Transcript

91:

Escape the Box
Transcript

Originally aired 01.30.1998

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Prologue And Act One. An American Girl Turns 18.

Ira Glass

Sylvia's parents are immigrants, very traditional. And in Sylvia's house, the men are men, the women are women, just like back in the old country.

Sylvia

My brother goes, "Oh, I want tortillas." And my mom, just like right there on, she'll just turn off the TV and she'll go make them. And my brother goes, "I want money." And my mom's right there taking my money. He goes, "Wash this shirt for me. I want to wear it tomorrow." And there goes my mom, washing the shirt. And it's not like that with me.

That's the way she thinks. That's the way she is. She's like, he's a boy. For instance, he can't cook for himself. He's a boy. He can't do this because he's a boy. That's a woman's job. My mom always has this little saying that really annoys me. Sometimes when the house is dirty, she says, "Oh, it looks like there's never been women in the house," making it sound like women are supposed to clean. And I'm thinking, Dad can clean. She goes, "No, he's supposed to be in the garage fixing the car or something."

Ira Glass

It's a typical American story in this country. From the time she was little, Sylvia spoke English better than her parents. She was the one in the family who'd call the phone company or the utilities. She translated teacher conferences. If the family was going somewhere and needed directions, Sylvia was the one who would walk up to a stranger and ask for them. And now, nearly grown up, she wants to be an American girl in a way that her parents don't completely understand. She goes to a big, integrated public school. A few years ago, she started listening to The Cranberries and Nirvana and Metallica, not the kind of stuff her parents knew growing up in small towns in rural Mexico.

Sylvia

My mom wants me to be a typical Mexican girl. When I was younger, before I had my cotillion, I used to start liking alternative music.

Ira Glass

Cotillion's like a coming out party when you turn 15.

Sylvia

Yeah, when you turn 15. You have a huge party. You get your own beautiful dress. It's long, and it's big. I started liking alternative music around the age of 14, around the time they started making my cotillion. And I remember my cousins used to say, oh, as soon as you hit your cotillion, you're going to start liking Mexican music. And we're going to start taking you out. Because in my family, as soon as you hit 15, you're allowed to go to Mexican dances. But you usually go with your older cousins.

And that's where my mom wanted in me. My mom wanted me to be like my cousins. They went to Mexican dances. They had Mexican boyfriends. I mean, she wanted me to dress like them. She didn't want me to dress kind of alternative. And now sometimes we get into fights and I tell my mom, I'm not like my cousins. I'm like, my cousins are already like 19, 18, and they're already pregnant or married. I'm like, is that what you want me to do with my life?

Ira Glass

This weekend, this is a particularly urgent question in Sylvia's life. This weekend, January 31, 1998, Sylvia turns 18. She's legally recognized as an adult, capable of deciding for herself what she'll do with her life. And she and her mom have been talking about what she's going to do. Sylvia wants to go to a four year college, wait to get married, wait to have kids. And her mom is trying to understand.

Sylvia

Sometimes she's kind of like, yeah, do what you want. Do what you want. Become whatever you want. And there's just times where, like, why do you want to do that? Why do you want to do that? Why do you think you're better than everybody? Why do you think you're special? I'm like, Ma, I don't think I'm special. I just want to do something with my life.

Ira Glass

When her mom was young, back in Tamaulipas, her mom wanted to go to school. She was admitted to a good school nearby, but her grandfather told her no. He said the only reason the girls go to school is to get boyfriends. So she stopped going in sixth grade. Now she spends most of her time at home, raising Sylvia's brother and sister, taking care of the house, rarely leaving the house.

Sylvia

My mom has lived in a box all her life, and I feel like a lot of Mexican women have. When you live in a box, you raise your children in a box. And sometimes I'll just try to climb out. And she's like pushing me in or I'm trying to poke a hole in the box and she tapes it right back up.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, Escaping the Box You were Born Into. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program in three acts. Act One, An American Girl Turns 18.

Act Two, $33 Million Box, the true story of a successful Cincinnati businessman millionaire who escaped his old life and created a new one in one single day by robbing a bank.

Act Three, The Feeling You Want and the Feeling You Get. We have an excerpt from David Cale's funny and thrilling story of a middle-aged woman who escapes the box of her own life. Stay with us.

Act Two. 33 Million Dollar Box.

Ira Glass

Act One, American Girl Turns 18. So Sylvia is living at home, senior in high school, engaged in an ongoing discussion with her mom about what she should be after graduation in four months and whether she'll live a life like her mom's.

Sylvia

She's too scared to get out of the box. She is. She even told me. She's just too scared. I mean, if she has to go to my godmother's house, all she has to do do is take one bus and go straight. And she just gets off at a certain stop and walks a block or two. That scares my mom that she's by herself. It scares the hell out of her being by herself. It just really scares her.

And I'm always by myself. And I'm always doing things by myself. And I'm always doing things that I want. And I think sometimes she admires me that I'm not scared, but at the same time, she just doesn't-- it's like she admires me that I'm not scared, but I think at the same time she hates me because she's scared.

Ira Glass

Describe the box that she's in.

Sylvia

I would guess it's just the typical Mexican family, where you're married and you have children and you die together. And you travel once in a while to your homeland, and you have usually Mexican music and laughter and drinking and partying. And all the cousins coming together and all the aunts coming together.

Ira Glass

Do you think she's unhappy? I mean, that sounds like it could be actually kind of nice.

Sylvia

Yeah, it could be nice, but, I mean, when you only hang around with that kind of people and that certain people and they're-- because they're kind of also-- not like bigots or something, but they're also really-- kind of like the way she thinks.

Ira Glass

Everybody thinks the same way.

Sylvia

Everybody thinks the same way.

Ira Glass

And they're not so crazy about people who think differently.

Sylvia

Yeah, it's kind of like I'm the outcast of the family. I'm like the black sheep. That's why I really never depended on my parents because I really never had them when I wanted them. And also I never really asked for anything. I never really wanted anything from them. And now that I'm almost going to turn 18, they noticed that I really don't ask anything from them.

I remember one time. It's really specific. It happened last year. It just popped into my head. I remember that my grandparents come every summer. And all the uncles and aunts come to the house because our grandparents are there and stuff like that. And I was working, and when I came home, one of my aunts came. She's the second oldest in the family, and I find her really bitter. She's my aunt, and I love her and stuff like that, but she's really bitter. And she had told my mom that really got me mad. This woman who I talk to maybe once or twice a year. And because my mom was raised by this aunt-- she sees her as a mother figure, too-- she has a lot of respect for her. She told my mom that the day that I grew up, I'm going to be ashamed of my parents and especially of her because she has no education and because she's an immigrant of this country.

And I told my mom, how dare she say that? She knows nothing about me. Does she want me to become like her kids? Her oldest daughter got pregnant at 16. And her youngest son is kind of like a drifter. He really doesn't know what he does. And I'm like, this woman has the idea that I'm going to be ashamed of my mom because I'm going to have an education and because I'm going to have a career?

Ira Glass

I suggest to Sylvia that her parents might understand her situation better than she acknowledges. After all, they themselves escaped the box of their own early lives, uprooted themselves from rural Mexico to inner city Chicago, to a country where they didn't even speak the language. Sylvia doesn't buy it.

But as we talk, one of the most striking things is how there's still a part of her, the biggest part of her, that wants her parents to simply understand her and how she sees her own life. She still wants to be part of the family.

Sylvia

It's like this, sometimes you usually see my mom and my brother talking and stuff like that, and they're goofing off. You see my little sister-- sorry.

Ira Glass

Do you want some water?

Sylvia

No, that's OK. Usually I see my little sister and my dad talking and playing. Or sometimes you see my mom and my little sister laughing and stuff like that. And I'm usually in another room doing my own thing. I usually never do anything with her.

Ira Glass

And do you feel like that's mostly your choice, that that's the way that you want it?

Sylvia

Sometimes I do because a lot of the things that they want me to do, I don't want to do. And it really hurts me that they're not really supportive. So I guess I just try to move myself away from them so they won't hurt me as much. But they don't understand that. They think I'm too strong to be hurt.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Yeah, but I mean they're not right about that.

Sylvia

No, they're not.

Ira Glass

But getting out of the box doesn't necessarily mean you're any happier. There are plenty of people who start off in a life that's really in a box and get out of it and change all the time. And that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be happy.

Sylvia

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You can be happy in the box or out of the box.

Sylvia

It all depends on how you feel.

Ira Glass

Do you have a sense of what kind of job you might want to yet?

Sylvia

I have an idea. I want this job that-- because I want to do digital effects, special digital effects.

Ira Glass

Like for movies and stuff.

Sylvia

Yeah, like Jurassic Park and Men in Black and stuff like that. I think it's so cool. I just want one day to have a job. I usually think of myself sitting, having not like an office to myself but usually have an open space with a lot of different equipment everywhere and sitting in front of the computer and doing all these things on the computer and animating. And getting really frustrated because it takes me like six months to do like a five-second little scene. It's just doing my own thing, not have to get dressed up, go casual, have an eyebrow ring or something on, how my hair whatever color I want, have a real cool boss. But that's just a dream.

Ira Glass

Have you seen those specials on TV where they show here's how they make these special effects and you see the people and what they look like who do all that work?

Sylvia

I've seen the making of Jurassic Park and Titanic and the Space Jam. And that's what I want to do, just use my imagination and make this thing blow up or something.

Ira Glass

What's your biggest fear in trying to get out of the box?

Sylvia

Failing. That's my biggest fear is failing. Because I've done so many things. I've done so many organizations. I've done so many clubs. I did all these classes and all these grades. And it's just going to go to waste. That's my biggest fear that it's going to go to waste, that all that I did is going to amount to nothing.

Ira Glass

And if you failed, what would it be? Like what would you be?

Sylvia

What would be my failure?

Ira Glass

What would happen to you? Yeah.

Sylvia

I would become working an $11 an hour job at like 25 with already two kids and a husband and just doing that, day by day doing the same thing over and over.

Ira Glass

And what could make you fail?

Sylvia

I don't know. Sometimes I feel like my ambition's going to die out. It's kind of like you rebel against everybody because you think you know what you're doing and you know you want to achieve more and you want to do more. But every time you take another step, it just hits you right in the face like, ha, ha, ha, you can't do it. Go back into your line. And after a while, you just get really tired of all the closing of the doors and telling you, no, you can't do this. And you're like, well, maybe they are right. One day I'll just get tired and I'll just say, you win.

Ira Glass

And do you feel like if you don't get out by the time you're 22 or 23 or 24, it's probably at that's when it would all die, like that's when your ambition would die and you would stay?

Sylvia

Yeah, unless I change or something, unless all of a sudden something happens and my parents are supportive. And I don't get into fights as much anymore and I feel like I'm actually wanted around the house or something, and then I feel like I'm happy, like I'm actually happy to be home. Then I wouldn't mind, but I just hope that when I actually do achieve what I want, that is, I want them to say, yeah, she did it. She did it. I guess I was wrong.

Ira Glass

Sylvia turns 18 this weekend. Happy birthday. Good luck.

Act Three. The Feeling You Want, And The Feeling You Get.

Ira Glass

Act Two. You know who it's been a hard week for? It's been a hard week to be an intern. In fact, you could reasonably argue that in the history of interns, this past week or two, in late January 1998, they have been the low point. An intern here at WBEZ Chicago, home of This American Life, told me that she was waiting for the L train this week. And she's standing there, and this guy strikes up a conversation. And they're talking about this and that. And he says to her at some point, so what do you do? And she tells him that she's an intern. And he says, oh, really? As if she'd just told him, my job, I'm a slut. That's my job.

Our senior editor Paul Tough was once an intern. I started in public radio as an intern at National Public Radio in Washington 19 years ago. In fact, I would not have escaped the box that I grew up in if not for that internship. I would not be in radio at all. We at This American Life are a staff of former interns. Producers Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, Julie Snyder, all former interns. And so, to strike a small blow for the dignity of interns everywhere in this dire, dire hour our own This American Life intern, the capable and serious-minded Rachel Day will introduce our next act here on the program.

Ira Glass

Welcome to the show, Rachel.

Rachel Day

Thank you, Ira.

Ira Glass

OK. You ready to do this?

Rachel Day

I think so.

Ira Glass

All right. Here we go. Here's the keys to the radio show. Drive safe. Bring it back home in one piece.

Rachel Day

I think we're ready to go.

Act Two, $33 Million Box. Barry Miller didn't have the kind of life you'd think he'd want to escape. He owned a clothing store in Cincinnati that was worth $33 million. He could buy whatever he wanted, took $15,000 vacations with his family. But he was unhappy. And one day, he permanently escaped his old life and entered his new one with one simple and unorthodox act. He robbed a bank. Alex Blumberg talked with him at the Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio.

Alex Blumberg

If you ask Barry Miller what was wrong with making lots of money, he'll tell you this. He used to go to Rome at least twice a year, but he never saw the Coliseum. He never went to the Vatican. If his business was over in the morning, he'd find a flight back in the afternoon. He was driven. His relationship with his family suffered.

Barry Miller

In Dallas once, I was with my oldest son, my middle child. And I never spent a lot of time with him. I would try to go to his soccer games or those kinds of things, but I never really made it on time. I got there at the last quarter.

So we were out. We were driving around. And here I am with my son, and I have so very little to talk to him about and so little that I can relate with him about. We started talking about cars. And so I thought, well, he's interested in cars. Let's go buy a car. So I went to buy a car. We bought a car. Didn't need a car. I could afford to buy a car. We went to buy a car.

Alex Blumberg

Looking back, he says he was shallow and vain. He says he was worshiping false gods. At the time though, he only felt a vague nagging that something wasn't right. But he says gradually that feeling became more insistent and took stranger forms. For instance, he says, he started blacking out, losing hours in the day.

Barry Miller

I was in New York on business, and I lost an afternoon. I didn't really know where I was, what I was doing. I ended up finding myself sitting in a lounge in a building that I recall going into because I had some business to do there, but it was three hours later. I don't know what I did for those three hours.

Alex Blumberg

Sometimes you actually make a real decision to change your life and you set about doing it. But just as often, you find yourself sort of edging toward the new life, half consciously. Part of you goes on as you always have while another part secretly plots an ambush. Barry Miller's case is as extreme as you can get. When he describes what happened, it's like he's describing a person in a trance.

Barry Miller

The day before the bank robbery, I drove by a car rental place. And I stopped. And I rented a car. Now, I have two cars, one I used and one my wife used. I rented a car. I really don't know why I rented the car, but I rented the car.

And I continued on my way home, and I recall that we were out of fax paper. And I drive by a Sam's, which is where we used to get our fax paper from. And Sam's is on the right side of the road, and on the left side of the road is a Kmart. So I'm headed toward Sam's to get the fax paper, and I turn into the Kmart lot instead of the Sam's lot. And I bought a ski mask. And this is September, so they're not really out for sale. And I had ski masks at home. I bought a ski mask, and I know I bought the ski mask because at some point in time I come to and I'm sitting in the car and here I have a package with a ski mask in it.

Alex Blumberg

So you don't remember buying it?

Barry Miller

I don't remember buying it, but I know I bought it.

The next day, I get up. And I put into my briefcase a gun and a box of bullets. And regress a bit. I bought this gun on June 16 of '95. That would have been 15 months before I used it. I bought the gun because I was going to commit suicide. I had taken the gun. We had a balcony on this condo. And I took the gun one night, and I shot it into the woods. I had never shot a gun in my life. I wanted to know how I felt because I figured if I'm going to put it to my head, I wanted to know where to put it.

15 months later, I get the gun, put it in my briefcase. I leave. And from there I don't really remember exactly what happened. I don't know how I got to the bank. I don't know how I picked that bank or that location. I don't recall specific incidences.

Alex Blumberg

Do you remember what you said to the teller? Do you remember?

Barry Miller

Not exactly. She said at the trial that I said something, give me all of your money, typical what you see in movies. I don't really remember. She said, give me all your money. She hadn't given me all of the money, and I said, all of it or something like that. I really don't remember. What I remember is only from what she said at the trial.

Alex Blumberg

When he robbed the bank, he was earning well into six figures a year. His take from the robbery, $8,000. It's a lot to swallow, really, rob a bank, then claim not to remember it, especially when you bought a ski mask and rented a car the day before. And it's possible that Miller made up the story about not remembering when he went to trial.

He plead innocent by reason of insanity. The judge didn't buy it. I talked to Steve Tolbert, the prosecutor in Miller's criminal trial. He says it's possible that Miller was in a kind of a haze when he robbed the bank. He'd certainly never heard that defense before. But for Tolbert, it was immaterial. Either way, Miller was guilty of the crime.

But even Tolbert questions why a man who could have gotten a substantial loan from any bank in the city would actually need to hold one up for money. And more importantly, why would he have bungled the job so badly? When Miller lays out the facts, it's hard to believe this workaholic, super achiever was really trying to get away with it.

Barry Miller

Again, if this was a robbery to really get some money, I got to think I would have selected a place that wasn't on a busy street, a busy corner with a police station two blocks away. But in any event, my most vivid memories are after the bank robbery, where here I am, walking down the street that's relatively busy. The parking lot to the bank where I parked my car is in the back. I mean, I didn't even park in front. I had to walk a quarter of a block to get to the car. And I'm walking with a gun in my hand and a mask on my face at whatever time that was in the morning. It wasn't Halloween.

The police came relatively quickly. The bag that had the money in it, the dye thing exploded. This big cop with a gun is yelling at me, get down on the ground, get down on the ground. I really didn't totally comprehend all of what he was saying, but I eventually did. And I got down on the ground. And he handcuffed me, put me into his car, and took me away.

I'm no longer a rich man. I'm no longer a society person. I'm no longer the person that I was before. I killed that person. I can create this person that I now want to be. I can create a person who has more compassion, a person who wants a different lifestyle, who wants to live a different way. I lived on the top of the hill. I want to live in the valley with everybody else now.

A guy in my position, coming from my socioeconomic background does not do what I did. You don't go and rob a bank. So therefore I have now been cast out from my family. And that which they needed from me, I guess I can't give to them. That which I was supposed to be, I'm now an embarrassment, which is rather remarkable because frankly I now am happier with myself as a person than I was during all of that time.

Alex Blumberg

This is maybe the hardest thing of all to swallow. Talking to Miller, I got a familiar feeling. He sounded like a new convert to a religion or a junkie who's gone clean, like someone desperate to believe what he is saying is true. And who can blame him? When Barry Miller gets out of jail in four years, he's going to have to rebuild a life from scratch. No family, no job, 68 years old. Despite my doubts, I wanted to believe him too.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is a writer in Chicago.

Ira Glass

So Rachel, want to take us to the ID break?

Rachel Day

Yeah.

Coming up, lizards, awkwardness, and falling in love from Public Radio International. That's in a minute when our program continues.

Act 3.

Rachel Day

It's This American Life. I'm Rachel Day, the intern here at This American Life. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to take a whack at that them. Today's show, Escaping the Box of Your Own life. We've arrived at Act Three, The Feeling You Want and the Feeling You Get.

Ira Glass

Rachel, that was such a good job.

Rachel Day

Good.

Ira Glass

You are a credit to interns everywhere.

Rachel Day

I am so glad.

Ira Glass

In this, their darkest hour.

Rachel Day

That's right.

Ira Glass

In this act we have a story from David Cale from a show that premiered here at the Goodman Theatre here in Chicago. And in this show, David Cale comes out on stage in black jeans and a corduroy shirt. And without dressing as a woman or changing his voice in any way, he simply becomes this middle-aged, good-humored British woman named Lillian.

The story he tells is of how Lillian escapes the life she's in. She launches herself out of her old life in this kind of half trance, like the bank robber we heard from earlier but not quite so severe. Lillian take steps to destroy her own life while she's only kind of half conscious that that's exactly what is it that she's trying to do. And the incident that gets her out of her old life turns out to be so small and awkward and a bit disappointing, but it does the job.

Before we begin this story, a quick warning that there's some sexual content in the story. No nasty words and, of course, nothing as graphic as the network news this week, but some mild sexual content that might not be appropriate for some younger listeners.

David Cale

The thought of someone else inside you is something I could never come to terms with. Keith had said to me before he went up north on that job, "I could get over somebody kissing you or cuddling, but if someone else went inside, I don't think I could ever touch you again." "Don't be dramatic," I said. "Nobody's going anywhere with me." Then almost a minute, the door shut. Keith was hardly in his precious Volvo when I meet little Jimmy in the store, 15 years my junior, with a look on his face the could drag a shipwreck up from the bottom of the ocean. "Wipe that dirty look off your face, Jimmy Foyle," I said, "and stop trying to put your fingers in my mouth. I'm a married woman."

I couldn't believe the words were coming out of me. It was like my husband just flew out the window. Jimmy was really what I had in mind for a lover before I said yes to Keith. He was. He was the kind of person I always wanted when I was his age but who never seemed interested in me. I wasn't generally a Jimmy's type. Jimmys didn't generally take notice of women like me. We seemed too tame. Jimmy was a wild one. Rough around the edges, he was a bit of a devil. Didn't give things a lot of thought the way Keith did. And he was funny. Keith had nothing approaching a sense of humor. Actually, Keith was the only person I knew that didn't find me funny in any way.

"I can't believe that, Lillian," Jimmy said. "You're a riot." "Oh, how refreshing," I thought, "to be found funny again." It was really the idea of a Jimmy coming along that kept me from completely giving over to Keith. I've been holding out for the thought of a Jimmy for a long time. So when he aimed his eyes at me and came on so strong that day, something in me was saying, it would not be a good idea to turn Jimmy down. It'll be a little fling.

You have to work out this Jimmy thing. Lillian, it's between you and yourself. Jimmy knew Keith was out of town. I think he'd even been watching the precious Volvo to see if it was still in the front. He invited me over to his house to see his lizards. "Lizards?" I said. "Yes, lizards," he said. "How peculiar," I said. "All right, Jimmy."

He drove his car like he just robbed the bank. We ran a red light. "Hold on to your seat, Lillian," I thought. His car didn't have safety belts. "I cut them off," he said. "They were uncomfortable." I thought about Keith. Keith wouldn't start the engine unless everyone was strapped in.

Jimmy's house was lined with tiny aquariums. He got all excited as he told me what the various lizards were and where they came from. He was quite the authority. Outside of the store, he looked much younger. "God, Lillian," I thought, "what are you doing?"

When he made his move on me, it was so sudden. Talk about a pounce. Even the lizards scuttled behind their plastic rocks. I immediately felt like I'd been thrown into a wrestling ring. As we were rolling around on his leopard blanket, I must confess, my first thought was, "Am I really enjoying this?" He was so rough and young. There was no warming up with Jimmy. In fact, much to my surprise, it was dreadful.

It's funny, I realized I'd gotten used to Keith's mouth. Jimmy had a smaller mouth. I think Keith's tongue was wider, too. There was nothing sensual about Jimmy's tongue. It just sort of flickered around in my mouth, like the tongues of one of those lizards of his.

Whatever was wrong with Keith, the sexual part was all right. Or maybe I'd overrated it, but he was considerate. Sexually speaking, I'd say Keith was like a really good waiter in a pretty good restaurant. Very good service but ultimately disappointing food.

Jimmy seemed to approach the whole thing like it was some form of kung fu or that I was something that needed to be overthrown. But believe me, I was just laying there. He was nervous, bless him. I tried to get him to ease up. "Slow down," I said, in a voice that was supposed to sound seductive. But I have to admit, it did come out rather motherly. Then he breathed into my ear. "Can I [BLEEP] you, Lillian?" I thought about Keith, what the thought of someone else being inside me would do to him, how it really would be the final straw. And I said, "Yes, Jimmy. If you want."

Ira Glass

What follows is a brief scene that's too graphic to play for you on the radio. Let's just say things take awhile. Jimmy keeps his eyes scrunched shut. Lillian keeps hers open, lays there thinking about her husband, staring at the aquarium.

David Cale

And I'm looking at Jimmy's lizards. Can they really be happy in those little tanks with a light bulb over their heads morning and night? And he took so long. [YAWNS] It is starting to feel a little like a visit to the dentist more than a sexual fling.

Then Jimmy makes a noise like he's been shot in the leg. And I realize, "Thank God." He rolls over to the other side of the blanket. "That was sexy," he says. "Yes," I said. "It was very. Thank you." Lillian, polite to the end.

But then Jimmy did some really sweet things. He ran a bath, put something blue in the water. He showed me his muscles. "Ooh," I said. He lit candles. He was quite romantic after all. He was a boy, really. I half expected the police to come barging in and arrest me.

"Did I disappoint you?" he asked. "No, of course not," I said. And for a moment, he looked so vulnerable, I thought my heart would break.

We sat in the bath. He was behind me. He did my back. Drew objects on my shoulders in soap and had me guess what they were. "It's a giraffe," I said. "No, it's a crane," he said. "You win," I said. He was laughing. He looked even younger with his hair wet.

And I'm thinking of Keith in these Volvo, following the taillights of another car with his radio on-- he probably near Scotland by then-- with that perpetually anxious look on his face that he inherited from his father. And they're both nice men. I mean, sweet men, good people.

And as the damn television is chattering away in the background, all I can think is, "Well, my dear, now what?"

Ira Glass

Now we skip ahead five years. Lillian is out of her marriage, working in a bookstore. She decides to go away to Brighton for a little vacation.

David Cale

Well, I was walking along the front, past the chalets on the beach when I hear somebody calling my name. I turned around and see this young man with a beard waving at me. "Who on Earth are you," I thought. I presumed it must be a customer from the store. "It's me," said the man with the beard. "It's Jimmy. Don't you remember?" "Jimmy," I cried, totally taken aback, "You look completely different. I would have walked right past you." Besides the beard, he was much slimmer. And it's probably my imagination, but I think he'd grown.

"What are you doing here," I asked. "I live here," he said. "Since when?" "Since about four years ago." I could not get over how different he looked. "I don't know lift weights anymore," he said. "I do tai chi. Lost a lot of bulk. Don't have muscles anymore. And I've gone vegetarian." "And you have the beard now," I chimed. "Yeah, my wife says it gives me authority." "Your wife?" "Can you believe it?" he said. "I got hitched."

The whole episode was quite disorienting. Having Jimmy suddenly pop up in the middle of my Brighton after how many years? Five, was it? He asked me if I'd like to grab a bite. I said I would. I have to say, though, it was immediately comfortable between us. One thing about Jimmy and I, we always got along.

"I don't drink coffee anymore," he said. "Only herb tea. I'm watching my health, but I can have a chamomile tea and a tofu sandwich. I'm very strict." "Tofu sandwich," I said. "Oh, dear. I should be having a glass of wine, a pastry, a cappuccino, and a cigarette, in that order. Health kick." He laughed. "Oh, good," I thought. "I'm still amusing to him." While he wasn't looking, I glanced at the side of his face. He'd become quite beautiful, delicate almost. In the looks department, I have to say, the little bugger had really come into his own.

We went to an awful health restaurant where they had a lot of attitude and no pastry. And when I tried to light a cigarette, I got a lecture on secondhand smoke. He wanted me to meet his wife, thought the two of us would get along. "Why," I couldn't help wondering. "She reminds me of you," he said. "She's a bit older than me, very successful in business, has her own company. She trains executives how to speak in public and how to alter their image so they'll become a more effective tool in the marketplace." The whole enterprise sounded positively creepy. I asked him what his role in all this was. He said he videotaped the executives speaking and that Donna, the wife, would identify their weaknesses and therefore help to rectify them.

"How old are you now," I asked, somewhat shifting the subject. "26," he said. "How old are you?" "I'm not telling you how old am," I said. "Let's put it this way. When I write down my date of birth now, I put the word circa next to it."

Then he asked if I thought he seemed more mature. Apparently Donna was working on having him project a more mature version of himself. "Have you noticed I'm speaking slower," he asked. "Donna got me to do that. She made me watch a video of myself. I had no idea I talked so quickly." I'd never noticed it. Poor Jimmy was beginning to sound a bit like someone who's had a complete nervous breakdown and who's slowly pasting themselves back together again. And I was gaining the impression he'd married Eva Braun.

"She's not pointing any cameras at me," I thought, just as some horrendous-looking alfalfa something or other arrived. God knows what it was, but I wasn't going to eat it. He asked me how what's-his-name was. "You mean Keith," I said. "I have no idea. I haven't seen Keith for nearly two years. The last time I tried to talk to Keith, he said he still wasn't ready to speak to me yet." "Was it because of me," he asked, with a tone of slight self-satisfaction. I have to say, it did irritate me for a moment. I mean, there was a reason Keith and I stayed together for six years. It wasn't a complete waste of time. "Let's just say you didn't help."

One thing about Keith, he could read me like a book. He immediately knew what had happened with Jimmy. "The way you talked about him in the store, it was obvious," he'd say. "It's sad," he'd go on. "You're like a little girl. You'll fall for anyone who flatters you." Keith always referred to the thing with Jimmy as the episode. "You haven't been the same person since the episode," was how he put it.

I really didn't want to meet Donna. I imagined her as exuding sex appeal and confidence, and I really wasn't feeling up to comparisons. But I went along with it. For some reason, Jimmy was so eager for us to meet. He called her up, warned her we were on our way while I excused myself for an emergency one-on-one between myself and my face in the bathroom mirror. "I hope it's the light in here," I thought. "Either that, my dear, or it is time to lay off the lattes."

Donna was on a business call when we walked in, with her back to us. Well, she was nothing at all like I'd anticipated. Donna was a big girl. I mean literally. She must have been at least six feet two. And I have to say-- and this will sound awfully ungenerous on my part, and it is-- but the first thing that drew my attention was her hips. She's probably given birth to something, I presumed. When she turned around, I thought, "Oh, I'm much better looking than you." And I was sort of surprised at myself for how juvenile I was behaving. But I have to say, I did suddenly feel in the mood to be a little threatening.

Finally she gets off the phone, waltzes over, extending her hand. "I'm sorry," she says. "The Americans just think I've got all the time in the world. But they're where the money is, so can't be complaining too much now, can we?" Then she kissed Jimmy on the mouth in front of me, which seemed a bit unnecessary, and said, "Hello, James." "James," I thought. "James. Well, excuse me." Jimmy may have been many things. One thing he wasn't was a James.

Redirecting her attention towards me, "What line are you in, Lillian," she asks. "Books," I say, "though I seldom read them." "Oh. Publishing," she says. "No," says I. "Secondhand mostly." "Oh," she says. "What a pretty shirt you're wearing." And I thought, "You cow."

I was only there for about 10 minutes, which was quite long enough. Donna said she had a meeting to go to. "Oh, AA?" I inquired. "Oh, you're hilarious," she said. "So are you," I replied, which got no response. She said she was going to Germany for the rest of the week and that James had the car. Every time she mentioned James, I had to think for a moment who she was talking about. "You two can get reacquainted," she said. "You don't need me around, now, do you?" For a second, it felt like she was throwing him at me.

Jimmy wanted to give me a tour of the south coast. So the following day, after Donna left, he picked me up at the hotel. We went driving in her BMW. "What happened to your car?" I asked. "Donna made me get rid of it," he said. "I liked that car," I protested. "It suited you." "She approves of you," he said. "She thought you were down to earth," which, from a pretentious person, is not a compliment.

"She said she thinks you're the kind of woman she could imagine me being with much more than her." "What does she mean by that?" I asked. "I don't know," he said. "Sometimes I think she's tired of being married to people." "I'm her fourth husband." "Oh," I said. Then we just go drove for a while without saying anything.

The countryside along the south coast is lovely. I remembered how much I like to be in the passenger seat of a car. While Jimmy was driving, I happened to notice his hands on the steering wheel. They looked older. I looked at mine. I'm sure they do too. He slipped in a cassette tape. I lowered my window. A gust of wind blew through the car. My hair went everywhere. Care and all its relatives seemed to fall out of me. I don't know if it was the sea air or the music, too many cappuccinos or Jimmy, but I felt something like a sudden wave of enthusiasm. He must have thought my mind had just fluttered out the car window. "Right now," I explained, "I feel like I'm right in the world."

Driving along the coast, we came to a huge fun fair. Jimmy wanted to get off the road and investigate. I did not take much convincing. As we were going in, he stopped in his tracks. "I always get excited around you," he said. I said, "I feel the same way." I realized what it was. You see, you can be romantic with Jimmy and not feel like a fool. I had been waiting a long time to be romantic with someone.

Jimmy was immediately drawn to an enormous roller coaster called the Big Plunge. The Big Plunge was a ride that would go up extremely high and then plummet. Now, I have a terrible fear of heights. "There is no way you're going to get me up on that thing," I said. "You go if you want to. I'll stay here and have a cigarette." "Oh, Lillian, you're afraid of everything," he said. "How dare you?" I said. "I'm not." "Come on," he said. "Fear at a certain point just becomes another bad habit." Which had to have been something he'd picked up from Donna.

The only way I could go on the Big Plunge was by going through a complicated psychological snow job in which I rationalize that my fear of heights actually represented my terror of life and that going on the Big Plunge was extremely important for me and could lead to a personal breakthrough. Besides if 10-year-old children could brave it, so could I. "I'm sure I'm the oldest person to ever take the plunge," I cried. The terrified wit.

As the ride yanked everyone forward and the squealing began, first off I was petrified. Then I seemed to push through the fear. I have to say, the whole thing did seem like a personal breakthrough. Donna would have been proud of me. Jimmy held my hand for the duration, which was sweet of him. I've never been able to go on those rides before, but I ended up loving it. Went on three more times. It had become completely easy between us.

Midway through the day, a strange notion crossed my mind. "I can imagine myself being with you for a long time," I thought. By late afternoon, I realized I really was getting a little lightheaded around Jimmy. I stood at a distance as he was buying tickets for the next ride and tried to give myself a little talking to. "He's 26. He's married. He lives in Brighton," I said to myself. "Lillian, stop it."

Then out of the blue, on the Ferris wheel, he gives me a peck on the cheek. "What are you doing?" I asked, trying to not sound delighted and failing abysmally. "I wanted to kiss you," he says. "James," I scolded, "behave."

The Ferris wheel then abruptly jolted to a halt, fortunately with us on the low end. While we were waiting to move, Jimmy came out with what seemed like an out of the blue question. "If somebody told you your life would end in, say, a year, do you think you'd start to really live or do you think you'd slip back under the covers and wait for it to be over?" "I think I'd get a move on," I replied. Just then the wheel began to turn. As we were passing the arcade, I noticed a photo booth. "I don't have any pictures of you," I said. "Come on. I need some proof that you exist."

We were clowning around in front of the camera. Pictures took forever to come out. When they finally did emerge from the machine, I wasn't quite prepared for what I saw. What took me back about the photos was that we looked like two people who were completely in love with each other.

Ira Glass

It's a year later. Lillian and Jimmy are married and happy.

David Cale

He had next to nothing in the way of possessions. Everything had belonged to Donna. One of the few things that was actually his was this little tent that he took everywhere just in case he ever felt the urge to sleep outside, he'd say. One Saturday, we took a bus ride into the country. Sure enough, little package came along too. No sooner we're off the bus than Jimmy said, "Let's forget about going home. I want to sleep under the sky." I have to say, the idea did appeal. So we bought some sandwiches and supplies, walked what must have been miles till we found this spot that met Jimmy's definition of the word remote, by which time the sky was quite black. He set up a little tent and pulled out a sleeping bag he'd had all along.

By the time we'd eaten, it was late. Jimmy went pretty much straight to sleep. I, on the other hand, just laid there. The ground was uneven to put it mildly. I think we were parked on top of a mole community. My spine was wondering what the hell was going on, and it was damp. But I didn't care. It was so quiet in the open. You could almost hear your moods change. If you laid still enough, you could feel your instincts wriggling to the surface.

Hours go by, and I'm still wide awake, thinking, "I'm 41 years old. It's 3 o'clock in the morning. And I'm laying in a field." And the whole thing seemed so absurd. I just started laughing. "You know what?" I thought. "Good things are going to happen. I'm ready for them now. I wasn't before. I am now." "Yes," I thought. "I'm ready to roll my sleeves up. My sleeves are fairly twitching to be rolled for the good things."

Ira Glass

David Cale's one woman show Lillian premiered at the Goodman Studio Theatre in Chicago. It was directed by Joe Mantello. They're currently in the process of putting the show up in other cities. Watch for it. It's really great.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Senior editor Paul Tough.

To buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ here in Chicago. Our phone number 312-832-3380. Our email address radio@well.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who's not trying to escape any boxes.

Bill Clinton

I just have to try to put this in a little box like I have every other thing that has been said and done and go on and do my job. That's what I'm going to work at.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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