What I wanted to say was, “I’m a football player, not a popsicle.” What I said was, “This is what you want us to wear to the Homecoming dance?”
School had been out for half an hour, when Haylee pulled me into a short, dead-end hallway to talk about formal wear. I stared at her phone in my hand. The disaster she was planning filled the screen.
“This is what I’m wearing,” she said, “and because you’re my boyfriend and we’re probably going to be Homecoming King and Queen, we should coordinate.”
The models on the website had coordinated. His tux was as pink as her dress.
“It’s not just the color,” Haylee explained. “It’s the style and the fabrics too. My gown and your tux were made to go together. Wait till you see everything in person.”
I returned her phone, shaking my head.
“Is there a problem, Ty?” she asked semi-sweetly. The color rising in her cheeks contrasted starkly with her blonde, very very blonde hair.
“Yeah, there’s a problem. I’m not wearing a pink tux. Especially not for $228.”
Her big, sad, brown eyes didn’t affect me like they usually did. I may have been in shock from all the pink. Besides, lately Haylee was just too … Haylee. Maybe that was the real problem.
Her lower lip quivered, and that didn’t work on me either. “If it’s about the money, I’ll help. I know you don’t have a lot.”
“Seriously? I wouldn’t wear that if they paid me.”
“You get the whole ensemble for that price, including shoes.”
I hadn’t noticed those. I reached for her phone again.
They were pink too.
“No, thanks.” I said, and gave her phone back.
“You’re not being very nice to me right now,” she complained.
“I’m … You’re … What?” I sputtered. “You showed me that picture. Was that nice? How do I get all that pink out of my head? I have a game tonight.”
I was overdoing it. I’d be fine, assuming I never wore that tux. Or those shoes.
Sometimes calmness moved over her face like a wave, when she decided to compose herself.
She put away her phone, slipped an arm around my waist, and leaned into me, which also didn’t distract me as much as usual. Her voice was gentle and sincere. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of being Homecoming Queen and wearing an amazing pink gown, and being escorted by a handsome Homecoming King in a matching pink tuxedo. I started planning for it before I even got my —”
“Sorry to interrupt, but this is your crazy pink fantasy, not mine.”
I gently freed myself from her grip and turned to face her, keeping some air between us. She reached up to put her arms around my neck, but I covered her hands with mine and held them a few inches away.
After a moment, she seemed to understand. She pulled her hands away, I let go, and she folded her arms across her chest.
Her eyes were hard. “Why are you so mean to me?” There were still a few kids in the halls, or she might have yelled.
I answered calmly. “It’s not mean, just because you don’t get your way.”
“I thought you wanted to take me to Homecoming.” Now she just sounded hurt. She could go through more emotions more quickly than anyone I knew.
The truth was, I’d been looking forward to it. We’d been an item since May, and this would be our first big dance together. Homecoming in the fall was almost as big as Prom in the spring. So I could make one more serious try.
“Don’t other colors go with pink?” I asked. “Maybe black?”
I waited, but she didn’t explain.
“Maybe white or baby blue,” I said, “with a pink vest or cummerbund. And a pink bow tie.” I could see it in my head. It wasn’t me, but I might have done it.
“Not in the evening,” she said. “Plus you’d stand out more than me.”
“Yeah. Can’t have that.”
“The idea is to stand out as a couple.”
“What about that dark red color? Like your last prom dress?” We weren’t together then, but I had noticed.
“Ma – roon?” She said it slowly, like I was stupid.
“Yeah. I could do maroon. For you. Maybe with a pink shirt. Maroon goes with pink, right?”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “It just doesn’t go with me to Homecoming.”
“So I wear pink or nothing?” I blushed at that accidental image, which was also too pink. “I mean, pink, or we don’t go to Homecoming together?”
I looked at her and tried to imagine her in a pink homecoming gown, all gorgeous and sparkling, with me by her side and just as pink. All I could see was the girl standing in front of me, in jeans and a pinkish-orangish top. (She said the color was salmon.) She looked great, as usual, except for the scowl.
That’s when I realized it. I just didn’t care anymore. So it didn’t feel like this might be an ending. It felt like we’d already ended.
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s not go to Homecoming together. Let’s not go anywhere together at all. Starting now.”
Her cheeks flushed, and her tone could have drawn blood. “You’re breaking up with me?” I’d seen her this ticked off with other people plenty of times, but never with me.
“You know what? Yeah. I just did.”
“Seriously, Ty? Social suicide over a tuxedo? How dumb is that? We’ve been together for what, five months now?”
“It’s not just a tux.” I didn’t want to yell at her, but I couldn’t help raising my voice a little. “I’m tired of being an accessory in your – what do you call it? – your ensemble. I’m tired of you reminding me how my family has less money than yours. Everybody’s family has less money than yours! I’m tired of trying to care what everybody thinks about your shoes or your hair or your flawless paint job or your intergalactically awesome curves. Five months is plenty.”
“Paint job” was a cheap shot. She was an artist with makeup.
She put on a pout I’d never seen. It might have been sincere.
“Who is she?” Her voice shook.
“Who is who?”
“The other girl. How long have you been cheating on me?”
“There’s no other girl. I wouldn’t do that. But if there was, you know who she’d be?”
“A tr – amp?” She said that slowly too.
“No. She’d be someone who … She’d care about me as a person, not just an accessory. And I wouldn’t have to keep reminding myself there’s a decent girl under there somewhere.”
“I’m not a bad person! I care about you.”
“Mostly, Haylee, you care about yourself. Maybe I’m no better, but … whatever.”
When the weather changed again, her new mood wasn’t exactly resignation. It was more of a strategic retreat, like the Russians in 1812. We were studying that in history. They couldn’t beat Napoleon’s army in a fair fight, so they destroyed everything in its path and beat it later. Starving, half-frozen invaders were easier to defeat.
“You’ll still have to escort me for the ceremony, if we win. We’ll have to dance once as King and Queen, with everybody watching.”
I’d faced max blitz packages on fourth-and-long with the clock winding down and the game on the line. I could dance with her one more time with everybody watching. “Okay, but I won’t be in a pink tux.”
“Why do you suddenly hate me? Did something happen at practice today? Is Coach benching you? Is it because of your grades?”
Thanks for assuming it’s my problem, I thought.
“I don’t hate you, Haylee. I just don’t want to date you anymore. In any color. And we don’t have practice on game day. If we did, I’d be there now.”
Her face, which I had studied so devotedly for months, went through a few more emotions. One of them looked like rage. She settled on pretending not to care.
“Good luck finding that other girl, or even a date for Homecoming, after the whole school hears how you treated me. You better be there for the ceremony anyway, even if you have to go alone. And you better dress up.”
She whirled away. I watched her stalk down the short hall and around the corner. Then I just stood there, arms at my sides, trying to think of ways I could have handled it better. I really was tired of those things, and I didn’t want to wear a pink tux. I hadn’t planned to break up with her, but the strange thing was, I felt pretty good about the result.
“I’ll go to the dance with you,” said a girl’s voice.
I looked up, saw no one, and decided I’d imagined it.
The next time was louder. “I’ll go to the dance with you, if you want. If you don’t mind the rumors that I’m a lesbian.”
This time, I could tell the voice came from behind me. I turned and saw a girl, I thought, but her black hair was cut short like a boy’s. She wore black jeans and a faded black Pittsburgh Steelers shirt.
“What? Who are you?”
I’d thought Haylee and I were alone.
“I said, I’ll go to –”
“I heard that part. How long were you standing there? Who are you?”
“Since before you and the princess arrived. My locker’s here.” She hefted a black backpack. “I wouldn’t have eavesdropped, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t get away without interrupting you.” She jerked her thumb at the doors behind her, at the end of the hall. “Those doors are for emergencies, which this wasn’t quite.”
“I didn’t see you before.”
“I’m mostly invisible to star athletes and future Homecoming royalty.”
“You’re not invisible. Who are you?” I demanded.
I could have sworn she said her name was Rhonda VII, complete with Roman numerals, like they use with the Super Bowl.
I snorted. “What went wrong with Rhondas I through VI?” I instantly regretted my tone.
“Yeah, haven’t heard that one before,” she said dryly.
“Sorry. Seven’s your last name?”
“Okay. You want to go to the dance?”
She didn’t seem smitten with me. She seemed businesslike, and she hadn’t smiled at all. “I’ll go with you if you want.”
“I don’t even know you.”
“You can get to know me.”
“You don’t know me,” I said.
“Everybody knows you,” she said. “You’re the big macho quarterbacker guy.”
Apparently, wearing a football team’s shirt didn’t mean she knew football. It was faded enough to be secondhand anyway.
“Quarterback,” I said.
My head felt weird. Maybe breaking up with my girlfriend was sinking in.
“Look, it’s a good idea,” I said. “Nice of you to offer. Can I think about it? I just …”
Her mouth twitched, like she was trying not to frown, and the look in her eyes grew distant.
“Sure. I get it,” she said. “I’m not … It’s not fair to catch you on the rebound like that.”
She hefted her backpack and started to walk around me, toward the main hall. “See you around, maybe.”
“Wait a second, okay?”
She stopped and half-turned.
“Can I walk you to your car or the bus or whatever?”
She looked at me for a heartbeat or two. “Sure, if you want to.”
“Can I carry your backpack?“
She shook her head. “I can carry it.”
“Didn’t say you couldn’t.” I reached out anyway, and she handed it to me. It weighed a ton.
“What’s in here?”
“Physics, Chemistry, English. No math today. Some books for a report.” She smiled a little. “Too heavy for you?”
I swung it onto my shoulder. “No, but I have wide receivers who weigh less than this.”
“Are those football players?”
“Yeah. Mostly little guys, plus a tall, skinny one. They run around, and I throw them the ball. Then the other team tries to break them in half.”
“I try to throw to them when that won’t happen. Parking lot or bus stop? I could give you a ride home.”
“Parking lot, please. I have my car.”
We didn’t say much as we walked, but I thought as fast as I could. I wanted to go to Homecoming. I should, in case I won the royalty vote. Most of the girls I knew had dates already. If Haylee got to the others first, and she would, the rest of them might say no.
This girl wasn’t even in Haylee’s universe. Plus she’d actually volunteered, and she was decent-looking. Kind of nerdy, but she seemed interesting so far. Also, she didn’t hate me, at least not yet.
She stopped next to a black compact that was losing the paint on its roof and hood.
“This is my car,” she said. “Thanks for carrying that.”
I slid her backpack off my shoulder but didn’t give it to her yet. She reached for it and caught hold of one strap.
“I thought about the dance already,” I said. “I suddenly need a date, so I guess, if you want …”
She raised her eyebrows and still didn’t smile. It wasn’t my best guy moment.
“You sure can sweep a girl off her feet.” There was a catch in her voice. “You don’t have to take me to Homecoming if you don’t want to. You’re on the rebound. It’s not fair to you.”
“Rebound or not, I still need a date.”
“You should ask someone you already know. And like.” Her blush was as cute as Haylee’s, even if her face was thinner.
“I’ll know you by the time dinner’s over,” I said. “And I like you so far. Are you afraid I’m trying to make the princess jealous?”
“No. A little. Are you? May I have my backpack now, please?”
I surrendered it. “I don’t care what she thinks anymore. I should go to the dance, and going with you will be fun.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You think it won’t?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I’m more afraid you’re asking because I didn’t give you much of a choice, and you don’t really want to, but you also don’t want to be mean or hurt my feelings or whatever.”
“At least that makes me a decent guy. So will you go with me or not?”
I was starting to care about her answer.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“How can I persuade you?”
She looked away. “This is Friday. Give yourself two days. If you haven’t asked someone else by Sunday afternoon, and you still want to, text me, and I’ll probably say yes. If you change your mind, don’t text me.”
She looked up at me. “I suppose you’ll want my phone number, just in case.” There was a little tremor in her voice.
I smiled, and she smiled back a little. We typed our names and numbers into each other’s phone, then said an awkward goodbye.
I stood in the parking lot and watched her drive away. It was strange to feel so off balance with her, but so calm about suddenly breaking up with Haylee.
She wasn’t out of sight when I set an alarm for 3 p.m. Sunday. I already knew what I’d text her: “After school, near your locker?” I didn’t know exactly which locker was hers, but I knew which little hall it was in. And I wanted to ask her properly.
On Sunday afternoon her whole reply to my text message was “OK.” I didn’t know what to think. I decided just to be glad she agreed.
She smiled when she saw me Monday afternoon, and she might have blushed a little. The first thing she said was, “Hi, Tyler. There’s a problem. You know, if you’re asking me.”
Her eyes didn’t look like there was a problem, and I wasn’t worried. “You’re a lesbian?”
“That’s just a rumor. The problem is, I only have one nice dress.”
I laughed. “If I don’t have to wear it, I don’t see the problem.”
I saw a hint of a smile. “Wouldn’t fit you. I like your navy pinstripe, but wear what you want.”
“Okay, Rhonda VII stalker-girl, I’m here to do this right. Would you please go to Homecoming with me?”
“Yes.” She sounded serious, but her eyes sparkled. “Thanks for asking again. I haven’t stalked you. You guys wear suits to school for away games, and girls notice.”
“Thanks for not trying to make me wear a pink one.”
“Quarterbackers shouldn’t wear that much pink. Even I know that. I shouldn’t either, but at least I’m a girl.”
I took a few seconds and just looked at her. She was in black jeans and a black t-shirt again, but this shirt wasn’t faded.
Her short hair was neat and stylish. She had a few freckles under each eye. Princess Haylee would have covered them with makeup, so they wouldn’t ruin her perfect complexion, but they were cute.
She used some pretty dark eye shadow, but it worked. Her lips were somewhere between gray and black, like before. Haylee might not have done that even on Halloween.
Her look was a lot of black, but I didn’t see any extra piercings, and she wasn’t wearing any clunky jewelry I could see. She didn’t look Goth.
She watched me and looked calm, even if she probably wasn’t.
“I like your shirt,” I said, and read it aloud. “‘Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.’”
“Thanks,” she said. “I got it for my dad to give me for my birthday.”
“I’ll bet you look really nice in pink,” I said.
Her cheeks turned pink, and she looked away.
“Are there details we should work out?” she asked. “I’ve never had a date for a dance before.”
“A few. Is dinner okay before the dance? You pick the place.”
“I’d like that. But anywhere’s fine. You should pick. Doesn’t have to be expensive.”
“Okay. What’s your favorite color?”
Her eyes lit up again. Hadn’t anyone ever given this girl flowers either?
“Black. But I wouldn’t want black flowers. Can you even get those?”
“I’ll take care of it. Send me a photo of your dress, at least the color, and I’ll see what the florist can do. Pink and white flowers with a black ribbon, maybe.”
“Thank you. That sounds beautiful. Should I get you one of those flowers for your lapel?”
“A boutonniere? If you want.”
“Something that matches?”
“Usually, yeah.” My question came from nowhere. “Why are you going with me?”
“You asked. After I asked you, sort of. But you asked.”
“If I’d asked you last week, before that scene with Haylee, would you have said yes?”
“Last week you were just some revolting, testosterone-poisoned football star.”
“I’m still a football star. Not sure about that other thing.”
She laughed. It was soft, deep, and musical, and it lasted only a second or two. I wanted to hear it again.
“I liked how you stood up to the princess,” she said. “Nobody does that. You seem like a decent guy. And some of what you said was pretty cool. Besides, I should go to one dance while I’m in high school.”
“You really should. Is it okay if we go alone? I had a group, but it was hers. I think I’m on my own now.”
“That’s fine. I have three good friends, but so far none of them are going.”
“Three’s a lot of friends,” she said. “Not a lot, maybe, but three more than some kids have.”
“Guess you’re right. Thanks for saying yes.”
Her cheeks dimpled, and her gray-black lips parted to reveal almost perfect teeth. But it was her light green eyes that pulled me in. I couldn’t remember seeing eyes like hers before.
“Thanks for asking again,” she said.
“Can I tell you something, Rhonda VII?”
“I’ll look okay in pink?”
“No. Yes. Better than okay. But you’re pretty cute in black too.” I gestured toward her outfit.
“Thank you.” She smiled again. A guy could get used to that.
On Tuesday a girl named Bea, one of Haylee’s friends, told me I could ask her to Homecoming if I wanted. I was pretty sure she already had a date, which meant she was testing me for Haylee. I should have done it, to see what she’d say, but I didn’t think of it soon enough. I just said, “Sorry, I have a date.”
She didn’t seem to mind.
On Wednesday a girl named Alli did the same thing. She was only on the fringes of the popular crowd, but I figured Haylee sent her too. She was a better actress. She managed to act disappointed.
The Homecoming game was Friday night. The other team wasn’t good, so we were supposed to win big, and we did. I threw three touchdown passes in the first half and one just after halftime, before Coach pulled me.
From the sideline I mostly paid attention to the game like we were supposed to, but when I could, I checked the crowd for Rhonda VII. I didn’t see her. I could have missed her, but she probably wasn’t there.
My backup, Chandler Lynch, threw for a touchdown and ran for one. I’d beaten him for the starting job by working harder at practice, knowing the offense better, and spending more time studying film, but I could never beat his looks. I was handsome because I was the starting quarterback. He was just handsome. Maybe even hot.
After the game I saw him with the princess. They looked good together, which was probably why she moved on to him within hours of our breakup. I did him the favor of asking some of the guys to vote for him for Homecoming King, if they planned to vote for me. I won anyway. So did Haylee.
When I arrived to pick up Rhonda VII on Saturday night, a man opened the door in a police uniform. A silver pin above one pocket said, “Sevun.”
She hadn’t mentioned her dad was a cop.
“I’m, uh, Tyler.” I stammered. “Pleased to meet you, Officer Sevun.”
“It’s Lieutenant. Come in.”
Before I could apologize for getting his rank wrong, he said, “I told my daughter, if she didn’t get at least one date on her own each semester this year, I’d arrange some for her. So she goes out and brings home the star quarterback, who’s also the Homecoming King. Can you explain this? All she would tell me is, you asked.”
While I tried to think of something to say, he continued.
“Seems like I saw you with a pretty blonde in tow, last time I worked security for one of your games.”
I knew where to start now. “Rhonda’s pretty.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I think so. And?”
“I broke up with that girl.”
“Rhonda kind of saw us break up. Then she said she’d go with me, if I wanted.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Sometimes I think that girl’s timid and shy, and then … Anyway, she says you’re a good guy. So do the other people I asked this week. Make sure she’s right.”
“Thank you, sir. I will.”
“If you’ll drive safely and have her home by midnight, I’ll try not to find something to arrest you for.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I heard a door open somewhere, and Rhonda VII appeared. She looked worried or maybe queasy, but when she saw me smiling, she smiled too. She smiled more when she saw her wrist corsage. It had pink and white flowers, with a baby red rose accent and a wide, black ribbon. I’d never seen Haylee so happy over flowers.
I put it on her arm. She lifted it to her nose and closed her eyes.
“They smell so pretty. Thank you. Here, smell them.” She held them up to me.
They smelled like flowers.
Her hands shook as she pinned my boutonniere to my lapel, but I didn’t say anything.
Her biggest smile was for her dad. They didn’t actually say goodbye. She beamed at him, and he smiled faintly and nodded. Then she said quietly, “Let’s go.”
“You didn’t tell me your dad’s a cop,” I said as we drove away.
“You didn’t ask. Were you shocked?” She sounded amused.
“Is it important?”
“No. I never even had a traffic ticket. Some parking tickets, which I paid, but that’s different.”
We ate at a busy Mexican place, where the service was slow, and I was glad. Talking with Rhonda VII was more fun than talking with the princess lately. Looking at her was good too. Her light pink dress was simple but nice. She looked like a pretty girl, not a princess. She couldn’t do much with her hair, as short as it was – she said that’s why she kept it that way, when long hair was the fashion – but she didn’t need to do anything. She was cute.
Her lips weren’t gray or black like before. They were deep red, nothing like the princess’s glossy pink, and I was distracted for a while, admiring them. I didn’t know what to call the color. It was like the baby red rose in her corsage – and I was afraid of what she’d think if I asked.
Her lips looked red and velvety and comfortable and –
She looked up, and I looked down at my plate.
The next thing I knew, we were in the school gym, at the dance. We’d already danced a little and talked some more, and I was telling her I was sorry, but I had to go do the royalty thing.
Soon I was waiting to step onto the little stage, with the princess on my arm. She could be cold up close but smile sweetly for the crowd. I tried to ignore the chill and be a gentleman.
“Who’s your little pink date?” she asked with acid in her tone. I’d heard worse.
“Her name’s Rhonda.”
“Where’d you find her? She looks like a lesbian. Or a boy. Are you gay?”
I smiled and shook my head. “You didn’t see her?”
“See her where?”
“When we ducked into that little hallway last week to talk about pink tuxes, she was like ten feet away, at her locker. She heard every word. We blocked her escape.”
“There was nobody else there.”
“I only saw her after you left. We started talking, and she’s pretty cool.”
“How nice for you. Not much to look at, though. Part of the world really is flat. Who knew?”
“I think she’s cute.”
“You know what I really like?” I asked. “Thanks for helping me see this. I like that she’s not trying to impress everybody, and she doesn’t need everyone to admire her.”
I almost said it was refreshing.
“You’re trying to insult me.”
“I’m trying to tell you what I think.”
“Sorry. Did you send Bea to ask me to Homecoming as a test? And Alli?”
She pursed her lips. “I sent Bea. Alli did it on her own. She’ll regret it.”
I forced myself to speak calmly. “If you do anything to Alli – or Rhonda – because of me, I’ll make sure you get worse. We dated for five months. I won’t even have to make anything up.”
Not even that disturbed her poise. She looked and sounded like we were talking about yesterday’s lunch or something. “Are you threatening me? That’s not like you.”
“Only if you attack someone else because of me.”
I was relieved. That usually meant she was dropping the subject.
“Is she your girlfriend now?” she asked after a moment.
“Rhonda? Just my date. Is Lynch your boyfriend now?”
“Chandler and I have already kissed. He’s very affectionate. More than you ever were.”
I stopped myself from saying, “So I’ve heard.”
“I’m glad you’re happy, Haylee. Is he wearing pink tonight? I forgot to notice.”
“He’s wearing a gorgeous, light gray tux, but his vest and bow tie match my dress.”
I could have worn light gray, but I kept that thought to myself. Things had worked out fine anyway.
“It’s our turn,” she said. “Stand up straight and take short steps, so I can keep up.”
I managed a smile. “Of course, Your Majesty. Congratulations.”
She was radiant as they crowned her with a tiara, and more radiant when they finished. I was glad they didn’t have a crown for me.
The King-and-Queen dance started with just us. Then they added the attendants. By the time they invited everyone to the floor, she was dancing way too close. That was fun when we were dating, but now I didn’t want to be seen that way with her – by anyone, but especially Rhonda VII.
“I miss you,” said the princess, as I gently tried to put a few millimeters between us. “You’re handsome, even in this navy pinstripe. The pink tie’s nice too. I might take you back, if you apologize for how you treated me.”
“No, thank you,” I said, and tried for a few more millimeters. Finally, as gently as I could, I moved her arms from around my neck, until we were in a ballroom dancing position I’d learned once. Some other couples were already dancing like that.
She compressed her lips, and her cheeks colored, but she kept her head up and kept dancing, all poised and regal.
I thought she was reluctant to let go of me at the end. Maybe I imagined it. Then she just looked at me.
“Thanks for the dance,” I said. “Congrats again. Nice win.”
She didn’t thank or congratulate me. “Ty, look at me.”
I looked her in the eye. Where some girls had freckles, she had glitter tonight.
“Not just my eyes. All of me.” She pointed her hands at herself, sweeping them downward from her shoulders and past her hips, like a salesperson in a showroom.
I stayed focused on her eyes.
She shrugged. “Have it your way. But this is really your last chance. I’m Homecoming Queen. And I’ve got curves your little Rhonda never dreamed of.”
She was right about having them. She was wrong to think I still cared.
“They really are quite lovely,” I said. “I know your backup quarterback likes them. You should go back to him, and I’ll go back to my date.”
“Yeah,” she said, and her nose twitched. “Do that. Be a loser. Go back to your loser date.”
I found Rhonda VII where I’d left her, on a chair at the edge of the floor. She gave me a little smile. I needed air, so I asked her to come outside with me, and she did.
We sat on a bench under a street lamp which blotted out the stars. It was warm for October, so I thought she wouldn’t be cold.
“Sorry, but I had to get out of there for a minute,” I said, staring out across the parking lot. “Sorry you had to watch that.”
“I didn’t necessarily have to watch.” I couldn’t read her tone yet. I worried that she was angry or frustrated with me. “But since I did, what are you sorry about, exactly?”
“Lots of things.”
I couldn’t read her expression either. She might have been a little sad, or just serious.
“I’m your date,” I said, “but when everybody was watching, I danced with her.”
I faced straight ahead again.
“You had to. It’s ceremonial or whatever. It didn’t bother me.”
“Even when she practically molested me for a minute?”
“I noticed you stopped her without making a scene. You were a gentleman.”
Too many thoughts spun in my head for any one of them to make sense, if I let it out. Homecoming, Haylee, football, dancing, gentleman, Rhonda VII. Mostly Rhonda VII.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I guess I’m … One thing is, I … I sort of wish it bothered you. Some of it. A little bit.”
Which was true, but it hadn’t sunk in until I heard myself say it.
“I don’t understand. You wanted that to bother me?”
“No. I mean … I don’t know how to say it.”
She waited and watched. She didn’t seem sad or happy, just interested.
I couldn’t look her in the eye and say it, so I stared at her corsage.
“Ten days ago, I didn’t know you existed. Wouldn’t have cared. Now we’re at Homecoming together, and it’s fun. I guess I was hoping you liked me enough that seeing me with the princess would bother you a little. I didn’t do it to make you jealous. I did it because I had to, like you said. I wished it was you the whole time. You’re a lot nicer. But you probably would have hated it. I just thought … I don’t know. I’m not saying this very well.”
“You’re saying it fine,” she murmured. “Are you more comfortable talking to girls because you have more practice than other boys, or is that just the way you are?”
It was a loaded question, but I didn’t think she meant it that way. Even if she did, the truth was the truth. “Lots of practice, I guess. Wouldn’t say I’m all that comfortable.”
“Well, you’re good at it. And it did bother me a little, when she danced so close. Not too much, I guess, because you didn’t seem to like it.”
I brightened instantly. “Sounds like you like me.”
I looked up and saw a gentle smile. “Maybe a little,” she said.
“I’m not just the next worst thing to your dad picking your dates?”
She winced. “He told you about that?”
“Yeah. Said he might look for reasons to arrest me too.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “He wouldn’t really do that. I don’t think he would. He just worries about me.”
“Can I tell you something else, since you maybe like me a little?”
She smiled. “Sure.”
I stared into the night. “Haylee already got pretty frisky with Lynch. He’s the backup quarterback. Stuff I never did with her.”
Rhonda VII didn’t answer for a few seconds, which gave me time to realize how different what I said was from what I meant to say.
She spoke softly. “I don’t think I needed to know that.”
“Sorry. What I meant is, she has a new boyfriend. But she told me she might dump him if I apologize and come back to her. I said no, thanks.”
“What did she say to that?”
“It was my last chance, and I should remember she’s Homecoming Queen, and she has curves … other girls … never dreamed of.”
Rhonda VII just looked at me, so I continued.
“I said her curves are quite lovely – I got ‘quite lovely’ from a movie – and I was going back to my date. She said we’re losers. She gets mean when she’s angry.”
Rhonda VII nodded and started to say something, then stopped and looked down. I began to worry. I wasn’t sure about what. Maybe I shouldn’t have said the part about us being losers.
She looked at her hands. “Was it really curves I never dreamed of?”
“Yeah. She called you my ‘little pink date.’”
“Your little pink loser date. What else did she say?”
“Nothing true. And we’re not losers. And it’s kind of dumb for her to call you little, when you’re a lot taller.”
“Tyler, I won’t say I never dreamed of looking like her, but I don’t have anything close to those curves you like. Obviously.”
“I don’t care,” I said firmly.
More seconds passed.
“I don’t believe you,” she whispered.
“You don’t believe me?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s the truth.”
She looked up. “I believe you think it’s the truth. But tell me this. When you stared at me at dinner, were you comparing me to the princess?”
She’d caught me after all.
“I was. Yes. Sorry.”
She looked down again, frowning deeply. “I thought so.” Some sort of light was gone from her face, and I wanted nothing more than to get it back.
“You did better than you think,” I said.
Her voice shook. “You don’t know what I think.”
“I do this time, poker face. But you don’t know what I was thinking.” The emotion in my own voice surprised me.
“I know she’s gorgeous, and I’m not. I know she’s like an hourglass, and I’m more like a surfboard or a light pole.”
“I should tell you what I thought. Because it wasn’t that.”
“No need.” She turned away, which hurt me somewhere deep inside. Would she ask me to take her home now? Maybe call her dad for a ride? That would hurt too.
“Please? I want to tell you,” I said. “I’ll tell you the truth. It won’t be bad, I promise. Please?”
After what seemed like forever, she turned back toward me, without looking up. She still frowned and said nothing.
I had to get this right. Because, apparently, I wasn’t the only one who’d thought of us lasting longer than tonight. Any other time, I might have teased her about that, but not now.
I had to get this right.
“Her hair’s long and blonde,” I said, “and pretty. She works really hard on it. But your black hair’s pretty too. I like the short cut, whatever it’s called. It’s cute.”
“Pixie,” she said softly. “My real color’s sort of medium brown, but I like black.”
“Black looks good on you. So do real eyebrows. And you have freckles, where she puts glitter.”
“I don’t do glitter.”
“I like that too. You’re about five-seven, right?”
“In flats. Probably five-eight tonight.”
“She’s five-seven in five-inch heels, which she wears even though they make her feet hurt, and her back too, and she tells you all about her suffering. You win that one for about three reasons.”
“Her face belongs on a fashion magazine,” she said.
I blushed, but I had to say this. “Your face is pretty. I like your eyes a lot.” I took a deep breath. “What I looked at most at dinner was your … your lips. Hers are, uh, glossy and pink. Usually sticky. Sorry, too much information. Yours are … I don’t know how to say this either … They’re like dark red velvet tonight. They’re really pretty. Distractingly pretty.”
I wanted to kiss her on those lips. I wanted her to want me to kiss her.
“There’s glossy lipstick, but the sticky part’s lip gloss,” she said. Her voice had more life in it, and there was color in her cheeks. “You probably know that. My lipstick’s a matte. That’s why it’s not shiny. I don’t wear lip gloss.” She glanced up at me. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I like it a lot. What’s the color called?”
She blushed instantly.
“My Red Velvet ran out, even though I don’t use it very often. This is the closest thing from Mom’s collection.”
“What is it?”
“I’ll tell you, but don’t draw any conclusions.”
“It’s called ‘Naughty.’”
I didn’t laugh, but she could see me trying not to. “I see what you mean,” I said. “I was thinking soft, comfortable, luxurious.”
Inviting, I added in my head and blushed again.
She was smiling. Not exactly beaming; it was milder than that. It was sweet. It sort of melted me.
“Does it bug you when I call you that?”
“It’s my name.”
“Yeah, but when I say it, I’m still thinking Roman numerals, not S-e-v-u-n.”
“Like I’m a spacecraft?”
“Or a Super Bowl.”
“I like spacecraft, and you must like Super Bowls. So unless you’re thinking of me as your seventh conquest or something, I think it’s cute.”
For some reason I remembered hefting her backpack, and everything she said was in it.
She interrupted my thoughts. “Did you have more to say about the princess? Or should we call her the Queen now?”
“Yeah, and I’m the King. Don’t remind me.” I could do this, I thought. “She asked if you’re my new girlfriend. I said you’re my date.”
It took all my courage to turn and look at her while I said the rest.
“Yeah, but I was thinking, it doesn’t have to be true forever. We could spend more time together. If you want. Have you thought about that too?”
She nodded but didn’t look up. “I kept telling myself you couldn’t possibly be as nice as you seemed, and I can’t possibly measure up to what you expect in a girl.”
A knot tightened in my gut. “What I expect?”
She finally looked at me. “How many girlfriends have you had, just in high school?”
“Three. Four, if you count one that started in junior high. One of them twice.”
“How many were gorgeous?”
“Three. Four, if you count … Four.”
“See my point?”
The knot got tighter and somehow bigger at the same time. I hung my head, which I never did. I’d thought we were getting somewhere good together, but now we were pushing ourselves further apart.
She wasn’t finished. “How many of them were popular before they were your girlfriends?”
“I’m not popular. I don’t want to be. I probably never could be anyway.”
“I’m okay with that.”
“I don’t see how you could stay okay with that. You’re the star quarterbacker. You’re automatically popular. It’s like a law of nature.”
“I don’t love it like people think I do.”
“People like me?”
“You tell me.” I looked up long enough to say, “None of them were conquests.”
Neither of us spoke for a while. I didn’t know what to say. The knot inside was more of a lead weight now, and I thought I knew why. Something in me yearned to get close to Rhonda VII and stay there. It wasn’t just physical. It wasn’t even mostly physical. The lead weight was there to tell me not to get my hopes up.
She thought she wasn’t pretty enough for me, but she was. And I didn’t care if she was popular. But what if I wasn’t smart enough for her? She had to see that, with all the stupid, awkward things that kept spilling out of my mouth. Even if she was too nice to say it.
She finally broke the silence. Her voice shook again. “I’m so stupid,” she said. “I convinced you, didn’t I?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of all the idiotic things for a girl like me to do on her first date with a nice guy.” She sighed. “My first date ever. I told you that, right?”
“Rhonda VII, what are you talking about?”
“I made a pretty convincing case,” she said. “You’re sitting there thinking I’m right, aren’t you? That I’m not pretty enough or popular enough? Please be honest. I’d rather hear the truth.”
That was so different from what I was thinking that at first I couldn’t even think of the wrong thing to say.
“Please, Tyler? Just tell me. I know who I am. I’ll be okay.”
The look in her eyes broke my heart and sort of made it come alive at the same time.
“You’re wrong,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking any of that.”
She just looked at me.
“My backpack is never that heavy,” I said. “Not even close.”
“Your backpack? What?”
“I’m not smart like you,” I said. “I don’t take physics or chemistry or any of that hard stuff. Maybe I’m smart enough to see I’m not smart, but mostly I’m just a dumb football player. That’s what I was thinking.”
“Wait. You think you’re not smart enough for me? Are you serious?”
I frowned and nodded.
“Shouldn’t I get to decide that for myself?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Dad says you have to be smart to be a good quarterbacker.”
“Right. Sorry. Anyway, he says you’re a really good … quarterback. He says you have to study a lot to be that good, even in the summer.”
“Just offenses and defenses, not chemistry or physics.”
“You’re smarter than me about flowers too,” she said.
We fell silent again. I didn’t feel any better, maybe, but I didn’t feel any worse.
“You’re not very much like the football player reputation,” she finally said.
“I just love playing football, and I’m good at it. I don’t love being Homecoming King or alpha male or whatever.”
“Well, you do make a handsome Homecoming King.”
“Thanks,” I said, and felt a glimmer of hope, like when it’s third-and-25 or worse, but you have a long pass play called that sometimes works.
It didn’t last.
“You stayed with her for five months. She must not be all bad.”
Just that quickly, the pocket collapsed, leaving me scrambling and about to be sacked. I wanted to talk about Rhonda and me, but we kept getting stuck on Haylee and me. Which was probably my fault, but still.
“She’s not all bad.” I leaned forward and buried my face in my hands. “I wish I knew how to do this, Rhonda VII, but I don’t.”
Two deep breaths didn’t help me.
“There’s this girl I just met. She sort of asked me out. I like talking with her and looking at her. But I keep saying dumb things, and I don’t know how to convince her that I like who she is, and I don’t care who she’s not.”
No girl had ever reduced me to this – and it was only our first date. Probably our last date too. I was sandwiched between two big linemen, about to hit the turf.
“Tyler, I’m not sure it’s possible for you to convince me of that. Not completely.”
I hung my head even lower.
“Not tonight,” she said. I heard the nerves in her voice. “Not completely.”
It took me a few seconds to realize she’d just given me hope. Actual hope. Throw up a prayer and your guy actually catches it hope.
“Not tonight?” I asked without looking up.
I sat up and looked at her. I couldn’t get the words out quickly enough. “Could we go out again?”
Her sad smile was adorable, but it didn’t have to mean anything good.
“I don’t know. Do I really make you feel like you’re not smart enough? I hate that. I know I take hard classes, and I get good grades, but I don’t want you to feel that way.” She hesitated. “Do you have to feel that way? Could you maybe not?”
“How does that work, exactly?” I sounded pretty skeptical.
She blushed, and I wasn’t sure why. “I guess I have one idea,” she said.
“I’m glad somebody does.”
She stared at me with big green eyes and pressed her lips together. “If I say I’m not pretty enough or popular enough for you, which I did, what’s your response?”
“My response is, that’s crap.” I smiled faintly. “And shouldn’t I get to decide that for myself?”
“Good,” she said. “So when you say you’re not smart enough for me, I get to say that’s crap too. It’s only fair. Tyler, that’s crap.”
I wanted to believe her, just like I wanted her to believe me. “Your idea is to say we’re both full of crap?”
She met my eyes. “Not full, exactly. I was going to say it this way. Maybe we could trust each other. I could trust that you think I’m pretty, and you could trust that you’re smart enough, because you are.”
“I like that,” I said, and blew out a breath. A thought struck me. “I like that you can be really smart and not think I’m stupid. That way I can be happy you’re so smart, and maybe not feel … what’s the word?”
“Yeah, that. And you should believe you’re pretty, because you are, and not feel threatened because other girls are pretty too.”
She looked at me for a moment. Then she started to smile. “You know what? Those are really smart thoughts.”
“Thanks. Can we go out again?”
Her smile got even sweeter. “I’ll agree up front to two more dates, if you want,” she said, “in case the next one flops for some reason beyond your control. That’s from a movie too. But there’s one condition.”
“I won’t wear a pink tux, even for you.”
She giggled. “What I mean is, football players don’t have a great reputation with girls. Star football players have a terrible reputation.”
“I’m not like that. You can ask the princess.”
“I believe you. We’re trusting each other, remember? But I’m telling you anyway. I’m happy to be your date. And your friend, if you want. I really am. I will not be your private recreation area. And there better not be any locker room talk about me that’s not true. You guys have no idea how much that stuff hurts girls, even the girls who don’t get talked about. Maybe that’s two conditions.”
“It’s not because I’m a lesbian. I’m totally not. It’s just dumb. My mom’s gone, and Dad has a dangerous job, and I may have to take care of myself sooner rather than later. I don’t want to take stupid risks and mess that up. I have to do well enough in high school to pay for college, and I have to go to a good college and graduate. There’s no room for big mistakes with boys. Not even kind, handsome quarterbackers. Sorry, quarterbacks.”
“I’m okay with that.” I swallowed nervously. “If a guy likes you, is letting him hold your hand one of the things you won’t do?”
“No. You could do it sometime, if you want.”
“How about now? I really want to.”
She looked up soberly and nodded. “Now would be very nice.” She moved her hand closer to me, resting it on her knee.
I couldn’t remember the last time I was nervous reaching for a girl’s hand, but I was. Even with permission.
We sat quietly, looking out over the parking lot and into the night. I didn’t think about anything. I just enjoyed her hand in mine. It started out timid and nervous, like mine, but then it felt calm and strong. Like mine, only smaller.
I turned toward her and just looked. She faced straight ahead. She didn’t smile or frown. She seemed to be thinking. I already knew she puckered her lips a bit when she was lost in thought. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
Her mom’s lipstick. Well, hers now. Her Mom was gone, she’d said.
She closed her eyes and blushed just enough that I could see it by the street lamp.
“You’re looking at me again?” she asked, not moving at all.
“Are you comparing me to someone?”
“I think I’m done with that,” I said.
She nodded. “This is fun for you?”
She took a deep breath. “Will you tell me what you’re thinking?”
“Are you sure?”
She turned to face me. “No. Tell me anyway.” Her voice was husky and low. It made me want to tell her every happy thought I could possibly think about her.
“Two things, I guess. The first one is, I think I’m learning to see your beauty. I feel pretty happy about that. Lucky too.”
She made a little sound, almost a whimper. Her green eyes got really big, and her cheeks turned red. “Thank you,” she almost whispered. “What’s the second thing?”
I said it as gently as I could. “When you said your mom’s gone, did you mean she … passed away?”
Her eyes filled with pain, and most of the color left her cheeks. She looked down, and I thought her lower lip quivered.
I wanted to kick myself. Or punch myself in the nose. She couldn’t have expected me to be thinking about her mom, especially after what I’d just said. I was a moron.
“Cancer,” she said without looking up. “I was twelve.”
I squeezed her hand. “I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine.”
“I miss her every day,” she said quietly. “So does Dad. I miss him too, in a way. I think she took part of him with her. I missed her a lot today.”
“Thanks, but you already said that.”
“What was she like?”
Her eyes met mine. “I don’t know. She was … She was Mom.”
She looked stricken and sad, but I saw no tears. Maybe you eventually run out of tears for some things.
“I’m really sorry for asking about her. I wasn’t smart enough not to ask, and I hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you ever.”
She squeezed my hand for a long time. “I asked you what you were thinking, and you told me. It’s okay. It’s something you should know about me.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think about her about her all the time, but I hardly ever talk about her anymore.” She turned to me. “I think trusting you is working.”
She looked away again and asked, “What about your parents?”
“They’re divorced,” I said.
“That must suck,” she said.
“It did for a while. But they both remarried, and they’re happier now, and the stepmom and stepdad are pretty cool. The best part is, Mom and Dad both try to spoil me a little.”
We sat in silence after that. I tried to think of a way to rescue our Homecoming date from all the dumb things I shouldn’t have said. I was about to say I was sorry for saying and doing so many things I had to say I was sorry for, but she spoke first.
What she said was, “Mom would like you.”
What I heard was that all that stuff was behind us, including the dumb things I said, and how I made her sad.
Hope and relief made my heart beat faster. “You really think so?”
“She’d also like that I put her favorite lipstick to good use. Her black hair was real, by the way.”
“Would she like that you used her lipstick for a date with a football player? Your dad didn’t seem thrilled.”
“She’d care that you’re a good guy. That’s what Dad cares about too. He’ll figure it out.”
“Thanks for thinking I’m a good guy,” I said.
“You are a good guy,” she said. Then she grinned. “Who knew?”
I had never wanted to kiss a girl as much as I wanted to kiss her right then.
“Rhonda VII?” My throat was tight, and I sounded nervous.
I took a deep breath and tried to be smart for once.
“I don’t mean right now, but what would you and your mom think if, sometime in the future, not tonight … if I tried to steal a kiss? Would that be a big problem?”
She giggled, and I saw mischief in her eyes. “Just to be clear, since we’re sort of pretending she’s still around, you’d be kissing me, not Mom?”
I gave her the look you give a girl when she jokes about you kissing her mom.
“Would she have to see it?” She sounded happy. Maybe even playful.
The lead weight in my gut finally disappeared, and I broke into a grin of my own.
“No. Just you and me.”
Her smile was a gentle, red velvet curve. “Then sometime in the future, if you still like me, she … and I … might think that would be appropriate. But you’re right. Not tonight. And Dad may have his own opinion. So don’t ask him. He carries a gun, among other things.”
“I’m not asking for tonight. I just wanted to know if I could hope for sometime in the future.”
“I’ve never kissed a boy. Have you kissed lots of girls?”
That might have been another tricky question, but somehow kissing was easier to talk about, once we knew it wouldn’t be tonight.
“A few, including the princess. Not as much as you think. Or as many.”
“You don’t know what I think.” This time, when she said it, she wasn’t defensive or upset. Her smile warmed me like a blanket.
“You said we have a reputation.”
“You said you’re not like that, and I believe you.”
A cool breeze began to blow, and she shivered.
“You’re cold,” I said. “Let’s go back in.”
“You know what?” she asked, as we headed for the doors, hand in hand.
“Let’s dance some more. Could we dance the slow ones like you and the princess did at the end? It looks classy and decent and non-bad-reputation-quarterbacky.”
For the last half-hour we danced to every song and talked when the music wasn’t too loud. I wasn’t much of a dancer, and she wasn’t either, but that was okay. The longer we danced, the more distant the difficult parts of our outdoor conversation felt.
“I almost wish this wasn’t the last dance,” I said when it was. “This was really fun.” Then I wished I hadn’t said “almost,” because it sounded bad and it wasn’t true. But it didn’t seem to bother her.
“Of course it was fun,” she murmured. “It’s Homecoming, and you’re the King.”
“That wasn’t the best part of tonight, Rhonda VII. Not even close.”
I saw and felt her breathe deeply.
“I know,” she said softly. Then she came closer, and instead of looking at me with her green eyes and her velvety, dark red smile while we danced, she rested her head on my shoulder, and I wished the song would never end.
After I took her home, said good night to her and her dad, drove back to my place, and checked in with my parents, my phone vibrated with a message.
“Tyler, thanks again for tonight. It was a really good first date and first dance for me. I like talking with you. I hope I see you soon. You know where my locker is, more or less. And don’t worry. I checked, and my personal police lieutenant has never actually shot anybody, even when he wanted to. Good night! Rhonda VII”
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