FIRST DANCE, FIRST KISS, SORT OF
Summer came and went and autumn arrived. That September, the Catholic Youth Organization sponsored a Harvest Moon Dance in the basement of the Assumption church and everybody who was anybody in my universe was going.
Around the block from us lived a cute little girl named Susie Barton, and I asked her if she wanted to go to the dance with me. “But not as a date,” I said, although I have no idea why I said that. To my surprise she said yes, but I was reluctant to be happy about it because at that point in my life every silver lining seemed to have a cloud.
On the big night, I showered, shaved the end of my chin—the only place where I was beginning to sprout a beard, a matter of grave concern to me—and laved myself in Old Spice cologne. I had at least four full bottles ofOld Spice stored away from Christmas gifts past. I didn’t know that Old Spice was a cologne and not an aftershave, and when I splashed it on my freshly shaven face, I felt as if my cheeks were on fire and I cried out, “Jesus God in Heaven!”
Cologne and fair-skinned people don’t work well together, and my cheeks and chin turned apple red. When I left the house I looked like a tomato in a tie and sports coat, albeit a well-dressed tomato.
Aside from the abnormal bright red glow on my face, I thought I looked spiffy and Mod—a short-lived ’60s fashion—in my then-stylish paisley-patterned vegetable motif tie that stood out brilliantly against my white Oxford-collared shirt, the only type of buttoned-down shirt I and most other Catholic school boys owned.
I topped that off with a double-breasted blue jacket that I thought made me look swinging-London-ish in a working-class American way, but actually probably made me look like a member of the Gambino crime family in training. Under my tan peg-leg pants was the pièce de résistance, a new pair of shiny oxblood penny loafers. I left the house hearing wolf calls from Denny.
A hardworking kid with a profitable paper route and a burgeoning weekend yard-maintenance business, I had a healthy pile of cash built up from shoveling snow and collecting returnable bottles. That day I bought Susie a dozen roses for twelve dollars, a staggering amount, I thought, and a box of Whitman’s Sampler chocolates, the middle-sized box. I was a romantic but also incredibly frugal.
I collected the roses and chocolates from under the trash can where I had hidden them, because if I had brought them into the house the ribbing from Denny would never have ended. It would have been the best thing that ever happened in his life.
At Susie’s house on Winter Street I rang the doorbell and her mother, father, younger brothers, sister, and dog came to answer it. They just stood there, smiling and staring at me, except for the little brother, who was embarrassed by it all and covered his eyes and giggled.
After a while, I said, “Hi.”
And they all said “Hi” back at one time and stared at me some more.
“Oh doesn’t he look so cute?” Mrs. Barton said, as though I weren’t there to hear it, and then, without warning, she took a flash photo of me, blinding me. Finally, the little brother called out, “Susie! That stupid guy is here for you!”
And I thought, “Oh, God, please kill me now.”
Her mother and father greeted me, and I mumbled “Hello.”
“You seem tense,” Susie’s father said.
“Yes, sir,” I answered, but I wasn’t tense, I was just being me. In the parlor Susie was standing by the fireplace, wearing a Mod polka-dot miniskirt, or what passed for a miniskirt in those days; tons of department-store-bought jewelry, and her hair was up in curls on one side, which I’m pretty sure was the fashion that year. She was slightly taller than I but wore new black shoes that didn’t seem to have any heels. She had that makeup stuff all over her face. She looked nice.
Her still-smiling parents and brothers and sisters were standing between us but the dog had moved. He was now standing in front of me with his head in my crotch. Susie smiled and said, “What happened to your face?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, and thought to myself, “God, I don’t ask you for much, but please kill me now.”
Her mother kept saying, “Oh, this is so precious.”
“Should we go?” I asked, and Susie draped a white homemade shawl over her shoulders and walked with me to the front door, her family walking in step less than six inches behind us. When I turned and shook her father’s hand, he lit up and beamed to his wife. “Look at that, honey; he shakes hands, isn’t that nice?” as if I was a dog who had learned to give paw.
“Oh, this is so precious,” the mother answered.
One of her brothers said, “You look like a dork,” and I thought, “God, why don’t you ever kill people like that? Simple bolt of lightning—”
When I stepped out into the cool October night, I sighed an enormous breath of relief and lifted my eyes to look at the stars that were shining brilliantly. Mrs. Barton released her last “Oh, this is so precious” as we walked off into that beautiful night.
Susie and I had what can best be described as a “clipped” conversation on the short walk to the school. She said something polite and then lowered her head and pulled her lips together tightly and I could tell she was thinking, “Oh what a stupid thing to say.” I knew because I was pretty much an expert at saying stupid things.
I had planned to display what the French call sang-froid, or urbane cool, but so far that wasn’t working out, so I gave up on it. That wasn’t me. Not then and not now. I was, and remain, a talkative, mostly happy and uncool kid with nervous tics, and all I was doing with that stupid cool thing was making a nice girl nervous.
I stopped in mid-step, looked myself up and down and said “John, you look fantastic!” and then I turned to her and said, “Well, that’s enough about what I think of me. What do you think of me?”
It broke the ice. She had a fine sense of humor and when she laughed, she pulled her head backwards and closed her eyes and then looked at me. It was pretty good. Relaxed and acting like teenagers again, we enjoyed the rest of the night. I wowed her with my breathtaking dance steps and mastery over the Watusi, the Hitchhiker, the Frug, the Monkey and a little step I invented in the privacy of the shower called the Limbo Twister, which, to my amazement, never really caught on.
When the dance ended, we walked home. By then the temperature had dropped to about forty degrees. The moon was out in full bloom and lit up the streets. We walked along in silence, both happy about a wonderful evening and sad that it was ending. She shivered and, without a word, I removed my sports coat and draped it over her shoulders. She looked at me and smiled and it surprised me, because I had been certain she would shove me away.
We kicked the leaves as we walked along and looking down, she said, “My feet are as big as boats,” although she seemed to be talking to herself more than to me. I didn’t know how to answer that so I looked up at the moon, but there was no script hidden there for me to read. My stupid lips went dry and stuck to my buck teeth and for a moment I looked like Humphrey Bogart. So I stared at her feet and said, “Yeah, I dunno, I guess.”
After another second had passed I added, “But you’re pretty, pretty,” and as soon as I said it I thought, “Pretty, pretty? John, you’re an idiot.” But she squeezed my hand and when I looked at her I saw her entire lovely face was aglow with a wonderful smile, the kind of smile you get when you have won something.
“Why do you rub your fingers together all the time?” she asked me, and I felt the breath leave my body and gasped for air. She had seen me do my crazy finger thing, my affliction. I clenched my teeth while I searched for a long, exaggerated lie to tell her about why I did what I did. I didn’t want to be the crazy kid with tics, I wanted to be James Bond 007, so slick ice avoided me.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I bite my nails, see?” and she showed me the backs of her hands. Her finger nails were painted a color I later learned was puce.
“My Dad, he blinks all the time, he doesn’t know why either,” she continued. She looked down her feet and said, “I shouldn’t have asked you that. I’m really nervous and I say stupid things when I’m nervous. I’m a girl and this is my first date, and for girls this really is a very big deal.”
I understood completely. I was so nervous I couldn’t feel my toes, so I started moving them up and down to make sure they were still there.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I don’t know why I do that with my fingers; it’s a thing I do.”
“Well, you’re really cute when you do it,” she said.
“I know,” I said, and I don’t know why I said it, but I did.
Near her home, there was an old abandoned carriage house on the Renahan estate and the wide driveway that led to it was lined by tall pine trees whose branches reached out across the drive and touched each other like old, dear friends.
We stopped walking and looked at her house, whose lights seemed to intrude on the calm night. Instinctively we clasped hands and walked down the drive and sat on the large marble doorstep of the carriage house. Thin slivers of moonbeams sparkled through the protective covering of the pines and we drank in the beauty of it all, she looking off into the nearby woods and me looking at her.
Without a word, I leaned forward to kiss her, at the exact moment that she turned to say something and her forehead crashed into my rather long nose. I recoiled, and she reached out to touch me at the exact moment I leaned forward again and her fingernail went in my eye. When I brought my hand up protectively my finger got caught in her loop earring and I thought, “You know, God, I really don’t deserve this.”
The moment passed. Her ear was bleeding slightly, I had a welt on my nose and water was pouring out of my left eye When we got to her house, we talked about the dance for a second and then a curtain moved. The porch light went on.
“Goodnight, and thank you,” she said. I nodded and smiled and said, “Yeah, and God thank you.” I walked away a few feet, turned, and said, “That was supposed to be ‘Yeah and goodnight and thank you’.” And then I prayed for death, yelling at God from inside my head, “What? You can’t spare a bolt of lightning?”
Then she touched my hand and laughed and I relaxed and she whispered, “Come here.” I came forward a few feet and she kissed me and turned and ran slowly into the house wearing my sports coat. When I walked home the dark the cold was gone and all I felt was warmth and happiness. And I said to God, “You know there, God, sometimes life is pretty good and this is one of those times.”