With Sandra’s support and the foundation created by this tightly knit family environment, I slowly began to emerge from the abyss of failure. The fall we began dating, I applied for and accepted a position to coach the frosh-soph boys’ basketball team at the high school across the street from Most Holy Trinity Church. I worked well with the student-athletes and the school administration further convincing myself that college and a career in education was my path to redemption.
The next year, in a sudden twist of fate, the head basketball coach at my alma mater resigned just weeks before the season began, so my return to college would have to wait because James Lick High School hired me to run its basketball program, which included a full-time job as an instructional aide. The values I learned at 48 Viewmont Avenue served me well as I worked hard to rebuild a program that had won only two games the year before. By the end of my second season, we had won half our games in the regular season and recorded a 12-2 record at the San Jose City College summer league, losing in the championship game to a county powerhouse.
That same summer, James Lick High School honored me with the school’s coach-of-the-year award and legendary San Jose City College basketball coach Percy Carr asked me to join his staff. Despite these successes, the hard facts continued to haunt me: I had failed at college, the coaching positions were part-time with no real conduit to a stable career, and the bright lights of success as a coach merely covered up the reality of my disappointments.
Although my relationship with Sandra was growing and getting stronger, I would regress into my self-loathing through an occasional weekend drinking binge with Rudy, thus setting back whatever gains I had made with Sandra in strengthening our bond. As much as I loved Sandra and as much as I desired to get back on track with my life, the dual demons of perceived success as a coach and actual failure in life continued to keep me from moving forward. As time went by, and as our bond grew stronger, the binges became less frequent and I began to fight the demons by working harder.
On Valentine’s Day in 1989, while still coaching at James Lick High School, I made the first decision I had ever made toward true adult responsibility. I decided to ask Sandra to get married. I called Kimberley that morning and asked her to meet me in front of Milen’s jewelry store as I wanted her advice on choosing a ring. I picked out a one-quarter karat marquis solitaire diamond engagement ring, placed it in the velvet box provided by the store, and went to coach that afternoon’s practice as usual.
After practice I called Sandra from the coach’s office and asked her if she want to get something to eat without telling her where we were going. When we rolled up to the drive-in service at Mark’s Hot Dogs, Sandra mentioned how she was surprised because we hadn’t been there since that first awkward date almost four years before. We ordered a couple of hotdogs “with everything on it,” chips, and two diet Coke’s, and when the server left the food on the tray that hung from the driver’s side window, I slipped the velvet box next to our order.
I first gave Sandra some napkins that she carefully spread on her lap and followed with the hotdog, chips, soda, and finally the velvet box all in one swift motion. She took a small bite of the dog, paused, and turned her head toward me with a puzzled look on her face, and asked, “What’s this?” I opened the box and asked her to marry me. To my relief, she smiled and her eyes welled up with tears of happiness and she said “yes.” Soon we were on our way to Santiago Avenue so I could formally and properly ask her parents for permission to marry their daughter.
The next year and a half was filled with work (I continued to work as an instructional aide at James Lick after I accepted the position of assistant basketball coach for the nationally-ranked San Jose City College team), my coaching responsibilities, and preparations for a wedding. In addition to organizing wedding plans, Sandra completed her studies at San Jose State and began working toward a teaching credential.
On November 17, 1990, our families and five hundred of our closest friends celebrated our traditional Mexican American wedding at Most Holy Trinity Church. Rudy was best man and Kimberley was maid of honor. When the double doors at the end of the main aisle of the church opened and I saw Sandra for the first time in her wedding gown, I immediately knew that I had made the best decision of my life. The reception was traditional as well with barbacoa (spicy Mexican shredded beef), rice, beans, and tortillas for dinner while mariachis and Mexican folkloric dancers entertained guests.
For our first dance as a married couple, at our request, a four-man Tex-Mex band, my favorite genre of Mexican music that includes an accordion, twelve-string bajo sexto guitar, bass guitar, and drums, played the standard ranchera song “Un Rinconcito en el Cielo” (A Little Corner of Heaven) made famous by Mexican musical legend Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos del Norte. Like everything in which Sandra organizes, the entire day and evening were the result of meticulous planning and execution.
We left San Jose the next morning for a three-day honeymoon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Lake Tahoe. The trip was brief so I could return for the rest of the City College basketball season. A new chapter had started for both of us; for Sandra it was the next step in her carefully thought-out life plan and for me it was a positive step toward my efforts to unravel the complicated life I had created for myself.