He watched her from the edge of the gym, swaying nervously under one of the basketball hoops. She was dancing carelessly, bumping hips and flipping her hair and living. He was not, picking at the collar of his suit and breathing through his mouth and trying not to stare (but failing).
“What’s wrong, d-d-dork? Got something in your c-c-collar? Awe, is it your Maw-mee?” A pack of juniors wandered out of the men’s locker room from behind James, the leader jeering at James mockingly. A glowing cigarette dangled from the leader’s lips. It was 1953, after all. He picked it out of his mouth, peered down at it curiously, and pressed it roughly on James’ collar, ignoring James’ sudden protests.
“Wuh-wuh-what are y-y-y-you d-d-doing?!” The heat quickly burned through his collar, scarring his skin. James’ hands flew to his collar, already imagining his father’s wrath as he brought home the rental suit with a fat cigarette stain. His mother’s disappointment. He couldn’t decide which was worse.
“Tuh-tuh-take that, you little sh-shit,” the junior snickered, dropping the cigarette down James’ jacket before shuffling off with his friends, leaving James to dig desperately in his collar for the glowing cigarette. Hot. Hot. Hot. He found it by his belly button and dropped it on the pine floor next to his shoes, quickly grinding it into the floor.
“Where were you?” The girl was beside him now, drawing his shaking hand from his pant leg and pressing it against her waist. “Standing at the corner of the gym doesn't count as a dance!"
James was still staring at his shirt, seemingly bemused. The girl tugged on his hand.
“C-can y-you g-g-g-g-” James finally looked up, choking on the syllables as he stuttered out the words. The girl seemed to understand, sauntering off to the drink table. His eyes followed her nervously, as if he was expecting something.
A tall guy with blond hair named Robert paused next to her at the drink table, his hand slipping over her as she grabbed a ladle in the punch bowl. She smiled flirtatiously at him, and he gestured for her to dance with him. James was still staring when she glanced back over at him. Their eyes met in the dim lights, across the gym, and the throng of slow-dancing teenagers seemed to part for them. It was only a second, but it felt like an eternity for James. She nodded at Robert, and he took her hand, spinning her away.
James sighed, glancing down at his shoes before leaving the gym and the throbbing dance. He knew he was lucky to have her. Hell, everyone knew he was lucky to have her. She was way out of his league. For a stuttering kid, his friends would remind him, you got pretty damn lucky. Word from the bird is that, the freshmen would whisper when they didn’t know he was in the stall next door, he’s bribing her. The worst rumor of them all? Robert did some backseat bingo with her. Everyone knew what backseat bingo meant.
And for once, James was in on this little secret.
He knew why she was with him.
5 years later…
James peered down the street anxiously, taxi cabs and cars zooming past, kicking up smoke and dust. When a break in the traffic allowed it, James darted across the street, his coattails flapping behind him. The New York City traffic was relentless - he had been waiting there for almost five minutes before a red light apparently slowed down the oncoming traffic.
The dance started fifteen minutes ago, James thought. The fact worried him greatly. What would she think about his lateness? Would she think he didn’t care? Because he did, he most certainly did-
“Hey,” she breathed, sliding up next to him like they were meant to be joined at the hip. She tucked her small hand into his pants pocket, grabbing his own hand.
“I’m sorry,” he began, but she was shaking her head, gliding into the glass doors with a smile.
“Come on! I don’t want to miss the seventh dance!” She winked and pulled their hands out of his pocket, squeezing it so tightly that James was forced to let go of any doubts he had about coming. It was a first. Or, he supposed, a second. Going to a dance.
She pulled him into the ballroom, instantly fitting his hands on her waist and leading him into a slow dance. After a heartbeat, she hooked her head on his shoulder, breathing softly into his ear.
“I’m trying, Rose.” His arm twitched on her waist, and she could feel the tension in his shoulders. The awkwardness in his step. The lag in his breathing.
“James.” He really was trying though. It had been a long time since that sophomore year when all went down. It had been a long, long time. Suddenly, James was falling down the rabbit hole faster than he could climb out, memories crumbling from behind of their lodged wall.
James left that night, walked to the bus stop. He didn’t take the city bus home, though. He went to her favorite frozen yogurt shop. Of course it was closed, it was ten o’clock on a Saturday night. Still, he sat out there, trying to soothe his shaking hands, trying to form words that didn’t trip and stumble over themselves.
He waited there for three hours before catching the city bus two blocks away from home. His hands were no longer shaking, but they were turning a strange shade of white that only slightly concerned James.
All of the lights were off when James got home. A lamp was overturned by the oven, and a shattered wine glass crunched under James’ dress shoes as he padded to his parents’ bedroom. His father was snoring loudly, draped over James’ mother like a bear rug. Naked. His mother peered at James with wide, blue eyes, silently shaking her head.
James cleaned up the glass shards, the blood, and the overturned furniture as best as he could. His alarm clock beeped 2:07 by the time he slipped out of his dress clothes. He slipped the dress shoes neatly next to his boots and his sneakers, hung up the suit in his closet after carefully pressing it down and spraying the stain with Sloan’s Stain Remover. If you went into his room, you might think it was a hotel room, it was spotless.
James slept until six, woke up, dressed for church. He and his mother walked to church, their shoes and bare ankles collecting dew from the cool April air. They didn’t speak. They didn’t need to. The bruise on his mother’s neck and the cigarette burn on James’ neck said it all. They had carefully applied James’ mother’s foundation to both of their marks before leaving the house.
She wasn’t at church. Her parents weren’t either. He wasn’t surprised, just regarded the fact with dispassionate interest.
She didn’t really want to go out with him or be with him. Or maybe she did. James was handsome in the kind of way that made you sad and nostalgic. Blond hair and crystal eyes. Maybe she wanted to hold his hand, but she couldn’t chip the ice layer encasing James, protecting him from the rest of the world.
This is merely a hypothetical situation.
The maybe shouldn’t be included.
It was a bet. A stupid, idiotic, teenage bet. One of her friends bet $2 that she couldn’t get James to open up to her. He was worth $2.
He knew about the bet, of course, but he still agreed to go out with her. He was like that, James. Always wanted the best for other people. He knew that she wasn’t taking the bet as seriously as her wallet begged her to.
Sure, it made a lot of people angry, the bet. James’ friends (who imagined that James would be the last person she would go out with). Robert, the tall blond who followed her around. The girl herself, even, though she couldn’t quite tell why.
That evening of the dance, the girl got herself pregnant, and it all went downhill from there. Everyone knew it wasn’t James’, how could it be? She moved away after her second trimester, when it was no longer concealable with a large sweater. Robert turned into a shadow, merely a smudge on the gray wallpaper of the high school. James, however, disappeared entirely, dripping through locker vents and between door cracks, simply existing.
He moved away for college with a diploma as paper thin as his mask for the world. He viewed his plastered-on smiles as a courtesy for the world, not causing it so much pain or pity that it would lose a blink of sleep.
Then, she came. Rose. She was new and ignorant and unaware, it was like a glass of cool water. Refreshing.
For once, James tried. He attended speech classes for his stutter until his words slipped and molded together than anyone who met him had a hard time believing that he was ever the stuttering, shy kid in the corner of the gym. He was James. Not James. James.
Of course, Rose saw right through the new persona. It was just another mask, and she wasn’t falling for it.
She held his hand, Rose.
Because, when she wanted to hold his hand, she didn’t go about him with an ice-chipper, but with a flame that melted away all of the waxy masks and weak excuses and slipping smiles. She made a smile that stuck.
“James?” Rose stared up at him, worry threading her eyes. James loosened, took a deep sigh, and smiled.
He wasn’t a stuttering idiot.
He wasn’t worth two dollars.
He was enough.