Stranger in a Strange Dating Land

I offered up my credit card number to an online dating service for a three-month subscription. I could have done six months at a better rate, but I didn’t think I’d need that long to find true love. I felt like a pioneer in the online dating movement.

I found a couple of (fairly) recent head shots and told myself as soon as I lost the first 20 of the 30 lbs I was definitely going to shed, I’d take some fabulous new ones of the rest of me. I wasn’t too worried about my pictures because it was clear most men my age didn’t know how to crop a photo to save their lives. Most of them still have half of their ex-wives’ heads right next to their faces. If they weren’t embarrassed, I didn’t sweat it.

So here’s what I said about myself:

Age and Gender: 49 year old female
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Looking For: Male for casual or serious relationship (Just saying “casual” made me sound slutty. Just saying “serious” made me sound desperate.)
Height: 5’ 10” (I would find out the hard way when men describe themselves as 5’ 10,” they mean 5’ 8”.)
Body Style: Average (The options were Thin/athletic, Average, or More to Love) If I was bending the truth, so were most of us over 40, so I just let peer pressure take over.)
Education: Graduate School
Marital Status: Divorced
Has Children: Yes, almost grown
Wants Children: No (But I will be amazed later to see how many men in their 50s write “Yes” or “Maybe” in this space. Shades of things to come for those of us with ovaries in their declining years.)
Drinking: Drink occasionally (The option of Drink Every Day made me sound like I’d be falling down or slurring my words too often. Occasionally made me sound like the type of woman who actually knew what one glass of wine at dinner felt like. I wanted to sound like that woman.)
Smoking: Don’t smoke
Dating Range: 30 miles

I’m infused with a weird sense of power as I type my answers in the boxes. I decide on 30 miles for my dating range as if the throngs of fascinating and passionate men who are 35 miles away are just out of luck. In the big text box, a section labeled More About Me, I wrote this.

I like to spend time with men who laugh and talk about real things (hint: not how big your boat is). I love to cook, drink wine, listen to and tell good stories, see live music and theatre, learn new things. I write and read a lot and enjoy being outside to do both. I’m pretty and engaging, can be somewhat sarcastic when the situation warrants it, but I have a good heart.

The online dating experts who guide you through the selling of your wares tell you a catchy headline can often save the day. So I put a lot of thought into this part. I call myself Windsome Writer, unaware of the misspelling, until a very sweet professor of physics from the University of Pennsylvania writes to tell me I’ve used the wrong word — he thinks I mean “winsome.” I thank him kindly and make the correction but can’t consider dating him because he is too far out of my 30-mile radius.

I clicked on the button Show My Profile to Everyone, which felt like setting sail for the new world. I didn’t have to wait long for my first dozen responses.

I am Delmond. I am 6 ft. divorced/white/male. I have brown hair, green eyes, and a short-cropped beard. I am a Computer Security Specialist for the Government. I am a non-smoker. I am a non-drinker. If you like to snuggle, please call me.
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You look exactly like my mother. She was a beauty.
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Hello beautiful,
See my photo and profile under the name WILDTHINGEXTRA. There’s a picture of me with my new 1100 Shadow motorcycle. I can also provide a Speedo photo. Tell me which one you prefer! I love SMILING and have a Steve Martin type personality with a Jim Carey smile. INTERESTED yet??? How about we meet at the inner harbor and have some nice conversation, then walk around holding hands looking into each other’s eyes. Got a big empty house with lots of rooms (my bedroom is an option) in case you want to visit and stay a while.
***
I am black Hispanic man from Panama, married, mature, and educated but will like to master the English language, if you will teach me English, I will teach you many thing. Please answer mando.
***
Hello There,
Taking a long shot. I am Sharon, a DWF, 49.
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saw you ad though I woyld resp[ond. im in my 60’s, have 2 kidds, 4 gran children like the outdoors live in baltimorearea. Can’t type to good if interested drop me a lone.
***
HiHo,
I am ugly and perhaps unpleasant. Sexually I am active thanks to Viagra. I love life but it doesn’t love me. After this splendid presentation you want to know me?
***
I have been a Chinese submissive husband for forty years. Retired from teaching and now on my second career. Not handsome but not ugly either by any standard. I have a big and kind heart. If you want to try me how submissive I am, write more about you.
***
Looking for hot, wet adventure! Slim a must, petite a plus! Up for it?
***
God, you are cute. How about dinner sometime? An opportunity to try to explain to you that which I still cannot explain to myself . . . how I came to scale Everest, the peculiar circumstances by which I came to adopt two thousand AIDS orphans in Africa, or the strange set of events that left me stranded on a desert of Central Afghanistan, dependent on the fickle whims of the nomads. Get back to me, will ya? Trevor
* * *

I cleaned out my inbox. I was strangely undeterred.

By the third week, things had still not taken a turn for the better, so I made a bold move. I changed my dating radius to 50 miles. And I left the safe confines of email relationships and began to go on dates. I’m looking for the right word to describe what happened next.

Maybe I need to check my thesaurus.

No luck.

Freshman Year in College. What could go wrong?

After I was all moved into my college dorm, my parents took me out to eat before they braved the five-hour trip back to Long Island. My father made a little speech that I thought contained too much advice I wouldn’t need. Then they got in their station wagon, and I waved to them from the sidewalk. I was on my own, a college freshman, negotiating through one of the most turbulent years in American history — 1968. What could go wrong?

Once all the college orientation exercises were over — after we’d been on campus a few days — classes started. I was afraid that might happen.

Let’s be clear. I wasn’t against learning. I simply had other priorities, and there were just so many hours in a day. I seemed to be driving young men crazy, a new phenomenon for me. The more I attracted attention, the better I got at it. It was almost mathematical. Or — to put it another way — I probably would have been picked first or second in Square Dancing if such a thing existed in college. Definitely in the top five.

Although Cortland was still steeped in traditions like fraternities and panty raids, the undercurrent of social change was undeniable. I first noticed it inside the classroom.  I’m sure my parents thought they could count on strict rules about attendance and grading in exchange for the tuition money they were shelling out. But the old rules weren’t resonating with younger teachers who were walking into class, their hands in their pockets and humming Dylan tunes.

One of them, a young man who taught English 101, would come in late and sit cross-legged on his desk and say, “So, what do you guys want to talk about today?” The answer was hardly ever subject-verb agreement.

Another started the semester like this: “I don’t believe in taking attendance.” Now this was a system I could work with.

Unfortunately, these same professors who seemed so cool still believed in midterms and finals. And in November, when that first exam loomed, I discovered it was much harder to absorb 250 pages of text in one sitting than I thought. I cracked the virginal binding of my Sociology book at 11 PM the night before my 9 AM exam. Within an hour, I was erupting in sobs.

My roommate, Randi, heard me — perhaps the reason I chose space in the hall, right outside our room. She padded out in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. She was taking the same course with the same professor but had chosen a different route early in the semester. At first her attention to detail had annoyed me.

After dinner, she’d say things like, “See you later. I’m going to the library.” Sometimes she actually used the word homework, and I’d want to shake some sense into her.

“Come on,” I’d think, as if she were a little sister who didn’t know any better. “We’re in college. There is no homework in college.”

This night made it Randi’s turn to talk. She sat down in one of the lounge chairs.

“I have outlines,” she said softly. They’ll help us. Don’t cry.”

And 47 years later I can see her fuzzy pink slippers.  And hear her say, “Okay, so let’s start with an independent variable…”

For Ron Kovic, on Memorial Day

“I don’t like this,” my mother said as she set the dinner table. “It’s getting to be a bad habit.”

The rest of my family out-voted her. So my brother placed the portable black and white TV on a snack table in the corner of the kitchen.

It was fall, 1967, and I was a senior in high school. Between bites of dinner and sips of milk, my family watched the news unfolding from Vietnam. As a student who thought history was her best subject, I was interested in the logistics of it all, the politics. My ability to watch young men being ripped apart on a 16-inch screen and then say things like, “Please pass the potatoes,” evidently didn’t bother me.

Then Ron Kovic got shot.

Ron Kovic grew up one block over and two blocks up from our house. He and his friends were a staple of my childhood. For one summer I worshiped his broad-shouldered body as he played ball every day in the neighborhood. He was — as were many others — the older boy who never looked my way. For three hot and humid months that year, I made up a reason to walk past his house ten times a day. I hoped for a “hello.” I never got a nod.

I’d lost track of him when he graduated from Massapequa High School in 1964. I had no idea he’d become a Marine. His little sister was at our bus stop on Broadway, but by the rules that governed bus stop protocol, I couldn’t talk to her because she was younger.

And then one afternoon in January, 1968, I saw his sister sobbing on the bus ride home from school, hunched over in her seat. Her friends crowded around her, and I heard one of them say, “Her brother got shot in Vietnam.”

Starting that day, I had two images of Ron Kovic that I couldn’t reconcile. In the first, he wore his letter sweater with the blue and gold M. He had a crew cut and was tan and smiling. In the second — only a few years beyond that — he lay in St. Albans Naval Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down.

 

Ron

In 1976, when Ron wrote about his life in Born on the Fourth of July, he graced the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He was renewed, strong in his anti-war convictions, still handsome. My brother bought a copy of the book for me and walked around the corner to the Kovic’s house and asked him to sign it.

“He was very pleasant,” my brother told me. “We talked for a long time. I asked him, but he said he doesn’t remember you.”

 

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When you’re the cool kid on the block, you don’t recall the skinny 13-year-old in the shadows, even if she is adoring your every move. And that wasn’t the big role Ron Kovic was going to play in my life anyway.

January, 1968, my family stopped watching the Vietnam War unfold on the TV screen at dinner. I no longer needed Walter Cronkite to shepherd me through the Tet Offensive or the DMZ. Ron Kovic — that beautiful boy from Toronto Avenue who did perfect handstands — took over the job.

If I questioned what war was, or what it did, my answer was close by now. Two blocks away. At the bus stop. Every morning when I looked into his sister’s eyes.

 

Yes, There Were Panty Raids

“I love being in charge of my own life!” I said these words aloud my first week as a college freshman. I’m so grateful the Internet didn’t exist, so I wasn’t able to carve that sentence into the memory of the Universe for all time.

The details of my newfound freedom? My parents paid all my bills and gave me spending money. The Residence Hall Director made sure I was in my room before curfew. The dining hall staff cooked my food and washed my dishes. Old women, who worked at $1.60 an hour, laundered my sheets and towels. But I was in charge of everything else.

It was fall of 1968, and on other campuses the unrest of that tumultuous year had captured students’ attention. The assassinations, the war, Nixon’s election. At Cortland, not yet.

At Cortland, social traditions that had been in place for 50 years were still holding on. You could count on those customs. Somehow, they promised life wasn’t about to take the severe bump you feared it might.

My favorite was the ritual of getting pinned. He brought his entire fraternity to her dorm, and they assembled as close to her window as they could. They chanted the girl’s name until someone in charge said it was okay for her to go outside. The boys dressed in jackets and ties for this, and serenaded the girl with songs like, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and other tunes left over from the Herbert Hoover administration. Wearing your boyfriend’s fraternity pin meant that everyone knew you belonged to him.

On Wednesday night of my first week at school, a loud group of boys congregated outside our dorm. I opened the window, and heard, “We want Sue! We want Sue!” I ran to the lounge to tell my roommate, Randi.

“Quick!” I yelled, “Some girl named Sue is getting pinned!” Randi was studying, but she obliged me. One week in, and she was on her way to Dean’s List. I had become an expert on a bygone ritual in its last gasp of life.

We looked down at the growing crowd. I noticed the boys were all in shorts and t-shirts, some in bare feet, not the jackets and ties I loved. And they weren’t singing in harmony.

Randi listened. “They’re not shouting ‘We want Sue.’ They’re shouting, ‘We want silk.’ It’s a panty raid.”

 

panty-raid

 

Soon dorm windows on every floor opened, and bras and panties of all sizes (all white) began floating down, like a weird nylon snowstorm. For the second time in days I was overwhelmed at how exciting college could be. First pinnings, now panties thrown out windows. I wondered what miracle Thursday would uncover.

I wanted to be part of the fun, but I suspected my mother had labeled all my underwear discretely somewhere with permanent marker. I couldn’t chance it.

When it was over, boys walked back to their dorms, some wearing bras on their heads as their rewards. They slapped each other on the back and twirled panties in the air.

I wondered what they did with all the underwear.

I had so much to learn. But I’d get there.

The Girl Formerly Known as “Brillo Head”

To understand how surprised I was on my first day of college,

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you needed to know me at 13.

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A lot went on in those five years between 8th grade and my first day as a college freshman. Maybe ours was the last generation to have suffered through so much awkwardness in one lifetime. These days, girls at 13 are adorable. Maybe it’s hormones in the meat or global warming. Whatever it is, I’m happy for them.

All I know is that it took me a long time to climb out of a space where neighborhood boys no longer saw me coming and began collaborating on what name they would shout out. By my 16th birthday, my public humiliation phase seemed to be waning.  I felt I had a future as someone’s girlfriend, but most of that was wishful thinking.

In summer 1967, my mother and I were doing college tours. We were on a country road in upstate New York. We had left one state school (Oneonta) and were on our way to the next (Cortland). The radio reception was pitiful, but I kept trying, my hand on the dial. All of a sudden, there was Jim Morrison singing, “You know that it would be untrue . . . you know that I would be a liar.”

This was a little racy for my mother, and I knew it. I thought of changing the station. But I figured her mind would be elsewhere and she’d be tuned out long before Jim wanted me to light his fire.

No such luck. She was listening, and the lyrics jolted her.

She attempted an impromptu talk, the kind where I tried to get the car seat to absorb my body and pretend this wasn’t happening. What she came up with surprised me though. It was much different than her lecture after the “Your Changing Body” movie in 6th grade. That talk had zeroed in on what was about to happen to parts of my body I hadn’t yet located.

This one was oddly vague.

Boys could certainly be a problem, she told me, but she didn’t think they would be a problem for me. My mother hadn’t yet noticed that I was no longer standing in the shadows at dances. She was still bracing for some mean boys to call me names connected to smelly zoo animals. Or — their perennial favorite — “Brillo Head.”

And even though my hair was now blonde and shiny, and no one had called me ugly for a long time, I wondered if she was right.

Freshman move-in day at Cortland State –September, 1968 — was sunny and warm, with no inkling that in six weeks it would be snowing. Football and soccer players were given the day off from practice to help freshman girls move in. They were a swarm of handsome, affable types, dressed in jackets and ties.

“Please, let me take that box for you!” His name was Jack. He was talking to my mother.

“Oh, that’s so sweet!” She giggled. Really. My mother giggled. We were getting on the elevator in Alger Hall when he told us he played soccer. By the time we got up to my floor, she was saying, “Oh, you’re a goalie!” There were several trips up and down, during which Jack never let my mother carry anything heavier than a bottle of shampoo.

When we were finished, my father pulled a dollar from his wallet. “Oh, no sir. Thanks, but not necessary!”

Then he turned his attention to me. “You should come to our first game on Saturday. It’s at two. I’ll look for you.”

My parents — off to the side and listening intently — beamed.

Jack shook my father’s hand. My parents looked over at me, as if to say, Well, isn’t he a fine young man. He would never do any of the things we didn’t think it necessary to tell you about because, well, we weren’t prepared for this particular moment.

Their little Brillo Head had finally made it. They weren’t worried. Not one bit.

6 Things I Learned from a 1950s Baby Book

Years ago my mother was visiting from Long Island. With fanfare she rarely called into action, she said, “I brought something for you.” She pulled my baby book — old and worn — out of a Walbaum’s supermarket bag. I could tell she had planned a little ceremony surrounding the hand-off. I tried not to show it, but I was not pleased.

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She was being practical. My mother was always practical. She said something about not wanting it to get lost, and then her voice trailed off a little. She was talking about a time when she and my father would no longer pull up in front of my house and stay the weekend. She was preparing for a future when we wouldn’t be able to gossip at my kitchen table over a glass of wine, or catch up on what my kids were up to.

I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted the book to stay on the shelf at her house, where it had always been. I didn’t want to be the grown-up in the family yet. That was her job.

But I took it from her that day. And now the baby book lives on my shelf, with the other three baby books I wrote in (the third one sparingly, my third-born would tell you, rolling her eyes). I don’t know when their books get shuffled off to their homes. Not yet.

I haven’t opened mine in a long time, but I did today. We had a new baby born into the family last week, and every time that happens, it seems like a good time to revisit it. And every time I do, I learn a few things I’d overlooked before.

 

1. My mother was a stickler for details. But on her first try, she got not only the day of my birth wrong, but the month, too. And her corrections are in a different color ink. Translation: I’ve never been this tired in my entire life. There must be a medical term for this level of exhaustion.

 

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2. In 1950, people were far less worried about babies swallowing beads. And the identification bracelet was tied to my wrist with a piece of twine. I can see this was not a foolproof system, but feel pretty confident I landed at the right house anyway.

 

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3. My parents thought I was the most beautiful baby ever born despite concrete evidence to the contrary.

 

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4. I came from an extended family of comedians. My Godmother wrote: “When Ed called this A.M. I was only half awake and forgot to ask who Little Linda looks like — Mama, Papa, or the Bendix fixer? . . . I hope she has Mama & Papa’s disposition — but please, God, let Linda look like the Bendix fixer!”

 

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5. I got off to an impressive athletic start, which was brief. I peaked at ten months.

 

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6. I learned early to write for all the right reasons.

 

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When I open the baby book, I study her quirky handwriting. I picture the exhausted young mother at 22, thinking she’d better write down what happened that day. Maybe even back then she was thinking that someday — far in the future — I could read it and know the little bits of my history that only she knew.

I wonder if she realized I’d hear her voice again, too. I’ll bet she did.

 

My Two Fathers

My father-in-law and I were always the early birds in the family. On one of their holiday visits to Buffalo, we’d had a big family celebration the night before. The kids were young and always excited to see their grandparents. I worked hard to get the house shining and cook meals  that didn’t rely on Hamburger Helper. Their visits were sort of a big deal.

He and I were sitting in the living room, drinking coffee and talking about the night before.

“You know what I loved most?” Bill asked.

I knew he pretty much loved everything, but I asked, “What?”

“No one got drunk. There was no shouting. No one got punched.”

I knew he wasn’t making a joke, and that was the sad part. My father-in-law came from a family that early on stopped thinking of holidays as a reason for civility. Bill’s father had died months before he was born. He grew up the youngest of five children of an immigrant mother who washed floors at the movie theater down the street in Brooklyn. Bleak would cover it.

Then when Bill was only ten, his mother died, too. He went to live with his much older sister and her husband. It was here that my father-in-law lowered his standards about holiday gatherings for all time.

My father was born in Sanford, Maine. He was three when his mother died. His father was unable to care for him and his sisters for reasons that went unsaid. They were sent to live with different sets of relatives. Though French Canadians in their mill town stuck together, sometimes it was hard to find the next placement for an energetic 3-year-old. He might stay a month. It might be a year. He said he was always loved, just never permanently.

My father and his mother, the year she died
My father and his mother, the year she died

My grandfather left Sanford (and his heartbreak, probably) and moved to New York City to find work. Years later, when my father was ten, he was sent to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to live with his father, a man he barely knew. Their first meeting was at a drug store soda fountain. My grandfather spoke to him in the only language my father knew.

“This will be the last time I will speak to you in French,” he said. “From now on, only English. You have to learn English here.” My father remembered the last sentence in French his father ever said to him: “Maintenant, terminer votre crème glacée.” (Now, finish your ice cream.)

My grandfather had found janitorial work. The two of them lived in shabby walk-ups or boarding houses and regularly moved ahead of the landlord the night before the rent was due. It was 1930. Times were impossible.

Happily, I can flash forward to the rest of their lives. The two men married women who believed in them. They fought in the Pacific during WWII and came home safely. They had children and bought homes in the suburbs. The jobs they landed were the ones they kept until retirement.

My father-in-law during WWII
My father-in-law during WWII

Bill and my father never found much to complain about. Despite the pain of their childhoods, neither one felt sorry for himself a day in his life, and I marvel at that.  Maybe they suffered in silence. Maybe it wasn’t manly to bring up childhood wounds, or they just couldn’t find a group with which to commiserate. Maybe they were too busy.

Father’s Day was never a big deal to either of them. My dad called it “one of those made-up holidays.” Bill had trouble keeping track of holidays that didn’t occur on the same day every year. Once I made my father a Father’s Day cake, and he looked a little embarrassed. When he got old, I’d send him flowers. He’d laugh on the phone and say, “You should save your money!”

When I think of them now, I picture them in the way they spent their days — putting one foot in front of the other. Laughing when things went their way and just getting on with it when they didn’t. Without role models or support groups, somehow they became tender fathers, men their children could count on. Firm but not judgy. Loving but not mushy. Imperfect but always present.

Happy Father’s Day to the good dads everywhere. And to mine. Both of them.

And After I Was “That” Kind of Girl

Brenda wasn’t big on why her 7-month marriage ended while That Guy (or Poor Guy, as we started calling him) was trudging through the Mekong Delta. She announced it in a matter-of-fact letter that focused more on the logistics of shipping her clothes back to Massapequa and whether she was going to take a bus or a train home.

My vicarious thrill was over.

Once she got settled into college, she made Dean’s List right away. It was a sign that she would whiz past Jill and me in this forum, too,  even though we had a head start. College meant the three of us found new friends, something we swore we’d never need.

Brenda and I lost touch for a while after graduation. Then, in our early 30s, there were phone calls once in a while. She had finished graduate school on the West Coast and had PhD after her name. I had Mrs. in front of mine. I was the mother of three, and had recently been named “Worst Housekeeper in Buffalo, New York” for the second straight year.

They were chatty, catching-up calls. She talked about academic journals. I had a few things to tell her about toilet training. Brenda said things like, “Ugh. . .  I don’t know how you do it.”

I don’t think she meant that my life had turned into a minor Greek tragedy or anything, but even if she did, I could hardly blame her. When you have three kids under age 5 and you live in a place where it snows in April, you’re doughy, dry-skinned, and weepy for a while. You don’t want to be. It just happens.

Sometimes I felt she was calling from Pluto. I knew nothing about the majesty of the Palouse or the energy burst Downward Facing Dog gave you. Until she mentioned them, I’d never heard of The Green Party, a bodega, or going vegan. What I did know — the best way to get a kid to eat carrots — I learned to keep to myself.

In her mid-30s — wanting to be one step ahead of her ovaries going south on her — Brenda intentionally got pregnant. She was parenting her daughter alone. She traveled — to Africa and the Far East — where she took teaching jobs. There were still men.

Communication dribbled down to Christmas cards, filled with recaps of our busy year.  Then maybe just a picture of our kids and an upbeat one-line greeting.

And then the cards stopped altogether.

Our mothers still lived in Massapequa, and they still ran into each other. I didn’t put up a fight when they conspired a little reunion in 1993 when Brenda and I would both be in town.

When the day of our reunion at my parents’ house arrived, I worked my mascara wand extra hard and fiddled with my hair. I practiced a few anecdotes I planned to dance out as if they’d just come to me. I could hear my family downstairs, even my brother who remembered Brenda and was curious to see how she’d turned out. I heard car doors closing outside.

“Here they come,” my brother called up the stairs.

“How does she look?”

“Ummm … well, you probably have time to do a few more sit ups.” I sucked it in as I came down the stairs. But I stopped when I relaxed in her hug.

We sat on the back deck and ate lunch.  She had stories that made us laugh and made my father lean forward so he wouldn’t miss a word. He asked her about what she ate in Algeria. She talked about trying to fit into Japanese culture. My favorite story was a homogenized version of her latest romance, with a real cowboy in Wyoming.

At the end of the afternoon, Brenda and I wandered slowly to the base of my parents’ driveway, just the two of us. Right here, we had parked our bikes as kids. Right here, as teenagers, we picked out our children’s names and planned to live in houses next door to each other. And though we hugged, we were speaking different dialects now. And we knew it.

 

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We said our goodbyes with promises to meet again. We never did.

Last year I was poking around online, and I found a book of poetry Brenda wrote. The cover is a black and white photograph of a naked woman’s back. She’s holding up her long hair and turning her face just slightly toward the camera. It’s her. It must have been taken when we were young and our backs were strong and powerful.

I stayed on the page a long time, just looking at her crazy brave profile and its sweet shadow.

Before I Was “That” Kind of Girl

When Oliver Hardy would turn to Stan Laurel, square his jaw and then give his tie a little twirl, you always knew what was coming. “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Exactly.

Our friend, Brenda, thought anything she could do, Jill and I could, too. This was almost always not true. Brenda had made JV cheerleading, and she was sure we could all make Varsity together. Her overflowing confidence sometimes coursed in my direction, and I would  temporarily lose my mind.

That’s how I ended up at Varsity tryouts. Cue Oliver Hardy.

We broke into small groups with an actual cheerleader directing us. I had expected a few hours of explanation, maybe a film about cheer leading, or some diagrams I could study before I actually had to do anything. She spent a minute introducing herself. (As if we didn’t know her name. She was a cheerleader!)

And then without warning she said, “Okay! Now line up and let me see your split jumps, one at a time.”

With nothing available to stave off the impending humiliation, I jumped.

She said, “Okay! Now you’ve just got to work on getting it in the air.” Her turn of phrase made me question if my feet had ever left the ground.

Jill and I didn’t go back for the second day of tryouts. We tried out for Chiefettes instead, a kick line that performed during halftime at football games. Chiefettes got to link arms with each other and keep one foot on the ground at all times, which worked out better for us.

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Brenda continued to conquer new frontiers. For one thing, she had boyfriends. Jill and I had dates — the sweet, unsullied kind where you went to the movies and then you ate French fries at the diner — the kind of dates our mothers went on.

One night after one of these, annoyed at the persistence of a boy I didn’t like all that well, I got to use the line, “I’m not that kind of girl!” I threw it out there indignantly, the way I’d heard it delivered on television.

The boy (embarrassed, I know now) walked me home in silence. As I was putting my key in the front door, he yelled out his parting shot from the sidewalk. “Oh yeah? Well, guess what? You’re a cold fish!”

Was I a cold fish? It was impossible to know where I was on the sexual continuum when I hadn’t yet had any experience of any kind. I’d read about “How to Fine Tune Your Relationship” in magazines like Glamour and Seventeen, but those articles were deliberately vague and sometimes alarming. I was petrified of being frigid, something that got a lot of ink. But — from all I’d picked up — it only afflicted married women so I figured I was off the hook.

In every picture I have of high school graduation, the three of us and our parents are all squinting into the sun. Brenda won awards, engraved charms she would put on a bracelet. I graduated #304 in our class of 616, my goal of slouching toward middle-of-the-road now complete. Our cakes had butter-cream icing. Our parents gave us the portable typewriters we would take to college.

typewriter

And then, two weeks later, our phone rang very late and woke me up. I heard my mother answer it and say, “Oh, dear! Oh no!” Then I heard her coming up the stairs to my room.

“Brenda’s mother is on the phone,” she said. Do you know where she is?”

I didn’t.

“They just found a note that says she’s gone away with that guy. To get married!”

That Guy was the name we had taken to calling Brenda’s latest boyfriend. We didn’t think he was going to be around long enough to bother with his real name.

That Guy was someone Brenda’s brother had brought home on leave from the army. Her family had been letting him sleep in their family room until he had to get back to his base and then leave for his second tour in Vietnam. It was supposed to be a week, but now it had been a month and he was still hanging around, lounging on the couch with his guitar all day.

We could see that Brenda was crazy about him, but we didn’t get it. He hadn’t gone to college. He was divorced. He was old (26). Three strikes. And his guitar playing was pretty weak.

Brenda had eloped, just like in the movies but without the whooping and happiness and the old jalopy sailing down the road, with the words The End superimposed on the screen. Two days later, the new Mr. and Mrs. That Guy got up their nerve and resurfaced back in Massapequa, to retrieve her clothes and be on their way to his base in Texas.

Jill and I were invited over to say goodbye. We walked in the front door just as Brenda’s father was begging them to get an annulment. But Brenda was 18 and there was nothing they could do about it. And she was in love, she told them. After the first wave of hysterics subsided, Brenda went into spin mode.

“We’ll have a church wedding as soon as he gets back from Vietnam,” she said. “Tell Father O’Connor we’ll be in touch.”

Brenda had mastered this skill in junior high school. She changed the topic just slightly, adding charming little details to warm up her mother, who was alternately weepy and angry.

“Oh Mom, the Justice of the Peace was so sweet. He sat with us afterwards and told us that he and his wife have been married for 55 years.”

Brenda’s mom said, “Did you at least have flowers?”

“Yes! Of course I did!”

* * *

 

So that fall, instead of her first-choice university, where she already had a room, a roommate, and a challenging freshman schedule waiting, Brenda and her husband drove to Fort Hood, Texas.

Jill and I, now freshmen in college, gave Brenda’s letters a big dose of parsing. I guess we’d spent all those years discussing the ins and outs of what married life would feel like, she figured she’d make good on the investment.

Their apartment on base: “Luckily it’s furnished, and it’s mostly Danish Modern!” Her dinner menus: “One thing I’ve learned cooking for a soldier. Buy plenty of meat!” The part we were most interested in: “I can’t tell you how much I love my late nights and early mornings with my husband.”

We analyzed every line. And we had so many questions we didn’t ask. Did she wear her hair rollers to bed? Did she close the bathroom door? Did they have sex with the lights on? Did she let him see her without makeup? Or did she wake up an hour before he did and put mascara and lipstick on in the dark? (I’d read “Tips to Keep Your Man,” recently and thought it resonated.)

As intrigued as we were by Brenda’s letters, Jill and I just dug in deeper to the way we’d always been. Our goals hadn’t changed much since 8th grade. Pristine, virginal weddings (in June, of course). A college degree. A teaching job. And a house where we’d sew gingham curtains and never think of cooking a meal unless it came straight out of our Betty Crocker cookbooks.

Apparently the news that we were coming of age in the late 1960s had been kept from us until this point.

But not for long.

 

[Up on Monday: A Reunion When I Least Expected It]