Jay Gatsby and the Water Heater

“Would you help me move the water heater?”

Now there’s a line you don’t often hear. I had to ask him to repeat it twice. Such an incongruous thing to say to a stranger on a street corner. In Santa Barbara. Anywhere, for that matter. He wasn’t nuts. There really was a water heater in the intersection.

“Did it fall off your truck?”

“No, it isn’t mine. I’ve just been waiting for someone to help me carry it to the side of the road.”

It was the kind of meeting that takes place in romantic comedies. The cute guy walks up to the handsome leading man (in my movie it’s a man,) and asks a bizarre question. Which gets a laugh. They connect. Go on a date. Move in together. There is a montage of them putting their books on the shelves in the freshly painted study. Burning the turkey while cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Carrying a Christmas tree up the stairs to their fifth floor apartment.

A year later, after the predictable break up and inevitable getting back together (boy meets boy, loses boy, gets boy…) they spend New Year’s Eve reminiscing about how they met and fell in love because of a water heater.

“So what do you think?” My future husband was not bad looking. He wore glasses and a plaid cap. Dressed casually, in a way that suggested thrift shop hipster. Dimpled smile, with enough scruff on his face to defy the nine to five world of corporate greed. I imagined a rolled up copy of something by Dylan Thomas in his back pocket.


Hold on. I was not exactly dressed for manual labor, and it was pouring rain. I had on a shirt and tie beneath the brand new vee-neck sweater I got on sale at Macy’s. Dress slacks. My good shoes, which were already getting ruined. (The red umbrella I carried in one hand offered little cover.) With my hair slicked back 1920s style, I must have looked more than a little like Jay Gatsby. Hardly the most obvious person to ask for assistance in moving a large metal object out of the middle of the road.

“If we wait until the light changes, we can get to it safely.”

What was I supposed to do, say no? When this could be the guy I’m to spend my life with? He was the reason I came to Santa Barbara, after all. Why I got dressed up. Why I drove two hours from Los Angeles. I figured if all you ever do is what you’ve always done, then all you’ll ever get is what you’ve always gotten. So try something new. Take a drive. Visit someplace you’ve never been. Maybe have dinner in a nice restaurant. Maybe see a play. Maybe there he’ll be. Maybe here he is.


The light changed before we had a chance to say anything more. We stepped over a puddle, into the intersection. Since I was holding an umbrella, I walked to the end of the heater that had a pipe sticking out far enough to grab with a secure grip. Then I could lift with one hand, keeping the metal from brushing up against my slacks, which were showing signs of shrinkage in the rain. What good are dry clean only garments, really? Impractical. Even in Southern California, it does rain now and then. Get a little wet, and within minutes your socks can be seen between top of shoe and bottom of hem. Did he notice? Wait, was he even gay?

“This is going to be really heavy.” He was bending over to lift his end with both hands. Now I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t underestimated the weight of the thing, or overestimated my strength. Should I have put the umbrella aside and used both hands, too? We lifted the metal tank. It was heavy, but not unmanageable. Now that we had it up, where to put it?

“What about over there?” He nodded toward the corner where we had just been standing.

“Sure.” We made our way back, splashing through the same puddle we avoided the first time. Great. A lady in a passing car shouted her thanks to us. Our good deed had not gone unnoticed.

“Good thing I work out at the gym.” Was he telling me that he’s gay? Should I have taken it as a hint, saying I could tell he was in great shape? That definitely might lead to further conversation. We hadn’t exchanged names yet. Another starting point. It was beginning to look promising. This chance encounter was bound to lead to true love. How amazing that life works the way it does.

We set the water heater down on a patch of grass. Then stood to make a quick appraisal. It was not ideal, but under the circumstances, it would do just fine. I smiled and began to extend my hand to shake his.

“Okay. Well, thanks.” He waved a half hearted wave and walked away.

“Oh,” I let my offered handshake morph into a return wave, “No problem.”

He thrust his hands into his pockets and hurried down the sidewalk. Guess he had someplace to be. Out of the rain, for starters. Maybe he was straight. Or had a boyfriend. Whatever the case, he didn’t appear to be my soulmate, after all.

“Bye,” but it was lost in the downpour. I turned and headed back to my car. Better head on home. No point in getting any more wet, and the odds of stumbling serendipitously into the start of another romantic movie in the same night were not encouraging.


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