By Oliver Demers
With a careful eye and a steady soul, I determined what beauty I saw: faded or alive.
My first dance in fifth grade was in the old Putney town hall, a decrepit and dusty building where town meetings and art auctions used to be held thirty years prior. Being that the town had no further use for it, it was now reduced to a site of tween hormones gone rampant.
My first steps into the building were accompanied by the rude squeaks of floorboards that should have been replaced years ago. Their rickety cries for mercy unsettled me with a frigid shiver down my spine.
I peered into the glowing haze of disco lights and sweat vapor. Throughout the room, I saw an array of kids huddling in different social clusters to stay cool (meanwhile in Antarctica, penguins huddled together for warmth and the survival of their species). Everyone was dressed up in clothes that almost made them look older: basketball shorts that hid the knees, button down shirts that had never been worn before, and bras that held little to nothing. It was a race to age.
The chaperones were here too and looked straight through me as I entered the building. They were a woman and a man, parents I presumed. He had his arm wrapped around her frail body in a stagnant pose as if mimicking American Gothic, but with forced smiles. Their smiles said “welcome” but their eyes said “stay away from my child, you hormonal little animal.” It wasn’t the warmest greeting I had received but I was sure they were having a far worse time than me.
The inner walls of the building were shedding their paint like a grandfather’s painting sitting in the attic. It was peeling either from their old age or from sheer fright at the dance “etiquette” they had seen over the years. I reached my finger out to touch the wall’s dried skin. It crumbled on contact and fell to the ground, slipping down the cracks beneath the floorboards. Its delicacy was like that of a dandelion’s seeds getting blown into the wind.
Make a wish.
I wish I could hear myself think again.
The music was turned up to a blood rippling volume: so loud that you had to scream to simply talk to someone five inches from you. I saw two people trying to have a conversation in this cacophony of sound and while I couldn’t hear a word each other said, it might as well have gone something like this:
“YOU WANNA DANCE???”
“NO I’M FROM AMERICA, I DON’T EVEN LIKE CROISSANTS!!”
“YEAH ME NEITHER, MY AUNT SHOULD GET A NOOSE!!”
The icing on the cake of this dialogue was the brief moment of quiet between each song, creating a foreign, surprising silence to its listeners. It was music to my deafened ears.
“YOU LIKE OLIVE JUICE???”
*the music sharply cuts*
“WELL I LOVE YOU T-…”
Stares and whispers filled the silence until the music came back on, relieving them from their exposed youth. It was hard to be twelve, but even harder when you wanted to be something much different, older, less of you and more of someone else.
The music’s lyrics varied from a listing of incoherent reasons as to “Why I’m hot” to describing a man’s travails of owning a candy shop and generously letting his girlfriend lick his lollipop, free of charge! Not exactly The Beatles but it got your foot tapping.
There was a sizeable girl in the back of the room with all sorts of different people crowding around her. I went over to check out the scene and was abruptly greeted by the very girl herself. She reached out to grab my hand. Perhaps she wanted to dance? She pried open my clasped fingers and slid a sharpie in my palm.
“Hey, do you wanna sign my boobs?”
My eyes went straight to her plentiful breasts in curiosity of her suggestion. What I saw was either a miracle of community participation, or a travesty of parenting. A mural of names, numbers, and even some creatively placed pictures had been drawn all over her bosom. I was reading all of them intently before she got my attention back.
“You gonna sign ‘em or not?”
“Oh, no thank you!” It didn’t look like there was any room left on her canvas any way.
I walked away from the writing circle, along the back wall, to head to the bathrooms. On my way over I passed my old colleague Danny, leaning on the window sill, with something smoking hanging from his lip. In fifth grade, Danny had been kicked out of my school for bringing bullets into class, not a gun, but bullets. I heard he threatened a teacher with them and lost his temper in the process. But what would he have done, flicked the bullets at them? I was too scared to talk to him nonetheless.
His scent crawled its way up my nostrils as I walked by. It reeked of skunk and shame and it was clearly not a cigarette in his mouth.
I scanned the exhibit of tweens one final time before withdrawing to the bathroom. “Cotton-eye Joe” began to play nearly every person jumped on the dance floor and did the dance they knew, each with his or her own added flairs and personalities. The floorboards bent at their stomps and bounced them back into the air. They were making their own trampoline; having their own fun. They didn’t care about growing up when they were dancing. It was a synchronicity of blissful naiveté. A masterpiece.
After shaking twice and washing my hands my gaze rose up to meet itself in the mirror. I looked intently and critically at my face, sliding my fingertips across its tiny pores and aptly placed dimples. I sighed a relief.
Then I did something dangerous.
I reached my finger out to the mirror. I wanted to feel what the mirror felt. It didn’t have a name, or a single face. It was all encompassing, and never original in what it displayed. The faceless surface of all faces. But then my finger abruptly stopped for I remembered:
Don’t touch the art or the colors will fade.