Dinner finally ends, and after comes the promenade. The couples are to line up alphabetically by the man’s name. Walter is an Early. We join the line behind Jill, who is holding hands ostentatiously with her Dunkirk.
“I’m excited,” she hisses back to me, and she shimmies her shoulders under the seams of her drab bolero jacket. Her face is all smiles but she looks, with her dark and droopy skirts, like a widow.
I reach down to locate Walter’s hand. He has it stuffed firm in his pocket. I hook onto his elbow, which is classier anyway, and which sets our posture for the moment our names are called: “Walter Early, escorting Evangeline Hall.”
I step forward into the applause that greets us, a big step, the way I’ve practiced—girls think a small step is comely, but if you watch the Queen and the movie stars you know this is wrong; the trick is in smoothness, not size. You must make your stride a man’s stride, but temper his gangliness with your grace. A proper promenade results in hem and head floating. I can see it in my mind—the regal angle of my chin, the soft swish of my dress below my ankles.
But only the first step is done my way. Walter walks through the crowd quicker and dumber than anyone has ever walked. I keep up with him or risk tripping. I try to call him to heel; I pull back on his elbow like it’s the shift stick in a car.
Walter yanks his elbow free.
I catch his hand in mine; it is a saving instinct; it makes our arms swing a little back and forth, which looks sweet, unplanned, and people coo at us. My eyes brim a little from embarrassment. But the hall is dark, and the walk is short. It must look like we are having fun.
When we take our places across the aisle from each other, I look not at Walter, whom I know is glowering, but at the next couple parading down, and the next, and the next. Some, like Walter, give off waves of discomfort. Some embarrass themselves. A boy’s fly is undone. A girl slips in her heels and is pulled back up, blushing. Some are more beautiful together than separate. They look really and truly happy. To these couples I give my most sincere smiles, my gentlest claps. And somehow, making myself happy for them makes me marginally more happy overall. I can almost lift my gaze across the aisle to meet Walter. I have almost tempered my anger enough to do so.
“Leon Harper,” says the announcer. “And—”
Jill has grabbed onto the cap of my sleeve, but I am already peering down the aisle, where Leon waits—alone, alone!—for the announcer to finish.
“Leon Harper,” the announcer restarts, fumbling.
“And self,” calls Leon, cavalier, for everyone to hear.
The boys in the room laugh. Some of the girls do, too. Leon steps forward and receives his applause. Here he comes, striding freely down the aisle, some of the boys whooping and cheering as if he has killed a neighboring giant—I catch myself taking a step back as he passes. But he does not look, and I am safe from having to think of the look we might share, from having to feel the crackle of his heartbreak—from having to see again that look he gave when I said no.
I see it again, of course, anyway, in my mind.
“By himself,” Jill whispers to me once the noise dies down. “What boy comes to prom by himself?”
I shake my head, not knowing what to say.
Leon takes his place on the boys’ side, opposite an empty space. The girls’ line seems to seethe and slither a little, as if to compensate for him. I, too, take a half-step down.
“Time to close that gap,” our announcer says, once all the names are called. “The first dance is for sweethearts.”
There is some giggling from Leon’s vicinity. I look over to see him shrugging politely, excusing himself from the line.
Walter, meanwhile, isn’t closing the gap. I have to go to him. I put my hands upon his shoulders. “First dance,” I say, as somebody puts the needle on, as the record studio violins sweetly swell. I sway right. He doesn’t follow.
“I can’t dance,” he says.
“Of course you can,” I say. Men think they have to do something pretty to dance. Dancing itself is pretty: a man standing straight and steadfast like a tree trunk, a woman his canopy, a woman his shade, swishing her skirts, the sound of leaves in fall. That is the sound the room makes now—all the room except for us. “It’s easy,” I tell him, linking my hands behind his neck. “Just sway with me.”
“I don’t dance,” he says.
It’s the first time I’ve seen Walter look embarrassed. “It’s not hard,” I try, assuming patience like a teacher’s. “Here.” I position his hands around my waist.
His hands fly back like he’s touched a hot stoveplate. “No,” he insists.
And leaves me on the dance floor, alone.
Not long enough for anyone to see. I follow him back to our dinner table; he sits, and I sit, as if it’d been our plan. His hands are pressed down flat, his arms out straight and taut. I top his hands with mine, like we’re in our own little hideaway, like we’re going to trade lovers’ words.
He jerks his hands away, hides them beneath the tablecloth.
“What is wrong with you?” I snarl. It’s rude, and I can’t help it.
Walter scoots his chair in close as he can get, head bowed over the table. His eyes squint closed.
He is praying.
I cross my arms. The only thing you can do when somebody is praying at you is wait. The music is still going, but the song is about to change. On the dance floor it is everyone but us, or it feels that way. Everyone but us and Leon, who leans against the far wall, watching the girls go round with their dresses fluttering and their faces all romance. Watching without interest. Watching beyond them.
Watching, I think, me.
Walter takes deep breaths. He sounds like he’s got something lodged in there, and I think, meanly, Who comes to prom without blowing their nose even once?
At last I have to interrupt him. I slide my chair closer. I say, “What could you be praying for, now, in the middle of prom?”
Walter calls upon some spirit of righteous patience. He opens his eyes and addresses me with his voice perfectly even:
“This is some big night for you. I know that. And I know I’m not to ruin it. I came prepared for all this show. I don’t like it but I knew to expect it.” He gestures to our dinner table, its tall-stemmed water glasses and its empty breadbasket and its two candles lit. But his eyes are on me the whole time, on my dress, on my bare neckline.
And he says, “I was praying because I’ve promised the Lord I’ll keep from temptation.”
He says, “I was praying for you, too.”
I am standing up. I am looking for somewhere else to go. He reaches to stop me, and I let him hold onto my wrist.
“I’m allowed to dress up for prom,” I say. “I’m allowed to use a little more makeup.”
“It’s more like—a look you make. When you look at me, tonight.” His voice is getting littler and littler. “It makes me feel bad. I don’t want to be—bad toward you.”
He squeezes onto my wrist like he wants me to anchor him while he weathers the storm. All that bad desire coursing through his veins.
I bend forward to Walter’s level. And while I’m down there, let him look down my dress if he wants, let him do what he wants with whatever he finds there. Let him bear his guilt if God isn’t doing a good enough job of taking it away.
And let Leon see this, and draw what conclusions he will. I am not afraid.
“I’m going to enjoy my prom,” I say to him. “It doesn’t have to be with you.”
Which likely only confirms what Walter is thinking. If you think about it.