“Want to go bowling next Saturday?” Phillip Levinski asked with a shy smile after church one weekend, and Elizabeth’s face heated up and her palms started to sweat and she said yes.
The next week was spent in a frenzy of preparation, with all the focused determination she had in her fourteen-year-old soul. It felt like she’d been waiting forever for her first date, so it had to be perfect. Would a pink cardigan be best, to show she was feminine, or a red one, so he’d notice her? Should she leave her hair loose and straight, like Cher, or should she attempt a flip? Could she get away with a little lipstick? What if he tried to kiss her?
Not that it mattered, because it turned out that Phillip’s idea of bowling meant that she should sip a lukewarm Coke and watch him and his friends play pinball. The other boys told stupid jokes and kept trying to look down her blouse, and every time she looked at Phillip, silently pleading for him to tell them to get lost, he averted his eyes.
When she got home, she threw herself across her narrow twin bed and sobbed into her Monkees pillowcase while her mother rubbed her back and tried to console her.
“It’s just a date,” Mom said in her kind, matter-of-fact voice. “Better to get the bad ones out of the way early. They’ll get better after this, I promise.”
“Hall & Oates at the stadium this Friday,” Barry Wallace from Accounting told her at the water cooler one morning, grinning broadly. “Want to come? I’ve got a spare ticket.”
“Sure,” she said, not thinking about it nearly enough. After all, it was always good to have work friends, even if Barry had a good twenty years on her, and he was a good guy, with a cheery red face and an avuncular smile that sort of reminded her of Santa Claus. Besides, maybe this would give them some time to discuss the particulars on the Rodriguez account during the opening act.
Later, she would acknowledge she was an idiot.
But on Friday night, she didn’t see any problem in letting Barry in to wait in the hall as she gave the baby-sitter last-minute instructions. Kristy, as usual, was sitting on the couch and watching with a mix of awe and not-quite-concealed jealousy as the teenage sitter shifted David Michael onto her hip and tried not to look bored.
“Two Oreos each for dessert, no more,” Elizabeth said. “Charlie’s supposed to wash his Little League uniform; he knows how to run the machine on his own. And you can let Louie out if he scratches at the back door.”
Kristy bounced up and down a little, eager to be helpful however she could. “Mom, don’t forget to tell Tina what to do if Sam wets the – ”
Looking back, Elizabeth had absolutely no idea why he did it or what he could have been thinking. Maybe it was nervous energy, or a boost of confidence at being allowed into the house so soon, or maybe he was just an idiot. But in any case, Barry chose that moment to appear behind the couch like a horrible Mom-invited boogeyman and actually scoop her daughter in his arms.
“Well, hello there, little lady,” he boomed in her face, voice awash with nervous cheer. “You must be Kirstie. I’m Barry, your mommy’s date tonight.”
Elizabeth’s first thought was, Oh my God, he has my little girl.
Her second was, Wait, this is a date?
Neither really mattered, though, because as usual, Kristy took complete control of the situation; she screamed at the top of her lungs and punched him square in the throat.
“I hope Chez Maurice is all right,” Richard said nervously as he parked the car, just a few yards from the most chic restaurant in Stamford. Or so she heard – raising four kids on her own, Elizabeth could barely afford the occasional take-out pizza, let alone a fancy four-course meal.
“Of course,” she assured him. “I love French food,” and he smiled with relief.
She actually found it rather charming that he was so nervous, but then, there was a lot about Richard Spier that was charming. His old-fashioned manners, how devoted he was to his daughter, the way his ties always carefully matched his shirt. To be honest, she’d had a little crush on him for years, maybe even since before she’d divorced Patrick. Maybe even since before Richard’s wife, Alma, had died, though she’d never admit it.
Richard was stable, with a good job. He worked hard and always played by the rules. He was everything Patrick had never been. So when he’d pulled her aside at Mary Anne’s ninth birthday party and asked her, quietly, if she’d consider having dinner with him, Elizabeth hadn’t hesitated before saying yes.
When he turned off the engine, Richard got out of the car first and rushed over to her side so he could open the door for her. When he smiled down at her and tucked her arm into his like he was starring in a Gregory Peck movie and she was Audrey Hepburn, he was truly handsome. Her heart skipped.
Elizabeth had always been a practical person, but just for an instant, she let her mind flash forward with a vision of the future – a happy marriage, a big house for them all to live in, a good role model for her sons, a sister for her daughter. Why hadn’t they done this sooner?
She beamed back and let him lead her to the restaurant, where a tuxedoed employee held open the door.
Richard paused to let her go first and said, “After you, Alma.”
Once, when she was a freshman in college, Elizabeth couldn’t believe her luck when the boy she had a crush on from Sociology 101 asked her out. He was a year older, a fraternity brother, and he had a way of smiling that made every girl feel like prettiest one in the room.
It was casual, just dinner at the pizza place a few blocks away from campus, but they walked back together afterward, hand in hand. The sky was inky blue and filled with an endless blanket of twinkling stars, but he didn’t notice; he was only looking at her with that little v-shaped grin on his face, like he had the most wonderful secret.
But it wasn’t until she’d been married to him a few years that Elizabeth realized that that first night with Patrick had been her very worst date.
Her secretary, Ruth, had been itching to play matchmaker for months. Finally Elizabeth had been worn down enough to agree to a blind date with, of all things, the ex-husband of Ruth’s aerobics buddy.
Her reluctance had been so obvious that Ruth had said, “Oh, come on, it’s not that big a deal. Hey, look at it this way—at least you’ll get a free dinner.”
At least she hadn’t become that jaded, Elizabeth thought to herself as she headed to downtown Stoneybrook; after many years and many bad dates, she’d finally learned that one way to minimize awkwardness was to bring her own car. But she wasn’t really thinking about the date even as she drove to it, preoccupied with what she was going to put in David Michael’s lunch in the morning, Sam’s latest detention, Kristy’s baby-sitting job, the way Charlie had looked so worried as she headed out the door this evening, too young to be so protective.
When she parked in front of Renwick’s, she almost didn’t want to get out of the car. A vision of every awful date she’d ever had flashed through her mind, like a specter of what was to come. And with that kind of track record, why even bother?
For Ruth’s sake, at least, she talked herself into standing out by the entrance, where she’d agreed to meet him. No one else was there—he was late. Great sign.
But within a few minutes, a man was walking up to her, looking equal parts rushed, apologetic, and hesitant. “Are you Elizabeth?” When she nodded, he smiled and held out his hand to shake. “I’m Watson Brewer. I’m sorry I’m late—my daughter’s afraid of one of the neighbors, she can be a little excitable—have I kept you waiting?”
He was balding, a little heavy, and had a name like a big game hunter. In his smile, Elizabeth didn’t see a shy little boy, a harmless old man, an idealized future, or a romantic mystery. But it was a nice smile, and there was nothing wrong with it.
What the heck—what was one more bad date?
“Just for a little while,” Elizabeth said.