IT’S MY THIRTY-FOURTH BIRTHDAY, yet I’m thinking about my old crush on Jesse Audette and the events surrounding our Eighth-Grade Dinner Dance (a moment of impossible intrigue and apprehension). Middle school encompassed the ripest years following my parent’s divorce, as well as those when the barbarian horde of hormones spewing from my endocrine system couldn’t be contained. What better way to celebrate another year passing than by picking at the scars from two decades ago, running a finger along the fading line of that four-year laceration?
I don’t remember the exact moment I first saw Jesse Audette, but she appears in my memory on the soccer field, wearing a red jersey and black shorts, with her platinum blonde hair threaded in a tight braid. Soccer hadn’t yet bloomed to the point where there were enough girls to form their own leagues and teams, so the few girls who wanted to play had to play against the boys.
Though Jesse had the perky cuteness of a resident of Whoville, she was an absolute bear on the soccer field, and she’d throw her slender athletic body into contact with anyone who dared to challenge her. I played midfield and was focused on scoring; since Jesse played defense, I knew I’d have my chance to swirl around her. In the hallways of our middle school, I would have felt terrified to be near her. But the field was my home, a place where a kid like me—who lacked any and all confidence elsewhere—could outshine those around me and maybe even garner their respect. I was confident I could take her on.
I knew that other boys went easy on Jesse because she was a girl, and that she used this to break up the play and feed the ball upfield to her offense. She might have been a girl, but she was also their best player. My intention was to attack her.
The next time I was in possession, Jesse flew toward me like an agitated wasp—I had something she wanted. I dribbled the ball, and she swarmed. Using my forty-pound advantage, I pushed to move her off the ball. If she wanted it, she’d have to push back.
Her braid whipped around her white face and furrowed brow. Her eyes were bluer than a propane flame. She smelled of a combination of sweat and whatever feminine shampoo she washed her hair with. Our sweat-sheened arms slid together like two wet fish. This was our dance. She slammed into me, and I felt suspended somewhere between the soccer pitch and the surrounding treetops. I liked to think we made each other better, and I wished our game extended beyond the pitch.
The Eighth-Grade Dinner Dance was fast approaching. This was serious. I had never been to a dance, and this was like prom, but with more hormones. Ballots were passed around homeroom, and we all had a chance to vote on the theme. Heather Oullette’s idea for “One Night in Paris” won out, and letting myself imagine a tall, erect Eiffel Tower lit up, I thought about whom I would take. I wanted to ask Jesse, of course.
Jeremy, a friend of mine, spent much of his time leading up to the dance admiring his own smile in the mirror. He also walked around shirtless, rubbing the peaks and valleys of his glorious abdominals, and ran his fingers through his black hair.
“You ever look in the mirror and think, ‘Why wouldn’t anyone want to go out with me?’” Jeremy asked.
This question completely changed my relationship to mirrors. I could no longer pass a mirror without checking myself out, and each time, I echoed Jeremy’s question. “Why wouldn’t Jesse want to go out with me?”
But the answer was clear, staring back at me: I was a white kid with kinky hair and crooked teeth (my parents claimed they couldn’t afford to straighten them though they got my sister braces), and while I usually had an astonishingly clear complexion for a fourteen-year-old, now I had a taillight-red zit on the end of my nose. I’d never ask her. The volcanic anxiety was too much to bear. It wasn’t only the fear of rejection, but the fear of those moments leading up to the question, which would, of course, dovetail into the rejection itself, the zit-red cherry on top.
Meanwhile, Jesse and I shared contact on the soccer pitch that felt erotic—wrought with possession, with sweat and grunting, as our bodies pressed into one another—and I daydreamed some more about what it would be like to call her my girlfriend, to write her notes saying how beautiful I thought she was. I wanted to hold her hand and to kiss her, though I had no idea how to kiss. “Not too much tongue,” my sister advised, apparently having been the victim of several such encounters.
I also focused on the possibility of slow dancing, and got nervous. I had never slow danced in my life, and this was an entire wrinkle I hadn’t even conceived of until a conversation among friends around the filthy lunchroom tables in the cafeteria.
“Not all slow dances are equal,” Pete said. He also had great teeth and considerably more confidence than I did. (I’d argue that all confidence comes from one’s dentition.)
“How so?” I asked, taking a T. rex-sized bite from my turkey sandwich.
Pete rolled his eyes. “Think of it this way. Every song in the middle of the dance is worth one point. But the final dance, that’s worth two.”
Our final dance would be to Bon Jovi’s “Always.” We’d had the chance to vote on this as well. There was actually a runoff—that’s how perilously important this end-of-the-night song was to some people—but Bon Jovi won again, beating out Blessid Union of Souls’ “I Believe” and Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee.” The people had spoken.
Pete’s point system made perfect sense to me. The last dance is the one you take home, the one you boast to all your friends about, the ultimate climax of the dance. It’s also the one she (whoever she may be) will talk to her friends about, spreading your reputation like a virus. Were you a good dancer? Did you have rhythm? And did you. . . ?
I thought about what I would do when slow dancing, about the three to four minutes when my hands could, in theory, make contact with the budding hips of a biologically ripe young woman. The lingering threat would always be the rush of blood to the rogue nation south of my navel. My breath shortened, and my heart fluttered.
“You have to think about baseball,” Pete said at lunch with the conviction reserved for statements like Of course the sun is the center of the solar system.
Thinking about baseball had its own subset of problems. Long, hard wooden sticks; umpires yelling, “Two balls!” Not to mention the quartering of the sexual conquest of females via the baseball diamond, each base more terrifying than the next. As if it was possible to talk a boner off the ledge, anyway. When the mind-penis connection has been made, it’s like high-tensile wire: that shit ain’t breaking.
Years from then, I’d find out I wasn’t the only one with this fear. I know someone who wore as many as five extra pairs of underwear to keep things suppressed.
MY MOTHER TOOK ME to JCPenney to get an outfit for the dance. Apparently, my closet full of monochromatic sweatshirts, sweatpants, and Looney Tunes shirts would not make the sartorial starting lineup.
“I don’t want to wear a tie,” I told her, as if this was my major problem.
“OK, honey,” Mom said, snapping her Extra gum. The corners of her eyes squeezed into a most loving look, and her smile was infinite as she picked through the racks. All I wanted to do was blend in. After this button-down and that button-down, Mom found a beige button-down shirt and pleated khakis. “You can roll up your sleeves,” she said. “I like that look.” My mom may as well have said, Why wouldn’t anyone want to go out with you?
I looked again in the three-paned mirror of the fitting room, seeing the 180-degree panorama of my outfit. Mom, without knowing it, had dressed me up like a walking penis. All the flesh tones exacerbated my one throbbing apprehension: getting a boner on the dance floor.
The day of the dance, I had my flesh-toned outfit ready. My mom arranged for my sister to drop Jeremy and I off. I wasn’t embarrassed at the thought of Mom driving us—a couple of stags—but it’s as if she knew I should be embarrassed, so she recused herself from driving. Who knows? Maybe USA had a good rerun of MacGyver in store for her.
Oh, God, this was it. It was time to dance.
FIRST, WE HAD DINNER in our cafeteria, which I remember as either a leather-tough piece of chicken, or baked ziti, or pizza. All these years later, my friend Sarah Dubee’s mother, who was a lunch lady and quasi demigod at our school, confirms it was probably baked ziti since there was a debate about what would be the least messy for the girls to eat.
Then, after the meal, the entire eighth grade, the Class of ’95, mingled. Flashes from disposable cameras popped. Hearts were about to be shattered; other unions, made. One former classmate told me, “I was the unofficial therapist in the girls’ bathroom.”
The girls had entry-level prom dresses. Jackie Robbins, notorious for her uncanny and precocious rack, recalled having a heck of a time finding a dress that fit. She still has pictures from the dance, in which most of the girls look sunburned.
What I saw was Jesse Audette, walking in with her athletic, elegant, and confident stride. She wore a body-hugging white dress, with a little heart-shaped cutout that exposed the top of her as-of-yet breastless chest. Her skin was lightly tanned from time spent outdoors, and those blue eyes crackled in stark contrast to her vanilla blonde hair, which was pulled back tight. She glowed as if radioactive, but I didn’t want a hazmat suit. I wanted to feel the entirety of her nuclear, atomic power annihilate me from Earth.
I’m not sure which words came out of my mouth. They must have been semi-coherent Americanized English, though it was probably closer to Czick bairk vlom jirtle?
“OK,” she said.
I think I blacked out.
I had a camera in my hand, so I must have asked her to take a picture with me. Someone grabbed it, and we posed. I stood to Jesse’s left, with my arms at my sides. My right shoulder brushed against her bare left arm, and I nearly lost my breath. She stood with her arms by her side, her right hand holding onto what appears to be a clutch or a small 35mm point-and-shoot camera.
“Smile,” our cameraman said, with a shit-eating grin that suggested he knew I could spring full-on wood at any second.
Jesse smiled. No one needed to tell me to.
THE GYMNASIUM was adorned in a French motif, with low-hanging lights and a makeshift Eiffel Tower. Balloons starred the ceilings. The Tower was illuminated from within, and people took turns walking through it. It was strangely novel—like standing inside a Christmas tree. Picture the inevitable romance in this spot: dodgeball by day, 1920s Paris by night.
The deejay cranked the tunes, and as “Cotton Eye Joe” twanged over the speakers, a murder of the more confident girls rushed onto the floor to dance. After all, square dancing in circles is the gateway to physical contact. Other waves of girls took turns in the bathroom, and the boys, in our own feudal subsets, clumped along the outer borders, waiting for the dance to be over.
Amy Amaral, a relatively new girl, who was on my bus route, approached me. She asked, with the enthusiasm of an earthworm, if I wanted to get my picture taken with her. I agreed. Unlike my magical flash with Jesse moments ago, Amy (sans disposable camera) and I walked over to the photo booth where a photographer—who was actually one of the mothers who had volunteered—posed us. Amy stood with her back facing me, arms at her sides, and I stood close behind her, with my arms by my sides. We were two sardines. The “photographer” stood behind the Polaroid camera, and it spit out an image. I shook it, though I’d later learn it doesn’t actually help the picture develop.
Soon, I saw Amy’s body come to form. I saw the outline of her face, the curls of her hair, the outline of her slender body, her royal blue dress, and, finally, what can only be described as the most sour face I have ever seen. She looked to be mid-colonoscopy. Listen, Amy, you asked me to do this. I had a neutral expression, a Mona Brendan smile. After the picture fully developed, I put it in my pocket. I didn’t see Amy for the rest of the night—my first foray into the odd temperaments of the female mind—but I would still tack it to my dinosaur corkboard when I got back home.
The deejay, holding his headphones up to his head with one hand, said, “And now we’re gonna slooooow it down.” As the first slow dance started, I bolted for the bathroom, along with about 341,000 other eighth-grade boys avoiding the girls. Later, at sleepovers, we’d talk about how rad the whole thing was and how we almost got the nerve to ask someone to dance and how we’d totally do it next time.
The night progressed. When I emerged from the bathroom, I still heard the painstaking crooning of a slow song. Then, like an apparition, Rayna Kenny appeared before me. “Brendan, wanna dance?” she asked. I felt like an antelope caught in a lioness’s jaws.
I didn’t want to, but it had little to do with Rayna. This was my first slow dance, and I harbored the same fear as every other guy hiding in that bathroom: that we’d lose what little control we had over our peckers. Khakis may as well be an erection highlighter. If danger struck, would I have the power and deft sleight of hand to maneuver my johnson up and into my waistband? Or would I face female damnation?
We stepped in circles to what could have been “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from The Lion King soundtrack. It ended, and we bowed, or shook hands, or just turned and walked away from each other. I looked down, grateful to be as soft as ever.
THE SUN HAD GONE DOWN, and parents idled their Honda Accords and Ford Escorts in the parking lot, questioning, one presumes, all the bad decisions that led them to this middle school parking lot on a Friday night in early summer. We still had some time left, though. There was still the matter of Bon Jovi’s “Always.”
The deejay announced this was it. My eyes darted around. This was the moment I had anticipated—the big dance. I’d been a wallflower most of the night, and I couldn’t go home without having done something bold. And there, standing all alone, was Jesse Audette. She swayed with her hands folded in front of her. She looked up at the ceiling and at the Eiffel Tower. It felt to me as if there was a spotlight following her, blacking out all that was in her margins.
As our eyes met, I felt a pulse of energy, my electrons realigning for a chemical bond. I forced my heart back down into my chest and took a deep breath. We drew closer, as we had on the field. But this wasn’t a soccer pitch. This was Paris!
We met below the Eiffel Tower, and my heart jackhammered in my chest. All those hours in school when I should have been learning the meaning of algebra and solving the unknown, I had imagined a moment like this. Now it was coming true.
I put my hands on her hips and felt her heat on my palms—our first contact outside of a soccer game. I rested my hands on the slight, supple cushion of the crest of her hip while she interlocked her fingers behind my neck. I relished the smooth, satiny feel of her dress on her hips and the slight gravity of her hands’ pull on my neck. We paced in circles to Bon Jovi’s “Always,” and it felt as if it was only us dancing in the gymnasium. We didn’t say a word, and we barely looked at each other, but of course we were awkward. We were middle schoolers, on the verge of our coming of age.
The song drew to its conclusion, and I didn’t want to feel the absence of her body from my hands. Then, suddenly, I realized something—I had made it! I wasn’t even wearing extra underpants, just one socially acceptable pair of Fruit of the Looms! I smiled, and Jesse smiled, and we parted. The lights came up, and the image of “One Night in Paris” was swept away, exposed for the cheap exhibition it was: a bunch of cardboard and discount Christmas lights, balloons dancing high above in the coughing HVAC.
My sister waited outside in her Nissan Sentra as I floated out. I got in the front passenger seat, and Jeremy got in the back. He yammered on about “grinding” with a few girls, getting all too graphic while my sister laughed.
It was as if he was speaking through a pillow, and I heard only muffled speech. I wasn’t really there at all; I was back in the gymnasium, under the Eiffel Tower, my hands on Jesse’s hips. My hands still carried the memory of her shape, and I felt my skin cooling where once there was warmth.