For Thanksgiving, a tale of just desserts

For Thanksgiving, a tale of just desserts

To say I was unschooled in the delicate art of the breakup would be a grotesque understatement, akin to “the Beatles were a pretty good group” or “there’s a lot of water in the ocean.”

I was astonishingly bad at it, hideously ham-fisted, ridiculously clumsy and, in the final, brutal analysis, an unflinching coward.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Mike, give yourself a break,” but you’ll think differently after I make a full confession.

But before we get there, you’ll need a little background, some context, a brief — but honest — history of my love life pre-1975.

I was never what you’d call a player. Faithful readers might recall I spent most of my formative years in Catholic grade school, which was not exactly a crucible of social interaction, at least in terms of, well, you know, girls.

Oh, they were there alright, no doubt about that, but the nuns who ran things didn’t exactly place a high priority on imparting the basics of learning how to play the game.

They were more focused on the strict parochial outlook, one whose very foundation stressed even thinking about committing a sin was every bit as bad as actually doing it.

This, as you can well imagine, caused a bit of an uproar among us fourth-graders when we were first exposed to it. Not only did it seem grossly harsh, the notion of being guilty of an imaginary sin engendered in us an outraged sense of unfairness, one that we were quick to express.

So we whined about it, which got us exactly nowhere.

Nuns, we learned, had no use for the presumption of innocence.

It’s all right there in the Bible, or so we were told, so that swiftly closed off every reasonable avenue of argument until I came up with what I believed was an valid counter-question.

“So, Sister,” I asked, “does that mean that every time we think about doing something good, we get credit for that too?”

“Of course not, you impudent little guttersnipe!” came the reply. “Now take these erasers outside and beat them until they’re new.”

Well, what did I expect?

I was bucking centuries of dogma armed with only a 9-year-old’s sense of logic, which was a little like Daniel must have felt in the lion’s den, but I was glad that at least I’d stood up and asked why.

That was a pretty common thing for me back then, that incessant drumbeat in my head, the one that was always looking for answers in a world shrouded with secrecy and silence.

It’s no wonder I got into so much trouble when, as an eighth-grader, I had the nerve to give a girl I liked my I.D. bracelet, which was a thing guys did in public school. But from the way the principal reacted, you’d have thought I’d taken her to see “Rosemary’s Baby.”

“I’m very disappointed in you, Michael,” she said sternly, her neck wattles twitching in agitation, her face a pinched rictus of pent-up anger. “Don’t you know that the other children look up to you?”

That was the lay of the land in the parched desert of Catholicism.

Even the most casual expression of affection was treated as a near occasion of sin, something that threatened your very soul.

So I flowed into the waters of the public school system lacking even the most rudimentary social skills, which put me squarely on the sidelines as the game raged around me, girls wearing miniskirts and makeup, guys hanging out at their lockers, dances on Fridays.

Had it not been for a few of my sister’s friends, I would have probably spent the entirety of my high school life as isolated from the dating game as if I’d been an awkward, pitiable exchange student from some godforsaken place where they’d never heard of Clearasil, cannabis or Creedence Clearwater Revival.

But even in my few-and-far-between forays into the brave new world of teenage love, I was always on the losing end of the ledger.

Once, I remember, in the fall of my senior year, I took my girlfriend of several months — an eternity in high school — to the homecoming dance on a Saturday night, only to have her break up with me the very next Monday morning. She said something vague about how it had been fun and all, but that it was over now and she hoped I understood.

Quick and clean, no muss, no fuss, just the two us going our separate ways, though she had my replacement all lined up.

But I should have learned from that crushing experience there was a right way and a wrong way to handle disappointing someone.

Flash forward to summer 1975. I’m home from college having put in two respectable years, making the dean’s list three-straight semesters and well on my way to a degree in English.

Somewhere between seeing the Rolling Stones at Cleveland Stadium and the release of “Jaws,” I found myself involved with a smart, pretty, tan, quiet girl with plans to enter Ohio State that fall.

She accompanied me back to South Bend, cried as we parted and gave me her class ring, which I wore faithfully until the night I met someone else. I remember slipping it into the pocket of my jeans and thinking to myself, “Uh oh, this could be very, very bad.”

That dorm party pretty much changed the course of my college life. She and I would be more or less together from that night until, well, we weren’t. Ours was an explosive, combustible, tempestuous relationship, one I have neither the time nor the inclination to detail right now for reasons that must be fairly obvious.

Suffice to it say that in the short term, we changed each other, grew together and enjoyed one another’s company to the point I found myself, inexplicably but wonderfully confident, inviting her home to meet my parents over Thanksgiving weekend.

There was only one small problem. Over the weeks we’d been inseparable, I hadn’t had the nerve to tell the girl I’d left behind, the one whose letters kept coming, the one with whom I talked every Sunday night, sometimes with my girlfriend in my lap.

I know, I know. If there’s a hell, I’m going there in a handbasket.

But it gets worse. When the doorbell rang on Thanksgiving afternoon, I knew it was the moment of truth, but instead of doing the right thing and talking to her in private, telling her the truth, letting her down easy, I had my college girlfriend answer the door instead.

I can only imagine the raw emotions that were exchanged in that brief encounter, the wreckage I created because I’d never done the breaking-up thing before and had no idea how to do it.

Had I the chance to go back in time, I’d like to think I’d have the courage to be a good guy instead of an impudent little guttersnipe.

Or to use one of Mom’s pet names for her first-born child, a wretched flea.

Permit me a quick post-script to this tale of monstrously bad behavior.

One afternoon the following summer, I heard a knock at the door that led to my bedroom in the basement, the scene of so much that had passed between my old girlfriend and me.

“C’mon in,” I said, lowering the volume on Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”

Down the three steps bounded her precocious preteen sister whose glasses gave her an owlish look and who had always seemed to wear a perpetual scowl whenever I was in their family’s home.

“She wants her ring back,” she said without preamble.

“Yeah, sure, of course,” I said, handing it over after locating it in the top drawer of my desk. “There you go.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, which I broke by asking, “Well, do you have mine?”

“Oh, you won’t be seeing that ever again,” she said, starting to turn to walk out. “She threw it into the Scioto River. That’s probably what she should have done to you too.”

She looked back at me from the top of the steps. “Oh, and she’s dating a nice guy now, pre-med,” she said. “We all like him.”

“Well, give her my best,” I said, wishing I had done just that back when I had the chance, knowing I would never live it down.

And that college girlfriend who’d rocked my world?

She dumped me the first day back from Christmas break, telling me she’d gotten back together with her hometown honey.

No muss.

No fuss.

No more us.

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