Monthly Archives: June 2014

Slow Dancing

Nothing in my life – even my oral Board exam – was as terrifying as the first time I slow danced with her.

I was not one of the cool and popular kids in high school (even though one of my best friends recently admitted she thought I was a “player”). I rarely got asked to a gathering at someone’s house. I was more likely to get a “Happy New Year” phone call at home while I drank hot Dr. Pepper and watched Johnny Carson. So, when the Eckstein brothers invited me over one summer evening, I gratefully accepted. And I knew she would be there; she usually was.

Parties were fairly simple affairs back then. We gathered on their lawn and played Frisbee or Jarts—lawn darts with heavy steel points that were banned after several accidental trephinations and deaths. A portable phonograph, relocated outside and plugged into a couple of extension cords, was loaded with 45s or an occasional LP. The parents supplied munchies and drinks and then disappeared into the house but ever mindful of our presence.

When the sun went down and the bowl of chips was down to crumbs, the music shifted from Top 40 rock to stuff meant for slow dancing. Songs like The Turtles’ You Showed Me, The Cryan’ Shames’ Up On the Roof/It Could Be We’re in Love, Tommy James and the Shondells’ Crimson and Clover, and, of course, Bread’s I Want To Make It With You, the fantasy of every horny teenaged boy.

But there was one song that will always remind me of her. Three ascending guitar notes then a drop to two chords:

You ask me if there’ll come a time
When I grow tired of you
Never my love

Suddenly, it was now or never. I screwed up every ounce of courage, walked over to her and, with a look that was both asking and pleading, held out my hand which, to my surprise, she took. No words passed between us.

She was a beauty. Shoulder length chestnut brown hair; deep brown eyes I could never hope to read, and skin as soft as…well, any comparison would be superfluous at that point. She wore a sleeveless white blouse, turquoise shorts and white tennis shoes. I wasn’t sure what I’d done to be rewarded this way, but I wasn’t about to argue.

Now, I didn’t know how to dance. My attempts to teach myself ended abruptly when my mother walked into my room while I was practicing the Twist—a dance that was already a decade out of date. I knew that my job was to slowly spin in a circle while not stepping on her feet until the music stopped. So I just put my arm gently around her back and prayed for the best.

I wasn’t sure how to hold her hand: up and out like our parents danced, or close in, by our shoulders. I wanted to pull her close enough to me to feel her breasts against my chest, but I was afraid of impaling her on the embarrassing erection that popped up the minute we touched. We gently swayed back and forth, around and around. I would never forget the warmth of her breath on my neck and the scent of her skin.

And then it was over.

I thought about kissing her softly, gently before we parted but I wasn’t about to press my luck. We went back to where we had been sitting, like boxers to their respective corners at the bell. I had no idea why she danced with me. I was too shy and insecure to even talk with her, let alone carry on an extended conversation about something other than “my life sucks.” But it didn’t really matter. I’d had a glimpse of heaven and that was enough.

Sometimes I’d have dreams at night, the two of us slowly dancing alone, feeling loved, hoping it would never end.

Never, my love.

Where the Heart Lives

I went to the wake for the mother of a high school friend on a butt-ugly, stinking hot September in 2011, back in a town I’d learned to hate decades earlier. I left with something more.

Susan and I weren’t close enough to be confidants, but she was close enough to be more than just a face I used to know, staring out at me from a yearbook page. We lived about a block from each other, rode the same bus to school and a group of us would hang out at her house on occasions. Sue’s mom, like the mothers of my other friends—Margee and Betsy—were kind, lovely women whose houses provided sanctuaries from my tumultuous existence. I went to honor her memory, not to fulfill any obligation.

Rosemary or “Rosie”, as we all knew her, died a few weeks after she’d began having difficulty breathing which progressed to gasping for every breath. The doctors diagnosed primary peritoneal cancer and started chemotherapy, but one morning she woke up unsteady on her feet. She fell into a coma a short time later; a CAT scan showed a massive stroke from which she’d never return. She was 81.

Rosie’s life had been well-lived. She married her husband in 1949 and they were together for 55 years, until he passed away in 2004. They raised five children who have all done their parents proud. Sue became a veterinarian, something she’d wanted to do since high school.

Rosie was a friendly woman with a smart sense of humor. A few of us had gathered at Sue’s house one evening during our high school years and the talk inevitably turned to sex and Vaseline. Without missing a beat, Rosie said, “After five kids, who needs Vaseline?” We were astounded someone’s mother would say something like that because it sure embarrassed us. (Years later I would discover the joys of annoying my own kids with “TMI.”)

There was already a line of people when I arrived at the funeral home. By the time I left it was out the door and down to the sidewalk. Rosie had many people in her life who loved her and would miss her dearly.

A collage of pictures from Rosie’s life stood on an easel in the corner, summarizing eight decades in a brief moment. The most poignant picture was one I’ll never forget: Rosie standing behind her oldest daughter, preparing for her wedding.

I talked briefly with Sue’s sister-in-law, Mary Jean, and Mary Jean’s mother; then I sat next to Margee. We chatted for a while and tried to identify people we knew from high school as they joined the line, but some of their names eluded us. They had all stayed in town and, as far as I could tell, they were happy with their lives.

I reflected on Rosie’s life and then on my own. I drove around town and took pictures of my past: the bowling alley and the hospital where I had worked; the school where I attended eighth grade and had my first girlfriend; the empty lot where our house once stood. I rode along the rural roads where I used to bike, remembering the relative peace of being alone and the chaos that waited at home.

Forty years have healed the wounds of adolescence. The ugly scars from then have faded into those of fine leather. I hated the place when I left and couldn’t get away fast enough. Years of living in the suburbs, however, has made me yearn for a small town in which to retire, the ultimate irony.   One person’s godforsaken acre is another’s paradise and, while I wouldn’t move back—there are far too many painful memories of my past life—I’m no longer inclined to disparage the places others call home.

We spend our lives looking for the place where we belong. Some find it early; some have to search for years or decades. Others never find it because home is more of a feeling within than a physical location.

I found my home when I stopped looking so hard.