A Sort of Homecoming
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I’ll admit I had a crush on Holly Kaiser, but only in sixth grade. And seventh. Seventh was real bad, actually. But by eighth, shoot, I was over her. Or not. No, I wasn’t, actually. I liked her a lot.
And tenth. But only for part of the year! The part when I was at school and saw her. But not during summer, you bet; no, I didn’t like her that summer. Unless I thought about her. But I only thought about her every other day. And it always hurt.
Holly and I were friends, and she made sure it stayed that way. I never directly suggested we be more than that, but I would hint at it during all of her phone calls when she’d talk about how her boyfriend was such a jerk, and why can’t she find a nice guy like me? I told her I was a nice guy like me. She giggled in a way that kicked me in the nuts.
Junior year had started, and the banners were up for homecoming dance. I derided the event as a festival for jocks and sluts, decried the football game as group masturbation, and condemned the court as a collection of Barbies and Kens, dressed in formalwear to mock the other 99% of us.
“Go with me,” she suggested one day on the softball field bench. She hacked at a cigarette with a dull jackknife.
I had a Little Debbie Star Crunch in my mouth and could not communicate other than to furrow my brow. It gave me an excuse to just look at her beautiful face through a shock of dyed crimson hair that hung to her chin. I chewed slowly and finally swallowed. “Go where, now?”
“To Homecoming. Let’s go to the dance.” She was serious. She looked up at me with a half-smile, her naturally pouting lower lip begging to be kissed. She turned back to the cigarette and sawed.
For a moment, I allowed my curiosity to trump my excitement. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t want the filter on it,” she grunted, sawing with gusto, her 19th-century-inspired shoe acting as a workbench. She smelled of lavender and vanilla, which contrasted with her humor. She looked at me and smiled broadly. “I wanna DIE!” she laughed heartily. Her grin melted me.
I gripped the primitive wooden bench tightly and wondered if she was screwing with me about the Homecoming thing. I noticed a vague sensation that my heart was sweating. “You mean it?”
“No,” she reassured me sweetly, like a mother convincing a child no monsters are in the closet. “I don’t wanna die yet.”
I bit my lip. “No, I mean…Homecoming?”
“Oh, yeah. Shoot, yeah. We should go. It’d be fun.” She struggled to strike a match in the breeze as her mangled Marlboro dangled from her red lips. “Let me take you. I’ll pick you up.”
My head spun in ecstasy. I didn’t stop to consider her motivations, her casual indifference, or the years of strict friendship. All I could see was her and myself on a date—not just a date, but Homecoming Dance!
During the couple weeks between her proposal and the big night, my mom guided me through what I needed to do to make it an acceptable formal dance experience. I nervously made reservations at Brann’s, a so-so steakhouse in the Polock section of town; I bought a corsage from Holly’s uncle’s flower shop, but was too nervous to tell the guy I was taking his niece; I broke out a new Gillette Sensor blade and bought a huge can of Aqua Net—the one with “20% more free!” As always, she would decide how special the night would be. I hoped it would be special, at least.
I strolled into the family room Saturday night looking handsome. “Wow!” my mom exaggerated. “Look at you!” Though I was on the verge of outgrowing my only suit, a pinstripe poly blend that rode up my crotch, it did make me look sophisticated enough to be a mobster. I carefully coiffed my hair to look like Morrissey, my rock hero. I studied the picture of him above my mirror and did not stop spraying Aqua Net until I could shake my head vigorously without a single hair drooping. The crunchy brunette pompadour looked exquisite; if nothing else, I was in love with myself. I strangled myself with a skinny black tie Scotch-taped to my dress shirt.
A rumbling not unlike a tank made its way up the cul-de-sac. “Is that her?” Mom asked, peeking out the picture window.
“Christ! Needs a muffler!” Dad boomed, shoving his hand into his Levi’s comfort-jeans pocket. He pulled out a money clip and flipped through a stack of tens with the adroitness of a bank teller. “Here, Elvis.” He slapped a fat wad of cash in my hand. “Spend it all. Don’t be a Hollander in front of her.” He patted my butt and pushed me out the front door, the bills still in my right hand, her corsage in the left.
Holly was a vision. She stood alongside a butterscotch 1974 Dodge Dart, the undercarriage belching gray smoke. “Hi!” She wore a black and deep blue gown, her dainty, stockinged legs were showing, but not in the least bit provocatively. Curls of burgundy and black cascaded down her slender neck—a milk-white neck that defined femininity. The rest of her hair was bunched up into a bouquet atop her head, flowers of curls falling here and there. She grabbed the passenger’s door handle, pushed the thumb release with both her thumbs, and, knees bent, pried the door open with a grunt. The door swung open, making a grating squeal I felt in my bones. “Take a seat!” Her lips framed a perfectly imperfect, pearl-white smile. Her nose twitched above it.
As I sunk into the poking springs of my seat, I coughed heavily. She sat down and laboriously shifted into reverse. I wanted to tell her how beautiful she looked, but I couldn’t take an adequate breath. “Better roll down your window, Kris. You’ll get asphyxiated.” I did as she said. As long as we traveled faster than 10 mph, the air was fine.
“You look so handsome!” she cried above the engine.
I dismissed her, though I believed her.
“No, really. Wow. You’re hot!”
I swallowed hard. “You look nice too. I love your dress.”
I raised my voice: “I love your dress!”
“Thanks! I made it!”
Her industriousness made me fall just a bit more in love. The smell of lavender and vanilla and tobacco spun my head around (though it could have been the exhaust). Whatever was happening, I was in deep now.
At a stop sign, she took a moment to light a cigarette. She struck a match and the breeze from the window blew it out. “Shoot.”
“Are we gonna blow up?” I asked. It made her laugh, but I was half-serious. I didn’t know where these fumes came from. The car coughed and sputtered, so she stamped on the accelerator with her delicate black pump. The engine roared while she finally succeeded in lighting her Marlboro. She held it close to my face, and I shrunk away a bit. “Don’t start! It’ll kill ya,” she warned.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt your lungs.” I hacked affectedly and swept my arms around to disperse the invisible exhaust we were enjoying. She laughed, coughed in actuality, and floored the accelerator.
Though the restaurant was virtually empty, the hostess shoved us in a dark nook with another Homecoming couple. We exchanged small talk till the waitress came. Remembering Dad’s advice, I found the priciest hunk of meat on the menu and ordered it loudly, so Holly would know I was a big spender and she could get anything she wanted. She squeaked out that she wanted a glass of water. The waitress collected the menus and trotted off.
“You’re not hungry?”
“Not really,” she shrugged. She read the consternation on my face. “Is that a problem?”
Hell yes it was a problem! This was the big night where I was going to show her what a big-shot I was. She’d see that her boyfriend was an asshole, that I was the real thing all along, and she needed to be with me.
“No, no.” I shook my head. “Just, if you want something, I have a lot of money. I want to spend it on you.” I accidentally showed my frustration. “You’re making me look like a Hollander.”
“You’re embarrassed?” she asked, surprised. I was surprised myself. This fancy-dinner crap was the sort of thing I loathed. She was being beautifully non-conformist, but I hated her for it tonight. She motioned her eyes to the couple next to us. “You care what they think?”
“No,” I whispered in the fashion my parents did when they had a public “discussion.” I didn’t know how to tell her I was embarrassed in front of her, and in front of myself. The hunk of meat came, and I kept making comments about how I didn’t want to eat by myself. I made us both uncomfortable. I was blowing it. The waitress asked if I wanted to take the remaining two-thirds with me in a Styrofoam box. I said no.
We drove in awkward silence from the restaurant to the high school. It was a beautiful evening, the sun shining in rays. I wanted desperately to break the hold my mood had on me, but it hung around me like the noxious exhaust fumes in Holly’s car.
“You should’ve taken your steak,” she sang. “I think it would’ve made a great boutonniere.”
“’Hey,’” she continued in her best guy-voice. “’What’s that on yer coat? Meat? Shit…looks good!’”
I laughed. “Maybe the vice principal would want a bite.”
“Oh, you know it. They’d all be lining up to eat your meat!”
That one broke us out into loud laughs. Our natural chemistry came back; we smiled, joked, and left any ill feeling behind us. It seemed like it would be a good night after all.
All eyes fell on us as we entered the school. Half of the stares were inspired by surprise that Holly and I could clean up so well and look “normal,” like the rest of them. But the other half were inspired by her beauty. Holly carried a loveliness that crazed me, and I figured I couldn’t be the only one. She had the sweet strangeness of a Tim Burton movie. Her delicate features were framed by smooth skin; a ruddiness brought out her cheeks, and her eyes smiled brightly when her lips did the same. When she had a straight face, she looked fragile and lost. A part of me wanted to lock her away like Rapunzel, high in a tower so no other greasy jerk could touch or hurt her.
I reveled in the stares, but they made her uneasy.
We stood awkwardly, unsure what to do. I made small talk with a few geeks I knew from classes. Holly stood, uncomfortable, preoccupied with something. The geeks left, and there we stood, silently. I searched for the right thing to say, and just when I thought I had something, I turned to her, opened my mouth—
“I want to go,” she said.
My heart dislodged from its natural spot and dropped into my stomach like a stone. I swear I heard a splash.
“Go?!” I gasped, looking at my Swatch watch. We’d been there exactly twelve minutes.
She stared out the window into the bright courtyard. “I need to see my boyfriend.”
Inside my head, inside my heart, I picked up a chair and threw it. I smashed my fist into the geeks’ faces, tipped over the punch table, got on the PA and told all the kids to go to hell. Inside my soul, I burned down the school, ran into the woods, curled up in a ball and dissolved into the brown and orange autumn leaves.
But in reality, I replied stonily, “OK.”
She finally looked at me. “You’re not mad?”
“No. Hell no. Why would I want to stay here with all these phonies? It’s OK.” I took a few steps to the door, hoping she’d change her mind. Her little black pumps tapped out a tattoo of heartbreak as she caught up.
On the short ride home, she asked repeatedly if I was OK, and I kept saying I was.
She parked in the middle of the cul-de-sac and left the car running. She pushed upon her door, walked around to my side as I watched, confused. Then, with both hands again, she pulled mightily on the passenger’s door handle.
I pushed with my elbow, and the door loudly creaked open. I stepped out of the car and into her arms, the fumes swirling around our feet like a fairy-tale fog. The hug was friendly, sincere, and slightly sterile. “You’re sure you’re not mad, now?” she asked for the final time.
What was I supposed to say, anyway? The truth was, however, that I was not mad. I really loved her and wanted what she wanted. She wanted to see her boyfriend. “Naw. I’m all right.”
I stepped back a few feet and beheld the full vista: Holly, the dark angel, in her homemade gown, her uncle’s shop’s corsage on her wrist, white fingers cradling a pack of Marlboros. The Dodge Dart belched smoke behind her. I saw her lips form words.
“I said, ‘Thanks!’” she shouted.
I nodded and trudged up my driveway. When I made it to my front step, I turned around, surprised she hadn’t peeled off to be with the kid I didn’t really know but hated. Maybe, I thought, she changed her mind. Maybe she wanted me to come back to her, get in the car, and dance the night away at Homecoming ’89.
Nope. She was just lighting a cigarette.
The sun was just setting behind the naked trees of the woods along Louise Street as I heard her car trail off. Strangely, I didn’t feel too bad. My parents and friends were confused by my willingness to forgive her—by the absence of vexation. I may not have turned our friendship into more-than-friendship, like I thought I wanted, but I still had something strangely (if not perversely) satisfying: total, sweetly desperate, nearly unbearable adoration. She was part of me, and I adored her completely.
But remember, I only adored her in sixth grade. And seventh…