It's Thursday afternoon and the giant mass David Gallagher calls his foot just narrowly missed my big toe. Again.
"Rock step, triple step. Rock step, triple step, spin," our dance teacher Ms. Schumer calls as she weaves around the crowded room, correcting postures and adjusting hands. Her heels click across the yellowing linoleum floor, keeping time to the jazz music from the boom box at the other end of the church basement. David and I started class at the front of the room today, near the door, but in the intervening forty minutes, we've migrated towards the back, away from Ms. Schumer's normal firing range. We're horrible dancers. He's long arms and hairy legs and I'm just stubby fingers and thick cotton socks. We're so mismatched that I bet even God is laughing at us.
"Listen to the music!" Ms. Schumer barks.
We're stuck in a corner, cinderblock on both sides. David mutters something incomprehensible as he tries to figure out how to lead us out of the corner. We need to get away before Ms. Schumer remembers our existence.
"Why don't you move back a couple steps?" I suggest.
David doesn't budge, still rock stepping.
I try again. "Come on, just take two—"
"—Hold on," he glances behind his shoulder, "I'm working on it. There're people behind me."
We both drew sevens out of the baseball cap earlier this afternoon. In the interest of variety, couples are randomly paired up for each class, or so Ms. Schumer says. Personally, I think the system is rigged. This is the third time in a row that David and I have drawn the same number. Like all the other guys in my youth group class, David hates dance lessons. He only comes because his mother makes him. The two of us get along well enough, but I don't think he wants to be my partner anymore than I want to be his.
David looks behind him again. "Shit." He jerks me forward in a spin, my mind and feet still on a triple step.
"Hey!" I say, "What are you—"
Someone pokes me in the back. It's a hard jab, between my shoulder blades, and it stings. It's not a David jab. "Chin up, KT," Ms. Schumer directs, "look at David."
I look him in the eye and grimace. I told him to move. Did he listen?
"Hand on her lower back, not her shoulder," Ms. Schumer continues, adjusting his hand. He complies but mirrors my expression. His palm is hot and sweaty and I imagine his handprint, akin to BigFoot's, on the back of my t-shirt. "Listen to the music!" Ms. Schumer exclaims again as she moves on to her next set of victims, "Rock step, triple step!"
"I told you we should've moved," I say when she's gone. It comes out more reproachful than I actually feel but he never listens anyway.
"I was working on it," he replies, spinning me out and then catching me, narrowly missing my big toe. His hand is back on my shoulder again.
He's squeezing my hand so hard that a tingling sensation creeps up my elbow. "My hand hurts," I tell him, trying to shake my fingers loose. He doesn't get the hint and tightens his grip instead.
"David—" I can hear him count the steps under his breath.
"—What." Triple step. Four, five, six.
"Let go." He spins me out.
"What?" He catches me again.
"Let go," I say, trying to shake my hand free.
He sends me spinning with a fast twist and my surroundings start whirling around. The couple next to me is moving closer and closer and I close my eyes to brace myself for the crash until—
"What?" Rock step, triple step.
"Nothing," I say.
It's only five o'clock but the sky is pink and gray when Ms. Schumer presses stop on the CD player. Without another glance at David, I make a beeline for my shoes and book bag, piled along the wall.
"Hey, KT." When I finally get my head through my sweatshirt, I see Rebecca Franklin standing next to me, zipping up her jacket. "Do you mind staying after? It's my week to clean up but Natalie—"
"—has the flu," I finish for her, making a face. When Natalie left in the middle of class on Tuesday, she sounded like she was coughing her lungs out. Being sick sucks. "Sure," I shrug. I'm not doing anything.
After everyone's gone, we unfold the card tables stacked against the wall and rearrange chairs. When dance lessons started last month, Ms. Schumer wanted to have them in the church's front yard, where there's enough room for a fifty-plus person picnic. The arrangement lasted for about twenty minutes before we nearly all got frostbite. Since that first lesson, we've relocated to the basement. It's a little more cramped and two people have to come early to remove the tables and chairs and two more people have to stay after to put the furniture back, but at least it's warm.
"Forward a little more," Rebecca says as we try to line up a set of tables, "I still don't think we're parallel. Let's go back…geeze, this is like doing a rock step."
I laugh as Rebecca sets down her end of the table and does a triple step and turn, ending with a curtsy.
"Can you imagine doing these stupid steps at a dance? I mean, at a real dance, like prom or something?" Rebecca closes the door behind us as we leave the basement. "I'm telling you, Ms. Schumer is insane in the membrane."
Calling Ms. Schumer crazy is one of the nicer things I've heard. The general feeling towards her is one of burning resentment. She's a perfectionist and gets frustrated when we don't do exactly what she wants. But I think dealing with forty teenagers twice a week must be difficult too. Sometimes my brothers and I drive my mother crazy, and there're only three of us. "Nah," I say, "She's just really into the whole dance thing."
Rebecca shakes her head. "The lady is messed up is what it is." We exit the church from one of the side doors and step into the cool air. "Listen, I'm gonna go," she says, jingling her keys. "You need a ride?"
My breath catches. It's a simple question and there's a simple answer. No-thank-you. My-dad-said-he-wouldn't-mind-swinging-by-after-work. I practiced the response a gazillion times in my head last night but this afternoon, the words are stuck in my throat. I shake my head.
"I don't mind," Rebecca says, "and your house is totally on the way. Who's coming to pick you up?"
She's trying to be nice. Last week, Dad was supposed to pick me up too but he forgot. Mother usually shuttles me places but that day, she was at a conference for work, two and a half hours away. In the end, Mrs. Gallagher, David's mom, had to come and get me. By the time she pulled into the parking lot, I was crying, my face all red and splotchy, my nose running. It was embarrassing. I was in kindergarten the last time I cried over being picked up last. I don't know what got into me. I know Rebecca's just trying to make sure I don't get left behind but I don't think Dad's going to forget again. Besides, I'm his daughter, how do you forget your own kid? Twice in a row, I mean. I take a deep breath and let the words out. "My dad."
Rebecca rolls her eyes.
My face burns. I'm telling the truth and she doesn't believe me. "Really," I say. Rebecca's a safe driver but my dad is coming. It would be pointless to make two trips. "Thanks for offering though," I remember to tack on.
Rebecca shakes her head. "Suit yourself."
After she's gone, I wander over to the front of the church where a bunch of other kids are also waiting for rides. It's freezing and I pull on my heavy coat, struggling with the sleeves. February in Escher isn't exactly sunshine and rainbows.
"You look like a marshmallow," Sam Delaney jokes. He nudges me and his elbow doesn't make a dent in my jacket.
I huddle further into the fabric. I don't mind being a marshmallow as long as I'm a warm marshmallow. "It's cold."
"You always think it's cold," David counters, appearing next to me. He's wearing the same t-shirt and gym shorts from dance practice and nothing else. He didn't even bother to put his shoes back on.
Sam crouches into a fighter's stance. "I bet if I punched you, it wouldn't even hurt. It's gotta be like, tons of extra padding."
I give him a look. I've known him since elementary school and he's one of my few guy friends but I don't like him enough to let him punch me. He grins at me and then aims at David, who blocks the slow motion punch with sound effects, a full narration of action without a single word. They're still pretending to beat the crap out of each other when David's mom pulls into the parking lot.
"Need a ride?" Mrs. Gallagher asks me from the open window as David and Sam scramble in.
This time, the answer is at the tip of my tongue. "No, thank you," I say, following my script. She's been shuttling me around a lot these past couple of months and I feel bad about it already, even if I wasn't still mortified about sobbing like a five year old in the backseat of her car last week.
"Are you sure?" she asks, "Who's coming to pick you up?"
The lump in my throat reappears. This is different from Rebecca asking. If I tell Mrs. Gallagher the truth, she'll probably flip out. I've heard her on the phone with Mother. She thinks Dad is A Very Irresponsible Parent. But if I lie, my conscience might flip out instead. What to say, what to say?
I try for the rehearsed lines again. "No thank you. My dad said…" I can't get the rest of the sentence out.
Mrs. Gallagher's mouth draws thin. "Oh." Pause. "Are you sure you don't want a ride then?"
I bob my head, glad that she's phrased the question as a yes or no response. I don't think I can manage an actual sentence without my voice cracking. It's no secret that Dad's track record isn't exactly stellar, but even though I knew there was a fifty-fifty chance he might forget when he promised to pick me up yesterday, the possibility that he might remember was enough for me to tell my worry-wart mother that I would be home by six. Because despite everything that's been going on lately, he's still my dad. He's still the same person who made me scrambled eggs on toast for two straight weeks when I had the chicken pox in kindergarten. I know he would never forget me on purpose.
"I'll be okay," I finally say. I feel better immediately after I hear my own words. I'll be okay, I'll be okay, I'll be okay.
"Maybe we should wait—"
"—No, no, no. It's fine," I interrupt. Mrs. Gallagher means well; she worries about me like she worries about David and his younger brother, but it is okay, really. Dad's going to show up. He has to.
"Well," Mrs. Gallagher finally relents, "Would you please ask your mother to call me when you get home? There're some changes in the budget we need to go over."
I nod. Mother is friends with Mrs. Gallagher and they're on half a dozen church committees together but she's not fooling me. I know it's a check-up call.
"I'm expecting to hear from your mother before six," Mrs. Gallagher continues, as if her purpose wasn't clear enough, "Okay?"
I nod again and then they finally leave. Mrs. Gallagher has the uncanny ability to make me feel like a liar, even if I'm being cross-my-heart-hope-to-die honest. Maybe that's why David is so blunt all the time. I scan the parking lot obsessively after they're gone, pacing the perimeter of the courtyard. I really hope Dad shows up. I mean, I know he will. But just in case he forgets, a little prayer that he remembers won't hurt, will it? Mrs. Gallagher is the hub of gossip. If Dad doesn't show up, not only will I have to beg someone for a ride, but every single parent and classmate involved in youth group will know I got left behind again. I can picture Rebecca shaking her head at me. How embarrassing.
Worse, if Dad doesn't show up, Mother will call him to have a "discussion." I don't want my parents to have a discussion. They never lead to good things. The last major one resulted in Dad moving out and Mother going downtown to change her last name. Lately, they've been getting along really well. For the past couple of weeks, when Dad comes to pick me and my younger brothers up for brunch on Saturdays, he and Mother stand in the foyer and talk until we're ready to go. Their conversations are careful and polite but it's much better than the screaming matches they had before Dad moved across town last year.
One by one, my classmates start to leave. Soon, only two girls are left and they're sisters. The older one is a senior who rants about the college application process, especially the one for some place called AVIT.
"I had to write eight personal essays," she says, "They better accept me!" My eyes bug out. Short, five paragraph essays for AP prompts are torture already…I can't imagine writing eight of them about myself. What would I say? I don't think there's enough to me to fill even one essay.
"But if I do get in," the girl says, "it'll be worth it."
Eight essays? I sort of doubt it. "Where is Acorn-Waltz anyways?" I ask.
"Akron-Valse," she corrects. She names the city and it sounds far away because I've never heard of it before.
"How many hours do you have to drive?" I ask.
Woah. I can barely sit still for the two hour service on Sunday mornings, much less an eleven hour car ride. I hate waiting to get somewhere, for something to be over. I hate hanging in limbo.
"Yeah," she says, "I can't wait to leave this state."
I nod because that's what everyone says. I live in a small town and everything is boring, boring, boring. Even the mall closes at five o'clock. All my classmates can't wait to go to college and leave this place, but I don't mind Escher so much. Home is home.
It's almost a quarter 'til six when the two girls get picked up. They live on the other side of town, in the opposite direction from my house. I settle on the sidewalk, eyes on the road. At first, it's just an annoying, maybe-I-should-call-my-mother feeling but then, the nagging doubts start. What if Dad doesn't show up until after six? What if Dad doesn't show up at all? What do I tell Mother? What will she tell Mrs. Gallagher? How am I going to get home?! And just as I fish out my wallet from the front pocket of my book bag, in search of my plastic phone card, I see a familiar red car pulling in the parking lot. Dad.
My hand is on the door handle before I realize there's someone sitting in the passenger seat. Startled, I reach for the handle to the back door instead, shoving my book bag on to the floor before climbing in.
"Hi, honey," Dad says, turning from the driver's seat to greet me, "Sorry I'm late."
"It's okay," I reply, my brain still on autopilot from relief. Honey? Dad never uses terms of endearment. Only Mother calls me darling, which is terribly old fashioned and southern. I like it. I'm not sure I like honey.
"KT, this is Julia," he says, touching the arm of the woman sitting in the passenger seat, "Jules, this is my daughter Kenley Tristan."
"Hi," I say, feeling all those past months of youth group etiquette lessons catching up to me, "It's nice to meet you." I smile for a good measure too. Her hair is up in a fancy twist, the pins lost in the knots. Underneath her black jacket, she's wearing a green blouse, pearls around her throat. Dad's dressed up too; tie, cufflinks, and good shoes. They look like they're on their way to a fancy restaurant or an orchestra performance. They look like they're on a date.
When Mother started dating Michael a couple months ago, I liked watching her get ready. I would sit on the edge of the bathtub and pass her tissues while she put on eyeliner and curled her hair. Mother was nervous for the first few dates but as Michael started to grow on her, she became loopy. She hummed as she tried on different skirts, danced around the bathroom in heels, and tickled my nose with the makeup brush. I told her she was worse than some of the kids at school and that a thirty-nine year old woman should not, under any circumstances, sing along to the Beach Boys with a hairbrush for a microphone. She smiled, ruffled my hair, and said love is for all ages, not just for the young. Then she kissed me on the cheek, leaving a bright red lipstick mark. When I tried to rub it off, she laughed and kissed my other cheek too.
I know Dad goes on dates as well. In his apartment, I've seen pink cardigans draped on the back of the sofa and barrettes scattered by the sink. I've even met some of the women before. Catherine took me horseback riding and I baked gingerbread houses with Anne this past December. Still, even if love is for everyone, the idea of Dad getting sweaty palms as he dials a phone number is pretty weird.
"It's nice to meet you too," Julia replies, "Your dad's told me so much about you."
"He has?" I say, unable to conceal my surprise. Somehow, I never envisioned Dad talking about me to anybody. Much less, on a date. I mean, what would he say? Suddenly, the curiosity overcomes my good manners and I have to know. "What did he say about me?"
Julia laughs, not unkindly. "Nothing bad."
"But what did he say?" I press. It strikes me as odd that I talk about my parents all the time but the idea of my parents talking about me to other people is strange.
"He said you were a sophmore in high school. Where do you go, Kenley Tristan?"
"Framingham." I'm a junior but with two other kids to keep track of, I forgive Dad for being confused.
"Oh, my neighbor's son goes there…Tyler Hawkins. Do you know him?"
"What year is he?"
"I think he's a senior. He's on the basketball team."
I shake my head. I don't know many people outside my grade and I try to stay as far away from sports as possible.
"I also heard that you're a math whiz."
"What?" I say, pleased and embarrassed by the comment, "No, not really."
"Danny says you're aiming for state's this year in the Ross competitions?"
"Yeah," I say. The Ross is a series of math exams for high school students. The top twenty scorers in the nation get ten thousand dollar scholarships and admission to pretty much any college of their choice. Not that I have any delusions about making it into the top twenty. I take the exams every year to see if I can beat my old score. I did my district qualifications test last week and I had no clue about some of the questions. Actually, I didn't think I was going to score high enough to pass. I'm pretty sure it was a big fluke when I got through district level last year too.
She smiles and then it hits me. "You brag about me?" I ask Dad.
He glances at me in the rearview mirror. "Well, yes. Did you think I complained about you? You're my daughter."
My face goes hot, and then cold. Dad glances back at me again and smiles. I don't know what to say. I can't believe I thought he wasn't going to show up earlier. Rebecca and Mrs. Gallagher must've really gotten to me. I mean, sure, Dad was a bit late, but I know he's not going to leave me stranded somewhere. I'm his daughter. He would never do that to me.
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