Surprise Birthday & Wedding
LI TRIO Members Neil Levine and Bonnie Byalick were written up in The New York Times when Bonnie arranged a 60th birthday surprise party for Neil. The more significant surprise was the doubled duty part that morphed into a wedding right then and there at the birthday party event.
With the keen eye honed during a 35-year career selling textiles, Neil Levine was flipping through online dating profiles like fabric swatches in 2005, when he noticed a familiar-looking blonde in an off-the-shoulder sweater.
Mr. Levine, 60, a dapper dresser with a passion for Brioni suits, e-mailed Bonnie Anne Byalick, asking if she worked in the garment center.
Ms. Byalick, a personal shopper with her own sense of style, replied that she once owned a clothing boutique in Great Neck, N.Y.
Had she ever lived in Lakeside Towers in Bayside, Queens, Mr. Levine queried back.
Twenty-nine years earlier, Ms. Byalick lived on the 11th floor with her second husband.
“The puzzle was put together,” Mr. Levine said. In those days he lived on the first floor with his first wife and two of his sons, Jed and Todd. He vividly remembered Ms. Byalick, who in the 1970s and ’80s wore flamboyant outfits accessorized with lace gloves, hats and dazzling rhinestones.
“Back in the day, she looked like Madonna, and she dressed like Madonna, and she drove a vintage Rolls-Royce,” said Mr. Levine, who concedes that he is celebrity-obsessed. “Who wouldn’t notice a girl like that?”
Ms. Byalick, 56, whose taste time had tempered to a more tailored look, vaguely remembered the “extremely handsome” man who often sat on the steps outside his apartment.
Although theirs was only a nodding acquaintance when they were neighbors, Mr. Levine decided a reunion of sorts was in order. They met at Cafe Rustica in Great Neck and lingered over lunch for three hours.
But when Mr. Levine, who had only recently separated from his second wife, suggested they continue their date over dinner, Ms. Byalick said she had an appointment. He asked when he could see her again, and she told him to sow his wild oats first.
“I did have the confidence to tell him to date other people,” said Ms. Byalick, who had been divorced for 16 years. Still, they stayed in touch by e-mail.
Over the next six weeks, he went out on 25 first dates with other women. “There was nobody that compared to her,” said Mr. Levine, who was taken with Ms. Byalick’s calm, honesty and sincerity. He tried again.
“We started dating intensively almost immediately,” she said.
She wasn’t daunted by the fact that Mr. Levine, who had beaten Stage 1 colon cancer in 2002, was now suffering from Stage 4 kidney failure.
“She is the kind of person who thrives on being a caretaker,” said Jennifer Altman, a niece of Ms. Byalick’s. “She is there whenever something goes wrong.”
Soon they were spending every moment together. Ms. Byalick accompanied Mr. Levine, who is retired, to doctors and physical therapy appointments. When she visited clients, he came along.
When Scott Levine, Mr. Levine’s 15-year-old son, moved into Ms. Byalick’s apartment with them a few months later, she thought they should become engaged.
Last April, Ms. Byalick was blow-drying her hair when Mr. Levine held out a diamond ring. He nonchalantly asked, she recalled, “Do you think you want this?”
But when it came to setting a wedding date, Ms. Byalick kept stalling. “There is never a good time to get married when life gets in the way,” she said. While drawing up the guest list for a surprise 60th birthday party for Mr. Levine this month, she decided to get double mileage out of the event.
On April 1, 50 guests sang “Happy Birthday” to him at the Rialto, a restaurant in Carle Place, N.Y. Ms. Byalick approached the already surprised Mr. Levine and held out a tiny box containing a silver ring inscribed, “Marry me now.”
“Remember this?” Ms. Byalick asked, waving a marriage license obtained for a wedding next month that they had begun planning. She then introduced Rabbi Bonnie Steinberg.
“I already offered Neil my kidney,” Ms. Byalick told the guests. “I thought I should make it legal and give him the rest of me.” (Mr. Levine may be a candidate for a transplant, but Ms. Byalick recently learned she’s not a match.)
Asked if he was ready for the surprise wedding, Mr. Levine told Rabbi Steinberg, “Start the engines.” So Ms. Byalick, dressed in a black lace Escada pantsuit with a fur collar, was married to Mr. Levine under a bridal canopy fashioned from her father’s prayer shawl.
Afterward, Mr. Levine first noted that he had been “totally ambushed” and then declared that he was “the luckiest guy in the world.”
“Whatever life has left to give me, I have been given the greatest gift, and it’s Bonnie,” he said. “This is better than Lotto.”