed to initiate a few brief conversations, but I spent the rest of the time just looking around. There was one person who caught my attention, a striking young woman with red hair who was sitting alone in the middle of the action talking to no one. I thought about going up to her and introducing myself. But she was beautiful, she wasn’t smiling, and it seemed quite possible she would chew me up and spit me out. I was a scrawny dorky guy. My nerves failed me altogether.
But wait. Two days later, I showed up for my first shift ushering. The doors weren’t open yet; we were getting things ready. I was told to go help stuff programs (put inserts into the booklets). The front of the theatre, when it wasn’t being the front of a theatre, was (and still is) a cabaret bar called Tallulah’s, and so I walked up to what was normally a bar counter by a window to join the other usher who was already there stuffing programs.
Guess who the other usher was.
Yes. The heart-stopping red-headed woman.
I was in a situation where conversation was expected, so I immediately made some kind of joke. I can’t remember what it was (the smart money says it was a play on words), but she seemed to think it was funny. She was very sweet and not at all carnivorous. We started talking. For some reason we got onto the subject of music and I mentioned my love for Arvo Pärt. She was very impressed, as she was also fond of his music, and she – like Pärt – was Estonian (on her father’s side).
Anyway, we got along well. Or at least I had the sense that we did. We chatted as occasion permitted all shift long (not during the performances, of course). I found out a few things about her; she found out a few things about me. And, naturally, at the end of the shift, I had a complete failure of nerve and did not ask her to meet me for coffee or anything of the sort. We went our separate ways and all I knew was her name.
And this was before social media. In fact, it was August 18, 1997.
Which was also before such things as online sign-up for dance festival ushering. So the next day I went back to see about signing up for some more shifts. Anything to increase the chance of another meeting. And as the volunteer coordinator looked at his big open schedule book, I looked at it from the other side and was grateful that I could read upside-down, because I saw an open slot on the same shift as Aina Arro. I volunteered for that day. And you can easily guess that I didn’t mess it up that time.
And that, to put it as cutely as possible, is the story of how I met my wife in a gay bar. (Technically that’s true: Tallulah’s is a gay cabaret bar.)
But was it a meet-cute?
You know what a meet-cute is, right? The noun meet-cute, which dates to the 1950s, is formed from the verb phrase meet cute, which dates to the 1940s (if not earlier). The Oxford English Dictionary defines that as “(of two characters in a film, novel, etc.) to have an amusing or charming accidental meeting which leads to, or is followed by, romantic involvement.” It illustrates it with a quote from the play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? by George Axelrod: “Dear boy, the beginning of a movie is childishly simple. The boy and girl meet. The only important thing to remember is that—in a movie—the boy and the girl must meet in some cute way. They cannot … meet like normal people at, perhaps, a cocktail party or some other social function. No. It is terribly important that they meet cute.”
So… was my meeting Aina cute enough? It was for us, to use the OED’s definition of the noun, “an amusing or charming first encounter between two people that leads to the development of a romantic relationship between them,” but was it amusing or charming enough for movie audiences? We didn’t bump into each other on a streetcorner, each weighed down with armloads of paper or pastries. We didn’t mistakenly take each other’s bags in an airport or train station. I didn’t go to serve her in a restaurant and accidentally pour wine or sauce all over her dress. I just saw her once, then saw her again, and it was in a thrown-together circumstance only inasmuch as we were both volunteering for a dance festival.
But what is cute, anyway? In Ireland, the word can be used to mean ‘clever, crafty, deceitful’, and in fact, cute is originally ’cute – that is to say, it was to acute as ’nuff is to enough: what is technically termed an aphetic form. So its first meaning was ‘clever’ or ‘smart’. And just as smart has gained senses relating to good appearance, cute has gained a sense of ‘attractive’ or ‘charming’ – or, increasingly, ‘pretty, in a childlike way’. Kittens are cute. But there are many people who are very good looking who you would probably not call cute.
And likewise, there are many charming circumstances that might also not be called cute. Seeing someone interesting, not having the nerve to talk to her, and then two days later being put to work right next to her? Well, mmmaybe.
But I have the older definition of cute to fall back on. After all, reading the sign-up book upside down and picking out the next open spot with the person I wanted to “coincidentally” be put together with again was at least a little clever. Right?
It was smart, that’s for sure. We met 25 years ago, and we’ve been married for more than 20 years now. Ain’t we a cute couple?