The longtime Washington Post feature writer Gene Weingarten’s new book One Day is based on a simple gimmick: Weingarten chose a single day out of a hat—Dec. 28, 1986—and spent years following every lead he could about the events of that random Sunday in America. The resulting book includes a serial killer, a famous band, a helicopter crash, and a tragic fire. But it also includes more prosaic stories that testify to the premise of the book: Stories are everywhere, and every one is interesting; all it takes is a reporter dogged enough to find people’s stories, and tell them.
8:35 p.m., Dec. 28, 1986, Great Neck, Long Island
The place was named Lakeville Manor, though there was no lake and nothing you’d even generously call a manor. It was a pickup joint with a bar and a dance floor. It billed itself as a singles club, but that was a fib, too, since many of its patrons were looking but not single.
Sharon Sultan Goldstein got there before her date, Gambler Steve, which is what she called him, but not to his face because he didn’t know she knew he had a gambling problem, one that made him both profligate and cheap at the same time.
Sharon was not interested in Gambler Steve, but he was a convenient elbow to use while trawling for other men. She was 39, in the middle of a frenzied, undignified expedition for a husband. In the previous two weeks she’d had 12 dates with 10 different men, a sprint that began the day after her ex-husband’s wedding. If you don’t understand this on some level, you’ve likely never been divorced, middle-aged, and female.
Stephen Cutler was 44, dark, intense, and laconic, a twice-divorced, ambitious ladies’ man. He was not the kind of guy to get pinned down, but Sharon didn’t know that yet, of course. She also didn’t know those shoulders were flattered a bit by that suit she admired.
Sharon was small and Jewish in a way that didn’t look Jewish, exactly like Dyan Cannon, née Friesen, who had convincingly played a shiksa in the 1969 wife-swappy farce Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Sharon had those same curls, those same bedroom eyes. Steve Cutler was Jewish and was looking for a Jewish woman, but for the moment he didn’t know he’d found one. For the moment, he didn’t care.
Steve threw out a goofy line—“funny meeting you here”—and offered to buy Sharon a drink. She allowed this. He had bourbon and Coke, which wasn’t enough to repel her. She had dry white wine. And then she whispered, “You’d better work fast, because my date just walked in the door.”
So they exchanged names and phone numbers. He promised to call her the next day and take her out for dinner. This furtive transaction had just been completed when Gambler Steve oiled his way across the floor and gave Steve Cutler the stink-eye, so Steve beat it out of there. One of the last things he heard before walking out the door was a woman asking him, “Why didn’t you call me?”
And that was that, for Dec. 28, 1986, the day Sharon met Stephen. They had been together all of five minutes.
On Monday the 29th, Steve didn’t call. So at 4 p.m. Sharon phoned him. Shy, she was not. “Are you gonna take me out or what?” she asked, Lawn Gyland in every syllable. Steve said, “Yeah, I guess, sure,” and he did. They went to Manhattan for a date at a club owned by a friend of his. She found the veal tough but the conversation tender and witty. Then he drove her home and managed one kiss on her couch before he fell asleep with his head in her lap. After a time, she extricated her lap from his head, but let him finish the night asleep on the couch.
On Tuesday night, the 30th, Steve took his new girl to his office Christmas party at a big catering hall. She wore a little black dress. By midevening, when they posed for snapshots, her face was rosy and glistening. His hair was likably mussed, a damp banglet on his forehead, his suit still immaculate, a ruffled handkerchief in his jacket pocket. He dressed snappy. They looked happy. They were quite pickled.
“We love each other, don’t we?” Sharon asked suddenly.
Steve considered this. “Yeah,” he said.
“Then why don’t we get engaged?” You know, just floating it out there.
Steve said that sounded like a swell idea. So what if their intimacy, thus far, had been confined to a kiss or three?
“Well, why don’t we TELL everyone?” Sharon suggested.
So Steve stood up, as best he could, and called for silence, and announced that he and the lovely woman swaying by his side had just gotten engaged. Applause! Christmas party became engagement party.
More than one co-worker took Steve aside that night and—nudge, wink—complimented him on his strategy for making sure the rest of the evening played out nicely.
If anything actually happened that night, neither Steve nor Sharon remembers it. They do remember the next day vividly. Wednesday the 31st, late afternoon on New Year’s Eve. It was when Steve showed up at Sharon’s house and moved in.
They had talked it over and decided that this, too, was a good idea. So Steve arrived in his car, with belongings. Sharon was a little wary about this—to tell the truth, she hadn’t even remembered exactly, precisely what Steve looked like, what with the whirlwind pace of what could only charitably be called a courtship, and she did not entirely trust the judgment of her previously inebriated self—so she stood there holding the remote to the garage door as he drove up, ready to close it quick if he looked predatory or less appealing than she’d thought or unpleasant in any unremembered way. The garage door remained open. So he drove in, then moved in, which is the first time Stephen learned Sharon had children, two very suspicious preadolescent sons. The subject somehow had not yet come up. The boys had been with their father for the weekend.
And that was the stupid, impulsive, poorly considered, alcohol-fueled, nakedly libidinous, romantically ill-omened manner in which the year 1986 closed itself out at 3448 Bertha Dr., Baldwin Harbor, Long Island.
2014, Bethesda, Maryland
They walk into the diner together. He’s leaning into her, using her as a crutch, because he’s thrown his back out again. They choose a table on a raised floor near the front window, but then decide it will be quieter in the back, nicer to talk, for this interview. They are 66 and 71.
Sharon sits, smiles, and suggests that none of any of this might have happened if she hadn’t telephoned the big schlub the next afternoon, after hearing nothing from him all day.
“I might’ve gotten around to it,” protests the schlub.
“Ha!” opines Sharon.
So what made you ask Steve to propose marriage and then announce it, in one fell swoop, in front of a room full of strangers?
“Well, it was a big decision. I wanted him to be involved a little.”
“Nice of you,” he says.
So how did it go with your sons when this guy shows up with his stuff?
“I said, ‘This is Steve, and he’s living here with us.’ It went fine.”
“It went fine?” Steve says, slack jawed, a forkful poised in the air.
Sharon nods. It went fine. Next question, please.
“Eric took all the clothes out of your dresser,” Steve says dryly, “and threw them on the middle of the floor.”
Eric was 10.
“OK, he was a little upset.”
This is their lingua franca, the DNA of their relationship, and it has been for 30 years. It’s a competitive mélange of teasing, baiting, noodging, ruthless editing of each other, all leavened with a jubilantly fatalistic sense of humor. If anything can go wrong, it will, and you deal.
Sharon and Steve lived together for 10 years before they got married.
“I was throwing out hints,” she says. “I got a wedding cake topper, a little bride and groom, and I kept hiding it in places where I knew he’d go—a sock drawer, the refrigerator.” Steve pointedly never took the hint. He wanted it, but he wanted it on his terms.
What’s the point of a straightforward wedding? What’s the fun in that? Where was the opportunity for mischief?
“Finally we got married on May 3rd, 1997,” she says.
“May 5th,” he says.
“We argue about it all the time,” she says. “May 3rd? May 5th? Believe me, I’d know the date of my own wedding”—she looks up archly over her glasses at Steve—“but I had nothing to do with it.”
Steve had decided that her wedding would come as a surprise. A double-barreled, boomerang, switcheroo surprise. So he told her they’d been invited to a black-tie party thrown by his boss, to show off his new boat. There was chamber music and a comedian emcee, and suddenly it became a surprise 50th birthday party for Sharon, which explained all her friends being there, and the funny, roasty testimonials, but then things started getting really strange, particularly when the comedian came back out in a Groucho Marx outfit, and then when the plucked rubber duck dropped down from the ceiling when she got induced to say the magic word, which was marriage. The comedian turned out to be a famous singing rabbi, David Benedict, the same one who had married The Nanny to her millionaire boss on TV. Cantor Benedict was the go-to guy for schmaltz, so of course Steve had gone to him.
“That was a year before …” Sharon starts, then stops.
“Fourteen months,” Steve says.
“We got through it,” Sharon says.
They not only finish each other’s sentences, they seem five moves ahead. They are the Fischer-Kasparov of bicker.
You wait for whatever punchline is coming. Instead, Steve is talking about why he went to identify the body.
“I didn’t want her to have to.”
On July Fourth, 1998, Sharon’s younger son, Jeffrey, died in a freak accident on a Jet Ski. He was 20. They got through it somehow, as you do, together.
“I gave her space to grieve,” Steve says. “She wanted to talk, I let her talk. I didn’t cut her off,” he says, and she laughs a little, and then he laughs a little. In this particular relationship, that was no small concession.
“We had his-and-hers cancer,” she says.
Hers was breast cancer, in 2001. They got it all after the third surgery, but at that point Steve had quit his job to care for her, and they ran into financial troubles.
“The only thing I absolutely never wanted to do was sell cars,” Steve says. “But we had to survive, so I took a job at a Toyota dealership.”
“He was very good,” she says.
“I became an elite salesperson in record time,” he says.
Things go wrong. You deal.
How do you reconcile this strong and happy relationship, this forever relationship, with the absurdly impulsive way it started? What are the odds, really, of this sort of thing working out?
There is a Yiddish word, beshert, which describes something that seemed foreordained. Kismet, for Jews. You can go there, if you believe in such things. Or maybe it was about the power of urgency—maybe these two people found each other at exactly the right moment in their lives, when a lonely endgame seemed foreseeable, when it made sense to expend real effort in making this endure. Or maybe it was something else entirely.
Ask them, here at the diner, and you don’t get much help.
“The women I had dated had always wanted more relationship than I was willing to give out,” he says.
“He was always on the six-month plan with women,” she says.
“He wouldn’t commit.”
“Well,” he says, staring her down, “I wasn’t willing to commit to something I didn’t really want.”
This is as close as they come to saying they love each other. And it is at this precise moment that there is a squeal and a loud bang outside, in the street.
Outside, a young woman who is having a very bad morning has lost control of her car, veered across oncoming traffic and sideswiped a bus. Then she hits the gas instead of the brake, jumps the curb, and plows into the diner. The wall crumples but holds. The window shatters, and inside the restaurant, glass flies at eye level. The driver sits stunned behind the wheel, as white as her airbag.
“Goodness,” Sharon says.
“Wait, that’s …” Steve says, looking over.
“It is. It’s exactly where,” Sharon says.
One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America
By Gene Weingarten. Blue Rider Press.
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It’s exactly where they’d been sitting before they decided to move.
Life together has been like that for Sharon and Steve, right from the beginning. Crazy. Full of adventure. Hard to believe, if you didn’t know it was true. Above all, pretty lucky, considering.
Excerpted from the book One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America by Gene Weingarten. Copyright © 2019 by Gene Weingarten. Published by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.