You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know
We left for the airport before dawn. Dave was driving. His sons, David Junior and Jacob, were in the backseat. I was thirty-eight years old. The landscape we were leaving was like the landscape in a children’s book. Shiny new cars beetled to office buildings. Below, the Grand River curved like cursive drawn with a thick silver pen across our part of Michigan. We zipped past bare sun-warm fields on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, down the new highway to the airport, and I snuggled into Dave. I had a strong family feeling. I was eager for him to meet my wild daddy, my dear peculiar mom. Dave was willing, the boys were excited. None of us were awake yet.
Earlier that week, I’d come back to Michigan from upstate New York, where I was working as a visiting writer during my sabbatical year, so we could all go to Florida together. Dave had picked me up at the airport. I saw him before he saw me, walking down the corridor, past the narrow sports bar. Dave always wore running shoes and his walk was a distinctive leaning-forward walk, springy and gentle. I’d noticed this was how fine runners walked: head-level, leaning forward. “You’re going forward, not up and down,” Dave’s coach had told him, driving the bounce out of his step and converting it to speed. In college, Dave had been All-Conference. He’d run with Brian Diemer, the Olympic medalist, and Greg Meyer, the last American to win the Boston Marathon. Dave’s event was the 10K. Over and above being fast—five-minute-mile fast—the 10K required terrific strength and focus. That pace had to be maintained for a long time, for half an hour. The biggest problem wasn’t getting tired, it was drifting, getting lost in the monotony. Dave had a secret trick. He knew how to make himself see the beautiful corn fields near Caledonia, where he liked to run, instead of what was right in front of him. He could teleport, or “bilocate.” Dave was confident and sure of himself and calm and humble, all at once. His walk: fast-slow, leaning forward like he wanted to get where he was going while a large part of him was just along for the ride. The entire effect of Dave was hopefulness in running shoes.
I ran up to him and threw my arms around him and stretched up to kiss him; he drew back, pressing me away.
It wasn’t Dave. I had the wrong guy.
Dave—my real Dave—came up a moment later; we laughed about my mistake. I was embarrassed he had seen me hugging another man. “So many people here look like you!” I said. “We need to move. To a place with fewer Dutch people.” This had happened numerous times before, my mistaking someone else for Dave.
He told me I was funny, and he steered me toward baggage claim.
It had been a decade since I had taken anyone home to Orlando. I rarely visited. The last time I’d seen my parents was three years earlier; the visit had not been a success. My dad could be difficult. My mother could turn on a dime. I’d cut the trip short.
I’d told Dave everything—my dad’s drinking, my mom’s fragility—and Dave was sensitive, nonjudgmental, insightful. His first wife was a severely disabled schizophrenic: the bar for normal behavior was set reassuringly low. Whenever I called home to check on my parents, Dave held my hand while I shouted into the phone. He even talked to my father a few times. We’d been dating only a few months, and I was temporarily living in another state, but Dave and his sons felt like my family.
Everything was all planned out. My father lived by the airport: we’d drive by his house and the boys could go for a swim in his pool; we’d have a quick lunch. Fred would want to toast to something, so we’d have drinks, play cards, then go up to my mom’s for dinner. She was making a roast, shrimp, four vegetables—corn, green beans, beets, carrots—and pies. “I know midwestern men,” she’d said. “And I know you don’t make pies yourself, Heather. Men like pie. I know you don’t like for me to tell you helpful little things, but it wouldn’t hurt for you to learn a pie or two.”
We’d spend the night at my mom’s house. She was setting up pallets for the boys on her living room floor. I’d assured her Dave wouldn’t mind a cot in her study; I’d be happy in the guest room. The next day, we planned to take her to Disney World with us. I could see us on the Mad Hatter teacups, spinning, screaming our heads off, ecstatic. The Mad Hatter had been my favorite ride when I was a kid, and later, when I worked at Disney. No ups and downs, no scary things jumping out at you as you churned through dark water tunnels with strangers. You just spun.
Then maybe the boys would go swim in the Atlantic while I stole away to give my speech on the writing process. My speaking engagement was how we were paying for the trip, but I was keeping the talk a secret from my mother: I didn’t want her to come.
The last time she’d seen me speak in public was when I was a graduate student and she visited a class I was teaching on Hemingway’s short fiction. She’d promised to sit quietly in the back but she raised her hand anyway. “Didn’t Booth Tarkington sell more copies that year? By a long shot?” That evening, she supplied me with a numbered list of twenty-three items “to work on.” Make more eye contact. Learn the students’ names. She’d tallied the number of times I’d said um.
I felt bad about it, but I didn’t want my mother in my world. I was never sure what she would do.
Dave felt it was important I work hard on getting along with her, let her have her way. “She’s seventy-three years old,” he kept reminding me. “Value the little time left.”
So we’d have quality time with her, I’d do the speech in Winter Park on the sly, then I’d take the boys and Dave to my twentieth high school reunion. Dave felt this was too much for one trip, but to me it felt like success, redemption. I wanted my parents and my entire high school to see that everything was okay, that I’d turned out great. Anyway, to be around my parents, we needed a schedule, plenty to do. We had to keep moving. This was the extent of my worry. I was proud of this handsome man who was in love with me, and I was in love with his kids, whose grades had gone from Ds to mostly Bs since I’d come into their lives. As the four of us walked into the airport together, I felt, for the first time in my life, normal.
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