There's gum on his tongue and it smells like false confidence. You know, those toothpaste ads on television where there is a whole smiling family with fake-white teeth and icy fresh breath. He drums on the steering wheel and mutters in an off-key melody to the radio, his fingers fumbling with the dial but his eyes never even blinking off the road. His big brown lips mouth the words that Mama sings in the kitchen after Easter when she's so happy about having her butter back she lets us all listen to the FM.
There's a traffic jam up ahead, so Buddy sits back and coasts the car into a stop. I'm wilting under the pressure of Southern summer heat, wishing I was a boy so I could stick my head out of the window like a dog might. But I can't because I'm a lady, and besides my pink dress might get wrinkled. Not that I would care, except my grandmother made this dress herself. She bought the fabric in Atlanta.
""'Ent you excited, Shanny?" Buddy asks. He finally glances at me now that we're parked behind a tow truck. The traffic is as still as the stuffy air. Daddy's car has a fancy brand-new air conditioner, the first one on our block, but Buddy is only seventeen and besides that a black boy and they don't make enough an hour. Not as much as white folks.
"Sure, I'm excited, Bud," I say. I reach across and squeeze his hand reassuringly. My voice quakes and so does my hand but Buddy just grins, smooth as silk. He knows I'm a terrible liar.
I pet the pink roses on my hand. It's not a corsage, it's better. It's a bracelet, a chain of flowers that Buddy's own sister plucked and pruned and twisted together. They are brighter than my dress but not as bright as Buddy's eyes. He's never been to a formal before- his jacket is tight and old and his tie is worn but his slacks are brand-new and navy blue. The look smashing against the cocoa of his skin. My dress is not fancy or store bought but it has lace and one of those new stylish above-the-knee hems. My gloves are real white silk and I'm ashamed of how much they cost. I peel them off and stuff them into my purse.
"I think the traffic jam's clearing up," Buddy says. He's right. The cars are jolting back into a quick speed and so is my heart. Five blocks until we reach the town dance hall. I'm glad I dabbed perfume under my arms. My heels haven't even hit the dance floor yet and I'm already sweating.
"I'm scared, Buddy," I say. For a second I see a sort of armor melt from his eyes and I look away, not used to this vulnerability. But when I look back he's grinning just as confidently as before. Look, Shanny, he says, you got as much right to go to the dance as any of the other girls. Your daddy practically paid for5 most of it anyway. And you got a right to bring who you want to bring too, and you want to bring me, right sugar? And I say, yep, you're right Buddy.
We pull up to the curb and he jumps out of the car, running around to open the door for me. I give him a week smile. The street is a fine sight- Crayola-colored convertibles cruising around with handsome blonde boys and girl in pastel dresses. Lined up like goddamn Barbie dolls or something. I feel faint until we head in.
The town assembly room, the same place where my mama and daddy vote and where the charity events are held, has never looked prettier. It's decked out to the nines and so is every person in it. Why, there's even a live band playing snappy jazz and rock and roll music up on the stage. Buddy and I spot some friends of our in the middle of the thick crowd, far from prying eyes. Blacks and white alike have turned up for the annual event, even waving hi to one another and dancing the Twist in big groups. It's hard to remember old grudges on a night like this.
Sally and Sherman and Chuck and Emmy, some of the only people who stuck around with me after I started going out with Chuck, greet us with hugs and squeals. It looks like every person from Washington High, the white school, has turned out. I even spot some of the teachers with their husbands and wives. There are kids from the colored school too, though not many.
We shimmy and twist and swing for a good hour until none of us can breathe from laughing and dancing so hard. We sit at a table with white table cloths and a couple of people give Buddy funny looks but no one says anything, and Buddy smiles smooth as glass and hands me a glass of deep red punch. It tastes like Kool Aid from summers on the Bayou.
A couple of faster songs go by as the band plays through our resting period. Then a slow one comes on, a cover of an old Billie Holiday song. My heart skips a beat as Sally and Sherman leave for a walk and Chuck and Emmy get up to dance. I look down and fiddle with my flower bracelet and next thing I know, Buddy is touching my hand and then my feet are moving out onto the dance floor and then my arms are around him, a safe distance but close enough that I can smell his Old Spice and the mothballs his suit jacket was wrapped in. Close enough that I'm sure he can smell my Lady in Lace and my fear. Emmy, her chin resting on Chuck's shoulder, winks at me.
The song ends and nothing happens. I sigh with relief but another slow one starts in and Buddy pulls me back into him, closer this time. I love the way his skin feels. I love the way his socks never match. I love the way he tips his head back and laughs like there's never been anything funnier when I make a feeble attempt at a joke. I've loved Buddy since the day I met him, the day he ran up to me while I was walking down the main street and asked me if all the girls were as pretty as me in this new town his family had moved into.
His hand slipped down to the small of my back and my head found a soft spot on his chest, as I felt a weight lift off my own. I exhaled and closed my eyes for a moment. That was my mistake.
Suddenly Buddy stopped dancing. I opened my heavy eyelids and looked up to see Mr. Arcieri, the mayor, tapping on Buddy's shoulder. He said something low and subtle but that didn't stop Buddy's face from contorting to an expression of anger and disbelief. Ignoring the mayor, he turned back towards me as if to begin dancing again. Before he could touch me again Mr. Arcieri grabbed his arm with a deliberate grip. Buddy pushed him and the every couple within twenty feet stopped dancing. My cheeks burned with embrassment and then with rage as Mr. Arcieri's eyes grew fiery and he slugged Buddy square in the jaw.
"Who the hell do you think you are, boy, dancing with a white girl that way?" he shouted before he could strike Buddy again two men leapt up from the table the mayor had been sitting at and pulled him back towards the side of the room. Stupid negro, one of them said to Buddy. Before Buddy could start another fight Chuck and Emmy swept us from the room and guided us towards the door. By then the band stopped playing and all of the decked out citizens of our fine town stopped and stared.
When we stepped out onto the street, the air was cold and refreshing. But the relief lasted only for a moment. Chuck began yelling at Buddy, asking him, "Bud, you knew the limits. You can't dance like that with her in public."
"I wasn't dancing with her any different than you was dancing with Emmy, Chuck," Bud says. He gets in the car and I follow him. We peel past the fancy cars, past the shops that say Whites Only in the window and even past the high school. Buddy drives all the way up to Pirate's Point, the hangout overlooking the bayou where everyone parks. It's deserted and dark tonight, everyone being at the dance.
Buddy kills the engine and stares out at the black water, gathering his thought. He turns to me as if to say something but before he can speak I'm crying.
"I'm sorry, Bud, I say. I love you. I'm so, so sorry. He watches as I cry harder and harder, my tears staining the fabric of his car. He brushes my hair out of my face comfortingly and a moment later I am drawn to him, embracing him and crying. He doesn't speak; there are no words. And when there are no more tears either he just sits and holds me. All night, until dawn comes and the sun rises up as rosy pink as the flowers on my wrist.