Slow-Dancing On The Sand: This Guy’s In Love With You

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Slow-Dancing On the Sand

This Guy’s in Love with You, by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (1968), encountered 1968

Buy it here |  Video here |  Lyrics here

When I originally planned this piece, I expected to call it “A Perfect Day.”  But then I went back and looked at the evidence.  I realized that, glorious as the day was, perfect was not the word for it.

Call her Carolyn.  Here’s her photo.  I’ll tell you in a minute how it was taken.

I’ve written earlier in this series of my astonishment that mixer dances have more or less disappeared from the contemporary collegiate scene.  In fact, on the day after this story starts, I’d written it down that mixers “are quite necessary – if they didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.”  Apparently time has proven me wrong; my collegian younger son’s never been to one, so far as I know.  Nonetheless, they were awfully important for me back in the day…

Well Mixed

The story starts on Friday, April 26, 1968, at the outset of Penn’s version of that perennial, the college spring festival.  Penn called it Skimmer.  In the idealized version of this idyll, we’d wear skimmer hats and sit with our dates watching rowing races on the Schuylkill.  I did not have a date, however.  Fortunately I had a mixer.  Well, to be technical about it, the next institution over, Drexel Institute of Technology, had a mixer.  And that was where I met Carolyn, good-looking, friendly, smart, a coed at Chestnut Hill College, another Catholic women’s school.  I invited her to do the riverbank thing with me the next day, followed by other Skimmer excitements.

I believe first she said yes, then on reconsideration she said no to the riverbank part.  And truthfully the weather looked iffy.  But she agreed to come in for the evening, which I’d planned to spend at my roommate’s new fraternity, “getting loaded,” as I dishonestly boasted to my parents in a letter I dashed off that day.[1] Come the evening, she turned up, we rode some carnival rides on the field outside the women’s dorm, and then we went back to the dorm room to wait until it was time for the party.

So we started kissing, but it didn’t go on long.  The next thing I knew we were arguing about kissing.  We were arguing about roaming hands.  But the argument was being waged while we were lying side-by-side on the narrow single lower bunk of a bunk bed, from which neither of us was actually getting up.  I was very politely calling her narrow-minded and she was very politely getting indignant, and then we were kissing some more, and then we were arguing some more.  Oddly, this combination was raising both the lust level and the respect level.

We didn’t bother with the frat party.  It was somehow incredibly romantic, just lying there arguing about what I wanted to do and she didn’t.

Incredibly Romantic

Since she wouldn’t allow me to undress her in any other way, she agreed to take off her makeup for me.  She told me: “When I was trying to figure how to make myself up, I didn’t know what you’d like, and honestly, I didn’t care.”  I asked: “And you care now?”  Her answer was to come over and throw her arms around me and give me a terrific kiss.  And allow me to take the photo above.

Finally, we had to end the evening with a mad rush to catch the 11:30 Suburban to Chestnut Hill at the 30th Street Station.  She fell down once, and even that was romantic.

We couldn’t get together again until Saturday, May 11, which I believe was my last night in the dorms before my freshman year tenancy expired.  I must have done most of my packing already, because I had time to take her to a matinee of Gone With the Wind, in revival in one of the big old movie houses downtown.  Hated the movie, but loved the rest of the evening: dinner at a favorite pizza joint, then watching as she finished packing my trunk, at which she was surprisingly efficient.  (The trunk later weighed in at 163 pounds.)  We also carried my boxed-up speakers over to Railway Express in the rain.  My description of the evening to my now-former roommate ended this way: “After we got back, she showed me some judo, and then some more necking and back to her sister’s dorm.”[2] What a woman!

You would not have expected that all this non-sex and judo and packing would have made us boyfriend and girlfriend, and it didn’t, but it left us intrigued with each other.  As witnessed by a letter she posted the following Saturday[3] which: a) told me she’d met another guy at another Drexel mixer (albeit he was what she called “this idiot Greek” who only wanted to “dance, dance, DANCE!” –  establishing there were no ties preventing her from dancing, dancing, DANCING with other guys) but b) invited me to visit her in her home town of Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey, if I could find a way there over the course of the summer (establishing a continuing interest).

Planning The Date

We wrote back and forth for the next few weeks, including a bit of jointly working through the Robert Kennedy assassination, which befell that June.  I made a stab at taking her up on her visit offer – with the notion that I might drop by on a scheduled stay with my father in New York.  Had that stay gone off according to schedule, Carolyn would not have been able to take time off from work (at the local phone company).[4] But my step-grandmother died,[5] and we all had to run to Chicago Heights to deal with the obsequies and the dispersement of her things.  In consequence, I did not get off to New York until July 8.  And, as it happened, right at the end of that stay, there was a one-day window for Carolyn: Sunday, July 22.

And that was the perfect-ish day.

On this stay with my Dad, I was fortunate to have my old grade-school friend Walter with me.  This gave me a chance to show off my East Coast world,[6] and I made the most of it.  We trained down to Philly and visited my university,[7] we chased girls down in the Village, and we spent a lot of days up at my dad’s country place in Tannersville, New York.  It wasn’t quite idyllic up there because there were no girls, or at least none for us.  My dad was in some kind of group therapy at that point, and he’d brought up a friend from therapy, a hospital orderly named Phil, and Phil had brought his girlfriend Karen.  They were in the bedroom next to the one I shared with Walter.  And the rooms were very small.  And yes, we could hear things that were probably Phil and Karen having sex; even if we were mistaken about that, we certainly knew it must be going on.  That knowledge got on our nerves, and I know we were, uncharacteristically, beginning to have had enough of each other.

Here’s me and Walter and Phil, target shooting from our carport in the country:

Release and Relief

Visiting New Jersey was therefore a release to a different setting, and also, blissfully, to the company of the fairer sex for a while (as Carolyn reported she’d secured a date for Walter).  So at around 11 we boarded a bus at the Port Authority Terminal, bound for Asbury Park, a few blocks from her town.[8]

I believe I was supposed to phone ahead before we left, but the line was busy when I tried to place a call from the Terminal, so we were fretting all the way down that Carolyn might have thought we’d stood her up.  Worse still, the bus was over an hour late, as we seemed to be going round Robin Hood’s Barn making additional stops that didn’t appear on our schedule.  But when at last we alit in Asbury Park, I found a phone, called Carolyn, and she said she’d be there in a few minutes.  I walked back to Walter, shared the good news, and we both sort of collapsed.  There was hardly a cloud in the sky.

Then we heard a honk, and there was Carolyn’s freckled face beaming at us from behind steel-rimmed sunglasses out a car window.  She whisked us out of the touristy downtown and took us somewhere residential, where Walter’s date lived.  And at the front door was Jan, a girl-next-door with something mischievous in her eye.  Jan went to yet another Catholic women’s college somewhere in New York, which she described as a place where they didn’t do anything but drink legal beer and make out.  An auspicious introducing comment for Walter.

Better news yet: the girls had planned for us to spend most of the day at the beach, which meant, in the first place, that we got to spend most of the day at the beach, and secondly that we guys weren’t going to have to spend much money, a not inconsiderable thing.  Jan gave us one for the road (though I abstained).  We sat around chatting about the movie of Rosemary’s Baby, just out, which only Walter had seen, but everyone wanted to.

The Beautiful Beach

Then we all piled back in the car and drove to Avon (pronounced Ah-von).  Carolyn lived with her mom in a bungalow with a sort of stolid Irish interior: big solid chairs, family photos, a Blessed Virgin statuette.  We put something on the record player (Days of Future Passed, I think it was), and I helped Carolyn get lunch together.  Alone together in the kitchen, Carolyn embraced me suddenly and told me she was glad I’d come.  We took lunch out to the awning-covered front porch and sat and ate in the breeze.  I don’t remember what we ate, but shortly afterwards we all went upstairs and changed into beach stuff.  When the girls emerged from their room, Jan was wearing something in two pieces, yellow and sexy, and Carolyn was in something brown and demure.

“So [as I wrote], off to the beautiful beach.”  Walter and I then made our only cash outlay for the entire day, bar our bus fares: $1.75 each for day-badges which entitled us to use the beach for “22” only.  Then we were actually on the sand.  I took of my shoes and buried my toes.  Bliss!  Walter and Jan ran on ahead, threw down their stuff and dashed into the water.  They were as good-looking as models in a suntan lotion commercial.  Carolyn and I couldn’t compete on that kind of looks, but I felt no envy.

Shortly, the two of us joined Walter and Jan in the water.  We dove in the waves, and did the traditional water fights with the girls mounted on the boys’ shoulders.  Then we lolled in the sand, letting the sun and the wind dry us.  Now you, gentle reader, may have had tons of this in your past, and it may all seem quite standard-issue to you, but that would be one area in which we differ.  I had never before played in the surf with a date.  So you can imagine how sexy and exciting the whole thing felt to me.

Eventually Carolyn and I went off on our own, down as far as the beach went, and wandered out onto a fishing jetty protecting the outlet of a channel (the Shark River, I’ve since learned) that flowed under a drawbridge just behind us.  (There’s a great photo of the scene today here and a useful aerial view here.)  We talked seriously.

Meeting the Mom

In her letters to me she’d mentioned having awakened recently to certain what she called permanent aspects of her character.  I wanted to know what she meant.  Not surprisingly, it had to do with another guy she was seeing (this one from West Point) who had taken her out on this same jetty in the moonlight, and I guess had beguiled her with notions of sharing an urbane life; she said she had realized then that she was at heart a country girl.  I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn I couldn’t focus very well on the country girl aspect of the discussion; I was stuck being envious of Mr. West Point, whoever he was.  I was helped past this juncture by Walter and Jan, who joined us.  We talked about my writing, and about Anna Karenina, which Carolyn had just read.

Then Carolyn had to take a break and pick up her mom from work, as Carolyn had commandeered the family car for our excursion.  Walter and Jan stretched out on the sand, obviously ready to be alone for a while, and I decided to go for a walk.  I strolled north on the beach, then back south on the boardwalk, luxuriating in the feel of the grained wood beneath my feet.  When Carolyn came back, we all caught a ride back to the house.

When we got back there, we met Carolyn’s mom, a dentist’s receptionist.  She had a polite but disapproving look.   I sensed I was being sized up; well, I could size up back.  To my instincts I was looking at the source and pattern of the boundaries of what Carolyn would allow in our embraces.  As a parent nowadays, of course, I have more sympathy.  But I wasn’t thrilled right then.

We boys showered in an enclosure in the back yard; Carolyn had a laugh by popping open a window directly above and proffering Walter a towel when he was in the nude, which annoyed him.  I don’t think she actually glanced at him, but the joke was had.  Walter, as it happened, had just been musing about Jan’s swimsuit: “I could see her nipples and everything.”  So arguably Carolyn’s joke was a case of turnabout being fair play.

The girls came down and packed dinner, and Walter and I carried it out to the car.  Carolyn tried to sneak some beer into the cooler past her mom, but failed.

Transistor Radio

We drove back to the beach again, setting up camp near the base of the jetty.  A little later, I had some words with Carolyn about her mom.  I criticized what my journal dubbed “the parochialism of her mind.”  I cringe when I read these words; I was a teenager who had never earned a penny looking down my nose at a woman putting two daughters through college without a dad.  I feel a little better when I read the next thing I wrote: “Carolyn was quite right being upset with me.  I was just shooting off my mouth.”

It was a repast of chicken washed down with soda, since Carolyn’s mom had interdicted the beer.  We turned on Jan’s transistor radio and listened to WABC, and danced in the sand.  I remember the feeling of utter peacefulness holding Carolyn in my arms, as we moved to the sound of Herb Alpert singing This Guy’s In Love With You.  We played leapfrog.  And then we sat down and entwined toes in the sand.  When the game stopped, Carolyn’s toes and mine remained entwined, and then we held hands.  For a while the only sound was the radio.  We heard Alpert’s song again.  (Playlists were short in those days.)

Time to Wrangle

And then the sun sank behind us.  The holding hands turned to kissing, and the blood was pounding in my temples.  Walter and Jan realized it was a cue to absent themselves.  When they were gone, I wondered aloud, phrasing it delicately, what kind of liberties Walter might be getting away with.  Jan had been discussing French kissing before, and I mentioned it.  When Carolyn seemed deliberately to misunderstand me, I rephrased more explicitly.  She responded that I seemed never to pull my conversational punches.

Hoping that she thought this directness of mine was a good thing, I went on in the same vein.  I asked if we should go steady.  I wasn’t exactly requesting it; I was trying to make sense of where we were.  Indeed, the next thing I said was that I didn’t think we should.  I thought we were too different.  In my blundering, vainglorious way, I said something about me being an intellectual – with the other term of the equation implied.  I wasn’t trying to be offensive.  And this time I didn’t offend.  Her eyebrows had shot up when I said what I said, but her response was that she was surprised that I felt that way, and that she had come here to tell me the same thing.

Then it was my turn to surprise her, as I said that I’d known that that would be her attitude.  And I guess if I hadn’t known it in advance, I could not have spoken out, so I think I was telling the truth.

The two of us sort of danced around the reasons why we didn’t want to go steady.  Eventually, I more or less summed it up: “I could never see being married to you.”  She agreed, saying she’d thought about it, and all she could see was such a marriage falling apart.  I don’t know if her own family experience played into that remark.  (Mine certainly had played into mine.)

Of course that mutual revelation begged a question we naturally both turned to: what were we doing buzzing each other with all the kissing and the slow dancing?  She said that it might just be sex.  I said, thinking back to my recent near-miss with Cindy, that if I just wanted sex, I could have had that.  This pleased her, and led to some more kissing.

The conversation then went back to French kissing.  She said she’d tried it with someone else (not me), and she said that now she couldn’t oppose it on the grounds of morality, but just didn’t care for it.  (You have to understand, we were both Catholic school kids, or issue of the morality or not of the practice simply wouldn’t have arisen between us.)  And then, with this sexual issue and my jealousy as a trigger, we each said some stupid things which I won’t replay here.  It is apparent, rereading my journal after forty-plus years, that as honest and forthright as Carolyn generally was, we’d reached a place where she couldn’t be entirely honest even with herself.  I’d say that for someone who wasn’t twenty yet, she was doing pretty well in accounting for her actions and reactions, but that damn Catholic training was making her say things that could not be reconciled with each other.

And then too she lashed out at me — and took it back almost with the next breath.  I think I betrayed some pain at her remarks, and she was rueful about that.  She seemed to turn on a dime, and to be telling me things to make me feel better.  If that was the thinking, it worked.  And so eventually our upsets were smoothed down.

But we were still looking at the question of where we went from there.  And it soon became clear neither of us had moved on the not going steady issue.  But we wanted to keep up a special connection at the same time.

If You’re Ever In The Area Again

While we’d been wrangling, the lights had come on along the boardwalk, and clouds had rolled over the stars, and we were in the dark.  Through my sweaty glasses, everything was suffused with a soft glow.  Everything was lit like a love scene in a sophisticated movie.  Somehow the visual cues also made me happy, as if I were in a love scene, instead of – whatever I was in.  (It isn’t a very conventional love scene when you’re resolving to be friends after you’ve both married other people.)

Walter and Jan rejoined us at this point, walking along the boardwalk, hand-in-hand.  One of them sang out “Where have you two been?”

“We ain’t gone nowheres!” I replied cheerfully.  So we started picking up and carrying things back to the car.  Carolyn and I went ahead, and as we neared the boardwalk, she reproved me: “You said we hadn’t gone anywhere; I think we’ve come a long way.”

Things happened quickly then: back to the house, clean up, pack up, say goodnight to Carolyn’s mom, and then Carolyn and Jan took us sightseeing and showed us the bright lights of Asbury Park, what everyone would come to know in a few years as Bruce Springsteen territory.  We ended up in a park opposite the bus station; our bus was already there.  Carolyn and I crossed a little bridge over a pond , and we looked out at Asbury Park’s twinkling lights.  We allowed that we were anxious for college to begin again.

“It’s going to be good, having something real to go back to this fall,” she said dreamily.

“And what we have, if nothing else, is real,” I said.

And then it was time to board the bus.  I’d given Carolyn some money to hold for me, and she brought it out, saying in a loud voice so the other passengers could hear: “Here you are, Mr. Gohn, here’s your change, and if you’re ever in the area again, give us a call!”  The girls broke into hysterics.  Then, after a few moments they were gone.

Well, almost.  We parked ourselves on the street side of the bus, and it was very quiet.  Suddenly they drove past us, shouting out the window again: “If you ever come this way, give us a call!”  I smiled and waved goodbye.

Then sleep.  A little waking.  Lights.  Faces.  More sleep.  And then the Port Authority Terminal, and the walk back to the 7th Avenue IRT.  The next morning we were on a homeward-bound plane by 10:30, and by 1:00 we were back in Michigan.

So was I right?  Was it real?  Part of the answer will have to await other pieces in this series.

Not Perfect

But it would only have been a perfect day if we had shaken hands on going steady rather than on not going steady.  We should have resolved to try being together.  It was telling that the reason she didn’t want to, and the reason I didn’t want to, was that we couldn’t see being married to each other.  We should never have been thinking in those terms.  But for neither of us could serious dating be conceived except as a part of a process that led to marriage.

Blame our upbringing. Blame it for the contradictions in the things she was saying, for the endless alternation between embraces and pushing away.  Blame it, probably, for the string of young men Carolyn had assembled, me and the West Point boy and the “idiot Greek” and perhaps others.  Safety of a kind in numbers.

You look at that photo of Carolyn at the head of this piece, and you see someone who could develop in all kinds of ways.  She could have got fat, could have got thin, could have become a lady or a peasant.  Whatever was next for her, it was going to be interesting to watch.  That was clear enough.  And we had what it took to find out what was next together.  She was bright enough and honest enough and pretty enough to have kept me engaged, and I flatter myself I had much to offer her – at least for a while.  But having to think about each other as possible marriage partners made that kind of commitment too risky.  Thank you, Catholic Church!

And while the pledge of eternal friendship we carried out of that date looked real, our lives were about to demonstrate whether it was proof against one of us finding real sexual and emotional intimacy.  (Spoiler alert: it was not.)

In the meantime, taking the short, hedonistic view would have been so much better for both of us.  Billy Joel didn’t release Only the Good Die Young for another nine years.  But he hit the nail on the head.

Come out Virginia.  Don’t let me wait.
You Catholic girls start much too late
But sooner or later it comes down to fate
I might as well be the one

When all’s said and done, though, that’s not the song that makes me think of Carolyn.  Unquestionably it’s This Guy’s In Love With You, which we must have heard five times on the day we slow-danced in the sand (I bought my copy of the album as soon as I got back).  Perhaps I should have avoided that association.  Contrary to the title or the lyrics, I didn’t declare then that I was in love with her, nor did she, then or ever, declare love for me.[9] And I think over the years my associating that song with that date has pulled a filmy gauze over the experience, similar to that hazy view of the boardwalk lights through dirty glasses.  Deceived by that softened view, over the years I had allowed it to morph in my head into a perfect day.

It had many of the aspects of perfection.  Against odds, we found the time to get together, we had the double date, we played in the surf, we had two meals and lots of dancing and necking on the beach.  And yet, in the end, it should have been more.

[1] One thing I have never been good at is drinking.  But I was at least good at talking the talk.

[2] I’m pretty sure the sister in question must have been at Drexel.

[4] There were such things as local phone companies in those days.

[5] The one who had had the antiques store pictured in the footnote in the first of the memories.

[6] More fun than sharing it with “Patricia” as a kid, but the same impulse.

[7] That’s him looking in the dorm window in the photo here.

[8] There seem to be four little hamlets: (proceeding north to south) Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach, and Avon-by-the-Sea, each separated from the next by a little lagoon, each a few blocks’ thickness, top to bottom.  Carolyn told me that each had been settled by a different denomination, and that Avon was where the Catholics lived.

[9] I did write her one making that declaration, but it went unsent.  The one that went out instead used the word love, but love, as we all know, has many meanings, and I was pulling my punches the way I used the word.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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