Archives for category: perspective

Don’t Assume

Making assumptions is problematic. A prime example was our next door neighbor where I was raised in West Philadelphia, Villy Leudig. He moved in with his wife, Aily when I was around seven in the early-1960’s; he still lived in the corner house, separated from my parents’ home by only a thin median of grass, when my parents moved away thirty years later.
My first awareness of the then-thirty-something couple was overhearing my father return from greeting them to tell my mother that our new neighbors were Stonians, and probably D.P.’s.
I didn’t know what either of those things were, but I had heard the latter term used by my father to describe occasional customers at his clothing store, and it didn’t seem to be a good thing.
“What’s a Stonian?” I asked my father at dinner that evening.
“Estonian,” he said, emphasizing the ‘E.’ “Our neighbors are from Estonia, a small country north of Germany,” he said.
“Is that a good country?” I asked.
“Well,” he hedged.
My father was usually straightforward in answering my questions, particularly if I showed interest in a business or political sort of subject. His hesitation was intriguing.
“Is it a bad country?” I asked.
“They were not helpful during World War II. The Nazi’s used Estonians as concentration camp guards; they looked perfectly blond, just the way they wanted people to be,” he explained.
I was wide-eyed with alarm.
“Are the new neighbors Nazi’s?” I asked.
“No, no, I’m sure they’re not,” he said. “They seem like nice people. But I think they’re D.P.’s.”
“What’s a D.P.?” I asked.
“A displaced person,” he said. “It means they didn’t have anywhere to go after the war.”
I was still confused, not sure what ‘displaced’ meant. If they had nowhere to go, maybe our new neighbors were bad people.
“Well, how do we know they didn’t work as guards?” I asked.
My father shrugged. “Those murderers melted back into Germany or Poland or went to South America. I don’t think they came to Philadelphia. You’ll be safe.”
He smiled.

I was not entirely satisfied with my father’s assurance. Not an outgoing child, I was reluctant to encounter our new neighbor, but I followed his movements from the safety of my second floor bedroom window. Sure enough, I observed, Villy looked exactly like a concentration camp guard from every World War II movie I’d seen. He was thin and of medium height, with light skin, a blond crew-cut and blue eyes. Aily, too, was a platinum blonde, with hair braided as though she were auditioning for a part in “The Sound of Music.”
During their first week next door, the couple were busy as bees reshaping their yard. While Aily created gardens and planted flowers, Villy undertook a large project to chop down brush and weeds from an area between our houses. He began to build a sitting area, with paving stones, an ornamental wood fence, and a barbecue pit.
Next, he re-tarred his detached garage roof and painted the trim around his house. Never had I seen such a blur of home-improvement activity, especially by a homeowner. Though our neighborhood was not wealthy, it was comfortable, and landscaping and repairs were rarely performed by anyone who wasn’t hired. Villy was the first neighbor I’d seen who cut his own grass.
I finally met Villy after several weeks, because my father said he was going next door on a hot Sunday afternoon (the only day he didn’t work at his store) to examine the on-going projects and offer Villy a cold beer.
“Why don’t you come along?” he said to me.
I didn’t question why my father chose to be sociable but I followed behind him to be introduced.
“Thanks, Lou,” Villy said, accepting the beer, with a vaguely European accent. “Is this, aaaaaaaaahhh, your son?”
“Yes,” said my father, and told him my name. “Say hello to Mr. Leudig,” he said to me.
“You can call me aaaaaaaahhh, Villy,” he said.
I’d never heard someone speak like that, with such a long hesitation. I looked carefully at him, trying to see if any evil lurked behind his kind smile. My father and Villy spoke for several more minutes while Villy showed us his improvements. I couldn’t ignore the speech impediment, but I detected nothing else amiss; Villy seemed like one of the nicest adults I’d met. My father had a new friend unlike any other friend he’d ever had — significantly younger, not Jewish, and not related to the men’s clothing business in any way.
In the next several years, most of what I knew about Villy came from overhearing my parents. I learned Villy and Aily spent most weekends at a home in New Jersey, where my parents assumed they had a large community of Estonian friends and relatives. I learned Villy was a traffic engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Aily was a pharmacist. I didn’t know what a “traffic” engineer was, but any sort of engineer sounded impressive to me. I assumed Villy designed bridges or roads; I assumed his household projects indicated a person of incredible technical know-how.

My childhood fear that Villy might have had something to do with concentration camps disappeared. By the time I went to college, Villy was an important, positive part of our lives. After my father retired in his late-70’s, he waited for Villy to come home from work like a pet waiting for his owner, so that he had a companion to share a drink and conversation. When I came home on school breaks, Villy and I played spirited ping-pong matches in our basement.
Villy offered advice and assistance on home-repair projects, like replacing toilet innards or repairing leaky faucets. Even though these tasks were basic, they were easily beyond the ability of my father or myself. Villy’s early burst of energy on his own house gave way to several curious attributes, namely: he never actually finished a project. Patio paving stones remained stacked up near the barbecue for decades, though the job could probably have been finished in a day; a porch he commenced screening-in within weeks of arrival remained mostly unscreened twenty years later; the garage that Villy had roofed and painted upon arrival became filled not with a car but with stacks of newspapers and boxes, from floor to ceiling. Villy, it turned out, was a hoarder.
We accepted Villy’s quirks in a friendly way because he was otherwise so decent and sympathetic. We learned that a traffic engineer was actually someone who did not construct things, but counted how many cars went past an intersection. Sometimes, Villy sat alone in his city-owned car for eight hours and monitored traffic flow at a stop sign, to determine if the sign needed to be moved a few feet in one direction or another. Still, the lack of professional status we’d assumed for Villy was no impediment to our affection for him.
The problem: when I came home from college or, later, visited my parents from the town where I worked, Villy’s frequent presence puttering in his yard presented a dilemma. Talking with him was torture. He rarely completed a sentence without an “aaaaaaahhh” and any effort to provide the missing word was counter-productive. For instance, if he said: “I’m going to get gas in the aaaaaaahhhh…” and you offered “car” he would begin again as though you hadn’t spoken: “I’m going, aaaaaaahhhh, to get gas in the aaaaaaaahhhh, car.”
I learned not to “assist” him, but there was still a significant disincentive to speak with Villy. He simply couldn’t converse “normally” and, if I had to be somewhere quickly, or just wanted to get inside the house, it was impossible to hasten the conversation. Every time I snuck into my house without saying hello and/or formulated the thought that I had to avoid Villy, I felt like a horrible person.
“How do you talk with Villy?” I asked my father once, when I was in my twenties.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “Plus, I’m never in a hurry.”
That was true. Since his retirement, my father viewed his leisurely conversations with Villy to be enjoyable, the longer the better. Little did my father suspect he was about to have more time with Villy. Late one evening, when I was visiting my parents, our doorbell rang, an extraordinary event. I was upstairs, and heard my mother rush to the door and greet Aily, who was crying hysterically. I couldn’t hear distinctly what they were saying but eventually understood that Villy, in his mid-fifties, had suffered a heart attack. The ambulance had just taken him to the hospital and Aily feared he wouldn’t survive. My mother comforted her at the kitchen table for an hour that seemed endless.

The next morning, my parents visited the hospital with Aily. Villy was stable despite a massive attack, but my parents returned home saddened not just by his physical condition. The vast Estonian community they assumed for the Leudig’s simply did not exist. They learned that Villy’s house in New Jersey was just a small cottage in the woods and, in fact, they knew almost no one there. Without suspecting it, my parents had become the Leudigs’ closest friends.
When Villy was discharged from a rehabilitation center after several weeks, he retired from his job on disability. He was home all day long, which was perfectly okay with my father. Villy, too, seemed satisfied to be finished with the traffic department and, other than his pledge, finally, to quit smoking, he seemed unaffected by his near-calamity.
I asked my father once: “Did you ever find out what Villy did during the war?”
“No,” he said. “I’ve never asked. And he’s never told me.”
Though hard to fathom, this sort of non-communication is not unheard of among men. In any event, I was pleased to know Villy was around. As my father approached eighty, his old friends from the clothing business dwindled due to deteriorating health, their inability to drive or, in many cases, death. Villy was available to talk or walk slowly around the block, or go out to get a sandwich.

When I married, at thirty, Villy and Aily were among the few non-relatives on my parents’ guest list. They drove two hours to the rehearsal dinner and I was happy to see them, though careful not to be cornered one-on-one by Villy. There were simply too many people to greet and details to attend to.
During the course of the meal, various of the sixty or so guests stood to offer toasts. Some were funny, some were sweet, and a couple were a little edgy. But the evening flowed without anxiety for me until, to my amazement, Villy rose from his seat across the room and tapped his glass.
“Oh, my,” I thought. I tapped Katie’s arm beside me and pointed: “Uh-oh,” I said.
For a long moment, after he had the attention of the entire room, Villy was silent. I feared he was frozen in some way that would become more memorable than any other aspect of the delightful event. The room fell completely silent. Another moment passed. Someone dropped a spoon. I heard a cough. Everyone waited expectantly. Only a few knew of his impediment. Several guests shifted in their seats. My heart pounded. Finally, Villy began to speak.
“I’m thrilled to be here this weekend to celebrate the wedding of two wonderful people,” he said, sounding like a professional public speaker. He held up his glass to us. “I’ve known Stuart and his family for over twenty years and consider them to be dear friends. I’ve battled Stuart in ping-pong and suffered with him over the Phillies. I’ve seen him grow up and go to college and become a lawyer and a man and I have just this to say: when Stuart and Katie slide down the bannister of life, may all the splinters be pointed in the right direction.”
With that, Villy concluded his toast amidst boisterous laughter and waved to us with a broad smile. All my fears were for naught. My negative assumption was wrong. I’m not sure who was more relieved and appreciative, me or him, but Villy had absolutely NAILED his toast.


FEAR OF FLYING – G-RATED VERSION

“My parents are taking me out to dinner. You wanna join us?” asked Chris.
“Sure,” I said.
Since I considered Chris barely more than an acquaintance, his invitation surprised me. Still, to a hungry college freshman, a treat to a restaurant was preferable under almost any circumstances to another cafeteria meal.
Chris Bettiker (not his real name) was a fellow freshman at Dickinson College. He was of medium height and build and wore glasses below a startlingly shorter-than-average-for-the-1970’s light-brown haircut. He worked as an assistant trainer in the athletics department. In other words, he was skilled in the arts of taping ankles and handing out and retrieving towels. Doubtless, I assumed, his position was work/study, whereby the College subsidized his tuition in exchange for menial employment, like the kids who ladled breakfast. Though my family was not extraordinarily wealthy, my parents were willing and able to pay all my college expenses and, for that, I was deeply thankful.
I met Chris in my capacity as goalie for the soccer team; at practices, I idled significant chunks of time standing in front of the goal nearest the locker room. Though my inactivity was occasionally interrupted by a shot, I had ample time to chat with the folks who hung out on the bleachers behind the goal, namely: the Spanish professor who volunteered advice to the team that merited credence solely due to his accent; the ten-year-old neighborhood boy who I was sure worshipped me, until the day he declared “If you really were any good at sports, you’d play football;” and, Chris.
Chris and I never discussed anything substantial. I didn’t even know where he was from or what he studied. We just prattled away without making a personal connection, I suppose, like only males, stereotypically, can do.
“Be outside your dorm at six,” said Chris, when I handed him my towel that day.

I expected his parents to arrive, so I was surprised when a bright yellow Mustang roared to a stop with Chris in the driver’s seat.
“Hop in,” he said.
I glanced to see if his parents were following behind, but there were no other cars on the street.
“Wow,” I said. “Is this yours?”
“Yep,” said Chris.
I was surprised he had a car. Few of my friends had cars and those who did tended to have vehicles nearly as old as themselves. As for me, I’d turned down my uncle’s gracious offer of a twelve-year-old Pinto; our campus was small and I saw no need.
Chris, who I knew only as the mild-mannered guy at the locker room, shocked me by being outfitted in driving gloves, a soft brown leather jacket and dark glasses even though it was already dusk. As soon as I wedged my body into the tiny front seat, and before I could locate a seatbelt, he floored the gas.
“Here we go!” he said, his expression like a madman’s.
“Where?” I said, alarmed. “Are your parents meeting us?”
“Sort of,” he said.
I didn’t focus on his vague reply. I was too busy cringing as we careened with screeching tires through the quiet streets of Carlisle, PA with little regard for posted speed limits.
“Um,” I ventured with relief, once we reached a straightaway just outside town. “What restaurant are we going to?”
“Our club,” said Chris. “It’s good.”
“Nice,” I said, hoping my clothes were adequate.

Chris barely braked before jerking the car into a side road with a final squeal of the tires. A sign flashed through my peripheral vision: “Cumberland County Airport.”
“Is there a club at the airport?” I asked.
“No,” said Chris. “We’re FLYING to dinner.”
“We are?” I essentially gasped.
“Yes,” said Chris. “I keep my plane here. It’s a pretty short flight, only 160 miles.”
“We’re flying?” I said, still processing that basic fact before concerning myself with the duration of the flight.
“Um, I’m not so good at flying,” I said. “I’ve never been in a small plane.”
“Don’t worry,” said Chris. “I’ll make it as smooth as driving.”
I was not comforted in the least.
Chris parked adjacent to the terminal that consisted of a single-story cinderblock building, about thirty feet long. He led me through the small building and nodded to an older man seated at a card table with a newspaper.
“All gassed up and ready to go, Mr. Bettiker,” he said to Chris.
“Thanks, Bob,” said Chris.
“Where are you headed this evening?” Bob asked.
“We’re going to dinner,” I volunteered, anxious to gauge the reaction of another human being.
“Oh, out to Latrobe,” said the man, as though this happened all the time.
“Yeah,” said Chris.
“Little windy out to the west,” said the man, before he added, looking at me: “but nothing Mr. Bettiker can’t handle.”
Latrobe, I knew, was near Pittsburgh, several hundred miles away.
We passed through a door and stepped onto the tarmac. Six or seven small planes were present. I followed Chris as he strode purposefully to the nearest one. I was still trying to comprehend what was happening.
“You sure get a lot of respect here,” I said, thinking of Bob calling him “Mr. Bettiker.”
“Yes,” Chris said, “my plane’s the best they’ve ever seen here.”
He went on to explain with enthusiasm some of the plane’s characteristics. I comprehended the parts about speed and altitude but once he moved on to lift and thrust I only recognized he was speaking English; the content was totally Greek to me.
Chris helped to install me in the passenger-side seat in a tiny cabin. I had a little steering wheel of my own like in a child’s toy car, but I definitely had no more desire to operate it than to use the flotation device that served as my seat.
Among my dissonant collection of thoughts were that I did not appreciate having this “experience” foisted upon me as a surprise. But I also realized if it were not a surprise I would surely have begged off, and then missed what I correctly recognized as a likely life-long memory.
An instrument panel spread before us with gauges and knobs worthy of a spaceship, I imagined. “I hope you aren’t expecting any help,” I said.
“No problem,” said Chris. “The route via Johnstown and Altoona is pretty dark, but I’ve handled it plenty of times. You can just sit back and relax.”
“Haha.” I veritably tittered. “I’ll be as relaxed as a goalie facing a penalty kick at the World Cup.”
“You’re funny,” said Chris.
Of course, I did not think I was being funny at all. In my mind, I recall wondering: “How high can human blood pressure go?”

Chris pressed several buttons and flipped several switches while I squeezed my tiny armrests. A propeller sprung to life in front of us, and Chris steered the plane slowly towards the lone runway. For a moment, I was comforted with the thought that he piloted the plane more cautiously than his car. But then he thrust a shifter forward and we lurched ahead with a roar. Before I fully comprehended we were aloft, I saw treetops, houses and twinkling lights receding like props in a toy train set.
“Wow,” I said, shouting to be heard. “This is amazing!”
“Glad you like it,” shouted Chris, pleased. “Hold tight!”
With a renewed maniacal glint in his eye, he shifted his steering column from side to side causing the plane to shutter.
“That’s okay, Chris. You can just, kind of, like, go straight,” I said, alarmed.
“Oh, you’re no fun,” he said, but he mercifully straightened us out.
“So,” I asked, relieved, “do you do this often?”
I was hoping the posing of inane questions would take my mind off of what I feared was a precarious hold on life.
“I go home most weekends,” said Chris. “But you’re the first friend I’ve brought.”
This information shocked me since I’d assumed Chris had friends closer than I. In fact, I’d never thought of us as “friends” before that day, or even thought of Chris at all when outside his presence. It occurred to me all at once I’d never seen Chris on campus except at the soccer field and once or twice at a classroom building. In what dorm did he live? At what table did he eat at the College’s single cafeteria? As if reading my mind, Chris shouted:
“I get pizza most nights, or I just boil something in my kitchen.”
“You have a kitchen?” I asked, not having known anyone but seniors who lived off-campus.
“Yep,” he said. “I don’t like dorms, and I don’t like cafeteria food, so I rented an apartment.”
I wondered how this apparent extravagance – car, plane, apartment, squared with Chris’s laundry-related duties at the locker room. Perhaps, I supposed, he is not “work/study.” But why would anyone voluntarily handle smelly feet and sweaty towels?
We’re at cruising altitude,” said Chris, after a moment. He pointed to a dial indicating 6,000 feet. At that moment, excruciating pain afflicted my right eye. It was like my eyeball was being squeezed in a vice.
“My eye!” I shouted in anguish.
“Oh, that’s just ‘cause of the pressure. Most people are okay up to 8,000 feet,” said Chris, apparently unconcerned.
“It feels like it’s breaking,” I said, trying not to sound pathetic but also hoping to convey that corrective action needed to be taken, if any were possible. I was sure I was being blinded.
“Hang in there,” he said. “Your sinuses will most likely adjust.”
After several additional minutes of agony the grip on my eyeball relaxed. It continued to grab intermittently, to a lesser extent, for the remainder of our fifty-minute journey. When we landed at Latrobe, an airport only slightly more elaborate than Carlisle’s, I craved escape from the plane forever. Of course, I was painfully aware we would be flying back several hours later. I tried to forget, at least for the duration of dinner.
Perhaps taking pity on me because of my eye, Chris landed and parked without any further hijinks. We entered the terminal and were greeted first by Chris’s handsome, silver-haired father, who shook my hand and hugged me like a dear friend. His mother, dressed in a full-length fur coat, looked like Sophia Loren.
“We’re so glad to meet Chris’s best friend,” she said.
“Yes, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” added Mr. Bettiker “Chris has told us so much about you.”
I glanced at Chris, who averted his eyes.
“We’ve been telling him to bring his friends to dinner,” he continued, “but he says there’s too many to choose from. So you must be really special.”
Mr. Bettiker drove us in a Bentley to the local country club that was festooned as a virtual shrine to Latrobe’s most famous citizen, Arnold Palmer.
“Do you golf?” he asked me when we were seated.
“Not really,” I said, as true then as now. “I play soccer. That’s how I met Chris.”
“Chris plays soccer?” asked his mother.
“No, he works…”
Chris interrupted me: “I met Stuart in economics class. Um, what are the specials tonight?” he asked, turning the conversation to food.
I realized his parents did not know about his job. Perhaps he was ashamed for some reason.
Mr. and Mrs. Bettiker treated me like a visiting dignitary. I recall dinner was delicious. During the course of it, I learned Mr. Bettiker owned a steel company in Pittsburgh, and several other businesses. Besides the plane, they had homes in Florida and at the Jersey Shore and had multiple boats in both places.
“You’ll have to come to the beach with us next summer,” said Mrs. Bettiker at one point.
After dinner, we drove back to the airport with a short stop at the Bettiker’s home. It was a mansion. Mr. Bettiker proudly showed me one particular room, a wood-paneled library, which contained more equestrian trophies than books.
“Chris’s sister is a candidate for the Olympic team,” he explained. “We tried to interest Chris in riding, too, but he prefers faster transport.”
“I’ll say,” I agreed.

The return flight to Carlisle was, happily, not as memorable as the first. Apparently, my sinuses had cleared. My mind was adrift with the entire evening, from Chris’s driving, to the flight, to the Bentley, to the luxurious dinner, to Chris’s lie. I didn’t even take economics. I momentarily considered asking Chris about it, but reverted to my habitual reluctance to discuss anything meaningful. Chris certainly agreed, except to volunteer, at one point, by way of explanation: “My parents don’t know much about me, and that’s how I like to keep it.”
“Just one question,” I ventured. “Since it doesn’t appear you ‘re short of money, why do you work at the trainer’s?”
“Well,” began Chris, looking stricken, “I spend a lot of time all by myself and volunteering there makes me leave the apartment and do something each day. It sort of keeps me connected.”
“Amazing,” I thought to myself, “If I’m his best friend in the world, Chris is the most isolated person I’ve ever met.” All I said to him, however, was: “That makes sense. Anyway, your parents were really nice.”
“They can be,” he said, hinting of another side, but not sharing additional information.
I was shocked by Chris’s situation. How could a person with so much material wealth appear so unhappy? My assumptions about what full-time fun it might be to have extreme wealth were not always correct. Certainly, I’d encountered characters in books and movies that were miserable or lonely despite every advantage. But I hadn’t personally met someone who embodied that contradiction so starkly as Chris.
After the soccer season ended, several weeks later, I never spoke to Chris again, though I saw him striding across campus once or twice from a distance. While I was no whale in the world of social life, I had plenty of other minnows with whom to share a meal or a ballgame or a walk to classes. In the rush of college life, I didn’t give additional thought to Chris’s situation. It was not until the following fall, when soccer resumed, and the trainer told me Chris had transferred, that I realized he was gone.
My recognition that money and happiness are not always equated was neither profound nor unique. Most people come to understand that obvious truth, on some level, and many encounter it before the age of eighteen when Chris served as my catalyst. But I do maintain my understanding was derived more dramatically than most. And certainly, it was on a higher plane. (Pun intended).

EPILOGUE

Out of curiosity, I recently searched Chris’s (real) name. An unadorned page, posted by the Florida Civil Air Patrol, described a retired commercial pilot, single, living in a fly-in, fly-out community. His time was spent, said the posting, in restoring his collection of vintage airplanes. He’d recently received an award from the Civil Air Patrol for “Volunteering his time on a daily basis.”


MAURA
During my first year at Dickinson College in South-Central Pennsylvania, I spent most non-studying and non-soccer-playing time with a collection of socially naive males. We named ourselves Kappa Wu, to mock the Greek system we all despised with every disdainful and intellectually superior bone in our bodies. Kappa Wu comprised about twelve members who had virtually no contact with the opposite sex outside of classrooms. For a variety of reasons, we were inexperienced and awkward, and found it easier to hang out together than to branch out.
This is not to say I had no female friends. I had one. The closest thing our soccer team had to a groupie was a sophomore named Liz. She staked out our preseason practices and commenced dating our best player before the season even began. When they broke up, Liz dated several other players, one-at-a-time. Somehow, she managed to remain friendly with all of them. She never reached as far down the roster as me, however, the shy freshman goalie, but she did once bring her roommate, Maura, to a game.
Maura recognized me from Music 101 and, during warm-ups, in front of my teammates asked if I would help her study. Supremely self-conscious, I feared being razzed by the guys with insensitive male insinuations. But Maura apparently appeared too weird to attract and hold their attention, so I was spared.
In its two hundred year history,  Dickinson’s probably never had another student from New Mexico. Maura was a slight brunette of medium height, and if one could get a clear look at her, she would probably have been considered attractive. However, in a milieu that favored conventional styles, Maura was an outlier. She covered herself in beat-up overalls and a changing selection of oversized, bright-colored plastic glasses that dominated her face. She frequently wore a cowboy hat and boots, too, basically the western grunge version of Diane Keaton.
Maura’s sideline approach to me could have represented a landmark in my social history; a girl had publicly expressed interest in spending time with me. But I also felt her overpowering “otherness,” which left me no expectation we could be more than friends. After just one or two additional encounters, it was clear I would be the big brother in all matters of classical music, and Maura would be the big sister in every other way.

*****

I learned that Maura seemed to be nineteen going on thirty. She had traveled all over the country. She’d ridden motorcycles and horses and real bucking broncos (outside, not in a bar). Unlike Liz, she was not the least attracted by the soccer team; “college boys are so immature,” she declared. Even the local law students, some of whom approached twenty-five, were beneath her level of interest. “I like real men,” said Maura to me, her local, musically advanced little brother (if the music was written before 1850).
Music 101 was a survey course of Renaissance and Baroque music; having studied music history and theory in high school, as well as having had a lifetime of exposure to classical music, I found the course simple. To Maura, as to many who thought “Baroque” meant something had to be fixed, Music 101 was a quagmire. Discerning the difference between major and minor keys was difficult for her. Recognizing stylistic differences between a seventeenth century Italian and an eighteenth century German composer was impossible.
“It’s Bach,” I would say. “Listen to the polyphony, the fugal elements.”
“What does fugal mean again?” Maura would ask.
And so it went. Still, in spite of such challenges, I enjoyed spending time with Maura. She was interesting and obviously different from my other friends. Sometimes, we shared a meal at the cafeteria or took a walk together. Using a skill that placed me in the forefront of technology in 1975, I typed several of her papers. “Would you mind if I did some editing, while I’m at it?” I asked.
“Be my guest,” she said.

*****

I didn’t feel Maura took advantage of me. Her requests were infrequent, and I had plenty of time, particularly after the soccer season ended. In the spring, she sat beside me in Music 102 and we walked together to the local ice cream shop several times. I don’t recall discussing anything consequential, so I was surprised when Maura told me, at the end of the year, she would be moving back to New Mexico. It had never occurred to me I might be one of her only friends and she must have been lonely, so far from home and so far from the mainstream, stylistically.
How blind I was! How oblivious! Of course she was transferring home! In a whole year of discussions, I never learned why she had chosen to come across the country to attend college in Pennsylvania. I should have asked. I should have tried to understand her situation, or tried to help. I should have invited her home for Thanksgiving. I learned later she had stayed in the dorm, herself, over the holiday.

*****

I thought I had seen the last of Maura when the school year ended. So I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter inviting me to visit her in Albuquerque.
“That’s nice,” said my mother. “You never mentioned having a girlfriend.”
Doubtless blushing, I said: “She’s really just someone I know.”
Initially, I declared I wouldn’t go. But I had a terrible summer job and the idea of leaving it for a week appealed. My mother encouraged me to visit my older brother in Los Angeles, and stop to see Maura for several days on the way back. The idea gelled. There is cachet, after all, in saying: “I’m visiting a girl in Albuquerque,” and I definitely needed some cachet.
During the weeks leading up to the visit, Maura and I exchanged several letters. They were chattier and more familiar than our spoken exchanges. She was apparently not the last to find me wittier and more expressive in writing than in person. “I just broke up with a rodeo rider,” she wrote. “He moved back in with his wife and kid.”
“I’ll do what I can to cheer you up,” I wrote back, jauntily.
“It’ll be nice to have a friendly shoulder to lean on,” she wrote.
“Anything you need,” I wrote back, feeling like a knight in shining armor.
The following week, she wrote: “You’ve become such a special friend to me. I can’t wait to see you and give you a squeeze.”
“I’ll do some extra push-ups,” I wrote back, like a dork. “Don’t want to disappoint.”
Having managed to complete high school and the first year of college without ever going on a date, I did not envision myself as Maura’s “boyfriend.” I would not have known exactly what that entailed, if I tried. Yet, I was beginning to think of her as more than just an acquaintance. I chose a pretty scarf as a gift for her instead of the Phillies tee-shirt, or something similar, I might have chosen a few weeks earlier.
By the time I walked off the plane I had butterflies in my stomach. Though I couldn’t recall ever touching Maura, even on the fingertips, I’d had weeks to picture a first hug, the promised squeeze, and who knows what else? (I certainly didn’t) It was hot in Albuquerque in August, I deduced. Perhaps, I hoped, she will be wearing something less oppressive than those hideous overalls. On the cusp of my twentieth birthday, I wondered if this visit would mark my evolution from awkward teen to young adult in some important way.
Maura indeed looked terrific approaching me in the small terminal, just as I’d hoped. Not only was she dressed in trim khakis and a pink blouse, she was even wearing contacts. I barely recognized her.  I felt an unfamiliar surge of adrenaline and my heart pounded. My habitual inhibitions barely kept me from running the last fifty feet, like in a movie, to claim my hug. Good thing. Maura greeted me with a smile, but that was all. She motioned to a nearby man in a cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans, boots and a mustache.
“That’s Jack,” she said, fawning. “We got back together last night. My mom and brother are home; they can’t wait to meet you.”
Jack looked about forty to me, though I now realize he may have only been twenty-seven. I had the sense of meeting the Marlboro Man in the flesh. His crushing handshake nearly ended my goaltending career. We squeezed into the front of his pick-up truck, Jack, Maura essentially on his lap and me against the passenger door, more superfluous than an appendix.
At home, after introducing me to her mother and eleven-year-old brother, Billy, Maura looked ill-at-ease. “I feel awful about this,” she said, “but would you really mind if Jack and I go out. Billy would love to play some basketball with you.”
She did not look like she felt awful at all, just excited to be free. It seemed my entry to young adulthood was still on hold, while I experienced the familiar lifestyle of an eleven-year-old. Billy and I shot baskets in the driveway until my hands calloused, then watched sports on television. In the evening, Maura’s mom made chili and took me on a drive around the University of New Mexico.
I think Maura returned home that night, but I’m not certain, since I didn’t see her at breakfast the next morning. Her mom took me and Billy to the top of a mountain where the view was spectacular, and I recall a tram-ride down. That evening, she took us out for a steak dinner. I had the impression she found me, a literature major from Philadelphia, who did not even own a pair of jeans, as exotic as Maura was at Dickinson.
The next day, Billy was busy with friends, so Maura’s mother drove me to Santa Fe. On the way, I saw canyons and buttes and washes, and spectacular cloud formations. It was like living inside a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. I recall enjoying the day immensely; there was certainly an element of relief to spend the day sightseeing with a kind, middle-aged tour guide instead of trying to comprehend my diminished standing with Maura.
That evening, while I was playing basketball with Billy, I overheard snatches of a phone conversation inside the adjacent kitchen:
“He is your guest…. Maura…. This isn’t right. Today was fine, but…. Listen to me…. Yes, you should.  Okay, ‘bye.”
Maura’s mom opened the front door, and said to me:
“Maura and Jack will be by in a few minutes. They’re going to take you to the movies with them.”
“Can I go, too?” asked Billy. “Can I?”
She looked at me.
“I don’t mind,” I said. I felt loyal to Billy.
When the pick-up arrived we all squeezed into the front seat, and proceeded to the local theater to see “Murder by Death.” My companion, essentially, was Billy, while Maura and Jack canoodled in the dark. Afterwards, they dropped Billy and me off at home before heading out to a bar. It was a relief to be returned to the airport by Maura’s mother the next day. I thanked her for her hospitality and asked her to say “good-bye” to Maura for me.
On reflection, I don’t miss the awkwardness of that period of life at all. In the days before Facebook, it was possible to say good-bye, and never hear from, or of, a person again.  And, sometimes, that is perfectly okay.


GENNARO

Strolling along the oceanfront path in Playa del Coco, my wife, Katie, and I were anticipating a typically dazzling sunset to top off another day on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  We were enjoying a ten-day visit to the Central American country where we once owned a second home.  Our vacation was almost over, so we were looking for a nice spot for one last seafood dinner.

“Hey, check us out,” said a friendly-looking, fortyish waiter indicating a chalk-board in front of one of the beachfront restaurants.  “We’ve got especiales tonight.”

“Thanks,” we said.  “Mas tarde (a little later).”   Something about the man struck me as familiar but I could not place him.  After we reached the end of the walkway and turned around, we decided to try his restaurant.  He emerged with a broad smile upon our approach.

“You know me,” he said.

“I think I do,” I said, “but how?”

“Catching fish?” he said.

I searched my memory bank to withdraw all my previous fishing-related experiences.  There were only two:  the time I caught pneumonia at the Jersey Shore and the time my son and I thought we were going sight-seeing in Costa Rica.

“Gennaro?” I said.

“Si, senor!” he said, joining me in an enthusiastic embrace.

When I first met Gennaro, ten years earlier, he was known as an “operator” around Playa Hermosa, the neighboring town.  He helped to manage two local hotels, a taxi service, and affairs with at least two local women.  He was always dressed in a ragged tee-shirt, bathing suit and flip-flops.  His head was covered with black curly hair that cascaded to his shoulders; sunglasses dangled from a string around his neck.  His English was nearly fluent spliced with occasional Spanglish.

When Gennaro encountered an American, Canadian or European around town, he did not discriminate.  “Hey, Gringo,” he would say, “can I get something for you?  A room?  A ride?  A senorita?”  He would wink.

Gennaro usually resided at the Cabinas Motel with Maria, a tica, as Costa Rican women are known.  She cleaned the motel’s rooms and was also available to clean private homes between renters.  According to Gennaro, Maria was insanely jealous of other women.  “That makes my life exciting,” he would proclaim, pointing proudly to several scratches on his cheek.  Maria was a beautiful girl, with deep brown eyes amidst a coffee complexion.  A thick, braided ponytail reached down her back.  Though thin, Maria was physically well-endowed.  “I can hold the national monuments of Costa Rica in my very hands,” Gennaro declared more than once, lasciviously.

Gennaro also assisted at La Hotel Montreal, an establishment owned by Louise, a middle-aged French-Canadian.  Louise controlled numerous investment properties around town.  She did not care whom Gennaro slept with when he was not favoring her with an impromptu visit, so long as her guests were picked up or dropped off at the airport when scheduled, and the air conditioners functioned more often than not.

One morning, when I was visiting Playa Hermosa with Sam, who was then twelve, I encountered Gennaro on the street after breakfast.  He knew by then that I was not a candidate for his usual product line, so he just gave a casual wave, but I stopped to ask if he’d recommend someone to take us out on a boat.

“I can take you,” he said.

“I didn’t know you had a boat,” I said.

“Absolutamente,” he said.  “I have a boat and fishing equipment, and I know where all the fish are.”

I had not even thought about fishing.  I just wanted Sam to experience the water and for us both to see the coastline and the mountains.  “Qaunta questa?” I asked (How much will it cost?).

“Twenty dollars,” he said.

“Per hour?” I asked.

“No, for the whole morning, if necessary, as long as it takes to find tuna,” he answered.

I was reminded why I liked Costa Rica so much.  But then, thinking how I’d once become queasy on the Circle Line tourist ride around Manhattan, it occurred to me to ask:  “How big a boat is it?”

“Big enough,” said Gennaro.  “Meet me on the beach as soon as you are ready.”

Thirty minutes later, with Sam in tow and Dramamine in stomach, I arrived to see Gennaro wrestling a motor onto the back of a small skiff bobbing in the surf.  Maria was assisting him in the role of first mate.  He smiled at us and brandished several flimsy, wooden sticks with straightened metal hangers attached to the ends.

“Are those supposed to be fishing rods?” whispered Sam to me.

“I think so,” I said, skeptical.

“Come aboard,” said Gennaro, holding steady as possible the fifteen foot boat, a battered aluminum tub with peeling blue paint.  Maria, who did not speak English, smiled shyly.

“Can we really catch fish with those?” I asked, indicating the sticks.

“You will be surprised,” he said.

Once underway, we headed across the bay that extends from Hermosa Beach towards the then newly completed Four Season’s Resort on the Papagayo Peninsula.  The sun shone and the surf was calm.  Brilliant blue sky extended to the open ocean and reflected off the glistening water.  We could see mountain ranges to the north extending, Gennaro said, as far as Nicaragua.  To the south, the coast also appeared mountainous and luminously green.

Gennaro pointed out birds to Sam and explained that he had a son almost the same age.  “He lives in San Jose,” he said, matter-of-factly, “with his mother’s family.  I saw him a couple years ago.”  I thought I detected a flash of sadness in his always-sunny expression.  I could not imagine having such a distant relationship with one of my children.  My reverie was broken when a school of dolphins leapt out of the water in the distance and we all reveled in the breathtaking beauty.

Pleased that my stomach was holding up, I was still relieved when Gennaro declared:  “This is the spot.”

It looked like every other spot to me, but he immediately busied himself with attaching hooks to the end of the hanger wires and placing bait fish on the hooks.  “Do you want to try?” he asked us.

“I’ll let Sam do it,” I said, not desiring one iota to touch the bait, and still skeptical that a stick with a hook could catch a fish in the ocean.

Sam eagerly held a “rod” out over the side of the boat, as did Maria.  I sat back and listened to Gennaro tell tales.  The first described when he played for the national soccer team; next, he told about the cargo ship he had captained; finally, he told about the coffee plantation he had once owned.  I had the sense he had told all of these stories many times before.  My “full of baloney” alarm was screaming, but appreciation for his boat ride prevented me from asking questions; I just nodded and smiled when I thought it was appropriate and hoped he would eventually subside so we could enjoy the splendid scenery in silence.

Suddenly, Sam shouted:  “I’ve got one!”

He strained to hold on to his stick.  Gennaro leapt to his side and, together, they wrestled the struggling catch into the boat.

“It’s a tuna, a black fin!” shouted Gennaro.  To me, it just looked like twenty thick inches of shiny muscle.  While Sam and I watched, he disengaged the fish from the hook and subdued it.  I cannot describe exactly how, since I deemed it wise to look away by then, but after another moment, the fish was packed in a cooler with ice and Maria was sloshing water on the floor of the boat to clean up the resulting blood.

Sam was proud and amazed.  “I caught a fish! I caught it!.”

“Way to go,” I said.

Gennaro patted him on the back and motioned “thumbs up” to me.  He baited Sam’s “fishing rod” again.  Sam caught four more tuna in the next hour and was glowing with excitement when we headed back to the beach.  Once there, I insisted, over his determined refusals, that Gennaro and Maria take all but one of the fish.

“We’re only here for two more days,” I said.  “We can’t eat that much.”

Finally, he relented, on the condition Maria would prepare our fish for us.  Served with rice and beans she also prepared at their motel’s kitchen, it turned out to be an amazing meal.  Even Sam, not a seafood eater at that age, loved it.  When we said “adios” to Gennaro, we did not think we would encounter him again.  But we fondly recalled the improbably successful fishing expedition many times in the ensuing decade.

I regarded the now-short-haired man standing before me, wearing a white shirt, pants, and shoes.   His face was tanned but creased with wrinkles.  Grey surrounded his temples:  “How have you been?  How’s Maria?” I asked.

“Maria, Maria” he said, with a wistful expression.  “Oh, she got sick.  She lives in Puntarenas with her mother now.  It’s a four-hour bus ride,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It happens,” he said.  Brightening, he added, “My son’s got a job.  He works as a security guard in San Jose.  I hear from him once in a while.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“How’s your son?  Was it Sam?” he asked.

“You have a great memory,” I said.  “He’s fine.  He’s still in school,” I said, not wanting to boast that he is working towards a PhD.

“Louise went back to Canada a couple years ago.  The economy….” Gennaro tailed off.  “I had to give up my boat,” he added.  “Now I work at this restaurant.  But, hey, pura vida,” he concluded, using the Costa Rican expression used to express every aspect of life: its joy, its beauty, its pain.

I felt sad to see Gennaro in his diminished circumstances, no longer the “operator” in Playa Hermosa, but a humble server.  The restaurant was not busy that evening and Gennaro circled back to our table several times.  A soccer game was playing on the television behind the bar and Gennaro noticed me glance at it.

“Did I ever tell you about when I was on the national team?” Gennaro asked.

Katie looked at him with interest, and he launched into a detailed story about a match he allegedly played against Argentina, full of fanciful details.  I did not listen to every word, but let his voice wash over me as I contemplated the passage of time and how much kinder it is to some people than to others.   Hearing the enthusiasm in his voice, it occurred to me, thanks to its repetition over a period of decades, Gennaro experienced his imaginary past as a soccer star, a ship’s captain and a coffee tycoon, as truthful.

Upon reflection, taking into account all the circumstances, I question how important it is for someone like Gennaro to be exactly truthful.   If it were necessary for him to rationalize, he probably would point out something like the following:  he played soccer in his youth; he worked on a fishing boat one summer; and, he once applied for a job at a coffee processing plant.  The rest is just a matter of degree.