A Sense of Humor Helps

There are many ways to judge whether a relationship might work. Sharing or at least tolerating each other’s sense of humor is one. When my wife and I dated I sometimes cooked a meal for us, and one night Judy held up her plate with a pathetic orphan look on her face and said, “Please, sir, may I have more?” My eyes popped wide as I recognized a speech from Oliver Twist. My previous girlfriend had thought that Steven King novels were the height of literature, and Judy quoted Dickens. My heart leapt with joy.

I had first studied biology in college, and Judy was in the process of earning her Ph.D. in plant physiology when we met and married. On our honeymoon in Maine we climbed to the top of a mountain in Acadia National Forest. A cold breeze blew as we stood on a rocky plateau at the top, and a thick fog surrounded us on all sides. She pulled a sweatshirt out of her backpack, and her head got stuck inside as she attempted to push her arms through the sleeves. She stood with her arms waving over what appeared to be a headless torso and I said, “My wife, the hydra.” She started laughing, and it took her a bit longer to emerge.

When Judy got pregnant with our first child we went to an OB/GYN group in State College. We saw four doctors on a round robin basis, and some could be gruff and rude. Judy appreciated it when I nicknamed a sixty year old man, a former army doctor, who kept advising Judy to watch her weight. His name was Wengrovitz, but we privately referred to him as Vinegar Tits. Dr. Mebbane gave us stern lectures at odd moments, and we hoped that he wouldn’t be on call when it came time for the delivery. We held up our arms in crosses as if warding off a vampire when we discussed him and called out, “Med Bane” in hopes of repelling him.

I rewrite lyrics to pop songs, and sometimes sing my version of Joe Cocker’s, “You Are So Beautiful, To Me” in the morning while making breakfast.  Original version:  “You are so beautiful, to me.  You’re everything I’ve ever hoped for.  You’re everything I need.  You are so beautiful, to me.”  My version: “You look available, to me. You are everything I’d ever settle for. You’re the only woman I see. You look available…to me.” Judy doesn’t take offense but comments on how romantic I’ve become over our years together.

We got new flip phones a few months ago. Sometimes my phone emits rapid bursts of beeps when I walk with it in a pants pocket, and it woke me up one night with a beep and flash of light as it rested on my bureau. Judy took it from me when it sounded off during a meal and searched through the menu. I asked her to look for a “random bullshit” button that she could turn off. She went through a bunch of applications, but didn’t find anything that might help. She handed it back and drily said, “Sorry, they don’t list ‘random bullshit’ anywhere.”

 

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Entourage: The Dangling Men

Nancy liked to dangle men, to entice them to come nearer and then hold them at a distance.  She often had two or three hooked at a time, but felt no guilt in trading one for another on a whim.  One time she had made a date to meet a new boyfriend at a restaurant.  An old beau saw her cross the parking lot and called her over.  Nancy made out with him in his car while her latest waited inside for her to make an appearance.  Latest became aware of her treachery.  But when he confronted her she just laughed and said, “Oh Brian, we’re not really dating, are we?”  Brian told her that he thought they were, and she laughed again at his foolishness.

She was attractive, intelligent, and had a good sense of humor.  Boys and men had made moves on her, had given her The Look, from the time she turned fifteen.   It must have been wearying to brave the constant attention and pressure, to sort through all the options.  She had to weigh the merits of her would-be suitors and hope that her scales had been properly calibrated.  And she must have wondered whether any of her gents really wanted her, the total sum of her, and not just the glittery package.  In the end she probably threw up her hands and decided to make love, sex, desire into a game.  She was the queen, and members of her entourage became her pawns.

Eventually she slipped and fell in love with an owner of a record store.  He was fifteen years older, however, and didn’t see any future in the relationship.  Steely Dan’s, “Hey Nineteen” played on the radio at that time, and the record man made it the theme of his argument when he broke up with her.

Nancy didn’t know how to deal with rejection.  All her training had been in holding men at bay, not at winning them back, and certainly not at mourning their loss.  She latched onto another record store owner, a mild-mannered stooge closer to her age, and began an affair.  She got pregnant, and they married although neither loved the other.  They named their son, Graham.

She called me up one day and spoke to me in her most charming, winsome manner.  “It’s been so long, Dennis.  I’m just dying to see you.”  Brian told me that he too had received an invitation a few days earlier.  Nancy was trying to reassemble her entourage and begin the game again.  She considered marriage and motherhood as slight handicaps that had been added to give her a deeper challenge.

I kept my distance, though I once gave in to curiosity and visited her and her toddler.  Graham was round faced, sandy-haired and good-natured.  He liked to gurgle and bang his spoon on the tray of his high chair.  Nancy seemed distantly amused by her baby and acted as if he were an odd creature who had somehow, through a series of madcap mishaps, become attached to her.  “Oh Graham,” she said, “You’re not really playing the drums, are you?”

 

 

Beth Floats Downriver

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Beth said, “Look out–there’s a rock straight ahead!”  I leaned to look around her, saw the ripple in the water, and pushed my paddle to veer away.  Too late.  The side of the bow hit the submerged rock hard. Beth flew out of the canoe, and I rolled into the river.  I bobbed to the surface and saw her 10 feet away from me.  Actually, I saw her upright head facing me as it floated sideways downriver, a huge grin plastered on her face.

I grabbed a paddle floating nearby, righted the canoe and climbed in.  I went after Beth.  I reached out a hand, shifted my weight away from her to counterbalance the canoe, and pulled her aboard.  I circled back and found the other paddle caught in some reeds at the edge of the Little Miami.

We had set out an hour earlier from a canoe rental shop.  The owner warned us of pirates downstream who would call to us from the shore.  He said, “Make sure you see my sign on the dock before you pull in.  If you pick the wrong place, they’ll take the canoe and leave you to find your way back on your own.  And if you come back without my canoe, I’m gonna charge you for it.  Same thing if you lose a paddle.  Oh yeah, give me your driver’s license.  You can have it back when you return with everything safe and sound.”

I normally wouldn’t have agreed to such odd terms, but Beth looked eager to go.  I handed the man a twenty and my license.

Beth and I had gone to the same grade school and high school, but had never been friends.  During the spring semester at U.D. she sat a few rows over from me in a philosophy class.  She had green eyes, a willowy figure, and a big smile.  I wanted to get to know her better.

Our first date didn’t end well.  I gave her a little kiss as we said goodnight, and she stared daggers at me.  I had crossed one of the lines a Catholic girl still felt obliged to draw.  She surprised me when she agreed to go out again.  We got on much better, and I made sure that I maintained a foot or two of separation between us the whole night.  A week later she stopped me as I turned to leave, closed her eyes and leaned in for a kiss.

That summer we went to movies, family picnics, and jogged together in the evening.  She liked to slip her hand into my back pocket as we walked side by side.

Beth broke things off at the end of August.  We’d had a few arguments, nothing serious.  Her phone call shocked me:  I hadn’t seen any of the usual signs.  She didn’t criticize my clothes, my choice in movies, the crappiness of my rust bucket car.  I didn’t catch her coldly studying me.  My first girlfriend once sat silently and glanced at me out of the corner of her eye as I drove us to a restaurant, toting up my strengths and weaknesses.  The balance had been a negative number.

I had annoyed Beth on a few occasions, and she once accused me of not caring one bit about her feelings.  But she’d never put any distance between us.  I called her back and demanded an explanation for the sudden dump, and she concluded with the following:  “I know I’ll find someone I like better than you.  There are other fish in the sea.”

I saw her once after the fall semester began.  She and a girlfriend crossed the quad in front of me, and Beth stopped to say hello.  I grunted something back, deeply embarrassed and still smarting from her rejection.  She smiled ever so brightly, said a few kind words and drifted away…

No pirates accosted us on a warm day in July as we glided on the current and twisted our way through a few rapids.  We made it to the correct drop-off point without further mishaps, turned in the canoe and paddles and waited for the bus to come.  She and I were still drenched, and the other canoe renters stared at us as we rode back.  Beth and I didn’t feel embarrassed, but held hands and smiled.  It had been an excellent day.

 

Women Jumping Out of Cars

Last week I waited to make a left turn into my neighborhood and saw a woman jump out of the shot gun seat of a car idling at a red light.  She looked as if someone had goosed her.  The driver made no effort to call her back though she stood on a nearby curb and stared intently at him.  She bounced on her toes as if waiting for him to make a move.  She began to walk away after a minute passed, and then he finally turned the car in her direction.  Negotiations had begun.

I saw a more vivid version of this story a few years earlier.  I heard yelling inside a car beside me on Semoran Boulevard.  We were stopped at a red light.  The front passenger door flew open.  A twenty year old woman slammed it shut and stomped away.  She veered behind the car, stepped onto the median and quickly put distance between her and the car’s driver.  He leaned out the window and called, “Hey, baby!  Come back!”  She ignored him and kept going.  Then he began to cuss her out in Spanish, shook his fist at her, and hit the horn once.  She kept going.  When the light turned green he made a u-turn and slowly headed in her direction.  He looked grim as if he expected no success in retrieving her.

Twenty years ago I heard yelling up the street from my house.  It was 1 a.m., so I peeked out my front door and saw a woman staggering across a lawn at the neighbor’s across the street.  Two or three men were inside a car idling at the curb, and one ordered the woman to get back in the car.  She screamed at him.  Her speech slurred, but I believe she told him to go to hell.  She knocked on my neighbor’s door–no one answered.  The man in the car yelled again, this time with greater violence.  I stepped outside and headed toward the woman.  When the men saw me they realized that a witness had arrived, and they sped away.

The woman spotted me and staggered to where I stood at the bottom of my driveway.  She asked if she could use my phone.  I let her inside and pointed to our land line.  I asked her if she wanted some coffee to help her sober up.  She glared and said, “I’m not drunk!  My boyfriend hit me!”

I retreated to the kitchen to get her some ice, and while I was gone my wife woke up.  Judy came out to the living room half awake.  She found a strange woman with crazy hair talking on our phone.  The lady’s outfit, cut offs and a sweaty tube top, gave her a street look.  I took Judy aside before she could make unfortunate assumptions and explained the situation.  The woman put a hand over the mouth piece and asked, “Where am I?”  I told her, and then she gave instructions to the person on the line:  “Pick me up at the 7/11 at Forsyth and Aloma.”

She hung up, and I offered her a ride to the convenience store.  She refused and headed out the door.  I followed after her and watched her walk up Bougainvillea Dr.  I worried that her tormentors might return.  A police car turned the corner and stopped next to her.  She waved her arms, shook her head and refused to get in the cruiser.  They let her go shortly after, and she strode away with firm, determined steps.  She turned the corner and disappeared, and the cops drove on.

Fifty years ago my mother stepped out of a car after an argument with my father.  We were stopped at a light about three miles from home.  We three kids huddled together in the back seat and wished that the nightmare would end soon.  My father drove off, and Mom’s figure grew smaller and smaller in the rear window.  I felt an odd sensation that I was the one left behind.  Two hours later Mom opened the front door to our house, came inside, and hung up her coat in the hall closet.  We all pretended that nothing had happened.