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Bound and Gagged: A School Dance Story

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS









“Have a great time at the dance,”
my mom said as I stepped out of the car, replete with a wide-lapelled
velour jacket with my large shirt collar worn on the outside. I looked
down, admiring my tight-fitting Angel’s Flight
slacks and black platform shoes. I look just like the guys on Soul
Train
, I thought to myself. My hand came up to check that my
puka shell necklace, bought not in Hawaii but at Silverman’s disco
clothing store downtown at the local mall, was properly in place.
I was ready for action.

    Cathy’s father answered the door. He was a
normal-looking man with a mustache, a dad like most dads in the Midwest,
the kind of guy you could easily imagine being in a bowling league
and enjoying the wide-eyed exploits of Dondi on the funnies page.

    
“Well, you must be Paul,”
he said in a casual tone that showed he had greeted Cathy’s dates
several times before.

    “Yes, sir, it’s nice to meet you.”

    “C’mon in. Cathy’s almost ready.”

    I entered their house. Cathy’s mom was at
the top of the stairs, gazing down with a look that said she was trying
to control her giddiness about something.

    “Cathy’s almost ready,” she said, not knowing
that her husband had uttered the exact same three words to me seconds
earlier. Cathy’s father gestured for me to sit on the couch. I complied.


    “So,” he said, sitting down heavily in his
armchair. “I see they don’t make you wear ties to the Christmas dance,
huh?”

    The thought of wearing a tie to a dance in
1977 was as foreign as wearing pegged pants.

    “Oh, they only make you wear a tie to the
prom, I think.”

    “Wow, that’s pretty nice. What I wouldn’t
give to not have to wear a tie to work. You know, you’re lucky you
don’t go to Catholic school. They make you wear ties with those uniforms.
He shook his head, his eyes getting the look of a man whose mind was
going back to unpleasant times.

    “They made me wear a tie to school for years.
Man, did I hate that.”

    It’s always weird talking to somebody else’s
parents because you realize how different your life could have been
if you had come out of a different womb. I’m sure Cathy and her family
had heard her dad get spooky over his lifelong battle with neckwear
many times, but for me, a guy whose only goal was to French-kiss his
daughter, the man was starting to creep me out. But I forced myself
to look at him sympathetically just in case Cathy and I fell madly
in love and he was destined to become my father-in-law.

    “Huh, that’s too bad,” I said, trying to sound
empathetic. “That must’ve gotten hot in the summer.”

    “Oh, Christ. Don’t get me started on summer
school.” Fortunately, Cathy’s mom came down the stairs and
saved me from having to journey any further into her husband’s dysfunctional
past. “She’s read-y,” her mom said in a singsongy voice that announced
she had probably spent most of the afternoon helping Cathy prepare
for this big evening.

    I looked up at the top of the stairs. Her
bedroom door was shut. There was definitely something exciting about
the whole thing, as if I were on Let’s Make a Deal and was
about to find out if I’d picked the door with the car behind it. Knowing
how pretty Cathy was in school every day, my heart raced at the thought
of how beautiful she was going to look after half a day of preparation.


    The door opened. Cathy stepped out slowly
with a shy look on her face, a look I had seen on the faces of brides
in so many Westerns, when the innocent farm girl is first revealed
in her wedding dress to her intended. In those movies, the cowboy
always slowly takes off his hat in reverence to her unexpected beauty
and whistles to himself, amazed. I stared up at her. Cathy looked
down over the railing and gave me a coy little smile. Her expression
bore the words, So . . . what do you think?

    So . . . what did I think.

    Zonk, as Monty Hall would say.

    She was terrifying. Whatever she and her mom
had been up to all afternoon should not have occurred. Cathy’s normally
soft Dorothy Hamill hair had been sprayed up into a shape best described
as a Nazi stormtrooper helmet. It hovered up and away from the edges
of her scalp like a flying saucer, defying both gravity and attractiveness.
Her face had been made up like a ventriloquist dummy’s, with bright
red cheeks and thick blue eyeshadow that said less “I’m your dream
girl” and more “I just got punched out in a bar fight.” She was wearing
an ill-advised dress that was very silk-esque and clinging, which
instead of being enticing simply drew attention to the fact that Cathy
had the tiniest bit of gut. The tops of her arms, which had never
before been exposed to me, were now on display and revealed an overabundance
of moles. She wore white pumps with a noncomittal heel that looked
exactly like the shoes nurses used to wear in hospital shows from
the 1960s. And topping off her ensemble was a loosely knit white shawl
draped around her shoulders — the exact same shawl I’d seen my
eighty-something grandmother wear for years. If one could ever hear
the sound of a libido dropping, the thud of mine must have been deafening.


    “Wow, Cathy,” I said, forcing myself to sound
like the husbands I’d heard on TV shows. “You look great.”

    Cathy gave me a shy smile and descended the
stairs. Her mother delivered her to me as if we were at the wedding
altar, while her father took pictures of us. As we stood together
posing, clouds of Love’s Baby Soft wafted off Cathy and assaulted
my nose like the plague that killed off the firstborn males of Egypt
in The Ten Commandments. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this dating thing,
I thought. Because looking at Cathy right then, the last thing I wanted
to do was make out with her.

           

  






 PERSONAL ESSAYS

    
    When we got to the school, the Commodores’ “Brick House” was booming out of the cafetorium doors. Officially ready to party the night away (thanks to one-and-a-half cans of Stroh’s beer she drank in the car), Cathy grabbed my hand and pulled me out on to the dance floor. She immediately started dancing wildly, jumping and gyrating as if she were a featured dancer on American Bandstand
    “Hey Cathy, what’s goin’ on?” yelled one of her friends. The girl, who was wearing a form-fitting Danskin leotard dress as if she were a cast member of A Chorus Line, made a face at Cathy whose meaning I could only decipher as “Who’s the dork you’re with?” Cathy made a big smiley face back at the girl that seemed to convey both “Shut up,” and “I know, can you believe it?” The two girls laughed to each other across the dance floor, then Cathy turned back to me and gave me what I think was supposed to be a sexy look. I forced a smile back at her, and Cathy began dancing even more wildly, whipping her head from side to side. I became hypnotized by the fact that her rock-hard, flying-saucer-shaped hairdo was completely immune to the centrifugal force her actions were exerting upon it.
    As the song started to wind down, I noticed that Cathy’s dancing seemed to lose its initial intensity. She was still gyrating in a sort of belly-dancer-meets-drunk-guy-at-the-accounting-department-Christmas-party way, but her face showed she was becoming preoccupied. By the time the song faded, she threw me a look and said, “I’ll be right back.” And with this, she walked very quickly out of the cafetorium.
    Twenty minutes later, I was standing on the side of the dance floor with my friend Tom, whose date was off talking with some of her friends.
    “Where’s Cathy?” he asked.
    “I don’t know. I think she went to the bathroom or something.”
    “I wonder if she’s talking to Dan,” said Tom. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
    I hadn’t even considered this possibility and quickly grew concerned. But my concern immediately turned in to a hope that she was talking to her ex-boyfriend. I concocted a plan in which I would walk outside and discover Cathy and Dan making out and then play the sad, jilted cuckold as I walked home through the rain in my dress clothes while sad music played on the soundtrack. Looking forward to my new role as the Misunderstood Romantic, I headed out of the cafetorium to find Cathy. However, as I entered the trophy-case-lined front lobby of our school, her friend Sandy ran up to me.
    “Paul, Cathy’s in the bathroom, and she’s really sick. “She’s throwing up and everything.”
    “What?” I asked, my mind reeling with horrific images of Cathy on her hands and knees, in her dress, heaving into a school toilet.
    “Does she have the flu?”
    “No, it’s because of the beer. I think it made her sick,” Sandy said, looking upset.
    I immediately lost sympathy for Cathy and my feelings of ambivalence about our date now turned to indignation. This is what she gets for downing a beer two minutes into our date, I thought to myself. If the idea of spending an evening with a nice guy like me was so hard to face that she had to turn to booze for moral support, then she can just heave all night for all I care. But I forced a concerned look onto my face and said, “Oh, man, I hope she’s okay.”
    “She’s really upset,” Sandy said. “She’s crying and everything. She said she didn’t want to ruin your evening.”
    Too late, I thought. “Oh, she shouldn’t worry about that,” I said. “I just hope she’s okay.”
    “She’s fine. We got her cleaned up after she stopped barfing about five minutes ago. I’ll see if she’s ready to come out.” And with this, Sandy disappeared into the bathroom. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. The idea that Cathy had been vomiting put the final nail in the coffin of my make-out fantasies. The mere mention that she had to be “cleaned up” made me wish she would simply stay in the bathroom all night, since the thought of seeing Cathy with puke stains on her already less-than-enticing dress was making my stomach sore. Before I could formulate any sort of a plan, the bathroom door opened and a contrite-looking Cathy emerged. There were no stains on her dress, but her makeup had taken a hit. The blush on her cheeks had been wiped clean and reapplied with even less competence than her mother had demonstrated. Her eyeshadow had been repaired by simply doubling its already heavy dosage. But it was her mascara that had borne the brunt of her emotional and gastrointestinal outburst. The black from her eyelashes had run and commingled with her liner, giving her eyes a Norma Desmond-meets-Alice Cooper effect. She walked over to me, her eyes cast down at the floor.

  

           

  



 PERSONAL ESSAYS

    
    “I’m so sorry, Paul,” she said, looking like she might cry. “I understand if you don’t want to talk to me.”
    What was I going to say? I really didn’t want to talk to her, simply because I was terrified that I might smell the vomit on her breath.
    “How are you feeling?” I asked, shifting my weight back a bit.
    “I feel terrible,” she said, stepping forward to get close to me. “I’ve completely ruined the evening.”
    I shifted my weight away from her again, inching my foot back discreetly. “No, it’s not ruined. You just probably shouldn’t have drank all that beer in the car.”
    She sighed heavily. I held my breath, afraid of what I might smell. “You’re right. God, it was so stupid. You don’t even drink, I can tell.” She looked into my eyes as if I were some kind of a wise man. Clearly, the girl was a mess. All I could do was stare at her mouth and wonder just how many times she had thrown up and whether her hands had gripped the sides of the toilet bowl as she did.
    “Do you want to dance?” she asked, doe-eyed.
    Good God, no, I thought. “Okay,” I said.
    She took my hand, gave me a romantic smile, and led me into the dance. Her friend Sandy gave me a grateful smile, happy that I didn’t care what had happened in the bathroom. I smiled back, trying to figure out exactly how the hell I could get out of the rest of this date.

    Cathy and I got on the dance floor. She put her arms around my neck and pulled me close, in the standard death-grip slow-dance position that we as teenagers in the late 1970s were required to perform. I gingerly put my hands on her waist and held her lightly, tilting my head back a bit, pretending to survey the room as I moved my nose out of breathing range.
    “Wow, there sure are a lot of people here,” I said, in as non-romantic a tone as I could muster.
    “I wish there weren’t,” she said quietly. I wish it were just you and me.”
    I had lain awake at night for years dreaming of having a girl say something like that to me. I looked into Cathy’s eyes. She smiled coyly and exhaled. I smelled a trace of vomit on her breath. I felt like I was going to faint.
    “Oh yeah, well, too bad it’s not.” I delivered the line much like a clerk in a complaint department would tell a customer that he understood her grievance but there was nothing he could do about it.
    Cathy looked in to my eyes and moved her head forward, getting very close to my face. “I’m so glad you asked me to the dance,” she said sweetly.
    “I’m glad you came with me,” I said, contorting my neck in to a question-mark shape in order to put the maximum distance possible between her mouth and my nose.
    As the dance ended, I wondered if Cathy and Sandy would forget that we were all supposed to go out to dinner. It was tradition, I had been told, to go to the dance, then to take your date out for a nice meal in a fancy restaurant. When I say “fancy,” I mean, of course, one of the several medieval-themed restaurants peppered between our fast-food chains and twenty-four-hour family restaurants that accounted for most of the eating-out experiences available to us noncoast dwellers. Within most small Midwestern communities, there is an equation that anything having to do with a king is somehow symbolic of the highest-quality meal a person can enjoy. Restaurants with names like Ye Olde King’s Table and His Majesty’s Court were places where you took dates, celebrated birthdays, or proposed. I had made the four of us a reservation at The Kings’ Inn, a huge dark-wood restaurant that incongruously had a statue of a giant ten-foot-high steer out in front. Much like a lobster tank in a seafood establishment, I guess the sight of a beef heifer standing out in front of a restaurant was supposed to be the lure that would prove too tempting fro any hungry driver to pass up. But tonight, with the image of vomiting Cathy lodged in my head driving past the King’s Inn and heading home was my only wish.
    Cathy, Sandy, Walter and I walked out of the dance toward Walter’s car.
    “Man, I’m tired,” I said, stretching my arms above my head in the most unsubtle portrayal of a sleepy guy ever attempted.
    “You’re tired?” said Walter to me, as if the next thing out of his mouth was going to be an accusation of homosexuality. “I’m starving.”
    “Me too,” said Cathy. “I’ve been thinking about a steak all night.”
    “Yeah, you must be hungry,” said Sandy with a smirk. She then did an imitation of Cathy barfing. Cathy opened her mouth wide in shock, then punched Sandy on the arm.
    They were hungry. Cathy wanted a steak. This evening was not going to end.

  

           

  

 



 PERSONAL ESSAYS




    At dinner, in the dimly lit restaurant, Cathy
ordered a large steak complete
with onion rings and a baked potato with sour cream and chives. As if
the idea of her having thrown up wasn’t enough of a libido killer, watching
her pound down this costly combination of bad breath-inducing foods was
enough to send me to a monastery. As we ate, I could do little but look
at her mouth, knowing that I was going to be expected to kiss it
good night in a very short time. I smiled and nodded and laughed along
with them pretending to be enjoying myself. But all I could think of was
getting back to the safety of my house and my much more familiar geek
life. It was only after Cathy had ordered a piece of ricotta cheesecake
that I was able to herd them out of the place.

    As we left the restaurant, I made quite a show
of taking some of the breath-freshening mints out of the bowl next to
the register, the same type of mints that news programs have since shown
to be covered with urine from customers going to the bathroom, not washing
their hands, and the using their piss-soaked fingers to grope around in
the mint bowl. Fortunately, I did not know this fun fact back then and
saw these mints as the only line of defense between me and Cathy’s barf-steak-onion-ring-and-cheesecake-tainted
mouth.

    “Anybody want a mint?” I asked casually.

    “No thanks,” said Cathy. “I don’t eat candy.”


    No, just everything else, I thought.

    As we drove along in Walter’s car, Sandy turned
to Cathy and me in the back seat and said, “Hey, you guys, let’s go park
out at the beach.” Panic flashed though my brain as I realized this evening
was supposed to continue and that its continuation would consist of nothing
but going face to face with Cathy. It was officially Make-Out Time.

    “Oh, man, I’ve gotta get home,” I said, abandoning
any attempts to try to sound remotely cool.

    “Really? It’s only 11:25,” said Cathy, looking
at her watch. “I don’t have to be home until midnight.”

    “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, trying to sound disappointed,
“but my dad said I have to be home by 11:30. He’s weird about stuff like
that.”

    I saw Walter and Sandy exchange a look in the
front seat that indicated whatever nerdy things they had been thinking
about me throughout the evening had now been confirmed. And at this point,
I didn’t care. I just wanted out of that car.

    Walter drove me back to my house and pulled up
in our driveway. My stomach was in knots the whole way home, since Cathy
kept throwing me looks that said she wanted me to kiss her. I had been
able to hold her off, even as Sandy was kissing Walter while he drove.
The whole time Cathy was staring at the side of my face, trying to get
me to turn toward her and dive in. I was a mess by the time we reached
my house.

    “Well, thanks for the ride, Walter,” I said jovially,
as if he were my Little League coach dropping me off after a game. I turned
to Cathy and she gave me a smile that said, “Now it’s time for you to
kiss me.”

    D-Day had arrived. Up in the front seat, Walter
and Sandy started making out. How people could just start making out in
front of other people perplexed me. When I had seen Cathy and Dan doing
it for the first time, it looked cool to me. I guess I hadn’t ever considered
all that went in to making out — the exchange of spit, the physiology
of pressing your face against that of another living human being, the
consequences of your partner’s food intake, the matter of germs and contagion.
Not to mention that kissing and making out were supposed to be highly
personal activities, performed out of love and affection for your partner
and not to be used as a status symbol to lord over those less fortunate
or more discreet than you. I turned and looked at Cathy, who had shifted
herself closer to me but had leaned back against the seat so that she
was braced for me to lean in and kiss her heavily. A montage of the evening
ran through my brain — the beer, the vomit, the stinky dinner and
the mocking laughter between Cathy and her dancing friend — as I
prepared myself for what I had to do. It felt like a gateway moment to
me, the door through which I would pass to leave my childhood forever.
Once you’d kissed a girl — really kissed a girl — you left your
innocence behind, I thought. You’d no longer be able to enjoy simply holding
hands, you’d no longer feel a hot flush at getting kissed on the cheek,
you’d no longer feel your heart pound uncontrollably as you danced the
box step with a girl at a wedding. Only physical acts beyond open-mouthed
kissing would provide you any thrill. No, I was standing on a cliff looking
down into the darkness of adult pleasures, and peer pressure was forcing
me to jump off. I wasn’t sure if I could do it.

    But I knew that if I didn’t, I’d always be judged
for it.

    And I knew that if I blew this opportunity, I
might always feel that I’d made a big mistake.

    And just like that, it was decided. I was going
in whether I really wanted to or not.

    I took a deep breath, tried to put my visions
of the inside of Cathy’s mouth out of my mind, and slowly leaned forward
to kiss her. That is, in my mind I was slowly leaning forward. In reality
I lunged forward very rapidly. I immediately made contact with Cathy’s
lower lip and the better part of her chin. I tasted what I knew had to
be makeup and quickly dragged my lips upward. In doing so, I got an even
bigger blast of pancake base. With my mouth now directly on top of hers,
I felt her tongue start to move in toward mine. In a panic, I quickly
thrust my tongue at hers and firmly pushed it back in to her mouth like
a Hong Kong subway worker shoving riders in to a packed rush-hour train.
Finding my tongue was now inside her oral cavity, I realized I had absolutely
no idea what I was supposed to do in there. I had heard one of my teachers
use the phrase “tongue wrestling” once when he yelled at two burnouts
to stop necking. And I recently overheard a jock say that he was going
to stick his tongue down his girlfriend’s throat. So I did some quick
math and figured that I’d better move my tongue around and try to engage
something. My tongue snapped upward and immediately hit her teeth. Feeling
the sharpness of them pressing down on my tastebuds, I pulled my tongue
back so that the tip of it was now pressed against her front incisors.
Not knowing what else to do, I proceeded to run my tongue sideways across
her upper teeth, then down and back the opposite way across all her lower
teeth, then back up and across again until I had completely licked the
front of every tooth in her mouth, turning my first French kiss in to
a full-fledged dental-cleaning session.

    I quickly pulled away and looked at Cathy. She
had a look of surprise on her face that I could only interpret one of
two ways — either it was the best kiss she’d ever had or the absolute
worst. Her eyes had a look of shock that was impossible to read. The only
thing I knew for certain was that, for me, the kiss had been the most disturbing
moment of my life up until that point. I fumbled out a “good night” halfheartedly,
thanked Walter again for driving, and quickly made my way into the house.
In the living room, my dad was laughing at the fast-motion antics
of Benny Hill as he was chased around by several girls in bikinis.

    “How was your date?” he asked.

    “I quickly moved past him and headed down the
hallway. “Fine,” I called back, and ran into the bathroom. I closed the
door, grabbed my toothbrush, and proceeded to brush my teeth and tongue
vigorously for the next fifteen minutes.

    I went out in to the living room and sat on the
couch. Benny Hill was just ending, and I felt a wave of sadness wash over
me, realizing that I had missed what had been a fun evening watching TV
with my father for a misguided desire to make out with a girl, an activity
I was now sure I was not cut out for. My dad looked at me with a concerned
expression.

    “Are you okay?” he asked.

    “Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. I could tell he knew
that something had gone wrong. I looked at the TV and grew more depressed.
The final producer’s credit flashed on the screen as Benny and
the bikini girl disappeared, and the picture faded to black. The evening
was over. I had blown it.

    “I was gonna go to bed,” my dad said, shifting
in his seat. “But I was looking through the TV Guide and it says
they’re going to show some Laurel and Hardy shorts next. You mind if I
stay up and watch them?

    I looked at my dad, who gave me a fatherly smile.
At the moment the thought of watching Laurel and Hardy shorts with him
was the only thing in the world I wanted to do.

    “Yeah,” I said, “that’d be cool.”

    And as we sat there watching Stan and Ollie trying
to move a piano up a very long flight of stairs, we laughed our heads
off, and I remember feeling extremely happy that I was only fifteen years
old and wouldn’t have to French-kiss anyone anytime soon if I didn’t want
to.



  

           







Excerpted from Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, published
by Three Rivers Press. Reprinted by permission. For more information about this book, click

here.


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