Radio Daze, Part Four

L’Embarquement pour Vashon: Amtrak Meets Le Bâteau Ivre

What I knew about AM, or even FM, radio you could stick in a thimble. As a good liberal, I was a steady fan of NPR, but did not go out of my way to seek out its content. Just by chance, while driving, I would happen on “Car Talk” or “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” and find myself engrossed in the chirpy, smart, good-natured back-and-forth among the participants. And on visits to my parents in Florida, I inevitably got sucked into the insanity of Rush Limbaugh or Dr. Laura because there just wasn’t much else to listen to as you were tooling around in your dad’s burnt-sienna Cadillac to escape the horrors of retirement living.

But what Wendy and I had mind, as I’ve said, was more like an old-time variety hour with some musical interludes and snappy give-and-take between the hosts, and occasionally with the staff engineers, who hung around the fringes, making sure we didn’t dribble on our microphones. So in our official debut on Sunday August 7, 1997, we stuck with the program we’d planned before Diana’s untimely and wrenching demise. Cole Porter sang “Anything Goes” to usher us on the air. I interviewed Judith Viorst about her new book, Wendy’s stylist friend did an audio makeover of Janet Reno (putting her in black leather, as I recall), there were musical interludes, we had a contest of some sorts, and so on. It all seemed amiable and smart enough, to my ears.

As would happen every Sunday, Wendy would go back to her apartment to listen to a tape of the show, picking through what she perceived to be its flaws and weak points. I mostly just wanted a big bloody Mary and a nap, though on that Sunday I was undoubtedly all aflutter and packing a bag to head up to Seattle.

Monday afternoon, I caught the train to Tacoma, which was closer to the south end of the island, where Jeff lived. (He had his daughters, so he did not head down to visit that weekend, or we might have driven back together). I remember, oddly, what I was reading: Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (the mass-market philosopher’s guide to navigating everyday dilemmas, with tips from the immortal French novelist). More high-toned blather for liberal-arts grads. I can’t say I even read much of the damn thing, and I don’t recall that we ever interviewed de Botton, but I do vividly remember the scenery on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, which takes you through some of the most ruggedly beautiful landscapes in the Pacific Northwest: deep forest valleys and long stretches of otherwise inaccessible shoreline; and in the distance, remote and majestic snow-capped mountains, including Mount Saint Helens. I sat in an observation car, book on my lap, jaw dropping.

Of course the best sight of all was Jeff’s eager face at the Tacoma train station, his big toothy smile and hand raised in greeting as my face floated past in the window, my hand pressed in response against the glass. He ran beside the train until he caught up with me in the window and his hand met mine (“palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss”). And then a big swooping hug that lifted me off my feet, which didn’t happen often because I am so tall. But he was taller.

On the ferry ride to Vashon, we were strangely tongue-tied, exchanging the sparest of pleasantries, but holding hands tightly. As if for dear life.

Houses on the island

Vashon, as I saw on the drive to his house, was indeed a wild place, especially by comparison with what I would come to know of Seattle as a metropolis. I caught glimpses of a sandy pebble-gray beach, dense stands of deciduous and evergreen trees, the occasional shingled house or scudding sailboat. The geography reminded me a lot of Shelter Island, not far from my parents’ summer place in Montauk on Long Island, though the architecture was far less ostentatious.

Jeff’s house was down a rickety flight of about 47 steps (for some reason that number sticks in memory), a little shack resting on pylons, half-on, half-off the water. Inside he threw his arms wide on a ramshackle interior: a beat-up leather couch and a couple of chairs, an electric keyboard piano, a loft bedroom for the girls, and his bedroom, just big enough for a double bed. The kitchen was little more than a countertop with a sink and a couple of burners for a stove. This man surely knew how to put the “rustic” into “rusticating.”

But, as I’ve said, if we got too picky, we’d never get laid.

The corollary to that is: If we were a little more picky, we wouldn’t be getting into these disastrous relationships.

Jeff’s arms slip around me and he whispers: “Let’s get nekkid.”

I push him away. “Hey, how about some alcohol, food, first?” I don’t know that I can get through whatever is coming next without a stiff drink.

“Yeah, sure.” He finds a bottle of Jameson’s under the sink and we both rummage around the cabinets and fridge, which hold cans of Spam and tomato soup, a block of Kraft cheddar, a carton of milk, some hot dogs, and not much else.

“What do you feed your daughters?” I ask, somewhat incredulous.

“Uh, they kind of wipe me out when they’re here, and they eat mostly soup and peanut butter.”

Oh. Well at least everything is spanking clean. But I am annoyed. I’m supposed to be on deck and seducible for a few days and this guy doesn’t bother to stock up? He has, at least, I notice, hit refresh on the wardrobe and is wearing what appears to be a new V-necked tan sweater, a crisp white shirt, and jeans of fairly recent vintage (all hidden during the ferry ride under an ancient but respectable Burberry trench coat). And lit slut that I am, I am mollified by the volumes of Wallace Stevens, Thomas Merton, and Louise Glück on the windowsill.

We sit at a table, covered in oil cloth, overlooking the water, and as he scans my face, noting bewilderment and displeasure, his is drained of all eagerness.

“I’m so sorry,” he stammers. “I cleaned up as best I could. I’ve been alone for so long.”

And of course at that I am on the other side of the table, in his lap, and kissing every inch of his face until finally honing in on his mouth. He is a fine, fine kisser, much better this way than on the fly in a parking lot, and it’s not long before our two long bodies are wedged in the small double bed.

Now, reader, bear in mind that this is a man who hasn’t had sex in years, who smokes too much, who is not in the best of physical shape. And so there are difficulties. But there are great compensations in tongues and fingers and a little imagination, and after a few days I will be joking that I’d like to draw a smiley face on his balding pate so that I will have someone to talk to while he goes to town on me.

It is a ferocious irony in a life filled with fierce ironies that I can’t have full-blown sex with this man I am falling in love with but back home is the bimbo foot fetishist who can get me hot just by looking at me. Perhaps I am not one for the casebooks just yet, I hoped, but simply in a transitional state.

Those few days we spent together on Vashon were almost like a honeymoon before the fact. We ate out a couple of nights at local seafood restaurants and played pool in the dive bar in the village, where we also slow danced to oldies on a jukebox. We read to each other from a romance novel one of the girls left behind, cracking up at the steamy parts: “The stone floor was cold against her skin. But Maura hardly cared. All that mattered was Lachlan—his hands on her hips as he lowered himself to meet her, his lips against hers, his manhood throbbing beneath his leather breeches.”

“I’m sorry about my not-so-throbbing manhood,” he said.

“Dinna worry, laddie. We’ll get ye fixed up soon enough.”

We took the ferry to downtown Seattle for the day, and I will tell you there is nothing more romantic than a ferry ride when you are all aglow in the early stages of crazy foolish love and you gaze out in wonder as the skyline inches into view. A brand-new skyline, looking so much cleaner and better and sharper than Manhattan’s, and with a surreally hovering snow-covered mountain in the distance. We visited the Pike Place Market, and the aquarium, where the fishes finny finning toward us seemed to share our giddy delight by blowing bubbles at us (though I know this is what they do all the time; these bubbles seemed sculpted just for us).

And inevitably I learned more about Jeff. He and his two siblings (one brother, one sister) were part of a Mormon family, but he had chosen to go to Gonzaga University in Spokane to study philosophy with the Jesuits (hence allusions to Wittgenstein, Hobbes, Pascal, and others in that feverish correspondence). He’d been married for 15 years, and as he wrote to me, “I am so sheepish about my whole marriage that it’s hard to talk about. I married way too soon and repented at leisure, as the saying goes. My ex was not a bad person, really, but she had some bad problems, more than I could handle. She was an alcoholic and truly, deeply irresponsible.” But he loved his daughters dearly (I wouldn’t meet them till later) and claimed he stayed in the marriage far too long for their sake (“What I did was I completely reneged on one of my firmly held philosophical stances and stayed in the marriage for the kids,” he wrote later. “But that part has been worth it.”)

I was still a little vague on how he made a living, though from Wendy I knew it involved some kind of high-level, high-tech consulting gigs. And he freely confessed that for the past year he’d allowed his income to drop precipitously. But, said he, “I want to be a good provider, just as your ex was.”

Oh, yes, all kinds of information got exchanged in those four days, and I was feeling the compass aiming ever more strenuously and urgently toward points northwest.

At night, the house rocked gently as the tide swelled and waned, and really, for quite a long time, it was all just perfect bliss.