By Joel M. Vance
She was slim and elegant, in a rust-colored knit dress. I mumbled and fumbled and imitated the vintage Mortimer Snerd. Her name was Marty Leist and she was a blind date, arranged by a friend.
She has been my wife for half a century and counting, but in the spring of 1956 she was a mystery package wrapped in a knit dress.
Her father was not around when I stopped to pick her up so I didn’t have to endure a paternal inquisition, feeling like a field mouse penned up with a red-tailed hawk. But her mother and I endured an awful minute or two making small talk, something that, in 1956, I was no better at than I would have been at explaining a massive military screwup to Gen. George Patton..
I’m sure Vangie, who would become a dubious mother-in-law, thought her daughter had, through a dreadful twist of fate, been linked for the evening with someone on work release from a school for the mentally challenged.
Marty drifted into their front room and I gulped because she shimmered. You’ve seen old black-and-white movies where they filmed the ingénue through a lens coated with Vaseline, giving the lady a hazy, shimmering glow? That’s the way Marty appeared to me. She seemed to float through the room, much as the vintage Glinda, the Good Witch of Oz.
Billie Burke, who played Glinda, had a distinctive voice and so did Marty. Marty’s voice was throaty, unlike that of so many girls of then and now who talk through their noses. I didn’t know right off if this was THE Girl of My Dreams, but she certainly was a waking moment of consequence.
I hadn’t seen or met her before the date. I went to Keytesville High School and she graduated from Macon High School. The only time the two schools had interacted was during a basketball game. Keytesville won. Marty was a cheerleader, but I hadn’t noticed her, concentrating instead on mind control over my coach so he would put me in the game.
He didn’t and the two teams went their separate ways.
Now it was four years later and Marty was a junior at the University of Missouri, majoring in education, and I was a senior, majoring in journalism. My parents had moved from Dalton, near Keytesville, to a log lodge just outside Macon after I graduated from high school.
I knew no one when I came home on weekends or during summer vacation. And I was entirely too shy to haunt Louie’s, which was the local soda fountain/hangout for my contemporaries. Louie’s featured a sliced pork sandwich called a Pig Hip which Marty fixes today, five decades later. Invariably it upsets my stomach–either an innocent physical reaction or a Freudian enteric.
Our house was across the road from the Macon Lake, a large reservoir holding both the town’s water supply and a bounty of bass and bluegills. So on weekends home I fished and fantasized about meeting the girl of my dreams. I didn’t know what that girl would look like or be like, but she had to be someone who could put up with my incredible gaucherie. I had a wealth of college knowledge, but my practical experience with life and love was at the day school level.
John Zollman was a college acquaintance who hailed from Macon. I complained that, being a recent émigré to Macon I didn’t know anyone and spent my weekends at home much as I spent them when I didn’t go home—alone and lonesome.
John got tired of my whining and said he knew a girl who maybe would go out with me since she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend or so he had heard. I slobbered on him like an eager puppy, begging him to set up a blind date for me. We could double date and I’d even provide the car (praying that my father would agree).
John returned from a weekend in Macon and said it was a done deal. I quizzed him about this girl he knew. “She’s really nice,” he said. That, of course, could mean anything from “She darns her own socks,” which was a chauvinistic euphemism of the times for a girl who was not attractive, to “She’s neat,” which did not mean she darned her own socks but that she was, in today’s lingo, a stone fox.
“She’s really nice” sounded encouraging, but not entirely reassuring. I wondered what John had told Marty about me: “I don’t think he darns his own socks.”
The timing was serendipity—Marty had been going with the same fellow for years. In that sense, I guess I was a rebound date. But then I was bouncing a bit myself from an infatuation with a girl from Oklahoma, whom I had met while at R.O.T.C. summer camp at Ft. Sill. She had recently sent me a letter announcing that while I was a really nice guy she didn’t love me and never would.
I didn’t really love her either I realized after a period of pouting. Rejection never is fun, even if it means the end of what was, at best, a casual relationship. And a long-range romance between a girl who didn’t love me and lived 600 miles away was doomed from the start. I could not woo her with my guitar and stock of sappy love ballads which, to that date, no girl had requested anyway.
Long-range romance seemed to be my specialty. I’d had a few dates with a cute girl before the end of my junior year, but she transferred to Southern Methodist University before the start of my senior year and that was the end of yet another short-term relationship. At least I knew my upcoming date with the Macon girl wouldn’t end with her being in some Southwestern state while I stayed in Missouri. Macon was 90 miles away, not 900. Although with no car home might as well have been 900 miles away most of the time.
I’d already written an unpublished novel or two, based on my vast knowledge of the human condition, and I fantasized that Martha Leist and I were like two strangers orphaned by a storm of love, adrift in a sea of uncertainty (and yes, that’s the goofy romanticism that I was prone to). We each were ready for new encounters (or I was—I couldn’t speak for her, at least until I’d met her).
So I buttoned my blue Sears and Roebuck oxford-cloth shirt with the button-down collars, tucked it into a pair of cords, pulled on a genuine imitation cashmere black v-neck sweater and slipped into blue suede shoes. They were shiny on the toes where the nap had worn smooth and I buffed ineffectually at them with a wire brush. I also buffed ineffectually at my crew cut which stuck up at odd angles, like a sheep sheared by a five-year-old. I was Joe College, home for a big date with a home town girl.
Who knew what the night would bring? In my mind was the hope that it would end in a thrash of passion, but the odds were against it. None of my other dates had. Still….
The culmination of most dates, at least in the mind of the boy, was to spend some time on a secluded country road “necking.” I’m not sure where that euphemism came from, since the neck was among the least important body parts involved, but that’s what we called it. “Kissy-face,” “swapping spit,” and “licky-face” were other unsavory descriptions of what usually was much kissing, accompanied by hand wrestling. It was a revelation to many boys, including me, that girls were far stronger than I thought they were. The tiniest slip of a maiden could arm wrestle a fairly hefty date to the mat if he tried to put his hands in unwanted places.
Double dating in the 1950s was a comparatively chaste affair. If you were the couple in the rear seat you had a certain measure of privacy, but in the front one of the couple was the driver which limited passion while the car was moving, and also there was the awareness that just behind you two people could see and hear everything you did.
Blessed was he who had a gearshift on the steering column because the floor shift was as large an impediment to lust as a chastity belt. A stalwart young lad’s aim was to inveigle his date to the back seat where, it was alleged, incredible events were possible. Of course if there already was a couple in the back seat that option was out.
Only once did I entice a girl into the back seat of the family Ford. She was a couple of years younger and I argued briefly with myself, the Good Angel snarling, “Cradle robber!” and the Bad Angel responding, “Shut up, you troublemaker!”
We parked on a gravel road somewhere north of Dalton, not far from her home, and I suggested a little drink. I had a half-pint of some really cheap whiskey, remembering Ogden Nash’s adage that “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” I took a little sip of the awful stuff, gagging slightly, my eyes watering, and offered the bottle to her.
She recoiled as if I were proffering a timber rattler and exclaimed, “No!” I thankfully put the bottle away since I would rather have swigged vinegar, and suggested we move to the back seat. To my utter amazement (and instant trepidation), she said, “Okay.”
Whatever the other advantages of a Ford, none was more apparent that night than its efficient heater. So wrapped up in my approach strategy was I that I didn’t realize the heater was spouting enough British Thermal Units to melt the polar ice cap. She was hot, all right, but not in the sexual sense. I think she just wanted to get away from the roaring furnace under the dashboard.
Since it was about 20 degrees outside we opted to clamber over the front seat back, as suave a maneuver as hawking up a loober during a religious moment of silence. She was wearing a prom dress that had about 75 yards of stiff crinoline under the long skirt so it rode up like sea foam on a tsunami.
There we were in the back seat and we looked at each other (I could barely see her over the tidal wave of crinoline), her at me with the apprehensive intensity of a jacklighted deer, me with a leer that was supposed to be reassuring, but probably came across as the rictus of someone with severe gastroenteritis. I slid closer to her, batting down the crinoline like someone fighting his way through a pickup load of cotton candy.
We kissed awkwardly and unsatisfyingly—both our lips were dry and it was like rubbing two sheets of sandpaper together. Enough foreplay I thought. Let’s go for the gold! I clawed at her bosom and she recoiled, batting my hand away. Moonlight lit her face enchantingly as she quavered, “Do you love me?”
She might as well have thrown a bucket of slops on me. Love? I barely knew her. My objectives were not the stuff of Milton, of Shakespeare’s sonnets, of Browning and Keats. More like Henry Miller, Anais Nin or maybe Mickey Spillane (the only one of the three I’d actually read).
“Well…er…ah…gosh!” I said articulately. “I mean I like you, but I have to be honest…I don’t love you…” Thinking about it these many years later I still wonder whether it would have made any difference had I told her I loved her beyond the stars, that we were destined to be one, etc.
But I told the truth and she said, “Take me home” and I did and that was our only date. On the way home I stopped and poured the whiskey out, shivering beside the idling Ford, while the winter stars glittered and the car radio played Patti Paige’s inane “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”
The bottom line was that I did have to be honest because in that instant when I could have crossed the line between truth and fiction I realized that this was a girl I’d known and liked for a long time and I couldn’t deceive her.
On that first double date, with John Zollman and his girl friend there was no possibility of a back seat encounter, nor did I want one. In fact I was intimidated by this regal girl with a throaty voice. We went to a movie, which neither of us remembers today, then to s roadhouses where the college crowd (and the local rednecks, male and female) gathered, charmingly called the Moonwinx.
It was a quintessential Missouri roadhouses, parking lot crammed with cars, someone vomiting in the bushes at the edge of the lights, Webb Pierce lamenting lost roadhouse love on the jukebox, smoke so thick you could sell it for cotton candy, the roar of conversation.
Marty’s warm hip was nestled next to mine and the knit dress was soaking up stale cigarette smoke like a sponge. Kids I didn’t know came by and talked with Marty, John and Pat while I crouched uncomfortably in my corner of the booth. I knew that everyone there was comparing me with her ex-boyfriend, probably unfavorably. Thus is born paranoia.
I don’t know who suggested we leave, but it was a welcome idea, especially to me—I wanted to get away from those inquiring eyes. We breathed deeply of the fresh air outside. I drove by the lake to the log lodge where my parents had lived until they recently had moved to a tiny house a dozen miles away. I made an inane joke about running out of gas right in my driveway as I drifted to a stop beside the silent, dark house.
“Nobody home,” I said. “Actually my folks don’t live here anymore.” I gestured to a small outbuilding. “That’s where I used to write stories,” I said. I described the inside as if it were a writer’s den, but the actuality it was more like a wolverine’s den. I fiddled nervously with the radio.
There were murmurs from the back seat, rustling sounds as John and his date melded, and I gulped and took a deep breath. Charles Boyer would not be acting like Gomer Pyle. I swallowed again, leaned toward Marty and kissed her without touching anything but her lips. I remember that kiss as if it were yesterday.
Her lips were as soft as a down comforter on Christmas Eve and I inhaled a scent that, like fine wine hinted at summer and mint and love. Had Marty asked me at that moment, “Do you love me?” I would have exclaimed, “Hell, yes!”
But there was more to come before that happened.
- March 14th, 2017
By Joel M. Vance