by Brett Harrison
What you are about to read actually happened many years ago. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Mainly me.
She was 21 going on 40. She had curly black hair and a body that would drive any sane male to nighttime fantasy.
She had a laugh so infectious that the communicable disease specialists had to be called anytime someone told her a joke. Her name was Sarah Smolinsky, and I was in love with her.
Sarah was 21 and was in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (where I grew up) because she had gotten a job for the summer with The Drama Workshop, a summer program open to anybody from their teens on up. It was a marvelous program that not only introduced kids to theater but gave them an opportunity to learn the nuts and bolts of putting a play on.
By the time I left several years later, I had been in several plays, helped build and tear down sets and even did the lights on one show. The founder, Luther Harris, was an African American vet in his mid-30s, had learned his craft at the Negro Ensemble Company in Washington, D.C., and claimed to have been in the early ‘60s revival of Arthur Laurents’ ground-breaking drama, “Home of the Brave.” Recent searches on the Internet have come up empty.
It was the summer of ’74, and I was a seasoned vet. I had joined the previous year and already performed in several plays, including “The Lion in Winter.” The year before, Luther had started teaching drama at the University of Michigan and asked some of his better students if they wanted a job with the Workshop. They could perfect their craft and help others learn as well. Sarah was one of them.
Sarah had many attractive qualities but also had something that was not so attractive.
Keith Lentzner was 6’2”, roguishly handsome and liked by everybody in the company. He played my older brother in that year’s production of Christopher Fry’s Neo-Elizabethan comedy, “The Lady’s Not for Burning,” and had about as much acting talent as I had ability for picking up women.
And I had as much of a chance with Sarah as a stutterer being the host of The Tonight Show. But that didn’t stop me from singing her praises to anybody who would listen.
One day I was rhapsodizing about Sarah’s many good qualities to my dad, to whom my problems were like sleeping pills. But then I uttered two magic words that would change the game dramatically: “She’s Jewish.”
Suddenly dad’s interest leaped from 0 to 60 in about two seconds. He looked up from his New York Times.
Dad: You like this girl?
Me: Yes, but she has a boyfriend.
Dad: Boyfriend, shmoyfriend. Are they married?
Me: Ummm, no, dad. I said it’s her boyfriend.
Dad: Listen, if they’re not married, all’s fair in love and war.
I didn’t always agree with dad, especially in politics and sports, but he was making a whole lot of sense. He continued.
Dad: She’s from out of town; am I right?
Me: Yes, Jenkintown, it’s outside of…
Dad: I know where it is. It’s not far from Philly. We have a truck that goes there twice a week.
Needless to say, dad gave me the OK to invite Sarah for dinner that Friday night, and Friday night dinner is a pretty big deal to some Jewish families.
So I invited Sarah, and to my surprise, she accepted. She had no idea what she was in for.
The big day came. Usually mom made brisket or chicken on Friday night. I remember some things about the evening, but that’s not one of them. At any rate, I’m sure whatever she made was stellar.
Now I truly believe that sometime during the day when I was at acting class, my dad called an emergency family meeting. I’m pretty sure this is what transpired:
“OK, everybody, Brett is having a girl over for dinner tonight. Honey, I want you to make your most special dinner. Brisket, chicken, roast, I don’t care. Just make that puppy sing. Make our honored guest feel at home. Everybody else, I want you on your worst behavior. Let’s embarrass the hell out of Brett. I’ll see you in couple of hours.”
I have no hard evidence of this speech, but I’m pretty sure that’s what happened because the next two hours were absolute hell.
Mom’s dinner was delicious, as always, but in the dining room all hell was breaking loose. Siblings who had been getting along for months started bickering, and I’m pretty sure at some point somebody told Sarah I had a crush on her. There may have even been a fistfight or two. And that’s just the girls.
Try the brisket.
And I also vaguely remember mom breaking out the famous dance recital picture that shows my sister, an unnamed co-conspirator and me in duck costumes.
I wanted to drown myself.
Fortunately, I was eventually granted a reprieve because Sarah and I had a play that night. My parents were scheduled to attend the following evening.
On the way to the show in Sarah’s car, I buried my head in my hands in total shame but not so far down there that I didn’t notice Sarah doing something I found more than a little unsettling.
She had an ear-to-ear smile. I wondered if she had lost her mind.
Then she said “Brett, I have never had such fun in my life. Your family is so…so alive!”
I just looked at her like she was crazy. And I realized that if she thought that embarrassing, humiliating enterprise was “fun,” then she obviously was not the right girl for me, after all!
Sarah and I continued to rub shoulders every day at the workshop and were certainly friendly, but it never got past that. She dated Keith till the end of the summer till they too said their goodbyes.
I last saw Sarah at the cast party for the last play of the summer. She offered me a warm, sisterly hug and kissed me on the cheek as she went her way, and I went mine.
Brett Harrison is a hopeless romantic and occasional contributor to the Local.
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