So, this was how middle-class matches were made for Jersey girls: no coming-out party, no embossed invitations, no gowns or perms or Press-on nails for us hardworking Protestants; when it came time to mate, we got down to business. The summer of my sixteenth year, my Aunt Claire fixed me up with her friend's college-aged son. It didn't matter I'd never gone on a date before. It didn't matter I hadn't outgrown my tomboy days. I planned to go to college and then get paid to be myself—an androgynous, unmarried scientist in the woods with a camera, a clipboard, and a kick-tent. It was the 1970's, when girls like me didn't dream we'd marry better men than our fathers, we dreamed we'd become better men than our fathers.
My aunt didn't listen when I insisted it was a bad idea to send me out on a dinner date with a grown man. The summer of my sixteenth year, I was still a kid. Whenever I felt boys' eyes on my body, I withered inside. Having shot up to five-foot-nine and a hundred and twenty pounds, I had a long, bony Ichabod-Crane frame. Adults said, “You should be a model,” but they might as well have suggested I dive naked into a bucket of razorblades. I was no vain and shallow girl. Besides, my nose was big, my hair bigger. My breasts were golf balls under the skin. Boys called me “surfboard” and “mosquito bite.” I was a failed female, bookish, ugly, and awkward—luckily, none of which mattered to a tomboy.
One night when I staying with my aunt, she danced into my room with a pursed smile. “Dick's on the phone for you.”
I pictured him: long hair, torn jeans, a swagger. I said, “He's a college dude!” He probably smoked marijuana and argued philosophy to impress women who needed bras but wouldn't wear them. “I don't know what to say.”
“You have more to say to him than I do. He's an eighteen-year-old boy.”
Only when I lifted the receiver and said, “Hi, Dick?” did she walk away.
“Well, for starters,” he said, “call me Richard.”
He lost a point with me here. Richard was respected name in my family, and so were its nicknames, which included Dick—I had a grandfather Dick everyone adored, an uncle Dick my father hated, and a cousin named Ritchie I'd met once. Dick Tracy, Dick Van Dyke, Dick Van Patten, Dick Cavett, Dick Clark, Dick York, Dick Smothers, and Dick Sargent were all lovable Dicks. Nobody loved Tricky Dick Nixon, but he got to be president. What kind of groovy college dude was ashamed of his own name? Didn't college mean freedom from kids who made fun of the name “Dick,” the very sort who called me “ironing board” and “two eggs over easy?” If Dick wasn't man enough to stand tall as “Dick,” I couldn't respect him. I decided I wouldn't call him anything. I said, “Okay.”
“My mother says you're tall. I'm tall, but I won't look tall when you meet me. I'll be wearing a horizontally-striped shirt.”
That sounded like what my father called “horseshit.” I said, “Okay.”
“I'll pick you up Friday at seven.”
When Friday rolled around and the doorbell rang, I was supposed to open it. “Hey,” I said to the acne-ravaged man on the doorstep. He wore a red-and-white horizontally striped shirt.
“I look short because of these stripes,” he said.
“I know. You told me.” I stepped out the door and yelled, “Bye!”
My aunt and uncle laughed. “Invite him in, for Heaven's sake!”
I froze. “You have to come in.”
He did not want to come in. He shuffled into Aunt Claire's living room where the milk-glass light blazed on his painful cheeks. I wagered he was shorter than me by at least an inch, stripes or no stripes. Next to him, I wasn't looking half bad. Thanks to Aunt Claire's brushing, my normally feral hair was very Brooke Shields, and the fit of the sweater vest she'd lent me provided some Farrah shape—I'd seen the poster. I tossed my hair back and flashed my orthodontically straight, white teeth. They offered him a drink; he said we had reservations at the club. They asked about his parents and siblings; his parents and siblings were fine. He did not ask about our relatives. They let us go.
At seven-thirty on a summer evening the sun was still shining as he led me to his rusted 1967 Datsun Bluebird. He chugged on the engine and fired up the air conditioning. Within minutes, we were zipping through the Pine Barrens. He said, “So, you're a senior?”
“I'm a junior.”
“Oh. My mom thought you were older.” He kept one hand on the wheel, the other on his face, the fingertips palpating for pimples.
I looked away. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“You headed to college? What do you wanna study?” He switched hands and picked at the other side of his face.
“I want to be a naturalist. Like Jane Goodall. Only I want to study wild dogs, like Farley Mowat.”
“I'm an anthropology major.”
“Cool!” Maybe he was husband material after all. Back then, seatbelts were designed to slither below the cushions forever, so I could turn sideways and sit in the half-Indian pose my aunt hated. “I've read everything by Desmond Morris,” I gushed. “Have you seen The Blue Lagoon?”
He snorted. “That's a filthy film.”
“It's based on anthropology!”
His fingertips scanned his chin. “If you say so.”
“Brooke's baby instinctually knows how to swim, and Morris says humans evolved from aquatic apes—”
“Look, Desmond Morris is a pop-culture hack. I don't believe any of that hooey.”
An unpleasant odor filled the cab. I caught my breath, and Dick churned the window knob, letting the piney air in.
He said, “I believe in the word of our Lord as revealed in the Book of Genesis.”
“But, you're an anthropologist.”
He rolled the window back up. “I'm studying anthropology so I can disprove it.”
“You're devoting your major to disproving it?” I reached out to pick at the peeling Naugahyde dash, then stopped myself.
“I'm devoting my life to it.” His fingers found a whitehead and switched from palpating to popping.
I vowed never to touch one of my own pimples in front of anyone. He might as well be picking his nose. I slid into a ladylike knee-to-knee pose and watched the Pine Barrens go by, willing the Jersey Devil to fly by; I'd hitch a ride. Dick rolled the window down again. This time, I thought I recognized the odor, but refused to believe any man would fart in an enclosed space he shared with his date. I certainly didn't believe a farter would draw extra attention to his offense by rolling down the window. Middle-class Protestants everywhere agreed, when there's a fart loose in the room, you ignore it. Better to die than do it, and sooner kill yourself than claim it.
By now I felt like laughing, but his antagonism toward anthropology scared me. In fact, it angered me. “Why don't you just go to divinity school instead?”
“My parents wanted me to pursue something practical.” He rolled the window up.
“But why pursue something you're opposed to?”
“I'm not opposed to anthropology; I'm devoted to truth: God created the Earth about six thousand years ago.”
Now I snorted. “Is that right?” It wasn't a question. It was my father's insult. I pronounced it with the same bemused contempt.
“In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. Genesis one-twenty-seven. We aren't monkey-men.” Unbidden and autonomous, his hand patrolled his cheek.
“Yeah, but what about fossils?”
“Scientists enthrall themselves with their own theories and leap to crazy assumptions. Carbon-dating is full of errors.”
“Don't religious zealots get enthralled about going to heaven while everybody else fries in hell? Don't they leap to crazy ideas, like, I don't know, the Inquisition?” I was fired-up proud of myself. “I just know Jesus had something to say about this, but I don't go around spouting chapter and verse.”
I thought I'd won, but he shook his head. “The Inquisition is entirely on the Catholics.” He gave me a charitable smile.
At school, a girl once gave me the same smile and said, “I'm praying for you right now in my heart.”
“Don't be praying for me,” I warned.
“Nah, I'd never do that,” he smirked. He was bad at irony. “Don't you pray before meals?”
“Oh, sure. I pray before each bite.” He was going to pray in the country club in front of all my aunt's friends, I just knew it. I decided I'd sit politely while he prayed like the pretender he was, out in public, smug in his parents' country club.
Again the odor forced him to roll the window down. The frantic window business must've been his idea of chivalry. The forest gave way to the country club lawns that meant so much to my aunt, and I gulped the scent of wet grass. At the edge of the forest, the first fireflies blinked. A last rabbit nibbled in the half-light. As we turned onto the long, curved driveway, Dick intoned, “God created all creatures in toto, but some went extinct, according to His will. Just because others were fruitful doesn't mean they evolved from the extinct ones.”
I burst out laughing so hard I had to blot my nose with my sleeve. “I'm sorry,” I sniffled. “Rabbit. Fruitful. Never mind.”
The clubhouse was dark. Something was wrong. I pinched the button on my digital watch, and its small, black window told me it was seven-fifty. “Are we late?”
“Huh,” he said. “It's closed.”
“But I've been here before after eight.”
“It looks closed.” He didn't sound surprised or upset. He let the car roll as it idled past the entryway and around the clubhouse.
“You said you had reservations. Where are you going?”
He wheeled the car to face the lawn and parked. “Let's just watch the fireflies.”
“Uh-uh,” I braced my feet against the floorboards and grabbed the sissy bar. There were parking spots, and then there were “parking spots.” I said, “I thought you were a Christian!” Good thing I'd worn my wallabies with their flexible gum tread. I'd reach the woods first and find my way home without a compass and a kick-tent. Already my mind dodged brambles and poison ivy and merged with the song of crickets and the secrecy of deer. He'd rail against the monkey-man theory; I'd survive on my simian wit. “Is this what your mother told you to do? What a wholesome woman, your mother.”
“I just thought we'd enjoy the quiet.” He pulled the handbrake and cut the engine.
“How do we eat at a restaurant that's closed?” I figured the more noise I made, the safer I was. “Were you planning to raid the dumpster? How thrifty. Your mother will be proud when my aunt tells her how you fought a raccoon for half a burger. At church they'll say, 'She sure raised her little Christian right. Waste not, want not!'”
“What? Are you starving?”
“Yes,” I lied.
He sighed as if he'd driven a hundred miles for this view of the country club lawn with fireflies twinkling against black pines. In the remaining twilight, an upwelling of clear fluid gleamed at the head of an open pimple on his chin.
“You know,” I said, “what impresses me most is how evolved you are.”
“Okay, okay.” He turned the ignition.
This Christian prick thought he was going to take Bob Rose's jailbait daughter to the deserted country club and fuck her in his Datsun. I said, “So, tell me something, as a Christian, how do you justify taking a teenager's virginity against her will?”
He coughed. “I wasn't going to rape you.”
I blushed and bit my thumbnail. A self-respecting woman should never presume herself rape-worthy.
Back we drove through the Barrens, now pitch-dark and Devil-ready. The sand on the shoulders gleamed bone-white in the headlights and whispered against the undercarriage.
Finally, Dick said, “I don't know any other restaurants.”
“You also don't know how to make a reservation. Nice try at lying about it too.”
“I thought my mom had made the reservation,” he whined.
“Look, I seriously don't know where else to go. I just got this car. I'm not used to driving places.”
“Well, I'm not from this town.” Determined to get a decent meal, I remembered my father had grown up in Mount Holly, and when we visited, he sometimes met friends at a place downtown. I'd seen it near my aunt's church. “Let's go to The Washington House.”
He did as he was told, and I felt better. I was going to The Washington House, where real men went. Real men weren't craven, clueless, pimple-picking farters who tried to trick teenage girls into necking. Real men wooed by wisecrack, saying the opposite of what they meant. This would be my coming-out party after all, and I'd walk in on my own, not on the arm of some country club pussyfoot.
Somehow, I directed him straight there. “C'mon, Dick!” I said, leaping out before he pulled the handbrake. I hauled open the heavy door and marched straight into The Washington House. It was smaller inside than I expected, dirtier, and occupied by about fifteen men in work shirts with their fists around beer mugs and lowballs. They stopped talking to stare. I recognized no one, but was sure they were my father's friends. I felt as tall as Brooke Shields, as sexy as Farrah Fawcett, as powerful as the Bionic Woman, and as savvy as Carol Burnett. I flashed them a supermodel grin and jabbed my thumb in Dick's direction. “Hello, boys! Look what I got!”
They took one look at pale, pimply, skinny, little Dick and laughed.
I looked them over. “My Aunt Claire was right—I should've dressed up.”
They laughed again. A man in an Eagles sweatshirt said, “You Bobbie Rose's little girl?”
“Louie, get the girl a drink! S'on me,” my patron said, lifting his bourbon-on-the-rocks. “I'm Pete. I grew up with your dad on Garden Street. How is ol' Whitie?”
Dick skittered over, nervous as a canary in a cattery.
I raised the weighty mug to my lips. “Ahhh! Order one, Dick! Don't worry. If you can't lift it, Louie'll get you a straw.”
Louie glanced at Dick. “See some ID?”
Dick pulled out his wallet with a scowl. The drinking age in New Jersey was still eighteen. Louie set him up. Pete tapped a pack of cigarettes so one levitated from a hole in the top. He tipped it toward me.
I wrinkled my nose. “Gave it up.” I grinned and shrugged. “I'd say 'Lent,' but Christian Dick here wouldn't think it's very funny.”
“Lent was months ago,” Dick complained. His fingertip worried a red spot on the end of his chin. “I thought you were taking us to a restaurant.”
“Whoa—déjà vu! Didn't we have this same conversation at the club?”
Pete lowered his eyelids and said, “I see you're showing your date a good time.”
I felt unfairly chastised. Wasn't Dick supposed to show me a good time? “He's sore because he tried to take me parking.” At the word “parking,” all the men in earshot ran their eyes over my body. I couldn't tell if I felt powerful or vulnerable, but either way, I felt female. I didn't like it.
Pete turned his cigarette between fat fingers. “Louie'll grill some burgers and drop a basket of fries,” he said. “Finest in town.”
The men laughed, but I was lost. Something other than Louie's fries—or someone—was the worst in town. Was it Dick? Was it me?
Uneasy now, I tried to get my confidence back. “If you fry it, Dick'll bless it. Dick, do you say a short prayer for a burger and a long one for a fancy meal? Or is it based on how many people are watching?”
Pete sucked his teeth. “Son, you got a tiger by the tail.”
“He doesn't have me by anything,” I snarled, and everyone enjoyed that way too much.
Pete took pity on Dick. “College treating you any better than she is?”
My eyes smarted. Was I a tiger? Or just a nasty housecat? Had I gone too far, like my sabertoothed father, whose jibes ripped our guts out? I roped myself in. Dick stayed at the bar beside me, and I was glad. Maybe, like me with my father, he just had nowhere else to go. We didn't say much to each other. We ate our meal side-by-side while he tried to force-feed Jesus to a bemused, handsome, longhaired young man.
I dangled a droopy fry. “These are just delicious.” I lowered the translucent wedge back to my plate. The young man gave me a smile, locked eyes with me, and tucked his hair behind his ear. Then, when Dick went to the restroom, he wrote on a napkin and slid it over. He said, “When you're done with the stud muffin, call me.”
I stuffed the napkin in my pocket. My eyelids fluttered uncontrollably, so I aimed them at my beer. When I finally looked up, Pete lifted his eyebrows and lowball to me.
Dick returned, triumphant, having been visited in the loo by a salient psalm, and he picked up where he'd left off, warbling Bible verse. The young man rejoined the battle for his soul as if we'd never spoken. Afraid to cause more mischief, I let myself be caged into listening to Pete and Louie's tales about my father. I never even noticed when the young man left. I wanted to shoot pool, play poker, and do business from the trunk of my car, just like they did. With a sinking heart, I thought, I'm only going to end up marrying one of their sons. But at least he'll be a man. He'll never fart, or not so I'd know about it. He'll never deny his real name. He'll never subject me to horseshit about striped polo shirts or paying tuition just to dismantle a degree. Most of all, I swore to myself, he'll never underestimate the daughter of Whitie Rose.
By the time we climbed back into the Datsun, it was after ten. Dick said, “Do you think I could be a good minister?”
I laughed and said, “No,” the way I would to my little sister. I kept my own window rolled down, just in case, and hooked my elbow over the sill. The night whipped my hair against my cheeks until they stung.
“I witnessed to that guy. I might have saved him.”
“You're real good at understanding opposite-talk, aren't you?”
I tipped my face into the wind. “Okay. Be a minister.”
“After college, I can go to divinity school.”
“Hey!” I whirled and grinned at him. “You're a holy spy infiltrating the camp of reason! You're James Bond for Jesus!”
“I am! I know!”
We laughed together, and I didn't add, “You couldn't bed Barbara Bach if you were the last man on the submarine.” With my face turned back to the night, I willed myself to stay the woman I'd been when I burst into The Washington House. If I went back to high school a dangerous woman, the cool girls would include me and the mean boys would leave me alone. After college, I'd fly like a bat out of Jersey to Australia, where I'd run with the dingoes and write. A female Farley Mowat, a great white Hemingway huntress, I'd pen novels about the snide expatriates who caroused with me.
When we pulled into my aunt's driveway, the house was ablaze with her waiting up. I banged through the screen door, and it slapped shut just as my foot hit her bedroom rug. Uncle Jim lay propped in his button-down pajamas reading a book. Aunt Claire sat prim on the edge of the bed in her buttoned-up nightie-and-robe set, rubbing lotion into her hands. “How was your date?”
I bounced onto the bed and reported Dick's striped-polo-shirt protestation. They snickered. I outed his pimple-picking habit, and they laughed. I regaled them about the fart-and-window cycle, and they cackled. “Then when we got to the country club, it was closed!”
My uncle lowered his book. “That's right! They're renovating!”
“He knew it,” I said. “He pretended to be surprised, but he goes, 'Oh, let's just park here and enjoy the view.'”
“He didn't!” Aunt Claire said.
“Unbelievable!” Uncle Jim said.
“I know!” I kicked off my wallabies, slid to the middle of their bed, and sat Indian-style.
“His mother's not going to be happy to hear this,” Aunt Claire said.
“I should speak to him man-to-man,” Uncle Jim said.
“Good luck with that,” I said, and we three buckled over laughing.
“Oh, dear,” Aunt Claire said. “What in the world did you do?”
“I insisted he take me straight to a restaurant like he promised.”
“Good. Where did you go?”
“The Washington House.”
They threw back their heads and howled.
“I walked right in and said, 'Hey, boys, look what I've got,' and Dad's friend Pete recognized me. Louie poured me a beer, but he carded Dick.”
“You don't say!” Uncle Jim said.
“So what happened when he brought you home? Did you invite him in?”
“I didn't think of that.”
My aunt frowned. “That's rude. You should've invited him in for a nightcap.”
“Well, you can still ask him—he's on the doorstep.”
Aunt Claire shot to her feet. “Lisa! You left that poor boy standing outside?”
My cheeks burned. I bit my thumbnail.
“Go this instant and see if he's still there.”
I found him just outside the screen door, which, given the layout of the ranch house, was in easy earshot of my aunt's open bedroom door. My toes curled over what he might have heard. I stood behind the screen. “You wanna come in?”
“I'm just waiting to say goodnight, so…thanks for going out with me.”
We smiled. It almost felt sort of okay. “Good luck in college,” I said. “I love science. Don't crucify it.”
He laughed. “Science should glorify God, not lead nice people like you to Satan.”
I stifled the urge to roll my eyes and rested one hand on the screen, ready to step out and hug him goodbye. I wanted to hear again that I was a nice person, not a sarcastic bitch who'd collected her confidence by chipping away at his. He dawdled on the front step and tried to impress me with the damn-fool idea that he'd saved the soul of the young man whose phone number bulged in my pocket. My hand on the screen, I kept silent, remembering how my father was always jingling keys and coins in his pockets. Now I sensed my father's pockets also held things that made no sound: numbers to phone booths, addresses to city docks, wordless hand-drawn maps.
Dick enjoyed talking to the likes of me. It made him feel like the Reverend Jerry Falwell. I thought, here's the real difference between us: I'm ashamed of looking down on him, but he's not ashamed of looking down on me. He doesn't even know he's doing it. In that, I was the better man.
“Well, I'm sure you'll have lots of…adventures,” he said. He turned to go, then paused, as if he might apologize for being such a dork, or ask me out again, or try to pencil another point on his scorecard of salvation.
I almost wanted him to try. I could almost dare him.