Some lanky high school freshman kid with a sea of pimples on his too-red face with that determined look in his eye of “One day I’m going to look like John Cusack” knocked on our front door to pick up my daughter, Kaitlyn, for her first real “date.”
I waved to his my-age dad sitting in his car waiting to take them to the freshman dance.
As I shook the kid’s hand and looked in his eyes, I spotted that first-date terror festering underneath his goofy, “it’s no big deal” grin.
We shook hands longer than he was comfortable with, and I gave him that look of, “I have no problem going back to prison again.”
And, out of nowhere, it was as though that kid and I heard the theme from Gone with the Wind as we turned around to stare at my daughter waltzing down the staircase — looking absolutely stunning.
As she smiled heading towards that petrified kid — the memory of my first date was dancing in my head…
It was my freshman year in high school. Kathy Duranty. God, I was in love with Kathy Duranty. Stunning. Long black hair. A great rack for a freshman. And beautiful teeth under that wire scaffolding in her mouth.
It was the freshman class homecoming dance. The first real “date” in my life.
Now don’t get me wrong. I was experienced. Hell, the first time I kissed a girl was in second grade. Gail Harkensee. What a babe. Had a Minnesota accent. I liked that in my women. She had on this cute, knee-length black skirt. She was my father’s friend’s kid. They were over visiting, and I just stared at her all day – and all through dinner. I didn’t talk to here. I really wasn’t interested in talking to her. I just wanted to dream about her.
When their family was heading out the door that night, I asked Gail to follow me. I walked her in our first floor bathroom – as her parents watched us and waited by the front door. It was a tiny bathroom barely big enough for a toilet and a sink, so we were practically standing on top of each other in there. Gail was looking at me like, “So what do you want?”
I was too nervous to kiss her, so I figured, why not. I’ll kiss her on the leg.
Somehow, in that moment, it all made perfect sense. Worked for me. Worked for her, too, I think. She gave me that look like, “Thanks, man.”
I got off the story. I was talking about Kathy Duranty and my first “date.”
Asking Kathy Duranty out was no walk in the park. It was an autumn Monday night; less than two weeks before our high school’s Homecoming Dance. If I didn’t ask her that night, I knew she’d get snatched up by some other freshman bastard.
I swear to God, I came home after school, went upstairs, and spent the next two hours pacing in front of our second-floor hallway rotary phone thinking about every possible scenario of how she was going to reject me on that eventual call.
I knew she’d say no. That was a for-granted. I figured it was like original sin; I deserved to get no for an answer. I had to call her up, take it like a man, and be done with it. Come hell or high water, I was calling that girl that night.
I didn’t care that she was better than me in every way a human being could be better than you. She was Athena. I was Spam.
It was almost six and about time for our brisket of beef family dinner. We had brisket of beef every night. Except Fridays, of course. That was fish sticks night.
I looked at the clock in the bathroom and decided I’m pulling the trigger. I’m walking to that phone, I’m dialing that number.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Then the most horrible thing happened. Kathy answered the phone. It was all happening too fast; it was surreal.
I said, “Kathy?” She said, “Yes.” And then the impossible happened. My mother, out of absolutely nowhere, comes roaring up the staircase with her new Hoover carpet cleaner. It sounded like a helicopter was rising up the stairs.
I screamed in the phone, “It’s Jimmy Dunne.”
“Who?” “Jimmy Dunne.”
“Do you want to go to the Homecoming Dance with me?”
“Jimmy Dunne. From school. Next to your locker.”
I couldn’t tell what she said with the 747 landing in my other ear.
“Did you say, “Okay,” or, “No way?”
“I said, ‘Okay.’”
I never thought that she might say that. I didn’t elaborate on how much fun I thought we’d have, or where we could go to dinner, or who else I heard was going.
I just hung up.
I didn’t even confirm I heard her. I just hung up the damn phone because I didn’t know what to say after she said, “Okay.”
To punish myself, I walked down those stairs and slugged down four times my normal allotment of fatty brisket of beef.
Cut to the next morning. I got on my school bus, got dumped off at school, and walked up to my locker. With her name being Duranty and mine being Dunne, her locker was literally right next to mine. She was standing there taking her books out and smiled at me like I was her knight or something.
I didn’t know what to say to her. What am I gonna say, “Hey, me and you at the dance in a week and a half!” So I decided to do the next best thing. I pretended she wasn’t there. I didn’t say anything.
She was all confused. In the moment, I could live with that.
Since that was my approach the first day, I figured I’d be consistent. I did that every day. So I never talked to her. Never even looked over at her. She must have thought I was Norman Bates.
A week and a half of locker torture went by, and it was suddenly Friday; the night of the Homecoming Dance. Like every morning, I walked up to our lockers. But this morning she was standing there crying her eyes out. I thought maybe somebody slugged her. I said, “What’s the matter, Kathy? Did some girl hit you?” Balling, she said, “No. The most horrible thing happened. Somebody called me two weeks ago, and he said he was you, and he asked me to the dance.”
I didn’t know what to say. I said, “That was me.” She gave me a look like, “Oh, my God. I’m going to a dance with Barney.”
Being the sensitive guy I am, I said the only thing that seemed appropriate in that moment.
“So, are we going?”
“Yes, we’re going,” she half-yelled/half-cried at me.
So, dressed in my one-and-only flame-retardant too-bright-blue suit and tie, along with a boutonniere for Kathy that my mother picked up at Fay Flowers, I anxiously sat in the back of my father’s yellow Ford Thunderbird — as we crisscrossed through our town’s tree-lined suburban streets to Kathy’s house.
Everything went smoothly until picture-taking time in Kathy’s kitchen. With her parents clicking and flashing away and her younger brother, Chuck, snickering nearby, I was posing next to Kathy when I heard this moaning behind me coming from the kitchen closet.
I didn’t particularly faze me. In our house of seven kids and God only knows what animals of the month, you deal with shit like that.
But to Kathy, the moaning was like having a zit the size of a walnut on her nose. She snapped around waving her boutonniere in her hand — yelling at the closet door. “Get out. Just get out. He knows you’re in there.” I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.
With a meek smile, her very short grandma sheepishly meandered out — and introduced herself to me like it made perfect sense she was standing in the kitchen closet.
Off to the dance we went. The dance was a piece of cake. You just walked around the school gym dance floor in a big circle like it was a roller rink with all the other freshman lemmings. Up on the stage was a jazz combo of bellied, middle-aged musicians in grey-blue tuxes playing snappy tunes like “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round an Old Oak Tree.”
My dad picked Kathy and me up from the dance and dropped us at the next stage of our journey. The “Oakbrook”; an “adult” restaurant in the next town over. When I say “adult” restaurant, I mean that it was a dark, really dark restaurant where they serve steaks and vegetables on the side. Not the usual 29-cent Cock Robin Hamburgers fare I was accustomed to.
As we entered the swanky place, an instrumental, elevator version of “Sunny” seeped quietly over the speakers that were tucked behind the plants.
This is where things started to get ugly. See, I’ve got this little problem that I didn’t foresee when I chose “The Oakbrook.”
I’m night blind. I mean I’m really night blind. When I walk in a dark place, it takes me like an hour before I can see my own hands. I may have been sitting across from her in that restaurant, but she could have been a goat in that chair and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
Not helping the situation was our waiter. A college-aged guy with a thick, Argentine accent and long, greasy, curly, brown hair who thought he was Ilie Nastasi came up to our table, and made it perfectly clear to Kathy that his dick was longer and thicker than my leg.
Kathy and I settled into some nice “adult” conversation. I was feeling pretty good about how things were going, other than I was looking across the table into the abyss. While I was yapping – I just imagined her in her pretty off-white dress, large freshman breasts, and her semi high-heeled shoes with her pink-polished toes sticking out the front.
I ordered a New York steak. I sure as hell couldn’t read the menu, and I figured that had to be on there in a classy joint like this.
I have to back up for a second. Coming from a family of seven kids, you ate what was on your plate. In my family, you didn’t leave the table until you were a member of the “Clean Plate Club.” To this day, I still think there actually is a “Clean Plate Club,” and I, unfortunately, have earned “life-long member” status.
In our house growing up, if you had meat on your plate, you ate it. Fat/no fat, gristle/no gristle – it was going down the hatch. Or you weren’t getting up. To this day, I can’t watch “Fear Factor” without flashbacks of my brother Terry and I sitting there a half hour after everybody else left the table gnawing on some nasty-ass piece of rubber blubber imagining we were downing live 17-year locusts.
So, when Kathy and my dinners came, I cut my New York steak with my steak knife, and stuck a big honking piece of it in my mouth. Whoops. At least that’s what I thought it was when I cut it. It was a glob of fat the size of a ping pong ball. While I looked at Kathy with a smile on my face, in my mind I was chewing on an eye.
I had a plan. I nonchalantly put my napkin to my face like I was patting my cheeks, and spit the hunk of blubber in my napkin. As we continued to chat away, I positioned the napkin under our table and dumped the grizzly evidence on the carpet. Problem solved.
The plan would have worked perfectly, but it landed on her exposed toes.
Kathy pulled back from her chair. I asked her what was wrong. Trying to hold back her fear, she said something the size of a rat just ran over her right foot.
Next thing you know that Ilie Nastasi wanna-be had his greasy, mop-top head under our table looking for animals and probably her underwear.
He took his head out, flung the greasy hair out of his eyes, and dumped the ball of chewed fat on my plate. Looking straight at me, he smiled with his Argentine accent, “There’s your rat.”
Just to punish myself, I became a member of the “Clean Plate Club,” and gobbled down every piece of grizzle on my plate.
We walked out of the restaurant, and there was my smiling, Irish dad waiting for us in his Ford Thunderbird.
Even though my dad kept yacking it up all the way to Kathy’s house, I didn’t hear a word. All I was thinking about was her front door.
Her front door. The final frontier.
I was going to walk her to that door, and I was going to kiss her. It was going to be like no other joy I had experienced in my life.
In just a few moments my lips would be touching hers, my body would be pressed against her amazing chest… what more in life could a freshman possibly want.
I was just sitting in that car just imagining… And then, in the middle of that dream, my dad’s voice would sneak in, and, like a pitchfork in the back of my neck from a bad slasher movie, I’d imagine my dad stretching his head like an ostrich out the driver’s seat window seeing if his kid was scoring some putang at her front door.
When guys talk about the feeling of being in a plane 40,000 feet off the ground, ready to parachute out for the first time with absolutely no clue to life — if or where they’re landing – that’s how I felt.
That’s what I was dealing with in that back seat of that Thunderbird only blocks from her house — with Kathy, smelling like a bouquet of lilacs, smiling only inches away.
As my dad pulled up to the curb in front of her house, he said, “I’m in no hurry. Take your time.” That was short for, “I’m going to be laughing my ass off watching you try to make out with this girl.”
We walked, hand in hand, towards her brightly lit front door. I felt like the Cowardly Lion heading down the daunting hallway to deal with the Wizard of Oz. The front porch ahead of me looked like a lit-up stage; guaranteed to give my dad a good belly-laugh in the car.
Then a miracle happened. She took my hand and made a right turn. Around the house to her back door. My confidence shot through the roof; she clearly wanted some action.
As we walked along the side of her house, she literally had to pull my hand like
I was a blind person. I couldn’t see a foot in front of me.
I kind of tripped up the back stair, and, suddenly, there I was, standing there holding her hand – looking right at her. The moment of truth. Except I wasn’t looking at her; I may have well been looking in a black cave. I knew her face was there because she was holding both my hands. With every passing second, my hands were turning into water faucets.
Rather than just grab her and lay one on her, I stood there babbling just to stall. But I knew the door of the plane just opened – and it was time to jump.
I said something absolutely brilliant and romantic like, “Well, see ya later, alligator,” and leaned in to kiss her lips. Unfortunately, I missed her lips. I was kissing something, but it surely wasn’t her lips. It dawned on me I was gnawing on her right ear. Not being an expert on what lips taste or feel like, in that moment of truth, I thought maybe it was her lips. Rather than adjust, I just kind of made-out with her right ear.
And then I just left. No “goodbye.” No “I had a nice time.” I just left.
I don’t know what was worse. Falling on my face after I tripped over the garbage can on the side of her house, or dealing with my dad’s shit-eating grin at the car asking me how it went with a “thumbs up/thumbs down.”
Kindly, my dad didn’t say a word in the car. We just drove home in the silence.
And there I sat alone in that back seat, letting my mind drift. Seven or eight blocks later, I forgot about my humiliation, and was noticing her lilac scent on my clothes, and reminiscing that extraordinary moment of her wanting to lead me to her back door…
That’s a long story to the 5-second middle-age flashback that danced through my head as I watched my stunning daughter Kaitlyn and that lanky kid head out the front door to their dance. A piece of my childhood ended as he awkwardly opened the door for Kaitlyn to the back seat of his dad’s car on the curb.
And as they drove away, that kid looked back at me through the back window.
I politely waved as I thought to myself, “Good luck, schmuck.”