Friday, November 20, 2009

Thank the Water Bugs


When my husband was twenty-two years old he once spent an afternoon waiting in the basement of a near slum, hoping that an exterminator was actually going to keep a thrice made, and broken appointment to eradicate an infestation of what had been politely termed "water bugs". In reality they were cockroaches, and the apartment building in question housed only students at the nearby University of Ohio. As it happened my husband didn't even live in the building, but his closest friend Eric was the resident maintenance man. Tenants had been loudly complaining about the cockroaches, and were calling for both Eric's head, and his job.

Things in general had not been going Eric's way. He was on academic probation as it was, and the only way he could afford housing was to keep his job as the resident manager of the neglected apartment building. His rent was free in return for performing the building repairs, but Eric was unable to kill off the many roaches brought about mainly by the habits of the slovenly occupants of the building. A professional had been called, but had, up to that point, been wise enough to realize that the task was futile. No amount of bug bombing was going to do any good in a building where the average apartment was carpeted with half empty pizza boxes.

Still, Eric was trying. By the time the third appointment rolled around, Eric was unable to try and meet the man due to his class schedule, and asked my husband, his friend since high school, if he would await the technician in the basement. The main nest, it seemed, was located next to the furnace. My husband readily agreed, but hadn't anticipated waiting for hours.

Casting around for something to do he spied a milk crate full of discarded books and began to go through it, searching for something to read. Eventually he found Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy and settled in, reasonably content. The exterminator never showed up and my husband ended up reading for five hours as he waited for him. When my future husband finally gave up, he took the Hardy novel with him and finished reading it over the course of the next week.

That's how he ended up marrying me, by the way.

It would be nearly eight years later that I took a position at the same company for which he worked. I have no recollection of meeting him, although he remembers meeting me. It isn't that he fails to be memorable, it's that I must have met 75 people the same day I met him, whereas he met exactly one person; me.

I was a single mother, with a six-year-old son, rather jaded about love, I suppose. That might account for why I was reading Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy, during my lunch hours. I brought sandwiches for lunch, as I was trying to save money. I was always trying to save money then. Whenever there's a new girl at any company, and she happens to be single, chances are good she will spend the first two weeks of her employment life trying to run the gauntlet of ham-handed flirtation.

I was aware that the Controller kept trying to get my attention but I hadn't found him very interesting up to that point. He was almost an entire foot taller than I am. He was very thin, had a rather large nose and looked so much like Judge Reinhold to most people that several people at the company called him "Judge". He had such thick chest hair that it peaked over the collar of his undershirt and practically waved to a passerby. It wasn't that I actively disliked him, it was that at that particular point in my life, I was not interested in dating and men trying to flirt were primarily a nuisance.

"What are you reading?" He asked and I supplied the title while barely glancing up. He was blocking my light, and the first thing that caught my attention was that he immediately stepped to the side in order to stop doing that. "By Thomas Hardy?"

"Yes, by Thomas Hardy." I looked up again, and the Judge lookalike took this as an invitation to sit down next to me.

"I read a book by him, a long time ago..." he began, and started talking about Tess of the d'Urbervilles, getting most of the plot wrong, actually.

"Did you read it for a class?" I asked, because it was clear that he had read the book, but was mixing up the details.

"No, I read it because of bugs. Water bugs, in reality cockroaches."

What my husband remembers is that I suddenly smiled, turned the corner of the page I was reading down, and closed the book in order to continue talking to him, asking him how cockroaches had led to his reading Hardy.

He happily launched into a discussion of Thomas Hardy with me, and felt quite pleased that his literary knowledge had finally pried up the door he had been trying to get through all week.

Every single day of our lives we do small things, make tiny decisions, and go about our business never knowing exactly what each piece of our puzzle makes. Every now and then we can trace our actions, and our decisions back to key moments that made a huge difference in the course of our lives. That was one instance where it is easy to spot how that moment fit the puzzle.

By the end of that lunch hour I'd agreed to a lunch date with the tall, rather awkward Controller. I only stayed at that company for two months, and left to take a better paying job. I assumed we'd end up friends, and in many ways we did, but we also ended up married.

When people ask how we met, we generally say, "Through work." When friends ask, we usually talk about the irony of meeting ones spouse while reading a book that was considered a condemnation of the institution of marriage.

When my son asked not that long ago, I told him the truth, we met thanks to a water bug infestation eight years before we ever set eyes upon each other. It wasn't that my husband had read, and could vaguely recall the details of a book by the same author. It was that, generally speaking, men flirt with single women for a very slim set of reasons, and the moment the word "cockroach" left my future husband's mouth, I was struck by two rather important things. He was a terrible flirt, a truly terrible one. Who in the world brings up the most disgusting bug most people can name, when trying to get the romantic attention of anyone? He was so incredibly bad at trying to catch my attention, that he actually did.

The other thing was that he'd spent hours in a bug infested basement, trying to help his friend, and when he told me about that, it was as if he didn't even realize it was one of the most attractive things about him. It was said in an offhand manner, thinking he needed to get back to the subject at hand, the thing he was sure had caught my attention, Thomas Hardy.

But it was the water bugs, and I remain very grateful to those water bugs.

I did end up telling him that it was the weirdness of bringing up cockroaches apropos of nothing while trying to flirt that caught my attention.

"So I'd have been screwed if you were reading Kafka?"

I'm sure you can see why he's still one of my favorite people on the face of the Earth. We get each others weirdness.

Whatever seemingly mundane thing you do today, it may remain mundane and unimportant forever. Or it may end up making all the difference in the world.

That's one of the most wonderful things about being alive.

19 comments:

Amy said...

Oh my goodness what a wonderful post. My second chance at love was my high school sweetheart in Iowa. Our brothers ran into each other 20 years later and began a discussion that led us back to each other 22 years later and both living 1500 miles from Iowa in California. It is amazing how this video game of life takes us on twists and turns and how our paths unfold.

Thanks for a great post and you are a beautiful writer!!

Amy

Frances Tyrrell said...

I've just spent a very enjoyable quarter hour reading some of your entertaining and thoughtful posts.
The story you just told could almost be the start of a Hardy novel itself. I can just imagine the young man in the basement, waiting and reading...

Land of shimp said...

Hi, Amy :-) Isn't it amazing how the seemingly inconsequential decisions we make feed into others, in areas unseen or dreamed of when we make them?

I'm so glad you also found your second chance, and it's particularly lovely that it was your brother who helped reopen that door.

Thanks for the kind words about my writing, I really do appreciate them.

Thank you, Frances, for both the comment and the visit. It almost does sound like the opening of a novel, my very tall husband, crouched in the basement, reading by the insufficient light...but Hardy would likely scoff at the happy ending, I suppose.

The Purloined Book. I do wonder who it belonged to, and if they ever missed it. My goofy husband, with his casual larceny. Maybe Hardy would approve after all ;-)

Jennifer D said...

I love this post. It made me think of when my husband and I met. I was a single mother of a 2 year old and I often spent my free time at the local coffee house. Actually we had met a few times before and I thought it was strange that he always had dark sunglasses on. Things changed one day when he drove past as I was walking to the coffee shop. You see he was leaving and when he saw me he turned around and came back... as simple as that, I was his and he was mine. That was 15 years ago.

PS-I found out later that he wore the dark sunglasses all the time because they were prescription and he had broken his regular glasses.
He seemed so mysterious...kinda creepy!.

Jo said...

What an absolutely lovely story. It made me smile. As Amy says, it's amazing how this video game of life takes us on twists and turns...

You know, Alane, you have one of the best-written blogs in the blogosphere. All of your posts are wonderful.

I have become a teeny bit bored with blogging lately, because there are some blogs out there that get up to 75 comments a day -- and the posts are boring and banal.

Your blog is fabulous, and I think the whole world should find your blog.

DUTA said...

Your story gave me great pleasure, and it reminded me of several funny and or weird ways of flirtation that I've encountered in my life. When it ends in marriage, that's wonderful.

Pauline said...

romance first thing in the morning - this delightful telling has set the pace for my day, thanks

Land of shimp said...

Morning, Jennifer. I love you story, "Secret Agent Man" the man of mystery! Life really is sometimes quite a challenge, and I that's the case for many people, I'm glad that you are going through it with someone who you so clearly, dearly love.

Thank you so much, Jo. You know how much that means to me, and I do thank you. I don't have a lot of readers, or people commenting, but I really enjoy the people who do. I don't mind at all, being yet another obscure blogger, because the people who are here as just so darned likable and fun. It's a very happy sort of obscurity :-)

Thank you though, I truly do appreciate the compliment!

DUTA, thank you! I'm always struck by how honestly touching and wonderful the stories people have are. Sometimes it's about how they met someone they love, or a very good friend, or just a lovely, random encounter. Often the stories of connections are nearly magical.

Thank you, Pauline :-) That happens to me quite often as I tour around on a Saturday morning, cup of coffee in hand. Just something unexpected and lovely that shines an unanticipated light on the day.

I'm very glad that I was able to return the favor with you, as you've done that for me more than once.

Nancy said...

Great story. The point that life is often a series of randomness that also carries life-changing possibilities.

I gave my husband a second look because someone that I worked with, who was happily married and crazy about her husband, said if she wasn't married she would go after that new guy in Economic Analysis. Now anyone in Economic Analysis was not really my cup of tea, at the time. I preferred guys working outside with big muscles and great tans.

That was 29 years ago. Thank goodness I listened to her. But it was just a random comment between gossiping girls.

The Bug said...

I love hearing the stories of how married folks meet (well, & friends too - those stories can be pretty interesting). Your story is most excellent - partly because of your fabulous way of weaving a tale.

I told a friend once that Dr. M was the last person on campus that I would date. Heh. That teaches me to talk in absolutes. The things that turned me away from him are still there, but they're mitigated by love (MOST of the time).

The pale observer said...

Just found your blog through Pauline's. I love this post! It makes everything seem so random yet so important at the same time.

Does it mean you believe in fate or chance? I think neither is a fact in it's entirety.

I love life's obscure things more than the supposedly spectacular.

I've become your newest follower :)

Cheers
Holli in Accra

Land of shimp said...

Nancy, I think one of the best things about hearing the stories of others is that it gives us an opportunity to consider our own. I think it's easy to say, "Well, if it hadn't been for the cockroaches, I'm sure it would have been something else." or "If it hadn't been for that chance remark by a coworker, it would have been something else." but we can't know that. Instead, some of the biggest events in our lives are tied to the tiniest occurrences.

It's really rather lovely, because it takes away the feeling of futility in our smaller actions. We never know, until hindsight comes into play.

The Bug, I think it's absolutely fascinating how the people who are sometimes best suited to us, strike us so differently when we meet them. So much for first impressions! I'm sure there's some big, important lesson in there about our approach to life but I need more coffee before I consider it too much!

Hello, Holli! Yes, I knew I recognized your screenname! Pauline's blog (west africa wins always) is one of my favorites. She's a very gifted writer, and she also is incredibly good at being concise (a skill I decidedly lack, and greatly admire in others). Through her blog I have gotten to know a great deal more about the Ivory Coast, and sadly some of it is disheartening, but it's always fascinating.

I see that you are also writing from that area of the world! I'll happily check out your blog in return, and thank you for reading mine.

I agree with you, the answers lie somewhere between absolute belief in either. Clearly chance plays such a definitive role in so much and yet, it's hard to discount fate entirely. After all, had my husband not met me, he would have met someone else (and likely so would I), but it's hard to escape the fact that we are very well suited to one another.

Perhaps it is that there are many fates available to us through our choices. We make our own fate, but it's intriguing how many opportunities present themselves. Almost as is if fate presents choice, over and over again, until we make the right (or fateful, if you will) one.

Amy said...

Oh, Alane, how deftly you weave your tale! I agree with those who commented on how your post reminded them of their own stories. That is a great testament to your writing. You tap into an emotional level that few other bloggers achieve. Bravo!

I will remain one of your most ardent fans. Oh, and I'm still thinking about the tree question. It may have to wait until I get back from still another visit with my precious grandson - Thanksgiving is my most favorite holiday and we have much to be thankful for this year!

Miss OverThinker said...

I absolutely loved reading this story.. At first, I wasn't sure I wanted to read this post since I thought it was going to be about bugs and infested apartments - I guess it was the picture that made me think that, but just a few lines into the post and I knew I wanted to read it all.. I read the entire post, save the first few lines with a smile on my face.. lovely story of how you two met.. It's amazing how love seems to find us even when we aren't looking.. May be one of these days, it will find me too..

Miss OverThinker said...

BTW, one of the things that you describe that caught your attention - the fact that he stayed in that basement for several hours for his friend - without even realizing how rare and nice that was - very endearing..

Hilary said...

You truly have a gift of weaving a fine tale. Thanks for sharing your story. You're a treat. :)

Land of shimp said...

Thank you, Amy! You have a marvelous time with the small, dapper and utterly charming Mr. Elliot. Happy Thanksgiving! It's clear you have a lot for which to be thankful :-) Look forward to seeing your words when you get back.

Thank you very much, MOT :-) I wondered if that was going to be the case, by the way, "A post about cockroaches? Blech. I'll pass." which is part of the reason I have such fondness for the memory, and the history, it's so incongruous. The least romantic thing you can name, or certainly one of them.

I'm sure one of these days you will find someone wonderful, and no matter how you meet, it will end up being a treasured memory :-)

Thank you, by the way, I still find my husband to have a huge slew of endearing characteristics. Including his propensity to say something completely unexpected.

Thank you, Hilary, I really do appreciate that a great deal. Particularly given that you have such a gift with images. It's always nice to get a compliment, but it's that much nicer when it comes from someone whose talent I admire.

Kathryn said...

Alane - you've so many comments that all express what i'm feeling - that you are expert in weaving a story - i hesitate to even comment as there is not much to add.

You are very skilled at touching the heart-strings of folks with your words.

My hubby & i bonded over "Wanna buy a duck" . . . but that's another story.

Hope you have a lovely Thanksgiving. :)

Land of shimp said...

Hi Kathryn, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving :-)

Thank you, by the way. Long ago I remember listening to a lecture about public speaking, that thing most of us hate to do, and in it the male lecturer said that the key to giving a good speech was to make sure the audience was actually participating on some level. That the speech wasn't just about imparting information, but about involving the individual.

I think so much of communication centers on that. There are certain things we share, that unite us.

It was so fun to read the comments of people sharing their own experiences. Making our vast world a little closer, because if there is one thing that we all have in common, it is that we all love someone, something, some place.

I love reading stories that are like a door being opened, "Would you like to come in too?" That sort of feeling. I try to tell stories that have doors on them, if that makes any sense.