That night at work, I told the guys that I had met a girl, and that I had a date with her. In those days, little kids didn’t grow up to want to be retail flooring salespeople. Like Seinfeld’s “moving in with your parents”, when you worked in retail selling floor tile, it wasn’t a sign that your life was on track.
Nevertheless, I liked the guys I worked with – “Jay”, Dave, Don, and KC. I had just recently turned 27, and except for me, KC was the youngest of the group – maybe he was 30. He was conscientious about his job; he had been promoted to manager because he was a genuinely good salesperson. Color Tile, a division of Radio Shack (The Tandy Company back then), was all about making sales. We earned a straight commission in those days – with a draw against commission, which assured we made minimum wage – that had to be paid back, before we would earn anything extra.
Dave was probably the oldest – and he was a hard-working guy to boot. Jay – whose name was really Jim, but it was changed to Jay when he started because there was another guy named Jim, and they wanted to avoid confusion. Because we worked on commission, you didn’t want a customer coming in and asking for you, but getting the wrong guy.
Jay was a guy whose first marriage had crashed because of alcohol, and he lost his career as an English teacher as well. At 38, he already had gray hair; it was as long as you could get it and still be within the appropriate workplace limits – this was the 80’s after all. And it usually seemed uncombed. He had big blue eyes, a skewer for a nose, and thick gray mustache. He and I had a lot in common, and we frequently talked shop – literature shop – while we stood around waiting for customers to come into the store. Recall, I was taking a course in English Romantic Poetry; Jay’s favorite poet from that era was John Keats.
And finally, there was Don, 45, a divorced alcoholic with a 12-year-old daughter named Bethany, and so when I brought up that I had a date with a girl named Bethany, we had something important to talk about.
On hearing about the date, KC joked with me and said, “I hope you get lucky”.
I remember getting up in the middle of the night to call Beth at her store, and maybe I even had picked her up in the mornings to give her a ride to school, or rides home in the day. By later in the week, my next evening off – did my Wednesday class cancel, or was it Thursday or Friday? – Beth and I were on our first date, to see the movie “Platoon”. Since she had recently been in the army, I thought that suggesting a military-based movie would be meaningful for her. I was, at that point in my life, accustomed to being turned down by women, and I wanted to have everything in my favor that I could get.
When I picked her up, the evening sun was shining in through the front window of her apartment, into the kitchen and front room. Her hair was magnificently brushed, like a lion’s mane, and she wore her blue silk throw-over jacket with a Japanese symbol embroidered on the back. Her hair draped over her throw-over and covered the symbol in the back. She moved constantly, puffing her hair, spraying it lightly, puffing again. She smoked a cigarette as she finished primping, and we got in the car.
Even though she smoked, she hated the smell of cigarette smoke. She always carried a spray bottle of some female splash, and she sprayed herself lightly. I was amazed, but this took off the edge of the smoke. She wore black high-heeled ankle boots and black nylons, and I clearly remembered the nylons. And she had on too much bright red lipstick. Her lips were thin, I noticed. But she looked luscious. She carried a clutch of some type – most likely it was her journal, and a large bag over her arm.
I’m cautious and indecisive, and when we walked into the theater, I stopped for a second at the back to look for an open seat, and when I looked again, she was half-way down the center aisle, walking quickly toward a large open area of seats in the front. For some reason, I had never sat too far down in the front, out of the risk of getting a stiff neck from looking up. But she made it work well.
During the movie, as was the standard plan for a guy in those days, as I recall it, I put my arm around her, and soon afterward, we kissed. She eagerly kissed me back, with a passion that I was unprepared for. Her lips were thin and soft, and from that moment on, I never tired from kissing her. For most of our lives together, when we were making love, whatever else we would be doing, we would always be kissing. And as the war scenes played out on the screen, Bethany and I continued to kiss passionately, coming up for air for moments, and then leaning again into our impassioned embrace.
Without a doubt I became aroused. I tried always to be the perfect gentleman, and especially at that time, the thought of having sex never would have come up. Of course, I thought about it, but I never would have hinted that we should try anything. She seemed to like that gentlemanliness from me.
After the movie, maybe we had dessert at Denny’s or another open-late restaurant that was on the way to her home. Likely I would have dropped Beth off at her apartment to change, and then would have given her a ride over to the A-Plus. In those early days, I was dropping her off, maybe hanging around for a while, and then driving home. My brother worked nights, and my soon-to-be brother in law Larry was sharing a bed with him at the time, sleeping in shifts. I got back from the date very late, and Larry was still awake. Later Larry told me he remembered me coming in and just being thrilled about having a girlfriend. Not long afterward, he did meet Beth, and he understood why I was captivated with her.
During those first few weeks, I remember calling her in the middle of the night, while she was working, and visiting her on several occasions during her night-shift. For sure, I wasn’t getting enough sleep in those days. Then I’d drive out and pick her up in the mornings and drop her off at the college. If I wasn’t working during the day, we’d have lunch together. One sunny day she and I had a bagged lunch outside, on the lone picnic table that the college kept out on the lawn. We finished sandwiches and she fed me tangerine wedges. I noticed her fingerless gloves.
“It’s not warm enough to go without gloves yet,” she said.
“I’ve heard that cutting the fingers off your gloves symbolizes emasculation.”
“I know,” she said.
Later I understood she had good cause to be in favor of emasculation in some cases.
“If it were January,” I said, “we could get the thick-skinned California seedless oranges. The best oranges always come out right after Christmas. By March you can’t find them anymore.”
“We’re outside, you can just spit the seeds in the grass,” she said, very matter-of-factly, and we laughed. She had a mischievous grin, with her red lipstick and her small, smoke-stained teeth. One of her front teeth was chipped. She stuffed another tangerine wedge in my mouth. I stuck it out like a tongue, and she bit it off and we kissed again. Years later, her friend Suzie told me that she loved kissing, because it made her feel loved.
I would try to hang around with her whatever chance we would get during those early weeks, and she appreciated my attention and my affections. I am a person who can fall in love at the drop of a hat, and between the attention I was getting from her and the actual time that we spent kissing, I could not imagine being closer to heaven.
* * *
From an early age, “Heaven” was frequently “top-of-mind” among my concerns. Some of my earliest memories involved being in church with my mom. For the most part (but not totally!) I paid attention in CCD. Second grade was awesome, with confession and first communion. As a curious little boy, I was one of several who claimed that the unblessed host we had been given in the walk-thru had gotten stuck to the roof of my mouth, and I wanted to try and practice with another one. The priest took us back to the sacristy and gave us another practice wafer. “Whatever you do,” he told us. “if it does get stuck to the roof of your mouth, don’t stick your finger in your mouth to get it down.”
I was one of a much smaller group of kids who were confirmed in 7th grade. I knew who Augustine was, and I understood his doctrine of the Trinity. And I was strongly persuaded that the Biblical verse used as a proof-text for the papacy, read, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Catholic Church.” I came to this persuasion not ever having actually read the Bible.
* * *
It didn’t take me long at all to fall completely head-over-heels, senselessly in love with Bethany. After our first date, the next morning, I picked her up and rode her to school before going to work. She kissed me on the cheek, leaving a red lipstick mark, and I left the mark there as I strode into the store, right into the pack of guys whose primary role seemed to be to razz me.
K.C. asked me if I got lucky. I told him, I certainly did.