‘The record scratches, and ev­ery­thing stops’


The Washington Post Sunday - - ON LOVE - mc­carthye@wash­post.com

Elizabeth Am­brose felt some­thing the first time she met Steven John­son. “It was like a zing up your spine,” she re­mem­bers. But Am­brose dis­missed the feel­ing. She was with her boyfriend, af­ter all. And John­son’s girl­friend was right be­side him.

That was New Year’s Eve 2002 and Am­brose was in New Or­leans vis­it­ing a friend who went to law school with John­son. A big group went to din­ner and spent the night cel­e­brat­ing to­gether. At the end of the week­end, Am­brose and John­son hugged good­bye.

Am­brose didn’t think much about John­son af­ter re­turn­ing to the District. But when he moved to Washington in 2006 to work at the Jus­tice De­part­ment, they had enough mu­tual friends to land at the same happy hour once or twice a year.

“I no­ticed her ev­ery time,” John­son says. “I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘She’s still very at­trac­tive.’ ” But at ev­ery meet­ing, it quickly be­came ap­par­ent that one or the other was in a re­la­tion­ship.

In the sum­mer of 2010, John­son went through a breakup that left him reel­ing. Most nights, he re­calls, “I was just go­ing home to sit in the dark.” But when a friend’s birth­day party rolled around in early Au­gust, he forced him­self to get out of the house. He was dumb­struck when he saw Am­brose walk through the crowd.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” he says. “She was stun­ning. It was like the record scratches, and ev­ery­thing stops.”

They chat­ted hap­pily for a while, catch­ing up on each other’s lives. Fi­nally, John­son mus­tered the courage to ask her out to brunch the next day.

“I can’t. I have a stand­ing date.” Then Am­brose ex­plained: “I have a bull­dog, and Rosie and I go to the cof­fee shop and read the pa­per ev­ery Sun­day.”

Am­brose had also gone through a breakup that year. And she had be­gun to ac­cept that mar­riage might not be in the cards. But she loved her lob­by­ing ca­reer and had bought a row­house on Capi­tol Hill sev­eral years ear­lier. “I was in a really good place by my lone­some,” says Am­brose, now 38. “I was kind of at peace just be­ing me.”

Still, they de­cided to go out, and din­ner at Sonoma stretched over six hours, although they barely touched the food. “It was very hon­est,” says John­son, now 32. “For what­ever rea­son, I felt very com­fort­able open­ing up to her in ways you would never do on a first date.”

John­son wasn’t sure he was ready for a new re­la­tion­ship, so they took things slowly, es­pe­cially in the first month of dat­ing. Most of their time to­gether was spent talk­ing — “just ex­plain­ing to each other where we were coming from and who we are,” says John­son, a tax at­tor­ney.

Even as the amount of time they spent to­gether in­creased that fall, Am­brose re­fused to let her­self be­lieve it might be lead­ing to some­thing per­ma­nent. In many ways, John­son seemed too good to be true. He sent flow­ers and opened doors, and he was smart and cute and al­ways at­ten­tive.

“I held back quite a bit,” Am­brose says. “I didn’t want to get in­vested in a re­la­tion­ship and think, ‘Maybe we’ll get mar­ried,’ and then have it not hap­pen.”

Af­ter Christ­mas, when John­son asked the clas­sic de­fine-the-re­la­tion­ship ques­tion — “What are we?” — Am­brose de­ferred. “We’re happy, and we’re hav­ing fun,” she said with a shrug. “Why do we need to make it any­thing more?”

But as the months passed, Am­brose slowly let down her guard, and John­son grew in­creas­ingly sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. She was con­fi­dent and in­de­pen­dent, and close friends of­ten told John­son that he seemed like his best self around her.

“I knew at some point that I didn’t want any­one else to have her. And I might not have the chance again,” John­son says. Plus, “Beth makes me laugh. I can be very se­ri­ous and Beth, like no one else, can bring me back to loos­en­ing up and chas­ing the dog at night,” he adds.

“We’re very com­ple­men­tary in our op­po­sites,” agrees Am­brose, who is un­or­ga­nized and laid back while John­son is ex­act­ing and can be high strung. “I’m bet­ter be­cause of Steve for sure. He kind of fills in the holes.”

By early last year, John­son was sav­ing for a ring and a nest egg. In Oc­to­ber, when his two sis­ters were in town for the Marine Corps Marathon, he ar­ranged for Am­brose’s brother and sis­ter to come to town as well. And early on a Fri­day morn­ing, as they walked Rosie through a park, John­son got down on one knee and pro­posed. Am­brose, in shock and still half asleep, said yes, put the ring box in her pocket and con­tin­ued walking the dog. Soon she re­al­ized the enor­mity of what had just hap­pened, and they spent the week­end cel­e­brat­ing.

The cou­ple de­cided not to do any wed­ding plan­ning for the first month of their en­gage­ment. But by the time they started look­ing at dates in late Novem­ber, they re­al­ized Fe­bru­ary was the only month that worked. Am­brose had al­ways wanted a win­ter wed­ding, and one of John­son’s sis­ters was preg­nant and wouldn’t be able to travel much later.

So in less than three months they planned a wed­ding for 100 guests. On Feb. 1, the cou­ple ex­changed vows at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capi­tol Hill. Then their friends and rel­a­tives boarded buses to Pres­i­dent Lin­coln’s Cot­tage at the Sol­diers’ Home. Guests sipped cock­tails as they stud­ied a signed copy of the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion and took pic­tures of a rock­ing chair “re­served for Pres­i­dent Lin­coln.”

“It’s al­ways been said about me that I’ve got more luck than sense,” John­son said be­fore the wed­ding. “And it’s ab­so­lutely true here. I don’t know how I was for­tu­nate enough to get her.”

QUICK PLAN­NING: Elizabeth Am­brose and Steven John­son were mar­ried Feb. 1.

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