Every year I do my best to forget about my birthday. I really couldn’t care less about that day but there are a few people in my life that refuse to ignore it. Every year I tell them the same thing. Don’t buy me a gift, just tell me you love me. If you want to make a card and say it that’s fine but all I really want is to know that I’m loved.
Inevitably, someone will get me something and then I have to do all those weird calculations to figure out how long I have to keep it until I can throw it away. Trust me, a card saying “Thank you for being my friend – you’re a big part of my life” means more to me than anything you could ever put on a credit card. Connection is the only currency I accept and that goes double on holidays.
There has only been one time where someone knew me so well and loved me so much that even now, 17 years later, I still treasure what she gave me.
Angie and I had been dating for about a year when my birthday came around and I was doing my best to change the subject whenever it came up. I thought I had managed to avoid it entirely when the day arrived and she hadn’t mentioned anything about it. That night we went out to dinner and as we drove up to her house and parked Angie leaned over from the passenger seat and whispered, “I have a present for you.”
My heart sank. Angie was the first woman I had ever fallen fell head-over-sneakers for. For the first year of our relationship we were like a pair of parentheses. Everything we did became “our thing.” New books, new music, new food, it was all part of some magical world we created that no one else could see. I’m sure we made some people sick the way we walked through the world playing with each other. We were that couple who had a special phrase for everything and laughed at things no one else understood. Blech, right? Well, not when it’s you. It’s pretty damn great when it’s you.
But all that didn’t keep from worrying about this birthday gift. I couldn’t bear to think of Angie giving me something that wasn’t perfect.
I turned the engine and looked at her. “You really got me something?”
“Yes!” she whispered, “But I have to tell you how I found it first.”
She took my hand and told me this story.
“The other day I was an estate sale and this little old German lady came up and started talking to me. I said I was looking for a present for my boyfriend and I told her all about you. She had this really thick accent, like she just got off the boat, but I was able to understand everything she said.
“She told me her husband had been killed in the war fighting with the resistance. The men in her husband’s underground unit smuggled her out of Germany and into France where she hid out in a safehouse until just before D-Day. Then she snuck across the channel to England where she was brought to this place called Bletchley Park where she met a young man named Alan Turing who-”
“Bletchley Park?!” I screamed. “She was at Bletchley Park? Where they broke the German code in WWII??”
“Yes!” Angie yelled back, as excited as I was.
“And she met Alan Turing? THE Alan Turing?!?! The mathematician and cryptography genius from WWII? Are you kidding me?”
“She totally met Alan Turing!” Angie said. “He’s the one who debriefed her. She told him everything she knew about the Nazi codes.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. Angie knew I loved reading WWII histories but she also knew that I loved codes. I used to make them up when I was a kid. Meeting a German war refugee who escaped from the Nazi’s and worked at Bletchley Park was just about the most amazing thing I had ever heard. But Angie wasn’t done.
“So she’s telling me all about the war and secret codes and her midnight run across enemy lines when she says, ‘Young lady, I’d like to show you something.’ She takes me upstairs to her bedroom and over to a large trunk that was sitting in the corner of her room. She opens up the trunk and says, ‘There’s something here I’d like you to have. I believe it’s time for me to pass it on and I’d like you and your boyfriend to be ones who keep it.’
“She opened up the trunk and took out this beautiful black machine. It had buttons and dials and a little roller where it looked like paper was supposed to go. She said, ‘Angela, this is the Enigma Machine. Do you know what it is?'”
I screamed from the driver’s seat. “No way! The Enigma Machine?!?! That’s the machine they built that broke the Nazi code. It saved the Allies and won the war! Are you telling me she smuggled it out from England? And you saw it? You have it??”
Angie smiled and leaned over until her lips were just touching my ear. “Would you like to see it?”
I couldn’t even speak. I just nodded. Yes, I would like to see the Enigma Machine. The thing that broke the code and saved the free world? I most definitely wanted to see it.
“Good,” Angie whispered. “Because it’s your birthday present.”
It was dark by this time as she led me up the steps to her house. But instead of going inside she led me around the outside of the house to the back yard which had a small stand of trees in it. The moon was out and there was just enough light for her to guide me to one tree where she sat me down on the ground in front of what was probably the last Enigma Machine left in the world.
I pulled off the gray plastic fabric that was covering it and saw the greatest gift I’ve ever received. It was a 1951 Underwood typewriter. Eight of the keys had a little piece of paper stuck to them with a different letter written on each one. Angie handed me a small card she had made. Inside was a message written in code eight letters long. I typed out the message using those eight keys on the typewriter. The message spelled out, “I love you.”
Well of course I just started crying. I’d been waiting all my life for someone to know me like this but I never expected to find her. And here on this night, under this tree, I had found the person I wanted to spend my life with. She was the Enigma Machine that was built just for me.
As I sat there crying there another feeling began to surface. Underneath all the love was a great fear were rising up. I knew I wanted nothing more than to be with Angie, but 150 miles away there was someone else I was already with and could not abandon.
Angie lived in Bellingham but my son and I lived in Olympia, two-and-a-half hours away. He was eight years old and outside of Angie my life was devoted to him. He saw his mother every other weekend but spent the rest of the week with me. We were inseparable. We played, we sang, we drew comics together. We took funny pictures of each other in goofing around in Goodwill and followed stray cats around the neighborhood. I never saw myself as a parent but once Taran was born I was happy to be his dad.
Angie was living in Olympia when we started dating but her home was Bellingham and she eventually moved back. I couldn’t blame her. You know when you’re in the car and you hear the first few notes of your favorite song come on and you start bouncing up and down waiting to start singing along? That’s what Bellingham was to Angie. Every time we would visit, she would start dancing in her seat as we drove over the last hill and she could see Bellingham ahead of us. It was her favorite place in the world and she longed to return to it. It’s the windiest town in Washington and she was like a kite I could barely hold onto.
So in that perfect moment under the tree reading “I love you” from the woman I adored I knew it was all going to slip away. As much as I think I can always pull another trick out of my hat I knew I couldn’t tear my son away from his mom and I couldn’t live with the guilt of abandoning him to live far away with someone else.
Angie, I know now, understood that. We tried to keep it together, visiting each other when we could afford it. But it couldn’t last. We broke up a few months later when she realized I couldn’t be there enough for the kind of relationship we both wanted.
I still have the Enigma Machine and I think about it often. It’s the most beautiful thing anyone has ever given me. The gift I wanted more than anything, though, was for Angie to stay in Olympia.
Now, years later, I can say that I’m lucky I never got that gift. I wouldn’t be the dad I am now and have the same relationship with my son if I had left Taran in Olympia or taken him with me to Bellingham. It would have been tragic for him to move away from his friends and his mother and that would have made it tragic for me. Sometimes the thing you want most is the thing you should never get.
And that’s the kind of story we’re looking for this month. The theme is “You can’t always get what you want.” Tell us a story about a time when you wanted something but didn’t get it. How did it affect you? Did it change how you felt about the thing you wanted? Are you glad things worked out the way they did or do you still wish things had been different?
Remember to keep it clean, practice out loud on friends or pets, and make sure it’s under 8 minutes. Here are the updated Rules & Guidelines for telling a story at the show:
I hope to see you at the next FGS, Thursday, Sept 22, 7:00pm at the Roy St Cafe.