The 1983 Middle School Winter Dance is fast approaching. Though a late-bloomer, I routinely ask out girls who are way out of my league. Tonight I’ve gone to the study to make this most personal of telephone calls.
Discretion is key en route to the “girlfriend room”. Being spotted by your older sister increases the odds of her interrupting your call with something humiliating. Mom knows something is up, and catches me after my call.
“Do you have plans for the dance?” she asks. “I do,” I answer. “I’m asking Annie, the prettiest girl in school. She’s an eight-ball.” That’s what we seventh-graders called the eighth graders. “Good for you,” mom replies. “Did she say yes?”
“I haven’t asked her yet,” I answer. “I was just finalizing details with Kevin. Kevin is Choker’s best friend.” She frowns at me. “Who is Choker?” she asks.
“The meanest guy in school,” I reply. “It’s not his real name. Kevin says Choker is fine with me asking Annie, but I must let Choker ask her first. Kevin’s sure Annie will say no. When she does, I’ll be in the clear.” Mom didn’t like what she’d heard.
“No son of mine treats a woman like that,” she declares. “And I don’t know Annie, but no girl in her right mind would say yes to a boy with so little respect for her. If she’s the one, then ask her. Right now.”
To this day I’m not sure what my thought process was. I suppose primal trust that my mom wouldn’t steer me into the lion’s den, let alone first cover me in steak sauce. In any event, I did it. I called Annie and asked her to the dance. To my delight, she said yes.
My exhilaration is short-lived. Within ten minutes the telephone rings. It’s Kevin. “What part of ‘wait for Choker’ didn’t you understand?” he asks. “He knows you asked Annie. You realize you’re a dead man, right?”
“I…er, my mom, I mean, I never thought Annie would say yes,” I stammer. “Can you help?” The danger begins to set in. “I’ll try,” Kevin offers, “but Choker’s pretty hot. I’d skip school tomorrow if I were you. Friday also.”
Joyousness has vacated my heart and sublet to his low-rent friend, terror. What will it feel like when Choker’s fist strikes my face? Do I even bother fighting back, or just ball up like an armadillo?
Will the teachers even break it up? Choker’s a walking cinder block, and I’m not exactly an honor roll student. I do what any rational thirteen-year-old would do: I fake the flu. This gives me an excuse to miss the dance if Kevin’s shuttle diplomacy fails.
Mom wants me to get well for the dance. Of course, if I tell her why I’m avoiding school, she’ll force me on the bus with some “if you run from bullies now, you’ll run from them all your life” nonsense.
I don’t think mom appreciates just how short my life will be if I don’t run here, and she’s the one who got me into this jam so she’s the last person I’m going to consult. She never even asked why everyone calls him Choker! I call Kevin afterschool.
“Choker’s still pretty mad,” he confirms. “Definitely good you weren’t there today. He’d have pummeled you. Let me see what I can do tomorrow.” I hang up and head for the bathroom, which is not part of the act: I’m now physically sick. After a sleepless night, I call Kevin again Friday afternoon.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Kevin reports. “Choker doesn’t have a date, but says he’s going to the dance. Your bigger problem is Annie. She’s looking forward to it.” For a moment, I forget my fear and consider that a beat-down in the name of love might make me a legend with the ladies. That is, if I survive. “What are you going to do?”
“What choice do I have?” I answer. “I’ll see you tomorrow night at the dance.” I wish I could tell you Annie is now my wife, or I took down Choker and was elected King of the Dance. Maybe in time that’s how I’ll remember it, but it’s been more than three decades and the wound is still fresh.
What happened is Choker followed me around all night. Whenever our eyes met, he pounded the wall with his fist and pointed at me. Copious tears were spilled, but no blood was.
The fragile ecosystem that was my lower intestines banished me to the bathroom most of the evening. When I emerged for the last dance, I saw that Annie was dancing with Tommy, a popular eight-ball.
I’ve done some dumb things in my life, but disrespecting women is not one of them. It’s something I intend to remind my son this Prom Season. As for bravery, he’ll have to learn that from his mother.