By Bonnie Goldstein
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 6, 2006
My sophomore year in high school, service stations had attendants who washed the windshield and checked the oil. Thirty cents bought a gallon of leaded gasoline -- enough to cruise Pearson's Drive-In on Hiawatha and still have plenty in the tank to drive by Steve Duncan's house on the way home. Steve was a senior. He'd been the director of a school drama club melodrama in which I'd played the vamp.
He lived on the street behind me, and after evening rehearsals in the school auditorium, Steve often drove me home. We usually took the long way along Mississippi River Boulevard, where we'd park, smoke cigarettes, neck in his front seat and listen to the car radio. It was winter 1964 in St. Paul, Minn., and local singer Bob Dylan was getting good play. For a while, time stood still in the front seat of Steve's car.
After our play's last performance, Steve drove me home from the cast party and said politely, "Well, I guess I'll see ya around sometime." In my girlhood imagination, Dylan was singing, "It's all over now, baby blue."
I eventually stopped detouring down Steve's street. In June he graduated in the same large high school class as my brother. I read he rescued a child at his lifeguard job that summer. By August, he'd left for college in the southern part of the state.
Over Thanksgiving break he came back to town and called me. Flattered that he suddenly wanted to see me, I agreed to go out with him. I welcomed the friendly distraction of my former crush and we fell into our post-rehearsal parking, smoking and making-out pattern of the winter before.
What I remember most about those "dates" was having to sneak out -- Steve was off-limits. I was not allowed to go out with boys who weren't Jewish, so I'd tell my parents I was going to a friend's. Our clandestine friendship could never go anywhere, but our occasional pleasant necking continued off and on through my senior year.
After high school I enrolled at the University of Minnesota's local campus. At college I soon became obsessed and besotted with a dark, dreamy sophomore. I rarely went to my classes first semester, but I frequently arranged to run into Dreamy on the way to his. All that fall we'd have long, soulful conversations at the campus coffee shop while I waited patiently for him to ask me out. I had a principal rival for Dreamy -- a girl a year ahead of me named Shelley. Word was he didn't ask Shelley out, either, but I suspected they also had soulful conversations.
Steve came home at Christmas and we went to visit a fraternity brother whose parents were out of town. I had no notion that Shelley had a brother at the same downstate college as Steve. When I heard the fraternity brother's last name, I didn't register it was the same as my rival's. I almost puked, however, when I saw Shelley's picture on his vestibule wall. Unaware of my distress, Steve scouted an upstairs bedroom -- Shelley's, it turned out -- for us to have a private talk. Unfortunately, he picked that moment to declare I had come to mean a lot to him. As the poor guy began his confession of serious intentions, all I could focus on was the blown up black-and-white photo of Dreamy on the dresser. The giant-size image of my current obsession in my rival's bedroom was making me dizzy.
Meanwhile, I was vaguely aware of Steve saying he thought about me constantly, that we should tell my parents and go out in public. "That will never happen," I told him. "This isn't going anywhere. It never was. I'm not for you. You're not for me." Then, always the drama queen, I blurted, "Anyway, I like somebody else." Pointing to the black-and-white portrait: "That's him."
Steve was furious. I was making a joke of him. He didn't say a word the whole long, icy ride home. Despite my self-involved snit of jealousy at Shelley's trophy, it was clear to me that I had grievously wounded a perfectly nice man who had apparently read more into our friendship than I did. I should have apologized for being a jackass but I was too young. I looked out my car window and kept silent. I'm pretty sure the radio played "The Times They Are A-Changin'." He stopped calling.
I ran into Steve only once after that, years later, and that encounter also ended badly. I was by then a single, twenty-something new mother working at a downtown finance company. He'd chased me for half a block, he said, puffing, as he caught up to me getting on a crowded elevator.
We made a quick plan to meet for a drink the next night at his apartment, where I had another pictorial surprise. I'd completely forgotten I'd once been his model for a college outdoor photography course. His wall displayed dozens of framed shots of a considerably younger me.
Now I'd become his personal version of "Tangled Up in Blue." ("I seen a lot of women but she never escaped my mind.") It was too weird. He didn't know me anymore. My life had come a long way from his drama club image of me.
"That girl you used to know? She's gone. Stop thinking about me," I told my bewildered date and left. This time, I drove myself home, crying. I never saw him again.
In my mid-thirties I married a kind, honorable man much like Steve. The same summer, my older brother ran into Steve at their high school reunion. My brother never knew about our secret romance, so he thought it odd when Steve introduced him by saying, "This man's sister broke my heart." My brother, who thought he'd been mistaken for someone else, nearly forgot to tell me.
Today, gas is $2.27 a gallon. There are no more drive-ins, only drive-thrus, and I have Googled Steve Duncan, who is now 59. It's been 40 years since that spring I drove by his house every day but I still owe him an apology. He was a good guy and I was a freak. For years I've wanted to tell him I'm sorry for the way it ended.
His unmistakable voice, a little more gravelly, says to leave a message. "Uhm, Steve. Hi. This is awkward. . . . I have meant to call for about 30 years to apologize. I was a jerk to you and you were totally decent and didn't deserve it. I hope you're having a good life.
"I'm not in a 12-step program or anything. I know this call must sound like I am, but I treated you badly and . . . just want to say I'm sorry. That's all. If you want to call me back, here's my number . . ." When I put the receiver down, my heart was racing.
Steve called that evening and quickly let bygones go by. He told me a vivid memory of us parked up the street from my parents' house when another car pulled up behind us and flashed its lights. Thinking it was my dad, Steve sped off but the driver pursued us through my mazelike neighborhood. Finally pulling over to face my father's wrath, Steve instead met an officer in an unmarked police cruiser who was responding to a neighbor's call about us in front of her house. The cop wished Steve luck with my dad.
Bringing me up to the present, he also told me about his warm, extended family of two sons, one of them a hockey star; his ex-wife; her second husband and their two additional sons. We talked about his work and about him recently finally quitting smoking. It may have been the first time I ever actually listened to him.
About how I'd ended the relationship, he graciously responded, "You were just a kid." He also said, "To me, you'll always be 17," and for an instant I was, hiccupping out a breathless "Okay."
We talked about an hour. Hanging up was bittersweet. There was no plan to continue our reunion. I've been happily married more than 20 years. But we assured each other we're both having rich, good, happy lives and are genuinely glad that the other is, too. Don't think twice, it's all right.