Red tail lights whizzed by, their glow leaving sparkling trails on the side glass in the back seat of a domestic sedan with an interior the color of ash. Tristan craned his head, looking for the street sign.
The stiff collar on his shirt rubbed his neck like sandpaper. Mom had settled on the cotton poplin dress shirt and tie, they couldn't afford the Ralph Lauren Polo. 'It makes you look mature,' she said.
“When you pull up to the gym, just let me out O.K.” Tristan leaned up to catch his mom's eyes in the rear-view mirror and scowled as a warning.
“Embarrassed of your mother, dear?” Her eyes twinkled mischievously.
He rolled his eyes, knowing it was better her than dad. He would probably flick a condom at him from the car window like a playing card and laugh maniacally.
“Here! Here! Drop me off here!” The front of the Ragsdale Foxes Gym was packed with juniors and seniors in dresses, pant suits and tuxedos. Licking his fingers he pulled at the stubborn tuft of hair that always protruded from the front of his scalp like a rooster's comb. He jumped from the car before it rolled to a stop. Tristan adjusted his bow tie and put on his best Saturday Night Fever strut, which truth be told was more like a swaggering awkward stroll.
The scuff of the leather soles of his oxfords reminded him what his six year old brother had said, 'I like your penny loafers.' Tristan shot back, 'Shoot bro, these cost five bucks at the resale shop!'
The girls were circled around each other, nervously judging each other in silence while gushing out endless compliments about coiffure, couture and coordinated colors of nail polish. Impossible hair shapes dangled over makeup, some which appeared to have been applied with spatulas. He thought he saw a clown mixing in the crowd and bit back a gasp when he realized it was the genius from his Chemistry class.
The guys were paired off in small groups of two to four. Looking over at some jocks he realized they were in tails and top hats. Tristan fought back the urge to do his best impersonation of the Penguin from the latest Batman film as he passed them. Three gamers from his math class gave him the universal 'among us' hand sign and laughed. He imagined them passing out if they ever caught a whiff of panties.
Walking in to the dance and seeing her from fifty feet, he felt like the cheetah that caught a glimpse of the antelope and stopped dead in its tracks. She hadn't seen him yet. Sorely lacking a cane and Fred Astaire's dance moves, Tristan did what all nervous young men do and went for the punch bowl. There was no better social buffer to keep a person from fumbling around with hands in pant pockets than a sweet red drink in a flimsy plastic cup fit for a toddler's hand. The chaperon dipped up the tangy red juice.
“Hey Tristan! I can't believe you showed up!” It was Mekenzie from English.
“Oh, hi,” Tristan said with the inspiration of a housewife stirring potato soup.
“Who is your date?” She was already playing offense.
He uttered the five most depressing words at a school dance, “I am here by myself.” He might as well have had a stuffed teddy bear under his arm.
“Me too!” The stumbling nervous hug made him stiffen like a grilled hot dog.
The few friends he could talk to had discussed Mekenzie ad nauseam. Mouse brown hair, cartoon eyeballs and braces complete with colored rubber bands, they all agreed she was the type of girl they would probably, eventually marry. None of them could bench press a hundred pounds, afford a sports car or play golf for fun. Chances were they would all stumble into middle age with a middle income as some sort of domesticated human/dog hybrid, eating kibble and sleeping on an actual couch.
“Did you see Charlotte's outfit? Ugh! Whose parents spend that kind of money for a school dance? Did you hear she broke it off with Percy?”
Tristan's ears perked up. Is that why she was talking to me the other day in Algebra?
“...anyway Juliette told me that Charlotte caught him texting his ex-girlfriend. Honestly who already has an ex at our age...” Mekenzie's voice trailed in and out of his head as he scanned the room for those perfect auburn curls. Charlotte's lips were the shape of tropical fruit. The smell of her lingered in his nostrils the other day when they talked. Perfect almond shaped eyes, the color of the ocean, framed high cheek bones that belonged on magazine covers.
She was standing with her best friend, laughing, probably at the perfect joke, funny yet not offensive. Her strappy nude sandals were woven around slender ankles that connected with slim yet toned calves. Her pencil skirt wrapped around proportional thighs and hips.
“What the hell! Tristan!” He looked down to see that he had lost track of his cup and poured the last of his fruit punch into the open top of Mekenzie's dress, soaking her bra.
“Sorry Mack.” Tristan grabbed a wad of napkins from the drink table and still distracted, stuck his hand towards her breasts to clean up his mess.
She smacked his hand away, “Keep your hands to yourself!” She pulled the red stained bra off from under her dress and swung it, aiming for a head shot. Tristan ducked and it hit Tommy from Trigonometry in the head and with a roar of laughter a game of keep away started with her bra before the chaperons could nip it in the bud.
Tristan took the opportunity to slip a few groups closer to Charlotte and her friend. Needing some social cover, he waved and walked up to Javen and Dukis, two boys who became friends only because they had the weirdest names. Javen was built like a gingerbread cookie with hair that was reminiscent of a seed pod ready to explode. Dukis was the color of terra-cotta pottery and from a country everyone mispronounced. Tristan was like them in that he liked the mayhem of gaming on a certain Grand Theft Auto server.
They talked. The bizarre short hand, acronyms and meme references left idle observers wondering what in the hell was being discussed. It was a language perfected to deflect parental eavesdroppers from detecting references to boobs, guns and fantasy crimes. After agreeing to a start time for their session tomorrow, Tristan made his move toward Charlotte.
As he approached he realized that even with his leather oxfords, she was a couple inches taller than him. Was it the heels, the hair? His palms felt like soapy wash cloths. Tristan thought about opening his mouth and thankfully didn't. He looked over at Charlotte's face. Her eyes were inky pools of blue and green lapping on pure white sandy beaches. He dove into them with his naked soul. Her slowly closing her eyelashes and turning to her friend and back made his knees wobble.
“Have you met my friend Chelsea?”
Chelsea offered her hand for a shake, “Glad to meet you.”
Her hand was a bundle of tulip flowers. “It's a pleasure,” he cooed, knowing she was measuring him for Charlotte.
Adele's voice boomed over the monitors flanking the DJ. Chelsea and Charlotte swayed holding hands while singing slightly flat with eyes closed. 'Make You Feel My Love' was sending puppy love dreamers towards the dance floor. After the first few brave couples, an avalanche of would be lovers flooded after them. Tristan knew it was his chance.
“Would you like to dance?” Nerves were the only thing that kept the wet from his eyes as he turned to his high school crush and reached for her hand.
“Sure,” she answered, sending butterflies through him.
Putting his hands on her hips they swayed back and forth doing the time honored turning two step. Charlotte held her chin up, watching the other couples. Tristan couldn't look away, he had never been so close to perfection. Her skin was radiant like diamonds, her teeth pearls. She smiled at one of the other dancing couples and he felt light headed. He couldn't believe this was happening. Her hands were laced behind his neck, sending molten shivers down his spine.
She turned to him and smiled at the song's crescendo, the chords on the piano punctuating the moment. Charlotte leaned in toward Tristan and he closed his eyes and opened his mouth. Her lips brushed his cheek as she whispered into his ear, “Thanks for being such a good friend and listening to me the other day.”
He was mortified, she gave him the open mouth dodge, the lean and peck. He suddenly realized his tongue was sticking out and closed his mouth in shame, banished in one coup de gras move to the friend zone. He looked over at Javen and Dukis as they made smooching faces while motioning for him to salvage what was left of his pride and join them for some more punch and geeked out gamer gossip. Tristan walked to them, head down, bottom lip dragging the ground.
Javen spoke up, “Look over there man, you got the consolation prize. Percy looks like fire is about to erupt from his eye sockets.” He reached down so Tristan could give him a discreet hand slap.
“I can't believe I'm that stupid. Why did I think she was going to kiss me?”
“It's alright, you were caught up in the moment.” Dukis was smirking back at Percy as he and his crew stewed like an angry wolf pack.
Watching the aftermath, Tristan realized he was a pawn in Charlotte and Percy's rift. The disgruntled lovers took turns waving each other off and making faces. At some point one poked out a tongue and Tristan realized she had just used him to make Percy jealous. He tried to look at the other girls in his class, but his eyes kept drifting back to Charlotte like a sailor to the Siren.
The dance marched on, children, feeling like adults with their new found crops of body hair. A few held hands and followed each other around like puppy dogs. Most painted over their insecurities with braggadocio and animated story telling. Later that night, Charlotte was crowned queen of the dance. They placed a wreath on her perfect head. Tristan watched as gawking admirers showered her ego with compliments and praise.
He texted his mom to pick him up in fifteen minutes, passing a spurned young man with his head between his knees, sobbing, pushing away well meaning friends trying to comfort him. He thought back to his mom, dad and brother. He was going to give out hugs when he arrived home and be thankful he at least had a loving family.
“How was the dance?” Mom could tell by his somber expression he was ruminating.
“Did you talk to anybody?”
“Do you mind me asking who.”
“I just hope you had a good time.”
Tristan grabbed the back of his collar and sniffed. Her smell was there, lingering. It reminded him of roses and candy. Taking a picture in his mind he agreed to treasure it and not let the rejection bother him. He would cherish that moment until someone came along and helped him replace it with something better.