Carol and I have a long-standing response we give to anyone who asks how we’ve managed to stay together through 30-plus years of marriage: “No one else would be willing to put up with us.” While I’ve always thought Carol was a catch, and still do, I’m certain she’s right about me since that’s been the pattern ever since I first went on a “date”.
In third grade I had a crush on Ginger Gerton. When Valentine’s Day came around most kids’ moms bought those inexpensive packs of punch-out cards with cartoon figures on them — Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, maybe the Marvel Super Heroes. And while I had a fistful of those to pass out, I also had one I’d hand-made for my love Ginger. It was a cut-out heart with a pocket on the front of it, labeled “Sweets for the sweet” (I erased and penciled over where I’d initially printed “… for the sweat”), with a little hard candy tucked in the pocket. In our classroom there were folders underneath the blackboard with each student’s name, and into those we placed our cards for one another.
Well, something in my relationship with Ginger went horribly awry and we ended up having a lover’s spat on the playground after lunch on Our Special Day. After recess we came back and that’s when we were allowed to retrieve our valentines from the folders and read through them. Much to my surprise, I hadn’t gotten a card from my (formerly) beloved. I went over to her desk and asked if she’d gotten my artisan card. “Yes, but I threw it away!” she told me. I asked if she’d seen the candy in the pocket of hers and she said she hadn’t — “Good! ‘Cause you’re not ‘sweet’ at all!” It was a bitter break-up and I was so traumatized by the split that I forced my parents to move before the end of the school year to a new neighborhood so I didn’t have to see her every day in class.
[Now, you know I didn’t force my parents to move, but we did move during spring break that year. We moved frequently, for no other reason than my parents would get tired of whatever house we were living in and wanted something new. It wasn’t necessarily bigger, or better, or cheaper — it was just “different”. And we always moved during spring break, which was just the pits — there’s nothing worse than being the “new kid” in class, and it’s even more difficult when you are introduced to a hostile audience with just a handful of weeks left in the school year. The shunning that meets you as the newbie doesn’t have enough time to wear off before the year ends and you’re facing a summer without any real friends.]
In sixth grade I liked Karen Christensen and she seemed to like me. We sat next to each other a row apart and would often turn toward one another for chit-chat when we first came into class or if we had a break between subjects. Our standing joke was that we were a mixed couple — I was Jewish and she was “Christian”-sen. Even back in that day — late 60s — some kids went on “dates”, just the two of them to a movie or maybe bowling, but the only time Karen and I spent together outside of class was one Saturday afternoon at our school’s annual fair. My mom dropped me off and after walking around for a few minutes I spied Karen and ran over to her. She was also excited to see me and we spent the rest of that blissful afternoon strolling hand-in-hand past the various booths. I had enough change in my pocket for about a dollar’s worth of tickets, and I used two of them to buy Karen the enticing treat of a whole lemon pierced with a peppermint stick “straw” – you’d suck the lemon juice up through the candy and it tasted like lemonade, if your idea of lemonade was limited to “Country Time” powdered mix.
We came back to class the following Monday, with the school year winding down to a close later that week. We said we’d see each other over the summer and exchanged addresses and promised to write to each other “every day”. After school ended I spent most of that first day composing a long letter (nearly an entire notebook page, double-spaced), talking about my feelings for her, asking what she was doing, and suggesting we could figure out a time and place to have our moms drop us off so we could spend more glorious time together. I walked that letter to the mailbox at the end of our street and dropped it in, full of hope and giddy with anticipation. I wrote again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and… I never got any letters back from Karen. It made for a morose summer. That fall was the start of junior high school, and on that first day of seeing familiar faces after the break I didn’t see Karen’s anywhere – not in any classes, not in the hallways, not at assembly. None of my sixth grade compatriots had any idea what had happened to her — no one seemed to live in her neighborhood so she hadn’t been spied all summer. To this day I like to believe she spent the remainder of her pre-pubescent years with the love letters I sent her tucked under her pillow, quietly crying herself to sleep each night and pining for what could have been. Of course, when I say “pre-pubescent” I realize she probably blossomed into nearly-full womanhood that summer, while my voice still hadn’t cracked (I was one of the few male first sopranos in the chorus in seventh and the first half of eighth grades), and she’d likely tossed my pathetic little-boy missives in the trash while she went on real dates with sixteen-year-olds.
I finally got over my feelings for Karen and got involved in the junior high social scene. We all know that’s where it starts to get interesting — we begin to experience urges and longings for intimacies that we are still too immature to act upon in an informed and cogent manner. I admit to being a pretty straight-laced pre-teen (and largely teenager, as well) — didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t sass the teachers. Most of my friends were cut from the same cloth, at least so far as I knew. Junior high introduced the idea of school dances — you could go “stag” (for a quarter) or “drag” (double the price). Most kids went “stag” the first time or two and we were always shocked when two of our classmates came “drag” together. But eventually we all understood the advantage of “drag” attendance (oh, how naive we were… to come to a dance “drag” these days means something altogether different. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) and showed up with someone else in tow. I’m pretty certain the first time I asked a girl to go to one of these dances with me I still expected her to chip in her half of the fifty cents.
At some point I asked a girl named Tracey to go to an upcoming dance with me and she said yes. We spent a lovely evening together, holding hands and dancing and holding hands. I didn’t make any moves — and the chaperones quickly separated those couples who tried to suck face — but we got along well enough and continued to go out for most of the rest of that school year. Movies, skating, group and duo activities. At one point we met up with a gaggle of just-teens and spent the day on a sailboat at an event sponsored by a youth group I belonged to. We swam in the bay after the boat anchored and had a great day. When we got back to shore, everyone went inside to change into dry clothes. At some point Tracey and I found each other in an upstairs room by ourselves and… I kissed her. (This was after, like, six months of dating. Talk about a case of arrested development.) Once, twice, but when I moved in the third time Tracey backed off, looking alarmed and shaking her head no. I was confused but respected her wish and turned away, knocking a tray full of change off a table. Not with my hands.
The last dance of the school year was shortly after that incident and I when I smilingly asked Tracey, “Do ya’ wanna go to the dance?” I was stunned when she replied, “I don’t think so.” Confused, I didn’t ask for any further explanation. I went “stag” and saw Tracey there. I asked her if she wanted to dance with me and she declined. Now my heart was broken into 3.1416 pieces (we were taking Geometry that year). In today’s hyper-sexualized environment, it’s hard to believe that something as fundamental as a mere kiss could be construed as going “too far”, but there it was. Well, kiss + erection, so that might’ve had something to do with it.
High school was… high school. I had my first “serious” girlfriend, Gail, and we dated most of junior and senior years. We did NOT get drunk after prom or end up in a cheap motel, etc. We continued to see each other the summer before leaving for college and came to a mutual agreement (at her suggestion) that we were open to meeting new people at school. The tradition at our high school was for the seniors who had graduated the year before to come back for the Homecoming Dance in the fall. A fair number would attend — hair longer (boys) or shorter (girls), most with the faint smell of beer or cigarettes or… what was that other sweet odor clinging to their clothes? — and regale wide-eyed seniors with tales of collegiate debauchery. Love-lorn as always, I’d asked Gail if she’d be home that weekend and go to the dance with me — she said yes! I was ecstatic. It was the first time I’d seen her since late summer and I imagined we were going to pick up right where we left off. She looked stunning, as always. We had a great evening catching up with friends and each other. We left the dance and I indicated I wanted the evening to continue (I now had a clearer sense of what to do with that erection) but Gail declined and said she wanted to go home. She wrote me a letter a week or so later telling me that she was dating a guy at school and she hoped we could remain friends. I believe she offered that olive branch because she needed a ride home from school over Christmas break and I leapt at the chance to provide it. I made the three-hour drive to her school, waited several more hours for her to return from class, waited several more hours for her to pack up her shit, and then made the drive home. I helped her bring her belongings inside and said hello to her parents. Her mom asked if I wanted to stay for dinner, to which Gail replied, “No, John has to go home.” I didn’t… but of course I did.
College was a struggle for me on a variety of levels, but those academic and social adjustments are another story altogether. I ended up coming home for the second semester, enrolling in the local community college. Lots of kids, even some really smart ones, went there in order to save money while getting most of their required courses out of the way and transferring to other, better schools to pursue their majors. A buddy from high school named Randy, who was a year ahead of me, was there and had dated Karen, a classmate of mine, during our senior year. His tale of romantic woe was much like mine and Gail’s — Karen had gone off and was seeing other people while Randy still pined for her. One day Randy told me Karen was coming home for the weekend and had agreed to go out with him — but only if he found a date for her girlfriend from school who would be visiting. Well, there I was.
Randy picked up the girls that Saturday night and then swung by my house. I climbed in the backseat and met “Mary” (I’m putting her name in quotes because I really don’t remember it, for reasons you’ll soon learn). During the drive into town I chatted up Mary and was, I felt, at the top of my game. I joked with everyone and had them in stitches during the entire drive, my seat-mate included. We parked and headed into a local bar (drinking age was 18 then and I just barely qualified). The place was packed, with folks two- and three-deep at the bar as well as taking up nearly all the available space in the joint. Randy offered to get the first round and dove into the crowd. It took him nearly twenty minutes to come back gripping four beers, which we in our youthful ardor quaffed in about 30 seconds. I offered to go get the second round and Mary said she was going to find the ladies’ room. It took another twenty minutes before I came back with brews in hand, finding Randy and Karen but not Mary. Karen said Mary hadn’t returned from the ladies’ room while I was gone and she was worried and was going to look for her. Karen waded off into the crowd and didn’t return for a solid half-hour. She said she’d seen no sign of her friend. I said I’d work my way around to take a look, eating up another thirty minutes and still no sign of Mary. Randy went next, taking just as much time and with the same negative result. Karen said she’d try once again and was gone for what seemed even longer. When she came back she leaned over to Randy and spoke in his ear. They exchanged confidences for a few moments, then Karen turned to me and said, “Mary met some other guys and she said they would give her a ride home.” So much for turning on the charm. We packed it in and headed for home. On the drive back, Karen was so kind and spent the time chatting me up — how was school, was I working, who else had I seen, do you remember when…? It was very sweet of her. I found out later that Mary made it home in the wee hours, somewhat disheveled… and Karen told Randy that same night she just wanted to be friends.
I took a much more casual approach to dating for the remainder of my college and post-college years until I met Carol. There was one long-term relationship in there but no thoughts of marriage or deeper commitment, at least not from my perspective. Carol and I “met cute”, as they say in the movies (she was a lifeguard, I was a camp counselor, and we met at after she’d fished one of my charges out of the pool). While we had our fits and starts along the way, we quickly came to the conclusion that we were meant for each other. That brings us back to today, with all those years in and many more on the horizon.
But we were at Home Depot the other day and Carol said she had to find the ladies’ room… I held my breath until she came back.