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Part III — the Magic Word

I continue the story of how we met, and how I finally ended up at a doctor who told me what I needed  (but not necessarily wanted) to hear.

Shortly before the jdate sparks started flying, a friend of mine from Providence moved to a suburb of Philadelphia to seek his fortune. Jeff was crashing on his brother’s couch near Ambler until he found his own way. Having been out to see Jeff once before, I welcomed this excuse to make a three hundred mile sojourn and meet the mystery boy while ostensibly being under the guise of chaperone-ship from Jeff. The cuddly gay man was going to protect me from the 135-lb beanpole, should he prove to be other than the sensitive man his profile portrayed him to be. The date for a visit was set for the last weekend of April 2003.

My packing list for this voyage, as inscribed in my journal:

To bring to Philly:
cookies/baked goods/matzah ball soup
appliance bulb (for Mr. Apron’s defunct oven light)
books for Mr. Apron (for the cross-state lending library)
$ for gas, tolls
AHWOSG (the Dave Eggers book “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which Mr. Apron had lent to me)
CDs & CD player & cassette adaptor (Mr. Apron burned CDs for me but I had only a tape-player in my car)

Fortunately, my brief tenure (7 days, two hours) at a $9/hr data entry job (typing up mortgage deeds) was terminated when I literally fell asleep from sheer boredom at 11am despite large quantities of Dr. Pepper. That week, I had also received my rejection letter from Teach For America, dashing hopes of gainful employ in the immediate future. Pittsburgh thus holding no real occupational prospects on the horizon, I felt a new freedom as I set off across the state on the first of many trips down the well-worn Pennsylvania Turnpike. There ought to now be a rest stop named after us, for the quantity of tolls we have donated to Penn DOT. Eleven dollars and sixty-five cents in tolls later, plus another $175.00 for a certain eager lovebird’s first speeding ticket, I arrived at Jeff’s brother’s apartment The next morning, after a surprisingly restful sleep, Jeff and I set off cavorting around the northern suburbs of Philly, hitting the malls, the hair salons, and getting psyched up for the meeting that evening. Mr. Apron’s optician schedule at Sterling Optical was such that he faithfully worked every Sabbath, and in turn was rewarded with a Sunday-Monday weekend. That night, after he closed up shop, Mr. Apron headed home to canine Finley to await our arrival at his apartment in Wayne. Arrive we did, in my cute little PT Cruiser. We ascended to the third floor semi-loft, met Finley for the first time, and, oh yeah, Mr. Apron. Things were a little tense as Mr. Apron shoved antibiotics down Finley’s throat and I stood up from petting the dog and realized I now had a film of grey fur on my formerly clean light tan “I love Buns” t-shirt. Nonetheless, neither of us was a 60 year old Chinese woman and that counted as a success.

Jeff had invited two friends to join the party to ease the presumed awkwardness, so we all set off for the King of Prussia Mall, the largest mall on the Eastern Seaboard (second nationally in size only to the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota). In the parking lot of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Restaurant (featured prominently in the 2002 Michael Moore film “Bowling for Columbine”), the other members of the party – we’ll call them Alex and Schmalex – pulled up and the five decided unanimously NOT to eat at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Restaurant. Because Mr. Apron knew the lay of the land better than the others, he led the caravan back to Wayne, back to the Main Line, and found Minella’s Diner, a greasy spoon reminiscent of a time when Wayne was an affordable place to live and restaurants weren’t called “Spice” and “Nectar” and “Pomme de Foie Gras”. Though he committed the vegetarian solecism of ordering eggs and Canadian bacon for dinner, I nonetheless saw the man for who he was, not what garbage he put in his body.

The next 24 hours were filled with pre-recorded broadcasts of “Cookin’ Cheap”, Mr. Apron’s favorite cooking show, visits to South Street, where I no longer felt like a freak, dining at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant, the likes of which I had never eaten before, and a trip to the Mutter Museum, full of medical curiosities, oddities, and the best of the grotesque, including giant colons, two-headed turtles, and a human horn. Mr. Apron’s wry wit kept me laughing the entire time as we zoomed around town in Mr. Apron’s 2001 Herbie the Love Bug. On the way to return me to Jeff’s brother’s apartment, I almost started crying in the car because the weekend of wonder and validation and joy was coming to an end, and all that spanned in front of me was the bleak, jobless world of Pittsburgh.

Part IIIb “How I Finally Got a Job Teaching in the Philly Area and Could Justify Moving to be Closer to Mr. Apron”

I spent a year in Pittsburgh, finishing up my college degree and trying fruitlessly to secure full-time employment. It was a year of working as a receptionist of a comedy club 21 hours a week for minimum wage, answering phones, messing up the ticket-ordering applet the owner had created, and being harassed for being Jewish. Plus TV. A lot of TV. When the phone wasn’t ringing, I would watch the back-to-back tear-jerking triumvirate of A Dating Story, A Wedding Story, and A Baby Story on TLC. Now you know why we still don’t have cable. I tried to get full-time work. I just couldn’t believe that a college degree from a top-tier university would be worthless. And yet it most definitively was. I was rejected from mall jobs, ignored by non-profits, and told by photographers looking for assistants that I was too well educated. Finally a temp agency hired me for the ambiguous “$9-10/hr to start, administrative” job. As I said, I lasted 7 days. The job had something to do with mortgages, though exactly what, I still don’t know. I knew that we took pre-printed packets of papers on which someone had highlighted key bits of information, and put those numbers or words, or descriptions in a computer application. At the end of this, we pushed submit, and it printed out in some remote corner of the office. Walking to the printer was as exciting as it got. Then someone who was paid maybe $11/hour looked them over for typos and sent them back. Once I patiently sat as a supervisor carefully showed me a print-out I had not generated to point out all the typos and mistakes I had not made, so I could learn from them. I was not fired on that Tuesday I fell asleep; my “assignment was terminated”. Though I had no job and no prospects, I had that visit to Mr. Apron to look forward to.

Once we had met and fallen hopelessly in love in person, it was clear I needed to focus my job search on the Philadelphia area. That way I could justify a move out here and still have a back-up “just in case”. Because a girl needs that. A modern feminist doesn’t just pick up and move out to be with a boy. She has a job in place first, an apartment of her own, and a plan.

Well, I received as many rejections from Philly jobs as I had thus far in Pittsburgh, with one exception. I faxed over an application on a Monday to a small Quaker elementary school that was looking for a preschool assistant teacher. They called me on Wednesday to invite me to interview the following Monday. It just so happened I was going to Baltimore for my cousin Paul’s 100th birthday (June 6, 1903. send him a card — this year was 106) that weekend, so I took a small detour up to Philly, crashed with Mr. Apron, interviewed Monday morning, and had an offer by that afternoon.

I moved out here August 1st,2003, to a “jr 1-bedroom” apartment in a 100-year-old house that had been converted to apartments and stripped of all personality. And grass. My landlord did not enjoy the finer aspects of property maintenance, so he had taken it upon himself to pav every square inch of the lot on which that house stood. Need I mention we had ample off-street parking? There was even a defunct pick-up truck in the back lot with weeds growing out of the bed. We had some pictures of Finley staring at us pitifully from the bed of the truck, asking why we put him in there.

All was sprinkles and rainbow balloons. I was employed, albeit on a meager salary, and courting my future husband. We went hiking in the surrounding state parks, shopping on the Main Line, and took trips into Philly to see plays and walk around the various neighborhoods of Manayunk, Chestnut Hill, South Street, Old City, and Society Hill.

One evening, having walked the entirety of South Street, we approached Penn’s Landing, which at that point overlooks the Delaware River, and all the romantic refineries of southern Jersey. I remember the wind whipping up around us, perched so high above the riverfront, or maybe that’s the way I want to remember it because of the way I clung to Mr. Apron, my face buried in his bony chest, as I had a tongue spasm. It was one of exactly 2 I had in his presence, but this was the first, and the scariest. He had no idea what was happening to his girlfriend, to this child he’d courted from across the state. I’m sure I gave him my standard I’m-not-going-to-be-able-to-talk-for-one-minute spiel, but I don’t think he bought the I’ll-be-just-fine line I also delivered. Afterwards, we stood face-to-face (or face-to-nipple-line, due to our height differential), and we talked. He asked me to go see a doctor, his doctor, the octogenarian whom his whole family had trusted for 3 generations, from his great-grandmother who put on make-up for his housecalls to his finicky never-trusts-any-doctor sister. You recall I had heard this before, and that I kind of knew something was wrong with me that a doctor needed to address. And you also recall that I had successfully (open to interpretation) ignored, suppressed, and hidden my spasms for 8 years. What was different about this time? Mr. Apron said please. He looked at me with caring eyes, eyes that had only known me six months, and literally said, “Please.”

When I think of that word, of “please”, I think first of little children being cajoled into saying the “magic word” to seal the deal on whatever junk food, carnival ride, privilege or playdate they’ve requested. I think of the value we place on not just politeness, but on how that word allegedly unlocks these dire appeals for an ice cream sundae. I think also of the etymology, because I’m first and foremost a linguistics nerd. I think of plaintive “pleas” made before a judge, begging for mercy or leniency, entreaties for action. That’s the way Mr. Apron asked me to see Dr. Lander. After 8 years of hiding, ignoring, and denying, I picked up the phone and made the call to see Dr. Lander, the call that would set off a series of events bringing me to and beyond brain surgery. All because he said, “Please.”

To this day, “please” remains a magic word in our home. It signifies a change in tone when we’re arguing, discussing, or going over important things. When Mr. Apron and I talk about career change, or baby-making, or making important phonecalls, or mailing important packages, all it takes is for the other to say, “Please”. It cuts through the excuses, through the procrastination, and gets right to the meat of the matter. It says, simply, “I need you to do this because I love you and this is important to both of us.” It really is a magic word.

 Part II: the back story

It’s important to see how Mr. Apron came into my life because he was so instrumental in supporting me on my journey into and out of brain surgery and recovery. 

Of course we met on jdate.  Two stunningly attractive, Jewish, fresh-out-of-college BPs (beautiful people) with Bachelor’s degrees, unfulfilling jobs in retail and entertainment, respectively, and a touch of loneliness.  Respectively.  I had listed my profile in July of 2002 out of boredom while at a summer architecture program with nearly unlimited access to late-model computers with high-speed Internet access.  I used jdate mostly for “baiting”, a favorite pastime of recent Brandeis graduates looking for other Brandeis graduates who are pitiful enough to have profiles on jdate.  Mr. Apron posted his profile (RoyalTenen) in August 2002 after much urging from his best friend, David.  David needed Mr. Apron to create a profile so that he, Mr. Apron, could view all the women that he, David, had “hot listed”.  In February of 2003, Mr. Apron updated his profile, allowing jdate to market RoyalTenen as a highlighted user on the left part of the screen.  While the handle RoyalTenen may have referred to the movie of the same name, it immediately caught my eye because of the explicit similarity to my maiden name.  And so I clicked. 

One cannot say the rest was history.  I read and reread the profile of the seemingly incongruous RoyalTenen, viewed a picture of him sniffing sunflowers, and I took in his location: Wayne, PA.  Now, I knew that from Pittsburgh, where I was stationed, to Philadelphia, was a good six-hour drive clear across the state.  I did not, however, have the slightest clue where Wayne was, but I figured it had to be closer than Philly.  It is, by approximately 18.73 miles.  At this point, I was optimistic, and didn’t do any driving calculations until later.  I vacillated about contacting this strange man.  She consulted with trusted advisors from Brandeis, and finally took the plunge. 

Now, like many Brandeisians who are on jdate almost exclusively for baiting (excepting those who find their B’sherets there), I was too cheap to pay for membership from jdate.  I was allowed to ogle, to “hot list” cute boys from Muhlenberg, and to reply to others’ correspondence, I she could not initiate sweet nothings with RoyalTenen.  So I subverted the jdate paradigm, and craftily embedded my e-mail address into the text of my profile, where it stayed, at least for 48 hours, when those evil jdate higher-ups found it and deleted it.  I “hot listed” Mr. Apron, which would send him a high-priority alert that he was being stalked.  Curious about which bitchin’ Ashkenazi broad had discovered his true hot-ness, Mr. Apron took the bait.  And found me. 

Over the course of that weekend, I was snowed into a Shabbat across America with a vegetarian Chabad-Lubavitch family in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.  Mr. Apron was snowed into the third-floor semi-loft attic apartment at in Wayne, PA.  He vacillated and consulted with his trusted advisor David.  And took the plunge.  Mr. Apron e-mailed me. 

Dear A*****,
What's happening?  This is Mr. Apron, or "RoyalTenen" from the "Jdate Social Misfit Kleenex Klub."  Flattered and all that I've made it to your undoubtedly prestigious Hot List, as usually I have little trouble in making it onto other peoples' list of a different nature.
So, what's the deal, Lady?  Why Pittsburgh?  I mean, is Filthy McNasty's really that great of an attraction.  In Philly, we have a restaurant called "Rotten Ralph's"-- I mean, same idea, you know?  So we don't have Carnegie Mellon or that big, stupid boat that goes cruising along whatever river it is that old people get drunk on... whatever, you know!
So... tell me about yourself.  I will read what you write and write back, making frightfully witty comments about your dog's name and the way you paint your nails.  And you can ask me questions about myself.  Guys just love that shit.
--Mr. Apron

And thus read the first in an unending series of e-mails, which grew exponentially longer, from an innocuous 2k, to 9k, to 14k, and one might say it stabilized at the length at which Mr. Apron and I started to develop carpal tunnel and glazed eyes after typing and reading each e-mail.  At this point, the move to AOL’s ubiquitous Instant Messenger was suggested, and we eagerly accepted the prompt.  Endless nights reached towards 3am, necessitating that I upgrade to a more expensive ISP, and resulted in Mr. Apron’s falling asleep at work. 

By this point, packages of old-fashioned type-written notes, and old-fashioned home-made pumpkin bread had been flying back and forth between Pittsburgh and Wayne with alarming frequency since approximately 3 days after the first fateful e-mail.  So intuitive were the visceral feelings we felt ourselves developing, so comfortable was the trust we already shared, that Mr. Apron sent me his childhood Quilty Piece.  The QP, as it is now called, is a grayish rag that used to be a baby blanket.  Not the usual mix-tape or bouquet of flowers…While I was at first greatly puzzled by this gesture (honestly, it’s still an enigma), and my royal advisors quickly determined Mr. Apron was some sort of fetishist, I  nurtured this burgeoning relationship, unsure of the gray, sour-smelling rag, but growing increasingly sure of the man who sent it to me.  One day, while carefully removing a return-address label from an early package from Mr. Apron in preparation for its reuse in a missive to him, I absent-mindedly flipped over the rectangle of paper.  It was an incomplete business card containing partial personal information of none other than Mr. Apron.  Wouldn’t it be funny, I mused, if the To: address label was written on the back of a complete business card?

You know it did.  You know I now had his carefully guarded telephone number.  And you know I finally got up the courage to call the number on that card.  While it led to the home of Mr. Apron’s parents, and not the personal cell phone of Mr. Apron, it nonetheless opened the door for us to let down our guards about our anxious telephone voices.  We were able to venture into a world with no “delete” key and no “send” button.  The late-night Instant Messenger conversations gave way to late-night/early morning (Cingular’s free nights start at 9pm after all) telephone conversations, with me curled up on her yellow loveseat cradling the portable until the charge ran out, and Mr. Apron faithfully talking to me for the duration of his return trips from visiting David in New York City. 

By April, it had quickly become clear that this budding relationship had come to a head.  I needed to meet Mr. Apron in person, if for no reason other than to establish that neither of us was a 60-year-old Chinese woman.  In the end, all Internet relationships have the potential to be skeevy.  In reality, we needed to know if the other was as wonderful, compassionate, witty, and articulate as with the written word.  Or, in other words, “nice, smart, and funny”.

Getting a migraine at 6pm when it’s too late to take the real meds — those with caffeine — because, due to my low caffeine tolerance, it’ll keep me up at night.

Knowing now, as I prepare to go to sleep, that Advil will only “take the edge off” for so long, and I”ll wake up at 4am with a pounding head, trying to stay in bed till 6am. 

Being bitchy to Mr. Apron because I cannot tolerate noises, smells, bright lights, dog barking, or talking about anything serious, and I just shut down and get bitchy, which isn’t fair to Mr. Apron because he shouldn’t have to suffer from the migraine, too.  But he does.

Having a migraine.  That’s what sucks.

Children get hurt; this is a fact of life, of preschool, and of buildings with less-than-ideal (though up to code) facilities.  For example, the play “yard” was not big enough for the number of children at the center (hovering around 55 now), so they tore out the shrubberies around the perimeter to give an extra square foot all around, thus making the area legal for whatever number of children could potentially be in there at one time (18, I think).  However, they never replanted anything, put down turf, impervious or otherwise.  So when it’s muddy, we’re up to code, but forced back to the original, space. 

But up to code.  And when many children are forced into a small area, accidents happen.  When electrical boxes are placed at eye level of a 4 year old, and not adequately covered, children run into them.  When this happens, incident reports are filed.  The report reads something like this:

Juan was running in the yard.  He turned his head and hit the electrical box which was at his eye level. 

Then there’s a section for corrective action.  This is supposed to help us learn what we can do better, but not paint us in a bad or negligent light.  So, we’re not allowed to write, “Will cover with high-density padding.” if that’s not actually going to happen.  Nor can we write, “Will be more careful next time,” implying we were not careful this time.  We’re supposed to write, “Will continue to exercise caution when children play in this area” or some band-aid such as, “Will continue to place playground equipment in such a way as to obstruct access to the electrical box”.  Will continue.  Which makes us not negligent.  Yet it happened anyway. 

A few weeks ago, I was in a classroom working with a child.  Another child came over to our area.  She tripped over my extended big-person feet and fell face-first into the carpet, biting her lip.  Would you like to know what my corrective action was?  “Will remove objects from her path” which was corrected by the program director to read, “Will continue to…”  Of course.  Because otherwise it makes us seem like we’re placing stumbling blocks, filets of fish, beds of nails, puddles of Jello, uneven curbs, Crisco, hidden driveways, Jersey barriers, Civil War mortar shells, or dead cats in front of children with physical disabilities.  This particular child has Cerebral Palsy and could and does fall even with a wide open runway of bathtub daisies and gripper pads, wearing YakTrax, Crampons, or golf cleats.  If typical children without paralyzed bits and balance issues regularly run into doorknobs and split their chins on glass coffee tables (does the whole world have that distinctive chin scar, or am I exaggerating?), what chance do developmentally delayed kids have?

Which is why our incident reports do not fit.  They’re designed for us to take corrective action to prevent recurrences, but they don’t fit in situations where the common factor — instead of being electrial boxes or poles in the middle of the play yard — is the child.  They fit “stupidities” as my tenth grade chemistry used to tell us, but do not fit true accidents”. 

Yesterday, I was seated at my desk, writing my unending end-of-day notes on the 16 (!) children I managed to give a small portion of my day.  My desk is one of those 1950s style painted metal desks you see in cop movies and shows like Law & Order.  Well, as I finished my last note, wrist lying limp in agony, I threw down my sweaty pen, and turned to go raid the chocolate tin in the main office, thus slamming my knee into the corner of my desk with the full force of someone who has just finished writing 16 notes and needs chocolate to make it through the rest of the work day. 

“GAAAH!”  I did not stifle my scream.

“Are you okay?” asked the coworker in the main office, who was probably guarding the chocolate tin.  You’re supposed to eek out a meager, “Yeah” and move on with life in the grown-up world, so that no one has to follow up or be concerned.  Which they’re not really anyway.  I broke rank. 

“Noooo!”  I moaned, clutching, writhing, stifling, sucking in my teeth the way you do when you can’t scream with the true force of agony. 

It hurt.  I do have perpetually bruised knees, mostly from shoving myself under child-size tables, scooting into child-size table legs, and generally crawling around a child-size world as an admittedly not so large adult.  However, one question remains:

What does that incident report look like? 

“While rotating out of chair, I fucked up my knee on the motherfucking corner of this Titanic desk that’s older than I am.”

“While taking a break from my overwhelming caseload duties, I slammed my kneecap directly into the corner of the metal desk, screaming in agony.”

“My knee got bitch-slapped by my desk.”

What I’d really have trouble with is the corrective action.

“Will continue to exercise due caution around objects of a certain hardness, i.e., metal office desks.”

“Will continue to search for new jobs which have more forgiving office furniture.”

“Will continue to wrap corners of desk in high-density foam padding and/or bubble wrap.”

“Will continue to wear knee pads and/or snow suit to prevent all future contact between patellar surfaces and any/all desks.”

Feel free to contribute your own corrective action ideas.  Don’t forget to CYA with the magic, forgiving “Will continue” or you may inadvertantly be perceived as negligent, and may receive your very own corrective action.

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July 2020