The rhythmic thumping of our running shoes hitting pavement kept time as barbs on the barbed wire fence clicked by beside us. My friend Zeim and I wound our way through miles of moonlit streets training for our high school cross country team. As we ran we talked about running and cars and then, suddenly, he laid it on me. It was a statement so profound and life changing for nerds like us that it should have been followed by a thunderclap. “This year we’re going to homecoming,” he said, “and we’re going… with girls.”
We laughed at first and broke stride for a second but the knot in my stomach was set. What girls? How would I find one? If I did, what was I supposed to do with her during this sacred ritual of American life? My complete lack of a television set had not prepared me for the rite of passage to come.
Mysteriously, I found myself at a dance later that year with an adorable redhead who had an unfortunate last name that rhymed with “yard”. She was willing to look past the David Byrne sized sports jacket I’d borrowed from my dad and wrap up the night with me as the sole pair of slow dancers still on the floor in a particularly well-publicized moment. It was the same jacket I later wore to MC the homecoming rally and a friend of hers couldn’t help but raz me with, “I’ll bet you’re wearing that same thing to homecoming, aren’t you?” I blushed, but could say nothing, because it was true.
[ed. What the… how did I get convinced to MC homecoming?! I remember cue cards, terror, and badly improvised jokes but not how a shy geek like me ended up on that stage in the first place!]
My ride at the time was a luxurious 1974 Chevy Chevette. I had pried off all of the exterior trim, added fuzzy seats and a cheap cassette stereo, and hung a toy fish from the rearview mirror. In conversation I called it a “‘Vet” and in the town where I grew up, people quickly made the wrong assumption and shrugged. I spent all afternoon shining it until the baby blue paint gleamed and then collapsed exhausted into bed.
There is a unique form of pain, a powerful crushing force to which I’ve become accustomed when waking. It hits like a sledgehammer to the gut and arrives with the instantaneous realization that something extremely important has been forgotten. At that time in my life it was usually homework, but this sledgehammer was in the form of a flower: the corsage.
The store where I’d reserved this crucial piece of the homecoming puzzle had long since closed and only the diligent love of a mother was powerful enough to repair this: my first blunder. She found an open grocery store while I showered like a panicked rabbit and I picked them up on my way to arrive late for the first inspection.
Maybe the extra time was just what they needed, or maybe they’d been waiting for hours, but her entire extended family was crushed into her tiny living room waiting to meet me. I did the rounds of handshaking and photographing as quickly and politely as possible and passed well enough to get us out and bolting for the restaurant… which was full. I only knew of one restaurant, as my family didn’t do much eating out, and in the few times we’d gone I’d never had to learn about “reservations”. My first experience was a tough one, as we had a flower-wilting 45 minute wait ahead of us.
She was a good sport about it, giggling about the whole thing and perfectly willing to partake in another very American suburban ritual: driving around and talking. The thing about suburban areas is that, in order to make every home feel like an isolated pod in the wilderness, streets are intentionally designed to meander and end and in no way form a coherent grid. The thing about suburban houses is that they are built virtually identically, be they tiny ranch houses or McMansions pressing up against their lot boundaries like overweight gentlemen in tight suits. The thing about me is that, when talking, my taxed brain switches to the “survival only” driving plan. Within twenty minutes we were hopelessly lost.
This fact didn’t occur to me until another twenty minutes later when we both realized we were already late for the restaurant a second time. Fortunately, two hours later when we arrived, the place was nearly empty and so there was no trouble seating us for an extremely tasty Chinese food meal.
The official policy stated that after a certain time in the evening, no one was allowed to come back into the high school gym. The vice principle was sitting out front to enforce this very rule and he made me to run through the whole story. Fortunately, he also knew me and was willing to let us in with a grin and a shake of his head. This impressed my date and I got a few points there, but in reality I owed yet another round to my ever-present blessing and curse: to be known as the lovable, blundering kid with promise. We hurried in to see what was left.
Right before a cell divides the DNA duplicates split and move to either side of the cell, forming two separate nuclei. This is what it looked like in the gymnasium when we arrived. Broken streamers dangled like DNA strands from the ceiling while boys clustered on one side and girls on the other. Apparently the guys had become “boring” and “clingy” and so the girls were done with them. This meant that, as the untainted newcomer, I got to dance with all of my friend’s dates as they gushed about much better I was than them; so much less clingy and annoying. They went on and on as I held each one tight, swaying to the music and nodding.
Afterwards we went to a diner where the girl squad, in one quick move made possible only by complete teenaged girl mind meld, saturated a booth. The boys were stunned for a moment, then shrugged and grabbed another booth where we immediately began shooting straw wrappers at each other. Despite sticking to her crew, the girl with the unfortunate name made a point of swapping glances and grins with me between the tables and I knew that everything was going to work out fine. To my delight her braces were no trouble at all. The kiss at the end of the night was breathtaking and leaves me, to this day, transported by the smell of new leather jackets and dry fall leaves to a cute redheaded girl and a time when I was a blundering kid with promise.
Photos link to photographer’s sites on Flickr.
[ed. Wow. How sad that during my search there were so many more pictures of soldiers returning from Iraq than of people dressed for homecoming dances.]