A TIMID BEGINNING....TIMES TWO
A first date......fifty years later. Make that two first dates ……four very mature souls......each of them taking their own relational chance….wanting to know each other better.
So why the distressing silence? Was anyone willing to step beyond their mutual timidity toward the conversational possibilities?
It was Monday morning. Elly had just dropped Tricia off at the airport shuttle for her return home. Coming in from the garage, Elly was hanging up her sweater in the utility room when she heard the phone ringing. Setting her purse on the kitchen counter she picked up the receiver and was a bit aggravated, though not surprised, to hear Tom’s voice.
“Hello there,” he said---sounding much happier than she felt at that moment. “I was calling to see if you’d given any more thought to a Friday night at the club. The invitation is still open.”
“Tom, I’ve told you before. I’m not ready for that. Not yet.” Could he hear the determined firmness in her voice? “I really do plan to take in a Friday social sometime. In fact, I gave Esther my initiation fee the other day, to join the club. So I’m sure I’ll be seeing you there. But not this week.”
“How about next week then? On the twenty-second. That’s our Hawaiian Luau night. It’s always a good time. Draws a big crowd. You’d have a chance to meet almost everyone.”
Elly paused for a deep breath, debating whether it was time for him to hear the reason for her evasiveness. He was certain to find out sometime. Why not now? ”Tom.” she said. “I have other plans for the twenty-second. I can’t be at the club that night.”
For a few seconds she heard only his loud breathing, until Tom cleared his throat to ask, “Was that Clint Harris I saw you with the other afternoon at the hospital?”
“You know perfectly well it was.”
“But why? What was he doing with you?”
“Tom. He’s a friend. We’re on the Hospital Foundation Board together. We like to visit sometimes.”
“I don’t understand. What could you two have to talk about? He’s not at all like you---like us.”
Her anger was bubbling to the surface. Was there any way to get through to him? “There is nothing for you to understand, Tom. Clint’s a friend, a good friend. We find lots of things to talk about.”
“Will you be with him on the twenty-second?” There was a harder edge to his words. “Is that why you can’t be at the club that night? Is Clint Harris that good a friend?”
“Yes Tom. That’s where I’ll be that night, with Clint.”
“My God, Elly.” She pulled the receiver from her ear to escape his empathic shouting. “Just listen to what you are saying? That’s Clint Harris you’re talking about. He’s a nobody. He’s always been nobody.”
Tom was screaming, clearly unwilling to hear what she had to say. A moment later he paused to catch his breath. Putting the phone back to his ear he heard only the steady drone of the dial tone in his ear.
He hung up and redialed Elly’s number. The line was busy. Setting the phone aside he shuffled to the den. From the shelf next to his recliner he took the cut-glass Cutty Sark bottle and poured himself a full, straight glass of golden scotch.
On Friday the twenty-second, at four-thirty in the afternoon, Gary pulled his Chevy into the driveway in front of Barbara Hopkin’s Lawrence home. Predictably he was running ahead of schedule, unwilling to miss a single minute of his special night with Claudia Hafner.
As was his way their double date, more than fifty years after their last extended evening together, had been carefully planned---cast in a detailed schedule, complete with precise timelines. If they left Claudia’s by four forty-five they would be in Tanner to pick up Clint and Elly at six. Their restaurant reservations in Portland were for seven o’clock, allowing ample time to make the eight-fifty movie at the Arts Theater. Uttering a silent prayer that all the pieces would come together as planned, Gary started for the front porch.
Once again the energetic Terrier announced his approach, this time from its station on the back of the living-room couch inside the front window. When he rang the door bell Barbara answered and ushered him into the living room.
“I think she’ll be right out,” Barbara said, with a subtle hint of doubt in her voice. “She’s been so nervous. Hasn’t relaxed all day. There was one moment, right after lunch, when I was afraid she might call you and back out.”
“I wouldn’t have let her do that.” That insight, however, had him remembering earlier concerns. Was he pressuring Claudia into something she would rather not do? What kind of night would it be if she spent the whole time wishing she was somewhere else, or with someone else?
Strolling the length of the living room he paused for a moment in front of the Hafner family photo display, then turned back as Claudia emerged from the hallway. Her coordinated sweater and skirt outfit, in shades of brown, suited her. Gary, of course, had no way of knowing about the hours mother and daughter had spent debating the virtues of her wardrobe choices.
Their intermittent dialogue had lasted most of the afternoon, centered on a string of incessant questions that Claudia had not asked herself in a very long time. Was this color okay? Did that outfit hide the extra pounds, or accentuate them? Was she trying to dress too young? Finally, was her ‘date’ with Gary worth all that fuss?
Half an hour earlier, in an outfit assembled from her closet and Barbara’s, Claudia stood before her mirror one last time to declare, “I can only be who I am. My legs aren’t for showing off. There’s no way to hide all this weight. He’ll just have to take me as I am.”
Studying the mirrored image once more, she asked herself again why he would want to be with an old woman like her?
“My, you do look nice,” Gary exclaimed as she stepped into the living room. He buttoned his jacket and straightened the collar of his sport shirt. “I think we’re ready to make an impression on the big city.”
“I meant to tell you before,” Claudia said. “I made plans to spend the night with Sarah. You know, my cousin in Tanner. That way we won’t have to drive all the way back here tonight. Is that okay?”
“Of course. I just hope cousin Sarah isn’t expecting you too early. I plan to make a night of it.”
”She said she’d leave the front door open. To tell you the truth, she was kind of surprised that I wanted to stay there after a date.”
Claudia was chuckling to herself, recalling Sarah’s joking disbelief. “A date? With a man? Claudia Hafner, what in the world are you up to?”
“I’m hoping Sarah is willing to get used to such things,” Gary said, glancing over at Barbara, who was obviously enjoying their unlikely exchange. “I know that some people have a hard time accepting us older folks for what we are---very mature kids. But no matter what they think, I happen to think we’re old enough to be doing whatever feels right.”
He turned his grin to Claudia. “You may think we’re not acting our age. Actually, I hope we’re not. Thing is, my mind has always been younger than my body. That’s especially true right now. So when the two of them don’t agree, I usually go with what my mind tells me.”
From the sidelines Claudia was finally ready to offer her own scolding input. “Gary Harris, will you stop talking like that. I don’t want my daughter to think I’m going off with a complete looney. Besides, my mind’s not as young and silly as yours. Thank goodness for that.”
There was no need for further debate about the age of their respective minds. Gary had made his point and was ready to move on. “It’s okay, Barbara. You can laugh if you want. That doesn’t hurt my feelings a bit. I just want you to know that I am going to take very good care of your mother.”
“I’m not laughing at you,” Barbara replied. “I think it’s sweet. I just hope I can feel that way when.......”
“When you’re old?” Gary interjected, finishing her thought.
“When I’m old,” she repeated with an embarrassed grin. “The best part is seeing Mom looking forward to a good time---even if she won’t admit it.”
Gary helped Claudia into her coat and led her out the door to the porch. Arm in arm they started down the sidewalk to the car---each of them preparing to embark on an intimidating new adventure, each of them nursing their own anxieties and expectations. In truth, they might have been surprised to know how similar those hopes were.
They started up the interstate toward Tanner, where they would meet Clint and Elly. In her silence Claudia’s hands fidgeted nonstop---from bracelet, to earrings, to the purse resting in her lap. It was a beautiful, clear afternoon. The sun was still high above the mountains that bordered the west side of the valley. Why then, in spite of her pleasant surroundings, was she having such a hard time relaxing?
“You’re really wound up, aren’t you?” Gary finally asked. “I was hoping you would be looking forward to this. Perhaps even be happy about it.”
“I’ll be fine.” She clasped her hands together to quiet them. A few seconds later she was offering her explanation. “I took a minute this morning to figure out that it’s been forty-eight years since I was alone with a man on a first date. That would be enough to make anyone nervous.”
“Hey, we’re not going to be alone. That’s why I wanted it to be a double date. Besides, it’s not like I’m a stranger---some guy off the street. And it’s not the first time we’ve been together. This doesn’t qualify for any of those reasons.”
“But that was different,” she answered. “I was just a schoolgirl then, scared and trying to make the right impression. It’s not like that now.”
“At least you don’t have to be concerned about making a good impression. You’ve already done that.”
“I’m not thinking about impressions. I’m just wondering if I’ll ever make sense of Gary Harris. If I can understand what he’s about.”
Her bluntness took him by surprise, leaving him with no light-hearted quip, no flip comeback. Instead, his answer was a question of his own. “What is there to understand? I like you. I’ve always liked you. After being apart all these years I’d like to know you again.”
“At least until you feel threatened, or lose interest.” Claudia stopped short, surprised that she had found the courage to speak those words out loud. They had needed saying and she was finally brave enough to do that. “I’ve seen how you are when that happens. I’ve already decided I won’t be waiting around for that this time.”
Gary gripped the steering wheel tighter as his first angry reply died in his throat. For a moment he sensed their evening slipping away. “That’s not fair. I never ever lost interest in you. Not once. I was scared. That’s true. And I did something really dumb.”
“Something very hurtful,” Claudia interjected.
“Look. Let’s not go there again, not tonight. This is supposed to be a good time.”
He paused, remembering something he had meant to tell her earlier. “There is one thing I wanted you to know. When I came home on my first Army leave I made a beeline for your place. Your mother told me that you’d left, but she wouldn’t say where you’d gone. I doubt that she ever said a word to you about me stopping by. Did she?”
It was true. Her mother had never mentioned that. For a moment Claudia tried to imagine what she would have done if she had known. Without answering that, she turned his disclosure into a question of her own. “What would you have done---if she had told you where I was?”
It was a fair question. He knew that, and he was wishing for a better answer. “I’m not sure. By then I was so screwed up.” His voice trailed off and again the silence returned.
For the next hour, driving north through the valley, they were caught up in a meditative silence---each of them reflecting on the unlikely fact that they were together again after fifty years spent apart. Finally, as he turned off at the South Tanner exit, Gary was ready to ask one more favor. “Please, let’s make this a good night. I want you to know that being with me is okay. If I do mess up, it’s only because I’m nervous too---just like you.”
Claudia’s quiet smile was matching her sparkling eyes as she nodded her own hope for a special night.
Merging with the late afternoon traffic Gary turned onto the southern extension of Main Street. There, pulling to the curb, he fished the cell phone from his pocket. Punching in Clint’s number, he announced, “We’re in town,” he said. “Are you two ready?”
Seconds later he folded the phone and pulled back onto Main Street. “They’re waiting for us.”.
It was a couple minutes before six o’clock. They were still on schedule when Gary drove up the long gravel driveway to where Clint and Elly stood beside Clint’s pickup.
“Good afternoon, Elly,” Gary said as he walked from the car. “Good to see you again. Where’d you find that scruffy looking old guy?”
“Scruffy?” Elly exclaimed. The word was not a normal part of her vocabulary. “Why, I thought he looked good enough to take to the big city. I was impressed that he knew how to press his own slacks.”
“Did he clean off the pickup seat?” Gary teased. “That’s the real test.” He reached for Claudia’s hand as she stepped up beside him. “Elly,” he said. “I’m not sure you met Claudia Hafner at the reunion.”
“I saw her there. But I don’t think we met.” Elly extended her hand to Claudia. “I do remember that you two were a couple in high school. It’s good to see you again.” Hopefully Claudia could tell she meant it. “I only hope that you and I will be able to keep up with these party animals.”
Beyond a raised-eyebrow, self-conscious smile it seemed that Claudia had no response. Soon Clint and Elly were buckled up in the back seat and Gary had pulled onto the street. And still Claudia was staring straight ahead, apparently oblivious to their company.
Ten minutes later, driving north on the interstate, Gary’s mind churned anxiously---straining to create some bit of conversation to help Claudia past her nervousness. He tried the weather, the traffic, even cousin Sarah’s son, the banker. All the while Claudia was smiling and cordial. Yet beyond an occasional ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response she appeared to have little interest in extended conversation.
Meanwhile, in the back seat Clint too was racking his brain for a way to save their evening from fatal boredom before it had even begun. What could they find to talk about? Mile after mile they drove on, enveloped in an awkward silence that none of them knew how to end. Finally it was Elly’s unexpected laughter that brought them back to the present.
“What was that about?” Clint asked.
“I just thought of something funny.”
“Something you’d like to share?”
“Not really,” she answered. “Just one of my silly observations.”
“What are you observing?”
“Us. All of us.”
“And?” Clint said.
“And it struck me that if you and Claudia went somewhere together, just the two of you, you might go the whole night and never say a word.”
Clint watched as Elly waited for Claudia’s reaction. He knew something about his friend’s offbeat humor---her sometimes socially-incorrect bluntness. How would Claudia deal with that? “Is that an insult, Claudia?” he asked tentatively. “Should I be offended or not?”
“Don’t be,’ Claudia answered. Glancing over her shoulder her reply was straight faced, with no hint of humor. “If you don’t say much you’re not as likely to say something silly.”
That brought Elly up short, unsure how to take Claudia’s reply. Was she angry or being sarcastic? Elly’s first impulse was to ask, but she thought better of that. Besides, she had indeed been silly. Why make an issue of that? She settled back in her seat and once again silence reigned.
They were approaching the Portland suburbs when a roadside billboard finally gave Clint a conversational opening. “That’s new, isn’t it?” He was pointing toward the large sign that announced ‘ANTIQUE CITY -- 18 SHOPS IN ONE LOCATION.’ “I don’t remember seeing that before.”
“It looks like a tourist trap to me.” Elly seemed not to be impressed. “They wouldn’t put real antiques stores out here along the freeway. Would they?”
“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Clint said. “What I know about antiques you could put in a thimble. I expect you’re our resident expert on such things.”
“I’ll bet it runs in your family,” Gary interrupted. “Isn’t that right, Elly? As I recall your dad had a thing about antiques---especially sculptures and that sort of thing. You do remember that, don’t you, brother?”
“Oh, yes,” Elly replied, picking up on Gary’s lead. Jabbing at Clint’s shoulder she explained, “I remember hearing about your interest in fine art. And I guarantee you it was enough to get my father’s attention. You two weren’t the first ones I thought of when his sculpture disappeared, but I wasn’t surprised when I heard it was you. What kind of trouble did you get into for that?”
“Not much. We had our diplomas in hand by the time they knew it was us. The next day Gary was off to join the Army.” Clint stopped short at the sound of Gary’s exaggerated cough.
“The next day?” Elly asked loudly.
Clint tugged on her arm, signaling her to drop the subject. In the front seat Claudia bit her lip and stared straight ahead. In response to Elly’s questioning glance Clint could only mouth, “Later.”
Again Gary was looking to change the subject, wanting to coax a conversation from his passengers. “Tell me ladies," he asked. "Does the thought of seeing James Dean bring back any fond memories? You know, any teenage tingles, stuff like that?”
“I only hope he lives up to my memories of him,” Elly replied. “Most of the girls I knew liked him. He was so cute and sort of vulnerable---the kind you wanted to cuddle and take care of.”
“There you are, Clint. It’s just a matter of looking helpless.”
“You suppose that works at our age?”
They left the interstate at the second Portland exit and turned up the winding two lane road that took them into the hills ringing the west edge of the city. It was five minutes to seven, Gary’s schedule was still intact when they pulled up in front of the shops that stretched along a high bluff overlooking the city.
The four of them filed from the car, past the shops, and on toward the restaurant. At an upscale boutique Elly stopped to admire the plaid coat featured in the gaudy window display. “Isn’t that nice, Claudia?” she asked, pointing to the coat. “Look how they’ve used tweed as an accent. And I like the length. Don’t you?”
Claudia stepped closer to the window, peering not at the coat, but at the red price tag hanging from a sleeve---reading $795. “Goodness. At that price, it may be right for you,” she said. “It’s certainly not for me.” With that she hurried to catch up with Gary.