My older brother – some mistook us for twins – and I entered through the back double-doors of the junior high, dressed in glow-in-the-night white disco suits made by our dad in his tailor shop. Who knew he wanted to be a fashion designer? Our best friend Lenny joined us. My brother and I looked like mini dancing kings, while Lenny wore a lime green leisure suit, complete with a loud wide-collared shirt, slick and multi-colored – the pattern of choo-choo trains as I recall. The kicker, so to speak, white platform shoes. He said my brother and I looked cool, and enjoyed the attention our friendship brought him. Lenny was a half a head shorter, wearing the goofy expression of a class clown, poking at people as he walked along the hallways, exclaiming “Dy-no-mite!” at everything he heard. My brother and I were vertically challenged, too. By no means did we look down at anyone. Yes, we had a well-developed humility.
“Short, dark and handsome,” the girls in our class joked.
Our brown shirts and thick black hair parted down the middle made us feel like we had class, sophistication, like we were somebodies for the night. The music boomed, “Disco Inferno,” then quickly and awkwardly transitioned – with requisite scratches to the record – to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” then on to a litany of other 70s titles. We embraced the battle between traditional rock and those old fad disco tunes. “Saturday Night Fever” played for weeks at the Midwest Theatre in Scottsbluff in early 1978. We kids caught the illness, no exception. West Nebraska offered no movie premieres. We saw box office hits weeks after they played in the larger cities. Denver was one of them, just a few hours away. The Mile-High city might as well have been light years away. We were always behind the times, but didn’t seem to mind much.
We passed the time cruising Main Street, and made frequent stops at McDonald’s, where we took our time goofing off and munching on fries and sliders. Often, we listened to tales of the latest on the “rumbles” – fights between the young and the restless among friends and acquaintances – during the breaks from school. Fists poked through a car windows. Nervous kids asked for dates. Friends exchanged and collected phone numbers, writing them down on corners of notebook paper and used-up napkins from McDonalds. Classic heavy metal cars, smelling of fuel, roared and screeched at each stoplight.
Dad was proud to have sewn his first suit through a seamstress class at the community college. At first, he thought he could get my grandma’s antique sewing machine to work, an old iron Singer with a metal foot pedal. He abandoned the idea, and borrowed a sleek white one from a friend, that pumped the thread faster. He made matching suits for me and my older brother Robby, the mistaken twin, and vowed to have them ready for the first dance of the year at the Junior High School, a new building hidden in a patch of houses a few blocks from main street. A mood setter, we could smell autumn, the freshly cut crops of harvest, and the falling red and brown leaves stuck in the alcoves and doorways.
Dad forgot, like many of the things he forgot, and subsequently left undone, like the pine wood derby cars we made for Cub Scouts. They ended up looking like we chopped them from tree branches, and then covered them with sticky tacky spray paint from Western Auto. We attempted racing stripes with paint brushes. Then there were building materials – the sheet rock he meant to nail to the walls of an unfinished basement. They ended up collecting dust and footprints on the floor of the laundry room. They eventually cracked, broke and were ruined. As for the Tiger wrestling shoes, he promised before the start of the season. He kept repeating, “wait until my next paycheck.” Now, our suit jackets. A new episode in the chapter titled, “Half-assed.” A long line of disappointments? Not really. We came to expect his hollow guarantees.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he growled. “Maybe you could go without the liners.”
Robby and I looked at each other dumbfounded. How would that play with the girls we wanted to impress? How were we supposed to point our fingers in the air like Travolta? We tried miserably to imitate the signature gesture at home, the one made famous by the iconic photo on the album cover, comical and overstated. This guy was TV’s Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter feeling the big time. He was an unlikely hero, but our hero. Pointing our fingers exposed too many flaws. Then again, stars back then were born every minute. Why not us?
This would have been the first time in a long time that I felt good about wearing anything to school. My oldest brother, the squeaky wheel, demanded the latest fashion in designer jeans and polo shirts, leaving little in the new school year budget for Robby and me. Mom would say, we can’t afford it. Instead, we were given the worn ill-fitting hand-me-downs. That included worn ragged track shoes one or two sizes too big.
“You guys will be fine,” dad said. “We can just pin the loose panels, and no one will know the liner is missing.”
“But dad, why can’t you just sew them on now before we go?” Robby begged.
“No time. I got to be somewhere tonight.”
That night, I could only think of a girl who was fast becoming a woman. She developed months before her peers into a shape that I thought rivaled Wonder Woman. Long brown hair, a princess in a fairy tale. Sadly, she lived on the wrong side of the tracks. She wasn’t popular, in the sense that made other kids popular – sports, fashion, money – and guys talked about her all the time, using all kinds of disparaging names, but secretly desiring a chance to be with her. I thought about Dawn, too. A lot.
Hours passed, and slow song after slow song, and any chance of getting closer to her, was slipping away. “You’d better get in there, man,” Lenny chirped. “All the other guys are getting in there, trying to get their hands on her.” He cackled. “Quick. She’s getting ready to leave.”
Strange, because Dawn and I never talked until that night, and she told me about feeling alone. She intimidated the boys, not meaning to, which made her feel like the freak sideshow in our junior high circus. Damn her busty predicament.
Lenny’s crude encouragement was like a slap in the face, a wakeup call. I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks, thankful it was dark in the cafeteria. The only light came from the glowing disco ball and strobes set up across the floor. A record player, a punch bowl and a tray of Cawley’s potato chips sat on a nearby table. She stood like a statue on the fringes of a bunch of edgy kids – girls on one side, boys on the other – staring straight across the dance floor, like she was somewhere else.
The girls avoided her not quite sure what to make of the attention she was getting. Of all the lures, a fancy dress, perfume, perfect makeup, hair done just right – it boiled down to the novelty of prepubescence, the hormones that made us all shapes and sizes.
I felt unsure, at first. My un-ironed raggedy suit was coming undone. The safety pins holding the jacket together worked their way out of the material, dropping to the floor. The cream color glowed in the dark, making my robotic moves even more obvious. There was no way to move stealthily across the floor. The idea of coming up behind her and whispering in her ear fizzled. Yet, I had to do something. It wasn’t my smoothest moment in life, nor one that lands on the top 10 of stellar days… or nights of my life. Anxious, my stalky legs marched me toward her in short halting strides. The strobe lights, the cheap punch, the buzz from non-sensical conversation, the hormones. All of it made me want to throw up.
She took a few steps back from my valiant charge forward, wondering if she should get out of my way. Pivoting, I brought myself to an awkward stop, and just as quickly leaned closer to her, measuring the decibel level of the music. Thump, thump, thump. On closer inspection, she stood much taller, by three or four inches – part of the intimidation. So, my leaning body left me in an awkward state. I stood on my toes to whisper in her ear. I wondered if she would hear me. I was a handicapped giraffe craning for the low hanging fruit, juicy leaves barely in sight. Finally, my paralyzed mouth budged just enough. The question burst forth. I was waiting for the right moment all night.
“Would you like to dance?” I asked.
A half smile appeared on her otherwise placid face – brown eyes, flush cheeks, small pert lips, a soft voice – the perfect combination to slay a defenseless boy. I barely had enough peach fuzz poking out from my chin, and enough confidence from a squeaking trumpet-like voice to make it a done deal. I grabbed her hand and the crooning Dr. Hook told the rest of the story: “Looking kind of lonely girl. Would you like someone new to talk to? Oh yeah, alright.”
My passion grew, and, unexpectedly, so did my early teen manhood. I was glad my jacket hung low enough to spare my embarrassment. Part of me didn’t care. Otherwise, holding this bright young flower close to me, capped the night of feeling like a man in my first real suit.