The journey that is life put us together. What a ride it’s been.

By Martha Frankel

First time I met him he was sleeping under his truck outside The Joyous Lake in Woodstock. His ex-wife was a waitress there; I was the cashier. She took my hand and said, “You should meet my ex. You have the same sense of humor.” It was a Tuesday, dance night. He was taking a disco nap so he could stay up late. 

The Joyous Lake was the center of Woodstock in the early and mid-1970s, a bar/restaurant where Taj Mahal and John Sebastian might be sitting at the bar, talking about old blues musicians; where harmonica genius Paul Butterfield would finish dinner and get up and jam with Rick Danko and Levon Helm; where John Hall and Orleans played to packed houses; where Steve Gadd and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn would just be two guys gigging on a Thursday night; where Peter Max doodled on napkins; where Timothy Leary might stop in for the homemade sangria; where it didn’t seem so annoying to explain to tourists that Woodstock the festival took place 60 miles away in Bethel, while Woodstock the town got the burned-out, tie-dye-wearing kids who spent their time spare-changing each other and generally getting on everyone’s nerves. 

The waitresses at The Joyous Lake wore tiny little short-shorts and bandanas tied strategically around their breasts. When they went missing for 15 minutes, you knew they were either getting high in the walk-in or making out in the bathroom. 

When the crowds got thick, the tiny waitresses pushed their way through with their trays held high above their heads. Not a drop of soup was spilled.

As soon as you got off your shift you’d head right out onto the dance floor. Everyone would be pressed together—straight and gay, male and female, young and old. You would bump and grind next to a stranger for a few hours, and then, with nothing more than a nod, decide to go home with them. The sex was friendly and dangerous, all at the same time. In the morning, you’d kiss them and try to remember their scent, and then head back into town, sometimes not even knowing their full name.

Being a waitress at The Lake was as good as it got in those days, and being the cashier was all that times ten. I didn’t have to be on my feet all night. I got paid great and didn’t have to worry about squirrelly tippers. I got to go upstairs to the private apartment above the kitchen and get high with the musicians who were waiting to go on stage. And the amazing food was free. So the guy under the truck didn’t really seem that out of place. Until he rolled out. Killer smile. Hair down past his shoulders. Deep brown eyes.

He reached out a hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Steve Heller.”

Later that night we boogied to “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Rock The Boat.” We slow danced to “Killing Me Softly.” He leaned in to kiss me when the Chi Lites sang “Oh Girl.”  

I moved in with him the next day.  We were opposites in every way. I’m gregarious and outgoing; Steve’s a quiet introvert. I’m wild about sports; he’s never watched a game. I have an addictive personality (I’m being kind to myself); he doesn’t. I like to go out all the time; he wants to work and then come home. I can’t wait ’til they implant the internet right into my brain; he still uses a flip phone.

That was October 1974.

When people say, “my husband is my best friend,” I’m not really sure what that means. Steve is many things, but not that. That’s why I have girlfriends! I don’t want to talk things to death with him. I don’t want him helping me figure out what to wear or what color my hair should be. He doesn’t need to be my cheerleader, although he often is. 

We’ve been through it all—Fire. Flood. My gambling away more money than we had. Friends overdosing. Parents dying. Raging resentments that had to simmer off. Jealousy. Money troubles. Deep, deep money troubles. Annoyances that just had to be ignored. 

And so we learned. I learned to be quiet sometimes. He’s a little chatterbox now. We learned forgiveness and to sometimes just let things slide. We say it aloud; I love you. We’re so lucky. We’ve been blessed. 

These past three years have been really special. Just the two of us most of the time. Lots and lots of laughter. Deep talks. Holding hands and sometimes making out like we just met. He was the perfect pandemic mate, praising each dinner. Loving our new dog with abandon. Loving me with abandon. Making me feel safe and cherished. That alone is no small feat for someone who likes to say, “What if… ?”

This is the love story I never expected. I’m shocked and grateful for it every day.

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