December 12, 2002
Who I Really Am
I never forgot the power of those stories.
Here's the scenario: I travel for work almost 20 days a month. It's lonely out there on the road, one long Bob Seger song. Dating is almost impossible, but I've met a guy who seems to fit the suit.
By that, I mean he's employed, smart, sweet, even Jewish. We've had two dates so far, both stellar. We held a competition about who could dredge up the most Jewish name from our family vault. A bartender declared me the winner with "Fraindle Vishnotzky."
I was sure this would be an adorable story down the road. We were already calling each other Vishnotzky, and everyone knows nicknames are the first step on the road to togetherness.
Since I'm only home a week at a time, I'm in an intimacy hurry. I've got to get this going before the next stint in a suburban Holiday Inn in Irving, Texas. I need someone to call at night, a touchstone.
Vishnotzky has been a little flaky, but I have to overlook that for obvious reasons. He's supposed to call later, and I'm sure he'll ask me out for one last date before I dash off. There's nothing to do but wait, so I take a long walk through Koreatown.
This question popped into my head: What is the one story I could tell about myself that would expose who I really am? That one anecdote that would encapsulate my whole self, that story I'd tell to hasten the bonding process. This is the story that I recalled as I strode down Beverly Boulevard. You probably have one, too, if you think about it. Here's mine.:
I'm snuggled in my sleeping bag, the one I take out every summer, which has that musty, mountain smell. The only light in the cabin is coming from my mother's flashlight, a dim pool pointed at a hardback book. She's reading aloud, one chapter a night, like she does every summer.
I'm 8 and my brother's 10. We're city kids, other than once a year in Yosemite, when we scoot around in flip-flops covered in bug spray. We ride old, slow horses and swim in a mossy lake. We play Ping-Pong for hours on a table circled by big trees.
This year, the book is John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." When the chapter is over, I hear the flashlight switch off. It's dark and it's a fact that there are bears around, but I'm more scared about what's going to happen to Lenny. I just hope he gets to tend to those rabbits and alfalfa. It doesn't seem like much to ask.
The summer before, the book was Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions," which may have been age inappropriate, but my mother's the type of person who talks to children using words like "ominous." She's never uttered "coochee coo" in her life. Anyway, we liked the book. We liked hearing my mom say, "Zihuatanejo."
But Steinbeck is devastating us. He has that magical way of concocting the most painful possible human scenario and then shaking some salt on the open wound. That's how I happened to walk in on my brother, breaking the unspoken contract, reading ahead.
I came in to grab a towel, and he was sitting on his cot, finishing the last page of "Of Mice and Men," red-eyed and red-handed. He said, "Don't tell mom I cried." I didn't. It was the only time I ever saw my brother cry, save the unforgettable Ricky Schroder "Don't die, champ" scene in "The Champ."
I never forgot the power of those stories, my mom's voice in the dark, wishing she'd turn pages and read all night.
As an adult, there's nothing I love more than listening to books on tape -- fiction, true crime, anything -- especially while on a road trip. It's the most soothing mixture: the freedom of the open road with the comfort of a story carrying you forward, whispering in your ear as you fly down the highway. It's the best kind of freedom, the kind where someone is holding your hand part way.
Mom read with her Yosemite voice, measured, smooth and calm. Sometimes, she answers the phone with that voice, out of nowhere, and it brings me back. I want to be 8 again, dirty feet rubbing together under my sleeping bag for warmth.
We didn't have much time for each other back then. My brother lived with my dad. My mom worked two jobs.
Maybe that's what I'm straining to hear when I listen to books on tape or even NPR. I'm trying to hear something as distant and muted as a creature rustling around in the night. It's those short chapters in a now-closed book, that time when our heads were on our pillows, our minds on the same page, our story the same.
Anyway, that's the memory I fantasized about sharing. The one, if I had to pick one. He never called that night, but he did call that memory to mind. For that, I'm thankful.
Teresa Strasser can be seen Saturdays at noon and 10 p.m. on TLC's "While You Were Out" and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .
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