Barbecue Bellbottoms

By Marlene Samuels

Marlene Samuels on the day she received her Ph.D.

It was 1980 and although I’d been in the Ph.D. program for one week, I spotted him on day one. His good looks and muscular physique were total contradictions to that academic “geek” stereotype. Without a doubt, I was smitten. Our first year we’d had five classes together and most days, we waved to one another from our library study carrels. Occasionally, we’d see each other in the library coffee shop. When that happened, one of us approached the other asking, “Mind if I join you?” Those encounters resulted in coffee breaks that far exceeded our intended thirty minutes.

Both of us had full-time jobs while completing coursework at an extremely competitive university. We also hoped to maintain a social life, hardly an easy endeavor. Dating anyone whose aspirations weren’t aligned with our own was nearly impossible. Could we expect them to comprehend the stresses grad students faced? Also, there were budgetary constraints. Sure, neither of us was destitute but neither were we in the market for Michelin-star dinner-dates.

Our long-anticipated summer break was one week away. “Any chance you’d be up for barbecue dinner with me, maybe Tuesday?” Don asked as our statistics seminar was dispersing. “There’s this place I’ve been going to since high school and amazingly, it’s as good now as it was when I was a kid! Besides, it’s probably equidistant from each of us.”

“Sounds fantastic!” I said, desperate not to sound as giddy as I felt about his invitation.

“Ahh, that’s right, the quarter’s over Monday. Celebrating Tuesday is brilliant!” I added, then obsessed about how dumb that must have sounded.

“Excellent, why don’t we meet there at 6:30? Parking and traffic after 6:00 is a breeze. Did I mention it’s casual?”

“Are you a clairvoyant? I was just about to ask you.” On my way home, I’d convinced myself he probably thought I sounded like a moron.

All week and weekend, I agonized over what to wear. I selected outfits, laid them on my bed, changed my mind, then picked new ones. Invariably, I returned to what I’d chosen first but, it was complicated. What if it’s hot? June in Chicago can be hot and humid. What if it rains? What if the restaurant is overly air-conditioned or there’s none at all?

 With one day left, I settled on a chic, casual outfit: a cotton-knit pink and white striped midriff top that revealed the slightest portion of my naval besides, it looked fabulous with my Navy-style bell-bottom pants in crisp summer white. I’d accessorize the ensemble with platform sandals in fuchsia plus a matching straw handbag. Hadn’t I seen this exact outfit in May’s Glamour Magazine?

I slid behind the wheel of my Volkswagen Beetle feeling exceptionally sophisticated. My timing proved flawless and I found parking one block from the restaurant. Don was already in the lobby waiting for me when I arrived. He’d checked in with the hostess who seated us at a banquette against a wall of the expansive dining room.

Huge slabs of ribs, three types of sauces, pitchers of sangria, sides of baked beans, coleslaw, and french fries appeared before us like magic. Don had described the place as casual, however every table was set with a white tablecloth and white napkins. What an odd choice, I remember thinking, given the menu. We ate with our fingers, savoring the “finger-lickin’ good” food, and delighted in the fiddle and banjo players roaming among the diners. 

The food was amazing yet incredibly messy. But Don was the true delight. It was impossible to avoid smearing sticky barbecue sauce on my cheeks as I gnawed the ribs so any time he looked down to manage his own meal, I rushed to wipe my face with my fingers-tips and my fingers onto the napkin lying across my lap. It was critical for me to be prepared in case Don reached across the table to hold my hand, Why risk waiting until the end of the meal for staff to deliver their promised lemon-water bowls and clean napkins?

Sensing we’d attained maximum satiation, waiters cleared the table then delivered two finger bowls — a half-lemon floating in each, plus two fresh napkins alongside. I was immensely impressed. Once we’d cleaned up, waiters cleared the table again and left the bill. “How about we split the tab?” I offered, proof of my independence.

“Why don’t I get this one since I picked the restaurant, right? You can pick the next place then you’ll get the tab. Fair?”

“Sure, I’ll go for that. Thanks!”

Don settled the bill and then asked, “Any interest in a quick ice-cream-shop stop?”

“That does sound perfect.” I was elated by how well the evening had been going until, that is, we made ready to leave and reached for our napkins. Don placed his on the table. In the lightning-bolt moment of my year, I thoroughly understood why only a total lunatic would wear white pants to a barbecue joint. And clearly, I was one.

There was no napkin on my lap for me to place on the table. Where was it? I looked on the banquette without luck. Then I spotted it on the floor under the table. To my horror, it became clear that sometime during dinner, my napkin had slid from my lap. Throughout our meal, my constant fingertip wiping had been decorating my adorable white bellbottoms. We left the restaurant and to my relief, Don walked behind me. Mortified, I carried my handbag low in front of my thighs. 

“I had a great time but so sorry I’m going to have to pass on the ice cream,” I mumbled. “Uh, I just remembered I have a final to study for.”

“Really? I thought the quarter ended yesterday?”

I’d aced all my finals yet despite my academic brilliance, I never did get my turn to choose the restaurant and pay the bill for a second dinner date with Don.

©  2023 Marlene Samuels

Marlene holds a Ph.D., from University of Chicago. A research sociologist by training, she writes creative non-fiction by preference. Currently, she is completing her book entitled, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story.  She is coauthor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, and author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact-Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers. Her essays and stories have been published widely in anthologies, journals, and online.  (


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to Barbecue Bellbottoms

  1. Virginia Amis says:

    I love, love, love this story. The anticipation of the date, the outfit-planning, the sumptuous meal and, then – the realization that your white pants had become your napkin! The visuals are marvelously presented.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kit Dwyer says:

    This was a fun story! Reminds me of the time, while on a dinner date with a crush, I bit into my salad’s cherry tomato which exploded, squirting red juice across his yellow tie. I never saw him again, either.

    Liked by 1 person

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