Friday, June 17, 2011
Beneath an Arch
I was pretty sure it was her.
Wielding a camera, she swung onto the stone bowl of the fountain to take pictures of the people frolicking within, giving me a brief glimpse of a soft face framed by shoulder-length auburn and gray hair.
I approached from behind and a skinny young man with unruly brown curls pulled back into a very long ponytail cast an expectant look my way. I'd read about him for years, of course, though I didn't know his name and he didn't know mine.
The woman was right in front of me now, and I reached out a hand and tapped her on the shoulder.
"Hey," I said, breaking into a smile.
She looked confused for a fraction of a second, and then her kindly eyes lit up.
Though I now live in the City of Fate, Jo(e) knows more about this metropolis than I and so it was she who picked our meeting place. The park is an auspicious location, a tree-ringed circle whose northern gateway is a 77-foot-tall marble arch. The focal point of all this is a fountain into which visitors freely roam.
Plunked in the middle of the Island's famed artistic district and packed with everyone from foreign tourists to musicians to beggars, the park is ideal for ambling about.
"It's nice to finally meet you," Jo(e) said. "This is my son, -----."
"Shaggy Hair Boy," he said, acknowledging his pseudonym with a roll of his eyes as he shook my hand.
"You know, I think it's actually weirder meeting you than it is meeting her," I said to him. "I've been hearing about you for years without ever actually talking to you. Does that weird you out at all? That thousands of people around the world read about you all the time?"
"You kind of get used to it."
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Jo(e) publishes a compelling and deservedly popular blog in which she recounts her life as a professor, mother, citizen, and thinking human being in the Snowstorm region of Northern State. Jo(e)'s family and friends, along with other members of her community, play a pivotal role in her story but are protected by pseudonyms and strategically discreet (i.e., faceless) photos.
If the tactic seems familiar, it probably should: I stole the method from her when she inducted me into Blogger more than three years ago.
We've been having an ongoing conversation, first through correspondence and then through blogging, since I was nineteen years old, and for a moment I was concerned that after nearly half a decade of writing we'd have nothing to talk about. I needn't have worried.
Jo(e), like me, is an insatiable chatterbox.
"So, you have to tell me about American Idol," she gushed as we strolled through the park.
"Oh, that," I said. "That was such a weird experience."
"I knew what you were really talking about when you wrote that post," she said. "It killed me not to say anything."
"Yeah, I know," I acknowledged. "But they made me sign a confidentiality agreement and I kind of didn't have a choice."
"So," she looked up hopefully. "Can you talk about it now?"
"I guess I could tell you a little."
Then it came to me.
"Okay. Here's something really insane, but you can't repeat it to anyone ever."
Her eyes widened as I began and she gasped with suitable dramatic flair at all the right moments until the story had carried us around the park and to the exit.
"Wow," she said. "I can't believe it works that way."
I shook my head.
"I was on the show and I kind of can't, either."
After our walk through the park it was off to find somewhere to eat. This proved to be a bit more of an adventure than we had intended.
Jo(e)'s method of navigating a city, you see, is not like most people's. While someone else might do something crazy like consult a map, she prefers to wander around musing about where she might be.
"I think we're on Canal Street," she said at one point. "Or maybe it's Broadway. I don't know. If we keep going in this direction we'll eventually hit Chinatown."
When after a number of detours we finally did reach the part of the city known for its Asian cuisine, the question of which restaurant to patronize drew considerable debate. At least from one of us.
"What do you guys think about this place?" Jo(e) asked.
"It's fine with me," Shaggy Hair Boy responded.
"I'm down for whatever you two are down for," I chimed in.
"I don't know. How about that other one across the street?"
"Sure," Shaggy Hair Boy said.
"Definitely," I chorused.
"No," Jo(e) concluded. "Maybe this one..."
After twenty minutes or so of intense one-way disagreement as to where we ought to dine, Jo(e) decided that her parents should be called in to resolve the dispute.
"Do you have them?" she asked as Shaggy Hair Boy held his cell phone to his ear. She turned to me. "My parents love this place called Joe's. Or John's. It's something like that. They'll tell us how to get there."
Shaggy Hair Boy looked over.
"Mom, they're saying not to go to John's. They hate that place."
"What? Where are we supposed to eat?"
"Grand Pa said to just follow the Chinese people."
After all of the deliberation and the calling of relatives for advice the establishment we eventually chose was selected, like most things that day, completely at random.
"Hey," I noted. "This place looks good."
We sat down, managed to convey our orders to a staff that barely spoke English, and then spent the next hour or so discussing everything from our summer plans to our family histories to, of course, our blogs.
When you meet an anonymous blogger for the first time and all the pseudonyms slip away, it's a bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle. For years you've slowly deciphered the meanings behind people and places, but much of the truth remains unsolved, many of the pieces frustratingly hard to place until the blogger slides them into their proper positions.
"So that's why you call him With-a-Why," I said, the answer now obvious as Jo(e) explained to me the pseudonym she employed for her youngest child. "It makes sense. And Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is..."
"My beautiful, smart, wonderful daughter," Jo(e) returned with a smile. "It sounds a little ridiculous but that really is what I call her."
"Same thing with my sister," I said. "We do refer to her as Pie."
"What's her real name?" Jo(e) asked.
"------," I answered.
She smiled again.
Shaggy Hair Boy, Jo(e)'s friendly 20-year-old son, proved how spot-on his code name was when the conversation turned to it.
"You know, I think your hair is actually longer than mine," I observed.
"When it's wet it's really long," he said, twirling a strand of it in his fingers. "Some parts of it are nearly down to my waist."
"Do you ever think about cutting it?" I asked. "Mine is just so long now that I don't really know what to do with it."
He shook his head.
"I don't ever want to cut it. Ever. I've actually had nightmares where it gets caught in something and I have to cut it."
Jo(e) nodded in affirmation.
"It's probably been about six or seven years now since you've had a haircut."
Returning to the park once we'd finished our Chinese food proved to be a journey of nearly Columbian scope.
"It's around four o'clock, we're downtown, and traffic is running this way," Jo(e) said. "Which means that we should head down Canal Street."
"No, that can't be right," I contested. "The park is to our north and the sun sets in the west. We should go this way."
"How can you tell that the sun is in the west?"
"It's afternoon. The sun is always in the west in the afternoon. And look, the shadows are being cast that way."
"What are we, navigating by the stars?"
"Um, you guys?" Shaggy Hair Boy interrupted. "We have a map."
He figured out the way back within five minutes, and, of course, Jo(e) and I had both been wrong. Go figure.
When we at last did arrive at the arch and fountain, Jo(e) wanted pictures of us posing in front of the water.
"You both have such gorgeous hair," she effused. "This will look great, the dark curls next to the blonde waves."
Shaggy Hair Boy and I were perched perilously on the lip of the fountain when Jo(e) called out, "Strike a pose! Act like you're balancing!"
Shaggy Hair rolled his eyes.
"How are we supposed to act like we're balancing?"
"Put your arms out or something!"
He gave me a knowing look.
"Classic blog photo," he said.
After a little while Shaggy Hair tired of standing still and took a great leap into the fountain.
I considered for a moment, then strode over to Jo(e) and emptied my pockets.
"Can I leave my stuff in your purse?" I asked.
"Sure," she said. "We're going to get some great pictures out of this."
"There sure seems to be a whole lot of artifice going into capturing this authentic moment."
She chuckled but didn't dispute my claim as I bounded into the fountain to join Shaggy Hair Boy. He was conscious neither of me tip-toeing around nor of his mother calling out for the two of us to dance, his eyes instead focused with shark-like intensity on the stone floor beneath our feet. In an instant something glinted from under the water and his hand shot out like a torpedo.
He looked up and saw me.
"Come here, come here!" he shouted.
I walked over, taking care not to get sprayed (he had no such compunctions and was soaked completely through), and stared at the coin in his hand.
"What year were you born?" he asked.
"In '88," I answered.
"Oh," he replied. "I need to find a '91."
The specie before us was dated 1994.
"I think it's cooler that it's foreign," I put forward.
He looked around as if we were conspirators in some great heist.
"Well, I'm keeping it," he said, and with a single movement the pilfered cash was stowed away in his pocket.
This was in line with his tradition, apparently endorsed by family and friends, of bringing home from the city things found on the street en lieu of store-bought presents. Just before we jumped in the fountain he'd done a quick inventory with his mother.
"Mom, do you have the rubber bands?"
"What about the hair ties?"
"But the paper clips. Did you remember the paper clips?"
She looked at me, her eyes holding more amusement than exasperation.
"I think I'd draw the line at dirty syringes."
When we were out of the fountain and Shaggy Hair Boy was comfortably air-drying in the weak sun, there was one more picture to take.
"We'll stand in front of the arch," Jo(e) declared. She gathered my long blonde locks into her hands and released them behind my shoulders.
"There," she pronounced. "Now your hair will all be going down your back."
Shaggy Hair Boy was about to snap the photo when Jo(e) abruptly removed her arm from around my shoulder.
"Oh, yeah, you're probably right," I noted. "I'm way taller than you."
"That's not it," she said as I extended my left arm across her back. "I just didn't want to block your hair."
I couldn't help smirking.
"You are absolutely ridiculous."
After five hours of talking and eating and wandering around, it was time to part.
Jo(e) and Shaggy Hair Boy walked with me to the intersection of Fourth and Grove.
"It was so great meeting you," Jo(e) said as she pulled me into a hug.
"Me?" I asked. "Please. I wanted to meet you more than anyone. You got me started."
"You'd be welcome to come stay with us in Snowstorm City. Any time."
"Oh, thanks," I said. "I don't know when I'd ever be up there, but I'll let you know. We have to do this again."
"Definitely," she said.
"Alright," I responded. "I guess I'll talk to your later."
We shared one last hug, and then they went their way and I went mine.