A few years ago, I was in New York with my wife, Cynthia. Passing through Queens, we stopped in to see an old family friend of hers who was in town, with a new baby, visiting relatives.
I knew little about this woman, whose name was Cathy, except that she and Cynthia had seen a lot of each other growing up. She was also mentioned in a few family stories, including a favorite of mine about my father-in-law’s boating days.
Peter, as his daughters will tell you, once had a terrible weakness for owning a boat, which, when you live near the water, can come to seem a necessary luxury. Only Peter was not rich, and his boats were always used, dinky little things that embarrassed his daughters, who had spent many an afternoon on much nicer boats owned by the wealthier families of friends.
It took a lot of pleading for Peter to get his daughters to go out on the water with him. One time his buddy Nick went fishing with him and brought along his oldest daughter, Cathy, whom Peter used as bait to reel Cynthia in for the day. For the girls, the outing consisted of sitting in the boat and doing no fishing, two bored adolescents, talking little except to say how incredibly lame this trip was and simply waiting to go home. And so they would have, eventually, but the boat’s engine failed, and the dullest day of their lives grew even longer as they waited for the Coast Guard to show up and haul the boat ashore.
This kind of thing happened often to Peter’s boats, so there are many such stories, whose telling and retelling I enjoy and Peter seems to take with good humor.
Once Cynthia and I found the right house, we knocked and were greeted warmly by a tallish woman with long brown hair. This was Cathy, and her baby was on the floor, pushing up from the carpet. I felt a little self-conscious, but that’s my natural state.
We talked in the living room and then moved to the kitchen for coffee. The conversation came around to me. I mentioned I was originally from Douglaston, maybe 15 minutes by car from where we were. Cathy had grown up not far away in another direction.
She asked where I had gone to high school. I said I did my first year at St. Francis Prep. Cathy asked, Did I know Jennifer So-and-So? But the name didn’t ring a bell. This friend of hers did theater at St. Francis, Cathy said. Oh really, I said, I did some theater there. I think I knew that, Cathy said, adding that it seemed like maybe we had met before. I looked at her closely and drew a blank.
As the visit wound down, I racked my brain and finally recalled the girl she had asked me about. We were in the same all-Catholic production of Neil Simon’s classic Jewish comedy Brighton Beach Memoirs. And she had introduced me to a friend of hers, whom I started dating. That girl, whose name also escaped me, was tallish and had dyed black hair. Her style was goth or maybe punk. Super thin, she wore pale makeup, except for heavy black eyeliner and lipstick that was so red it might have been oil paint.
I remember us once sitting in my parents’ living room and having a long conversation about astral projection. To get together on this plane of reality, however, we had to rely on city buses, which took so long that after a handful of meetings the tiny ember of romance between us went out.
As Cynthia and I drove away, I was slowly realizing this might have been the woman I had just met. And to my wife I gently said that it seemed possible, though I was not really sure, that I had dated her childhood friend Cathy.
“Really?” she said, laughing, and then, as if she were talking to a mental patient, “But you’re not sure?”
Whatever this was, it was bad. My having dated Cathy and then, 15 or so years later, failing to recognize her—it had the potential, if true, to become an embarrassing but very repeatable family anecdote.
When I saw my in-laws, at whose house we were staying, I found that Peter had been laughing about it for hours. Cathy had had no trouble recognizing me, but had been politely waiting for me to figure it all out. After I didn’t figure it all out, she called her family to tell them the story, and they called Peter, who still gets a kick out of this one, this tale of my awkwardness, this uncool misadventure, my very own boat story.