If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What the Babysitter Said

During the winter break of that year, my older sister's babysitter, a student at the local Bible college, was living with my parents. I have no idea why she was living there. People did, from time to time. It was too normal to wonder about. I'll call her Kay.

Kay and I had a lot in common. We were the same age. We were both spending far too much time waiting for the phone to ring. I was tall, she wasn't. I had straight hair, she had huge hair, and lots of it. I loathed the idea of being somebody's "girlfriend." Kay was always somebody's girlfriend. I was bookish, she was athletic. (Never mind about our having a lot in common.)

The summer before, she and I and my brother went to the Warm Springs reservation together. She knew all about it - how to get there, what to do when we got there, what to bring with us ... We hung out at the pool, and I got a fierce Nordic sunburn while she tanned and flirted with the lifeguard. Or, maybe he flirted with us. Whatever actually happened that day, it was baffling for me, and too hot. In a lot of ways.

When I came home to Educated David that winter, Kay was living in our family's house, and so, like a lot of other people throughout the years, was temporarily a sort of sister to me. This one was the sort of sister determined to introduce me to the real world and pull me out of my naivete. She felt sorry for me. I don't know if she thought of me as Mabel, and My David was no Frederick, but Kay was the sister with the snapping fan. "No, No! There's not one maiden here, whose homely face and bad complexion have caused all hope to disappear of ever winning man's affection." Kay was pretty sure that if a guy was appearing at the edges of our beach, he needed to be fended off in no uncertain terms.

* * * * *

The retreat was at my parents' beach house, which meant that people were piled onto cots and into nooks and crannies, sleeping in sleeping bags and using the little gazebo house and the decks and walking to the beach together. Energetic, rowdy, thoughtful, good young people everywhere. In my memory, they're a background noise. They made the scene, and in the scene there were only two players. I was there, and there was the guy who was far from being unnoticed.

I ignored my mother, who was making comments about having "twins joined at the hand." I consigned the other observers to their seats in the audience. We joined in with everything, but we were really in our own universe of dawning, lovely, happy knowing. We knew. We were sure. We had been on precisely three actual dates, but we knew. All those letters had introduced us, each to the other's soul, and we knew.

After watching us for about a day, Kay couldn't stay in her place in the audience seats anymore. "Could I see you for a minute?"

She led the way into the "red bathroom." The house had been designed as a show home for a development that never developed, and in the master bath there was a black toilet and matching sunken tub, flanked by mirrors on two sides. The sink fixtures were gold, and the carpet was the same splashy, Vegas style red and black and gold pattern as in the master bedroom. The phone was red.

We got in there, and she turned to me and said, "What are you doing?"

I didn't look into any of the gilt mirrors to confirm this, but if I looked like I felt, I looked smug. "Doing?"

"You barely know him!"

"I know him."

"Seriously. You shouldn't put all your hopes in this one guy. You still have another year and a half of school, and you don't know what might happen. He could really break your heart."

Clearly, she couldn't actually see him.

"He won't."

I went back out into the living room, rejoined Warm David, and folded my hand neatly into his. We'd noticed, during the drive to the beach, that there was exactly enough room for my forearm to fit in his, where it rested on the console between us. A perfect fit while holding hands, just like everything else.

* * * * *

Eventually, everyone but the family went away. Kay went with them. Determined David stayed. He had told me, on the way to the beach in the little red Opal (a car which conveniently holds only two people), that he had already decided to make sure of how I felt, and then tell my parents how we both felt. He had decided to do it during that weekend. After the audience went home, that is exactly what he did.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Rules

I suppose it is no wonder that my family was a bit bewildered by my behavior. In my life BIBD (Before Impossibly Brilliant David), I had functioned at home and on dates and in public and in private within a completely consistent and consciously articulated system of my own devising. I had Rules for this stuff. Some people knew some of my Rules, but all anyone would ever have to do was watch me, and the list would become apparent.

  • Always say yes to a first date. It takes a lot of courage to ask a girl out. That kind of courage deserves a little compassion.
  • Guys worth anything are guys that appreciate straight talk. Don't dissimulate, prevaricate or avoid. Just talk. (This Rule got me into trouble during my student days in the Bible Belt, but it was appreciated out here on the west coast where plain-talking, jeans-wearing, peer relationships between the sexes existed. I suppose it's the influence of our pioneer past or our predominantly Scandinavian forebears or something. Whatever cultural thing is happening, the guys I admired were guys who appreciated a girl who could just talk. And listen.)
  • Never do anything with a guy that would cause embarrassment or some fast explaining if my brothers walked in on it.
  • Don't date anyone (more than once) my brothers or my dad don't like. Women know about women and men know about men. I could trust the men in my family, and I did.
  • Don't kiss anyone I'm not planning on marrying. (This one from an informal discussion that happened out at camp one year. A guy I had a lot of respect for told us that he'd decided to draw the line there, simply because it made everything so much simpler. People told me I would never find a guy who even cared about this, but I decided to keep it anyway.)
  • Generally, despite the deep and persistent ache to be loved, I didn't want to be the "girlfriend." Girlfriends become ex-girlfriends. I didn't want to be anyone's ex anything. It seemed icky to me.

Those were my Rules. They worked for me. They meant that I'd been on dates with lots of different sorts of guys, and that I had a lot of guy friends (who made a lot more sense to me than girls ever did or ever have done), and that I'd held hands on dates sometimes and been teased a lot about my Rules and goofed up once or twice (but goofing up on any of those Rules can't result in a disease or a pregnancy or being anyone's "ex" - so it's not like I'd made any disasters). In general, my family did not know me as a daughter or sister who had a boyfriend. In general, my family knew me as the daughter and sister who did creative little projects sometimes or played the piano or had her nose in a book. And, in general, guys I dated didn't spend much time with my family. I only needed to know what the family feedback was and then they'd done their part in my dating life.

My dad was a big reason for my Rules. Back in my high school days, the renowned Basic Youth Conflicts conference came to Portland, and I attended. I was fifteen, and I was not allowed to date until I turned sixteen, and so I was getting ready. I listened to everything, and I took notes in my enormous three-ring binder. I gathered up the Rules being preached to Christian Youth across the country by one of the first traveling mega-speakers of our mega-meeting era, Bill Gothard. He's still around. (You can look him up if you want to, but I'm not recommending him. Just so you know. He was a good precursor to the "dating" I did while in college in the sultry heat of the Baptist Bible Belt, with chaperones surrounding, surveying, stultifying and strangling all the fun and all the health out of the thing.)

I was eager to date. I came home from those huge "Basic Youth" gatherings in the Coliseum, ready to discuss these ideas with my parents.

"Dad, we learned something last night that you will have to help me do." I was using my most let's-get-down-to-it voice. I was certain of his cooperation. After all, he was the one who had paid my tuition to these famous conferences.

He looked up from his newspaper. I started in.

"Whenever I get asked on a date, I'm going to bring the guy to you so he can get your permission first."

His eyebrows came together in the clear expression of patient irritation. Weird. He wasn't happy about this. Maybe he didn't understand. This would be him, cooperating in my dating life. He would be a player in it. Actually, he would be in charge of it. I didn't seem to be explaining this very well.

"If I don't really like the guy, or if I don't want to go out with him, then you can tell him no for me," I explained.

He paused for a moment and took a long breath, and then he said one of the most important sentences he ever said to me. "If you can't tell a guy no, then you're not old enough to date."

The conversation ended there. I could see, even at the tender age of fifteen, that he was absolutely right. Mine was the era of NOW and women's lib and power suits. The ridiculous and demeaning one-down position certain kinds of women seem to want, I didn't want. The guys I knew were my peers and friends. How could I change into a silly and simpering girl who hid behind her daddy? He was right. My dad was right. My relationships were my responsibility, and my dad's brief refusal to become the Master of My Dating Life was the the ground on which I stood when I began to assemble my Rules. (He might have been happier for the rest of my fifteenth year if he had agreed to take over. I spent the rest of the time arguing that waiting until my sixteenth birthday was stupid.)

My Rules. My dating life. My decisions. Feedback from the men in the house, and chatter with my mother and sister, and other than that, all my dates were away from home. I was standing on my own two feet with my romantic life. And that is why my family can be excused for being a little shocked and even stunned when it came to the way I acted when David's Brain (and David's height and hair and hands) entered my world. My dates had never spent much time in the house before.

One did, once. He came in ... we spent time there, sitting in the living room and talking ... listening to music ... me, breathlessly playing some bit of "classical" music for him - once it was (I blush to admit) the ubiquitous Canon in D (did you know you can sing Jolly Old Saint Nicholas to it? And Twinkle Twinkle?) ... him accusing me of having exactly the same emotional reaction as I decried his having for John Lennon (he was right). My dad asked me once if that guy ever relaxed. Apparently, when I was upstairs getting my shoes so I could go out with him, and he was alone with my parents, not so much. That he wasn't all that comfortable with my family was not a point in his favor.

But that guy, and all the others, none of them were Brainy David. Intellectual David, I noticed. And then I did a lot more than notice. I began to fall in love, for real, and for certain, and with no looking back. It was the retreat at the beach house that did it. During those three days with friends and family, my behavior (mine and his ... mine with him) unleashed what seemed like a coordinated and community effort at reining me in. I had obviously lost my mind.

One by one, they pulled me aside. One by one, they tried to snap me out of it. I wasn't following the Rules anymore. (My Rules! Those were my Rules! Wouldn't I be the one to know when to break them? Wouldn't I be the one to declare them obsolete?) No one knew what to make of it. One by one, they began to make their case. (Is there anything quite as pointed as the well-intentioned interventions of people doing a thing for your own good?)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

He Was Not Exactly Unnoticed

I flew home on Saturday, the nineteenth of December. By the twenty-second, I was in the eye of the storm. Me! The same person who had been so definite about not wanting any sort of romance in her life for a long, long while. I was so sure I was done with dating and guys and all the rest of it. Irritated and frustrated and tired of being distracted. Ready to move on with my education and learn to be a teacher and forget about getting married. Enough already.

But he was waiting for me. He was at church on Sunday. He had called before that. I could almost have wished to be a bit deaf to the human voice - because I couldn't help it. I still can't help it. I hear those tiny little subterranean shifts. I know when a voice is telling me what it cannot say. This time, the "touch of a certain softness in his voice" was like the assault of armies on my fortress. He had begun to overwhelm my walls. And damn it, he knew it, too! I could see it in his eyes. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was as if someone had given him a map of all the passageways that would get him inside the walls. But he didn't need the map. He had the key.

Before he went back home on Sunday night, he stopped by our house. I had already said goodbye to him, but he came back. His large, long hand was holding something. Five somethings. He had brought us five wrapped chocolates. Liquor filled chocolates. For Christmas. They were from France. He just wanted to stop by and give them to us before he left town. We didn't even sit down to talk or anything. He just stood next to the door, and offered them to us. Me and my mom - we were there to speak to him. He was a little embarrassed. A little awkward. He told us he wouldn't "drop by unnoticed" again, and that was the moment that sealed my fate.

I laughed at him. With him. At the situation. I was standing in the front hall of that enormous house, with the 12-foot-tall Christmas tree behind me, nestled into the bend of the wide front stairs, the lights reflecting off the glass at the front door. My mother and I were standing in that hallway, looking up - way up - at the tall curly-haired man holding out his open hand, offering us the wrapped candies he had brought. This intellectual. This educated man who had completed the university certificate in France and learned to love all things French while he was there. This man who was in grad school, studying a multilingual, multi-disciplinary, comparative literature. And he was telling us that he wouldn't drop by unnoticed? It was too delicious!

"Well," I said, "you weren't exactly 'unnoticed.'"

He blushed a little, and searched in his head for the word he'd meant to say. But he looked at me at the same time, and then he couldn't find the word. He gave up and laughed.

"And it's okay if you show up unannounced," I said.

My mother may have been standing there, witness to the situation and slightly aghast at her cheeky daughter, but in that instant, Brainy David and I looked each other in the eye as equals. Peers. Partners. Word Sharks, we. Irony was on our menu then, and it still is. Word play and the glories of the dictionary - the magic of articulated language and the nuance of poetry and the power of perfect prose - ah, yes. In that moment we recognized each other, and it did not matter who else was in the room.

With a man who loved me, I could have been safe. Tenderness, and understanding, and even adoration ... all of these things I wanted. But finding them in other guys was everything from vaguely dissatisfying to impossibly smothering. It wasn't enough. Not for me.

As I said goodnight to the man who had not exactly been "unnoticed," my life was far from safe. It was real.