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I hadn’t had much contact with Marissa since I went to work at the Center, but she called me out of the blue one day with an invitation. Steve, before he turned to the ministry, had gone to Stanford, and had friends in Silicon Valley. They were going to a celebration party; some tech company had just gone public and there would be, as she put it, a lot of newly minted gazillionaires there.
I would have said no in the old days, but now that I was on the spiritual – and psychological – upswing, I thought, why not? I wasn’t interested in tech-heads, but it could be fun. I even bought a new outfit, a skirt I told myself was just a tad too short, and a blue sweater that made me, if no one else, very aware of what cleavage I had to show. I hadn’t bought anything new to wear since I started working again. When they came by to pick me up, Marissa exclaimed, ”That’s more like it!” Steve gave a genial and most up-parson-ly wolf whistle. How long had it been since I’d gotten reactions like that?
So we drove almost an hour, out to this spectacular, angular glass house overlooking the Pacific. The place was already spilling out with a boisterous crowd, lots of nerds, judging from their un-modulated voices and awkward gestures; a sprinkling of more sober types I took for academics, a handful of lookers, or hookers, maybe, what did I know? They were too glam for this scene, for sure.
Some guy in baggy, worn cords and a Yoda t-shirt handed me a margarita, welcoming me with nerdy puppy-dog eyes. I smiled and extracted myself to wander around, fascinated more by the house than the raucous partygoers.
I climbed the stairs, carefully, as they were weirdly cantilevered and seemed to jut out of thin air. There was a wide landing that overlooked the main room, with a loveseat and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Two scruffy-looking men were planted there, deep in some technical conversation, of course. Ignoring them, I turned to browse the shelves, happily letting the noise of the crowd swirl around me, until someone bumped into me from behind, causing me to spatter my drink on the Kilim carpet. I turned to see a tall, raw-boned guy with a gentle face, looking a little out of it. He had this great smile, a heart-breaking smile, and a tumble of thick, dark hair that hadn’t seen a haircut in a while. Hazel eyes, with those little crinkles at the corners, that sparked a sudden funny image of someone who smiled a lot at his computer screen.
Intelligent eyes, that took a second to focus and lock in on mine. But then there we stood, eye to eye, and me feeling my heart thumping in my chest, like I was all of thirteen again, and face to face with some secret junior high crush. Except I wasn’t thirteen and wearing braces and floral print overalls. I was all grown up, divorced, and lugging around a track record that wasn’t very flattering. On the other hand, I was wearing the too-short skirt and the sweater with the cleavage, so maybe the scales actually were tilting in my favor.
But it wasn’t just the bodily reaction. The guy apologized profusely, pulling out a handkerchief to dab at non-existent margarita stains on my skirt, while introducing himself with a kind of unconscious charm, as if he didn’t get out much, didn’t have a clue how attractive he was. I laughed, and then he did, too, and I made some lame crack about how I didn’t much care for margaritas anyway, which was true. He asked what I’d prefer, then motioned me to stay where I was, with an excited, kind of goofy hand gesture, like I was a golden retriever. He ran down the stairs and was back in a flash with two glasses of white wine, climbing the steps two at a time with those long legs. He handed me a glass, with a big grin. Honestly, you’d have thought he was Jason and just scored the Golden Fleece.
His name was Bob. You might even know who I mean. Bob was one of the partners who had started this little internet security software business which, according to the news reports, had left each of them with over $250 million.
I didn’t know all that until later. At the moment, I was busy falling like a ton of bricks. It was absolutely the last thing I expected. If you’d asked me, I’d have probably said it was the last thing I was looking for. I felt the sticky little hands of Fate all over me, aware, even in my fog, that I had no choice whatsoever.
I was already a goner.
And that was before we moved out on the deck where a half-moon was filtering through scattered clouds, and hurricane lamps were glowing along the railings. Bob pulled up a chaise lounge. I sat, demurely pulling my legs in as I tried to manage the mini. He straddled the foot of the lounge with his long limbs, looking geeky and awkward and endearing as he talked, eagerly, with unselfconscious passion, about his plans for the future.
I might have written him off, even then, as some big talking dreamer. His dreams certainly sounded bigger and more complicated, even more outrageous, than most people’s. I might have assumed he was, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle, had not Steve wandered outside and over to us, rather endearing himself, a man of the cloth ever so slightly tipsy.
“Hey, Hani,” he grinned. “You’d better watch this guy. He’s going to take over the world.” He clapped Bob on the shoulder. “Smartest damn guy in the room. Any room. And if they don’t listen to him in D.C., he can just buy up the whole damn place, save the whales, save the glaciers. Two. Hundred. Fifty. Million. Dollars. I salute you, old buddy. Just remember, Bobby boy, I knew you when… I knew you when you couldn’t even front for a six pack…”
Bob grinned and kind of shook off Steve’s comments. I took a minute to connect the dots. Bob? This sweet, kind of bashful guy? He was one of the wonder boys we were here to celebrate? This guy in old Levi’s and a sweater with a little moth hole in the shoulder?
Steve drifted off, leaving us in a little bubble of our own. Bob started telling me about his plans, getting more animated and excited as he talked. About his ideas for environmental technologies, about his passion for making the link between the scientific issues of global warming and the political and governmental policies that had so far created such roadblocks. He viewed his financial windfall not as a license to kick back and live the easy life, but as an opportunity to apply his mind to problems no one else had been able to solve. He really was ready to take on the world, and, apparently, he might just have the brains as well as the bucks to do it.
All at once, I found myself feeling like my own life was opening up. We talked until the party began to thin out, me blurting out the less-than-flattering details of my life to date, hungry to talk, hungry to be listened to with that intensity he seemed to bring to every subject, whether his own or mine. Then he drove me home, all the way back to Oakland, in his old Volvo with the duct tape over the rips in the upholstery, to my funky little apartment, where we sat on my lumpy second-hand sofa and talked the rest of the night.
Bob wasn’t like anyone I’d ever known. His mind was all over the place, without doubt the most brilliant man I’d ever come across, and yet I didn’t feel intimidated. There was such a sweet geekiness to him. Without his seeming to talk about himself, I learned that he held 14 patents, always sought out a water source – lake, river, ocean – when he needed to think through some challenging problem. I learned that he dropped out of MIT his senior year; was married briefly, no kids; that Joni Mitchell’s voice could make him cry; that his teenage sex fantasies about Princess Leia had never gone away, they’d just gotten more detailed over the years.
Incredibly, we were too busy talking to sleep together that night, though he was still with me when the bagel shop down the street opened at 6 a.m., and we were the first ones in. He downed several cups of coffee, and said goodbye with a hug that lifted my feet off the ground, and a kiss that left me staggering.
I turned to walk back to my dingy apartment, to sleep away the rest of the weekend. Bob was off to deliver the keynote address at an international symposium in Hong Kong.