Nose flattened against the storm door, I peered down the street, eyes working hard in the twilight. At this hour, just how far off could you spot an approaching car? Three blocks, maybe. Just enough time to dash to the living room couch, plant a book on my lap and a crease on my forehead before the doorbell rang. It was 1960, my freshman year in high school. Two days earlier, I’d been asked to the first dance of the year – on the first (ever!!) date of my life. It was almost too good to be true. The asker was a tall, dark, handsome - and 17-year-old – senior. What made me, a 14 year-old-freshman, a worthy ask-ee?
Anticipation of the event brought on repeated waves of weak-kneed delirium, followed by spates of obsessive pre-enactment. I clutched the doorframe, rehearsing for the umpteenth time my picture-perfect entrance. Adolescent instinct told me to manacle my excitement; no one should know I was a social novice. "Oh!" I murmured in my head, practicing how I’d feign surprise when Mother answered the door. “--time for the dance already?!” Arising languidly, I’d take my escort’s arm, and waving in the direction of my parents, glide out the door.
"Boo!" said my father from the porch steps. I jumped. I had not seen him coming up the walk. He was home from work, and I was blocking the path to dinner. Holed up in my bedroom later, I rehashed my dating debut yet again. It had a lot going for it: besides his upper class status, my date, Bruce Jameson, had his own car. – and a mustache, which I considered very sophisticated. He went to Wantagh High, which my school, Seaford High, liked to pretend was its archrival. I tingled with intimations of Capulets and Montagues. The evening reeked with exotic cachet.
But what about my cachet? I wondered into the mirror. I had grown slimmer over the summer, and this year people had starting calling me "cute." But that was too vague. I looked at my nose: the “ski-jump” profile trendy at the time -- although a bit crooked at the tip and I could never figure out which side to aim at people. I didn't have any pimples right then, that was a plus. But there was that one-quarter-inch gap between my front teeth. When smiling, I always felt a need to shroud it with my lips.
Why had I spent second grade shoving nickels in my teeth? Couldn't my seven-year-old self have anticipated that one day she’d be offering up that same mouth for a kiss? And I did so yearn for a kiss. To me, in fact, a First Date would not be complete without a First Kiss.
Of course, it would not be, literally, my first kiss. I’d had zillions of kisses by then – but from my family. Dripping with feeling, not to mention saliva. Way up too close and personal; no dainty cheek-brushing for our clan.
To me, these family face-times had nothing to do with heart-stopping, whiz-you-off-your feet real kisses. No more sudsy hugs at kitchen sinks for me; I wanted embraces in the moonlight. A decade later, looking backward, my 14-year-old pining for a romantic clinch would seem quaint. But the Age of Aquarius had yet to dawn. And at that moment I was desperately hoping for an old-fashioned smooch, signifying that I'd arrived at the Big Time.
I was happy to make it to freshman year; junior high had been a mixed bag. When I’d memorized my way to the 7th grade science medal, my parents hailed it as the portent of a great future, but around a 12-year-old neck, it was only a boy-repellent. Looking for ways to dim my bookworm glow, I let my equally nerdy friend Martha talk me into the cheerleading tryouts. Atop a tall, hunched frame, Martha’s capacious mind was housed under a mousy head of hair just barely snared in a ponytail, and her protruding hazel eyes continually darted back and forth. In my diary, I cattily noted that she resembled a disoriented deer. As a pair, we were highly unlikely to rouse a crowd.
Cheerleading was actually her mother’s idea, who suggested we borrow a “never fail” leftover from her Penn State days.
“One-three-five-nine!” she demonstrated at the kitchen sink one afternoon, whipping around from a heap of onions to face us. “Who do we think is mighty fine?!” At the tryouts, sad to say, we were not “mighty fine.” Our cheers were closer to squawks, we failed at each somersault attempt, and once the boys hanging around heard our “one-three-five-nine” rhyme, their hooting easily outdid our voices. We were pretty much finished in junior high after that. Martha's parents transferred her to another school in the spring, leaving me alone to hope that by high school, most kids would have forgotten how we looked splayed on the mud in front of the stands.
So here it was almost a year later, and it seemed that in Bruce, I had a shot at a comeback. In truth I barely knew him; we had met at the church in Wantagh my family attended. From the heights of his senior-hood and the separation of the town boundary, he’d apparently not heard of my tryout humiliation. The occasion of our date would be the Seaford-Wantagh Dance after the annual football game between our two schools. Bruce told me he was the “manager” of the Wantagh Warriors, who routinely overran our Seaford Vikings. I nodded, but didn’t ask him what managing meant. It sounded good, and that was enough for me.
With my girlfriends, I pretended great familiarity with Bruce’s doings, and described him as “really neat.” In truth, he was good-looking, with red-brown hair in a popular flattop, its perfect horizontal plane and razor-sharp corners evidence of weekly mowing at the barber’s. The mustache atop his mouth was an upside-down miniature of his haircut, its bristles sheared at a 90-degree angle. And when his pearly whites grinned, his green eyes flashed. On top of everything, was his 1954 Chevrolet convertible, turquoise-and-white, with just a couple of tiny dents in one side, which you could hardly see. But my girlfriends were unimpressed.
“Why in the world would you want to go out with a guy from Wantagh,” asked Adele, slamming her locker door, “no matter how cool you think he is? Their school mascot wears that moldy headdress thing that’s always loosing feathers. Gross.”
“He’s really a lot older,” Adele went on, wriggling into her jacket. “Are you sure your mother and dad will even let you go out with him?”
“Yeah. And really think about your father,” added my other friend Meredith in a husky whisper, “You are an only daughter.” So what if he was a senior, I thought. I was in high school, too, wasn’t I? And this was my big chance. First dance + First date = social rehab!! My parents just had to let me go!
Besides, as I mulled it over, it seemed to me that one thing bothering my friends might actually sway Mother and Daddy. You see, we were actually living in Seaford by accident. My parents had thought they were signing papers for a home in Wantagh, but the boundary lines on the developer’s plans had been sketchy and I'd wound up attending school with Adele and Meredith instead of with Bruce. Both communities lay an hour east of New York along a Long Island commuter railroad line. Collectively founded as Jerusalem Hamlet in the 1600s, they later separated; Wantagh adopted the name of an Algonquin sachem and Seaford re-Christened itself for the birthplace of an English settler. In the 1950s, Seaford’s harbor was summarily emptied of water and filled with muck dredged from the bottom, on which beachfront now squatted rows of split-levels faced with pink or aqua vinyl siding. Wantagh’s houses, instead, had been birthed one-by-one in real clapboard or brick, not hatched in look-alike plastic-coated broods. Although Wantagh was also a bedroom community, it had better bedrooms.
We didn’t live in a vinyl split-level, but in a slightly tonier Cape Cod just across the border with Wantagh. Still, the boundary business always rankled my parents. “A lousy two hundred yards,” Daddy would say, glaring down the street. I told myself we practically lived in Wantagh, anyway. It was where we’d meant to move, where my father caught the train and where we went to church. We were, pretty much, Wantagh-wannabees. Bruce lived in a white Georgian colonial dating from the 1700s with original wide-board floors and brass lights, inside a picket-fenced yard with old crab apple trees. My mother said it reminded her of New Hampshire. She never said what the houses in Seaford reminded her of.
I put off asking about the dance until Friday night when my family went to Sal’s Pizzeria. I figured my parents might be more pliant in public -- and Sal’s, of course, was in Wantagh. “I don’t know, he is a senior,” said my mother, leaning back into the red vinyl booth. “Well, but he’s young for a senior – and I’m way more mature than my friends; you’re always saying that!” “He is? I am?” She sat up.
“Who cooked up this ridiculous ‘rivalry’ anyhow?” Daddy broke in. “You haven’t got half the team Wantagh has. Their coach has been building a program for ten years.” He veered back to the subject. “He’s how old?” “His car is really safe, Daddy!,” I breathed, answering my own question instead of his. “It’s just six years old, and he’s had the doors repainted--”
“You’ll be getting in his automobile?” my father barked, missing the hint of its repair. Mother writhed.
“Well, Connie,” she said, with a glance at me. “You know, Bruce’s family lives in that lovely old clapboard house up the street from church.” On Sunday morning I told Bruce I could go, and he flashed a toothpaste-ad grin. I smiled back, lips closing over my teeth. Mother caved in pretty fast about a dress. I could tell she was hurt that I didn’t ask her to help pick it out, but now that I was in high school I couldn’t be seen shopping with my mom, could I? So I rode the rickety bus line over to Abraham & Straus, returning with a shiny green striped dress that swooshed when I twirled in front of the mirror. On game day our guys were predictably humiliated on the Wantagh home field. By mid-afternoon, we had torn up their grass and they had run out the clock, enshrining a 49-6 tally on the scoreboard. I tramped across the border back to Seaford beneath a piercing azure sky, sucking in brisk air and leaf-pile smoke, day-dreaming about the evening ahead.
Once back in my bedroom, I began to feel frazzled; it was, after all, my very first date! None of us wore much makeup yet, so instead of mascara, I spent 45 minutes with an eyelash curler, and smeared my lips with Vaseline, which I thought would call less attention to my gapped teeth than lipstick. I went over dance steps in front of the mirror. The Lindy, the Cha-Cha, the Mashed Potatoes and the Peppermint Twist. I practiced rolling my eyes about our poor showing when meeting Bruce’s football friends. What else? Once more, I rehashed my opening gambit, reminding myself to bid my parents goodbye with a just a blowsy peck, instead of the usual effusive family kiss.
The kiss! A real kiss! The very capstone of this First Occasion! Although I’d mentally run through every other part of the evening, when it came to the big finish, I’d been assuming the tide of romance would carry me through. Now my feigned nonchalance disintegrated, drops of sweat forming a pond on my dressing table. When it came down to the clinch, did I really know how? If those family kisses weren’t the real, heart-stopping sort, how could they have prepared me for the real deal? I certainly couldn’t confess this terror to my skeptical girlfriends. What to do?? Then I saw the pile of old Seventeen and Teen magazines I’d piled on my desk over the summer. Could their how-to advice extend this far?
Shaking sand out of the Coppertone-smeared pages, I came upon a centerfold entitled, “. . . Guide to the Perfect First Kiss.” Yes!! How had I missed this?! I skipped over the bit about French kissing and the dark paths it might send me down. Right now I needed the basics. There were some backlit photos of one couple dancing, another, holding hands and one pair kissing -- but no diagrams. The article did advise that you “press gently,” but “not too gently.
Also to be avoided was “over-long lingering.” A section subtitled, “Tipping the Head” went into some detail about what message of submission a dropped head would convey. Breathe ahead of time – and softly, said the writer. “No snorting, a real turn-off!” The eyes – to close or no? Better close, the story said. “Nobody wants to be stared at during a clinch. Afterwards, open them slowly and dreamily.” Then there were recommendations regarding “Where.” On a first date, standing at the front door was probably the place. (Were Bruce to take me in his arms on the porch, however, I was sure my father would instantly appear to let out the dog.) In a car, then? The article opined that temptations of privacy in a car had pros and cons. Perhaps, the car would be okay, it said, if parked under a streetlight.
The topic of “Whether” to kiss at all on a first date had apparently been a real editorial football, perhaps accounting for its position on page 98 underneath the box ads for European enhanced-bras. First of all, the increasingly less-decisive text advised, “consider the customs in your town.” What?! Could the “customs” in Wantagh be different? (Did they play football by different rules? Maybe that was how we got creamed every year.)
Most important, declared the article, “are your expectations. And his.” Belatedly, I considered what Bruce would think if I let him kiss me. “Why are you kissing in the first place?” the text continued. “On a first date, does a kiss mean you’re ‘easy’? - or just affectionate?” There was a significant gap between us in terms of age and experience, which, I belatedly realized, dwarfed the one between my teeth. How was I supposed to know what he thought about kissing, or anything else for that matter? I’d languished hours choreographing this first date in my head, but still knew almost nothing about the boy who’d asked me for it.
After I’d spent so much time grappling with the magazine, Bruce pulled into the driveway before I could even get downstairs, so I had to settle for a startled “Hi,” when I got to the front hall. My mother and father were occupying the living room sofa, anyway. “Pat told us about the game, today,” said Daddy. “Your guys really mowed ’em down.” “Yeah, I guess.” Bruce shrugged.
Daddy and Bruce both cleared their throats. “So -- have -- fun,” Mother said brightly, rising. A promise to be home by 11, and we were out the door.
The darkened gym was filled with little round tables covered in Seaford High green-and-white. Crepe paper dangled in shreds from the beams. It looked as though somebody had gotten tired and hurled the rolls upward, leaving the mess for the custodian to fix later. And just in case the kids from Wantagh couldn’t remember our school colors, 109 green and white balloons were tied to the basketball backboards. I counted them when Bruce went for sodas. Every once in awhile one would fall down, somebody would pop it, and there would be a screech. A band from Wantagh High played off to one side, not too good but okay for dancing. I discovered that as manager, Bruce had little to do with the day’s victory other than keeping the team hydrated, but he nevertheless reveled in their win, and acted like a big buddy to the players. They kind of looked right through him, but he didn’t seem to notice.
We danced mostly slow dances and Cha-Chas; turned out he didn’t like the free-form stuff. I watched some of the glued-together couples on the floor, wondering how they managed to move, and also whether the girls would be tilting their heads later on. I glanced at Bruce’s lips a few times. Pretty tight and thin, from what I could tell beneath the mustache; mine were kind of big and soft. What if my mouth was too big for his? Someone stepped on a balloon. I stepped on Bruce’s foot. I froze, not having planned to be the stepper, but rather the gracious step-ee.
Came 10:30 and the yawning teachers flicked on the overhead lights and pulled the power cord on the band’s amplifier. The next thing I knew we were outside and heading for the turquoise fins glittering under a lamppost. In what seemed only seconds later, we were back in my driveway. Bruce shut off the engine.
Rigid, I looked out the windshield and waited. What would he do? Say good night? Get up to open the car door? Or -- turning in his seat, Bruce opted for kissing me goodnight -- or rather, for trying to kiss me. I twisted to face him, remembering that the magazine had advised something at this point, although now I could not retrieve it. (The recommendation was to breathe ahead of time. But I held mine.) His lips made their bid for affection. With admonitions to “press gently,” and cautions regarding “no over-long lingering” swirling behind my eyes, which I could not bring myself to close, instead fixing them wide-eyed upon him, I pursed my lips and more or less butted his mouth a few times. Despite my open eyes, I was utterly unprepared for the sensation of his mustache drilling into my face, not to mention the stray hairs poking up my nose. Oh, God! Were they encountering any snot? There had been nothing about upper lip hair in the magazine.
I became desperate for air. After several game attempts, he gave up. I gagged for breath. The streetlight on the corner was shining in my right eye, and the music on the car radio was now full of static. Leaning against the seat, he gazed at me. Looking back – really looking for the first time all night, even in the dim street light, I could see the puzzlement and hurt in his eyes. We stared at teach other the way the article had said never to stare at someone after kissing. But then, we had not been, really -- kissing.
He walked me to my front stoop. A quick “Good night,” and the ’54 Chevy was thrumming down the street.
Its blue and white fins never came back, even though I spent hours staring out the front door. Over the weeks,as autumn colors withered to winter gray, my nose still smudged the storm door glass most afternoons. Daddy took to inspecting it when he got home at night, asking Mother in loud stage whispers whether I was still “mooning over that boy.” Truth was, my mooning was more about how I’d behaved on my first date than about the guy who had not come back for a second one. I’d cast Bruce in a minor role in the romantic fantasy starring me. Desperately wanting my first kiss to be ideal, I had thought barely at all about the other lips involved. For his part, Bruce had begun sitting way up in the church balcony on Sundays, thwarting all attempts to catch his eye. There would be no second acts with his mouth.
I got over it, of course. Yet fifty-odd years later, sometimes I still wish I could sit in the car with the blue and white fins once more. This time, I’d close my eyes and think about Bruce, bristles and all -- without comparison to glamour shots and magazine advice. This time, I’d let my first kiss just happen, unrehearsed. And this time, my first date would be sealed with a real first kiss.
Pat Hitchens has written about relationships, health & politics -- as well as personal essays -- for print, broadcast and online audiences in a career spanning television, education, business consulting and public relations. - See more at: http://realizemagazine.com/content/imperfect-harmony-finding-happiness-s...