First Date

January 28, 2000

My daughter Lynn, not quite fourteen and a half, my darling, my stringbean,* my little Wunski, is, as I write this, out on a date. She’s gone to an indoor professional soccer game in the company of a classmate named David. David’s mother is doing the driving. He is taking Lynn for something to eat first. David’s mother is not going to the game, but I’m not sure what she will be doing during the eating portion of the evening — eating with them, driving around the block, shivering on the parking lot. Earlier I had some comfort food — a baked potato with butter AND sour cream — and now I am at my computer, doing some comfort writing.

Lynn announced about two months ago that she is “going out” with David. “You never go anywhere with him,” I observed. Lynn explained this concept to me with a roll of the eyes and a certain impatience with my ignorance. “Going out” is the code term among middle schoolers for what in my early teens was called “going steady” and which as adults we referred to as “seeing someone.” (If you’re not “going out” you are “single,” and the proper way to describe what Lynn feels for David is that she likes him, said with an inflection that unmistakably distinguishes it from the way she says she likes Jonathan, a boy she’s known since toddler day care.)

I remember my father asking me about the term “going steady,” probably when he wearied of hearing me moan because the love of my seventh grade life was thus involved with an eighth grade girl. “Where are they going?” he asked. “They’re not going anywhere. It’s an expression,” I said, annoyed at his obtuseness. He’s a high school teacher. He should know better, I thought. I’ll never act that stupid when I have children. Oh the things we vow we’ll never do!

Lynn’s social development is right on target, according to a recent article in our local newspaper. Her circle has always included boys as well as girls, and she regards several boys as close friends, although these relationships have neither the intensity nor the time commitment of those she has with her two best girlfriends. Her trips to the movies and to high school sporting events almost always include meeting up with a mixed group.

Even tonight their intention is to meet several others at the game. The difference is that David has specifically invited her to accompany him and he’s providing the tickets and the transportation. The meal beforehand also seems to lend a significant quality to this event.

My own history in this regard goes back to ninth grade. I had a boy cousin to whom I felt very close. Jimmie was far more gregarious than I, clever, jolly, with an extraordinary ability to make friends easily and quickly. I was shy and socially awkward. Jim and I had gone to different elementary schools, but in high school we started moving in the same social circles, and I think my lifelong ease at developing close non-romantic friendships with men began because my cousin Jim made sure I was always inlcuded. 

My own “first date” was a little different from Lynn’s, however. I did the asking. Although this is common now, in those days there had to be a “special dispensation” (Catholic girlhood language there) for this to be accomplished in good taste. The dance to be held on Saturday, February 10, 1962 at Bishop McDevitt High School was designated a “Girl-Ask-Boy” event as well as the Valentine dance, and I emboldened myself to invite a young man named Patrick to be my guest.

Patrick was in most of my classes and was part of the crowd my cousin and I began moving with. I have forgotten the details now of how and why I came to target him with my affections, what made me think that asking him to this dance would not result in an embarrassing rejection. I’m sure it involved go-betweens, phone calls between my best friend and his, the whole thing negotiated like a UN peace agreement, with the final invitation and its acceptance merely a formality.

My mother did the driving. Patrick lived in a second floor apartment in a complex not far from the school. When we pulled up I saw him standing at the bay window watching for us. He moved away from it and emerged from the building’s common front door before I had a chance to get out of the car and go ring the doorbell (which my mother said was the proper thing).

I would learn later, from my mother who had it from Patrick’s mother, that his parents had caught him smoking in the week or so before the dance and he had been placed on restriction, forbidden to go out for social events. They had allowed this event because Patrick had pleaded for it, saying he thought it unfair and ungentlemanly to disappoint me. To this day I find this touching, even if his main object was just to get out of the house.

Of the dance itself I remember little except this: Patrick held my hand. He had picked it up when he slid into the back seat of the car, and for the whole space of that evening we walked around the gym as if we were a couple. My cousin and his “steady” girlfriend were there, as well as Joe and Theresa, who had recently begun “going steady.” (They married six years later and remain so today.) Grade school experiences of rejection and teasing by boys as well as my mother’s obsession about my acne had left me convinced that I was hopelessly ugly and undesirable. This one event, although a mere three hours, did much to start changing that.

When the dance was over we found my mother in the crowd of other parent drivers parked along Market Street. Once again, Patrick and I slid into the back seat of the car. He held my hand again on the two minute ride back to his house, and when he got out of the car he gave it a little squeeze, said thank you to me and to my mother, and disappeared into his building.

I never had another date with Patrick, although we continued to move among mutual friends. We were both aspiring writers, and we are pictured together in the yearbook hard at work on the literary magazine. Patrick today makes his living as a writer, working on the editorial staff of our city newspaper and writing a regular column of personal essays. I read them all and even cut some of them out, in particular a memoir of a great aunt who had a very positive influence on him.

And so I think of Patrick often, always with affection. His e-mail address is given in his newspaper signature line, and many times I’ve thought of dropping him a note, especially when something he’s written calls up a memory from our shared high school experiences. Considering that I’ve just bandied his name about on my own website and the fact that we’re coming up on the thirty-eighth anniversary of our one evening of bliss, perhaps the time is right to make contact. 

This essay started out to be about Lynn, but has wound up being more about me. But that’s one of the joys of parenting for me — to see my own history with new eyes as my daughter moves through the stages of her life. I have no idea what my mother did during the hours I spent at the dance with Patrick , nor do I know what David’s mother is doing tonight. But I suspect that whatever they did, thoughts of their children were at the heart of it, as they are tonight for me.

*(Poet Anne Sexton describing her daughter at the same age)

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