For some idiotic reason, English teachers in conversation classes have a habit of asking their students to reveal their "most embarrassing moment." Why a person should want to humiliate themselves-recounting a previous humbling experience- before a crowd of veritable strangers is beyond understanding. So, as an atonement for all the times I have forced my students to bare their souls, I've selected my own most embarrassing moment amongst a lifetime of runner-ups.
Seventeen is a perfect age for humiliation as it comes so easily and with such bite. At that time, my brother, Frank, was going to law school in Oklahoma City and he had invited me down for a week in June, to show me "the sights." During that visit, he had also arranged- probably against his better judgment- for me to meet his fiancée's family. Alison was a student at the same law school and when my brother was around her, he seemed so much more serious than I could ever recall. She was a Sissy-Spacek type without the down-home endearment. Ginger hair, pale eyelashes, a look of irritation coupled with thin tightly drawn lips.
My brother had seemed exceedingly nervous about this meeting, as if he were about to introduce Jerry Lewis to the Queen of England or something. What was he expecting, after all, that I'd start making dirty jokes or begin kicking and screaming and foaming at the mouth between courses? So, as insulted as I was, I was bound and determined, no matter what, not to botch this.
Being classified by my family as a kind of loose cannon, my brother had ordered me to be on my best behavior. On the drive over, there had been a dreadful sermonette on the importance of first impressions. It wasn't scheduled to last long, just a dinner at a "fabulous" country club (it turned out, in fact, to be a very average hangout for upper middle-classed white people). It was expected- or least, it was ardently hoped- that I would not embarrass myself, my brother and the family name. More than anybody else, I preferred to leave a splendid impression naturally but I also acknowledged that I was not very talented at convincing flattery or boyish charm. I told myself that I would simply have to work hard at being charismatic. With fingers crossed.
All this was part of my brother's carefully-calculated plan to marry into wealth. Although he had lately put a lid on such talk, it had once been his motto that it was just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl as a poor one. Alison's father, he'd mentioned, was very well-connected in Oklahoma and as everybody knows, that is the only path to success. Being an innocent- even at seventeen- that phrase about love made little sense to me. After all, wasn't true love something you couldn't control? It was like a sudden impulse that carries you away. So I thought at that age.
So there my brother and I stood at the door step of Alison's parent's home. Not a mansion by any means, but about twice as large as my own family's home. It had a fake green lawn and a newly asphalted driveway. The doorbell had some elaborate ostentatious chime, like Big Ben or a riff of Beethoven.
I was wearing an ill-fitting jacket and I felt like my shoes were the wrong color. Or my trousers were too short. A teardrop of sweat rolled down between my shoulder blades.
We were greeted at the door by Alison's brother, Gerard, robust and healthy, with a beaming smile for my brother. It was automatically clear that here was a young man who had, for most of his life, longed for an older brother.
As we entered the foyer, I saw a huge monster of a dog- a Great Dane maybe- galloping around the corner, followed closely by another smaller yipping poodle/ terrier. The frantic sounds of claw nails on the tile. Clumsy hand-shaking while the dogs sniffed and prodded me with its nose. Suddenly, the massive animal stood and flopped his front legs on my shoulders. My knees nearly buckled from the weight.
"Kato. Down, Kato. " Gerard said, but not very sharply or loudly. Eventually, to my relief, he led the dog out by the collar through the dining room, leaving him on the deck in the back of the house.
During the preliminary cooing of small talk, Alison's parents, Virginia and Hank, appeared from different directions like celebrities at a telethon. They looked like most wealthy Oklahomans past fifty. The desiccated women all have big hard hair, powdery faces, heavy eyeliner and heaps of gold jewelry. The husbands are all wide of hip, beer-bellied, loud and bald dressed in pointless, pointed cowboy boots, rings the size of walnuts and belt buckles the size of license plates. Causal dress meant a polo shirt and permanent press slacks with wide waist-bands.
Hank was a famous (locally) surgeon for a big glistening hospital that specialized in oil barons with clogged arteries and Virginia was a "retired homemaker."
As a loose cluster, we strolled into the living room. The house smelled like all of the homes of the rich- floral with a slight odor of burnt plastic. Expensive, never-touched picture books, as big as tombstones, adorned the glass coffee table. The sofa and chair had the strange look of being slightly dated but new. A movie-set feel about the room.
A predictable assortment of children's photographs dotted the walls; illustrations to a privileged upbringing. A freckled girl on a horse in full English riding gear and a tanned boy next to his sailboat. A professional action shot of a young teen, pony-tailed and hyperventilated, her tennis racket poised in mid-serve. On the mantle of the fireplace an over-done silk flower arrangement below a garish painting of cowboys at a sundown round-up. In the corner, to complete what Virginia would undoubtedly have called "the motif" was a weather beaten wagon wheel.
"So, Frank here tells me this is your first time in Oklahoma City." I nodded my head with a vacant smile. So far, so good.
"And how long will you be staying?" Alison's mother asked. I noticed something about the kind look in her eyes that made me realize that, despite the Nancy Reagan freeze-dried appearance, she had her own type of warmth.
"Well, only a week. But I would like to come back next year. Maybe when it is a little cooler."
They all found this remark suitably amusing. With that minor success, Frank and Hank wandered off on their own conversational path while Virginia asked me about what I had seen in the city.
Hank offered to show my brother some new glory of the garden and they meandered out the sliding doors, discussing something very adult.
At that moment, while I struggled to make sense of Virginia's chat, I turned to my right and saw the mammoth face of Kato. Somehow he had managed to find a way back into the house. I patted him on the head, being a lover of dogs and tried to follow the conversation. Virginia was going on about the Will Roger's Museum and how I really shouldn't miss it.
Kato, with one swift move, plunked his paw on my leg like an angry judge's gavel.
"I think he likes you." She told me. Then she said, "If you'll excuse me, I should find out what's keeping Alison." I was sort of happy to be off-duty and able to take a deep breath again.
As I stood up to pull my trousers down- they had somehow crept halfway up my legs, Kato pounced upon me. I nearly went backward as if I had been tackled by a bear. As much as I struggled, as often as I managed to free myself, Kato was once again all over me. Slow motion wrestling.
And to my horror, I caught a glimpse of Kato's pink excitement. It was difficult to ignore, especially for me at that moment. Of course, dogs being dogs are apt to behave in such a manner; it can be a conservation stopper to find tiny Boomer the Scottish terrier furiously bumping your ankle or Eddie the Pomeranian pumping your sofa pillow. But, given the size of this beast, was a completely different story. Here I was, Being lovingly mauled and about to be raped by my brother's fiancée's dog at her parent's house. I thought about calling out for help. A warbled plea for assistance. However, my brother strict warnings flashed in my head and so, I continued fending off the amorous canine. The dog was clearly winning, however. I could feel this wave of panic beginning to swell up in my stomach.
Then, just as my strength was weakening, Virginia entered the room. With a cursory glance,she noted the situation. "Yes, I think Kato likes you." As if all her guests were routinely molested by this domesticated monster. As if that it was the most natural thing in the world.
Alison marched down the stairs, studied the situation for a second and sighed. "For goodness' sake. Gerard. Gerard! Come and get the damned dog. And hurry up! We don't want to be late again."