The road not taken
“Would you like to go out on Saturday?” Marla asked, as we passed in the hall between classes.
“Uh, yeah, sure, that’d be great,” I responded, trying to act cool and not show my surprise.
“Good,” she replied. “Pick me up at seven and we’ll go to the South Shore Lounge. They have live music this week.”
That was typical for Marla. She was an outgoing young woman who lived life wholeheartedly and held little back. We dated sporadically for three years during high school, and it was almost always her call. I rarely failed to answer. She never led me on, and I always knew it was just one date at a time.
I was her fallback when she was between more impressive boyfriends. She admired my intelligence, and she wasn’t too put off by my short stature and so-so looks, but she wanted a muscular jock type for making out. Preferably one with a nice car and money to burn. She even joked about her shallow tastes, remarking more than once that most guys were too boring for a long-term relationship.
Marla was attractive without being pretty. She stood about 5’ 7” and carried her full, womanly curves well. There was nothing delicate about her, she didn’t wear a lot of makeup and she didn’t stoop to dressing trashy. The intensity in her eyes lit up an otherwise plain face. She didn’t play games and I enjoyed her company enough to accept what she was willing to give without expecting more.
I borrowed my dad’s car for the date and arrived on time, eager to see what the night might hold in store. We drove about ten miles north to Polson, which has a great view of Flathead Lake. The South Shore Lounge is a bit upscale for high school kids, but they were glad to seat us in the nearly empty restaurant area. Our table looked across the tiny dance floor into a bar area that was also conspicuously short of customers.
“Why’s it so dead in here?” Marla asked the waitress.
“Oh, the basketball team is hosting a tournament and everybody is there watching the title game,” she explained.
We ordered our meals and watched the band set up while we waited for the food. It was a brand-new group from Missoula that I hadn’t heard of before, The Big Sky Mud Flaps. They played an eclectic range of music, mostly Swing and Rhythm & Blues. We had a nice dinner amidst the mostly empty tables and enjoyed their sound.
“Let’s dance,” Marla suggested playfully.
“By ourselves?” I asked doubtfully. “I don’t know . . .”
“Oh, come on, I’ll teach you to jitterbug,” she insisted.
I think the band was relieved that we stayed to dance as the few restaurant patrons slowly exited. They were probably feeling as self-conscious as I was. It can’t be easy to play to an empty room. A couple of professional drinkers held down stools in the bar and smiled at my jitterbug attempts. Marla was a good teacher, though, and I gradually caught on to a few steps. The band offered their encouragement, too.
Soon, Marla was talking to the members of the Mud Flaps as if they were old friends, and they played her requests the rest of the night. It turned out to be one of the best dates I ever had. Our legs gave out shortly after midnight, even though the band offered to keep going. I felt a little guilty for leaving them alone with the barflies, but Marla and I needed to park for a while. I certainly didn’t want to miss out on that! Marla found her next boyfriend shortly after our Polson date and graduation followed. I didn’t see her again until my 21st birthday.
I’d started dating Debbie, a woman that I really cared for, during my senior year at college. We decided
to meet up with some of her friends at the Pablo bar for a birthday drink. The drinking age in Montana was only eighteen at the time, so I didn’t need a big celebration. I’d already been there and done that.
The Pablo bar is a dingy dive bar in a tiny town, and I was extremely surprised when Marla appeared. It wasn’t her type of place at all. She made a real show of greeting me, with a big long-lost hug and a kiss that left Debbie fuming. Our group was seated at a long table with benches instead of chairs. Marla squeezed in tight on my right, and Debbie inched away on my left. We reminisced about high school days and laughed again about the night we met the Mud Flaps. It took a few minutes, but I finally sensed the cold air next to me and realized that I was in a precarious spot.
A lot of guys would have enjoyed the drama, and I’ll admit that it was flattering to have two women competing for my attention, but I knew I was headed for trouble.
“Hey, you wanna head up to the South Shore and see what’s happening there?” Marla asked. “Maybe we can dance.”
Her invitation seemed to be for the general group, but her eyes made it clear that it was aimed at me.
“Are you up for some dancing?” I asked Debbie.
“It’s up to you,” she said coolly, with a look that said she wasn’t thinking about dancing at all.
In that instant, I could see two roads that diverged in a smoky bar, and I knew that I couldn’t take both.
“Thanks, but we’re going to hang out here for a while,” I said, making my choice.
“Too bad, it could have been fun,” Marla replied and left by the other road.
Author's note: ▼