Tom

Louise has told me a zillion times that she never saw a guy more dense than I was about women.  I attribute it to a retarded hormonal development. Like  plants and animals that grow in confined, dark places and then suddenly come into the light, I grew up in an academic fog induced by long hours of study in a room lighted only by high basement windows and nurtured by  parents who were priming me for life as an academic, a Mormon Jesuit.  And then one night, at a church bowling party, Louise had a scheme.

I thought we were going bowling. Louise, I was later to learn, had seen the party in its proper light–a mating ritual. She was not, she later said, interested in my body but in my mind, my piano playing, my kindness to old ladies, and my perverse sense of humor.  With not much effort, because I was clueless, she managed to join the group on my lane.  In my usual introverted mind-set, I was caught up with applying the principles of my recent bowling class at the university. 

“I’ll bet a malt I can beat you,” she said in a casual way as I laced my red and green shoes. 

“I’ll take that bet,” I said. The details of the contest have long since faded.  To my recollection, we bowled three games.  I won all three, albeit by narrow margins. 

“You owe me a malt,” I said, as we parted company.

About ten o’clock that evening, the doorbell rang.  I answered to find a malt sitting on the porch.  A sign, with a hand-drawn bowler, read, “To the world’s best bowler.”  A yellow and white 1956 Ford station wagon was disappearing around the corner, but I recognized from its tail lights and pale color that it belonged to Louise’s family. 

She later told me that she was driving and had gotten Teddy, her younger brother, to put the malt on the porch, ring the bell, and “run like hell.” 

The next day I went to Morrow’s Nut House in downtown Salt Lake, bought a bag of mixed nuts, and attached a sign that read, “Tanks fer da malt.  I’m nuts about you too.”  I sketched a tank (for “tanks”) and pasted a picture of Mr. Peanut on the paper.  Although Louise has framed and hung it in the house from time to time, I remember it with some embarrassment.  When I delivered the sack of nuts to Louise, she was sitting on the front porch of her house with a girl friend.  I must have found it doubly awkward.  I did, nevertheless, get out of the car and walk over to her.  I’m sure the conversation was short. 

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“I brought you some nuts.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I’ve got to run.  I’m late for work.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

Even this awkward gesture sparked a response.  In my rear-view mirror I saw Louise showing the bag and note to her friend.

One day she had a cake delivered to my house.  It came from Mrs. Backer’s Bakery, the best of its kind in Salt Lake City, chocolate with chocolate frosting, covered with pink and white flowers.  “Happy Unbirthday,” the inscription read. 

I stood there with the cake in my hands, puzzled over the un-occasion, trying to sort out what this was about.  The very fact that I tried to make sense of  it, as if it could only be justified by some kind of reason, was symptomatic of later strains we would suffer.  I didn’t make the connection at first with Alice in Wonderland any more than I made a connection last month between a cap with a picture of the Jonas Brothers and pedophilia. 

As I stared at the beautiful cake and its perplexing greeting, my mother came out.  “Look what I just got,” I said.  I held the open cake box out for her to see.

“Who sent you that?” she asked.

“Louise, I think.” 

“That girl’s after you,” she said. 

I think she meant to warn me, like, “You’d better watch out, because you have a girl after you and you might fall in love and get married before you get your Ph.D. in eight years and start a career in college teaching.” 

But I was too caught up in the idea that any girl would care enough to have Mrs. Backer’s deliver a cake to me.  I just stared at it.  “Happy Unbirthday.” 

The madness drew me in.  This strange girl, who would even get the idea of sending me a cake on one of my 364 un-birthdays, intrigued me.  It was so odd, so alien to my practical upbringing, so far from the rational, nerdy world I had known, where actions had reasons and effects had causes. 

It had never occurred to me that birthday cakes were good for any occasion, that you didn’t need a birthday to have a birthday celebration.  I was to learn from Louise, sometimes reluctantly, to buy a birthday cake to celebrate any occasion.  One day she brought home a cake, because she’d written ten pages.  Our boys sang “Happy Birthday To Us” and blew out the candles with gusto.  Afterwards, when something nice happened, they’d say, “Don’t we need a cake?”

I did not realize back then, standing baffled on the porch, with a cake in my hands, that I was standing before the looking glass, about to enter Wonderland.

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