Who can say where any relationship begins? Ask any two people currently in a relationship and you are likely to get two entirely different versions. Our story is no different. In my version, it all began after I was academically disqualified from the University of Oregon in 1990. Casey was forced to leave the University of Missouri two months earlier and was living and working in Hollywood. Every other person we knew was still at college. So, by my account, we hung out by default.
Casey tells a different story. In her version, it all began in 1988, at my high school graduation. My girlfriend was there and so was my ex-girlfriend, Casey’s younger sister. The way Casey tells it, she spent my graduation talking her kid sister into hugging me congratulations before my girlfriend did. In some sort of western showdown vibe, as she describes it, the past and present girlfriends’ hesitated too long before either one did anything. Casey didn’t play such games. She still doesn’t. There was an awkward moment in time and space between the opposing girls that Casey did not hesitate to fill. She stepped up and hugged me a “congrats” before either girl moved.
I remember graduation. I remember her version of the story. Mostly because I remember my girlfriend giving me a hard time about it, complaining that how dare Casey hug you before she did? I was 17 years old. What did I know of such things?
It was no strange thing that Casey was at my graduation. Even then, we had known each other for some time. Her first cousins and I grew up together. My sister began kindergarten with one older cousin and I started kindergarten three years later with the other younger one. My parents and Casey’s aunt and uncle were close friends, and remain so to this day. Rumor has it there is a picture in the family where I am at her cousins’ 6th birthday party in the foreground, and Casey is in the background talking to my sister. I haven’t seen the picture but Casey has, so I’m sure it’s out there, somewhere.
We officially met for the first time at her cousins’ 15th birthday party. It was there that I first met her younger sister. I was an awkward tenth grader at the time and a wallflower at many such parties. I must have been doing just that, holding up a wall, when Casey walked in because I remember her grandiose entrance. She wore a high school cheerleading uniform, white with black and red trim on a pleated skirt and her black wool letterman’s jacket. She was a senior at the time, a varsity cheerleader, supremely confident past point of being annoying and behaving as though she absolutely owned the place. I found her to be obnoxious, but easily the hottest girl at the party.
Mike was not a wallflower; he was a smartass, appearing disgusted by my sheer presence. I remember being annoyed at my mother for making me show up to this “teeny bopper” party. Why would a senior have to make an appearance at a freshman party? Although, much younger than me, Mike drew my attention. I’m not sure if it was the arrogance he exhibited by hating me, or the 501 jeans his butt filled out nicely. Our noticeable energy reminded me of the old movies I used to watch with my dad where Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracey hated each other but somehow always ended up together.
In time, we have come to an agreement. Our relationship started with a phone call. In the fall of 1989, I was in my second year at the University of Oregon. At the time, there were no cell phones and no one could afford a phone in their room so calls came through to a public phone on the first floor. And so it was that on some arbitrary evening, I was on the first floor playing Atari in a friends’ room when another student notified me I had a call. I am not sure what day of the week it was, but it could have been any day of the week because I spent virtually every day playing Atari in the same friends’ room. It should come as no surprise that I was eventually academically disqualified.
I picked up the phone to Casey’s voice. She has a unique voice, particularly cartoonish, like Betty Boop, and easily identifiable. We didn’t speak for very long. Apparently, she was at school in Missouri in her apartment, alone and scared because a horrific thunderstorm was passing through her area. More than anything, I was annoyed that she was keeping me from reaching a high score on whatever game I happened to be playing.
We had no idea at the time, but that phone call foreshadowed a series of events that would lead to Casey and I dating. When I took the call, I was playing video games. When I wasn’t playing video games, I was playing basketball at the intramural gym. What I wasn’t doing much of is studying. That trend continued into the winter quarter (1990). I headed home for that spring break oblivious to what was coming. Sometime in the middle of the week, I received an envelope from the University of Oregon, Office of the Registrar, informing me that based on my current GPA, I was Academically Disqualified, effective immediately.
I was supposed to be putting my stuff together to return to school. Instead, I walked into the living room and sat through what remains one of the most humiliating days of my life. I bravely asked my parents into the living room, explaining that I needed to talk to them, but I was terrified. Somehow I made the words, “I was academically disqualified” leave my mouth. There was no hiding their disappointment. I sat on the living room couch, handed the letter to my mother and father as evidence of my failure, and made one final plea to save my education.
There was an opportunity to attend the community college in Eugene for a single semester, earn passing grades, and then be reinstated at the university. In this scenario, there would be no on-campus housing or meals and no support from the university at all. My father thought the idea was ludicrous, a sort of reward for my failure with increased freedom. His answer was a sardonic chuckle then a resounding no, followed by “your mother and I tried to make it easy for you, but now you have to do it the hard way”. I was crushed.
I knew immediately what he meant. He did it the hard way.
My father, Ernest Shaw Jr., was born and raised in Chicago’s Southside. Over time, I have forgotten most stories about his youth, but I do remember a few. His father, my grandfather, ran a pool hall where he spent much of his time as a young boy. Eventually, my father mouthed off to one of the regulars who told my grandfather that Ernest was getting old enough to be taught some respect, and this tough Chicago Southsider was willing to volunteer his services. There is also a vague recollection of a time spent homeless and living in a car with his father at age eleven.
Ernest barely graduated from Farragut High School, most noted as the alma mater of NBA great, Kevin Garnett. Following graduation, he joined the Marine Corps with the knowledge that if he did not escape Chicago, he would become a victim of it. Immediately following boot camp, he returned to Chicago, married my mother, and returned to San Diego, CA. In the years spent in southern California, my parents had four children, of which I am the youngest. He attended college while completing his military obligation and was accepted to USC Medical School for the fall of 1971.
I have clear memories of my father in his home office, studying for medical school while we played quietly in the next room. I had no idea that my casual observations were the beginning of what would become a lifelong belief in the importance of my own education. To this day, I am not sure where his resolve to complete medical school originated. One thing I am sure of, I have realized the magnitude of his achievement my entire life. After graduating in 1976, he opened up his own practice with my mother as his assistant and put all four of us through private high school.
I sat there on the couch and could not separate myself from the road my father travelled. I was consumed by one thought; “I just told a man that was once homeless, a Black man that barely graduated from high school, who nonetheless had the determination to graduate from medical school with four small children, that I flunked out of college.” Mean while, my oldest brother was becoming a rocket scientist at NASA and my sister was graduating second in her class from Columbia University in Biochemistry. Pathetic. I would not return to the University of Oregon but rather, would remain in Los Angeles and go back to my high school job at the local grocery store.
This explains how I came to be in L. A. in the spring of 1990. Casey came via a different route. She was a cheerleader at Cypress Community College but transferred to a university in Missouri to follow a basketball player. The story goes that the boy sang New Editions’ “Can you stand the Rain” over the phone, and she transferred to the school shortly thereafter. It was the first time she had been away from home.
Casey is Mexican and the stay in Missouri was her introduction in race relations. The college was predominately Black and White. The white girls were confused by her brown skin and curly hair, and the black girls saw her as a foreign being, definitely NOT Black. Apparently, the trouble started when she found a letter in the players’ room, written to a different girl, with the words to “Can You Stand the Rain” in the signature line. Casey was dumbfounded. She found solace in another basketballers’ company and all hell broke loose when some girls thought she was going to eventually go after their boys too. The story gets glazed over at this point. I believe there were tangible threats of violence as the Black and White girls were unified in their disdain for her. (She often jokes that she single-handedly improved race relations in Missouri.) She found herself in her apartment alone and scared. Incidentally, there was also a horrific thunderstorm passing through her area. The very next day she was on a plane, headed home to face her family and a resounding, “I told you so.”
In the months following her return, Casey went back to working as a cheerleading coach at a few of the high schools in Los Angeles. She moved to Hollywood with a friend to live closer to work then her parents home 35 miles to the south. It was in her apartment in Hollywood that our relationship began. Early on, we hung out together when I wasn’t working. It was purely platonic as far as I was concerned. Casey was way out of my league. After all, while we were hanging around Hollywood, she was dating a close friend of one of the most influential comedians at the time. I, on the other hand, was still stuck on some homely girl I last saw in Oregon. But over the course of a few weeks, we spent more and more time together. Eventually we found ourselves in the hot tub on her roof one Saturday night, underneath the stars, and I dared to attempt the impossible: a passionate kiss.
To my surprise, it worked.
From that moment on, we were inseparable. I was constantly over at her place after work. And we talked about everything. Casey shared her desire to become a lawyer. From the age of six, she remembered her father insisting that she sit down with him and watch To Kill a Mockingbird and Inherit the Wind every time they came on television. She attached herself to the honor of Atticus Finch and the advocacy of Henry Drummond and she carried those attributes with her always. She also told me all about her experience in college and how the events with a couple of boys she was dating led to her premature departure from the university. Casey was filled with regret that her dream of becoming an attorney was cut short as a function of her bad decisions regarding boys. To my surprise, she told me that she called me at the University of Oregon on the very night she had been threatened, the same night I was annoyed that she was interrupting my video game. It was hard not to feel like a total ass, but truthfully, I had no idea.
We had regret in common. We started together as educational rejects. We both began something and, in our own ways, failed miserably. We were both humiliated. We both were sorry to have disappointed our families. We had that in common, too. We found comfort in our shared experiences. But, we also had passion in common. We were like bunnies (as people in their early twenties should be), and an abundance of great sex was a universal cure-all for the negative experiences we shared.
I was a cheerleader for the last 8 years of my life, I was bendy and fit, great sex was mostly the result of hard work on my part, if you get my drift 😉 So one night after spending an entire day together, on the drive back to drop Mike off at home, he mentioned how he is still in love with the homely Oregon girl. I was beyond pissed. Mainly because I wondered what my role was at the current time, his entertainment? I decided to take matters into my own hands, if Mike loved her than he should be with her.
After dropping him off, I went into military intelligence mode and acquired the girls phone number in Oregon. I spoke with her, told her how Mike still pined for her as she explained all “their” issues. I just suggested she contact him, because I couldn’t listen any more, the guy I thought was perfect and amazing, she believed was flawed and ordinary. From what I can tell from her rants, Mike was unwilling to change, not meeting her criteria of how a boy should behave. I obviously was more experienced that this dumb broad, because even though I was an idiot when it came to men, I knew you couldn’t change them.
Before the end of the day they had talked, they had plans to meet in Oakland for her mom’s wedding and I offered my car so Mike could get there. WTF?!?! What was I thinking? I knew at this point I cared about him, but apparently, he didn’t feel the same way. Why shouldn’t one of us get the relationship we wanted? Besides, if he could give me up and I was a total hotty, then it was him that was flawed.
I sat in my apartment the entire weekend he was gone to Oakland, crying, feeling again like the dumb girl in Missouri. On Monday when he was scheduled to return my car, I ignored all his phone calls. I sat watching my answering machine blink one message after another. I didn’t care to get my car back. I didn’t want to see his face. I didn’t want to know if they kissed, or if they had magically overcome her stupid impossible expectations. The following day a dozen peach roses sat on my doorstep and I never heard the dumb girl’s name again. Sucker.
Jan. 24, 1991
Right now I’m sitting outside your office waiting for you to get off work. Since I’m early for the first time, I thought I’d write you a note. I’ve been thinking about our past experiences, our present happiness, and our future together. I must tell you that it causes me to get butterflies of apprehension. They’re from being anxious. I want everything to work out for us as individuals and for us as a couple. I’m looking forward to spending many, many years together.
As I sit here writing about it, it makes me wish you would hurry up and be off. When I do see you, I’ll be very mushy because all these feelings are going to my head. I feel euphoric.
Several months passed before Casey’s roommate decided to move in with a love interest leaving Casey alone in an apartment she could no longer afford. I was a journeyman grocery clerk, meaning I was at the top of the pay scale, and offered to help her move into a new apartment. Naturally we thought, since I was spending so much time at her place anyway; why not move in together, embodying the phrase, “If I only knew then what I know now.” My dad was pissed! For some reason, his “do it the hard way” comment did not occur to me. Besides, it made perfect sense; if he is pissed off at me, what does it matter, I won’t be living with him anyways. I’ll be living with Casey. Duh.
Casey’s parents were less upset but not because they were more tolerant of two people living together out of wedlock. On the contrary, her parents were no less traditional then mine were. Her mother is the second daughter from a family of 3 sisters and a brother. All three of the sisters are brilliant, strong-willed Mexican women, supremely proud of their heritage. Casey’s grandfather was the patriarch of the family, a proud Mexican gentleman and former Mexican diplomat. The whole family revered her grandmother. Their house was less then a mile from where we found our first apartment. Casey and I spent more then a few Christmas Eve dinners at her grandparents’ house with the entire family, her mother, aunts, and all of the cousins in the family. Casey’s parents were less upset about our moving in together because they were going through a difficult divorce after 27 years of marriage and were distracted by their own issues.
However, her grandmother was furious and had no problem letting Casey know it. One day, Casey’s grandmother called the house to again inform Casey about how she felt about the two of us living together. This was a common occurrence but on this particular day, grandma must have crossed a line. I sat across the room and watched in absolute disbelief as Casey, speaking to the revered matriarch of her family, stated, “Fuck you, Nani”, and hung up. It didn’t take long before the calls from the rest of the family began to pour in.
Growing up I rarely honored anyone. I was an arrogant ass, which most people admired for some weird reason. But there were two people I bowed down to, my mother’s parents. My grandfather (Tata) was Andy Garcia and Obama rolled into one: elegant, bright, had impeccable manners, and would treat everyone like royalty. My grandmother (Nani) wore Gloria Vanderbuilt Jeans at the height of the tight jeans fad in the 80’s, roller skated with all us grandkids, and loved singing “I just called to say I love you” over the phone. Tata would call Nani “my bride” till her dying breath and she greeted him with a kiss every time he walked in the door regardless if he was gone for the day, an hour, or just to walk the dog. On the day Mike is talking about, my Nani said to me on the phone that if I hadn’t been a cheerleader I wouldn’t like black men. I was so offended, first that she was so unapologetically racist, second that she missed the point. Mike was an amazing guy.
We were totally isolated from our families as a function of my parents’ utter disapproval of my choices and Casey’s conversation with her Grandmother as we set up our place in the St Andrews Apartments two blocks from Wilshire Blvd, close to downtown L.A. The apartment was a studio on the first floor of a renovated art deco building. It was tiny, but we made it our own.
We bought furniture together and matching dishes. Our couch was the kind found at IKEA that folds out to reveal a full size mattress that rests on the floor. The kitchenette was so small that both of us couldn’t fit in it at the same time. For the most part, the apartment felt like a small cave with no natural light. We spent as little time in the tiny apartment as possible, preferring the outdoors.
Sometimes we escaped the claustrophobic feelings by hanging out on the roof of the six-story building. One of our favorite pictures ever is taken on that rooftop. It is a crisp, clear winter day, a treasured rarity in L. A., and there is snow in the mountains in the background. Casey and I set up the camera to take the picture automatically since there was no one else around (believe it or not there was a time before selfies). She is seated on the ledge and holds me in her arms as I stand in front of her, both of us smiling. I am 20 in the picture. Casey is 23.
Other times I would leave work, pick Casey up from where she was working, and head out to Santa Monica Beach to watch the sunset. Our favorite place was lifeguard station #25, north of the Santa Monica Pier, but within walking distance. Many times we would sit on the steps of the life guard shack, in each other’s arms and talk about everything under the setting sun, important things like her parents’ divorce which weighed heavily on her mind.
We also talked about not so important things like, if we ended up together, what would our last name be? Casey seriously wanted me to take her surname, Lopez de Arriaga. She argued that she could trace her family name to northern Spain, a city named “Arriaga” where her family originated before leaving Europe to settle in Mexico. Furthermore, there is a family ring that carries a family crest. Her abuelos (grandparents on her fathers’ side), her tios (uncles and aunts) and her primos (cousins) that lived in Mexico City presented the rings to their children over generations. She was intent on some day having her own.
She made some compelling arguments for sure. I countered by acknowledging her need to keep her name. But, my father survived Southside Chicago. He was accepted to medical school, successfully completed the first year, was on the verge of finishing his second year but failed a class at the end of the second semester, had to retake his entire second year, and still managed to graduate from medical school with four children. (This was at a time when USC used a cohort model. That is, all the medical students took all their classes together at the same time and the rigorous schedule meant that certain classes were only taught once a year. Unfortunately for my father, he flunked a single class at the end of his second year. The only way to make up the class was to repeat the entire second year over again. He still maintains that if that had happened after the first year, he would have quit out right.) He also simultaneously put four children through private high school. Even at that time in my life I had the utmost respect for my father and his accomplishments. I would never, in a million years, consider, even for a second, not keeping my last name, Shaw. It was a good thing those discussions were purely hypothetical.
It was there at Pier 12, on a particularly beautiful evening as the sun set that Casey stood in my arms and I whispered into her ear, barely audible at all, “I love you.” Her first instinct was to argue the point, claiming I was too young to know what love was, but I held my ground. In a few minutes, she surrendered. I love you, too.
I knew I loved Mike months earlier. I remember the exact moment. We were walking to dinner at the corner of Olvera Street and Union Station in LA. The light turned red and a homeless woman carrying multiple bags and belongings got caught in the middle of the crosswalk. She panicked and dropped half her treasures. Before I could think, Mike ran into the middle of the street, picked up her things, escorted her by her arm across the street, and handed her money for dinner. She looked up at him like Superman had swooped in and saved her from an oncoming train. He treated that woman like a princess. It was clear by Mike’s quick response he would have done that whether I was present or not. Most people walking that evening likely never even saw her, most homeless people go ignored or overlooked by LA residents. But Mike saw people, a trait I would later adore in my son. I fell in love with Mike at the very moment he took the woman by the arm.
4:55 pm, March 12, 1991
I’m writing you now from over 37,000 feet, somewhere over southern Oregon. The weather in Oregon was very cloudy and gloomy. But now, we’ve risen above the clouds and are once again under a sunny sky. I decided I’d write you because the experience of rising above the clouds got me thinking. It reminded me of my life. When I was headed towards Oregon, I looked forward to spending a little time with AJ and Gene. But, when the plane took off it only intensified my desire to be back with you.
For me, the gloomy clouds that hang over Oregon are very symbolic. For me, Oregon elicits only gloomy regrets. On the other hand, when the plane rose over the clouds on its way home to you, the sun made me “see the light”, or should I say, remember my light. You, Casey, are my only happiness. Happiness is where you are, and only where you are.
The point of all this is the only thing this trip did was to reinforce how I feel about you. I love you with all my energy.
Yours forever, Mike
Two months later Casey was pregnant. Nothing will make a small apartment even smaller than an elephant in the room the size of an unplanned pregnancy. We struggled to decide how to proceed. It was never a question of whether we were keeping the baby; we knew we were. After all, as Casey argued, she was 23 years old, working, and old enough to take responsibility for her own actions. She was moving forward with, or without me. The first decision, the most important decision of all, was the easiest to make. We would do this together.
In situations like these, conflict is inevitable. It is one thing for two adults to decide to have a child. It is quite another for two adults who are not married to have a child out of wedlock. Add to that our current status with our parents regarding living together and our inadequate jobs and the equation became even more complicated. As if there weren’t enough variables to consider, neither of us had given up on our educational goals. The phrase “on the backburner” does not begin to describe our consideration of such things.
Neither one of us was in a hurry to tell our parents, but Casey was brave. I, on the other hand, was reluctant. It was easy to make our decision in the isolation of our little cave-like apartment. We were isolated, but not lepers. We saw family from time to time and this was not the sort of thing you could keep from parents. It didn’t help that this would be my parents’ first grandchild, and from their youngest son, not something to take lightly when the first grandchild is unplanned from the baby of the family.
Casey’s Journal entry dated: March 28, 1991
Last night Michael came home from work. He jumped into bed with me and he was seriously upset. I could feel his heart pounding a million miles per minute. He scared me. He told me that he told his friend at work about the baby and his friend told him it’s going to be very hard for us and that we should think about not having the baby. It really hurt Michael, obviously, because he left work early to come and talk to me about it.
I felt horrible and I didn’t know what to say. We talked about it and I wanted to make sure that having a baby was his idea as well as mine. But, as difficult as this situation is, I keep forgetting he’s just a baby himself. I know he’s scared of telling his father and to be honest, I’m scared for him too. I hope we’re doing the right thing. I wish I could make it easier for him.
The curious thing about pregnancy, though, is there is a definite schedule to keep in mind that drives the need to tell family members. Casey pushed the issue but I spent a significant amount of energy putting off the event, claiming that I was working on it, but hadn’t found the right time. That, too, was a source of conflict. Casey continued to push the communication issue; I continued to put it off in hopes that the “right moment” would magically reveal itself. Casey miscarried before the right moment ever came, and neither family ever knew.
There was a time that I thought I would never know more humiliation then when I was disqualified from Oregon. I was embarrassed by my actions in college and my inglorious return to L.A. But all that paled in comparison to the shame I felt about how I had hurt Casey. My hesitation in facing my parents was a coward’s move, and I, in my own mind, was no coward. I resigned myself to make it right, although I was not quite sure when or how.
“Whew, that was close!” That’s the feeling you’d think we had. We were so NOT relieved! Being young and stupid, the miscarriage had the opposite effect. It was strange; we had already made a commitment to be a family. Now we were left without the family part, but the commitment never changed.
We spent the next few weeks holed up in our shoebox of an apartment, only leaving to go to work and back. We talked through what had happened over and over again. We were in pain, but we found comfort in each other’s company and in each other’s arms. The occasion came when we were at home, in bed for the evening, lights turned down low, romantic candles lit, “If this world were mine”, by Luther Vandross and Cheryl Lynn, playing in the background.
If this world were mine, I would place at your feet,
all that I own. You’ve been so good to me.
If this world were mine,
I ‘d give you the flowers, the birds and the bees,
and with your love beside me, that would be all I need,
If this world were mine. I’d give you anything.
(To which Cheryl Lynn answers…)
If this world were mine, I would make you a king, with wealth untold, You could have anything,
if this world were mine.
I’d give you each day, so sunny and blue,
and if you wanted the moonlight, I’d give you that too.
If this world were mine.
Luther comes back with, “Oh baby, you’re my inspiration, and there’s no hesitation, when you want me, honey, just call me”. But, before Cheryl can respond with, “Oh baby, you are my consolation, and I feel so much sensation when I’m in your arms, when you squeeze me”, I am making my move, unprotected. Casey had the presence of mind to at least hesitate, she whispered in my ear, questioningly, “Are you sure you know what you are doing?” Without a single doubt in my mind, I whispered back, “I do.” Luther and Cheryl sang on,
Every sky will be blue, as long as you love me, Baby.
When I’m here in your arms, life is so wonderful, my love…
(They finish together)
The world would be yours. The world would be yours,
If you believe…