by Matthew Sanborn Smith
Susie Manson found herself spending yet another dance leaning against the wall, watching couples swirl and lights shine past. The cement felt uncomfortable behind her head and she wondered what it would be like to be dancing out on the floor, wondered how her fine, black hair would look bouncing behind her.
A part of her was glad that no one had asked her, because it spared her the opportunity to make a fool of herself. Pulling away from the wall, the thirteen year old girl felt the wetness on the back of her dress. She could see the sweat stain on the light flower print in her mind's eye and moaned to herself about how she was planning to wash it out. I need to wear more yellow things to avoid this problem, she thought.
For a moment she wondered if lifting the dress over her head would win a dance partner. That would only be something she'd do in extreme circumstances, of course, like if she needed a kidney and had to dance for it, but the curiosity was there.
She stepped outside into the cool autumn air. A soft breeze made her eyes water, made her turn away from the scrutinizing stare of the other junior-high students. She didn't want those people thinking that she cried for want of a date. It's just the breeze in my eyes, she wanted to yell. But nobody would ever believe it, she knew. It always happened at the most inopportune moments, too. Like when she got separated from her mother in the department store. Sure enough, if Mom wasn't found in the first two minutes, the air-conditioning and the wind stirred up just from walking would start to work on her. And she couldn't wipe either, because some jerk would feel pity for the little crying girl. Or at least that's what she always fantasized.
Her shoes scraping on the ground, she let herself drop off the sidewalk and crunch through the dead leaves that carpeted the grounds. Pieces of leaf went in her shoe and she stopped near the weeping willow on top of the hill to shake them out. The sweat on the back of her dress felt cold as she leaned against the tree and she decided to sit down instead. Squinting in the darkness, a figure could just be made out, coming up the hill toward her. For some strange reason, Susie hoped it was some maniacal murderer with a ball-peen hammer. The thought made her stomach tingle.
Upon closer scrutiny, though, she saw it was only Damien, the town's first homosexual big band leader. He was sort of the town celebrity because of that, but she knew him from clarinet lessons on Tuesday nights. She sighed and called to him:
His body jerked back with sudden surprise, creating a cymbal crash of leaves beneath his feet. He tried to make out her form against the tree in the darkness. His posture finally relaxed when he heard her familiar cackle.
"You scared the hell out of me, Susan," he said angrily.
"Sorry, but how else could I get your attention? I couldn't find any loose rocks to throw at you or anything."
He sat down next to her, not seeming to care about his tuxedo. "Alright, in that case you're forgiven. So tell me, why aren't you dancing the night away like all the other hedonistic youth in town?"
"Nobody will ask me to dance, and I'm not into asking anyone. I'm waiting for someone who'll be so knocked out by my appearance that he'll have to come right over and ask me to shake it. But apparently that type of man doesn't go to junior high dances."
"Have you tried going topless?" he asked, "That always worked for me."
"No, I think they frown on that on public property."
They sat and contemplated the Art of the Dance for a bit until Damien stood up and faced the tree. He studied it for a minute and then wrapped his arm around the lowest limb and climbed.
"Great!" he yelled to himself, "It's still here! You know when I went to school here . . . . See this limb?"
She went around the trunk to where he was and stared up at his shoes about three feet above her head.
"Yeah, what about it?"
"Well when I went to school here, a bunch of us used to walk out on this limb," He walked a few feet onto it as he spoke, "And jump around and swing from it and all sorts of things."
"You were a pretty rowdy bunch, all right," Susie said.
"Well, come on. We were a lot smaller then and this seemed pretty death defying. You know Denny? The guy down -"
The limb broke.
Damien hit the ground and slid down the hill, head first, plowing an ever growing pile of leaves with his face until he hit a small outcropping of rock and rolled the rest of the way down. Susie walked down as quickly as her cautious legs would carry her. The hill suddenly seemed much steeper.
"Are you OK?" she asked.
He held up a hand. "I'm fine. Fine. Really. That rock doesn't seem so hard with an enormous leaf cushion in front of you."
He rolled onto his back choking on dust and pulling pieces of leaf from his nostrils. Susie helped him up and brushed his back clean. Even in the dim light of a far away street lamp his brown hair looked even more brown now. "Thanks," he said. "Well, that got the old adrenaline flowing."
"I'll bet," she laughed.
It got quiet and stayed that way for a long moment. They looked around awkwardly at nothing in particular, until finally Damien said:
"Well, rehearsal is going to start pretty soon. Right after the dance is wrapped up. We're playing the school all weekend, you know."
"Yeah, you told me last Tuesday. Besides they've been announcing it for a few weeks in class."
"Right, right. Well, I guess I'm heading out."
They said their good-byes and the band leader who wore tuxedos to rehearsal started up the hill for a second time that evening.
"Hey, Dame?" Susie called with a crack in her voice.
He turned quickly as if he had expected her to call to him.
"Would you . . . . um, care to dance?"
He smiled. "Sure! Jitterbug?"
"Uh, no. I think the only other people in town who know how to Jitterbug aren't able to anymore. But I'll keep you in mind if my grandmother ever gets out of her wheelchair."
"Oh, you're looking for some of those wild, teeny-boppin', hippie, go-go dances, eh? Well let's see, I know the Hustle and the Bus Stop. How's that?"
"Oh, God," Susie groaned. "I suppose you have a mood ring at home, too."
"Of course. A young hipster like myself has to keep up with the times. Anyway, that's the best you're going to get out of me tonight. I'll teach you all the hot moves. Keep on Truckin', and all that."
Susie went along with him finally. She couldn't play the wallflower this time; There weren't any walls around. As she took his hand, Damien began to sing a thumping bass line and they shook away the evening kicking up leaves, hustling beneath the stars.