By Pegi Taylor   Published Dec 12, 2004 at 5:01 AM Photography: Molly Snyder

{image1}Sunday, April 18, on a warm and windy afternoon, I jogged over to check out the progress on the pedestrian bridge the city was building at Caesar's Park (near Humboldt and North) about a mile from my flat. All that was in place were the two main beams, over a foot wide, with thin wire stretched along the guide rails waist high on either side. I was weighing if I had the gumption to cross, when I noticed a guy on one of the beams coming my way. Maybe he was a foreman for the project and I could ask him when the bridge would be done. I noticed that he was over 40 and cute.

At the time, I was smack dab in the middle of my six-week hunt to find a man before I turned 50. The briefest of histories: I was married for sixteen years; divorced in 1991. After a couple of lonely years, I met Jeff. On Feb. 5 of this year, the day before our tenth anniversary, Jeff confessed he wanted the relationship to end and moved out in March.

Nearing a half-century old, I wasn't in the mood to mope. I had completed a big writing project and had another due to start the beginning of May. With no major deadlines for over a month, I was determined to use all my energy to look for love. I dropped a few bucks on new bras and kept my eyes wide open. At events, I approached any man in my age range I considered appealing. Running errands, even in airports, I smiled as beguilingly as I could at all candidates. It worked. In short order, I dated five guys. No Mister Right though. So this mystery man on the bridge peaked my interest.

When he reached me, I queried if he was on the job. No. He explained he owned his own small construction company, lived nearby, and often stopped by the park on Sunday afternoons. I wished that I wasn't so sweaty, had shaved my legs, and was wearing a more attractive T-shirt and shorts. The conversation moved right along though. It became clear within nanoseconds that we were both single and exchanged names.

Joe and I linked up for our first date at the bridge April 28. I'd requested ahead of time for Joe to walk across with me. We stopped halfway and sat facing each other with our legs straddling one of the beams and talked, initially about where we'd go for dinner. Joe is primarily a vegetarian, just like me. A man with a full head of hair, a cleft chin, buff, four years younger than I am, and one of his favorite foods is sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes? I thought only women craved them.

We ate at Beans and Barley, where I discovered we had other things in common. He grew up in Shorewood, doesn't drink coffee, doesn't smoke, and enjoys swimming and hiking. Outside, he kissed me on the top of the head and inquired about getting together the next weekend.

Joe told me to be at the bridge on Saturday at 5 p.m. "dressed nice" for having dinner at the Third Street Pier. Second date; should be time for a real kiss. I wasn't eager to smooch after eating fish. Rarely shy, I phoned and suggested we should kiss at the bridge beforehand -- and we did.

May looked like a promising month.

A list of "A's" about Joe was lining up. He is the most affectionate man I've ever met, without being clingy. He's also attentive, appreciative and accepting. (He has a great ass too.) I'm an intense handful, but Joe seemed my match. He whispered in my ear on the bridge May 22, "I might be falling in love with you."

Memorial Day weekend Joe made dinner for me at his house: spinach salad, corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, chicken and a fruit plate. Simple and sustaining. This is the way I put food on a table too. He had candles and incense going. What a solid-gold romantic!

We strolled hand-in-hand to the bridge after dinner. No progress on construction still. Joe and I had a bet going. I had read the bridge would be completed by early September.

Joe said, "No way." We had $10 riding on the outcome.

A bigger concern for me was whether I could bet on the relationship. We'd been seeing each other for over a month. I was now loaded down with deadlines for numerous projects and had no leisure time to keep prowling. I hadn't been dating anyone else since I'd come upon Joe, but did I want to stand pat with him?

We hail from such different backgrounds. I'm Jewish and he's Catholic; I've got my master's degree and he dropped out of high school. Our behaviors differ too. If this was a fairytale, I'd toss in some fluff about how I'm quite tidy and Joe, by his own admission, is messy.

This isn't a fairytale though. The fact is that Joe kicked a cocaine habit in 1984. He has a sponsor, goes to support-group meetings at least twice a month, and stays away from people and places that would trigger a relapse. He quit doing drugs, but alcohol is another story. He never drinks during the day, when the danger of his construction work demands he has control of all his faculties.

At home, he usually downs a couple beers or sometimes a six-pack before bed. Me? I don't even like soda (the Devil invented Coke) and imbibe a few times a year at social events. The closest I come to having an addiction is that most afternoons I eat two pieces of Kehr's dark chocolate. Could I tolerate empty beer bottles in my recycling bin and no guarantees that Joe might slip and go on a bender?

After my 50th birthday in late June, the locus of our romance shifted away from the bridge. Joe's family owns land in Sparta, Wis. and we were going to have the place to ourselves for part of July. Both of us expected the trip to be a time of reckoning. Would we come back with some sort of commitment or want to call it quits?

I had the four most idyllic days of my life. My honeymoon couldn't beat it. Nothing. I adore Wisconsin and spend almost all my vacations in the state. Yet I was unprepared for the beauty of the land: two hundred acres on a dead-end road with access to a bluff. The house was cozy, the weather ideal, barely a bug in sight, and we had almost total privacy. I picked black raspberries every morning and built a big fire every evening at sunset. There were stars and stars and more stars. One night Joe set off fireworks. One day he drove me to a waterfall nearby where we took off our shoes and let the icy-cold water wash over our feet. Joe did almost all the cooking and could predict my needs. He knew when I was hungry, horny, tired or cold without me saying a word. On the drive back from Sparta, I told him I loved him three times.

Not that I didn't have reservations. I discussed Joe's drinking with a few close friends. One advised, "He drinks; you don't. End it now." Another suggested I needed to find out if I could be comfortable around Joe when he drinks. "Does he get mean?" he asked. He doesn't.

It was August by now and Joe brought up marriage for the first time.

Construction picked up on the bridge. I'm a literary soul, so I read a lot into this. Bridges link two separate pieces of land through human engineering. And this was an intimate project, meant for foot traffic, not cars. It was on our scale. We were building footing to reach one another powered by desire.

And then something happened that unsettled someone like me, eager to give meaning to seemingly unrelated events. The bridge wasn't level. It was five days away from our September bet date. All the concrete was poured and most of the railings in place, but Joe showed me how the south end of the bridge and the bank leading up to it didn't match by two inches. People could easily trip. Joe came up with some possibilities about how the crew could solve the problem. All of them lacked grace, like they could pour a thin "skim coating" of cement over the top.

I was thinking we could make ourselves fit too, but would it be equally forced and awkward? As a companion I can champion Joe's courage staying off cocaine and hang around when he drinks. As his spouse, his daily decisions would have a huge impact on me. My lifestyle would have to dovetail with his.

In the musical "Guys and Dolls" a woman sings, "Marry the man today; don't wait around in sorrow. Marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow." I detest this idea, and I would be detestable if I accepted Joe, loved Joe, based on some future version of him I would design and monitor.

I paid Joe his $10, wondering if we'd still be together by the ribbon-cutting ceremony planned for December. On Sept. 30, we stopped by the bridge for our first time at night. It was a cloudless, crisp evening and the river was smooth and peaceful. Joe pointed out how seven cement lane dividers weighed down the end of the bridge so that everything came together perfectly now. This particular solution inspired me. Maybe, just maybe, we had the humble, enduring strength to adjust to one another and come together just right too, without losing our own individual form and structure.

I can tell you exactly when I knew I was "in love" with Joe. It had become clear that I could dovetail with Joe's life: climb outdoors, work out at his club, attend family events, and accompany him to church. It was not as clear whether Joe would be game to participate in activities that matter to me, particularly art events.

I brought him to a gallery opening for the first time in October. The "Dia de los Muertos" show at Walker's Point Center for the Arts is a community-oriented show of elaborate altars to honor people who have died that year. Joe is fascinated by death and there is a lot of Catholic imagery involved, so I calculated he would have some "handles" to connect with the work. He seemed to have an OK time, but it wasn't until the following day that I found out how profoundly the exhibit had moved him.

It was dark when I entered Joe's house Saturday afternoon. Dark, because Joe had built an altar as a way of marking where he was in his life. He had carefully arranged objects and photographs to represent religion and beliefs, his family, his beloved Shepherd that died last year, his accomplishments, and me. The altars had sparked Joe to the extent that he had created one himself. This magnetized me.

At 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 15, Mayor Tom Barrett will participate in the dedication of the North Avenue Dam Pedestrian Bridge (its official title). I'll be there; I can't tell you about Joe. We have come to the precarious spot where the ribbon-cutting will either mark our decision to live together or sever our relationship.

My problem is that I've never had such intense emotions about anyone before. My heart melts at the mere sight of Joe. I never understood the term "fierce longing" until now, never experienced such strong surges of tenderness and giddy joy. But then I've also never felt such fear of rejection, jealousy or rage before either. I've yelled at Joe more in seven months than I did with my last partner in 10 years. I'll calm down eventually, right?

One thing's for sure. If we survive as a couple and Joe ever proposes, I know where he'll do it.

Readers: Should he propose? Should she marry him? Use the talkback feature to give your two cents' worth.