by Bob Chikos
Not all love stories are about romance.
An Illinoisan attending East Tennessee State University, I met Andrea in my first semester French class. Immediately, I couldn’t stand her.
Our textbook had pictures of French people smiling. One classmate asked, “Why are they smiling?”
“Because they’re happy they’re not in America,” Andrea interjected.
You sit there with a full belly criticizing this country. I thought. My grandpas fought in World War II for your freedom, you brat!
But it got better.
I couldn’t connect with my peers. Only Andrea and the professor got my humor.
Like the old guys from The Muppet Show, we’d comment to each other about the others in the class, like the time a fellow, frustrated at learning French words, said, “Well, why don’t they just speak English over there like we do over here?”
Because then it wouldn’t be French.
The professor asked where I have lived. “Bob, Où habitiez-vous?”
“J’ai habité à Illinois.” (I’ve lived in Illinois.)
“Oh, c’est bon! Andrea, Où habitiez-vous?”
“J’ai habité à Brazil.”
“Brazil? Très interéssant!”
I wondered if I heard her right. After dismissal, I asked.
“Did you say you lived in Brazil?”
“Yeah. My dad was a missionary in the Amazon.”
I raised my eyebrow, then she rattled off several sentences in what sounded like fluent Portuguese.
Blue-eyed, with a round face of a Dutch girl cartoon, she said people in the Amazon marveled at her blonde hair. Everywhere she went, people would pat her head for good luck. The barber would put her clippings in a plastic bag, purportedly to use in a ritual.
“Is your dad still a missionary?”
“Naw. My parents don’t even go to church anymore. My dad works in a tire factory now.”
Her small, metal-roofed house had wood-paneled walls, a large Ansel Adams photograph of a mountain range, and several professional-looking photographs.
“These are nice photos. Where’d you get them?”
“I took those.”
One was a black-and-white photo of a bare-chested boy, about three, wearing sunglasses.
“That’s Rocky,” she smiled. “I volunteered at a hospital and he was a little boy with cancer.” Her eyes lowered. “He died a while back.”
Andrea was with me the night I turned 21, as were the class drama queen Lynsy and my roommate Todd, our designated driver.
At our table, the topic of kids came up.
“I can’t wait to have a baby and be a mom,” Andrea said. “I think I’d be a good mom. I’ve even got a tattoo for when it happens.”
“Don’t you need to find a husband first?”
“A woman can raise a kid by herself. You just need a man to help create it. Wouldn’t you do that for someone?”
Todd pretended to enjoy the karaoke singer.
“You wouldn’t? Even if you didn’t have to take care of it?”
“I know there are situations where that’s not possible, but ideally, kids should have two parents.”
She turned to Todd. “What do you think about that, Todd?”
Forced to take a stand, he said, “I agree with Bob.”
She raised her glass, “Well, here’s to being a man and all the privileges that come with it.”
Later, half-buzzed, we sat in Andrea’s old Jeep Wagoneer and waited for Todd to finish his pit stop.
Andrea, in the back, hunched herself up in her seat and pulled the bottom of her shirt up.
My God! What’s she doing?! I thought. Is she that drunk that she’s taking off her clothes?
She showed her belly. In the faint parking lot lights, I saw a ring of flowers, encircling her navel.
“I told you I had a tattoo. When I get pregnant, I want to watch that ring grow as the baby grows inside me.”
Next was Tu La Fe, a dance place where freshmen demonstrated they couldn’t handle independence.
The mulleted DJ in a NASCAR T-shirt announced, “Ladies! In ten minutes, we will start our wet T-shirt contest! Come on down and sign up!”
“Come on, Andrea, do the wet T-Shirt contest!” I yelled over the pulsating music.
Emboldened, I got gutsy. “C’mon, it’s my birthday!”
I could read her thoughts: I don’t want to but I will if that’s what you want.
I sobered quickly, ashamed. “Andrea, I was joking.”
We left as the contest started.
We rotated cooking at Andrea’s house one day each week.
I brought to Tennessee my Mr. Food Cooks Like Mama book. As Mom taught me, I dated and commented on each recipe the first time I made it.
10–10–95 Cheesy Baked Fish: “Good stuff. Andrea, Lynsy, and I liked it very much”
I remember that night. She didn’t have a table so we ate in chairs with our plates on our laps. Mickey, her chihuahua, cleaned our crumbs.
One night, when Lynsy couldn’t make it, we heard a knock at the door. Andrea opened it and allowed in a young man, wearing plaid shorts, a plain white T-shirt, and sandals.
“Hey, how’s it going?” she said, bewildered.
“Mike, this is Bob.”
He nodded at me. “I can’t stay long. I just came to get the TV.”
He unplugged the TV, cradled it in his arms, pushed the door latch with his elbow, walked down the porch steps to his car, put the TV in the backseat, and drove away.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“That was my ex-boyfriend. He drove all the way from Auburn, Alabama to get his TV.”
“That’s pretty weird.”
“And the thing is, he’s living with my parents, rent-free.”
“Your ex-boyfriend lives with your parents?”
“We were living together at their house, then I broke up with him and he didn’t have a place to stay, so they said he could keep living there.”
We sat in silence until she finally broke it. “Know what? I’m glad he came over. He probably thought we’re doing it. Screw him!”
When I couldn’t get home for Thanksgiving, Andrea invited me to her Uncle Marty and Aunt Emma’s house, along with her extended family from Alabama.
In the family room, I noticed a woman by herself, about 30, with tinted glasses. She lay on a couch and stared at the ceiling while listening to a Walkman.
“Bob, this is my cousin Ava,” Andrea said.
“Nice to meet you, Ava,” I said, extending my hand.
“Uh, Bob, Ava has severe autism. She won’t respond.”
I sat next to Ava.
Ava pushed buttons on her Walkman over and over.
“Does she listen to the songs?”
“Not really. She pushes buttons like that all day long. She goes through batteries like you wouldn’t believe. But the funny thing is, she has different tapes of the Everly Brothers with the same songs and she can tell the difference. She’ll get all upset if it’s not the right Everly Brothers tape.”
Andrea sighed, smiled, excused herself to get a drink.
I smiled at Ava, then pretended to look at the senior portraits of Marty and Emma’s kids.
Click. R-r-r-r-r-r. Bye Bye Love.
I felt spit on my cheek.
I looked at Ava. She grinned.
She spat at me again!
Click. R-r-r-r-r-r. Bye Bye Love.
“Ava, don’t spit on me.”
Bigger grin. Pppt!
I rose and stood in the center of the room, out of range. Ava continued to grin.
Andrea returned with a Coke.
“Scared!” Ava whined.
“What’s she scared of?” I asked, worried of an accusation.
“Oh, she knows a few words but she doesn’t usually get a response out of them, but when she says, ‘scared’, Aunt Emma and Uncle Marty say, ‘Ava, what are you scared about?’ so she knows she’ll get a reaction.”
After dinner, Andrea sat with her hard-of-hearing grandma.
“Your friend seems nice,” Grandma shouted, “and cute!”
“Thanks, Grandma. I’m sure he’d appreciate that.”
“How long have you two been dating?”
“Oh, we’re not dating, Grandma. We’re just good friends.”
“I sure hope you will find a man who can make you happy.”
“Thanks, Grandma, but I don’t need a man to make me happy. I’m happy spending time with you.”
Since high school, when I first grasped the enormity of death, I had struggled with crippling anxiety. One night, it became unbearable. I walked off-campus to the only safe place I could think of.
Andrea opened the door in her pajamas, confused.
“Sorry for bothering you,” I said.
“No, come in. What’s wrong?”
“It’s just . . .” I started to cry. “I’m so . . . scared. I’m going to die. We’re all going to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it!”
“Do you want to go for a ride?” she asked. “You might feel better.”
She threw a jacket over her PJs and grabbed her keys and wallet. As she drove, she said, “I don’t think I’ve told you before, but I get anxiety, too. In high school, I once had a panic attack during an assembly and the teacher made me stay there, but she let me stand in the back of this dark auditorium. I was freaking out in my mind. It was the worst time of my whole life.”
We talked. Rather, I talked and she listened.
She pulled up to a mountain lookout where a downed tree served as a bench. We gazed at Johnson City’s lights far below.
“What do you think happens when you die?” I asked, fearing an honest answer.
“I think you just die.”
“You don’t believe in God?”
“Nah. I mean, I wish I did, but I don’t.”
“Then what’s the point of life?”
She sighed. “You’ve got to make your own point, I guess. Experience as much as you can while you can and make the world a better place for the next people to come.”
I didn’t like her truth, but I respected it. It was an honesty I wasn’t getting from my fellow Christians.
This had been a typical conversation with them:
“I’m afraid of what really happens when we die.”
“No need to worry about that. You’ll go to Heaven— if you believe.”
“But what if we’re wrong?”
“The Bible says—”
“I know what the Bible says. How do I know it’s right?”
“You just have to put your faith in the Lord.”
Ignorance truly is bliss.
“That Jesse’s kinda cute,” Andrea said, near the end of French class.
“Invite him over for dinner.”
She, the strong feminist, turned inward with a bashful smile. “Naw.”
“Hey, Jesse. Come over here,” I said.
Jesse, confused, came over.
“On Tuesdays, a bunch of us get together at Andrea’s for dinner. Wanna come?”
“Sure. Sounds great.”
“Come around 6:00 for cocktails.”
“Oh, I’ll have to pass on the cocktails.”
Andrea and I warily looked at each other.
“You don’t drink?” I asked.
“Oh, I can drink with the best of them, but I’m on an anti-seizure medication, and I’m not supposed to drink while I’m on it.”
Andrea and I gave each other relieved looks.
Mr. Food’s entry from that night reads, “1–23–96 Chuck Wagon Buns. Really delicious, like a taco sloppy Joe. Jesse from French class really liked it.”
I made dinner ahead of time but got out of the kitchen when Jesse arrived to give the impression that Andrea had cooked.
After dinner, Andrea excused herself to go to the bathroom.
“See that desk over there?” I asked Jesse.
“There used to be a TV on it. One day, Andrea’s ex-boyfriend came over and hauled it away. It was the craziest thing. But Andrea says she got the last laugh because he probably thought we were together.”
“Oh, you’re not? I thought you were.”
“Oh no, we’re just friends. You have a girlfriend?”
“Not at the time, no.”
“Well, we won’t be able to watch TV tonight, that’s for sure. Nothing on anyway, right?”
“I guess not.”
Andrea came out. I winked and nodded at her.
2–20–96 Crispy Onion Rings: “Turned out well. Kinda greasy, though. Batter sunk while frying.”
Another mess. This one involved oil all over the stovetop. That night I slept on the couch while Jesse and Andrea retired to the bedroom.
I quickly became the third wheel. Soon, they were spending every moment with each other. I was jealous but also proud that I helped bring them together.
When they went on weekend trips, I’d have the house to myself. I just had to take care of the pets. Once, when they returned, I jokingly told Andrea that Mickey spent the whole weekend underneath the bed, puking.
“He talked me into giving him a whole bottle of tequila. He said you do it all the time.”
“But what he didn’t tell you is: it’s one of those little airplane bottles.”
After another trip, they took two steps into the house and Jesse said, “Well go on, show him!”
Andrea’s extended her left hand, dangled her fingers, and showed a tiny diamond ring. A first — my first friend to be engaged.
10–8–96 Seashore Fettuccine: “Really good. Creamy tomato-ey with imitation crab meat. Delicious! Cooked @ Jesse and Andrea’s”
It was now “Jesse and Andrea’s.” They had married in the summer of ’96.
When we graduated in December ’96, we sat together, listening to an ancient congressman bloviate through the commencement address. I had adorned my cap with “C Y’ALL L8R!” My farewell to the South.
By the fall, Jesse had a job teaching English at a high school, and Andrea taught kindergartners.
After marrying in 2000, I brought my bride Aileen to my old stomping grounds to show her around, but mostly to show her off. We visited Jesse and Andrea and hiked the Appalachian Trail. Jesse said, “Since we have summers off, we’d like to hike the whole trail and make a book. Andrea will take pictures and I’ll write.”
We went to dinner at a Japanese restaurant, meeting Uncle Marty, Aunt Emma, and Ava. The waitress took our drink orders.
“I’ll have iced tea,” Aileen said.
“Sweetened,” the waitress asked.
I leaned over. “I think you should get unsweetened and add your own sugar. It’s really sweet down here,” I advised.
She looked at me as if to say, So this is how marriage is going to be?
“No, it’s OK. I’ll have sweetened,” she said.
When the waitress served our drinks, we stopped our conversations and looked at Aileen.
The tea registered on her taste buds, signaling impending diabetic shock. A new but smart husband, without saying “I told you so,” I offered to switch with my unsweetened.
After dinner, Aunt Emma said, “Your wife is lovely. You’ve done well!”
Living six hundred miles away, it was hard to stay close. In 2002, we had a baby and wondered when they’d have theirs.
I came home from work on a Tuesday in early June with a message from Uncle Marty on my machine.
“There’s been an accident,” Uncle Marty said between sobs. “Andrea’s in the hospital. Please call.”
I called and reached Aunt Emma.
“Is your wife there with you?”
“Andrea was in a car accident. The doctors said there’s nothing they could do. They took her off life support this afternoon.”
“Are you there?” Emma asked.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“She was on her way home after school — it was the last week of the year — she was on a winding road and a woman in oncoming traffic crossed into her lane and hit her head-on.”
I exhaled. “I’m so sorry.”
“And I don’t know if you heard, but she was six months pregnant.”
“They thought if they kept her on life support long enough they might be able to save the baby, but they couldn’t.”
Is this your punishment for nonbelievers?
“I heard you had a baby recently. A daughter, right?”
“A son actually. He’ll be one in a few weeks.”
“This was a boy, too.”
Another first. My first friend to die.
I thought about that tattoo, and how, at least for a few months, she got her wish to see it grow.
The news story online said she was loved by her students — only someone who didn’t know her would need to be told that. I imagined the principal fighting tears, trying to tell the kids in a way they’d understand.
The other driver escaped with only a bruise and a minor ticket.
I was enraged by the lack of vengeance. When I spoke with Jesse, he was very matter-of-fact about it, like someone who has relayed a story three hundred times. “It was an accident, Bob. They happen all the time. Usually, they’re not deadly, but this time it was.”
He was right, but it took years to accept it. I started thinking of the other driver not from my perspective, but hers. She made a mistake that she will have to live with for the rest of her life. No guilt is worse than self-guilt.
And then I thought about Andrea. Would she want me to be enslaved with anger? Hatred? Of course not. She would want me to do what I’ve been doing ever since: forgive and move on, enjoy life, and make the world a better place for the next people to come.
Bob Chikos spent two-and-a-half of his most formative years in Johnson City, Tennessee. Today, he is a special education teacher, speech team coach, and is involved in statewide educational policy. He lives in Cary, Illinois.
Read “In a Closet in a Dorm,” also by Bob Chikos.
“Andrea” was originally published in Spindrift Art & Literary Journal.