My grandmother talked us to sleep with tales of beaus in the parlor. These were wonderful stories. Our favorite: the time two young hopefuls showed up on the same afternoon. One was greeted in the parlor; the other, on the porch. My grandmother shuttled back and forth -- first to make lemonade, then to check up on the cookies. Neither rival knew the other was there, each felt welcome, and somehow it all turned out. She always seemed to do just the right thing.
I think the parlor must have made the difference. My first date was on a school bus, headed for a skating rink. We talked about many things: school, skating, anything but the silent, white-knuckled contest over how close together we would sit on that seat. As his arm contracted around my shoulders, I tightened my grip on the edge of the seat and pulled toward the aisle. So it continued until both our arms were trembling from the effort, and still not a word on the subject.
Finally he asked: ''Are you pulling on this seat?'' ''No!'' I said, offended. And he did just the right thing: He let go. I flew off that seat like a pebble from a sling shot and landed in the aisle. I've always admired his response and wish I'd told him how fine it was. It just didn't seem so at the time.
Another not-quite-right remark I'd love to take back: ''and I really mean it.'' It wasn't my line, actually. It was his. We'd met at my first college mixer, the kind older classmates help you get ready for. Here's what to wear, here's how to meet someone, here's what to say when you meet him. This event could set the tone for the next four years and the rest of your life, they explained.
The evening had gone well. I'd done exactly what the seniors had told me to do. He had blue eyes and was taller than I was. We walked outside and talked of important things. I knew, because he ended most thoughts with the phrase, ''and I really mean it.'' The air was sweet, and I could see four years of happy weekends stretching out before me.
We walked through darkened courtyards toward the last bus back to campus. ''Goodbye,'' he said, as I boarded the bus. ''Goodbye,'' I said, turning. ''And I really mean it.''
It had been a clever remark, I thought. It picked up a theme of the evening. Some five or six miles later, I wondered if perhaps the combination ''Goodbye and I really mean it'' had been the best. But no, that could not possibly have been misunderstood.
''You'll never believe what happened to my roommate,'' said a new friend five months later. ''He met this girl at a mixer, they walked around all night, and then she says, ''Goodbye, and I REALLY MEAN IT.''
''Incredible,'' I said. I thought of calling, but girls never called, and besides, what would I say five months later?
It's probably better to avoid buses. Some things only work out in a parlor.