The song is “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston. It always takes me back to one moment in time—1986, Bedford, Texas, a nondescript urban pit stop between Dallas and Fort Worth. I’d just graduated from university and landed my first teaching job at a private special education school, working alongside nuns and bitter, abrasive divorced women. Obviously, there was no chance for dating in the workplace.
Not that I would have turned any heads back then. As special education students were entitled to remain in school until they were 21, several of my students were older than me. I grew a scraggly mustache as a feeble attempt to distract from my continuing battle with adolescent acne and to give myself some semblance of being a man despite my scrawny body. (Had it been a different era, strangers would have approached me for selfie snaps to post on Facebook with remarks like, “Stickman Lives!”)
I had a one-bedroom apartment in Bedford and I thought I was living the glamorous life. My parents hauled my old bed from East Texas and I furnished the living room/dining room with two bean bags and a card table. I was independent and intent on succeeding in my career, in dating and in all things that come with being an adult. I was Mary Richards, only a different gender, different job and in a location far less exciting than Minneapolis.
At least I had a vivid imagination.
Oh, and my living room also had my prized possession: a stereo system, complete with turntable, receiver and tape deck all neatly stacked on the black shelves of a stereo cabinet with the magnetic glass door that both protected and showed off all that hi-tech glory.
As my friends lived in Fort Worth, it was hard to coax them to drive out to a sleepy Bedford midweek. That gave me plenty of time to slouch in my bean bag and belt out my duet version of “Saving All My Love for You” with Whitney. She and I were a formidable duo, the next Peaches & Herb. (Based on my horrendously off-key singing voice, I should have shut up and played an air keyboard, aspiring for Whit and I to be the next Captain & Tennille instead.)
Whitney and I sang the heck out of that entire debut album. Sometimes I’d have the good sense to be quiet and just listen to her gloriously pure voice, but more often she’d entice me to join in. The songs spoke to me. Sort of. I had no frame of reference for “You Give Good Love”. The closest I’d gotten to any kind of experience was when I got stuck having to make out with a very drunk girl during my first year in university. I was relieved when she threw up on my bed before she ever took off her bra. (God knows, I wasn’t going to fiddle with the clip or whatever it was that kept it in place.) I’d spent the rest of university declaring that I was “voluntarily celibate” and failing to disclose anything more despite the persistent questioning of my psych-major roommate. “Good Love”? Not a clue.
But, again, I had a vivid imagination. I was sure it had something to do with going out for ice cream.
I drew more personal connections to the hopeful and pining songs on “Whitney Houston”. Sure, I was saving all my love for someone. (Please don’t let it be some side affair. I deserved better. Whitney deserved better.) While I felt the pain and helplessness of “Saving All My Love for You”, another tune made me gleefully hopeful. The uptempo arrangement of “How Will I Know” awakened excited butterflies inside me. It compelled me to roll out of my body-sucking bean bag and dance around the apartment, only stopping momentarily to check for bruising each time I smashed into the card table. (My dancing and coordination matched my singing abilities.)
My clearest and happiest connection to “How Will I Know” comes from a weekly stop at the local Tom Thumb grocery store. I had to stock up on a bagged loaf of Mrs. Baird’s bread, smooth peanut butter and no-name boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese. (The private school paid 40% less than public school salaries. I took a vow of poverty alongside Sister Herman Marie.) I queued for the express checkout and, thankfully, there was a bit of a wait. In an instant, I’d fallen for the grocery clerk. He had wavy light brown hair, long in top and closely cropped at the back. As he intently scanned soup cans of a shopper ahead of me, I had the opportunity to stare and to pine. Such a pretty face. From my recollection, it was entirely zit free. How could that not instill lust and envy? His lips were soft and full. So kissable.
When it was my turn to check out, he looked up and I glimpsed his blue eyes. “Hi,” he said. I wanted to extend the opportunity to connect so I went with the two-syllable “Hello.” But, alas, I couldn’t come up with anything else. I felt sweat coating my forehead. I kept my arms tight at my side to conceal the growing pit stains. My social awkwardness was even greater way back then.
With his head down, I gazed at that hair. It was TV-commercial shiny and bouncy. Must use Pert. Or Jhirmack. He was done scanning before I was. As he announced the total, I fumbled the pen I was using to write a check/cheque. (Remember paying for everything with checks? Why use cash?) After I retrieved the pen off the floor, I rushed to fill in the check, feeling the annoyance of the customers behind me. Clearly, they did not see this for the momentous occasion that it was.
In my rush, my penmanship faltered. (Mrs. Martindale, my fifth grade teacher always felt my cursive was subpar. Too much of that lefty slant.) I wrote “Sexteen” instead of “Sixteen”. Check/Cheque flirting, the obvious precursor to sexting. Did he notice? I couldn’t look up. I had an “e” to alter. Big dot on top, lots of ink shading in that hooped space. I handed it over. He briefly eyed the front and remained stoic as he jotted down my driver’s license/licence info on the back of the check/cheque. A true pro. Alas.
I retreated to my car, feeling humiliated and exhilarated at the same time. I’m with the grocery clerk! I wiped by brow down with a hand towel. (I was always prepared. Everything embarrassed me. Everything induced unwanted sweating. And I needed to do what I could to abate the acne affliction.) I turned the ignition and Whitney soothed me while masterfully extending that state of excited confusion. “How Will I Know”? Indeed.
In the remaining months I lived in Bedford, I found myself making excuses to pop by Tom Thumb. Why buy a week’s work of no-name mac ‘n’ cheese? Surely, it’s fresher if I get it and make it that same day. And maybe I should make another run for a bottle of Jhirmack. Recommended by Victoria Principal and the grocery god.
I always glanced at the checkout lines as soon as I stepped in the store. Caught my guy on his shift a couple more times. Always chose his line. I was still an awkward, perspiring mess, but I kept composed enough to hold the pen. (Too firm of a grip, Mrs. Martindale would have said.) Sadly, the way he checked me out and the way I checked him out never meshed.
Grocery god sightings ceased altogether after two months. Hope faded. I came to realize that love had nothing to do with ice cream. No, Häagen-Dazs was all about solace. Pleasure for one. I could spoon to the bottom of the pint with Whitney understanding my woes and remaining my steadfast duet partner. Hearing “How Will I Know” again, I only wish I could link the song to some other guy. Oh, how I wanna dance with somebody who loves me.
He doesn’t even have to be a grocery clerk.