It was maybe the second dance of the eighth grade, early enough in the school year that I didn’t wear a coat, early enough in my career as a teenager that I hadn’t yet learned I could skip the dance. Mom dropped me off outside the gym l and I entered in through a chorus of nervous mothers squeeching out last minute instructions from minivan windows. Be careful. Don’t leave the school grounds. Be sure to call if you need me.
My particular junior high school was broadly considered to be the worst school in town. There were a lot of transparent reasons cited, but the truth was that it brought together a bunch of affluent, mostly white kids from the north side of town, a bunch of working class white kids from the west side of town, and a near majority of black kids from the center and south sides of the urban doughnut, so to speak. Parents were outwardly supportive but quietly concerned. And the integration of all of us played out like you’d expect at an Appalachian public school in the early 1990s. Which is to say, we didn’t really mix. The school kept us rigidly tracked by academic decree established so early it might as well have been Predestination. It was entirely possible to go through a whole class year in a school thronged with strangers without ever sitting beside someone you hadn’t gone to kindergarten with. And teenagers are masters of self-segregation on their own. Even the dance arranged itself by geography. The West Asheville kids in the bleachers on the far side of the gym. The North Asheville kids in a topsider-ed circle on the floor by the door. The Central South a moving column that divided the room between the two non-dancing groups of white adolescents seemingly oblivious to the other’s existence.
I found my place in the Northside corner, on the outer rim of the outer rim of popular North side kids. I glanced toward the dance floor with yearning. It was a dance. Hadn’t we come dance? But all the nerdy girls that were still talking to me were transfixed by The Diplomat, a boy in our class in possession of the full arsenal of traditional North side popular traits—rich, smart, athletic, conventionally attractive, but he was uniquely regarded as nice. He always kept his distance—and convenient obliviousness—to the sniping and bullying of his expanded coterie, and eschewed long term relationships, making him a perfectly agreeable, acceptable crush for any girl in Honors Algebra.
I tried to pay attention to conversation around me but the gym was loud and the music was infectious. 1989 was an exceptional year for hip-hop, thick with songs that were funny and sexy and furious and drunk with joy, and whoever the school hired to DJ was playing all the hits. I had a kind of out of body experience, coasting on beats while the kids around me stood around in tight rolled jeans and Duke sweatshirts like a pouty toadstools. I couldn’t figure out why we were standing stock still. What were we all waiting for?
The answer came soon enough when the DJ turned down the lights and turned up Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The floor cleared, and west side descended the bleachers across the room mustered in the center of the gym with the northside kids—some sad confluence of white adolescence—and then paired into couples to sway along to Robert Plant.
Annoyed, I turned to one of the nerdy girls to ask why it was that white people were so determined to dance to this undanceable song, or why they’d even want to. Instead, I said: “I hate this song.”
I thought she might agree. She owned a B-52s shirt, after all, but before she could respond, The Diplomat tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to dance. I found this both shocking and disappointing, but Algebra Class was thin, so she wasn’t monstrous in the the way I was. I skulked off to the sidelines. I looked around at the silhouettes of the other remainder girls, wondered if I looked like them, staring mournfully at the dance floor, while a significant proportion of Asheville’s white adolescents attempted to bustle a hedgerow. Whatever that means. I wondered if the other remainder girls expect something more or different to happen at this dance? Did I?
I walked out into the gym lobby, now packed to capacity with dancers griping about whatever bullshit was being played inside. I missed being a little kid, when you could wander up to another little kid in the supermarket checkout and ask straight out if they wanted to be friends. I imagined myself doing that now, and blushed with mortification. I would die. I would die right here.
Around me, the crowd shifted. I heard the vice-principal clapping students back into the gym. I rode the wave back inside during what I believed to be the longest, wankiest guitar solo in history (I was wrong, sadly). The rest of the crowd started massing around the edges of the dance floor, heckling the slow dancers.
The DJ must have felt a riot was imminent because he cut “Stairway” off about three steps shy of the landing to what must be described as jubilant relief and played what I remember as “Bust a Move,” but I don’t think that’s possible chronologically speaking. Regardless, I started hopping around, in the intermediary zone, not quite in line with the dancers, but far enough away from the bleachers to, I thought, the kind of confident, devil-may-care energy that would differentiate me from the other remainder girls. I got a chorus of laughs when I attempted the Roger Rabbit, and took that as cue to never dance again. So I went to the bathroom with the girl from Algebra and watched her fluff her spiral perm and reapply blueberry LipSmackers. She told me that The Diplomat was the only one for her. She was sure he would ask her out now. I felt torn. I was pretty sure The Diplomat was the only boy who had ever asked her to dance. Seemed like a pretty low bar, but what did I know? I’d never been asked to dance by a boy either.
A couple of high-banged West Asheville girls produced a pack of cigarettes, and fearing Algebra Class would freak out or narc or both, I ushered her back into the gym, where she fluttered around The Diplomat, giggling and I stood aside until the next slowdance, when shockingly, unbelievably, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
When I turned, I saw the Diplomat. He gave me a line. “I’m dancing with all the coolest girls in the class,” he said, and I knew it was a line, because I wasn’t cool and neither was Algebra Class. But the song was “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles. And he was cute. And he was smart. And he smelled like laundry detergent and Flex shampoo. And no one had ever asked me to dance before. I followed him to the dance floor. He put his hand on my waist. I worried he might feel a fat roll, then my stomach sort of flipped, because he grinned and pulled me closer. I touched the woven sleeve of his polo. It was blue. Susannah Hoffs asked if she was only dreaming. I totally forgot about the girl from Algebra class. I totally forgot that I didn’t really even like The Diplomat.
When the song ended, he pulled me close and whispered, “Thank you,” before walking away. I stood on the floor, while a not-yet-problematic Bobby Brown summoned the crowd back around me. And even though I knew I wasn’t real, even though I knew he’d just done the same thing to Algebra Class, for a second I thought I was maybe, actually cool. That The Diplomat hadn’t lied. That he’d wanted to dance with me. Maybe he even wanted to go out with me.
The girl from Algebra class was annoyed when I got back to the corner, but now I was the infatuated one. I drifted around him, laughed at his commentary, and ignored the stink eyes of the actual popular girls. At the next slow dance, I tensed up, full of expectation, and peripherally saw Algebra Class do the same. But The Diplomat walked past us, further down the bleachers to the next of the Remainder Girls. He asked her to dance. I heard him say, “I’m dancing with all the coolest girls in the class.” I could almost feel the warmth of her blush from a distance. I felt sick.
He did it four more times that night. Each time with a different girl. Fat girls. Plain Girls. Girls with visible handicaps. Girls with bad skin. Girls that no one much liked. Pariah Girls. Invisible Girls. Girls that everyone felt sorry for. All of us weird and unfortunate and grotesque. And him such a saint to condescend to treat like real humans for the length of a song.
The dance ended after the last slow song. He helped the girl with her crutches back to the bleachers and again, turned, without looking back and returned to his friends.
Outside we waited for rides between rainslicked breeze blocks. I watched my crowd dwindle and other kids, laughing, took off walking out of the parking lot I had been instructed not to leave. I could see The Diplomat from where I was standing, talking to a couple of popular girls, triple threat girls like him, rich, pretty, smart. They were flirting, buzzing around him, full of compliments.
“It’s so nice that you danced with those girls tonight,” one of them said. “They’re all so sad. I mean, they might not ever get asked to dance again. And you are, like, such a good person.”
“I mean, I think it’s important to be try and be decent to people,” he said, and I swear he saw me then. I swear he made eye contact with me. “Especially people who aren’t as lucky as we are.”
I probably should have yelled at him, but I was in the eighth grade, still making all the wrong decisions and feeling all the wrong feelings. I saw the shape of Mom’s headlights and stumbled toward the car, because I didn’t want to cry in public yet. I pulled at the door handle and hoisted myself into the station wagon.
She asked how the dance was .
I blinked. I thought about Susannah Hoffs. ” You’ll never guess who danced with me,” I said.
I saw her smile. I saw her thinking maybe that I was cool and pretty, that I was the kind of girl someone wanted to dance with.
“So you had a good time?”
I closed my eyes and reconfigured the plot, until the memory looked the way it was supposed to. “It was the best,” I said.
“Tell me everything,” she said.
I didn’t, but the version I told was so much better than the truth that I almost made myself believe it.