Looking for Bruce Lee’s Grave
ON the first birthday I celebrated with Cadillac, I turned 24. He was in the Army up at Fort Lewis Washington, in the Ranger battalion. I think it was right before I started working at a weekly paper, which means I was just temping at a series of truly horrible office jobs, not yet arriving at the job which would turn into my first pro writing job, at a weekly newspaper. I’d been with him since the previous February, shortly after Valentine’s Day, and we had gotten married by the Justice of the Peace in October, the ink barely dry on the divorce papers from my first early ill-advised marriage that I never talk about, and it was now early February again and my birthday.
Life in the Army was strange. A life contracted. He had a degree in Classics but he wanted to try this out and then get a job with federal law enforcement. So he was 27, and the average age of the other lower enlisted guys was 19. Had he met me before he enlisted, he told me, he would have changed his plans. Probably I distracted him a great deal.
He spent a lot of time gone at training, for days or weeks at a time, leaving me solo. When he was home, he was so low on the totem pole he did a lot of cruddy work that required more duty time.
My life felt put on hold. Lonely. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, and I’d chosen to be here with him, but I couldn’t make peace with it. I spent a lot of time looking forward to the day he would get out of the military. And a lot of time feeling resentful.
The only place we ate out, besides fast food, was a classy joint that had a 10 pound burger that was free if you ate the whole thing. We did not know of many restaurants, nor did the people we knew, few of whom were from the area, and all of them having as little money as we did.
For my birthday, he promised to take me out. I said I would like a romantic dinner, and he said he knew of a place someone had talked about.
But first, he had a surprise for me in the afternoon. “You’ll love it,” he said, and we drove up to Seattle. I wondered where he was taking me. The Space Needle? We’d only walked around the outside. We could be going anywhere. There were so many places we hadn’t been.
Instead, we drove through a residential area, around and around a neighborhood called Capitol Hill. Then, around and around and around some more. “We’re close,” he said a few dozen times. “It’s around here someplace.”
“Where are we going?” I asked, thinking I could help spot a sign.
“You’ll like it,” he said. “I’m taking you to see Bruce Lee’s grave.”
I was silent for a moment. Genuine confusion and concerns raced through my head. A grave? On my birthday? And Bruce Lee’s?
What the ever loving–?
“You brought it up once,” he said. “I remembered.”
Maybe I had brought it up once, one of those random facts one reads sometimes. Bruce Lee’s grave is in Seattle. Maybe I’d seen it on Jeopardy!. I could not recall. I spouted a lot of random things I’d knew. That was probably one of the few facts I’d read about the area.
“You’re a fan,” he said. Stated. Like a fact.
“Um, no,” I said, sitting upright, my face heating. “That’s my brother.” My brother, with whom Cadillac was friends. My brother. “Do you think I’m my brother?” I said.
“Of course not. But you like Bruce Lee too,” he said.
“Why? Because I’m also half-Asian?” My fingers gripped the handle above the door. Who was this person? Why would anybody in his right mind think a woman in her early twenties would want to go see somebody’s grave? On her birthday? Only a very strange woman.
“No. Because you brought him up.” He drove faster now.
I sank down in my seat, realizing that I could not longer casually spout out some odd thing I’d heard, lest Cadillac think I was secretly hinting at my heart’s desire. If I told him about the World’s Ugliest Dog contest, he would think I’d want to get an ugly mutt. If I told him that the cost of living was low in the Sudan, he’d think I’d want to live there. “I bring up a lot of different shit. It doesn’t mean I love it all.”
“What else are we going to do in Seattle?” He was angry now too. “I thought you would like seeing Bruce Lee’s grave.”
“Well I don’t want to see anybody’s grave,” I yelled. “Why are you in love with my brother?”
“I’m not,” he yelled back. “You like Bruce Lee.”
“I do not!” I said. “I have no opinion on Bruce Lee. I’ve seen maybe one movie and then not even the whole thing. But seriously. Even if I was a fan, who wants to go to look at dead people on her birthday?”
“Fine,” he said. “You’re right. I am sorry.”
I heard the apology, but I still stewed. All the way back to the south Sound, a trip theoretically taking 45 minutes but took about two hours with traffic. A double realization knocked me back. First, I had an awful, panicky fear. He had no idea of who I was, what I liked, what my heart’s desires were. And I’d thought we were soul mates. We were already married. Married too fast, against all better judgment and advice and in the face of all the signs to slow down—and now we were going to have to lie in the bed we made. But the fact was, we were unknown to each other. I was unknown to him. A true stranger, I thought. He was a being entirely different than me– I’d known that, of course– but the extent of how different he was freaked me out.
Second—and this had to do with me alone, so it was harder to admit to myself–that I immediately pushed the thought back down when it briefly surfaced—that I was hopelessly, irretrievably, shamefully shallow. At least he thought of something to do. At least he didn’t just throw a card at me and call it a day. He’d tried, right? Honestly, he was in the Army, making just above the cut-off point for food stamps (the jump pay for jumping out of airplanes pushed us over the limit). He couldn’t take me someplace fancy. Probably not even into a museum. This thought depressed me further, of how a trip to someplace I’d taken for granted, like a museum, would have to be carefully planned and budgeted for. If this was being grown-up, I didn’t like it.
But I had chosen him, I had chosen to be here. I knew he had no money. Why did I expect him to sweep me off my feet, as if he was some dot-com billionaire instead of an enlisted soldier? I wept like the little girl I was. Not sobbing, just silent, pouty tears.
“You’ll like where I’m taking you to dinner, though,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a great place.”
“It better be,” I mumbled. An ominous princess.
A bit later in the evening, we arrived at Mama Stortini’s in Tacoma. “He said they have meatballs as big as your fist!” Cadillac said.
I walked in, expecting to see low lights. Candles. White tablecloths.
I saw picnic tables covered with plastic red gingham cloths in what I recall being a vinyl-walled patio area. The tables were pushed together so you ate elbow-to-elbow with strangers.
Two basic truths. One: if an Army dude whose chow hall diet normally consists of like forty different starches tells you that someplace is great, you ought to ask a few specific questions. Two: a place that has anything “as big as your fist” might not provide the kind of romantic atmosphere you’re seeking.
We stood in the doorway and took it all in for a minute. “We can go somewhere else if you want,” he said. “I thought it would be nicer.” (You see how HARD things were in the days before smart phones and Yelp and Google Maps?)
“Nah,” I said. “Let’s just eat here.”
Here, my first instinct was to sugarcoat this for you. To tie up this story with a warm and fuzzy realization: Then she realized—even though he’d weirdly tried to take her to see a grave on her birthday, she’d been kind of a bitch. The important thing was that they were together. She hugged him, and they happily ate dinner.
No. I can’t pretend that happened. That kind of self-awareness did not come until later. It went more like this, We sat down and ate because we were starving, saying little to each other, chewing through a fog of dim resentment and heavy starches.
To his credit, Cadillac has planned other birthdays well: a surprise hot air balloon ride, horseback tour, dinners out, all varying according to our budget and time allowance. But he’s never taken me to see a grave on my birthday again. It’s entirely possible he’d refuse, even if I asked nicely.