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UNDERSTUDY by B.J. Hollars


I get in my car and drive to you.  You are not far, and when I sneak from my house in the nighttime, the motion light forgets its sacred duty.  I am a shadow, but soon I am a shadow in a car, and then I am a shadow in a car coasting down the gravel drive—no headlights.  You are not far, and I hardly have time to run through the words before I arrive there.  It is just some stupid dance, I’ll shrug, but if you want to.  You will want to.  Earlier in the night, when your friends and my friends crossed paths in the backyard beside the pond, I was told that you wanted to; that the “out-of-town” story you’d tried on the first guy was just something you’d concocted.  You are not far, simply sitting in a windowed room at your friend’s house, and suddenly I am in the drive, tongue-tied and waiting.  I pocket my keys and untangle, moving quick through the dark in the night.  I am in the backyard, and the well-lit windows allow me entrance into everything. There you are, so unassuming, and, when I knock, the girls flinch before seeing my face in the glass.  I mouth words, make motions, and everyone else watches on.  Some dance, I say, just stupid.  But you say Yes, of course.


I get in my car and drive to you.  You are not far, and when I sneak from my house in the nighttime, the motion light remembers what to do.  I am flooded with light, and a dog barks, and my mother peeks her head out the window.  “I need gas,” I say, pointing to the car, and she says, “But it’s 12:30 a.m.!”  She actually says “a.m.,” (as if sparing me the confusion), and I repeat the word gas, then leap toward the car to face the consequences later.  A curfew broken, and already, the plan has been bumbled, foiled, compromised, but you are not far, and if I can just get to you, park the car in the drive and sneak down into the backyard, then maybe you will say yes.  This will make for a funny story.  I prepare to tell you all of it, using words like “gallant” and “brave” and “dumb.”  It’s just some dumb dance, I’ll shrug, but if you think I’m gallant enough…Gallantry is not the issue.  You will tell me this when you say no, tell me to leave the backyard.  This is my friend’s house, you explain, her father will kill you.  I will say “gallant” three more times, but this will not make me so.  I have bumbled, foiled, been compromised.  You do not say yes, of course.


Ask anyone.  We are as cute as cute can be, zigzagging to the mall after school like bottle rockets—all spark, no flash.  The radio blares songs we only half know, but they’re our songs now, all of them, and we own them.  I tell you each one reminds me of you and you tell me I’m ridiculous.  “Charming,” I correct.  “The word you’re looking for is ‘charming.'”  There are no cell phones, or I would dedicate each song to you, waiting until my arms are flung wide and I’m mummy-wrapped in measuring tape.  We decide on the double-breasted with the sea foam vest.  No, no, the single-breasted with the gray.  There is talk of cummerbunds, and I confuse this for a river I once fished.  We all laugh, even the man and his measuring tape, who now knows all my secret dimensions—neck size, waist size, inseam. We are coordinating everything, a perfect match, and while the other creatures twist in top hats and canes, we will be dignified, mature, love struck.  We leave that place, but there are places we go before home.  The baseball field.  The hiking trail.  All the old haunts that are now ours.


Ask anyone.  I am simply minding my own business.  I am simply purchasing a soft-pretzel from the nearby vendor, and what a coincidence to find you in this mall, in that tux shop, accompanied by somebody else.  He is taller and blonder and heard you say the word yes.  But is he gallant?  I consider asking you once I finish my pretzel.  A coincidence, I’ll explain if you spot me.  Of all the gin joints in all the world…Even at this distance you look happy.  Maybe he is charming after all, and what do I know of charm?  The mall hums music I just can’t shake, and the walls move closer.  This pretzel is tearing apart in my hands.  I have math homework in need of solving, but this is my indulgence.  Can’t a guy get a pretzel for Christ sake?  Can’t we chalk up this run-in as simple coincidence?  The blonde boy tries on the yellow vest, the sea foam green.  And then, from my vantage point behind the potted tree, I see him try on that silly top hat as well.  Where is his dignity?  Enough.  A hint is a hint, but I am not taking any of them.  I leave that place, but there are places I go before home.  Old haunts I haunt alone.


We arrive at the dance in a splendor of heat and camera flash.  There is simply too much to be remembered—you in sea foam green, and I the perfect match.  We fall into a crowded auditorium complete with squeaky shoes, fuzzy speakers, a sugar cookie that will crush beneath these feet.  So much time is spent talking, politicking among the high school royalty, any excuse not to dance.  Spare me the embarrassment, dear God.  Grant me mercy. And so, we do not dance. Our chaperones double as science teachers, keeping close watch while taking down biological observations in their moleskins.  Subject A appears fearful of dancing.  Subject B is much too good for her date.  This night will end in bloodshed, but not our own.  A car accident far away—people we know or don’t, people we once knew.  Subject C has a concussion but will survive.  An announcement over the P.A. system notes this happy news—that everyone will survive.  Everyone in the world? you joke, and it is so funny—you are so funny—that I whirl you long after the end of the song.


We arrive nowhere together.  You are a swatch of sea foam green I find on the auditorium floor.  I pocket it.  You are mine now.  I place it in a notebook in my locker, keep it there through the year, fermenting.  I find it only when I leave that place behind, close that locker for good.  We grow up separately, distinctly, and my gallantry fades away.  I will see you again, for days and days until all the days run out.  And then, off to separate schools and lives, The End.  But not.  Fast-forward now, to the five-year reunion, and you are married to a boy who is neither tall nor blonde.  You have settled.  We are dipping chicken fingers into hot mustard in a dark bar, but you tell me with your eyes that you have settled.  Mistakes were made.  We all shake hands, and when your husband asks me how exactly we know each other, I am unsure how to reply.  That we had a night, once, when you refused my invite to the dance? That I have reduced you to a swatch of fabric folded twice into a spiral notebook?  “Friends,” I shrug.  “Just good friends, really.”  It could not be farther from the truth.

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