Thursday, January 08, 2015
That Guy on the Phone...
In the Serial podcast, which my husband and I devoured in the last two months of 2014, host Sarah Koenig argues that memories are flawed, and that if something huge happens to a person, they can only be expected to remember what happened immediately after, because it becomes emblazoned on their brains. There are some exceptions, she said, like people with photographic memories or people who actively memorize every moment of those days to archive it. I’m one of those exceptions.
It was January 8, 1990, and I was working on a project for my grade 11 history class on Leonardo da Vinci at my desk in my bedroom. Or, at least, I was supposed to be working on that project. Instead I’d gotten distracted by his drawings, and started working on my own drawing that was sure to become one for the ages. Who wouldn’t want a Nikki Stafford original sketch of The Edge from the back of the Joshua Tree album? OK, it wasn’t actually the album, but one of the singles. One of the cassingles. Oh yes, I had cassingles. (Everyone reading this born after 1995 is like WTF?!)
Anyway, I digress, as I usually do. The phone rang and my dad picked it up. He came to the doorway of my room with a smirk on his face and said, “It’s a boy.” I went into my parents’ room (there was no phone in mine) and picked up the extension. It was a guy I worked with at a grocery store. He worked up front on cash, and I was one of the bakery girls.
I was hoping he’d call.
Let’s rewind. I started working at the grocery store in August of the previous year (yes, we are in the ’80s now). It was a terrible place with a bakery manager woman who might be the single worst human being I’ve ever known. There was a guy who worked up front who didn’t talk to me or make eye contact, but I knew about him because there were other girls in the bakery who talked about him. His name was Robert.
On November 26, I went to a record show with my friend Sue at Centennial Hall in London, Ontario. Way back then, before the internets were places one surfed, there were record shows, where people basically gathered to buy a bunch of illegal and bootlegged stuff. I was there looking at U2 and REM bootleg shows. And then Robert came up to us. He saw my friend Sue and started asking her about Smiths bootlegs, and then he saw me. At this point I was sitting up on the Centennial Hall stage, my legs dangling over the side. “Oh... hello,” he said, sounding surprised. The following Tuesday I was working my usual 4:30-10 shift that I worked every Tuesday, and he came over to talk to me. “What were you there for?” he asked. I said U2 and REM and a few other things. He nodded and smiled and headed back to the cash register. That weekend I was working on Saturday and was on my lunch break when he came into the lunchroom. I don’t ever remember him taking lunch at the same time as me, but there he was. I was reading a book of Oscar Wilde plays because I’d only recently discovered his work, and I was underlining my favourite bits. Rob came over to chat with me, sat down, and began asking about Oscar Wilde. He liked Oscar Wilde, too, but that’s because Morrissey liked him. Was I reading it because of Morrissey? No, I said, I was just reading it because my dad gave me a copy of the book and I loved it. Then I started showing him my favourite lines that I’d underlined. Soon I had to head back down, but I said I’d lend him my copy if he wanted, when I was done with it.
December 16. Company Christmas party. I went to the party with a friend of mine and Robert went to the party with a girl he was dating at the time. Oddly enough, the Christmas party was in the basement of Centennial Hall, where the record show had been. And then he came over to me. He sat down next to me and we started chatting about music. He seemed to be in awe of the fact that I’d played piano quite seriously for years, and said he always wanted to learn how to play guitar. I said he should just start taking lessons. He asked if I wanted to dance. Sure, I said.
I remember dates and places and even what I was wearing, but to this day I couldn’t tell you what song was playing when we danced. I wasn’t focused on that at all.
That night I got home and my dad was waiting up for me. He asked how my date went, and I said it wasn’t a date, we were just friends. He looked a little disappointed, and then asked, “Is there someone else you have your eye on?” he asked. Yes. The cashier at the store. We danced together, I told him. His name is Robert.
Back to January 8. It was Robert on the phone. We talked about our families and school (he was two years older than I was and in grade 13) and he told me he’d broken up with his girlfriend. Suddenly he said, “So... I was wondering if... you know, if you wanted... if... um... if you’d like to go out some time?” “Sure,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. (Later he told me he nearly dropped the phone when he began fist-pumping the air; at the time I had no idea because he was desperately trying to play it cool.) Turns out, he’d had my eye on me since my first day at work, but just assumed I was dating someone already. When he began asking around and discovered I wasn’t, he made his move.
That Friday we went out for the first time. He took me to his house and I met his parents (friends of ours later laughed at what a daring move that was on a first date) and then he gave me a copy of The Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs. For the next week I listened to it constantly. And at the end of January, like the crazy kids we were, we decided to make it permanent and tell people we were a couple. We spent the next five years driving to Toronto three times a week (a two-hour drive) to see concerts, and discovering new music. We went to university, and began working at the student newspaper (something I never would have done if it hadn’t been for him). In December 1995, we had a huge argument about something, I can’t even remember what it was, and later that day he showed up at my house. With an engagement ring. I was shocked, and I remember joking that it was the most elaborate method he’d come up with yet of making an argument go away. “I hope 20 years from now I don’t remember that you handed this to me to end an argument,” I said. “You won’t,” he laughed. (I do...)
And today, twenty-five years after that initial phone call, we’ve been married for 15 years and have two beautiful kids, and I love him more than ever.
I’ve talked about Rob on here before, rarely using his name, usually referencing his guitars or his golf writing or his love of music. Or I complain about how he wrecks my books or doesn’t understand how a vacuum works or how he’s constantly shaking his head at something weird I said.
You probably couldn’t find two people who are more different. When we met I was quiet and shy (yes, dear ones who’ve known me for the past 10 years only... this is actually true). He was loud and boisterous, and talked constantly. He’s also a journalist, so when he meets people he pumps them with questions and wants to know everything about them.
I’m a Liberal, and a pretty left-leaning one, and he’s the son of two card-carrying capital-C Conservatives. I always thought that was just a phrase; I didn’t know there were actual cards until I saw his dad’s. He’s not as extreme as they are (and one thing I should say to qualify that for any non-Canadians reading this: many Canadian Conservatives are actually left of American Democrats; even our right is pretty far to the left) but our views are definitely different on many topics. He loves calling me a “bleeding heart liberal,” and has strong opinions on just about everything. What is interesting to me is — and this is always clearer on Facebook, where there is never a shortage of opinions — most of my leftie friends have leftie friends and family and spouses; they rarely get the opinion of the other side from someone close to them. But when a major world event happens and I see people ranting all over their social media pages and their loved ones backing them up, I can always see the other sides of the situation because of listening to Rob. And rather than him having the opposite viewpoint, he typically has a balanced one, which is pretty rare in this world. Our “discussions” about world events often get quite heated, but after one of us finally leaves the room, we actually both think about what the other one says. I see his point of view, and he sees mine. Both of our belief systems have been shaped and influenced by the other one.
Now, I should probably qualify that despite calling himself a conservative, he’s one in a fiscal sense only: he believes in lower taxes and fewer handouts; but he also believes in pro-choice and gay marriage. He thinks Jon Stewart and John Oliver are two of the best commentators on television. He doesn’t sit around espousing conservative propaganda, but if he meets someone else who does, he simply listens to them, which is more than most people would do. Before, of course, arguing with them, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.
His friends are fiercely loyal to him, and he to them. Where I’m the one who aims to please, he’s the opinionated one who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks, and those opinions are sometimes unwelcome. And he listens, and he remains calm, while people around him go red in the face and apoplectic over such a small issue.
And that’s one thing I particularly love about him: he’s patient. I’ve seen him lose his patience before — if he’s treated badly in a restaurant, the entire place will know; don’t even get me started on what happens if people behind us in a movie theatre begin talking — but not with the ones he loves. I’m an arguer, a very, very, passionate arguer. My voice rises and my hands fly all over the place and I begin quoting things and looking for information to back me up. Rob’s a calm arguer. He simply closes his eyes and shakes his head dismissively, and lets you have your little rant and then calmly says what he considers to be the only right thing in the conversation (but which, when arguing with me, is usually WRONG). But while that calm drives me NUTS, whenever I’m calm I appreciate it. Imagine two passionate firecrackers having an argument? Our marriage would have been over a decade ago. I need someone calm to balance my passion, and that’s him.
My friends and family are smart, educated people. I’m surrounded by academics and managers and professionals and entrepreneurs who talk about pop culture and world events and history and literature. And yet I’ve never met anyone smarter than Robert. Ask him anything, and he probably knows the answer. Name a year, and he’ll tell you what team won the World Series, and the batting averages of everyone on the team. Ask who has pitched perfect games and he’ll rattle off the pitchers’ names, including the year, what their team scored, who they were playing against at the time, and probably list them in chronological order. Name a golf course and he’ll tell you who designed it, in what year, how many times the clubhouses have been rebuilt, what designer ended up doing renovations (and in what year), and then he’ll go hole-by-hole and tell you what the features are, and if he played the course (which he probably did), he’ll tell you how he played each hole. (I should mention he’s a golf writer whose focus is golf architecture.) Ask him about any single by Elvis Presley, and he’ll give you the year it came out, who wrote it, where he recorded it, what number it charted at, and what colour the centre cardboard circle was on the vinyl. Don’t even think about playing against him in Trivial Pursuit — he’s that weirdo who can answer every question about Lebanon in the 1970s that no one else ever gets right. He’s a history major with a minor in just about everything else. I HATE when we go to friends’ houses and they impose that stupid “no playing with spouses” rules for Trivial Pursuit. Because I know I’m about to lose.
And yet despite that steel trap of a mind, he still can’t remember that paper goes in one bin and plastic in the other. Seriously.
He forgives. We live in a world where there are no limits on the number of social media platforms where we can state our opinions... as long as those opinions match the opinions of everyone else. He doesn’t follow that protocol, and as a result I’ve seen people say nasty things about him, and he knows that. And then he just shrugs and forgives. There are people who have done terrible things to him in real life, and I’ve seen him soon after having a conversation with them where he’s lively and cheerful, and never insincere. He just doesn’t waste his energy on being resentful. He has a mother who loves her kids fiercely and would do anything for them, and he’s inherited that from her. He calls his mom three times a week, talks to his younger sister constantly, we live near his brother's family and see them as much as we can, and he talks for hours with his dad about baseball.
He’s incredibly generous, and doesn’t take stock of his generosity by assuming people will owe him favours back. He’s written press releases for musician friends or friends starting their own businesses. When my brother, who’s a lawyer, was first out of law school Rob set up appointments with different lawyer friends of his to talk to my brother about various kinds of entertainment law. When my brother asked to borrow some golf clubs so he could play with a client, Rob put together an amazing set of clubs from the many he has in the basement and told him to keep them. “There’s no better way to connect with clients than through golf,” he said. He’s driven my mom to the hospital on several occasions for appointments. He’s usually the first one out on the street when a neighbour’s car gets stuck in the snow (we live on an uphill street, which can be treacherous in the winter). As such, he’s one of those rare individuals who has no trouble asking others for help if he needs it. I find so many people (I’m one of the worst) refuse to ask for help when they need it, but he comes from a family that says help others and ask others to help you. It’s the one area above all others where I wish I could be more like him.
As a husband, he’s loving, kind, and even after all these years tells me I look nice in the morning (even if I’m unshowered and wearing an old baggy T-shirt and yoga pants). While I often complain loudly that he doesn’t do any housework ever, he works long hours and always has a lot of pressure on him, yet he never takes this out on me. Ever.
I remember 10 years ago when our daughter was born, I got to see a new side of him, and was floored by it. As soon as my daughter came into this world I tentatively held her, so scared I might break or drop her, and looked into her eyes and she looked back at me with that intense stare she has to this very day. And when he knew I was ready to let go, he swooped in, scooped her up in a way that made my heart go into my stomach (oh my god don’t drop her!) and sat down in a chair with her propped up on his legs, talking to her like she was an old friend. Our first day home from the hospital, he was playing with her on the couch and all of a sudden said, “Oops, someone needs a diaper change!!” and then stood up, hesitated, and said, “I don’t know how to change a diaper.” He quickly ran upstairs and got one, and I showed him how to do it for the first time. For the next two weeks, I didn’t change a single diaper — he considered that Daddy’s duty, and he waited on us hand and foot. As my children have grown, he’s been my daughter’s baseball coach, my son’s wrestling companion, and they absolutely adore him. There are times when I joke that I have three kids, when he and my daughter seem to fight like a big brother and little sister (seriously, they’re so much alike it’s frightening), but I know she’d be lost without her daddy.
He was and is my first and only true love. I can’t imagine having spent my life with anyone else. I think back to who he was and who I was twenty-five years ago. He was an eccentric guy who wore a fedora and drove a car with a stick shift and wore leather racing gloves to drive it, and I thought he was cute and bizarre and cool. I was the quiet bakery girl who really didn’t stand out at all. I’ve mellowed him, and he brought me out of my shell. We carved out a life together where we’ve celebrated the many ups, and banded together to weather the downs.
Twenty-five years ago today, I hung up the phone, elated. I floated back to my room and my dad was already waiting in the doorway. “Was that Robert?” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “Yes,” I replied, and told him that we were getting together on Friday. My dad went back downstairs, and I turned back to the drawing of The Edge. I added a five o’clock shadow on him, shaded in the hat, and sat back to look at my masterpiece. And then I shoved it into the side of my military green cargo bag I used for school, where I carried it around with me for years afterwards to remind me of how I felt in that moment.