Friday, October 02, 2009

Don't I know your name? - The Bob Story



Jungle gym, originally uploaded by your neighborhood librarian.

The Beautiful Miss Brown visited the library yesterday looking for a book on taxidermy. It happens. I'm not asking any questions.

Turns out, she and her boyfriend had seen a red fox dead in the road, and they scooped it up, put it in the trunk, and decided to skin it. I nodded. I used to do that.

Did I used to do that? Yes, yes I did.

There was a day, a rare, beautiful spring day in Cleveland, when I sat behind Clark Building on the CWRU campus with a hot plate and a big pot. Watching that pot. Watching the people come in and out of the student center next door. An acquaintance wandered over, curious.

"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Boiling an owl."
"No, you're not."
"Sure I am." I poked the sodden owl carcass with a stick.

I believe it was at that moment that that boy became irresistably drawn to me - decided I was the girl he wanted to spend the rest of his, er, next couple of years with. I myself was thinking more about how much bleach to add to the water. You want enough that the cartilage dissolves, but not so much as to take all the coating off the beak.

There are a few things you can do if you intend for someone to fall in love with you. The most foolproof, of course, is to BE EIGHTEEN AND BE BOILING AN OWL IN PUBLIC. Second most foolproof, of course, is to be eighteen period. The worst thing you can do is to quote Elton John lyrics. Look how it worked for Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge. He ended up having to drag Nicole Kidman around the rest of the movie.

You could sing real awful but write great songs, like Nick Cave or Lou Reed. You can show up in majorette boots. Majorette boots are the most sexually potent objects in the universe. I have boots of almost every variety, from cowboy to pirate and back again, but I have never had the nerve to get myself a pair of majorette boots.

You can insult the object of your affection in such a way that it's really a compliment. This gives him or her the opportunity to act all affronted, but be secretly pleased. This is tricky, and should only be attempted if you are eighteen, or a genius.

The rest is all variations in tone and eye contact, and that I can't help you with. Really, the majorette boots are the way to go.

None of this explains my husband Bob. I was not wearing majorette boots when we first met - or even my glasses, so I was bat-blind. He was probably wearing Chucks. He did not insult me. I did not insult him, I don't think I spoke a word. I was twenty and he was twenty-one, so we were past our irresistable years, though admittedly not by much. We were sober, it was daytime, and he was wearing a tie over a white t-shirt. But it was love at first sight for both of us.

Yes, those of you who don't believe in love at first sight (Jaime) or who have heard this story before (Jaime) can tune out now. I'll tell you the rest of the owl story later. And I don't begrudge. If you had had to hear this ridiculous story as many times as Jaime has, you would roll your eyes too. Hell, even I resist telling it too much, and I know it to be true. This story inspires works of art (Sarah). It causes people to ask if the world spontaneously bursts into song around us (Brian) (smartass).

But here, by popular demand (Sandy, Melissa), is The Bob Story: a teen novel in the making if I ever read one, spanning continents and decades and leaving a trail of betrayals and broken hearts, but with, after all, a happy ending.

How we met

I think it was 1986. It was certainly summer. We were in college - he was at Columbia and I was at Case Western Reserve. I was spending the summer working in Provincetown, Mass, washing dishes and managing a kite store; he was in Cleveland canvassing door-to-door for some environmental organization. One weekend I came back to Cleveland to visit my boyfriend.

Let's call this boyfriend Blot on My Conscience Number One. No, that's far too long. Besides, we're cool now. He and his wife came to our wedding. Our kids play together as if they've known each other all their lives. Let's call him Pants.

Anyway, that weekend I got the flu. Miserable weekend. Hot and bored and feverish in the tract house Pants shared with his brother (whom we'll call Peel), I woke up one afternoon to voices in the living room.

I hate not being in on things. So I struggled out to the living room to sit on the floor and be with company. It was some friend of Peel. Bob. Peel was thinking about transferring to Columbia, and Bob was there to give him advice and drink cheap beer and make a lot of wisecracks.

From what I could tell with my glasses off, he was cute. He was very funny. I don't think I said a thing - I really was ill. And I have no idea what he remembers of that afternoon. I didn't even really catch his name.

But when Pants's brother Peel needed help moving his crap to NYC that fall, I hopped into the van so quick I'm sure I sprained something.

In New York, after unloading, we got something to eat and then ended up at a bar. I nodded along with the conversation, thinking, "Boy, wouldn't it be great if that guy from this summer showed up!"

The guy from the summer showed up, made his way to our table with that bouncy walk some athletic boys can't help having.

I thought, "There's an empty seat next to me - wouldn't it be great if he sat next to me!"

He sat next to me.

I still don't think I had much to say. This guy, now that I had my glasses on, was even better looking than I had thought, and I had thought he was pretty cute. I was breathless, especially when his left thigh got closer and closer to my right, until our legs were pressed together with actual force. After everyone was drunk, we found a minute to speak privately. I don't know what we said. I may have proposed. Anyway, it wasn't that private - I kind of got busted for it. God knows Peel hated me from that moment forward. Guy works for the SEC now and I swear if I ever get investigated, I'll know it'll be because of that night at the Lion's Head.

The Next Time We Met

Had to be the next summer. Bob came home to Cleveland for a visit, and made the rounds. Pants and I were in the same social scene, so I saw him at a party or two. Stalked him. And then one night, Bob and I were among the last ones awake at Bob's friend Bob's house. Bob's friend Bob has a daughter named Paula - it's very confusing. Pants had fallen asleep in a chair. I think he was doing his med school internships that summer and he was always falling asleep over a plate of food or while trying to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation or once, memorably, while he was on his back under his VW bus fixing something. I thought he had died.

Bob and I were on Bob's friend Bob's porch talking about poetry or something smart that I know nothing about, and I couldn't stand it one more second. Without looking at him, I reached out my hand. He would either ignore it, and I had imagined any attraction he might have felt for me, or he would take it, and I would... I don't know. Attack him. Cry. Sit there until my hand fell off.

He took my hand. We stopped talking about poetry or politics or whatever. Explanations, assurances, gazing. He kissed me. Side B of Blood on the Tracks played over and over on Bob's friend Bob's stereo. At length, we took a walk. And on the walk, none of your business. Let's just say I never washed that U2 t-shirt again.

We got back to Bob's friend Bob's house and took up sleeping positions - he on the couch, me on a chair. Pants woke up and realized he needed to stop home at our house before going to the hospital the next day. I told him I'd catch a ride with someone else, and as he left, I crept onto the couch with Bob.

My memory's a little hazy at this point. It might have been the next day, the same week, the same summer, or it could have been the next summer, when I found myself in Bob's mom's car getting a ride home. Bob's mom, whom I was later to know as The Estimable Frannie. Sorry for boning your littlest lamb in the back seat of the Buick, Frances. Though after some of the drama Bob's brothers and sisters brought... no, yeah, let me just apologize. I miss you, Frannie.

A cop knocked on the steamed-up window that night, and I, all free white and twenty-one (probably) and full of bullshit entitled indignation, was like, "What?! Are we doing something illegal?" as Bob shoved my jeans at me and hissed, "Just say 'Yes, officer'!" The cop sighed. "First of all, the park's closed," he said, and I said, "Well. All right then."

That morning, Bob came up to the apartment I shared with Pants to say goodbye. He was going back to New York. Knowing now what was waiting for him at his mother's house - the dozens of brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, the lifelong better-than-brothers best friends, I am impressed and flattered that he spent so much time with me during his visit home. Although... I guess none of them were boning him in the back of Frannie's Buick, so I suppose that gave me an edge.

I found his wallet wedged in our couch a couple hours after he left. I had no phone number for him, and everything in his wallet had his New York info on it. I panicked a little, finally got ahold of him (I think by calling Pants and telling a preposterous lie about why I would need Bob's mom's phone number - Pants, brother, I do not deserve your forgiveness), and eventually settled on sending his wallet to him in New York.

So I sent it. Along with an eight-page letter handwritten on legal paper in my miniscule handwriting.

Did I do that? I may have edited it down to six pages before it hit the mails. On the list of how to not make a person fall in love with you, writing them a six-page handwritten letter after you've met three times is just below quoting Elton John lyrics.

But somehow...

We Meet Again

Later, I graduated. Pants and I broke up, over completely unrelated matters. I got a job with a software company. It failed. I moved home to Baltimore. Slept on the bunk bed that had been bought for me when I was six. Worked writing software manuals for an insurance company.

Kind of a low point.

One day, bringing in the mail at my parents' house, I noticed a newsletter from a Catholic charity in Seattle. Not the usual kind of thing you find in my parents' mail. Opening it, I found one line scrawled across the top: "How are you? How is Baltimore? Love, Bob."

Imagine walking along your street and a tiny meteorite falls to the sidewalk in front of you. Glowing and smoking and FROM SPACE.

I wrote back to the address on the newsletter, using my company's stationery. "Dear Bob - Seattle? and Catholic? and Yes."

In addition to writing manuals, I also handled tech support. I answered phones all day, walking people through the onscreen instructions, taking shit from redneck lady office managers who were fed up with this newfangled computer hoodoo. It was 1988. I sprained my hand doing that job, when I punched the handset of the phone I was speaking into. How stupid is that? Punching a phone.

So the day the phone rang at work and Bob said "Hello Paula. This is Bob." For the first time, exactly the same way he says it a dozen times a week to me. Imagine walking along your street and the CHRIST CHILD falls gently to the sidewalk in front of you. And you have your camera on you, and he asks if you would like him to grant you three wishes.

I got goosebumps so hard they hurt.

Bob was coming to the area for his cousin's wedding, and we made plans to extend his trip so that we could see the sights and be uncomfortable around each other and weld ourselves one to another for a few days. We went to Assateague, if I remember. Saw the ponies fucking in the parking lot. Not the aphrodisiac you might think, but we did not let that bother us.

And in spring he was visiting his brother in Washington D.C. I left work and drove down 95 like I was a paper airplane with jet engines. There was a party, I was wearing a blue dress, must have been fifty people on Joe's deck, and all I could see was him. That night I admitted I loved him and he laughed. "You may never meet anyone who... who worships you like I do."

Blot on My Conscience Number Two, Poe, was somewhat suspicious when I started making plans to 'visit my brother' in Seattle. My brother did, in fact, live in Seattle, and I did, in fact, plan on staying with him, since Bob was living with his girlfriend, The Completely Awesome Girlfriend, at the time. She came to our wedding. Her children play with our children like they have known each other all their lives. It's a theme.

Bob was working at a homeless shelter. I had his home address but I hadn't written or called (no, he and Completely Awesome had already broken up. It was a different girlfriend. Well anyway), so I staked out his place of work. Nothing like hanging out in the alley outside a homeless shelter dressed like a late-80's club kid. A very nice lady with very few teeth offered me an apple.

And here he comes, straight from his lunchtime basketball game, sweaty and still with that bounce in his step, carrying his ball. Walked right past me, his head swiveling on its stem. I have never surprised anyone that thoroughly - and let me tell you, children, I have pink hair. I can be a surprising person.


There were a few visits to Seattle. I stayed at his place when he was between girlfriends, at my brother's when he wasn't. There are one or two blots on my husband's conscience too. On one trip, I went out to dinner with my brother's girlfriend and we discovered roasted garlic for the first time. Ate an entire head of garlic, like four inches in diameter. The next day, Bob was due to meet me at my brother's place on his lunch break, but my body was busy converting all that garlic to THE most toxic gas. I raced around the apartment opening windows and finding fans, waving my arms around, desperately trying to chivvy those clouds of fart into the at-large atmosphere of Queen Anne's Hill.

Eventually, he wrote that he had been accepted to a program in Africa. In Zimbabwe. He'd be gone a year at least, and had no plan further than that. He was flying out of JFK, and suggested we meet in New York. And for once in my life, I refused him.

I used to write him letters that I couldn't send. I wrote lots of letters I did send, and he wrote me, less frequently, letters full of description that I scrutinized and re-read and parsed for hidden meaning, but in some ways, in those days, he was so unreal to me that I could use the idea of him like a movie. He was so handsome, and so romantic, and so very very intermittent. You can see how that is just not to be trusted. A humid afternoon here, a Pacific cliff there, plus all that sneaking around. How could you not be in love with that? And how could you imagine that to be anything remotely resembling real? I know a teen novel when I'm in one.

When he was in Africa, I went to Africa too. Now - Africa is big. But I knew he'd be traveling in the north while I was there, and I suggested we meet in Tunis. And for once in his life, he refused me.

Bob says that if he were writing this story as a teen novel, he'd change that. He'd have met me in Tunis. But in the novel, he'd find me just at the moment I was being menaced by a gang of bus drivers who were holding my backpack hostage, and then we'd run away, and then I'd turn to him and say, "Well. You got me back for that alley in Seattle," and then whatever whatever.

But instead we did our separate trips, and learned our separate things, and came back attached to yet another couple of Blots. He disembarked in Boston, where his girlfriend had been accepted to law school. I returned to Baltimore, took a secretarial job and ran a failing business. He got a job signing people in and out of another homeless shelter.

Ergo, grad school.

We grow up

I moved to New York to go to NYU. He stayed in Boston and went to MIT. I went on MIT's website one day and looked up his email address. It was 1995. I wanted to invite him to my wedding, but the groom (who is hopefully a Blot On His Own Damn Conscience) said, "No way."

One day, I got an email. "My girlfriend broke up with me. I am pretty depressed." Oddly enough, this email came exactly one day after my husband had left, apparently for good.

"I am 'pretty depressed' myself. I think my husband left me. What are you doing this weekend?"

I was single for exactly two days. When he showed up at the Port Authority Friday afternoon, I was so nervous. We hadn't seen each other in five years. He had grey in his hair. He was warm, and beautiful.

In New York that weekend, were we a little wounded? Maybe. Maybe that's why we were so un-selfconscious with each other. God, I always thought Bob was this brooding, serious guy. All that time doing social justice stuff - how could he not be angry all the time? And how could he not disdain me, with my hot pink suede ankle boots and head full of song lyrics? That weekend though, I just took him everywhere I liked, and everything I liked, he liked it too. We talked more. He turned out to be kind of a goof, which was a big relief. 

When I dropped him at the bus station Sunday night I asked if we were going to see each other again. "I mean, soon, not like usual. I know we always see each other again." He replied with something to the effect that I'd have to get a restraining order if I wanted it not to be so.

I got a divorce, he got a degree. He moved in, with his chair and his bottle capper and his forty-seven hats. I proposed one afternoon in a bar.

I said, "It's getting warmer. Time to wash the curtains in the living room."
He said, "Ah. Of course. Warmer weather: wash curtains."
I said, "Isn't it relaxing to know that one day you'll be married to a person who knows when it's time to wash the curtains?"
He smiled at me and said that yes, it was a weight off his mind.


You know, now that I'm thinking about it, it wasn't Pants who saw me boiling that owl. It was Pants's best friend, Mike, so he heard about it secondhand, which is probably even better. The reality of reducing an animal to bones is seldom as romantic as the concept. Probably why Mike never fell in love with me, plus he was already in love with someone else. What did she do? She was beautiful, and brilliant, and a free spirit. That works too.

That explains a lot.