Sunday, August 26, 2007

Snowball, Part 2

Part 1 was posted on Thursday

personal essay:

Two years later it’s bar mitzvah season, parties every Saturday night in hotel ballrooms and country clubs. And I was dancing with girls. Three on a bad night, seven or eight on a good one. My hands on her hips, her hands on my shoulders. Swinging back and forth like a pendulum, sometimes even making eye contact. I wore contact lenses now, no more clunky glasses. Parted my wavy hair to the left. I was still short, but as Rabbi Danziger had told me on my bar mitzvah day, I was a man.

One of those Saturday nights in late January. We’re in a wood-paneled ballroom for Kim Friedman’s bat mitzvah party. There’s a huge projection screen in front, Will Smith shaking from side to side in a pink button-down and leather jacket, telling us to get jiggy with it over a scratchy beat and a chorus of na na na na’s. So far it was the just another bar mitzvah party, the same loop of Puff Daddy and Spice Girls videos, the same chips-and-salsa refreshments, and the same girls in dresses red, blue, black, and white. Most of the guys wore Polo shirts, khakis, and dress shoes, a couple in coat and tie. The cool ones grinded with the girls of teased hair, too much eyeshadow, and breasts, while some dude named Morgenstein ignored the thumping music and tried to fix his wristwatch outside the restrooms. I had danced to almost all the fast songs and a couple of the slow ones. It was time to take a break.

I walked past Morgenstein and into the hallway, sitting against the wall and across from Amanda Cowell. We exchanged smiles. Sometimes in English class Amanda wrote little messages in my notebook. In seventh grade terms that meant we were friends.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“You having fun?”

“Oh yeah!” I said with just a touch of sarcasm. After all, it’s not too cool to say you’re having a blast at a bar mitzvah party, even if you are.

“That’s cool,” she said with a smile. “I just want them to play a good song.”

A few steps down the hallway Amanda’s friend Caitlin and my friend Chris chatted and flirted. When Getting Jiggy With It ended, Caitlin seized Chris’ hand and took him back into the ballroom. Amanda and I sat there and watched.

“Let’s go dance,” she finally told me.

Deana Carter’s Strawberry Wine swooned from the speakers as Amanda and I made our way through the pendulum-swinging couples and into our own little spot. A single yellow light crested against half her face, faintly shining on her soft lips. She’s wearing a beige dress, a soft fabric outline of birds across her small breasts. Our first time dancing together. Like straw-berry wine and se-ven-teen. It’s the usual bar mitzvah slow dance until I inched closer, my hands resting a little more firmly against her hips. She followed suit, her hands smoothly moving past my shoulders and landing on my back. Did she really just do that? More sad guitars from the speakers. Amanda wasn’t tall but to me she was a giant. On my tip-toes I could only reach her neckline. Cautiously my sweaty hands wrapped around the small of her back. Slowly we pulled each other closer. I could smell her perfume, something fruity, strawberry maybe. Was this happening? I snuck a look up at her face and her eyes went everywhere but at me. A few scribbled notes in English class, and now boyfriend and girlfriend?

The song changed and now my face was at the outline of the birds’ beak on her breasts. I should ask her out to a movie, I decided. That Spice Girls movie was PG-13; it looked bad, but so what? I could buy her popcorn. At my side I saw Chris and Caitlin, their bodies close but not as close as ours. Amanda and I were so close and so sweaty but we didn’t care or at least I didn’t. What was she thinking? Did she like me like that? This had gone way beyond pendulums.

The main lights sprang on with a fast rap song. After a few fleeting moments, we backed away from each other, distant smiles as if we had just woken from a dream. Across the dance floor I searched for Chris, wanting to tell him about Amanda, to ask him about Caitlin. Was this the night we’d get girlfriends? To the back of the ballroom I looked and there, standing right there, was my mom. My mom. Purse at her side, waiting for me. I couldn’t approach Amanda now, not with these lights so bright and not with my mom in the audience. It was all over.

“Did you have fun?” she asked as I approached her.

“Yeah,” I said, distracted. Sure enough the dance floor was emptying. Again on the projection screen came Will Smith in his pink shirt and leather jacket, another round of getting jiggy.

“Ready to go?”

I looked back at the floor but there was no sign of her. Maybe she was in the restroom, gossiping to Caitlin about what happened or what didn’t. Or maybe she realized when the bright lights came on, we couldn’t have each other anymore. I didn’t know, and maybe I was too scared to find out. Maybe.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” I said.

My mom gave me a kiss on the cheek.


Atlanta, Georgia. A night in early May. A mess of college students outside an illuminate nightclub. Faint sounds of pulsing bass: boom-ka-boom-ka-boom-ka. Waiting, waiting, waiting. The air sweats beer and cologne. Short-skirted girls yell into tiny cell phones, guys in silk shirts and black pants exchange complicated handshakes. I shift and squeeze through the stop-pushing-me crowd. It’s been six years since bar mitzvah season. I’m nineteen-years-old now, a college freshman. “Dirgesh,” I call out, spotting some friend-of-a-friend like a face in Where’s Waldo. He’s nursing a Sprite bottle, label ripped to white, a murky brown liquid sloshing about inside. “What’s in that?”

“Tastes like shit but it’ll get you fucked up.” He talks too close and too loud. “Want to try some?”

A twist of the cap, a sniff, a grimace, and finally a labored gulp.

Boom-ka-boom-ka-boom-ka. Goes down like pineapple-tinged gasoline, a little earthquake in my lungs. Another grimace. I nod thanks and return the bottle. We’re waiting to get into Club Eleven50. Tonight’s the last party of the year. I stand in line with my friends from Turman East dorm: Vijay, Amrit, Arun, Ashish, Deepak, Sandeep, Steven Tam, and Eric Li. I’m the token white guy. All of them are drunk and I’m trying to get there.

Finally our hands are marked with Xs and we’re in. Through the tiled foyer we walk past a crying girl, mascara seeping down her face: boom-ka-boom-ka-boom-ka-BOOM-KA-BOOM-KA.

Eleven50 is all high ceilings, plush sofas, rainbow strobe lights, so many people you can barely move. The parquet of the dance floor is buried beneath a sea of shuffling black shoes and high heels. I bump into some sweaty-haired dude; “Excuse me man,” I say, but he just ignores me. SHAKE IT, SHAKE IT, COME ON, SHAKE IT LIKE A POLA-ROID PICTURE! I try to muscle onto the floor but the sea of shoulders refuses to part. Where are Amrit and Ashish? Steven and Eric? Deep in the mass of bobbing heads, that’s where they are, swallowed by the crowd of dirty dancers and lone drunk guys half-heartedly “raising the roof.” I should sit down.

With a plop I sink into one of those plush sofas. A warm Corona and a sip of Dirgesh’s drink is the only alcohol in my system. Not enough to dance without a conscience. The strobe lights intermittently flash on faces: a girl with Rapunzel hair and a beer in her hand, Ashish, huge smile, grinding behind a caramel-skinned beauty with big eyes, Dirgesh in his white button-down, rubbing sweat off his neck.

“Alex, yo, why you not dancing?” Deepak hovers over me, armpit sweat making two distinct splotches on his shiny blue shirt.

“I’m coming,” I say, rising from the sofa to follow him through the tangled heap on the dance floor. The strobe showers us in pinks and purples and greens. Up two steps and we’re on a stage, the music bruisingly loud here. A Thai girl in a flowery low-cut blouse palms her knees and swerves her hips. She appears in front of me, back turned, gyrating into my lap. I do my thing: head bob, right elbow up, left elbow up. Like that she's gone, just vanishes into the crowd. Just like that.

I bob my head to the lispy surround sound of Biggie Smalls. I love it when you call me Big Pop-pa, he says, prompting our hands to wave in the air like we just don’t care. I love it when you call me Big Pop-pa.

I throw one elbow up and then the other. This is my dance. Here comes the lightning-quick slide to the left, a hard stomping of the right foot. A step back and then a step forth, chest bending, a step forth and then a step back, chest rising. This is my dance.

“Hey, Alex!” It’s Ashish’s friend, this Bollywood-beautiful girl with gold specks on her forehead. Pulak. She’s walking toward me. “Do you like this song?”

“No, not really,” I say, my shoulders swaying to the music. “Do you?”

“Yeah!” Her face shutters on and off with the strobe lights. Separated by two feet, we kind-of-sort-of-but-not-really dance with each other. Five seconds of that and then, with a smile, she walks away. I love it when you call me Big Pop-pa.

I watch Eric Li’s hand brush against the Rapunzel-haired girl’s hip before exploring the rose-tattooed small of her back. They don’t even look at each other, somehow both involved and isolated, bodies teasing and touching but minds in whole other galaxies. Tomorrow Rapunzel-girl will wake up late, take a long shower, and swallow two asprin with an orange juice. She won't remember this moment, the tingle of Eric Li's hand against her tattooed skin. She might not remember Eric Li.

I escape from the nightclub and into the tepid May air, leaving behind the faint trail of boom-ka boom-ka boom-ka. Sure it’s the last party of the year, but it’s the same as all the others: sloppy kisses between strangers and puking girls in the bathroom stalls. I gaze up at the illuminate Eleven 50 sign. All year I’ve done this same routine: get wasted, go to the clubs, and look for that perfect girl. But do I really think that I’ll find her on a sweaty dance floor?

“Where are you?” moans a sideways-walking drunk into her cell phone. “I’m hella-fucked up, Stacy! Hella-fucked up!” She brushes past me and trips over her heels. “Where are you?” she repeats. I finger the button of my red silk shirt and scratch at the black X on my hand. This nightclub scene is not for me.

After that fifth grade dance, I’d sometimes spot Madeline Carter in the hallways. She’d flash that toothy smile of hers and my stomach would cave in. When I left Farmington Elementary, I thought I’d never see her again, but a year later, I did. It happened at the grocery store. I was wearing contact lenses, a collared shirt, and nice pants without a belt. I looked cool. I wanted her to see me and be impressed. I don’t know if she saw me.

After Kim Friedman’s bat mitzvah party, Amanda Cowell and I no longer swapped notes in English class. Because she switched schools, I didn’t talk to her until just last year, when we stumbled upon each other at the Borders bookstore back home, five minutes of chit-chat between the two of us. Amanda’s going to Penn; she’s smart, but kind of pretentious. Her voice has a sharp lilt to it, as if she’s a U.N. diplomat. I didn’t realize that when we danced to Strawberry Wine.

The line in front of Eleven50 is still long and winding, the girls still shouting on their cell phones, the guys still talking to each other too loudly, their foreheads sweaty, their smiles drunk. Maybe the perfect girl hates nightclubs; maybe she’s crashing for finals on the third floor of the library; maybe she’s singing to herself in the shower, or maybe, just maybe, she’s dancing in her pajamas, alone in her dorm room, her speakers blaring. She could be anywhere, but one day I will find her.

And we will dance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this tender coming-of-age story. As always, excellent work, Alex!