A diamond needle meets vinyl and crackles the air; electric guitar licks resonate ceiling to floor; and, like divers slicing water after flawless somersaults, The Beach Boys rock into Surfin’ USA. A late arrival, I merge into a ring of students watching the more confident graduates of our eighth grade class partner up. In perfect sync, they are masters of the Swim, Twist, Jitterbug, Mashed Potatoes.
Dead center, with taps on her flats and charm bracelets jingling on her wrists, is Becky, one of my best friends. My other best friend, Jillie, is mortified because her latest diet backfired: instead of losing five pounds she gained six; she’s nowhere to be seen. Becky never even bothers to weigh herself. She’s not a cheerleader, well dressed, or especially popular, but she twirls about with abandon. I’m sure she’d be unbeatable on American Bandstand, a show I watch at her house since I’m not allowed to see it at home.
Chet, whose eyes are level with my chin, saunters up, extends his hand. “How about it?” he asks.
I’d wished for a young version of Steve McQueen as my very first dance partner, but I’m not anybody’s dream partner either. Dominating my face are two-toned brown-and-white glasses with fins like a 1959 Cadillac. I’ve dropped them so often they are cracked, crooked and prone to sliding down my nose. My loose cotton shift with attached white eyelet vest was picked from racks of castoffs at a second-hand store. My naturally ebony locks are frizzy and orange from the last perm Mommy, my stepmom, forced me to get from her friend Florence. She does hair at a discount in her kitchen as her drooling son, who was dropped on his head as a baby, rocks on a wobbly chair, grunts unintelligibly, and slices his skin with any sharp object inadvertently left within his grasp.
I accept Chet’s offer. He takes my arm and escorts me to a spot on the now crowded dance floor. Copying my classmates’ moves, I pretend this isn’t new to me. We dance through The Beach Boys’ last lines and through the Four Seasons’ Sherry, but when Bobby Vinton’s Roses Are Red serenade begins, tall, tan, slightly bucktoothed Todd taps Chet’s shoulder to cut in. Chet backs away; Todd takes my hand.
Todd and I have never spoken, but we both attend youth group meetings at a church across the street from the junior high. My sisters, Kathy and Mary Ruth, and I joined the congregation after our father, on his deathbed, asked that we return to the church. I was eleven, Mary Ruth twelve, and Kathy thirteen. I’d always felt guilty about attending mass only on holidays and for weddings and funerals. I was eager to study the Catechism, but Mommy doesn’t like the local Catholic parish, so we didn’t just join another parish; we switched religions.
I thought I’d go to Hell for going along with this and felt way out of place—until last year, when Becky moved to Hinsdale, one of Chicago’s most affluent suburbs, from a small blue collar town in southern Illinois. The day she showed up at Sunday school I was drawn in by her Pepsodent smile, azure eyes and heart-shaped face framed by dark brown curls that bounce like mini Slinkys. I still feel like an impostor every time I veer from the Catholic version of The Lord’s Prayer and ask the Lord to forgive my “debts” instead of my “trespasses,” but I keep my anxiety in check because this church has brought friends to me.
Becky says folks in her hometown are more easygoing than people here, and they’re super proud of their roller rink. Roller-skating indoors isn’t popular in Hinsdale. So her mom found a rink in a town not too far away, and her whole family skates together there. Becky has an inner glow so strong, no gossip or chiding from girls at school ever causes her to go pale and slip away unnoticed. I feel protected by that glow. If it weren’t for her, I probably would never have come to this dance.
I smile tentatively at Todd, hoping he knows what to do. He’s several inches taller than I am, slim and wiry. His blue-green eyes sparkle in the dimly lit auditorium as we fumble, trying to get properly positioned for a slow dance. We settle down, inches apart.
“Ready?” He grins.
“Sure,” I beam back. He moves to the side. I try to follow, and instead step on his pristine dress shoes. We break apart laughing.
“I’m just gonna move in a square,” he says. “It’s easy; you’ll see.” He demonstrates. Step with one foot, slide with the other, repeat around a square. It seems simple enough. We come together again, and I follow him, never quite relaxing into the music, but without further damage to his shoes.
Chet tries to cut in when the dance is over, but Todd won’t budge. “Tough luck, buddy,” Todd says.
Later, we spill out of the auditorium with the rest of the Hinsdale Junior High School class of 1963, officially released from the eighth grade. Todd and I stand about a foot apart on the sidewalk, the warm, humid air between us pressing like a caress.
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