Ben kidded me as we stood beside the bike racks near the parking lot. When I saw her standing there, I knew it was the right moment and what I needed to do. “She’s not going to do it. She’s a junior, you’re a sophomore.” We stared at her… she was an Amazon; regal and as far above us as the moon over mud. And I was younger than she and short for my age. “Josh, she’s going to think you’re crazy. There’s no music, and we’re outside.” Ben shook his head. “And you know she already has a date.”
“I hear music when I see her.” It was Monday, and the dance was on Friday. I needed to set the stage.
“You’re strange, dude.” Ben grinned wryly at me.
My mom said I had an old soul. I don’t really know what that means, but I know how I feel. She got me; mom knew how my mind—maybe my heart, too—worked. I think somehow, in his own way, Ben did. He was my best friend.
I’d thought about it—her—for more than a month. I was determined despite knowing the rules governing the High School Universe—and the consequences of stepping over or around them—were set to crush me. But mom and dad believed if you want something you should go for it and not listen to someone telling you, ‘You can’t…’ or ‘you shouldn’t…’
I was committed to my plan.
* * *
Just after the school year started, dad had given me the talk. Yeah, like I didn’t know already. But he also talked about other things. We were in the garage working on the car that would become mine when I got my driver’s license later in the year. I squirmed around at first, not wanting to talk, but then something he said about life made me think. I knew he’d been through a lot. He had told me each twist and turn had taught him many things. Bits and pieces of that came out from time to time, but not like he was preaching or teaching. It was just him talking with me.
“Sometimes it’s okay… and a good thing… to do the unexpected.” Straightening from the engine, he glanced my way; not so much to be sure I was listening but more to make sure I started if I wasn’t. It worked. “Get me that extension and 5/8ths inch socket.” I found both in the case and handed to him. He removed the smaller socket, affixed the extension with the larger, and bent over again. His right shoulder and arm made a pumping motion as he tightened a bolt. “But if you break from the pattern… from what people expect or predict you’ll do… you have to think through the repercussions of your actions. The results. Sometimes they can be good—surprising even—if you pull it off.” He lifted his head and smiled when he saw me leaning over the fender toward him. “But if you fuc… screw up. You also need to understand the downside. The consequences. What will happen if things go wrong?” He handed me the socket wrench. “I’m done with that.” I broke it down putting the components back in the case for the set. He came around to my side of the car and dug the keys out of his pocket and tossed them to me. “Crank her up.”
This would be the first time since we’d removed the old engine and rebuilt it—almost a yearlong project—with work pieced together an hour a day, sometimes more, in the evenings and on weekends and holidays. She fired on the first turn. I saw dad’s grin through the windshield. The rich, rumbling sound of the new Thrush Glasspack dual mufflers masked his voice, but I read his lips. “Sweet…” I tapped the gas pedal to make them cough with a deep, burbling sound. He made a gesture—waving his hand under his chin, across the throat—I knew meant to turn her off. I did and took the keys out of the ignition. I went to give them back to him. “Keep them… those are yours.” I liked how that made me feel.
“Let’s recheck the belts.”
I ducked my head under the hood to watch what he was doing. “What do you mean by doing what’s not expected?”
He didn’t look up. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
He raised his head, then came around and tapped the emblem on the driver’s side just forward of the door. “Henry Ford said that.” He looked at me. “Sometimes, you need to stand out… but not just to seem different. Do it because you are different. But only be who you are and not something or someone you’re not.” I think he could sense I wasn’t following what he meant. “What’s on your mind, Josh?”
I told him about Diana and the coming Fall Festival dance. “She’s older than me, dad… and popular.”
“And you don’t know how to get her attention to ask her out.”
“Does it scare you that she’s older and in the cool crowd?”
“Kind of…” I hated to admit it, but it was true. “But, I like her.”
“But you don’t want to be embarrassed if she turns you down.”
I looked down into the engine; the parts that moved and the metal that encased others I couldn’t see. Helping my dad rebuild it made sense. There was a logic to it, and we’d just proven that what we’d done worked. With sweet sounding results. But engines weren’t girls and high school was more complicated than putting one back together.
“No.” He was studying me when I looked up at him. “I don’t want to fail.”
“No one does, son.” He wiped his hands on a handful of paper towels. “But you can never succeed—at anything in life—if you’re not willing to take the risk.” He threw the wadded paper in the barrel we used for trash. “And chances are you will fail—at many things—if you’re trying to live a life of purpose and that has meaning.”
“What should I do then?”
“Be willing to try… and to fail.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “And to learn from it and try again.”
“But what should I try… what’ll work-”
He cut me off. “No one can tell you what to try or what will work. You’ll have to figure that out. The thing is to be willing to do it when you have it worked out.” He went back to the front of the car. “Josh, as long as what you want to do isn’t illegal, will not hurt anyone, and you aren’t in danger, then I don’t believe much in minding the proprieties or what someone else perceives them to be. Sometimes you have to take your shot even though you don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell.” He laughed, “In school, your mother would never have thought of going out with me. We were so different.”
The door from the laundry room opened, and mom stepped into the garage. Dad didn’t miss a beat, grinned at mom, and kept going. “She was prim and proper, a good church-going girl—and rule-abiding.” I saw her look over at us and continue to the storage freezer. “And I was anything but that type of person.” Another look from mom who was listening. She probably knew what we were talking about as I had asked her earlier what girls looked for in guys before deciding to go out with them. “But there was something about her, and I had to ask for a date.” Dad smiled as she came over and continued. “I think she was shocked; not that someone asked her out—she was a quiet beauty—but that it was me asking her. She said no. But I wore her down, and after a while, she agreed to that first date. Then how could she not fall in love with me—good looking stud that I was.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “I agree.” She qualified that quickly, “Not with the stud thing, though.” She smiled at him, then looked at me. “Josh, sometimes you have to do what feels right even though others think it’s wrong or foolish. Like all my friends thought when I went out with your father.” She patted him on the cheek and wiped away grease under his left eye. “But I worry about you getting hurt.” she sideways-tapped the fender of the car with the log of frozen hamburger patties to emphasize her next point. “Unlike small-brained, thick-skinned, dinosaurs like your father.” She gave him her you’re-not-as-clever-or-as-good-looking-as-you-think-you-are look but with a smile to soften it and then looked at me again. “I don’t want you to take it personally if it doesn’t work out—if she says no.” She turned away. “I’ll have supper ready in 30 minutes; wash up and wipe your feet,” she gave our hands and shoes a meaningful glance, “before you come in.”
We worked for a few more minutes in silence.
“How do I get Diana to notice me?”
Dad put the wrench he’d been using back in the large, fire-engine red, toolbox he’d rolled over close to the car and grabbed another shop towel to wipe his hands. Using a clean cloth, he closed the hood and then spread it to lean on. “Mind the fender.” He tossed me one to drape over it, and I leaned forward, too. “It needs to be bold.” He was quiet for a moment, then straightened and walked over to the deep sink next to the door to inside. I followed him. He turned on the water and handed me the hand-goop to scrub the grease off our hands. “Nothing crazy, it has to be tasteful. Elegant even. That’s what will catch a girl’s attention… and maybe even her heart.”
I scraped the grease from under my fingernails. Mom would get on me if I missed that. “But what?”
“I don’t know the girl.” He grinned at me. “When the time is right… you’re my son. You’ll think of something.” He paused, hand on the door to go through the laundry room into the kitchen. “Just remember, look at things in the context of what is the right thing to do. Don’t cut corners or dodge facing things and people. They may not like what you say or do and may disagree with you, but if you do things on the up-and-up, they’ll respect you.”
“So, don’t act like an embarrassed coward while and after I do it?”
“Exactly.” He opened the door and stepped in. As I followed, I punched the button to close the garage doors.
* * *
I looked at Ben. What dad had said about knowing the right time… it was now.
I approached her on the sward; she was alone, and I wanted to do it without an audience. “May I have this dance?” With a sweep of my arm and a bow, I waited for her answer. Not amused and not getting it, she looked around and then at the hand I held out to her. She ignored it. A dismissal. Though disappointed, I didn’t mind as she turned away.
“I told you…” Ben ragged me as I walked over to him, and we headed toward our bus.
“It’s okay. It wasn’t about getting her to dance right now.” I looked over my shoulder and saw she was almost to the student parking lot. She turned to look back at me, and I waved. She shook her head at that, so I know she saw me.
Every day that week, when I saw her in the hall, I smiled, raised my hand and bowed my head then looked her in the eyes. Tuesday, she didn’t notice. Wednesday, I thought I saw her eyes cut toward me as we passed. Thursday, she looked at me—no expression. Friday, it seemed she had a smile. The dance was that night.
My dad would drop me at the dance, and mom would pick me up. I asked him to stop and get Ben.
“Don’t you look nice!” Ben’s mother said when she answered the door. Dad had taken me to where he got his suits, and we’d picked out a sharp, single-breasted, black one tailored to fit me. My shirt was white Egyptian cotton with French cuffs, and he’d selected a dark crimson, silk, tie to go with it, and the scarlet pocket square. My dad’s rectangular, silver, cuff links flashed as I handed her one of the two roses my mother had picked up for me. “How lovely!”
Without thinking, I blurted. “I have another.” I heard Ben thumping heavy-footed down the stairs. I looked at him, and he was wearing his older brother’s Navy blazer, too long in the sleeves though it fit him in the shoulders.
“You look like you work in a funeral home.” Ben sniggered.
“Ben, Josh looks very handsome. Don’t you-”
“Yeah, he’s a real George Clooney.” He cut his mother off and saw what was in my hand. “A rose, too… ooooh, is it for her?”
“Let’s go. My dad is waiting.”
When we got there, it didn’t take long to spot her. She had a group of boys and girls around her. Including her date, the football team’s quarterback Brian Milchamp, a senior who was even taller than Diana was. The head chaperone, Ms. Dumphy, had just announced some rules governing dance conduct, and music had begun to play.
Ben patted me on the back. “Here goes…” I nodded at him.
The first song had just ended, and the two stepped off the dance floor. I met them at a table loaded with fruit punch and soft drinks and tapped Brian on the shoulder. They both turned; Brian, with a questioning, look down at me… and Diana, with just the trace of a grin’s curl to her lips.
“You don’t know me. I’m Josh Andrews.”
He was perplexed. “So?”
“The right thing to do is to let you know I’m about to ask your date for the next dance.”
“You’re not going steady,” I looked at him and then longer at Diana. “I know this is your first date.” I bowed to her. “I’m just asking for one dance.” I knew Diana had played Belle the past summer in a community theater production of Beauty and the Beast. That had made me think of bringing her a rose. I handed it to her. I’d moistened the petals with a sprinkling of water that caught the lights overhead. “This is the one thing I’ve seen that is as beautiful as you.” I smiled up at her. “Dance with me.”
Brian stood there, not knowing what to say or do as I took her hand. She followed me onto the dance floor. It was a slow, smooth, rhythmic song. I put my hand on her waist, just as my mom had shown me. I felt a surge… a tingle go through me. Though my eyes were level with her breasts, which were wonderfully round and threatened to hypnotize me, I looked up into her eyes. Never straying from them and hers did not leave mine. The song ended, and she held my arm as I returned her to him.
“Thanks for the dance.” I kissed her hand, and with a nod to Brian, turned and walked away.
Ben was open-mouthed. “She watched you walk back over here.”
“But she’s still with that guy.”
“Well, what did you accomplish?”
“My father grew taller between his sophomore and junior year.”
“Brian graduates this year. He’ll be off at college next year.”
“Time’s on my side.” I smiled at realizing what I just had learned. “I’ll ask her out… and you never know, she might say yes.” I looked across the dance floor at Diana and Brian. She still held the rose. I turned and slapped Ben on the back. “You’ll never find someone to dance with unless you ask for the dance.”
# # #
Note from Dennis
I have four daughters, and one of my wishes for them is that they find a partner in life that is as thoughtful, considerate, and brave as Josh in this story. And as I wrote it, I wanted to make a point (for them since they’re some of the earliest readers of all I write), that you get nowhere in life if you don’t take an active role in making it—life—become what you want. I know all about questions and regrets as you age and reflect on life. When there’s something you want(ed), or an opportunity before you… and you don’t (didn’t) do what you need(ed) to do to get it or don’t (didn’t) give it a shot. I want my daughters (and other readers) to know of something easy to lose sight of… that lives are formed, more times than not, by choices. By what’s done… or not done.
Josh’s last bit of advice to his friend Ben holds true. And sometimes that dance partner is yourself. Swing out even if no one else is on the floor… and here I’ll quote a song from Lee Ann Womack. Sing it with me:
“I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance. Never settle for the path of least resistance. Livin’ might mean takin’ chances, but they’re worth takin’… I hope you dance.…”