It was eight a.m. when I awakened Nita for her morning medication and protein drink.
“Why are you giving me a smoothie at night?” she asked.
“It’s morning, sweetheart. Don’t you want your breakfast?”
“It’s morning?” she asked as she searched the room. “I was wondering why there was so much light. I guess I’m confused by last night.”
“What happened last night?” I asked.
She squinted at a light fixture above her head. “Two men came into the bedroom, setup a ladder, and put a camera in the ceiling.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Political warfare,” she said matter-of-factly. “Something to do with our time in Algeria.” She crinkled her mouth. “They kept bumping into my nightstand. I didn’t like that. That’s why I put a pillow there,” she said, pointing to an accent pillow at the foot of the side table.
“So they wouldn’t run into the table?” I asked.
I sat down at the side of the bed where she lay and stroked her head. “There was no one here, honey. Just you and me.”
“Oh,” she said without objection, seemingly no longer interested in the conversation.
There are constant reminders that Nita is no longer the woman she once was. But her spirit still remains. She is still gentle, sweet, and unruffled. In many ways, she remains unchanged from the woman I met for the first time in August of 1968.
I was fresh out of college with a degree in education. Kelso, Washington, School District had just hired me to teach English, speech, and drama in a battered three-story high school built in 1922. Before the first day of school, there was an all-district meeting to welcome the new year and new teachers. I found a seat next to Marilyn, a friend I knew from college. As the room filled, we chatted about trifles.
My head turned when a slender teacher walked down the aisle to find a seat two rows ahead of us.
To say she walked into the room is inadequate. She lit up the hall with her long blonde hair, yellow mini-dress, matching high heels, and fishnet leggings.
Even now, I celebrate my fortune that all the chairs behind us were filled. If she had found a seat in the back of the room, she might have escaped without notice at the end of the meeting—my truelove gone forever.
I think my voice squeaked when I whispered to Marilyn. “Who is that?”
“That’s Nita Astleford,” Marilyn said. “She teaches kindergarten at Washington Elementary School.”
“Do you know her?”
“Of course. We both did our student teaching at Oregon College of Education.”
I was only half listening. I was still ogling Nita. “You have to introduce us.”
“I can do that.”
Two weeks after the district meeting, I was invited to Marilyn’s apartment. Nita was seated on the floor, her shapely legs curled to one side. I loved those legs.
“Hi, I’m Allen,” I said. “I’m so glad you were willing to meet.”
Nita smiled softly and spoke in a confident but gentle voice. “Marilyn has good things to say about you.”
I grinned. “And it only cost me twenty bucks for the favor.”
“Only twenty?” Nita asked.
“I would have paid fifty, but after that I’d have to sell my car.”
Nita chuckled—not a cackle, but a soft patter like summer rain. I could listen to that laugh for a lifetime.
The evening went quickly. When it was time to leave, I told Nita I hoped we would see each other again.
“That would be nice,” she said.
That was all I needed, all I wanted.
A month later, I dreamed up a plan for our first official date. I wanted it to be special, something she would never forget. It began with me coaching a six-year-old neighbor boy on the details.
I got on my knees to be at eye level with the youngster. “I have five dollars for you, kid.”
“Gee, five whole dollars.”
“Yep, but here’s what you have to do.” I whispered the plan—not that there was anyone nearby to hear but to add drama to the scheme.
I watched the scene play out from behind a black sedan.
The boy rang Nita’s doorbell. It took a moment for her to descend from her second-floor apartment. My heart was thumping. I didn’t breathe until she opened the door.
As instructed, the boy didn’t say a word. He lifted a sign I had strung around his neck. It read,
I’m an orphan. Please adopt me.
But if you can’t adopt me,
could you please accept
a date with my friend, Allen Johnson,
on Friday night?
Under the script were three boxes with the instruction to check one:
1. Not ever.
2. I have to wash my hair on Friday.
3. I’d love to.
Nita checked one of the boxes, but I couldn’t make out which one.
The entire show didn’t make sense. I only knew I wanted that first date. I think I figured there was no way she could say no to an adorable orphan boy.
Nita tousled the boy’s shock of auburn hair, smiled, and slipped into her apartment.
I liked the look of that smile.
The boy stripped off the placard, scrambled to my hiding place, and handed me the card.
I grinned like a demented jack-o’-lantern. She had checked, “I’d love to.”
I gave the boy a hug, which clearly startled him. I opened his hand and slapped a five-dollar bill into his palm.
“Did I do good?” the boy asked.
“You were perfect,” I said. “More than perfect. You were splendiferous!”
“You’re silly,” the boy said.
“No, I’m in love.”
The date was set. I had the image of a romantic steak dinner over candlelight with Frank Sinatra crooning in the background. But I didn’t know how to cook. Cold cereal with bananas was the pinnacle of my culinary expertise. My next step was a trip to the local grocery store meat department.
A portly gentleman with a cleaver in his hand and bloodstains on his white apron stood behind the display cases of fresh meat.
I was not shy about my predicament. I thought if I were real, he would be big-hearted. “Hi, my name’s Allen. What’s your name?”
“Hey, I’m Rocky,” he said, his voice a cascade of coal tumbling down a basement chute.
“Hi Rocky. I’m going to be honest with you. I’m in love. And I want to prepare the best steak dinner for my girl—well, the one I hope to become my girl. But I don’t know a thing about cooking a steak. Can you teach me?”
Rocky smiled. Although there was a tooth missing one slot to the left of his front teeth, his grin was genuine. He nodded and sanded the palms of his hands. “I’ve been waiting all my life for this moment,” he said.
He turned his back on me and returned with two oblong-shaped cuts of meat on a sheet of butcher paper. They had good color and appeared moist but not wet.
“These are tenderloins,” Rocky said. “The most tender cuts of meat you can buy. Is your girl tender?”
“Oh, yeah. As tender as can be.”
“Okay. Press your fingers into one of the steaks,” he said, edging the pads of meat toward me.
“It feels firm and cold.”
“That’s right,” the butcher said, “which is exactly what you want. It’ll be out-of-this-world tender.”
“But how do you cook it?”
“Okay. This is important. Come over here.” He stepped to one side, splayed his hands, and leaned over the counter. “Let it stand for thirty minutes at room temperature before searing.”
“Do you have a grill.”
“Not to worry. How about a cast-iron skillet?”
I smiled. “I sure do.”
“And an oven?”
Rocky slapped his hands. “Okay, this is what you do. If you follow my recipe, your tenderloins will be slightly crusted on the outside and perfectly juicy on the inside.”
“Should I take notes?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll write down every step later. Here’s the trick: sear both cuts for two minutes per side in your cast-iron skillet.”
“At what temperature?”
“I was just getting to that. On high heat with real butter. Then immediately transfer to a preheated oven at 415 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for five to six minutes for medium rare. If your girl prefers medium, oven cook for eight to nine minutes. When you take it out of the oven let it rest for five minutes before serving.”
“Two reasons,” Rocky said. “The meat actually continues to cook, and the juices seep into the entire steak. Understand?”
I raised both thumbs. “I’ve got it.”
He pointed a finger at me and unfurled his gap-tooth smile. “Good job, pilgrim. Make it happen. A first impression only happens once.”
The dinner went beautifully. True to Rocky’s word, the steaks were perfect. And, with help from my downstairs landlady, I learned how to prepare a Waldorf salad, asparagus, and baked potatoes with all the trimmings.
The dinner was only upstaged by Nita, whose face glowed in the candlelight. When we had finished, she insisted on helping me clean up.
We stood side by side—I washing, she drying.
“Tell me something about yourself,” I said.
“Where should I start?”
“At the beginning. I want to know everything.”
She turned and leaned against the counter. “Well, I was born and raised in Guatemala.”
“Really. I’m surprised.”
“My parents were Quaker missionaries.”
“Was that a good experience for you?”
“It was wonderful,” she said. “The people were incredibly loving.”
“Is that where you learned to be so sweet?”
“Are you flirting with me?”
I tipped my head down, dried my hands on a dishtowel, and folded the cloth more precisely than was necessary. “It’s taken you this long to pick up on that?”
“Well, maybe I knew when you lit the candles.”
The entire evening felt like a sumptuous warm bath. I was soaking in the heat of her gentle spirit. She was so easy, so unpretentious—so deliciously Nita. There was no way I was letting her go.
“Were the candles too much?”
“No, they were perfect.” After a pause, she added, “You were perfect.”
I felt my heart jump. I edged closer to her. She had a glass in one hand and a dishcloth in the other. I took both and set them on the countertop. “I know this is only our first date, but would it be outrageous if I kissed you?”
There was the slightest smile on her lips. “It would be outrageous if you didn’t.”
My blood sloshed. I was about to kiss the girl I was going to marry.
I stepped forward, let my hands fall lightly on her lower back. Not wanting to frighten her, I drew her in but only slightly. She moistened her lips, which made my pulse leap. Moving in slowly, I let my lips brush hers and then went in for a deeper kiss. She didn’t resist. In fact, she snuggled in closer, and I was lost in the fragrance of her affection.
That first dinner date landed on Saturday, October 19, 1968. Thirty-six days later, and many kisses in between, we were married on Christmas Eve. When you’re hot, you’re hot. Our life-long adventure had begun.
Today, my girl struggles to partition fantasy from reality. Like our first kiss, I welcome her battle with intense feelings, certainly, but also with a quiet assurance that everything is all right—not as perfect as a kiss perhaps but certainly forgivable and undisputed.
Each day, as I help Nita dress and undress, support her in and out of the shower, and gently disabuse her from her ghostly fantasies, I’m not distressed, not even disquieted. I am in love with her with an undercurrent of emotion that is powerful, boundless, and so much deeper than the first sweet days of fascination.
Perhaps Nita wonders if my devotion might one day extinguish. It will not. Still, just to be sure, she says or does something that lifts the flames of love a flicker higher.
First, the backstory.
This is a bit indelicate. After my bladder surgery, I had a frequent urge to urinate. How often? At least every hour, if not every thirty minutes—day and night. Let’s just say the throne and I were simpatico.
One day, I had a doctor’s appointment. Forty-five minutes passed between my arrival and departure from the clinic. During that time, I made three trips to the bathroom. The third urge struck me like a tidal wave as I waited in the examination room for my doctor’s arrival. At first, I thought I could wait it out, but the rolling tide became a tsunami. I can still see the expression on the nurse when I bolted into the hallway in a panic.
Her eyes bulged. “What— You can’t— Where are you—” She never did construct a full sentence.
“Sorry,” I said on the run with no time to compose lyrical prose. “Gotta pee!”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “Please—”
The remainder of the visit was unremarkable.
However, when I arrived home, I rushed to the bathroom. All body parts squirmed from the waist down as I lifted the toilet lid. Then I laughed so hardily I had to press both hands over my stitches to buttress the seam.
During my absence, Nita devised a way to prove she was still my girl. In my absence, she had fabricated a heart-shaped poster with the letters ILU in the foreground. Maybe youngsters have another meaning for the acronym ILU—if they have, I don’t want to hear it—but for me, I knew ILU meant “I love you.”
After relieving myself, I found Nita and gathered her into my arms. I was still giggling when I asked, “Did you create that?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Why did you do it?”
She paused as I felt her quiver against my chest.
She tilted her head to gaze into my eyes. “Because I wanted you to know that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I love you.”
She took my breath away. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I love you. That single phrase could have easily replaced our wedding vows.
Later, I photographed her artwork to record a small miracle. Plagued by trembling hands and the onset of dementia, how could Nita find the wit and capacity to compose and construct her ode to the commode?
How? By the power of I…L…U.