Tuesday, October 18, 2005


In Which The Race Is On...

I'm not a terribly competitive guy. I'm good at running my own race, but as soon as I start to look around and see what kind of race others are running, I find myself running their race instead of mine, which I hate. Not because I tend to choke, although that can happen, but because it seems to take all the joy out of winning. When you win your own race, you feel a certain kind of success that comes from meeting goals you've set for yourself. When you win someone else's race, it's like you're winning someone else's victory too. It's hollow, somehow.

I know a lot of guys aren't like that. For many of them, it's as though they never got past the emotional place they were in back when they were captains of the 5th grade kickball team and would beat the opposing team 187 to 1 if they could. This guy that Her Lovely Self was seeing, SJ, he was like that, by all accounts. He played every kind of sport he could through the city social club and even though these were recreational leagues, he was all about winning. He was the kind of guy who, if he went to a batting cage with you, he'd keep track of how many times you connected with the ball, and then afterwards inform you that he had smacked 45 hits compared to your 37. If you didn't keep pace when you were out drinking with him, he would denounce you for a wimp or ride you mercilessly to drink more than you wanted to. Everywhere in life, he looked to see what kind of race other people were running, and if he could horn in on your race and snap the tape before you could, he would. Thus it was that when he showed up at a bar where Iwas enjoying a drink with Her Lovely Self--and ended up taking her off to see a band--he couldn't resist informing me that he had won. As though the woman of my dreams was some track event--a hurdle to clear or a high jump to get one's leg over, as it were.

Well, I may not have been a terribly competitive guy, but I was still a man, goddammit, and I had reached my limit. Til then I'd been a bit timid, a bit hang-dog about pursuing Her Lovely Self, hoping things would evolve slowly, naturally. But there had been so many times--too many--that I had made plans with Her Lovely Self, only to have this guy, or someone like him, show up and distract HLS or even snatch her away. My friends jokingly called me Every Woman's Second Choice on a Friday Night, but the joke had become real. I had told myself HLS was out of my league, meaning it more as compliment to her than anything. The problem was, I had come to believe it.

And you know what? It wasn't true.

I hope you'll forgive me that moment of hubris, but I think we're all friends here, and I have it on pretty good authority that one or two of your just might agree. Granted, I was no movie star, but I wasn't breaking any cameras either. I had charm, I had wit--I had truckloads of wit. I also had a few secret weapons handed down by my parents, known in some circles as Manners and Respect and Consideration, all in such short supply among my peers as to almost be lost arts.

And let's not forget all my other skills, especially that one involving my tongue, the one that began with the letter "c." That's right: conversation (oh, you thought I was referring to something else, did you?). From what Her Lovely Self told me, SJ's conversational skills didn't extend much beyond saying things like "Can you get me a beer while you're up?" and "Your ass is blocking the set." Whereas I actually talked to Her Lovely Self. I listened to what she had to say. And all that listening was going to be one of the advantages I had in my favor, if the rest of the week played out the way I hoped it would.

But I didn't have any time to lose.

That weekend, I sat down and did my list. HLS's birthday was next Friday. If this was going to go off the way I wanted it to, I needed to start making some phone calls. As I got more ambitious in my plan, I realized I was also going to have to abuse my position as a freelance writer for at least one of the city's better known magazines.

Saturday I made phone calls, first to Her Lovely Self's roommate. She was an outdoorsy type who loved camping and who was impressed with my status as a field tester for Outside. But she liked me even better when I promised to set her up with a swell tent I had purchased from a high-end manufacturer at cost. She was my inside man at Her Lovely Self's place. It was going to fall to her to distract SJ when the time came. Next I called the offices of the Chicago Tribune to find out their deadline for placing a personal ad in the Friday edition. I called the local limo company to see how far in advance I needed to order a car to pick someone up at the airport. Then I called a certain fashionable restaurant, still considered one of the best in the world. It was a place Her Lovely Self always talked about going to. There wasn't a table for two available for over a month. I asked if there was any wiggle room if I was a friend of the owner and was told the owner could always rustle up something for one of his friends, and who was I? Without answering, I thanked the maitre d' nicely and hung up. Today wasn't about getting discouraged; today was about getting information. I finished my morning by calling a few florists until I found one who would deliver a certain out-of-season flower in mid-October, which turned out to be a little harder than I thought, but I managed it.

Over lunch, I started calling libraries. This was 1992, remember, and back then the Internet was called "the library" and Google was called "the Reference Desk." I was looking for a recipe for a certain cake. When she was girl in Georgia, Her Lovely Self had had it once at a party in 8th grade and had liked it so well she remembered it ever after. Today I can find dozens of recipes for a red velvet cake and there's even an instant-cake mix for it now, but it was oddly hard to find then. Even the reference desk librarian--herself a baker of some repute--had only heard of the cake but had never seen a recipe. She couldn't locate one in any of the cookbooks at her library. I thanked her, then put on my coat and dashed down the street to my neighborhood bakery. It was an old Italian place and the kindly woman who ran it (and who always slipped me a few extra sugar donuts whenever I came in for bread) was eager to help. She tried to tell me how to make the cake from memory, but there was too much of a language barrier. At one point, I almost offered her some money to make it for me, but I just wanted the recipe, see. I wanted to make the cake myself. The woman understood and bustled back to a storeroom where she pored over one of two battered cookbooks. She couldn't find it.

Finally, on the way back to my apartment, I knew what I had to do. When I got in, I grabbed the phone and dialed a familiar number. He picked up on the third ring.

"Oh, it's you, you little ass-wipe. What do you want?"

"Listen," I told my brother. "I need your help."

There was a long pause.

"You there?" I asked.

"Yeah, hold on, my fucking head just did a 360. Say that again, there must be a bad connection." He said.

"Stop it. Look, you went to culinary school. You're a fricking cordon bleu chef. You've got to help me find this recipe."

"Okay, okay. What is it?" he asked.

I told him.

"What?!?" he brayed. "You can’t find a red velvet cake? It's on the back of every goddamn bag of flour in America."

"No, it's not. Come on!"

"Awright, awright. That's a popular one in the South, or used to be. Let me go dig up my books. I'll call you back."

By day's end, he had read the recipe over the phone to me. He had an old recipe, predating self-rising flour. It required me, if memory serves, to use vinegar and baking soda as a leavening agent, so my brother had to walk me through the physics of that.

"Okay, you got it?" he asked as I stared at my several pages of notes.

"Yeah. Listen, thanks, really."

"Oh, don't thank me. You owe me a serious fucking favor now, you dumb shit. Just wait til I collect on your ass." And then my brother hung up on me.

Now it was time to start spending money. I bought enough baking supplies to make four cakes (I figured I had some practicing to do). Just in case, I also bought some instant cake mix and a jar of pre-made frosting. After dropping it all off at my apartment, I hit the mall.

The rest of that week was a blur, spent mostly checking on the status of various things and making calls to make reservations at appropriate times. By Thursday, it felt as though I had talked to everyone in the city, although really I'd maybe spoken to 12 people all told. One person I hadn't spoken to, not since the previous Friday, was Her Lovely Self. Between work and tying up a few loose ends on my plan and spending my evenings baking, I hadn't had time to call her, which ended up working in my favor. For Thursday night, as I was getting ready to leave the office, she appeared in the door to my cubicle.

"Are you mad at me?" she asked. She apologized for leaving me at the bar the previous week to dash off with SJ, although by that point it had been nothing unusual. The only difference between that time and the others was that I actually got to meet the guy. I told her I wasn't mad and she sat down.

"Listen, I wanted to talk to you about...you know, what you said..." She was referring to the fact that I had spilled my guts about being totally enamored of her, just moments before SJ sauntered in and whisked her from my sight. I nodded. "Well, I know you wanted to do something on my birthday, but I already made plans with SJ..." she began.

"That's right," I said, nodding. "He's planning some kind of surprise. Any idea what?"

"No," she admitted. "But it’s nice to be surprised. He never does anything like that."

"Any idea where you're going to dinner?" I asked, just trying to make conversation.

"I think there's a new sports bar in Wrigleyville he wants to try. After that, though, my roommate wants us to come back to the apartment. I think she's making a cake or something. She's inviting a few friends. Do you want to stop by?"

I smiled. The first cog in my plan was slipping into place. "I wouldn't miss it," I said.

Her Lovely Self seemed on the cusp of saying something else, but just then my phone rang. I hit the speakerphone button, hoping it was the call I was waiting for.

"MM, you burnin' hunka love!" cried a sultry woman's voice. "You are a hard man to find. Or so I hear!" And she cackled.

HLS gave me a quizzical look.

"Hey there, Susan," I called out. Susan worked for the editor of the city magazine where I had just started freelancing. "What are you doing?"

"I'm off to the Inkwell to get sloppy drunk!" she called back. "Come take advantage of me!"

I laughed in spite of myself. Susan was a friend of mine from grad school and a very, um, demonstrative person. She was also someone I needed a favor from if my plan was going to work. I grabbed the phone off the hook and looked sheepishly at Her Lovely Self. "I really have to take this," I said.

"Of course," she said, somewhat stiffly. "Maybe I'll see you tomorrow," she added, and exited my office so fast she left an after-image. I chatted with Susan for a few minutes, then left to meet her at the bar and get all the instructions I needed for the final piece of the puzzle.

Friday morning the sun rose as it always did. Although this day was unique for two reasons:

1. Her Lovely Self turned 23.

2. I was actually up early enough to see the sun rise.

In fact, I had been up all night, wrapping presents, rolling up notes, folding up maps, making assorted deliveries around the city. I finally wrapped up at the El station near my work, where I bought some tokens. I dropped the tokens off somewhere on my way to the office, then I raced into my building and made one stop in Her Lovely Self's office, before heading up to my own to sleep for an hour.

At 9 AM, the cogs turned in earnest, events unfolded, and my race began...

This is fun!
does she know that you are giving away ALL the family secrets?
MM, your like a real life Lloyd Dobler. Damn you for making me wait another day.
Can I get a strand of your hair? You know, just enough DNA to clone you.

I always love the exchanges between you and your bro. Funny as all hell.

SJ had absolutely no clue who he was up against...the shallow jerk neva had a chance.
You have an amazing talent for the cliffhanger. I'm looking forward to your winning day!
I cannot wait for the rest of this story. You are an inspiration as a writer. Hurry up with the next part!!!
The refresh button on my browser is wearing out!
I am seriously growing to hate elipses
I kind of miss having the energy to pull a stunt like you did there with staying up overnight...something I probably could have managed easily in my twenties but would take major coffee and a 12-hour downtime to recover from now. Ah well...sounds like your efforts are going to pay off here shortly!
Oh, mama. You have got it going on, MM. Hurry up and tell us the rest!
"I also had a few secret weapons handed down by my parents, known in some circles as Manners and Respect and Consideration, all in such short supply among my peers as to almost be lost arts"

-sigh of relief- Thanks guy. I thought that was for naught.
Arg! I was so hoping to hear the end of this story over my morning tea!!! Please continue!
Aaaargh! I guess I should get used to the fact that, more often than not, the post will NOT finish the story over here!

You, sir, have a talent for choosing where to put the cliffhanger!
Love this story! and my own birthday is tomorrow, so I am going to kinda live vicariously through HLS. My hubby and I are too sleep deprived to celebrate in earnest, so I hope this might give him some ideas.

Hurry up with part two. Consider it your b-day gift to me.

I am so on the edge of my seat. Been reading the blog to my baby girl, Lorelei and she also can't wait for the thrilling next installment.
Listen, MM, I know this is a family blog, but you are a complete and utter fuck for not finishing such an amazing story... and I say that with all due respect.

Seriously, as I've said before, you have a pitch-perfect writing voice, one that forces me to toss aside my maturity and be squarely jealous (and to use the word fuck for heaven's sake!)...

As for the details of the story, well, I am astonished at the courage you show in giving us, your readers, such intimacy, especially when you consider that your readers are people you've (probably mostly) never met. I admire you for this (and for being such a good guy, for that is what a man should be)...

thanks for everything,

(who tries every day to be a good guy)

NP: Sequoia by Eric Tingstad, Nancy Rumbel and David Lanz
This story just reminded me I need to go dump my boyfriend. Good thing there is a great big gaping hole in this story that is leaving me with plenty of time to go do that.

I only love surprises when people don't tease in advance that they are "going to" surprise you... then it just pisses me off.
I see you're passing the ellipses down to the next generation...
Is it weird that I almost feel like I'm trying to woo HLS right now?
OK im officially addicted.
I love that you took matters into your own hands.
Is the next part here yet? BECAUSE I CAN'T SEE IT.
HOW adorable...yeesh. I've met plenty of sweet guys, but few of them are thoughtful. My boyfriend is, unfortunately, lacking that characteristic.
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