Monday, March 14, 2011

My best friend

If you want to know why the past 10 years have been the best in my life, it comes down to one word: Liana. Without her, I don’t think I would have much of a life. I can’t imagine a day in this world without her. We decided a long time ago that we were best friends, we were a team.

I remember spending hours, laughing and talking with her in her room. We used to play You Don’t Know Jack on her Mac Computer, watch “Late Night With Conan O’ Brien” and make fun of the weird people who came into the library: a dysfunctional woman who entertained children as Susu the Clown; Skunkboy, a 19-year-old stoner with a white streak in the middle of his hair; and the old man who once showed up with a mail order bride, whom he introduced as a “Russian countess.”

Liana was a librarian when I met her. Being the technologically deficient person I am, I used to ask her for help using the computers and she was always helpful and accommodating. I remember being impressed with how smart she was.

She was the person I wanted to share my latest find with the day I rushed to the library. I had just purchased a high school history book from the 1920s at the Pigeon Roost Antique Mall, paid three bucks for it. When the librarian at the front desk asked if she could help me, I motioned to Liana and said, “I’m waiting to talk to her.”

“Can you believe this?” I said to Liana as I showed her passages from the book, referring to “ignorant blacks” and “pitiless savages.” “If I were African American or Native American, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in a classroom using this textbook,” I said. I contrasted how the un-PC textbook recorded events like the Haymarket Square incident of 1886 with how these events were written about in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Suddenly I realized she might not share my enthusiasm.

“I hope this isn’t boring you,” I said.

“No,” she answered. “I like history.”

It was mostly true. Mainly, she liked me.

A week later I asked her if she wanted to meet me at Dairy Queen when she got off work. We sat in a booth in the back by a window and got to know each other. Her shy, quiet demeanor belied the wacky sense of humor I would know later.

The next day I told her I had to leave town for a week. Said I had “business to take care of.” I was pretty clandestine in those days. I didn’t consider that she would spend the week wondering if I had an illegitimate child or had to go on trial for murder.

I was offered the newspaper job in Iowa, but somehow it didn’t seem right. For some reason I thought it might not be a good idea to leave that girl behind. Upon returning home, I was going to play it cool and wait a day or two before calling. Then I got a call and heard this mellifluous voice over the phone.

Over the next few weeks, we spent a lot of time together. I had feelers out for jobs in places like Kansas City and had an interview coming up in North Carolina. Then one night I told her – I was almost in tears when I said, “I just have this feeling that I could be leaving my best friend.”

“You know I feel the same way,” she said.

I stuck around and became intrigued as I got to know her better. Her two favorite movies were “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” She loved romance stories set in the 19th century pioneer days. In high school she wrote a story about a Japanese-American girl who was sent to an internment camp during World War II. The story was so good her teacher accused her of plagiarism. I was astounded by her academic record. Her old report cards would read A+ and teachers would write comments like, “Very cooperative student.”

She may have been studious, but she was fun loving too. We were riding around in her car one day, heading south toward the railroad tracks as she pushed a tape into the deck. It was July. The music started playing: “Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas day.” At that moment, I thought of how cool she was. She also had virtue.

I took her to meet my grandpa, who was in his 90s. Without saying a word, she walked into his kitchen and started sweeping his floor. I thought, “Wow, this isn’t the average person.”

The first place we shared together was a little shack on School Street, north of Garfield Elementary. It was the grungiest, most cracked and pot-holed street in town. We had no furniture and used cardboard boxes as meal trays. Sometimes we were awakened at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning to the sounds of Kid Rock blasting from across the street at our neighbor Lenny’s house. We frequently took walks around the neighborhood. It was a blast.

We were married on March 14, 2001 on the fifth floor of the Sedgwick County building in Wichita, Kansas. I had just gotten off work an hour earlier. Family Court Judge Tim Lahey officiated. There was just a small gathering of family in attendance, almost entirely Liana’s side, although my mother was there.

Afterwards, we all celebrated at Mascio’s, the Italian restaurant in our hometown with pictures of Ellis Island on the walls and delicious lasagna on the menu. Liana and I hung out there a lot. There was a bar attached to the north end of the building. I ran into my brother coming out of there after I’d gone to take a leak. “Hey, why don’t you come back and join us?” I said, but he politely declined and walked back to the bar.

Since then, Liana and I have lived in four or five different houses and gone through three sets of furniture. We wanted two kids – one boy, one girl, three years apart preferably. That’s what we got. I remember playing in the backyard with my son, Sam, when he was three-years-old. It was a nice neighborhood. Liana and I didn’t have to spend a dime for our kids to be born. Insurance from my job covered it all. “This is the life I always wanted,” I thought, wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.

It’s been one hill after another. Liana and I have been through hell and back more than once and our marriage and family have been tested. We once saw a TV documentary where a 100-year-old man said, “Life will humble you.” Boy, was he telling the truth? I’ve battled a lot of demons in my life and the average woman wouldn’t stick it out with me the way Liana has. I’ve always felt like she saves me. Imagine my surprise last week when she told me I’m her rock. If I am a better man than I was 10 years ago, it’s because of Liana.

A friend of mine, an older man whom I respect greatly, recently told me, “Life is short with a lot of ups and downs, but more ups than downs. I tell you enjoy Liana and your kids all you can.” That’s what I plan to do. I hope the past 10 years are just the beginning of a long, happy life together.