Backward Then Forward

by Mel Oakes

 

Backward Then Forward

By Mel Oakes

 

Walking along the concourse towards my plane's gate, I was aware of the overcast and wet conditions outside. This always made me uncomfortable, as it brought back memories of so many delays and change of plans. The uneasiness went back even further, to my childhood, where bike trips with neighborhood pals were stressful, as none of us relished the thought of returning home in the rain, the lightening and the thunder. We did not live in “big sky” country; on the contrary, it was “very little sky” country due to vast hardwood forest that towered over us as we labored over the steep hills. There was no way to see any approaching weather, it circled and attacked, often with a vengeance.  The justification for our anxiety was evident everywhere along the road, in the downed trees with huge roots standing at attention, clinging to soft delta soil that had failed to hold on. These were majestic trees, pecan, cypress, cottonwood among many others. The county and the citizenry were slow to saw them up for firewood or lumber, preferring to leave them as testaments to God’s wrath.

Getting through Security had been an adventure. The woman ahead of me objected to her long-haired sheltie being x-rayed. She demanded a pat down and since the dog was female, she insisted that a female security agent do it. This reminded me of an event in my youth at an auto garage. A “gentleman” admonished a black attendant for failing to line up all of Chief Pontiac’s heads on his hubcaps after a tire rotation. The worker looked at him with as much disbelief as a black man was permitted during those violent times.

As I approached the airline gate area, remnants of the COVID-19 virus were evident everywhere. The next nearest neighbor seating reminded me of birds on a high tension, overhead wire. Only when no isolated seats were left did anyone choose to sit next to someone else. Even the beautiful and handsome were shunned. The plastic shields at the counter and the lingering presence of a few masks demonstrated how far we had come from the “hoax.” Despite the three ensuing years that had lapsed since the vaccine appeared, only now was I able to consider moving on from the loss of Vivian, an early casualty of the virus. My grown children were very supportive and urged me to dig out of my depression and join my abandoned friends. Though, they expressed surprise when I announced I was going to a wedding. “Dad, you always said we were crazy to travel any long distance for a wedding.” “Well I was wrong; anyway, I went to school there.”

This was the wedding of the granddaughter of Jim and Louise, close friends, who had stayed in touch since our college days. They were also retired and hale enough to travel. I had been invited many times to accompany them, however being a third wheel had no appeal for me. Nonetheless, I did really wish to return to traveling. Vivian and I made many trips abroad and reveled in the variety of people, places and food. Maybe this trip could jump start me. Anyway, I owed it to them for all their support over the years.

The loading call for Atlanta interrupted my musing and I searched for my boarding pass. It was in my pocket and on my iPhone, thanks to the tech savvy daughter.  I was not ready to rely on pixels over paper yet. Loading was uneventful, and since I was seated early, I sized up every approaching passenger’s desirability as a seat companion. I hoped for a twenty to thirty year old  with interesting work and a slender build. Sadly, this was not to be, as a somewhat overweight fifty-year old man exploded in the seat next to me. He was clearly unhappy at being assigned a middle seat and expressed this to the helpless stewardess. During the flight, he made many attempts to engage me in conversation about the National Football League, a blood and broken-body Sunday ritual I had abandoned many years ago. I was able to salvage a bit of the trip after discovering he pedaled drugs to doctors. He became quiet after I asked about shelf-life and efficacy of drugs, He grudgingly agreed that the expiration dates meant very little since it was too expensive to do studies. When he attempted to turn the conversation to conservative politics, I feigned sleep.

Arriving mid-morning, I secured my rental car and drove the 25 miles to the small college town where the wedding was to take place and where I had attended college for several years before transferring to a larger school. I was anxious to see what changes had occurred. Rural Georgia had changed little. If the weeds and trash were not on my property, it was “not my job, man.” County codes were few, and rarely enforced. Churches shared space with package stores, gun shops and abandoned automobiles. All likely shared stories.

I checked into the motel, switched the channel from Fox News, showered and took a short nap in order to be fresh for the wedding. I met Jim, Louise and a few of their friends for drinks at the house they had rented for the occasion. It felt great to be a part of the conversation and celebration. I had no role in the service, so I drove around the town before going to the church. I passed the chemistry building where my X-rated, academically disastrous, freshman chemistry class was “played out.” The teacher, a very much available divorcee on the rebound and a number of jocks more than willing to go up for a tap-in, were the source of much humor, but not much else.

The school had changed little, a few new buildings, a larger football stadium. Bleachers now bracketed the baseball field where I had played. I remember spectators on the green grass with bring your-own-chairs. It was a happy time despite the bummer of a coach. He was the football coach and was assigned to baseball to complete his off-season workload. He had no interests or baseball skills. Fortunately, he didn’t need any, as most of us had played ball since early childhood and had the benefit of a variety of coaches along the way. I parked near home plate and remembered two games, a painful one where I picked up a slow roller that was likely going to roll foul and attempted to throw the runner out. He was awarded an infield hit, the only hit of the game. Our pitcher struggled to be gracious. Many years later, I called to congratulate him on being selected for the school’s hall of fame. It was unnecessary to remind him of his loss of his only no- hitter.

The other game was the morning after my pal, Leo, and I had driven with two girls, Helen and Lisa, as I recall, to a dance quite deep into the red hills that lasted into the early hours of the morning. On our 1:30 AM return, we stopped at a truck stop for coffee. Leo, always quick with one liners, said as we passed a large table of truckers, “Now what did you girls say your names were?”  Leo, a cynic, brightened my college days and should have become a comic rather than bank examiner. I had to admit that a cynical bank examiner was probably an ideal combination. My mood darkened as I recalled his untimely death ten years ago from an aggressive brain tumor that took him only one month after a phone call where we both bragged about how healthy we were.

Obviously, I did not make the perfunctory midnight curfew imposed by the coach. The game the next day started about midday, and I did not feel my best. My memories of the game were always sketchy until a teammate sent me a clipping, and to my surprise, I had homered and tripled. I have no memory of that; what I do remember vividly is the disparaging and intimidating remarks from behind home plate by a large and quite fit star football player, “He should play well, he was out all night with my girlfriend.” While he was correct generally, his details were not. She was no longer Deke’s girlfriend, and I was in my dorm room by 2 am.

My involvement with Helen and Deke had started very innocently. It was early spring, during the second semester of my freshman year. There was a mixer-dance on campus. I had decided to go, as I did enjoy dancing. It was quite crowded and I had danced with a number of classmates. While looking around for my next dance partner, I spied an attractive young woman who was a good dancer. Though rather shy in most situations, I felt confident at dances and when an opportunity arose I asked her to dance and she accepted. She had beautiful dimples and a very small space between her two upper front teeth. Both contributed to her good looks. She was a member of the campus girls dance team. We clicked on the dance floor and continued to dance off and on for the rest of the evening. As the dance ended, I summoned my courage and asked if she would like to go out sometimes. She paused a long time before answering. “Thanks for asking, however, I am going steady, but if this ever changes, I will let you know.”

In the days ahead, I concentrated on my school work and basketball practice. I would occasionally see her on campus. I learned her steady was the star football player, Deke, who had moved to a major college for the spring semester. Suddenly, he reappeared on campus accompanying Helen everywhere. They both had long faces and he eventually returned to his campus. Shortly thereafter, I received a message from Helen, “I am now available.” Rather naively, I took that at face value and acted accordingly. She agreed to double date with my pal, Leo. We went to a movie off campus. When Leo and I returned to my dorm room to chat, I opened my door to find Deke sitting on my bed and not in a good mood. He had been told of the date and had driven three hours to welcome me home. He explained that Helen was his girl and that if he thought bodily harm to me would insure she remain so, then he was more than able and willing to administer it. He confessed, reluctantly, that he didn’t think it would help. I assured him that if there were a problem, it was between him and Helen. I was happy to bow out. He left mildly pacified. During the next few weeks, he appeared on campus on the weekends, again squiring Helen, yet, it was obvious that both were not happy. Eventually, his weekend visits stopped and Helen’s infectious smile reappeared. Not long after this, I got a message again saying, “I am not going steady anymore.” I acted accordingly and began to date her fairly regularly. Baseball started, Deke returned to campus for the game mentioned above. Helen and I dated a few times during the summer, but during the following semester she fell for someone else. I rationalized it was because of his rather fancy car, and I moved on.

A wonderful wife, four children and a successful university engineering career occupied the forty years since those collegiate days. I am surprised that my recollection is so detailed. The setting was no doubt the trigger. It was now time to head to the church. I hoped that some old faculty from the college might be in attendance as it was unlikely I would know the younger set attending. During the service, I panned the church looking for wrinkles and gray hair and was rewarded with one possible sighting, unfortunately it was the sponsor of the girls dance team with whom I had had no contact. The service was beautiful and contained surprisingly traditional music. I gave them a pass on the self-written vows, despite the groom’s solemn utterance, “because you're mine, I’ll walk the line.” Thankfully Gloria Steinem was not there to parse that vow. The church was quite crowded and I indulged in the common mental exercise of fathers of girls, estimating the cost to the bride’s parents—at least two dental implants and a couple of root canals with gold crowns.

Following completion of the service and the recessional to the “traditional” “When the Saints Go Marching Out”, I headed for the reception in the adjacent building. A quick pass through the receiving line to congratulate the bride and groom, and I headed to the bar for a glass of wine and a solo tour around the three-tiered wedding cake. The small figures on top resembled Ken and Barbie; Ken's short pants tux and Barbie's mini-skirt with high white boots left me feeling old. I briefly considered placing the two in the missionary position.

After dinner, doors were opened and  the orchestra’s music drifted in from the adjacent room, I wandered over to enjoy the dancing by the younger set. While I still enjoy traditional ballroom dancing, I had to admit that modern moves on the dance floor are exciting and beautiful to watch.  Looking over the couples, I suddenly realized that one woman on the floor looked vaguely familiar. I first decided this was just my imagination and that she merely looked like someone maybe I once knew. As time went on and I watched her dance, it became clear that I, in fact, did know her. It was Helen. She still had graceful moves on the dance floor, and age had not faded her good looks. Closely watching her for a few numbers, I determined she was there alone, no husband or date around and no wedding ring.

I moved closer to where she was dancing in the hopes that she might notice me, instead, I was to be disappointed. Several times she looked in my direction with no recognition. I waited until she was between dances and walked over and asked if she would like to dance. She looked up and smiled that dimpled smile and said “OK”. As it was a slow number, we were able to have a conversation. I introduced myself as “Deke.” She grimaced and asked me to repeat what I had said, “Deke.” Confusion spread over her face. “Do I know you?’ she asked. “Maybe, though it does seem that I am forgettable.” Now embarrassed, she said, “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.” "Well, let me give you a hint, think back during your freshman year and your romance with Deke. How did it end?" Her brow furrowed and slowly memories began to flood back. Suddenly she lurched forward, put her arms around me, hugged me and said, “Paul, it’s you!”  I didn’t want to let her go. Intimacy seemed so long ago and she had filled out nicely. “Do you remember where we first met?,” I asked. “ Of course. It was at the spring dance, and I was going steady with Deke.” “Yes and that nearly caused me to lose the use of some of my more valued body parts.” She looked puzzled, she clearly didn’t know the story, so I gave her a brief account. She acknowledged that the breakup had been very difficult and hard on everyone, especially her parents who enjoyed Deke’s celebrity status.

Despite all the stress at the time, she did remember favorably our time together during that spring and summer. I told her I should get credit for her being freed and able to meet and marry her husband. She told me it was a happy marriage, and sadly it ended in his death five years ago. She had two grown children and a couple of grandchildren. We exchanged further family details and continued to dance on and off for the rest of the evening. As the music and dancing was winding down, I learned that, like me, she was here just for the wedding and would be leaving in a couple of days. I asked if she had plans for tomorrow and if not, would she like to revisit some old haunts and have lunch. She agreed, and I arranged to pick her up at noon. I gave her a hug as we left and expressed my enjoyment at meeting her again. I had to admit that I was surprised by my anticipation, reminiscent of my younger self.

Like a school boy on a first date, I arrived early at Helen’s friend’s house and had to kill some time before knocking on the door. After a few pleasantries with her friends, we settled into the car and headed for a small café that I had found online. We spent time looking for common ground, hobbies, work experience, travel and children. There was enough to avoid periods of embarrassing silence. She admitted that there were some disappointments in her marriage. She had dreamed of seeing the world, unfortunately, her plans were not shared by her husband and she had to ‘settle.” She said she made the most of it, while poorly concealing her disappointment. We finished our meal and took our tour. We drove by the lake where couples watched the “submarine races” on weekend evenings. Our college relationship never escalated passed the obligatory goodnight kiss at the doorstep. The school had a 7 pm curfew for women during the week and 9 pm on the weekends. Needless to say, any coed that could return home over the weekend, did so. Helen’s parents lived nearby, so she lived at home, giving her, and us, more freedom. We shared stories about teachers and classmates and the location of  a few of our mutual friends.

It was a lovely afternoon, and I regretted its end. As our visit was winding down, I asked if she had plans for dinner. She said she did, but they had not been firmed up and she might be able to join me. A quick phone call shook her free, and I arranged to pick her up at 7:30. After returning her to her friend’s residence, I was able to find a florist and bought a corsage. One rarely sees these on women’s dresses these days, though quite routine and expected in my time. The choices then were carnations or orchids. You sprung for an orchid if you needed help. I got the orchid, a lavender Phalaenopsis.

I arrived promptly at her place. She opened the door, and I was reminded again how beautiful she looked, as if little time had passed. I think she was touched by the corsage. I pinned it on, escorted her to the car and ushered her into the passenger seat and closed the car door. We laughed about these old fashioned rules of etiquette.

“I found a restaurant on the top floor of one of the larger hotels. It has an orchestra and there is dancing.” She smiled and seemed pleased. It was a beautiful clear night and the city lights sparkled. We dropped the car off at the hotel garage and took the elevator to the top floor. To our delight, the décor was reminiscent of the 1950s though they appeared to be somewhat temporary, maybe only for that evening. We both ordered from a menu that could accommodate almost any taste. At 8:30 the band appeared, and people began to move toward the dance floor. The menu prices likely accounted for the couples being older and the music being vintage. We joined those on the floor and by now were pretty comfortable with each other’s moves. Dancing near the boundaries of the floor, one was rewarded with beautiful views of the city. Helen volunteered that she had never been at the top of such a tall building. She would periodically stop dancing and stare when we neared the windows.

The band played fast and slow music, more slow than fast, as one might expect, quite opposite of that by the wedding D.J. I had to admit that I loved having my arms around someone unrelated to me. Her dimpled smile was still appreciated—have I already said that? We also had a good time with the fast numbers though they did drive many of the couples from the floor.

The band took a break in order for the patrons to have their meals. We chatted and shared some of the more exotic dishes. The wine was good, and we splurged and had dessert. At ten, the band resumed and we danced most numbers. At eleven, as we were thinking of leaving, there was a drumroll, and a distinguished looking man came out on the dance floor with a mike and quieted the crowd. He announced that tonight was the 50th anniversary of the opening of the hotel, hence the decorations. The management wished to celebrate the occasion with a prize. They had decided to award the prize to the best couple on the dance floor. The members of the band had made the selection. The band took a bow. The announcer requested another drumroll and asked one of the waiters to escort the winning couple to the microphone. We pulled our chairs back to get a better view of the winners. We had no need to, the waitress walked straight to us, took Helen’s hand and motioned me to follow her. The crowd applauded with “Here, Here.”

We both looked suitably embarrassed. The announcer asked our names and introduced us to everyone. We each had to say a few words. In the excitement, I think we both had forgotten there was to be a prize until it was announced. “The hotel wishes to award the couple two nights in our very exclusive honeymoon suite, including open room service and meals. You have the next six months to choose from.” A photographer stepped forward, gently pushed us together, and took several pictures.  We both were unprepared, and I’m sure our picture reflected our confusion about what had happened. Moments later, the full implications hit us. The announcer had not asked if we were married, engaged or otherwise connected. He simply handed Helen the envelope. We were told to inform the hotel as soon as possible what nights we wished. They also added that they had a cancellation this week and the suite was available now. They offered to give us a tour tonight if we liked.  The band started up again, and we returned to our table and the congratulations of other couples. I don’t think either of us knew what to say. I suggested we go downstairs to the hotel lounge, find a quiet spot, and talk about what we were going to do. We both were quiet on the elevator ride down. Fortunately, we found comfortable chairs in an anteroom.

I think we waited for each other to start. The long silence was broken by the simultaneous appearance of smiles followed by shared laughter. The tension broken, we waded in the shallow end first. “Can you believe this?” “Not in a million years would I have expected this to happen.” “I never win anything.” “Why not two plane tickets to New York or two dinners—something we could divide?” While my heart was not in it and not sure how she would take it, as I did not wish to insult her, I said the gallant thing, “We could each have one night.” I hoped my tone conveyed my lack of enthusiasm, although, under the circumstances it seemed the reasonable thing to do. Helen’s response surprised me. “Is that really what you prefer to do.” “You wish me to be honest?”, I said. “Yes”. “OK, it is the last thing I prefer to do.”

She fell silent. I asked what was her preference? She began, “I am not one to believe in fate, but I do think it is a remarkable act of coincidence that so many things came together to put us in this position, beginning with that spring dance so many years ago. It somehow seems uncharitable to refuse out of hand the obvious culmination of this long chain of events. I just think we should not make a hasty decision.” I was more than willing to accept the validity of her logic. “So we talk some more,” I replied. “I think so.”

“Maybe if we talk about the details and what would be acceptable, we would be better able to decide,” I suggested. In the end, It seemed likely we would delay any final decision in order to give Helen an opportunity to reconsider. I offered, “Maybe we could pick some dates late in the year.”  Helen’s response, “Would there be anything wrong with something much earlier?”  “Existentially, not a thing.”

“Do I surprise you?” said Helen. She continued, “The way I look at it, we both are old enough to no longer be bound by our conventions, we rarely have any opportunity to do something out of the ordinary and now we are given this gift. This could be something we might look back on with pleasure or at least amusement. I see no reason, from my perspective, to let it pass. It may be a bit awkward, but we are no longer teenagers. Anyway our picture will likely appear in the newspaper and assumptions will be made.” ”Shouldn’t we see the suite before making a final decision.” I asked, though only a fly and lice infested, dirt floor garret would likely discourage me. “It can’t hurt,” was her answer. “It might help us work through the details of a stay.”

We found the desk clerk who gave us a key and said we were free to examine the rooms which were on the top floor. Walking down the hall, I realized the suite was on the corner, likely  offering spectacular views in two directions. If I included Helen, there would be three directions.

My hand shook as I inserted the key card. The lock withdrew with a loud, solid and reassuring click. Opening the door gave us a “Dorothy in Oz” moment.  The colors in the room were blinding. Everywhere room decorations competed for our attention, and images of us were returned by the mirrors that adorned every wall and even the ceiling over an elevated round, king-sized bed. An exceptionally large video screen filled the wall at the foot of the bed, complete with a video camera focused on the bed. There was a hot tub and glass shower stall adjacent to the large windows that provided a view of the city and lurid opportunities for passing Medivac aircraft. We stood in awe, unable to speak. Finally, Helen with a smile commented, “I have seen enough. Shall we lock the door?”