DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION
It happened at the circus: our first significant argument in nearly ten years of marriage, with me at the popping point of pregnant.
We were watching famed animal trainer Gunther Gebel Williams in the cage with the wild cats. “I would give anything,” I said, “to get in there with those tigers.” As usual, my mouth made off with my thoughts before my mind could shut the gate. I knew by the look on my husband’s face that I had made a grievous error. I wasn’t fast enough to bite back the words.
When we met, Richard had an Alfa Romeo outfitted for the track. As soon as things got serious, I did too. “It’s that car or me.” I put my foot down: he would not be putting his foot down to the floor of any race car. “I will not sit in the stands and watch you hit a wall and explode into a fireball.” He proved his love for me the day he signed the title over to his speedster’s new owner.
I, meanwhile, had spent many years training dogs – some with frighteningly vicious behaviors. I’d never been bitten, and probably did not appreciate the danger involved in my activities. For me, it was an easy leap from bad canines to big cats.
And so I, oblivious to the impact of what I was suggesting, expressed my heart’s desire to court danger of a sort that Richard would most likely never have experienced in the somewhat safety-controlled world of auto racing. “You,” he shouted in the quietest bellow ever out of respect for the people around us, “made me give up my Alfa, and now you want to play with tigers?
I tried to diffuse the tension by reminding him that my fantasy would remain just that, as no one would actually let me get near those animals. He, on the other hand, could fork over an entry fee and, just like that, be driving to disaster or death. “Okay but, if you could get in, would you do it?” He had me, and he knew it.
Over the years, he’d let go of his pursuit of racing, but never his dream. On the other hand, he had been unfailingly supportive and helpful in my pursuit of a hobby in dog showing and, in particular, my quest for American Kennel Club recognition of the Finnish Spitz breed.
Now, years later and still together despite my gaffe, we had a milestone thirty-fifth anniversary approaching. I decided that the greatest surprise and thank-you I could give him would be classes at the renowned Skip Barber Racing School, Lime Rock, in Lakeville, CT. May was our marriage month and I would present his gift during our celebration, though he would be signed up to go in July. I figured that several weeks of anticipation would be part of the pleasure.
There was a problem. I had no gift to wrap and present to him on May 2nd. I really couldn’t see myself saying, “And oh, by the way . . . you’re going to Skip Barber in July.” I needed to come up with a representative token of some kind to hand him.
Richard wasn’t the type to wear a tee shirt or jacket with the school’s logo on it. I teased my thoughts; I badgered my brain; I mined my mind for ideas. YES! Of course . . . brilliant. Adams, the next town over from us, has a limestone quarry (too perfect!). I would find someone with a connection there to get a “lime rock” for me. A coworker brought me a fine specimen, about the size of a Magic 8 Ball though of course much craggier. It was surprisingly pretty, and of a weight hefty enough to throw Richard off when he handled the package.
I built a thick nest of tissue paper in a box and placed it just so inside. More tissue over the rock would keep it hidden from view when Richard first took off the lid. Then came luxurious wrapping paper befitting the occasion, and a full, rich-looking bow on top. The finished product could have come from the finest boutique or Fifth Avenue department store.
I’d left it on the island in the kitchen for him to put in the car with our luggage, as we would be celebrating our wedding weekend at the Connecticut shore. He wouldn’t go near the box. “You don’t want me to touch this,” he reminded me. “I might guess what it is.” I was beginning to understand the turmoil inside a geyser or volcano seconds before it erupted, and cast about for a way to stifle the roiling laughter that was threatening to erupt any minute. Dredged-up memories of my one and only root canal did the trick. I quickly composed myself. With a perfectly straight face and deceptively causal demeanor, I tossed back, “Oh, don’t worry, You won’t guess (in a million years, I added to myself).” “Well, if you’re sure,” he continued to worry the issue. With insides shaking by now, I wanted to scream, “Just take the damned thing to the car before I lose it altogether!” But I did not. I, the model of indifference, did not let on how funny this whole exchange was striking me. I nodded and said, “I’m sure.”
He carried the box like an explosive ready to detonate. He’s never told me what he thought was in there, but it must have been either very expensive or terribly delicate. Knowing what I knew, I saw it was going to be a difficult few days of maintaining my composure during his interactions with that package.
When we got to the motel, Richard locked his precious cargo in the trunk with his briefcase, where his gift to me was stashed. We brought our other things up to the room. He could not rest. “I won’t feel comfortable with those gifts in the trunk overnight,” he said. “I think I’ll bring them inside.” The humor hobgoblins were starting to pluck my silly strings again, and I bit the insides of my cheeks to stay calm. He went back to the car to retrieve the semi-precious cargo (“semi” meaning that his gift to me was precious and my gift to him, well . . .). I took a few moments to get back into character.
Saturday morning, our anniversary day, we had some activities planned, with a lovely dinner in the evening. As we left the motel around noon, Richard turned the television on – loud – to discourage any break-ins, put out the Do Not Disturb sign to keep housekeeping at bay, and triple-checked the lock before he’d walk away from the room. We got as far as the parking lot before he started back. “It’s just not safe up there,” he muttered. He had his briefcase with him, so his concern could only be for the pearl of great price or whatever else was in that mystery box. I pivoted on one foot and began a sprint back into the lobby. “I need the Ladies’ Room!” I called out behind me so he’d leave me to howl in peace and privacy in the lounge. He, meanwhile, dashed back up to the room and retrieved his rock. I came back outside just in time to see him cradling the package carefully among the other items in the trunk.
After a lovely afternoon at Mystic Seaport, including a romantic cruise on the Mystic River, we returned to the motel to dress for dinner. I was relieved that the subterfuge would soon be over.
Richard raised the stakes by a thousand. “Let’s open our gifts at dinner,” he suggested. Hello? I did not just hear that. We had reservations at a charming-but-elegant restaurant. I was certain we’d draw attention to ourselves with our loving exchange, and his present was no Fabergé egg. His dancing eyes suggested that I would be thrilled with mine. Uh oh.
“Ah, let’s not,” I began lamely. I didn’t know where to go from there. From Richard, the obvious: “Why not?”
“You know I’ll cry,” I began, and brought forth a few tears on the spot. “And my make-up will smear, and I’ll look really bad, and be so embarrassed . . . .” He saws hysteria setting in.
“Okay, okay, sweetie,” he capitulated. “We’ll open them when we get back to the room.” I saw disappointment in his eyes, but knew he’d understand once the lid was off my secret.
At our table-for-two by the massive fieldstone fireplace, I gazed at Richard. “How attractive he is,” I thought,” even after all this time.” I admired his broad shoulders, narrow waist, and long legs accentuated by the perfectly tailored conservative suit, pristine white shirt, and understated tie. I wore a simple suit of palest lavender, with white accessories. I loved the look of us. We dined on salmon, risotto, and grilled asparagus (he), and steak with truffle potatoes and fiddlehead ferns (me). We passed on sweets in favor of a fine dessert wine.
Back at the motel, it was time. “You first,” he urged, as he handed me what looked suspiciously like something that held a wristwatch. I was a little dismayed, as fancy women’s watches were not as fashionable as they had been years before. I eyed that square, black velvet box warily, stalling as I mustered up some semblance of delight. I managed a beaming smile and delicately removed the gift wrap. I opened the box with trepidation, and it took me a moment to register the scene. Where was the watch?
I stared, uncomprehending, as my heart pounded in a rapid rhythm. From somewhere far away I heard Richard say, “Don’t you like it?” I should have known. Richard had demonstrated, over and over again during our life together, that he was a master of subterfuge when it came to the art of gift-giving. There was no timepiece. What I stared at instead was an exquisite, pear-shaped diamond pendant of appreciable size, dangling from a delicate gold chain. For real this time, the tears came.
I have always been crazy about diamonds. Ironically, my engagement ring was a tiny, quarter-carat affair as Richard, at seventeen, could afford nothing else. “Someday,” he’d vowed then, with youthful exuberance and ignorance, “you’ll have all the diamonds you want.” This was the latest. “This is so beautiful!” I enthused. “I could not have found anything lovelier if I’d gone to the jeweler myself. I thank you, and I love you, with all my heart.” Richard smiled at last. “Your eyes are sparkling like the stone,” he said. “And your smile is thousand-watt.” His eyes were shining, too.
It was time for him to open his package. He was less careful with the wrap, as men tend to be. He removed the box top and peeled back the layers of tissue until his hand found the rock and tossed it aside. I watched as he pawed at the paper, looking more confused by the second. Finally, I interceded. “There’s nothing else in there,” I offered. “What is it?” he inquired with a second glance at the rock (as if he couldn’t have figured it out all by himself). “It’s a lime rock,” I gave him, sure he would catch on right away. He didn’t.
I could see that this was not going to go as planned. In the thirty-seven years I’d known this man, our conversations had been peppered with puns. Now, the most significant one ever was falling flat and failing miserably. I needed a quick recovery. “It’s a lime rock,” I emphasized, searching his face for that spark of recognition. There was none. IT’S A LIME ROCK!! I exclaimed, with all the force I could muster. “You know, Lime Rock???” His eyes came to life at last. Success! Or so I thought. “Are we going to a race?” he inquired innocently.
Ugh. He was not making this easy, as the pieces of the puzzle were just not coming together for him. Despite my elaborate set-up and inventive play on words, I was right where I’d hoped not to be. I had to use words – plain, ordinary words — to convey the essence of his surprise to him. “You’re taking classes at the school.”
And there came the reaction I’d hoped for! A moment of hesitation, followed by recognition. Now, his eyes danced. His smile stretched mile-wide. Knowing my aversion to motor sports as they involved him, he’d never seen this coming.
That July we spent two days in Lakeville, where I shopped as Richard practiced performance driving. Then we continued on to the shore for a few more days of vacation. He talked nearly nonstop about his experience: the evasive techniques, skid control, directional-change braking.
Late Sunday afternoon, we began our journey home. As Richard started the engine and put the car into reverse, he revved up for yet another reminiscence. “I won the tennis-ball-on-a-pie-plate competition,” he reminded me.
“Please, tell me again.”
He missed the sarcasm. “They put a magnet on the hood of the car and screwed a paper plate to it. A short rope held a tennis ball on the plate but gave it a little slack. As we maneuvered, we had to keep the ball from falling off. I got the highest score on the . . . “
“Unf!”A jolt threw me forward against the seat belt. Suddenly, our rear bumper was locked in a tight embrace with a box truck’s loading step. He pulled away, but the bumper stayed stuck. It was now accordion-pleated, with more metal showing than white paint. The damage was such that we could not drive the car and had to have it towed to a dealer. We rented a replacement for the week it took for the auto body repairmen to reverse the effects of Richard’s newly-acquired, superior auto-handling skills.
I couldn’t help myself. “Is that what you learned at Skip Barber?”
“Now Bet (he drove his victory lap), you’ve seen NASCAR on TV. The cars go around an oval in one direction – forward! They never taught us reverse.”