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The Boy Who Cleared the Dishes

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

The boy who cleared the dishes for his mother at my first Thanksgiving in America was not particularly handsome. His name was Tom, and I don’t think he said a single word or even looked at me during that entire gargantuan meal. But it didn’t take much in those days to make me fall in love.

I had just started high school in Birmingham, Alabama. It was my first co-ed school, and the boys in my classes terrified me, with their loud voices that changed registers unpredictably, their sudden movements and inexplicable hoots of laughter, the way they took up so much space.

But sitting at that Thanksgiving table, I felt at ease. There was nothing I was expected to do other than eat, which left me free to observe and adore. To a girl coming out of the academic equivalent of purdah, the set of a pair of skinny shoulders, a protuberant Adam’s apple, and a knobby wrist emerging from an Oxford shirt cuff seemed unspeakably exotic and erotic.

As if this weren’t enough, when we had eaten the turkey, Tom, without being asked, rose and carried our plates to the kitchen. My amazement knew no bounds. I came from a culture where men, even dedicated family men like my father, never changed a diaper, fed a baby, washed a dish, or made so much as a sandwich. The only “meal” I ever saw my father fix for himself when no woman was available and he had to rush off to rehearsal was (gag alert!) a raw egg and a spoonful of sugar beaten into a glass of red wine.

Yet here was this clearly male being, this Tom, all Adam’s apple and knobby wrists, clearing the dishes while his mother remained seated at the table. What other wonders lay behind the inscrutable façade of American boys?

Tom was a year ahead of me in school, and I only occasionally passed him in the hall between classes. Even though we never even made eye contact, these encounters shook me to the core, and for the rest of the school day I sat in an amorous fog, my brain on hold, learning nothing. Mine was the mute, helpless love born of innocence and dire ignorance, a love that dares to hope for nothing, but enchants every aspect of life.

And then a miracle happened. It seems that Tom was in danger of failing Spanish, and his mother asked me if I would be willing to help him after school. The thought of hours in Tom’s company, poring over irregular verbs and explaining the difference between ser and estar, sent me into ecstasies of anticipation.

But it was not to be. My mother, who originally had agreed to these tutoring sessions, at the last moment changed her mind. Something had come up and she needed me at home, to help her clean the house or iron my father’s shirts—I forget what. I pleaded and protested, but she was immovable. I suspect that she had become uneasy at the idea of my spending time with Tom with our heads bent over the Spanish textbook.

To my surprise, I soon got over the disappointment and went on to find other, more interactive love objects. But that was not the end of Tom.

Years later, when I was in college, a friend arranged a double date with a pal of her boyfriend’s. The pal turned out to be Tom, grown tall and muscular, fresh from a stint in the Navy. He still didn’t have much to say about anything, and the evening was not a success. But when he drove me home and I was saying goodnight, he lunged at me. This was so unexpected and so unwarranted by the dull time we had had together, that I was momentarily stunned. I recovered and made negative noises, but he ignored them and re-lunged, so I elbowed him in the ribs and stumbled out of the car.

I sprinted to the front door, mortified by the memory of that desperate early passion, but most of all dismayed by what the years had done to the boy who had once cleared the table without being asked.

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