Missing Out on Aruba by
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One of many beaches on Aruba that I’ve never seen. Photo credit: Vlad Man via Pixabay.

My senior year in high school, out of the blue, my parents planned a family trip to Aruba over spring break in April. This was unusual. We traditionally spent Christmas skiing in Colorado, but beach vacations were rare since Florida trips with my grandparents in early childhood. That was as close as I had ever been to the Caribbean. It sounded balmy and exotic and a welcome break from the Michigan winter.

Spring break on Aruba? Oh yeah! There was only one problem.

The only problem was, I couldn’t go.

I had signed up to be pianist for my high school musical, Bye Bye Birdie. It was the most ambitious production the drama department had ever attempted. To meet the challenge, the director scheduled rehearsals every day of spring break. As pianist, I was indispensible—and I had made a commitment. Regretfully, I had to stay behind.

My parents made arrangements for me to stay the week with my best friend Bud. There was nothing novel about this; I had slept over with him many times and felt like a member of the family. The only problem was, Bud’s family was hosting an exchange student that year, a boy named Kees from Holland, who occupied the spare bed in Bud’s room. No worries: I could bunk with Bud’s sister Ilene, two years younger.

If this sounds strange, it was. I’m not sure whether Bud’s parents trusted me to be a gentleman with their adolescent daughter, or they considered me a suitable mate and hoped we would perhaps become a bit more intimate. The fact was that I had grown up with Ilene and considered her more of a kid sister.

The week came, my parents and siblings took off for Aruba, and I moved down the street. Bud and Kees were also in the play, so we drove to rehearsals together. Far from being a burden, the week was actually fun. It felt like theater camp and, spending so much time together working on a passion project, the cast and crew became a close-knit community. With the intense rehearsals, the show was coming together nicely.

Besides, there was this girl.

Her name was Patti, she was a sophomore (Ilene’s classmate), and she was the choreographer. She was smart, confident, and pretty, with long straight hair parted down the middle. Her skirts were as short as the school allowed and she had the legs to match—a dancer’s body, lithe and graceful. She turned pages for me when she wasn’t working with the cast. Next to me on the piano bench, her presence was electric. During breaks, we talked and bantered.

Okay, we flirted. During one break, I came up behind her onstage and put my hands over her eyes. Instead of guessing who it was, or slipping out of my grasp, she fell back into my arms.

As intense and fun as the daylong rehearsals were, the evenings were dull. We had no homework and Bud and I had already been accepted to the colleges of our choice. I wanted to go out. I wanted to ask Patti out.

The only problem was, I already had a girlfriend. Wendy was a senior at a Detroit high school that wasn’t on break that week.

Bye Bye Birdie program 1968Wednesday afternoon, after rehearsals ended, I called Wendy. “Want to go to a movie tonight?” I asked casually. “I have to study,” she replied, as I knew she would. “That’s okay,” I said. “I might go anyway.”

I called Patti and invited her out. “I thought we might go see Bonnie & Clyde,” I said. She accepted without mentioning that she had already seen it.

I picked her up and drove into town to the theater. The date was so last-minute that we slipped into our seats a few minutes after the movie started. That was actually a relief to Patti because we missed Faye Dunaway’s brief nude scene.

Afterwards, I took her to HoJo’s for fried clams and a soda. Even in the harsh restaurant light, she glowed. We talked and talked. Finally I drove her home and kissed her goodnight on the front stoop.

I drove back to Bud’s in a daze, undressed in the dark and slipped into bed. “How was your date?” Ilene asked. “Good,” I said. “There might be more.” “I’ll have to get to know her better,” Ilene said.

A few days later, I called Wendy and broke up with her.

On Sunday my family returned from Aruba, tanned and rested, telling tales of beaches and snorkeling and exotic Caribbean food.

I didn’t care. I had the girl.

One day, we might even get to Aruba together.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Tags: Spring break, Aruba, High school musical
Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    John, this is a wonderful story! Delighted to see you posting here again. Glad you didn’t go to Aruba and started your lifelong love affair with Patti that week instead. You should go to Aruba for your 50th anniversary!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this story, John. Since I know how it turned out, in retrospect (LOL) you had the best spring break ever. I’m sure you and Patti had many beach vacations in the years the followed.

  3. Great story, John Z! I’m sure it’s me, but I see a film script in this story. Same as with Suzy’s! the title works, too. It’s also nice to know how Patti figures in the rest of your life. Very sweet story with very clear imagery, especially around the rehearsal stuff. Also hilarious sit com material with your ‘little sister’ roommate!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, John, and really nicely told in all respects. And talk about a story with a happy ending!
    Plus, I liked your whole approach to the prompt; i.e., this is about the spring break trip that I did not take. Reminds me of the rhetorical device we clever lawyers often use in briefs: “First, let us describe what this case is not about.”

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, John. One thing about good prompts (like this one) is that you can twist them around in clever ways.

      My father always said I would have been a good lawyer! But that’s (literally) another story.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    I remember it well..”Going steady, going steady, going steady, steady for good. He’s in love with Kim, Kim’s in love with him” .

    I had a front row seat to all of this. Patti and I were already friends, being in Geometry class and Girl’s Choir that year.

    I, too, stayed in (my family didn’t go on exotic vacations, but never mind). But my current boyfriend, the first cute guy I ever dated, did go to Florida. When he came back, he dumped me for another girl. I wasn’t so happy about that. I also wasn’t happy that freshman Debbie Lakin, who had been in my cabin at summer camp in 1962, several years before Interlochen, got the lead instead of me. Nevertheless, we DID have lots of fun learning the dances from Patti (I can still do opening steps from the “Lot of Living dance…cool dance) and I got to be in the Telephone Hour with my leg up high on the railing, in addition to being Randi, Kim’s YOUNGER sister. Sigh.

    And, yes, I knew the two of you were falling for each other. I could see the chemistry.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Good to know others could also sense the chemistry.

      As pianist for Birdie, I was there for the auditions. What I recall is that Debbie nailed hers—we were all blown away. But when we got into rehearsals, it was clear that she just didn’t have enough acting or performing experience to carry her weight. Alas, by then it was too late to change horses.

  6. gsbate says:

    I love the fried clams.!
    Best of all you paint a lovely picture of Patti.
    This should be a “Where the Boys Are” movie .

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    Looks like this was re-posted from 2019–glad it was, because it is a great story. You told it with wit and suspense, and by the end I was definitely rooting for you to get the girl. Timing turned out just right.

  8. Wonderful story John, so glad you republished it!

    Altho we’ve not met, I know you and Patti as Retrospect legends! So glad you two met, married, and gave us this wonderful storytelling website!

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    Good to see you back here, John!

    This story invokes two things I have always believed about relationships:
    1- A shared challenge, goal or adversity often binds the people involved.
    2-Talent is sexy.

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