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The Accidental Engagement

My disastrous marriage was over, but I was still firmly entrenched in the closet. Well-meaning friends, worried about me spending another lonely night in my apartment, kept trying to set me up. For a while they accepted the “I don’t want to get hurt again” excuse but in time that wasn’t sufficient. Suddenly when married friends invited me to their houses to dinner they “forgot” to tell me that they’d also invited single women to dine with them, too.

I needed a beard.

My best friend Geoff had been dating his girlfriend Denise for a couple of years. Denise was a senior in college. Her roommate was named Wendy. Since Geoff and Denise had become a couple I hadn’t seen as much of him as I’d used to but we still got together a couple of times a month. He’d been my best man and was godfather to my daughter. Sometimes we’d go out, just the two of us. Sometimes the three of us went out. It was hard to tell who the third leg was, me or Denise. Once in a while Wendy came with us. It wasn’t a double date, just four people hanging out.

I started seeing the road companies of Broadway shows when I was a freshman in high school. I still enjoyed seeing them. There were also several dinner theaters in South Florida. Geoff’s dad was the theater critic for a small local paper and his mother had been an actress in New York when she was younger. He and I had seen several plays with one or both of his parents, who were divorced, when we were in high school. Neither of the girls had ever seen any live theater though, which made them barbarians in my book.
I compared them to illiterate groundlings, living among their own feces in the Middle Ages when they’d admitted they’d never heard of Lerner and Lowe one night when the four of us had gone to dinner. Denise was used to this by now but Wendy took offense.

“It’s not my fault!” she protested. “No one ever took me to any plays.”

“That may be true,” I said. “And you have a point. But good god, woman, you have a television, don’t you? You have a tape deck, do you not? They do have libraries at that university you attend, don’t they?” I made it my mission then and there to educate her on American Musical Theater.

“Oklahoma! Is going to be on channel six this Saturday. Watch it. There will be a test.”

“He means it,” Denise said. “He quizzed me for half an hour on The King and I.

There were no cell phones back then. I called the community pay phone in the dorm and asked for Wendy a couple of weeks later. “Mame is playing at the Royal Palm Dinner Theater next weekend. I’ll pick you up at five o’clock.”

I reiterate that this was not a date. I would have seen Mame regardless, but in those days I never went to the theater alone. It was fun exposing newbies to this magical world (whether they wanted it or not). She’d enjoyed Oklahoma! and as much fun as a movie adaptation is, the live show is ten times better.

It was my custom, when taking someone to see a show, not only to buy their ticket, but to present them with a cast recording afterward. This was pre-CD. Cassette tapes were the playback device of choice for the hips kids. The not-so-hip still listened to LPs or 8 Track tapes.

We enjoyed the mediocre food at the Royal Palm, and then while we sipped coffee enjoyed the above average performance. This was the first live theater Wendy had ever seen. She was transported, and her enjoyment doubled my own. The Royal Palm is in Boca Raton a good hour plus from her dorm in Miami. She chattered the whole way back about what a magical night it had been. I walked her to her dorm and before saying goodnight presented her with the Angela Lansbury cast recording. It never occurred to me to kiss her goodnight. Why should it? This wasn’t a date.

The four of us got together again a week or so later for a movie, then stopped at McDonald’s. I don’t know what it was for anyone else, but for me it was a way to hang out with my best friend Geoff. The women were necessary distractions, nothing more.

Two weeks later I called Wendy. “Peter Pan is playing at the Coconut Grove. That’s the good news. The bad news is, it’s starring Cathy Rigby.” I’d seen Peter Pan years ago starring Sandy Duncan who was magical, and of course I’d seen Mary Martin many times on television when I was a child. Cathy Rigby? Pfui! Still, it was a live production, and beggars can’t be choosers. Plus, one of the main characters was named Wendy, which I thought Wendy would get a kick out of.

“I’ll pick you up Saturday at six. We’ll have dinner before the show.”

“I can’t wait!” Wendy said. And she couldn’t. I could tell from her voice. Her enthusiasm made me feel like Professor Higgins. My student was progressing nicely. And to think, only a month ago, she’d never seen a live play. Look at her now, champing at the bit.

Dash it all, when Saturday came, and I showed up at her dorm, I realized I’d left the cast recording with Mary Martin and Cyril Richard at home. Dammit! I’d taken people to dozens of plays over the years and had never done this before. Geoff, had been the first, back before cassette tapes. He got a vinyl recording of A Chorus Line and Cats.

I tried not to let my forgetfulness ruin the night. We had a lovely dinner. Without giving away the plot (I still couldn’t believe she’d never seen the CBS production. Her parents should be arrested for neglect), I told her how carried away I’d gotten when I saw Peter Pan in high school, when I’d jumped up from my seat, trying to fly.

“They don’t really fly, do they? On the stage?”

“They do,” I assured her. “It doesn’t matter that you can see the wires. After five minutes you stop seeing them.” I don’t know if she stopped seeing the wires but she clapped harder than anyone when Tinkerbell drank the poison and died.

“I DO believe in fairies!” Wendy shouted next to me. “I DO! I DO!”

She nattered on even more about Peter Pan than she did about Mame, even though the ride back to the dorm was much shorter. I felt terrible when I was unable to present the cast recording to her. I’d come up with an idea during dinner to compensate for my forgetfulness, so didn’t mention it when we said goodnight.

“The play was wonderful! Thank you, Bob,!” she blurted at the entrance to the dorm and spontaneously kissed me on the cheek before dashing inside. It was okay. It wasn’t wonderful, but then she didn’t have Sandy Duncan to compare it to. Cathy Rigby. Bah!

Miami isn’t that far from Fort Lauderdale, but it’s not around the block, either. It wouldn’t have been a great hardship for me to drive back to Barry University to drop off the cassette, but to be honest I had better things to do.

Which brings me to the great idea I’d had at dinner the night before. I worked two jobs—at the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel during the day and at Sears part time from 6 to 9 at night, in their customer service department. One of the ladies I worked with owned a flower shop with her husband.
When I got to work at Sears that night I told Alice how I’d forgotten to take the cassette with me when I took Wendy to dinner and the play the night before. “What I’d like to do is send her some flower—nothing fancy” I clarified. “Some daisies or something and include the cassette with the bouquet. Can you deliver the flowers and cassette to her at her dorm?”

Alice said, “That’s very sweet Bob. But daisies? We can do better than that.”

I assured her that daisies were just fine. I gave her the cassette and a check for the flowers and delivery and told her put on the card, “Hope you had a good time, Bob,” and congratulated myself on my cleverness.
The next day when I got home from my job at the paper I had a message on my answering machine from Wendy. “BOB! They’re beautiful! I love them! I love YOU! I’m going to dinner at my parents’ tonight and taking them to show my mom. Ohmygod I love you so much! When do you want to meet my parents?”
I stared at the phone.

I stared at the wall.

I stared at the door.

I ran out of things to stare at so I stared at the phone again.

What the fuck was she talking about?

I played the message again. Then I called Alice at the flower shop.

“What did you do?”

“Did she like them?”

“She loved them. What did you do?”

“Oh, that’s wonderful. You don’t have to thank me, I was glad to do it.”

“Alice, what. Did. You. Do?”

“Well, I knew you couldn’t afford anything but daisies and I felt bad for you after your wife left you, and you’ve been so lonely. I know this girl must be special and daisies? I just couldn’t let you do that, Bob, so I sent her two dozen long stemmed roses. And I helped you with the card, too. ‘hope you had a good time?’” she sighed happily. “Men!”

“Alice. She wants me to meet her parents. What does that mean?”

“Congratulations! But don’t rush, a long engagement might be best.”

I had to stop Wendy before she got to her parents’ house. I called the payphone in her dorm. I asked the girl who answered to please get Wendy in room 609. The same girl came back. “Sorry she’s not there.”
Damn. “Is her roommate there?”

“Look, I’m busy. You asked for Wendy and Wendy isn’t here.” She hung up.

I called back. After several rings another girl answered. “Hi. Can you please get Denise in room 609?” I was never so glad to hear a woman’s voice in my life as I was when Denise said hello. “Denise! Has Wendy left for her mother’s?”

“Bob! What’s up with those flowers? I’ve been dating Geoff for almost three years and he’s never sent me flowers like that.”

“It was a mixup at the florist. A mistake. I misunderstand. They sent the wrong flowers.”

“Shit.”

“No shit, shit! I’ve got to stop her before she gets to her mom’s.”

“She’s already left.”

“Gah. Do you have their phone number?”

“Sorry. I think have their address though. Hold on.”

She was gone forever. When she finally came back she said, “Yep. She never throws anything away. I can see keeping a birthday card, but the envelope it came in? I mean her birthday was four months ago!”
“Denise!”

“Oh, right.” She read me the address and I copied it down. I wasn’t familiar with Miami neighborhoods and this one in one of the exclusive ones. GPS was years away and so was mapquest. I had a roadmap in the car, though. I thanked Denise and ran to my car, hoping I could get there before they started shopping for wedding dresses.

It was dark by the time I got to what I hoped was the right neighborhood. I pulled off to the side of the road. My 1965 Dodge Coronet stood out among all the fancy Lincolns and Cadillacs. The dome light hadn’t worked in years. I opened the glove box and took out the newfangled “needs no batteries” flashlight I’d bought at Sharper Image last month. You shake the flashlight to charge it. It worked, but it took several shakes to get a thirty second charge and even then the light it emitted was so dim it was hardly worth the effort.

But it was all I had. I looked at the map and traced the street I was on with my finger just as the light blinked out. I looked at the street sign outside my window. The house I wanted should be at the top of this hill, then a right turn, and go to the end of the cul-de-sac.

I drove slowly. There was the right turn, there was the cul-de-sac, but I couldn’t see the house numbers. I needed to charge the flashlight again. I shook it a few times and turned it on. The feeble beam was worthless. The last thing I needed was to knock on the wrong door. I decided to shake this thing like I was in the Bartender Rodeo and keep going for three minutes before turning on the flashlight again.

I had the mini-flashlight in my closed fist, shaking it to beat the band over my lap when another light, much more powerful was suddenly aimed at my eyes. At the same time an authoritative voice said through the open window, “Okay buddy, zip up your pants and step out of the car.”

My pants were already zipped, thank God. I stepped out of the car just as the front door of the house I was parked in front of opened. Three people stepped outside, an older couple I didn’t know, and Wendy. The cop said, “We got him, Dr. Brandt. Caught him red handed.”

Wendy said, “Bob?”

Her mother said, “Wendy? Is this your young man?”

“Not anymore!” Wendy burst into tears, burying her face in her mother’s shoulder.

I was faced with a dilemma. As I said, my pants were clearly zipped. The cops knew it. The flashlight was still in my hand. The map was still in the front seat. It would take ten seconds to clear up this misunderstanding. On the other hand, the misunderstanding with the flowers was no longer a problem. Did it matter if I cleared up the Peeping Tom confusion now, or after Wendy and her parents were back inside?

In the end, it was Geoff that tipped the scaled. He was (and still is) my best friend. If I let Wendy continue to think I was parked outside her parents’ house spanking the monkey she’d tell Denise. I knew I could convince Geoff of the truth, but Denise would never believe it, and he’d have to sneak behind her back to see me, or else risk their relationship. (They’ve been married now for thirty years and have three children.)
I came clean.

I also had to come clean about the flowers.

Wendy felt foolish, then angry at me, which I didn’t deserve, but what can you do?

Her mother still gave me the fish eye, thinking there was something strange about me.

Her father thought only a homo goes around passing out cast albums and is that chummy with florists, so he wasn’t as dumb as he looked, not that I know what he looked like, standing on his lawn in the dark.

The cops thought it was hilarious. They kept asking if they were invited to the wedding.

Wendy and I didn’t go to any more shows, and the four of us no longer hung out. I haven’t thought of her in years, but I like to think that every time she sees a few seconds of a musical while channel surfing, she thinks of me, and the two hours we were engaged.

All. Most.

Showtime