He sneaks a quick look from behind his thick math textbook. He can’t see where he’s headed. But he can see her bright blue runners dart this way and that across the gray tiled floor to avoid the mad crowd. He knows he is a freak for following her around like this. He should just talk to her. But he can’t. His tongue freezes every time she looks at him with her big brown eyes, magnified by her pink plastic glasses.

She is beautiful – the definition of breathtaking beauty. And he knows he cannot ever attract her attention in any way other than by making a fool out of himself.

Shaken out of his daydream about her wide, lop-sided smile, he sees her open an unfamiliar classroom door and watches her orange polka-dotted skirt disappear behind it. Oh, how proud he is of her – she spends even her lunch hours helping frazzled teachers with weaker students. She is such a kind and gentle soul. Surely she will talk to him if he gives conversation a shot. So he musters up all the courage he has in his skinny body, takes a deep long breath, and with adrenaline pumping through his veins, rushes in after her before the heavy door slams shut.

Out of breath and panting after his courageous run, he drops the textbook from the front of his face, and sees her; his frizzy haired, bushy browed Maggie, stare at him with wide open eyes and an amused look. Her right eyebrow is raised questioningly while a smile plays at the corner of her rosy lips. He wishes for the earth to crack from where he’s standing and swallow him whole as he becomes aware of his ketchup-stained sweatshirt, his grimy hands and his windblown, badly cut hair. But he manages to stutter out a feeble ‘hi’ after he remembers how to speak again.

She tries to hold it back, but soon, a roar of laughter escapes her sweet mouth. He looks about in shock and realizes he is surrounded by billions of girls, girls of all sorts and sizes; they brush their long silky hair, gloss their big pouty lips, and on the other side of this classroom, they go in and come out of stalls – toilet stalls.

He is in the girls’ washroom.

He is amidst a bazillion, horrible girls. Their pretty faces have distorted to fit the howls and cackles that come out through their swan-like throats.

He is doomed.

He hurries out of there as embarrassment colours his face red and tears make their way out from the corner of his raw itching eyes, making vision blur and distort so that the world looks like a big yellowing bruise. He can’t look up. He knows that the moment he does, the news of his stupidity will start to travel even faster until every student from kindergarten till grade five will know that he, the big L, has recently decided to use the girls’ washroom. He can already hear their terrible laughter and see their long accusing fingers pointing at him, labeling him with the title of freak.

He bolts his way to the library, and begs his sobs to be silent until he can safely maneuver his way to his hide out spot in between the science fiction novels. But then he feels the slight pressure of a hand on his shoulder. It can’t be the mean, tough hand of Bob Brian, the biggest bully who likes to pick on him. It is too small, too soft. He turns around full of caution and fear and sees Maggie. Her eyes blink at him with concern so that her long eyelashes brush against the lens of her glasses. Pulled towards her, he is about to reach out to take away the pink frames but he notices that her lips are moving, her mouth opening and shaping sounds.  She is saying something, but the roar in his ears is too loud for him to hear. He feels dizzy with confusion. But then he feels her slight hand steady him by his bony elbow. And then he feels it travel to his face, feels her smooth skin on his closed lids and cheeks wipe away his tears of humiliation. She asks him to have lunch with her, share the chicken sandwich her mom has made. His skin tingles hot from where she has touched him. And to answer her is too hard of a task with his rubber mouth and his numbed senses.

She does not wait for an answer since it obviously does not matter, and leads him outside the dull, musty school that is full of the greasy smell of fries. They go to a quiet little spot hidden behind the French portable where she sits down beside him on the wet grass. He cannot smell on her the strong unnatural smell of perfumes that the rest of the girls in his class shower in. But he can’t help notice the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and sunshine that comes from her clothes and from her mouth when she laughs. After a few bites out of her warm, slightly damp sandwich and a few sips of hot spicy soup from her over-sized, sparkly violent thermos, he finds his voice, muffles his burdening doubt, and manages to string out a series of squeaky apologies and thanks. And with them, to his surprise, he also blurts out an invitation to the spring dance on Friday night.

Time stills.

She doesn’t say anything for an eternity.

He feels his chest explode with every breath he skips.

And then, she gives a slight nod, with a slight smile, which turns into a big one, revealing each and every one of her big crooked teeth. He feels his insides loosen and a floppy grin spread about his face against his control as all the edges of life blur away so that only Maggie’s face focuses in the centre of his vision.

This dance, his first one, will be the best experience of Maggie’s life.

That day, they walk home together. Nobody teases him about the earlier incident. Even Bob Brian isn’t to be seen anywhere!

That day, he asks Mama for dancing lessons. She is overjoyed that her son is going with a girl somewhere!

That day, all the butterflies that had ever fluttered in his stomach flutter outside of his windowpanes. That day is better than any other in his short life.

He has only three days to practice, and practice he does. Everyday after school, Mama happily waits for him with her favourite music playing, and every day, he spins and taps and learns all sorts of new moves to increase his low self-esteem along with his dancing skills. And every day, he shares lunch and long conversations with Maggie when they walk home together.

And then – Friday comes.

After promises to meet each other in a few hours, they part and he goes home for a quick shower, comes out fresh, and puts on his dad’s tux, which fits just right. He even shaves his young enthusiastic face to believe he has facial hair, borrows his grand papa’s expensive perfume and gels up his hair so that his head appears to be even bigger than it is, like he has seen the other guys at school do. His mom has gotten him a red silk tie, pressed his white shirt and polished his dad’s pointy shoes for him. And so with all his gear, he knows he looks better than he did even in his cute baby photos. He picks up his beautiful Maggie who looks simply exquisite with her uncontrollable hair trying to escape her braid and her small form covered with a bumble bee patterend t-shirt – and they talk and laugh their way to school together.

The building is pulsing with music and nervousness once more lines his gut when he opens the cafeteria door for Maggie. In the dark noise full of moving bodies, he catches the eyes of Bob Brian who points a finger at him and starts to laugh.

And he is transported back to kindergarten’s misery and fear; to grade one and two and three and four, when all he thought about was Bob, when Maggie hadn’t changed schools and his life. He sees Bob take a heavy menacing step towards him. He pulls Maggie’s fragile body close in his arms. He sees Bob raise a fist and he hears the fabric of his tux being ripped loose. Punched in the stomach, with only black in front of his eyes and a hard throb pounding his body, he slithers on the cool, hard floor with a bloody nose. He can see the juice spills and the chip crumbs lying around at this angle, at the same level as his freshly shaved and showered face.

He hears the heavy footsteps of Bob Brian leave with parting words and a snicker: It’s not your miserable wedding that you’re dressed for. Losers don’t go to dances. You should have known better.

He looks up to find Maggie. But she has turned away in shame and her narrow back is a rigid wall. So he pulls his sorry self up, limb-by-limb, and limps his way out again, slouching – too embarrassed to look up for the second time in a week.

The cafeteria door slams shut and he finds himself outside. Disoriented, as the cold drops of rain pelt his face and the thunder of laughter he has left behind dims, he feels her hand on his shoulder once more. Soft, small, it leads him to the empty parking lot. She puts her head on his shoulder and while they move together, she sings in her high-pitched voice a song without words. And before the short night is over, before the crowd comes out, she kisses his lips, tells him she is a black belt, and it is Bob Brian who now lies on the floor.


Published on: May 22, 2011

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