She has not shown up. An hour into MORP and Lesley is nowhere to be seen. Dispirited, I wander over to a group of breakdancers in the corner of the gym converted into the dance venue. I watch them as they recklessly throw themselves into jackhammers, windmills, and Buddha spins. One guy, Larry, specializes in popping, and he tosses out some intricate moves.
“Hey, so do you plan your moves ahead of time, Larry?”
Larry somehow manages to simultaneously glare and roll his eyes at me, which is not at all easy to do. He says, with no small amount of contempt, “It’s called choreography. And, no, I don’t ‘plan’ my moves ahead of time. They just come to me.”
Stupid question, smart response.
I amble on and finally discover Don standing amongst four pretty girls, including one named Katie. I had been sweet on Katie the year before, but as she, in turn, had nursed a longtime crush on Don, I had given up. We stand by one of the oversized speakers, so we all end up spending a significant proportion of time screaming into each other’s ears, gesticulating wildly, and nodding even though we can’t hear a thing anyone is saying. Finally, the DJ kicks into a slow set with Lionel Richie’s “Truly.” Don gets dragged onto the dance floor by one of the four girls. A couple of upperclassmen ask two of the other girls to dance.
“Guess there’s no one left,” Katie says wistfully and to no one in particular.
“Well, I’m not completely no one,” I say shyly, although I feel like a complete no one. I venture onwards, “You wanna dance?”
Katie looks around and realizes I’m speaking to her. “Uh, I guess, sure, maybe if you like.”
With that resounding affirmation, I escort Katie onto the dance floor for my very first slow dance. Moreover, it is with a very pretty girl, a joyful girl with sweet laughing eyes and dimples that wink with merriment. The moment is quite special. Lionel is at his emotive best, and Katie smells of fresh honeysuckle and jasmine. A year ago, I would have given up a vital appendage or two to be slow dancing with Katie, to be clasping her hand, caressing her waist. To be breathing in the very air she exhales. But things have changed, and my thoughts wander around the gymnasium seeking Lesley.
After all, once one has tasted the nectar of the gods, how can anyone ever go back to sampling mere fruits of the earth? Years later, at our fifteenth-year high school reunion, Katie would share with me in a whisper how she wished we had danced longer or even kissed that evening. However, at the moment, she only faintly grasps that, while she could have had me the year prior, our moment has somehow slipped by. She can feel my peripatetic heart roaming elsewhere, even as we physically sway together to “Truly.”
Then I see her. Lesley has arrived. She is immediately accosted by this jock named Scott and his pack of athletes. Lionel is winding down, and the music segues into the distinct opening keyboard tones of Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” If there ever were a cue from heaven above, this is it. I sincerely thank Katie for the dance while accompanying her off the dance floor. It’s all a tad abrupt, but she graciously allows me to take my leave.
With my heart a-fluttering, palms a-sweating, and mind a-racing, I do my best to approach, with equal measures of determined grit and gut-wrenching nervousness, the group surrounding Lesley. I resolve to reach into the scrum to grasp Lesley’s hand, to pull her out, and to deeply kiss her before declaring my abiding love for her.
However, when I reach in, I grab… a rather hairy hand.
“Hey man, are you homo?” Scott yells as his friends part to see me holding his hand.
“Oh shit. No, sorry, Scott, I meant to take, uh someone else’s hand.”
“Whose hand? My man Tim’s? You queer for Tim?”
People are starting to snicker and laugh with snippets of “fag” and “gaymo” tossed in to complete the convivial atmosphere. Being Chinese in a Phoenix high school is bad enough. If I were to be branded as a gay Chinaman in this place and era, well, perhaps only The Elephant Man himself would fare worse socially.
“No, I was reaching for—”
“My hand,” Lesley says. “There you are, Richard. Sorry, I’m late. Thanks, Scott and guys, for keeping me company.”
I am stunned. Scott is speechless. The entire team of athletes is dumbfounded like they just lost the championship game on a three-point buzzer shot. Hell, everyone on the dance floor is, well, floored. Esmeralda and the Hunchback, Beauty and the Beast, Christine and the Phantom: suddenly Lesley and Richard join this pantheon of unlikely pairings. Whereas I lack the courage of Quasimodo, the strength of the Beast, and the musical genius of the Phantom, it doesn’t matter as somehow, somewhere deep inside me, something clicks for me that night.
For one brief, shining moment, I am King Kong saving Ann Darrow. Or perhaps more accurately, Ann saves King Kong. Either way is fine for me so long as we are together. In the thrill of the moment, I forget that each of these stories ends in tragic heartbreak for the hero. Nonetheless, for now, I can cherish and celebrate my improbable victory.
“Thanks for grabbing my, er, I mean, Scott’s hand back there. It was very sweet of you,” Lesley says with eyes twinkling like the stars above the Sonoran desert.
“Well, it’s always bothered me not knowing whether Scott moisturized. Now I know the only moisture he applies is when he spits in his hands before making a free throw.”
Lesley laughs heartily yet with demure elegance, like Princess Diana on shore leave. Men have sold their souls for less, and I am prepared to sell mine and that of my children (preferably our children) for the honor to make and see her laugh like this forever.
“Yeah, the testosterone level there was beginning to exceed local fire codes, I think,” she says with a grin. “Thanks again for getting me out. It’s nice to breathe again.”
“No problem. You’ve made quite the splash at school,” I say before pausing for a moment. “Actually, I think I should be the one to thank you for saving the day. Things were getting somewhat, shall we say, heated?”
“For sure. Seriously, though, what’s with all this calling each other fag, gay, and homo? We didn’t get that so much back in California.”
“What? You mean people don’t bash on bundled wood, happy people, or homo sapiens where you came from?”
“Nah, people are pretty chill about gays in Los Baños.”
“Los Banos? Doesn’t that mean ‘bathroom’ in Spanish?” I ask. “Great. So people living in ‘the bathroom’ are more accepting of gays than we are here.”
She laughs. So sweetly. “No, that’s El baño, silly. Los Baños means ‘the baths.’ Like a spa.” Lesley pauses for a second and continues, “I like that about you. You make me laugh. You’re quite funny—”
“Looking? Do I make you laugh because of my looks?” I have no idea why I just asked this. James Bond would never say something so overly self-deprecating.
“No, you’re just funny. I like your sense of humor. Looks-wise, you’re really actually kinda good-looking.”
Angels descending from the rafters above could not have astonished me more. If only she had dropped the “actually” and “kinda” then I would have ascended to the rafters. I venture to ask, “Really? But only kinda good-looking, right? I mean, which kind of good-looking am I?”
“The funny kind of good-looking,” she says laughingly. “No, I’m just kidding. You’re handsome in a pretty way, a bit like a girl.”
“Oh, this is really encouraging. Girls don’t go for pretty boys. They dig the likes of Don or Scott, rugged guys with square chins chiseled by Michelangelo and shoulders that could carry a dwarf planet or two.”
“Well, yeah, their type ain’t bad either. But these days, pretty boys are in. Look at Tom Cruise.”
“What? Tom Cruise? I don’t think he’s going anywhere. All he has is that grin.”
“Well, that’s all he’ll ever need. That and those dimples.”
While we ruminate on the virtues of Tom’s grin and dimples, a few of Lesley’s friends come over. Each one could pass for Patti McGuire’s sister, or at least her first cousin.
“Hey, I thought this was a dance,” says a redhead named Angie to Lesley. “Who’s this? Your friend?”
“Yeah, this is Richard. From English class. But he’s also in PE with us.”
“Oh, really?” Angie squints, hoping perhaps that this will help her recall when or where she has ever seen me. She gives up and smiles, “Rad. Nice to meet ya.”
With long, scarlet hair and a body so voluptuous it might turn even Bo Derek’s head, Angie is Lesley’s best friend. This is the first time Angie and I have come within dance floor shouting distance of each other, which is exhilaratingly close. Certainly, the nearer she gets, the hotter she appears as her body proves to be one of the most immersive 3D experiences one could ever imagine. Her body has more attractions than Disneyland. It requires a concerted effort to focus my eyes purely on her face and not anywhere else south of her chin. Together, she and Lesley undoubtedly stimulate the nightly imaginations amongst the boys of Deer Valley High more than any other pair of girls in the school and beyond.
“Sure, let’s dance,” Lesley replies before turning back towards me, “You do dance, right?”
“Uh, yeah. But not in public. I typically dance in the shower and my room.”
“Really? You can only dance when you’re naked or in your underwear? You’re more like Tom Cruise than you think.” She giggles for a second before continuing thoughtfully, “Isn’t dancing in the shower kinda dangerous?”
“Only if you drop the soap.”
The girls laugh—all of them. All of a sudden, I’m Asian Eddie Murphy. I start to dance, just as I have done on so many sweaty summer nights alone in the dark of my room to the tunes of Rick Dees on the radio. Bruce Springsteen and Billy Idol speak directly to awkward boys like me when they write and sing songs such as “Dancing in the Dark” and “Dancing by Myself”. Tonight once more, I am dancing in the dark, but definitely not dancing by myself. I allow myself to drown happily in this sea of beauty. I imagine for the first time I can taste a nibble of what Hugh Hefner must experience on a nightly basis. Pure, unadulterated manly bliss.
“Hey, you’re a good dancer,” remarks Lesley.
I awake from my reverie and look around me. Apparently, she is speaking to me. “Really? But I don’t dance anything like Larry and his friends.”
“I don’t like breakdancing. I like your style. It’s sexy, kinda like a—”
“Like a girl?” I ask. “I’m beginning to sense a pattern here.”
“Yeah, like a girl. But in a good way. You could probably make a lot of money as a stripper or cage dancer.”
“Thanks, that would thrill my Chinese parents.”
Our eyes lock for the most fleeting of seconds in real time but a brief moment of eternity in my mind. Visions of midnight strolls along distant shores, of tickling each other until we both cry. Of children’s eyes and wisps of white hair.
If this were my last moment on earth, my life has finally become one worth living.
After thirty years as a corporate executive, Richard Lin recently retired to focus on writing, philanthropy, and his family of one extraordinary wife, three lively kids, and nine adventurous hamsters. “Dancing in the Dark” is excerpted from his first memoir, Arizona Awakening, the first in a series of four centered on themes of interracial romance, intergenerational immigrant conflict, and cultural identity. Aside from Potato Soup Journal, Richard’s work has started to appear in The Dillydoun Review, The Write Launch, Ariel Chart, Prometheus Dreaming, Drunk Monkeys, and other literary journals. He can be reached via his author website, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (@LinChenghao).