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First Date
by Sharmagne Leland-St.John

The summer I turned 17 years old I worked as a carhop at a local drive-in at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. It was called "Johnnie's." I worked there nights and went to school in the daylight hours.

It was a fun job because it gave me plenty of opportunities to practice with the cute guys who came in flirting skills I would need in later life ! I got to work out in the open air and I got to wear roller skates which made me look much taller than my stunted 5'4."

After a while I had accrued what the older carhops and waitresses referred to as "regulars." One of my favourite regulars was a guy called Sonny. Sonny was so hip, slick and cool. He used to pull up in this hot souped up car. It was a metallic blue 57 Chevy with mag wheels, 327 engine, and 4 on the floor. He used to call me "Little Bit" because I was so thin and small. He made me blush just like a little girl.

He'd come in once or twice a week and start flirting and hitting on me to go out with him. I'd joke around with him but I held fast to my rule. I had three rules in life regarding dating. The first was don't date someone who lives in the same apartment building as you because if you break up one of you has to move. The second was don't date customers or coworkers. If you date customers and decide to stop seeing them it could become pretty uncomfortable if they continued to patronize the place where you work. I had seen a girl break up with a guy and after the breakup he'd come in and run her ragged just to get back at her. My third rule was don't date outside your species.

Sonny would wait off to the side in his car sometimes for over an hour just to be served by me. He'd just sit there in his souped up Chevy and wait. It was cute and all the other girls teased me about it. Finally just before summer vacation Sonny was coming in every single night.

I remember one night he asked me what my favourite songs were. I told him I liked "Sherry" by the Four Seasons, and "Telstar," "Al de La," "I Wanna Be Bobby's Girl," "Save The Last Dance For Me," all of The Beach Boys songs, and I named a couple of others. A few nights later Sonny pulled that souped up 57 Chevy into my station with music blaring out the windows. He had bought a 45 rpm battery powered record player and had gone down to Wallach's Music City at Sunset and Vine and purchased every single record I had named.

His next ploy was to bring a single red long stemmed rose to me every night. I would take that rose home every night to add it to the ones from the previous nights that I had placed in a cut crystal vase next to my bed. I'd pluck out the dead ones and freshen the water every couple of days. I always had at least a dozen long stemmed roses in that vase on my bedside table. The scent of roses weaving its way into my dreams. My dreams of slow dancing with Sonny.

With the beginning of vacation I switched my schedule to days. During those crazy dazzling nights I started heading over to Hollywood and frequenting the Sunset Strip with all of it's disco clubs. Gazzari's, The Whisky, Pandora's Box, The Trip, and my favourite P.J's. Sometimes if I had a date I'd go all the way into Beverly Hills to The Daisy which was a private club. It was an exciting summer.

Sonny meanwhile had stopped coming in at night and like a camp follower had begun to stop by for lunch on a daily basis. One day in early August he told me that the following Friday would be his 21st birthday and he wanted to invite me to share it with him. I was so deeply honoured that someone would want to spend such a momentous occasion with me, a little girl from the Valley, that I acquiesced. I broke rule number 2. I agreed to go out on the town with Sonny.

But somehow our signals got crossed. I thought we were going to go out dancing and he thought we were going to go to a movie. When he picked me up for our "big date" he met me at the curb which I knew my father would never have approved of. My dad always insisted that the boy come to the door. Sonny also didn't get out of the car to open the door for me which I didn't approve of.

I considered myself to be a lady and expected to be treated like one. He just sort of reached across and threw the metallic blue door open a bit. I got into the car and Sonny immediately made a comment about my disco outfit. So I said, "Well, we are going to P.J's aren't we?"

"No!" he replied, "I thought we'd catch a movie." I point blank told him that I really would rather go dancing. He point blank refused. Check mate! Well, it was his birthday so I guess it was his right to choose where we would go. The next thing I knew we were at the Van Nuys Drive-in Theater. When I found out that he had intended all along to take me to a drive-in movie I hit the roof of that 57 Chevy with the mag wheels.

In my dating survival guide if you break rule number 2, rule number 2a is don't go to a drive-in on a first date. Finally after heated discussion we agreed to a movie but I insisted on a walk-in. The only walk-in cinema that was playing the movie he wanted to see was at the Pan Pacific way over in Hollywood. Somehow I still had this fantasy that I could entice him to take me to P.J's dancing after the movie.

We started off over the hill snaking our way through Laurel Canyon with its twists and curves and it's fragrant Eucalyptus trees. A usually talkative Sonny had suddenly become deathly quiet. He didn't speak a word during the entire ride. He seemed to be brooding. When we pulled up in front of the theater Sonny suggested that I get out and buy the tickets while he parked the car. He then handed me a crisp ten dollar bill.

Every time I had ever seen Sonny he had never exited his 57 metallic blue chevy with the mag wheels, 327 engine, and 4 on the floor. So you can imagine my utter surprise and shock when, a few minutes later, Sonny came hobbling up to the ticket window on hand crutches and only one leg. His left leg had been amputated just below the knee from an injury he had sustained in Viet Nam. This explained why he didn't want to go dancing but it didn't explain why he stopped coming to Johnnie's or why I never saw or heard from him again.


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