Daniel arrived outside of the house in a blue button-up and a pair of gray pants that his mother had picked out for him at Brooks Brothers. He knew how this would go; he’d done it enough times in the last three years to know the pre-dance ritual. The girl would be inside, zipping her dress, addressing her zits, applying more perfume than her usual routine called for. She would either smell like some fragrance that could only come in a bottle with the name of a decaying pop star in fancy script or she would smell like her mother. Daniel would knock on the door, and if the parents weren’t divorced (which was about 60% of the time), the father would answer as the impenetrable wall in the way of his good night. Luckily Daniel knew the magic password. “Good evening Mr. Insert Name Here.” Then he would drop his voice down to almost a whisper. “Could you come outside for a moment to help me with my tie? My stepdad wasn’t home when I left and I don’t want Insert Girl’s Name Here to know I haven’t gotten the hang of this yet.” Show some weakness, remind him you’re just a schoolboy who at most is looking for some close-quarters dancing and a kiss on the cheek at the end of the night.
Daniel was good at comforting people, assuring them of his non-threatening presence. He ran cross-country, which helped his body stay underdeveloped. Long slender arms attached to a lithe, freckled torso attached to long slender legs. The baby fat left on his cheeks rose when he smiled, making it almost impossible to see the whites of his eyes. His cheeks also reminded people that it wasn’t so long ago that he was playing with Star Wars Legos and getting tucked into bed by 8:30.
Outside, the dad would question him, ask him about his grade point average and what sports he played. Daniel rehearsed the speech once or twice before he left so that he made sure he could master the duality of confident and intimidated that the dad was always looking for. Been working really hard this year, trying to maintain his spot as number one in the class because he knew Yale looked for things like that. Still wasn’t sure what his backup school would be, though, maybe St. Louis University since they have a good pre-med program. The cross-country season had gone well. Made it to State but didn’t place in the top ten. The jazz band was competing in New York in a few weeks, so Mom was getting real tired of hearing trumpet practice every night. Memorizing lines for the play was getting tough, but that was just something to put on the college apps, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he dropped a line or two. What, was Arthur Miller going to rise from the grave and write a letter to Yale that he was the worst Biff that Miller had ever seen? Always end with an intellectual joke.
Once his tie was on, the dad would lead him inside and present him to the daughter, a ritual as old as a father presenting the bride to the groom. The mom would comment on how handsome he looked and would affix the boutonniere to the left side of his shirt. The girl wouldn’t even try. Then they’d stand in front of the fireplace and take photos. He didn’t know why, but there was always a fireplace, one which never showed any signs that it was actually used. On the mantel there were usually pictures of the girl standing in different dresses with other boys or sometimes big groups of girls in front of the same fireplace. This didn’t bother Daniel. He had his own collection of pictures.
This evening, junior year Spring Formal, was no different. Mr. Collins laughed at the Miller joke and Mrs. Collins only poked him once with the pin of the boutonniere. Within twenty minutes he and Katelyn were in his stepdad’s Mercedes on the way to the school. Katelyn’s dress was poofy at the bottom, and since it stopped at the knee Daniel couldn’t see any of the flesh of her thighs. He wondered how the displacement of all of the material would work when they danced close. Would those extra layers of fabric be a hindrance? He spent the car ride thinking through the moves he was capable of performing and whether the dress would get in the way.
It had been difficult for Daniel to choose which girl to ask to the dance. It often was. Lists compiled in his head of the various girls in his class and their obvious faults. Rebekah Remley would have gotten his invitation, they had a good thing going, if only she had not been such a clown when they were dissecting the squid in AP Biology. Daniel could not find anything amusing about the way she picked up the tentacles and whipped them towards him like the boys with the towels in the locker room. He’d thought about asking Michelle McCullagh again, but at last year’s Homecoming she forced him to take her to Kyle’s after-party and there is nothing less attractive than a girl who cannot handle her liquor. Katelyn was the new girl, just moved out to the burbs from Chicago, and they had a pleasant conversation during trigonometry about the Renoir exhibit that was at the Art Institute last spring. She looked quite like a Renoir woman—rosy, full cheeks, the look of feigned interest that the women in the paintings all seemed to share. He asked her after trig one day and she said okay.
In the car, Daniel kept his grip loose on the wheel for the first four blocks of the drive from Katelyn’s house to the dance. Katelyn broke the silence after the first two blocks.
“This seems like a silly question since you asked me to a dance and everything, but do you like to dance?”
“Yeah, sure I like to dance.”
“Oh, good. Freshman year, back in the city, this kid from my Model UN team asked me to Homecoming and the whole time we sat at a table, not even talking.” Katelyn pulled at the hem of the top layer of tulle while she waited for Daniel to respond.
“I can’t make any promises that I’m any good at it. I had to learn some ballroom moves when I was in West Side Story last year, but I haven’t ever broken them out at one of these.” Daniel rolled up to a stop sign and looked to each side twice before continuing on.
“You guys did West Side Story? Which role were you?”
“I was Tony. I don’t quite have the complexion to be a Shark.” Katelyn laughed at this, and Daniel was reminded that her laugh was one of the flaws he had noted about her. He would have to try to not make too many jokes.
“I’ve never liked West Side Story much. It’s so dark,” Katelyn said.
“Well, sure, it’s based on Romeo and Juliet. Not much light at the end of that tunnel.”
“Right, but don’t you think it’s all a bit much? So much death for a musical.” Daniel’s hands were no longer loose; instead he could feel a dull pain as his thumbnail dug into the pad of his pointer finger.
“Not quite enough death, if you ask me.”
“What?” Katelyn’s body turned towards him, shifting her dress so that her thigh was beginning to be exposed but Daniel did not notice. His eyes were directed straight ahead to the ten feet he was keeping between him and the Audi in front of them.
“Maria doesn’t go through with it at the end. How much did she really love him if she couldn’t muster up the courage to kill herself? Tony did it, but she chickened out? A terrible ending.” Katelyn opened her small purse and started taking account of the lip gloss, ticket, student ID, and gum. Daniel realized what she was doing and released his intense grip on the wheel. “Have you been in any musicals?” As Katelyn began telling him about playing Sarah in Guys and Dolls, Daniel felt the pain disappearing from the tips of his fingers. Only six more turns until the school.
Once at the school Daniel knew what would happen. They would enter through the Commons door and present their tickets to whichever member of the student council couldn’t find a date this time around. Then there was a one-in-three chance that one of them would be selected to be breathalyzed. Daniel knew he would pass, and had made sure that there would be no issues in this regard with Katelyn by warning her upfront about the police presence. (If only they’d breathalyzed Michelle at Homecoming maybe he wouldn’t have wasted an entire evening.) Then they would enter the gym. The bleachers on the east wall would be out, for kids who were not dancers, only spectators. The rest of the bleachers would be shut. The DJ would be under the north end basketball hoop; the playlist would be made up of mostly Top-40 hits with a few ’90s R&B songs thrown in. Daniel had learned the lyrics to “Ignition (Remix)” as it always made his date laugh. The loud noise of the music would mask Katelyn’s horrendous laugh, so he’d be safe.
Daniel had examined what girls Katelyn hung around with. Mostly other girls from Model UN, the only club Katelyn had joined thus far. Stephanie Marks was going with Ryan Wilson; he could ask Stephanie about the girls’ soccer team and could discuss the Lollapalooza lineup with Ryan. Katelyn’s other friend Krista Dader was going alone; Nate Berg had just broken up with her two weeks prior, but Daniel gathered that Krista would show up anyways to prove to everyone she couldn’t care less. Daniel would ask Katelyn if he should ask Krista to dance for a song; Katelyn would like that he’d offer. They would all stand around together at the beginning before anyone started up the dance floor.
Then, once a good group of people started dancing, Daniel would lead Katelyn to his spot on the floor. They always put up the same light system, and Daniel had found a position just outside the half-court line where the lights didn’t cast shades of red and blue and yellow on faces. In his spot they would start out dancing with a good amount of space between them, but by the fourth or fifth song (with Katelyn most likely the fifth) the space would be gone. The girl’s hands always ended up in the air or around the back of his neck, depending on the song and whether it required jumping or swaying. Daniel had discovered the zone where his hands were wanted. He pictured the girl’s body cut up into zones of accessibility. His zone for the dance would be where the curve at the base of his thumb would rest on the top of the hip bone.
At eleven the DJ would announce the last song and everyone would start filing out. Katelyn would say goodbye to Krista and Stephanie, and Daniel would lead her to his car. In the past, Daniel would ask his date where she wanted to go. The answer was usually home, occasionally to the ice cream place in town, and one horrific night to an after party. He would drive them home and walk them to their front door. If there was a large picture window at the front of the house he would see shadows of parents milling about, waiting to make sure their daughter got into bed. If there wasn’t, he knew they were somewhere in there doing it regardless. The girl would tell him she had a lovely time and almost always gave him a light kiss on the cheek. Then Daniel would get back in his car and go home.
Tonight was going to be different.
Daniel was not going to ask Katelyn what she wanted to do; he was going to take her to get ice cream at the Mr. Freeze seven blocks from her house. There they would see Monica and Jane, two girls in their class that always worked at the Mr. Freeze on Saturday nights. He’d ask them about how their night was going and tell them that they didn’t miss much at the dance. They would have ice cream and then walk outside.
Once they were in the car, he was going to tell her about his art studio that his parents let him build on their small piece of property out by the Jennings farm. He’d start driving there, to show her the paintings he’d been working on. He was embarrassed about it; he didn’t know if he was any good. They would get to the small abandoned shed that Daniel had found one day when he was out driving the country roads. He would find the right key on his key ring.
Daniel pulled into a parking spot outside of the commons. He turned the car off.
“Ready?” Katelyn asked, her plump rosy cheeks seeming rosier than usual.
“Ready if you are!”