Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Watch & Learn

Dave walked into the kitchen and showed me his wrist. On it was his watch, boldly lying about the time. It wasn't anywhere near 5:30. Dave is a bus driver. His need for an accurate watch is paramount. Sometimes when we're speaking casually about where to be when, he'll say, "I'll meet you at 4:53 in front of the post office." He lives by his watch.
"Oh no!" I said to the stopped watch.
Dave nodded sadly.
"But we thought it would last forever!" I said.
He agreed. "I feel a little betrayed," he said. "If you can't trust a Swiss Army watch that was purchased IN SWITZERLAND, then what can you trust?"
I myself have a watch from China, one of those Mickey-Mouse-style watches with a little character whose arm is the big hand, only in my watch's case, the character is Mao, not Mickey Mouse. My Mao watch stopped almost immediately upon receipt. This, you expect. It undoubtedly came from some guy's street table. I was disappointed but not surprised. The halting of the Swiss Army watch, on the other hand, was truly distressing.
I recalled the vacation during which we'd visited Switzerland. We'd come into a little money and decided that the best possible thing to do with it was to spend it in Europe. Our kids hadn't seen Europe and we ourselves had only limited experience with the continent. So we decided to go to Paris and Switzerland and Florence.
Dave is city-phobic and always has been. He was raised an hour outside of NYC, but to him and his family, it's a place of insidious perfidy, where pimps will come at you and rob you with switchblades; where young girls like ours will be sold into white slavery; where conmen will hypnotize you with fascinating shell games and then take all of your money.
I understood, therefore, that the heavy-on-the-urban trip might not be as fun for him as it would be for me. I appreciated the fact that he was ready and willing to do it when he’d probably be more comfortable camping in the wilds of Siberia. (This reminds me of a dinner party I was invited to at which among the other guests, were two women in their late seventies. They disliked each other, these two, and ended up bickering about which was better: the city or the country. “I just can’t abide the noise of the city,” said the one and the other, by then overwrought, replied, “Well, I love it. Just give me some bus fumes and I’m as happy as a clam.”)
At any rate, I was cognizant of the fact that this vacation was ours, not just mine, and that thus, it would be good to build in a little downtime from The City for Dave. Which I did do. I put the rural Swiss downtime in between Paris and Florence as a little respite for him. I was the trip-planner; I didn't know anything about Switzerland; I lit upon Interlaken as our Swiss destination. That it was filled with elderly German tourists and Irish frat-boy types came as an unwelcome surprise, but physically the landscape’s so Heidi-gorgeous that we had a great time anyhow. Dave rented a bike immediately and rode it around the 20 mile-around lake that one of the lakes of Interlaken is inter. After one of his rides and before supper one night, we walked into an official Swiss Army store where he bought an extra knife (he loves those knives) and his watch.
After Switzerland, we took the train to Florence and looked for our hotel which was directly across the street from the Duomo. It had a one-star rating, simply because the bathroom was shared and across the hall, which was fine with us. Everything about that hotel was tremendous. Fifteen-foot ceilings, windows that opened onto a full view of the Duomo, breakfast of almond-flavored rolls served at a little table in our room. The elevator was awesomely teensy and non-American; the two flights of stairs took us past the silent Haitian Embassy, which was cool. Whomever it was who had plastered the walls white was an artist whose heart simply hadn't let him cover the antique green stenciled wallpaper entirely; he'd left a small unplastered square of the decoration above the bed like the most beautiful of hotel pictures.
There was a single fly in my gelato. And that was what the heck Dave was doing. As I was planning the trip—booking hotels, reading guidebooks-- I'd envisioned us walking together down the streets of Paris and then Florence, fingers entwined, eating street food. I'd pictured us touristing together, sweetly, companionably. Our girls were getting along, we were on vacation, we were in beautiful and interesting places. And so why, I wondered, gazing out the window at the Duomo, why does he walk behind me, rather than with me as we stroll? Why doesn’t he want to walk next to me? When I see something wonderful, there’s no one at my side to show it to. I’m all alone on my family vacation.
There could be but a single reason. His distaste for cities was such that he was pouting. If he wasn't on a bike (he'd biked Paris, then Interlaken, then the hills around Florence) then I guessed he wasn't willing to play along. He was miserable on the sidewalks of the cement jungle and he was bound and determined to make sure that I knew it.
I was mad. I challenged him to a conversation. We decided on the steps of the Duomo as our debate court. We walked down the stairs of our hotel and across the street. We sat.
"Why won't you walk next to me?" I said. "It hurts my feelings. I've tried to make this vacation as interesting and as fun as it could be for you. I thought if you had your own time, that we two could share my time. But we haven't been together. We've been on two separate vacations. Why don't you want to walk next to me? It makes me feel isolated from you."
Dave sighed. "It's not that," he said.
"No?" I said, hurt. “Well then what is it?”
"It's just that when I walk behind you, I can make sure we're all together, is all."
It became clear. He had taken on the role as the herder, the catcher in the rye, a reverse Pied Piper. He was doing his job as he saw it. He was keeping us safe as we walked the city streets. Immediately, I was suffused with a myriad of feelings: a little chagrin, a modicum of rue, more than a dash of love.
I turned to him and smiled the way you smile when you've falsely accused someone of something and hope they'll forgive you, and suddenly, the hour changed and all the bells of the Duomo tolled at once. Hands over our ears, we ran back across the street, up the stairs past the Haitian Embassy and to our beautiful room. There, he dressed for his bike tour while I rounded up the girls for the Boboli. I believe we gave each other a hug before we parted.
Two years later, I was washing dishes back in Carrboro, while next to me, he chopped peppers and onions, his stopped watch still on his hopeful wrist. I was thinking about that moment in Florence and about how wrong it is to falsely accuse and how easy it is to misinterpret almost everything, when it hit me. I turned to Dave.
"Maybe it's the battery," I said.
We looked at each other.
“Why didn’t we think of this before?” said Dave.
I shrugged. “Maybe because of no Duomo?” I asked.
“May be,” he agreed and we went back to our chores.


  1. I loved your tale with the moral to it...quite lovely! Thank you for sharing the tender story of Dave and his watch.