I met Sol at a Young Men’s Hebrew Association dance on a Saturday night in early October, 1951. My older brother insisted that he’d introduced us, but I’d had my eye on Sol long before Robert showed up at the dance on his way into Montreal. Later, who-said-what-when didn’t matter.
Whoever scheduled the dance for that evening hadn’t checked the sports pages. The Montreal Canadiens were playing the Boston Bruins at the Forum – the sold-out second game of the season. One thing you must know about Montreal: we’re crazy for hockey. ‘Rocket’ Richard and ‘Boom-Boom’ Geoffrion were our heroes.
At the dance, those of us who couldn’t get a ticket to the game grouped together to commiserate. Jackie, my best friend, had a fate worse than death: trapped at home babysitting her sister Eva. She’d been desperate to attend the dance. “Where else am I going to meet boys?” she wailed. “My parents never consider my social life.” I planned to tell her a white lie when I called her the next day to assure her she hadn’t missed a thing. Since grade school, we’d always shared our grievances and secrets. When one of us was sad, the other did the cheering up. We balanced each other, although it seemed like our lives, at times, were lived on a seesaw.
The DJ compensated for the low turnout. Who could stand still when he played Tennessee Waltz by the great Patti Page or Glory of Love by the Five Keys? I couldn’t have stopped tapping my feet if my life depended on it. I loved dancing and practiced in my bedroom with my bureau mirror tilted forward so I could watch my feet. I was wearing my felt skirt with poodle appliqués along the hem. I was one of the first girls in high school to have one, my mother making it for me after she saw one in a sewing magazine. I also wore black and white saddle shoes with pink socks, a pink cotton chiffon blouse and a pink ribbon in my curly hair with its poodle cut.
I didn’t know many people at the dance and the pickings looked slim. I wasn’t keen on dancing with a girlfriend. Some girls who danced together pretended not to care if boys ever asked them. No surprise when the boys didn’t ask. I was relieved when Michel LeClerc waved to me on his way to request a song from the DJ. An excellent dancer, Michel, at six feet, was three inches taller than me and as thin as a stick, but playing hockey made him strong enough to lift and swing me around. The LeClercs lived on the other side of the semi-detached house, and we were more like brother and sister. I guess that was the reason he never asked me to dance when the music was slow. A priest probably told him slow dancing with a sister was sinful. Those days, in Quebec, Catholics still believed everything the priests told them.
Michel asked the DJ to play some boogie-woogie. The minute I heard the Andrew Sisters, I began snapping my fingers and swaying in time to the beat. Michel escorted me to the center of the dance floor. Once we found our rhythm, Michel lifted my arm so I could twirl in a circle and let my poodle skirt flare out. He signaled when he was ready for me to jump so he could lift me above his shoulder. At the end of the song, I skipped toward him, letting him slide me along the floor between his legs. He stepped over me, and turning around, lifted me back up. We earned a round of applause when the music stopped.
The next song was a slow one. “Let’s get something to drink,” he said, leading me to the refreshment table at the side of the hall. But after a few sips of punch, he said he’d see me later and went over to talk with his friends.
Alone again, I watched the boys standing around, hoping to catch the eye of someone who wanted to dance. Not easy to do when their eyes didn’t want to be caught. I knew some of them from our four years at Strathcona Academy, others I recognized from college, but when I smiled, they merely nodded and looked away. Maybe they were self-conscious after watching Michel. I couldn’t blame them. I tried to be tolerant of sloppy dancing, but wasn’t always successful hiding my impatience.
I swayed my hips in time to the music, emulating Rita Hayworth, my favorite movie star. Whenever I saw her at the cinema, I studied the way she walked and then practiced at home. When I showed Jackie, she advised me to tone down my hips because ‘You look like a slut-in-training.’ I was becoming impatient and at the point where I’d dance with anyone who could walk straight and not step on my toes. Of course, I hoped a handsome guy would ask me. A good-looker could have two left feet and limp for all I cared.
That’s when I saw him standing in a group on the other side of the dance floor. He looked older, more mature, like he’d already graduated from college. Even from a distance, his good looks stunned me. I don’t remember a thing about the other men.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, tall with blond hair that appeared almost white in the semi-darkness. Listening to the man next to him, he suddenly laughed, a lock of hair falling over his forehead. His smile was boyishly lopsided and his face gleamed in the revolving lights from the ceiling.
A desire to touch his face was so strong, my fingers tingled and a lethargic numbness crept up my arms. Even if I had the courage to walk over to him, I doubt I could have unstuck my tongue to speak.
At that moment, an eager couple rushing to dance to Mario Lanza singing Be My Love bumped me ‘sideways to Sunday,’ as my mother would say. Regaining my balance, I turned back to find him looking directly at me. I looked away. Has he been watching me all this time? I felt the exciting queasiness I’d experienced reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover last summer. Jackie had found a copy of the banned book hidden under her brother’s bed. He had conveniently broken the binding at the sexiest parts.
When I dared to look up, Sol was still staring at me. I smiled, but his expression didn’t change. Instead, he craned his neck, turning his head from side to side as if searching for someone over my shoulder. Don’t look over there, I thought. Recognizing someone, he raised his hand. “Oh, no. Mon dieu!” With my luck, I’d find a beautiful girl waving back. But there was no one, beautiful or otherwise, with her hand in the air.
He spoke to his friends and left them. I had no time to waste if I wanted to reach him. Polite but insistent, I pushed through the crowd. He veered to the left, moving toward the doors of the auditorium. I changed direction so abruptly a man behind me stepped on my shoe. With no time to shuffle my heel back into my shoe, I slid it along with my toes, limping like someone with one leg shorter than the other. Hopeless! I wouldn’t reach him in time. He held his hand out – toward another man? They shook hands like long-time friends, clapping each other on the back. When the newcomer turned around, I saw my brother Robert.
What is he doing here? I wondered. Years before, when entering high school, my brother had made it clear I was not to bother him when he was with friends, “Don’t butt in where you’re not wanted.” I complained to my mother but received no sympathy. “It’s not appropriate for an eight-year-old girl to hang around high school boys.” Dad was no help either.
“Robert? What are you doing here?”
Now it was my brother’s turn to be surprised. Before he could speak, I introduced myself. “I’m Rebecca, his sister.” The man stepped forward. His hand was thin and delicate but strong and warm. “I’m Sol Gottesman. Pleased to meet you.”
He looked into my eyes when he spoke. I noticed his soft brown eyes first, then his long eyelashes. God, he was handsome. I blushed like I had when a boy picked me up for a high school dance and, with my parents in the hall watching us, fumbled with the corsage. Sol released my hand and stepped back.
“Do you work with my brother in Ottawa?”
Robert frowned as if asking what I was up to. “Sol works for his father here in Montreal.”
I was about to ask what business that was when Sol said,” Your brother and I shared the same residence at McGill.” His voice was clear and strong. His blond hair fell across his forehead, and I almost reached up to brush it back with my fingers.
“I’m a freshman at Sir George Williams.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Did he even care?
A darkness under each eye made his pale face look long and narrow. I didn’t want him to stop looking at me.
“What curriculum are you taking?” he asked.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“She’s a great one for reading,” my brother interrupted. “Carries a book wherever she goes.” I shot him a look: Mind your own business. “Always with her nose in a book,” he scoffed.
Sol grinned. Was he going to tease me? “She doesn’t have a book now…”
I noticed his teeth, perfectly straight except for a chipped tooth. Ah, Sol isn’t perfect after all, I thought, relieved. What other imperfection is he hiding?
“…you’re an excellent dancer,” he said.
So he’d been watching me after all. I would have asked him to dance if my brother hadn’t nudged him with his elbow. “Sol, we’d better be going or we’ll be late.”
“Will you give me a ride home?” I asked, hoping my brother would say yes. A short ride home was better than nothing. I imagined maneuvering Sol away from the front seat and into the back with me. No! Change that. In my fantasy, he chooses to sit beside me. Would I have the courage to touch his hand?
“Sorry, Rebecca, no can do. We’re meeting some other friends and heading downtown.”
“Where are you going?”
My brother laughed. “Aren’t you the curious cat.”
“You’re going to the striptease at the Gayety.”
Robert pretended shock. “From the mouths of babes,” he said and turned toward Sol. “Ready? We need to head out.” Then back to me: “You have a ticket for the streetcar, don’t you?” When I said nothing and glared at him, he added, “See you tomorrow.”
“It was nice to meet you, Rebecca.” Sol shook my hand again before turning toward the door.
I heard my brother’s voice in my ear: “What are you up to, little sister?”
“Let me come with you—“
“You’re too innocent for that kind of show. Besides, Mom would kill me if she found out.”
How would she find out? I thought, angry at his dismissal. I followed them outside. Standing at the front door, I watched them leaving the parking lot in my father’s car.
I returned inside, but all the excitement – and possibilities – of the dance had drained away in Sol’s absence. I no longer wanted to dance. I no longer wanted to talk to anyone unless they could tell me more about Sol. But everyone looked dull and plain. How would they ever know someone as exciting as Sol? I imagined I was the unhappiest girl at the dance. I found my coat in the cloakroom. Taking the Van Horne streetcar home and looking out at the couples walking arm-in-arm on the sidewalk, I decided, No, I was the unhappiest girl in Montreal.
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