When I checked the home answering machine after my ferry commute across San Francisco Bay, there was a proposal of marriage from my old friend John Basso, who was now living in Florida.
I listened in awe to his rambling message: “You are the love of my life, and I want you to be with me while I take care of my mom in Gainesville. She is now bedridden. She’s got half a million in stocks and bonds, a pension, two properties in Crystal River, the house in Gainesville, a fur coat, two diamond rings, antique furniture, rugs from Panama and Wedgwood china. I’ll send you a plane ticket, and you can help me take care of her.”
He didn’t sound drunk. He must have thought this would win me over. I hadn’t seen him in 10 years, but a few months earlier he had started mailing me letters, poems and artwork.
I met John when I was 17. He would pick me up from Miami Beach Hgh School in his red MG and wait with an eager look for me to ask a favor.
“Take me to get a Whopper, then let’s drive down Collins Avenue,” I might suggest, and he would happily comply. He was lithe, blond and blue-eyed, but not mysterious and misunderstood enough to be the one for me.
I lost track of him when I moved to New York and then Los Angeles before finally landing as a single mother in Marin County, where I worked in San Francisco for law offices.
Serendipitously, my then-boyfriend announced one day that he had to go to the city to see his friend John Basso.
Could it be?
“I knew a John Basso,” I said. I wrote down the first few lines of the poem John had written back then. I had repeated it so many times when I was 17 that I still knew every word.
John’s poem began: “There is just a tincture of me until I strangle the fissioning cougar that stalks my jungle night in a neon city of flashing, clicking streetlights.”
“Take this to him and see if it’s the same guy,” I said.
My boyfriend later verified it was John’s poem; he had been living in Miami but was now out here.
It was deja vu to see him again, now balding and stocky but still with the flicker of wildness in his eyes.
Eventually I visited John on my own in his apartment by Golden Gate Park.
We went walking in the park’s rose garden, ate tapas in a Haight-Ashbury cafe, walked to Coit Tower for the panoramic view and ended up getting drunk at a dive on Broadway.
John would phone me from time to time, but years went by without our paths crossing.
Ten years, three jobs, one house and one condo later, I got a call from John, who was back in Gainesville, Florida. His familiar voice and flattery brought me back to our early days and the gratifying feeling of being worshiped.
Then the onslaught of mail began. Every day I would find at least one letter from him, sometimes two, waiting in my mailbox – rambling observations, snippets of poetry and references to my once-upon-a-time teenage beauty.
My boss wished me well when I took my two-week vacation to visit him.
On the last day of my vacation, I was floating offshore in the warm gulf waters, looking at the bluest sky and billowing clouds, and it struck me that I could not bear for this vacation to end.
I extended my vacation to visit John’s mother and see his home in Gainesville. Josephine spent all day crocheting hats and watching TV. She never ventured far from her bed, so the kitchen was neglected and dated, with curling linoleum floors and dingy cabinets crammed with rusty iron pans and blackened utensils.
Revolted, I decided I could never make this my home.
Back in my pristine condo with a view of Mount Tamalpais, the daily mail from John continued, now with packages of countertop samples, cabinet designs, pieces of tile and paint pallets.
To the chagrin of my boss, I rented my condo, surrendered my apartment-size furniture to cross-country movers and flew to the Jacksonville airport, leaving her looking for another assistant to deal with her paper pileup.
On the drive back to Gainesville, John was hyper, describing all the work he had done, and indeed, his house was transformed.
There were chandeliers in every room, including the bathrooms. The kitchen was new, stylish and immaculate. On the back deck, a hot tub overlooked a terraced rock garden made of boulders and expensive Japanese maples and bonsai junipers.
My new mom
John wanted me to take care of his mother. She wanted me to take care of John.
I ended up doing both, being a daughter to Josephine, having girly talks, modeling her floppy crocheted hats, bathing and dressing her up for visits with her lawyer, doctor and financial adviser, taking glamorous photos of her when she put in her false teeth, and serving Thanksgiving dinner on her Wedgwood dinnerware.
She objected to leaving lights on, turning the A.C. below 80 and throwing away unused napkins, yet her savvy stock purchases put a half-million in her portfolio.
Josephine lived for a year after I arrived. She left us her trust fund, her home and three wooden trunks filled with crocheted hats, plus the items John had listed in his voice mail proposal.
Now we live on Amelia Island, Florida, and I have a nest egg of stocks and bonds, diamond rings on three fingers, fur coat in the closet, china, rugs, antiques and a poet/artist who greets me with, “Hey, gorgeous” no matter how rumpled, mismatched or disheveled I am.
Best of all, whenever anyone asks for a decision, John nods toward me and says, “Ask the boss.”
Diana Frank is a real estate agent on Amelia Island, Fla.