Monday, February 11, 2013

My One Great Entrance

“This is my one chance to make a great entrance! My whole life! I have never made a great entrance!” – George Costanza

I remember watching that Seinfeld episode when it first aired. As you may recall, George had a fancy ball to attend, and was planning to go with this woman who was to wear a backless evening gown. It was going to be his one great entrance; he’d never made one before in his life. Of course, then the woman was trying to break up with him, and George ended up trying to avoid her completely before the ball so she couldn’t break up with him and therefore would have to go to the ball, and then things end with a memorable Kramer bit, but I won’t ruin that for you, in case you’re one of the five to seven Americans who never watched Seinfeld.

But I do recall, when that episode ended, smiling a little and remembering that, unlike George, and unlike most men, I actually did have one great entrance in my life. And I had it my senior year in high school. And I had it with Jennifer Rau.

I went to a small Seventh-day Adventist school in the suburbs of Sacramento. Like a lot of church schools, this school included grades K-12, and as you moved along through the grades, you moved to different parts of the campus (elementary school was in the back, junior high in the center building, and the high school up front). I started in 5th grade. Once I got to junior high, a girl named Jennifer Rau started attending and joined our class. Jennifer was very cool, very energetic, also very book-smart, complete with thick glasses and all. As girls went?  Pretty, though a little on the nerdy side (by junior high standards), and while going to an Adventist school, she wasn't actually Adventist (but her parents wanted her there for some reason). We became friends, and after she left the school our freshman year, she and I stayed in touch, sporadically, though letters, phone calls, and getting together for the occasional movie.

One of the many things that sets Adventist schools apart from other schools (including the vegetarian hot lunches. Anyone who went to that school still shudders at the mention of the word “haystack”) is that there are no dances. Dancing, you see, is of the Devil. No homecoming dance, no Sadie Hawkins dance, nothing. But to give us some kind of school-controlled social activity to awkwardly try to gets dates to, the school instead provided “banquets”. You go, you get dressed up, you eat, there’s some kind of (wholesome) entertainment, you tell embellished stories and spread rumors the Monday after. I quote John Bender: “So it’s social. Demented and sad, but social.” The important thing is that there’s an opportunity, just like in the evil public schools, for the popular people to have great memories and the others to feel like outcasts and sit home lonely wondering “why not me?”.

My senior year, I was in the drama club. We were doing a couple of Christmas plays, performing them at other Adventist schools and such around the area. And we also got written in to be the entertainment at the Christmas Banquet at our own school that year. The Christmas Banquet is the social highlight of the year--the vegetarian, rhythmless version of what you heathens call “the prom”. So I would be there for that, performing on stage, but I hadn’t really thought about a date. Well, I’m sure I’d thought about it, but when your senior class has 27 people in it and the whole high school has about 250 students, the pickings are kind of slim to start with, and I wasn’t exactly on the football team (you caught the part above where I say "drama club", right?).

But very close to the banquet…as in, the night before it…I thought of Jennifer. I hadn’t seen her in a while (since taking her to go see “St. Elmos Fire”), and was overdue, and I thought, hey, what the heck. Couldn’t hurt to give her a call and see if she wanted to go. And it turns out she did. It’s so much easier asking someone out when you’re not actually asking them out. So that normally gut-wrenching part was quick and painless, and I had myself a date. Of course, the deadline to buy tickets to the thing had already passed. But I placed a call to the girl who was handling that and left a message in hopes that she could still sneak us in without a problem. I moved ahead on the assumption that she could.

So the next day came, and Jennifer showed up at my place (as she would have to drive, since I had neither a license nor a car. You can see why the ladies were just lining up).  And she looked…amazing. You see, something interesting had happened after Jennifer left our school. Somewhere between freshmen and senior year, she got gorgeous. She showed up in this stunning black dress, complete with pearls, and just blew my mind.

Now she showed up a bit early, so I still had to finish getting ready. Which meant putting on my tie. Understand, at this point in my life? I never wore ties. The opportunity almost never came up. So I didn’t know how to tie one. Well, to be clear, I thought I did. My father had shown me once, but then, you know if you don’t practice what you learn it doesn’t stick with you. I’d gotten a refresher from my stepfather (at the time), Larry, so I thought I was together. While Jennifer sat on the couch, talking with Larry, I was in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, trying, trying, trying to get this damned tie to work! And it was not. And I was in there forever, not only leaving this poor girl to carry on what was probably an awkward conversation with Larry, but as the minutes kept ticking by, we kept getting closer and closer to being late for this thing.

Finally, I had to come out and ask Larry if I could talk to him for a second (can only imagine what Jennifer must have been thinking), and quickly said HELP and got his assistance with the tie. With that, I was ready. Got my coat on, grabbed my roller skates (props for the play…my job was bringing the roller skates), and we got in her car and sped over to Carmichael Church, where the banquet would be held (at that point, was now already being held…) in the multi-purpose building on the property.

We got there and the first thing I had to do was meet up with the girl who handled the tickets. I recall her being a bit frazzled and not-too-pleased at this last-minute bit of anarchy being injected into what she thought was her completed and tightly-organized arrangement. But I got tickets. The seating schedule was already done, however, and the only place she would be able to fit us in was at a faculty table. Well, you plan late, you take what you can get.

And then, we went in.

We entered through the set of double-doors at the front of the large room. There were round tables throughout, in front of a curtained stage (where I’d be performing about halfway through the evening), and Christmas lights and elegant decorations everywhere. Everyone was decked out in (appropriate and non-offensive) formal wear, and the speakers pumped out low-volume non-lyrical classical Christmas music (as long as you don’t dance to it or sing along, it’s probably safe). And we were, I think, the very last pair to show up.

Which might explain why all eyes in the place were on us.

And it was then that it really hit me. Here I was, not a social champion by any means, and probably someone no one expected to see with a date. And I had just walked in with this gorgeous, mysterious girl at my side. I say mysterious because she’d been gone for three years, and many of the people attending had never met her. Those few that had probably didn’t recognize her, she’d changed so much (amazing what contacts and three years of puberty can do). And she was more than just mysterious. She was controversial. You see, as I mentioned, she was wearing pearls. Jewelry, not unlike hamburgers and Huey Lewis, is of the Devil, too. A no-no in Adventist schools (at least back then…it’s probably lightened up by now). And being bright like I was, that didn’t even occur to me...and she must have been away from Adventism long enough for that to slip her mind, too. So she looked amazing, she was wearing forbidden adornment that made her look even more exotic in a room filled with unjeweled Adventist girls, and--who’d have thought?--she was with me.

We stood there looking around for our table, and she, more than I, felt the eyes of everyone in the room. This was extra scary for her, because this was her first time back among these people in three years, and she was in unfamiliar territory.

“God, I’m so nervous,” she said to me, quietly.

And after a pause, she followed that up with the most perfect possible thing she could have said to me right at that moment.

“Hold my hand.”

And I did. Stood in the doorway, holding the hand of the scandalous, enigmatic beauty that was my date, while the whole student body watched.

A classmate of mine, Debbie, came up to us, a girl who’d known Jennifer from before. She said hi, and told Jennifer how great it was to see her. But then, with some embarrassment, she told us that our principal, Mr. Kier (God rest his soul. Was a wonderful (and scary) guy), had tactfully asked her to come over and ask Jennifer to remove her pearls. I felt terrible about this, first because I didn’t even think about it when she first showed up at my door (probably too busy tying Windsor knots in my head), and second because, though I didn’t understand much about women at that point in my life (yeah, so much has changed…), I understood enough to imagine how embarrassing that must have been. I was a little angry about it. But it wasn’t like it was Debbie’s choice, and the principal’s got to do what he’s got to do, so there wasn’t much to say (besides...Mr. Kier could have snapped my spine like a twig without spilling his virgin egg nog). So off came the pearls.

We took our table with some of the teachers, near the back of the room, and I introduced her to some of the ones she hadn’t known from freshman year. We ate, we chatted, and soon it was time for me to head backstage and meet up with the rest of the drama club to get ready for the performance. We did our two short plays (I was only in one of them.  I was “Mr. Wibble”, the North Pole mailman, in the moving and poignant “Santa Sees a Shrink”). And I felt bad about that, too, being up there in the play. I’d brought a date to this thing and then abandoned her for about an hour of the evening, left at a table full of teachers. Thinking ahead was never my strong suit back then.

The plays and the evening finally ended. We didn’t do a great deal of socializing due to our seating arrangement, but got to talk with some people, at least. Then Jennifer drove us back to my house. I remember standing there on my front lawn, rambling on cluelessly about something or other and fumbling with the roller skates I was trying to hold onto. And suddenly, Jennifer just smiled at me, leaned forward, and stopped my words with a soft, long kiss on the cheek. And though it was an evening that had her waiting on a living room couch talking to some bald guy and having no idea where I’d disappeared to, that had her late for the event and scolded (by association) for late ticket buying, that had her have to remove her jewelry right in the middle of the event as though she’d shown up in a “Satan kicks ass!” tee shirt, that had her sitting with a bunch of (Adventist) teachers instead of people her own age that she might have actually enjoyed talking to, and that had her forced to sit through my performance while being left without an escort with those same veggie educators…she still thanked me for inviting her, and for a wonderful time.

Jennifer and I lost touch, as friends from high school do as the years go by. We saw each other about a year after that, when she was home from college and invited me to a party at her house on New Year’s Eve (my memory stops at a certain point in the night, because I got really, really plowed). And then a couple of years later when our two groups of friends bumped into each other downtown on another New Year’s Eve. And then we had a phone call a few years later, and by then she was married and had become a schoolteacher (where students dumb enough to buy their tickets late hopefully have to now dread sitting with her). And then nothing in the ten-plus years since. As I said, it happens. I hope we’ll track each other down again at some point and get filled in on what’s been happening to us since, and all the twists and turns our lives have taken. But if that doesn’t come to pass, she’ll still always be a friend that I’ll remember very fondly. For our phone calls. For our gossiping. For our movies (and she was always great to see movies with, as she was an arm-grabber. You might not remember any particularly scary scenes in "St. Elmos Fire" or "Flashdance"? But apparently, there were some, and I had the nail marks to prove it).

And most of all, for giving me, such a very unexpected recipient, my one great entrance.

Eat your heart out, Costanza.

UPDATE:  That was originally written for my web page (in the world before blogging) back in 2004.  Not very long after, Jennifer stumbled across my site after finding the address for it in some alumni mailing, looked around it, found a picture of herself (to her shock), read the essay and tracked me down immediately.  We've been in touch ever since.  She's still married, now has two amazing and hysterical teens, and I've been fortunate enough to meet the whole family on more than one occasion (which would happen more if we didn't live on different sides of the state).  I assume she still wears pearls.  I, I'm happy to report, can now tie a tie.

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