When I was growing up, there was a Sweetheart Banquet at the 7th and Main Baptist Church every Valentine’s Day. I never had the occasion to attend since I was an Episcopalian, but it was considered quite an event in our little town. When I was in 8th grade, I was invited to go with one of my classmates, Kenneth Carroll, who was one of the smartest boys I knew. I was thrilled that Kenneth invited me because he and I had gotten to know each other very well working on the debate team in our English class. We had researched facts, developed arguments and counter-arguments, joked and laughed and I was as infatuated as a junior high girl could be with this boy who I’d known all of my life but never with any of “those” thoughts in mind.
I remember exactly what I wore to the Sweetheart Banquet: a two-piece red suit (skirt and top) that I had bought at The Smart Shop in my little hometown. This was 1967 and I’m sure I was wearing stockings and white pumps. Kenneth arrived at my door with a corsage in a box, a white carnation that looked very pretty against the bright red of my outfit. He was wearing a dark suit, a tie, and dress shoes. We walked out into the chilly February night and he opened the door for me as I slid into the backseat of his daddy’s car. His father was in the front seat, serving as our chauffeur for the short drove over to the church and back.
I wish I could say this was one of those wonderful evenings where young love blossomed while we danced in the half-light of the church hall after dinner. Instead, I recall it as being one of the most awkward evenings of my life. I was so taken with Kenneth – he looked so handsome in that suit – that I was struck dumb. I literally couldn’t put two words together all night long. Gone was all that ease that had come without a thought while we prepared for our debates, replaced with me sitting there, wracking my brain for conversation topics to no good end. I sat silently in that decorated banquet hall, red and white hearts covering the walls, and danced wordlessly after the meal was over. I remember the drive there and back and the silence in the car. I mostly remember me sitting there thinking, “Oh, no. This sweet friendship will never be the same after tonight. If only I could come up with one sentence to say.” At the end of the evening, Kenneth walked me to my front door, gave me a stiff hug, then turned and fled to the awaiting car.
After that Valentine’s Day fiasco, I learned to have a few go-to topics when I went on dates with boys. I generally had a list of five conversation starters so that I would never again find myself so nervous that I couldn’t say a word. I still feel a twinge of nostalgic regret about that evening and the subsequent loss of our sweet friendship. Kenneth’s invitation to the banquet had shifted us from “just friends” to potential romantic partners and our friendship just couldn’t survive that flood of adolescent hormones (at least on my part).
Years later, I would see Kenneth again on my first day of graduate school. I had just returned from a year in Italy teaching English as a foreign language and I was full of stories to tell. His eyes lit up when he saw me and I thought, “Oh, Kenneth, handsome as ever. What a sweet surprise!” Five minutes later, as we were catching up, he told me he’d just gotten married two weeks before. I couldn’t help but note that unfortunate timing. Alas, we were clearly never meant to be.
All these years later, I can only smile over the awkwardness of that Valentine’s night. Two innocent teenagers embarking into unknown territory with no map to lead the way. I still am happy I bought and wore that red suit. I might not have said anything, but I looked all grown up and pretty for my new adventure. It would just take a couple of more years before I could find words to help me along the way.