After finally coming into my own at the end of 8th grade, I had to start all over again and lost whatever modicum of self-confidence I had cultivated previously when I was enrolled at U of D Jesuit, an all-boys Catholic high school located in west side Detroit. The problem with the parochial school that I attended beforehand was that everyone was split up and sent to separate high schools at the end of middle school; all the solid friendships established (and the rapport with all the pretty girls I was suddenly enamored with) over the past couple years were undermined by these separate fates. Worse, while there were a couple friends slated to, no one from my core group of friends was going to UofD; I’d have to navigate the competitive, college-prep prestigious classrooms solo-dolo. It was terrifying in only the way entering a high school composed of complete strangers, save for a handful of familiar faces, can be.
I figured, in this hormonally-charged landscape without girls, I’d establish my alpha bonafides playing sports. But weeks before fall term commenced, I worried that I made a crucial error in calculating how to best achieve this end. As my strongest sport, I knew I’d garner recognition during basketball season, but which was still a few months away; in the meantime, my dilemma was which sport to play in the fall–football or golf?
My previous dislike for playing football wholly stemmed from my shitty middle school experience. It wasn’t so much that we were bad, but that half our players had hit puberty and weren’t allowed to compete for exceeding the ridiculously low weight limit. (In fact, one of my teammates went on to play in the NFL, but hadn’t been eligible for a single game since 6th grade.) That left two or three athletic players below the weight limit playing all the crucial positions, while the secondary, but still important, positions were filled by small guys who had yet to experience a growth spurt from puberty. The whole arrangement was endlessly frustrating.
During that same year and half interval, I had developed a passion for golf. Although my family was never wealthy enough to belong to a club or buy a year’s membership, I was able to stitch together a silky smooth swing from disparate Golf Digest tips, and diligently practiced my short game in the backyard. My on-course skills were honed at twilight, when green fees were substantially cheaper, and where finding your ball relied on intuition and feel as the ball caromed off the club face more than sight to track the ball to its resting lie.
At the time, trying out for golf seemed like a no-brainer, except the concept of a golf team was an utterly foreign, if not paradoxical, idea to me. I mulled if I were not better suited to playing football, and retaining golf as a leisure activity. Such an arrangement was partly spurred on after the head football coach called up and importuned me to play, promising playing time as the running back (apparently, word of my athletic prowess preceded me). Seriously though, I started to envision what kind of potential force on the field my physique could be molded into–I was fast, tall, and strong, in a wiry kind of way. And then at my first golf practice, further doubts besieged me as I glimpsed my new teammates: all dweeby, unathletic preppy kids from West Bloomfield and Grosse Pointe, all obviously reared at their parents’ country clubs. I felt immediately the outsider, the auto-didact whose athleticism overcame technical shortcomings.
I vacillated between the two, weighing the glory of the gridiron versus the inner psychological battle of the links, but like any idiot 14 year old, I eschewed my goals for what felt like love– for golf.
Soon enough, it was homecoming season, and any second thoughts about my choice in sport had long been rendered moot. The thought of taking a girl to a dance consumed my reveries, and I knew exactly who I wanted to bring: Kendra. She was my “ex-girlfriend”, or whatever the 13 year old Catholic middle school version of that was. We shared a few chaste kisses as well as some not-so-chaste groping and rubbing of each other on other occassions. When I had last seen her, she no longer had braces, which accentuated whatever magical process it was that simultaneously turned her into some curvy fertility goddess as it reduced me to a dazed, drooling heap in her presence.
Since I temporarily hemorrhaged IQ points whenever I tried to talk to her in person, it was probably best that I maintained our cordial relationship over the summer via AOL instant messenger, which allowed me the space to give the impression I was smart and witty. This was the time period right on the precipice of cellphone ubiquity, before they were deemed critically necessary for teenagers (my first one was still two years away).
Granted, house phones were always an option, but I loathed the prospect of calling a girl–that I was already nervous as hell to talk to–and her dad picking up the phone first. Seriously, I had to psyche myself up into a Zenlike headspace before I could dial any numbers. I finally worked up the nerve to call Kendra’s house phone to ask her to be my date, to no avail (her family surely had already migrated over to cellphones entirely, the house phone now a relic of a bygone, less private age).
Incidentally, I had spoken to an old St. Mike’s friend soon after, and, while noncommittal about going to his own school’s homecoming, he mentioned how one of our old classmates asked him to Ladywood’s Homecoming, which was the all-girls Catholic high school across town that Kendra attended, and was renowned for producing lesbians and party girls with a predilection (some would say a God-given talent) for giving head, because of the whole “technical virgin” thinking Catholic schools imbued. Their dance was scheduled two weeks after UofD’s.
It was not much longer until Kendra contacted me with a similar proposition. Elated, I accepted, and then extended her an invitation to my homecoming, although my plans for that were incredibly nebulous. We made tentative plans as I unskillfully flirted with her (I think back to this time, when I literally knew nothing about girls, and wince at my attempts to charm and woo–earnest and heartfelt and so woefully naive. I can only imagine, and hope, that my advances were met with nothing worse than a compassionate grimace, maybe prompting her to wonder, ‘are all boys this dumb?’, as, like all girls, she gradually awakened to the immense power she exerted over men: to fluster and elevate, humiliate and empower, excoriate and exalt. Looking as she did, little more than a pointed look and a few words could have these effects.)
So even though I found myself less than thrilled with the golf season, I was secretly ecstatic at this direction of my personal life. My daydreams rehearsed future events unfolding ideally: kissing her at the dance, becoming real boyfriend and girlfriend, spending time with her and more. However, there still remained one, not-so-insignificant impediment to going to these upcoming dances: my parents’ approval.
I knew my dad would go along with whatever my mom said, so I had to appeal to her and hope she’d relax her strict, conservative Catholic views, which held that men and women should only be dimly aware of the other sex’s existence until they were 18. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but when I broached the subject, gently and nonchalantly, I was duly rebuffed. The thought I’d go to Homecoming with a date was one of those ludicrous ideas, like eating meat on Fridays during Lent, whose lazy impiety was a sign of the unwashed, un-Catholic masses that she found objectionable to her very being. I’d need a different tactic when I resurrected the issue. I tried to argue my case, but she was only infuriated by my insistence. I was almost reduced to actual tears, my voice cracking, before she yielded as I adumbrated the points in my favor: I already agreed to go; she had already made plans and got a dress contingent upon my presence; and almost most importantly, sparing me from the sheer embarrassment. I could envision few things as mortifying as having to tell the girl I had had a crush on that I couldn’t go to her homecoming because my mom thought I was too young and not ready for such things. I know her intentions were noble, but truthfully, my mom vastly overestimated the extent of my game at that age. Considering the hair under my left armpit had only sprouted in the year prior, the chances of me getting farther physically with Kendra than a harmless kiss were effectively nil.
I was permitted to go to Ladywood’s dance but not UofDs. Which was just as well, because I hadn’t the slightest clue of what we’d do before and after the dance. I hadn’t really established a friend group I wanted to hang out, let alone expose her to. I’d imagine us out to eat with the mouth-breathers on the golf team, who’d probably just stare at her creepily, and I shuddered with relief.
Regardless, this compromise left my mom fretful; my dad cut into me about the underhanded way I got her to acquiesce, you know, by utilizing common sense and voicing my desire to remain socially unostracized. A week until the dance, I went to watch a Ladywood basketball game with other friends who would also be going to the dance, as we sought to see our dates before then. Kendra was cheering, but I recognized her mom in the hallway, who approached me, and asked if my mom was still reluctant to let me go. I nodded, abashed, and then she declared she was going to call my mom to allay her fears and misgivings, and amazingly, she proceeded to do just that. I could only eavesdrop on one side of the conversation (“Yes, I get worried , too, because they’re so young, but I do honestly believe this is just a bit of innocent fun”), but was able to deduce my mom’s primary objections, and hoped that nobody I knew had passed by and listened in. After a lot of nodding and agreeing, Kendra’s mom closed her flip phone with a flourish, a smile, and an assurance that I’d be going. “Oh, by the way, your mom is such a sweet lady,” she said, as if she were complimenting me.
Nowadays, if a girl’s mom fought so valiantly so I could go on a date with her daughter, I’d feel obligated to smash, out of respect. It’s just good manners. But at the time, I felt drained of the last few droplets of testosterone the golf team afforded me.
Twisted up by overwrought anticipation, the day of the dance arrived just as I felt myself breaking out. This was before I developed acne, so it was doubly disconcerting. I vigorously rubbed the nascent zit until it transmogrified into the deep cherry red of a herpes outbreak below the bottom-right corner of my lip.
The plan was for Kendra and her mom to come pick me up, getting pictures of just the two of us, before heading to her friend’s house for group photos, then dinner at Olive Garden, before finally heading to the dance. At my house, she stepped out into the driveway wearing a baby-blue dress that’d haunt the dreams of any 14 year old boy; conversely, I wore an ill-fitting suit coat with a tie haphazardly knotted. I could decipher my mom’s barely concealed amazement (or was it expectation?) at how pretty my date was. She even blithely ignored Kendra’s sass to her mom. The first round of pictures over, we departed for her friend’s house in the wealthy north side of town. Even though she sat in the back with me, I felt like the car ride was more awkward than it was in reality, as I racked my brain for conversational topics appropriate and interesting to my hot date and her hot mom–just an older model– (shopping? school? sports?! gah, I cursed myself for my social ineptitude). So I just sat there quietly, as their conversational banter was undergirded by a kind of *wink wink* knowing-ness between mother and daughter, their tacit communication pregnant with meaning.
We met with her two friends and their dates at the next stop. A few things were immediately apparent: first, Susan, her best friend, was a fucking babe, like model-in-magazines hot (and I think she actually became one later on in life). The other friend, as evidenced by the shortest dress I’d ever seen, fake tan, and languid body language, was a precocious slut, but still, stupid hot. One of their dates was big and burly, the other short with pierced ears; I pegged them as at least a year or two older. However, any hope that Kendra would stay by my side, and make me feel included evaporated almost immediately, the three of them returning to a previous conversation about some bitch, zealously reiterating gossip and their own interactions with said bitch. Us guys, forgotten for the moment, grunted at each other out of respect; while they weren’t totally oblivious of us, we were relegated to their rugged adornments. After a few pictures inside, we stepped out to the front lawn to a fusillade of camera flashes. Susan’s diva tendencies revealed in the sultry angle of her poses, her catty attitude, and her insistence to reshoot what felt like a few reels of film.
Exhausted by the production of it all, we headed out to Olive Garden. On the way, it dawned on me that I was riding to Homecoming with the Mean Girls, Ladywood’s Plastics. Fortunately, the group we were joining at the restaurant included a few friends that I’d be able to confide in and relax around. Finding an open seat next to them, I related the ordeals of the day –they had similar tales, it turns out, freshman girls are uniform headaches on homecoming.
We watched a limo pull into the parking lot, which was our cue to leave for the dance. I sat next to Kendra inside the limo, and I thought of ways to redirect the flow of this date. I debated whether to hold her hand for so long that by the time I did grab it, we’re fifteen seconds from pulling in front of the gymnasium. We poured out, and checked in. She beelined it after her friends who were already on the dancefloor, and I followed her halfheartedly to a circle of her friends jumping and gyrating, so I retreated to the sidelines. Without a lapse, they sang along to every gangsta rap song, and shook their asses in perfect rhythm.
From my seat at the table in the back, I enjoyed the sight but felt. Superfluous, like an extra in my own movie.
I had made a mental note to get her attention at a break in the music or when she took a breather, but when she finally did, I stalled and sputtered and did nothing. If it were the me of today, I’d grab her hand and, fuck it, even though I’ve like one solid dance move, I’d spin her around in the centre of the dancefloor, and showcase my one move. But 14 year old me was paralyzed, rooted in place, stuck pouting like a bitch at the rear table, as some seniors (at least, I told myself they were, because it made me feel better to think so) had cut in and started dancing with the girls, one even grinding on my date. I felt my stomach rise to my throat, getting caught.
It wasnt like she was trying to torment me, because she probably supposed I preferred to sit out, and I wasnt even mad, I just felt impotent and defeated, like a loser failing to even attempt at aligning the outer world with interior desires. I tuned out my surroundings until some friends pulled up seats, and commiserated.
(That’s what sucks about being a guy; I hadn’t thought about this incident in over a decade, and yet the sting of defeat has not lessened. Regardless of the countless victories since, it’s these bitter losses that stick in your craw and drive you nuts.)
I tried to muster the courage, the defiance, the balls to just take her into my arms and salvage the waning hours of our date, but instead, I just hoped, like a complete fucking chump, she’d suddenly come over to my side and buoy my good spirits. Even more revealing, I envied the self-assured jackasses who never doubted if the girl wanted to dance with ’em (she did) and created his emotional state without reference to his date. Eventually, I meandered out to the limo and then returned back to the lunchroom, just outside the dance floor.
The shift of energy evinced by sweaty dancers recuperating on the sidelines and groups huddled together making plans for later signaled the approach of the dance’s end. I was no longer invested in making something special with Kendra, but it crossed my mind that I’d like to dance with her once, but was unable to locate her until the lights were turned on. She had been dancing with the same girl friend all night.
I shrugged, forswore this idealism, and hurried to the limo where it was set to drop us off at a girl’s house for a tame after party.
More people from middle school were at the after party, even when they hadn’t been at the dance, so I forced my sociable face because I refused to give off the impression of sour grapes or butthurtness. I was really just embarrassed by what a pathetic figure I seemed then, by the discrepancy between my expectations and what happened.
The girls went upstairs to change out of their dresses into clothing they had left there beforehand. When Kendra descended from upstairs in a tight shirt and those cheerleader booty shorts, my jaw hit the floor, my eyes shot out 10 feet, and smoke billowed from my ears like in the cartoons. I pled with the universe: she can treat me with utter indifference, but let me be in thrall to her golden radiance, (that’s 14 year old me, still spilling poetry when I’ve already become the fool).
Meanwhile, Susan and another girl started arguing, which quickly escalated into a bitter shouting match. She might have been rail thin, but Susan would not be cowed, and even as she sashayed out of the room, she was hurling ‘bitches’ and ‘cunts’ over her shoulder, as Kendra and the slutty one hurried over to calm her down. I caught the eye of my friend across the room, and we erupted in laughter; it was the catharsis we needed.
A girl from my middle school took up the spot next to me on the couch. She’s cute, and I felt like we might’ve had something if not for Kendra. She whispered disparaging remarks about Kendra’s behavior at the dance. I got the vibe she’s coming on to me, either out of pity or revenge, but I don’t know if she’s just doing it because of some weird rivalry thing she had with Kendra, or she genuinely dug my soft ass. Regardless, she was not who I wanted then…
When my ride home parked out front of the house and laid on the horn, I hurriedly went around the party, issuing my goodbyes and hugs. I didn’t even make the effort to, but naturally, Kendra had met me at the doorway before I left. Just as capricious as they had closed on me, the doors to Kendra’s universe were reopened, even if for just a short gap, as she muttered goodbye and hugged me, her arms lingering around my waist for just a beat longer…and that moment felt like it was stretched to infinity. I wanted to stay here forever, even if I had no idea how to handle this girl, or how outgunned I was, or how outta my league she was then; I’d take a 1000 heartbreaks and still return. Maybe if I weren’t such a chump, things would’ve worked out differently. And that’s when it had hit me, sudden and fleeting and blinding like a flash of lightning: I should’ve played football.