The Tarzan Club
There are 14 shoes in my closet, broken up (I can only hope) into pairs. This strikes me as too many for a human, but opinions tend to vary.
Two pairs of this collection are of the boot variety. I bought some Harley boots a few years ago, looking for something with more oomph on my feet, and they're remarkably comfortable. They just have that bright-orange, traffic-cone-colored waffle sole that makes crossing one's legs a political statement. It's unclear what kind.
But the others are important. They're toward the back, hidden in the dark, rarely seen, and I'm thinking now that they really should be in a glass case. They're worn, ancient, not that expensive to begin with, no waffles on the soles, all color long since leeched away. I haven't tried them on in years and have no plans, although now that I mention it...you know how that works. Would only take a minute. I'm just not sure what would happen. These boots contain multitudes.
Here's the thing I think about a lot: I must have passed her in the hallway a bunch of times. We were in adjoining departments, theater and music, only a doorway separating disciplines, and there was a lot of mingling.
This isn't a romantic fantasy, wandering back in time to catch a glimpse of my future spouse growing up. This was her, all grown up, in grad school and looking the same as she would soon enough, when I'd notice, you betcha.
We moved to Flagstaff at the same time. I returned to college after three years, stomping grounds that held a lot of freshman-year ghosts, faces that had moved on. She came because her then-husband got a job at the university, and she agreed to go because she'd heard it was pretty. Stage set, then.
For eight months, we must have passed in the hallway. That's all. I think about it.
And one day she stopped, and spoke. I'd just given a performance and she had something complimentary to say, student to student. This happened sometimes. I don't remember it, didn't remember it a few weeks later. There was no thunderbolt. There were no trumpets. I just add those in, picturing it now.
A few weeks later, as it happened, she and I both auditioned for a summer job, waiting tables and then performing for three months in a dinner theater, singing and dancing for our suppers. When I saw the cast list, aware that my name was on it, I noticed hers, too. It was unfamiliar, so I asked my buddy David, who also was cast.
"She's this little Texas gal with a BIG voice," he said, more or less.
I've written these stories a million times. Now, somehow, I feel compelled to distill. I think this is because of my now-grandparent status, understanding that the trivial details of my personal history are now sort of lore, or should be. A little boy in Texas is here today because of that hallway. He might be interested someday, and I want to keep it simple, just in case. Because I would want that, and I did.
I can tell you odds and ends about the beginning of my maternal grandparents' romance. Nothing on the other side, and that time has passed.
My grandfather's family had inched its way west from Texas, ending up in California by the middle of the Depression. Grandpa worked at his father's gas station, and occasionally saw the pretty girl walking by.
This was the 1930s, the era of Johnny Weissmüller's reign as Tarzan in movies (he made 12 in total), the height of the franchise. Grandpa's gas station was running some sort of promotion based on the film series, and that gave him, a lifelong salesman, his opening.
"Hey!" he yelled across the street at this young woman. "Ya'll want to join The Tarzan Club?"
And thus I'm here, now, writing this, because of that moment, and so on.
We fell in love. We weren't supposed to. It was awkward, but that will sometimes happen. Feelings were hurt as lives were altered, and if the collateral damage was mild and everyone recovered, it was a little tense from the get-go.
And it was slow. We spent the summer in each other's orbit, spending most of our hours together, which can lead to all sorts of adventures. Ours were cautious ones, skirting the unsteadier ground, playing nice. We had other romantic partners, and we weren't interested in keeping big secrets, so we were appropriate and kept our distance. We just kept getting closer.
We were sitting on the fence, understanding that fate looks different at the beginning. It feels spontaneous and deliberate at once, careful choices considered while emotion runs the show. We were not in charge, as it turned out, but we tried.
By Christmas 1982 we knew, and a few weeks later we snipped ties and set some bridges on fire. By Super Bowl Sunday we were living together, quietly, cautiously, knowing we'd taken a huge step and trying not to think too much about it.
Texas is at least a line item in my family history. My grandfather was born in Fort Worth, and returned to west Texas as an adult, with my mother in tow, so she has good memories. And there were always little-known relatives, showing up occasionally in California or Arizona, all hats and boots and talking funny.
But Texas was also foreign to my suburban Phoenix sensibilities, a land of shit-kickers and steel guitars. I had some issues, and I needed to embrace them. She had a family, etc.
That, and living in a small mountain college town with a distinct country-western feel, and working at a theater that perpetuated that feel, we went shopping for cowboy boots one day. She wanted a new pair, and I was intrigued. We found a matching pair, put them on layaway, and considered this an investment in a common culture.
And on her 28th birthday, the first one we marked as a couple, I surprised her by paying them off and bringing them home. It seemed to be a big hit.
Then we drove for an hour or so, a little bit southeast to where my parents were spending the weekend in a mobile home they'd parked in a small mountain town. It was nice, rustic and peaceful, and we drove through snow to meet the parents. My mom had baked her a cake. They noticed my boots. It was a day of transition, as they met the new girl and tried to understand that the future had just come over for lunch.
So that's the story, Bixie. Your grandparents met in college, bonded over RV-park entertainment, took a big step when all of them looked big, and here we are.
And here they are, too. The boots sit quietly in my closet, old favorites put out to pasture, their work accomplished. I wore them continuously for nearly a year, walked among dinner tables, danced around stages, waded through snow banks and slipped on ice with them. They weren't particularly expensive ones, or fancy. They're actually pretty unremarkable for boots, and they possess magic I can't explain. Old magic. Talisman magic.
I post that picture every year. It's Julie, rehearsing for The Magic Flute, my infant daughter on her back. She's wearing my flannel shirt, another Flagstaff relic, and of course the boots. Of course.
There's so much there, almost too much. Even knowing only a few details about our lives, you can see the elements clearly. That baby would grow up to sing her own songs and play her own music, and have her own boots. She would grow up at rehearsals, as would I. Nothing has ever changed in that regard. This is who we are, then.
And how we got here. We joined The Tarzan Club, entering a wild ride of love and adventure, babies and music, occasionally swinging optimistically from a vine, hoping for a soft spot to land.
She's off to teach other university students this morning, and then to direct an opera rehearsal. Her birthdays are always like this, coming in the winter when things are heating up. She's unfazed, a learned skill in this life, and hardly thinking of it, I imagine. It's fine. John and I will take care of things tonight.
It's just that it's been 35 years since that February morning, when I dragged out those unwrapped shoeboxes and plopped them on the bed. I bought us matching boots, the symbolism escaping my 24-year-old's perspective. It wasn't the hat tip to my love's heritage that, I suppose, I anticipated or expected. It didn't represent a transition for me, a joining of cultures and pasts. I didn't really understand how it works.
You fall in love, and then you love because you fell in love. Then you love because you remember falling in love, then because you want to fall in love again, and then you love because of course you do. It's been 35 years.
But I didn't understand any of that. I didn't see how it might unfold, or why. I just bought her some boots on a whim, not understanding that it had nothing to do with the past, just the future. We were taking steps on a path that led here. and we needed solid footwear, and we found it, as it turns out.