Michele Rodriguez took one look at her future husband Rich and said “no thanks.”
Twenty years ago, she was working at Christina’s restaurant alongside her friend Kelly O’Brien.
“He really wanted me to meet Rich, who was a bartender at Callaloo, which is now the Skillet, and I was not interested,” remembers Michele. “I was spending winters in the Caribbean and summers on Orcas, and I just wanted to work, stay healthy and work out.”
O’Brien convinced her one night to head over to the bar for a look. She peeked in and said, “No way, I don’t want to date a hippie. He had dreads and looked pretty crunchy — and that was just not my vibe.”
Michele promptly turned around to leave but O’Brien dragged her over to Vern’s Bayside for one drink before heading home. Later, as she was walking up the stairs to depart, Rich was walking down. And then they made eye contact.
“That was it,” remembers Michele.
Adds Rich, “I saw her and thought, ‘she is the one.’ I don’t really have a clear explanation of how anything happened. It was just love at second sight.”
Soon after they went on their first date. Three days later, Rich asked Michele to move in with him. Within a week, the two were engaged. She says he “sealed our fate” after using the word anthropomorphic in conversation.
“I thought, he knows that word and I love that word, and now we’re going to get married,” she laughed. “One of the things that I realized right away when we began to talk is that we were — and still are — deeply attracted to each other intellectually. That is a major component of our relationship.”
Michele, the child of a Hispanic mom and white dad, grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Rich is Puerto Rican and was raised in the Bronx.
“But I have a mask because I present as white,” she said. “Rich has helped me develop my competence for how he experiences the world, which is very different. He has been instrumental in my personal growth.”
The couple moved briefly to New Mexico to care for Michele’s ailing mom. Rich, who had been working in permaculture at the Bullocks for a decade, went back to school to become a journeyman electrician. While there, they also got married and had a daughter, Yssa, who is now 12. The couple returned to Orcas when Yssa was three.
“We wanted to have a lot of kids but we also wanted to create a nest that was solid,” Michele said. “By the time we got around to putting an egg in that nest, we were both 42. So the one child we got is everything we could have wanted. We share enough cultural heritage that blending our two families together feels like both an introduction to new and something familiar. We make some interesting food!”
In New Mexico, Yssa was considered light-skinned, but the Rodriguez family had a much different experience after moving back to the San Juans.
“There wasn’t a huge diversity of skin colors here so she was received as a person of color,” Michele said. “We’ve had some experiences where she was treated in a stigmatized way and with bias and probably still continues to be. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s one of the reasons I put so much time, thought and energy into social activism.”
Most recently, through her role as PTSA president, she worked with Woman in the Woods and Orcas Center to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. programming events to the public school, the first of its kind in the district.
The couple isn’t nostalgic about their romance and that dynamic works well for them.
“I’d have to look at our wedding license to see our anniversary date. We don’t celebrate it, we aren’t sentimental that way. Sometimes we don’t wear our rings. But he still pops up with flowers now and again, which is special after 20 years,” Michele said.
Rich currently works for North Sound Communications as an electrician and Michele is overseeing Yssa’s schooling through OASIS and caring for Rich’s mother, who has settled on Orcas after experiencing a stroke.
Both agree that they have the most fun together when they’re dancing and joking and talking about politics or social activism, which is when Michele says “the banter gets really good.”
“I love that his mental energy is off the charts,” Michele said. “I love that he understands intangible things. I love that he is absolutely trustworthy and I love how much he loves us. The other day he looked around our home, looked at me and looked at Yssa and said, ‘I just love the home you’ve made for us.’”
When asked what he appreciates about his wife, Rich said, “She’s freaking fantastic. She is driven, passionate, smart and compassionate.”