On the dance floor I look for partners. The brothers who have come with sisters are easy pickings, and are surprisingly eager to dance, to use their legs I mean—as eager just to be standing on the dance floor as they are to have someone they can be seen with without being embarrassed, which is how I feel as well. When I have exhausted their ranks, I cajole a few of the sadder-looking chaperones into dancing with me; they are the fathers of children long gone from this school, or they are motivated former students, harboring some sort of sick-puppy love for their alma mater. They are childless or wifeless, and dancing with them is harmless.
Before long, though, I am bold and cutting in on couples. The boys always accept. I make it so they can’t help it, putting on my politest, most gentle manner, being sweet to their girlfriends, who then make their reluctant retreat from the floor, trying to find another girl unoccupied to share their scowling with. Some of the boys dance, I think, because they can see Walter sitting mournfully at the dinner table—because they feel sorry for me. I disabuse them of this quickly, tell them he is a Quaker and doesn’t believe in dancing. They joke, smirk; they let on that they are better boyfriends, that they would know how to be good men for me. In these instances I smile at them, put a tap of pressure against one shoulder or the other, and they shut up and sway with me, for I am a very persuasive dancer. My grandparents, who learned all the steps in their youth, taught me from the time I started living with them, and I practiced, though I knew nobody danced that way much anymore, and though I knew I would never find a boy these days who could even do a basic foxtrot. And indeed, these boys I dance with succeed mainly in keeping their feet from stomping mine. All lack confidence. All lack grace. They are red-faced and their palms sweat against mine. It’s enough to make me wonder whether I should have worn the white gloves.
At the back of the room, Leon stands by himself, refusing all partners. He is sneaking looks at me. But he does not cut in.
This makes me feel bad. Like he thinks there’s something wrong with him talking to me, because of my turning him down. There is nothing wrong with it. I don’t mind being nice to him. I can be nice without encouraging. Even if Walter doesn’t think so.
I decide I don’t want to dance anymore for the moment. I decide I want a drink. I go over to the table where several mothers are idle; they nearly fight over who gets to ladle me punch. I may never understand the allure of homemade punch for parties; you can get the mix at any grocery store, and it’s just as good. I drink maybe four cups.
Walter comes up to the punch table. I watch him walk over all the way from the other side of the room. He stands in front of me, hands thrust in his pockets, eyes to the floor.
“I’m ready to go,” he says.
“Well,” I say, swirling the punch in my cup, “I am not.”
“I wanted you to get to dance,” he says. “Now you have.” When I say nothing, he leans in close to me. His angry whisper tickles my ear, makes me shiver all over. Makes me cold—every word.
What he says is this:
“You may think I’m jealous of those other guys, or old-fashioned. I’m just looking out for you. It’s not becoming for a woman to throw herself around that way. It’s not a thing a man likes to see, whether the girl is his or not.”
He has more, but I am gone, away from his awful mouth, away from him.
I am across the room, out of the ballroom, out the door of the Legion. I hold my bare arms in the cold night, swaying to myself on the porch, in the only light for miles: two torchbulbs, mounted in pointy glass astride the front entrance, dimmed with the shrunken bodies of flies and moths, with gummed-on spiders’ webs. I am not crying. I am not doing anything.
If I am doing anything, I am reacting still to the strange energy that jolted through my heart when he said to me what he said, that set my stomach pitching and turning. I am pacing the porch of the Legion, trying to act on that thought that coursed suddenly and insistently through my head: I want to go away. Which only leaves me thinking, where is there that I can go?
I leave the porch and wander out into the parking lot. There are more cars here, it seems to me, than I’ve ever seen in one place except for, maybe, the lake on the Fourth of July. It seems like there must be a car for every boy in every family in town, though I know so many families don’t have boys, or have boys who don’t receive cars. Or families like mine—there must be some—who are older, who don’t have much to do anymore in the way of raising children, who keep mainly to their homes and walk to places they want to be. Who go to church or to the fair, but not to the movies or the PTA. Who don’t go out just to be seen. I see Walter’s baby-yellow Fairlady at the end of a row and have the urge to get inside and hunker there until Walter comes out and sticks the key in the ignition and drives us back down the main drag until we reach the edge of town, the big bur oak that marks my street in the dark, and the steep gravel drive that marks my home.
But Walter keeps the Fairlady locked.
And then there is being in the car with him, a chore on a good day. I am thinking about it, but there is nothing I want less.
I walk the side yard of the Legion, picking up my skirts to keep them from touching scraggly weeds and cigarette butts. I follow the brick wall to the end and then turn another corner into the narrow alley behind the hall—a reeking Dumpster and an open door, out of which leaks the lively chorus of “Twist and Shout.” I put my face to the crack in the door.
There is a hallway with restrooms, water fountains, but past them is the dark, crowded dance floor—thicker with people than it was when I was there; almost as thick as if everyone’s on it. They are twisting their hips and arms, predictably, and generally making the happy noise of partiers. They are whooping, some of them, and talking above the music. Of course, this is a popular song. I feel left out a moment, but with some effort I’m able to soothe my little feelings. It is not, anyway, the kind of dancing I like doing.
When the song is over and the record is pulled, a voice comes over the PA—the principal, I think it is. “How about it, kids?” he asks. “Are you having a good time?”
There is hooting, clapping, affirmation. I bend my ears closer to hear.
“I have here the results for Prom King and Queen.”
I am struck motionless. And what would it look like, answering to the declaration, to the elegant syllables of “Evangeline Hall,” from the dingy back hallway? Who would slink out from the bathrooms to claim their title?
I can hear the principal opening the envelope through the PA. It rustles madly; it’s as if he is mangling it. The crowd laughs a little. They are nervous.
“Your Prom King,” he says, “is.”
And in the back of my head there is a passing whimsy, not wished, not hoped, not meant, but all the same, strikingly vivid: Leon Harper, and Leon’s name rings through the room, everyone’s heads turn looking for him, and here, here he comes, floating down the center of the room, like a movie star down the red carpet. His chin is down and demure, but this look in his eye, it flares—like there’s nothing you can do to him, nothing outside his command. The crowd parts for him, the way I’ve imagined they’ll part for me. But I don’t look the way he does in this vision: not in pictures, not in the mirror, not even in my own imagination.
You see a look like that in your head and you wonder why a crowd would part for anything else.
The principal’s breathing is broadcast over the PA. “Brian Dunkirk,” he announces finally, and the applause rushes into my ears so loud it shakes my heart. A sound of total certitude, like an avalanche spells doom. Because of course it is him. Who else would it be.
I realize I don’t know anymore why I think—why I’ve spent so much time being so sure—that my name is going to be the next one called.
I become sure that it will not be.
“And your Prom Queen, as elected by the student body—” says the principal, rushing through this one as if to spare us. “Leona—”
And there’s a silence. Snickers ripple through the room. The principal, still searching his mental file for students’ names, murmurs it aloud: “Leona Harper,” and then he realizes it, and says, outraged, “We will not honor this,” but not before the crowd is taken away with laughter, with clapping, with jeers. Heads turn this side and that until someone finds Leon, and some goofball’s big voice crows “Leona!” In the back, far away from the dance floor, I watch the crowd shift its shape, its impossible outline a monster seething. It splits at last, and at its center is Leon, stepping forward to claim the crown.