MRS. BRITTELL’S BACK PORCH
ROB’S PARENTS WERE EXACTLY as he’d said: his father, Art, gentlemanly and serious--balanced by Ruth, as vivacious and fluttery as a butterfly. Impossible not to like her.
The next month, Rob and I slid out of Stanford quietly, without fuss or fanfare. It was all too unnoticed, too unheralded.
A prideful, bookwormish student like me doesn’t leave a school like Stanford without a backward glance, so I was obviously not thinking clearly, but what did I know then . . . only nineteen and ripe to get married, following the lead of someone so brainy and fascinating I couldn’t imagine my life moving forward without him.
Our leaving took place by degrees--first Rob, then me.
How was he to know that the summer he chose to take two killer science courses--Qualitative Analysis and Organic Chemistry, both condensed (each a year’s work crammed into one quarter), he’d also meet me? His grades slipped and Stanford put him on probation. “Go down to San Jose State,” they said, “bring up your grades, and come back.”
His pride was seriously stung. “I’ll transfer all right . . . “ he said it with a certain grimness, a subtle set to the jaw that I would later see as one of his trademarks, “but I’m not coming back.”
I was only beginning to recognize the hard metal stratum that lay beneath his mercurial outer self.
A few weeks later we were in separate schools, divided by a length of Bayshore Highway and a forty-minute commute in Rob’s newly acquired but almost prehistoric roadster, a munge-green Lafayette dubbed the Turtle because of its low-slung, stumpy-looking rear end.
“This drive is hell on wheels,” he said after a few weeks, “it’s getting more grinding by the day. And where do I fit in homework? Nowhere, at the moment. Changes must be made. I’ve got to study more and see you less.”
“See me less? But Rob . . . ”
Which explains why, at the start of winter quarter, I left my precious “ivy-league” school to join him at San Jose State.
ROB HAD BEEN RENTING a tiny student room--a converted porch is all it was--from a Mrs. Brittell. To understand why we spent our first married month living on Mrs. Brittell’s back porch, you’d have to know that we’d left ourselves only one week between quarters to apply for a marriage license, a college transfer, an admission to San Jose State, a wedding ring and a Wasserman Test--though not necessarily in that order--and there simply wasn’t time to look for an apartment too.
Nor was there time to put together a decent wedding—-or, for that matter, any wedding at all.
Since we’re both terribly romantic--Rob doesn’t admit to this, but he gets misty-eyed in certain movies--the idea of being married in a judge’s downtown office began to give the pair of us a bleak, sagging feeling. As we waited to meet the judge, I looked around his forbidding office--no carpets, small windows, and a lot of dark wooden furniture that would have added layers of dreariness to an office in Tombstone--and I nudged Rob and whispered, “Honey, we can’t be married here!”
Rob nodded. “It’s not exactly a church.”
“Ask him if we can’t do it tonight--in his living room.”
With proper deference, Rob broached the subject, and the judge looked up and shrugged. His face had no more life than his office. “Doesn’t make any difference to me. You can come over if you want to.” He scribbled on a piece of paper. “Here’s the address. Do you have any witnesses?”
“I’ll provide a couple.”
That night we learned a useless lesson—-useless because we’d never need it again: if you want a romantic wedding in a judge’s home, you’d better pick a romantic judge.
We arrived at his home at seven, both of us so slicked up and nervous it was almost like having a REAL wedding after all. We’d been thinking about the prospect all week--WE were getting MARRIED--and it was beginning to feel like a serious, grownup step. Driving over there I even dared hope that the judge’s wife might get into the spirit and provide some small touch, like candles, or a slice of cake . . . a simple gift, perhaps . . . anything to add formality and romance to the occasion. But I didn’t mention this to Rob, because in case she didn’t he might be disappointed.
The judge ushered us into his dining room and pointed to one side of a modest table. Starched and unsmiling, or just naturally bored, he positioned himself on the other side, and his young son, about eleven, came out just then and stood stiffly beside him and the father began to intone the ceremony. I looked around. Where was the wife? Would she appear in time to be a witness? Was this even legal?
No, apparently she wouldn’t appear (and I hope no one ever presses us on the legality), because she obviously had a higher calling in the kitchen. We knew she was busy because we could hear her, as sounds of running water and clacking dishes and other homey noises kept coming and going during our nuptials. Mind you, they didn’t take long. The judge must have found an abbreviated version, skipping such trivials as “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” and proceeding directly to the “I now pronounce you . . . “ which saved him significant amounts of time but left us with skimpy, pared-to-the-bones vows.
But I felt lucky anyway--partly because I was marrying Rob, and partly because he looked so awed and serious he made the ceremony resonate with significance right through the clatter from the kitchen. After a while I forgot everything except the expression in his eyes. When it was over, a look of profound tenderness came over his face, and he pulled me close and kissed me. He seemed to be saying he meant all the vows of marriage, even the ones the judge had skipped.
My heart melted. We hadn’t needed a cake or candles or a present after all. Rob made it an eloquent wedding all by himself.
Now, years later, I’ve almost forgiven the judge’s wife, since it’s possible her husband forgot to mention he’d be marrying two people right after dinner and please cushion the noise from the kitchen.
We went to a hotel that night, and the next day, after I’d finished registering at San Jose State, I asked brightly, “Well, honey. Where are we going to live?”
He looked surprised. “In my room, of course.”
“Your room? Are you serious? You mentioned something yesterday but I thought you were kidding.”
“I do have a bed in there.”
“Uh, yeah--I guess you do. But Rob, it’s so . . . tiny. And what about my clothes?”
“We’ll run up to Stanford this afternoon and collect your stuff,” he said, missing the point.
Even Mrs. Brittell seemed taken aback when Rob walked up to her front door asking permission with his arms full of my suitcases. “Well, I suppose you can both stay in that room,” she said, hesitating, “if you think you can manage. But the bed’s pretty small . . . “ She looked dubious. “It’s all right with me, I guess.” It was plain she thought there was no accounting for newlyweds.
With one of his charming smiles, Rob thanked her, and now, having solved our housing problem, he led the way around to the back of the house and up the narrow steps to the enclosed porch. The room was about six by nine. He went in and plunked down all the suitcases, then turned to me. “Well--here we are!” It was the same exuberance, the same blind delight he’d had in Hudson Bowlby’s arthritic Model A.
I followed, and barely able to get into the room with both Rob and the luggage already inside, I smiled and echoed with no enthusiasm at all, “Right. Here we are.”
“Let me get these things out of the way.” Rob attempted to shove the cases under the bed, but the bed was too low and too narrow, and they didn’t come close to fitting. “Guess we’ll have to lay them flat on the floor, then,” he said, and while I perched on the bed he spread the suitcases end to end and they filled the entire open space. From then on, we walked across my imitation alligator bags to get in and out.
It wasn’t so bad having a floor made of inlaid suitcases, but we did miss the presence of a desk. Since the bed was the room’s only raised surface, it eventually served as study table, barber’s chair, dinette, and--when we were tired enough--a bed. But first we had to toss our books over onto the luggage and brush the cookie crumbs onto the books.
To say we “slept” in the bed would be a euphemism. It wasn’t a bed, anyway, it was a cot, and though we spent plenty of hours there, we extracted about as much genuine rest as two large people could expect from a narrow padded plank. It was barely possible for both of us to lie on the cot stacked on edge, like two phonograph records.
At first Rob thought it was wonderful. Cozy. “You’re so soft, Babe,” he murmured from time to time, giving me a little squeeze. “Isn’t it nice to be married?”
“Heavenly,” I said, while circulation slowly backed up in my right leg, which was mashed against the wall. “Though I didn’t think marriage would be quite so crowded. I’d like a little more room to be married in.”
“Room?” he sounded almost hurt. “What do we need more room for? We’re so close this way,” pulling me still closer.
Then we began getting tired. Rob cautioned, “Now look, Babe, don’t try to straighten your legs. I like to sleep with my legs bent, and if we’re going to stay aboard a bed this small we have to be shaped the same.”
“But I don’t like sleeping with bent legs—-not all the time. Let’s straighten them once in awhile.”
We began disagreeing as we slept. Since Rob was in charge of nocturnal maneuvers, when he wanted to turn, we both turned. But occasionally I was in the middle of some nice dream that didn’t require a change, and when he went into one of those authoritative shifts, I resisted. Whereupon he jerked the covers until he was rolled up in them like a sausage and I was left blinking and wide awake. Also cold. I’d grab the covers back, and he’d wake up. If this happened several times in one night, we fought in the daytime, too. In those days I wasn’t used to following orders in my sleep.
This went on for several weeks until one day when Rob was in class and I wasn’t, I sneaked out and rented a brand new apartment. It felt like a bold move, as though I’d emancipated myself and gone off to Washington on a bra-less march, and I was afraid Rob would be angry, but he was delighted. “I’m glad you did that, Babe. Cozy is cozy, but enough is enough.”
We said good-bye to Mrs. Brittell, who, as a parting token of affection, sent us off with her old washing machine.
Soon my mother sent down a truckload of furniture from her ranch in Mt. Shasta, and included were some nice things, like a brown Bigelow rug, plus a few old formal chairs of the not-too-sturdy type which collapsed into splinters under our weightier friends.
Then there was a big black sleigh bed--a veritable monster of a bed--but a thing of beauty, I thought, compared to the cot at Brittell’s. It was so very SUBSTANTIAL.
“You know, it’s not that bad looking,” I said as we were struggling to put it together. “It has a homey look--kind of comfortable and old fashioned.”
“That’s one way to describe it,” Rob said, grimacing as he tried to ram an eight inch bolt into a rail.
“I mean, there’s something special about an antique.”
“Yeah, there is. It’s especially old.” He pounded the bolt all the way in while I held the rail in place. “There,” he said at last, straightening up. “That should take care of it.”
“You see?” I said, looking at the two curled ends, quite expansive and very black. “It’s really rather handsome, isn’t it?”
Rob studied the bed dubiously and finally came up with the only compliment he could muster. “I suppose you could say it has some kind of old world charm.”
The bed was listening.
One morning at two a.m. Old World Charm dumped us on the floor. Well, actually, it dumped us on the floor from the waist down. One minute we were sound asleep and the next our legs were bent at the waist and falling precipitously. Crash! The end rail hit the floor and the mattress jarred to a stop.
“What happened? What happened?” I shrieked, wide awake instantly. I thought we’d had an earthquake.
“Damn bed,” Rob growled.
“That was the bed?” The crash of the rail echoed in my ears and I could still feel the sensation of falling.
“Damn rotten, poorly-made bed,” Rob muttered. We were too shocked to move. Our feet were sloped dramatically downhill, and we were gripping the top of the mattress like two people clinging to a wisp of bush on a steep mountainside. Purely instinctive, as even a bird doesn’t want to be thrown out of the nest.
“No-good, flimsy weak bed,” said Rob, at an uncomfortable tilt from which he was still not moving.
“What happened?” I asked for the third time.
“It collapsed. Hell, I don’t know what happened, our bed’s on the floor, that’s all.”
Well, so it was. Eventually, since we had to get back to sleep, we disentangled ourselves from the covers and climbed off the sloping mattress to begin the resurrection. Rob went into the kitchen for a hammer and screwdriver, and I stood by and tried not to seem in any way offensive, lest I be lumped in the same category as the bed.
Rob lifted the foot end saying crossly, “Here!” and I held everything suspended while he pounded and screw-drivered down under. After more cursing and a considerable amount of time, Rob finally had it fixed and we got back in. But now we couldn’t sleep, so we spent the rest of the night giggling, because once the shock had worn off there was something funny about a collapsing bed.
A week later it happened again. Another crash and we were down, every bit as mad as the first time, but even more surprised, because we really thought Rob had made the necessary repairs. This time we didn’t lie around expecting our problem to go away.
He jumped to the floor calling the bed a son-of-a-something a bed could never be the son of, adding that fixing beds ranked extremely low in a list of best things to do at one a.m., and further directing me to “get out of that weak-boned piece of furniture and grab this end!”
Now I was sorry, apologetic, even, that I’d ever had a nice word for the bed. Right then I wished to retract whatever praise I’d uttered for something so mean-spirited . . . and yes, ugly.
Over the months I began to notice the bed was a thick, stubborn lump, so monstrously heavy it wouldn’t budge an inch if Rob tried to move it one way or another, but it moved plenty when it felt like it.
For as long as we lived in that apartment, and for its own temperamental reasons, the black sleigh threw us to the floor periodically, always at strange intervals, and generally just as we’d grown to trust it again. Old World Charm was like a horse with a bad temper--deceptively docile on its better days. But you just couldn’t predict its moods, so you never knew when it was going to turn mean and eject you.
Usually we cursed and dragged ourselves out of the covers, but there came a night when we were just too tired, and instead of getting to his feet, Rob growled, “Oh, the hell with it . . . “ and we slept at a jaunty tilt for the rest of the night.
The next day Rob surveyed the remains of our black sleigh spread across the floor. “Be sure to write your Mother and thank her for this lovely antique!”
The bed wasn’t the only distinctive personality that shared our apartment. There was also Mrs. Brittell’s washing machine, a solid Clydesdale by nature, as doughty and reliable as our bed was unreliable, and in addition, a marvel of Thirties engineering. Neither Rob nor I have ever seen another like it. The machine was approximately the age of our flighty bed, but had a determined spirit and a warm, giving heart--and it did its job with undaunted energy. Shaped like a great iron cradle, it sat on our back porch and rocked violently back and forth, while clothes, soap, and water gathered in frothy tidal waves and heaved from one side to the other.
There were no subtleties about the machine--it neither rinsed, wrung, nor spun, all that was up to us--but it certainly did wash . . . and it could have taught our bed a lesson in fidelity.
The washing machine became our resident comic performer. Since Rob and I had never seen an appliance with such an odd shape and so much vigor, we used to run it just for our amusement, and sometimes we fired it up to entertain friends.
“Come see what’s on our back porch,” we said, “if you want to meet the real character in this apartment.”
But we didn’t take it with us when we finally left San Jose, partly because of its mammoth weight, and partly because neither of us believed its plucky old heart could last much longer.
TOGETHER, ROB AND I FINISHED the school year at San Jose State, where we’d signed up jointly for child psychology and genetics. All I remember about those courses, besides the fact that we were both finally studying and consequently earning stunning grades, is that Rob and I bred a lot of fruit flies, which kept waking prematurely from their anesthetized state and escaping into the classroom, where they bred surreptitiously with other students’ flies and ruined everyone’s experiments.
ROB WAS THE PRIME MOVER behind our transfer to UCLA. “Let’s go back to Stanford,” I said, but his jaw got that look and I knew it was hopeless. Women who aren’t married to flinty husbands say things like, “You should have made him go,” but frankly, I’d just acquired this man and wasn’t ready to push him to an ultimate test.
So we transferred to UCLA, instead of some other large school, for a reason that now seems flimsier than dust. “The surfing’s terrific down in Los Angeles,” Rob exclaimed, and he wore that same bright expression and exuded the same air of breathless excitement that once made me imagine a “beach party” would consist of a significant number of people gathered on the beach.
“Babe,” he exulted, “the sand everywhere is broad and clean. And the water’s warm,” and then he added as an afterthought, “and UCLA’s an excellent school.”
His last statement was true. The rest wasn’t.
Before long I learned that the Santa Monica version of the Pacific Ocean was only slightly warmer than the water that lapped across the shore at Santa Cruz, which, by the temperature registered on my toes and legs, left it pretty frosty as oceans go.
But that never mattered much.
We were soon so busy with all the homework piled on us by UCLA . . . and making new friends . . . and coping with the nausea that accompanied my first pregnancy . . . that we hardly ever saw the beach.
ROB AND I DIDN’T REALIZE it then, but our move South was the first of dozens of paradoxes that followed us through life, accompanying the various choices we made over the years. In fact, if someone asked me, What is one of the inevitable consequences of living? I’d say Irony.