sophisticated-ignorance

On a perfect early December evening—snow fluffing down, fireplace blazing—I took all three chess games from Ricardo. We’re matched in skill, or lack thereof, and we both play to win, politely vicious. Local rules allow pleasure in victory.

I felt good for 30 seconds. Then I was sandbagged by an uh-oh feeling with roots in the way-back.

“Will you still ask me out for New Year’s Eve?” I heard myself bleat.  I leaned beguilingly across the chess table, circa 1959.

“Yup,” Ricardo said.  “But you may have to buy your own flowers.”

I didn’t laugh.

He gave me the look. “Will you get over this New Year’s Eve thing? Amateur night. Forget about it.”

Amateur night.  Right.  We’ll stay home by the fire, play chess, maybe watch a movie. Just to prove we’re not curmudgeons, we’ll have champagne and caviar. We’ll kiss at midnight.  I’ll feel loved and lucky. And next December, something will trigger that uh-oh feeling again.

I grew up comfortable competing with everyone. I tried my best to take chess games from pudgy, awkward Warren L., who taught me the moves in eighth grade, at the very inlaid table where Ricardo and I play six decades later.

Although I never once beat him, Warren asked someone else to the New Year’s Eve sock hop in the junior high school gym.  Not just someone: Roberta R., who flaunted serious tits under her pink angora sweaters.

My mother tried to comfort me. She said Roberta would be old news when I was coming into my prime.  Insisted that Warren didn’t ask me out because he had a crush on me and didn’t want me to know he was a lousy dancer.

On New Year’s Eve that year, my brother, Nick, and I looked on adoringly as our parents swanned out to some party, my mother wearing her chinchilla and looking like Ingrid Bergman, my father in black tie, Yves Montand’s double. Nick and I wrapped a bottle of ginger ale in foil and put it in a silver bucket.  We watched Dragnet and Guy Lombardo.  We sleepily tooted gold paper horns at midnight.

I bet we had more fun than anyone at the sock hop. My brother still has the power to make me laugh so hard I have to lie down on the floor.  But even though I’m almost 72, my stomach hurts when I think about Warren not asking me to the sock hop.

Just now I Googled him.  He went to MIT.  He’s a quantum physicist.  His online images suggest he’s still pudgy and awkward.  MIT: I feel better about his having won all our chess games.  But not about the New Year’s Eve that wasn’t.

And all the other lousy ones.

Given that I forget everything I want to remember—where did I put the butter? Ogod, please not in the cupboard—it’s wretchedly unfair that I can’t take Ricardo’s advice and forget New Year’s Eves past.

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I’m stuck in an infinite regression of that night, one more humiliating than the next.

Age 16: Allen K., a Yale sophomore, invited me to a party given by his parents. Woohoo!  I wore a Ceil Chapman black and white silk dress that somehow gave me cleavage (I was still no Roberta). In my evening bag, blue Balkan Sobranies to match my blue eye shadow. At last the Sophisticated Lady of my favorite song.

Senator Ribicoff was at the party.  When we shook hands, he stared at my bosom.  “Very nice, my dear,” he said.

He was a senator and he was staring at my bosom. No man had stared at my bosom before. Actually, no man has done so since. Can I find that Ceil Chapman dress on eBay?

After the party and a stop at Friendly’s—Allen introduced me to peppermint stick ice cream with hot fudge and whipped cream—we went back to my house and down to the cellar.

We kissed a couple of times. I believe he approached the aforementioned bosom.

“I bet you think I’m a virgin,” I said. (Sophisticated.)

“Well, aren’t you?” he asked.

I confessed I was.  Then (blame it on the senator): “Do you want to fuck me?” I’d never before said the word. Blame it on Evergreen Review, whose raw prose I’d been reading between Willa Cather stories for senior English.

“I don’t make love to virgins in their parents’ recreation rooms,” Allen said.  “Anyway, my penis is barely hard enough to do the job.”

Then there was the year, in my early 30s, when I got disgustingly drunk at a party I shouldn’t have gone to. The hosts were my married lover and his wife, who surely guessed what we were up to but was always gracious to me.

I like to think she knew I would never try to claim him as my own. I was, after all, the author of the Cosmopolitan piece “How to Be a Lady While Dating a Married Man.”

I grabbed a single guy I couldn’t stand. “I love you,” I said.  “Take me home.”

He got someone else to pour me into a cab.

Of course there are happy memories. In the family years, my husband and kids and I would make gingerbread houses on Christmas Day, decorating them with candy saved from Halloween. On New Year’s Eve, as midnight chimed, we’d smash the houses and eat the ruins.

Flash forward to last night. A few days before Christmas, with ridiculous spring weather—no snow, no fire.  I stopped work on this piece to play chess with Ricardo.  He won both games.

Didn’t just win them.  Wiped me off the board.

Comfortable competing with guys? Maybe. Or maybe some cultural meme from the ’50s had wormed its way into my soul. And made suicidal moves with my bishops.

Of course, of course we have a date for New Year’s Eve. Is it too much to hope he buys the flowers?