Playpens and Proms

And What is Missing in Life

My mother met Pam in junior high. By high school, they were good friends. Her senior year, my mom went to Norwich Free Academy because she wanted to pursue Art more seriously, but she kept up her friendships and was at home on the weekends. She had hoped to get into the Rhode Island School of Design but went to the Paer School of Art in Hamden her first year of college.

After meeting my father at Paer, they married at the end of her freshman year and moved away for his first job as an illustrator for Prentice-Hall. My mother still visited home often and my parents moved back to the Shoreline when I was about 18 months old. Meanwhile, Pam had married a local fellow from their class in school.

There is a photo somewhere of me as a toddler sharing a playpen with Pam’s daughter (let’s call her M), who is about nine months younger than me. We were playmates from an early stage of life and continued to see each other periodically, mostly at her house, up into our teens.

I don’t remember that we were ever close as kids. We were in the same grade at Goodwin for a few years, but I don’t think we shared the same class. We played games and did crafts when I was at her house, and sometimes play hide and seek, especially when we both wanted to hide from her brother.

As an only child, I was used to adapting myself to the tempo and customs of other children. Kids my age usually had siblings near their age and along with that came predetermined favorites in both choice of games and style of play. Whether tag or cards or Monopoly, I followed house rules of whoever outnumbered me.

And that is how I ended up making a nuisance of myself on one visit with M’s family. M had a friend over, plus her brother. I had a step-brother by then. They outnumbered us and we were the visitors, so I don’t know why I broke protocol. We were all out playing in the snow, and a snowball fight got going, of course. Rather than just shooting snowballs, I ran up behind M and put snow down her back. That made the girls mad.

Somewhere in the craziness that ensued, M and I had a little “moment” for the first time in our acquaintance. I had never thought much about her before then, and it felt odd. We might have been fourteen. At that point, I lived in Clinton, so I did nothing about it. The whole thing faded from my mind.

And then came Sadie Hawkins. It was our junior year of high school and I was going to school in Madison, but we had moved back to Old Saybrook. M was so shy that I can’t imagine how she worked up the courage, but at the last minute she called me and invited me to the dance. Unfortunately, I had to work at Chello’s Oyster House (Guilford) the night of the dance and there was no one who could take my shift.

We had a pleasant conversation on the phone. We were fairly at ease after the initial jitters. I offered that I would be happy to go out some other time, and she took me up on it, inviting me to go rollerskating with her friends a few weeks later. After the skating party, M and I talked on the phone regularly.

Our phone conversations were great. We found lots to talk about, such as our separate schools, my job, and what was on TV that we liked. Eventually we went out on several dates, usually with peers. But the physical proximity somehow limited the conversation. We were both naturally shy and the odd chemistry of groups of teenagers caused us both to recede.

We were almost romantic. There were a few kisses and declarations of affection, but I wonder if there was baggage. On the phone, everything in the relationship was new. In person there was the years of familiarity from toddlerhood on up that seemed to get in the way. We never broke through that and eventually gave up.

And yet, nearly 18 months later, M contacted me, almost out of the blue. I was working at the Cumberland Farms across from Johnny Ad’s by that time and living on Ferry Hill. She invited me to her prom. I don’t know why she asked me. Was she still interested in me at some level? And I don’t know why I agreed. Maybe just for closure.

Prom. How strange to think of it. I had started school with some of these kids. I had run into a few over the years. But I had not been in their schools since Goodwin. A lot changes in 9 years. Kids change a lot in that time. So I think I just went out of curiosity.

I don’t recall if M and I went on any dates between her invite and the prom. I think we must have gotten together once or twice. Perhaps we just spoke on the phone. We were good at that. I remember renting a tux from Greenberg’s. Probably powder blue.

What I do recall well was the night. I’m embarrassed about it still. I won’t offer any defense. I was a jerk. One thing I can offer as perspective. Two or three months earlier, I had joined the Navy. My scheduled induction date was November 10th. I didn’t want to do the Navy thing, but a lot of pressure was on me. And I had recently messed up the relationship I thought would be my forever. My emotional state must have reverted to about twelve years old.

M picked me up. I think my mother took pictures, but it might have been with M’s camera, because I don’t remember her ever trotting them out in later years. The prom was being held on a party boat on the river. I think we left from Essex. Once on the boat, I hung out with M for about fifteen minutes while she said hello to friends and introduced me.

Soon I ran into some classmates who remembered me. We talked about what had happened to me and we laughed about life. Then the night got interesting. A girl I had worked with the Autumn before showed up. She came alone, and she dressed to kill in a bright red/orange jumpsuit with bell bottoms and a plunging neckline. Against her tan skin, the effect was amazing.

The rest of the prom I tried alternately to hang out with M a little, chase the life of the party (she was about as interested in me as I was in M), and catch up with old playground pals. At one point I remember asking M why we didn’t work out when we dated previously, but we both knew it was my fault. Here we were at the prom and I could only think of the playpen. Of playing in a kiddie pool in her backyard. Even in her prom dress, I saw her in a sundress and Mary Janes.

When the boat docked, we went with some of her friends to a vacant lot on the west end of town. Some of us were drinking, but M was under age and she was driving, so she refrained. I didn’t drink much, but enough to make most things seem funny. At that point I tried to get friendly, but M didn’t want to kiss a half-toasted jerk. I don’t blame her.

After an hour or so we all went to the Howard Johnson’s by exit 65. It was after midnight, but I was hungry. M was more interested in having me drink coffee. I don’t know what time she dropped me off at home. I don’t know if I thanked her for a fun evening. I hope she never called me up.

It was a sorry evening, and I was an SOB. I should have been charming and attentive, both of which I know how to be. It was her prom, and it should have been all about her. Like I said, I don’t know why she invited me. Maybe she was as mercenary in asking me as I was in going. Maybe she wanted a guy who looked good in a tux to show off to her classmates.

No matter what her reasons, good, bad or indifferent, I was not a friend to her, and I’m sorry for it. For her sake, I hope she forgave me and never wasted another thought on me. I only heard about her once after I left for the Navy. My mother said that she was in a serious accident while at college. She was fortunate to survive and spent a while in traction and would miss some school.

And then I heard nothing about her for 35 years. Until last year, when my step-father died. She popped up on Facebook with condolences. And like nothing had changed, we discussed life and losing our moms and baby pictures. Snapshots. Little bits of life. That used to be enough. But these days I find it is not. Our mothers could spend hours over coffee and really catch up. Even if it was only twice a year, it maintained the continuity of community life. Without that continuity, life feels out of joint.

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