Of course I'm nervous about my son entering into the fast-paced hurly-burly world of dating. I am bound by sacred oath to the Secret Society of Parental Semantics not to call it that: dating. Just like I am honor bound never to speak of my son's after school activities as "playdates." I know that fourteen is far too young for anyone to begin the odyssey that will last a significant chunk of his or her lifetime. The confusion, strategies and heartbreak that await him in wave after wave could wait another year, at the very least.
I waited until the end of my ninth grade year for my first date. Convention stated, in those days, that junior high school was grades seven through nine, and as a line of demarcation, the ninth graders were encouraged to go to the final dance of the year, which was called "Prom." Never mind that we had to get our parents, or in my case my older brother, to drive us from place to place. Never mind the fact that we had only recently been given the real truth about male-female relationships in health class only months before. We were ready. Or at least that's what we thought.
I had never been to a dance at my junior high prior to that night. I had heard stories. I had never been to a party outside of the neighborhood birthday cake and balloon fests that had been the staple of my youth. But I had heard stories. Couples were formed at these events. Making out was done. I had no tangible notion of these concepts, save for what I had heard in the hallways, but I was certain that it was the next stage of my development.
And so my mother took me out to buy a new shirt. A very shiny polyester garment with plenty of multi-colored stripes. I eschewed the traditional sport coat in favor of my older brother's black leather jacket. It fit a little like Tony Stark's first model armor, and made sound like a saddle. It was the look I was after.
There were six of us in the station wagon: three couples who had been friends for the past three years, and now we were carefully paired off in hopes that romance would naturally ensue. Or at least that is what the young gentlemen assumed. I know now that the emotional weight that I had put into play after spending a nine happily platonic years with the girl down the street made every moment a struggle, even without my brother's bulletproof jacket.
Here's the truth: Even without any prior experience, I simply assumed that something magical would occur. Throughout the giddy dinner at the local Italian restaurant to the horribly awkward moments upon arrival at the gymnasium when it suddenly became apparent that we were expected to dance at the ninth grade dance, prom or not. In the years since that night, I have become much more relaxed about expressing myself in this mode, but I was in no way prepared to trip anything close the light fantastic. Like a tiny child clinging to the edge of the swimming pool, I watched as others dived right in as I hung in the shadows, waiting for my moment to come.
I had heard so much about these dances, and how they always ended with "Stairway To Heaven," I felt as though I could bide my time and take my cue from the mighty Led Zeppelin. But that didn't happen. Instead, it was announced that the last dance would be "Let It Be." I had waited long enough. I don't remember now what clever way I used to ask my friend who just happened to be a girl out onto the dance floor. I know she felt a similar obligation, but neither one of us could give voice to just how clumsy this all felt. And so we found a spot, somewhere away from the swirling crowd and began to sway rhythmically to Paul McCartney imploring us over and over to "Let It Be." I didn't get the irony back then. Subtext was not my thing at the time. I had this amazing friendship that I was pushing to its logical extreme, and I could feel myself sweating and all the while I never could quite open my hands. They stayed clenched in tight fists as we gamboled about the gym floor. When the song was over, I stood up straight and the lights came up. It was time to go home.
My brother was waiting for us outside, and we dropped off the others in girl-boy order until it was just the three of us. Me in the back seat of the station wagon with the girl I had known all through grade school and junior high, and now it felt like we were on the edge of a cliff, with high school waiting below in the abyss.
And at this moment I choked, perhaps both literally and figuratively, but I know that I did not manage to walk her to the door and get that magical goodnight kiss. The moment came and went without me doing anything about it. There was no music cue, no hidden director in the bushes feeding me lines.
I spent the rest of the summer trying to sort out my feelings and manufacturing a way to make it work. It never did. We stayed friends. We still are. She was the one who pinned my boutonniere on before I went out and married my wife, who started off as a very good friend of mine. And now my son is heading out into these same waters, with his mother and me watching from the shore. Bon Voyage, and don't be afraid to Let It Be.