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کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 38

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Punter

That summer Robin was doing an acting program in Oxford at the British American Dramatic Academy, and coincidentally I had planned a hitchhiking trip throughout England and Scotland. “I could stop by Oxford and see you,” I offered. We made a plan. As I traveled, I called her from red-box pay phones all around the United Kingdom to make sure she still wanted to see me. Every time I called, she seemed eager for me to get there. But not as eager as I was.

When I got to Oxford, I planned a romantic escapade for us and got lucky with an unusually sunny and gorgeous Sunday. I bought sandwiches and a bottle of wine and decided we’d go punting on the Thames. When I rented the punt—a flat-bottomed boat—and the guy handed me something like a long stick, I realized that in all of my romantic planning I hadn’t factored in my total ignorance about what to do with that stick. But how hard could it be? I’d figure it out.

We found our boat and Robin got settled in, facing me, smiling sweetly. We shoved off from the shore. I pushed the stick in, and it hit the soft riverbed. I pulled it up slowly, and water and mud and silt sprinkled everywhere—on my pants, my shirtsleeves. This couldn’t be right. What was I doing wrong? I tried to cloak my ignorance about the art of punting with an easy smile; Robin smiled. She must have known, but she was too kind to let on.

On a rare, beautiful day in England, it seems everyone is outside drinking a beer. From a bridge above the river I heard a guy yell, “Hey, Yank, use it as a ra-ah-ah.”

“A what?”

“Use it as a RAH-AA-AHHHH.”

How does he know I’m a Yank? And a rah-ah? What the hell is a rah-ah? I strained to hear as I soaked myself in river water. Finally I deciphered the code. “Hey, Yank, use it as a RUDDER.” Ah, you propel the boat by pushing the stick into the riverbed and then letting it trail behind, so it acts as a rudder. Robin didn’t hold my punting skills against me.

We docked the boat and set up a picnic under a tree. We talked, we laughed. We made out like bandits.

I was crazy about her. The only hitch was she had a boyfriend. Record scratch.

The girlfriend I’d had when Robin and I first met had broken up with me, but Robin and her long-distance boyfriend hadn’t technically split up. They’d been together for years, I think seven, and though they’d been long-distance and drifting apart for some time, she didn’t have the heart to let him down.

But now Robin and I had this connection. Emotional, passionate, on every level. I was ready to make a commitment to her. Was she ready to make the same commitment to me? I beseeched her to break up with him. I said, “I want you unencumbered. The sooner you do it, the better for all of us, including him. The longer this drags on, the more painful it will be. Please do it.”

We returned to Los Angeles, and he was due to visit. “I’m going to tell him when he comes out,” she said. That news drove me to distraction. He was coming to see her with the notion that they were still together. He was going to have . . . expectations. I begged her to tell him. But she couldn’t. I think it was probably the most painful decision to that point in her life. So out to California he came.

Robin was so stressed by all this that she got laryngitis. She completely lost her voice. And then to make matters worse, while they were together at Robin’s condo, he found a love letter. From one Bryan Cranston. That’s how he discovered we were together. He was shocked. She was weeping. And later I was fuming as I listened to her tell me how awful it was for her. She wanted to be with me, but she didn’t want to break anyone’s heart. That’s Robin in a nutshell. She’s the most loving, caring person I’ve ever known.

She’d had lots of dates but only a few real boyfriends in her life. That was part of the reason it was so difficult for her. I listened patiently but then I said a stupid, passive-aggressive thing: “I won’t tell you where you went wrong,” implying, of course, that she had gone wrong and I was uniquely able to tell her all about it.

That was an early hiccup. But we got past it. And then we were together, rudder in the water, steering for distant shores.

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