Peder Hill questions the value of honor in a true-life love story about his Austrian friend.
Before the end, I’d be covered in snake spuge, accused by bewildered friends of being a complete dumb-ass, have my sexual orientation questioned, be shaken down by a lesbian, and have my fortune told by a dour-faced Ukrainian woman. And in the end I’d find love.
My journey to something approaching utter happiness started in the most unlikely of places—the Veterans’ Hall, in Santa Cruz, California. A place of fluorescent hallways packed with dusty cases displaying old military metals and yellowed photographs of soldiers. They always do lots of community stuff there, organizing picnics for the vets, Thanksgivings, and community classes like Salsa dancing. I’d seen a flyer stapled near the drum shop downtown and on a lark decided to go. Follow your intuition boys. The golden whisper.
At my first class, I discovered Salsa at the Veterans’ wasn’t for the meek. On any given night you’ll face not only the uncoordinated stab of pointy heels, but also woman in their early fifties who press in on you and whisper in various tones of gin and rum. There’s also a regular cross dresser, also mid fifties. Thick mop of black hair, peeling layers of makeup, huge hands. The warm sweaty clasp of Andrea the Giant. Also speaks in rum. Reasonably good dancer.
For Salsa class, the instructor, a nice woman from Poland (the heartland of Salsa) stands upon stage and, with a portable Mic, demonstrates the “basic step” as everyone who wandered in attempts—each with their own version of stereotyped whiteness—to mimic her smooth, sensuous movements. Her effeminate American husband then joins her to perform the evening’s routine.
After being both mesmerized and utterly intimidated by the elegance and intricacy of their dancing, those who hadn’t yet pansied out dutifully arrange themselves in two concentric circles—leaders outside (usually men), followers in. Followers rotate, skipping from one “leader” to the next as the whole class stomps and slashes their way around.
One night, in amid the circle of drunken middle-aged woman and Ms. big hands, came around a stunning, utterly charming girl from the little European country of Austria. I mean, this girl was amazing.
She danced nearly as good as big hands. I did my best not to step on her. And the dancing worked so well we decided to leave the circle and strike out on our own.
It was over our first beer that she gently but firmly let me know she had a boyfriend back home. I remember trying to continue smiling. Then a slow deep breath, a swig of ale, another deep breath, as I settled on friendship. What else could one do?
Along the trail below the redwood trees I taught her to recognize poison oak. And I guess I was trying to impress her when I boldly caught a garter snake, which promptly sprayed me with some kind of pee so wretched I had to hang my hand out the window as we drove home laughing.
Weeks of Salsa and bottles of red wine on the porch and our friendship grew. One night she left tired and got lost in the fog, driving nearly to San Jose. A few days later, after hours of easy company and more laughter, she yawned and rose to leave.
“Just crash on the couch if you want.”
Yawn. “You sure? Your housemates won’t mind?”
“No problem. They’ll be glad if you don’t get lost again, maybe end up in Mexico this time.”
The next morning I woke at 5:30 and made my friend coffee.
My hippie landlord had stuffed pink insulation around a single room: mine. But instead of moderating the temperature, the room was an icebox. You would often actually see your breath fogging across your vision. Which is why one night, hanging out, I lent her a sleeping bag. Later on we were talking one moment, and the next I found her sound asleep.
She was safe. And from then on she slept in her sleeping bag beside me nearly every night. Neither of us with a thought beyond friendship. The happiest summer of our lives continued. But couldn’t forever. Every day the time for her to return home grew nearer. Something else grew too: my confusion and discontent. What the hell was I doing sleeping every night next to an extraordinary girl who had a boyfriend? What was wrong with me?
The fortune teller lived catty corner Foster’s Freeze, in the same house my previous boss had before leaving California for Hawaii, where she still lives in an enormous red tree house in the fruit-filled jungle. I never intended to have my future foretold. I’d only gone along after purchasing my housemate a fortune-telling gift certificate—scrawled on some brown paper by the new occupant, a short woman with a ruddy, deadpan gaze and Eastern-European accent.
We arrived while she was fielding a business call, so we waited patiently atop throw pillows on the shag carpet. She hung up, came out, and hastily told my housemate’s future, then, out of nowhere, turned to me. And told me I’d be in a love triangle.
Whoa. What? I am, to my soul, a one-woman guy. Which is why I had to strain my face to suppress snickering at the crazy lady. She must have been getting aural interference. Or smoking some of my landlord’s weed. Whatever.
The days with my friend grew shorter. I bought tickets to a Mambo show at a blues bar near the flea market. Another last chance to spend time together. As we left and headed toward the car, three strange girls came up and said the most extraordinary thing: they’d agreed that, of all those there, we had been the most beautiful couple.
The next day I took Sarah to sushi. I couldn’t expect what I’d find when I got home: my housemates. Only different.
As I entered, they approached me in unison. Jessie, the shorter, feistier, lesbian one, did the talking: “Peder. Let’s sit down.”
“What’s up with Sarah? What the hell are you thinking?”
I was taken aback. “What do you mean?”
Jessie with a weary sigh, seeming to struggle for patience.
“What about Iris?”
“What about her? What do you mean? You know. She has a boyfriend.”
The sigh again.
Sarah’s arrival in a love triangle that we were oblivious to sparked not only my housemates into action, but also Iris. And eventually we figured out what everybody else already knew.
Iris later told me she’d wondered if I were gay, as she was as utterly baffled as the rest by my behavior. She’d had a boyfriend, I reminded her. This time instead of a sigh, I got a smile, one both sweet and bemused. She then shared with me the ugly truth about guys she had met: most don’t give a rat’s ass if a woman is already in a relationship. They attempt to storm the castle anyways with smiles and jokes and alcohol and their wandering hands. Honor, it seems, is all but dead among modern men.
And why not? No doubt many successfully broke through the gates and found their wandering way to love and happiness or to something less noble but almost equally pleasant. What do you got to lose? Well, everything. The would-be castle raider, in his heated lunge toward someone amazing, may sever forever the faintest and most important pathway to happiness he’ll ever have.
I never really thought about marrying that girl. One day I just realized I needed a ring. After which I discovered another huge bonus to the honor I displayed in the beginning: it partially balances out all the other idiotic mistakes (see my Finding Fatherhood example) you’ll make daily as a husband as you and the love of your life live happily ever after.