Todd was abusive. Kate was a gossip. Laurel was downright needy. Life was tough in the fifth grade.
My mother hated the slang that came from having fifth grade friends. Let one juicy almost swear tingle on the tip of your tongue too long and she’ll sense it. “We don’t say shucks or darn or crap. Those are wooden swear words.”
But boy, I could have used a gosh darn fruiting fluster of a son of a gun that day when it all went to heckfire in a handbasket.
You see, Amy thought she knew everything. Her brown hair, always in a massive ponytail, was thicker than anyone’s even though she was minuscule. I guess that’s where she got this notion that she knew more. Her twin, Laurel, was the exact opposite: super tall with thin french braids that poked out at the ends. We had been practicing the dance moves for the Talent Show for weeks. After school, I got permission to visit the twins, because they were on our bus route home. Courtney’s mom sold Mary Kay and said she’d pick up Courtney and Kate in her new pink Lincoln when we were done practicing.
We needed time to perfect our interpretation of Whitney Houston’s “Oh I Want to Dance with Somebody.”
Laurel was always trying to make me hold her hamster, Fred. I kindly refused, but as Fred rolled to my feet in his little clear plastic ball, she took him out and plopped him in my hands. He immediately bit me, of course. Fingers bleed a lot, and it took like 10 bandaids to solve Fred’s carnage to my fingertip. Amy couldn’t be distracted by my finger; she was too busy begging us to let her add her mom’s silk scarves to the routine. A unanimous “no,” the rest of us cared more about being taken seriously as dancers.
Color coordination, check.
Wound bandaged, check.
Side ponytails, check.
Parent permission to wear make up, check.
I didn’t have to ask because Mom had been making me wear mascara since second grade saying she couldn’t see my eyes. Blondes have this problem sometimes. That and my hair sort of matched my skin, so sometimes when it rained I look bald. And I’m from Seattle, so…
Anyway, Kate and Courtney were popular, so they knew that black pants with an iridescent stripe hot-glued to the sides and matching headbands were the perfect combo with off-the-shoulder hypercolor sweatshirts.
I grew up poor, but creative. Lack was good for me, and it gave me a DIY drive that would make Chip and Joanna smile. This outfit mattered to me, and shiny fabric was tough to come by. Mom and I searched fabric stores and thrift shops. We hunted in closets for anything with make-shift hopeful threading, but it was no use. I did see an ACDC shirt there that I saw Todd wear one time.
Todd was my desk partner for math, and I was sure that he loved me. He had freckles everywhere and never smiled unless he was talking to another boy about football. He treated me with angry distaste and sullen grunts. To my Pollyanna optimism, this was first-date flirtation and hope. I started small, asking for help on my math problems and moved swiftly to larceny. I’d steal things from his desk and hide them in mine, waiting for him to figure it out. He wouldn’t, so I’d confess, return it and get a solid slamming punch in the arm. Oh I hit him back, but just got punched again. I guessed this was his attempt at showing respect for gender equality. This happened a few times until I admitted to myself that these were not the love taps of someone with a crush but retaliatory aggressions and my own sick bent toward masochism. It ended as quickly as it had begun, and Todd was a thing of the past, added to my list of lost loves. Goodbye future freckled children. Maybe I’d adopt.
Courtney decided at the next practice to make us wear matching neon green nail polish that she had just bought from the Bonne Bell section. It was supposed to smell like apples, but I was a little afraid it was laced with arsenic. It smelled like the funeral parlor my father so often gave sermons in. As the pastor’s kid, I was often asked to sing for these events. One time I performed “Wind Beneath my Wings” for both a wedding and a funeral on the same day. I didn’t even change guitarists. Anyway, it took so long to paint our nails that day, we didn’t even practice the song. Whitney would have to wait.
I practiced at home after my dad went to sleep. He hated any music that wasn’t for church, but he allowed the odd “Wind Beneath my Wings.” He wasn’t a prude as much as he knew he’d been saved from the drug scene in the ’70s when he stopped playing rock-n-roll shows and went to seminary. Because I loved him and agreed for the most part, I waited for him to go to bed and played the tape super quietly in my upstairs bedroom so I could practice the moves over and over.
The day came and we lined up in perfect single-file behind the stage door. Courtney got stage fright for a minute, but she came out anyway. Amy started pulling something out of her deep pockets. Kate said something to Courtney under her breath. Laurel overheard it and started to cry.
Darkness, then music.
Kate was the first out and cartwheeled perfectly. We all cheer-stomped out in rhythm, and it began.
“Clock strikes upon the hour and the sun begins to fade...”
Our arms flung around like the hand dials on a clock. We linked elbows and skipped. We fell to our knees and made arms wave like tears falling in zigzags.
That was the moment that the hot glue decided not to stick as well to the shiny fabric my mother was going to use for a doll dress. We had glued it to all of the black pants, so at least we were in it together. Amy side-stepped out of line and landed in the splits in front as planned, but then she stood and began pulling long scarves from her pockets and spinning. Courtney tried to stop her but broke two fake neon green nails and screamed at the same time as Whitney hit almost the same high note. At least when she stomped off stage in a tantrum it was in rhythm. I tried to keep the team together, but Kate made her exit when she saw Court leave. Laurel had to keep shifting over because Amy kept spinning into her. Amy finally got too dizzy and fell over at the line, “when the night falls, my lonely heart calls...” it looked planned because our choreography called for us all to lay down on the stage at that moment.
At the last full chorus of “Oh I Want to Dance with Somebody,” Amy stood up in terror, her face neon green, and exploded. She must have had 10 pounds of pizza before she went on stage. She was tiny but we all got her pepperoni remnants on us. The two of us left standing posed and bowed at the end. The whole talent show ended there as Amy had made the whole place stink. She didn’t mean to, but it was bad.
I almost burst as I walked off the stage. I decided to quit school and run away from home simultaneously, but then my little sister, barely four years old, met me there clapping still. She was beaming at me and at my brother, who had performed a yo-yo routine. My parents met me too with empathic hugs. They said we were winners and offered highlights from the night.
Mom took me to rinse off in the fifth grade wing bathroom before we got in the car, and there the spitting spigot of a faucet cried with me. Weeks of work and pressure had ended in failure. I sobbed all the way from car door to doorstep and then I cried myself to sleep.
The next week was Courtney’s birthday. It was a sleepover. Everyone seemed to have forgotten the massacre we had made of Whitney’s masterpiece. They even served pizza, which Amy refused, thank the Lord. Courtney opened gifts, we all danced, ate candy, and later fell asleep to Ghostbusters. We knew that that’s what friends do. They dance and perform together, survive failure, and live to dance another day.