We are at the middle school dance. I’m wearing jeans a size too big for me and I have no hips, only hipbones, so the pants just slide. The only thing keeping them up is my father’s brown leather belt, almost tight enough because of the extra holes he’s punched into it. My shirt comes to my navel, just below, but because of the slink of my jeans it seems smaller than it is. I’m showing off a swath of midriff. There are two tiny circumflexes where my breasts will be, reverse indents in an unnecessary bra. At 13 I am all flat surfaces and straight lines.
It’s the end of the night. Inside the gym it’s dark and steamy, fizzy with sputtering liters of Coca-Cola and tart with perspiration. A deejay surrounded by speakers and obscured by gear has commandeered one end of the room; above him a basketball net hangs limply, catching the rays of a rotating strobe light. A group of us are clustered outside the doors to the gym, ringed by trophy cases. We have gleaned that it’s not cool to dance and when we do we feel the start of each slow song like a barometric shift, a change in pressure so great it feels like the onset of summer hail. Girls snake to the bathroom in threes and fours. Boys slouch. The music just beyond the threshold is frenetic but we are strangely subdued. This is our chance to kiss in a dark corner, to feel the press of pelvis on pelvis, to be seen in something other than our uniform skirts and blazers and ties. This is our chance to be seen at all, girls from the girl’s school, boys from the boy’s. But we wait it out.
I have been walking past George Boiardi all night. He is tall and already in possession of the muscles he’ll use as the captain of pretty much everything. We went to elementary school together, and here, in our new schools, new skins, it feels like an unbreakable bond. I remember his round face and bowl cut, his wide grin. Now his dark hair falls in his eyes. He is shy, but so good-looking that it comes off as cocky. It’s been five years since we’ve been in school together, and I really don’t know him at all, but I feel like I know everything about him. I am unnerved and comforted by his presence all at once.
I keep track of him out of the corner of my eye, never looking straight on, hoping that just being there will be enough to attract his attention. I have an idea that I’m beautiful—once, I overheard my babysitter tell my dad that I was going to be the next Claudia Schiffer—so I work with that. I’m tall and blonde and I think this might make up for the breasts.
Outside the gym, our groups draw closer. They are the same group, and I’m leaning next to him, laughing and taking my hair out of its ponytail, shaking it loose, moving it around. A microphone crackles.
“Ladies, gentleman,” the deejay intones. He has a polyester smooth voice and has watched us dance in complimentary tube socks at bar mitzvahs and will be with us at our sweet sixteens. “It’s that time of the night. The last dance. I’m gonna slow it down. Don’t miss your chance for one last dance.” A collective groan arises. Part sadness, part relief. The assemblage in the middle of the dance floor splinters into sets of twos, hands on shoulders, hands on hips. In our pack outside the doors no one makes a move. We’ve resisted the music this long, what’s one slow song going to change?
That’s when George looks me straight in the eyes for the first time all night. The song is humming along, already working up to a chorus.
“Ah dammit, just dance with me,” he says in a breathless mumble. He grabs my hand and we’re cutting through the darkness, weaving past couples until we’re in the middle of the floor. I circle my right wrist with my left fingers around his neck, close but not too close, and his hands find the small of my back. I cock my head up at him, something I never get to do because I’m taller than everyone else, but he is done talking. He is staring straight ahead, focused. I drop my head and let my forearms fall onto his chest. I can feel his cotton button-down on my bare skin. We shuffle like that until the lights come up. I have never been happier.