Friday, June 12, 2015

The Date that Never Was

The Date That Never Was     
Author: Marshall Lancaster

Dating had been a sore subject for me in high school in the 1980’s.  It always seemed that the more interest that I showed in a young lady whom I dated, the greater the potential for the relationship to end out of her fear of commitment.  Most of the relationships in which I was a party lasted several months, many of them ending in the proverbial let’s-see-other-people sales pitch.  Ostensibly, this was supposed to mean that, technically, I was still in the picture.  In reality, though, these words were always a bait and switch—the words of someone seeking a better offer elsewhere, truly leaving me behind like chopped liver.              

The promise of college was supposed to change all of this.  After all, in college, particularly at a big state school, the eligible girls were charming, sweet, and abundant.  In my opening weeks of undergraduate school I savored the opportunities presented to me as a young man in a thriving dating scene—or so I thought.  My roommate, a year older than myself, saw to it that we attended every party, Greek-sponsored, all-campus, dorm, apartment, or otherwise.  Surely, my dating net would be cast wide; dating was, after all, a numbers game, and the odds were smiling down upon me.     

The opening months, however, yielded an all-quiet on the dating front.  I met numerous girls, many of whom I would bump into in my classes, in the hallways, or even between classes.  Dating rarely materialized.  My roommate chalked it up to my lowly status as freshman.  He even said that the whole year could turn out like this, a drought.  I decided that I would go home one weekend and just hang out with my parents in Littleton, N.C.  They, of course, wanted to get the lowdown on college, particularly the academic side of things.  Sometimes, I would entertain questions like “Are you meeting any nice girls?”  I was sadly speechless when the subject was broached.  

“How are the girls?” my father would ask.  

“They are okay, I guess,” I would respond dejectedly.     

At the end of a great weekend of Mom’s home-cooked meals, clean clothes, and the best home-baked cookies, I prepared to make my trip back to Chapel Hill.  Mom had mentioned the possibility that friends of hers, farmers from our area, might like to make this journey to Chapel Hill with us.  These friends had never been on the campus and wanted to take a look around.  It was a Sunday night in the winter time, and there would not be much to see at night, but they were up for the trip anyway.  Suddenly, we actually had two vehicles of travelers headed to my dorm room.  Sadly, they would miss out on the more scenic aspects of the campus.  I was feeling great with them around, and sour thoughts about dating were the last thing on my mind.           
It had been decided prior to the trip that we would stop at one of the exits off 15-501, between Durham and Chapel Hill, and have a Sunday dinner at Honey’s, a country-themed restaurant thriving just prior to the arrival of Cracker Barrel.  Honey’s specialized in breakfast for dinner.  You could get hotcakes, scrambled eggs, omelettes, and the best coffee in the area.  You could also have the traditional hamburger, meatloaf, or spaghetti if you pleased.  A safe bet was always the hamburger steak with gravy and mashed potatoes.  As we walked in the door and were seated, a cloud of cigarette smoke pushed its way up to the ceiling fan.  The place was packed for a Sunday night.  I could tell by his sneaky grin that Alan—a friend of my parents--was winding up his wit.  The hostess said that our waitress would be arriving soon.  Then she appeared--a tall strawberry blonde with great manners and a charming smile.  I had my sights set on the western omelette with toast and coffee.  Alan ordered and then decided he would put me in the spotlight without my giving him the go-ahead.  Alan’s wife, a perpetual jokester named Anne, giggled as Alan began to test the waters.

“So, Marshall, have you started dating anyone yet in Chapel Hill?  I hear there are more girls than guys; 3 to 1, they say.  That’ll make it easy for you.  You should meet you a nice girl in the dorm,” Alan teased me, grinning as he attempted to get under my skin.      
“There is no way I could last as a student there,” he joked.  I kind of knew where he was going with that comment.  Getting Alan out of town was not too terribly difficult, but once you did you never knew what might ensue.  You were rolling the dice.                
“So far everything is pretty quiet.  I have met a number of girls, but coursework tends to keep me busy.  I have four years, so I am going to play it by ear and sight, I guess,” I woefully replied.         
“How do you feel about this waitress that we have—the blonde?  She’s a pretty girl.  I don’t see any rings on her fingers.  Do you?  Why don’t you put one on them?” Alan questioned.          
I told him that I had certainly noticed the charms of our polite waitress as she frequently came to our table, recommended certain dishes to some, refilled our beverages, and just exuded a certain warmth not found in your average waitress.    
That dusty old jukebox near the restaurant entrance belted out an old Ronnie Milsap classic: “Any Day Now.”                

Out of nowhere, Alan began motioning for our waitress to come to the table.  I became immediately embarrassed, turning a deep shade of red.  I had a feeling this would not be about food!  With the biggest grin on his face, he began playing his very own countrified version of Cupid, saying, “Hey!  Do you like him?  He’s a good old boy!  His parents are the nicest people I have ever met.”  He was quite a spectacle.  Can you imagine Cupid with cowboy boots and an unusually gregarious pat on the back—mine or anybody’s?  It was his way of communicating.                   
“Come here.  Come here.  You need to meet someone.  I want to introduce you to Marshall.  He is a freshman at Chapel Hill—studying medicine [that too would pass].  Even though he just saw you, he would like to ask you out on a date, maybe to the movies or even to get some dinner one night,” Alan boldly stalled her for conversation as she tried to get back to work.         

My face turned as red as a beet—mortified I was.  Suddenly, I realized that I could play this chance encounter one of two ways: (1) I could follow up on the lead established by Alan [What was there to lose?], or, (2) on the other hand, I could go into deep denial [Alan, I don’t know what you are talking about?].        

The denial would go something like this: “I said nothing of the kind.  I am actually just enjoying my coffee.”       

Betsy, our waitress, surprisingly launched into spirited conversation, happy someone had noticed her charms.    

“I go to Chapel Hill, too.  I am a double major in psychology and English.  I am just working weekends to help me meet expenses.  It helps me relate to people, too.  I could write a book about the people I meet here—some real characters.  You wouldn’t believe it,” she said with a big smile. 
We all must be careful not to read too much into big smiles.  I introduced myself, mentioned my dorm and intended major, and finished off the omelette.  For a couple of minutes I did ponder the strong likelihood that I would never see Betsy again.  The smile, the charm, the personality were all things that I wanted in a potential girlfriend.  My family members finished their meals and some got a refill on coffee while I sat there contemplating the romantic possibilities.  She surely had been nice to us.             

Meals eaten and tips paid, we stood up and proceeded to leave.  I had to be back at the dorm, and they had at least a two-hour drive back home to Littleton.  I wished Betsy well and headed for the backseat of our family car.  There would likely be no date, so it would not be wise to revisit any of Alan’s ridiculous nonsense.      

“Good luck at school,” I remember Betsy saying.   
“Wait.  How much did they charge us for the banana pudding?” Mom queried, looking at the check.           
To her great surprise, Mom had also discovered a note scribbled in ink on the check!  This was the transcript of those joyous words:   
Dear Marshall,    
I hope you will forgive me my frequent stares tonight.  I hope your friend was right about the date.  I would love to have dinner and see a movie with you.  There’s a cool drive-in between Durham and Chapel Hill.  There is also an amazing Italian place down the road from Honey’s.  It’s called Anna’s.  They have the best linguini and white clam sauce.  No pressure but how does Saturday night sound?  I have that night off this week.  I live in Hinton James, the south campus dorm behind yours.  Give me a call soon to set up the details.  

P.S.  Your friend was a real hoot.  Do you always let your friends do your talking?  Just kidding!    
Ecstatic, I thanked Alan profusely.  It did appear that my sluggish start in the dating scene was about to be remedied.  I tried not to let it swell my head, though.  So far, college had taught me a lot of humility.  I wished my family members a safe trip back home, thanked them for dinner, and sent them home with a big, confident smile on my face.  I was about to crack the dating code. 
It was only 9:30 pm, so I figured I would show my serious interest to Betsy by calling her.  I realized, though, that a call too soon might suggest a certain desperation.  We did have to work out the details of the date for Saturday, which was only six days away.  I dialed up the number, and this was the response I got: 

“Marshall?  Thank you for calling.  I just got off from work.  I hope you had a chance to think about Saturday Night [I had].  You can meet me in the lobby of my dorm if that works [That works!].”  This was an amazing feeling.      
The conversation, if you could call it that, was really going where I wanted it to go, that is, until I heard uncontrollable laughter—a cacophony of guffaws that overpowered Betsy’s voice on the phone.  It was like a punch to the belly out of nowhere.  I couldn’t quite make out the voice I heard.  It was certainly male, but even Betsy herself had gotten lost in a fit of laughter.  Boy, was I confused.                    

Finally, Alan took the phone from his wife, Anne—who had been absorbing our whole exchange with Betsy--and he painfully broke the news to me that I had been had in the biggest way possible.  He proceeded to tell me that Anne and he rigged the whole thing.  She had written the letter; she had also been “Betsy” on the phone.  I had to confess that it had been a good one; I had never quite been fooled like that—yet another romantic misadventure.   
I thank my lucky stars as I reflect, thirty years later, on the event that, fortunately, would not come to define my life.  I was fortunate enough to marry a wonderful woman who is a mother to our two amazing daughters.  Prospects were not always so great, however.  I am grateful for whatever forks in the road have brought me to my wife.  Robert Frost was right about everything.  I never take anything for granted—love, family, or meals.  On occasion I do think about that Sunday night of thirty years ago.  Whenever I dine with my friends, I see the check, and I am convinced that I could easily write a letter to lighten the mood a bit.  I mean I could really add some zest to the most boring of meals.  Boy, I could really delve into the world of matchmaking.  However, I have never brought myself to write such a letter.  I would not want to toy with anyone’s emotions for the sake of a couple of good laughs.  Not everyone is lighthearted about these things. 

Marshall Lancaster is an English teacher and department chairman at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, MD.  Writing has always helped him understand what it was like to come of age in the small towns of eastern North Carolina.  A teacher for 19 years, Lancaster is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill (B.A. in English), Appalachian State University (M.A. in English), and The Catholic University of America (M.A. in Medieval Studies).