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Sundae Girl

In the summer of 1974, I was truly, madly and totally in love with the girl who worked at my local Carvel.

This particular Carvel was manned by familiar faces. Most shifts were covered by some combination of the two women who had been there when the store first opened its doors a few years earlier. One was tall and thin with glasses and bottled blonde hair fashioned like the fifties housewife she had likely been. The other was short and a bit heavier with reddish-brown hair. The neighborhood kids regarded them like our friends’ mothers; women who seemed happy to see us and would probably serve us that same ice cream if we visited their homes.

The third member of the crew was the owner; a man of somber – and occasionally sour – disposition who clearly viewed customer service as being beneath him.

The small store was comfortable and predictable. But we occasionally saw an unfamiliar face behind the counter; a new employee augmenting or filling in for the regulars. One early summer afternoon, with the requisite 70 cents in my pocket, I entered that store and the face that greeted me nearly stopped me in my tracks. She was petite with a summertime tan, big eyes and long, shiny brown hair pulled back in to a thick pony tail -- a vision in a white apron mottled with chocolate ice cream stains.

Inexplicably, this young goddess seemed to be staring as deeply in to my 15-year-old eyes as I was in to hers. Her smile was breathtaking and genuine. Had this been a movie, there would likely have been soft music rising in the background and a single light illuminating our silhouettes. But it was not a movie and I was a tongue-tied teenager, so I mumbled my request for a vanilla cone and – desperate for another moment of conversation – suggested she add some sprinkles. She gracefully completed the transaction while maintaining eye contact and bathing me in her floodlight smile.

Before I knew it, I was back in the hot sun with ice cream dripping down my wrists while my new love dispensed frozen dairy treats to those more fortunate than me.

For the next several weeks I ate a lot of ice cream; sometimes more than once a day. I saw the taller blonde woman. I saw the shorter woman. I saw the owner. But there was no sign of the girl I loved. I feared she was a thing of the past.

Much later in the summer – many, many trips to Carvel later – I was walking up the modest incline of a street in my neighborhood when the moment again called for music and light. Just as the little hill crested, I saw her heading toward me on a large, outdated bicycle. Her white golf shirt, white pants and white apron had been replaced by the loose, denim overalls that were popular at that time. She also wore a sleeveless yellow shirt that revealed tan and toned arms. But her smile was unchanged. She fixed her eyes directly on mine and – without breaking that gaze – slowly pedaled past me smiling the whole time.

If I said anything at all, it was no more glib than “Hi.” I had been caught off guard and squandered the very moment I had been anticipating for weeks.

As fate had it, there would be one more chance. She suddenly and mysteriously re-appeared at Carvel over Labor Day weekend for an encounter both magical and unproductive. I walked away with a Strawberry Sundae but without even knowing the name of the girl who had dominated my thoughts that summer.

And, that was it. I never saw her again.

Last week I attended a Facebook-fueled gathering of members of my high school graduating class. The group included a couple of genuine friends I see too rarely, two “alphabetical friends” (a subset of friendly classmates with whom I did not socialize after school, but, owing to a surname starting with a common letter, shared a homeroom and locker location, and sat near if a teacher used the alphabetized class roster to assign seats) and a few others I remembered chiefly as faces in the hall.

It was a good time and, somehow, five of us wound up in a local diner at 3:00 a.m. There – amidst tired eyes and greasy, late-night fare – one posed a Dickensian question. If you could go back to high school, what would you change?

Certainly, we were not the first to ponder that possibility. It’s been tackled by authors and filmmakers too many times to count. On this particular night, we were all too tired for philosophical thinking and unenthusiastically came to the generic conclusion that we would have acted far more confidently.

The very next day, I drove through my old neighborhood and past the Carvel of my youth. Naturally, I asked myself how my life would have been different had I acted more confidently with the beautiful girl who briefly crossed my path that summer.

And whenever I’m confronted with a philosophical dilemma, I turn to sitcom characters for the answer. The Odd Couple, in particular, is a reliable source of wisdom (e.g. when told he must do something “for his own good”, Oscar reasoned, “When I think back on the best times in my life, none of them were for my own good.”)

But the answer to this particular question was not to be found at 1049 Park Avenue. Felix and Oscar offered conflicting interpretations. While one episode featured Felix using Verdi’s opera La Forza Del Destino to warn his roommate of the power of fate, another showed a therapist triggering Oscar’s hypnosis with a contradictory line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

I also had trouble finding an answer in Seinfeld, The Simpsons, MASH, Taxi or any of the most reliable sources.

Having exhausted my list of usual suspects, I surprisingly found some clarity from the events of that weekend. Among those who came to that mini reunion, some looked terrific. Others earned the faint praise of “looks good for his age”. Still others had lost too many battles with waistlines, hairlines and laugh lines to bear any resemblance to their 15-year-old selves. There was no denying that we were all 52 years old.

But when I closed my eyes and conjured my lost love of ’74, I realized that I did not see a 15-year-old girl. The beauty in my mind’s eye was a woman. But she was not the 52-year-old woman she would have to be wherever and whoever she is.

So the Carvel girl is not a missed opportunity. She is not, in fact, real. No longer 15, but not 52, she is a fantasy and nothing more. And I like her that way. I am happy for the relationship I share with my lost love. She will always smile at me and never let me down. She will always be beautiful. It’s hard to imagine reality would have served me as well.

In the unlikely event that I find myself in a Hollywood moment where I can go back and make adjustments to my past, I will not anguish over the impact of my actions. And I will not look for the girl from Carvel (or even my wife – the object of my desire in 1973 who transitioned from fantasy to reality after a 30-year hiatus). I will instead ask Doc Gooden to see if he can get Scioscia to chase a high fastball and advise Carlos Beltran to sit on the curve. Otherwise, I will play the hand I’ve been dealt and stick with the assortment of happiness, contentedness and disappointment that is my past.

Ironically, it took the friends I hadn’t seen in nearly 35 years to help me figure that out. Next time I see them, we’ll skip the diner and head for Carvel.


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