You close the front door behind you and lock it with the key. Your dad is too tired and your mom too busy to walk you out or check on your story. Still, you linger in the front, making sure one of your sisters doesn’t decide to peek through the curtains and complicate your plans.
Finally, you make your way to the Volkswagen parked on the curb, its tan exterior yellow beneath the glow of the street lamps. Just before slipping the key into the driver’s side door, you look up one more time and see your sister Angie emerge from the shadows along the side of the house. Just as she reaches the end of the driveway, you ask, “And where are you going?”
From her startled reaction, it’s obvious she hadn’t seen you. “Carmen’s,” she quickly replies, but then regains her composure as she takes in your presence as well. “At least it’s only three houses away,” she says, and you immediately regret opening your mouth. “And I know you don’t have permission to take Robert’s car,” she adds, crossing her arms and squaring her jaw.
You just stare at her, the jeans and pink blouse she came in with earlier now replaced with short shorts and a black Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt. “Angie,” you start to say, but nothing else comes out.
“What?” Her eyes, newly edged with black mascara, narrow defiantly, but she waits for you.
“Be careful, okay?”
She rolls her eyes. “It’s just Carmen’s.”
She looks over her shoulder at the house before turning back to you. “Good night, brother,” she says, and hurries past you and up the sidewalk until she disappears into her friend’s front yard.
You unlock the car door and climb inside. The oily, musty odor of the old vinyl upholstery with its horsehair stuffing greets your nose, along with another smell, something familiar, even comforting, that you would rather not place.
You lower the parking brake, insert the key, and turn it just far enough to unlock the steering wheel. Then you climb out, and with one hand on the wheel and the other on the front edge of the door frame, you begin to push. The small engine’s distinctive pop and purr is a sound your parents would recognize instantly, so you can’t afford to start it up too close to the house. Just past Carmen’s you hop in, key the ignition, slowly ease up on the clutch with one foot, press down on the gas with the other, and you are on your way. At the corner you remember to turn on your headlights.
Soon, you are heading down the empty highway to your school. You can see there’s already a cassette in the stereo, so you click it on and immediately recognize the funky growl of Jimmy Page’s guitar—wa wa wanana—and John Bonham’s fat kick and crisp snare. Robert Plant is singing about having his bags packed and not wanting to be late. Perfect.
As you pull into the school parking lot, it occurs to you that you’ve never actually been to a school dance before. Oh, you can dance. That’s not a problem. Mostly free style boogie with a little robot thrown in. Nothing too fancy or moves that have to be practiced like the Hustle or anything like that. You and your sisters have had plenty of Saturday morning Soul Train parties in the living room and even a few head-banging, lip-synch, tennis racquet guitar parties after school in your bedroom. But dancing in front of other people? No.
You park the car next to the other vehicles clustered on this side of the lot closest to the gym. From here you can see the entrance. There are a few people standing out front, but no one who looks like Claudia. Your watch says you are a half an hour late. Maybe she’s not coming. Maybe she got tired of waiting and went in without you.
You make your way to the gym just as an old pickup pulls up and two girls climb out of the passenger side. Neither one looks like Claudia. The truck continues forward enough to make a U-turn and then leaves the way it came. The girls disappear inside.
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 looks up at you. “ASB?” she asks.
You take out your wallet, but you don’t understand the question. “How much?”
“Two-fifty with ASB, three without.”
“Your I.D.” the guy says. “Show her your I.D.”
“Oh.” You tug the card free and hold it out to her.
“Two-fifty,” she says.
You look around the lobby as you wait for your change and see some people waiting in line at the snack bar. Still, no Claudia.
The gym is dark, but the colored lights flashing and spinning from the other side of the gym are enough to reveal about twenty 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 there are people on them, mostly sitting in pairs or small groups. The top rows are mostly in shadow.
The song playing you recognize from the radio. Diana Ross’s “Upside Down,” you’re pretty sure. You feel foolish standing near the entrance all by yourself, but figure if Claudia’s in here it’s the best way to be seen.
“Excuse me,” someone says from behind and you move to the side to let a couple get by, each with a soda in one hand and a tray of nachos in the other. They head for the bleachers and you decide to follow, taking a seat on the lowest bench close enough to the lobby to keep an eye on both the entrance and the dance floor.
For a while, you watch the dancers. Most people are bounce-stepping from side to side with their arms tucked up close to their chests, nothing too fancy or complicated. You can do this, you tell yourself. Just don’t overthink it, like in your living room with your sisters.
Two songs later and still no Claudia. More and more people have been entering the gym and every one of them seems to turn and look at you as if you’re sitting beneath your own pathetic little spotlight. None of the girls have her round face and short hair, none of them even come close. You turn and peer into the shadows of the uppermost rows and consider hiding out up there in the dark, but as your eyes adjust you realize the shape you’ve been staring at is a couple making out. You look away.
“This next one is dedicated to all you bad mama jamas out there,” announces the DJ over the opening rhythms of the next song. “You know who you are, ladies.” This is the last one, you decide. When it’s over you’ll leave.
“Hey, you wanna dance?”
You look up. A girl is standing over you. “What?”
“I said, do you wanna dance.” Her hair is long and loose and she reaches up to pull a dark curtain of it away from her face and drape it behind her ear.
You get to your feet. She’s tall, as tall as you. “Okay.”
She grabs your hand and pulls you with her to the dance floor. She weaves among the other couples not stopping until she reaches the center of the floor, then she turns and starts to move.
You jerk yourself into motion, your brain trying to keep your feet in time. One and step and three and step. This was never so difficult at home.
She swings the hair out of her face, rolls her shoulders, smiles at you, and you stop thinking about your body and start paying attention to hers. She looks so comfortable dancing that you can’t take your eyes off of her. All her movements, you realize, are centered in her waist, in the bounce and roll of her hips. You stop counting, let your knees bend, lower your center, start to move from your own middle. She flashes you another smile, edges closer.
The song finishes and the next one begins. Shit, you think. I got this.
When "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang comes on, you’re still at it. Some of the people around you drift off to the center of the court to watch the break dancers, but when “Funkytown” starts playing, most are back.
When “Shake It Up” by the Cars begins, she leans into you, her face to your ear. “I’m Sam,” she says, her breath against your cheek. “What’s your name?”
“Matt,” she says, coming close again. “Wanna go up to the top of the bleachers?”
You inhale the sweaty, herbal perfume of her hair. “Okay.”
She takes your hand again and leads you off the gym floor. At the bottom of the bleachers she reaches into the back pocket of her jeans and pulls out a single piece of gum. She removes the foil wrap, tears the stick in two and gives you half.
At the top, you sit close, hip to hip. She turns to you, pulls the hair away from her face, and leans forward until her lips touch yours. You return the kiss. She covers your mouth with hers as her hands come up to cradle your head and you somehow manage to wrap both arms around her waist.
You don’t stop kissing until “Shake It Up” ends and “Genius of Love” by the Tom Tom Club begins. She pulls away slowly and then just looks at you and smiles. You feel yourself doing the same, watching the reflection of colored lights from the dance floor pulse in her eyes.
“I think I found the other half of my gum,” she says, and then opens her mouth and sticks out the tip of her tongue to show you.
“I wondered where that went.”
“Wanna go outside,” she asks, “get some air?”
You walk down the bleachers together and are almost to the lobby when a girl’s voice calls out, “Sam!”
She turns to look and waves at two figures approaching from across the gym. “Hey,” she says, turning back to you. “Wait for me in the front?”
“Okay.” You continue walking and just as you are about enter the lobby, Claudia Ortega, wearing an oversized white t-shirt tucked into a denim skirt, steps through the doorway into the gym. Your first instinct is to turn around, but it’s too late, she sees you. “Claudia?”
She just stands there, a soda in one hand and a tray of nachos in the other, and stares at you.
“I, I was,” you stammer, “I waited for you.”
She frowns. “We’ve been here for a while.” An older couple step up behind her. The girl looks like a taller version of Claudia, the guy seems too old to be in high school.
“Really?” you start to say. “I—”
“That him?” the guy says, looking you up and down.
You feel someone step up behind you and lightly touch your back. Claudia’s eyes narrow dangerously.
“Well, is it?” he asks.
“No,” she says, turning back to answer him. “It’s not.” Then she looks past you and continues walking toward the bleachers.
The couple glares at you a moment longer before following.
“Everything okay,” asks Sam.
“Yeah,” you say. “Ready?”
In sudden contrast to the inside of the gym, the lights in the lobby feel overly harsh and revealing. It’s a relief when you are finally outside in the night air beneath the weak yellow of the security lamps where maybe your shame is less obvious.
“So, what was that about?” asks Sam as the two of you walk slowly along the side of the building.
“I was supposed to meet her.”
“I waited a long time,” you say. “I didn’t think she was coming.”
Sam stops walking. “Wait. You were waiting for someone? Why didn’t you tell me?”
You have a hard time meeting her eyes. “I swear. I thought she wasn’t coming.”
“Is she your girlfriend?”
She crosses her arms and looks at you, and as you watch her bite thoughtfully on her lower lip you think that your chances of kissing her again are not good.
“I feel pretty shitty about it.”
“You probably should,” she says, “But I’m not sorry.” Her hand reaches out and takes yours. “Are you?”
Her eyes are brown with flecks like gold near the center. “How could I be?”
“What are you doing after this?” she asks.
“My friends are supposed to meet me here.”
“Oh,” she looks out across the parking lot. “Are they your ride?”
“That was the plan, but actually, I drove myself.”
One of her eyebrows goes up. “You have a car?”
“I sort of borrowed it,” you admit. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“What are your doing after this?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I came with some friends, but then there is this guy I just met.”
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.