Bob enjoyed watching his mother, Margaret, dance around the kitchen, adding a little of this and that to the sauce. She’d slide over to the pantry and shimmy back to the stove with cans of crushed tomatoes in her magic hands. Oh how he longed to cut in and show her his own moves. Every now and then he tried.
“You know what would be good in there, mom?”
Every time, she’d look at him like he had three heads but obliged him. “And what’s that?”
Her eyes would narrow with her mouth parted slightly as she considered his reply. “You might be right. But, that stuff is just too expensive.”
He shrugged. “It’s just herbs, mom.”
She slapped his knuckles with the spoon. “Don’t talk about things you don’t know about, Bobby. Now, go set the table.”
His parents worked very hard for what they had and provided a comfortable life for Bob. The older he got, the more he recognized the picture they painted. The upper-middle-class neighborhood they lived in was not designed for a line cook and a locker room attendant who lived far beyond their means. Robert, his father, once had his own dreams of fame and fortune in the big leagues, but things didn’t happen the way he planned.
“You ready for the big game tomorrow?” his father would ask.
He’d shrug, slouched in his chair. “I guess.”
Robert Sr. would look at him as if to be offended by the indifference. “You guess? You better be more than ready, boy. Those scouts will be there, and you gonna show ’em how it’s done and bring some money in this house!”
They had that same conversation over and over. He hated basketball. And, he hated how his parents forced it on him. Luckily, Bob was a natural, but he hated everything about it. The running. The jumping. The working out. Why go through all that pain for something that made him miserable? He was afraid of what his father would do if he went against him. But, the closer he got toward his young adult birthday, desperation outweighed the fear, and he had to do the right thing for himself. One night, after the same old, tired conversation, he made a plan. Basketball would be his life as his father wanted. He worked out, got strong, got fast, and had finally become the star player everyone thought he was. When the scouts clamored for him at the games, he gave them something to get excited about. On the inevitable day when they offered him a full scholarship, he’d take the money and go to culinary school because there was no way his father would pay for it.
On Friday afternoons, when his teammates made a bee line for the door in hopes of scoring chicks at the arcade or wherever they hung out, Bob spent a few hours in the gym running drills and working out. One such afternoon, he heard a girl screaming from the locker room as he headed there to change. At first, he ignored it thinking it was one of the cheerleaders. Many of them were so messy. But the girl screamed for help and sounded desperate and afraid. Bob dropped his bag and ran in to see what the girl needed. He saw a shirtless boy and girl struggling on the floor. It was that Landgraab douche bag; Bob would recognize that perfectly coiffed blonde mop anywhere. He rushed him. Johnny clocked him pretty good, but thanks to all those hours in the gym, Bob held his own.
Johnny must have known he couldn’t win and ran away. As Bob caught his breath, he noticed the girl. He recognized her but didn’t know her name. She was the supreme geek. High school hierarchy didn’t matter to him, but as a basketball player he was forced into a certain group. A group that never ever under any circumstances associated with the geeks. The scrawny, freckled, red head was invisible to most people. What did the rich pretty boy want with her?
After the incident, Bob couldn’t help but pay attention to her. The Landgraab kid threatened them both, and she had no one. He had to keep an eye on her. Who knew what that twerp would do with all the money he had. Things were weird between them at first. She couldn’t look him in the eye, and he didn’t know how to act around her. Should he try to befriend her or go back to treating her like she was invisible? Neither seemed appropriate. They never spoke, but he watched her. It was fun to spot her fiery hair everywhere he went. She sat in the front of every class, so she couldn’t see him boring a hole in the back of her head though sometimes she’d turn around and catch him. He noticed how fast she finished tests, how many clubs she joined, and how much she loved to win. Whenever the teacher would ask a question, and she answered it correctly, she’d pump her fist under the desk in victory. She was a weird one but good weird.
Eliza was her name, and she was nothing like people said. She was just an unfortunate looking girl who cared about school and seemingly nothing else. They had the same lunch period, and every day she sat alone. Could she be any more sad? Something about her compelled him to show kindness. They didn’t have to be friends, but she needed at least one person in her corner.
A couple of weeks went by before he decided to do something bold.
“Hey,” Don said, slapping Bob’s arm, “where do you think you’re going?”
All eyes were on him begging for an answer. “Don’t worry about it.”
J was the most outspoken of the crew but was also insanely observant. He had probably been watching Bob for a while. Grabbing his arm, he said, “Whoa whoa, waffles. I know you’re not leaving us to go sit with her.“
Bob didn’t owe them an explanation. He didn’t even like them. But still, the judgment left him feeling embarrassed.
Eric looked over at Eliza and snorted. “That freckle faced hoe? Let him go, man. Maybe Bob will finally get some syrup on those pancakes!”
All the guys laughed. Bob was two seconds from punching them all in the face. “She’s not a hoe,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Awwww, does Bobby have a little crushy?” Don taunted.
He left those jerks before his anger got the best of him.
At first, she didn’t like him sitting with her and gave him a hard time. He almost regretted his decision. But knowing she had been hurt–and was probably bullied a lot–he was determined to make her see he was in her corner. They sat in awkward silence for a long time. He noticed she always brought her lunch: a sandwich and an apple. How boring. Cafeteria food wasn’t the best, but at least it had variety. Maybe she couldn’t afford school lunch. She often repeated the same outfits, and her clothes were plain. The more he observed about this girl the more he wanted to know her story. Behind her dejected eyes lay so many unsaid words.
When she finally accepted he wasn’t going anywhere, she relaxed, let her guard down a little and they got to know each other. Behind the stoic mask was just a girl. No labels or superlatives, but just a girl who wanted what most girls wanted. She was actually kind of cool. She spoke funny and sometimes sounded like those people in the old black and white films. He hated how she called him Robert because he was nothing like his father, but her reasoning made him feel important. She believed in him and didn’t spit on his dream. To tell the truth, he felt safe with her. No one ever thought he’d be good at anything but basketball. She was ambitious, and he wished he could be more like her. She made him feel more confident about going to culinary school despite what his parents thought. It took him a while to admit it to himself, but he was falling for her.
After a while, his feelings had grown to a point where he had to let them out. Hiding them frustrated the crap out of him, and he wished he were bolder. Coincidentally, one day at lunch, Eliza could not wrap her head around his position juxtaposed with his temperament.
“I can not understand, Robert. How are you the star of the basketball team and so shy?”
He shrugged. “I don’t like to be the center of attention.”
“Even with all those girls throwing themselves at you?”
Something inside quickened. A window opened, and he had to climb through it. But, how? He was no Casanova like Don or a jerk like J. And, he certainly wasn’t as forward as Eric. Wiping his clammy hands on his pants, he took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and let whatever words which sat on the edge of his tongue roll off. “I don’t want just any girl.”
After their birthdays, he worked up the nerve to ask her out. One date turned into many, but their time together was shrinking. Soon, they’d be off to conquer the world in their own ways. On their last night together, Eliza was in rare form. She was aloof and extremely pessimistic. “I shouldn’t have let things get this far! You will go to your fancy school, meet all those cheerleaders and forget I exist. I’m so stupid!”
It would have been so easy to get offended. He thought she knew him better than that, but he knew her too. Her insecurities made her doubtful of everything which gave way to gloom and doom. Expressing feelings wasn’t her forte either. She missed him already and didn’t know how to tell him.
“I’m not that kind of guy, Lizzie.”
She scrunched up her nose like a there was a poopy diaper nearby. “Lizzie?”
Eliza was such a grandma name and far too serious. The seriousness was just the exterior she showed everyone. On the inside, she was sweet and vulnerable. Lizzie was a better fit for who she really was.
“Oh no, Robert. That will not do at all. It’s far too casual!”
He chuckled. “It’s cute.”
She looked offended. “Cute?”
“Yeah. Like you.”
“HA! I’m far from-“
He half expected her to knee him in the groin, but she kissed him back.
“I’ll wait for you, Lizzie.”
She smiled for the first time all night though it was just a tiny one. “You won’t woo all the cheerleaders?”
“If you won’t woo all the hotshot wannabe detectives in the academy.”
They shared a good laugh and promised each other they would be together after college. Being apart was not without it’s challenges, but they kept their promise to each other and entered into a courtship after school. Shortly after, they were married and moved to a tiny house in downtown Windenburg where Eliza had her first assignment.
Marriage was not at all what they thought it would be. Bob worked nights, and Eliza’s days were very long in the beginning. They used to talk about having a big house in the country and a large family to fill it, but she became hyper focused on her job and moving up through the ranks quickly. Knowing she was ambitious, he still worried about her. The job was dangerous, but that wasn’t what worried him. She was driven by some internal force. Almost like being possessed. He knew what it was, but she wouldn’t acknowledge it. And, he promised her they would never speak of it so he watched her sacrifice the little bit of time they had together in favor of overtime. The faster she got promoted, the more demanding and particular she got at home. Bob knew she was a perfectionist and a bit of a snob long before they got married, but she was on a completely new level with it. After a while, he came to enjoy his time alone so he could be himself without her nagging.
It also gave him time to think about things he never discussed with her such as his estranged relationship with his parents. When Bob announced what he would study in school, his father was very upset. So upset he stopped talking to him. He was such a prideful man. Every now and then, Bob tried to call home, but Robert Sr. still wouldn’t talk him.
Without basketball, he gained a lot of weight. He watched TV a lot because there wasn’t much else to do. Besides, he could tune her out when the yelling started. She said things that hurt. Sometimes, she’d come home for lunch and see him sitting in front of the television still in his bathrobe and roll her eyes as if he disgusted her. In the heat of the moment, sometimes she would state how disappointed in herself she was for marrying a lazy slug just like her father. He usually walked away for surely the anger would make him say or do something he’d regret. She would run after him apologizing and blaming work stress for being “so snippy.”
The marriage got stale. They were nothing more to each other than roommates with occasional benefits. But, knowing what he knew about her, he couldn’t give up hope. They would be happy together again. He didn’t know how or when, but it would happen. He had to believe that or he would give up on her. They weren’t in high school anymore, but she still needed someone in her corner. He wanted to be that person. So, he braved the insults and apologies like the elements, reminding himself she was still hurting and kept the faith.
One awesome, life changing day, she told him she was pregnant.