I am in a black velvet dress. It’s off-the-shoulder and it has feathers looping around my upper arms. I love this dress. It was my mother’s dress back in the 80s but by a strange twist of fate where I couldn’t find a dress to wear to prom the previous spring, it became mine. There is a bit of irony when you think about the fact that I am the daughter of a woman whose clothing store sells formal dresses. Yet, for whatever reason, I hate everything so much that season that I choose to recycle one of my mother’s old dresses. I then proceed to wear it not once, not twice, but three times to three different formal events over a three year period. I am not good advertising for my mother’s store.
The small cafeteria has been transformed into a dance floor for the night. Crepe paper streamers and balloons in purple and gold drape the walls and ceiling. A deejay is set up in one of the corners. Most of the music he plays is current top 40 fare but every so often there is a break from the Paula Abdul and C+C Music Factory and he’ll play something by the Violent Femmes or The Pixies. This particular song isn’t new – no, it came out years earlier but upon hearing the first chords the dance floor springs to life. Guys grab the hands of the girl closest to them and run to the dance floor. My hand has been grabbed and off I run. Nobody wants to miss dancing to this song.
My date is the kind of guy you want to marry when you’re 30 but don’t much want to date when you’re 16. If that sounds cruel I assure you it’s not meant to. He’s smart and polite and dependable and sweet. He opens doors and tells you how nice you look. He’s on the football team. I sit with his family during the game and proudly wear my homecoming ribbon with my date’s name on it. I could sit with my friends at the game but I choose to sit with his family because I like them. No, there’s nothing bad at all to say about my own date. My date is Mr. All-American. I’m quite happy to be there with him.
The boy I’m dancing with, however, is not my date. I’d like to think that he came alone because that’s the sort of thing it seems like only he would have done. But in reality he had a date – he had to have – I just don’t know who it was. At any rate, I don’t know who his date was then any more than I know now and that’s just as well because that way I feel no guilt for dancing with him. Actually, I do feel guilty for dancing with him because I’m abandoning my All-American date for a dance with a boy who fascinates me. He’s also smart and also on the football team and on paper this boy might seem even more Mr. All-American than my own Mr. All-American date is. He’s not. He’s darker. He’s moodier. He’s prone to doing things that lead his classmates to call him different. I’ve known who he was my whole life but I hardly know anything about him at all. I could have probably told you the favorite colors and foods and songs of almost everyone in the room that night – but not him. Kids who grow up in small, tightly-knit Southern towns can do those sorts of things so the fact that I know nothing about him is, to say the least, strange. Sure, I can tell you some things about this boy – who his family is, where he lives, what kind of car he drives – but other than those things I can’t tell you much about him at all. All of my information comes second-hand and most of it is less than flattering. It’s not that he’s menacing or hurtful to people. He’s not. He’s just different. His jokes puzzle people. He’s prone to interrupt a conversation about last week’s party with commentary on Descartes or Machiavelli. High school kids don’t know how to respond to such things except to roll their eyes and mouth “whatever,” to each other.
I have heard through a friend that he is interested in me. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure when you’re getting your information from a friend whose mother was talked to his mother who said he liked me. Or maybe his mother told my mother that and my mother told me. I can’t really remember. All I know is that someone’s mother talked to his mother and for whatever reason one of them had decided that he was interested in me. (Now that I think about it though he really doesn’t seem like the kind of boy who would have discussed his interest in a girl with his mother so maybe everything I just said isn’t true at all.) But, at this point in time I believe that he might be interested in me. And since I’m the kind of girl who is everyone’s buddy but nobody’s girlfriend I’m fairly excited at the prospect of dancing with him.
Three minutes and thirty-three seconds. That’s all I was given. I can see it all like it was yesterday both through my own eyes and also through some omniscient view that your mind throws in years after. The effect is like you’re getting to watch your life replay on film. For the span of this one song I smile and dance. I am completely high on the adrenaline of dancing with this boy who I’ve only watched from afar. It was like I was shy and unable to speak to people when in reality that’s far from the truth. I’m the type of girl who speaks to people in line at the grocery store. I’m the one who’s first to greet the new kids in school. I am many things, but I am not shy. Yet with him I am always watching and never speaking. I don’t know how to talk to him. I want to, but can never think of anything to say that isn’t banal. I know I want to stand out and be different from the other girls but I can never figure out how exactly to do that. So I dance and I smile and I hope that maybe this will lead somewhere because I want to talk to him in spite of the fact that most of my friends think he’s different. He is different. That’s why I want to know him better. Deep down I think that I may be different too.
I never spoke to him save pleasantries before or after that night. We didn’t even speak at the dance that night and I certainly never went out with him later on. He continued to be a mystery to me. I continued to study him from afar in a desperate hope that I would think of that one thing that would make me seem interesting to him. It never happened. But for those three and a half minutes he was mine.
As strange as it sounds, I rarely ever think about where he is now or what he’s doing. I have a vague awareness that I’ve gleaned through conversations with mutual friends and every so often I will run into one of his parents when I’m at home and I’ll ask how he is. They never tell me much about him other than he’s fine and I’m actually okay with that because it’s like the knowing now might color my memory of that night in the fall of 1991 with the life he leads twenty years later. I don’t want that. I want my perfect memory from a night when I was sixteen and myself a completely different person.
Here’s the thing about memories though – as time passes they themselves morph and change into something other than what really happened. I know that when I think about the drive up Seven Mile Beach from Georgetown to the condo we always stayed in that we drove on the left-hand side of the road. But my mind always flips it around and puts me on the right because that’s the side of the road we drive on in America. No matter how many times I try to tell myself that when we’re driving north on that road that we are on the same side as the ocean, I always see cars passing between me and the beach. Logic tells me I’m wrong but I can’t stop how I see it in my head. Maybe the boy never liked me. Maybe it was another girl named Courtney or someone with a different name entirely. Maybe he didn’t like anyone at all. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. It wouldn’t affect the way I tell the story because sometimes the story itself is the memory.