Chris and I after a rainstorm in Charlottesville a few weeks before our wedding. Apparently we have zero zoo photos on this computer…
Of all the things I am looking forward to during our upcoming time in America, I am looking forward to nothing more than walking through the Smithsonian National Zoo with my husband and my baby.
Allow me to explain. It’s kind of a long story, and a sentimental one. Be forewarned.
From the weekend after our first date until we left D.C. two years later, Chris and I spent nearly every other sunny Saturday morning wandering through the National Zoo. We’d get a late, luxuriously lazy pre-kid start to our morning, mosey on down to Open City for a couple of coffees and croissants, and then we’d head up Connecticut Avenue to the Zoo for some walking and people-watching.
We had our favorite exhibits. We always stopped to see the Asian otters and always avoided the reptile house. Once we spent 45 minutes just sitting at the Zoo entrance just watching the families and kids come streaming in.
But mostly we took these walks to talk and to dream. We’d dream up what to have for dinner that night, where to go for our next hike. We’d dream about hypothetical vacations and the construction of hypothetical dream homes. After a while we started noticing the kids and the strollers and, while we kept those dreams to ourselves for a long time, we started to dream of what it might be like to one day take our own little family to the zoo.
We took many long walks through D.C. together but the zoo was always a special place.
The day before our backyard wedding, I don’t remember all of the preparations or even the rehearsal dinner. All I remember is our walk through the zoo. We needed to finalize the ceremony that our sisters would officiate for us the next morning so Chris suggested a zoo walk, to hash things out. At the end of it we sat down in Rock Creek Park and Chris said the vows he’d been practicing in secret for weeks to me. I cannot, for the life of me, remember his exact words; but I remember the iced coffees sweating in our laps, the ants crawling up our legs, and the solemn but so wonderful feeling that, as he said those vows to me, we’d suddenly just shed the last of out “two-ness.”
Our legal courthouse ceremony may have been weeks before, our wedding might have been the very next day, but it was that moment after our zoo walk that I really married my husband.
For many people, I think D.C. is more of a stopping ground than a place to call home. It’s not a cheap city, it can be a downright pretentious place; having kids in or around the District requires all sorts of school-district considerations. Lots of people really like it, but I don’t know how many people call it home.
For us though, Washington D.C. is home. I’ve lived in Texas, Wisconsin, India, very briefly Colorado, and now China; but D.C. is where I feel most comfortable. It’s where I feel the most like myself and where I like myself best. It’s hard to explain how my heart wells up when I think about the District, the surrounding suburbs, the hiking trails just a few hours outside of town.
It’s not a perfect city, but it’s truly my city. And it’s where I fell in love, however accidentally, with the man who makes my world go round.
One of these days I’ll share how Chris and I met and got together, it’s sort of a whirlwind, crazy-ish story. For now, it suffices to say that, one night, after a work happy hour we stopped in at an Adams Morgan coffee house to share a piece of chocolate cake. Five hours later Chris walked me home and I haven’t been able to get him out of my head or my heart ever since.
After just a few months of dating, Chris asked me to move in with him. He posed the question in the middle of a long, hot uphill hike in the middle of the GW National forest, so I assumed he was delusional with heatstroke. I didn’t believe him until, a few weeks later, he handed me a set of keys on a homemade keychain made out of some camping rope and a tarnished old Chinese coin. That’s still the keychain I use today. It seemed crazy, at the time, to be moving in together after only a few months of dating but it also felt so right. And it was so right. Its hard to describe how much joy and how little strife we found in sharing a home together.
Only a few months later Chris joined the foreign service and about a week later, while we waited to pick up a take-out pizza, he asked me to marry him. I ran a half-marathon the next morning with a crazy grin on my face, staring down at my new ring every quarter of a mile to make sure I hadn’t lost it yet.
(Chris would like me to note here that he had been planing a romantic Montana mountain-top proposal when the Foreign Service called him up and told him he’d be in training for the days he was getting hiking permits for. Oops.)
We were engaged for just a little over 3 months before our wedding. That means that, by my calculations, we went from sharing a coffee and a piece of chocolate cake, to sharing an apartment, to sharing a last name in the space of about 16 months.
Our friends thought we were nuts, too fast, too crazy. I thought we were nuts. I moved to D.C. to start a career, not to find a life partner nine years my senior and to end up married and moving across the world with him two years later. Going out with Chris the first time was the best decision I ever made, but I certainly hadn’t counted on that cup of coffee changing the course of my life forever.
I’d always thought that love was supposed to be hard work, that the harder you worked at it the truer it was. Turns out that for Chris and I, its the easiest, most joyful thing in the world. Real life can be hard work, making time for each other with a baby who hates sleeping can be hard work, but loving Chris never is.
It was the first relationship in which I never wondered “where it was going” and, in the meantime, as we dated, co-habitated and began our married life, we lived perhaps the most romantic, most wonderful life possible in Washington D.C.
We wandered the streets around our neighborhoods from dawn until dusk. We stopped for ice cream, for breakfast, for dinner at the divy-est and the nicest of D.C. restaurants. We admired architecture and visited every museum on the Mall. We laid in the grass with friends at Dupont Circle. We kayaked on the Potomac, we ran along the canals in Georgetown. We watched planes fly low over Gravelly Point. We picnicked in parks. We picked up crabs from the wharf and ate them on the edge of the Tidal Basin after dark while the trees glowed white above us and showered us in cherry blossoms.
We bought a National Park annual pass and spent weekend after weekend in the Shenandoah mountains and George Washington National Forest. We drove to Annapolis to see the boat show there and to Assateague Island to see the dunes and the horses. We drove around the suburbs in search of the best sushi, the best Vietnamese food, the best Korean barbecue, and the best pancakes.
We took advantage of our (at the time) 35-and-under ages and saw Romeo & Juliet with an all-male cast and As You Like It at the Shakespeare Theater for $12 each. We went to the Folklife Festival and the Solar Decathlon and countless street fairs. The night Obama was elected President we wandered the streets celebrating as cab drivers honked and strangers hugged and danced together. On Inauguration Day we stood in the shadow of the Washington Monument freezing our toes off with thousands of people whom, at that moment, felt like nothing less than family.
We tried nearly every single coffee house in the Metro area, we visited the farmers markets every weekend. We walked for frozen yogurt or Baskin Robbins nearly every night during the summertime and once we even saw a real “blue moon” hanging in the sky above us. We wandered through the Sculpture Garden more times than I can count and visited the Roosevelt Memorial at night because that’s just the best way to appreciate it.
In short, there is hardly a street in NW D.C. that does not hold a warm memory for us. There is not a highway out of town that we did not once take.
Going back to D.C. for the first time in two years isn’t just a chance to see the sights, shop at Trader Joe’s again and eat fresh seafood, it’s a pilgrimage back to the place where we began. It’s also our first chance to share with Will where he comes from and the zoo where we first dreamed up his existence.
Not this time in D.C. nor any subsequent D.C. tours will ever be like those first few carefree years we had together. There will be bedtimes to observe, aborted attempts at eating out, eventually, we too, will have school districts to consider. Things will be different, but they will be different in a wonderful sort of way. Because I can’t think of a more fitting way to return to the city that gave me my husband than to return together as a little family now, baby boy in tow.
Chris can’t wait to teach Will how to eat his first Maryland blue crab. I can’t wait for our first family picnic at the mall for the 4th of July fireworks. In a few years we will take him to the Air and Space Museum and watch his eyes light up at all of the planes dangling from the ceiling.
But for now, while he is still so little, we will start with the most important things first. We will stop for our coffees and we will share with him bits of our flaky croissants.
And then we’ll take his hands hold them tight as we show him around his zoo.