Be Careful What You Wish For
By Theryn Fleming
By the time we leave for the dance, I am exactly the right amount of drunk. The rum and Cokes we swizzled while devouring my birthday cake blur the rough edges of my anxiety and tilt my world the teeniest bit. We clatter down the stairs, hollering at each other and giggling at our echoes in the stairwell.
Summer lingers this year and outside it's warm, even though some of the trees on campus have started to turn. I always expect it to be cold when it's dark, as if dark and cold are inextricably entwined, but as we cross the quad to the cafeteria, a sultry breeze flicks at the leaves on the tall chestnut trees surrounding the dorms and a trickle of sweat drips down between my breasts. The lime mini-dress my roommate Mira lent me clings to my sticky skin and the hair at the base of my neck grows damp.
Music vibrates through the open doors as we enter the building. Papier-mâché palm trees, giant beach balls and plastic patio furniture give the place the tacky look of a TV sitcom backyard, but that's unimportant. It's my eighteenth birthday and I'm determined that tonight is going to be the best night ever.
Aisling and I walk toward the stairs that lead up to the cafeteria, but stop when we realize that Taylor and Mira are gabbing with the ticket-takers, four tall rowers in Hawaiian shirts and surfer shorts. We wait for what seems like forever, too far away to hear their conversation or to get a good look at the guys who are obscured by a large "palm tree". I marvel at how good my green school kilt looks on long-legged Mira. Course, it helps that she's wearing it with a bikini top, rather than a white shirt and tie. Her dark hair hangs loose down her back, swinging as she talks, alternately hiding and revealing the new tattoo on her left shoulder. All the rowers have them since last weekend's initiation. Taylor's circles her belly button, drawing attention to her piercing. In the three weeks I've known her, I've never seen her wearing a shirt that covers her stomach. Tonight, along with her de rigueur crop-top, she's tied Mira's batik sarong low around her waist and pinned her sun-streaked blonde hair on top of her head with a pencil.
Aisling babbles about the cute guy from her biology lab who she hopes will be here. I pay little attention; all she's talked about for the last three weeks is Bio-Mike this and Bio-Mike that. Instead I berate myself for being jealous of those tattoos, or rather, what they represent. I'll never be a rower; I'm too small to row eights like Mira, too big to cox like Taylor. I can only tag along and hope of some of their charisma and self-confidence oozes off on me. I close my eyes and rock back and forth, basking in fuzzy alcoholic numbness and letting the music envelop me. I feel dizzier with my eyes closed.
"Come with me to the bathroom."
I sigh. Just because we met in the bathroom, doesn't mean I want to join Aisling every time she goes. But then I figure I may as well go while there's still toilet paper, so I follow her.
We're in there so long I wonder if the dance will be over when we emerge. It isn't, but now Mira and Taylor have disappeared. At the door, two gigantic girls have replaced the four Hawaiian-shirted boys.
We shrug at each other and head upstairs. A stage has been set up at the far end of the reverse-L shaped cafeteria and the white plastic tables with umbrellas that are usually outside are arranged in the foot of the L. We thread our way past wallflowers and couples necking to the "dance floor" in front of the stage.
"Do you see them?" Aisling shouts, as she peers into the heaving mass of bodies.
"No!" I yell back. We're never going to find them. They probably took off with those rowers. Aisling will be miffed that we've been ditched, but she'll get over it once she hooks up with Bio-Mike. I can't believe I've been abandoned. This is like high school all over again.
Someone tugs on my arm. It's Taylor, all four-foot-ten of her, beaming up at me. Apparently, for some people, losing your friends at a dance is no big deal.
"We're over here." She gestures toward the tables and chairs. She's holding a glass of draft and it slops on the floor as she points. "Oops!" she giggles. She chugs the rest of it as she leads us over to the table.
We drag a couple chairs over and sit down.
"Calle and Aisling, this is Mark, Jason, Tim and Drew," Taylor bellows, naming the guys we saw her and Mira talking to at the door.
Even though an ear-piercing guitar solo reverberates from the stage, I have no trouble hearing her, but then that's what she does best. Yell.
"They're my crew… well, half of it," she adds.
I look across the table. They're huge. If these guys are JV, what does the varsity team look like? They all have blue hair, another legacy of initiation. Mira and Taylor must have washed their hair twenty times this week, trying to get the blue out. The one she called Drew has his back to the table. He turns, and I suck in my breath, which is such a cliché, but there it is. I shiver, even though the room is stifling. My stomach churns. I take the glass of beer Taylor hands me and drink it down in three gulps, trying to calm myself.
I set the empty glass down on the table. Taylor is arm-wrestling Mark; he's letting her win. Mira and Aisling are head to head, deep in a conversation that undoubtedly centers on either Bio-Mike or Mira's beloved, Cory. Jason and Tim are leering at a group of girls on the dance floor. And Drew - he's smiling at me, a crooked half-smile that shows his teeth. He has fangs. I had teeth like that, before my braces.
I smile back, a reflex, because of the teeth, and then feel a hot tingle rush from my scalp to the soles of my feet. I'm grateful that the room is dark, because I know that when I blush, red and white blotches mottle my skin. I stare at the floor and will my body to stop betraying me.
When I peek up, he's talking to Tim. Relieved that he's not watching me have what looks like a bad reaction to strawberries, I reach for the nearest pitcher of draft and fill my glass. He gestures as he explains something, his hands weaving through the air like my math prof's do when he's writing on the blackboard. I tell myself that love at first sight is a lie fabricated by Harlequin and Hallmark, that his voice will be high-pitched and whiny or that the intense conversation he's having is about something inane, like wrestling. But every so often, he glances in my direction and gives me that half-smile, and I shiver and blush.
The others head out on the dance floor. In between dances they return, flushed and sweaty, to guzzle quantities of draft and switch partners. It should bug me that no one asks me to dance. Yeah, I'm used to it, I have years of practice as everyone's favorite purse and sweater holder, but this isn't another high school dance. Here, no one knows about my pathetic past. Here, things are supposed to be different.
It should bug me, but it doesn't. I'm content to sip beer and watch him talking to his buddies. He only dances once, when Aisling asks him. He says no, protests that he doesn't dance, but she persists, and he follows her onto the dance floor. He moves like a pre-teen at a lunch-hour sock-hop: right foot behind left foot, left foot behind right foot. The whole time he gazes into the distance above Aisling's head. I'm surprised he's not staring at her ample T&A, which are accentuated by Taylor's pink spandex T-shirt and her own strategically ripped cut-offs. He's not quite as tall as the other rowers are and he's definitely skinnier than the rest of them; his pineapple print shirt hangs on him. After listening to Mira moan about her growing pains -- she says she's grown six inches in the last year and a half -- I suspect he's in the midst of a growth spurt.
When the song ends, Aisling tries convincing him to stay for another, but he flees. As he passes by me, his leg brushes against my arm. I gape, sure that the imprint of his bare knee must be seared on it.
"Sorry," he smiles. His voice is quiet and measured.
"That's okay," I gasp. I reach for my glass and take a big gulp of the flat, musty-smelling beer. Over the top of the glass I see him watching me. He raises his left eyebrow slightly, and gives me that same half-grin. I flush hot and cold again. My hand shakes and the glass clinks against my teeth. The rest of the room reduces to pulsating music, the sticky-sweet smell of coconut suntan lotion and a blur of color as dancers shimmy past the table. I am completely focused on what little separates us: the white patio table, the half-empty draft glasses, the plastic pitchers of beer. If I stretch my legs out under the table, my feet could touch his.
I stare. He stares back. I feel something nudge one of my toes.
I jump. Literally. I shoot up out of my chair and back down. Thud.
"Where were you?" Aisling laughs, tossing her curly auburn hair. "Calle, this is Mike, my biology lab partner, and this is his friend, Steve."
"Oh, hi." I drag my eyes away from Drew's to look up at them. I register that they are two average-looking males of the frat-boy variety. All fake-n-bake and hair product. Mike is blond; Steve has dark hair. Otherwise they could be twins.
"Mike and I are going to dance," Aisling says.
Why she is telling me this? She's been dancing all night. I guess I'm supposed to be happy because this is Bio-Mike. "Have fun," I say, dismissing them.
Aisling glares at me and jerks her head to the left.
What is she on about? I glare back. Not now, Aisling.
"See you later," she chirps as she pulls Mike out on the dance floor.
Stevo is still standing beside my chair. I snicker because I've already renamed him. "Um, Steve? Would you like to sit down?" I gesture at an empty chair. I only ask for Aisling's sake.
"No?" Why is he still standing there then? Whatever. Leave.
"Come dance with me." He holds out an orangey-brown hand adorned with an enormous grad ring.
My mouth falls open. I clamp it shut. He has to be kidding. This can't be happening. Not now, not in front of… I glance across the table. My stomach tumbles. Drew is gone. In his place, Jason is making out with a girl I don't recognize. "Noooooooooooooooo!" I flip my head from side to side in a futile attempt to spot him.
Stevo waits for my reply. Apparently I had the sense not to scream out loud.
A couple hours ago, I'd have been thrilled that he asked me to dance. Now, it's meaningless. Where did Drew go? Did I imagine the whole thing? I shake my head. No, I'm not that drunk. I sigh. He was probably just playing with you, Calle.
Stevo still hovers over me. Aisling must have told him to ask me to dance. I down the rest of my beer and follow him onto the crowded dance floor, where the hardwood is slippery with sweat.
He doesn't notice that I'm looking for Drew the entire time we dance; he's too busy playing air-guitar. I stick it out through five songs, all fast enough to keep us a safe distance apart, but when the band segues into a slow song, I motion to him that I'm going outside for some fresh air.
A narrow concrete balcony, wide enough for a single row of tables, lines two sides of the cafeteria. I squeeze past several entangled couples and find an empty space to lean against the railing. A warm breeze tugs at my sweat-soaked hair. I twist it up and let the wind roll over the back of my neck. Maybe I should leave now. Cut my losses. It's obvious that my wish won't be granted tonight.
Stevo sidles up to me and hands me a can of Sprite. "Thought you might be thirsty."
"Thanks," I force a smile. He would have to follow me, wouldn't he? I roll the can, dripping with condensation, over my forehead, before cracking it open and swallowing some of the fizzy liquid. Choking the sharp bubbles, I hand it back to him. I hate drinking from cans. He chugs it, then lets out a belch.
He chortles, "'Scuse me."
I refrain from rolling my eyes. I can't think of anything to say. I'll admit, it was nice of him to ask me to dance, even if Aisling pushed him into it, but I want him to leave me alone, so I can wallow in self-pity.
"So, where do you think Mike and Aisling are?" he winks.
"I have no idea… aren't they dancing?"
"No," he leers at me. "I saw them heading toward his dorm."
"Oh." Oh. Well, good for Aisling. It's what she wanted. "Does Mike like her?"
"Oh, yeah," Stevo breathes, leaning toward me. "He thinks she's hot."
The way he says it, I feel like it isn't just Mike who has the hots for Aisling. "Aisling seems to like him too." Will she kill me for saying that? I'm too disconcerted by Stevo panting on me to think clearly.
"It looks that way." His breath hits my face in hot, smelly waves.
He reeks of beer and cigarettes and Polo. His hair is slick with Dippity-Do and his shirt, unbuttoned to the waist, reveals a thick gold chain around his neck and shiny pecs. I edge away from him, my nose wrinkling at the pungent mixture of smells.
He inches toward me, grinning like he's been lobotomized. I have no idea why he's still here with me, but I've had enough. I'm going back to the dorm, if that's what it will take to shake him loose. Surely his sense of responsibility will end when I leave.
"Stevo…" The name slips out and I rush to finish my sentence, blushing brighter than Aisling's pink shirt for about the hundredth time this evening. " I'm going to leav--"
His lips, slick with saliva, press down on mine. "My friends all call me Stevo," he murmurs as he thrusts his hot, sticky tongue at my mouth.
I don't know whether to laugh, cry, scream or give myself up to the moment. My mind revolts at his too-wet lips and his probing tongue that pokes at my teeth, trying to prise them open. His hands slip around me and knead my butt. I feel like a lump of dough in a bread machine.
My brain tells me to shove him away, to say, "Get lost, creep", but all the years I've waited for this moment scramble my sense of logic and my body reacts to the kiss, even as I tell it not to. I let his rubbery tongue find its way between my teeth and find myself kissing him back, my own tongue entering his hot, stale mouth, even as I try not to spew.
I tell myself to savor the experience, even if it is unexpected, rotten and with the totally wrong person. I waited a long time for this first kiss… who knows if there will ever be a second one. I close my eyes and imagine that I'm kissing Drew, that for once, the wish I made when I blew out my birthday candles had come true, without being a lesson in irony.
When I open my eyes, Stevo is ogling me with a self-satisfied grin. Over his right shoulder, I see Drew standing at the open door, staring at us. Our eyes lock, then he turns and vanishes inside. I push Stevo aside and run after him. I circle the cafeteria, plowing through sweaty bodies, stopping every tall guy in a Hawaiian shirt. I find hula girls, birds of paradise and surfboards, but no pineapples.
Biting my bruised lips, I stumble outside and curse the stars pricking the indigo sky. I feel like the foolish family in The Monkey's Paw. First stars, birthday candles, white horses, found pennies, I've wished on them all, and this is what happens. It's true; fate rules people's lives and those who interfere with it do so to their sorrow. I swear I'll never make another wish. I scuff back to the dorm and crawl into bed without bothering to undress.
Hours later, when Mira returns from the dance, I pretend I'm asleep.
The door cracks open and light from the hall spills into the room. She tiptoes over to my bed and whispers, "Calle? Are you asleep?"
I lie still and struggle to breathe evenly.
She hovers there for a couple seconds. Out in the hall, I hear Taylor say, "I'm starrrrrrving."
A couple of the guys start chanting, "7-11, 7-11, 7-11…"
Mira pads back out. As she closes the door, she says, "She's asleep. Let's go."
I roll over and stare at the ceiling. I'm wide-awake and hungry.
Theryn can be reached at beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.