Since there’s not much else going on in life during isolation aside from lounge wear and calling into meetings, I figured I would start a new “series” (but you know how I am with these things; I’ll probably do two and forget about it) featuring items around my house, tchotchkes and souvenirs that have little stories behind them, etc etc blah blah blah.
To start out, let’s talk about this stuffed hippo that I have had since I was 16, and in every place I have lived, he has always been out and about on display.
Please say annyeong to Steve the Hippo!
But, let’s back up. Like, back waaaay up to the summer of 1995. I was a freshly-minted 16-year-old on one of those coach bus tours through Europe with my aunt Sharon. These tours were always the same: a bunch of retirees, maybe some middle-aged couples, and then me, the lone kid. Lots of continental breakfasts where the hot chocolate is ACTUALLY OVALTINE, and hectic tours of one cathedral after another. And Sharon and I were so hot and cold with each other and more often than not, we would bicker and then go half the day giving each other the cold shoulder. But this time, on this particular trip, there was a slew of young’uns in our group and I could not have been happier. I had other people to sit with, walk with, eat with, and Sharon HATED THAT.
This tour consisted of mostly elderly people, still, but we also had Nick (14), who was traveling with his grandma; Amanda (15), Natalie (13), and Noah (10), who came with their single mom; Andrea (19) and Sarah (22), on a girls trip with their mom; and Greg (14), Steve (20), and Amy (22) who were with their parents. This was my favorite trip ever. Normally, when we had travel days on the bus, I would sleep or read, or stare out the window sullenly after having another argument with Sharon (seriously, oil and water, but damn do I miss her and these wild adventures she took me on), but now, I had friends to sit with and let me know you – we were total jackasses.
Sharon ended up befriending Andrea (who reminded me so much of Alanis Morissette – I was enthralled by her) and Sarah’s mom, Mary. When we were cleaning out my grandparents’ house in 2016, I found a bunch of cards and letters from Mary in Sharon’s room; they apparently had kept in touch for quite some time after the trip ended and that made me simultaneously happy and sad, because Sharon didn’t really have friends “in real life” so it was nice to know that she had made a somewhat lasting connection with someone from the group, but it also made me sad because I started to wonder about Mary – is she well? How are Andrea and Sarah? I was inspired to look them up on Facebook when I was still on there, and I actually found someone who might have been Sarah, but I felt weird about sending a friend request, like “Hi, I was just over here in Pittsburgh cleaning out my deceased aunt’s bedroom and found letters from your mom and so I did a deep-dive on the Internet and you probably don’t remember me because we only knew each other for three weeks in 1995 but wanna be friends?”
I guess it’s not that weird, really, but I was so emotionally drained during that summer in 2016 that I let it go.
Right before that trip, I had gone to get my hair cut at some shitty salon in Century III Mall called Shear Talent or something and I even brought a picture of Carrie Brady from Days of Our Lives with me and told the bald hairdresser that this is what I wanted, but he listened to my mom instead and cut my hair IN REALLY SHORT LAYERS, literally the shortest my hair has ever been, and it was actually traumatizing (oh, don’t act like you have never thought your life was over because of a bad salon experience!!!) and I remember wailing, “I NEVER SHOULD HAVE TRUSTED A HAIR DRESSER WHO LOOKS LIKE MR CLEAN!!” So, I went into this trip with relatively low self esteem. I was ultra-conscious about my hair cut and basically just didn’t want anyone to look at me.
But then one day, Mary looked at me and said, “You know who you look like? Drew Barrymore.” And just like that, my confidence soared. All these years later, and I still remember this so vividly, this nice woman named Mary from Michigan telling me I looked like some cute actress instead of the total toad I saw every morning when I looked in the mirror. She was being very generous with her compliments, though.
I know, you’re thinking, “I thought this was about a stuffed hippo?” We’re getting to that! I just get derailed sometimes.
Out of all the young people in our group, Steve was the one with whom I had the best rapport. At first, it started with just little sarcastic jabs here and there, but then I found myself looking for excuses to talk to him. I have always been super big into souvenirs. On one of our trips, I was obsessed with obtaining a collectors spoon (????) from each country, and I’m currently a serious magnet hoarder. But on this trip, it was all about key chains. And European key chains, at least in the 90s, were really hard to open. So I’d buy a key chain in every city and then sidle up to Steve and ask him to do it for me. Even if I could do it for myself.
I mean, I definitely have not outgrown this at ALL.
I totally had a crush on him—and even admitted it at one point in my vacation journal so you know it’s real—which probably definitely was not reciprocated by him because he was in college and I was some chubby, brace-faced 16-year-old from lame-ass Pittsburgh but our hyper-snarky love/hate banter always gave me that super minuscule inkling of hope that maybe THIS WAS LOVE.
In a truly passive-aggressive declaration of love, I bought a this small stuffed hippo at an Auto Grille in Italy, on a travel day from Venice to Florence. Back on the bus, we were trying to decide on a name for him, and I smugly said, “I think I’ll name him Steve.” And everyone laughed because you know, wow, Erin is insulting Steve, she must really NOT LIKE HIM AT ALL. (I was so fucking transparent.) All of the kids on the bus were obsessed with Steve the Hippo, for some reason. He became kind of a mascot and everyone would take turns holding him during the long bus rides.
Near the end of the vacation, we were on the bus, going to the overnight ferry that would take us to Greece. Natalie asked Steve, “If you were stuck on an elevator, who would you want to be stuck with?” and without even a millisecond of hesitation, Steve said, “Erin, because I’d like to get to know her better.”
My heart. My goddamn coal-chunk of a heart. I still get a little jolt in it when I remember this moment.
I mean, he also said I was the meanest person on the bus but that’s just because my flirting tactics are borderline-bullying.
Of course, we never kept in touch. And every once in a while, I would get inspired to Google him but always came up empty.
All of these years later, Steve the Hippo is still out and about, and oddly is one of the most precious and sentimental (and cheapest) souvenirs I ever brought back from one of those trips. I was inspired to write this because a couple months ago, I was leaving the bedroom and said goodbye to Steve the Hippo, who lives on my dresser, and Henry was like, “?” so I yelled, “DO YOU NOT KNOW THE STEVE THE HIPPO ORIGIN STORY?!” Needless to say, he was subjected to a much more winded and gushy version than you just read here.
While reading my vacation journal to get details for this post, I said, “Steve threw Steve the Hippo at me so I hit him. Oh look, Steve and I arm-wrestled!”
“Of course you did,” Henry mumbled.
Every time I look at Steve the Hippo, I think about how one time, years ago, someone chose me in the hypothetical elevator game. As I age and lose more and more of my personality, become more introverted and wallflower-y, and am having a particularly low self-esteem day, this memory gives me a boost.
Steve is the first guy there on the left.
On the last day of our vacation, we were on the bus en route to the airport and Steve was holding the hippo. “You’re going to go home and rip all the stuffing out of this thing, aren’t you?” he said to me. I joked that I was going to give it to my dog, but man, if he only knew!
(I wonder if he even remembers me?)