It would be easy to label Bruce Bauman smug. Easy, but not necessarily accurate.
Bruce had achieved a certain level of comfort with his imperfections. He wasn’t making excuses for his failings or sins. He just was no longer capable of being shocked by his daily behavior. He knew what he was doing. He knew why he did it. Bruce didn’t see change on the horizon. And he was OK.
This is not to say that Bruce Bauman was anywhere near as blasé about anyone else’s trespasses. He hadn’t lost his capacity to judge, sometimes harshly, the actions of others. He was, however, more selective than he once was when it came to choosing which behaviors he found repugnant.
Absolute Right and Absolute Wrong were not strangers to Bruce. He was still 100% against murder and stealing from your employer, especially when he was the boss. Tax evasion, speeding, and recreational drug use had always been gray areas for him. He had seen both sides of adultery and was a true believer, as long as no one ever found out.
The main issue was always shame. People’s feelings get hurt everyday. Life is filled with disappointments, great and small. We survive these setbacks and gradually recover. What compounds these problems is shame. Who knows? How did they find out? What do they think of me now? Whether the loss is a job, a perfect driving record, or even a lover, how the world learns of our failures is as important, if not more important, than the actual problem.
Bruce Bauman had hurt and been hurt. And he had been shamed. He understood shame. Years after incidents that should have long been forgotten, he was still questioned by those who knew him well enough to know but didn’t like him nearly enough to remain silent. And it didn’t matter who was to blame, what the circumstances were, or that the people who brought up his past were not even remotely involved. It didn’t matter. Bruce Bauman’s past, or at least a large portion of his past, was public knowledge. He was determined that his far more interesting present was going to stay totally private.
Secret lives look surprisingly like public lives. Oh sure, the food tends to be better, at least at first, and the excitement enhances the experience – all of the experiences. But the mundane overcomes even the most daring of adventures.
Bruce Bauman straddled parallel universes. He was incredibly organized. He knew where he had to be and who he was to see at all times. Nothing left to chance. Work, home, social, networking club, kids’ activities, golf, bowling, lunch, special lunches; everything made it to his Week-at-a-Glance. Never double booked. He always scheduled sufficient time to make every appearance. Every one received all the Bruce Bauman to which they were entitled.
The problem for Bruce, the issue that he grappled with daily, wasn’t that he had a secret life or what his actions within that separate life entailed. As stated earlier, he wasn’t making excuses and he wasn’t about to stop. No, Bruce’s concern was deeper. He needed to know WHY.
Olympia Dukakis’s character in the movie Moonstruck said that all men cheat on their wives because they are afraid of death. Bruce wasn’t buying it. Death was hardly an issue.
Bruce was certain that the reason for his adultery, his secret life, was one of two things. Either he was bored and unhappy and the pursuit, conquest, and short-term nature of a passionate tryst was the adrenaline his body craved. Or he was still in search of the perfect woman who would love him passionately forever. He had experimented with both over the last twenty-eight years. Bruce’s problem was that he was beginning to question his motivation.
Bruce and Rebecca Bauman were married in her parent’s gazebo on a warm June Saturday evening in 1986. They had dated for almost three years. The wedding was inevitable and for Bruce, anticlimactic. Becky and her mother staged the wedding of their dreams. Becky’s dad unloaded the last of his liabilities. And Bruce got out of the way of a runaway train. It’s not like he didn’t love Becky. He did. But the danger was gone and she already had begun to take him for granted. Bruce was organized and dependable. He hated being convenient.
The first incident was purely accidental. He had visited an old friend and customer at her place of work. Freed by his recent marriage, her greeting was far more passionate than her usual kiss on the cheek. Her second kiss made him dizzy. Her office was private, but not secure. He found himself with his back against the wall, the office door slightly ajar, and a woman he had fantasized about for years on her knees in front of him.
How could life with Becky compare to that?
It would be almost four years before Bruce strayed again. Customers, business associates, and family friends have since passed through Bruce’s life without detection. His special friends were usually married. They had a stake in maintaining the secret. He had a vasectomy after his third child was born. Becky’s friends had been pushed by their husbands to have their tubes tied. She was relieved that Bruce had volunteered. The last thing he needed was an accidental pregnancy.
Life with Rebecca Bauman was predictable. Their children received her required attention, their home sufficiently maintained, and her husband acknowledged as per her contractual obligation. Mostly, Becky spent her perfectly normal middle class life bemoaning her life’s imperfections. Her happiest moments involved opening gift boxes. Her second favorite: shopping with Bruce for the contents of those boxes.
Bruce’s issues ran deeper. He wasn’t sorry about the affairs. He certainly wasn’t ashamed. He didn’t want Becky to find out because he had no desire to hurt or shame her. His concern centered on one crucial question: Was the cause of his infidelity his search for the perfect woman or his need for excitement? It occurred to him that this was a question that he should try to answer. He needed to know because if he actually met that woman, if he found the woman who he could love and would passionately love him for the rest of his life, he had to know that he could stay faithful to her. The last thing he would want to do is screw up the relationship with the woman of his dreams.
And, Bruce needed to know whether or not he was full of shit.
Bruce was OK with the possibility that his real motivation could be nothing more than a need for variety and excitement. He was hoping that wasn’t the case. Either way, he wanted to know. He refused to lie to himself.
It would be easy to label Bruce Bauman smug. Easy, but not necessarily accurate.
There were things Becky Bauman feared more than change, but they were too awful to contemplate.
It was not that Becky’s life was perfect. She, however, would never complain. Not like her friend Susan, Gerald’s wife, who was always talking about her eldest getting accepted to Michigan. Everyone knew Susan and Ger had really wanted him to go to Princeton. No, Becky wasn’t at all like Robin, Doug’s better half, who got the Lexus, bow and all, for Christmas this year. Becky never complained, never asked for more. Even when Janet, DIVORCED JANET, found the time and money to cruise the Caribbean last snowy February, like Becky used to when she was a little girl, she did not complain to Bruce. She just let him know how much she wished she could go someplace fun, again.
Becky Bauman learned years ago that men don’t take hints. She would drop hints to Daddy all the time; what he could get her, where she wanted to go, even the kind of car she wanted for her sixteenth birthday. And yet, he only made these purchases or booked the trips after she abandoned the hints and asked very specifically. The best path often passed through her mother.
Bruce was the same. Didn’t it take almost five years for Bruce to get her that diamond tennis bracelet? Even getting him to propose took a full year. Becky started hinting that they should get married when she took Bruce home for Daddy’s annual Labor Day Picnic in 1984. He finally popped the question at the following year’s picnic. They were married June 21, 1986.
Bruce and Becky’s father, Robert Miller, were similar in many ways. They loved to golf, though Robert was much better. They both were involved in their communities, their clubs, and their families. But Becky noticed that Daddy was always asked to be on the board of the organizations he joined, while Bruce had only recently been appointed to a leadership position.
It was the differences between Bruce Bauman and Robert Miller that defined them.
Bruce Bauman’s father left the army and any chance for an interesting life in 1947. He returned to Cleveland, Ohio as an old man of 22. David Bauman married his high school sweetheart, bought a home in the Heights, and sold men’s suits in Higbee’s downtown till he was carted out, feet first, March 1, 1984. He left two kids, a wife and a dog. No one knew he was gone because no one had known that he had been there. Except Bruce.
If Bruce Bauman had been unprepared for his father’s heart attack, he was even more surprised by the economic consequences of his father’s death. The financial aid manager claimed to be very understanding. He understood Bruce’s loss, but Ohio State expected the balance of Bruce’s tuition. Bruce was given the choice of signing a note for the last quarter or pack up and leave immediately. He hoped Bruce understood. Bruce didn’t, but Becky did. They talked endlessly as Bruce struggled with the decision. In the end Bruce signed the note, as much to stay in the dorm as to retain his sophomore status, and promptly tanked his classes.
Becky enjoyed being needed. Her opinion was, for once, valued. She was in the loop and important. Bruce discussed his job options with her. And even when he chose the riskier copier sales position instead of the safe guarantee of replacing his dad in the suit department that she preferred, at least they had talked about it first. No one had ever listened to Becky the way Bruce had. Her parents, her younger sisters, even her friends seemed to dismiss her at times, especially if there was something important to discuss.
Daddy, Robert Miller, was the worst offender.
Robert Miller’s grandfather, Alexandar Miller, was admitted to the Ohio Bar in
1896. Cleveland was one of the largest cities in the country and manufacturing was booming. Horseless carriages and other wonders came from the Mid-West in general and Cleveland in particular. He moved from Boston to Cleveland to be a patent attorney. Some of Alexandar’s clients got rich. Some didn’t. But Alexandar Miller always got paid.
The firm became Miller and Miller when Morris joined his father in 1923. Morris had served two years in the War To End All Wars pushing paper in Washington. He understood the formula. Even during the worst of the depression, some of their clients got rich. Some didn’t. But Miller and Miller always got paid.
Robert Miller could have missed World War II. But the day after he graduated from Hawkin he was escorted by one of his father’s friends to the enlistment center. Six weeks later he was attached to the local Congressman’s office. He had been in a uniform for years. Four years in a dress uniform in Washington, DC was a lot more fun than the South Pacific.
Georgetown followed Robert Miller’s tour of duty. His law degree was earned at Penn. Pretty fancy for a future patent attorney in Cleveland. He joined the firm as M-3. His grandfather, M-1, was retired in Florida and his father, M-2, had been waiting for him for 28 years. He had been born to this position and he did not fail them.
Robert Miller was in no hurry to get married and once wed, he was in even less of a rush to create an heir. He was already forty-one years old when Rebecca Miller was born. He and Anna had been so certain that their first born would be a son; they had neglected to discuss possible female names. Becky was named for her grandmother. It would not be the last time she disappointed her father.
It was Morris, not Robert, who first suggested that the next Miller in Miller and Miller could be Rebecca. She was a bright little girl, the oldest of three daughters, and it was, after all, 1972. The family even began to call her M-4. It just didn’t fit. She was back to Becky a few months later. And the business succession plan was put on hold, pending her future spouse.
Becky’s decision to attend Ohio State was greeted with apathy by almost everyone she knew. Her better than average grades, passable test scores, and her father’s money guaranteed her entry into most schools. She and her friends were prepared for a combination of high school and summer camp. Their parents were hoping for MRS Degrees. Expectations were minimal. Robert Miller was hoping for a future partner. Instead his daughter brought home a kid who had dropped out after two years of school and wasn’t ever going back. Becky was hurt and angry when Bruce, her choice for a husband, wasn’t immediately welcomed into the family when she introduced him that Monday in September 1984.
Becky Bauman was proud of her Bachelor’s in Communications from Ohio State. She had stayed in Columbus, alone. Bruce went back to Cleveland. He was living at home, selling copiers all day while she was working hard to get her degree. It hardly seemed fair. She got him to come down and visit most weekends, but he never seemed to understand how difficult it was for her. Bruce was often preoccupied with his work, his mother’s financial problems and his younger brother. She knew that she would get all of his attention once they were married.
The Miller women had worked in the office since Alexandar’s wife, Deborah, had noticed his young, attractive secretary. Deborah’s daughter-in-law succeeded her as office manager. Anna was the current office manager and Becky was her only employee. Becky had worked at Miller and Miller since she was old enough to file. She was still filing. Innovation created the need for Miller and Miller, a place where change seldom visited. There were computers. There had to be computers. But they functioned as glorified typewriters. If Deborah returned from the grave tomorrow, she would be at home in Miller and Miller within a day or two. Neither Anna nor Becky would have it any other way.
Anna and Becky sat across from each other in the small reception area. They had never had two clients in the office at the same time. The women’s desks were mirror images of neatly piled manila folders containing ongoing cases and catalogues to peruse when they had the time. They found the time every day. Becky dropped off the kids at school and got in each day by nine, or so. Robert Miller was behind his closed doors by 7:45 each morning. The new associate, Geoffrie McCardle, was in each day by eight. The guys worked. The women fetched coffee, screened the phone calls, and added a human touch to a very mechanical enterprise.
Geoffrie McCardle knew that he would never be a partner in Miller and Miller. But a black attorney who had graduated in the middle of his class from the University of Akron’s law school couldn’t be too picky. Working for Miller and Miller would look great on his resume, the working conditions were altogether different than what his friends experienced at the big firms, and Mr. Miller was more than generous. It had been up to Becky to provide a future partner.
Once Bruce had proposed, Robert Miller set his sights on his future grandchild/partner. Becky’s oldest, Danni, was her mother’s daughter. She occasionally visited Miller and Miller, but since her cell phone was permanently attached to her ear, it was impossible to say that she ever worked in the office. Her main function was to organize her mother’s and grandmother’s catalogues. Twelve year old Benjamin understood the value of wealth; he just didn’t think he had to do anything to get it. It seemed as if his hand was always outstretched. His mother, grandmother, and aunts rushed to fill his ever increasing wants.
Then there was Susie.
Suzanne Michelle Bauman was both Robert and Bruce’s favorite. At ten she had already been the leader of her older siblings for years. Intelligent, confident, and cute she moved easily amongst her peers and their parents. She worked hard to not attract undue attention. Recognition came to her naturally. Robert saw her as his future partner. Bruce saw her as the one child who could understand that you weren’t defined by the stuff you could buy. Subconsciously, Becky and Anna saw her as a threat. Bruce had taken her on sales calls since she was six. Robert had her reading filings for the last year or so.
Susie enjoyed working with Grandpa. His office was filled with crystal and wooden awards. He had a huge desk and paneled walls. And on weekends, when they were the only ones in the office, he sometimes opened his window and brought out a pipe he had hidden in his bottom drawer. The rich aroma of English tobacco was almost intoxicating. She had to promise that she wouldn’t tell Mom or Grandma.
But working with her Dad was the best. Bruce Bauman had parleyed his sales skills and hard work to the eventual ownership of the Ricoh distributorship. He led a staff of eleven salespeople and a dozen or so support staff. His people didn’t always like him, but they always respected him. Susie loved the creativity, the danger of a small business. She knew that other people made more money. She knew Grandpa made more money. But no one worked harder or had more fun than her Dad.
She didn’t think she wanted to work for Miller and Miller. She didn’t really want to work for Bauman Copiers and Supplies. Suzanne Bauman wanted to open her own business, like her Dad did, and be a self-made success. None of this would make any sense to Anna or Becky. Robert Miller could understand. Bruce Bauman would be proud.
But for now, Robert Miller was waiting for his daughter to nurture a future partner. She was destined to disappoint again.
It’s not that Bruce Bauman hated jewelry stores. Aside from Brussels sprouts, there were few things Bruce Bauman actually hated. No, there were just lots of places Bruce would rather spend his time and money. Especially his money.
The day had started well. Bruce found Becky standing in front of the mirror, a towel wrapped around her waist, as he stepped out of the shower. She was busy with her hair iron. Becky and her mother had been going to the tanning salon to compensate for the gray of a Cleveland March. Bruce noticed that Becky had been tanning without a top. He nuzzled up behind her and before the usual protestations could be made, he turned her around, ditched the towel, and lifted her up to her favorite position atop the counter. Not given the opportunity to think of all the reasons why she wasn’t going to have a good time, she climaxed quickly. He laughed as she adjusted the taps to shower away any evidence of their activity. He had already agreed to drop Susie off at school. No one would notice if Becky was late.
Bruce tried to take one of his three children to school each day. Even on Danni’s most sullen teen angst morning, she would still talk, a little, to Bruce on her way to school. The ten minutes to school often seemed her most human, most vulnerable, each day. Benjamin sometimes climbed into the passenger seat with one of his itemized lists in hand. The Indians box score or Cavs stats quickly replaced Ben’s unending wants.
Taking Susie to school was, of course, the most fun. She would be prepared with a detailed report of what the day held for her. Fourth graders were the oldest children at Onaway Elementary. Some of the children took their leadership responsibilities to heart. Few more than Susie.
Bruce also had to hold up his end of the bargain. She would want to know what appointments he had scheduled and which of his salespeople he would be training. And, if there was enough time like this morning, he would take her to Panera for a treat. She’d have her usual, orange juice and a cinnamon roll, while he had coffee and a low-carb bagel.
Bruce dropped his daughter off as the first bell sounded. A Chamber of Commerce networking program had begun a few minutes earlier. He needed to show up.
The Hilton’s parking lot was almost full. He pulled into an empty spot next to a black Toyota SUV owned by Rachel Moore, the Canon rep. Rachel had been selling copiers for almost five years. She overcame her bright smile, long blonde hair and wardrobe enhanced figure with good prices, terrific listening skills, and unmatched service. She was a worthy competitor. She was getting business cards out of the back of her truck as he left his car.
“If we’re both out here, nobody’s in there pushing copiers.”
“I can run in there and demo a Canon if you’re worried Bruce.”
“No, I’ve got a better idea. Let’s blow off this business card fest. I haven’t had a chance to drive your new road monster.”
“It’s not that big. Besides, you’ll want to do more than drive.”
They were on the freeway moments later. It didn’t take much to coax her into reclining the passenger seat and to slip out of her clothes. They had enjoyed the excitement and danger of road sex before.
Once her more than ample breasts were freed from the Victoria Secrets contraption that pushed them high and round, Rachel Moore suffered from the normal sag of a thirty-seven year old woman who had given birth to three daughters. The last batch of stretch marks were permanent reminders. Neither Bruce, nor any man who had ever had the pleasure of Rachel’s intimate company, minded. But she did. She obsessed about her need for a boob job and a tummy tuck. Sex with Rachel was often more about reassuring her that she was still young and gorgeous. Bruce carefully stroked her ego and her tight thighs as he maintained a constant speed in the middle lane. The pleasure was all hers today. But that was OK. Bruce always enjoyed her unbridled enthusiasm.
Bruce had a quick service call in North Olmsted. As he was leaving the small real estate office, he noticed that his watch had died. The band was still attached, but the crystal had come off and the hands were gone. He had worn that Seiko almost everyday for nine years. Time to get another. Which explains why Bruce was in Great Northern Mall looking for a jewelry store.
Great Northern is nothing but clothing and jewelry. Watches were in kiosks, chain stores and family owned jewelers. All of the department stores carried full lines of Seiko’s, ESQ, etc… The jewelry stores he usually visited, the ones that sold the kinds of presents Becky expected, didn’t sell cheap practical watches. Too many choices. He was lost.
Bruce grabbed a sale brochure from one of the nameless chains, a cup of coffee from a faux Starbucks, and retreated to a bench. He found a couple of reasonably priced options and continued to leaf through the flier. He was always amazed by the success of the jewelry industry. How did they convince people to spend so much for colored rocks? And why weren’t fakes that looked just as good, if not better, acceptable?
It had been nine years and Bruce was still hurt. Not that he’d admit to it. Bruce had a special surprise for Becky for their tenth anniversary. He had collected mementos of their first ten years, everything from birth announcements to vacation pictures, and commissioned one of his customers, a talented artist, to create a collage for their family room wall. The final product, a framed 4’ x 4’ multi-colored shrine to their lives together, was breathtaking. Bruce hid it in his office until it was time to present it. Every time he looked at the collage, he focused on some different positive aspect of their married lives.
Becky’s parents, Anna and Robert Miller, hosted a special party for Becky and Bruce. Becky had been hinting, almost daily, that she wanted a diamond tennis bracelet for her present. She even showed Bruce the specific bracelet she and her mother had selected during a recent shopping trip at Beachwood Place. Wednesday, three days before the party, Anna called him at work. Was he going to Mann’s today to get the bracelet?
Bruce hadn’t expected his mother-in-law to lobby him about diamonds. He began to question his present. $7500 later he had her other gift. Becky gave Bruce a Seiko watch, the one that broke earlier today. Just to be safe, he gave her the bracelet first. It was all she wanted. She barely acknowledged the collage. She passes by it daily. It is as invisible and Bruce often feels.
Later that evening, Becky was disappointed to learn that the watch she had purchased was gone. While looking at the new watch she asked if the store had anything she would like.
Where The Boys Are
The best bagels in Cleveland were found in a little storefront at the end of a small strip plaza at the corner of Silsby and Warrensville. Possibly the best bagels anywhere. The only dissenters were New Yorkers. Nothing in Cleveland, a city that was populated with more than a few displaced New Yorkers, was as good or as big, or anything close to what you would find in the CITY. The locals, even those who had had the opportunity to travel extensively, were often unaware of Cleveland’s shortcomings. G-d gave us New Yorkers to keep us informed.
Bruce Bauman was only three people from the door. The line, there was always a line at Bagels and Bialys, stretched along the counter, through the glass door alcove, out across the sidewalk, and almost to the street. He had been in line behind two New Yorkers for about ten minutes of an anticipated twenty minute wait. He didn’t know the two guys, not by name, but after seeing them almost every week for years, he knew what they were going to talk about, which teams they followed, and how much better everything was back home.
The New Yorkers weren’t the only familiar faces. He’d already seen a couple of neighbors and the father of one of Susie’s friends. Bruce had been coming here almost every Sunday morning since Danni was a toddler. Little boys who once pressed their noses up against the cases in search of mini-pretzel bagels were now bringing their children for cream cheese and fresh bagels. The line moved steadily. Another guy, armed with a big bag of hot bagels, nodded as he passed Bruce.
Sundays at the Bauman household were just like countless other homes in Greater Cleveland. Bruce woke up at his usual time, made a pot of coffee, and read the sports page. He then fed Danni, Ben, and Susie breakfast before driving them to Sunday school. The parking lot would be filled with SUV’s and cars, mostly SUV’s, of the other dads dropping off their progeny. Next was Bagels and Bialys. A quick stop at CVS or Walgreens and Bruce would have just enough time to dump everything at the house before he had to get back to pick up the kids.
Becky was sitting at the kitchen table trying to wake up when Bruce stopped by. She was wrapped in her flannel robe, coffee cup in her left hand and the comics in her right.
“Did you make a grocery list?”
“I just got up.”
“I’m going to go back and get the kids. Any ideas about lunch? Do I need to swing past the grocery store?”
“They could have pizza for lunch. Why don’t you stop on the way back?”
“Fine. Will you be ready to go to Heinen’s after lunch?”
Bruce and Becky spent an hour or so every Sunday afternoon at the grocery store. This habit started, in part, as a way for them to be together during the weekend. They’ve shopped jointly since Becky was pregnant with Danni. But of equal importance to Bruce was that he found that he saved a lot of money if he accompanied her to the store. To this day, he could not get Becky to understand the importance of comparison shopping, using coupons, or staying true to her list. Becky was a marketers dream. She responded to new packaging, nice displays, or catchy advertising. Unless he wanted a kitchen filled with food no one would eat and a close personal relationship with the fast food delivery guys, he was forced to grocery shop.
There was no point in being frustrated with Becky. She was who she was. She had never pretended to be someone else. She hadn’t changed, except to be only more Becky-like each day.
The kids would be happy with pizza for lunch. Bruce saw it as twenty bucks he didn’t need to spend.
Funds weren’t tight in the Bauman household, but Bruce hated to waste money and Becky didn’t understand the concept. Her token income from Miller and Miller was her “running around money”. Her college degree and years of experience were worth less than twenty thousand dollars a year to her parents and she wasn’t motivated to look for a real job. Bruce supported the family in a style that far exceeded anything his father could have imagined and nowhere near her father’s level.
Eating out, and more importantly – take out, was a significant part of Becky’s way of life. Pizza on Sunday was almost a given. Friday night’s dinner was occasionally at her parents’ home, otherwise Bruce was in line at Taste of China or China Gate or if Becky was in the mood for Mu Shu, Pearl of the Orient. The counter help, often one of the owners, knew Bruce’s order as well as he did. Last Friday it had been Pearl. The other two guys waiting had been his assistants, years ago, when Bruce had coached Danni’s soccer team.
“No, this is the only place I can get pad Thai, beef with mushrooms, and won ton soup.”
“One stop shopping!”
“Hey, it beats the hell out of pizza night. Ronny and I like thin crust and the other two and Pam want thick. I have to go to two different places or I get tears.”
“Believe me. I understand.”
Some of Bruce’s lines had disappeared. The drycleaner now stops by the house twice a week. Whatever is picked up on Tuesday is dropped off on Friday. Friday’s shirts and slacks come back the following Tuesday. Becky’s car came with a service package that included door to door service. A valet comes to her office, leaves her a loaner, and brings her car back to her after the repair or oil change has been completed. Aside from the one conversation Bruce had to have with the dealership about over-charges, the system has worked well.
Some lines seemed to stretch on forever, or at the very least, eight more years. Bruce pulled in behind a black RX 330 and hoped the kids would be out soon.
There was no point in arguing with Becky. She was too busy at work to chaperone Susie’s class trip to the art museum. Even in Shaker Heights, it was getting harder and harder to find enough parents to volunteer a few hours during the day. Field trips were in jeopardy. Bruce agreed to take the day off.
Bruce had chaperoned countless field trips. His first was Danni’s preschool group’s tour of the fire station. Since then he has accompanied classes to plays in Spanish, with the special treat of lunch at Mi Pueblo or Luchita’s, trips to all of the local museums, and even the long drive to the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus. Bruce enjoyed spending the extra time with his children and their peers. It was sometimes difficult to work a day off into his schedule, but he always managed to help. Becky’s last field trip was as a senior in high school.
Susie was particularly excited about this school trip. Bruce had taken her to the Cleveland Museum of Art several times. She enjoyed his stories about the pictures of princesses and kings as well as the hall of armor and swords. Her favorite room was filled with ancient artifacts from Egypt. Bruce took her to Panera for her orange juice and cinnamon roll, dropped her off by the first bell, and hurried to his office to check his email. He needed to be back in about an hour.
Mrs. Anderson was getting her charges lined up when Bruce got to her classroom. She had had Ben two years earlier and knew Bruce from numerous field trips and parent – teacher conferences.
“Mr. Bauman! It’s good to see you.”
“Hi Mrs. Anderson. Ready for some art?”
“You bet. Do you know Ms. Tran?”
“No, we’ve never actually met. Hi, I’m Bruce Bauman, Susie’s dad.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Mimi Tran, Chi’s mom. Call me Mimi.”
They filed on to the waiting school bus and were down to the museum in less than fifteen minutes. Bruce was relieved that there was only one class on this trip. A teacher and two parents could easily control this group.
It had snowed again last night. April Fools! Becky had complained earlier that it was colder in Cleveland than Anchorage. Most of the class had been to this museum. The kids knew that the coat room was on the right and were thrilled to shed their heavy coats and gloves. Bruce brought up the rear to make sure no one strayed.
Bruce entered the coat room as Mimi removed her hat. Out tumbled shoulder length straight black hair. Beneath her bulky winter coat was a black business suit, jacket and skirt. Simple, elegant, and irrelevant. Bruce was already gone. It really wouldn’t have mattered whether Mimi had been wearing old jeans or a designer gown. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever encountered. He gasped. He caught himself. He hung up his topcoat.
The only thing standing between Bruce and Mimi Tran were Susie and her seventeen classmates, Mrs. Anderson, and the fact that Mimi didn’t know him.
Each of the adults was assigned six children and a museum guide. They were to return to the lobby in ninety minutes. Bruce, Susie, her friends, and Mrs. Wagner headed to the Renaissance area.
Some docents are more knowledgeable or motivated than others. Mrs. Wagner wasn’t receptive to the children’s questions and seemed, at times, to be in a rush. With major galleries closed for remodeling, there was no need to hurry. Bruce started to field the kids’ questions and got them to talk about the exhibits. They worked their way through the museum, Bruce and the ten year olds taking Mrs. Wagner along for the ride.
The Cleveland Museum of Art has an extensive collection of Asian sculpture. Bruce had the children focus on the statues of Buddha from Northern India. He then showed them that as Buddhism spread through Southeast Asia, the likeness changed to reflect the native population. They found Buddha’s from India, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and Japan.
“Do you see how the clothing hardly changes? The body’s position hardly changes. They are all Buddha, even at a thousand years apart. But they are all different.”
“Yeah. Look at the eyes. Cool.”
“The faces get wider.”
Bruce explained how this made it easier for the people to relate to.
“We got a picture of Jesus at home on the wall in the dining room, but he’s black in our picture. Is that like this? Does that mean it’s not real?”
“No, DeSean. That picture is as real as you or me. But you need to talk to your Mom to get the full meaning.”
Bruce turned to lead the kids to the next gallery and found Mimi and her group right behind him. He didn’t know how long they had been there, but he did notice that Mimi was smiling broadly. She reached into her purse and gave him her business card. Her hand betrayed the slightest hint of nervousness.
“Have I mentioned that I own a real estate office? Please give me a call.”
Bruce had no reason to believe that Mimi needed a copier.
Two hours! Juana reminded Mimi that they had an appointment scheduled at 3:30, less than a half hour from now. Mimi realized that she had spent a little over two hours talking to a man. They hadn’t talked about real estate – her business, or copiers – his. They hadn’t wasted the time on small talk. And not once had the discussion turned to sex, though his piercing blue eyes had cut through any defense she might have had. Mostly, she had talked and Bruce Bauman had listened. And now it had to end, at least for today.
It had all been on a whim. Mimi had led her group of children to the museum’s collection of Buddhas, a particularly quiet gallery that she had visited frequently in her late teens and early twenties. She couldn’t really remember her home, her real home her village, or her parents. But she could feel the warmth and sense of belonging amongst these sculptures. She wanted to give Chi a piece of that warmth. She wanted to give her daughter’s friends a gentle reminder that not everyone celebrated Christmas. And there was Bruce. DeSean had questions. Mimi, less than five years in Cleveland, less than five years after her parents had been murdered for cooperating with the Americans, had once had questions. Bruce answered DeSean’s question with love and respect. No one had answered Mimi’s questions. Not at age ten. Not ever. Mimi Tran had to find her own answers. That’s why she had given Bruce her card. That’s why she was so glad he had come today.
Juanita Rodriguez, Mimi’s best friend since her first days at Max Hayes High School and business partner for eleven years, was usually the late one. For once she was ready for an appointment and she wasn’t going to let Mimi, who was just talking, make them tardy. Bruce, now aware of the time and his need to be on his way, asked the women if they were available for lunch the following Monday, the 18th. He suggested Luchita’s on W. 117th. They agreed to meet at 12:30.
There are no shortcuts from the near Westside to the Heights. With luck and no accidents, the freeway takes a half hour to forty-five minutes. Catch some lights and avoid rush hour and you can go through town in thirty minutes or so. Bruce was thankful. He needed the time to process what had just happened. Deep Forest, good thinking music, was in his C D player. He eased his car on to the freeway and began to replay the afternoon.
Bruce didn’t know why Mimi had invited him to visit her office, but he didn’t care. He was just happy to go. He had waited for two days before calling her. The conversation had been brief and business like. He agreed to come at 1 PM, after lunch. He had asked few questions. There was little that she could have said over the phone that would have prevented him from making the trip.
The old Memphis Road neighborhood was home to many recent, and not so recent, immigrants from Central America and Asia. Social service organizations were occasionally staffed with people fluent in Spanish, French, or Mandarin. Most often not. Too often the limited funding provided by the State of Ohio didn’t even guarantee that their doors would stay open. Bruce easily found Mimi’s office. HOMEFINDERS had a big sign over their corner store-front location. A picture of Mimi and her partner was on the sign. “Hell,” thought Bruce. “I don’t care what they’re selling. I’m buying.”
There was an accident on 480 by Interstate 77. There was always an accident at 480 / 77. No problem. Bruce was in no hurry.
The tour of Mimi’s office wasn’t much longer than the time they had spent on small talk. Bruce asked her why she had become a real estate agent. It appeared that no one had ever asked before and if someone had, no one had ever listened. She talked about how her Aunt Chi, who her daughter was named for, would go to the local Revco for her prescriptions. The pharmacist always pretended that he couldn’t understand Chi’s broken English. He would overcharge her and sometimes made her come back two and three times for her blood pressure pills. Mimi vowed that she would speak the languages of her neighborhood and help other immigrants have a better life. As an adult she decided to help her neighbors find homes of their own.
As Bruce listened to Mimi passionately describe her company’s mission of finding homes, not listings, and how she and Juanita were fluent in close to a dozen languages and dialects, he couldn’t help but be impressed. This wasn’t an elevator pitch. This was real. That little girl who had helplessly watched her Aunt’s mistreatment was sitting across the table from him. Bruce forgot about the dark eyes and the perfect legs. He listened ever more intently and found her pain, her love, and her resolve. He was mesmerized.
Mimi, so accustomed to talking about houses or potential buyers, was unused to talking about herself. The dam broken, Mimi’s story could have easily drowned a weaker man. Details that Mimi had long forgotten came flooding back. Her parent’s murder, the helicopter ride out of Saigon, the cousin’s grocery store on Lorain Avenue where they first lived once they made it to Ohio, Mimi remembered and Bruce listened. She cried when she told Bruce about the botched hold-up that had cost Uncle Ho his life. She laughed as she described how she first met Juanita. Through it all there was no complaint, no self-pity. She was not a victim.
Bruce felt a profound respect for Mimi. He wanted her friendship. He wanted to hug her. He wanted to hold her.
Bruce pulled into his parking space and prepared himself for his office. No silly grins. No dreamy eyes. Bruce made sure that Monday afternoon was blocked off.
“Bruce? It’s Mimi. How are you?”
I’m fine. Is there a problem? Are we still on for lunch today?”
“No major problems. Were you going to be on the west side, or were you coming here just for us?”
“No, I’m here today. But it’s no big deal. I blocked off plenty of time.”
“First, Luchita’s is closed on Mondays. Second, Juana can’t make it. I’m still at home. Let’s meet at Sand’s Deli at noon.”
“Sounds good. See you then.”
Bruce had forgotten that Mimi’s house was only two blocks from his. They were practically neighbors. He suddenly had an extra hour of work time available and he made the most of it. Bruce always converted found time into money. This morning was no exception. Mimi had just been seated when he arrived at the restaurant.
Bruce had expected to continue their conversation where they had left off the previous week, especially now that Juanita wasn’t going to be there. Mimi Tran had an entirely different plan.
Mimi had had plenty of time to think through last week’s encounter. She had never opened up like that before. She was both frightened and ashamed. And she was curious. What was Bruce’s interest? What did he want? She ruled out the profit motive. No one would or could be that attentive and involved just to sell a copier. That would be sick.
It was probably sex. Men would do just about anything for sex and Mimi, though not conceited, wasn’t blind. She knew that at thirty-five she was close to ten years younger than Bruce. And she knew that some men found her attractive. He was probably just another dog. And, he was married. Still, there was something about Bruce. Juana would call it simpatico, a mixture of compassion and empathy that Mimi found irresistible.
There was only one way to find out the truth. She had to get Bruce to talk about himself. If he was faking it, she’d know. She hoped she would know.
Mimi stood and held out her hand as Bruce approached. Bruce understood immediately that she was wary. OK. She was driving this bus. He was just going along for the ride. Mimi and Bruce ordered and she quickly steered the conversation towards his children.
Since Susie and Chi were in the same class, he started with her. Bruce told Mimi about their trips to Panera and his office. His pride was tangible. Mimi began to relax.
Lunch arrived as Bruce was describing his first experiences as a soccer coach for Danni when she was five. Mimi laughed at the image of all twenty children, both teams, wondering around the soccer field in search of the ball. Even the goalies wouldn’t stay in position.
“What’s the matter? You never see a Vietnamese girl eat a corned beef on rye with stadium mustard?”
“No, as a matter of fact, I haven’t.”
“You don’t have to take me to restaurants that use chopsticks.”
“Yeah, but I would if that’s what you wanted.”
Sand’s wasn’t full and the waitress didn’t mind the campers in booth 37. Her discretion was rewarded with a $20 tip when they finally left hours later.
Bruce told Mimi why he had dropped out of school, how he landed in the copier business and where it had taken him. Mostly he talked about his children and the pain he felt that they never knew his parents. Until he said it, he had never realized how much he missed his father and how hard he was working to give his children more time and attention than he had received.
As Bruce talked, Mimi discovered how much she missed her parents, her aunt, and her uncle. She loved Juanita. She loved Chi. But she suddenly understood just how alone she was. There was only one person she knew who was just as alone and who could understand exactly how she felt. And he was busy paying the check.
Bruce walked Mimi to her car. He held out his hand. She threw her arms around him and kissed him.
Blow Out The Candles
He was born in time for Mother’s Day. Great for Mom. Nothing special for Bruce. A May birthday was uninspiring. There wasn’t the symbolism of a new beginning each year that April had. June had warmth. January had the calendar advantage. A May birthday was as dull as the year he was turning, forty-three. So blah. So boring. Bruce Bauman didn’t make a big deal out of his birthdays and neither did anyone else.
Ben balanced his science project on his lap. His backpack and tri-fold filled Bruce’s backseat.
“Is today your birthday, Dad?”
“Are we doing anything tonight?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, Happy Birthday. Thanks for the ride.”
Bruce had ten minutes to get to the Chamber of Commerce networking program fifteen minutes away. No problem. He could be a little late. He turned left on to Farnsleigh, saw the construction, and realized that he would need a lot of luck to only be a little bit late.
Mimi had a conference in Columbus. They wouldn’t even get a chance to talk today. They had talked everyday for the last two weeks. Several times they had done much more than just talk. But yesterday had been special. Mimi insisted on celebrating his birthday. They met for lunch again at Sand’s and then went to her house where his birthday present, a blue tie, was her only attire. The intensity and passion of their time together surprised him, but it was the time they spent talking that fulfilled him.
As usual, the Hilton’s parking lot was almost full. He pulled to the back of the building and hoped the doors would be unlocked. They weren’t. Bruce decided that it would be faster to walk around the building than to drive to the front and search for a space.
“Need a ride?”
It was Rachel Moore, later than Bruce, who had also gone to the back of the hotel to find a place to park.
“Doors are locked. Park this beast and we’ll walk in together.”
“I’ve got a better idea. I’ll move over and let you take a better test drive. I promise you’ll love the ride.”
“I can’t. I promised Jeff I’d show up today.”
“Suit yourself. Let me grab some cards and I’ll be right there.”
Rachel may have been disappointed, but she wasn’t going to pout. Someone else would get a chance to test drive her SUV soon enough. Bruce sighed as he watched her reach into the back seat. He had just passed on Rachel. Regrets? No, but he knew that this meant something. He just wasn’t 100% sure what that was.
The answering machine was blinking when Bruce got home.
“Bruce, it’s me. I forgot to tell you. Rhonda and I are going to dinner tonight. I’m meeting her at China Gate. I should be home early. The kids will be happy with pizza or Mickey D’s. Love ya. Bye.”
It was already 6:30 and the kids were probably starved. Either this was the lamest possible lead in to a surprise party, unlikely for a Tuesday evening, or she actually forgot Bruce’s birthday. Danni would know.
“Danni, come down here.”
“Is dinner ready?”
“I think she’s out to dinner with Rhonda.”
“On your birthday?”
Danni caught herself. It was one thing for her to feign disinterest. It was another for her mother to perfect it.
“Go see what your brother and sister want. Options include Applebee’s, Donatos, etc… Just no fast food.”
“I’ll see if everyone will eat at Applebee’s, Daddy.”
Ben and Susie brought down their handmade cards. Bruce complimented their artwork and displayed them with Danni’s purchased card on the piano. He took his children to dinner.
A trip to Dairy Queen followed a quiet meal. Back at home, Bruce tucked Susie into bed as his older children retreated to their bedrooms to complete their homework. He grabbed a stack of papers from his briefcase and the TV remote and sat down at the kitchen table. He hoped that the Indians were on.
It wasn’t that Bruce was sorry to miss a dinner with Rhonda, a woman who reminisced about her alcoholic ex-husbands and yearned for the step-children who stole from her. He had watched Becky and Rhonda share too many black clouds. It wasn’t even the birthday issue.
Bruce Bauman was finally able to identify the dull throb he had been feeling off and on, mostly on, for over twenty years. Bruce was alone. Totally alone. And it was never going to change unless he did something.
Becky waved as she walked past Bruce on the way to the closet. She saw the kids’ cards after she hung up her coat.
“Rhonda says ‘Hi’. Was today your birthday?”
“Yeah. Same day as last year.”
“Sorry. You know how busy I am at work. Today was the day from Hell. The Steins came in and”
“Oh enough Becky. It’s always the day from Hell. If you have to work, it’s the day from Hell. If you have to cook or clean or take care of the kids, it’s the day from Hell. Any day that you aren’t shopping or on vacation is the day from Hell.”
“You’re just pissed because I forgot your birthday. Well, you didn’t remind me. No big deal. I’ll take the kids to the mall on Saturday.”
“Why? Do you need something? My birthday isn’t the issue. My life is the issue. I’ve had enough.”
“What, you’re leaving me? What’s her name and who all knows?”
“The only person I’m leaving you for is me.”
“I’ll take everything you’ve ever had, have, or will have. You’ll pay Bruce Bauman. My dad will make sure you pay.”
“I have paid. For twenty years I’ve paid. You can take the stuff. I can always get more stuff, if I need it. You can’t take my kids from me and I won’t let you take another day of my life.”
“You bastard. You can’t leave me.”
But Bruce already had. He ran upstairs to the storage area for a suitcase. Susie was asleep. Ben and Danni were crying in her room. He assured them that everything would be OK. He hugged and kissed both of them and went to his bedroom.
“I brought you a suitcase. I’ll call you tomorrow at your father’s office to work out the details.”
As Becky pulled out of the driveway Bruce whispered “Happy Birthday to me.”