Thursday, August 23, 2007

Snowball, Part I

“Snowball" is a coming-of-age story about dancing with girls: from doing the Hammer with my mom to staggering through a blur of college women in a boozy nightclub.

In between, there’s fifth grade awkwardness, bar mitzvah swagger, and a little bit of growing up...but not too much.

Since this is a longer piece, I've divided it into two sections: part one is featured here today, with part two to follow on Sunday.
personal essay:

It was the night of my eleventh birthday and I was ready to party. With my mom. In the dimly-lit living room of my house, my birthday present Space Jam soundtrack booming through our stereo speakers with a song about slam dunks. I cranked up the volume knob. The song screamed with thumping bravado, shaking the walls. HERE’S YOUR CHANCE, DO YOUR DANCE, TO THE SPACE JAM!

With a smile on her face my mom swayed her hips and let her hands massage the air. “Come on, Alex!” she said, waving me on to join her. I smiled sheepishly. WAVE YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR IF YOU FEEL FINE. That night I stood four feet, eleven inches. So skinny my ribs showed. My glasses were too big; my nose crinkled beneath them. I wore a Chicago Bulls t-shirt, multi-pocketed Bugle Boy jeans, and Air Penny basketball shoes. Eleven years old. What would my friends say if they saw me dancing with my mom? What would I tell them to make it sound cool?

“Good song!” my mom said, still massaging the air. Juiced up on Cherry Coke, I shrugged these doubts away. Who cares? I just wanted to dance. And so I joined her.

On the parquet floor of our living room, my mom and I sweated all the way through the Space Jam soundtrack. This was my dance: stand straight and still, then jump, left leg crosses right, jump, right leg crosses left. Jump, cross, jump, criss-cross, over and over and faster and faster. Then the Hammer, left leg skidding back and right leg hopping forward then skidding back, left coming forward, jump, cross, jump, criss-cross, Hammer, and then a three-hundred sixty degree spin. My heart pumped fast and my feet kept moving. This was my dance. More cross and criss-cross, more Hammer, more spins. I wasn’t even thinking about my friends and what they’d say; I was just dancing. With my mom. On my eleventh birthday. It was awesome.

I rewound the tape and played it again.

A few months later. It’s springtime, a Friday night at the Pickering Community Center, a boring building with one big room and a fireplace. Flashing rainbow lights from D.J. Steve’s tabletop. And I'm too sexy for your party Too sexy for your party. A group of girls with messy hair and no make-up, giggling. All those guys in Umbro shorts and neon t-shirts flicking open cans of soda. A few parents scattered in the back, watching, pointing, smiling. This was the fifth grade dance.

That’s me hiding in a dark spot at the edge of the dance floor, right by my best friend Andy Nishimoto. For fun we’d typically quiz each other on state capitals, but we really never talked about too much else. So sexy it hurts. Andy didn’t even want to dance. Probably never did, I thought, not even with his mom. But all that night I hadn’t danced either. No jump and cross and criss-cross. No Hammer. A few times I almost did my dance but then I’d look at those giggling girls in jeans. They loomed over me like mountains. I felt like a little kid.

The lights dimmed and the so sexys faded. There was whispered buzz among the crowd. From the speakers came the soft tinkling of a piano chord. A slow song.

My eyes darted across the room, past the darkened corner of parents, past the refreshment table, finally landing on Madeline Carter and her long sunstroked brown hair and her twinkling hazel eyes and her toothy smile. She was beautiful. My stomach turned over on itself.

D.J. Steve called out two names to get things started, because there was no way a pair of fifth-graders were going to start slow-dancing on their own. The victims were Lindsay Tolson and John McManus. Lindsey shouted "No!” racing into a wall of her girlfriends, trying to escape, trying to disappear. Mariah Carey hit a high note and finally, finally Lindsay succumbed and grazed her hands against John’s shoulders. She glanced back at her friends and at her mom in the corner. John just stared at his toes the whole time.


They separated quickly and looked for new partners slowly. There at the edge of the circle was Madeline. I had talked to her only twice before: the first time was in gym class after a relay race, the second time was when I borrowed her pencil in class. That was enough for a crush, but dancing with her? Dancing with a girl? Still, John McManus approached Madeline and just like that, they were dancing. How? How in the world did he do that? My feet refused to move.

"Capital of North Dakota?" Andy asked me, hoping to jumpstart one of our state capital games.

I didn’t want to play along. The game of snowball had accelerated; there were now five couples swaying to Mariah Carey's falsetto. And in the thick of it was Madeline, so cool, so beautiful. She talked to all the boys with whom she danced, little laughs between them, like it didn’t mean anything, like nobody was nervous and nobody was scared. Snowball was called again and Andy and I remained on the sidelines, waiting to be asked to dance or maybe just waiting to go home. My eyes began to water, just a little. Snowball again.

“What’s the capital of North Dakota?” Andy repeated.

The dance floor was filling up, D.J. Steve was bobbing his head, the parents were nodding along to the music. Some guy with a crew cut and a Starter jacket asked Madeline to dance. She smiled. My glasses felt heavy on my nose. Could not move. Scared. I was too scared to walk up to any girl, much less Madeline. My throat tightened as if swallowing a marble. I turned to Andy.

If he really wanted to know the capital of North Dakota, I’d just have to tell him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't fool yourself, Alex; Madeline was a nervous wreck the entire time. I remember being the tallest girl in the crowd, knowing that none of the boys would ask me to dip and twirl. I'm sure I still have deep emotional scars as a result of feeling rejected!

Did you ever invest in a pair of Hammer pants? :~) Can't touch this! I can't wait for the outcome of this story on Sunday!