The orange light from a setting sun spills across my dashboard, its warmth beaming in and out, in and out as I drive past a wall of trees lining this back country highway. Window rolled down, I breathe in the farm air and sing the last few lines of the song blasting through the car speakers. The next song begins to play, slow, strumming, some acoustic guitar number I haven’t listened to since high school. I reach over to skip it, but within a few seconds the music is interrupted by an incoming text. The voice interface tells me it’s from Justin.
“ETA?” The robotic female voice reads.
“Ten minutes, tops.” I enunciate the words, slowly, and confirm them as she reads the message back before sending. And then I smile. I can’t help it; it’s been a year since I’ve seen my best friend.
I met Justin in sixth grade, and soon forgot the trauma of moving schools. Our friendship was improbable, at least on paper: Justin was short, tone-deaf and hated basketball (“you’re just jeeaaalous” I would sing down to him from my tip-toes). He was on the debate team, I auditioned for school musicals; I’m one of several interchangeable brothers, and he an only child. And yet he was the only person I ever trusted to know exactly what I was thinking, and already be two steps ahead of me in the plan of action.
Our first adventure was a twenty-second whirlwind of a poor idea as I convinced him that two people could easily fit on one bicycle, so long as he could keep his balance sitting on the handlebars.
“We’ll be fine, I’ve done this before.” I hadn’t. But there was an adventurous hunger in his eye that swallowed up his trepidation. I made a show of holding the bike steady, and he turned and hopped up onto the bar. I pushed off, and then began to pedal, hard, for both our lives. This was a mistake. The empty road to my house was a downhill slope of about five blocks, and the speed quickly compounded. With my neck craning around the body in front of me, I judged the rapidly shrinking distance and realized too late the physics involved with a sudden stop. Not wanting to convert Justin’s perch into a launch pad, I tried to ease the brakes into a gradual deceleration. We weren’t slowing fast enough. I squeezed tighter on the lever, as much as I dared while still keeping my friend in his seat. The curb was still approaching, rapidly, a ten foot wall for all its impending doom. I think I closed my eyes right at the end because I don’t remember us actually stopping, then —
“Let’s never do that again, yeah?” Justin had dismounted, safely on my front walk. I peered down at the front tire, less than an inch away from certain death. I looked up, raised my eyes to his, and we both laughed the mirth of survivors, of men who had seen their twelve years of life pass before them, and emerged in triumph.
From sixth grade on to seventh, in which Justin attempted to fulfill an arts credit by joining me in the choir, a choice he never made the mistake of repeating. We walked out of the music room the first day of class, Justin leading the way with determination, his face skewed up into sort of a visual groan. He was nearly up a flight of stairs before he realized I was no longer following. He turned to find me.
“Where are you going? Intro to Animation is in three twenty five.” He continued up the last two steps, backward, motioning to me with his class schedule. I responded slowly, equally confused.
“We… don’t have Animation?” The statement became a question halfway through, and we stood for beat, staring at each other from the ends of the staircase. He then dashed back down the steps and seized my schedule.
“What do you mean we don’t — Sherlock Holmes Survey? I said Animation! Why did you switch?” He looked indignant.
“No, you said, ‘there’s only one interesting one’ and I agreed!” I raised my eyebrows and matched his incredulous face. Clearly I had made the correct choice. Regardless, the class schedules were set, so we parted ways, our prides bruised more than our friendship. A few hallways later, I walked into a first-floor classroom, about half the desks already taken by kids I didn’t know. Still feeling abandoned by Justin, I chose my seat in an empty area where I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Class wasn’t to begin for another five minutes, and I stopped pouting in two. So I began to fidget, twisting around in my seat to inspect my fellow classmates. I was just avoiding eye contact with a greasy-haired kid in the back row when, whether by destiny or luck, I happened to be looking at the doorway, a brief pause in my scan of the classroom, just in time to see her walk in.
Forgive me — Allison never walked, anywhere. She bounded. She floated. She fluttered into the room, into any room she ever entered, and sprinkled magic upon it like she had popped straight from the pages of a storybook. This, day one, she glided through the doors, armed with a nervous, infectious smile. Her lips spread wide, and her teeth had a natural sort of rhythmic symmetry met in the two front middle, which weren’t large enough to be buck, just distinct enough to be cute and approachable. Her hair was blond, but not flawless blond, not the obnoxious gold of some self-obsessed Regina. It was a textured color, an earthy blond with shades of wheat and corn, a natural compliment to her lightly freckled face. The rest of her was slender, and bouncy, and the perfect way for anyone to look.
She took the seat next to mine, one of the few left in the steadily growing class, turned her smile on me and said, “Hello!” like I was the first and only person she wanted to see in the day. And that’s how she greeted me every day after. And every day I had no other goal in mind than to see that smile, and hear the high, loose laugh that so often accompanied it. She had no trouble obliging. In the years since I have pitied many a confused hopeful who didn’t know how to recognize the signs of a potential romance, for I, at the age of thirteen, had the cosmic fortune to learn firsthand what the real thing looks like. Because it was this. It was finding excuses to talk daily. It was excitement showed, unrestrained, just by entering a classroom in which the other was already seated. It was walking next to each other after the bell rang, until the last possible second before we had to part ways. It was weeks, months of school that I remember nothing of except her. Then, one day late year,
“Are you going to the dance?” Allison jumped into the seat next to me.
“Well hello to you too.” I laughed, but she was single-minded.
“Are you?” Of course, she wasn’t really asking: everyone had to go. The annual end-of-term dance was in the middle of a school day, and attendance would be taken. Her question, then, was really a statement, “I hope I see you there,” and at that moment the apocalypse itself would have to wait. Next week, I was going to dance with Allison.
The day of, I wore a blue, collared shirt tucked into jeans, both items hanging off me like a scarecrow off its pole, with my belt cinched tightly to complete the aesthetic. I tried to mess up my hair a little from the gelled-up part my mother had put in it, but in all honesty it was the best I knew how to look. That, along with a gallon of body spray, and I had “first night of the rest of my life” confidence.
The school gym was dark, just a few effect lights from the stage pointed toward the empty space, made wider by the retracted bleacher seats, which were replaced with a few refreshment tables, mostly water coolers and plastic cups, sparsely lining the sides of the “dance floor”. A few buntings hung by way of decoration, the fruits of some small committee with no budget. Justin and I found the rest of our friends quickly. I then saw Allison — blue dress, simple design and well fit, I remember taking extra effort not to say “beautiful” and thus embarrass myself — standing in a circle with her own friends. I felt a pit form in my stomach as I realized my miscalculation: I had barely introduced her to Justin, once, let alone ever invited Allison to hang out with the rest of my friends. There was no way I could play this cool, no chance of just asking her to dance, not without walking over, being completely obvious. This was going to be harder than I thought.
“First slow dance, all you guys get out there and find a dance partner!”
Bad form to make a move on the first go. I couldn’t look as eager as I felt. I instead turned to one of my friends, the first girl I saw within our awkwardly bouncing circle, and we stepped a few feet over into open space. There we waited out the storm, trying not to make eye contact for too long. Then it was back to the circle, hands in pockets, watching a few brave kids try to impress each other.
“Second slow dance,”
This one, maybe. I looked around for Allison,
There she was, searching for her next dance partner, maybe even for me. But before I could catch her eye, my attention was wrested back to my group, by another girl asking me to another three-and-a-half minutes of small talk at arm’s length. The hour went on like this, with two more opportunities slipping through via a combination of poor luck and my own hesitation. Just when I thought the night (and my life) was over, the MC announced one more dance.
“For our final slow dance of the day, we’re going to do a popcorn dance!”
His enthusiasm was met with silence; nobody knew what he was talking about, so he pressed on,
“Everyone divide up, girls on one side and boys on the other. And I’ll need a volunteer from each side.”
The man, some faculty I had never met, stepped forward and selected the boy and girl unlucky enough to be within reach. He led them to the now-empty middle, where, he explained, they would begin dancing, and as soon as he said, “Popcorn!” they would each pick a new dance partner, and when he said it again all four kids would pick new partners, and so on until the whole school was back out on the floor. A few kids next to me rolled their eyes. Justin shrugged, apathetic and probably just glad he wasn’t in class. I, however, felt a new surge of excitement. I had another chance.
The music began, a slow, strumming, acoustic guitar number from a popular band I never listened to. The first two dancers began rocking back and forth, alone on the gym floor, doing their best to be as far apart from each other as possible while still technically touching. Then,
They broke off and scrambled to find the next couple to drag out. Two became four, all rocking to the same slow rhythm, the same two-stepping sway embedded into the DNA of every bashful teenager.
Another mad dash for new partners. Four became eight as I saw the typical icons of popularity pulled onto the floor by other young hopefuls clamoring for a taste of the limelight. I scanned the crowd of girls across the floor for Allison. There! I stared, shameless and transfixed, unwilling to let her escape my radar.
If I got picked before Allison then my task was simple, I would be able to ask her on the next rotation. But then — no! — across the way, a hand reached out, and taken. She was stepping onto the dance floor. Before I could recalculate, I heard my own name, and turned to acknowledge the hand outstretched to me. I took it, I felt I had no choice, and in a few steps we were out with the rest, me and Not Allison. Eight became sixteen as the rest of the hapless victims joined us. My partner drew me to about face, and we began our oscillation with my back turned against my goal.
I hastily thanked my partner and broke away to find Allison. Sixteen kids doubled to thirty two, and a few seconds after not seeing her straight away I panicked, found the first girl I knew from the sideline, and endured a few more seconds smiling and pretending I wasn’t trying desperately to find someone else.
Sixty four kids stepped onto the ever-shrinking space. I waded through the growing crowd to the space near where I saw Allison last. The song had gone into its bridge now; we were nearly in the final leg of the four-chord song formula. I was running out of time. Another nameless partner, another few seconds trying to be polite while craning my neck around, searching.
The instrumentals in the music dropped as the singer prepared for the final swell of chorus, earnest words now being sung by several young voices, nervous teens attempting to find social solace, yet only magnifying their partners’ discomfort. Meanwhile I had apparently danced with every girl in the room except The One I —
“Popcorn! Last one!”
I broke from my partner gracelessly, turned and in a manic rush began to weave my way through a jungle of other bewildered kids meandering into each other, most unsure what to do with these last few seconds of song. Only a few other kids seemed to share my urgency, joining me in an asynchronous hunt, us all darting through the crowd, driven by this final chance graced to us. There! Allison stood, improbably yet thankfully alone, glancing around, arm tucked across her torso as her hand clutched her opposite elbow, such a visage of natural beauty I would have stopped to simply gaze if I were not so dedicated to my quest. I stepped forward, offered my hand, and spoke to her for the first time all evening.
“Hi.” This was not the speech I had imagined for my triumphant moment, but the point was made, and well-received. She took my hand, and with a smile — a wash of relief, I nearly swoon — she stepped closer. We began to sway to the rocking crescendo of the final chorus.
I don’t remember the rest of the dance, or the day, or any of the school year after that. My teenage memory froze that moment, took for itself a picture which was preserved like a monument for years: My hands just above her hips, hers around my neck. Her dress is smooth, her hands are soft. I’m looking in her eyes, she’s gazing back into mine. Pale blue. I blush. She smiles. Oh, that smile. I’m in love. Perfect.
I glide the car over, parallel to the curb and step out into the waning daylight, eager to see my friend. Two flights of stairs up to the correct apartment, I knock twice and open the door. The entryway is empty so I call around the corner toward the small kitchen area, where the smell of pasta and an excited response beckon me to enter. Justin and I meet at the junction with smiles and a firm hug. We step back into the kitchen, and after a few seconds of “Oh that smells good, what can I help with?” and “No no, I’ve got this, sit down,” I grab a stool at the counter and we begin to catch up from the last year. After some conversation, some jokes, some chicken alfredo taste-testing, I look around and realize we’re missing someone.
“So, Thump, where’s that wife of yours?” I use his high school nickname. He shrugs.
“Said she’s on her way. Had to stay late.” He tells me with some frustration about the demands of her new promotion. I lighten the tension with a mock-disapproving cluck.
“Married one year and she’s already choosing work over you.” I shake my head, he laughs and splashes some dishwater at me.
“Big words from ‘Ever a Bachelor’ over here!” He emphasizes the words with an exaggerated grimace, his usual impression of me, and before I can deliver my biting retort, the front door opens. Justin’s face brightens.
“Well now, you can tell her to her face!” He sticks his wooden spoon back into the pasta and walks over to greet his wife with a kiss. She drops her bag by the door and throws her arms around him.
“Tell me what?” She lifts from the embrace, and with a start sees me as I stand up from my seat. “Oh, Clark! I didn’t know you’d be here so early!” I offer a goofy smile and raise my hands as though I don’t know what I’m doing here either. We both laugh, and she prances over to give me a hug and a small peck on the cheek. I put my hands on her shoulders and hold her at arm’s length, to assess how much I’ve missed in the last year. She hasn’t changed a bit.
“It’s good to see you too, Allison.”