Daddy's Baby // Terry Barr
Not long ago, on a Facebook page far, far away, a casual acquaintance posted a query as to why we don’t know anything about President Obama’s past girlfriends. Why anyone would be so interested in such personal esoterica baffles me, though I suspect that if you believe the President isn’t truly an American, you might also believe he’s a body-snatcher with invented history. I can just see the pod resting in some poor unsuspecting middle class half-Black person’s garage. But knowing nothing about Obama’s love history—though I like a scary invasion film as much as the next American—I decided to help the posters out by naming all of my past girlfriends. I had to rest after naming the first ten, and when I returned to Facebook, I was hit by posters who accused me of hijacking their thread – of being off-topic and impertinent. Someone might also have asked if I were a commie, which of course made the whole body-snatching metaphor even more perfect. I proceeded then to name the fifteen other girlfriends I hadn’t gotten around to listing on the first try. This led to someone challenging me for an in person talk and coffee, but by then I had noticed something interesting about my own list.
The first six girls I dated were either Kathy, Pam, or Patti.
I was sixteen on my first ever date, with Kathy. I was twenty-eight when I got married, and in those twelve years, there weren’t but a few weeks when I wasn’t dating someone. And yet, of the four or five recurring dreams I have—putting my car in reverse and not being able to stop before I crash into a brick wall being foremost—the scariest recurrence is that not only am I unmarried; I am completely bereft of marriageable prospects. My wife is always one of my dream-options, but somehow she remains elusive, or else I’ve chosen her but she’s rejected me. Sometimes in the dream I know we’re together, but it’s like I can’t believe it. Can’t accept it or take it all in. I wake up from these dreams relieved and next to her, as I’ve been for the past thirty years.
I wonder to what degree my loneliness in these dreams stems from my early girlfriends rejecting me; some went out on me or told me not to call unless I had “something to say;” others were unwilling or unable to show physical love and desire. And I don’t altogether mean sex.
At seventeen, I dated my first Pam for several months during the spring and summer. While we held hands often and she sat right next to me in the full-length front car seat, the only kiss I ever got from her was a chaste closed-mouth peck on my own anxious lips when we said goodnight. I liked Pam. I liked her family: her mom and her older brother and her Aunt Sadie. I don’t remember what happened to Pam’s dad, but I suspect he left them, or at least I don’t recall any sadness when he was mentioned. Still, in my experience, a seventeen-year-old boy would like to be kissed more passionately if he could, and finally I broached that subject with Pam. Call me callous, but back then it didn’t occur to me that Pam had never kissed anyone that way before. Or maybe I did realize this but just didn’t care. After we talked, she agreed to “go parking” with me on our next date: Friday night’s football game.
It was her high school’s game, and after mixing with her friends both at the game and at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor where they all hung out, I noticed that our parking time was diminishing, given her 11:00 curfew. We left Shakey’s at 10:40, and I drove her home. I know I said something about being disappointed, and she nervously shrugged. When I walked her to her door, she turned, leaned in, and kissed me on the mouth, slipping just the barest trace of her tongue onto mine. The entire kiss lasted four seconds.
That was our last date, and think of me what you will, but remember that I was seventeen, and try to forgive me, as I’ve been trying for all those years to forgive myself.
My first Kathy was more experienced. For our first date, we went to see Travels With My Aunt. Neither of us appreciated Maggie Smith’s performance or that this was Graham Greene’s reminiscence of his boyhood. We were too busy holding onto each other. And when we kissed…
We went parking in my parents’ Gran Torino on that first date, and on our second, she informed me that a) she was on the pill, and b) she didn’t want to have sex. Moments later, she undid and pulled down both her and my pants. We did a lot, but I’m the type of guy who when told someone doesn’t want to do something, promptly gives up. Kathy and I had other dates that always went this far, but we never had sex. After our sixth date, Kathy dumped me and went back to her old boyfriend, an older, long-haired guy with his own car. They seemed quite happy.
Kathy had an intact family, though her parents were at least twenty years older than mine. I thought a lot about her after she dumped me, and then one day I realized what she had said to me. And what she meant.
My other Kathy and Pam were shorter-lived experiences. Still, the coincidence of names is funny, and at some point my parents asked me if I ever considered dating someone who was not named Pam or Kathy. As usual, I thought but never said that I was just happy to be dating. What did I care about names, ranks, serial numbers, or religion? [Kathy was a Baptist, and before I dated her, my mother warned me against straying into such forbidden territory.]
Next came my Patties. My first Patti was someone I think I loved. There were moments when we connected like I dreamed a boy and girl should. Moments when she told me, “I’m so glad to be with you again,” for we had dated briefly once before. When we broke up the second time—after she stood me up for a date by leaving a note on her front door saying, “Buddy, something’s come up and I can’t see you tonight,”—I was devastated, not only because I thought I loved her, but because I didn’t understand why she didn’t want me.
Later I learned why. I learned what the boy who dated her right before we reconnected had done to her.
It took me a few months to get over her, and in some ways, maybe I never did. During those broken-up months I kept remembering the Christmas presents we exchanged: the silver bracelet I gave her, and the copy of James Taylor’s Walking Man that she gave me. She told me how much she loved that album, particularly the song “Daddy’s Baby” and what it meant to her. I had known all along that at some point in her childhood, Patti’s mother had walked out on her, her father, and her sister, though I didn’t know the exact reasons or circumstances. I don’t remember who told me about this, but certainly Patti never did. When we dated, she and her father lived in a green house on the slant of a slight hill. I wondered what it was like for the two of them living alone in that old house, and how empty it all seemed, especially at night.
“Daddy’s baby, fussin’ and frettin’,
What has you feeling so low?”
Was it something I’d never completely know?
It was only two years ago—a Facebook reconnection—when I discovered that the man she lived with was her stepfather, a man who married her mother, was left by that mother, but nevertheless raised Patti and her sister. It turns out that her mother didn’t move out of town either, just far enough away to leave her family. Patti’s leaving me made more sense then, for I was the least of her troubles.
Besides, James Taylor was never my favorite singer. I preferred Neil Young and David Bowie, and anything by the post-Beatles. In fact, it was a Paul McCartney song that led me to my second Patti.
I’m at a dance at our rival high school on this Friday night. All my friends are gathered in the school gym, and local WERC-FM DJ Michael St. John is spinning tunes. St. John‘s Sunday night late show, “The Love Hour,” is girl-famous. Every record he plays during the Hour carries a dedication. For instance, “The Way We Were,” from Brenda to Donnie with love; or “Color My World to “that certain someone” from Darlene, with love; or “We May Never Pass This Way Again” with love, sent from the seniors to Mrs. Walker.
Being a renowned DJ amidst a pack of sixteen and seventeen-year-old girls must be heady for St. John. He’s dark and skinny with a semi-roguish moustache. About the only girl who doesn’t hover near him is the new girl in school. The one who keeps walking past the circle of friends I’m standing with. She’s looking for something: for some place to be, I think. And then Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Jet” begins: “Da dat da da….”
And my friend Jane creeps closer to me:
“Why don’t you go over there and ask her to dance? Her name’s Patti, and you might just like her.”
Though dancing isn’t one of my strengths—and thinking back on it, I would have been stumped if I had been asked to name one of my strengths—I walk over to Patti and ask her to dance.
“Sure.” She smiles.
I can’t tell you here that we made a striking couple, dancing to a rock song whose beat was anything but regular. But whatever I was doing couldn’t have been as strange as Patti’s windmillish arm-propulsion. We keep at it though, the words to “Jet” urging us on in our hopeful dance of romance.
When the song ends, we stand there as teenagers do, not knowing whether to chance another song; not knowing whether if we stop dancing there will be another song for us.
A few years later in a graduate course in Modern Novel, I'll read for the first time James Joyce's homage to a man and a woman's rekindled love, ULYSSES, and reach the scene where Molly Bloom remembers the first time her husband Leopold kissed her near the Moorish wall. She says she looked at him and thought, "...well as him as another..."
I hope I got that right. The point is that when I looked at Patti, it wasn’t like I saw her as my future one and only, or even anything close to it. Yet even as I rewind the scene of her propelling arms and recall that while in that movement, she kept her eyes steady on mine, I hear myself asking her if she wants to go out with me sometime.
The music has changed, and St. John is off in a corner with some girl he could go to jail for. I leave the party then with my friend Jim, hoping that between one of us, we might have a whole joint.
“So did you ask that new girl out?” he asks as we drive the highlands of south Bessemer.
“Yeah, I did. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I guess she kind of bugs me.”
It’s a bold statement. Most guys will kid you about your dates or ask if you plan on “getting any” later on. Most guys won’t offer judgment on their friend’s opportunities, especially ones so young and fresh.
“Well, it’s just a date,” I say. “It’s not like we’re going to make this a regular thing.”
The pot kicks in about then, and then the radio announces the opening riff of the original “Layla.” We launch our air guitars and bleating vocals, and for the rest of the drive, Patti fades into the night but also into part of me. The next day I call her and we plan our first date, doubling with Jane and her boyfriend Jimbo to the movies on the following Saturday night.
Patti lived with her parents and brother in a newer part of town. Brick or stone ranch houses with pristine yards shaded by pine trees. There was a part of me that had always wanted to date a girl who lived in a comfortable brick home – one that communicated comfort, princess phones, upstairs bedrooms. Even today, when I drive through certain neighborhoods on Saturday mornings, I feel envious of the sun gleaming through those trees and of the young boys who will be calling later that evening to pick up their girls.
Or maybe I’m just recalling Patti as she appeared at her front door that first night. As she asked the three of us inside to say hi to her parents.
Patti’s family went to our church, so I had seen them before, but only from a distance. Her mother was what southerners call “a sweet woman.” A bit meek but friendly enough. Her dad, though. Not what I expected, but then, my experience was limited to mainly absent or nearly comatose fathers, though once I did date a girl whose father was a police detective. I wonder if she ever got married.
Patti’s dad was a white-haired but otherwise youthful-looking man, impeccably dressed with every white hair firmly in place. He strode up to me that night with a genuine smile, a hand stuck straight out:
“Buddy! How are you? Glad you’re here!”
He looked me straight in the eye, too – a look I met for six or seven seconds before he moved on to greet Jane and Jimbo.
We all stood in Patti’s living room for five or ten unsettling minutes as her dad asked us which movie we were seeing, about what time it would end, and if we wanted to return to their house afterward for more talk. He said that last part with more insistence than I ever imagined a father of one of my dates would employ.
“Sure,” we all said, “that would be great.”
He walked us outside then, and for a minute I had the strangest feeling that he was going to get in the car with us or even offer to drive.
“Be back by eleven,” he called. We hadn’t told him that the movie we were taking his daughter to see was The Other, that eerie thriller about supposed twin brothers and their “grandmother.” He thought we were seeing American Graffiti.
I had noticed before we got in the car that Patti was holding a shoebox. But it only speaks to the oddness of the evening that I didn’t think to ask what was in the box or why she carried it until after we pulled away.
“It’s popcorn,” Patti said, and sure enough, she opened the lid and there was certainly popcorn for all, tucked nicely into the container. “Dad thought why spend the money when we can bring our own?”
It’s not like I had all the money in the world either. Still, walking into a theater with a shoebox full of popcorn didn’t confer the coolness that sneaking beer into a drive-in did. Almost warm beer at a drive-in is fine. Cold salty shoebox popcorn in a theater? I suppose we ate it anyway, but my memory doesn’t extend to those moments. Instead, it holds onto Patti sitting in the back seat with me, holding that shoebox. A Butler shoebox, I remember. She looked at me, half-smiling like she knew something else, something she wanted me to know too.
The film was as creepy as we’d hoped. For me, however, it didn’t touch what else I felt, even though I couldn’t have said then exactly what I did feel. What we all knew, though we didn’t speak it aloud, was that no way were we going back into Patti’s house when we returned. Jane said she had to get up early the next morning for church, and that did it. As I walked Patti to her door, I was wondering if we would kiss. I needn’t have worried. We hadn’t finished climbing the four porch steps when the front door opened.
“Did you guys have a good time? Come on in here!”
“Dad, Jane has to go home. There’s church tomorrow, remember?”
“Oh yes. Well. Next time. Glad to see you, Buddy!”
And he escorted his daughter inside. Patti turned quickly to smile, and then the door closed.
At seventeen, you’re liable to brave elements you’d never attempt at twenty-seven. I didn’t know what to think other than families have their own habits and rules. How well did I like Patti? I don’t know; there was something about her—that smile—or maybe I just couldn’t let go so soon of a girl who brought popcorn to a movie. So we kept dating, and we made up times and events, altered times and places so we could be alone. Our place was the upper parking lot of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the old Hall not far from Patti’s house. We talked and kissed, and sometimes that kissing was passionate. But we didn’t go far. I sensed that Patti wouldn’t want to, though she never discouraged any move I made. Call me scared or naïve. I was certainly so with Kathy, but I prefer those labels to their opposite.
The only thing Patti insisted on was that she not miss her curfew. And so we were never late arriving back at her house, where we were always met at the door by her smiling father, every white hair on his head perfectly in place.
As I remember her, Patti had an ironic wit mixed with the right amount of naivety to keep both me and her off balance. I’ll never know if she felt unlevel at all, but together, we distorted each other’s equilibrium. More than anything, when we spoke on the phone two or three nights a week, she continually questioned whether I really wanted to be going out with her. And if I did, why did I want to?
The truth is, I had no idea why I was dating her. High school boys seldom have reasons for their actions, or if they do, it usually amounts to wanting to have fun, to be more adult. To be both more and less responsible.
Sometimes, boys like me even want to fall in love.
But not with Patti.
We know that words can’t do love justice. Or non-love. And we know that kids of this age simply grow tired of each other. They aren’t ready for love, commitment, fidelity. Of course many never are.
How else can I say this: Patti and I just didn’t have enough in common to last. That would have been too harsh to tell her, and maybe more telling about my character than hers. What I admitted to myself, though of course I never said anything of this to her, was that I didn’t want her curfew, her rules.
My own mother had once warned me: “When you get married, you marry her family too.”
And then there were my friends. Even Jane and Jimbo thought Patti strange. Of course, Jim never wavered from his views. So you can say that I wanted to retain my close friends more than I wanted to figure out Patti and me. That’s what I told myself anyway.
I believe that we choose to go to high school proms because we know that years later we’ll want a record of how dashing we once were. And how foolish. Maybe I’m less nostalgic than the next person, but when I look at my senior prom portrait, I see a nut. For my tuxedo, I chose a pink jacket with a dovetail in back. Not content with that bit of dandyism, I accompanied the jacket with black trousers, black bow tie on ruffled dark pink shirt, a black top hat, and a cane.
My friend Jim, with whom I was doubling, dressed exactly the same. We consciously chose this outfit and we consciously chose to look alike, and if that doesn’t scream that we were seventeen, I don’t know what does.
When Jim came to pick me up that spring Saturday night, my mother took some photographs of the two of us, standing side by side in our front yard, resting on our delusional twin canes. It wasn’t that she took these shots out of pride, either. Before I rented the tux, she had instructed me to get a classy black number, one that would show me off as a budding GQ model. So her marking this occasion by shooting us in all our pomp and pink was her style of revenge. She still has those photos, too, right in the family album.
But my outfit was just the beginning stain of this night, the night of my senior prom. Next, was the fact that our prom was segregated. This was the spring of 1974, and even Bessemer schools had been integrated for nine years by then. Nothing says progress quite like choosing segregation, so “we” held our dance and the Black kids held theirs. Separate but equal, as far as anyone knew. I don’t remember where the Black prom was held, but there was no way they topped our venue. I don’t know who concocted our plan, who thought of and negotiated our site, but it was pure genius. In that seventeen-year-old way of genius, of course.
Our prom was held outside the city limits at the FOP Lodge of Green Springs. FOP. The Fraternal Order of.
Let’s see. High school prom-goers staging their last formal night of “party” at a policeman’s lodge. I feel I can’t emphasize this enough. In Thomas Hardy’s master poem “The Convergence of the Twain,” he draws us into the unhappy but fated marriage of the Titanic and the Iceberg. On this prom night, the convergence was my friend Jim’s flask of bourbon with one of the three policemen on duty. For Jim had barely gotten the flask open and begun pouring his spirits into his Coke when the policeman appeared by his side, steered over as surely by that unseen hand as was Hardy’s ship toward that block of ice.
“Good luck,” the policeman said as he tipped the flask to his nose. “And Goodbye,” as he put it in his pocket and escorted Jim and his date Melissa (who, by the way, I’d had to ask for Jim) out of the hall.
I knew at the time that this would be a precious memory. I also knew that I had just lost my ride home. Our ride, I should say, though Patti, at my side, didn’t seem worried at all.
“Don’t worry,” I assured her. I’ll ask Jimbo if we can hitch with them.”
I asked him, and Jimbo of course agreed, though I can still recall that look in his eyes – the look that says, “Well, you just fucked up my night.”
Maybe that look was merely one of hating to share this night, both the rest of the dance, and the after-dance supper at Birmingham’s Luau Restaurant, the top faux-Hawaiian rendezvous for high school revelers. Maybe he and Jane had plans beyond that supper even.
Or maybe his look was because he knew, like everyone else seemed to, that this was to be Patti’s and my last date.
Maybe I didn’t realize that everyone knew my intentions of breaking up with Patti after this night. As I think about it now, I’m sure I was much too preoccupied with looking good, with having a memorable night with my friends. And maybe with making Melissa, or Mary Jane, or Sheri—all of whom I had crushes on—see what they could have had.
Even as my eyes wandered on the night I was to dump Patti, I still could see that on this night, she looked gorgeous. Stunning. And this isn’t the nostalgia of forty years talking. For I still have the portrait of us taken in front of the prom backdrop emblazoned with the theme song “Time in a Bottle,” though in the picture, the “in” has somehow disappeared. Patti wore a floor-length silver-white gown, and she’s holding the array of pink and white flowers I bought her. But it’s her smile I remember mainly: genuine, hiding nothing, happy, at least as far as I can see.
But in that moment, standing behind her in my top hat and cane, I couldn’t actually see her at all.
Jane had told me earlier that one of the changes that even I had noticed in Patti was her hair: “She rolled it. She wanted it to look especially good for tonight.” Patti’s hair was never full, never had much body, and usually hung in thin strings. But examine our photo carefully: her hair is lustrous, shining.
Memory gets a little foggy here. We must have stayed at the dance for three hours, though I can’t see how we filled that time. I do remember seeing one of my crushes, Sheri Sokol, enter with her date, Roger Chandler. I hadn’t asked Sheri out because of the rumor that she’d date only Jewish guys, and I was just a half-member of that tribe. But there she was with Roger, and I know I stood there gaping and considering my lost opportunities.
But I did get to participate in my first and only “lead-out.” Patti and I got in line with the other seniors and their dates, all awaiting our names to be called so that we could enter forever the timeless bottles of our high school legend. By this point in the year, Patti had been living in Bessemer for five months. She wasn’t well known, but she was known enough not to have this happen to her. The MC, a junior boy I had known well from my own neighborhood, made all the introductions, and when he got to us, it was “Buddy Barr and his date Patti Stratton.”
Only, Patti’s last name was Stanton.
That might be just a small thing, a blip on an otherwise momentous evening’s enchanted radar.
Or it might have been the sign of our personal times.
Patti never said a word about the slight, and so we danced to Jim Croce’s love anthem, and then to Seals and Croft’s “We May Never Pass This Way Again,” only proving that the DJ well understood his mission. But as S & C’s plaintive cries reached their schmaltziest crescendo, something even stranger happened. Something true and memorable.
I leaned into Patti and kissed her right there in front of my friends, our police guards, and the entire arena of segregated JLHS attendees. And that kiss, passionate and at the moment meaningful, lasted a full minute by my internal calculations.
I don’t know what got into me, and I can’t say why I did it. I didn’t love Patti, and of course, as my bio at the end of this piece will tell you, I didn’t marry her. Maybe I was swept away, overcome by romance or nostalgia. Maybe it was the slight of Patti’s name. Or maybe, I simply wanted one intimate moment in the senior prom I had dreamed of.
Later that night, when I walked Patti to her door, another, even more impossible thing happened: her dad was nowhere to be found. Which gave us the opportunity to say all we needed about this night. About us:
“Thank you for not backing out tonight,” Patti said.
“Oh, what are you talking about?”
“I know. But thank you anyway, Buddy.”
And that was it.
I’d heard from Jane that Patti was going to ask me to her high school’s prom, and if she had, I would have gone. That, I’d thought, would be our true last date. But she never asked, proving at least that Patti understood me more than I ever did her.
She asked another guy, and Jane, who went to the dance, reported that during some love song, perhaps McCartney’s “My Love,” Patti and her date stopped the crowd by kissing longingly on the dance floor. It was strange to hear, but not the strangest thing I would hear.
After these events, I’d see Patti at church some, but soon I was off to college, and Patti, like so many others in our lives, passed into another way.
But in the odd and sad way that the details and clues of life manage to find us no matter what, I heard a story about Patti when I was home from college one weekend. My mother and Patti’s had become Garden Club friends after Patti’s mother divorced her dad.
“Apparently,” my mother said, “Patti’s dad used to beat Patti and her mother and brother too. Bad.”
I didn’t ask, and my mother didn’t speak about any sexual abuse. This was in the late 1970s though, and we weren’t as frank and open as we are now.
But I keep picturing Patti on that last night at her door. I keep hearing her words, “Thanks for not backing out.” I didn’t understand then what was behind those words, that smile, her steady but questioning eyes.
Or behind her closed front door when she opened it that night, or any other night, and walked on through.
Terry Barr’s essays have appeared recently in Red Truck Review, Turk's Head Review, Full Grown People, Graze, Grounded Magazine, and Quail Bell Magazine. His essay, “Neither the Season, Nor the Time,” was nominated for this year's Pushcart Prize by Belle Reve Literary Review. Barr teaches Creative Nonfiction, Southern Film, and Food and Literature at Presbyterian College and lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife, Nilly, and his daughters, Pari and Layla.