When I was seventeen, I attended the June wedding of a friend, the oldest sister in a family of Quakers. Their rambling white colonial house was huge, as required by the numbers of its tumultuous inhabitants. Clearly, mama and papa had conspired to breed a prodigious gaggle of offspring.
My head snapped back and hit the wooden booth.
A cavernous stable sat beside and behind the house, set back on an expanse of rich, green grass. Years earlier, we had all rough-housed in the big barn. We even built a clubhouse in the hay loft. But that was then, and now, Beth, the eldest sister, was getting married.
They held the ceremony on the front lawn as early evening turned dusky. I arrived late and alone. The guests were abandoning the champagne and shrimp to assemble below the broad portico of the front porch, where a pulpit stood before a sea of flowers.
At seventeen, you never pass up an opportunity to sip any booze, and champagne offered a rare treat. So I snitched a flute of bubbly and made my way to the back of the gathering. I stopped.
A girl stood at the back of the wedding crowd, her back to me. She wore a long, maroon dance skirt. Her hair, thick, black, and glistening, hung straight down to her waist.
My face flushed, my heart convulsed. She was absolutely beautiful, even from behind! And she was standing alone. I looked around, not believing that she wasn’t with some guy. But she wasn’t.
On the porch, a pastor walked toward the pulpit, stopped to speak to one of Beth’s sisters. My heart was pounding. I had to do something! Now!
I took two tremulous steps forward and cadged a look at her profile. Thick bangs framed her features, thin maroon lips, and giant eyelashes.
“Is this your first Quaker wedding?” I asked. Oh gawd. I curdled inside. Did I really say that?
She turned toward me. Her eyes were deep, dark brown and she had the whitest skin, like a character from a Jane Austen novel. She looked straight into my eyes and smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Is it yours?”
I gulped, nodded and smiled. “Yeah.”
“I’m so curious,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
I gulped, nodded and smiled, filling with adoration as the fireflies began to rise from the lawn and ascend into the embracing dusk. “I’m Charlie,” I said.
“I’m Charlotte…” She extended her hand.
“… and I’m pleased to meet you!” She turned her head toward me. “Charlotte meets Charlie. Isn’t that funny?”
My feet drifted off the ground.
At the end of the evening, with Beth tootling off beside her groom, Charlotte and I exchanged phone numbers. She lived in Cambridge and her father was a big deal English prof and editor at Harvard University Press.
“Amazing,” I said. “I start Harvard this fall.”
“You can call me, if you want to,” she said. “I’m applying to Radcliffe after next year.”
I waved, backing up, turned, headed for my car, and floated home through the summer night.
One week later, Charlotte and I sat together in Club 47 on Mt Auburn street, drank mulled cider, and listened to Joan Baez.
After, she kissed me over a front gate that was perfumed in jasmine. I was in love and already dreaming of what it would be like to spend time together in Harvard Yard.
We saw each other twice more that summer but she was only 15 to my 17, a near-unbridgeable gap at that age. Still, there I was, wishin’ and hopin’ that we’d get together… somehow. We did. Sort of. Charlotte liked spending time with me but…
More time passed. Charlotte appeared in the yard for classes the next fall. “I got early acceptance,” she explained.
“Heck, early acceptance,” I said. I didn’t swear much around Charlotte. “You got here a year ahead of yourself.”
“I know,” she said. “I hope I’m ready.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said, letting the innuendo hang in the air.
In the fall, we met each other in the library, in the Quincy House dining hall, and at the crappy naugahyde and formica coffee shop across from subway stop but…
Charlotte stopped returning my phone calls. She still lived at home with mom and Professor Dad. We rarely crossed paths except to say “hi, how are ya, gotta run.” My heart hurt every time I saw her. I tried to figure out if she was seeing someone, sense-remembered her fresh soap scent. I invited her to a new play I was doing in the “EX,” the Loeb Experimental Theater. She didn’t show.
In midwinter, just after the holiday break, she called me. “Hi, Charlie. It’s Charlotte. Can you meet me at the coffee shop?”
I got there early, ordered a cup of coffee. After an interminable wait, the door swung open at the far end between counter and booths.
Charlotte waved a mitten-clad hand. She walked down the corridor, books pressed to her trench coat. She slid breathlessly into the booth opposite me.
Sorry!” she said, tossed her books on the seat, shed her trench coat and flashed me an apologetic grimace. “It’s my psyche professor,” she said. “He can stretch an office hour into an eternity!
I cradled my coffee and shrugged my shoulders.
She put her hand on my arm. My heart, coffee’d to the hilt, pounded in my chest like the beast in ALIEN.
“It’s so wonderful to see you!” she said. “It’s been ages!”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s been a while.”
Charlotte folded her hands. “I’m sorry I haven’t returned your calls.”
“We’re both busy,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “You’re probably wondering why I asked you here.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was wondering that.”
“Charlie…would you do me a favor?”
“Probably. What kind of a favor?”
“Well, I mean, I know you like me and all.”
“Wow. Good call, Charlotte. I think I mentioned that once or twice.”
“And you’re awfully sweet and…”
I suppressed a groaned. Being called “sweet” just meant I wasn’t going to get very far.
“And handsome!” she said.
“Thank you. So… what do you want?”
Charlotte took a deep breath. “I want you to make love to me.”
The back of my head snapped back and hit the wooden booth.
A waitress appeared. We ordered a tuna melt and some fries. Charlotte was very disappointed that they didn’t have chamomile tea with honey. The place was a dive. Everybody loved it.
Charlotte leaned forward. “Well… Would you?”
“Look, Charlotte,” I said. “This comes as a bit of a surprise.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Maybe after the initial shock wears off — whenever that might be — I might understand where you’re coming from. But right now… Like… whaaat?”
“Charlie, please don’t make this so hard.”
“Not a judicious choice of words,” I said. “But hey, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. Just as soon as I can enlist and get to Vietnam.”
“Stop it,” she said. “It would be nice. Don’t you think? You and me?
“Yes, Charlotte! I think it would be nice. Very nice.” I took a deep breath, sat back, ran a hand through my hair and closed my eyes.
She took my other hand. “I know this is kind of…”
“Precipitous,” I said.
“Good word,” she said. “Yes. It’s precipitous. But I do have method to my madness.”
Okay,” I said. “Shoot.”
“Well… You’ve made love to other girls. Right?”
“Yes. I have made love to other girls.”
“And you know I haven’t yet?”
“Okay.” I looked out across traffic to the red brick walls of the Yard. “So you’re a virgin.”
Asses turned on counter stools to eyeball the virgin.
The waitress materialized. “Nice move Romeo. Let the whole world know.” She skated the tuna sandwich and fries to Charlotte, splashed coffee over my hands as they cradled the mug and disappeared.
“Yes. So I’ve never made love.”
“That would follow from your previous statement.”
“Well, I want to. No. Wait.” She pursed her lips. “I need to.”
“You need to make love. Hell, Charlotte, we all need to make love.”
“Yes.” Charlotte poured sugar into her tea. “I have a boyfriend now and I…”
I put my hands over my ears. “Stop! Please!”
“I want to appear experienced to him and I…”
“You have a boyfriend.”
“And you want me to kinda like…break you in?”
“Yes! I knew you’d understand.”
I spread my hands wide and stared at my fingernails.
“Charlie? Are you all right?”
“No, Charlotte. I am not all right.”
“Well, don’t you want to do it to me?”
“No, goddamn it. I do not want to “do it to you.” I do not want to “do you the favor” of screwing you. I think about you all the time. I still dream about you. I want to spend Saturdays in bed and skip the dumb ass football game. I even want to study with you for chrissakes! I love you.” I stopped. “I loved you.”
“But that’s why it would be so nice to…” Charlotte began to cry, quiet, contained.
“Look, Charlotte. I’m sure you and your boyfriend will have a wonderful time ah… breaking you in.”
“We could have a wonderful time, too, Charlie.”
“Really? And then what?”
From behind the counter the waitress shouted, “Can I get you love birds anything more?”
“Just a check,” I said.
We sat silent, face-to-face in the booth, listening to the traffic splash through the snow-wet slush of Harvard Square.
Some people thought I was a fool to pass up the chance to make love to Charlotte, but I didn’t feel that way. I guess that’s where the be careful what you wish for part comes in.
# # #
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.
That is so powerful. ….She must have been either incredibly naive or something….just don’t understand that it wasn’t obvious to her…terribly young.
Heartbreaking…truly the one that got away. You told this so beautifully. I felt your longing, your lust, your bewilderment, your sense of doing the right thing, despite your lust. She sounds so gorgeous, I love the allusion to a character out of Jane Austen. As we wandered through Harvard Yard, I conjured up pictures of Love Story, but this was something altogether different. You had me at hello.
Thanks Rosie and Betsy. I’m glad I captured the story to your satisfaction. Some of my retrospection was clear, other parts, not so clear but memory doesn’t always serve us best. Talked to Charlotte (not her real name of course) years later. Things did not go well for her in the next few years but — at that age — what can you expect?
Such a beautifully written story, and so heartbreaking too. You captured it all perfectly. I was enthralled from the beginning, and read with my heart in my mouth to see how it would turn out. But I’m a little disappointed to hear that her name wasn’t really Charlotte, so the whole meet-cute Charlie-Charlotte thing didn’t happen.
Thanks, Suzy. I’m glad you found it suspenseful. It’s always gratifying when you generate story-telling’s simplest and most powerful question: What’s going to happen next?