The "fall" that ended well
Disclaimer: My wife’s version of this story may be wildly different.
My wife was a stalker.
Fortunately for me, I was the object of her affection. And, she was persistent.
We first met when I was 15 and she was 12. (Little did she know, but I had already reached my height potential.) The director of my dad’s gallery was dating her father. Our families would occasionally get together for art shows and social events.
One time, Lucia came to our house for a party. Greeting my mother at the door, she said, “Hello Mrs. Dunbar, my name is Lucia.”
My mom looked at her quizzically and proclaimed, “Welcome Isabella!”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Dunbar, but my name is Lucia,” said Lucia.
Like Meryl Streep playing Anna Wintour, my mother corrected her, “Don’t be silly darling, your name is Isabella.”
(My mother thought that Lucia looked like the model and actress, Isabella Rossellini. For the rest of her life, she referred to Lucia as, “Isabella.”)
From grade school through high school, Lucia kept a diary. In it, she had a list of her favorite crushes. They included older boys from the neighborhood, actors like Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and almost all of Duran Duran.* I was in the top ten, somewhere between John Taylor and Simon Le Bon.
Lucia wasn’t crazy about her last name, so she often tried out ones from the list. I think she liked “Lucia Redford” the best.
A few years ago, I discovered her diary in a cardboard box in the attic. There was an entire page dedicated to, “Mrs. Dunbar.” Like Shelley Duvall running across Jack Nicholson’s working manuscript in The Shining, I found it a tad disconcerting!
On a family trip to Florida one year, Lucia actually tried to kiss me. Even though she was cute and I was a dork, I ducked her advances. Like all boys of a certain age, I was only interested in older women. I was The Graduate, but unfortunately, all the Mrs. Robinsons** in Destin had absolutely no interest whatsoever.
When I moved to Durham, North Carolina for college, Lucia’s mother remarried a professor who taught at Chapel Hill. She sent Lucia to school at Durham Academy, which was just up the road from my dorm. On occasion, I would bump into her on campus. I told friends she was my stalker from New Orleans. She told friends I was the boy she would eventually marry.
Lucia had a serious boyfriend in high school. Her younger sister, Lauren, was not a big fan. One day when the two of them were together, Lauren said, “You know, my sister will never marry you.”
“Why is that?” asked the boyfriend.
“Because my sister prefers boys with brown eyes – boys like Folwell Dunbar.”
After college, I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Ecuador. Lucia went to college in Colorado. I was pretty sure I would never see my stalker again…
After college, Lucia applied to graduate school and got into Smith and Tulane. Smith was her first choice, but Tulane was more affordable. She couldn’t decide.
Lauren, who was visiting friends in New Orleans, ran into me at a party. She discovered that I was living in the city, teaching at Lucia’s old alma mater, single, and disappointingly short. She immediately called her sister and told her about my location, relationship status and job. (Fortunately for me, she didn’t mention my stature.) “You have to go to Tulane,” she said. “It was meant to be!”
Lucia packed her bags and moved back to New Orleans.
Yes, she was definitely a stalker!
Art for Arts’ Sake
I was courting a young woman named Leslie. She worked at The French Connection on Decatur Street. Being a teacher and student at the time, I couldn’t exactly afford new clothes, but I did need an excuse to visit the store. So, I went in once a week and bought a single item: socks, a tie, a belt… After about three months, I owned my first suit. Now broke and out of excuses, I had no choice but to ask Leslie out. She agreed to meet me at the Contemporary Arts Center, or CAC, for Art for Arts’ Sake. I was pumped up like a show dog – wearing an imported charcoal jacket with shoulder pads!
The CAC was packed. I scanned the room for Leslie, and eventually spotted her on the second floor. As I was walking up the stairs though, a woman I didn’t know jumped in my path and yelled, “Are you Folwell Dunbar?!”
“Yes,” I said, craning my neck to keep an eye on Leslie.
“THE Folwell Dunbar?!” she added.
“As far as I know,” I said.
“I have a friend who is DYING to speak to you,” she declared. “Her name is Lucia, and she knows your entire life story!”
Lucia was celebrating the end of her first semester exams with a friend. She had obviously had a few too many adult beverages. She stumbled up to me and, indeed, began to recount my entire life story.
Lucia was cute to be sure. She looked like, well, Isabella Rossellini, with dark bangs and stunning blue eyes. But, she was also babbling like an off-duty stenographer; and, I had bought a &%$#ing suit!
As Lucia blathered on, I tried my best to break away. But I couldn’t. Her monologue was like Fidel Castro’s speech to the UN in 1960, it was epic and inescapable.
When she finally concluded, the CAC was practically empty. And, Leslie was gone.
My father likes to remind me, “When all else fails, act like a gentleman.” Considering the evening had definitely been a failure, I did the gentlemanly thing and offered to give Lucia a ride home. She said her car was parked just around the corner. But it wasn’t. We spent the next hour and a half scouring the Warehouse District, but we couldn’t find it. (I would later discover that Lucia was directionally challenged, and, was not a very good driver to boot: a bad combination for road trips by the way!)
Convinced the car had been stolen (it wasn’t), I told Lucia we could ride the streetcar back to my place, and then I could drive her home.
To avoid talking to Lucia, I stuck my head out the window. As we rambled down St. Charles Avenue, I remember pulling it in periodically to avoid being decapitated by a telephone poles and oak trees – which, by the way, may have been preferable to conversation.
I had a vintage 1964 Toyota Land Cruiser. The gas gauge (and several other things) didn’t work, so I had to check the tank with a long bamboo pole. I was too embarrassed to do it in front of Lucia, so I just drove her home.
Along the way, Lucia, now sober, mentioned the soundtrack to the 1987 film, The Mission. I loved the movie and the music. I was hoping to share a few songs with my class, but didn’t have the album. Lucia did, but she told me she would have to dig it up. I asked her if we could make the exchange at a coffee shop the following day. She agreed.
Driving back to my place well after midnight, I, of course, ran out of gas.
Apart from getting a cassette of Ennio Morricone’s incredible score, the meeting at the coffee shop was a complete disaster. This time, I was the one who babbled. I went on and on about the historical significance of the yoke, not the homophone in the middle of an egg, but rather the contraption you place around the neck of a beast of burden. I also brought up obscure books, Bob Dylan lyrics and random Louisiana trivia. On the topic of soundtracks, I mentioned Reservoir Dogs. “I hear the director, Quentin Tarentino, has a new film out,” I said. To my surprise, Lucia suggested that we see it together.
Our second “date” wasn’t much better. I had won a couple of movie passes in a trivia contest at a local video store, so I took Lucia to see Pulp Fiction at Canal Place. When we got to the theatre, I sat down two seats away. Lucia looked at me like a Rorschach Test. I explained, “It’s not you, I just don’t like to be distracted.”
On the ride home, I had to stop to check the gas. I’m pretty sure Lucia was not impressed.
When I dropped her off, I wasn’t sure what to say. I figured I had finally scared off my stalker. At last, I blurted out, “My dad’s having an opening next Saturday at Gallery Simone Stern. You should go…”
A Process of Elimination
I ended up inviting five different women to my dad’s show. There was Robin, a hippie throwback with rings on her toes and flowers in her hair; Leslie from The French Connection (I wore the suit); Bethany, a redhead who was at least five inches taller than me; Maimie, my childhood sweetheart; and Lucia, my childhood stalker.
I was in a romantic funk at the time. My confidence and expectations were at an all-time low. I assumed only one or two would actually show and that neither one would consider it a date. I was wrong on both counts. They ALL showed, and they ALL thought they were with me!
It was like a bad episode of Three’s Company, only there were six of us.
At first, I tried to manage the mayhem – juggle the balls as it were. I had friends run interference, I made up all kinds of implausible excuses, blew smoke and hung mirrors.
At one point, my dad came up to me and asked, “So son, who exactly are you here with?”
“I’m really not sure,” I confessed. “Do you have a preference?”
Like Plato in prison, I guzzled wine like hemlock.
As the night pro(re)gressed, three of my five “dates” caught on to the ruse. They looked at me with contempt and exited the gallery. When the opening closed, only Lucia and Robin remained.
Robin suggested that we go dancing. She even offered to drive. I invited a few friends, including Lucia.
At Café Istanbul on Frenchmen Street, I could hardly stand. The red wine had turned my legs into wet noodles. I danced, or more accurately, clung to Lucia, and then to Robin, and then to Lucia. While propping myself up with Lucia, I noticed Robin across the room. She obviously wasn’t happy; she had figured things out. She glared at me, smashed a beer bottle on the hardwood floor, fired off a few choice expletives, and stormed out of the bar.
By process of elimination, Lucia was now officially “my date.”
We bummed a ride from a friend, sat in the back seat – and kissed.***
The CAC Revisited
I was teaching middle and high school history at an all-girls school. Not surprisingly, my students were far more interested in my relationship status than studying history. Like gifted grifters, they would use all kinds of ploys to divert the discussion toward my love life. They would say things like, “So, Mr. Dunbar, could you tell us again why we should never discuss the importance on the yoke on a first date?” or “Bob Dylan sure has a lot of protest songs! Does he have any that capture your love for Lucia?” And, “The Japanese caught us off guard at Pearl Harbor. How do you plan to surprise Lucia when you pop the question?”
Being a hopeless romantic and a sucker for tangents, I often indulged them. Keep in mind, this was long before high-stakes testing. And, I enjoyed the challenge of bringing a tangent full-circle.
Over time, OUR relationship became THEIR project. So, when I told them I was planning to propose, it was like the Grand Finale. They were giddy like, well, schoolgirls. They told me it HAD to happen at the CAC, it HAD to be a huge surprise, the ring HAD to be beautiful, and there HAD to be flowers, lots and lots of flowers. I agreed – and gave the class an “A.”
Through my dad, I knew the curator at the CAC. I asked him to set up a pedestal on the second floor where we had (re)met two years earlier. My mom had given me her diamond ring. I placed it on the pedestal and scattered dozens of red roses on the floor. Beneath the ring, I placed a brass nameplate inscribed with “Mrs. Dunbar?”
I told Lucia a mutual friend of ours was having a show at the CAC. I even had him create a fake invitation and send it to us.
Walking around the gallery, Lucia became frustrated. “I don’t see Michael’s work anywhere,” she complained. “And, there’s nobody here. Maybe we got the wrong date?”
“Be patient,” I said. “I think his work is in the next room.”
Rounding the corner, Lucia saw the pedestal and roses. Finding it a bit disturbing, she dismissed it as just a “bad installation,” turned away and kept walking.
“Maybe the flower thing back there was his?” I suggested. “We should take a closer look…”
“No,” she said, “that thing was scary. It couldn’t possibly be Michael’s work.”
“Let’s go back,” I insisted, “just in case…”
When she saw the ring on the pedestal, she stopped in her tracks – and, to my horror, said absolutely nothing.
I hadn’t planned to say anything myself. My co-conspirators at school had assured me that the plaque would suffice. Instead, she waited for me to ask, and I waited for her to answer. Like the moments before a gunfight in a Spaghetti Western, the silence was palpable.
Finally, I shakily drew and muttered, “Would you marry me?”
“I was hoping for an emerald cut,” she said with a smile, “but, I do like the name. The answer is “Yes.”’ ****
Like most couples, Lucia and I have experienced any number of “falls” over the years. There were crocodiles in Jamaica and bad brakes in Colima, Hurricane Katrina and numerous career calamities, a bad medical diagnosis and, of course, FAMILY! Through it all though, we’ve managed to stay together. Falling in love is not a bad “fall” at all!
* Lucia’s Duran Duran poster is still in our attic. As for me, I had crushes on Nastassja Kinski of snake poster fame, Elle McPherson of Sports Illustrated Cover fame, and Lola Granola from Bloom County.
** Just before I met Lucia, I dated a much older woman. Coincidentally, her name was, “Mrs. Robinson.”
*** Several years later, we were telling the story of how we met to a group of friends. When I mentioned the five dates, Lucia looked shocked and horrified. “Are you serious?!” she said. “What kind of guy would actually do such a thing?!”
Realizing my gaffe, I said, “Well of course, the other four weren’t really dates…”
**** On the ride home, Lucia asked, “So, what did my dad say?”
“Your dad?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “You did ask my dad…”
Folwell Dunbar is an educator and artist. He is happily married to Lucia Dunbar. He can be reached at email@example.com
Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.