Dear Curiously Aligned Universe,
Indeed, this eighth grade year does continue to persist in unfolding most strangely. God knows I have tried to fully insulate myself from the insidious tentacles of social life, have time and time again turned away from that preteen pyre of nonsense, heaped high with dances and crushes and cliques and cell phones, around which my fellow students gather, drawing ever nearer, puerile brains benumbed even further by its bewitching glow, until, in what amounts to a kind of Kristallnacht of the mind, academics are wholly abandoned. Yet it appears that no matter how strenuously one tries to live a socially abstemious life in pursuit of loftier intellectual goals, no matter how thoroughly one attempts to shut out the world, the world will nevertheless rudely elbow its back way into one’s hermitage. I suppose, after all, that even the solitude of St. Francis was occasionally interrupted by birds.
I suppose all this has something to do with the fact that this year I have elected to spend my lunch periods in the cafeteria, rather than sequestered in the handicapped stall of the girls’ restroom in the languages corridor. I recognize that my stated desire to recuse myself from the majority of the more superficial pursuits of the average middle school student does not quite line up with this newfound interest in situating myself daily in the lunchroom, which is the pulsating social nexus, the Grand Central Station, if you will, of any American educational institution. Choosing to abstain from the many pagan festivals of adolescence is in no way an act of sacrifice on my part; I have no desire to go to dances, for no doubt that merely crossing the gymnasium threshold into that swirling aural muck of hormones and hair product and throbbing pop music would cause me to instantly break out in hives; I have no desire to go the sleepovers to which I am not invited in the first place, for I can think of many a better way to pass a Friday night than gorging myself on Cheetos and taking in multiple sequential viewings of Katy Perry: Part Of Me. But I must now admit that though I may have pretended otherwise, avoiding the cafeteria was never something I wished to do. Though I do not particularly like or respect the vast majority of Van Buren Middle School students, I do have a few friends, and however misanthropic I may be, it is only human nature to want to marry victuals to conversation, to desire company in repast. I sat in the bathroom not because I disdained the cafeteria but because I was afraid of the cafeteria, afraid rather of its inhabitants, of the taunts and jabs potentially hurled by my thoughtlessly cruel peers.
However, having re-read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn over the summer, I came into the school year inspired to conquer such somewhat self-created adversity, and resolved that this year, I would not allow my fear of my enemies to prevent me from enjoying the company of my friends; that this year, I would sit in the cafeteria. And, despite the difficulty of my initial entry on the first day of school—which I would put on par with navigating the space shuttle back through the atmosphere, thanks to one quite mortifying altercation with my nemesis Madison Lauren, who immediately made me the target of her mockery, followed by a small altercation with my best friend Laurence DuPlessus, which made my determination quail, to be sure—my cafeteria experience has thus far been quite pleasant. Madison has for the most part ignored my presence, and Laurence and I quickly made amends, and have spent each lunch period hence locked in various hearty intellectual debates. Today, however, my sparring partner rather unusually brought up a more lowbrow topic.
“So,” Laurence began, clearing his throat. “Are you going to go to the Fall Dance on Saturday?”
I looked at Laurence over the tops of my spectacles with no little amount of incredulity. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Did I hear you correctly? Did you just inquire as to whether or not I was planning to attend a school dance?”
“Yes,” Laurence said. “I’m thinking of going.” As he said this he looked down and began folding and unfolding the little square of wax paper that had encased his sandwich.
“You’re thinking of going? Wherefore this burgeoning interest in cutting a rug?”
“Oh come off it, Matilda,” Laurence snapped. “You’re such a snob about these things. It’s not that weird to want to go to a dance. It’s actually kind of weird to not want to go to a dance.”
Until this moment I had been under the impression that Laurence and I had been mutually aligned foot soldiers marching in the same army, heading into battle together to fight mediocrity and idiocy in all its forms. I was surprised, and a little hurt, to find such dissent among our ranks of two. “Well, yes, of course,” I said. “I know everyone else at school thinks I’m weird, but I didn’t think you did, too.”
“No, I—that’s not what I meant. I just thought—maybe—there’s no way you would ever go to a dance?”
“No. No, no, no, no. All that atrocious music—you realize that if you go to this thing, you’re going to have to listen to the musical stylings of Justin Bieber? And people rubbing their nether regions together—what’s that called? Grinding?—and sweating on one another—ugh, when I think of the horror of it all—I just could never.”
“Well,” Laurence said, crumpling up his wax paper square rather viciously. “Be careful. You never know who might ask you.”
“Oh, I’m not worried about that. I have about as much chance of being asked to a dance as I do of being picked up at the bus stop by a dirigible.”
“Ah—I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Tilda.”
I eyed him suspiciously. “What is that supposed to mean?”
He sighed. “Okay, listen. I heard a rumor—”
I began to feel a creeping nervousness.
“I overheard Shane McManus saying he might ask you to the dance. In the locker room at the end of gym class. There. Now you have it.”
I looked at Laurence in abject horror, stunned into silence.
“Jeez, Matilda, blush a little more, why don’t you—”
“What did he say? Tell me exactly what he said.”
“Well, he was talking about the dance with his friends, you know, with Javier and Derek, and they were all talking about who they were going to take, and I couldn’t catch all of it—Mr. Pelletier asked me to help him put the bats away—but I swear at the end of the conversation, I heard Shane McManus say, ‘You think I should ask Matilda?’ And then he said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’”
I buried my face in my hands. “Oh God. Oh, my God. I think I’m going to regurgitate my two percent milk.”
“What are you going to do if he asks you?”
I peeked out through my fingers at Laurence. He had a funny look on his face, a sort of keenness behind his eyes. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know!”
“Oh, so now all your precious moral objections go out the window. I thought you said you didn’t like Shane—”
“I don’t,” I said as emphatically as possible. “I just—”
I realized that at long last I understood the predicament in which Lizzy had found herself at the Netherfield ball, midway through Pride and Prejudice, when, “without knowing what she did,” she accepts an invitation to dance from the loathed Mr. Darcy. Heretofore I had always wondered why she had lost her constancy of mind at this moment, how one could be so undone by a man that all one’s reserves of rapier wit are nowhere to be found. Laurence, I daresay, wouldn’t understand.
“I would say no,” I said, drawing myself up to my full height. “I will never go to a dance—with anyone. And anyway, my parents have asked me to watch my little brother on Saturday night.”
“Ooh,” Laurence said, unfolding himself from the cafeteria table bench and gathering up our trash. “Ask if I can come over. I just got season five of Doctor Who from Netflix.”
Laurence turned away from the table, and just as I was beginning to use this blessed moment of peace to consider the fact that Shane McManus had actually said my name out loud, Shane himself sat down hastily at the seat across from mine, expelling a cloud of (admittedly rather intoxicating) cologne exhaust as he did so. I felt my mouth open and hang there.
“Yo Matilds,” Shane said.
“Hi,” I said. I could actually feel my heart beating in my throat. It had climbed up out of my chest and it was attempting to escape through my dumbly gaping mouth, banging its ventricular fists against the knocker of my uvula.
He dipped his head down low across the table as if he desired a private conference. Up close his long eyelashes, his rosy round cheeks, the little forelock of auburn hair curling on his forehead, were almost too much to be borne. “Uh, listen,” he said. “I gotta ask you something.”
“What’s that,” I said, my heart now actually in my mouth.
“You used to be really good friends with Madison, right? Do you know if she ever liked me? Or maybe still likes me? I can’t ask any of her friends ’cause I know they would just go blabbing to her about it. I was thinking about asking her to the dance.”
In order not to have to look at Shane any longer, I took off my glasses and polished them on the hem of my shirt. “Uh, yeah,” I said. “And no. I don’t know.”
“Some help you are,” Shane said. I looked up from my spectacles and saw that Laurence was approaching the table and looking at me with no small amount of alarm. “I just don’t know if she likes me. There’s no way—there’s no way you could help me find out? Is there?” Shane looked at me with an irresistible pleading in his eyes.
“I don’t know, Shane,” I said. “I’m really not friends with her anymore.”
“Listen,” he said. “Just pass her this note. Her friends would just open it up and read it. I know I can trust you.” He pushed a little square of notebook paper across the table. It felt charged with potential and danger and things I did not want to be involved in, as if inside were concealed some kind of miniature bomb.
“Okay,” I said. “I can do that.”
“Yes!” he said. “Matilda, you are the best.” He held up his hand and I gave him a high five and he disappeared in a magician’s cloud of cologne smoke.
Laurence walked up, ashen-faced.
“Don’t worry,” I said, getting up from the table. “I’m still not going to the dance with anyone.”
“Well then—what did he want? Did he ask you?”
It was then that I realized that Laurence had seemed oddly agitated throughout much of the lunch period, or at least since we had begun talking of such lowbrow matters as school dances. (It only goes to show that no good can come of even the consideration of involving oneself in that kind of tomfoolery.) His unusual jumpy shortness with me, his fidgeting, his current bereft expression at the moment: it was all a bit worrisome.
“Laurence,” I began, “Is everything okay? You look a little piqued—listen, I’m sure you did much better in your NYSSMA audition than you think you did, you’re always much too hard on yourself—”
“Yeah, yeah, everything’s fine,” Laurence said unconvincingly, repeatedly smoothing down his swoop of bangs. “So did he ask you?”
I found I did not at all want to share with Laurence what had transpired between myself and Shane, and I could not ascertain exactly why I desired to conceal this from him—an unusual state, to be sure, for Laurence and I regularly have such a free and easy discourse, and keep nothing from each other, and furthermore my formidable preceptory powers do not normally falter before the relatively simple task of self-analysis.
“Uh, no,” I said. “He wanted to know if I could help him with his math homework. You must have missed that part back in the locker room.”
I daresay the average adolescent does not need any extra opportunities to feel the need to hide his or her true self from the judgment of the world, and yet the world, or more narrowly, educational administrators, continually foist school dances, ground zero for the feverish concealing (cosmetics; bravado; seductive colognes) and inevitable revealing (sweat stains; one’s inability to dance; the forlorn lovesick girl leaning against the gymnasium’s cinderblock wall, staring longingly at her unreachable crush) of the self, upon we unsuspecting students. The corporate anxiety engendered by a dance is so encompassing that despite my continued abstention from this particular cauldron of teenage anxiety, I still find myself somehow ensnared by one of its nefarious tentacles of poisoned steam. How strange it is that we all walk through the world presenting as brave a façade as we can in these public thoroughfares—the cafeteria, the dance floor—and yet we do so with such secret desires folded up in our hearts, desires sometimes concealed from even our own minds.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.