Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Circus Without Elephants--Chapter Two



FOR THE REST OF the summer, the courtship dipped in and out of our classes and ruined most of them. Scholastically, we came out bedraggled and besmirched. But as a couple we were doing fine.

When summer quarter was finally over, Rob asked me to go to Texas with him to visit his parents. “You’ll like them, Babe,” he said, with his old, beach-party enthusiasm. “Dad is smart--fairly serious but basically brainy, and my mom’s a nut and really funny. Everyone likes her.”

“I’d like to go with you, Rob.” What I meant was, I’d like to go with you anywhere, to see your folks in Texas or the moon, but mainly I don’t want our time together to end.

“We can take a train out of Los Angeles,” he said, “but first we have to get to L.A.” We looked at each other—-two na├»ve students, newly in love. And then one of us said, “Let’s hitchhike!” and the other said, “Why not?” as though the idea actually had a shred of merit. As though spontaneity was a virtue that deserved to be cherished above common sense.

Still, it wasn’t common sense that threatened to scuttle our plan, but sheepishness. There we were, standing beside our suitcases on Bayshore Highway tentatively holding out our thumbs . . . in my case with the same dawning mortification I’d had years earlier when forced to admit to myself I would never fully grasp the logic behind long division. Here was a new way to feel demeaned.

I, who’d never hitchhiked before in my life, could barely get my thumb to point in the right direction. Dressed like other Stanford coeds of the day in skirt, sweater, pearls, and pumps, I fancied myself born to the gracious class, a notch or two above your usual hitchhiker.

But as cars disdainfully hurtled past offering nothing more than a windy aftermath, all that graciousness blew away. Pearls or no pearls, begging rides from strangers had its tacky side, like straightening your panties when no one’s looking. My hand kept faltering and I had to keep pushing it out there, into the visual field of oncoming traffic. Finally I said, “Rob, I’m no good at this.”

“It’s not exactly my thing, either.”

“What if the wrong people come along?”

He gazed at me, for once with no answer.

“How will the right people know we’re the right people?”

“Maybe we can tell them,” he said. He gave me one of his thoughtful looks and then, skinny and driven as he was, he took off running along the highway looking for something, though for what, I hadn’t a clue. With Rob, ideas frequently weren’t expressed out loud, but simply acted upon. Sometimes the deed would merely appear, done and finished and presented with a kind of “Voila!” . . . and it was assumed I’d be charmed.

He soon came back holding a big piece of blank cardboard. “We’ll make a sign, Babe. You got a pen in your purse?”

I didn’t. But then I dug deeper. “How about this?”

“Excellent,” he said. “Good thinking, Babe,” and using my brilliant red lipstick, he consumed most of it printing the giant words, STANFORD TO LOS ANGELES.

“There . . . “ holding up his sign for my scrutiny, “that says it all.” I smiled. He didn’t seem to require my approval, not seriously. It was obvious that this work of genius had arrived pre-approved.

Edging closer to the highway, he blended into his sign and became a billboard with legs. Billboards being nicer than hitchhikers, I felt he’d given us a different aura, splashed us with new respectability. Any minute a genteel college professor would stop and whisk us away in his Oldsmobile.

Not for an instant did I imagine a different scenario, that we might be stepping, instead, into the twilight zone. With my usual optimism flowering away, I stood beside Rob and his sign, composing my face for innocence and trying to convey a message. We may be hitchhiking, but we’re not really hitchhikers, you understand, we’re students, and this is beneath us. A lot to convey in a split second.

Our sign’s tour of duty was brief. In only minutes, an enormous truck with attached trailer abruptly veered off the highway, sending up plumes of dust as it pulled to a stop a block away. I wasn’t even sure the eighteen-wheeler was stopping for us. But before I could comment, Rob had lifted his suitcase and started running toward the behemoth. I called after him, “Tell him thanks, Rob. Thanks anyway.”

While I waited and watched from a distance, Rob and the driver exchanged words, and then Rob was running back to me.

“Did he take it okay?” I said, but to my horror he grabbed my suitcase. “Come on, Babe,” he said cheerily.

For seconds I just stood there, stunned. “But Rob! That’s a TRUCK! We can’t go in that!”

“He’s giving us a ride,” said Rob, as though this was a perfectly acceptable idea, as though this was the kind of transportation we accepted every day. “Come on. He’s waiting.”

“It’s a truck!” I shrilled again, but he was leaving me, and suddenly I had a new and awful choice. Remain on the highway by myself or follow my boyfriend. The deserted island or the shark. With feet so slow they could hardly be construed as moving, I dragged down the shoulder toward Rob. This must have been the moment when I surrendered control of my destiny for all time.

As I reached the alien nether world of rumbling trucks and earthy truck drivers, the man was already deciding my fate. A burly fellow whose belly lapped over his belt, he was just tossing my suitcase up into the trailer, into some kind of void where it simply fell out of sight.

I watched it disappear. Whither my case goest, I thought glumly, I will go also.

The man pointed to the great metal steps. In my nice skirt (all women wore nice skirts back then), I was supposed to climb the three enormous steps and deposit my feminine self inside that yawning cab. Me, a Stanford girl who’d signed the honor code and actually believed in it. At heart an elitist, an intellectual snob. Make that a total snob. And here I was with two men who thought it not at all odd that I should enter the ultimate in a man’s world and ride ingloriously in a commercial truck!

Still on the ground, I looked around. There was no escape, nowhere else to go.

Grabbing a handle of sorts, I pulled myself up and finally landed on a broad leather seat. Rob came up and plopped down beside me. I was stuck. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

The driver came around and started the engine and our world began to move. I could feel every ton of that truck, sense its tires bumping over the dirt and making their way back to solid pavement.

Perched unhappily between the two men, I soon perceived a further problem. Between me and the driver was a forest of gears, one handle after another, and as the man revved through the gears, we both quickly grasped that he had no place to shift except up my skirt. Making a fast adjustment, I pulled my legs out of the way. But then he needed another gear, and another, and the whole sequence became impossible. I didn’t want his gears rubbing my legs, but then neither did he.

Within a block, the man was pulling over again so Rob and I could change places. So now Rob was in the middle and I sat next to the dust-coated window. Right outside the glass, the exhaust pipe belched and roared and filled my right ear with thunderous noise. From then on I could hear little of what was being said.

However, from time to time Rob shouted bits of information in my direction, which is how I learned that our driver’s name was Frank, and that his cargo consisted of ten tons of sugar. While the men talked, I sat there feeling more and more like a bug sucked toward a drain.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. We’d only been on the road an hour, bumping and careening down the highway, when another giant truck-and-trailer swung around us, accidentally veered off the highway in front of us and ran down the shoulder, raising a tornado of boiling dust . . . into which we drove at full speed with zero visibility.

I was aghast--both for the other truck and for us. In my head I was screaming, “Slow down, Frank!” but no words came out.

Rob turned to look at our driver, but strangely, Frank seemed unconcerned. He sat there gripping the wheel, staring ahead into the dust, nodding as the runaway rig regained the pavement. The dust cleared and we were still on the road, even in our own lane, and the incident seemed over.

Except it wasn’t.

Minutes later, our own rig accelerated, swung out to overtake the other truck, pulled hard into the right lane and veered toward the edge. In seconds we, too, were off the pavement, bumping crazily down the dirt, wholly out of control and lurching from side to side.

I was so terrified I felt myself turning white. With no seatbelt for security, I grabbed the dashboard and held on, sure we were about to strike a tree or a ditch, knowing we were seconds from death. The truck careened downhill, as reckless as a truck could get, hurtling the three of us toward eternity. For someone who adores all things sweet it seemed ironic that I was about to die under a runaway mountain of sugar. In my head I was screaming at Rob: I told you this was a terrible idea!

After what felt like hours, but must have been only a minute, Frank ended the horrifying ordeal and brought us back to pavement—-back to some marginal kind of safety.

Releasing my grip on the dashboard, I turned to stare at the man behind the wheel.

He was laughing. “I guess I got HIM!” he chortled, and with a glance in the side mirror, I saw behind us a cloud of dust obscuring the road. Clearly the other truck was now plunging ahead as we’d done earlier, driving blind.

“I really dusted him!” shouted Frank for our amusement . . . except Rob didn’t look amused, and I was so unamused I wanted only to order that idiot man to stop the rig and let me out. Actually, I yearned to throttle him where he sat.

But neither could work . . . the first because we were miles from anywhere.

I waited for Rob to do something. Glancing sideways, I saw his irritation and wondered that he didn’t speak up and tell the driver to drop us off at the next town. But he didn’t, and it was clear that Rob had chosen this singular mode of travel and now meant to stick with it. I wasn’t sure whether “sticking it out” was a good character trait or bad.

The rest of the night was long. Entertaining us further, our man gleefully exhumed stories about runaway trailers that overran their cabs and sliced through their driver’s compartments, instantly killing them. He told heartwarming tales of trucks losing their brakes on the steep, winding Grapevine and accelerating out of control down the endless grade, unable to make the required turns, unable to find an escape ramp in time.

At moments he actually made Rob laugh. But not for one second did I ever find him funny.

I wasn’t sure why he’d picked us up. But finally he revealed his motive: we were there to keep him AWAKE!

With such a driver, there was no danger any of us would sleep. The rest of the night I sat stiff as a tree trunk, and when we began barreling down the Grapevine, I watched each curve intently, judging the sharpness of the turn, waiting for the awful acceleration to begin.

True to the last of my nerdish instincts, I monitored our driver with my own set of standards, the Stanford Debutante Test of Acceptability, and on one of the steeper grades it became obvious our man was not driving at prudent speeds, and in fact the truck had picked up so much wild and dangerous momentum, the driver should be searching for an escape ramp. Any fool could feel the straining of the brakes and sense the trailer’s urgent impulses to overtake the cab. Reaching for the dashboard, I held on, consumed by terror. Oh dear God! Here comes the sugar!

Miraculously, though we flew by an escape ramp, the truck held together and the trailer did not come forward to pay us an unexpected visit.

As the truck finally roared down the last hill and slowed in Los Angeles, light was just creeping up behind the hills. Rob and I got out and for seconds stamped our feet, wondering if we could walk. Before we left, I actually thanked our driver---out of sheer gratitude that we were still alive.

With that event, our hitchhiking ended for all time.

But my life with Rob went on. When I looked back on our early months together, I thought of that trip--the hitchhiking part--as a defining moment, an occasion that caught the spirit of our relationship. Because of Rob I did the unthinkable, pitted my girlish, delicate self against a truck, and somehow came out a winner.

In later years, I would experience something similar with my oldest son, and I would feel that sense of triumph once again. You always win when you take on an experience that lasts in your memory forever.

Sunday, October 23, 2011



I DIDN’T GO TO Stanford University to find a husband.

I went partly because of the wondrous Stanford mystique and the thrill of calling myself a Stanford Indian . . . and partly because it was such an exclusive, snooty-tootie institution, if you got accepted you certainly had to go.

Before long, though, I was swept away by classes like Western Civ, where we dug around in the archives to unearth surprisingly modern truths from Plato and Aristotle, and by Russian History as taught by a guttural Russian. The campus beguiled me with its genteel Spanish Mission architecture, and I was soon rooting passionately for the plucky and gentlemanly, if somewhat inadequate, football team.

But I didn’t stay long, only a year and a half, not nearly long enough.

And what I got out of it, eventually and to my surprise, went far beyond what I expected.

IN MY TREMULOUS TEENS before Stanford, I dreamed private, sensual dreams, conjuring up the man I would someday marry. My imaginary suitor never had a face, only dark, passionate eyes that consumed me with admiration and unspoken longing. His key trait, if not intensity, was surely unending kindness, for some part of me was searching for the ever-loving father I never had.

Among the qualities I sought in my unknown faceless lover, “oddball” had never made the list, it wasn’t a trait that would even occur to a serious-minded girl.

Yet oddball was what I got.

I’D BEEN AT STANFORD nearly a year when my life changed. I first saw Rob Wills at a summer get-acquainted dance euphemistically called a Jolly-up. At eighteen I wasn’t expecting much, since so far the campus men seemed to fall into two categories--the nerds or the party animals—-and those who didn’t spend our date lingering on the mysteries of subatomic particles, were inclined to squander it instead guffawing with friends over last weekend’s drunken bash at Mama Risotti’s. (Never mind that to those who held such hi-jinks in high esteem I was one of the nerds.)

To put it more accurately, Rob first saw me at the Jolly-up and I never saw him at all. The flirting I did with the men observing from the sidelines had a kind of high-water mark, based on the fact that I’m tall, over five-ten, and resolutely never made eye contact with anyone shorter than six-foot-two, nor even noticed they were there. All my little smiles and coy glances went to the men who towered above the rest. It’s faintly possible that sometime during the evening my eyes flicked across the top of Rob Wills’s head, but I certainly never saw his face.

The truth was, I didn’t know he existed until he cut in on me.

He introduced himself, and when he took my hand to begin dancing, I saw at once that he wasn’t up to my height standards, his eyes being only slightly taller than mine, and when he looked at me it wasn’t with anything close to desperate unspoken longing, but something nearer amusement. He seemed awfully tan, too, and more so because his teeth were so white. Furthermore, he didn't fit my physical ideal in other ways; instead of the comfortable, filled-out shape I’d envisioned he was as skinny as a mop handle.

All in all, he didn’t seem promising.

"I tried to catch your eye," he said as he guided me across the floor, "but your eye wasn't catchable."

That’s a novel opening line. Having no fitting response, I fell back on a conventional tack and asked him to repeat his name, learning he was called, formally, Robert Victor Wills.

“Where are you from, Robert Victor Wills?”

“Call me Rob,” he said. “Where am I from, you ask. You mean last week or last year?"

Once again he threw me, and being an intensely-bookish type in those days and absolutely no good at fast repartee, I was still fumbling for words when he grinned and said, “I’m from Hawaii.”

Well, that explained everything: the dark skin (I learned later he tans if he walks past an open window) the gaudy aloha shirt, the owlish glasses. What the glasses had to do with such an assessment has now escaped me, but I said, “Oh, you’re Hawaiian!”

“Not exactly,” he said. “That’s just where I lived last. I’m transferring back to Stanford from U of Hawaii. My dad’s a Naval officer, so we traveled. Never stayed in one place long enough to tire of it." He smiled again, a generous smile that conveyed uncomplicated enthusiasm for his nomadic life. "How about you?"

"I grew up in lots of places, too. Los Angeles. Denver. Rochester, New York. A ranch in Mt. Shasta, California.” Unlike him, I’d hated the moving around. "My dad’s a doctor, but I’ve never lived with him. My mom divorced him when I was two. She’s not your normal, everyday mother, she’s sort of a Bohemian.” And she’s been married seven times, I thought, which only my mom considers amusing.

The music changed tempo and we danced faster. I was glad to see that the mop handle was graceful, that in spite of his shortness and not being an inch over six feet, I felt good dancing with him. When the piece was over he seemed reluctant to let me go, and instead pulled me off to one side and asked urgently, "Is anyone taking you home?"



I gaped at him, so surprised at his bluntness that all decent answers melted away. “You want to know his name?” Flustered, I suddenly couldn't remember the name myself.

"Never mind,” he said. “I withdraw the question.” And then an abrupt switch. “Do you like to swim?"

"You mean in a swimming pool or the ocean?”

“The ocean. It’s the only swimming that counts. I used to be a surfer, learned how at Waikiki Beach.” He gave me that smile again. “What are you doing tomorrow?"

Another blunt question; he was so full of them. Well, that depends, I guess, on what you’re offering. Before I could figure out a way to hedge and be cool about it, he said, “How would you like to go to a beach party?”

“A beach party?” I was beginning to sound like a parrot, echoing every word he said, but I needed time to think and he never gave me any, he just kept peppering me with questions and throwing me off balance.

“That’s right, at Santa Cruz beach. We’ll go about eleven. You should come, it’ll be fun, I promise.” He said it with a smile, with conviction, as if there could be no doubt.

I guessed then he was a fraternity man and he’d waited until the dance to nail down a date. But he seemed pretty sure of himself, not at all concerned, and in fact all his words were positive and definitely self-assured. He was looking at me with an intensity that lent his thin face a kind of radiance. Rob Wills was awash in youthful energy and high spirits, but I doubted he’d be serious-minded enough, long run, or mature enough to interest me.

Still, one little date for the beach wasn’t a lifetime commitment, and I thought, What the heck.

"I think I’m free,” I said. “A beach party sounds fine, I’d love to go.” In fact it sounded more than fine, because above all I’d heard the word Party, which meant I’d meet other men, some of whom would no doubt be taller and less frivolous and wouldn’t ask blunt questions.

In due course I went back to my dorm with the somebody else, and whoever he was, he’d already become indistinct and shadowy, dimmed by the brightness of Rob Wills.


When I went down to breakfast, late, I found a note from Rob in my box--a note so strange and personal, so shocking, really, I squirmed as I began to read. After the first few sentences I ducked into a secluded corner of the lobby, convinced my embarrassed expression would give the contents away. "You remind me of someone I once loved,” he began. “I was watching you at the dance, waiting for you to spot me, but you never did. You have wonderful legs, Maralys, and an aura that makes me feel I’ve known you forever.”

Oh Lord, I’m not ready for this, it’s too much. A love letter from a stranger. He was making me crazy, this maverick rolling through my life like an escaped tire, as blunt on paper as he was in person. Glancing around furtively to see who might be looking, I decided to get out of the lobby with the thing, lest it burst into flames.

Chagrined, I ran upstairs to talk to my roommate. “Listen to this note, Barbara. You won’t believe it.” She was wise and mature, thoughtful like I was, but quicker, with a tongue ten times faster than mine.

I read her all of it, or as much as I could endure. “In my room alone, I find myself unable to stop thinking about you. It’s as though we’ve been on a collision course, destined forever to meet . . . “

She began to chuckle.

Toward the bottom of the page I had to stop, too embarrassed to go on. “He’s got this image of me,” I said. “He’s put me on some kind of pedestal. Can you imagine, after three dances? What happens when reality sets in and I come clunking down to earth? What would you do, Barbara? How will I face him?”

"When is he picking you up?”

"In about half an hour . . . " A buzzer sounded in our room. "Oh, Lord, that must be him!” I threw a look at the clock. "Can you believe this, he's early! And I'm not even dressed!"

"You'd better get dressed," said Barbara. "And wear plenty of clothes. I'm not sure I'd bring a bathing suit. Not with what he's thinking."

“But it wasn’t a sexy note. It was all poetic allusions, his romantic notions of who I am.”

“Where do you think sex starts?”

I ignored that; it was too much to get into. “And now I have to go down there, feeling like my soul is exposed.”

She said dryly, “It’s not your soul you should worry about.”

ROB WILLS WAS LEANING against a wall in the lobby, loose-legged and careless, smiling the way I remembered from the night before. But he surprised me again, because he didn’t mention the note, nor did he seem the slightest bit awkward. "Did I rush you?" he asked pleasantly.

"Well . . . sort of. I wasn’t quite ready.” I wasn’t ready at all. I couldn’t face him, couldn't look him in the eyes. Please don’t ask about the note. I had my swim suit under my clothes, hoping I’d never have to take them off.

If Rob noticed my silence he didn’t seem to care, but bounded across the lobby in high spirits, expecting me to follow. “Let’s go. Our ride is waiting outside."

"Where are the others?”

He stopped. “What others?”

“You know . . . “

He obviously didn’t know, and gave me a puzzled look, then pointed to the door. “It’s out there,” he said.

Second surprise: Our ride wasn’t a “ride” at all, nor even close to what I’d expected. The transportation waiting for us outside was an aged green Model-A parked randomly to the curb. And the jalopy came with a driver--its owner. Rob’s friend, if that’s what he was, hovered near the car—-a solemn-looking male, thin and desiccated, like an old leaf.

Rob introduced us with an offhanded gesture. "This is Hudson Bowlby,” and Bowlby acknowledged me with bored eyes and the flattest of Hi’s. No mention of friendship there, no hint of who he was. They couldn’t be buddies, I thought, they were acting too distant, almost like strangers. Then why was he here?

"Get in," said Rob, and pointed to the ancient automobile’s one narrow seat. Black, of course.

I climbed into the car gingerly and without enthusiasm. “Not much room,” mumbled Bowlby, an unnecessary comment since I’d already noticed. Only inches were left for Rob, who squeezed in beside me.

Third surprise, revealed after a few pointed questions: everything I’d assumed the night before was wrong. Here, jammed together on the seat of a green Model-A, was the sum total of Rob's beach party--Maralys Klumpp, Robert Victor Wills, and Hudson Bowlby, all bound for Santa Cruz beach in Bowlby’s geriatric car. And two out of three not exactly happy about it.

The car started with an asthmatic wheeze and clunked its way down Stanford's tree-lined Memorial Drive. I could hardly believe what I’d gotten myself into. "You mean nobody else is coming?" I asked for the second time. "Nobody's meeting us there?"

"No," said Rob. He seemed surprised I was still probing.

"This is what you call a party?"

"Sure," he said. “We're going to the beach, aren't we? I've brought some food. It's a party."

It's not what I call a party! "You’re not a member of a fraternity?"

"No. Did I ever say I was?"

I looked over at him, so pleased with himself, so unruffled, so content with this idiotic arrangement, and I couldn’t help smiling. "Do you always exaggerate like this?”

He smiled too, his eyes alive with merriment. "I never promised you anything else."

"No, I suppose you didn't. It's what you implied.” Your word choices, I thought, the way you asked, your voice. You created an illusion--and it was all false. What other surprises have you got in mind?”

He threw me a Wait and See look.

Right then I realized he was even more unusual than I thought. And maybe a lot more fun, too.

After that, with Hudson Bowlby driving with his eyes straight ahead like the world's best-trained English chauffeur, Rob and I talked without stopping.

To my surprise, Rob was more than he’d seemed at first. A great deal more. Under his outer layer of wacky, offhanded nuttiness, was a different Rob, an intense, serious man. I saw at once that he was keenly aware of the world beyond Stanford, and brimming with insights.

The two of us quickly forgot Bowlby was there, and we went ahead and settled all the pressing world’s problems between ourselves. We found we agreed on War, Sex, Money, Racial Discrimination, Peace, and Students Who Smoke--all more exhilarating than discovering we both hated sauerkraut.

(Some day I mean to look up Hudson Bowlby and ask him just what we did decide, since we don’t agree on everything anymore. Somebody has shifted ground, and I’d like to review Money and Sex.)

Halfway there I glanced sideways and noticed Rob’s strong, distinct profile and I thought, That’s a good face. And then I thought, What a mind he’s got! And right then I stopped caring that he needed to grow two more inches.

Once at Santa Cruz beach, we found the water too frigid for swimming, so we sat on the sand and went on talking. I could never remember, later, exactly what happened to Hudson Bowlby. I do remember asking, "How come you brought him?” and Rob answering, “We had to get to the beach, didn’t we? Bowlby had the only car I could lay my hands on.”

I stared at him--a man who knew how to get what he wanted--then broke into laughter because he was so outrageous.

After a while we ate the peanuts, cheesy crackers, candy bars and grape juice Rob had provided as food.

"I hope you own a bike," he said as Bowlby drove us home again, having reappeared from wherever he'd gone.

"I do, but it's old and doesn’t go very fast.”

"That’s all right. As long as it works. We’ll be able to get around, which is all that counts.”

I WAS HAPPILY AWARE that I now had a close friend on campus--a friend who cared deeply about everything, who was neither a nerd nor a party animal--a friend who was male.

His brains were what did it, the ultimate appeal to an earnest, appallingly-sincere, non-small-talking egg head like me.

I hadn’t thought it would happen.

Of course there was still the screwball side of him to contend with, the Rob who did NOTHING like anyone else. While other men summoned their dates from the dorm lobby via a buzzer, he stood under my third-floor window at Casa Ventura and whistled. The first three notes of the World War I battle song, "Over There," told me--and every girl on that side of the building--that Rob Wills and his bicycle had arrived. He knew they all heard him . . . as though he was whistling for his friend to come out and play . . . he knew but he simply didn’t care.

When I looked down, he’d be staring up at my window expectantly, like an eager Tom Sawyer, with shower water still dripping off his brown hair.

It didn’t bother him that other couples dated in cars. He was happy enough escorting me to the movies and around campus on his bicycle and mine.

FOR THE REST OF THE summer, the two of us were almost never apart. He had a friend take our picture with the bicycles near Casa Ventura. “ . . . so we’ll remember this summer,” he said. “I believe in memorializing the things that count. Come on, Babe, move a little closer.”

It seemed Stanford had delivered, after all, the gift I never knew I wanted: Rob Wills.

No, more—-months later it gave me an offbeat, unconventional, free-wheeling nut of a husband.