I often wonder what happened to the girls who had to endure me at middle school dances. It was, after all, the one night where I couldn’t create excuses in order to avoid contact with the female folk my friends were so eagerly pushing me toward during recess. Normally I’d concoct a plan, scribbled on a yellow notepad, which I could defer to any time a girlfriend called the house. My mom would yell up to my bedroom and I’d pause the copy of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers playing in my VCR, scramble to find the written monologue of choice for the night, then click onto the phone line and regale said female with stories about my commitment to creating a new spaghetti dish or catching a deer that evening. In actuality I’d be ripping Britney Spears photos out of Tiger Beat.
However elaborate my notepad schemes became, I was never anti-social enough to bow out of a school dance. Inevitably, they’d be pumping Spears’s latest hit through the loud speakers and there was always a chance I could execute a bit of her video choreography in the corner if the crowd was big enough and the lights dark enough. It was during the other songs I’d be forced to interact with my peers. They’d reside, scattered around the cafeteria in different packs, bucking on each other like the deer I’d used as a scapegoat. I managed to abstain for the majority of middle school, but I almost didn’t make it out of our final 8th grade dance alive.
Our lunchroom had been converted just for the occasion: each table, usually covered in a thin paste of fruit punch and crackers, had been shoved to the side, and the white linoleum floor had been polished as to become the perfect reflector for the rainbow lights the DJ had set up. While the college student turned MC was never the same, I always had a moment when I’d try to place where I knew them from. He looks just like that drug addict from the D.A.R.E. videos we watched in gym class, I’d think to myself. Yes, I’m certain that’s the cokehead from the fourth scene. I imagined his lighting rig must have been purchased in some drug-induced trip to Spencer Gifts at the mall and his only way to feed his habit and acquire a collection of lava lamps, was to play the latest Swedish pop songs for a gaggle of pre-teens. Not that I was complaining. My favorite songs to lip-synch to were usually cooked up by the Swedes.
Unfortunately, none of my friends were impressed by the fact that I knew every syncopated beat to “Bye, Bye, Bye.” But it was the syncopation that saved me. Any number without a thudding base line was slow enough to draw boys to girls like my Montana friends were drawn to hunting rifles. As I was the “sensitive” type in boot-cut jeans and a turtleneck my mother and sister had convinced me was the “perfect look” during a Santa Monica vacation, girls tended to flock to me as soon as the lights dimmed. This particular night was an endless barrage of requests, as everyone knew I was fleeing town to attend high school in another state. All through the night I obliged, certain that three minutes couldn’t be that bad, while secretly hoping one of the teacher chaperones would patrol our area for the entirety of the song. Please, Ms. Horton, ask her to take her hands off my ass, I’d think, testing my Jedi communication powers. My friends, meanwhile, were receiving most of the attention from the teachers due to the fact that they were kneading their girlfriends’ asses double time and licking their necks with a ferocity I’d only experienced when faced with a Hostess treat.
My dance partners would glance over at our friends and then rotate their gaze back to me. Each girl had clearly raided her older sisters’ Caboodle makeup case for the occasion. Where there were supposed to be cheeks there were instead streaks of red that looked like they’d scrapped their faces along the brick wall at the front of the building. In place of eyes: mounds of colored shadow that made Ginger Spice look like the Virgin Mary.
Despite my confusion about the female life forms in my arms, the druggie DJ apparently had my back. The night progressed and just as things were beginning to get uncomfortable with each dance partner, he’d throw in a party staple to ease the tension. ‘Cotteneye Joe’ is my favorite song, I’d explain with a shrug of my shoulders. Please excuse me while I go gallop in a circle. And off I’d go, certain this lie was my best, most convincing ever.
It was while taking a victory lap during this hoedown of a song that I spotted a group of all my female friends standing by the Coke machine, primping Lisa for her final attack. The lassoing motion I was making with my arm began to wilt. All through middle school Lisa had done her best to attract my attention; she’d practically molded my face out of clay during art class one day. (Little did either of us know that the only thing she could have molded out of clay to attract my attention was a penis.) She persisted, and through my assortment of girlfriends I never so much as awkwardly held her hand at a movie.
Yet there they were, all of the ladies who had felt the sweat on my palm, feeding advice to the only thing standing between high school freedom and me. My victory lap quickly turned into a panicked search for an exit path. There wasn’t one. And just as the song stopped and the gentle strums of Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply” took over, I heard the DJ stutter an announcement that this song would be the last of the evening...the last of our middle school career. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find Lisa and her teenage clown face staring at me.
Do you wanna dance? she asked. Bette Midler’s song started running through my head and I wished I were in my bedroom, waltzing in my socks. Sure, I lied, not quite sure why I was so adamantly against what all of my other friends seemed intent on groping.
She grabbed my hand and led me to the side of the room, near the table where the special-ed kids sat at lunch. We did our best to move our feet, but I was only concerned with keeping to the prescribed meter-stick distance rule our teachers had reminded us about the day before.
We rocked back and forth for a moment.
I’m sad you’re leaving, she said. It's weird that you won't be in high school with us.
The best answer I could give was silence. I would have been better served to continue speaking, because as soon as the words had left her lips, those lips were on mine. It was the first time I’d kissed someone since I pecked a girl on the jungle gym during recess in fourth grade and I wasn’t sure how to react. We continued rocking back and forth as I felt beads of sweat forming on the upper lip I’d only recently begun shaving.
The song ended and the fluorescent lights turned on, illuminating the girls’ make-up like felt posters underneath a black light. I backed away slowly, and did my best to smile as Lisa ran back to the group of girls and giggled about the previous three minutes.
After a quick set of goodbyes I made my way to the parking lot and the safety of my parents’ SUV, excited by the promise of a new world where middle school dances didn’t exist.