WRENTHAM — Even by the standards of jury-assembly rooms, the basement space at Wrentham District Court is grim, calling to mind a driver’s ed classroom or maybe an interrogation den, with exposed pipes, stained carpeting, and bleak lighting.
Suffice it to say, it was not where Melissa Ananias or Peter Butler expected to find love — or, for that matter, where anyone has expected to find it. Ever.
On that Tuesday morning, two years ago in October, Melissa arrived uncharacteristically early. Pete, uncharacteristically, cut it close.
She was 45 and had been divorced eight years, a single mother from Needham with two daughters in elementary school. Match.com, JDate, blind dates, she had tried them all, dismissing most guys quickly, not one of them ever reaching the point of meeting her girls.
Pete was 44 and also had two kids. Divorced officially for 21 days, he was was trying out Match.com; only later would he realize he had seen Melissa already, quickly clicking past her because she had two cats. He was allergic.
But now she stood out to him amid the groggy faces as he ducked through the low doorway. She noticed him, too — tall and blue-eyed, in a crisp dress shirt and fleece — but tried not to stare, turning back to her book. Why not, he thought, as he walked past rows of empty seats and picked the one beside her.
She had ignored the first notice for jury duty but was suddenly glad that she had put on her “going out in the world outfit” and tucked Altoids into her purse. She normally worked from home in sweats, as an owner of day-care centers.
When he flouted the rules by pulling out his phone to check his work e-mail, she playfully tsk-tsked him. And the conversation began to flow, as they discussed the bleakness of the room — the sad vending machine beside them, the table adorned with bathroom keys affixed to germy-looking sticks — and the disruption of jury duty, throwing off his travel as head of a health-care consulting firm, keeping her from being home with a dying golden retriever.
An officer called a short break, and she went out to her SUV and called a friend. She said only half-jokingly that she was in love; she didn’t actually know the guy’s name or what “his deal” was, but he wasn’t wearing a ring.
“Melissa, how can you be in love?” her friend asked. “It’s not even 10 in the morning!”
When they went back in, the conversation felt “electric,” as he put it later, the two discovering they shopped at the same Whole Foods, enjoyed the same restaurants — Davio’s in Chestnut Hill, Masala Art in Needham. Pete urged Melissa to try the dosa next time. It felt “just on the edge of flirting,” she thought, as she tried to interpret whether the engraving she glimpsed on his iPad (Love Mom, Luke, and Ava) referred to his wife or mother.
They joked about what they might have done to get out of jury duty and hit on the idea of showing up in costume, with Halloween three days away. “What would you wear?” he asked, and loved her answer, a human gumball machine.
He found a way to mention that he was divorced, and quickly she did, too, amid talk of raising preteens, and chatter about that vending machine beside them. If she was going to be stuck at court, she was definitely getting Doritos; he wished they had Kind bars, which she had never tried. Then she went one by one around the room, predicting who would get empaneled. “What about me?” he asked. “Oh, you’re definitely picked,” she said. “And I’m going home.”
A judge came in, Stephen Ostrach. He thanked them all, telling them to feel good even if they were not picked. He salted his talk with practiced jokes, and they scarcely noticed that no one else was grinning like they were.
Then the call came to go up to the courtroom, and on the stairs she predicted again that she’d be free for lunch — and would go to Masala Art to get the dosa. So he told her she’d better text a picture. And then she felt a little panic, realizing she still didn’t even know his name, just as they were being funneled into different rows. Turning around, she saw him reach forward with a scrap of paper. “Pete,” she read, along with his number.
Sure enough, he got picked, she didn’t, and she flashed him a knowing smile. On the way out, she willed herself not to trip, and hoped her fingers wouldn’t smudge his number.
She texted from the steps — something like, “Sure is beautiful out. Hope you have fun in there” — and he replied during the courthouse lunch break. Soon they were texting like teenagers, planning to meet for dinner that night at Patriot Place. He went straight from court, stopping to buy a toothbrush and toothpaste and a Kind bar for her, brushing his teeth in the parking lot.
They both worried the magic would be gone outside the court, but they picked up where they left off. Melissa tried to get Pete to divulge details of the case — a two-day trial on a charge of elder abuse, as it turned out — but he stayed tight-lipped, joking that maybe Melissa was a plant to test him. Soon they were laughing and surveying the crowd at Davio’s, sure that they recognized faces from court.
They had a second date the next weekend, and by December they were calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend, something neither had done in ages. For the holidays — Hanukkah for her and Christmas for him — he gave her jewelry, plus a gumball machine and a bag of Doritos.
On New Year’s Eve she encouraged him to come to her annual party and bring his kids. She asked their favorite foods (Luke, sushi; Ava, mac and cheese) and got both, eschewing the boxed mac she typically made for her daughters Emma and Gabriella for a three-cheese version, homemade. They both marveled at how quickly all four kids took to one another, running to the basement playroom like “long-lost cousins.”
Soon the kids were locking themselves in the car at the end of family dinners to prolong the night, looking forward to sleepovers. She sensed a ring was coming, expected it when they spent a rare weekend alone at Pete’s cottage in June 2015. But he knew she would want to share the moment with her daughters, so he waited until everyone was there a few weeks later, popping the question on his fishing boat at sunset.
They put planning how to blend families ahead of planning a wedding. Pete rented a home within walking distance of Melissa’s; soon, her house was the after-school gathering place, even when he was at work.
Last spring they put in an offer on a house under construction a few blocks away, and in July they all moved in, five bedrooms and three baths packed onto the second floor. Downstairs, a long kitchen island serves as homework central, and a sectional couch stretching across the living room fits them all — two adults, four kids 11 to 14, a golden, a Great Dane, and two cats. Pete now takes one Allegra allergy pill a day.
On Jan. 7, Pete, now 46, and Melissa, 47, will marry at the UMass Club in Boston, before a sweeping view at sunset. All six will walk down the aisle and participate in the ceremony, pouring sand from personalized glass jars into a larger one, marked “family.”
Several months ago, Melissa called the court and eventually got a message to Ostrach, the judge who presided that day. He was delighted by the story, too — love blooming in a place associated with sorrow and anguish — and though he was on sabbatical and had only ever officiated a few weddings, he said he would be honored to officiate theirs.
For the cocktail napkins, Melissa reprinted her jury-duty notice — the “second summons,” the one she obeyed after ignoring the first. Now all her single friends are watching the mail, hoping for a similar card from the courts, and asking her something rarely associated with jury duty: Do you think I will meet someone there?