It’s Just A Life.17-20

It’s been way too long since I updated my blog; so here are Four shorts! Oddly, it just so happens that these are my very favorite four! 

Third Times The Charm

The meetings would usually last about an hour, and then several men from the coming out group would walk down to the New Helvetia coffee shop in Midtown Sacramento to socialize. The young man sitting next to me was talking about the Sacramento Symphony bankruptcy with the facilitator of the coming out group my friend Steve and I attended most Tuesdays. I had never gone to the coffee shop – still being a bit shy around so many gay men – and Steve was reluctant to be there at all. But this time, a handsome, well-spoken young man sitting next to me had my rapt attention.

I was instantly enthralled, not only by their conversation about the Sacramento Symphony bankruptcy – I was a French horn player in high school, and had played in a local concert band until Laurie and I split – but with the fact that this man was also a French horn player. The fact that he was adorable didn’t hurt.

I felt like staying with the group, but Steve didn’t have a lot of patience hanging out in public places. HIV positive, he had recently transitioned to the early stages of full blown AIDs. He didn’t have a lot of energy and, truthfully, he had a very large crush on me. I knew this, but I never encouraged him, which added jealousy to the mix. So, it was no surprise when he said he wanted to leave. We came in separate cars, but I couldn’t very well say goodbye and let him walk the two blocks back to his car by himself.

I reluctantly got up, smiled shyly at the horn player, said goodbye to our facilitator, Frank, and left with Steve. We walked the two blocks back to our cars, said goodnight, and he drove away. I sat in my “married dad” Ford sedan for all of 30 seconds and thought, “No; I’m not letting this go.” The whole point of this group was to socialize and meet other guys, to develop friendships and support networks. What better opening could I have?

I got out of my car and walked back to the coffee shop. As luck would have it, they were still sitting there chatting! I walked in; sat back down, and told Frank that I just wanted to make sure Steve was OK driving home. The next thing I knew, I was part of the conversation. How easy was that? I thought to myself. 

Over the next few minutes it became clear that the two of them were just getting ready to say goodnight, so I desperately thought of how I was going to ask him (his name was Pete, I learned) for a phone number. And then it hit me, French horn lessons! How perfect. I could actually take a lesson or two without even making the situation awkward. Yes, he told me, he did teach lessons, and gave me his number to call for arrangements.

Of course neither of us was actually thinking about horn lessons. I didn’t care that much, since I had stopped participating in the band, and I could tell as soon as I asked that he was just too shy to ask for my number. He was way too happy I asked, and I just didn’t believe he was so desperate for students that he would take on an amateur. I called the next day and we were on a date by the end of the week. I don’t remember any talk of lessons beyond the excuse to call.

Our first date was an easy pitch. I had two-for-one tickets to a show, “Arsenic And Old Lace,” at a local dinner theater. A client from the salon I worked at had a starring role. I didn’t know at the time how frugal Pete was, but it apparently was the perfect date. We met, had a lovely dinner and evening – where I learned, to my slight chagrin, he was vegetarian – and made arrangements to meet again a couple of days later. A horn lesson never was discussed.

It turned out Pete needed to attend a small concert at UC Davis, where he taught. (Oh my god, he’s a French horn player and a professor. How hot was that?)

“No,” he assured me, “I’m not a professor, I just teach private French horn lessons at the two universities in the area.”

Close enough, I thought. So we proceeded to the concert.

“It’s a contemporary recital from a singer who’s an artist-in-residence,” he warned. Didn’t mean anything to me, so I’ was good to go.

As we sat in the tiny recital room listening to some German maven warble an unintelligible string of notes (and what I assume must have been words) at a sometimes cringe-worthy volume. I remember wondering what I’d gotten myself into. At intermission, I tried to play it cool. After all, this was his job, right? What am I going to say, “Sorry, I have to go. This sucks balls.”

Thank god he saved me. “This is terrible,” he said. “I had no idea she was this bad. Do you want to stay?”

Are you kidding? I thought. I’m about 15 seconds away from poking out my eardrums with my car keys to save my sanity! What I actually said was, “Do you mind if we leave? This isn’t really what I expected.” He let out a little laugh and we left.

The rest of the date consisted of a Moroccan dinner with another of my two-for-one tickets, where we desperately tried to ignore the clueless belly dancer who was sure two men at dinner would be big tippers. She was sadly disappointed, and we had an awkward evening avoiding her continued attempts to tempt us.

Our third date was a movie at Tower Theater in Sacramento. “Like Water For Chocolate,” was a superb movie that we thoroughly enjoyed. However, we almost never made it in. Pete was 5 minutes late when I started to worry. At 10 minutes, I started to wonder, would someone stand you up on a third date? That seems unnecessarily cruel. At 15 minutes, I was pissed off and just about to leave when he came hurrying up.

“I’m so sorry!” he said. “I got stuck in a bankruptcy meeting, and I couldn’t figure out a way to escape.”

He was on the Sacramento Symphony bankruptcy board, which I knew from previous conversations. But still, a third date is probably one of the more important dates, right? I told him what I tell all of my clients, “For future reference, I leave at 15 minutes late.” He apologized profusely, and after 20 years, he seems to realize that I still mean it. 

 

Worst. Parents. Ever.

My son William has always had a special relationship with speed and thrills. By the time he was three he could name practically any car that drove by us on the street, and like most kids in our neighborhood, he was obsessed with skateboarding by the time he was 8 or 9. He seems willing to try just about any board sport, including wake-boarding, snow-boarding, and even kite-boarding, a present we gave him for his college graduation present on a trip to Oahu. At least it took him 4 and a half hours of lessons before he managed to pick up that one. Not that I’m jealous or anything.

When he was as young as a year old he wanted to ride carnival rides. He didn’t want to ride the kiddie carnival rides, by the way, no, he was only interested in the adult carnival rides. When he was 16 months old Laurie and I took him to the Yolo County Fair. I know he was 16 months because we were living close enough to the fair grounds to walk, and though the Yolo County Fair is a “free gate”, you still have to pay for parking. We could barely afford the food, no way we were paying to park. The walk wasn’t difficult, especially since William was in a stage where the stroller was still really useful.

We went in the evening and wandered a bit. I’m not much of a “fair” type, unless it’s the Renaissance Faire (yes, in fact, I’m totally that geeky). I like the art exhibits at the county fairs, and the rides can be fun, if you can afford them. The food is generally so-so, though the Yolo fair is not too bad food-wise, but when you’re poor, it doesn’t make a big difference.

We could afford to let William ride some of the kiddie rides, but they weren’t really his thing. He didn’t want to go around on a silly little merry-go-round ride (unless it was a car), but boy did he want to ride the adult carnival rides. Specifically one of those double ended spinning rides where the whole ride spins around an axis, and at either end a car is spinning around its own axis, and if you don’t throw up all over yourself and your companions, the ride has been a blast. “No,” we told him. You’re not big enough.

Now normally William wasn’t a difficult child. In fact, he was probably one of the easiest babies one could hope for. Even as a teenager, he never went through the “I hate you and everything you stand for” phase, or the “you can’t tell me what to do” phase (well not any more than the rest of his childhood). But no matter how easy-going a child, no one year old who ever lived likes to hear the word no. He wouldn’t accept it, at least not from us.

When it came to the carnival rides, he was your average “have a tantrum when I don’t get what I want” child. So instead of dealing with a big argument, we would walk up to the ride in question, wait in line, and ask the carny at the helm if William could ride the ride. Of course we knew he would say no, William would accept a stranger’s no, go figure, but who cares if it short circuited a tantrum!

It’s really no surprise that every year William would ask if he could ride the rides, and every year it was “No.” Until that magical summer when he was around 6 years old. He came for a summer visit from Indiana where he and his mother, Laurie, were living while Laurie was working on a master’s degree, and he had grown quite a bit since we had seen him at spring break. Suddenly we could say, “Yes!” Yes we could go to Six Flags, or Great America as it was called back then, and see if you are tall enough. And lo and behold, he was.

So, keeping our word, we took William to Marriot’s Great America. William was a fun kid to hang out with, so we were all quite looking forward to the day. There’s no ride ever made that my mother and I will not ride, and Pete’s pretty game to go with just about anything, too. It was going to be epic! 

Entering the park, the first ride we saw was called The Edge. The Edge was basically a free-fall ride. Three or four people would sit strapped in a cage, and the cage moves towards the edge of a cliff. Then the car, suspended over the “edge” (get it?) of a cliff, drops 12 stories, sliding in a gentle curve until it you end up stopping flat on your back hundreds of feet later.

It’s one of my all time favorite rides, and as soon as William saw it, he was sure that was what he wanted to ride. Of course. Now it’s not like you just run up and get on a ride. There’s usually at least a 45 minute wait for any given ride. And so we waited with William, watching the ride run over and over again. We kept asking him if he was sure he wanted to ride this ride, but he insisted over and over again that that’s what he wanted to ride and so we rode it. When it was our turn, Pete, my mother Betty, William, and I scooted in, buckled up, and waited. Of course while we waited we took a picture of him, a before picture if you well. The ride juts forward with a jerk,and you drop 12 stories. And you scream bloody murder until you end up stopping suddenly at the bottom of the ride laying on your back. Pete, my mother, and I, were laughing our heads off. As we looked at William all we saw was a stony stare. He didn’t seem terrified, not laughing either, just staring. Since the three of us adults were already laughing, we decided to keep it up. Parents have the ability to look at each other in a certain way that allows them to know what the other is thinking in these sort of situations, and so almost in a single mind, we said, “Wow! Wasn’t that amazing?” And very slowly a smile formed on William’s lips. “Yeah. Yeah it was fun…”

Still, William looked very shell-shocked, so we decided maybe we’d try a little tamer ride next. He assured us he did not want to ride The Edge again right away, maybe later. And so we moved on and found an old-fashioned roller coaster. I thought this was perfect, no twists, sharp turns, or loops. Just a straightforward up-and-down roller coaster.

Turns out old-fashioned wooden roller coasters are really loud. And William apparently didn’t like really loud. Up we went, clatter, clatter, clatter, clatter, clatter. Pete and I were in front, William and my mother were directly behind us as we got to the top of the rise, and then a silence descends. The next thing you know you’re going over the edge, and all I can hear is William screaming, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”.

I turned back to look at my mother who’s grasping William in a bear hug, tears streaming down her face. William was crying. Screaming over and over again to make it stop. And I’m just trying to calm them down. I tell him over and over again, “But look William, it’s fine. Look William, I’m staring at you going backwards. Look, it’s fine.”

He was having none of it. Oh, we would slow down, going up the hill everything would calm. I was watching William and he’d take a deep breath and stop crying. And get a hopeful look on his face. The next thing you know we’re going down and all I can hear is the screaming. It went on for waaay too long.

When it ended we all decided that maybe we didn’t need to ride the rides for a little while. To cheer William up we stopped at one of the carnival shows. One of those things with a guy who tries to guess your weight, or your age. You can’t guess my mother’s age. The man tried, and of course he was polite, but he was wrong. So we won William a little donkey. That donkey was his dearest friend. Not only for the rest of the day, but actually for years to come. He was traumatized. We couldn’t get him to ride anything the rest of the day. I think we maybe saw a show or two. We tried to coax him onto other rides later in the day, even suggesting the kiddie park. But no-go, he wasn’t riding anything. And so in one day, we took the kid who had always wanted so desperately to ride the rides, and transformed him into that kid who wouldn’t ride any rides until mid-adolescence.

Worst. Parents. Ever.

 

No Means No

When William was 6 years old he and his mother moved to Indiana so Laurie could complete her first masters degree at Purdue. It was a great situation for the two of them because they could live with her parents, a lovely couple whom I trusted unreservedly with helping her care for William. Laurie’s parents had moved there just a few years prior when her father was transferred just a few years shy of retirement. 

They built a two story house with a finished basement on 12 acres of land that had snow in the winter, and fireflies in the summer. William could build snowmen, sled, cross country ski out the back door, run wild in the greener months, and help his grandfather grow sunflowers three times as tall as he was. How could I say no? The catch was Laurie had to promise to move back within two years. It worked pretty well. William would visit Pete and me in California for any holiday that lasted for at least a week, and the whole of the summer. We even managed to visit them for a number of days around William’s first grade back-to-school night. 

Of course when the two years were up, as Pete and I suspected, Laurie had a new degree, but no job, and no way financially to move back to California. Since I spend a good chunk of mental capacity obsessively worrying about almost any possibility of any situation, we’d been planning ahead. We converted a ramshackle, and totally useless single car garage into a charming, and practical studio. We’d even designed it to be “Laurie proof”, meaning 100% stain proof, animal proof. Really just pretty much indestructible…not to mention rent free. In fact it turned out that we loved this studio so much that during Laurie’s two year stay we attached it to the house with a custom built patio room so that after she moved out it could become our master bedroom suite. Win win!

William moved back to California during the summer after his second year of school let out, and helped us finish the studio. Laurie moved back just before fall and finished up her master’s thesis living with us in California. The grand experiment in co-habitation started. In the beginning Pete and I figured it would be for a number of months while Laurie looked for a job, but somewhere in her second year of grad school she decided that she wanted to work towards an MBA. So a few months turned into a couple of years. Some people might think this would create a tough situation, and although it wasn’t always sunshine and puppy dogs (actually more like puppy dogs, cats, rodents, and aquariums), the two years, quite frankly, were some of the best times we’ve ever had as a family. We got to have William with us full time, and William got to have all of his parents with him without the pesky back and forth of split household parenting.

We had among the four of us: two large dogs, two cats, a parrot (at some point) and two aquariums; so when William asked me one day if he could have a pet, I laughed and said no, just chose one and it’s yours! Of course he meant one of his very own he replied, but again I said no. When your mother has a place of her own we’ll discuss it I said, but for the moment 7+ beings in this house is plenty.

Life went pretty smoothly for the first few days as we all got used to new routines, and cohabitants. Until one Saturday afternoon…

I arrived home from work, most likely around four or five PM, to an empty house, and an odd gurgling noise. At first I was panicking at the thought of a plumbing leak, or possibly a toilet overflowing, but the noise was too regular, and strangely familiar.

I prowled room to room starting in the kitchen, then the bathroom, and as I reached William’s bedroom door it hit me! Aquarium pump. Oh no he didn’t, I thought. As I entered his room I saw it. A terrarium sitting on his dresser. Oh. My. God. I don’t think I have ever been more angry at him in his entire life.

I spent the next fifteen minutes pacing through the house cursing, slamming doors and generally blowing off some steam, and soon I heard a car door shut. As William and Laurie entered the front door I said calmly to Laurie, “I think you had nothing to do with this, so keep in mind that nothing I’m about to say is directed at you.” “Okaaaay,” she said with a little trepidation. And so I started. “William, what did I say about pets?” “You said I couldn’t have any until mom moved out,” he slowly replied. “William!” Laurie gasped. “Right,” I said. “So you are going into your room, packing everything up, and taking it all back to the pet store.” “Exactly,” Laurie agreed. Pete walked in the front door sometime around here, and with a quizzical look asked what was going on. As I explained I could see Laurie getting a little more peeved at William, and William starting to get the impact of what he’d done. “You will not use us against each other,” I told William, with firm agreement all around. Then began the 60 hardest minutes of our parenting experience.

Laurie, Pete, and I headed outside to the patio to allow William to grieve and pack up in solitude. It was pure hell. We sat in a small circle, looking at each other with silent tears in our eyes, desperately trying not to break under the constant barrage of William’s sobbing and mantra of, “I just thought once you saw them you would think they were so cute you’d let me keep them,” over and over coming from his bedroom. He and Laurie had spent the afternoon setting up an absolutely adorable terrarium of fish and salamanders, and naming each one. Under different circumstances I would have been happy to let William have the joy, and misery of taking care of such an elaborate set up. But as we all sat and desperately tried not to break under the pressure of doing the right thing, we new what this battle actually meant.

Poor Laurie had the sad task of taking William back to the pet store to return it all. She had paid for it on her credit card, and there was no way I was taking on that task, that’s for sure. 

From what Laurie told me later, the pet shop clerk was horrified at what mean parents we were, and as I write this with a little of Pete’s input he made a very telling comment, “I keep telling that story to process it, I’m still scarred.”

 

Mother Of The Year

When my husband, Pete, and I moved into the Sacramento house we’ve occupied for the past 22 years, the back yard was mostly a dog run made of gravel a foot deep, and some rather sad looking trees. This seemingly vast wasteland continued with a concrete patio, and a wood deck trimmed with a 3-foot-high, once-cute fence. Who needs two-thirds of their yard fenced off as a dog run?

I couldn’t stand wasting half of the yard, so not long after we arrived, we hired a crew to remove half of the gravel. After that, Pete and I, with a neighborhood junkie we often hired back then, moved 5 cubic yards of topsoil into the back yard to replace the gravel. It remains the hardest work I will ever do – on one of the hottest Fourth of Julys I can recall.

We followed plans I sketched out, which included a nice courtyard, a pond, and a new half fence to mark off the now much smaller dog run. When we started, there was a forest of wild privet trees, a persimmon, and a sad-looking peach. We ripped out the privets immediately. The peach consisted of one sickly branch on a split trunk, so we chose euthanasia for the poor thing. The persimmon tree was a little better, and since it was precisely center, it was a focal point. I decided to give it a few years to heal, which seemed faster than removing it and planting a sapling.

In time, a lovely English garden wrapped around the patio, bordered with broken concrete chunks that Pete and I salvaged from a demolition site. We even added a garish statue for a bit of whimsy – a half naked god proudly standing guard at the back corner overlooking the pond.

Twenty years later, I look back and marvel at the lessons I’ve learned from my back yard. There were the mistaken plantings where we tried for years to grow dream plants that were inappropriate for our climate zone. We made many rookie errors, such as disregarding recommendations, overwatering, under-watering and under weeding. We battled snails, rats, blue jays, raccoons, mice, cats, sparrows, and – worst of all – the pesky squirrels.

I’ve learned when scorched earth policy is your final course for eradicating a “vigorous” ground cover. I’ve learned that when a garden website lists a plant as “robust,” you’d better keep it in a pot or you will soon have it growing through the cracks in the sidewalk across the street. I know that “freely seeds” translates to “Oh, Lord, what have I unleashed?” I’ve learned weed block fabric is a waste of time. I’ve learned how to compost. And, I’ve learned – almost – that patience and a calm demeanor are powerful gardening tools. 

But the best lesson I ever learned is never trust your ex-wife.

I remember the day very well. Pete, my ex-wife Laurie, our son William, my mother Betty, and I were socializing in the living room. I don’t remember why; I’m sure it was during the time that Laurie and William were living with us full time. William and I went out back to feed the goldfish. It seems weird now; It’s not like the two of us ritually checked out the goldfish. I doubt the fish ever got fed by us more than once or twice afterwards. They were mostly there to eat mosquito larva and keep the plants in check (plus they add fertilizer, a pond is a delicate dance) so we wanted them hungry.

Unfortunately, by feeding the fish by hand, we were training them to come to the surface whenever they saw a figure coming toward the pond. That’s pretty much dinner on the table for many backyard fauna like raccoons, opossums, hawks, heron (yes, heron), skunks and cats. It’s cute while it lasts, but it always ends badly for the fish.

Our fish were always simple “feeder” fish. You can buy them for $1 at any pet store. Mainly they’re called feeders because they’re given to snakes, lizards and other live feed predators, in place of baby mice or rats. Because of this, I always felt like I was giving them a second chance at life. Sadly, after 25 years, the longest one has lived is five years. Anyway…we were feeding the fish, when we noticed one swimming on its side. I gave it a gentle nudge with a small stick and it fluttered quickly and dove to the inky bottom of the pond to hide. Within a few moments the plucky little critter floated back up. We realized there was something wrong, but we weren’t sure what to do. 

After a few minutes of observation, I remembered my ex-wife – the mother of my child, and one of my most trusted friends – was a fish biologist. She was sitting in the living room. Duh, she’d know what to do. 

We caught the slippery sucker in a net, and William, age 7 or 8, gently cradling it in the palm of his hand, carried it in to discuss its condition with the expert. He handed it to his mom, and we explained how we found it. We were afraid it might have some kind of infection or disease. Did we need to treat the water? Should we just let them all die?

I remember Laurie didn’t say anything as she gently picked it up by its tail to take a closer look. Laurie’s not the type to ooh and ahh. She’s rather proper and level-headed. She is also one of the most ardent animal lovers I know. Most of what I’ve learned about dog training, horses, birds and animals in general, I got from her.

She held up the fish, turning and examining it in the afternoon light. Its deep gold scales, still wet, twinkled as she slowly took a finger, gently prodding the poor little thing before administering a fast, hard finger flick to its head, killing it instantly.

The room silenced. After a brief hesitation, I turned to William, his mouth and eyes gaping like the fish, and said, “That’s why you never go to your mother when you’re sick.”

 

 

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