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Vermouth and Cigarettes

by Charles C. Cole

Nancy and I had known each other since high school, even dated some. She had been three grades behind me. We had been neighbors until Nancy and her family moved away. I loved her romantic poetry and her thoughtful introspection. I’d find her writing in a corner of the school library, smelling intoxicatingly like cigarettes, and think, “What if...?”

Nancy lived with her parents in Texas, trying to find herself while studying for her Graduate Equivalency Degree. A petite blonde, a high school drop-out with a charming artsy-rebel streak, she chainsmoked and told raunchy jokes that made men blush.

Nancy had recently broken up with an intense loner her parents didn’t approve of. She was going through relationship withdrawal, hurting from the loss and doubting her ability to choose the right person. We had been corresponding for five months, while living thousands of miles apart. I was safe: stationed in the Air Force in the Philippines. We started as pen pals, but things turned very serious very quickly.

I was going to be “visiting the area,” seeing as I was flying back to the United States to be in the separate weddings of my kid sister and my best friend, only a week apart.

Along the way I stopped in Chicago to visit my best friend from college, Dean. Since I was single and living on base, I had few expenses and money to burn. I had dropped out of Northwestern before enlisting. Dean never held it against me. For many years, we remained united by our love for movies.

* * *

“Dean,” I said one night over some homemade dandelion root coffee, “I’m going to ask Nancy to marry me. I wanted you to be the first person I told.” Though my two friends had never met, Dean had heard plenty concerning my untraditional “mail-order” courtship.

“Do you love her?” he asked, going right to the heart of the matter. “I mean, this a great plot for a movie, but it’s pretty stupid in real life.”

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t know. I like her. She’s cute. She’s got sexy penmanship. We got along great in high school.”

“Then why rush,” he blurted, “if you don’t mind my asking? Not that you can’t rebound if things get ugly. You’re still young. My grandmother used to say, ‘Marry in haste, divorce at leisure.’ ”

“It’s in the air,” I said. “My sister’s getting married. My best friend’s getting married. My parents are married. Their parents were married.”

“I get it: it’s a family tradition,” he joked. He, himself, was a child of divorce. “If it doesn’t work, I guess you can always untie the slip knot.”

“I’m twenty-one,” I said. “I keep getting older. I can’t explain it, but it feels like it’s now or never.”

“I wasn’t able to talk you out of leaving college,” he said. “No way I’m going to talk you out of this.”

* * *

I attended the two scheduled weddings. My sister’s Ocean City event was formal. She managed it all, and it didn’t seem like she had time to enjoy herself.

In Maine, my best friend from high school was married on the lawn of his future in-laws. We wore cool white tuxedos. They held the reception at a nearby veterans’ hall. I danced up a storm using the energy that was building up inside me as I counted down to my visit with Nancy.

I shook a lot of hands, introducing myself to extended family on both sides of the aisle, perhaps unconsciously practicing for my own future event someday. One of the bride’s aunts, a 60-something who was the only one there who could keep up with me, said, “Let me know when you run for governor.”

* * *

The next day, Nancy and her parents met me at the airport and took me home. I slept in a spare bedroom, a closed deck with a cement floor and a hammock. In the morning, her parents left for work.

“So, should I ask you?” I said.

“Don’t ask me if you should ask me,” she said.

“Let’s go to the jewelry store, and then I’ll ask you,” I said. I needed a ring. She helped me pick it out, a simple white-gold affair that looked like a braided rope. I got down on one knee. “So, what do you say?” I asked.

“You’ll regret this,” she cried.

We dashed back to her home to meet her dad, barely arriving before he returned from work.

“Quick, what’s your dad’s favorite drink?”

“You won’t like it: too much vermouth. But he’ll appreciate the gesture.” Nancy whipped together a couple of martinis, green olives included, and kissed me. “Good luck,” she said.

As her father was removing his dress jacket, I surprised him with the cocktail and formally asked for his daughter’s hand. He laughed and laughed, until he had to dab at the tears streaming down his face. “Charlie Cole, you are such a kidder. I always knew that about you. You really had me going.” He stopped laughing when Nancy joined us in the den and slid her arm around my waist, possessively.

Twenty minutes later, after he had consented, his wife returned from a shopping errand. Nancy’s mom collapsed in a chair as soon as he shared the news and said, “But, Nancy, are you sure? Marry in haste, divorce at leisure.”

* * *

Back in the Philippines, when I phoned, Nancy was always out. My letters went unanswered. Finally, about six weeks later, I received an envelope made from a paper bag. Watching me toss it in the air like it was too hot to handle, my roommate offered to open it.

After Jeff finished reading the typed “Dear Charlie” letter, he blew up, taking it personally, just the relief I needed. I couldn’t blame Nancy: accepting my proposal had been a huge, impulsive leap of faith. Good for her for coming to her senses.

If you’re reading this, Nancy, wherever you are, I just wanted to say, no hard feelings.

Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole

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