I was no Don Juan.
Nineteen years old, and I'd yet to ask a girl out on a date.
Sometimes friends tried to arrange something. As when Tom and Joan set me up with her girlfriend Mish for a double date at a beach party in Cedar Lake, Ind.
Nervous but hopeful, I bought a canary yellow muscle shirt and left my thick black eyeglasses at home.
Mish was blonde and petite. She asked to sit in the back seat of the car and "catch up" with Joan, so I was not able to use the 15 questions I'd written and memorized.
Driving on the Calumet Expressway, I collided with a road construction cone, blowing out the right front tire of my sister's Volkswagen. With no spare, my new shirt got sweaty and oily from my lugging the wheel several miles to and from the gas station.
When I asked Tom if he would take over driving, Mish got all agitated, as though it were some craven ploy for me to crawl next to her, which set the tone for the rest of a nightmarish Saturday that Tom assured me we would laugh about one day, though I'm still waiting.
I simply had no idea what to say or how to act with a girl. Like suddenly someone handing me a violin.
So I submerged myself in books at Chicago Teachers College. And after school I worked as a bag boy at our neighborhood Jewel.
A dozen young women worked as cashiers, my sister Rosie among them. I usually tried to get assigned to her counter, or to her close friend Marianne's, where I didn't worry about sounding ridiculous or if another pimple had sprouted on my chin.
We all attended the same school — Rosie, Marianne and I. They were education majors, and I was English.
Marianne was popular, with a circle of friends from the Beverly neighborhood, including boys who would visit at work. And every Wednesday they congregated at Telly's Lounge on Western Avenue, where the music was deafening, the crowd wall to wall, and ID checks infrequent.
Marianne had the classic look of
Nonetheless, she was one female I could answer without stammering. As a schoolmate, a fellow worker and sis' sidekick, she did not feel threatening.
So one day, when she asked me about verb forms in German 101, it was not a big deal. Though enrolled in different classes, we both had Frau Schreiner as our professor, and I agreed to help.
We arranged to meet in the balcony of the auditorium where she could smoke her Winstons with "Grundlagen der Deutschen" open on her lap. And it did not take long to see the source of her difficulty. I quizzed her with a sentence, Der Hund mag den Stick — The dog likes the stick — and immediately she veered off-course.
"How is it you have an aptitude for languages? Rosie says you never talk."
People ask questions idly. Or to trap you. Or even as a rebuke. Marianne wanted to see the other side of every door.
"Do you think Frau Schreiner will fail me? ... Does she, I wonder, grade boys easier so they won't be drafted?"
Like Sherlock Holmes with all the questions, but I wasn't complaining, being near her in the darkened theater, leaning over an exercise in the textbook, smelling lavender and tobacco in her hair.
She would wait for my philosophy class to end, when I'd see her statuesque figure hovering in the hall. Dr. Parejko watched for her, too, and one morning made a crack about McGrath's "better half" being late. Students laughed.
Wednesday before midterms, the book sat closed on her lap.
"What's next for you, David?"
"Shouldn't we review vocabulary?"
"Ten years from now, what do you see?"
She searched for her Winstons while I described my likely career path. She lit one up as I finished. "Practical plans, sure. But what do you wonder about?"
I started in with my curiosity about other dimensions in life, like the collective consciousness in nature hinted at by Jack London. I segued to
It grew late, her book still unopened.
"Can we study after work?" she asked.
"Isn't tonight Telly's?"
"I won't miss much. There's a reason they blast the music."
Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I slaved in Jewel's basement, wearing cowhide gloves to smash empty boxes and stuff the cardboard flats into the baler.
Like a ghost, Marianne suddenly appeared behind me, tears in her eyes. But then I realized it was the snowflakes, all in her hair, glinting on her face and shoulders.
The pink hem of her cashier's uniform extended below her gray wool coat. She seemed nervous, vulnerable.
I felt something melt inside, and she could have asked me anything: Fly to China? Run barefoot in the snow? I would have obeyed unquestioningly.
"David, on days we don't have tutoring, do you miss us as badly as I do?"
Though I would not tell her I loved her till Christmas, I knew it in that moment.
I held her but did not yet kiss her. Careful not to mess things up, to insinuate myself too soon. For that would happen slowly, with gradual intensity and continuously escalating joy over the next four decades.
We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary on Aug. 5. Contrary to what I previously thought, I'd still not gotten a date on my own; for Marianne confessed she had never actually needed help with her German.
David McGrath is emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and author of "The Territory," a story collection. Marianne taught fourth grade for 23 years. They have three grown children: Mike, Jackie and Janet. He can be reached at email@example.com.