The first girl I fell in love with was a horse.
Charlene Atkins, circa third grade, was a worshipper of anything equine, and, meeting me in the hallway, she’d rear and haughtily paw the air, whinny and snort, then gallop off—taking my heart with her.
Charlene and I attended a small, protective private school on the South Side of Chicago, and our class stayed together from kindergarten to graduation from high school (in 1957). Although my crush on her never faded, I did explore other options over the years. In seventh grade, for instance, my best friend Keith Hudson and I worked up the nerve to ask the Korman twins, Harriet and Louise, to a movie at the Picadilly Theater. I don’t remember who made the call—perhaps we asked them out in unison. Because it wasn’t clear what pairings-off we had in mind, the twins ended up seated to Keith’s right, I to his left. I bought two bags of popcorn, and they shared one, he and I the other, and the only hand I touched that afternoon was his.
Finally I reached high school—The Big Time. Renewing my pursuit of Charlene, I managed to get on her bid for the last dance at the ninth grade “Ebb Tide” Prom. As the tide rushed in and planted a kiss on the shore, I drew close enough to verify that she was a girl now and not a horse, and I pressed my advantage by going for cheek-to-cheek. Everything was magical until the perspiration begin to kick in, but I didn’t dare pull away and dry off lest it break the spell. I was in love!
Then: Charlene threw me over for Evan Latner, an aspiring actor. He got raves for his Stage Manager in a school production of Our Town, and at parties he’d do imitations of Andy Griffith—which she said just killed her—while I hung back wearing a twisted-sickly smile.
I caught sight of them in a parked car one night wrapped around each other, mouths pressed together, and my entire world caved in. I went home and cried my eyes out, like a girl. I could never go to school again. I wanted to commit suicide or join a monastery for big fat stupid slobs.
Only one thing kept me going: Debbi Gilson and I won the jitterbug contest at a Hag, Stag, or Drag social. Debbi, a sexpot, always wore tight sweaters and was said to pet, and I was known to want to pet—it seemed like the perfect fit…except Debbi didn’t think so. When there was a jitterbug contest, however, she’d come running up, grab my hand, lead me to the middle of the floor, and start shaking her beautiful butt like there was no tomorrow. That I was executing some fairly nimble moves myself was not exactly remarked on by those present, including her.
New possibilities opened up when I got my driver’s license and could use our blue Chevy for dates. I asked Nora Dickerson, a really nice girl, to a movie. Afterward I suggested we drive to a scenic spot overlooking Lake Michigan, where I was told you were virtually guaranteed a heavy make-out session. I found a dark place and turned the engine off. Suddenly it got very quiet. I placed a hand on Nora’s shoulder, casually—almost as if I weren’t actually there. She pulled away and said,“Why did you bring me here?” I replied “welI,” one of those words sure to defuse tense situations—and, reaching deep into my arsenal of techniques, tried to kiss her, another deft move. Nora made it clear she wanted to leave this instant, so I turned the engine on—and mine off—and home we went, conversation so strained there wasn’t any.
I moped for months, then asked Natalie Mander—who, though taller than I, had tumbly blond hair that begged to be tamed —to a movie, and as we left I accelerated the stick-shift Chevy fast to make a light, and wheels squealing we leapt forward into a smooth left turn. “Neat,” Natalie said, “How’d you do that?” I tried to duplicate the takeoff at the next light, having no idea what I’d done before, and the car lurched forward in two jolting spasms that jerked our heads back—then died. From there, the date went from worse to worse.
I earned a letter in soccer, which should have given me cachet, but no one ever came to games, much less any cheerleaders. Also, I sang lead in a barbershop quartet, and at parties we were sometimes asked—maybe by us—to perform an old favorite or two like “Never throw a lighted lamp at Mother/For you will never, never get another/A horseshoe is okay/It will bring good luck your way/But never throw a lighted lamp at Mother.” We were just warm-up for the hateful Evan, however, and girls generally don’t date quartets anyway.
Another problem: I desperately wanted to be Jewish. Most of us were very WASPY and square (and I was a choirboy, to boot), while, by contrast, the Jewish guys exchanged witty off-color quips, which I didn’t get, and went down to the basement to drink alcohol beverages at parties. (I later became a joke-writer—sold gags to Phyllis Diller and wrote for the Joan Rivers TV show—in part, because I wanted to be Jewish. Still do.)
To complicate things, it seemed there was almost nobody I didn’t fall in love with for a while including the church pastor’s daughter and his wife—which I knew I’d be severely rebuked for some day by The Divine Almighty. Anyway, the four years dragged on, and we finally had to face the most stressful event there could ever be in anyone’s life—The Senior Prom.
Voice shaking, I asked pretty-as-a-picture Tania Balinger, who dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer one day, and, astonishingly, she accepted. Prom night, I was doing okay until I saw Charlene and Evan kiss, which ripped my heart out, and I dipped Tania and then pulled her closer, causing her to make a burping sound—to show the world that we had a lot going on between us too.
We take a long narrative break and resume in 2007 for our 50th high school reunion. I had a great time, and what struck me most was that nobody had really changed. Oh, they were heavier or balder or shorter, but everybody’s personality was basically the same, and they were probably like that in fifth grade and in the crib—even the same social clusters formed after a while.
I was the only one who’d remained single. Charlene, divorced twice, has a son and two grandchildren and lives in Colorado. She’d loved high school and said I was considered “cute” by the girls. Not that anyone ever told me.
Evan, who couldn’t attend, had become a professor of communication and head of the theater department at a major university. Debbi the jitterbugger wasn’t there—drat—because I’d hoped to roll back the rugs and have her all to myself again. Natalie had transferred to another school her senior year, probably to get away from me and my deranged driving. Nora, the makeout evader, had died that year, and Tania, the aspiring dancer, was in a wheelchair, having been crippled in a ski accident some years before.
I sometimes see myself going to another reunion one day and finding I’m the only one still alive, giving me cause to whoop it up and wear a funny hat and do the rhumba by myself, for old times’ sake.
The perfect date.
Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in New York City, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings (theressomethingineedtotellyou.com).
He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others. We let him contribute to OLLI Connects, because we like to encourage new writers.