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Winter Wonder Land

Megan Aldrup, 2011

        Emily Russman concentrated on her balance as she entered the Semi-Formal. Her high heels clicked on the tile floor below pale calves, recently shaved and raw from the cold outside. A banner in the lobby proclaimed “Welcome to Winter Wonderland!” in looped blue script, flanked by identical glitter-adorned snowflakes. Below the banner an English teacher in a plain black dress checked students’ tickets and glanced them over for any obvious containers of alcohol. Emily knew the teacher was supposed to look for signs of intoxication as well, but those heavily flushed cheeks could just as easily have been a result of the chilly walk inside or just high schoolers trying to mingle with the opposite sex.

        Emily slid off her bulky black coat, exposing a strapless blue dress that ballooned out with pale taffeta from the waist to the knees. She shivered and crossed her goosebumpy arms as a gust of snowy wind snuck through the doors of the Polish-American Association Recreation Center and Dance Hall. Sam Agler quickly held out his skinny arm.

        “Here, I’ll take that to the coat check.”

        “Ok. Thanks,” said Emily, giving him a momentary smile without using too many of the muscles in her face. As he walked off, she moved to stand on the other side of her friend Stephanie’s slim orange gown. They had come in a group of friends, just six sophomores who all carpooled with Sam’s mom and Stephanie’s dad. But it seemed like they had separated into loose boy-girl pairs based, as far as Emily could tell, on who sat on which side of the table at Steak ’n’ Shake before the dance. Emily distinctly remembered agreeing with the girls that they would not use the Winter Semi-Formal as a vehicle to find boyfriends for Valentine’s Day.

        Emily, Stephanie, and their friend Danielle huddled together in the lobby like consulting co-conspirators. The boys lingered about two and a half feet away, rubbing their hands and stomping their shiny black feet.

        “So,” asked Stephanie, “are you going to do it?”

        “What?”

        “Are you going to tell him? About how hot he is?”

        Emily knew without asking who him meant: Jeff Henderson, senior extraordinaire. Jeff Henderson was a percussionist in the James H. Auburn High School marching band, seven sections away from Emily and the other clarinets. It was widely acknowledged that the percussion section had the best-looking guys in the band, and it was further subdivided by instrument. The cymbal players were average, followed by the stocky guys on bass drum; snares were pretty cute, but the apex of the whole marching band was the quads. Jeff Henderson and Kirk Brown were this year’s quad players. Danielle had been squished against Kirk in the hallway once and said he smelled really nice, but Emily was convinced that his charms were inferior to Jeff’s hazel eyes and strong tenor voice. He had a goatee to match his long dark brown sideburns, which made it clear to Emily that he personified masculinity and maturity.

        “Em! Are you gonna tell him?” whined Danielle, flipping her short brown hair.

        “Well, didn’t I say I would?” Emily replied. “Hey, what did Rob say to you in the car, Danielle?” As she suspected, Danielle had a story to tell. Finally all the coats were checked and nervous glances back at the curb confirmed that Stephanie’s dad had at last driven away, so the group entered the wide banquet hall.

        It was teeming with boys in dark suits and girls in short dresses, drawn to the wooden floor in the middle like flies to a melon Emily’s brother had left in the sun for a week. A DJ table sat at the back, four large speakers blasting “Mr. Lonely.” The music vibrated throughout the room, undercut by the indistinct tide of hundreds of teenaged voices. Tables draped with white held plastic cups of ice water, poured by teachers and parents who seemed to be trying to ignore the pulsing, thumping beat that held the whole room in rhythm. One of these tables held an ice sculpture of what might have been a couple skating; it was unclear now, but Emily was sure the dance committee had deemed it worth a quarter of their budget. More glittering snowflakes, held by shiny blue and silver ribbons, adorned the edges of the room. Circular tables held candles in chipped blue tealights; at one of these an acne-ridden boy was slowly burning the torn pieces of a corsage.

        The group drifted over to an empty table on the right side of the dance floor. Emily set her clutch at one of the seats. It held a heavy cell phone, her wallet with $30 inside, a disposable Kodak camera Emily’s mother had given her, a box of Altoid’s, and a packet of blue Neutrogena shine-control sheets. Emily and Stephanie headed over towards the ice sculpture for a cup of water. As they drank they stared out over the dance floor.

        Stephanie leaned close to Emily. “Oh my God, guess who I see!” she sing-songed.

        “Who do you see?” said Emily, even though she knew exactly who Stephanie was looking at and had in fact seen him first.

        “Jeff Henderson! He’s right over there next to Kirk Brown.”

        “Oh yeah, I see him.”

        “He looks pretty good . . .” lilted Stephanie.

        This was an understatement. Jeff Henderson was wearing a black suit with a cadet blue shirt and a gray tie. He was dancing energetically near a couple of other seniors, swaying his head and drumming the air. Emily was reminded of when the Key Club had sold concessions at a couple of track meets last spring; she’d had a perfect view of the start of the 300 IM hurdles, which Jeff ran without any Under Armor under those short track shorts.

        “So go tell him!”

        “What, now? I don’t know.” Emily rubbed her thumb around the clear plastic rim of her cup.

        “Don’t know about what?” asked Danielle from behind, startling Emily. She had a cup of water in her hands too.

        “Where’s Rob?” asked Emily, just before Stephanie said, “She’s chickening out.”

        “What? You said you’d do it!”

        “I know but it just seems weird doing it here. I’m not chickening out, I’ll do it some other time.”

        “But tonight’s perfect!” said Danielle.

        “Yeah, it would be so sweet!” said Stephanie. “You’ll be like ‘OhmyGod, Jeff, you have to know how gorgeous you are and I want to jump your bones’ and he’ll be like ‘Wow, wanna go out sometime?’ and it’ll be so awesome!”

        “What? I don’t want to jump his bones!” squealed Emily.

        “Oh my God, that would be amazing,” said Danielle, ignoring Emily’s protest. “Liz will be so mad she didn’t come.”

        “We’ll take pictures, and we can tell her all the juicy details Monday,” said Stephanie.

        “There’s not going to be anything juicy going on,” insisted Emily.

        “I’m excited!” said Danielle. “This is going to be so memorable!”

        Emily made a face. Memorable was the last thing she wanted. Even though marching season was over, she would still have to pass Jeff in the halls, and there were four months left until he graduated and she’d never see him again. Four months of avoiding the main hallway on her way to German would get tiring pretty quickly.

        The girls finally edged their way over to the dance floor. Stephanie bobbed up and down, grinning and singing along. Paul Johnson - Emily called him Tall Paul - made everyone laugh by doing silly moves like the sprinkler and the shopping cart. Emily tried her best to dance with enthusiasm while not looking like an idiot. It was no use. Unlike Shakira, her hips did lie, and she couldn’t do a thing about it. At least Sam seemed a bit less eager to dance with her, especially compared to Rob and Danielle. They were pressed close together; it wasn’t even really a grinding sort of song, but there they were, hips grinding like a mortar and pestle in the hands of a desperate chemist. Emily looked away, embarrassed. Who would have guessed, looking at the shy girl who played flute in the second row?

        After several songs, one of the juniors from their German class came over to dance near Stephanie. He was a football player who sat behind Emily and copied off her quizzes. (She pretended not to notice.) He didn’t seem very coordinated, but they danced for a little while until the football player tried to grab Stephanie’s ass. She turned pale and edged away from him, dragging Emily with her through the now calm lobby to the girls’ room. There were a handful of girls touching up their makeup and one sitting on a toilet with streaks of mascara down her face, her friend standing in the doorway of the stall with a cell phone in hand. In the insulated normality of the bathroom, Stephanie and Emily complained vigorously about the football player.

        “Ugh, can you believe that? I mean, me! Really!”

        “Unbelievable.” Emily shook her head. “He’s such an idiot. Just ignore him.” As if you could ignore somebody completely groping you - well, come to think of it, Danielle didn’t seem to mind when it was Rob. At least Stephanie still had her sanity.

        “I just can’t believe he had the balls to try that! He’s just so - so - ngh!”

        “Big for his britches?” offered Emily. They both laughed. It was a phrase Emily’s grandmother liked to use. It was really pretty odd; as a child Emily had always imagined a tall man with bare ankles, but these days when she heard it her focus tended to travel higher up the legs.

        They fixed their hair and frowned at their pores until a suitable period had passed, then determined it would be safe to return. Just in case the junior was still lurking, they went to get some water. The ice sculpture was truly pitiful now. It may have been freezing outside, but this room was very efficiently heated by sweaty, moving, blushing, touching bodies. Glancing over the spectacle on the dance floor, Emily had an unbidden image of the video they’d watched in Biology called “Worms Makin’ Worms.” She shuddered and looked away. Moving to the table they’d staked out, she picked up her clutch and checked her cell phone: 10:27. She sat down and slipped off her heels. One of Emily’s friends from Key Club sat down next to her and complained about how hot it was.

        “But you look great! I love your bracelet! It looks so retro.” Emily was wearing a thick old-fashioned bracelet her mother had loaned her. The latch was broken and scratched her wrist but the inlaid turquoise went well with her dress.

        “Thanks, you look really cute too. That dress is awesome,” Emily replied. She finished her water and put her shoes back on, wincing. The Key Club friend drifted off to another table, and Emily found Stephanie to return to the dance floor. As they squeezed through the maze of dancing groups, trying to ignore the fact that they were directly at armpit level among the taller boys, Emily passed right behind Jeff Henderson. Stephanie grabbed Emily’s wrist and raised her eyebrows, but Emily pulled straight through. One of Jeff’s friends was looking straight at them, and she tried to look casual. Casual meant not hyperventilating.

        “Oh come on, Emily! You have to do it!” Stephanie yelled into her ear, leaning up over her back.

        “Not right now.” Emily sounded like a mother rebuking a toddler - no, actually, a woman refuting her lover’s advances was a more appropriate comparison. She felt almost guilty for disappointing her friends. Half the sophomore class had heard the rumors that Emily Russman was going to tell Jeff Henderson how hot he was. It was a thrilling and dangerous expedition on behalf of all the girls who’d ever had a crush on a senior, and Emily was their reluctant leader.

        Once they were camped in a safe position on the dance floor, Emily glanced back at Jeff. He had taken off his suit jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves. As he threw his arm around his friend’s neck, Emily watched the muscles in his shiny forearm as they reflected the flashing colored lights, supposedly just in tune with the music. Emily tried hard to ignore the words of Nelly’s “Hot in Here.”

        Stephanie grabbed her hands and pulled them in a rhythm. “C’mon, Emily! Dance!” she shouted. Emily tried to dance, but the most she could do was loosen up and let Stephanie direct her upper body like a limp stick puppet.

        “I hate this song!” she whined. “It’s so old!”

        “What?”

        “Old! This song came out in middle school!” Emily struggled to be heard over the music. It seemed the DJ had, impossibly, turned up the volume since their arrival.

        “So? It’s good! Dance!”

        Emily did her best to obey for the next several songs. Finally a slow song came on. The students dutifully paired up into couples and the crowded dance floor thinned out. Danielle turned to face Rob; they were pretty occupied with each other. In a minute, Stephanie was dancing an arm's length away from one of the tuba players in Emily’s band class. She kept staring at Emily, talking about the weather while the boy turned them in circles, as if eventually he’d reach a position to look her in the eye. It was like a dog chasing its tail. Emily was impatient to escape the dance floor, looking at Stephanie with her eyebrows raised, but her friend looked desperate for support, so she stood there feeling completely uncomfortable. Sam was dancing with a short girl named Aly Loeffel. Jeff Henderson was only a few couples away, holding a brunette girl from the track team. He was talking to her while staring at their hands. Emily noticed that he wasn’t smiling very much, and there was a gap between them.

        Emily mumbled a “yeah” in reply to Stephanie’s question about the snow this week, trying to look at Jeff without being seen. He really didn’t look that happy. And the girl wasn’t especially pretty. She had the same color hair as Emily.

        “...and I heard it might be a whole foot. Wouldn’t it rock if we got a snow day for Lauer’s test Tuesday?” Stephanie was saying as the song ended. She dropped her arms immediately and smiled at the tuba player for about half a second, then turned to Emily. Jeff was moving away from his dance partner towards the opposite wall.

        Emily began to walk.

        She skirted around the dance floor and spotted Jeff on the other side, standing near the edge of the floor with a couple of friends. Emily tucked a frizzy flyaway behind her ear and began to duck between grinding couples and flailing arms. She could feel her heart pounding faster, presumably to fuel the boiling flush that was working its way into her cheeks, neck, and the tips of her ears. Her mouth and eyes felt dry and she blinked repeatedly as tears threatened to smudge her makeup. Jeff was within reach now, his body angled away from her. His friend saw her and hit Jeff in the bicep, nodding his head in Emily’s direction.

        Jeff turned and opened towards Emily. She panicked, but it was too late. She hadn’t prepared an exit strategy. She licked her lips and tilted her head up to look at him.

        “Hey Jeff,” she called. This was clearly an opening to knock him away. It came out about half an octave higher than normal.

        “Oh hey,” he said in that voice she always heard counting out from the back of the band. “What’s up?”

        Emily wasn’t sure what came next.

        Jeff said something that Emily couldn’t hear.

        “What?” she shouted. He put his left arm out and touched her shoulder. She tried not to shiver. His hand was warm, with hard calluses. Jeff Henderson pulled her closer and leaned in so his head was over her right shoulder.

        “You’re in marching band, right?” he asked. His tie was loose and two buttons were undone underneath.

        “Yeah.” He recognized her!

        “Sorry, but what’s your name? Elyse?”

        “Emily,” she said, tilting her head up towards his ear, “Emily Russman.”

        “Oh, that’s right, sorry.” There was a pause. Emily saw the girl from the track team looking at them. She took a deep breath.

        “So, I just wanted to tell you,” she started. She thought about bailing out. She considered feigning an illness, but she knew her friends would know the truth. She thought about saying something else, something like ‘I think you’re a really good drummer’ or even ‘One of your shoes is untied,’ but she didn’t. Instead she finished, “I think you’re really cute.”

        Jeff laughed and pulled his head back to look at her. “Really? Uh, thanks,” he grinned.

        “Yeah,” said Emily, “and I’ve thought so for a while. Like all last year. And my friends agree with me, they think you’re cute too.”

        He laughed again. “Huh! Well, tell them thanks too.”

        Emily started to step back.

        “No, not right now! I mean later.” Jeff put his hand on her elbow and Emily blushed.

        “Oh, I thought you didn’t - I thought you meant now,” she mumbled.

        “What?” Jeff asked and he stepped even closer, leaning his head down to Emily’s ear.

        “Nothing,” said Emily, and she grabbed the first conversation starter she could land on for talking to a senior. “So are you applying to college?” she yelled into Jeff’s ear.

        “No, not yet. I wanna take a year off. Travel, you know, go to Europe.”

        “That’s so cool! Like backpacking? Where are you thinking of going?”

        “Oh, I don’t know yet, I figure I’ll just wing it.”

        “Oh, cool.” There was another pause. Then several things happened.

        Emily and Jeff both turned their heads towards each other’s ears to remark on the heat of the room. Consequently, Emily’s forehead collided with Jeff’s chin. Emily’s hand whipped up to the scene of the collision and the bracelet with the faulty latch made a break for freedom. Emily said “oh!” and Jeff’s head whipped down to see what had clattered on the floor and somehow - no doubt there was a benevolent God who had watched a lot of sitcoms - their mouths were occupying the same space at the same time.

        Emily froze, her brain one step behind. Apparently Jeff didn’t need instructions from his brain to kiss a girl when the opportunity arose. The dul throb in Emily’s forehead faded and as her brain checked in, it focused 100% on what was happening below her nose and above her chin. Jeff Henderson was kissing her!

        His goatee was scratchy against her lips. His mouth was warm and it tasted a little bit like the way beer smelled. Emily smiled and put a hand on his chest. Then she realized she had a hand on Jeff Henderson’s chest, and this was the grounding that brought her tumbling down to reality.

        She pulled back and ducked down to get her mom’s bracelet off the floor. When she stood up, Jeff had stepped back a little and had a hand on his scruffy cheek. She looked at him, then away at one of the plastic snowflakes over his shoulder, then back at him.

        “I have to go to the bathroom,” she said.

        “Wait,” said Jeff. “Hey, Kirk’s having an after-party, do you want to come?”

        “Um, I’m not sure,” said Emily. “I have to check with my group.”

        “I could drive you.”

        “Ok, yeah, just let me talk to my friends. I’ll be right back.”

        Emily Russman walked back through the dance floor. She did less ducking and weaving this time, cutting a path through the jungle of bodies, the fearless explorer of the sophomore girls. She walked with purpose: the purpose of someone who had accidentally kissed Jeff Henderson.

 
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All Information Copywright by Chimes Publication, Saint Mary's College 2010