“So,” your dad says once you are in the car and heading down the highway. “This dance you’re going to. Are you meeting someone there? Is this a date?”
“I guess,” you say, staring at the taillights of the car ahead. “Mom tell you?”
“Well, maybe, but the cologne is kind of a giveaway.”
“Really? Did I put too much?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head and smiling. “Not at all. Just enough, I think.”
You take a breath. Exhale. You’ve been fighting down this feeling of panic for the last half hour. How long will Claudia wait for you before she decides you’re not coming? Will she go inside without you? Does she even need you to have a good time? You can’t imagine someone like her ever having to sit alone and lonely on the bleachers watching other couples dance. You, definitely. Her, no.
“Have I ever told you about my first date with your mother?” your dad asks.
Like a hundred times, you think, but your dad likes telling this story so you let him. “Maybe?”
“Well…” He glances your way and then continues. “When I picked her up, I let her in the car. Then I went around and got in the car on my side, and right away, she scooted over real close to me, and I said, hmm, this is a good sign.”
You just smile and shake your head.
In the distance, you can just make out the glow of the school parking lot. A dim, yellow island in a sea of darkness.
“So,” your dad says. “What time is this over?”
“Eleven-thirty or twelve,” you say, even though you know it’s more like ten.
“How are you getting home?”
He looks over at you. “Before midnight, okay? Or your mother won’t sleep.”
Your dad drops you in front of the gym. A single door is propped open and you can hear music coming from inside. Two girls are standing out front beneath the glow of the security lights and they watch you as you get off, but neither one looks like Claudia. You check your watch. It’s almost eight. She must have gone in.
You are about to enter when a car pulls up and a girl gets out. It’s Claudia. She sees you and her eyes go wide, then she smiles.
“That him?” a man’s voice asks from inside the car.
“Yes,” she says, swinging the door shut.
She’s wearing an oversized t-shirt tucked into a short denim skirt. You look nice, you think, but the words stay stuck in your mouth.
The car makes a U-turn and then drives slowly past the both of you. There are two people inside, but you try not to focus on them. Claudia waits until they are gone and then walks toward the entrance. You follow.
Just inside the door of the brightly lit lobby is a table with two students sitting behind it. The guy has his hands on the beige, metal cash box in front of him. The girl smiles up at the both of you. “ASB?” she asks, but you don’t understand the question.
You are about to tell her, no, when you see that Claudia is holding out her school I.D. “Oh,” you hear yourself say and immediately reach for your wallet to show yours.
“That’s five dollars,” the girl says.
You pull out the ten and hand it to her. “For both of us.”
“Yes,” she says, passing the bill to her partner. “That’s for both of you. Two-fifty with ASB, three without.”
As you wait for him to make change from the cash box, you see that the snack bar across the lobby is open. Several people are in line and someone is just walking away with a tray of nachos in each hand. You think you should ask Claudia if she wants something, but when you look over, she is already walking into the gym. You put your wallet away and hurry to join her.
Over a steady thump-snap beat, the voice coming from the gym is rapping about hotels and motels. Without meaning to, your feet step to the rhythm as you catch up with Claudia.
Inside, the only lights are those flashing and spinning from the other side of the gym, but they are enough to reveal about twenty or thirty dancers clustered together beneath a mirror ball suspended from the basketball hoop above the DJ’s station. The wooden bleachers on one side have been pulled out, and just as many people are on them, mostly in twos huddled here and there in the shadows above the dance floor. You follow Claudia along the front of the benches and as you get closer, you see that there is actually a smaller group of dancers gathered in a circle midcourt. Someone in the center is doing a head-spin, both legs twirling through the air like the outstretched arms of the letter Y.
About three-quarters of the way down, where the junior class sits during pep rallies, she looks back at you and points to a bench three rows up. You shrug and nod at the same time.
Your seats give you a better view of the dancers. No one seems to be doing anything too fancy, mostly step bouncing from one leg to the other with their arms tucked up against their chests. You can do this, you tell yourself. You look over at Claudia. Her eyes are on the dancers as well. Maybe she’s waiting for the next song.
You notice a couple enter the gym, holding hands they stride confidently into the thick of the dancing. They seem so comfortable, so care-free in their movements. In some ways, the girl reminds you of Claudia, only taller. He’s definitely a senior, if not older. Claudia seems to be watching them too.
“Are these seats okay?” you ask, which you realize is a stupid question since she picked them, but she doesn’t respond. You lean closer, your face almost touching her ear, and revise the question. “Are you okay?”
She turns, quickly. Maybe you surprised her. But she smiles and nods. A warm, vanilla scent tickles your nose. You want to lean in again, smell more of her. You search for something else to say, except your brain is suddenly blank. Luckily, the song is changing. Beep beep boo beep beep. Hey, "Funkytown," you know this one from the radio. You lean in again. “Do you want to dance?”
She smiles and shakes her head, no.
Okay, you think, maybe the next one.
As the song plays, you scan the faces and silhouettes of the dancers. Some look familiar, but no one you actually know.
When “Shake It Up” by The Cars comes on, you try again.
She looks at you, gives a little shrug of her shoulders, and shakes her head, no.
Ric Ocasek keeps singing anyway.
As the song ends, the couple you were watching before comes off the dance floor and begins walking in your direction. She is laughing and fanning her face. As they draw closer, both seem to be looking at you, and for an awkward moment it seems as if you and Claudia are their destination. Just before they step up on the bleachers though, she tugs his arm, as if to steer him away, and they climb past you to sit two rows above. You look over at Claudia, but she is focused on the dance floor and doesn’t seem to have noticed a thing.
“Soda?” you hear him ask.
You can’t make out her response, but you feel the bleachers bouncing beneath you as he hops down and heads for the snack bar.
You lean in. “Do you want something?” you ask. “Soda? Nachos?”
She seems to be considering the idea, but then, with a little scrunch of her nose, shakes a no.
You steal a peek at her from the corner of your eye, looking for some sign of what you are supposed to be doing. Her hands are folded in her lap and her legs are crossed, one over the other, the top foot bouncing to the beat.
You’ve never been more confused in your life.
Mr. Confident is coming back with a soda in each hand. You look past him toward the entrance and wonder if Eric is out there waiting for you. Should you go and see? Tell Claudia you have to go to the restroom, that you’ll be right back?
“Genius of Love” by the Tom Tom Club comes on. But you’re done asking.
Someone taps you on the shoulder. It’s him. “Hey, dude,” he says in your ear. “Why don’t you take her outside where you can talk?”
You twist around to see him better. He gives you a knowing look, nods his head. Over his shoulder, his date is smiling a similar encouragement.
You turn back, glance at Claudia, but she seems oblivious to the entire exchange.
“Do you want to go outside?” you ask her. “Get some air?”
You look back on your way down the bleachers. She’s still smiling. He gives you a thumbs up.
As you pass through the lobby, a teacher has replaced the students that were working the table earlier. “Good night, you two,” he says.
“Oh,” you say. “We’re just going outside for some air.”
He frowns. “Well don’t go far, or I won’t be able to let you back in.”
When you get out the door, the two of you walk to the edge of the building where the fence to the pool begins and stop beneath the security light. She stands with her back to the wall, crosses her arms, and looks up at you.
Say something! shouts your brain. What kind of music do you like? What kind of books? You look really nice in that skirt. Have you seen Return of the Jedi? What did you think? I like it when you smile. Don’t you think Empire Strikes Back was better? You have really pretty eyes. Do you have any brothers or sisters? Have you always lived here? Where did you go to grade school?
“So,” you start to say, not knowing what will come next. “Who do you have for English?”
“English?” She frowns. “Why?”
“Uh, I don’t know, I just was wondering, I—"
Her forehead is still pinched, but now she’s smiling at the same time. “Lopez,” she says, quickly, as if to stop you from speaking, to put you out of pain. “You?”
“Jensen,” you say. “You’re a junior then.”
You look down at the cement between you. Nothing. You have nothing. “You’re not having a good time, are you?” you ask.
“Why do you say that?”
You manage to meet her eyes. “You didn’t want to dance.”
She just looks at you, her lips slowly disappearing between her teeth. “I’m sorry, I—”
“No, you don’t need to—”
“It’s just that, I don’t know.” She straightens up, squares her shoulders. “I just didn’t feel like it. You wouldn’t understand. Everyone expecting something from you. Everyone watching, waiting for you to perform for them.”
“But you’re on the dance team.”
“Oh my God,” she says, covering her face with both hands. “I can’t believe I said that to you.” She lowers her hands to her mouth. “I know, it’s stupid, huh. You must think I’m so stuck on myself.”
“No, I don’t.”
She turns away from you, looks up at the light, turns back with her arms crossed in front of her again, and takes a breath. “It’s different, that’s all, being on the dance team. I mean, we practice, a lot. It’s not easy to be synchronized like that. I mean, can you see me out there on the dance floor doing this?” She strikes a pose, her hands on her hips, one leg bent at the knee, toe pointed down. Then she extends one arm and elegantly circles it back as she extends the other, her spine arching as she repeats the move in a kind of graceful, standing backstroke.
“I could, actually.”
“Oh really,” she says, hands on hips. “And what would you be doing?”
You bend your elbows and extend your hands, fingers together, and then suddenly bend forward at the waist. Your movement is swift but smooth with an abrupt stop. Then, one motion at a time, you raise your head, move one arm, then the other, each time smooth with a jerk stop, smooth and jerk stop.
She’s smiling, nodding her head. “That’s a pretty good robot.”
You feel your face getting warm. “And what would you be doing?”
“I guess I’d have to try to keep up,” she says, imitating your moves but adding a walk, her legs bending and straightening with the same smooth jerk stops. She finishes with a hand tap to her chin that rotates her head in your direction.
You lift both hands in surrender. “You win,” you say. “That’s all I’ve got.”
“Hum,” she says, looking you up and down. “I’m not sure I believe you.”
You feel yourself blushing again and shove both hands into your front pockets.
“How did you get here?” she asks. “Who dropped you off?”
“My dad. You?”
“I came with my sister and her boyfriend.” She says. “You didn’t see them? They’ve been sitting right behind us, trying to embarrass me.”
Your brain slowly puts the pieces together. “That’s your sister and her boyfriend?”
She nods her head. “Why, what did he tell you anyway?”
“To take you outside.”
“Really?” She looks toward the gym entrance. “What a jerk.”
“I don’t know,” you say. “I think it was a pretty good idea.”
She gives you a sly smile. “Yeah, maybe.”
You’re at a loss for words again, only this time it doesn’t panic you so much.
“I didn’t think you were going to be here,” she says. “Tell the truth. Were you waiting a long time?”
“I, uh, just got here a minute before you did,” you admit. “I was sure you gave up on me.”
“Oh my God, that’s crazy,” she says. “I was thinking the same thing. This wasn’t even the top I was supposed to wear, but my baby sister threw up on it and I had to change. This is my dad’s shirt.”
“Really?” An image of her dad wearing a crisp white t-shirt appears in your head. For some reason he looks a lot like Slick, your bully.
“You can’t tell, can you?”
“No, not at all.” You look down at your own shirt, tug at the fabric near your shoulder. “I think I have some of my brother’s cereal drool on me somewhere, but I guess this shirt hides it.”
“You have a baby brother? How old?”
“Six months. Your sister?”
Her eyes go wide. “Oh my God, the same.”
“And three sisters,” you say, “eight, ten, and thirteen.”
She’s staring at you, as if waiting for you to go on, to add more. “Oh, you have a big family,” she finally says. “It’s just the three of us. My little sister was a big surprise. It’s crazy. When she’s my age, I’ll already be in my thirties. Your sister is thirteen? She’s lucky she has a big brother to look out for her.”
“Really?” you say. “She sure doesn’t act like it. She’s always fighting with me. Like she knows everything, like I’m stupid or something. She’s only in the eighth grade.”
Claudia seems thoughtful. “Don’t be so hard on her,” she says. “It’s not easy. One day you are this invisible thing with hairy legs and the next, every guy wants a piece of you.”
“You had hairy legs?” you ask, trying not to smile.
Her eyes narrow dangerously. “I have hairy legs. That’s why I shave them,” she says. “Your sister does too.”
You shrug. “I haven’t noticed.”
“Hum,” she says, her eyes moving over you. “But I bet she’s got light hair, like you. Maybe she gets away with it. I doubt it though, she’s probably been shaving for a while now.”
You think about this, about all the time Angie spends in the bathroom, about the bras she leaves hanging in the laundry room, and how furious she got when you asked her why she even needed one. What an idiot you are.
Claudia is watching you. “Anyway,” she says. “Think about it, big brother.”
“I will,” you say. “I promise.”
Suddenly, you want to kiss her. You take a step toward her and a horn beeps loudly behind you. You turn and a car in the parking lot flashes its lights. It’s Eric. You recognize his mother’s yellow Datsun.
“Is that for you?” asks Claudia.
“Yeah,” you say. “My ride.”
“You have to go already? I thought I was the one with a curfew.”
“My friend has bad timing, I guess.”
“Well, if you want to stay longer we can take you home,” she says, her eyes searching your face. “Unless you don’t want to.”
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.