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Ten years ago today…

Married for ten years: Mark Ezra Stokes and Kasey Ray-Stokes

Ten years ago today, it happened. I married my middle-school crush.

I wish I could’ve called her my sweetheart, but that wasn’t my style at the time.

Now, I joke that this was my plan all along—that I was this patient, goal-oriented huntsman whose singular focus never wavered. That wasn’t exactly the case.

Do you feel reality rippling around you? Seems like we’re entering a flashback sequence. Too late to turn back. The coordinates have already been set.

Middle School

My eighth-grade year in Ludowici, Georgia. 1994. The price of cabbage was—Well, you get the setting.

I had just moved to a tiny farming town a few days before my 13th birthday. Only a glimmer of my present self, I was driven by the desire to lay low from scary humans—especially girls—and to excel as expected when avoidance wasn’t a choice.

The first time I saw Kasey was at Student Council, in a soon-to-be-demolished cafeteria.

It was after school, and some other pretty girl had, no doubt, roped me into this club. At age 13, I was like King Kong, eager for some pedestalled beauty to take to my ultimate fate of swatting airplanes from atop a tower. Maybe you were that way, too.

Kasey walked into the meeting with her cousin. They were both clearly late, as our advisor made clear. Despite the sideways glances shot her way, Kasey still entered confidently, continuing her conversation in whispers as if they hadn’t yet entered the lunchroom. She seemed tuned into an entirely different frequency than the presumed judgment around her. Risk displeasing a grownup and an entire room full of peers? I could never do that.

But there she was, confident. Setting her own priorities as her eyes scanned the room.

Man, what piercing brown eyes she had! The kind I imagine Medusa having, before being turned into a monster—powerful, hypnotic eyes that could stop men in their tracks & sway the God of the Sea.

I remember her wearing a status symbol jacket, so it must’ve been back when fall felt actually cool. It was either brown-leather or a borrowed Starter jacket, but it ran circles around my don’t-look-at-me-green hoodie.

My shoulders instinctively slumped. I retreated—as I always did best—to my shell of averted eyes, overt compliance & blushes prepared like squid ink.

People-pleasing had been my proudest lifestyle choice from the age of five, after hearing that no human was perfect, “not even Moses.”

“That was easy,” I thought as a kid. “I’ll just be perfect starting now. I can’t claim the record, but I bet a lot of grown-ups would be impressed with a near-perfect kid.” After all, wasn’t that what life was all about?

* * *

Middle school was survivable, though my turtle shell of passivity sure felt tight at times. In band, I was told my lips were too big for the trumpet, so I switched. I became the nose pimple on the prom picture of our band class—fumbling my way on a cumbersome borrowed tuba. (Turns out my lips were fine, like those of every thick-lipped trumpet virtuoso who’d excelled on the horn. Our school just needed a tuba player to follow an abrupt school dropout.)

While I blushed at my reflection in that rhinoceros of a horn, the director stopped our song mid-measure. Someone had squeaked. Upon narrowing it down to two sax-playing culprits—Kasey and her ever-present cousin—he moved his critique to Kasey’s use of lipstick, an unforgivable stainer of saxophone reeds.

I had noticed that diluted burgundy stain whenever she took a breath while turning her head slightly to the left… Those dark red lips, pressed ever-so-gently against that reed… which I was trying not to notice, but the band director kept bringing it up and—

Like I said, eighth grade was tough for the young and pious. I survived the experience, though, and I didn’t see Kasey in band class the following year. (She’s been rocking the perfect shade of lipstick ever since.)

High School

High school was even scarier, so I put my nervous energy into Student Council. Through this club, I pushed through crippling anxiety & worked my way up their ranks. It was a vital part of my transition into leadership as an adult. It also happened to be the only way I could sneak a peek at Kasey, who was, sadly, still in middle school.

This Kasey girl was an enigma. She broke rules she considered “dumb,” and yet she was still involved in the clubs that “good people” were in. How could one subvert authority and still be good? Wasn’t life all about complying with the people who tell you what to do?

As I navigated the through line of social impairment & mortifying aspirations that marked my high-school career, my affair with perfectionism intensified. Now that people were watching me as a leader (and I was surviving the experience), the drive was even stronger to get other people to like me. I accomplished great things with that gifted brain of mine, but what I couldn’t seem to control were the hormone-drenched thoughts that pervaded my grey matter.

The battle was particularly intense at the dawn of my junior year.

* * *

It started with a familiar set of contours in the hallway between classes, followed by the elation that such a sight would bring. By week two, my Captain Ahab obsession with Kasey’s figure—those astonishingly-real curves in all the right places—made walking between classes my new favorite subject. Of course, then I felt terrible, ungentlemanly & lecherous the moment I found my target, but oh, the magic the happened upon that first glimpse!

Kasey didn’t dress more provocatively than the other girls, nor was she trying to “invite danger,” as our sex ed teacher often warned. She was just blessed—truly, truly blessed—with a bodily landscape that rose and fell with the kind of riveting drama that would win Best Picture any year. When I worked up the nerve to look in her eyes, what always blew me away, though, was that twinge of inner confidence. Such a sexy, powerful confidence.

That’s also why I never made my move.

Even while seated beside her in technology class. Even when we worked together on after-school projects. For years, we averted gazes that—if held a bit longer—would’ve betrayed the reality of what the other was really thinking.

Before that moment could occur, Kasey moved to another school, in another town, and I hated the hallways again.

But I survived the sweaty masses each day. My turtle shell got me through, and I fortified it with more people-pleasing accolades and after-school activities. I saw Kasey once at our drama performance, which short-circuited a third of my brain. I wasn’t prepared for the old hallway jolt on a Tuesday night in the new cafeteria.

Statistically speaking, being in every club would increase my chances of seeing her again, so that’s what I set out to do. Occasionally, I saw her in the audience—at my graduation and at random baseball games—but most of the time, I didn’t.

It was still worth the shot. She had become more breathtaking with each sighting, those dark-chocolate eyes still unyielding; that confidence still unbroken.

Adulthood

I fumbled through adulthood, doing so quietly—compliantly—as was my comfortable norm. Like many college students, I took pleasure in telling others how the world really works… because who else was more qualified to say so than a college student?

Almost nine years had passed by that time I came across Kasey again. College was now done, as was my first master’s degree. I had discovered that the world of higher education was the perfect playground for docile overachievers, so I settled into work as a professor. (After all, who’s more qualified to tell others how the world works than a college professor?)

By the time I saw Kasey’s MySpace profile, I was a prisoner of my own design. (Please don’t let the fact that we’re so old, we reunited on MySpace detract from a perfectly good love story.)

At the time, I was teaching five classes I had never taught before, along with three independent studies I had never taught before… and directing the spring play—which I ended up creating from scratch for casting purposes. It was the ultimate fate of the passively compliant.

I had also finally given up on my obsession with finding the perfect wife to complete me & fix that void that was there, obviously, because I didn’t have a wife like most people should at my age. Daily–and without fail–I had been praying for this elusive, pedestal-ready creature since age thirteen. (Apparently, the prayer had worked immediately, though my awareness had an really unfortunate delay.)

I found out on MySpace that this new adult Kasey was equally disenfranchised with dating. In fact, that mutual loathing of an apparently broken societal system so callously designed to make consumers consume is what brought us together.

Sweet, ain’t it?

After more and more MySpace messages, and fewer bits of small talk, we agreed to meet up for dinner… so I could catch up with her sister & brother-in-law, with whom I had graduated high school. Ugh, no. It’s not a date. Who’d wanna go through that sort of thing all over again?

And so, we met in-person—me in my lumberjack plaid-and-beard and her in her oh-so-heavenly light-blue shirt. From that moment on, all bets were off. We let one little gaze linger a split-second longer than in school, and Captain Ahab was back, now more insistent than ever.

I still walked through the “romance is overrated” motions as long as I could, but every anti-love platitude I uttered became muffled in my thoughts—drowned out by the chirping of birds & the cascading melody of harps.

Beginning a Ten-year Trek

At some point, after serving as a groomsman and lamenting being ogled like a piece of meat, I got up the nerve to call myself “dating someone.” Soon, somehow, we reached an organic understanding that we would get married soon. It was just a passing part of conversation: Some weather. I remember it being colder in the fall. We should get married. Yeah, we should.

Within a year’s time—despite the sideways looks and unsolicited advice on how an unorthodox union like ours was clearly doomed to fail—we were married.

That was ten years ago.

We’re still married today. And it’s taken me ten years to be where I truly want to be—in confidence, in relationships and in life.

It’s taken ten years for us to conjoin our distinctive worldviews, evolving from our earlier, marriage-free years. For ten years, the stakes intensified, two children raised them higher and—rather than retreating into my default setting of quiet compliance—I found the courage to aspire for better.

Gradually, fumblingly, I changed the trajectory of submissive perfectionism, and I’m breaking lots of “dumb” rules that I once made for myself.

Marrying Kasey did that.

Ten years ago, I answered a call to adventure that I had been ignoring for way too long. And it made all the difference.

In a few minutes, when those dark-chocolate eyes open to greet the sunrise—meeting our toddler’s chocolaty-confident gaze—I’ll experience the same middle-school flutter as I’ve done before.

Life is funny that way, when you shut up for once about what you want, and you take a moment to appreciate exactly what you need.

Happy tenth, Kasey.

You’re my crush, my wife and my sweetheart. You’re my call to an adventure that started 22 years in the past… even before MySpace was a thing.

Ten years of Mark Ezra Stokes and Kasey Ray-Stokes

 

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About the Author Mark Ezra Stokes

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