Amid cheers, Leon mounts the shallow risers, where he takes his place beside the Prom King, Jill’s Dunkirk, whose beer-fed belly jiggles with laughter, whose eyes must sting with hearty tears, for he wipes at them again and again.
No one comes to offer Leon the crown. The principal, instead, seizes Leon’s arm at the elbow, whispers emphatically into his ear. King Dunkirk sees his chance. He darts up behind the podium, and holds up to the room, to quiet, conspiratorial celebration, the Queen’s silver crown. As soon as the principal turns away, Dunkirk delivers the crown to Leon’s head. Leon accepts it without fanfare, without drama; he adjusts it at the sides for a better sit. Even from the back of the room it glitters like a star.
The principal, when he sees it, is livid. But Dunkirk is standing in his way, a big, giggling protector, and Leon is a perfect gentleman even in his ladies’ crown—he stands straight without speaking, without so much as a smile, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. All the principal can do is stammer out, “Voting is a privilege, not a right,” and he leaves the stage.
There is cheering and whooping; the crowd festers madly. A flashbulb poofs and crackles as the photographer takes several shots, recognizing, probably, a bestseller of a print. Someone goes to the record player and sets the needle down on the next song—the song for the King and Queen’s first dance.
This lets the air out of the joke somewhat. The crowd shuffles nervously. Dunkirk and Leon—or the girl that Leon replaced—are supposed to come down from the stage and take the spotlight. They don’t. The studio strings sweep across octaves, building to birdsong pitch, insisting that someone here make a romantic memory, insisting that love is in the air.
It’s Jill who breaks the tension—who steps forward to the bottom riser and holds her hand out for Dunkirk to join her. There is a coo from the women when he takes her hand and follows her down to the dance floor. Not long after, Leon leaves the stage. Who knows where he goes. The crowd fans out into a sort of ring, coupling up so I can’t see.
I feel suddenly the strangeness of my watching, of standing alone at the back of the room. I look around for Walter. He is buried in the crowd or gone—the dinner tables are abandoned.
The light shifts at my feet. Is everyone dancing, now?
But then there is a breakthrough of light. The crowd fans out neatly before me—every body from the center out, along an invisible seam, as if someone is drawing them down with a zipper. They part, and straight down the center of the aisle they leave strides Leon. His queen’s crown is alight.
I can’t move. I know what he’s coming for, and I realize his game, realize my impotence.
Here, in the center of the room, with all eyes on him, I can’t reject him.
When you do it right, when you look hard enough at the one you intend to engage, you don’t have to say anything. I transfer my hands to Leon’s shoulders.
This close it’s apparent he’s had his suit tailored. It’s not his dad’s or an older brother’s. It fits him, draws tight where he is slender, which is basically everywhere. Someone has chosen him a sleek silk tie, and a sweet pink rosebud for his pocket. His chin is freshly shaven; he hasn’t missed a spot. His hair is still too long, I think, but you wouldn’t know it, the way he’s got it slicked. At the center of his forehead a curl springs free, but it is not sloppy, it’s charming. A little like Elvis, or Superman.
Leon takes my hand off his shoulder with a gentle press of his fingertips. The pressure cues me, and almost without thinking, I enter the position, my hips canting toward his, the small of my back waiting for the cradle of his palm. He is there, where I need him to be. His hands are soft and dry in mine.
Imagine: not feeling that, not feeling the specific pressure of the contours of the skin, the radiating warmth that comes with close dancing, all because you want white arms, clean hands, hands made of silk. All that cloth in the way, like you’re holding hands with a rag doll. My regrets are gone.
He leads. One two three. People are looking at us and talking. I can’t know if it’s good or bad. I am breathing the way I’m supposed to be breathing.
“Will you look at me?” Leon says, low, by my cheek.
A good dancer leads as much with his eyes as with his body. I meet eyes with him, and I can see where we’re going. Where he wants us to go.
To the right, to the right, and around; to the left; he rolls his wrist, I extend. Promenade and hold, change step. It builds—he leans, I dip; he catches and brings me upright. I should be dizzy, but he is doing it all right, and so am I—or rather we are doing complementary things at complementary times, and are always where the other expects us to be. My head floats back, and for once the posture feels the way it’s supposed to look: like surrender, like abandon, like sweet oblivion to the rest of the world. Everyone must be looking, mustn’t they? I don’t see them or hear them anymore—just the swirl of my dress around his legs, Leon’s suit tails trailing. Just a foot’s tap, a heart’s thump, the sound of 3/4. He is looking at me, looking at me. He smiles and the smile is sweet.
We don’t realize the song is over until someone rips the needle off, cutting in a louder, faster tune. Everyone swarms the center. They seem somehow relieved. Their bodies make a sound all around us like sighing, like the door of a bus folding open. Their dull, slow dancing, the principal’s warning, Leon’s crown—all forgotten. Leon and I draw to an uneasy stop in each other’s arms.
“Another?” Leon asks, his hand tight at my back.
“I have to go find Walter,” I murmur, too soft for anyone to hear over the noise. But it’s not Walter I want. I don’t want to ride with Walter, sit silent in Walter’s car. And I don’t want to go home, and I don’t want to be here either—not really. I want to be somewhere else. Somewhere lonely and quiet, like it was inside the dance. The music is loud, overbearing. The bodies, overbearing.
Leon’s wrist drapes across my hip. I’ve been letting him hold me this way. He has taken it as a sign, I think, to come closer. He has leaned his body into mine, our cheeks almost touching.
“Do you wish you had come with me?” he asks in my ear. “Any more than you did?”
I try for tact, but I can’t find it. I shake my head.
“That’s okay,” he says. “But I think we look good together.”
And he takes the queen’s silver crown from his head and puts it at the spot I carved out for it on mine.
The crown is bigger than I imagined. It feels wobbly atop my head, like a rooftop antenna.
“Another dance?” he asks.
I say yes, somehow: with words, maybe, but more likely it’s like Walter said, and it’s something I do with my face. What look is it I wear? I can’t imagine it. All I have in my head is the facts a mirror can tell.
But I think it must look something like the look on Leon’s face, now, as we dance, because as much as I feel strange and separate, watching from outside us, a part of me is tempted, pulled here, to him.