Friday, December 3, 2010

Another night at Story Club - My Boyfriend

I read this last night, I hope you enjoy it.

My Boyfriend

As a prelude to making out, my boyfriend removes the retainer from his mouth and sets it down on the bench next to him.  God, that’s sexy!  Later, in an act of undying devotion, I return to the soccer field where we’d been making out to retrieve it.  Its dark out, but the light of my love leads me to it.  I spot the small pink dome resting on the bench.  I pick the thing up; it’s like touching the inside of a plastic smile.  I carefully put it in my pocket, and walk back to my dorm room. 

This is something of a second chance high school - a boarding school, and some kids are here on purpose, but a lot of us ended up here either because we dropped out or were expelled from other schools, or couldn’t get into college with the grades we had.  There are a number of 19 year-old seniors, and at least one kid who came here from military school, and still wakes up every morning at 5am.

My boyfriend is a day student; he gets dropped off in the morning, and picked up in the evening.  For my birthday, he paints a rose on a canvas that he stretched himself, not a rose in bloom, but one that’s still closed in on itself, attached to a long, thorny stem.  Our union was unlikely.  I happened to mention in confidence to my roommate Alexia that I thought he was cute, she went and told him, and the next thing I knew he was sitting across from me in the dining hall, where I refused to speak to him.  For a week I blatantly ignored him as we crossed paths on the tiny campus, but he persisted in seeking me out.  “Why won’t you date him?” Alexia asked.  It’s the principal of the thing that bothered me; I told her something in confidence and then she went and shared it.  I vowed to never tell Alexia anything again, ever.   Besides, I had a strict policy to only like boys who didn’t like me.  My sophomore year there was Andrew; he was really sweet, tolerated my attentions with stoicism, and was totally uninterested.  He signed my yearbook with: “I’m sorry that not everything turned out the way you wanted.” After Andrew graduated I moved on to Sam, who was on the cross country team with me, and actively disliked me, but this only stoked the flames of my desire.  I didn’t like being pursued, and I wasn’t very graceful about rejecting my suitors.  The year before, I had flat out refused to date a very nice boy named Fred who had transferred in his senior year.  Without a hint of nuance or sugarcoating, I said: “I can’t go out with you.” 

So it should come as no surprise that after a week of stonewalling this boy who Alexia told my secret to, I literally dare him to date me.  To my shock and surprise, he takes me up on it.  To save face, I have to transform my hostility into feelings of endearment and affection.  As it turns out, this is surprisingly easy to do, and I soon fall completely and totally in love.  I can’t imagine life without him; he’s all I think about. 

After I graduate high school, I ditch my plan to work at the summer camp where I’d spent seven summers, and take a job doing office work at an agency that sends people out onto street corners to distribute fliers, just so that I can continue to see my boyfriend on weekends.

Some weekends he takes the train into the city, and some weekends I make the reverse commute.  At my boyfriend’s house, I sit at the table with his family, and am included in family functions and outings. My boyfriend’s parents take me into their home every other weekend, put me up in the rec room, and treat me like I am one of their own.  His little sister adores me, and on Saturdays if my boyfriend is working, I hang out with her.   At my house, I do things on my own; I cook frozen or boil-in-bag dinners, which I eat by myself.  My sister, six years my senior, has long since moved out on her own, my father lives in another country, and my mother is never around. 

At the end of the summer, I go away to college in another state, and we break up, the distance is much for him. I am devastated; as far as I’m concerned, he is my one great love, and I will never meet another boy like him.  It’s  not too much distance, however, for me to keep in touch with his family.  I send his mother letters from college, and she writes back. She documents the goings on of the household, tells me when her pet bird dies, and when my boyfriend’s little sister starts high school.  I send her black and white prints that I develop in the college darkroom, and when I move to Chicago and discover The Reader I clip the Life In Hell cartoons and mail them to his little sister.  Over time the correspondence slows, but it never quite stops.  I see my boyfriend from time to time, not often, the summer after my freshman year of college I go to his eighteenth birthday party, once when I spend the summer back east we go with a group of friends to hear a singer perform at a coffeehouse.  He goes to college and majors in agricultural science, and gets really into organic farming.  The last time I saw him, he was working on a CSA in Pennsylvania.  He told me about a woman he thought he was in love with, and I told him about the man who would eventually become my husband.  

The last time I spoke to his mother was right after I’d gotten married and bought a house.  There was something different in her voice, after I’d updated her on my life, she said: “wow, you just really are one of those people who stay in touch.”   She’d been going through some papers, and found all the letters I’d sent her over the years.  She said she was going to mail them back to me.  “Why would you want to do that?” I asked.  “Oh, you know, this way you get to read them and see who you were back then.” In my experience, sending back all the letters someone has ever sent to you is something you do when you break up with them, is that what she was doing?  My boyfriend’s mother was breaking up with me!  I reluctantly gave her my address, and hoped that she would forget about it.  A few days later I received a package from her.  I opened it, read one line, and stopped.  It was embarrassing; the only good thing about having it was that nobody else could read it now.  I stuffed the envelope in a drawer and never looked at it again.

A couple weeks ago, as I sat in my cubicle at my recession job – the one I got after I was laid off from my real job, I was surfing facebook when I came across an NPR story about a New York journalist who’d traveled to Pennsylvania to interview a young farmer at a CSA, fell in love with him, married him, started an organic farm with him on the New York/Vermont border, and had written a memoir about their first year running the farm.  I didn’t need to read the rest of the story to figure out that the young farmer she was speaking of was my boyfriend.  Like the magic that had led me to his missing retainer, I just knew.  Something happened to me as I sat in my cubicle, a small explosion that started at the base of my neck, and radiated out and down through my extremities.

By the time I got home to my loving husband, I could no longer form coherent sentences.  

“That bitch stole my boyfriend!” I blurted. 

“Oh, and what am I?” he asked, after I’d managed to explain myself.  

“Yeah yeah, you’re great, I love you, whatever, the point is… that bitch stole my boyfriend!” 

“You would not want to be a farmer’s wife,” he argued.

I offered as counterpoint: “You don’t know!”

In the weeks since, I’ve read every interview of my boyfriend’s wife that I could get my hands on, listened to audio tracks of her on NPR, and watched videos of her speaking.  I even tracked down a couple photos of my boyfriend online to confirm what I already knew.  And because my brain is a jukebox of songs that were recorded between 1980-1990, Prince’s “when u were mine” got stuck in my head, even though the lyrics in no way describe our relationship.

My illogical burst of proprietary feelings for my boyfriend seems to have subsided, and I’ve come to recognize that the attachment I felt was really more to his family.  I doubt that I will see him or his family anytime soon.  It would probably be weird anyway.   If he was to walk into this room right now, all I would really want to say to him would be: Thanks.  Thanks for putting up with all my crap.  Thanks for breaking through my ridiculous, self-defeating barriers.  Thanks for having such a cool family (except for that one time when your mom broke up with me, that was whack.)  Thanks for growing up to be a good man who does good things in the world.  But mostly, thanks for taking out your retainer - not every guy would do that. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Stop me if you've heard this one before...

I went to Story Club last night, and I'm glad I did.  I'm feeling a little more like myself today, and a little less like my own cautionary tale.  I read a story that's a compilation of a few blog posts I published right here about a year ago, and put together back in August for an audition with 2nd Story.  I was really excited to audition, I've submitted to them a couple times but never got that far.  In the end I didn't get selected for the 2nd Story reading series.  They were super nice in their rejection, told me to try again, yadda yadda.  I consoled myself with the old adage that you're not a real writer until you get your first rejection.

Since I had the piece ready to go, and had spent so much time working on it, I figured it would be a shame not to read it somewhere, so I brought it to Story Club last night and read it during the open mic portion of the show.  You've probably already read this, or some version of it, but here it is:

Cab Driver

Nothing good ever happens in an empty taxi cab idling with one door wide open.  I scanned the area – I was the only person on the block.  I considered my options – was I safer in the cab, or on the street?  Should I open the trunk, take my backpack and run for my life?  Should I abandon the backpack and run for my life?  If I’d taken that grim facebook quiz that tells you the hour and means of your own demise, would the result have been:  bludgeoned to death by a Portuguese cab driver, 1am, November 9th, 2009? 
This journey began almost 24 hours earlier; well, actually it started six months earlier, when I was laid off from my jobBetween sending out resumes, interviewing, and getting rejected, I began checking off items on a mental list of things I’d always wanted to do but never had time for.  Things like being a volunteer tutor, doing a mini-triathlon, and traveling abroad with Habitat for Humanity to build a house for someone who had less than I did. With my severance package and unemployment benefits, I was still earning more than the average Portuguese worker (Wikipedia confirmed it). 

The day after I was laid off, I was sent to meet with a job loss counselor who looked like Al Delvecchio from “Happy Days”.  “Do you think you’ll become depressed?” he asked, as casually as if he were asking if I take coffee with milk, “are you the kind of person who becomes depressed in situations like this?” 

Determined not to be the kind of person who becomes depressed in situations like this, here I was.  I’d turned this trip into three week long, three country extravaganza, starting in France where I connected with family, then on to Spain, where I stayed with a high school friend I hadn’t seen in years; Portugal was the last stop on my excellent unemployed adventure.  

I got a cab at the Campanhã train station, and handed the driver a piece of paper with an address on it.  As he read it I asked “Braga?” the name of the town I was overdue to arrive in.  There had been a small catastrophe at the Barcelona airport and I’d missed my flight to Porto, where Habitat was expecting me, and had to fly into Lisbon, take a train north to Campanhã, and take a cab from there.  I hadn’t brought a phone with me, thinking it would be just one more thing I could lose.  I waited in a long line to check in, only to discover that the airline wouldn’t accept passengers who check in less than an hour before takeoff.  I called my husband from a payphone, and when I heard his voice come through the line was full on sobbing. 

"What's wrong?" he asked, not having heard the two messages I'd left while he was still asleep"Everything!" I said.  I became a phone booth spectacle, a grown woman crying in the Barcelona airport, cursing and sputtering, tears shooting out of my eyes and running down the inside of my glasses and down my cheeks.  They don't care,” I said, “they don't just put you on the next flight, they make you pay.  I'm so tired of nobody giving a shit!"  Then I jotted down a phone number my husband found in an email from Habitat.

I dialed the international operator again and gave him my debit cardThere was a pause, and the man connecting my call said: "There's a block on this card."  "I just used it to make a call," I said, and, attempting to impress upon him the gravity of the situation, "I'm having an emergency."  "I'll try again," he said, and came back a few seconds later with "It won't go through, do you have another card?"

I did have another card; it was in a sleeve, sewn to the bottom of my Rick Steves backpack, underneath all my clothes, toiletries and electronics.  "Can you hold on for just a minute?" I asked, and let the phone go slack and hang from its metal cordI hoped the operator could hear me as I unzipped my carefully packed bag and dumped its contents onto the floor - exposing my secret stash of money and backup credit card for anyone who happened to be watching. Finally I heard the voice of Habitat Portugal on the line. 

With urgency in my voice and snot in my nasal cavity I explained my situation to a man named João.  He told me to go to Oriente station when I landed, and to call him with my train information.  I said something noncommittal like "okay" 

I found a restroom and checked out my reflection, my eyes were red and puffy; I looked stoned.  I ran water over my face and headed for my gate. As I boarded the plane Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now played over the PA system, and I really, really hoped that was the case. 

The cab driver talked incessantly. I assumed he was talking on a phone until I heard a whistle, looked up and saw he was making eye contact with me in the rearview mirror.  His hairline started about an inch above his eyebrows, like Phil Leotardo, captain of the Lupertazzi family on “The Sopranos”.  He said something that sounded like: “Capeesh?”  I shook my head: no, I don't understand. He spoke again, ending his sentence with the word português? "No," I said, "I don't speak Portuguese." This agitated himI speak French très bien, and Spanish un poquito, but as it turns out, Portuguese is not some kind of linguistic buy two get one free deal.  I opened my notebook and pointed to João's phone number. “I know someone who can speak to you; can I use your phone?" I asked, pointing to it. Si, he replied. 

João is going to hate me, I thought as I dialed his number for the fourth time; we hadn't even met and already I was causing him grief. "I'm in a taxi and the driver doesn't understand," I said.  The driver was in the middle of a soliloquy, and it took some effort to get his attention.  "Excuse me," I said, thrusting the phone into his personal space, "excuse me, could you please take the phone, there's someone who can talk to you." He continued on his rant, unabated. "Excuse me, excuse me," I said, touching his shoulder and repeating the same phrase as if this would make him understand English, despite the fact that I persisted in not understanding Portuguese.  Finally we made eye contact, "there's someone on the phone for you."   "OK?" I asked when he disconnected, figuring that this of all words would translate. "OK, OK," he said, as we drove past a highway sign that read: Braga 44km.
We continued this way for some time, the driver talking a Portuguese blue streak, and making eye contact in the rear-view mirror. He pointed to his temple with an index finger and said "cray zee, craaaaay zeeeeee!" He rubbed his index finger against his thumb, making the international sign for expensive and said "reesh, reeeeesh!"  "I know," I said, "I don't usually take cabs from Portuguese train stations in the middle of the night, but there was a last minute change in my itinerary." I listened to the car radio and realized a cover of Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now was being sung by a female vocalist.

We got off the highway and began circling; I'm not from here, the driver seemed to be saying, I don't usually take passengers this far out of my way. We drove up a dead-end street, and then turned around. We circled the area, the driver speaking in a tone that sounded more desperate and anxious than before.

 I’d been watching the number on the fare box grow steadily higher, and didn't have enough cash to pay it. The driver slowed near an ATM, and I sounded out the words printed on it: "Kai-ksah out-oh-mah-ticah," I said, pointing.  "Si, si," he said. I left the car door open to indicate my intention of returning, and hoped that the hold on my debit card had been lifted. I withdrew 200 Euros, and walked back outside where the car was still running, the door I'd opened was ajar, but the driver was nowhere to be seen.

Nothing good ever happens in empty taxi cabs left idling with a door wide open.  What was I thinking traveling by myself to a country I knew nothing about, where I couldn’t speak or read the language?  Sure, if I’d stayed home I’d probably be a little bored and maybe depressed, but at least bored to death is just an expression.

I got in the cab, and closed the door. In a moment, two men approached; the driver and a tall man dressed in a dark suit and hat. The tall man made wide gestures with his arms, and the driver nodded emphatically.  The tall man walked away and the driver returned to the car. "OK?" I almost whispered"OK, OK," he said, and put the car back in gear. 

We drove around a corner and down a street that had signs for a hospital. The driver spoke to me in low tones, but the only word I understood was hospitalHe pulled over and repeated himself, ending his sentence with capeesh? I shook my head. He maintained eye contact in the rear-view mirror: capeesh, capeesh? I kept shaking my head"It doesn't matter how many times you say it to me in Portuguese," I said, "I don’t understand." Finally something clicked. "Oh," I said, "the guy from Habitat is going to meet me here?" I asked, pointing to the curb.  "Si, si," the driver said. "So I should get out here?" I said.  "Si, si!" 

Shortly a man in jeans and a button down shirt appeared on the sidewalk.  I wasn’t sure it was João, I wasn’t even sure I was in Braga.  He had dark hair and brown eyes, and bore a passing resemblance to former Bulls forward Toni Kukoč.  I rolled down my window: João?”  I asked. “Jessica?” he replied.  In that moment, as João took my backpack from the trunk and I paid the driver the reesh, cray zee sum of 70 Euros, I could see my future again; someday I would have another job, and traveling instead of staying home and catching up on Judge Judy would turn out to be the best decision I could have made. Like Johnny Nash kept saying, I could see clearly now.  Language was no longer an impediment to seeing the world but the verbal equivalent of those stereoscopic paintings that were really popular about fifteen years ago once I learned to relax my eyes, I could see the image in front of me; and if I relaxed my ears enough, maybe I could learn a few words of Portuguese.