(Photo: Got what he got the hard way, and he’ll make it better each and every day.)
“Remember people that no matter who you are and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there’s still some things that make us all the same. You, me, them, everybody, everybody…”
The Friday evening IM was as unexpected as it was emphatic. Fifteen hours til the movers were coming, and he wasn’t done boxing yet. Good thing he was only moving next door. They say you learn a lot about a person when you help them move. Mostly, things you never expected to find out.
But after a summer of couch surfing with friends in my never-again Gotham hometown, I knew I was too perilously deep in karmic debt to say no. So last Saturday morning, with a short break to turn off my alarm early and wake back up again late, I set off from downtown on an express 147 pointed at the far end of Rogers Park. My new friend, Don, needed help.
Now, how I would have explained Don before the move bears little resemblance to the actual Don of pathos, sweat, and hyperactivity whose house I spent the weekend packing. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I arrived up on Jonquil to find the frazzled forty-something repeatedly self-medicating with mumbled words of encouragement.
“I’m so screwed. I shouldn’t have waited for the painters to finish. I’m so screwed.”
He wasn’t kidding. Eleven-thirty, and the movers were coming at one. He directed me to his guest bedroom and with a pleading look asked if I’d mind boxing it up. Being a hard-nosed HR attorney who in a less desperate mood would otherwise likely be smiling over a recent termination or stealing the souls of small children, I knew he was up against it.
I set to the task at hand while Don began prying the legs off an upturned sofa. I couldn’t help wondering if he was fantasizing they were the legs of some unlucky insect. “You know,” I told him, “I’m really sorry for blowing you off this summer. Trying to move to New York, I couldn’t deal with looking back.”
“Comin’ to ya on a dusty road,
Good lovin I got a truck load…”
I met Don shortly after my ex-partner Devyn took a hall pass to the bathroom and never came back. I needed a diversion. Don needed someone to take him seriously. Two shy men with different agendas. It was a well-seasoned, pre-heated recipe for disaster. Two dates later and I was already ready to take a new number in the unending waiting line of suitors that I scraped up on the Internet to get me through the worst of the break-up shock.
Two more weeks later and I was job-hunting New York City. Not easily dissuaded, Don called almost every day–to remind me to keep up my Chicago job hunt, too (and in this he must have been prescient). And to make sure I was OK.
“I knew you’d figure things out,” he responded. “We had a rough spot, but I forgave you for it. I’m glad we stayed friends.”
“So am I.” And I meant it, too, until I finished packing the office and Don led me to the shoe closet. With not a little awe I gazed at row upon row of Pradas, Coles, Ferragamos, a veritable smorgasbord of high-end designer goodness piled in multitudes so high that any apparent fashion sense was overshadowed by the sheer morass of it all. I knew in one Filipino grave, a former despot was surely smiling.
Don knew exactly what I was thinking. “This is going on your blog, isn’t it?” I looked him dead in the eye. “We’re gonna need more boxes.”
“You see, it all started when my mom promised me a pair of shoes if I did well on an exam in junior high. Who offers an adolescent shoes as a bribe? I guess after that I learned to feel good about myself when I bought them. I know you must think I’m a little crazy.”
I didn’t know Don felt bad about himself in the first place. I began to pack and ponder. Fifty-six pairs of shoes, boots, sneakers, and slippers packed into any box that would have them. And me pondering how often it’s the case that an outwardly confident person turns inwardly apologetic when you start to expose the layers of their onion of privacy.
“Six and three is nine,
Nine and nine is eighteen,
Look there brother baby,
and see what I’ve seen…”
At around the 40th pair of footwear, I heard, “You wanna take a break and see some stuff out here?” Um, yes. (And could I get a wet wipe with that to clean your soles off of my palms?)
Upending the box spring for the movers, Don had uncovered a small mountain of framed photos from 20 years past. “I can’t believe that’s you! You’re so-”
“Thin, I know. I don’t want to get into it. It’s a bad subject for me.”
“I was gonna say clean-shaven.” Having spent two years of my life with a partner almost half-again my weight, my merely zaftig friend is not someone whose alleged overweight even registers with me. Anyhow, I’ve long given up the baseless belief that I’m not an inveterate flirt. “Frankly, I think you’ve gotten better with age.”
And age is just what we did as Don’s movers were stuck on a job in Waukegan until late in the afternoon. It was enough time to hit Wendy’s, make a Home Depot run, and take a passing glance at packing the kitchen. But mostly we just talked. I sat and talked. Don talked and walked.
“You know, Don, I don’t think you’ve sat down for hours. I know you’re ADD, but you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.”
He paused from pushing a giant swiffer for the second time around the living-room baseboards of the new apartment. “I know, I know. I’ll sit for a bit.” Watching Don sit is like watching a cat being hugged. No one’s happy about it and you know it’s not going to happen for long.
It didn’t. “Did you hear that? Yay! The movers are here!” And with that, like a maniacal jack-in-the-box, up popped Don and down the stairs he bounded. I needed to exit back to River North to welcome hip-suburban-chick Val and her niece to Marina City for a special roofdeck visit, but I offered to come back and help Don finish up on Sunday.
So I did. The highlight of Sunday was not the deja shoe of watching Don unpack all 56 pairs into a new closet, nor was it riding shotgun while he enlisted additional moving help from two itinerant workers who ended up rooking him out of an extra $100. It was, finally, figuring out the backstory.
“Did you ever see a picture of Victor?” I hadn’t. Don’s personal Devyn, the man whom he loved, and who left him earlier this year. “I’m still in love with him. Can you bring another box in here.” I knew by the time I made it into the room, there would be a fleeting glimpse of a photo before Don would be off and running again.
“Sometimes I feel,
I feel a little sad inside,
When my baby mistreats me,
I never never never have a place to hide…”
And then it struck me. “You’ve spent a lot of your life getting fucked over by other people, haven’t you?” And I finally knew why I felt so comfortable around him. “Victor didn’t deserve you, you know. He was a fool to leave you.” The moment the words came out of my mouth, I remembered Don telling me the same things about Devyn, months before. Ah, grasshopper, the circular path of life.
Now, issue-laden as I can be, I’m the last person to criticize someone else’s baggage. But two days with Don and I got the distinct impression that he has absolutely no idea about the measure of himself–although it is great. That touched me. I was like that before Devyn left. Now I know how fabulous I am–and I know I was like that, deep inside, all along. But I also know the fear Devyn left me with, that I may never feel brave enough to let anyone in again.
I see both of those things in Don. He’s spectacular, at arm’s length. In our own ways, me with my newfound gigolo nature, Don with his fear of sitting still with himself, we’re both the sole stars of our currently necessarily solitary lives. Similar, if somewhat lonely paths, I think that’s why we get along.
Late on Sunday, with everything moved to new digs except the beers in the old refrigerator, Don paused, finally. “I bet things make a lot more sense about me now.” Indeed. Suddenly I was being hugged. “Thank you so much for being here. I couldn’t have done this on my own. You don’t know how much having a friend here meant to me this weekend.”
Lawyer or not, now that’s a man with soul.