This is a story about high school. About a boy obsessed with a girl, and the time he finally got to dance with her.
It’s has a few autobiographical bits sprinkled into it. There was this one girl in high school, a grade ahead of me, whom I had a thing for. I obsessed about her, put her on a pedestal — but never spoke to her. She had some enormous boyfriend who was in college. Then, during homecoming dance I think ….
… she asked me to dance. Out of the blue. Why? I don’t know. But I was elated. Didn’t turn into anything, and we didn’t talk much after that, either. Fun night, though.
Below is the audiobook, broken into five parts. Altogether it’s about a 40 minute listen.
After that you’ll find the text for the complete story.
A Dance with Levina
Part One: Introduction
Six months ago I was your average high school-hating senior. Only three months until graduation – three months until I would experience the freedom of total anonymity at a big university. A complete chance to start over.
I had been preparing for it. I was working like mad at my job at the Cineplex over in Brighton to buy a brand new wardrobe. I was going to hit college like a British band coming to America in the 1960s. There would be crowds. Or at least several pairs of eyeballs looking in my direction. Someone would be paying attention.
It was going to be my moment.
So why was I still wasting valuable brain space on a girl like Levina Deuchant? Girls like Levina would be abundant in the babe plentiverse that was Whatcom State College. Levina Deuchant could go suck it.
And yet, much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, my glance continued to flick up from my Kindle every time Levina crossed the moldy, cracked cafeteria floor of Jacob Creek High School. It was a Pavlovian dog response: see the girl – now drool.
Lest you think I’m one of those pitiful pretenders of confidence who litter the frames of coming-of-age romance movies from the 1980s, I did actually talk to Levina. Once.
November 16, 2009, fall of junior year. 10:41 AM. Three feet from the door to Mr. Erickson’s Current Events class, which I shared with Levina. Levina’s bag drops, spilling it’s tantalizing contents underneath the doorway. A gleaming metallic lipstick tube rolls across the moldy carpet and collides with my feet. I bend. I grab. I look directly into Levina’s eyes and hand over the prize.
“Thanks,” she says.
And I say – wait for it – “No problem.”
No problem. Two words that can never be taken from me. Did I stutter? No. Did I blush? Maybe. But you can’t deny that we had an ACTUAL CONVERSATION. That was enough action for a handful of months.
Fortune strikes only once. For a second opportunity, I knew I would need to make it happen myself. I didn’t plan to spill her bag (too obvious) and I certainly didn’t plan to be caught up in this totally bogus, how-can-they-think-I-had-anything-to-do-with-it theft charge, do they really think I’m that stupid –
Sorry. I’m a little angry about what happened.
Anyway, I guess this is my round-about way of saying this is all Levina’s fault. If I hadn’t been trying to get her attention, none of this would have happened.
Part Two: Lessons
It started like this: For as long as I can remember, grown-ups were always complaining how kids in my generation didn’t know how to dance. As far as I could tell, my parents’ generation didn’t have a clue either. Have you seen the grainy footage of Woodstock? You call that dancing?
Dancing With The Local Stars was the supposed remedy. Several local “celebrities” would be invited for a dance competition. The best dancers among the students would be paired off with a celebrity. Finally, the winning student would win a fabulous secret prize. (The student’s celebrity partner would receive nothing; except, of course, the glory of winning a high school dance competition.)
First we had to learn how to dance. Thankfully, one of our local celebrities was Charlotte Paliester, a woman who won several ballroom dance championships years ago. She would teach a class on Fridays and Sundays in the six weeks leading up to the dance. Because of my job at the Cineplex, I wasn’t able to make the popular Friday classes, the ones that Levina and almost everyone else attended. I told myself it was better that way. Now, the first time she would see me dance, I would dazzle her with my skills, and sweep her off her feet. Instead of step on them.
I managed to drag my friend Kaycee with me to the dance lessons. I didn’t bother asking her to come to the dance itself, because Kaycee doesn’t do dances. Says Kaycee: “I’ve given this school enough opportunities for entertainment without wrapping up a punch line in satin and lace.”
Kaycee’s pretty funny, and fun to be around, as long as you don’t make the mistake of thinking her acne and extra thirty pounds make her shy and desperate for the slightest bit of kindness you deign to show her. If you do make that mistake, she turns her sharp mind and even sharper tongue directly toward you, carving your ego to ribbons.
On the first day of lessons, Ms. Paliester commanded us to line up in two rows, boys on one side and girls on the other. I looked straight ahead at the sophomore girl standing in front of me, trying to strike a posture of confidence. It was a wasted effort, as she refused to look at me.
“The dance between man and woman is the dance between hunter and prey,” began Ms. Paliester. “The only difference is that in dance, the prey can become the hunter.” Ms. Paliester winked at me as she glided down the line of awkward boys.
To my extreme left stood Lyle Pettis, the only boy at Jacob Creek High school to still wear Megadeath t-shirts. He hadn’t dispensed with his death metal ensemble for the lessons; nonetheless, he looked like he was going to take ballroom dance seriously. The resolute glint in his eye matched the one shining in his spiked collar.
Next to Lyle was Gus Gusterson. I’m not making his name up. Gus’s parents decided that their chubby baby (the chub never wore away, alas), with a lazy eye and a very pointy head, didn’t have enough character building challenges facing him in life and so added Gus to Gusterson. Fortunately, Gus inherited their sense of humor, and, as a result, most people liked him. He had invented more lazy eye jokes than you could find on the internet. One time when a football jock was pushing him around, he gently said, “No need to worry. Only one of my eyes has the hots for you. The rest of me is as straight as a razor.” The jock actually broke up laughing and left him alone.
And then there was me. Judah Loren. Jude to my friends (all six of them). I came dressed for the occasion: dark slacks, red button up shirt, and black shiny shoes. A little boring, perhaps. The belt cinched a little too tight, definitely. And that was it: three boys. Yay, Sunday class.
We three boys faced eight impatient girls. Ms. Paliester wouldn’t hear of girls dancing with girls. In her opinion, political correctness couldn’t change the ancient forms of ballroom dance. That meant I had almost triple duty.
We started with a waltz. “One-two-three, one-two-three,” began Ms. Paliester. Box step. Rises and Falls. Cross Step. One girl came, another left, and I was leading them across the floor in three quarter time. At least that’s the way I saw it in my head.
“Hey Fred Astaire, watch your step,” said Kaycee. I had just stepped on her foot.
And with another partner, Carline Stevens: “I think you’re supposed to be leading.”
“I am leading,” I responded.
“Then why aren’t we going anywhere?” I looked around to see the other dances advancing across the floor.
“I thought we were supposed to go around in a square,” I said sheepishly.
Carline gave me a withering look of disgust. “That was ten minutes ago.” I’m pretty sure that if there hadn’t been such a scarcity of dancers with an X and Y chromosome, Kaycee would have been the only one willing to stomach me.
There was one person who took a liking to me. Whenever Ms. Paliester demonstrated a new step, I was her designated partner. “Let’s show them how it works, Judah.” I was less than thrilled when she started winking at me at the beginning of each class.
The six weeks went by quickly. Every Sunday, I wore myself out trying to force my feet into rhythmical units of time. I practiced at home every chance I got. “Cha-cha-CHA!” It wasn’t pretty, but I slowly began to resemble an actual dancer. Every Friday night, as I piled popcorn into enormous tubs at the Cineplex, I imagined myself approaching Levina across the cafeteria, with a slight swagger in my step, looking up at her nonchalantly and saying, ever so smoothly and with a hint of wry self-deprecating humor, “Shall we?”
“Butter throughout! I wanted butter throughout the whole thing, not just squirted on the top! I told you, like, seven times!” And so some irate ten year old would break my reverie. But the day – Dance Day – was drawing nearer. My moment of hope; my moment of complete social destruction.
Part Three: Derek
I suppose I have to talk about Derek now. I’ve been putting this off, obviously. I realize it makes my story confusing to leave him out, but every time I try to put it into words I end up shredding the page with jagged black marks telling HIM TO GO TO –
Okay. I’ll be calm. Promise. It goes like this.
Derek used to be my best friend. I had my first sleepover at his house. We played T-ball together, sat next to each other on the bus, ate together in the cafeteria. Somehow Derek always weaseled my fries from me on hamburger days. I should have known.
Our friendship didn’t outlive the fourth grade. During one recess, Derek and I were on the same team in a game of soccer. I got lucky and scored a goal. A sixth grader on the other team, Bill Bridges, didn’t like that very much. So he pushed me. And slapped me. I started to cry.
Derek was at my side. I was ashamed to be crying, but at least I had a friend with me. I wouldn’t have to face, by myself, the wrath of an angry sixth grader who was already growing a mustache. But, as I said, I should have known.
Derek took one long look at Bill and one much shorter look at me. And then he said to Bill and all the other kids around: “You should see him when he watches Titanic. He cries even harder.” I was so shocked at Derek’s revelation – too true, I’m afraid, I’m a sucker for romance, even as a fourth grader – that I stopped crying. Bill laughed, walked away, and Derek followed him. Derek had traded the role of best friend for sycophant and never looked back. That was the last I ever spoke to him.
Until this year. It was right around the time I started taking lessons for Dancing With The Local Stars. I was waxing the freshman hallway after school to fulfill my community service requirement (every senior at Jacob Creek has to do 15 hours before graduation. And if you’re bad, they make you do more.) I was drearily pushing the waxer when I almost ran over a sneaker. Derek’s sneaker.
“Hey Jude, what’s been happening?” he said.
Remember I said I was called “Jude” by my six friends? Derek obviously wasn’t one of them. He was smiling that same gap-toothed grin he had when he was a boy, as if nothing bad had ever come between us.
What’s been happening? Oh, I don’t know, somewhere between crying in the middle of recess in elementary school, and waxing the freshman halls as a senior, I’ve sunk into pubescent purgatory, while you have slimed your way into a position of respectable second-tier popularity.
What I actually said was, “Not much.”
“Cool, cool,” he continued, “so you know about the celebrity dance, right?”
Hadn’t I been to three of the practices already? I nodded.
“It’s definitely going to be grade A kick-ass,” he said. “You’re going, right?” Derek wasn’t actually looking at me. His gaze seem directed just past my shoulder. For my part, I found it hard not to stare at the gap between his teeth. Hadn’t Derek worn braces in middle school, just to correct that gap?
“Yeah,” I said.
“Cool, cool. Who’s not going, right? I mean, we got people coming in from Seattle, like, the news anchor from KING 5, she’s a stone cold fox, who wouldn’t pass up the chance to stare at those gazongas, right?”
Gazongas? The last time I heard that word was from Derek in the third grade. He had got older and bigger in the intervening years, but other than that, he didn’t seem very different. Like that gap in his teeth. He probably never bothered to wear his retainer after the braces came off. Derek was always careless.
“…not that I wanted to do it,” he was saying, “but that’s what you get for being voted Senior Class Treasurer, right? Gotta fund our senior trip somehow, right? Anyway, bro, I could really use your help.”
“Help with what?”
“The dance, man, the dance! I know you’re, like, a friggin’ Zuckerburg with computers and numbers and stuff, and we need some of that mojo to help us earn a buttload of friggin cash.”
There were several things wrong with Derek’s request. First off, I was not a “friggin’ Zuckerburg” when it came to computers and mathematics. I may have created the odd web page here and there, but I was no coding whiz. Second, why on earth would Derek be asking for my help out of the blue?
To be honest, I was a little afraid to say no to Derek right then. He was a lot bigger than me, and who knows if he had a bunch of goons around the corner? As we say at Jacob Creek High School, “In the freshman hall, no one can hear you scream.” Especially after school hours, when the only other adult in the building was likely to be Ernie Staffordson, our 75 year old janitor. Ernie was cheerful but practically deaf.
“Uh, thanks, Derek, but actually, with all of the college and scholarship applications –”
“Dude, you’re not pussin’ out on me, are you?”
“No, it’s just that –”
“Cause I don’t want to look like a total ‘tard in front of the rest of the committee. I was saying just today that my old buddy Jude could take care of our web page, so the class president put your name down for it. I don’t want to look like a total idiot.”
Old buddy? He volunteers my name for some job and suddenly I’m “old buddy?” That angry thought came later, though, because the only thing I could think of at the time were the words class president. The very president I had voted for. Vividly, I remembered her election speech: She was standing up at the podium in a white lace dress, gently exhorting the student body to reach for more, as the golden light bathed her golden hair. Our class president, Levina Deuchant.
“What do you need me to do?” I asked.
Part Four: The Website
Derek had tasked me with creating a web site that would do two things:
First, display a dancing animation of our principal Ms. Wong. Derek said it would be “hilarious” if Ms. Wong “looked like a spaz’” in the animation as she shimmied across the dance floor in an awkward attempt at the tango. (Ms. Wong, Derek informed me, had gladly given her permission to be parodied.)
And second, allow people to pay for their tickets online.
The coding for the site was easy. The problem I ran into was how to accept the money for the tickets. Derek told me the senior class didn’t have a PayPal account, so I had to use my own. I felt kind of weird about it, but Derek said it was common enough for school events to be run with cash; later it was handed over to Ms. Wong. This, Derek said, was the same situation. All I had to do was withdraw the money from my PayPal account (in cash) and hand it over to Ms. Wong.
Now, I realize I should have checked all this with Ms. Wong. The problem was, I wasn’t on the best of terms with her, all because of a little joke the previous year.
Kaycee and I had once created the political cartoons for the Jacobite, our student newspaper. Kaycee spun her skills on the sketchpad and I rapped out the words.
Last year we invented a character called “The Gingerbread Lady,” a stick figure based on the bony-thin physique of Ms. Wong. We didn’t come out and say it, of course, but the fact that “The Gingerbread Lady” had this odd waddling way of walking, precisely like the way Ms. Wong walked, made the comparison inevitable. Kaycee and I enjoyed a personal meeting with the real life Gingerbread Lady as a result. She stripped us of our positions as cartoonists and gave us a week’s worth of detention. So you can understand that I wasn’t eager to have another private conversation with Ms. Wong.
And when I enlisted Kaycee for the animation on the dance website, she was understandably cautious.
“Come on, this is totally different,” I said.
“Really? How exactly is making fun of the principal any different, Jude?”
“She won’t be walking this time. She’ll be dancing.”
Kaycee just stared at me.
“Okay, so it’s similar. But Derek assured me she’s game.”
“Derek? Did he drag you into this?”
Kaycee knew all about our troubled history.
“I’m not doing it for him,” I said vehemently.
“A sudden burst of school spirit, eh?” She didn’t mention Levina’s name, but I could see by her smirk that she knew the real reason why I had volunteered to make the website. We had had the conversation about my unhealthy “obsession” with Levina Deuchant many times.
Kaycee finally agreed to help after I promised to keep her name off the project. “I’ve been early accepted to Brown,” she said, “and I don’t want some stupid prank to jeopardize that.” I didn’t figure Whatcom State College would be as particular.
The animation turned out great. Kaycee duplicated the same odd walk of Ms. Wong’s that she had parodied in The Gingerbread Lady, only now it was mixed with an attempt at the tango. Sure enough, it was a hit. It went viral in our school after just a couple of days. The best thing of all: no word from Ms. Wong. It seems Derek had been right.
The money started pouring in. Ticket after ticket was sold, and the digital coffers swelled. When I told Derek how much we had already brought in after just four days, he didn’t believe me. I convinced him by bringing up my PayPal account at school and showing him the number: $6,840 and rising fast.
So there I was, one week before the dance, basking in the glow of success from the website, counting the three thousandth page view, and looking with pride at the amount of money from the ticket sales, when my phone rang.
“Hello?” I said.
“Is this Judah?” asked a quiet female voice that I didn’t recognize.
“The one and only.”
“The one and only designer of the dance website?” My heart raced a little at the thought that this might be Ms. Wong.
“Uh…” I scanned the caller ID info. Why hadn’t I checked before? “Unidentified Caller” said the screen.
“Hello?” she said.
“Yeah, uh, yeah, that was me, I mean, I designed the site.”
A pause. Then:
“I loved it. Derek said it was all your idea.”
“Well, thanks. I mean, he asked me to do it.” I still had no idea who I was talking to. Should I ask? Or would that sound stupid at this point in the conversation?
“But the design was your own.”
“I had some help from my friends.”
I felt sort of bad for not giving Kaycee credit, but that’s what she wanted.
“A couple of people I live with,” I said. “Misters Coca-Cola and Kit-Kat.”
She laughed softly. “I’ve met them before,” she said. “Well, I just wanted to compliment you. Derek told me how much money we’ve made already. I was worried I was going to have to break my campaign promise about our spectacular Senior Trip, but now it looks like we’ll earn enough for the cruise. Now I won’t be a liar. Thanks.”
Campaign promise. There was only one girl who had made such a promise. One of the many reasons I had voted for Levina Deuchant.
I had felt better when I thought the caller was Ms. Wong. Now my tongue seemed to be permanently glued to the roof of my mouth. “Just doing my part,” I managed to say.
“Your president thanks you. Are you coming to the dance?”
“Mmm hmm,” I said.
“Good. Maybe you’ll let me thank you in person? I can buy you a fruit punch.”
“They charge?” I asked, like an idiot.
“Uh, no,” she said. “Just a joke.”
“I guess I’ll have to work on my timing,” she added.
“No, it was funny.” Fool. If it was so funny, why hadn’t I laughed? Now I looked like an idiot and a liar.
“Well, see you at the dance,” she said. “Will you be out on the floor?”
“I went to every lesson; I’m ready to rumba.” Ouch. That sounded pathetic.
She laughed, however. Suddenly, I was a champion.
“Well, save a dance for me.”
I won’t embarrass myself any further by recounting the stammering that followed. I mumbled something like an affirmative and ended the call as quickly as possible.
Part Five: The Dance
The days before the dance passed in a blur. Because of the website, people at school suddenly knew who I was; I received compliments from more people than I had ever talked to during my entire four years at Jacob Creek. I barely noticed, though; my thoughts were only on the dance. I practiced dance steps doggedly in my bedroom each night, hoping and praying that I could acquire rhythm through brute force.
Saturday dawned with a crispness that promised a brand new start. At long last, almost at the very end of my high school career, I was finally getting the recognition owed to me. My website was a smash, and the girl of my dreams was breathlessly waiting for me to ask her to dance. Perhaps high school wasn’t such a bad gig after all.
I arrived early. Only a handful of cars stood parked outside the front of the school. I checked myself one last time in the mirror and entered the school.
“Hey. Groovy suit,” said Ms. Heinz, our biology teacher. I had decided on a retro look: I wore a suit I had found in the attic from my dad’s high school days.
“Uh, you too,” I said. “Nice dress.”
I pulled up the receipt from the website on my phone and showed it to Ms. Heinz. She squinted in confusion.
“It shows I purchased the ticket,” I said. “You know – save the trees, right?”
Ms Heinz squinted at the screen for a few more seconds before favoring me with a large smile. “Wonderful, just wonderful,” she said. I don’t think she had any clue what I was saying. She waved me in just the same, though.
The hall to the cafeteria was covered with poster-sized photos of our Local Stars. There was Nicole Jackson, the KING-5 news anchor Derek had mentioned. Peter Bricker, Jacob Creek’s mayor (and father of Jerry Bricker, our reigning wrestling champion). Ms. Paliester, of course, portrayed in a photo that must have been taken in her heyday in the 1970s. The blur of gold and orange surrounding her face made me dizzy. A handful of other quasi celebrities completed the lineup.
“Yo, Jude!” Derek sauntered into the hallway. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was a mess. Whereas I had opted for a retro look with my fly 1970s disco suit, Derek had chosen a more … eclectic ensemble: a faded black blazer over a yellow T-Shirt that said “Dancing Monkey” and a pair of jeans ripped to shreds.
He eyed me up and down. “Looks like someone raided Daddy’s closet!” Since that was exactly what I had done, I said nothing. Looks like someone raided the dumpster at the Goodwill, I wanted to say, but I chose the prudent (and cowardly) option and kept silent.
“Nah, I’m just kidding, you look great. Just go easy on the disco moves. We don’t want anyone to get hurt by a flailing arm,” he snorted. “Just kidding, bro.”
“You guys all set up?” I asked.
“We are about ten minutes away from kicking some serious ass. Just waiting for Mayor Bricker and a few others to arrive.”
A classmate walked by, pinning up a few flowers next to the pictures of the Local Stars. Derrek gave the kid a nod and pulled me aside.
“Hey, great job on the website. You really came through.”
“I’m glad it worked out,” I said lamely.
“The cartoon of Ms. Wong was freakin’ hilarious. God I hope she tries to get on the floor tonight, the whole school will bust a gut!” I wanted to punch the smirk out of Derek’s eyes. He actually had me feeling bad for Ms. Wong. “See you on the flippy-flop,” he said, and walked down the hall.
I entered the cafeteria. It was dark. Several layers of black butcher paper covered the large windows. The tables and chairs were all cleared away, except for a tiny handful tucked in the corner: the “corner of shame,” the dwelling place for those too chicken to ask for a dance. Posters of famous dancers from the past hung on the walls: John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever (my patron saint that night, of course), Gene Kelley from Singing In The Rain, Pamela Anderson from her turn on the actual Dancing With The Stars, Ginger Rogers, and several others.
I walked across the dance floor, mentally rehearsing the steps to the tango and the waltz. “One-two-three, one-two-three, box step, crossover…” I stopped in the middle of the floor when I saw her.
Levina was absorbed in an animated discussion with the DJ, Luke Allen. I wondered what she was saying. It had to be something smart. And creative. And correct. It looked as if Luke was arguing with her. Don’t be an imbecile, Luke!
“Well, well, my panther has arrived. And who will be his first victim? Not me, I hope.”
Reluctantly, I turned around. Ms. Paliester was clothed head to foot in blinking lights. At least that’s the way it looked, with the overhead rotating lights bouncing off the ten million sequins sewn in her dress.
“How much does a girl have to charge for a compliment in this town?”
You couldn’t afford it, was my first thought. “You look spectacular,” I said.
“Thank you, darling. Perhaps later I will have time for a dance with you. But now, I’m afraid, the public awaits. Stars were demanded, and stars there will be!” She glided across the floor to a photographer in the hallway. She was right about the stars; it looked like she was carrying half the Milky Way across her back.
“Watch out!” I looked up to see a short tubby kid carrying a ladder that was about to skewer me. I tried to hop to the side, but my foot caught on the cuffs of my bell bottomed pants, and I crashed to the ground.
“Sorry,” the kid said, and barreled along. Someone nearby laughed. I prayed Levina hadn’t seen. I slunk over to the tables and did my best impression of a chair.
Thirty minutes later, the cafeteria was packed with breathless teenagers. I was impressed with their outfits. I saw tuxes, evening gowns, even a few throwback suits like mine. People appeared genuinely excited. Sure, kids had made fun of the “local celebrities” all month long. And I’m sure they would make fun of the dance when it was over. But for that night, they were all part of something different, a real EVENT. And I had been part of creating it.
The music quieted. Levina climbed up to the little stage where DJ Luke was stationed. She had changed from the skirt I had seen her in earlier. She had looked terrific then, but now she was stunning.
Her dress was silver with a line of simple blue flowers running down each side. Her hair was a mass of golden curls piled high atop her head. Every strand of her hair caught the light, and every eye in the crowd was held captive by her gaze.
“It’s so exciting to see everyone here,” she began. “When we first thought of this dance, I had no idea so many people would attend. But thanks to the hard work of the dance committee, our generous local celebrities, and –”
A voice from the crowd shouted out: “And Ms. Wong’s dancing!” I stood a little taller after that comment.
“ – and the contributions of many others,” said Levina with a smile – a smile that had to be meant for me, don’t you think? – “we will most definitely reach our fundraising goal of $10,000!”
People applauded and cheered.
“Which means that we will be taking our Senior Class Trip in style aboard the cruise ship Enchantress!”
Even louder cheers. The last Senior Trip aboard The Enchantress had been fourteen years earlier, and that was only because one of the parents had Microsoft money. The stories from that cruise were legendary.
“Tonight, though, let’s begin the excitement. Our first local star moved to Jacob’s Creek about five years ago. The dancing awards she’s won are too numerous to list; suffice it to say that she’s pretty much won them all. Dancing superstar and our own private dance instructor, Ms. Charlotte Paliester!”
Polite applause as Ms. Paliester slid across the platform. It looked for a moment that she was going to seize the microphone, but Levina deftly gave her a hug instead and began introducing the rest of the local stars.
Twenty minutes later, the competition began. Here’s how it worked: Each dance we had learned would be featured: the tango, the waltz, the cha-cha, swing, the rumba, etc. After the student dancers had been winnowed down to the six best, they would be paired up randomly with our celebrities for a final dance off. Ms. Wong and three teachers would act as judges to select the champions.
I didn’t have a partner, so I had no hope of making the final round. Which was just as well; I had no desire of being “randomly” paired off with Ms. Paliester. I settled comfortably on a chair in the corner to watch the show.
Mind you, I wasn’t going to be a wallflower for the whole evening. I did plan to ask someone to dance after the competition was over. Really.
DJ Luke started the first dance with a cha-cha number. Too bad. The cha-cha was actually my best dance.
“You’re not going to sit in the corner the whole evening, are you?”
I looked up. Unbelievably, Kaycee stood beside me.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted out.
“Aren’t you going to complement me on my dress?”
Truthfully, she looked pretty great. She wore a tasteful black dress with a white ribbon around her waist. I tried to stammer out a compliment, but she cut me off.
“Save it, Romeo. Just avoid calling me Shamu, and I’ll be flattered.”
“You look great,” I said. “But I thought you said this whole thing was a joke.”
“I blame you. You forced me to learn all the dance steps. I figured it would be a waste not to show up the rest of these suckers. Well?” She held her hand out to me.
I stood up and took her hand. “As long as you’re wearing steel shoes, I’m your man.”
“Just try not to lead too much,” she retorted.
We joined the crowded floor and carved out a little space. One-two, cha-cha-cha. Three-four, cha-cha-cha. We worked our way across the floor, and to my surprise, we weren’t cut.
During the waltz, I got my first glimpse of Levina.
“If you don’t want to end up in Levina’s lap, I suggest you keep your eyes on your feet,” said Kaycee.
“Sorry,” I said. I had started to drift dangerously close into Levina’s orbit.
“Just relax,” Kaycee said, and she squeezed my hand. “You’ll get your chance later.”
The waltz music stopped.
I looked around. The crowd had shrunk.
“We might actually make it,” said Kaycee.
“Don’t count on it,” I said, as I heard the music begin again. “It’s the tango. You know what happened at the last class.” That night the girl I had been dancing with went home with a sprained ankle.
Kaycee gripped my hand and pulled me close. “Let’s get it over with, then.”
I’ve never been able to get the rhythm of the tango down. I think I’m best with dances that have no more than four steps; the tango is a lot more complicated. I really wish it had been earlier rather than last, because my screw-ups would have been a lot less noticeable among all the dancers at the beginning.
Now there were only seven couples left on the floor. I was happy to see Gus Gusterson, my friend and fellow survivor of Ms. Paliester’s classes, among those left. For all his chubbiness, Gus was light on his feet and knew the dance steps cold. Every so often he’d wave his hands in the air and shout, “Jazz hands!” It was hard to keep a straight face, but one look at Kaycee’s deadly earnest expression kept me in line.
Levina and her dance partner, Edwin Barnes, were also still in the competition. Edwin’s face was set in pure concentration. I could almost hear his teeth grinding together; a vein on his forehead seemed to pulse in time with the music. Levina, on the other hand, glided gracefully across the floor as if she were strolling through the park with birds singing on her shoulder –
“Stay focused!” hissed Kaycee. “Don’t make me look any stupider than I already do.”
I focused. Step back, to the side, forward, forward, close, forward, side, close. I stared into Kaycee’s face intently and gripped her hand tight. I’m afraid my face was probably a mirror image of Edwin’s. Sweat dripped down me in copious amounts.
“Relax,” said Kaycee. “You’re doing just fine.”
Surprisingly, she was right. I was nailing the steps. Over and over we repeated the pattern, angling ourselves across the floor, making use of all the space that had opened up. In a short time I no longer had to count the steps in my mind; they had become a part of me. I was one with the music. I loved the tango.
And then the music stopped. I continued to grip Kaycee’s hands while the crowd clapped. She grinned at me. “You can let go now. It’s over.” Strangely, I felt none of the relief I had expected to feel. Instead, I felt pumped. Excited. Raring to go. My heart was racing and I was ready for more dancing. I desperately wanted to make the final cut, even if it meant dancing with Ms. Paliester.
Levina climbed back to the stage. As she got ready to speak I heard shouts of “Levina! You so fine!” and “LeVenus! You’re my star!” Levina smiled beatifically, neither encouraging nor discouraging the catcalls. She was beyond praise.
“Well that was a lot of fun! Edwin and I are so honored to have made it this far in the competition.” Edwin’s face was so pinched up I thought he would implode.
“But, in the interest of fairness, because we are organizers of the dance, I’m afraid we must disqualify ourselves.” Groans and boos from the audience. Levina waved them off. More boos and hisses. Finally, she reached down and pulled off her high heeled shoes. “If you must know, I can’t stand another minute in these things. I thought my ancestors gave up foot-binding long ago.”
People laughed, but I’m not sure how many of them got the joke. I knew Levina had a Chinese grandmother, but with her blond hair, it could be tough to see. Plus, how many of them knew what foot-binding was?
One of the parents walked onstage and handed Levina an envelope. The crowd quieted down.
“I suppose you all know what this is. The final four couples who will be dancing with our stars.” She opened the envelope. “Our first winner is …. Gus Gusterson and Tina Ayers!” Gus did a little duck walk onto the floor. His date, Tina, didn’t seem to be as amused as the rest of us. She stood by him with her hands across her chest, glaring into space. I had no sympathy for her, though; you accept a date with Gus, you should know what you’re in for.
“Our second couple is Michael Van Hooten and Christina Leon!” This announcement only garnered half-hearted applause. Van Hooten wasn’t well known, having transferred to Jacob Creek only two months before. His date, however, was notorious.
Christina Leon grinned to show off every one of her thirty-two perfectly white teeth. No doubt she had them polished every day. Rich didn’t begin to describe her, but it wasn’t her wealth that made her unlikeable. Christina didn’t have an ounce of warm feeling in her body. If you weren’t someone she could use for her own enjoyment, you did not exist. Woe to Van Hooten if they didn’t win tonight.
I barely heard the names of the third contestants, I was so nervous. The crowd quieted in anticipation of the fourth and final names.
“And, lastly …” I stole a glance at Kaycee, but she ignored me. “… Judah Loren and Kaycee George!” Levina extended her hand in our direction. I moved forward, pulling Kaycee along, as if drawn by a magnetic force. I grinned broadly, and in a state of ecstasy, I twirled a surprised Kaycee, dipped her, and caught her in my arms.
“Don’t ever do that again,” she whispered icily under her breath. Two bright patches of blush streaked across her face. If there was one thing Kaycee hated, it was being surprised. Well, tough. We were going to enjoy this dance.
On second thought …
“Now it’s time for our couples to pair off with our gracious stars. First, Mr. Gus Gusterson will dance with …” I ignored the rest. I knew what was going to happen.
Sure enough, it did. The next thing I knew, I was hearing this fated announcement: “Mr. Judah Loren will be dancing with the beautiful Ms. Charlotte Paliester!”
I walked to the center of the room and held out my hand. Ms. Paliester wasn’t about to make her entrance in such a pedestrian manner. She nodded to DJ Luke, who started a slow salsa number. She sauntered towards me, then back, then to the side of the crowd, and back again. It was the dance of a seductress. I kept a smile plastered on my face and waited for my sentence to begin.
Several people were snickering at Ms. Paliester’s approach. Not one to miss an opportunity for a joke, Gus Gusterson began a pretty good imitation of her. People laughed harder, especially when Gus tossed his head back with a look of haughty disdain. Unfortunately, Ms. Paliester chose that moment to cross back, and since Gus wasn’t looking ahead …
Crash. They went down in a heap, with Gus landing most of his considerable weight on Ms. Paliester’s ankle. She screamed.
Gus, unhurt, got up in a hurry and tried to help her up as several parents swarmed nearby. “Get away, you stupid fat boy!” shrieked Ms. Paliester. He backed away hastily. Poor Gus; he actually looked embarrassed for once.
I probably should have gone over to help her, but I don’t think I would have been able to keep the relief from my face. A few parents helped her up. I went over to Kaycee, who stood next to her celebrity dance partner, Buck Rockwell. Buck had played minor league baseball in his youth and owned our local Ford dealership.
“I guess I’m out of the competition,” I said.
“Hey, don’t get any ideas about stealing my girl,” said Buck. Kaycee rolled her eyes at the “my girl” remark, but otherwise she didn’t seem that offended. Was Kaycee perhaps a little charmed by our local auto kingpin?
Well, hello Mr. Rockwell.
“No sir,” I said. Buck laughed, reached over and tousled my hair, and walked off to the punch station.
I looked at Kaycee, a twinkle in my eye.
“Yes?” Kaycee asked impatiently.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “He’ll be back. He just needs to spike the punch bowl.”
“Har har. Well, you look relieved.”
“I owe Gus a big one. He saved me from a fate of certain death.”
“I don’t think Paliester is really that dangerous. She’d have kept her hands to herself. ”
“It’s not her hands I was worried about,” I said. “I would have done myself in if I had to listen to her for the rest of the night.”
Kaycee was unusually quiet. I think she was hoping I would go away. I was about to make another joke about Buck-the-wonder-man before I caught myself. How many nights like had Kaycee enjoyed? So what if she had a little crush on the guy? I was in no position to make fun of someone over a little crush.
“Well, good luck. I better check on Ms. Paliester, put a little weight on that ankle. Make sure she stays on the injured list.”
“You might want to bring Gus,” she retorted.
But actually, I had no intention of talking to Ms. Paliester. I just milled around, hoping someone would complement me on my dance moves. Or my website. They could take their pick.
In short order, Levina was on the mic again. “The medics have assured me that Ms. Paliester will make a full recovery. No bones were broken.”
Gus added: “You see? I’m not that fat!” Apparently Gus was over his embarrassment.
“She will, however, be unable to perform in the competition. Her presence will still be felt, however, as many of us are only able to be out here thanks to her tireless instruction.”
That was true enough. I led a loud round of clapping.
“Since it wouldn’t be fair to Judah to leave him out of the final round, our fearless principal, Ms. Wong, has agreed to lend a hand.” I gaped at Ms. Wong as she ascended the stage and took the mic from Levina.
“Thank you, Levina. You’ve been an excellent hostess.” Ms. Wong smiled broadly at the crowd. She looked like she was actually enjoying our confusion. Is this how she was going to get revenge on me for the website, by forcing me to dance with her?
“I can see from Mr. Loren’s ashen face that he thinks I’m going to partner with him. I’m sure he’ll agree that we’ve all seen enough of my dancing this week.” Everybody went wild with laughter. I breathed a sigh of relief. “No, I’m merely taking over the MC duties from Ms. Deuchant, who has graciously consented to dance with Mr. Loren. After the impressive success of tonight’s fundraiser, I think she has earned the mantle of a star.”
In a moment Levina was standing next to me. She curtsied. “You did promise you would save a dance for me,” she said. I nodded slowly, too stunned to talk. She stepped closer and I carefully took her in my arms.
“All right, dancers, get in position,” said Ms. Wong. “We begin with a waltz.”
The next three minutes went by in a heartbeat; and I think some part of me is still out there on the dance floor, floating in three quarter time. Levina was the perfect dance partner: she overlooked my missteps and gently but deftly guided me back on track whenever I faltered. Too soon, the waltz was over.
“And now,” said Ms. Wong, “for a hit from my youth, the swing classic In The Mood, all the way from 1939.” A joke, almost certainly: Ms. Wong couldn’t be that old.
But not many of us laughed … just in case. The music started.
I started off slowly, keeping my movements small, afraid I would fling my sweat into Levina’s face. But early in the song she gave me a playful shove to let me know that I needed to bring it. Levina herself was carefree, her arms waving as she jumped and slid across the floor. I let loose. I almost ran into Kaycee – okay, I did run into her – but I bounced off and kept dancing.
“And finally, for our last number, the salsa.”
Ms. Paliester had been right about one thing: The salsa is a dance of seduction. Levina played it perfectly, beckoning me forward with her eyes and then dashing out of the way as I advanced. I was a panther at that moment, stalking my prey with the basic on-one step. “Chest out!” I could hear Ms. Paliester say in my mind.
By the time the dance was finished, I was soaking and panting. Not exactly the image of a panther that I wanted, but Levina didn’t wrinkle her nose or avoid touching me. My God, she was touching me, holding onto my arm as we both caught our breath.
“What’s next?” I asked.
“Now the winner is announced,” she said.
“That’s it? No more dances?” I cringe to say that my voice sort of broke at the end, making me sound, (I’m sure) like a whiny little kid.
“’Fraid so,” she said.
“Well, thanks for dancing with me,” I said. “I’m sorry you had to put your heels back on, though.”
“Oh, I’ll survive.” Levina let go of my arm and smoothed out her hair. Ms. Wong was just about to address the crowd.
“But at least this way, your pinched feet will fetch a good ping kam,” I said.
She stared at me blankly.
“Ping Kam, the bride price … uh, from traditional Chinese weddings,” I said.
Stupid. Idiot. Not only I did I look like a complete dwerk for knowing the intricacies of ancient Chinese marriage customs, but I had implied that she was for sale. Great.
“Now for the winner of our first annual Dancing With The Local Stars competition.” Ms. Wong pulled out the results from the envelope and slowly looked at each contestant in turn. Come on, come on, I thought. Hurry up.
“… and the winner is our mayor, Mr. Peter Bricker and his partner Ms. Christina Leon!” The mayor looked pleased, but Christina looked smug, I thought uncharitably. They accepted the trophy – well, she accepted the trophy – to lukewarm applause.
“Sorry we lost,” I said to Levina.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “We weren’t even in the running. How would our celebrities feel if none of them was the winner?” She walked to the podium and took back the mic from Ms. Wong.
“Don’t anybody leave yet!” She said. “The competition is over, but the dancing has just begun. We still have all night to swing ourselves silly; all night until 11 pm, that is.”
Edwin was waiting stiffly for Levina. I wasn’t sure if Levina wanted to dance with me again or not. I thought she had enjoyed the competition, but afterward she seemed distant. Or was that just my imagination? After lingering on the dance floor a little longer, I made my way back to the tables in the corner, feeling disappointed. I found Kaycee sitting with an entire table to herself.
“Where’s mister wonderful?” I said, a little sharply. Oh, how quickly the spirit of charity flies when one feels out of sorts.
“Probably out for a smoke. Or asking one of the girls out for a date,” said Kaycee dryly.
“Really?” I asked.
“If his dance with me was any indication.”
“Aside from stepping all over me – you’ve got nothing on him in that department – Mr. Rockwell let slip that he was ‘a bit of a chubby chaser’ and spent most of the dance leering at me.”
“Gross,” I said.
“No kidding. At the end of the dance I thanked him, shook his hand, and ground my heel into his toes.”
“Good for you.”
“And you? How was your dance with dream girl?”
I didn’t actually know. The dance seemed to go great, but afterward it felt pretty awkward. Had Levina just been distracted with the rest of her MC duties? Or had she been anxious to get away from my presence?
“Okay, I guess.”
“Hey,” she said. She reached across the table and squeezed my shoulder. “You looked pretty good out there.”
“I didn’t kill anyone,” I said. “Are you up for a dance?”
“Actually, I was thinking of leaving. The fun’s over.”
Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea for me, too. Quit while I was ahead. If I was ahead.
“I’ll join you,” I said.
I helped her to her feet. When I turned around, Levina was standing right in front of me.
“See you in the parking lot,” said Kaycee with a wink and walked off. Leaving just me and Levina.
“Hi,” I said.
“Judah, can you come with me?” She turned without waiting for me to answer, and I hurriedly followed her. We threaded our way through the dance floor and walked toward the cafeteria’s back office. Why the office? What exactly was on Levina’s mind? My heart beat faster.
“You know, I hope you didn’t take that foot binding joke the wrong way –” I began as we entered the office. I quickly shut up when I saw who was waiting for us. Ms. Wong and Derek were sitting behind a computer, and they did not look happy. Levina shut the door behind me.
Ms. Wong spoke. “Judah, I’ve been talking with Mr. Niemen here – ” she inclined her head to Derek in a slight, precise gesture – “about the money for tonight’s ticket sales. I’m not happy.”
“What’s the matter?” I asked. I tried looking at Derek, but he stared nonchalantly off in space.
“It’s come to my attention that you have been collecting the money in your personal bank account.”
“PayPal account. Derek said it was okay.”
“Hold the phone, Jude,” said Derek. “I don’t know the first thing about that online banking stuff. You said you were you going to take care of it, that you talked with Ms. Wong and everything.”
I never said that. The enormity of his lie shocked me and left me speechless.
“Well?” asked Ms. Wong.
“That’s a lie!” I finally managed to say. “He said I could just cash out the money at the end and then you guys could –” Ms. Wong held up her hand to silence me. I’m ashamed to admit that my voice was breaking. I was dangerously close to crying in front of Levina.
“Where is the money now, Mr. Loren?”
“In my PayPal account. I can show you.”
“That would be best.” Ms. Wong stood up and ushered me into her chair. Levina wouldn’t look at me. Derek sat right beside me, looking calm and relaxed. The bastard.
I logged on to PayPal, hunching over the keyboard to hide my password. I swear I heard Derek chuckle softly. But when I looked up at him he was staring out into space. I looked at my account balance. Zero.
“That can’t be right,” I mumbled. Ms. Wong bent over my shoulder.
“Your account shows an empty balance, Mr. Loren,” she said.
“The money was all there before I left for the dance. More than ten thousand dollars. I swear to God.”
But Ms. Wong was already walking to the door.
“I’m afraid I will have to conduct a formal investigation. I suggest you call your parents. Both of you,” she said, indicating Derek. “And possibly an attorney.”
She left the office; Derek sauntered out behind her. Levina stood there, looking at me as if I had just killed a puppy. There were tears welling up in the corner of her eyes.
“Levina, I swear, I didn’t do anything. You have to know that – ”
But I stopped talking, because I could see she didn’t believe me.
She opened the door to leave. “What I know, Judah, is that I have to announce to the entire class that we can’t go on the cruise trip. I have to break my promise.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and straightened herself. Then she marched out the door, and I was alone.
Part Six: Epilogue
The school investigated my PayPal records. Though my account log clearly showed the money coming in from the dance website, it did not show any money going out. No hoard of cash was found in my bank account or at my house – or Derek’s – so they couldn’t charge either of us with a crime.
Instead, Ms. Wong punished me for “sloppy handling” of school funds. I was sentenced to help old Ernie Staffordson paint the inside of the school during the summer.
Our class did not cruise on The Enchantress. Instead, our Senior Class Trip consisted of a long, smelly bus ride to a decrepit arcade center in downtown Seattle. The food was terrible and the games were lousy. Or so I heard – I did not attend.
After the dance, pretty soon I was wishing for summer to begin, even though it meant I’d be spending it inside the school, lugging around a paint roller. Life was miserable for me in the last few months of school. I was more popular than I had ever been: everybody knew me now. But they all pretty much wanted me dead. Levina obviously never spoke to me again. Only Kaycee, who knew what Derek was, believed me.
What did happen to the money? It had to have been Derek. The sleez must be smarter than I thought. He had to have stolen my PayPal password when I logged onto the site at school to show him the account balance, the week before the dance. He probably found some password sniffer program online and had it set up on the school’s computer. It was a simple ruse for him to feign disbelief at the amount of money the website had collected. And I, foolish, prideful idiot, had eagerly showed him the total balance. All he had to do was wait for me to arrive at the dance; then he could log on to PayPal and transfer the money into some dummy account and clear the transaction logs.
He probably used the money to buy a bunch of Visa gift cards which could be used as cash. I’m sure they’re sitting in a safe place right now, available whenever he needs them for a night of glamorous fun while he shmoozes his way through NYU. Meanwhile, I’m hunkered in my prison-size dorm room at Whatcom State College, pouring out my pathetic heart into a letter no one will ever probably read.
I had planned to send this letter to the student editor of the Jacobite, but I know they would never publish it. And if they did, Derek would no doubt sue me for “character damage.” (Though really, how can you damage something that isn’t there?) In the end, the only person whom I really want to know the truth is you, Levina. So I’m sending this story to your Dartmouth email address (please forgive Kaycee, I forced her to tell me) in the hopes that my embarrassing honesty will entice you to read the whole thing. Will you believe me? Probably not. But what have I got to lose?
Whatcom State College, Dorm C, Room 321