The flight from Harare to Gaborone was just over an hour. After landing, an ancient man drove my mother and me from the airport to a posh hotel called the Gaborone Sun. (It has since been renamed.) I got my own room, my mother got hers, and the University of Botswana, my mother's new employer, paid for both because the city was in the middle of a housing crisis.
In the morning, I would order an English breakfast (tomatoes raw) and watch Good Morning South Africa on the TV—or as they called it, Goeie More Suid Afrika. Then I would read the newspaper and maybe a little fiction or poetry before taking a shower. After I exited the bathroom wrapped in a thick, fresh towel, I'd walk to the window and look at the late-morning light and traffic. The year was 1988.
The hotel had several movies available to watch on a loop. The best of the films turned out to be Oxford Blues. The second-best was The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. The rest were forgettable. Because the movie loop did not change during my entire stay at the Gaborone Sun, I watched Oxford Blues, which stars Rob Lowe, at least 200 times. Or, I definitely watched parts of Oxford Blues 200 times. There was enough in this film to keep me interested for a whole year. I gave up trying to understand The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th, and so only watched that one about 25 times.
Oxford Blues opens with a man slowly and lovingly going through newspaper clippings. Each contains a picture of and story about a beautiful woman. The man looking at these clippings turns out to be the man rowing on a sun-bright lake in the following scene. This is Rob Lowe playing Nick Di Angelo, a cocksure all-American male. These are the images I immediately flashed on when I learned that Lowe is coming to Seattle on May 5 to perform a one-man autobiographical show at the Moore Theatre.
Right after the opening credits, it's revealed that Lowe's character is obsessed with a British upper-crust socialite, Lady Victoria Wingate. Lowe is in love not with a person, but an image. When he learns Lady Victoria is to attend Oxford, he hires a geek to hack the school's computer and place him near the top of its admission list. And it works! He gets in. But he can't afford the tuition. Where's he going to get $7,000? He is just a regular guy with a gorgeous butt.
Then, while working as a valet at a Las Vegas casino, a well-to-do cougar hits on him hard. She fucks him, hears his sad story, and gives him $1,000. It's not enough to get him to Oxford, but he could try his luck in the casino. He does just that and wins big—$14,600. The cougar thanks him for the sex, clasps his perfect butt, gives him a last kiss, and slips the keys to her ex-husband's sports car into his pocket. This is in the first 10 minutes of the film. I saw it over and over and over and over, in my room at the Gaborone Sun.
At night, I would have dinner with my mother at the hotel's Mongolian grill. We fell in love with this method of cooking. You collect your raw meat and veggies. The cook then tosses them onto a huge black pan. After stirring and turning the food for a few minutes, he puts it into a bowl and you're good to go. My mother and I came to conclude that this was the most healthy and civilized way to prepare a meal. The hotel also had a casino, but we were not interested in gambling. It had a small nightclub as well, but it was a bit sorry at night. Old rich men would bring their very young mistresses there and get ugly drunk.
I bonded with my mother during this time in the Sun. To our mutual surprise, both of us changed dramatically the minute we left Harare, Zimbabwe. She became more of a friend than a mother because, in the hotel's tense-free atmosphere, I could finally see this other woman. Her name was Tracy. She was an attractive university lecturer with a biting sense of humor.
Tracy was very easygoing now that she didn't have to deal with a country whose economy was collapsing and a husband (my father) who, to avoid thinking about his job, which concerned the country's ever-mounting economic problems, now spent his evenings in the house's bar drinking and ruminating on the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the writer, pastor, and spy. Bonhoeffer died in a Nazi concentration camp at the same age as the Civil Rights giant Martin Luther King Jr., 39, a fact that had deep significance for my father. What did that number—39—mean? This was on my father's mind as he drank Johnny Walker in his bar alone.
In the morning, the light of the big sun would fill my room. After lunch, I might treat myself to the stunning spectacle of British Airways flight attendants sunbathing by the poolside, their skin devouring the light with a vampire's rapaciousness. But then, upon returning to my room, I would return to the world of Oxford Blues.
I would watch Lowe crash his red car on a small Oxford street, Lowe drinking with a friend at a pub called The Bear, Lowe trying to read a book, Lowe always thinking about Lady Victoria, Lowe entering a class on the history of architecture, Lowe bothering Lady Victoria again, Lowe rowing fast to impress Lady Victoria, and Lowe getting drunk and passing out in the mens' shower.
Lowe basically plays an asshole American who needs to learn a big lesson about life. He goes to Oxford with only one goal: to conquer Lady Victoria Wingate. When he finally finds her, and is alone in a room with her, he gives her one of the creepiest shoulder rubs in the history of cinema. He rubs her flesh like it's just meat. Indeed, I have seen cooks rub a streak with greater affection. I always tried to miss this scene because it was so disturbing.
In another scene, Lady Victoria refuses to kiss Lowe, explaining that she is in a relationship. But that does not stop the young American. He keeps hitting on her and hitting on her until, one night, she relents and they fuck. But the next day, Lady Victoria informs Lowe that that fuck was it. She's sticking with her aristocratic boyfriend, Colin Gilchrist Fisher (a young, dashing, and snobbish Julian Sands). He is a man who turns out to have more "character" than Lowe. And this is the lesson that Lowe learns at Oxford. He is an empty American, an American who is all hat and no cow.
One of the many reasons I loved watching Oxford Blues in that hotel room was it formed the triangle of my life. I had lived in the US as a boy, and so I identified with Lowe's all-American brashness, but my education at the high school level had been very British, though it happened in Zimbabwe. Indeed, the school that Lowe attends at Oxford, Oriel, is connected with the high school I attended in Harare, Oriel Boys' High School. And then there was me in an African hotel room watching, afternoon after afternoon, night after night.
My mother started getting worried. I was turning 19 and had no plans for the future. It was clear that I could spend the rest of my life in this moment, this posh hotel, eating Mongolian every night, watching the British flight attendants sunbathe, and seeing again and again Rob Lowe face up to the fact that the film's wholesome American girl, Rona (Ally Sheedy in her stardom prime), was going to be his wife. That fact was established in the film's first 15 minutes.
I also loved Oxford Blues' ending, where Lowe looks at himself in a mirror and just loves himself, loves what all the ladies see—his shape and moves. I'm still in that room watching Lowe shake his butt.