Saturday, May 19, 2012

"Was It Magic or Only Sleight of Hand?"

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I was teaching a creative writing class in 1976 and my students were to write a short story. I decided if they had to do it, I should also. This is what I came up with, a bit longer than it should have been, but I had fun recreating a time just after I'd gotten back from Korea. It was fiction, but pretty close to fact.

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I hadn’t seen her for almost two years, and all of a sudden, there she was. Across a crowded room, smoke gets in your eyes, some enchanted evening--all the stuff you remember from old love songs. And though we certainly weren’t in the most romantic setting, still it felt like I could hear the swelling violins of the theme from Romeo and Juliet. Before I get all mushed up in the memory, I should explain who Juliet was, who she was, Carol was.

We’d gone together, sort of, for almost as long as I could remember. I say “sort of” because I’ve always been so dumb about people, girls in particular. I can’t seem to talk to them or get close to them. It’s not exactly that I’m shy, more like inconsiderate.

Anyway, I and Carol had been in the same grade and classroom from the third grade on up, when she’d moved to town in 1941. In a town as small as Shelby, Minnesota, there were only two classrooms for each grade, and the division and seating was always alphabetical. She was Sloan and I was Stevens. Carol Sloan and Jimmy Stevens, always seated one behind the other. And I grew up knowing the back of her head better than her face.

Her blond hair was long mostly, sometimes pulled back in a pony tail and sometimes out full around her shoulders. I always looked forward to the pony tail days when there were interesting ears and neck to look at. I guess I came to love the back of her head before I ever fell for the rest of her. But that’s the way it is with nine and ten-year-old boys--pretty stupid for the most part.

I grew up with her every mole and hair ribbon and wisp of neck hair until the seventh grade. Then two things happened that changed all that. One day Carol came to school with her hair cut. I don’t know what it was called, but her hair was cut very short, with soft curls all over. A whole new head to get to know. And then two days later, the second thing happened--Carl Spencer moved to town.

Carl Spencer. Short, ugly, mean, nasty, pig-face Carl Spencer. He was the kind that inspired instant hatred, at least in me. Why couldn’t his mother have married an Arnold, or a Blake, or a Cady, or almost anyone other than a Spencer? From that day on I got to stare at old Carl’s neck and head. And I came to hate the sight.

From that very first day he did things he knew would bug me. He must have known. When Miss Jenner answered the knock on the door, old man Johnson, the principal, came in with Carl right behind him. Carl was short for seventh grade, only about two feet tall, the little gnome. No, not really. I shouldn’t let my feeling color my description of him. But he was short. He had close-cropped red hair, the curls so tight they made his face look red, like his skin didn’t quite fit, and a pair of thick horn rimmed glasses, the kind that invariably broke across the bridge, as his had, and had to be held together with adhesive tape so the lens never quite sat directly in front of his eyes, but were always slightly off line, one lens higher than the other, and so loose they were constantly sliding down his nose, getting pushed up every five seconds with a dirty forefinger. And the nose they slid down. Now wonder the glasses wouldn’t stay up. His nose was short and road and pushed up at the end, making him look like a red-faced little Porky Pig.

On that awful day of his arrival, he just stood there and looked at us with his slightly belligerent stare while Miss Jenner and Mr. Johnson whispered behind him. Push up the glasses. We all stared back, not saying anything to each other. Push up the glasses. And right then I knew we were going to be enemies for life. Maybe I’m exaggerating and my dislike for him came only later, after I really got to know him. But that first sight was so vivid. Why would I remember it so well if it wasn’t hate at first sight?

Mr. Johnson, his head bobbing up and down, smiled at Miss Jenner and backed out of the room. Then Miss Jenner took Carl by the arm and said, “Well, class, we have someone new in school. His name is Carl Spencer and . . .” and then she looked at me and continued, “he’ll be sitting between Jimmy and Carol. Jimmy, would you move your school things to the empty seat behind you?”

I just sat there for a few seconds before I stammered, “But . . . but can’t he sit in the empty desk?”

Miss Jenner and Pig Face had come down the aisle toward me. He stopped near Carol, pushed his glasses up and smiled at her like the sun rising in the east. Carol smiled back and then looked down at her desk in embarrassment.

“Now, Jimmy, you know we’ve always had an alphabetical seating arrangement. We wouldn’t want to break tradition, now would we?” Miss Jenner was in her thirties and not very pretty, so tradition meant a lot to her. Classroom organization meant a lot to her. She started helping me pick up things from my desk--books, pencils, papers, a Mad magazine, and a small sheet of blue paper I was trying desperately to hide in my notebook. But Carl was too quick for me and grabbed it and held it out to Miss Jenner. I’d been doodling on it during English and on it I’d drawn a large heart with all kinds of flourishes and a JS--CS over the arrow. Most of the kids sitting around me, and that included Carol, saw it, and there were giggles and whispers that spread all over the room.

“My goodness, Jimmy, I never suspected you of such an artistic interest,” Miss Jenner said in a voice louder than I wanted. But at least she had enough mercy not to pursue it. Carol was turned around in her desk looking at me, but I was too embarrassed to meet her eyes. I got up and moved back one desk, and Carl insinuated himself into my old desk before I’d even had a chance to sit down.

From that moment on, my view of Carol was obstructed by Carl’s arrogant, freckled neck and red curls.

From that moment on, we competed, old Carl and I. We competed over nearly everything--grades, art projects, seats on the bus, position in the lunch line, votes in elections for one class position or another. Everything, anything, no matter how stupid or unimportant.

We both went out for track in our freshman year and I got to know Carl’s neck even better as, time after time, he went by me and stayed just ahead of me in the mile. I saw it at football practices when he’d give me a little juke to the inside with those stumpy legs of his and then scoot outside and around my right linebacker position. During basketball season, from my usual spot on the bench, I watched the sweat roll down from those wet little curls and trickle down his neck as he crouched on the floor by the coach during timeouts. And all the while it was push up the glasses, and a salty smirky grin for me.

But most of all it was a contest for Carol. And there I was the winner, at least most of the time. Like I said, I have this dumb hangup about getting close to people. Some guys can go steady with a girl, have understandings, make small talk with her parents, carry on hour-long whispered phone conversations, be together all the time and never seem to be uncomfortable. But with Carol it was different. No, with me it was different. A date or an unplanned meeting and it would be magic, at least for me. And then afterward maybe a week could go by without my calling her or asking her out on a date. And then when I finally did call, it was like talking to her for the very first time, over-formal and uncomfortable. It’s only now in looking back on those times I realize how I must have driven her crazy wondering just where she stood with me. But after we’d been together for a while on a date, the discomfort always disappeared and the magic returned.

The first time I really remember one of those moments was when we were about twelve. I guess it must have been just about the time Carl Spencer came to town and came into our lives--barged into our lives. Carol’s and my parents, who knew each other but weren’t really friends, had been invited to a family picnic at the farm of a mutual acquaintance. It was nearly fall, when the air had just started to have an evening chill to it and an outdoor fire was more beautiful than it would ever be again. We’d finished the meal--barbecued chicken and potato salad and Jello and pop--and everyone was just sitting around staring into the fire, or talking in low tones about the things people talk about after a big meal and too much beer.

We kids were playing some kind of game, hide-and-seek it must have been, but it was almost too dark for a serious game. There were about a dozen or more of us ranging from eight to the old one of twelve, Carol and me and another boy and girl whom we knew from school. The game dissolved as games do, and most of the kids had wandered back to the fire. Carol and I were still in the barn where we’d been hiding from Tommy Reimer, who was “it.” The moon was shining through the barn windows, and there were spider webs and dust all over, and the air was heavy with ammonia, but it didn’t matter. We were whispering together about school and what we’d done that summer and silly unimportant things of the moment. And I felt wonderful. We were sitting on the floor in an empty stall, some scattered hay under us, our backs against the stall boards.

After about fifteen minutes when it became apparent no one was looking for us, Carol giggled at something I’d said and then leaned around me to look out at the barn door. We didn’t touch, but we were so close I could almost feel the contact, and I could smell the freshness of her skin. I was fascinated with her neck and chin in blue moonlight, so close to my face I could have leaned forward just an inch or two and kissed her. But I was only twelve and life and times were far different back then.

“Don’t you think we better go see where everybody is?” she whispered, sitting back down beside me in the hay. “I bet they’re wondering about us.”

“I guess so,” I answered, but I really didn’t care where they were or what they were wondering. Carol started to get up, and put her hand on my shoulder for support. I was also just starting to pull my feet under me, and her added weight made us tumble together awkwardly. We laughed and tried again. I stood and pulled her up by the hand. And I didn’t let go. And she didn’t pull away.

We walked to the barn door, holding hands and not saying anything. Her hand was warm and smooth and she gripped my hand tight, as though making sure I understood it was no accident, our holding hands. Then, as we got to the door and could see the fire and the orange glow flickering on the ground and trees, our hands let go, slowly, with some regret and a little embarrassment at what we thought but didn’t say--that the other kids would laugh at us and the parents would smile knowingly at each other if they saw us holding hands. And for the rest of that night we didn’t say anything, but whenever I’d look up across the lowering flames, I’d find her eyes on me. And it was magic, and I’m sure it was for both of us.

From then on, there was an unspoken agreement between us. We were “friends.” We sort of belonged to each other. This was understood by nearly everyone else in the school, and the boys all maintained an off-limits attitude toward Carol.

All, that is, except Carl. He was always around, from that first day when I lost my position behind Carol right up into high school.

He was always around, at lunch time, walking with her in the halls, at parties when we’d all be together at someone’s house, at informally stag school dances. And all the while, Carol and I still had this weird relationship. When we were together on a date--at a party, or to a movie, or just riding around in my dad’s car--we’d talk about school or movies or books we were reading. And we’d always wind up parked in the country at one of the various private places--at the end of the old abandoned stretch of highway 72 when they rerouted it, or down by Silver Lake, or any of the other lovers’ lanes that everyone knew about. But there was always this shyness, always a degree of formality. And we never talked about our feeling for each other or our relationship. We’d just invariably wind up necking and listening to the car radio. We never had that easy married quality so many kids have who go together for a long time through high school. You know the kind. They’d be on easy terms with each other’s parents and they’d always be seen talking in the halls or walking home from school together. Whenever Carol and I passed in the halls, it was a quiet “hi” and an exchanged smile and then we’d go on our way. But never that casual banter of most other couples.

Early in December of our senior year, everyone else was busy arranging dates for the annual Christmas formal. But not me. I was still working up the courage to call Carol. Apparently she’d finally decided not to wait for me any longer. When I finally called her about going to the dance with me, she very coolly let me know she already had a date. I can’t remember what my reaction was, but I’m sure I must have stammered some sort of goodbye and then sat for a moment by the phone, feeling that odd tingling sensation in the neck and cheeks and the sinking in the stomach.

The next day between classes, Carl stopped me in the hall, eagerness obvious in his little eyes. “Hey Stevens,” he said, “you got a date for the dance yet?” I knew right then what I didn’t want to know--he’d asked Carol to go with him and she’d said yes. Oh, he was trying to be so casual about it, but his eyes, his ugly little pig eyes, just sparkled anticipating my discomfort.

“Why . . . uh . . . no, not yet,” I mumbled, hating the hesitation in my voice. “I thought I’d ask Marsha Williams. I’ve always wanted to take her out but I’ve never had the chance before.” Carl slumped in disappointment that I hadn’t taken the bait and asked him who his date was. But it was a hollow victory, and it couldn’t make up for the sour feeling in my stomach. Carl and Carol. All my worst dreams come true.

I made some parting comment and walked away. Carl started after me and half shouted, “Hey! Wait a minute! Maybe we could double date, you and Marsha and me and Carol.” I didn’t turn around. I kept walking. If I’d turned around he’d have seen the look on my face and known he’d won after all. The twerp. The rotten, ugly little creep. Double date! There are people who have absolutely no idea that others find them obnoxious, repellent. They just push and push and don’t even realize their pushiness, and they can’t understand why no one likes them. Well, that was Carl Spencer. Oh God! How I hated him!

I cooled off enough by the end of school to keep from making a fool of myself, but I made sure I didn’t run into either Carl or Carol.

That evening I called quiet Marsha and asked her for a date. She was so shocked to hear from me she said yes. I don’t know. Maybe she was even happy to go out with me. I’d never really paid much attention to her before. She was one of those girls you know all your life, who’s been in most of the classes you’ve taken, who’s very nice, rather pretty, who laughs with you when someone tells a joke. And yet you hardly notice her. At least you never think of her as a potential date.

When I picked her up that Saturday night, I realized why I’d never thought of her as a date. Oh, don’t misunderstand. She didn’t show up in a gunny sack. She was very pretty in a pink, floor-length formal with a white fur jacket, her brown hair framing her face. Very pretty. But she wasn’t Carol. It was as simple as that, and that was the first time I really realized exactly how much Carol dominated my thoughts.

So, there I was, with a perfectly lovely date, me in my gray suit (In Shelby, a formal dance didn’t mean tuxedo. It meant something other than jeans and sweatshirt.) and a white corsage, which I gave to Marsha to pin on. I didn’t quite feel up to pinning a flower on a stranger. Everything should have been great, but I still felt lousy.

I didn’t feel any better after we got to the dance. Our high school gym was decorated with red and green streamers tied to the basketball rims and swooping up to a large square net above the center of the floor, the netting pregnant with red and green balloons, just waiting for the evening’s climax when they’d be dropped on the screaming dancers below. in one corner, there was a small Christmas tree with flashing lights, and along the back wall was a long table with several punch bowls and baskets of nuts and trays of little sandwiches, the kind you could eat forever and never get full. A five-piece band that called itself the Melo-Tones was playing something slow and not very well. The entertainment committee had done itself proud once again. And right in the middle of the dance floor, where we couldn’t miss them, were Carl and Carol, dancing too close together.

Marsha and I danced, making idiotic conversation about school, but my mind wasn’t with it and my heart certainly wasn’t in it. I kept seeing Carol in the arms of that smug little creep Carl.

During the first intermission, I went for some punch to bring back to the table where I’d plunked Marsha. Bob Olson sidled up to me as I was ladling punch into two glasses.

“Hey, Stevens,” he said in a conspiratorial voice, “you wanna swigga somethin’ better’n that slop? I gotta bottle of Four Roses out in my car, an’ you can split it if you wanna split the cost.” I’d never had much to do with the Bob Olsons of the school, but right then I figured, what the heck, if she doesn’t care enough about me, then why should I care what she or anybody else in the school thinks?

“Where’s your car?” I whispered.

We went out through one of the rear exit doors near the restrooms. The night sky was clear with stars everywhere, and our breath made white clouds in the cold Minnesota air as we walked to his car in the back parking lot. I gave him three dollars for my share, and then Bob introduced me to the manly art of, as he called it, auto-booze. He opened two bottles of Seven-Up and explained it to me. The idea was to fill the bottle to the top with whiskey and then drink it down to the Seven-Up. Then you repeated the process, each time drinking down to the diminishing level of the Seven-Up until after three or four such jolts, you’d finished off the bottle. He demonstrated for me--tipped the bottle up, gurgled once, shuddered slightly, and pronounced, “Oh, yeah! That’s good.”

I did as I’d seen him do, only I couldn’t stop gurgling. I’d drunk about three big swallows of the Seven-Up when Bob grabbed my arm. “Hey! Don’t drink all the chaser. You’re only supposed to drink a little off the top.” I was glad the car was too dark for him to see the tears in my eyes. Already my throat and stomach felt warm, and after I blinked my eyes clear I decided it wasn’t so bad after all. We went through the ritual twice more, but then my chaser was gone, and we went back to the dance.

From that point on, the evening wasn’t so clear to me. The most I’d had to drink before then was a little beer on summer picnics, and I wasn’t prepared for my initiation to whiskey. I remember the gym became very warm, and my dancing, never very good, got worse. I thought I was so suave, inventing new dance steps that would make Fred Astaire envious. Marsha had a pained, embarrassed expression as I flung her around the floor, lurching after her in a crazy slide step. Even the band sounded good. Other dancers made room for us, laughing at my gyrations. Then I stumbled and bumped hard into someone’s back.

“Hey, you jerk! Whattaya think you’re doing?” Carl had spun around and was facing me, his hands clenched at his sides and his little eyes red with anger. Carol was looking at me anxiously over Carl’s shoulder, but I ignored her in the heat of the whiskey and my growing desire to do damage to Carl’s pig nose.

“Hey, Carl ya little gnome, how ‘bout you ‘n me goin’ outside? Huh, you little pig nose pig face pig?” I was boiling mad and nothing made better sense than for me to smash his smug face in.

“I’d love to,” he said.

I don’t remember how we got out without everyone in the place knowing, but none of the chaperones were aware of what we were up to. About a dozen kids followed us out the rear door and all of a sudden we were facing each other in the dim light from the exit sign, standing on the cold asphalt with a thin ring of people around us.

My only experience with fistfights was secondhand, from low budget westerns and private eye films. I knew when Roy Rogers hit someone on the chin, it made a sound like pounding nails, a nice clean THOCK! I never did understand what Batman’s BIF, POW, BAM were supposed to be. And no one ever got cut up or bled a drop or even lost a hat, at least not in the westerns.

That’s what I was expecting when Carl and I came together. We circled each other, left hands up, right hands tucked, imitating Joe Louis and Sugar Ray, at least I was. I could hear words of encouragement from the edge of my attention, words more like the Romans for the Christians than for me and Carl. The bystanders just wanted to see some action, a little blood, one of the lions tearing a Christian’s arm off, and all we were giving them was cautious circling. I made a tentative jab with my left and then swung with my right, a beautiful haymaker aimed at Carl’s chin. Carl ducked and then I was on my face on the rough blacktop. All I remember was the dull THUD and the pain in the side of my face. It had sounded like someone hitting a side of beef with the flat of a meat cleaver. No romance in that sound, no THOCK, no BIF, POW, or BAM.

My head was spinning and I couldn’t seem to get up. Nothing hurt after the first pain, but when I touched my face, my hand came away sticky and the blood felt cold in the night air. Then Carol was crouching beside me and crying over me and screaming at Carl to get away and leave me alone. She helped me get up and led me to my dad’s car, and we sat in the front seat, both of us crying and holding each other. And I hadn’t felt so good in a long time.

I found out later that Marsha went home with Carl. I’ve always felt really guilty about that evening as far as Marsha was concerned. She deserved better. Better than Carl, certainly, but also better than me and the way I treated her.

Carol drove me to her house. Her parents were already in bed, thank God, so I didn’t have to explain anything to them. I cleaned off my face and discovered a deep cut on the cheekbone apparently from Carl’s class ring, the flesh around it already swollen and turning a deep purple. We drank coffee until my head straightened out. Then we sat in my cold car and talked, and kissed, and Carol said she had to go in or her parents would be upset. We kissed good night and I swore never again to be so inconsiderate of her, and she said she understood.

I drove home, feeling like the world was all new again, magic again, and my face hardly even hurt.

My face healed, leaving a pinkish white scar that Carol swore gave me a whole new personality, Gentleman Jim Stevens she called me. Carol and I healed, and there was a sort of understanding between us that we would get married sometime. Our senior year ended too quickly and before I knew it, Uncle Sam dropped me a letter saying I was needed in a place halfway around the world, a place I’d never even heard of until the Communists put it on the map.

After four months of basic training and a brief leave to come home, I was shipped overseas--a dismal, vomity troopship to Yokohama, then another to Pusan, then a train and a truck ride deep into the center of Korea. And there I was with an M-1 rifle and my Gentleman Jim scar and a whole lot of fear about the immediate and long range future. Carol and I exchanged long, passionate love letters while time moved ever so slowly in the mud and cold of the Korean winter and spring.

The following November I got the letter I’d heard so much about in army jokes, the Dear John. Carl had never been drafted because of his eyes, his little pig eyes that kept him out of the war and too close to Carol. He’d gotten a job at the local hardware store. Apparently he’d persisted in his efforts to win Carol, and my letters to Carol had become fewer and farther between, a long-distance lack of consideration. A year is a long time. I guess we both sort of lost track of what we felt for each other. But I was hurt, especially by the fact it was Carl I’d been thrown over for. I suffered silently, taking the usual digs from army buddies. But I survived the digs, and I survived the war and the boredom of army life.

And one day in late June I got my orders that finally sent he home and away from the previous sixteen months in Korea. A transport plane to Tokyo. Then boring days aboard a troopship, days of chilly ocean spray, endless poker and pinochle games on deck, hours of wave-watching, dreams mainly of ice cream and personal freedom. And yes, thoughts of Carol. And the closer I got, the more often I thought of her.

The night I got back to Shelby, my mother told me all about what had happened between Carl and Carol. It seems they’d set a wedding date for June 15, but about a week before the wedding, it was just quietly canceled. Usually in a town as small as Shelby, everyone knows your business even before you do. But my mother assured me that no one knew why the wedding had been called off. I guess I’d been thinking about her more than I realized, because when my mother told me about it, I could feel the old excitement building.

It was Saturday night, around nine o’clock, and despite my usual aversion to the telephone, I called her house. Her mother answered. “Oh, I’m sorry, Carol’s gone to a movie with George Willis. Can I give her a message when she gets home?”

“Well, no, I guess not,” I said, but I couldn’t hide my disappointment. Carol’s mother must have recognized my voice.

“Is this Jimmy? Jim Stevens?”

“Uh, yes, it is, Mrs. Sloan. I just got back tonight and I thought I’d call to say hello.” My usual sparkling repartee.

“She’ll be sorry she missed you,” Mrs. Sloan said, “but I’ll tell her you called.”

“Okay, Mrs. Sloan. Uh, thanks, and it’s been nice talking to you.” More wit. I wanted to bite my tongue. “Well, so long, and tell Carol I called.”

“Goodbye, Jimmy . . . Jim. I’ll tell her. I’m glad you’re home safe and sound.”

George Willis, I thought. Now where would old George take her after the movie? I told my mom and dad I thought I’d go out and see if I could find some of the old gang. They were obviously disappointed I wasn’t going to spend my first night home with them, but they must have seen my eagerness and understood who I was really looking for. I saw the quick look between them and knew they knew.

I took a fast shower and put on a sport shirt and some slacks my mother had kept carefully pressed for my return. My dad sighed a little when I asked to borrow his car, but he was already reaching in his pocket as he sighed.

I must have spent an hour or more driving around to all the likely spots. I went by the theater, but the first show was already over and the crowds had all disappeared. I drank a quick beer in Lucky’s Tavern down from the theater, but they weren’t there. Then I hit each of the other bars on Main, having a beer in each, and having to make the usual small talk with the people who were glad to see me back in town.

By midnight I was really full of beer and feeling disappointed that Carol was nowhere to be found. I decided to try one last place, an after-hours club called the Silver spur. It was a real joint as I remembered hearing classmates talk about it. Loud jukebox, old brown booths, dirty floor, and really nasty restrooms.

When I walked in, I couldn’t believe the noise. It seemed like everyone in Shelby was there, and the music was blaring. Smoke, noise, people, assorted aromas of stale beer, week-old sweat, and backed-up urinals and toilets. How romantic. And yet when I looked across the dance floor, there she was, sitting a corner booth and looking right into me. I guess George was there too, but I never noticed. I walked through the standing crowds and across the dance area, through the dancers. Carol got up and I took her in my arms without a word. We danced one dance without saying anything. We just held on, and she felt good, natural, like I’d known her forever.

When the record finished, we pulled away and I just looked at her. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. The noise was deafening, but she knew what I’d said. She nodded and went back to the booth where she said something to George. He looked over at me and then back at Carol. He looked disappointed, even angry, but he nodded and said something, and then she was walking toward me and looking right into me.

We drove to a darkened turnoff on an old dirt road lined with oaks, and I parked the car and turned on the radio. The moon made irregular white spots on the road and the hood of the car as it filtered through the trees, and I could just make out the features of her face in the dim light from the radio. Then we kissed, just like in the old times a million years before. I’m not sure what was said. I know that I got the garbled story about Carl and how she just couldn’t go through with it. And somewhere along the way I must have said something about marriage.

It was nearly three in the morning when I finally walked her to her back door and kissed her good night. Carol had said something about a picnic at Silver Lake the next afternoon. She’d supply the food and drink and I’d pick her up at two. As I got in and started the car, I could see her standing inside her back door watching me. I waved and she waved back and the magic was there. I drove home with a light heart and, despite all the beer, a feeling of buoyancy. And a sense of commitment I’d never felt before.

The next day was hot and still with that July haze over everything. The trees drooped in the heat and I had a headache from too much beer and too little sleep the night before, a night filled with dreams, one after another, crazy, disconnected scenes from Korea, high school, grade school, and I was nervously, anxiously searching for something in all of them.

My mother fixed my breakfast. Although she obviously wanted to question me about the previous night, she didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer any information. About one o’clock I asked my dad for the car. No sigh this time, only the question, “What’ve you got planned, Jimmy? You look a little green around the gills. Love, or just too much time with the old gang last night?” He wasn’t really looking for an answer, but I mentioned I’d bumped into Carol. Mom was hovering around in the dining room, trying to hear our conversation as she pretended to be busy with the tablecloth.

“Carol and I are going to Silver Lake for a swim and a little picnic. We won’t be gone long, and I’ll be here for dinner. Okay?” I left it at that, even though it sounded so . . . clandestine. Now there was a word that showed just how far over the edge I’d gone. The new me, I thought, the clandestine me.

Carol was waiting for me when I arrived. She answered the door and asked me to come in to help her carry the food. She was beautiful, radiant, smiling secret smiles at me. Just my luck, her parents were both at home and I had to make conversation, the kind I’m so bad at, and all the while they kept looking at me and smiling, sizing me up as a future son-in-law.

We finally escaped into the hot sunlight and into the car, which was sizzling by this time. Silver Lake was only about twenty minutes away, and neither of us said much, what with the air blowing on us from the vent windows and the radio playing, Vic Damone singing, “They asked me how I knew, my true love was true. I of course replied, something deep inside, cannot be denied.” Ah yes, how appropriate, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

We found a shady, secluded spot along the east shore and I carried the basket and blanket from the car. By then, we both knew something was wrong with the picnic and the day and everything else. We sat on the blanket, neither of us saying anything. Then Carol--looking at her knees, her brown lovely knees pulled up and held in her arms, looking just like she’d always looked with her short hair (She’d never gone back to long hair from the time she’d first had it cut in seventh grade.) and a sleeveless pullover blouse and cutoff blue jeans, looking at her knees and not at me--then Carol said quietly, “What’s wrong, Jimmy? What’s the matter?” She wasn’t angry, only puzzled. “I was so happy last night when you walked in and I saw you and I knew you were looking for me.” She reached down and picked at the clover near the edge of the blanket. She still hadn’t looked up. “I’d thought about that moment and dreamed about just how it would be, and it happened just the way I knew it would. So why do I feel so bad today?” She looked up at me as she asked it and her eyes were glistening with beginning tears, and her voice was breaking and very quiet. All I could do was look at her.

“Carol . . .” I began, and then paused so long I felt a nervous little laugh form inside me. “Carol, I don’t know what it is, what it’s ever been with me and you.” Another long pause. “I’ve hurt you so many times and I don’t know why.” She was looking at her knees again, but her head was making little motions back and forth, denying everything I was saying, or maybe just not understanding. I didn’t understand either. “All I know is that I . . . we’ve got so much to do and see in life that it . . . it wouldn’t be fair to you or to me to, to get tied down just now.” It wasn’t anything I’d planned or even wanted to say. It just came out. And I felt like I’d just drowned a sackful of kittens, and life was gray and ugly. Then she was sobbing and her face dissolved in tears and hurt wonder.

“What . . . what is it?” she asked. “Is it me? What have I done wrong?” And there was genuine puzzlement in her voice as to why it was always like this, what there was in me that wouldn’t allow me to commit myself to her. There was no anger, only her pain.

And all the magic was gone, and all I could feel was relief.

* * *

And now, abracadabra, from out of a tall black hat--a rabbit, a bowl of goldfish, a pink elephant, hundreds of violently red, green, yellow and blue, striped, polkadotted, tie-dyed silk scarves, knotted together and pulled hand over hand out of the depths of the hat, faster and faster until a multicolored mountain of scarves builds at the feet of the magician. And last, but certainly not least, the most dazzling item of all--from out of the hat a cloud appears, genie-smoke curling upward and rounding and smoothing into an irregular balloon. The smoke thickens and expands and covers the stage, then into the audience, and all are lost in the dream-fog. And then, as the smoke begins to thin, the actors are seen assembling on stage, and time stands still . . . then slowly swings back, and the music swells once more . . .

* * *

“They asked me how I knew, my true love was true . . .”

We found a shady, secluded spot along the east shore and I carried the basket and blanket from the car. A breeze from off the lake cooled the day, cooled us, and all the discomfort of the ride to the lake disappeared.

We sat on the blanket, neither of us saying anything. Then Carol--looking at her knees, her brown lovely knees pulled up and held in her arms, looking just like she’d always looked with her short hair (She’d never gone back to long hair from the time she’d first had it cut in seventh grade.) and a sleeveless pullover blouse and cutoff blue jeans, looking at her knees and not at me--then Carol said quietly, “I always knew it would be like this, even when it looked like it might . . . we might . . . like Carl and I would get married and you and I would never be you and I.” She looked at me for the first time and her eyes never wavered from mine. “I knew it would happen for us.” Her eyes never left mine, and then she smiled a Carol smile. “I was so happy last night when you walked in and I saw you and I knew you were looking for me.” She reached down and picked at the clover near the edge of the blanket. “I’d thought about that moment and dreamed about just how it would be, and it happened just the way I knew it would. And I know it sounds silly, but I swear I heard violins when our eyes met last night. Does that seem too crazy?”

She was still looking directly at me, her brow furrowed with the intensity of the question. She wanted some reassurance, and her eyes were glistening with beginning tears. All I could do was look at her.

“Carol . . .” I began, and then paused so long I felt a nervous little laugh form inside me. And then the laugh blossomed into warmth as I realized just how much I truly wanted her. “Carol, it’s not crazy because I heard the violins too. I don’t know why . . . why I’ve acted so . . . stupid around you, so unable to let you know how I felt, how I feel.” Another long pause. And then the words came in a rush, like everything I’d kept shut away had finally broken loose. “But I know right now how I feel and I know I love you and, and, and how much I want you.” She was looking at her knees again, but her head was making little motions up and down, as though she understood everything I was saying and feeling, even knowing about why I’d never been able to say it before.

I put my hands on the sides of her face and tilted her toward me and her tears were gleaming. “All I know is I . . . we’ve got so much to do and see in life together that . . . I can can hardly wait to get started.” And I pulled her to me and kissed her teary eyes and we laughed as we kissed and our teeth clicked together and all the magic was there. The whole world was magic, and I’d never before felt so complete.

* * *

The curtain falls. The magician, center stage, reappears in a cloud of smoke, and bows to the audience, which acknowledges with whistles and hand clapping, appreciating the beauty, the magic of it all . . . wanting to believe, yearning to believe in the magician and his magic, in life’s magic, in the magic of love.