A DATE GONE WRONGMichelle Sanders could always count on her smile and an affectionate touch to light up her date, to put a little electricity into the evening. But it was different with Bruce. His eyes registered victory as if she’d unwittingly revealed her hand in a game of high stakes and uncertain rules. Something uncomfortable dredged itself up from her past and she decided that this was not someone to be alone with.It had been twelve years ago and her first kiss. Matt had been a grade ahead of her in high school. He’d hung out with older boys, with cars, and they took trips to exotic places like Carlsbad and Oceanside. He was ruggedly handsome with an athletic physique when most guys anguished with acne and awkwardness. They’d gone to his house after school. His bedroom was the haphazardly converted garage, quite a setup for a fifteen year old. The walls were covered in bamboo matting and surf posters and he had his own refrigerator. He pulled out a beer and offered one to Michelle. She tried to hide her shock and politely declined. She knew it was wrong along with so many other things that it was impossible to keep track. Sometimes it seemed that growing up was wrong. He rummaged far back into the refrigerator for a soda and handed it to her as he plopped onto the cushy, dusty sofa beside her. “Suit yourself” he said, wrapping his arm around her waist, drawing her close. “You’re a little cutie, you know that?” It felt wonderful held close and complimented by such a desirable boy. He kissed her, using his tongue which she tentatively met with hers. It was truly rapturous. He stroked her breasts, over her blouse. She’d never been touched that way. Her breath quickened and she tingled with a new warmth she’d never felt before. It was all happening so fast. He slipped his hands under her blouse, messaging firmly up her sides to work her bra strap which he unfastened expertly. He squeezed and caressed as if molding a creation in clay. It began to feel as if something was being unceremoniously taken from her in the dim confines of the musty garage. “Not much there, huh Michelle?’’ he said with a smirk. There never would be. “I really can’t be doing this”, she said pulling away, raising herself off the couch. “No problem”, he said grasping her hand, “It’s just that I can’t control myself when I’m with someone so nice and beautiful.” The compliment made her pause and he used the moment to pull her back onto his lap. One hand returned to her top while the other worked at her pants buttons. “Relax baby…” he told her “…you know you want it.”She struggled free. He grabbed for her again. She wound up like a pitcher and slapped. Stunned, he rubbed the sting from his cheek as she stalked out the side door of the garage, past the weeds, trashcans and discards for which she now felt a certain and disgusting affinity. “This is so embarrassing.” he shouted after her. “My buddies are going to grind me to for making it with a stupid little stick girl.” Make it? She thought. Nobody had made it. Her house was eight blocks away and she was still crying when she got home. Matt Johnson wasn’t known for it his vocabulary but he was plenty articulate with the little he had and “stupid little stick girl” said it all. Only a stupid little stick girl would delude herself to think someone so handsome and worldly would have any use for her besides sex and amusement. Shame and humiliation rattled her relentlessly. She feared for her grades. Luckily, basketball practice brought a few hours of respite each day. But that wasn’t the worst of it. There’d been a party that weekend. It wasn’t the type of thing she’d attend. It wasn’t her crowd. At school, she’d always circulated among the various cliques until around the ninth grade when a gulf began to separate her from some of the more popular kids. She’d begun to feel uncomfortable at parties as rowdy drunkenness seemed to become an end in itself. Drugs were starting to come on the scene. The boys fortified with a dozen beers or so, would hit on her aggressively as if a romp, in the backseat of a car or available bed, was the inevitable finale to a night of partying. Dating had become sappy and passé. But her notion of romance was… well to be courted, to meet a boy she was attracted to, to go on dates, get to know him, fall in love. At the parties, they all wanted it to happen so fast. She’d been told she should open her eyes, spread her wings and learn to fly. She took it for a load of crap. She began to form the notion that someone sincere would be preferable to the strapping, athletic and popular types that vied for her company, even if he wouldn’t be such a big splash on campus. So on Saturday night, she spent the night with her sister at the movies while Matt and his friends made the scene, virtual guests of honor, captivating all who would listen with vivid descriptions of Michelle’s wanton animal urges and insatiable sexual appetite. “Begged for it like a bitch in heat” was the phrase that caught up with her at her hall locker, the following Monday, with yelping hungry puppy noises to drive the point home. She could still remember the weeks of tears humiliation and despair; in her bedroom, alone on the athletic field bleachers and in locked bathroom stalls. For most of her tormentors, the episode was their first experience soiling a girl’s reputation and she could see their faces flash guilt as they heard their own taunts. It was forgotten after a few months, no more uncomfortable looks or awkward silences. There were several heartfelt apologies. Life returned to normal; busy with school, active with basketball, involved with friends. The episode drove home, for her, the meaning of character, what it meant to have it and what happened when it was left to rot. Before long, most of the kids regarded Matt and his buddies as cruel gossips. And though he’d never be in want of female companionship, the available pool of girls shrank to those who’d made the choice that decency didn’t matter.She was in the tenth grade the next year. Final exams were over and she was alone in the hall emptying her locker into a shopping bag. Eric, one of Matt’s buddies, was in the graduating class. He’d be the first of them drop out her life for good. Busy with her task, she hadn’t noticed him approach until he’d stopped a few lockers away. She gasped even though he appeared to be keeping a safe distance. “I’ve done a lot of things I’m ashamed of Michelle.” he started. “I’ve done a lot worse than spreading lies about you but nothing makes me feel as bad. I don’t expect you’ll ever forgive me but I’m sorry just the same. It’s important to me that you know that.” He searched her face or a reaction. Her expression softened but she was speechless, unable to assemble a coherent response. He turned to walk away but paused as if there was something else he was struggling with. He held her eyes with his own, intense so that she couldn’t look away even if she had to. “You’re a good kid Michelle.”It came out like a profound truth he felt privileged to know. It wasn’t the last time she’d get that feeling from someone. Without another word, he turned and walked down the hall and out of her life, at least for a good number of years.She’d learned a few things from Matt, back in high school, and scolded herself for taking a refresher course from Bruce, her date this night. She’d learned to probe a guy’s intentions with a smile and a squeeze of the forearm. If she saw him glow as if to say ‘Oh my God she really likes me’, then she could look forward to kindness, warmth and affection. If on the other hand, their eyes flashed victory and dominance as with Bruce, then she could anticipate an evening untangling herself from something very uncomfortable. Bruce was certainly handsome enough, tall and solidly built. He wore his reddish brown hair styled in an expensive looking facon that wouldn’t have been out of place in Gentleman’s Quarterly. He had the chiseled facial features one would expect to see on a military officer; a straight jaw line, strong chin, and a well sculptured nose though thin lips and narrow eyes betrayed a hint of predation. Though not a vice president or division manager, he moved in those circles. Neglecting a peek beneath his polished veneer, any girl would have considered him a catch. He’d asked her out, earlier in the week as they’d passed through the main lobby at RTX, the company for which they both worked. The invitation had been more abrupt than she was used to and now she realized that his good looks and executive stature had made it easy to ignore the warning flags. The drive from her apartment to the club had been a thrill in his fire engine red corvette. He’d wheeled it expertly, if not recklessly, up Wilshire Boulevard, through the winding side streets of Beverly Hills. The punchy acceleration and hard turns had been scary and, she had to admit, exhilarating. She supposed traffic tickets were a mere inconvenience for someone who could afford such a car. The conversation before dinner had been a little one-sided and overwhelming; the million dollar deals he’d cinched, the acquisitions, the corporate shakeups, careers advanced or crushed. Power surged from him like the revving motor of his sports car. Without saying it in as many words, he’d made his point; acquiescence to his wishes would help her career at RTX. If she chose to resist, then she could spend her remaining years, with the company, watching new hires and college grads rise past her on corporate ladder.Eggplant ptarmigan and prime rib were served up by a curvaceous brunette. The plunging neckline of her skimpy cocktail outfit left Michelle somewhat appalled as she leaned over to place the hot dishes on the table. Bruce allowed himself an appreciative glance and ordered another martini. Michelle asked for another iced tea. Bruce dug in heartily to the meat, giving Michelle a moment to reflect on the evening’s progress, or lack thereof.For the first time in years, she felt insignificant. She was usually able to keep lively conversation, spiced with personal anecdotes, laced with an intelligent and self depreciating sense of humor. But Bruce seemed a one way proposition; his tales of work place dominance, the way he trivialized her accomplishments, his unabashed leers and suggestive tone of voice, were all woven to assure she’d soon be submitting to his will, as if she should be thankful he found her suitable even for that. “So you went to UCLA” he said with a wry smile, raised eyebrow and patronizing tone. “Yes. I did”, she said as she considered the fine line between her intuition and paranoia, one of which was tuned to the condescension in his voice. “I majored in computer science, minored in math and played basket ball… at least I played for the first two years before they poured on the course work. Something had to give, and as much as I wanted to be a basketball star, I figured it was time throw in the towel, at least for a while”, she laughed. She’d been accepted to Caltech but finances had been tight with her large family. She almost blurted it out, in defense, but thought it better not to play the one up game he’d never allow her to win. Anyway, this was supposed to be a date, not a job interview. “You went to school back east didn’t you?” “Princeton, class of 1960” he said as if laying down a trump hand in a card game. “I was the president of my fraternity, Sigma Epsilon. Our sister sorority was Beta Tau. Did you know the Betas?”She’d never heard of Beta Tau but she vaguely remembered Sigma Epsilon, a bunch of rich boys with shiny cars and expensive cloths that excelled at humiliating girls they felt weren’t worth their attention. “No, I didn’t really know any Greeks except for the Theta Taus” “Theta Tau?” he scoffed, “How could you possibly waste your time with those eggheads?”The jibe struck her like a blow to the guts and pain flashed briefly across her face but she didn’t care. Heat welled up behind her eyes and her thoughts turned to a time filled with people she remembered fondly, people with whom she’d much rather be with than her present company.Though not a member of a sorority, she’d had many classes with boys from the Theta Tau engineering fraternity. They’d been a decent and respectful bunch, at least after they’d got comfortable with the notion that the rising star in their midst was a rather wholesome and lovely young woman. She’d spent many days and nights in study groups with them at the library, their places and the apartment she’d shared with two other coeds. She was as bright as any of them but she was sought after for her organizational skills. She could instinctively and effortlessly arrange a group of people so that tasks were matched to talents and personalities. Some guys were better at crunching numbers, others excelled at divining the pertinent meaning from lines of text. Others were so graceful and elegant in their lab work that they made it look easy. She organized and directed with such grace and charm that she was never seen as domineering or pushy. Thoughtful and compassionate, she was always available, with a sympathetic ear and a bit of helpful advice, whenever approached with a girl problem, some of which had come a little closer than she’d have liked. Her grace, understanding and technical prowess gained, for her, an easy acceptance of her management ability and the boys, and the few other girls she studied with, readily deferred to her as to who should be doing what to write up lab work or to best make sure the bases were covered before an exam. They’d helped one another on senior projects and the experience gave her the insight and confidence that was now propelling her through her career at RTX.Matt’s buddy Eric, the one who’d spoken to her on his last day of high school turned out to be an aeronautical engineering student two years behind her. He’d spent the interim surfing and waiting tables. The old fears quickly subsided as he proved to be a responsible, hardworking and endearing friend. They sometimes studied together and shared meals. She helped him with the intricacies and imponderables of his girl friend. He was able to explain to her, in terms she could understand, the issues Roger, her boyfriend, dealt with. It was her senior year, a week before finals, an hour after diner and Eric wanted to show her something in a lecture hall where they’d had many of their classes. He took her hand as he sometimes did and led her down the shrub lined cement slab walk to the hall. His hand felt warm, firm and secure like something that would always be there for her. He said it was a surprise and she couldn’t imagine what it would be. It was twilight and the building was deserted except a few professors’ office windows lit up high on the third floor of the four story building as office hours had been extended to prepare for finals. With a rattle of the panic hardware, Eric opened one of the big oak double doors and they entered the dark cavernous lecture hall. She could sense the room was occupied as during a lecture rather than empty as it should have been for seven in the evening. He led her, down to the lecture dais and placed his hands on her shoulders to face her toward the tiered rows of auditorium seats looming behind the darkness. Suddenly, the lights snapped on dazzling her eyes. When she focused, she could see what looked like the entire Theta Tau fraternity standing in the tiered rows as well as some of the other students with whom she’d studied over the past four years. Each held a white rose and they began to sing – Come Softly to Me, The Fleetwoods version. They’d arranged themselves by pitch; altos in the first row, tenors in the middle, and baritones up top. She was completely overwhelmed with so many wonderful emotions she’d never be able to name them all. She cried. It was lovely and she was sure it took more than a few afternoons to rehearse. And as if that wasn’t enough, after the serenade, each boy came forward, to the lecture dais, to give her his rose and a kiss. Graduation with honors, a few weeks later had been an anticlimax. She relived that wonderful serenade every day since and a photo that Eric had snaped was one of her most prized possessions. He’d submitted it to the year book; the adorable little blond, blissful and weepy eyed, dwarfed by a huge bouquet of white roses clutched tightly in both arms.
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