by David Francis
Those who know me best won't be surprised that fried chicken, food poisoning, and Captain America played a large part in meeting my wife. It was an absolute necessity that they should be because, the truth is, about the time I met Rebecca, outside of work and noontime basketball, the only things I did that brought me out into society was buying fried chicken, occasional medical attention, and playing video games.
At that time my needs were few, and my income even less. I had just graduated from college and was finally living my lifelong dream of doing very little. I had a part-time job working at the university library that just paid the rent of a two-room junky apartment and allowed me to eat regularly---and by eat regularly, I mean regularly eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches washed down by powdered milk. After that, there was little money left over. When there was leftover cash, I used it on the two extravagances I mentioned above.
So maybe I should explain my feelings about fried chicken.
Fried chicken! How I love it! It is really a weakness for me. And the thing is, I'm not all that crazy about good fried chicken. Don't talk to me about your old mother's recipe or some fancy seasoned dish. I want the fried chicken that only comes from a long processed stew in giant vats of grease, frozen, re-cooked in a different vat of grease, kept warm under heat lamps, and finally served to me in a foil bag.
I still have the fondest memories of paydays and bringing $5 to the local trashy grocery store: $3 for a box of frozen chicken, $1 for generic potato chips, and $1 for a no-name brand of cola. Every five months the financial mechanics that governed my universe aligned appropriately so that I had an extra $2 for which I could buy a canister of French dip to complete the feast. But for my typical weekly binge I did without. French dip or no, that dinner would certainly lay me up for the rest of the night, but, hey, its not like I was going out or anything. I had no pressing engagements that would be spoiled by a night spent in bed popping Rolaids until I fell asleep.
Not your idea of an exciting evening? Well you need to consider that until I started living on my own, I had little experience with gluttony. I grew up in a family of eight children. Do you know what it is like to get excited about having a one-eighth portion of a single bag of potato chips and a one-liter bottle of soda poured into eight glasses? I can still remember the first time I ate an entire bag of potato chips by myself. I remember thinking as I was finishing it up, "You know, I think I have had enough." I had never experienced that growing up.
Well, I'm not trying to draw sympathy for the junk-food deprivation of my childhood. I just want to paint a picture for you of someone, who had very little else of interest in life, making the most of life's simple pleasures.
Fortunately for me, my fried chicken addiction would lead me to greater happiness. Knowing me today as a man who has dated all kinds of women (and by all kinds I mean both kinds: one brunette in 1996 and one blonde in 1998), you may find it hard to believe that I needed any assistance meeting women. Or maybe believing that, you just find it hard to believe that fried chicken could play a vital role. Well it did.
As I said, I had a job working at the University Library. This particular year, the annual Library Picnic was being overseen by my immediate supervisor. Normally I wouldn't have shown much interest, but in the course of one work day, I heard her talking to some co-workers about the boxes and boxes of fried chicken they would need to order for the picnic. Suddenly, I was intensely interested.
Joyanne (my boss) was probably surprised that I was planning on going, but I could see she was pleased. At first I thought it was just because she felt it would be a good experience for me to get out and socialize (which I was willing to do if there be fried chicken as a reward), but I eventually learned that she was hoping I would take her niece and nephew swimming at the picnic---since she didn't care to don a swimming suit in front of all her peers. With the distance promise of fried chicken, even this task seemed trivial, so I agreed.
The picnic was just about everything I had hoped for. In the first hour alone I was able to eat about five grease-soaked pieces of chicken along with handfuls of various potato chips. And where I sat to consume this ambrosia was important too. I had planned to just find a corner out of the way where I wouldn't be disturbed, but as I returned from the serving line with my plate, I caught sight of an old acquaintance I had known when we were both student-workers at the Main library. She had moved on to get a job at the Law Library, and I didn't see her very often, but I knew her well enough to sit down across from her.
As soon as I did, I realized that she was sitting with a friend. My memory is that she was wearing a blue T-shirt and white short pants. I could be wrong about that, but I am almost positive that her name was Rebecca Jones. My friend introduced us and I discovered that this Rebecca person had read some of my stories (like this one you are reading) and she was telling me she had enjoyed them. We had a pretty nice, friendly chat (about what I don't really remember) and I was thinking to myself "I want to keep talking to this girl." when Joyanne's niece and nephew started pestering me that they wanted to go swimming.
Well, I didn't want to go, but a promise is a promise (if you make it to your boss anyway), so I had to break off my conversation with Rebecca and go chaperon these kids for an hour or so. When I got back, Rebecca had left.
A weekend passed. I had actually had enough fried chicken from the picnic that I skipped my usual Friday binge, but on Sunday night I went with my sister and her husband to Johnny Rocket's Pizza. Knowing my financial and eating habits, they let me take the remaining six slices of pizza home with me. I think my sister said something about trying to help fatten me up--this did not prove to be the case.
When I got home, I put the pizza on the counter and then I went to bed. I went to work the next morning and it remained there the entire day. That entire August, 95 degree weather, day. Still, when I got home that afternoon, I was plenty hungry, and the sausage and cheese looked fine to me. It was just an added bonus that the sun had come in through the window and kept the slices so warm that I didn't even have to bother reheating them!
That night, I think I lost something like 37 pounds. I have never felt anything like that in my life. It was like I was completely hollow and any food I dropped into my mouth just fell through nothingness and came out again immediately on the far side. I had a fever and I was in a semiconscious state most of the night.
I didn't feel much better the next morning, but I dragged myself to work. I guess I must have looked pretty ghastly because everyone kept telling me to go home. I figured I would just tough it out, but then my supervisor's boss tried to have a conversation with me and I couldn't really understand anything she was saying. The next thing I knew she had ordered me to either go home or go to the doctor. She was a no-nonsense person, so I figured I must actually look pretty bad. I walked off to the University Clinic.
They told me I had Salmonella. They explained that I had about 4-7 more days like today, but that I would get progressively better. They said I needed plenty of fluids and rest. It was still early so I thought I would just head home and go to sleep.
I got about two hours of sleep when my phone rang. It was Marna (my friend from the picnic) and her boyfriend calling to say that they were going to Opie Taylor's that night with her co-worker, and since it was just down the street from where I lived, they thought I might want to go. Well, I certainly wasn't in any shape for socializing, and the thought eating anything anywhere made my intestines quiver. On the other hand, this was a chance to meet Rebecca again. I told them I would meet them there!
I don't really remember much about that night. The only thing I remember clearly is that I got up to go to the restroom about seven times in a 40 minute interval. I remember shuffling off to the bathroom each time thinking, "This must seem pretty weird to them." Also, I barely said a word and kept noticing that my eyelids had fallen down while listening to people talk. Come to think of it, I couldn't have smelled that good either what with all of the fevered sweating and such. The only upside was that by the end of dinner, I was exhausted, fevery, and dehydrated enough that I didn't really care about any impressions I was leaving. I wobbled out the door with them, slurred goodbye and went back home and to bed.
Now you would think that this would have been a setback in Rebecca and I getting together, but Rebecca claimed recently when I was relating this story to friends that she thought my silent and passive behavior suggested a deep and sensitive nature. So I guess that intrigued her. How she interpreted the frequent toilet visitations and sweating, I have never troubled to determine.
Anyway, I imagine it was the tolerance I developed from years of eating fried chicken, but my illness didn't last nearly as long as the doctors said it would. I woke up the next morning feeling much better and went to work. I was still pale and weak, but I went to bed early again that night, and by the next day I was playing noontime basketball again. Also, my mind was once again ready to turn back to Rebecca. I actually went over to the Law Library on the pretence of visiting my friend and joked around with them both, and when I got back home, I was even so emboldened as to ask my friend for Rebecca's phone number!
My friend declined to give me her number, but said she would tell Rebecca I had asked and would see if she would contact me. Within a day, Rebecca had sent me an email. The first thing she made clear was that she wasn't interested in dating me (or anyone) at that time but that she would be happy to go out as friends. She left it to me to choose the plans. My sister had recently told me about this weird place called The Barn House that was way out in the sticks of southern Indiana that this guy worked on for 25 years on his stints away from prison. Rebecca thought that sounded interesting, so we went. I still think of that as our first date--even though Rebecca said it wasn't.
By this point, I had about all the assistance from fried chicken and food poisoning that one can expect for a relationship. Rebecca and I went on one or two official dates after that, but things didn't really get going until Captain America lent a hand.
As I said at the start, my interests pre-Rebecca were fried chicken and video games. Not even video games, really---a video game: Captain America and the Avengers. I became an expert at that game. I could make one quarter last 40 minutes. It was a dream of mine to one day make it through the entire game on just a single quarter.
The game itself was hilarious because it had clearly been designed in Japan and the phrases that the superheroes and villains said made almost no sense at all. I remember that when Captain America meets bad guy Whirlwind he says: "You cannot escape!" Whirlwind quickly retorts: "You will be the one escaping!" Or when The Claw and Living Laser say (in a strangely Schwartzenger tone) "Don't disturb us!" Captain America says: "Why should? It goes well!"
For many months, I made a daily trip to the Space Port, which was the local video arcade and there frittered away my daily quarter. I never spent more than a quarter--that would have taken away from the pride of the thing. It was necessary that I smash the Red Skull and his nefarious plots on a single quarter--because you know that that is the way Cap would have done it.
Then, just about a month before I met Rebecca, everything stopped. I walked into the Space Port, and the Avengers game was no longer there. I guess they felt it wasn't making enough money (I don't know if the quarter I spent on an hour of play even paid the electricity costs). I guess I always knew it would happen someday, but it really messed up my world. I found time to do other things to substitute my time playing my video game (visiting family, hiking, charity work, etc.) but it just wasn't the same.
So how does this all tie into me and Rebecca? Well, it didn't right away. But after work, I used to ride my bike over to her apartment and we would hang out together. We didn't really make plans and sometimes the evening was no more than Rebecca doing homework and me playing on her computer. Occasionally, I would get bored and go for a walk to go get a snack or something. There was a convenience store just down the road from her, and I discovered early on that I could take a back way that was a much shorter walk. On the way I had to climb a chain link fence and walk around a laundry mat. One time I went late enough that I could see a familiar soft glow coming from inside the darkened laundry mat. Yes. It was a Captain America and the Avengers video game!
Now, I'm not saying I believe in Fate exactly, but if one were to, you have to admit that finding this treasure just a short walk from your girlfriend's apartment is a pretty strong signal! Now would I have been willing to go over to Rebecca's apartment on a work night every night anyway? Well, maybe. But since I came across that video game, we don't ever have to wonder do we?
Maybe even more telling are the lessons the Avengers game taught Rebecca and I about our relationship early on. Every night I would be gone for an hour or more doing something Rebecca found completely silly, and it was never a problem. Rebecca was glad that I was around, but she was also pleased that she didn't have to actually pay attention to me and could go on doing what she would have done if I wasn't even there. I used to invite her to come watch me play, and she would wrinkle her nose into a sneer and ask: "Why would I want to do that?" I would say: "You can see my masterful skills! Don't you want to be proud of me?" As I was leaving to play on night I made my usual offer and she said: "What would I do for an hour while you are playing? Just stand there?" I said "No! I expect you to massage my muscles when they get fatigued from handling the controls and to whisper into my ear: 'You're my Captain America!'"
She didn't go for that either. But in that time, I think we learned a lot about each other and we set some precedents for how our relationship would development. We are still reaping the benefits today.