If I excelled at nothing else as a 14-year-old, it was the ability to shrink from any social gathering out of the fear that they’d see through my translucent hide to the nothing that cowered within. I was tall for my age, overweight, clumsy, not particularly well-spoken; I liked classical music, Thomas Wolfe, the Goon Show. Into this soup of insecurity was injected that cocktail of hormones called adolescence, so now I was all of the above and obsessed with girls.
All of a sudden at least half of every high-school class I attended was made up of girls. Girls of such oppressive nubility that I spent most of the day with a hand in one pocket, overtenting.
I started ninth grade with a number of dull electives on my schedule, one of which proved unavailable. “What do you want to do?” my guidance counselor asked. “Go home” was the correct answer, but I mutely shrugged. “There’s an opening in Theater Arts. I’ll put you in there.” Thus, very inauspiciously, did my passion for theater begin. Thanks to the time I’d put in mimicking Peter Sellers and the other Goon Show actors, I could do a passable enough Irish accent to land me as Rooney the cop in Arsenic and Old Lace. This would be my most significant time on stage, and to be sure I did well, I colluded with the fellow playing Dr. Einstein to rent a copy of the movie of the play.
(Back then, renting a movie meant paying the 25 or so bucks to secure a 16-millimeter print from Willoughby-Peerless in Manhattan, which we were able to do through the high school’s AV club.)
We watched it after the final dress, right before opening night. James Gleason and Peter Lorre played our respective roles, and had much funnier business than we’d developed. So, at that first performance, we put it in. It got us a laugh, and got us a tongue-lashing from our long-suffering teacher-director. Right off the bat, I learned valuable lessons.
As a sophomore, I was cast in the male lead of Blithe Spirit. Others may channel Noël Coward in essaying the role; I was doing one of Sellers’s Goon Show voices. Which gave me a confidence boost as rehearsals began. It wasn’t really me talking, whomever that “me” might be.
Until it came time to kiss my wife. Blithe Spirit actually gives Charles two wives, and both of them were charming and sexy and incredibly well developed. As the time came to plant a buss on Ruth’s upturned face, I became a jelly.
Same director. “Okay – now kiss her, Byron.” It’s not you kissing her – it’s the character! Oh, but she’s so beautiful. What’s that got to do with it? She’s ... she’ll think ...
Looking at me with expectant actress eyes, she gave a little smile. Kiss her.
My classmates in the auditorium began to snicker. “Is something wrong up there?” called the director from the house.
“I’m waiting for him to kiss me,” said cruel Ruth.
“Oh, for god’s sake – KISS HER, DAMMIT!”
In my lively fantasy world, Ruth showed up at my house ostensibly to run lines but instead pursued a mission of getting both of us out of our respective outfits and into each others arms as music by Schubert, her favorite composer, sang forth. Now I was reduced to the humiliation of dragging my forty-pound feet across the stage and planting a timorous peck on the nape of her neck as the onlookers laughed and laughed.
As far as achieving first base goes, what I did with Ruth hardly even counted as a bad bunt. Not that any of the rest of the Theater Arts people were similarly inhibited. Cast parties were another heartbreak, as the quick pairings-off of attendees typically left me talking with the teacher.
Who am I? I asked myself. It was torture. What face can I present to the world – the world of women, let’s be honest – that will win their approbation? What’s the role I need to play?
I often spent afternoons and evenings at the home of a schoolmate whose free-spirited family accepted me as yet another of the many eccentric guests who frequented the place. Although we shared an admiration for the passing pulchritude parade, neither my friend nor I had mustered the courage to attempt to go out on a date.
And so I sat in his kitchen as another lonely evening wore away. I was waiting for a Peter Sellers movie to air in a late-night time slot. My friend drifted away to his room to listen to a favorite radio show. My friend’s younger sister arrived with a friend, and they joined me in the kitchen. This was an awful development. The sister and I had a cordial friendship. I’d never thought of her in terms other than a surrogate sibling. The friend, however, was different.
Her name was Linda. She had shoulder-length blond hair and bright blue eyes, a thin, Cybill Shepherd-like smile with mischief at its edges, and a promising way of filling a powder blue sweater. Her beauty terrified me. The times she’d visited before I’d been tongue-tied to a point of seeming idiocy. My friend’s sister collapsed into a high-backed wicker chair in a corner of the kitchen. Linda seated herself at the table a couple of chairs away from me. I explained my continued presence by talking about the movie that would air in a while. Which engendered no conversation.
The two of them chatted in a desultory way until the sister appeared to nod off. I was left, so to speak, with Linda. I looked at her (sidelong, sneakily) and marveled at her lusciousness. And then the most incredible words, the most unexpected phrase, issued from my mouth:
“Diviner grace has never brightened this enchanting face.” Linda looked at me in surprise.
“Ovid’s Fifth Elegy,” I explained. “Ovid has always been my favorite poet.”
Linda smiled. Nervousness sizzled through me. I was quoting a play I’d appeared in recently: Harvey, by Mary Chase. As the youngest in the cast, I’d been given the oldest of the roles, a dottering judge. But I knew the play well because I’d seen the movie on its many TV appearances, and I was quoting lines from amiable Elwood P. Dowd, as portrayed on the screen by James Stewart in a signature role.
And so I was delivering the lines in a James Stewart impression, complete with the stammer and pauses and folksy tone. It was easy that way. It was as if I had Stewart doing the talking for me. And he talked well.
“You know, I have a fine time wherever I am, whomever I’m with,” I said. “I’m having a fine time right here with you.” She smiled and nodded and slipped one chair closer. I was running out of lines. “You know,” I said, now flying on inspiration, “I’d like to draw you.” A sketch pad and pencil sat nearby. I seized them and set to work. I was a reasonably good caricaturist, but feared that all of the MAD Magazine copying I’d done would give a too-exaggerated result. Nevertheless, this gave me the opportunity to compliment her face one feature at a time. “You eyes,” I began, and it was amazing how much blandishment I could deliver in the voice of Elwood P. Dowd. Stealing another line from Harvey, I asked, “Do you mind if I hold your hand while I do this?”
She gave me her hand.
This was as intimate as I’d ever gotten with a female. Her hand was soft and warm and yielding and she responded with it to every squeeze I ventured. I captured her nose, her cheeks, the outline of her face, putting off until last the mouth, bane of so many lesser artists. But as I sketched and squeezed her hand a funny perspective shift altered the subject. Her head grew larger. That was because it was moving towards mine.
As our lips compressed together, I felt at once the unprecedented thrill of an intimacy that was delivering on every bit of its promise, and the relief of knowing I probably wouldn’t have to finish the mouth. We were kissing, although it was a Linda-driven event, her tongue taking the lead, and fell into its wonder for as long as she cared to maintain contact, which seemed like a good long delicious while.
She pulled her face away. It was more gorgeous than ever. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Neither could Elwood P. Dowd. Still holding the pencil aloft in my left hand, I went for the cheap gag. I snapped the pencil.
It also broke the tension. Linda laughed. I had the horrible fear that this would be a one-time event, especially as the movie started. I believe it was I’m All Right, Jack; I know it was one I hadn’t seen.
With a push into unknown territory, a push of which I’d never before been capable, I reached my arm around Linda’s torso and she obligingly leaped into my lap. To hell with Peter Sellers: this was a chance to make out.
Was I a coward or merely an innocent? Although our lips locked for what must have been hours, each fragment of one another’s dentition explored, and although her sweater remained pressed to my chest throughout this osculatory championship, I ventured no further, stole no further bases. ’Twas enough; ’twould serve.
It also took a remarkably long time for an epiphany to hit. She thinks she’s kissing Elwood P. Dowd, I realized. I didn’t earn this. I don’t deserve it. The imp on the other shoulder just laughed and replied, “So what? You’re the one who’s enjoying it.”