Dennis Berger, Agent

Just Kids

When Dennis was twelve years old, he saw his first porn movie.  His eyes just about popped out of his head. This was a long time ago. It was a videocassette that his friend, Dexter, found in the back of a closet when Dexter’s older brother went back to college.  When Dennis got over his first reaction to what had up until that moment had been beyond anything he might otherwise have imagined, he said, “I just figured out what I want to do for a living.” Everyone in the room burst out laughing, including Dexter’s sister, Maddy, and her friend, Grace. Dennis was a short and pudgy kid with curly hair and thick glasses. He was laughing too. He was always coming up with stuff like that, sort of self-deprecating but in a confident way. He liked getting laughs and did what he thought he had to do to get them.

It did not hurt that he was not only short, pudgy, and bespectacled, but also very cute, at least in the eyes of some young ladies, including Grace.  Both being twelve at the time of the “the great porn video” as it became known, she kept this to herself. And for his part, Denny wouldn’t know what to do with Grace’s interest in him in any case.

Anyway, the story about Dennis’s “career plans” got around. Dennis was and is one of those people everyone likes. Kids started calling him “Porn King.” Dennis would do a little hip wiggle and everyone would laugh. Dennis was not exactly class clown, his grades and his presidency of the debating society precluded that. But he loved entertaining and the attention that went with it. With little or no musical ability, he started a band with a couple of friends. They called it the Porn Kings. They weren’t very good and Dennis was the worst. It was clear from the start; Dennis and the electric guitar were never to get along.

And it was all great fun until Dennis’s parent got wind of it. His father was president of his synagogue, a highly respected executive, a philanthropist, and a pillar of the community. In Dennis’s adolescent eyes, this made him a “sell-out.” Lovable and caring but nonetheless, a sell-out. From Dennis’s viewpoint, his mother was even worse. She constantly talked about making a good impression and doing the polite thing. So, when his parents sat him down and told him this “Porn King” or “Porn Kids” or whatever, was to stop and right now, Dennis went from a kid enjoying a long-running joke into his idea of a revolutionary. He had no choice, of course, but to do as they said. He was after all a semi-pubescent twelve-year-old facing down a bar mitzvah, an event he saw as something like a freight train coming down a track with no one at the controls. And Dennis was no fool. He knew his range of options as a junior high school kid was severely limited. no matter how bright and brash. Or how revolutionary he imagined himself.

Most of all, though, Dennis knew the future would be his if only he had the patience to wait. And the brains to keep his ideas to himself. He’d be a good boy. He would do an outstanding job with the bar mitzvah and his parents would be pleased. He would get good grades and limit his jokes to more “acceptable” subjects, and more or less behave himself.

His immediate goal was to spend more time with an English teacher. After that, it was to soften up his parents for a car when he turned sixteen, a birthday that was almost four years away. The English teacher was a “hottie” according to Dennis, a viewpoint he would not share with anyone, as much for her sake as for his. His real interest though was her encouragement with his writing and interest in literature. She said she saw something in his imagination and in the way he expressed himself in writing. He was also intrigued by her reading suggestions. She would mention books most kids his age knew nothing about. They covered an enormous range, some classics, some obscure and very contemporary. Some had sex in them. And foul language. Dennis didn’t care about that, except to make sure his parents didn’t get wind of anything not quite acceptable. Reading what his parents might see as smut would dampen his chances when it came to getting a car at sixteen. Dennis might look like a funny, innocent kid but as friend said on national television many years later, “Denny is always figuring about ten moves ahead of anyone else. When it comes to covering all the angles, I’ve never seen anyone better. And I’ve known him since we were kids.”

The bar mitzvah went off without a hitch. The rabbi said Dennis was one of the best. His Hebrew was flawless and he spoke it with real feeling. His parents were thrilled. As Dennis described it, “That day, maybe only that day, I could do no wrong. It was great.” And there were lots of presents, including a small pile of cash.

Afterward, there was a party with dancing and a fancy dinner at a country club. It was there when Grace, the girl who watched the porn video with Dennis and a few pals, pulled Dennis into a side room and gave him a kiss he would remember for the rest of his life.

It was something he kept to himself for years. He didn’t know what to make of it, at least not for a while. He really didn’t know Grace that well. She went to parochial school and, at the time, she stood a good six inches taller than Dennis. He knew if his parents found out about it, they would be mortified and definitely would have told him to stay away from her.

He didn’t get kissed like that again for some time. Four years to be exact. He would never admit it, even to himself, but well into his teens he was scared of having anything more than most superficial involvement with sex. He worried about his height and about being a little too pudgy. He worried he would do something stupid. He was terrified of being rejected or worse.

He had no idea what he’d do if he ever ran into Grace again. But there was no chance of that. When he asked about her, his pal Dexter said her family had moved clear across the country. And, anyway, she was going to go to a boarding school in Switzerland which his friend described as “a place for unruly girls.”

It never occurred to Dennis that most of the girls he knew or wanted to date were as scared of sex as he was. To him, they all seemed worldly-wise and totally disinterested in a him. That did not mean he stayed away from girls. Several were among his best friends. He was taking extra credit in creative writing and he was the only boy in the after-school class. He also joined his school’s Drama Club. He was just one of three boys who were members.

By the time he was fifteen, Dennis had formed an attachment or two. There was this one girl, Elinor, in the Creative Writing Club. She was also in his English Advanced Placement class. It seemed plain to Dennis she considered him an idiot. She never smiled when he tried to talk to her. When he expressed an opinion, she would ask where he got that idea, as if he had said one of the dumbest ideas in all of human history. She was also clearly the brightest kid in a class of very bright kids. There was this rumor about her asking to get full credit for French. It seems when she met with the head of the school’s French Department and two instructors, she spoke only French and refused to speak English. Her parents spoke French at home. Her mother grew up in France. They gave her the credit she wanted.

She wasn’t what you might call pretty but Dennis could not take his eyes off her. Most other kids thought her weird or “no fun.” They said she wore odd clothing – always dark stuff, long skirts or floppy pants. Her black hair covered her face. She did not hang out with any of the popular girls. When Dennis asked one of them about her, she said, “Elinor is always reading. She got out of gym with some doctor’s excuse. She never says anything except in class. The teachers all love her.” Dennis liked that she was different. He just didn’t know what to do or think about her. He tried to be friendly. He didn’t get much of a response. And so, he didn’t do anything. Not then, anyway.

Dennis turned sixteen during the summer vacation between his sophomore and junior year of high school. It was the summer his folks got him a car. They had to admit, he had been a very good boy. He got good grades, did what he was told for the most part, and made them proud. Instead of hanging out at his parent’s country club going nuts over girls at the swimming pool, he got a job writing a “High School Daze” column for the local newspaper. It didn’t pay much. But it was something. He had pitched the idea for the column on his own when he was in the middle of his freshman year and the editor bought it.

By the beginning of his junior year, Dennis had written at least thirty “High School Daze” columns for the local newspaper and interviewed dozens of people. He’d gotten a bit of a following and high marks from his editor. “Dennis, you are getting really good at writing and I happen to know you’ve increased our readership. Not bad for a sixteen-year-old punk!” In short, Dennis would continue writing for the paper during his junior year and, who knows, beyond. Right through college, it turned out, and until the paper folded.

So, a car. A job he liked and was good at. Dennis was feeling pretty good about himself. There were only two things bothering him. His father’s career concerns. And that girl, Elinor. Why did she think he was such a jerk?

His father was easy. He didn’t think the cub reporter idea was so hot. “This isn’t a career, right? Maybe next year you’ll get a job at the plant and learn about manufacturing management.” Dennis’s father said the same thing about the Drama Club. “You aren’t thinking about being an actor are you, Dennis? Not smart.” Dennis explained he had played just one small role and wasn’t very good at it. What he liked was making plays happen. All the financial stuff. And creating and managing the promotional program. “Nope, I like the business part. Figuring out what play will sell. The publicity, getting the tickets sold, making money for the Drama Club. That’s the part I like. Same thing with the newspaper.” Dennis didn’t say anything about dreading the idea of learning how to run a factory. One thing Dennis learned early in life: Don’t say anything about anything if you don’t know how the conversation is going to go.

And the Elinor issue turned out to be “no biggy” either. First chance he got as his junior year began, he asked her, “Why do you think I’m some kind of jerk?”

She looked surprised. “What are you talking about? Where’d you get that idea?”

“Well, when I try to even just say ‘hello,’ you look at me like ‘Go away.’”

“I do. I don’t mean to. I guess because I was reading or something and maybe that’s how I look. I shouldn’t. I like you. I like when you are around. I listen to what you say in class. It makes me think. So, if I did look annoyed, I’m sorry.” She gave him a little smile. And blushed.

Dennis was totally freaked out. All he could say was, “Oh, OK.”

That year they sat next to each other in Advanced Placement English. They sometimes talked after school. It wasn’t dating or anything like that. They shared an interest, books. A couple of times, they went to a museum together. Once, when a school play rehearsal ran long, Dennis drove her home in his car. But that was it. Anyway, Dennis was dating Henrietta, a girl his parents liked. She was pretty and bubbly. And very polite. As his parents saw it, Henrietta was the sort of girl Dennis should like. And one of his jobs in dating her was to help out her parents and convince her to go to college. She wanted no part of it. She wanted to go to secretarial school and get a job.

The last thing Dennis had in mind was to convince her to go to college. She was fun. She liked going out. She was a good kisser. She knew just how to twist her parents around her finger. While Dennis was pretty good about getting what he wanted from his parents, he was in awe of Henrietta’s ability in that area. She could get just what she wanted from her father. He was also in awe of her resistance to being serious about anything.

Certainly, she wasn’t serious about Dennis. She was dating other boys while she was dating him. He knew it and wasn’t bothered by it. It did not bother him much either when she dropped him. Dates with her were expensive. And, after a while, a little boring.

It was also a relief not to pretend to Henrietta’s parents – and to his own parents as well – about how he was convincing Henrietta to go to college. He always felt guilty about that. “What was I going to say? ‘I never even tried. But making out with Henrietta was fun.’”

His parents got it all wrong. They assumed the “breakup with Henrietta would leave Dennis heartbroken. Dennis went along with it. He told them, “it was hard but I will learn from it.” He did not say what he actually learned: Stay away from air-heads. Nor did he let on that on to no longer having to pretend about getting Henrietta to go to college, he would be able to spend more time and attention to his newspaper columns and to working with the Drama Club. And he did not let on it meant he could spend more time with Elinor.

Dennis knew his parents would not care for Elinor. She was too reserved. She was too intellectual. She was unconventional and very independent. And she was not Jewish. Some kind of Protestant. But since Dennis asked why she thought he was a jerk, they had become good friends. As the weather warmed towards the end of their junior year of high school, they’d go on rides in his car. Or sit after school and argue about a book or an author.

Another thing his parents got wrong; the idea Dennis was looking forward to spending the summer between is junior and senior year working in his father’s factory. To Dennis’s relief his father had left his job running the plant and taken a job with a large consulting firm. There had been some argument at the plant. The consulting firm had been after Dennis’s father for some time. There would be a lot more money coming in. When his father sat him down to explain the situation, he apologized about Dennis’s not being able to work at the plant during the summer. Dennis said he understood and would make do writing newspaper columns. He was getting very good at being taciturn.

When their junior year of high school year was over, Elinor and Dennis kept up the friendship. All very casual. They spent a lot of time talking about the columns Dennis was writing for the local paper. Could they become a book? They went swimming once. They visited bookstores. They traded books. They were pals. Dennis even told her about that porn video he had seen years ago and how his junior high friends back then called him “Porn King.” Elinor laughed so hard, she had a coughing fit.

And the summer sort of breezed along. Until the first week of August. It was on a Tuesday. Dennis and Elinor were going to drive to a picnic spot they liked. Dennis picked her up at her house. About ten minutes into the trip, Elinor said, “Dennis, instead of going to the park, why don’t we go back have our picnic in my backyard. No one’s home. My parents are in France. I’ll make lemonade. We can sit out back. It’s quiet and cool.”

So, they turned around. When they got to Elinor’s house and he was parking out front, she said, “No, don’t park here. Pull in the driveway. Go right in the garage. The neighbors can be nosy.”

They went in the back door of the house. Elinor made lemonade. Then, she and Dennis went back outside. There was a nice table with an umbrella in the backyard and they sat there and talked. Dennis still remembers that table and umbrella, even now, after so many years. And how nice it was to sit there talking.

And, suddenly, in mid-sentence, Elinor said, “Dennis, I need to tell you something. My parents are in France because we are going to move there. In a week, I think. Maybe sooner. And I don’t think we’ll be back. Not ever.”

Dennis was stunned.

He was stunned even more by what she said next, “So, I’m thinking what we should do, while we have the chance, is to go upstairs to my room and make love. Do you think we should? I think we should.”

And they did. When Dennis left it was late in the afternoon. They kissed and cried.

They did not see one another again until Dennis walked into a French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He was with one of his authors. They were going to discuss the budget for an upcoming book-tour, the possibility of an appearance on a late-night talk show, and an advance he was going to pitch on the author’s next book. They were old friends. The plan was to do some business, have one drink too many, and have some laughs. And there she was. Sitting at a table toward the back of the restaurant.

When Dennis saw Elinor in that restaurant on a very ordinary and early afternoon, it was like nothing else he had ever experienced. He still can’t describe how he felt or recall what they said to one another or to those who were with them. “I never felt that way until that moment and I haven’t ever felt that way since. It was like, kaboom, my whole world started to spin. With joy? With regret? I don’t really know. All I know is I was so happy to see her.”

Elinor didn’t see Dennis at first. She was in a deep conversation with the people at her table, an older man, and two young women. The older man happened to look up and saw a short, slightly chubby, balding man, maybe in his early fifties, wearing a dark suit, striped shirt, and tie, staring at their table. He gestured to Elinor who turned around, took one look, and made a sound sort like a squawk.

Elinor stood up so fast that her chair fell backwards and took a step toward Dennis, one hand outstretched. He reached out. Their hands barely touched. Dennis said, “It’s been so long. I’ve missed you so much.”

“Did you get my note? I taped it on the front door. I didn’t know what to think when you didn’t try to reach me. I thought that you didn’t want to see me anymore.”

“Note? No.” Dennis explained how he stopped by Elinor’s house as soon as he could the next day, to say “goodbye” again and find out how to reach her and found the house being emptied out by a storage company. There was no note and the furniture movers didn’t know where anyone was.

Elinor said her parents had plane tickets delivered to her just after Dennis left on that late afternoon so long ago. They were for the next morning. A car would pick her up at seven o’clock. She said she called Dennis’s house and spoke to Dennis’s mother, saying Dennis should call immediately. Dennis said his mother never said a word about Elinor’s call.

Thinking back, Dennis said it was the most emotional moment of his life, even more emotional than the trauma of when they found his drowned wife’s body on the beach. Elinor had a similar reaction. She said she thought she might faint.

But there were people with them. Dennis’s author and Elinor’s three people – He was a professor; the two young women were graduate students. Dennis and Elinor explained they were high school friends who had been close a long time ago. And as the two of them explained themselves, some practicalities began butting in. Elinor’s party was supposed to be getting ready to leave the restaurant. The waiters needed to clear their table for the next party. Elinor had a train for Boston to catch. She had a lecture to deliver that night in Cambridge. And the next day, she was expected to fly home to France. She had two sons to attend to. And the only thing Dennis could think of saying was, “I need to talk. I could be in Cambridge tomorrow. I went to college there.”

Elinor explained her every minute was scheduled until she caught her flight. And she had to catch that flight. So, they did the only thing they could at that moment; they exchanged emails, street addresses and phone numbers. They hugged one another, and promised to get in touch. And then, Elinor was off for her train and Dennis for his author’s lunch. The author recalls Dennis as being completely distracted and promising to get a larger than expected advance for the new book they were discussing.

This time Dennis and Elinor were able to stay in touch. Reams of emails. Phone calls. But they were both busy people with very different lives to live. Dennis was transitioning into more senior management roles in his literary agency. There were trips back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. There were movie deals. Even a videogame deal. Elinor was teaching three courses in Comparative Literature. And writing her second book on Mallarme. She talked about what she called a “disheveled personal life.” How she didn’t seem to get along with either of her two former husbands. About the affair she had with a graduate student.

This went on for three years. “It would be great to see you again” was a regular comment. But something always got in the way. Much later, both admitted they were terrified, she more than he. So much time had passed. They really hadn’t spent much time together when they were kids. And, as Elinor kept reminding Dennis, they really had been kids when last they were together. “I’m an old lady now. I’m not so easy to be with. You won’t like me. Do you realize how many years it’s been? We have careers. We’ve both had lives. I’ve been through divorces. It wasn’t always the husband’s fault.”

Until, Dennis sent an email, “Enough is enough. I am going to be in London for a deal. And then, I am taking the train over to Paris. And when I get there, we are going to have lunch. I don’t care what you have going on. If I have to, I’ll hang around until you have some time. And then, we are going to talk.”

They had a lovely lunch. They talked. And laughed. And talked. Until late afternoon. And the next day. It took a while. And Elinor was right – it took some adjusting. But they managed. The conversation they restarted during a chance encounter in a crowded Manhattan restaurant kept going. They are still talking. And they don’t plan on stopping.

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