Wipe Out

March 25th, 2014

The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.

—Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Most of all, I remember the girl.

Bob O’Connell sat behind me in 7th grade math class. I remember exactly nothing from that math class, other than Bob, and the girl. Bob played drums, and like most drummers I have known, he rarely stopped playing the drums. He practiced his paradiddles on the back of my chair, and tapped on my backpack with his feet—something about a double bass drum pedal. And when the girl walked by us, I felt a strange pressure in my chest. Ah, so that’s why they call it a crush. To this day, I am still horribly embarrassed at the way I couldn’t stop staring at her. Eventually, she let me know it made her uncomfortable, but I couldn’t help myself. I was hooked, hard, and I had yet to learn self-control.

As she walked by, that day in math class, Bob noticed me noticing her, and nodded, once. Me too, he was saying.

In high school, Bob adopted a pseudonym, based on his passion for the works of Stephen King, and submitted several florid love poems to the school literary magazine. I think he and I were the only ones who knew that they were about that same girl. The editor selected them to feature in a section unofficially titled “Walk On Me.” I may have had one or two of my poems selected to run in the same section. There is always more than enough teenage angst to go around.

Eventually, I found my place. At the Coffee Kingdom, I belonged. Bob drank Ethiopian Yrgacheffe by the pot, and I can’t remember a day when he wasn’t there. I would stop in on my way to school for a pastry, on my way home from school for a cream soda and some chocolate ice cream, and back after dinner for one of Mary Beth’s amazing desserts and some live music. He was always there, smoking, writing, drinking coffee. The next morning, the shower would wake up the smell of his cigarettes in my hair, and I had to smile, remembering the night before.

Bob was the drummer in a high school punk band. They called themselves Biohazard (no relation to the famous band called Biohazard). One of the band members had a family member who worked at the UMass Medical Center, and he managed to lift a roll of Biohazard stickers from the supply closet, so that was the name of the band. I volunteered at a theatre downtown, so when Biohazard got a gig at the local community center, Bob came to me and asked if I could borrow some lighting equipment. I made a ridiculous mess of the lighting plot, which my designer friend Jason straightened out in about 30 seconds. I helped set up for the concert. I remember a song called “Welcome to Managua,” which involved a lot of screaming. And they did a cover of “Wipe Out,” complete with extended drum solo. Bob’s glasses flew off his face during that drum solo, as they so often did, and his squinched-up expression as he tried to see what he was doing resembled nothing so much as a far-sighted hamster. I still have a couple of Biohazard stickers, and that lighting plot is around here somewhere, with the drum kit labeled Hamster.

I also remember that the band members were planning a post-show celebration. They were going to wear rented tuxedos and go to Denny’s. The plan was to order Hot Fudge Brownies à la Mode, in unison, monotone, faces expressionless, and when the sundaes arrived, to plunge their faces in and eat them without using their hands. I have no idea if that ever happened, but I would like to think they went through with it.

There were more nights at the Coffee Kingdom, and love, and heartbreak. We went off to college, but it wasn’t until the Coffee Kingdom closed its doors for the last time that I truly lost touch with Bob.

Twenty years later, he found me on Facebook, and what do you know? He was working in the building next door to mine. Could we get together for lunch? We could indeed.

Over burgers at the Rattlesnake, we caught each other up on our adult lives. It’s funny how the important events of twenty years can be summed up in twenty minutes. I was no longer working in theatre; he was no longer playing drums. He told me of the loss of his mother; I told him about how I’d lost Sarah to cancer. I told him about Sandy, and he told me about his wife, Tricia. Our eyes met, and he nodded. I get it, he was saying. The way he spoke of Tricia, the look in his eyes, I knew he understood. Love is so much more complex and powerful than we ever imagined, in that seventh grade math class, struggling against our carbonated hormones, desperately yearning for something we didn’t understand.

He’s gone, now. He died last night, after a month in the hospital. Lung cancer. Wiped out, if you will, like an eraser across a chalkboard, and my faded memories of him like the ghost of what was written there. I want to be very careful, how I write this next part, because I don’t want anyone to think for a second that I am blaming him for anything. Cancer is pure evil. It can and does strike anyone. But scent is such a powerful memory trigger, and I can never smell a cigarette without remembering Bob, sitting at a glass-topped table in the Coffee Kingdom, French press, Think Book, denim jacket, and all. So when you smell cigarette smoke, take a moment to think of what happened to Bob, to Josh, to Sheila, to your friends. How quickly and easily they were taken from us, here one minute and gone the next.

You can’t live every day as if it were your last. Our minds aren’t built to handle that level of awareness. But once in a while, when you smell cigarette smoke, surface, for a minute. Remember how fragile we are, how briefly we are here. Tell someone that you’re glad they’re alive.

As for the girl, she is still beautiful. I could email her tonight, and apologize for the clumsy, desperate way we loved her. It had nothing to do with love. I know that, now. But Leave me alone, she said, and I have, and I will.

Sorry, wrong number

July 29th, 2011

My first year of college, I lived in a dorm. It sucked, a lot, and so when my friend Paula asked me if I’d like to go in on an apartment with her and her (incredibly cute) friend Heather, I said heck yes. We each took a utility: Paula had the gas bill, Heather had electric, and I had the phone. I bought a telephone and an answering machine at Lechmere and we recorded a cutesy outgoing message.

Within minutes, we had our first call: a guy looking for Abbey Auto Rental. I told him he had the wrong number, and hung up. He called back immediately: Abbey Auto Rental? Nope, me again. What number are you trying to reach?

He read off my new phone number. I said, “Well, that’s the number here, but this is a private residence.”

He said, “Well, I guess you’re f—ed, because there’s a half-page ad for Abbey Auto Rental in the Yellow Pages with that number. Lots of luck.”

I grabbed the Yellow Pages and flipped to the car rental section. Sure enough, it was our number. I guessed they had gone out of business fairly recently, for the ad to still be included in the phone book.

So we changed our cutesy outgoing message to say, “Sorry, this is NOT Abbey Auto Rental. They are out of business. You’ve reached Dave, Paula, and Heather. Please leave a message.” It made no difference whatsoever; people kept leaving messages for Abbey Auto Rental.

At the end of the year, Paula and Heather moved out, and Dan and Jorma moved in. Jorma used to enjoy messing with the callers. He would take down their credit card number and make a reservation, promising free delivery, just as it said in the ad. Then he would go off to class. When the reservation time rolled around, the customer would call back, furious at the absence of their rental car, and frequently I would be the one to answer the phone.

Dave: Hello?

Irate customer: Where the hell is my car?

Dave: Sorry, Abbey Auto Rental went out of business two years ago.

Irate customer: What are you talking about? I gave my credit card number to someone this morning.

Dave: You must have been talking to the ghost of Mister Abbey! WoooOOOOoooo!

Irate customer: I’m coming down there to kick your ass!

Dave: OK, see you soon. You have the address from the ad, right? How are you going to get here with no car?

Irate customer: RRRAAAAAAAA

When Jorma moved out and Michelle moved in, we decided it was time to change the outgoing message again. We left longer and longer messages, but the calls kept coming. They had phone books! The phone books were three years old! Abbey Auto Rental must exist. It must!

Finally, I went out and bought a longer tape for the outgoing message. I recorded “The Gift” by the Velvet Underground. This song is eight minutes and sixteen seconds long. The left channel is the band noodling around aimlessly on their guitars, and the right channel is a male voice with a British accent, telling a story about a man who mailed himself to his girlfriend. We told all our friends to just hit the star key to bypass the outgoing message.

This, finally, eliminated the car rental messages. I left the answering machine that way, and tried to forget about it. Almost a year later, I came home to a light blinking on the machine. It was the peevish voice of a little old lady, who had clearly listened to the entire story, including the part where the girlfriend uses a sheet metal cutter to open the box, accidentally killing her boyfriend. The message said, “That’s a very nice story, but it doesn’t help me; I want to rent a car.”

Pleasantly Surprised

July 12th, 2011

Scene: The bathroom behind the Boulevard Diner in Worcester. Nate has just finished getting sick to his stomach. Dad is helping to clean up.

Nate: Well, this was unexpected.

Dad: To tell you the truth, I expect something like this all the time. That way, when it doesn’t happen, it’s like a super-duper bonus.

Nate: So… every day of my life is like a super-duper bonus to you?

Dad: That’s exactly right.

Around the Sun

January 9th, 2011

Sarah would have turned 42 today.

Birthdays are milestones, a reminder to pop your head up like a gopher and look around to make sure you’re still on the right track. There have been a few big milestones around here lately. I’ll be 40 this year, Sandy will be 30, and my dad just turned 70. And it’s the start of a new decade. Meaningless, on paper, but it’s human nature to get excited when the odometer is about to tick over from 99,999 to 100,000 miles. My dad always liked to honk the horn every 10,000 miles, or whenever we drove across a state line. I find myself doing the same thing. Our lives are full of these little ceremonies.

So, on New Year’s Eve, I honked the horn, driving from New York to Massachusetts. Once we got home, we observed our family tradition of watching The Court Jester. Nate’s attention span is longer, and he gets more out of the movie, every year. We were all in bed before midnight.

When I woke up, it was 2011, rabbit rabbit, and I popped my head up like a gopher, to take inventory. Are we on track? For the basics, I think we are. Money is tight, but we have a roof over our heads and food to eat, and we’re happy, healthy, and together every night.

Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. 2011 is going to be the year to get rid of the clutter. Our house is full to bursting, with Nate’s stuff, with my stuff, with Sarah’s stuff; poor Sandy has no room for her stuff, and no one can ever find what they’re looking for. Sarah was a collector (or a hoarder, depending on whom you ask). I’ve been getting rid of stuff ever since she died. We’ve donated literally truckloads of clothing, and (so far) 471 books, but there’s still so much stuff left to go, whole rooms full, and so little time and energy left to work on it, at the end of each busy day.

So I am going to dedicate at least half of this year’s vacation days to de-cluttering. Wish me luck.

And think of Sarah, today. In honor of her birthday, please let me know if you would like a plush manatee. Or two.

Wonder Wheel

August 14th, 2010

Every year at about this time, our local church puts on a big celebration for the Feast of Saint Rocco. There are carnival rides, and live music, and Italian food. In years past, we’ve always missed it, but last year, we managed to get there for one afternoon. Nate rode a couple of kiddie rides, but most of the rides were for big kids. Nate was five-almost-six and too little to go on them. Truth be told, he didn’t really want to go on them. He’s always a bit… apprehensive about trying new things. Sandy and I tried to get him on the Caterpillar Coaster, or maybe the Ferris wheel, but he knew darn well that it was just too scary. We were a little disappointed, because we wanted to ride the Ferris wheel ourselves. But so it goes.

This year, he is six-almost-seven. This year, we ran into a couple of friends of his, Michael and Matt, who are in his Cub Scout den. They are all in the same grade, but Nate is the youngest kid in his class, so these boys are a bit older than him. As soon as we finished stuffing our faces, they headed right for Pharaoh’s Fury, a Big Kid carnival ride for sure. And Nate was not interested in going on that ride, no way, no how.

Michael’s older sister, Amy, is eleven years old. She wasn’t too keen on Pharaoh’s Fury either. She immediately took Nate under her wing and asked if he would go on the Caterpillar Coaster with her.

Amazingly, he would.

Nate and Amy on a roller coaster

They went on lots of rides together, and Nate had a wonderful time. We had a wonderful time watching him.

When it came time for the Ferris wheel, Nate took his place in line next to Amy. Sandy and I fell in line behind them. As the wheel spun, and the ground fell away from us, we laughed with the sheer joy of it. We could hear Nate and Amy laughing from the next car. And when our car got to the very top, the ride stopped for a moment. We could see for miles, and the new moon was low on the horizon. I put my arm around Sandy, leaned over, and kissed her, carefully. I knew we’d get up here eventually.

Vegetarian Mumbo Jumbo

June 24th, 2010

Scene: Nate’s bedroom, around bedtime. Nate is sitting on the floor, putting on his pajamas. Dad is reclining on the bed. Figaro, the cat, enters the room.

Dad (to Figaro): Come here, you fat, furry thing. I’m gonna eat you up.

Nate: Dad, please stop talking about eating the cat. I don’t like talking about killing animals, and eating means killing, you know.

Dad: Hm. How do you feel about having eaten turkey for dinner this evening?

Nate: Oh, I don’t mind that. I just don’t like hurting cute, furry animals.

Dad: What about an ugly furry animal?

Nate: You mean like a bullfrog… with hair? (pause) I don’t think I’d eat that.

A day in your celebration

January 17th, 2010

Last year, Sandy was a bit taken aback by the sudden appearance of a birthday cake on Sarah’s birthday. This year, I made sure to ask her permission in advance. She said yes, and she also said that she was glad I had asked her first.

So last Saturday we ate chocolate cake, and thought about Sarah. I wasn’t going to sing “Happy Birthday,” but Nate knows you can’t eat the cake until you sing the song.

Our situation is hard for Sandy, sometimes. She is living in Sarah’s house, raising Sarah’s son, and in love with Sarah’s husband. Sandy celebrating Sarah’s birthday is weird, but at least you get cake.

When Sarah died, Nate was only two years old. He doesn’t remember her at all. There are a thousand stories I want to tell him about his mom; her favorite places, her favorite things. But Sandy is here now; she is here now, right now, sleeping next to me in our big warm bed. She has a thousand stories of her own to tell us, and the three of us have a thousand thousand new memories to make.

You know what I mean

November 26th, 2009

Scene: in the car, driving home from the YMCA. It is a dark and stormy night. Dad is peering through the rain, thinking about buying new windshield wiper blades, and singing along to the song in his head. Nate is in the backseat, listening.

Nate: Daddy? What about the cat?

Dad: What?

Nate: It sounded like you said, “I’m two-sixty-four my cat.” What does that mean?

Someone here is gettin’ old

August 17th, 2009

Scene: A picnic table at Kimball Farm. It is Nate’s sixth birthday. Nate is eating a giant dish of chocolate ice cream. Sandy is eating a giant dish of lemon sherbet. Dad has gone in search of a dessert that does not contain lactose.

Dad enters, carrying a giant chocolate chip cookie.

Nate: Can I try some?

Dad: No way. This is my dessert.

Nate looks disconsolate.

Dad: That is your dessert. This is my dessert.

Dad winks at Sandy.

Dad: “This is my rifle, this is my gun…”

Nate: This is my Slinky.


A little family

May 30th, 2009

When I was in college, the theatre department put on a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author. The script called for a very young girl to play the part of The Child. Luckily, we had one handy. James, the auditorium manager, and Professor Jane, the costume designer, had three beautiful children: two boys and a girl. The girl, Nia, was six years old at the time, or thereabouts, and she was perfect.

I was in my early 20s at that time, and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I did not want children of my own.

I don’t remember having anything to do with Six Characters. I probably worked on the electrics crew or something. But I happened to catch the tail end of an evening dress rehearsal one night. James was there too, waiting to pick up his daughter. When the stage manager dismissed the actors, Nia spotted her father. She jumped off the stage and went tearing up the aisle, screaming, “Daddeeeeee!” She leaped into his arms and he spun her around into a big hug, The Child’s ghostly white dress fluttering behind her.

That instant of pure joy stabbed me right in the heart. That was the first moment in my life when I thought, “Maybe having kids wouldn’t be so bad.”

When Sarah and I started dating, we were in our late 20s. Sarah let me know early on that she wanted kids, and I knew that if I wanted to keep her around, I would have to get on board with that. When I met her nieces, all my resistance crumbled. I fell in love with them immediately. Watching Sarah with them, watching myself with them, I finally admitted that we would be good parents.

Taking care of a newborn is exhausting work. Being a single parent is exhausting work. Being Nate’s dad is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, but there are a lot of nights when I am just tired, and I have a hard time being the sparky, energetic father he deserves. Some nights, when I go to pick him up at school, he is delighted to see me, but I am too tired and cranky to appreciate it fully. And other nights, when I am delighted to see him, he is busy playing or coloring and would really prefer if I just went away. Sometimes, he knows he’s been naughty at school, and is dreading my arrival. But in the back of my mind, I remember Nia and James, and I know that one of these days we will both be happy to see each other at the same time.

Sandy’s lease is up tomorrow. She packed up her apartment and moved in with me and Nate on Wednesday. She drove in to work with me on Thursday and spent the day cleaning the old apartment. We drove home together, and together we went to pick up Nate at school.

And Nate saw us across the crowded room.

And his face lit up, and he ran across the room, and he ran right by me and threw himself into Sandy’s arms, hugging her with all his might.

And I thought, Oh—that’s what I’ve been waiting for.

Welcome home, Sandy.