of day. So, I knew the chance of seeing this published was slim to none. I was right.
But going through the process was absolutely worth it.
One more thing: I thought the O. Henry ending, as well as mentioning my time as a professional circus clown
and memories of living in New York City, were unusual enough to nudge the editors toward publication. But in
retrospect, my story probably wasn’t “modern enough” to meet the column’s current criteria. To this end, my essay
isn’t about falling in love while navigating a nasty divorce; meeting one’s soulmate in the middle of a pandemic,
or the challenging work of bonding with a stepchild.
Still, I really like how this came out. Also, I worked hard on it. Enjoy!)
It was what used to be called a one-night stand.
Perhaps because I’d never done such a thing before or since, and probably because the attraction was also more overwhelming than anything I’d ever experienced, forgetting him, even after decades, proved to be impossible.
Just a few weeks before Christmas, I found him.
John had been dead for close to a year.
I’m online a lot, so whenever he snuck into my head, about every four or five months, I’d do a quick search to see if I could find out whatever happened to him. As it turned out, I had been spelling his first name right but his last name wrong all of this time, sometimes with an extra letter, or sometimes with the correct letters but one misplaced vowel.
Now, finally nailing the configuration, I sat in my office, starred at the computer screen, and read John’s obituary.
He had died in a long-term nursing home, his spouse of 35 years beside him.
That final place was in Mexico, Missouri, the town where John was born and raised, and had returned to 15 years before. Scanning the memorial guestbook, I let out a loud exhale after clicking on what appeared to be his wedding day photo.
It had been snapped in my California hometown of Long Beach, the city where we had met.
The picture was posted by John’s widow Christine. We both had hazel eyes and dark brown hair, and wore it the same way, curly and above our collar line.
I had dropped out of college and already knew a little about John the night we came together, at a cramped and dingy bar frequented by reporters and editors. Not coincidentally, it was across the street from the newspaper where
John was the political cartoonist for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and his drawings were smart, sassy and on-target with issues of the day. In person, he was curious; had a big laugh, and knew how to listen.
Then there were his looks.
If not for the Southern drawl, John might have been mistaken for someone who grew up in Malibu—in his 30s and not an ounce of fat, but tall and lean and tan, with sun bleached hair and a casual cut neither too long nor too short. When I see photos of Jeff Bridges at his most hunky, I see John as well.
I was short and curvy, with unruly hair and decidedly Eastern European looks. I couldn’t imagine why anyone who
looked like him might want to be with someone who looked like me, even for one night. But I guess, at least right
then, he did.
We left at the same time, both knowing what was going to happen next.
Besides the charged anticipation, there was an assured innocence, too.
After all, this was long before anyone had heard of AIDS or any of the other scary complications that sometimes happen now after sleeping with strangers. It was also the peak of the contemporary women’s movement, and a time when reliable birth control was easily available. Putting both components together, it was more than okay to be sexually active. It was, in fact, something to be celebrated.
It was very dark and probably close to 11 o’clock when I got in my car and John got in his.
I followed him to the white Spanish style house he rented with a roommate I never did meet, on a street named after a tree common to California. I also remember the bed. It was on the floor, big enough for two, and the sheets smelled as if they had just come out of the dryer.
Details aren’t needed here, except to say that both of us got what we wanted, and many times over, with only an hour
And while I don’t remember much small talk, I did tell John that I had been a professional circus clown for a time, coming off the road the year before. Also, I mentioned that I was Jewish.
Hours later, with the sun beginning to rise, he propped one elbow on the bed, hand on his cheek, looking hard at me. ‘’Damn!” he said, in that sweet twang. “You’re the first Jew I ever slept with!”
Shortly after that, the phone rang. It was one of John’s colleagues, inviting him to see some sort of NASA landing in
the desert several hours away. John told me he really wanted to go, and so, he did. I must have left at the same time.
We stayed in touch for a few months. But the white-hot intensity had dissipated by then, and we lost contact.
I eventually received a journalism degree from San Jose State, doing some birthday clowning gigs to help pay my tuition. I had also sold a piece on flea market tips to Seventeen, and right after graduation, because I wanted to write for magazines and because that’s where all of the big ones were, moved to New York City.
First I lived in the East Village with one roommate and hundreds of cockroaches, and then snagged a walk-through apartment three flights up in Brooklyn, all for myself, on Henry Street. The kitchen featured stained burgundy carpet and the bathroom was in the hallway, but the place also boasted a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty.
Not long after, I had a job as an editorial assistant for a small publishing house and then was a staff writer for the CBS company magazine.
Four years after leaving California, I came back because I missed driving, my friends and the beach. I found a pink duplex in the flats of Beverly Hills and wrote press releases about celebrities, then reported for a weekly film industry publication. Eventually, I thrived in a long career as a network television producer.
However, I had stayed in contact with a few people at the Press-Telegram, where John still worked.
Committed to no commitment when we met, I learned then that nearing his mid- 40s, he had married Christine.
The obit provided other facts I’d never known.
After graduating from Mexico High School, John was an Army officer in Vietnam with the infamous Big Red One unit,
a fact that made him immensely proud. Indeed, he had landed in Southeast Asia in time to take part in the 1968
Tet Offensive, the notorious and bloody campaign that marked a major escalation for the United States in the war.
At around this time, he had also left a brief marriage and a four-year-old son behind.
After leaving the military, John attended the University of Missouri, majoring in history, which became a lifetime passion. Described as a cartoonist, artist and author, the last sentence of the memorial defined the person I remember. “Everyone that knew John thought he was a nice guy, a great story teller, and a hard loving man.”
In the funeral home guestbook, a retired colleague from the newspaper, and a Vietnam vet as well, offered more.
“John was my friend,” he wrote. “I have a lot of acquaintances, but very few friends.” The writer went on to describe the lengthy walks the two took every morning for more than a decade, long after I knew him, where they “solved all the world’s problems, swapped lies and dirty jokes, and bonded the way brothers are supposed to. We laughed a lot and cursed a lot and tried our best to leave a legacy of peace and love.”
The researcher and writer that I am wanted further details. Luckily, the reporter was easy to find and open to answering a few questions.
To let him know I was who I said I was, I included my Facebook handle, which has photos of my days as a clown.
“I expect you were among his fonder memories,” he wrote back. “For a one-nighter, you picked a good one.”
The reporter went on to tell me about the historical novel John had co-authored, set right before the Civil War
and published in 2007. It remains in print and while there are only five reviews, each one is stellar in its praise.
The friend also mentioned that near the end, knowing he was dying of cancer but upbeat, John was working on a
He had also reconnected with his long-estranged son, with whom he’d lost touch with after Vietnam. “In my last conversation with him,” added the reporter, “he was fairly giddy over the fact had he had a couple of grandchildren.”
One more thing came out.
“Some considerable irony here,” the friend wrote. “Christine was a professional birthday clown when she and John met.”
So, now, living in a big blue and white house in Oregon, with a front porch wide enough for two Adirondck rockers,
one for my husband and another for me, I wonder.
What if the chemistry that John and I acted on that one night so long ago hadn’t vanished? What if I had stuck around my hometown, and ended up in Mexico, Missouri?
I’ll never know.
But then again, for some reason, I don’t think I should.