In the morning, Little Sister Yovanoff dawdles on the porch. Which isn’t surprising. Any time we’re supposed to be in a hurry (to catch the bus, for instance), she’s always a few steps behind.
When I turn to check her progress, she’s still poking around by the front door.
“Come back,” she says. “There’s a thing for you.”
The thing is a plastic freezer bag of Hershey’s Kisses with a note inside asking me to the Homecoming dance. The note is anonymous, and also written in Dill’s handwriting, with his red rollerball pen.
“Did you leave a ziplock bag of candy on my porch?” I say, catching him at his locker.
His eyes widen in surprise, but the truth is, he’s easy to read. “Someone left a bag of candy? Maybe there’s something inside.”
When we get home, Little Sister Yovanoff (ever the pragmatist) gets out a mixing bowl and plunks herself down on the living room floor. We sit across from each other and unwrap the candy piece by piece. We find Dill’s name in the second-to-last one. There are 87.
At his locker the next morning, I say, “Okay, I’ll go to Homecoming with you.”
I don’t say it this way because I’m mean or ungracious. At least, I am never ungracious on purpose. It’s just that I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided that this is what I’m going to do.
Dill says, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go. You’re supposed to tell me yes.”
“I did tell you yes. Just now.”
“No,” he says, looking mildly aggrieved. “Like with—like I did, with a note. Or . . . balloons or something.”
I think about this. Then, I take a deep breath and say, without any irony or ill will, “That seems kind of complicated.”
Ever since I told him I would go to the homecoming dance, Dill has been bringing me flowers in the morning. A single cheerful daisy—simple, sweet. We are sort of (sort of) dating again.
The first time he brought me a daisy, I thanked him for it. I put it on my locker shelf and forgot. At lunch, Little Sister Yovanoff accidentally set her Spanish book on it.
“Oops,” she said. “Were you saving that for something?”
Later, when I showed up to History without my flower, Dill wanted to know where it had gone. I tried to explain that I couldn’t just carry it around with me all day.
He said, “It was for you to appreciate. You can’t appreciate it if you leave it in your locker.”
So I carried the second daisy with me, even though it got gross-looking and started to wilt. It made my fingers sticky, and left a weird metallic smell, like you get if you hold a handful of pennies. When I showed up to Tully’s class with it, Dill grinned.
“You have my flower!” he said. “That’s so cool.”
“Classy,” muttered Rooster, who still has stitch-marks on his forehead. “Giving your girlfriend dead flowers.”
Across from me, #4 sort of laughed and sort of didn’t. He was looking past me and then he put his head down on his arms. I set the flower on the edge of my desk and tried to forget that my hands smelled filthy and like metal.
I wrapped the third daisy in a paper towel and ran it under the faucet in the bathroom. I came into History with a wilted daisy and a handful of soggy paper. No one said anything.
It’s not that I want things. I don’t care about romance or dating or being given things. Daisies are Dill’s favorite flower. I like primroses and violets. When he brings me something that he likes and I don’t, it’s confusing.
We don’t have to like the same flowers or the same music or movies or gum or anything else. But it would be nice if he recognized that the things I like are different from what he likes. I just want someone who pays attention, who takes into account what other people are thinking and doing.
This whole business of daisies is unsettling. It’s like a really clunky metaphor for the business of relationships, and last year I was naive enough to think that maybe I could demystify romance if I just studied the equation long enough. Now, I’m forced to admit that I absolutely do not understand. Anything.
Case in point: Rooster is dating Valentine. Or going steady. Or whatever you want to call it. They hold hands in the halls sometimes, but as far as I can tell, he never brings her daisies.
The way this came about is mysterious and also not. When Rooster was absent post-windshield, Tully asked if #4 would be kind enough to take him the homework, and #4 looked awkward and mumbled down at his desk that maybe it should be someone else, although I couldn’t really figure out why. At first I thought he must still be thinking about the blood, but then I decided that maybe he just meant someone less stoned or more responsible. Or with a car.
So Mr. Tully asked for a volunteer, and without any hesitation, Valentine raised her hand. She said, “I’ll do it,” and all her friends whispered and giggled, and I was shocked at how easy she made it look. All I could think was, But now everyone will know she likes him.
Which, as an attitude, is pretty dysfunctional.
Because I told Dill yes, my mom takes me dress-shopping, which proves to be one of the more painful experiences of junior year. Not because of her or me—we’re generally on the same team—but because of the dresses. Eventually we find one that fits, but the whole endeavor is exhausting. The dress itself is . . . unstylish. It’s the exact opposite of every long, straight satin sheath in peach or periwinkle. Also, I have no fancy shoes, and no patience for fancy shoes. At least I’m growing out my bangs. Which gives me a sense of accomplishment. On all other fronts, I feel like an idiot.*
The dance is in the cafeteria, which the Homecoming Committee has festooned in crepe paper for the occasion. All the girls from the soccer team are there. They squeal and hug me around the neck and I smile. I compliment their outfits, but I don’t really know how to act like other girls do. When they hug me, I never know what to do with my arms.
Valentine is there with Rooster, which I have to admit, I didn’t really expect. They don’t seem like the kind of people who go to dances. But then, neither do I.
Even more surprising, though, is the fact that #4 is with them, dateless and trailing along behind. He’s wearing jeans and a button-down shirt—maroon or forest green, but it’s hard to tell which in the dark. I think I catch him looking over his shoulder at me, but I’m not sure, because as soon as it seems like he might be, I immediately stare down at my shoes.
Most of the boys look kind of awkward, dressed in slacks and rumpled button-downs or their fathers’ too-big jackets. In contrast, Dill is wearing a dark, double-breasted mobster suit that looks amazing and also fits him. It is totally unprecedented. I keep thinking how, if this were last year, we would pretend to be an organized-crime couple—a gangster king and queen presiding over an imaginary empire built on heroin and intimidation. But because it’s not last year . . . we don’t.
Instead, he leads me around by the hand and makes polite conversation, when we never used to waste time on smalltalk. The whole evening feels contrived, like it’s happening to someone else.
When a slow song comes on, Dill steers me into the middle of the floor and I’m startled to discover that he’s shaking a little.
“You should wear a red dress next time,” he says, close to my ear.
“That way, when they play ‘Lady in Red,’ I’ll be dancing with you and it’ll just be cool.”
I can’t think of anything to say. “Lady in Red” is one of the stupidest songs I know of.
Rooster and Valentine have disappeared somewhere, and #4 is sitting alone on a wooden bench with the speakers and the soundboard behind him. Every time we turn, I look past Dill’s shoulder toward the bench. #4 is leaning forward, staring down at his hands. He looks the way I feel, bored and patient. He looks like he’s someplace else.
The weight of my cheek against Dill’s shoulder is comforting in a way that evokes something wistful. Longing, maybe, or regret. He smells like Old Spice and vanilla car-freshener and suddenly, I don’t want to play School Dance anymore. I want to step back, take myself out of it. I want to be sitting on the bench, watching all the couples, and not have to smile or make conversation or hug anyone. #4 would probably even slide over, make room. We wouldn’t have to talk. We could just sit there, being quiet.
What I want more than anything is to not have to be bright or meaningless or explain myself, and I don’t know why, but in this moment #4 looks like he would just get it. Without words, without me ever having to put in the effort to make him see.
I know that unspoken communication is a totally unreasonable expectation and still, in this moment it’s what I want. Also, I want “Lady in Red” to be an actual solid thing. So I can set it on fire.
All this really means is, I want to be understood. I want to play mobsters and skip the chitchat, and not be given daisies when I don’t like them. I want all these things, but I don’t want to ask for them because I have this messed-up idea that if you have to ask for something, then when you get it, it won’t be real.
We keep turning, #4 washing into view again and again. He’s looking up now. I can only see his eyes when the mirror-ball sends an occasional splash of light across his face, but it’s enough. We’re looking right at each other and for one strange, unsettling moment, it doesn’t even feel that awkward.
Then Dill pulls me closer, bending his head to mine. “I’m glad you came with me,” he says. He whispers it into my ear. “Sorry for being such a jerk last year.”
His voice drags me back from the sparkly little world inside my head—from whatever far, imaginary place I’m living in.
“Thank you for inviting me,” I say automatically, like a windup girl.
I lean against him and close my eyes. I’m comforted to realize suddenly that this is okay too. Because I know this spicy-vanilla smell, this shoulder, and because on Monday, we can still go back to normal. I can chart the course of Us perfectly.
The song ends. The bench is empty.
“Is something wrong?” Dill asks.
“No,” I say, because I am a relentlessly factual girl.
I say no, because nothing is.
Things I want to know: Do they still have homecoming dances? (I’m assuming they do, but you can never be sure.) More importantly, do the dances involve a festival of crepe paper and rented disco lights? Are dresses a big deal, or an afterthought? Do people take dates?
Also, what about you? Did you have to figure out romance or attraction or relationships, or did you always just know? (If you did, I’m jealous.)
*Looking at this picture from a comfortably-adult vantage point, I don’t think I look like an idiot—I actually think that 17-year-old me is kind of precious (in a tragic-bangs way), but at the time, my sense of idiocy was acute and pervasive.