Mark Damon: “Guess Things Happen That Way”
It was the kiss that did it.
Oh, I had met her a couple of months before in Hollywood, and there was a ticklish sensation in my throat when I saw her. She wasn’t beautiful in an Ava Gardner kind of way. She was short with dark hair fluffed softly around her face and with ordinary features. But there was a sweet warmth about her and a low, furry voice that made my spine tingle.
When I ran into her again a couple months later in New York, something in my heart said, “Come on, Mark, don’t be scared, take a chance,” and I did and asked her for a date. We decided to meet the next day since we both had our afternoons free. Neither of us was working. We were both interested in acting and had come to New York to study.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I want you to see what happens to a guy when he falls in love and the ending doesn’t turn out at all the way he’d planned.
ft was summer, early summer, and the simmering noonday sun of June blazed down upon the streets and sidewalks; and, fools that we were, we met in the heat of the day and went walking along the shady side of Fifth Avenue all the way up to the famous Metropolitan Museum. We tried to guess the names of the different trees along the streets: the big heaithy oaks with their shimmering green leaves, the lopsided ginkgoes with their skinny branches that remind you of crazy clown poses, the droopy weeping willows that almost touched the ground from their sadness. When we got to the Met we quenched our thirst with tall glasses of iced tea in the museum’s spacious cafeteria and then we wandered through the lonely, vaulted halls to the second floor where all the Rodin statues embraced in the slanting three o’clock sunlight—young milkmaids and husky he-men, all in white marble, together forever, and I remember saying to her, “Gosh, Rodin sure knew about love, didn’t he?”
We didn’t say very much as we walked along the hushed museum hallways, looking at the happy statue lovers all over the place. The hot sun was streaming through the huge skylight in a wide shaft of brilliance, and it gilded the statues with its glow and suddenly (maybe it was the sun that beat on our heads and set us crazy for a minute) there we were, standing in front of Rodin’s most famous work, “The Kiss,” and the two of us looked at it for a long, long time, and suddenly, just like clockwork, we stepped behind it and looked at each other with searching eyes and we leaned forward and we kissed!
I was knocked for a loop, flabbergasted. If you had told me this was going to happen earlier that day, I’d have said you were out of your mind. But there we were, sure as the sun was shining, with our lips touching and with my heart thundering in the stillness of that musty museum and I can remember saying to myself, “Wow! The most unexpected things can happen—and in the most unexpected places!”
We kissed in the shadow of “The Kiss”! Only for a second—that was all. But oh, so many thoughts can go through your head when something very special is happening to you. I can’t really say I enjoyed that kiss as a kiss, because I was so stunned. I was too aware of our sedate surroundings and our crazy togetherness-timing (as though someone had directed us for a scene in a movie), but there we were, the two of us, strangers in a sense, drawn together by the spirit of love.
Some people would say it was the atmosphere—all those Rodin lovers around us. Or maybe it was the funny old sun—it’s been know to do strange things to people. But I say no, it wasn’t any of these things.
It was plain-and-simple love at first kiss tor Mark Damon. I hadn’t realized it when I’d met her that hour out in Hollywood, but I knew it after our museum kiss that afternoon.
How did I know I loved her? How does a guy know it’s the real thing? Well, for one thing, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I was so doggone curious to find out every possible thing I could: all her likes and dislikes, the schools she had gone to, what kind of friends she had, all the things that made her the girl that caused a ticklish sensation in my throat. I read a book recently where Gertrude Stein says every time she meets a genius a bell rings in her head. Well, with me, it seems my throat tickles when I really fall for a girl, and so far it tickles for one girl. Only for her.
What did we do the rest of that day? She had to go home to dinner. She was living at a girl’s residence and dinner was served promptly on the dot of six o’clock. I had suggested cheeseburgers and Cokes at a little luncheonette, but she said no. I wished I could have offered to take her to Sardi’s or the Stork Club, but, being a struggling actor, I was budgeting pennies to make ends meet.
So I went home to my dingy closet of an apartment on New York’s West Side and I played an Elvis record on my portable phonograph, and I began to dance, all by myself—out of excitement, I guess—until I collapsed on my daybed. After a while I fell asleep, dreaming of her.
In the morning, I knew I had to make the dream last. So I called her. From that day on, we began doing things together, seeing plays (Standing Room Only—that was all I could afford), catching the second-run movies in the cheap movie houses along Times Square, loafing in the free museums where we would duck behind a statue sometimes and sneak a quick, laughing kiss.
All through those days we got to know each other. She told me she was spoiled. She came from a well-to-do family and had been isolated. She wanted to see and meet different kinds of people, to be a good actress. I told her I came from the slums of Chicago (I was, I admit, a little ashamed to tell this), and that I would show her the world, the real world. I wasn’t afraid of the seamy side of life, and I led her to it. I pointed out how the poor people lived in Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem and in the miserable Lower East Side with its Bowery flophouses.
She didn’t like it.
One summer nigh, we were walking through Greenwich Village and we stopped in a down-a-flight-of-stairs coffee house with blue lights, and as we sipped espresso coffee, I finally told her how much I loved her. I couldn’t hold it back any longer . . .
She told me, “I like you a lot.”
“Only like?” I said with disappointment in my voice.
“But I love you,” I told her again. And suddenly I was afraid to ask if she loved me for fear she’d say she didn’t.
She said, “I like you, Mark, but . . . we’re more like brother and sister.”
Now, that’s enough to take the beat out of any man’s heart. Slumping in my chair across from her, I said, “Why . . . why do you think I’m like a brother?”
“Well,” she said. There’s so much I have to do to help you.”
I wanted to know what. And she told me she didn’t like the way I buttered a whole slice of bread. It was impolite. The proper thing to do was to break it in half before buttering it. She didn’t like the way I mis-pronounced French words when I tried to appear worldly by dropping a flip foreign word or phrase into a sentence. She said it was crude of me to go out at night in a baggy sweater and an open shirt and khaki pants. In the city men always wore suits and neckties.
I blushed. I stammered. And told her how much I respected her manners. I told her I’d change. She smiled and said, “Let’s see.”
We sat for a while in that Blue Moon cafe, and I changed the subject to plays and books, to all the intellectual things she knew so much about. It was a mistake. She was so much smarter than I could ever be. and as we talked I felt worse and worse—unsure of myself, squelched. Soon only she was talking, about jazz, and poetry, and what makes people tick. I just listened, and felt miserable. And then later that night we walked along those rambling Greenwich Village streets, hand in hand at midnight, and I told myself over and over again, “I must change, I will change. She’ll have to fall in love with me. I’ll show her.”
Next day I bought a copy of Emily Post’s book of etiquette When I told her about it, she smiled and said, ‘But it’s such a big book and it’ll take so long for you to read it. So. instead, maybe I can help you; let me try to teach you.”
That was nice to hear. She was concerned. she wanted to help me. Perhaps I had a chance.
Still, I studied a little of Emily Post at night and I tried to show her my newfound manners whenever we met, and she would smile and nod pleasantly and tell me she was impressed.
That autumn and winter we took acting classes together at Sandy Meisner’s. We’d go to the all-night cafeterias after class, and we’d talk about acting and the kind of people we wanted to be when we grew older: bright, witty, sophisticated and easy-to-get-along-with. We ate sweet rolls and drank black coffee, and invariably we’d end up talking abstractly about love.
But talking’s not enough. I just didn’t want to listen to her from across a table. I decided to make her jealous.
In the midst of that winter I began dropping names during our conversations of other girls I’d gone out with and the things we did. You won’t believe what she said. “That’s good,” she told me. “I’m glad you’re seeing other people besides myself.”
How does a fellow break down such a wall? “But don’t you want me to see you? Only you?” I’d say.
She’d answer, “I want you to do whatever makes you happy.”
So I’d get all mixed-up, and I’d try to figure out what she meant. Didn’t she know I could only be happy with her? Or didn’t she?
Well, polish up your manners, Damon, I told myself, and sooner or later she’ll get with it. I polished and polished but it did no good. Yes, we kept seeing each other, but there was always the Wall. She kept me at arm’s length until spring. Then she called me up one Sunday and said, “Let’s take a walk. I feel like getting out in the air. Only don t get all dressed up, huh?”
’What?” I said, raising my voice in disbelief.
“Let’s not get all dressed up. We can go to Central Park and lie in the grass and relax. I don’t feel like wearing fancy clothes. Okay?”
Of course it was okay. But what happened to her? No fancy clothes?
We met that April afternoon and battled the thick Fifth Avenue crowds, all the people showing off their Sunday best. She was wearing a pink sweater and skirt, and I was wearing a white polo shirt and a pair of corduroys.
We headed for the park and looked at the animals in the zoo. We made faces at a family of monkeys, but the monkeys pointed at us and laughed. I said, “I’ll bet they’re laughing at us because we’re wearing old clothes!”
But she shrugged her shoulders and said, “You’re not ashamed, are you?”
I couldn’t figure her out. That day the sky was the bluest blue, little tufts of green were beginning to appear on the bare trees. We lay under a tall tree near the pond and looked up at the white, cotton-candy clouds swimming in the blue above. We played games. This cloud looked like her dad; that cloud looked like my friend Jeff; a pretty cloud looked like her. We let the afternoon slip through our fingers like sand, and as the sun began to go down behind the canyon-like skyscrapers facing the Park, we began walking along the bushy paths and suddenly the two of us stopped in the middle of a dusty dirt road, although we hadn’t said a word to each other—almost like the day we stepped behind the Rodin statue in the Museum—and we kissed tenderly.
This was a love kiss, our first. I closed my eyes and let my lips linger on hers. Then f held her in my arms and whispered my deep love to her.
There were footsteps behind us, but neither of us moved. The footsteps passed us as we stood arms around each other, and neither of us looked up. I don’t know if Emily Post has rules for such situations, but I didn’t care—and more important, she didn’t care either. Love is meant to make its own rules.
That was the beginning of happiness, or was it?
In the days that followed, she admitted she was falling in love with me (finally!), but she said it wasn’t right. Our careers came first. It was wonderful, this beauty of first love, but we were too young, she said. How could we settle down while we were still unknown actors?
I told her I could—and I would. I’d clerk in a store or run an elevator in the Empire State Building. We could rent a small apartment and by scrimping and saving make ends meet.
With love, we could get along, couldn’t we?
Sure, she said, we could. For a while. We liked a lot of the same things. Chinese chicken with almonds. Jumpy cha-cha-chas and symphonic music. L’il Abner and Peanuts. Pizza pie and pineapple malteds and hamburgers with the works.
But no, she said, it had to be more that this for marriage. We had to be willing to compromise on a lot of things.
I told her I could and I would.
She shook her head no.
Still, we saw each other steadily for another year. And on the anniversary day of our first kiss in the Metropolitan Museum, I surprised her with a charm bracelet of personal trinkets: two hearts a wooden bench in honor of Central Park, a slice of pizza pie . . .
Again I started to talk of marriage, but she stopped me. Her tears stopped me Then she managed to speak. She was leaving New York. She was going to Hollywood. We weren’t good for each other, she said. We were holding one another back. I begged and pleaded with her to stay, but she said no, she had made up her mind.
We ate that evening at the Tavern-on-the-Green, and we danced by the light of the summer moon in the open-air pavilion in Central Park Later we took a ride in a hansom cab all along the dark roadways of the park, and we heard the thin summer breezes rustling the trees and bushes.
Suddenly, I let go of her hand. Before I’d been hurt, now I was ashamed. “You’re a fool. She doesn’t love you,” I told myself “She’s leaving you fiat and going to Hollywood. She loves Hollywood more.”
So I sat in the corner of the leather sea! of the hansom. I felt that already I was alone, already she had left me. I took her home, and that was the last night I saw her in New York.
She left for Hollywood that next week, and in a few weeks I tagged along after her. But she was busy, trying to get started in the movies. Soon I was busy, too.
Then we both got lucky breaks, and the world of success opened to us. Sure, we would run into each other at the studios, at Wil Wright’s Ice Cream Parlor, in the coffee houses along the Sunset Strip. Sometimes we’d have dinner together and exchange news about our careers, and before I knew it we began dating again.
Off and on we dated for another year; and then a few months back she broke off again. “Let’s wait a while, let a few months pass.” Now, suddenly it’s almost Christmas, and I look at the telephone in my apartment and I say, “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” Then something inside of me says, “Call her if you want. Call her and say happy holidays. But forget it, forget the rest of it.” And my heart cries no, it doesn’t want to forget all these memories of our moments together.
Then the same voice that tells me to forget seems to say, “Mark, take a lesson from nature. Learn patience. Nature needs time to heal wounds, to make seeds grow, to have a butterfly spin itself out of a cocoon.”
So, maybe I’m not her kind of guy. Maybe she got tired of trying to make me a gentleman. Or maybe she just didn’t love me.
Guess things happen that way.
Still, I sit here remembering our first kiss, and the time in the Park when we were so close that nothing else in the world mattered, and the afternoon I gave her the charm bracelet . . . And I look at the telephone and wonder, “Should I? Shouldn’t I?”—over and over and over again.
WATCH FOR MARK DAMON IN PARAMOUNT “THE PARTY CRASHERS.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JANUARY 1959