“She probably hates me for what I did!” Danny Miller told our mutual hometown friend Bobby.
Of course, Danny was referring to how he stood me up in ninth grade. I had invited him to a dance. My friend Sherry asked Danny’s friend Larry to be her date. To our relief (the class ratio was four girls to one boy), Danny and Larry accepted.
My mom bought me a new dress, a financial hardship at the time, and took me to her beauty shop to get my hair done. A few hours before the dance was to begin, Danny called to say he had suddenly become ill. Sherry got a similar call from Larry.
As I recall, my reaction to Danny’s leaving me in the lurch at the eleventh hour was more of a non-reaction. I just took it in stride, stoically, without a tear or an iota of emotional upset. On the other hand, my mother, livid with rage, her maternal instincts on overdrive, emoted for the two of us. She telephoned Danny’s mother and “gave her hell” for letting her son treat me that way. My mother then recruited the son of her friend, who was a year ahead of me in school, to be my replacement date for the dance.
Looking back now, I recognize that my overprotective mother must have been concerned about the emotional scars that Danny’s “rejection” might have on me, coming so soon after my father’s sudden death.
Little did my mother or anyone else, myself included, fathom that my father’s abrupt departure from my life had already inflicted a major abandonment wound to my psyche. On some unconscious level, then and there, at age 12, I must have decided that no man would ever get to reject and hurt me again; even if he tried, I would slough him and his rejection off like Teflon. That’s what I did with Danny.
I never spoke to Danny again. He left the public school system for private school so we traveled in different social circles, our paths never intersecting.
For years Danny Miller and his rejection were out of my consciousness, that is, until a few decades later when Bobby mentioned he had spoken with Danny, who was married, had two kids, and was living on the West Coast.
After my conversation with Bobby I tucked Danny Miller back into the far reaches of my memory where he stayed for a number of years.
In the meantime, I had reconnected with a childhood girlfriend who had attended the same school as Danny and me. I was unaware that she had remained in contact with Danny.
I was flabbergasted when one day she sent me an e-mail entitled “An Old Friend Wants to Talk to You,” saying that Danny wanted to take me out to lunch on his next business trip back east. Could she give him my e-mail? I didn’t give it a second thought, curiosity about his motives trumping my keeping him in oblivion.
A few sentences into his e-mail, Danny wrote, “I need to apologize for my immaturity and rudeness in ninth grade when I did not go out with you. It was not you, it was me. I had a negative experience on a date in eighth grade. I was afraid of girls.”
Had Danny been riddled with guilt all these years while I rarely thought about him, his rejection barely a blip on my emotional radar? I e-mailed back, half-jokingly, “I sincerely hope that your lunch invitation is not motivated by guilt.”
I would not have recognized Danny in a crowd, but there he was seated in the restaurant waiting for me. From a slightly pudgy teen, Danny had morphed into a physically fit adult with a full head of white hair. We hugged “hello.”
Danny and I talked for three hours about hometown memories, old friends, travels abroad, relationships, our parents’ deaths, our successes and failures…everything but the incident in ninth grade. When I sensed our time together was about to end, I felt compelled to insinuate it into the conversation. “By the way,” I blurted as he was talking about something totally unrelated, “Refresh my memory. Did my mother call your mother then?” “Yeah, and she spoke with me, too,” he said. Again, he apologized, referring to his bad experience with a date the year before and his inability to interact with girls.
Even though I enjoyed our time together and should have been satisfied with Danny’s face-to-face amends, I felt disappointed and confused for days afterwards and didn’t know why.
I ruminated over what I had expected from seeing Danny again. I certainly did not want a “guilt lunch” with him groveling and spouting a litany of mea culpas. Besides, I was in no position to assign blame; I had done my share of rejecting eligible suitors over the years because I was shy and didn’t know how to relate to the opposite sex. Nor was I interested in anything romantic to come out of our reunion, so there were no dashed hopes in that regard. Since Danny’s rejection had occurred decades ago without devastating me, why was I even obsessing about our lunch?
Whenever I feel stuck, at loose ends emotionally, I call up my friend Rachel. Rachel has the innate ability to zoom into the heart of my angst. “I think your reaction has something to do with your father,” she said. “Your father’s death and Danny’s rejection happened so close in time. To your 12-year-old self, your Dad’s dying felt like abandonment and rejection. Then Danny, a casual date, stood you up.”
The notion of a Danny-Dad connection resonated. Both my father and Danny belonged to that time in my past when I first encountered male rejection. They were, in fact, the first perpetrators.
The young mind forms lasting perceptions and patterns, which defy alteration even in adulthood. While I can forgive Danny’s adolescent act, I must confess that even now I harbor resentment at my father for dying. Although logic tells me that he never wanted to die at age 54, abruptly leaving the family he loved, the emotionally wounded girl in my adult woman’s body still craves closure, as elusive as it might be.
If only my father could come back into my life one more time and tell me he’s sorry for leaving, that it had nothing to do with me, and that he misses me…just like I miss him.
The death of my father: impossible to forget, tough to forgive.
Fredricka R. Maister is a New York City-based writer whose personal essays have appeared in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Writer, Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, Long Island Woman, Coping with Cancer magazine, Huffington Post, OZY and in the anthology, The Man Who Ate His Book: The Best of ducts.org, Volume II. You can find here on Facebook.