A White Dress

By Dick Bentley

What I feel strange about growing old isn’t the fact that I’ve grown old. It’s about my springtime. Will I lose it? Will I have to give it up? Can you be old, but still be youthful?

There was one person – a woman who used to be a girl – that I remember well. I first saw her playing tennis. She wore a white dress

She was, I thought, a houseguest, probably a friend of someone I knew. When I saw her at the tennis club she was fading back to the edge of the court to play a deep shot, her white skirt fluttering. She looked determined.

When it was her turn to serve, she would bounce the ball once or twice with her knees slightly bent. When she served, the ball that left her racket seemed to become somewhat whiter, its resilience richer, than before. Her game, as I watched, seemed deliberate at the moment of contact, and her strokes seemed to involve precision, strategy and foresight.

I grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois; a suburb of Chicago. Many of us teenagers went to school in the eastern part of the United States. The boys went to boarding schools usually named for towns — like Groton, Exeter or Deerfield. The girls went to comparable boarding schools, usually named for women – Ethel Walker, Emma Willard or Annie Wright. It was not unusual for one of the girls to bring a classmate to Lake Forest for a short visit, a visit to the “romantic” Midwest. These visits took place during the summer months, and usually included evenings at debutante parties, also known as “coming out” parties, whose purpose was to introduce young people to the adult world. Quite often, two or three young women and their families would give a party together, inviting their local friends, as well as friends from the eastern boarding schools, to share it.

I assumed that the girl in the white tennis dress was one of the out-of-town visitors.

“Who’s that?” I asked someone nearby. “Who is she visiting?”

No one seemed to know. Nobody I knew had ever seen her before.

My heart started to hammer. I was not a great tennis player, not even a “good” one, but I knew I must meet her somehow. She was not tall, but her blonde hair made her seem statuesque, as if her body was made of marble, but the dappled kind. She had me under her spell, that gorgeous, nameless girl clutching a tennis racket.

I gasped for breath. It seemed as if someone was desperately trying to send me a message. The exquisite clarity of the girl’s movements produced a pure, ringing sound in my ears with each of her strokes. When it was her turn to serve she would wait and relax, then bounce the ball once or twice before hitting it with her high, overhead slam. But but always seemed to be joyful.

“Who is this girl visiting?” I asked someone again. “Who are these people?”

Everyone shrugged.

The tennis club had a professional player who gave lessons. I went to the locker room to see if I could find him and find out the girl’s identity. He was not anywhere in sight. The lockers and the doors were empty. When I returned to the courts, everyone had left, including the bystanders. But I knew I could find the girl in the white tennis dress if I looked around for her thoroughly and wisely. She must be someone’s guest, I thought. But my attempts to find her were unsuccessful. She seemed to have disappeared into some kind of ether.

But meanwhile, I had found a friend who was less mysterious.

Susan and I met at a barbecue in the courtyard of an apartment building on Orleans St. in Chicago. There was wine by the box. All the men wore plaid Bermuda shorts. There was beer by the box. All the women wore plaid Bermuda shorts. Susan had blazing red hair hair, a flirtatious smile and inquisitive eyes. She was seventeen years old. She was perfect in every way except that she was pregnant. It didn’t show yet, but that was the rumor. I saw Susan, and asked her to dance, not noticing that nobody at the party was dancing. We headed for an empty room in the upstairs of the building, where soft music was playing, the only music at the party. I danced close to her. After awhile, my eyes began to close, and she didn’t seem to object, although her ayes remained open for awhile. eyes closed. She was not the mysterious girl in the tennis dress, but she seemed acceptable.

“Is this a movie,” she asked. “A silent movie?”

I looked at her and said, “That’s the first question you’ve asked me since we met.”

“We met?” she said. “Where, when? I don’t think we’ve met. I don’t even know your name and you don’t know mine.”

“You’re lovely,” I said. “I think I’m falling in love with you, but you talk too much.” We stood motionless, leaning into each other, not moving our feet.

“May I say something?” she finally asked. “When do we get to meet?”

I turned slightly. She followed my footsteps. Then she drew her head back. “What am I doing in your arms?”

“What am I doing in your arms?” (I told her)? I liked hearing her say that. “What am I doing in your arms?” sounded like the title for some sort of neo-gothic love story.

We broke our clinch. She walked over to the window. “Will somebody please help me?”

We heard echoing laughter in the courtyard below, “What happened to Susie McWilliams?” someone asked.

An hour later, I was standing in front of her bathroom mirror with a borrowed toothbrush in my hand. The toothpaste tube read, “sodium methylcellulose.” It tasted of pine trees and a vast excited ocean smashing its salty waves against the shore. She hugged me from behind, nuzzled against my shoulder and asked me what I was doing with her vaginal cream.

“You know something?” she said to me one night. We had begun to move forward, and she talked as if she was making a confession, a proclamation. “I don’t know who the father is. I didn’t really mean to get pregnant. Daddy says there are still things we can do about it. He says that in the future, if something should happen to me with a boyfriend, there was a new thing called ‘The Pill’. He said he hoped I would use it next time.

“The Pill?”

“That’s all there is. They just call it The Pill.”

“I have no problem with that,” I said.

I silently stroked her hair. It was beyond me at the time to imagine how she felt, what caused the pregnancy, what it had led to. I was too preoccupied with my own emotions, with visions like the young woman in the tennis dress. She was still on my mind.

My girlfriend sat up on the edge of the bed. “Ever had your memory stop?”


“What I’m talking about is, like from one point in time to the next, can you remember at all, where you were or what you were doing?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that. I’ve had other things in my head. Maybe you should know about them. But I’ve never had that one.”

“So you remember the time sequence and details of what you’ve done?”

“If it’s something that happened recently, yes, I’d say so.”

She scratched the back of her head for a moment as I waited.

“Actually,” she said, “I’ve had several times where my memory has just slipped away.”

I thought of telling her about my own mental problems, but I decided to let her continue.

“It’s not like something special happened to me. Like I got hit on the head or got sloppy drunk or anything. I’m just doing my usual thing and without warning my memory cuts out. I can’t predict when it’s going to happen. And I have no clue for how many hours my memory will vanish.”

“I see,” I murmured, to let her know I was following along. “It reminds me of some disabilities of my own. I told her how it seemed that every personality trait has a disorder attached to it. If you were are occasionally forgetful and somewhat inattentive, you might have A.D.D – ‘Attention Deficit Disorder.’”

She nodded. “I think I had that as a child. But don’t most children behave that way – forgetful and inattentive. Don’t we all have Attention Deficit Disorder?”

“When you are older,” I said, “who knows it means? If you have trouble sitting still during psychiatric lectures or operas by Wagner, you may have Attention Deficit Disorder. When psychiatrists are talking, the letter ‘D’ always stands for Disorder.”

I began to think of something called O.D.D. I had only recently heard of it.

“If you are occasionally resentful of your boss or join dissident political groups you might have a disorder called O.D.D. Have you ever heard of it?”

She hadn’t heard of it so I told her. “It was called Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Warming up to my subject, I told her that if you go around making absurd statements you might have Factitious Disorder which describes the tendency of people to mimic the behavior of other people who have disorders even though you might not have any disorder yourself (except for Factitious Disorder).”

Susan and I were always discussing our common problems. We discussed them one by one. She agreed that every personality trait had a “disorder” attached to it. Attention Deficit Disorder. Bipolar Disorder. Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Was there a simple personality trait that wasn’t also a disorder?

“I’m glad we’re having this discussion,” I said. “we both need it.”

She laughed “I have Asperger’s Disorder,” she said. “I used to curl up in the corner of my crib with my thumb in my mouth, shaking a corner of the sheet and babbling quietly to myself. You might have it too. I know. I know it very well. People like you who have Asperger’s Disorder cannot interact socially. They are unable to make eye contact. They have special problems dealing with authority.”

I thought about this for a while. Authority. I wondered if a lover could be considered a figure of authority.

“Asperger’s is difficult to diagnose,” she said. “My psycho-pharmacologist won’t tell me for sure whether I have the condition. Don’t you love that title? Psycho…pharma…cologist. He prescribes lots of pills because that’s his job. Some of the pills aren’t even drugs. The are made out of a substance also found in ceramics and used flashlight batteries.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “What a coincidence. You take lithium too? I never would have guessed we had so much in common.”

She looked at me with strange eyes. It was as though she were judging me rather than trying to find a common understanding. She could see right down to the depths of my existence. She could even see the smarmy parts. She stood up without a word and left the room. After a while I heard the clatter of dishes and cups from the kitchen. I stayed there alone on the sofa, my hands in my lap.

I began to think about my career. For many years I had hoped to write a memoir, but now I began to wonder if this memoir could ever happen. Based on what I was told, the autistic mind is incapable of self-understanding. The autistic mind cannot understand others. If I also had Attention Deficit Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Factious Disorder, how could I write a memoir that that didn’t have irrational gaps and sudden, perplexing changes of topic? How could I write a memoir that had a decent “narrative arc,” a sympathetic main character, a “compelling story line” and a “forceful” prose style? How could I make any sense of little Post-It notes displayed on a wall? How would my scenes achieve “thematic continuity?”

Susan sat downstairs, clattering her dishes and cups. She and I had the same disabilities, the same disorders. While it was all right for each of us to have a disorder, if we had the same disorders it meant only one thing. As a couple, we were finished. Although we continued to copulate for awhile, my girlfriend had forced me to admit that my youthful dreams were gone forever. Still, in spite of my efforts, I continued to dream. The other girl, the girl in the tennis dress, was etched in my heart. She could be found only there, in my heart. She could only be found in a time or place that no memoir could ever capture.

I can still see her now, the girl in the white tennis dress. She stands at the back end of the tennis court, her knees slightly bent. She bounces the ball once or twice before tossing it up in the air. Then her racket smashes down and the ball soars across the court.

She smashes the ball to her opponents, but she also smashes the ball to all of us. Springtime has passed. We cannot return the serve…

2 comments on A White Dress

  • Sandy Wiener

    “. . .Starting with seeing a girl in a white tennis dress on a far court at the Detroit (Grosse Pointe) Country Club. I was smitten. Unlike you, I did find out her name, Polly. I was maybe 18, and she maybe two years younger. But I was so shy then that I didn’t even try to accidentally cross her path. But I imagined her, lots.”

    Well, this is what else I wrote: ” A few years later ( this is a tangent, but a nice one I think), I did meet someone named Suzanne at a coming out party. She looked like a French new wave movie actress, and we bonded over talking of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (hard for me to imagine another “girl” a the party doing that). But I was still pretty scared of girls, or what happens in sex? She did come to visit early in my first year at law school, and I got her a room the Annex in Cambridge, and we came back, and I don’t think I tried to get very far at all.

    “What if I had? What if she had gotten pregnant? Well, I wouldn’t be writing this now.”

    ps I have since found out that Polly was about seven years younger.

  • dick bentley

    I am so happy to have inspired this major work!

    Dick Bentley

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