And in this corner… | Aug. 17, 2018

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I believe it was always my intention to go to my 9th-grade dance. For three years at Marshall Junior High, I dressed weird, played clarinet in the band, spray-painted my lunch table, set a city record in track, earned nearly all As, threw spit wads on the ceiling of my English class, asked a girl to “go around” for the first time and started a punk band. Going to the last dance was the one act of normality, marking my advancement to high school.

My date was a girl I had known since elementary school. We were good friends, and, frankly, I was surprised she said yes, but we had history and even though she was way more surfer and California Girl, she liked my punk-rock antics and we always got along well.

After photos and pinning of the corsage, we were dropped off by my mom at the Jolly Roger, where we met our friends for our fancy dinner before the dance.

Once we actually got to school and walked into the gymnasium, I saw that I was wearing the same seersucker sports coat as one of the teachers. I was mortified! I was already blushing and in a cold sweat before anyone else had even noticed the fashion faux pas. I begged my friend Denos to let me wear his tan Members Only jacket instead of facing the embarrassment all night. He saved the day, but I felt more like Jack Nicklaus at that moment than I did a snotty punk rocker.

Things were fine inside the gym. I wouldn’t say it was overly decorated like you see in the movies, but, after all, it was just a junior-high dance. I do remember there was more mood lighting than I thought possible for a gym where we played hours of basketball and dodgeball.
Everything was pretty much as I had imagined it would be. The deejay played the new wave and pop hits of the day. The boys were on one side. The girls on the other. The night was a rite of passage.

I think my date ditched me immediately. I just hung out with my close friends and made the rounds saying hi to everyone. I was actually very social being there now mostly stag.

I even danced with Mary Hall, whom I had been feuding with in class the last few months. (Who can even remember what that was all about?) We promised to be civil to each other from there on out. She even wrote that in my yearbook.

Making my way around, I noticed Faith McClanahan sitting with her friends in the bleachers. She seemed to stay there most of the night and kind of sang and danced in place. She just watched everyone else move around the gym. Much later into the night, she got brave enough to come to the dance floor and rock out to “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Faith and I were pals and complete opposites. I was the punk rocker, and she was more Hollie Hobbie-ish with thick glasses and long floral Jan Brady dresses. I was 5’11” and 125 pounds of all sharp points and knee caps. Faith was 5’0” at most. We had many classes together over three years, and she was my savior while I suffered in pre-algebra class. I hated math and that class, but ironically enough I respected the teacher (he had taught alongside my dad years and years before). I got into a lot of trouble there, mostly for talking. I spent some class periods standing up the whole time as punishment or getting a lecture with a life lesson. Faith tutored me and explained pre-algebra so I could actually understand the subject and pull off a B- in the class by the end of the year.

As the night wore on, my date had danced with just about every other guy but me. Faith remained back in the bleachers just watching everyone else.
Finally, the deejay called “last song,” and the couples flooded the dance floor. My date had paired up with a mutual friend and were making out outside the basketball key. I stood there for a second as the opening piano notes from Journey’s “Open Arms” started to play. The mood turned perfectly cinematic: couples swaying on the dance floor, lights dimmed, the sense of graduation near, and Faith alone in the bleachers watching it all.

Like a dramatic scene from a teen movie, I slowly walked over to Faith, gave her my best 14-year-old sincere smile, held my hand out to take hers, helped her down the stairs and out to the dance floor. She had both arms wrapped around me in a bear hug, her head rested against my belly button. We danced “The Box” to the sweet song and rock anthem about love lost and love returned. Steve Perry’s voice filled the room, and the teen hearts, with his sincerity. Faith was happy to not sit this one out. I was happy to end the dance, and the school year, on this high note with a nice person as a very special thank-you for getting me through it all.

The song ended. We smiled. We parted ways. We went on to different high schools.

That night devolved into a group of us huddled around a fire pit at Bolsa Chica. One girl philosophized about fire and life and the mystery of the universe. I was still irked at my date for disappearing on me all night and now I had to sit at the after party with her? I was ready to get the hell out of there. At least the grunion was running so I had something else to do.

To this day every time I hear “Open Arms,” the movie starts to play and I remember that swaying room and last dance with Faith, Members Only jacket and all.