“The Lady in Red” – Chris de Burgh, 1986.
I’d be curious as to how many people out there reading this who were born in the 80’s or later know who Chris de Burgh is. He’s an Irish performer, with more than a passing resemblance to the Monkees’ Davy Jones (it’s probably the bowl cut and the thick eyebrows) who had a string of inoffensive soft rock hits mid-decade, with this one considered to be his signature. His fanbase tended to be older women, and certainly my mom swooned every time she heard his trembling, faintly-accented tones emerge from the car radio speakers, but I don’t get the sense that anyone below 40 in that era would dare to be caught buying one of his albums. That did not stop him from making the playlists of the DJs hired to run primary school dances. Just as well, too, for on a warm spring evening in 1987, “The Lady in Red” began playing at one of them, and a beautiful young girl named Karin asked a shy boy clinging to the wall if he’d like to dance with her. Surprised, enthralled, bewitched, and somewhat disbelieving, I nonetheless said yes.
I followed Karin to an empty place on the floor amidst the other couples. She leaned in, slid confident hands up my back and lay her head against my chest. My shaking fingers found the small of her back and I held her, unsure of how much pressure was too much, or not enough. Mindful of chaperoning teachers pacing the perimeter ensuring that nothing inappropriate was transpiring, terrified I’d do something stupid to make her bolt. We shifted in an awkward circle in hug-and-shuffle style, I stared off into the distance while catching breaths of her scent; this intoxicating blend of shampoo and perfume that must have been, to my eleven-year-old mind, how angels smelled. I don’t remember what she was wearing, or what I was wearing, but I remember the feel of her next to me. Warm, soft, assertive yet fragile at the same time. The lyrics were suitable: “And I hardly know this beauty by my side.” I’d never had a conversation with Karin before. Had she spoken to me in another setting I probably would have been too tongue-tied to form anything as significant as words. She had seemed, at least to my way of thinking, one of those unapproachable goddesses who was forever the domain of someone smarter, cooler and better-looking. But here, the goddess had taken pity on the mortal wallflower and blessed him with a few moments of her time. Apparently, thanks to the power of Chris de Burgh. Maybe my mom was on to something.
It likely surprises no one to learn that my romantic history leading up to my first meeting with the woman who would become my wife was a tragicomic folly of false starts, chances missed, errant choices and just plain cowardice. The main problem for me was always that I would build up things in my head to be more dramatic and serious than they needed to be, while my heart labored away on crushes that were either never acted upon or would flame out into awkward embers. I never had much of a problem interacting with girls and women; to this day I tend to get along better with them than with my own gender. I could be charming in one moment and leave them doubled over with laughter in the next. Closing the deal, that is, moving from friendship to relationship, was where I’d flounder. I’m sure of at least five instances (and I could provide names, but I don’t want to freak them out if they Google me) where my failure to act – out of a worry that a misguided step forward would destroy the existing friendship – led to an evaporation of interest from the girl. My admiration of women coupled with a guttered self-esteem made me place the girls I liked on pedestals I couldn’t possibly hope to reach. It didn’t matter that some of them seemed to like me too; who was I to dare to presume I had any business asking them out. Again, that was for the guys who always knew what to say and what to wear, the guys with the sculpted abs they pretended to be bashful about showing off, the guys who were born with a clue. Not this pimpled dork who had to try three times as hard just to be noticed, and always settled for the lonely practice of idolizing from afar.
It was not until much later in life that I managed to connect those elusive dots, and my heart’s voice grew loud and strong enough to be able to tell my doubting brain to shut the eff up and kiss her already. It might not have been the best time to try to kiss Karin as those four minutes of bliss in 1987 spiraled to their end, but would the world have ended had I, at a later moment, found her in the hallways and said, “hey, I was wondering if you’d like to see a movie with me some time”? Even if she had said no thank you, at least it would have been a shot taken. And there were a lot of Karins in the years that followed. Many ladies in red sauntering into my life and dancing just as gracefully out of my grasp. Some I am even still friends with, the crushes of long ago long since abated. It isn’t about wishing that I’d had the chance to have more sex, and it certainly isn’t to suggest that I’m not ultimately with the greatest partner I could ever have hoped to find. “The Lady in Red” is a reminder of my first dance, and the beginning of a time in my life that could have been richer had I had the cojones to seize what was often right in front of me, doubts be damned. I don’t believe in the idea that some people never get a break – breaks are always there, and it’s our stupid, self-pitying little fears that obstruct our view and leave us forlorn and regretful. It’s not the best use of one’s precious time here in this continuum. (Maybe it makes us better writers; that decision is your prerogative, not mine. I know at times I would prefer a sumptuous life to a sumptuous vocabulary.)
If nothing else, this is my chance to thank Karin, wherever she is now, and let her know how special that dance was, and that I’ll always be grateful. It is true; you never forget your first lady in red.