Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fan Fiction. For one I've loved and probably lost.

Brian, Before





He was nobody special. None of us were.
There were seven or eight of us at college, mostly sophomores, some juniors, who kept running into each other in the same places – the bakery near the White House, the cheese shop, the ice cream stores -- pretending we weren’t there for the free samples.
After Labor Day when I went down to the blood donation center I saw him coming out, sipping the telltale orange juice, the money safe in his pocket. It was 1981, and his hair was unfashionably short, his blue jeans not faded enough, his button downs worn at the elbows. His sleeves were rolled up, as if he’d been hard at work at something, and his forearms shone with golden hair. He held the door for me with his free hand, and said, “Hello, Robin,” in a way that made my name sound prettier than it was. I still don’t know how he knew my name.
I saw him again in late September. It was still hot in Washington and there was a line at Baskin-Robbins but I went in anyway, wincing when the door jingled, trying to look nonchalant. My hair pulled up because it was nearly ninety degrees -- and because I didn’t want to look like the same girl who had been there yesterday, pretending I’d never tasted butterscotch ripple. He made no such attempts at subterfuge. He was already at the counter, greeting the staff by name. He asked Rebecca for spoonful after spoonful of different flavors, and she deftly obliged him while taking orders from other people. I was fifth in line, and had no money in my pocket. Not a dime.
Finally the manager came out and took a long glance at the cluster of spent pink spoons in his hand.
Great, I thought. Now he’s going to ruin it for the rest of us.
“Jesus, Brian, why don’t we just give you a free pint?”
“Well, Gary,” he said, handing the spoons back to Rebecca to throw away, modulating his voice down to a practiced whisper, “if you have any pints that are close to their sell-by date, I’d be happy to take them off your hands.”
The manager motioned him into the back room. My stomach gurgled with hunger and my face burned with envy.
I couldn’t ask for anything when I was nineteen.

* * *

The mint-chocolate-chip was still lingering on my tongue when I walked outside. He stood near the curb, the pint in one hand, two full-sized spoons in the other. He stepped forward and handed me a spoon. Up close I saw his eyes weren’t completely blue, but held a little green, and there was a boyish scattering of tiny freckles on the bridge of his nose, but nowhere else. His teeth were good but not great; like me, he hadn’t had braces.
“Free ice cream,” he said.
“Free expired ice cream.”
“It expires tomorrow.” He opened the lid.
“What flavor is it?”
“Baseball Nut.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Nuts?”
“What’s wrong with nuts? An excellent source of protein.”
“I don’t like embellishments. I don’t want to stop and chew.”
“Ah, but there are chips in mint chocolate chip. Which is your favorite.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a journalism major. Being observant is part of the job.”
“Being accurate is a bigger part of the job.”
“Are you saying mint chocolate chip is not your favorite?”
“No,” I said. “I’m saying the chips melt in your mouth, and require no chewing.”
“Not if you’re in a hurry,” he said.
“Are you in a hurry?”
“Yes,” he said. “Always. Perpetually. Now . . . have some Baseball Nut before it melts.”

* * *

We were both on part scholarship. We both had loans. I worked in the library ten hours a week, and he worked at a pancake house, where at least one free meal was guaranteed. He took me there and the waitress slipped us cokes and orders of hash browns. He used the pancakes like bread, sandwiching his eggs and sausage and peppers in between them. Like so many adolescent boys, he was hungry all the time. Hungry all the time, and broke most of the time, was a terrible combination. At least I didn’t have his hunger.
Washington in the eighties was a great place to live if you had no money. There were always festivals, free concerts on the Mall, and beautiful places to walk. We walked everywhere that autumn, watching the colors change in the trees down at the Tidal Basin. He loved traipsing over the bridge to Georgetown and sitting on the lawn as if we went to school there instead of GW. He told me simple stories about his hometown in New Jersey, about walking through backyards with his dog, passing beneath the trestles wrapped with lilacs and honeysuckle. It seemed like the most restful and charming place you could ever imagine. I was stunned, years later, to pass through it on the way to New York and find a rusty city clinging to the edge of the train tracks as if it didn’t want to be there.
We didn’t hold hands. We didn’t kiss. That first month, we walked, and I wasn’t sure if I was there to listen, or learn, or wait for more. Was I an audience? I didn’t know which of us was auditioning, or for what. All I knew was that I fell asleep remembering the stories he’d told me, and carried the memory of his blue-green eyes like a pair of lucky marbles.
He found an old theatre that showed classic black and white movies in Dupont Circle for a few dollars. He knew all the bars that had free appetizers, and we’d split a beer and eat eggroll after eggroll, mini hot dog after mini hot dog. He seemed to know all the hidden places, and shared them with me. He noticed details and when he spoke, he used evocative words like ‘fragrant’ and ‘lush’ and warmed them further with the whisky of his voice.
When I think of him now, that’s what I remember most, not his earnest eyes or strong forearms but his voice. I think of how things spilled out of him, his willingness to share, to share just a little too much.
I told my roommate Talia I couldn’t tell if we were friends, or heading toward something else. She did not approve. “He’s just using you until something better comes along, something he’s more sure of.”
“How do you know that?”
“He’s like a penny that’s too shiny,” she said. “Sooner or later, he’s going to tarnish.”

* * *

My dorm was planning a marathon dance for charity, and everyone signed up for shifts. The more popular girls had boyfriends, and the rest of us scrambled to find someone willing.
On one of our nightly walks, I ask him if he’d be my partner, and he said yes, then asked for the date and time. It’s two weeks from Friday, I told him, and he nodded.
“Good, I’ll still be here then.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you – I’m leaving after this semester.”
I blinked. I told him he was being short-sighted, foolish. That if he needed help with his homework, I’d help him. If he needed another job, I could vouch for him at the library.
He smiled at me without showing his teeth. It’s how I knew he was being serious. A boy who is trying to get everyone to like him always smiles, but there are different smiles.
He said that with or without a degree, he knows he’ll end up on radio, or who knows, maybe on television. You don’t need a degree for that, he said, just an audition tape. “Plus I already have an internship at The White House in January.”
“How can you have an internship if you’re not in school?”
He said that he didn’t get it through the career center, but through someone he met at the cheese shop.
“But -- where will you live?”
“I’m still working on that.”
I thought of my narrow bed, my small closet, Talia who was never there at night. I wanted to offer, but didn’t. That is the one thing I didn’t do.
“You can’t leave school without kissing me,” I said suddenly.
“What?” His smile was wider, and I wondered if that was his plan all along – make me ask. Make me want it.
“You heard me.”
He leaned in without using his hands. His lips were soft but thin. I could feel everything behind them, the ridges of his teeth, his tongue, every word he had ever said to me.

* * *

At the dance marathon, I had an enviable shift -- 8pm until 11. Not too early, not too late. I laced up my sneakers and walked to the gym, wondering if he was a good dancer. I imagined he was -- he walked lightly and quickly. I think about whether he knows any specific skills: how to moonwalk, how to two-step. I picture his mother teaching him the waltz in their narrow ranch home, the two of them smiling matching smiles.
In the gym I watched the other dancers shuffle through disco songs that were beyond the reaches of their ability. The twirling silver lights cast long shadows across their exposed skin and I realized they were probably tired. I glanced at my watch. I’d told him to meet me at 7:45, and it was two minutes to eight. He’d never been late before.
At eight o’clock a chime went off and the dancers came off the floor. The coordinator asked where my partner was and I said he was running late. She told me to let her know when he gets there. I waited an hour, pacing at the gym entrance, my mind speeding through the scenarios, before I decided to walk to his dorm a few blocks away.
I buzzed his door and his roommate answered, sounding muffled, and said Brian wasn’t there.
As I walked back down the block I heard him call my name behind me.
“Robin, wait,” he said.
I turned, frowned. “You were home? He said you--”
“I can explain.”
I let him. It came out in a swirl, a paragraph of phrases tumbling over each other. I had to meet a professor for a recommendation and he was running late and then he suggested a drink and I couldn’t say no and I had no way to reach you and then.
“And then what?” I said.
“And then,” he said, taking a deep breath, “then the White House chief of staff came in the bar and of course I had to introduce myself.”
I blinked at him. This was my fault, I realized later. I had asked for it, the embellishment, the thing neither of us needed to make it more wrong or more right.
I turned on my heel and went home, knowing he wouldn’t follow me, knowing he wouldn’t call, knowing I wouldn’t run into him again.
His days of free samples were officially over.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

In my virtual travels.


I "go" places a lot more online these days. Thought I'd share a few "places" I love visiting every week.

Simplicity: http://www.assortmentblog.com/

Fashion: http://www.iwanttobeher.com

Design/Living: http://www.remodelista.com/

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Winter gardening.

I’ve been thinking a lot about eyebrows lately. That’s what winter will do to you, allow you to think about details you have no time for the rest of the year.

A close friend suggested a few months ago that she’d love to see me do my eyebrows, that it makes “such a difference.” Later that week, a friend who does facials, and is one of the most impossibly fashionable women I know, said she knew EXACTLY who I should see, and that I would LOVE it.

Since I’ve never let another person near my eyebrows, I figured, why not? I don’t cut my own hair, after all. I made the appointment. I nestled into her beautiful chair and had to hide my shock when this extremely glamourous eyebrow person said she wanted me to grow them out.

Grow?

Images of my awkward middle-school years flew by me – bad haircuts, bad blue eyeshadow, badness on every level -- before I grew into my long-haired, freckled, Bonne Bell lip-smackered, Love’s Baby Soft self.

“You used to have a youthful, naturally full brow, and that’s what I’m going for. We can always make them more sleek, if you really want that. But first, let’s let them fill in and go a little wild and see what you have.”

It strikes me as being a lot like gardening, this brow stuff, and when I tell her this she laughs and confesses that it’s satisfying in exactly the same way. And after a few appointments, when I start to see the difference, I realize that her advice is a lot like writing advice.

First you have to go a little wild and see what you have.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Empty Nest January Activity Challenge: Holy Sh*$t.


Everyone talks about compromise in marriage. But there are limits. (If you doubt this, try to get your husband to take up knitting.) So for my husband, he would happily watch our kids break dance. But he would rather die than go see Alvin Ailey again.

He feels similarly about yoga; tried it, hated every minute. So it didn't matter how many hints I dropped about the Aerial Yoga class -- it combined two things he didn't want to do. 1) Yoga. 2) Being bested by a bunch of women.

So I went alone. I knew very very little about it, except I figured that a beginner class wouldn't be too difficult.

Cue maniacal laughter.

Part of the joy of doing anything, for me, is the joy of talking about it afterwards.So there is value in being able to come home and talk about something besides the weather, the kids, the dogs. To be able to say that I was the only person in the class who couldn't hop into their sling. The women who were much older than me could. The women who were much more overweight than me could. Everybody looked at me with pity. This was not starting off well.

But then a funny thing happened -- the first truly complicated pose -- a pose that made everyone gasp-- I did it readily, quickly, easily. Everyone else was still standing up, and I was suspended upside down, legs wrapped around silk, no hands. My pony tail swung against the ground. It was some honest to God Cirque du Soleil shit.

I felt the stunned hush in the room. I felt what everyone was thinking: Damn, if she can do it, I know I can.

And they did. We did. We did EVERYTHING.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

December. Maybe SUP is not meant to BE.


A quick trip to a Florida beach. Arriving at sunset, we ponder the posted rates for Stand Up Paddleboarding lessons and think, Do we need lessons? Don't we just Stand Up and Paddle The Board? Still, we decide to bite the bullet the next day.

However, on the beach the next morning, seeing no one swimming at 10:30 AM -- not one soul, not even the birds-- my husband decides maybe he should wade in before we rent anything.

His teeth chatter on the chaise lonque next to me. "Freezing," he says.
And when a Yankee man says freezing, I know he is not exaggerating. (If it was merely cold, he would have said "Brisk.")

No paddleboarding, I say. Absolutely not, he replies.

Still, beyond the beach, beyond the golf course, there is a beautiful pool complex. Swimming, however, is not a sport we can agree on either.

I am one of those weird people who actually likes to swim laps, alternating between crawl, breast stroke, and backstroke. My father was a championship high school swimmer, and we spent every day of every summer at a pool. My husband's idea of swimming is jumping in after sunbathing, then going back to sunbathing.

In the early days of our dating, I challenged him to a lap race and beat the shit out of him. I suspect he has never quite gotten over it.

When we arrive at the pool each day, I say, "want to swim some laps?" and he says, "want to drink some beer?"
We look for chairs where one of us can be in the shade and the other one can be in the sun. We continue my quest to taste every fish taco in the state of Florida.

On the last day, we realize that at the children's pool, there is a water slide.

As we walk by, I say, "I appreciate a good water slide."
"Me too," he says. "Me too."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Empty Nest November Activity Challenge: Adopt a Team.


When the kids leave the nest, we miss the rituals, the traditions we built around them. For some, this is smiley face pancakes on Saturday mornings. Wednesday night pizza after band practice. Or maybe, for the clinically insane, helping with homework. What I feel most sharply is the loss of being a spectator, of cheering on a team.

Those brisk days spent on canvas chairs or rickety metal bleachers represent my favorite kind of parenting -- being present, being loud, having plenty of snacks available. Seriously, what's not to love about that?

Since none of my kids will be playing a sport in college, I'm starting to find myself with an abundance, a complete overflow, of freaking cheer. It pours out of me when I pass a little league ball field, the way breast milk used to rise up when I saw a baby. What will I do with this? Where are the over 40 cheerleading squads, people, and when are the tryouts?

Last week, a friend invited me and my husband to watch a women's college volleyball team play my eldest daughter's alma mater. "You can cheer on your daughter's behalf," she said, knowing she was spending the semester abroad.

I was under the weather, and we couldn't go, but I told my husband that's what we need to do. Find another amateur team, in another sport, and support them. There are dozens of colleges in the area -- we'll find one this year, and adopt them.

"I think it should be a men's team," I add. "Possibly soccer."

"But you miss watching our daughters," he replies.

"But the men are um, more, uh . . . faster, and more accomplished."

"But the women are underfunded and need more support."

"The men wear shorts."

He sighs. We are at a standstill. And in the meantime, I contemplate my friends with younger children still playing on teams. Which one do we feel like embarrassing? And who needs orange slices and Vitamin water?

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Nest Empties. The Phone Rings.


I realized yesterday how seldom the phone rings. How we jump now, just a little, when it does. Is this the urgency people felt when it was first invented? Perhaps.

For me, losing both of my parents in the last few years took the shrill edge off that ringing phone. The fear of it breaking the stillness of the night. The worst has already happened. The calls have already come. And the children were home or accounted for, tucked in.

But just when you feel that sense of relaxation and release -- someone leaves. Someone travels. There is always someone to worry over, now, again. And bad news never comes in a text. (Unless you're fifteen.)

People shake their heads and wonder over women who keep having more children. But this is why, I think. This is why. So they can stave off being alone with a ringing phone.