Sunday, January 22, 2012

Love in the right places

Sometimes, when we are at our weakest, what we value most is safe haven.

But just as often, that which appears safe, isn't really all that safe anyway.

In real life, I'm a teacher to at-risk teens, and in truth I learn way more from them than they have ever learned from me.  Many of them have never experienced genuine safety a single day of their lives, except perhaps at school.  Yet they believe, because they are children, that those who are in charge of them are at least a little bit good, and that they are safe because of this.

The world is in fact a very dangerous place, more so for some than for others.  Because of this, discernment and a fervent commitment to purpose are key.  The last thing we need is an overweening thirst for safety.

Now, I am not talking about the safety that we seek from common sense, because we want to live to serve another day.  I am talking about bad safety, the safety that puts you to sleep, that makes you lazy, the safety that makes you too comfy to see the wolf crouching behind the door.  The safety you seek because you are afraid to live.

This is the kind of safety we are tempted to seek when our lives have been thrown into chaos, such as by cancer, or a shocking childhood, or an exceedingly bad marriage.

If we're more fortunate, it's the safety we snuggle into when life is better than we have a right to expect, and we have become lazy out of habit.  Shame on us for that.

Now, for many of my students, danger unfolds right under their noses as a matter of course.  I am talking about real danger, the kind that can cost you your life in the middle of the night when the rest of us are sleeping.  And yet, wherever they see strength, my students, especially when that strength professes love, they seek shelter there with a childlike faith.  Sometimes they can't tell the good safety from the bad any more; other times they simply have no choice but to sit in it, because they are children.  And they get burned, and they never knew what hit them.  They see the wound, and they don't know how they got it.

What's our excuse?

In my real life, it has become about praying for their souls and minds all the while I am high-school-English-teacher-ing the dickens out of them.  This is partly because my judgment in my own life has not always been a whole lot better than theirs, and I know where things could head for them.

Safe haven is not where it's at.  It's about asking a few hard questions:  What needs doing in this world?  What needs building?  What outrageous thing needs correcting?  What are we driven to do about it?

It's about fearlessly grasping the ember God planted in your soul and fanning it till it catches fire.  It's about machete-ing out the unseen trail in front of you and then walking it brazenly, torch held high.

Not all of us, but some of us, look for love in all the wrong places, desperately seeking safety at any cost; or just as wasteful, we find a good safe thing and hitch our wagon to it, and park.

That's not what we were made to do.  We were made to burn.  We were made to shine.  We were made to be a conduit for the love of Someone bigger than ourselves, to leave the world better than we found it.  We were not made to hide, not in an alley, not in a gang, not in a dysfunctional relationship, not in a drug.  Not even, for the lucky ones, in the bosom of our safe little home, even if it really is pretty safe by comparison.

If we were blessed to find human love in this world, we were meant to use it as fuel, not as a drug.  We are the creation of Another, not our own, and it's time to start living that way.

I feel like sharing a chapter from my novel Corners today, one in which the misbegotten Shelley is again looking for love in decidedly unsafe places, all because she is desperate to feel safe.  In this chapter, you can see the stupid coming; you can see the wreck before it ever happens.  These are the lessons we learn, when we choose to learn them the hard way.  Such is life.  Mistakes, we make.  But then we get up, and we forgive, including ourselves, and do it for the right reasons the next time.

Because at the end of the day, if we don't do the good work we were put here to do, all because we were busy groveling our way to safety, then we haven't done what we came to do.  And that, good friend, would be a terrible waste.

* * *

The store was empty except for me and Bruno one December Saturday night, with lights already turned out everywhere but the kitchen, the loft, and the night lights in the front window.  It was starting to get cold, and you could almost see your breath in front of your face even inside the store now that the heat was off for the day.  I was hurrying to finish up for closing, lost in thought over my work, picking out recipes for the  next day so I could grab the freshest ingredients early before the customers came in.  Bruno and I had been bantering back and forth all day, him “meep meep” -ing around the deli like my shadow; and me noticing his antics more than he realized, tracking his every movement with my eyes, smiling my Mona Lisa smile whenever he noticed me noticing him.

“Merry Christmas, Tranquilla,” he whispered, suddenly out of nowhere, his lips barely touching the back of my hair. 

I gasped and wheeled around, the shock of his unexpected presence, the unfamiliar heat of his breath near my ear, and his granite body behind me causing the fine hairs on the side of my face to stand up.

He laughed as my chestnut mop whipped into his face, catching him in the mouth.  I had been leaning over a little file box in front of the pass through, studying a recipe card, when he had sneaked up and abruptly planted his hands on the counter around me, sheltering me in the space he created.  He let go of the counter as I turned, and backed up, grinning at me.

“You smell nice, bella,” he said.  “What is that?”

“Irish Spring and Tide,” I flirted.  “If it smells like more than that, it must be my natural sweetness.”

“Awwh, you beat me to it,” he joked, pressing his clenched fist into his heart like I’d shot him there.  “So tell me, Tranquilla, do you still have to stop and think about Graham whenever you see me?”

We stood there staring at each other for a moment, the air between us thick with surprise and the electricity of emerging connection.  I looked him over thoroughly as he calmly observed me, waiting for me, while I took in his skin, the thick, loose black hair that he was constantly smoothing out of his eyes, those eyes, like ice but somehow warm, eyes that penetrated deep to the center of me and melted there, leaving something of his behind that didn’t go away.  And the well muscled frame that I didn’t dare look at, not yet.

“No,” I said simply.  “No, I don’t.”

“Well, good for me,” he said huskily, a slow smile still playing around his lips as he held my gaze.  He cleared his throat. “So here I go.  Can I take you out for a drink tonight, bella?  You know I missed your birthday, and I have something to give you I’ve been keeping.  I’ve been waiting, you know, until you didn’t, you know, have anything on your mind any more.  You know what I mean.”

I knew exactly what he meant.  My 21st birthday had been in October, and even though he and I never talked about Graham, he knew that my heart still ached from something back then, from whatever that thing was that had been hovering over me when he and I shared the bottle of Chianti months ago, the thing I couldn’t tell him about.  And he had waited for my eyes to clear and my heart to lighten all this time.  He had known just the right moment, to the day and hour, when it was time, not a moment too soon, or too late.

I took in a breath. “OK.  Right now?”

“No, next week. Yes, hippie girl, right now.  Can I help you clean up?”

“No, you goof, we’re already clean.  I’ll think about recipes later.  I want a Kahlua and cream.  Two.”  I fake-punched him in the jaw, and he craned over backwards like I’d really jabbed him.

“Oww, Tranquilla, you knock me out.  You can have as many as you want.  I got you.”
We walked the grocery aisles together, looking for items out of place or fallen; then he locked down all of the outside doors and turned out the lights in the kitchen and the loft.  He came back out to grocery, where I was still waiting between the canned fruits and vegetables and the bread aisle, up by the cash register.  He stopped about eight feet back and stood, hands in his pockets looking at me.  His left eye twitched a little, and a smile broke across his face.   He approached me slowly, reaching up and weaving his hand into my hair as soon as the length of his arm would allow.  His fingers came gently around the back of my head, pulling me toward him, bringing my face to within inches of his, his eyes boring into mine.

“I’ll arm the store and meet you at the truck,” he whispered.

 Once we were bouncing along in the little red market pickup, the newness melted away again, giving us the respite of our old easy friendship and gossipy chatter to fall back on.  The conversation came in a flood, almost like a reaction to the intense silences of moments ago: what were Ray and Nannette doing for Christmas; was he giving bonuses, or a party at his big house in San Bruno.  We all loved parties at Ray’s house because he had a home version of Pong, a computer ping pong game that was built into a game table where the top should be.  We would sit around that thing for hours until our brains shut down.  He was going to add Pac Man to it for his two little ones for Christmas, and we were trying to talk him into putting one up in the loft. 

As we got closer to the wharf and could see Alioto’s Restaurant in the distance, Bruno told me word was that two Italians were going to run for mayor, and we debated who our favorite of the two likely contenders would be, Moscone or Barbagelata.  We were kind of leaning toward Moscone, a man of the people who didn’t hide out in his St. Francis Wood home, but spent time in the stores and cafes of the city’s neighborhoods, keeping tabs on people.  Plus he had been majority leader of the State Senate, while Barbagelata had just been a Supervisor, and Willie Brown liked him. And I liked Willie.  He used to give parties for us poster factory kids, since we worked for his friend Jeff, another man of the people.
Solidly back in our comfort zone together, we pulled into the narrow alley beside The Tide, a little bar right down on the wharf where it turned out Bruno was connected.  That meant when he walked through the door, the owner came out and said, “Eeyyy, Bruno, goombah, come stai?” and patted Bruno on both shoulders with his hands.  It also seemed to mean that Bruno could park wherever he wanted, avoiding the need to circle the block countless times to wait for a space to open on the street, or to pay the freight for a garage space and walk.

“Eeyyy, Pietro, non c’รจ male,” he replied, gathering up the broad-chested barman in a bear hug and patting him on the back.

“So who’s da dish, my friend?” our host asked, wiping his hands on his apron as Dean Martin sang “C’e la luna, mezz’o mare” from the little nickel jukebox in the booth next to where we stood.

“This, my friend, is Tranquilla, of whom I have spoken many times.  Or Shelley, to you.  Shelley Hobson.  Shelley, this is Pietro.  You can call him Petey if you want, or whatever.”

I extended my hand to shake, and Pietro took it in his and turned it, backside up, raising it halfway to his lips and bending down as if to kiss it, but just bowing low over it instead.

“My honor, Miss Shelley.”

“You’re a gentleman, Pietro.  So nice to meet you,” I said lowering my eyes shyly.

“It’s good you didn’t kiss, goombah, cause you should not be gettin’ spit on the lady,” Bruno cracked, and they both chattered off something in Italian, laughing and punching each other in the chest, faking heart attacks in turn.

“OK, Tranquilla, let’s sit.  Petey, can we sit here?” Bruno asked, nodding his head to where Dean – no, Dino – was crooning.

“Be my guest.  My house is yours,” Pietro replied, sweeping his arm across the front of himself like a doorman.

“You are too kind.  No, exactly kind enough – meep meep!” said Bruno, taking my hand and ushering me into the booth.  “One large White Russian for the lady, and a Michelob for me.”

“You 21, paisan?  Just kidding,” joked Pietro, laughing in strange little barks.

“Shaddup, stunad.  Bring a frosted glass, OK?”  Bruno smiled and shook his head.  “We love each other like brothers,” he said to me as Pietro went for the drinks.  “We went to high school together and he graduated a coupla years before me so he likes to bust my balls.  Excuse me, give me a hard time.  You look beautiful, by the way, deli girl.  But that little aroma of mortadella behind your ear I like the best.”

I wadded up a napkin and threw it at him, just as Pietro brought the drinks.

“Kids, kids, let’s keep it quiet in the house now or I’ll have to call the authorities.”

“Funny guy.  This is a funny guy,” remarked Bruno winking, cocking his thumb toward Pietro.  “You make me laugh, Petey.  Now make like a tree.”

“You are a tree,” said Pietro, snapping Bruno on the shoulder with a kitchen towel and scuttling back over behind the bar, with that same rolling shuffle Bruno meep-meeped around the market with.

“You guys almost look like brothers,” I observed, looking around the place and taking in the waterfront paisano ambience.  The tables were thick with lacquer over brightly colored Italian ads for Campari, Galliano, Coca-Cola, San Pellegrino, and Bolla Valpolicella and Soave.  The entire back wall was tight with bottles stuffed into shelves, with liquers, syrups of every flavor and color, and sparkling waters packed in alongside the Johnny Walker Red and Black and the Wild Turkey.  There were mirrors all the way around, making the tiny space look three times its size, and the booths along both walls were upholstered in alternating tufted stripes of shiny, thick red and green vinyl.  The little juke boxes on each table top had a mix of current hits and Italian standards, including C’e la Luna, Volare, and Oh Marie, Bruno’s favorites.  I knew this because he liked to sing little bits from them when he was meep-meeping around. 

But the best part was the sidewalk outside, now dark and covered over with canvas for the night, where the crab pots boiled during the day on either side of the glass cases, filled with whole cracked Dungeness, shrimp, calamari, oysters, clams, and whatever came back fresh from the traps and nets that morning.  Wooden barrels full of French loaves, Colombo and Boudin and Francisco, stood out front, inviting you to grab something in white paper with a plastic cup of wine along with your loaf, and dine by the water.  I had only ever walked this sidewalk as an outsider, but being here with Bruno made me feel like I had more cousins on a new side of town now, where I never had before.

Pietro walked up with a tray. “Here’s your drinks.  Enjoy, brother.  You call if you need me, Shelley, OK?  Don’t you let this one give you a hard time.”

“I can take care of myself.  Besides, he’s a good boy for me,” I replied.

“We’ll see,” said Pietro, winking and walking away, Bruno whacking him on the forearm as he turned.

“A character,” said Bruno.  “Is that good, bella?”

“Wow!  It’s strong.  Is that what Kahlua and cream is, a White Russian?”

“Pretty much,” Bruno answered, taking a swig of his beer, eyeing me.  “Do you like it?”

“It gets better with every sip.  Better order another one because this one’s going down.”

“You got it, Tranquilla,” and he raised his arm over his head without turning around.  In seconds I had another one with a fresh tiny red straw and a little square napkin sitting in front of me.  I almost didn’t notice Pietro come up.

“So, Tranquilla, I have a little belated birthday gift for you.”  Bruno took a small square box out of his jacket pocket and slid it across the table.  I felt a little intimidated at the sight of it.

I opened gingerly, and inside tacked to a little loop was one half of a heart with a broken edge, very thin delicate gold, and engraved with what looked like Hebrew letters on the back.

“It’s a mizpah,” he said.  “When I can’t be around to watch over you, you know I have the other half, and I’m thinking of you.  You’ll know I’m always there, always your friend.  See?  I’ll keep the other half with me.”

He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his wallet, opening up the picture section and showing me where the other half was inside one of the sleeves.  “Now you have to give me a picture of you so I can put it in here with my heart.  OK?”

I was touched, and uncomfortable, but not so much that I wanted to push it back across the table.  “It’s beautiful, Bruno, thank you.  I’m going to put it on my chain right now, next to Bob‘s locket.  You know Bob . . .”

“Sure, Tranquilla, I know all about Bob.  Great guy.  I would be proud to share a chain with Bob.”

I took off my chain and added the mizpah, then put it back on and held it up to show Bruno.  “I love it.  It makes me feel very safe.  Thank you.”  I was about two-thirds of the way through my second drink by now.

“You want one more of those, Tranquilla?” Bruno asked, holding up his hand.  Like magic, another one in front of me.  I definitely did not see it arrive this time, and before I knew it, I had finished it.  Bruno, I thought, might still be nursing his first beer.  Or it might be my imagination.


“Hell, no.  I think you’re growing another head.  No, it’s a whole twin.  I might be ready to go home,” I said, holding my hand up to my cheek, wondering why it felt clammy on the outside when it felt so hot on the inside.

“You bet, Tranquilla.  Here, let me help you to the truck,” and he came around beside me and lifted up on my elbow, starting to lead me outside.

“Don’t you have to pay?” I asked wanly.

“No, bella, I have an agreement.  You’re always welcome here now too, and come for lunch if you’re ever down here without me.  Petey’s treat.”  Bruno and Pietro nodded at each other, both of them looking very far away to me, and small.

I was both impressed and impaired.  I tripped a little going over the doorstep.

Bruno poured me into the truck and maneuvered it backward out of the alley, then through the narrow, criss-crossing streets around the wharf, and down Beach over to Hyde, making the long pull straight up the cable car tracks, manual transmission and all, without a single slip or grind, the muscles of his forearm rippling under his taut skin.  It seemed like only a minute to me before he pulled into the alley beside Lighthouse and turned off the engine, probably because, admittedly, I was out of it.  Suddenly it got very quiet in the cab of the pickup, and stuffy.

“Why don’t you come inside with me a while, bella,” he said soothingly.  “We can sit in the loft and talk before you go home to Graham.”

I was thinking coffee actually sounded pretty good and had opened the door of the truck, stepping out into the alley ready to go inside for a hot cup.  But as soon as my feet hit the pavement, I was hunched over, all my snacks from the dinner hour at the deli and the White Russians in a puddle between my feet.

“Aayyy, madone!” Bruno cried out.  “Poor Tranquila.  What have I done to you?”  He scrambled over the stick shift to the other side of the cab, reaching over to pet my hair.  “And to me,” he said to himself more quietly.  “It must have been the vodka.”

“Vodka?!!? What vodka?  All I had was Kahlua and cream!” I moaned, retching up nothingness.

“Well, really Tranquilla, you had a few White Russians.  White Russians have just a drop of vodka in there.  Just a drop.”

“A drop of vodka?!!?  I can’t drink vodka!  Ever since I binged on screwdrivers in high school I can’t drink vodka.  It makes me sick.”

“I know,” he mourned.  “I’m sorry.”

“Well, me too.  But next time don’t do me any favors with drinks, OK?  I’d give you a kiss, but I just had vodka.  Again.”

Bruno moaned softly, tilting his head back. “Ay, bella.  Can I walk you home?”

“What, no ride?  Just kidding.  Yes, you can.  I would appreciate it.  Oh, my head,” I groaned.

“Wait, take these.”  Bruno pulled out a bottle of Coke from behind the seat and a bottle opener, handed me three aspirin from a bottle in the glove box, and popped open the Coke.

“You take these now, and you won’t feel a thing in the morning, I promise.”

I obeyed, and walked around behind the truck, meeting him in the middle of the alley.

“I had fun anyway,” I said.  “And thanks for the drinks.”  I poked him a good one in the chest with my free hand and took a swig of Coke with the other.

He took his jacket off and draped it around my shoulders, taking my hand in his and walking me silently all the way to my doorstep, waiting until the door closed behind me.  And I only had to stop and bend over the gutter twice on the way there.  

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