In the summer of 1960, when “Theme From A Summer Place” was wafting from every radio and phonograph in every house and car, I was working in a printing plant in the heart of Chicago’s West Madison Street skid row. Each day, carrying my bologna sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, I would step around the bodies of unshaven men still passed out on the sidewalk from the night before and climb the groove-worn stone steps to the pressroom and change into my patched pants and ink-stained T-shirt and join a press crew for another day of drudgery. I hated that job, and I hated that plant, and I hated my hopeless life. And every day I feared that job and that plant and that hopeless life would be the only future I would ever know.
I hadn’t chosen any of it. It was my father’s idea. In the spring of 1958, a few months before I graduated from high school, I stood under the fluorescent light of our kitchen and told my father I wanted to go to college. “What do you want to study?” he asked. I didn’t know. I just knew I wanted to go to college, to rise out of the working class, to be somebody with a future. When my father did not hear that I wanted to be an engineer or a lawyer or a CPA — something practical that would earn money, the only possible reason he could imagine for going to college — he informed me I would be going to work in the printing plant where he was a pressman, and turn over three-quarters of my salary to him each Friday.
So it was that the doors and windows were shut on any future I wanted to imagine. I would step around winos and put on patched and ink-stained clothes and breathe in printer’s ink all day long and do work I hated for the rest of my life.
In the summer of 1960, my parents owned what they considered a summer home, a 28-foot house trailer in a trailer park beside a lake less than an hour’s drive from our real home. The trailer was made of Masonite and painted pink, and the park was entirely working class — tradesmen, laborers, city employees. I was expected to join my parents every weekend, and I did as expected, though it was often boring.
One afternoon when I had nothing to do, I drove to a Dog n Suds drive-in over in Antioch. The girl who served me had a bright smile, but I was too intimidated to ask for her phone number — until a few days later when I worked up the courage to go back and ask for it.
That was the year I was driving a black 1952 Chevy sedan with a bashed-in driver’s door. Just below the window were white, stenciled words: “State of Illinois.” I had bought the car a few months earlier for $35. The previous owner couldn’t get the car to run. I put in a new battery and it ran fine — until I went into the Army 15 months and 15,000 miles later, when I would sell it for $65.
The car was ugly, not a great car to meet a girl in. But 60 years later I remember its ugliness with tenderness — because like the car, I, too, was dented. I had acne and lacked social graces and confidence. I was shy and did not know how to have a conversation. My friends were mostly at the margin of my life. I wasn’t exactly a loner, but I was closer to that than to anything else. I was dented, and I was in an ugly, dented car that Sunday afternoon when I pulled into the Dog n Suds.
I can still see that second visit as if it were yesterday. I watched the girl in her dazzlingly white blouse, black shorts, red cummerbund and matching red cap moving in bright sunlight from car to car filling orders. When she came for my order, she bent over, looked in the open window and beamed an exceptionally wide smile. Her brown eyes were large, and she had long, tan, curvy legs. After an hour of nursing a root beer and making intermittent conversation, I asked for her number.
Her name was Mary Lee. She was 19 and I was 20. She was a sorority girl, and I worked in a printing plant. But each weekend for the rest of that summer we went on dates.
A few of those dates were to a drive-in theater, where I put my arm ever so cautiously around her shoulder. When my shoulder began aching, I did not know how to move my arm either away or closer without appearing clumsy or too forward. So I endured the aching.
Several times we went to the most roaring party bar on the Chain O’ Lakes — The Last Resort. The three-piece band drew hundreds of young people on a Saturday night. We danced to that band and talked as best I knew how at the time, and we had fun. It is now mostly a blur except for that smile and her tan and the gracious joy of her voice. It was just easy fun until one evening in late August.
It would be our last date of the summer, and I wanted it to be special, so, even though I could not afford it, I took her to the area’s best-known steakhouse, George Diamond’s. Afterwards we went dancing at The Last Resort. She had suggested beforehand that we end the night with a midnight dip. So when we returned to her parents’ house at midnight we changed into swimsuits and emerged into the moonlit night and walked to the lake. The moon was full and the air was warm and soundless, and, when I turned my head to say something, I saw her face as she turned toward me with a wide smile. It was the smile of someone entirely at home with herself, the smile of someone with nothing to prove, the smile of someone who knew joy. Perhaps it was the smile, perhaps it was the moonlight or perhaps this moment had been coming for weeks. Whatever it was, in that moment I lost my heart as I had never imagined I could.
When we got to the lake, we waded in up to our hips and held each other’s hands lightly. At that moment across the lake, someone in a cottage put that song on his phonograph, or perhaps it came on the radio. “Theme From A Summer Place.” Percy Faith and his orchestra. Wherever it came from, it floated across the lake as clear as any sound I have ever heard. Moonlight shone a narrow path along the water right up to us, and the music came with it. We stayed like that holding each other’s hands and looking into each other’s eyes and swaying slowly to the music till the end of the song without saying a word.
How long we lingered like that I don’t know — but the song, the moonlight and her face have remained in my memory for 60 years.
The following week she went away to school. She was a sophomore at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a sorority girl in a world very different from mine. I lived in a fog because I could see no way out of the life I had been forced into, no future at all, only an endless succession of gray days. To relieve the grayness and to establish the slimmest thread of hope, I had begun taking free classes in the evening at the community college less than a mile from my home. Those evenings were the best part of my days.
Each day in the press room I imagined Mary Lee’s world of golden light and bright promise. But I could see no real way such a world could be mine, and I doubted I would ever hear from her again. What would someone like her want with me?
Then one afternoon a few days after she had returned to campus, a letter was waiting for me when I came home from work. The September sunlight was slanting in the window when my mother put a blue envelope in my hands. It was the first letter I had ever received from a girl. I took it up to my bedroom, sat on the edge of my bed and opened it nervously. She was inviting me to come for homecoming. I shall never forget that blue letter in the late-afternoon light with a scent of perfume on its pages.
That letter beat joy and terror into my heart at one stroke. I knew I didn’t belong and I feared I would be found out: a mere tradesman with ink under his fingernails trespassing on the grounds of those to whom the world had made promises. I said yes, I would be glad to come.
For the next three and a half weeks I thought of nothing but that homecoming weekend. I had no money to spare but somehow scraped together enough to buy an olive corduroy sport coat, a gray three-piece Cricketeer suit, a beige, crew neck sweater with brown trim at the neck, a pair of slacks and a pair of loafers, all of which I imagined would make me look collegiate.
From the day of that letter to that homecoming weekend, time inched forward. And it sped like a maniac in a bright red car. I couldn’t wait for the weekend to come, and I dreaded it, for I had no idea how to behave in such a setting. The only thing I did know was that I didn’t own my heart any more.
At 3 p.m. on the first Friday in October I left the printing plant, having scrubbed my hands and fingers better than I ever had in my life, drove home, changed into the slacks and sweater I had bought for that day, and drove the 135 miles to Champaign-Urbana.
At dusk I cruised into the fairy-tale world of sororities and fraternities all decked out and lit up for homecoming. The dusk light had turned the town into magic. The lights in the windows of the homes I passed glowed with welcome. Smoke from burning leaves permeated the air, and street lamps spun halos in the smoke. I passed houses and lawns grander than I had ever seen. I had traveled little, so I had never seen a sorority or fraternity house covered in ivy. In the light of dusk and the haze of wood smoke, they were grand beyond all imagining, and I was utterly enchanted. The world I had driven out of was narrowed by drudgery and hopelessness. The world I was driving into opened onto broad, sunlit uplands.
I finally came to the Kappa Delta house, with its broad lawn and large, heavy door. The girl who answered asked for whom I was calling, and then disappeared up the stairs, leaving me in a grand entrance hall. A minute later Mary Lee came down the stairs. I was nervous and didn’t know what to say. We laughed when we saw each other, said hello, talked about the trip down, and then we were outside in the crisp, smoky air.
We walked to the fraternity house that would be putting me up for the weekend. In the large living room, a tall, lean young man who seemed strong and assured shook my hand, welcomed me, then took me upstairs to the dormitory, where I put my things beside a lower bunk that would be mine for the weekend. What did I carry my clothes in? I wonder now. I don’t remember having actual luggage — a lingering detail that still accents my sense of having been a foreigner traveling with the false papers of newly bought clothes in a land of grace I feared would be forever beyond my ken.
That evening we walked among all these fraternity and sorority houses welcoming alumni back to the place where they had spent the most magical years of their lives. The air around the street lamps was a thin blue from the smoke. I had never before known such enchantment.
Our last stop of the evening was Kam’s, a bar every student at the U of I had to frequent if they were to belong. Mary Lee took me to the basement where we squeezed among other bodies downing steins in a room thick with cigarette smoke. I had never been in a place that crowded. But the thing I most remember was the floor. It was covered with spilled beer and glasses thrown to the floor in gusto. We stood sole-deep in this beer unable to talk above the roar of these revelers who had been promised a future I would never know. In their midst I was a nobody privileged to witness a collective somebody, and that somebody had bright eyes and shining hair and a smile you could find only on the faces of the young with an assured place in the world.
On Saturday, Mary Lee and I went to the homecoming game. I had never been to a college football game, nor would I attend another for nearly 30 years. In the brilliant light of that afternoon we held up cards — blue on one side and orange on the other — and on command spelled out cheers. It made me feel like I belonged, but it also made me realize I was only doing this as part of a herd and that I would later turn in my card and not belong at all. I pretended it mattered to me who won the game, but it didn’t. I rooted and cheered because I was supposed to root and cheer, but I did not care at all who won. The team and the cheers weren’t mine. I was an interloper, a dreamer.
That night was the homecoming dance, of which I have no memory at all except for the photograph we took — me standing behind her, a head taller, my arms around her waist, her hands on top of mine, both of us smiling at a lens — and the huge reflecting ball high overhead with a myriad of tiny mirrors splattering us with flashes of light on our clothes and faces and in our eyes. In those days every ballroom had one of these. I suppose those splatters of light were meant to make us feel we lived under special stars. I let them do their appointed dream work.
At the end of the evening, we again said goodnight to each other in the large foyer of her sorority house. The lights were dim and other couples were also saying their farewells. We held each other much longer than we had the night before, but, like then, I had the sense we were doing this because we were supposed to, that it was part of a ritual, and we mere actors with prescribed roles in a collective dream.
As I walked back to the fraternity house through brisk night air fragrant with wood smoke and fresh earth, I knew I had been invited to visit paradise, and I hoped beyond hope I would be staying. But beneath my hope I knew I wouldn’t be. I knew it wasn’t mine; I didn’t belong.
How much I didn’t belong became clear during the formal sit-down brunch her sorority put on the next morning. Mary Lee’s parents had driven down for the brunch, and the four of us sat at a table with a white tablecloth and white napkins and more utensils beside more plates than I had ever before seen. Mary Lee’s father had on a tie and coat and Mary Lee and her mother were equally glowing. They were gracious, reserved people intimately familiar with the code of middle-class conduct. I remember nothing of our conversation, only that its pleasant, soft tones were something new for me.
But what most struck me was how easily they used the utensils. I sat with them in my olive corduroy coat as if I were one of them, but their manners told me I was not. I ate what they ate in the order they ate it, and I ate with the same utensils they ate with, as if I were one of them, but I was only smiling into their faces while secretly following their leads, for it was all foreign to me. It was the first middle-class breakfast of my life.
And then the weekend was over and I was driving past field after field of cornhusks lit by a brilliant autumn light. I had spent a weekend in a fairy tale. It had all been a dream to which I had somehow been invited. And the next morning I was filling ink fountains and dampener troughs and breathing in benzene and type-wash, and by 10 in the morning my hair and eyebrows and all the fine hairs of my face and arms were covered in spray powder meant to coat each freshly inked sheet coming off the press.
Over the next year Mary Lee and I wrote letters back and forth and saw each other on her visits home at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Our dates were to the suburban ballrooms of Melody Mill and Willowbrook. At the end of those evenings we sat in my car in front of her house listening to Franklyn MacCormack’s All Night Showcase, which always began with MacCormack reading the sentimental poem, “How Do I Love Thee” and telling us “the torch is lit.”
The car’s heater was broken and gushed steam into the cabin, so Mary Lee and I sat enveloped in steam listening to MacCormack’s low mellow voice and the music of Wayne King and Guy Lombardo. We never shared anything more than respectful goodnight kisses, and I could not tell you a single thing we spoke about. All I remember is being heels-over-head in love and knowing it couldn’t last because she was a sorority girl, aristocracy, and I a mere factory worker, a peasant.
The following summer we had two dates before I left for six months active duty in the Army. By the time I got out, I knew my dream was a bridge too far, and I quit writing to her.
Then one June evening in 1963, more than a year after I’d last seen or talked with her, on a whim that had been aching inside me that entire year, I called her from a bar on Belmont Avenue where I hung out. I knew she had just graduated. Her mother answered the phone, and when I announced who I was, her voice became tentative and she put Mary Lee on. We made small talk as best I knew how, and finally I asked if she’d like to go out.
“I’m engaged,” she said.
I can still see the early evening sunlight slanting in the big picture window at the front of the bar where the word Tammy’s was inscribed across the glass. I can still see the black phone on the black wall and hear her voice in the earpiece and see the shadow of the word Tammy’s on the floor.
A year later I finally pulled myself up the gossamer strand Mary Lee had tossed into my life and climbed out of the printing plant to begin a new life as a full-time student on the same campus Mary Lee had graduated from a year earlier. I was 24.
A few months before I went to Urbana, a member of a Catholic fraternity visited our home and showed me the fraternity yearbook. On page 124 was a picture of Mary Lee and her fiancé. She was named The Sweetheart of Phi Kappa Theta. Her fiancé is standing beside her. He is tall and thin, and his face is almost identical to mine.
Two years later I took my degree, and a year and a half after that a master’s degree and then nearly a doctorate before I began teaching English in the same college I had been attending part-time when I met Mary Lee and imagined I was courting her. I went on to teach for 36 years in that system of colleges. I learned the manners and mores of those who were promised an assured place in this world when they were young. I could have fit in as if I were one of them, but I never was one of them. Nor did I any longer want to be one of them.
In the years to come I would marry and have a wonderful family, and the love of my life would die after 11 years of slowly developing Alzheimer’s. I never loved another human being the way I loved her.
But none of this matters to the dream I have been trying to tell, for dreams are ancient and primitive things with lives of their own. Especially dreams of first loves. Especially dreams of rising from a world without promise. Such dreams persist against all reason. My dream has lasted for 60 years.
The summer I was 36 I attended a concert and sat behind four women. Before the music played, I leaned forward to the woman in front of me and asked if she could tell me the name of the perfume one of them was wearing. “Yes,” the woman said. “Chanel No. 5.” That was the first time I knew its name, the scent of that blue envelope.
That summer I went to the perfume counter at Marshall Field’s and asked if I might have a whiff of Chanel No. 5 and then asked the woman if she would spray it onto a napkin, which I then sealed into an envelope I had also brought along. Forty-four years later that envelope still sat, sealed, in a manila folder. When I opened it, the scent was terribly faint, but the envelope still bore with it the summer of 1960.
I realize more deeply than you can possibly know how foolish it must seem for a man of 80 to be investing so much time recounting his merest brush with a dream 60 years ago. For the person who does not reflect on his life, my harboring this dream for 60 years will surely seem close to lunacy. But I have not harbored it all these years because I thought I might one day win this girl. I have harbored this dream because it was beautiful, and one of the finest things we human beings ever do is to see the beautiful and keep it in our hearts.
The yearbook with that young Sweetheart of Phi Kappa Theta on page 124 sits at the end of a shelf of art books at the rear of my TV room. Her blue letters are bundled together in a cabinet in my garage, Chanel No. 5 still lingering. I don’t expect to open the letters ever again. But I am certain that the next time I hear the strains of “Theme From A Summer Place” wafting unexpectedly from someone’s speakers, I will again be reminded of my hopeless days in a printing plant, the dark well I once lived in and a gossamer strand dropped down to me by a girl in a summer long ago.
Mel Livatino lives in Evanston, Illinois. A regular contributor to this magazine, he has published in The Sewanee Review, Portland, Under the Sun, Writing on the Edge, River Teeth, and other publications. Since 2008, 11 of these pieces have been named notable essays of the year by Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays.