I’m Not Your Small-Town Girl

” How I Failed to Woo a South Korean and Had to Dance With Pasty White Boy at Prom “

By Tala Fehsel


She could have showed off more leg in a pair of basketball shorts than she did through the slits in her dress and she had better rhythm moving out on the tennis court than the dance floor, but that didn’t matter to him. He couldn’t dance with her in the middle of a game, tap her doubles partner on the shoulder and ask “Can I cut in?” The world screamed to him now from the speakers that this was his chance; this would be the tender moment they would share where afterwards he chased her out into the street and the rain and caught her there the way boys catch girls on the playground. So he hung back, watched her, waited for the river of music blaring from the balcony above to slow so he could slip in to the current leading straight to her.

This is a good story from his perspective.

This would be his narrative of courage, of daring, of the scene from the end of every high school movie where he works up the nerve to ask her and that’s all it takes—she looks up and sees his hair combed back and his collared shirt with the red carnation perched in the breast pocket of his blazer like a little cardinal and she wonders how she never wanted him before and in a moment everything changes and the guy gets the girl—just like that, just like a story.

I am “the girl” in this story, and his story. But it’s not “the” story. It’s not “that” story.

I am not third-person. I am sixteen and it’s not my story and it’s not about courage. It’s about cowardice, and being too afraid to run away, and too afraid to hurt that boy and change from “the girl” to “the bitch” in his coming-of-age narrative. It’s about being too afraid to admit I hate the way dresses make me feel and dancing fills me with trepidation but the thought of being left behind scares me even more. It’s about being too afraid to stay curled up at home and miss what all the movies have told me will be the defining time of my life even though it’s the one-year-anniversary of my mom’s death and all I want to do is breathe and squeeze myself into an empty girl-shaped-space and think about the hush.

Nothing is quiet here.

Of course there’s music and people at the dance. They’ve clipped speakers to the stripped cedar railing of the balcony and the bass notes hum in the wood like black flies in summer. The beat is still fast; hands and wrists and arms are still waving in the air as girls flash their legs and flash their teeth, but he’s not watching them. Beneath the railing, posters of a city skyline dangle from the balcony like a flimsy fourth wall or a two-way mirror. I can see couples who’ve slipped their way behind them every time they flutter. This night is easy for them. I wonder what the chances would have been of hitting someone like Polonius if I stabbed at random through the vinyl. We skipped Hamlet in English class

He turns back when the music changes. Those tell-tale keyboard chords come on. He knows it. It’s perfect. Everyone knows Journey. I don’t. The communal groan of “Slow song!” that rises around me as couples grab for one another does is my only warning bell and then the other singles are slipping away from me and the dance floor like water through my fingers. I am exposed and I am afraid, but I am still slower than the opening chords and he is pushing his way through the newly-opened path through the not-so-crowded crowd. It’s already too late.

“Just a small-town girl…”

He stops in front of me. He asks me to dance. I am not aware of his face at all in the moment—only his shoulders, vast and rectangular and his body filling the space of my escape like the locked door at the end of a hallway. I am holding a wooden fan and I don’t know what to do with it, or my hands, and I’m trying to point to it and say I can’t put it down but the lyrics are coming like a timer winding down and I have to make my choice by the second line and I feel my mouth say fine.

“Livin’ in a lonely world…”

“What’s this song?” I babble. I am not fine. My fan digs into his shoulder, black and distant as a tsunami. “I don’t know it.”

“Oh, you don’t? ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ It’s Journey,” he says and tries to sing along to prove he knows. “He took the midnight train going anywhere…” I’m cringing because he’s one of those people who take choir once in junior high and think they’re ready for American Idol.

I don’t see the carnation. I don’t see the tux. I don’t see anything because all I can see is his face like a blur because I don’t want to look. His existence sums up to the horrible oppressive feeling of his fingertips on either side of my waist and the respectful distance between our bodies that’s a space which screams like it’s dying for oxygen and the only way I can fill it is by talking about anything, everything.

“Just a city boy born and raised in south Detroit…”

O-kay,” I cut him off and he looks at me like he’s that city boy and I’m his small-town girl and I would run if his big soft nervous hands weren’t a ball and chain nestled on either side of my belly just above my hips while Journey cries “— a smell of wine and cheap perfume” from the speakers in four-chord indifference. He doesn’t smell bad. I wish he did. Somehow it would be better if he reeked of body spray or body odor but the subtle musk of sweat and dusty fabric and dampness from the rain, in its honesty, is sickening as sentiment.

“For a smile they can share the night…”

“How long is this song?” I ask, trying to distract myself. “Strangers—waiting—” In a minute I ask again. I ask again and again. I don’t know how this makes him feel. “How long is this—how long—”

“Streetlights, people—living just to find emotion…”

Every lyric I can make out gives me literal nausea. I wish I knew “Don’t Stop Believing,” so I’d know what sick significance this meant to the boy alone at Prom like all those movies starting to go wrong (Óh the movie never ends) and I don’t believe it will ever end as that guitar solo goes on and on (On and on and on and on…) and we rock and circle in place like teetering cardboard boxes.

“Hold onto the feelin’…”

The song is four minutes long. I hold on.

When the beat changes, a cheer signals that our slow dance is at an end. As Journey fades away and the crowd floods back in, I break from him like I’m breaching for air after having been held underwater by the shoulders, by the waist. I don’t know if I still believe in the movies.

It’s raining outside. The asphalt is shiny. I don’t run out in it. My friends and I wait for them to play Ke$ha for a while, and when they don’t, we leave.