Chapter 21: Dancing
Music filled the room. Hundreds of couples danced in endless circles. It was Prom night for Eagle Hill's High School, an extravagant event intended to produce a lifetime's worth of treasured memories. In the center of the dance floor stood John and Angela. They clung to each other, barely moving.
"It seems like an eternity since we've been together," said Angela into the shoulder of John's tux.
"It has been an eternity, Angela. Every minute I'm not with you is an eternity. I think you're the only person in the world who can understand me, or at least tries. I'm just a joke to everyone else."
She looked tenderly up at his face. "That's not true! Nobody thinks you're a joke."
"I'd like to believe that, but it's not true. Look at what I do. Look at the way I act. It's only with you that the real me can escape. With everyone else it's all a pathetic farce. Of course, it is a pathetic farce, but I need to be myself, too. I need you for that. If it weren't for you I think I'd lose my - I'd go insane."
"John, that's so sweet. But I still doubt that everyone else thinks of you as less than you really are."
"Maybe you're right. My brother, Ken, and I are pretty close. Even if he is a retard. I always, sort of, took care of him when we were younger. When we lived in Texas, we would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and do crazy things. God, those were some of the best times of my life. We tried to burn our school down when I was in third grade."
"Oh? Did you get caught?"
"Er, I guess. We were caught lighting toilet paper on fire in a bathroom one day, but we were just practicing. That wasn't one of our better plans. It was after school and we were fooling around when in walks the principal! I told him it was just me and he let my brother go. I got a really painful whack on the ass for that!"
"The principal beat you!?"
"Ten times while I held my knees. It hurt really bad and wasn't funny."
"Isn't that against the law?"
"Not in Texas."
"I assume that was the end of your school-burning phase?"
"Kind of. Before that happened we were close to actually doing it. Ken and I had made a bunch of `bombs' and we were going to burn the school down right at the end of the summer. The bombs weren't much more than fire starters, nothing like what we make today! Anyway, we walked to our school at about midnight the weekend before school was going to start. The music room had its windows cracked open so we lit our bombs and tossed them. Then we ran away. It didn't work, exactly, but the first day of school there was a big burned spot on the carpet of the music room. So it wasn't a complete failure."
"Wow! You sound like you were a pretty wild child."
"No. Angela, you're the wild child."
The music stopped and the band left the stage. Intermission.
"Ken worships you. I know he doesn't think you're a big joke, and neither do I."
"No, I guess you're right. You really know me well. But other than you and my brother..."
Ben and Kim walked up. The dance floor began to empty as the thirsty seniors and juniors all went looking for refreshments. "Hey, John! I wet my pants!"
"Hi, Ben! Hi, Kim." said Angela.
"Ben, you freak. I thought I told you to stay away from this sort of affair. You're going to get your legs broken and then you won't care about your wet pants!"
They laughed and chatted in time-honored Prom fashion, till Kim and Angela repaired to the ladies room and left John and Ben to talk.
"So, Ben. What's the plan for the band? I think we should be playing here tonight, dude! These guys suck."
"No shit, dude!!! I guess we'll have to take over the world and dominate it with an iron fist."
"Have you heard anything from C/Z about our record deal? Are we screwed because we missed the They Might Be Giants show or what?"
"No, I haven't. But Rob said they called his house. They said it was no big deal. Those things happen. Whatever. The CD's are done. We should get them any day."
"That's cool. Now we'll have a lot of our music to throw in the garbage can."
Angela and Kim, along with half the girls at the dance, were in the ladies room jockeying for position at a mirror. Kim was wearing a daring one-piece black dress and Angela floated in puffy white organdy to her ankles.
"I love your dress," offered Angela. "You look really good in it."
"And your hair's incredible! Who did it? It looks fantastic."
"I did it. Has Rikki Rockett made the moves on you yet?"
"You mean John? Of course! He's really wonderful."
"I'm sure he is. But I mean Rikki Rockett."
"Aren't they all Rikki Rockett?"
"No. There is only one Rikki Rockett."
"Who is it?"
"You mean you don't know?"
"I thought that was a joke name they used because they didn't want their real names on the album."
"It is. But Rikki Rockett is His real name. You better watch out for Him. He's gonna get you!"
They both laughed and left the packed ladies room.
Back in the dance hall the band was reassembling. Kim and Angela found their dates exactly where they'd left them.
"Hi, guys." Angela said. "Anything exciting happen while we were gone?"
"I kicked myself in the balls!" replied Ben.
The band began to play a sixties medley and couples returned to the dance floor.
"All right! Let's boogie!" shouted Ben as he waved his hands in the air. His feet, however, stayed firmly planted.
Kim grabbed Ben's hands and pulled him to another part of the floor. Dancing couples quickly shielded them from view.
John looked at Angela, "Look at all these dorks," he made a sweeping motion with his arms. "They're jamming! They look like a bunch of hyperactive chipmunks!"
Angela twirled around. John danced happily, just another dork in the crowd. "I'm really jammin'! I'm movin' around!" shouted John.
"Dancin' to the beat of your feet hitting the ground!" she replied.
As they danced, John yelled over the music, "OK, now do what I tell you! Twirl around really fast so your dress flies up in the air!"
Angela obeyed readily, twirling till she was disoriented. White organdy billowed around her. When she could twirl no more, she stopped, and John held her steady till the dizziness faded.
"OK, now rub up against my leg."
Again, Angela unhesitatingly complied.
John smiled, "Now jump into my arms!"
She jumped up and accidently kicked one of her shoes into the air. "Oops!" she squeaked. "Oh, well. I didn't like them anyway!" and she kicked the other toward the bandstand. It landed on the singer's microphone with an audible `clunk.'
A slow dance followed. Once again John and Angela shuffled in a close embrace. Lights beamed from every direction and refracted off disco globes, transforming the ballroom into a fantasy landscape.
"I never want this night to end," said Angela softly.
"It won't. I'll hold you forever."
Angela pulled John tighter and tried to hide her tears. But John could tell something was wrong. He gently pushed her away and touched her face.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"I'm sorry. I was just... I don't want to ruin this perfect evening."
"Please tell me why you're crying. I won't let it ruin the night."
"OK. I was thinking about your dad. You said you would hold me forever, and I believe that you would, if you could. But nothing is forever."
"I don't think so. I can do it."
"I know what you mean, though. You're right. My dad has been getting worse. For a while we thought he was going into remission. But it was just a cruel joke. We were so wrong. Sometimes it's like he's in another world. I lie awake at night while he moans out loud in his sleep. It's awful, it's just awful. He says things all the time that are completely out of context and we sit there and wonder what he means. Or if he even knows what he's saying. Or if he's there at all. If he weren't my dad, it would be funny. I already miss the real him, but he's going to die soon and there's nothing I can do."
"I'm really sorry."
"You don't need to be. I want you to be happy. We should dance through life, together. My dad will leave us, but I will always have the great memories he gave me. He taught me to be who I am. I owe him everything, but sometimes there's no way to pay someone back for what they've given you. He loved me because there was no way anyone else could be his first son and I returned that love with misbehavior and rebellion. But he always understood. He never turned away from me. It wasn't until today that I finally saw how much I loved him. Not until now, and now it's to late. But that's OK, because whether he knows it or not won't change the truth. When there is no way you can express your deepest feelings for a person, I think that's love."
"That's really beautiful, John."
"I love you, Angela." John pulled her back into his arms.
Ben and Kim stood at the edge of the dance floor.
"Come on, Ben. Let's dance," Kim insisted. "I don't want to stand here like an idiot. Let's get out there!"
Ben looked at her with his enigmatic smile, "OK! Kim, I adore you!"
"You've said that a hundred times tonight." She looked frustrated.
"Why don't we blow this popstand? I could use a loaf of bread. Let's go to Omni. It's time for me to eat."
"You're not hungry. You're never hungry. You're just afraid to try and dance."
"Let's ride!" Ben took Kim's hand and tugged her out of the hotel. Once outside, Kim angrily pulled her hand away. Ben's car was parked next to the unmistakable Christ-mobile, whose weather-faded decorations shimmered fuzzily in the streetlights.
Kim got into the front seat and said, "You asshole. You ruined my Prom Night. I didn't get to dance at all. That's what Prom is for."
"I thought Prom was for standing around looking cool and watching all the other dorks dance."
"You could dance if you felt like it. Bill would have danced with me. Bill can kick your ass any day. You have no balls at all." Kim was furious.
Ben smiled and replied in a reasonable tone, "Kim, you're Pandora's empty black box. You are a machine that takes no input parameters and produces nothing as output" Silence. "Let me try to explain this for you. Pandora's box is a paradox much like Shroedinger's cat. I bet you don't know what that is either. That's OK. You see, as long as the box is shut everything is fine. Hence, the reference to a black box. A black box is a symbol representing the machine. Like any machine, it converts an input to an output. The reason we call it a black box is that (like all machines) we don't really know how it works. If we open the black box, we find little black boxes inside, each with simpler sub-tasks. We can never understand how the black box works because we can not observe it. To truly observe it is to be it. And if we were it, now that observation would be subjective, now wouldn't it! We can only know that it works. The idea of a paradox in a separate, closed system is fine as long as it remains detached from our context. As long as it stays in the black box. As long as the integrity of our reality remains unbreached. Once a bridge forms between two frames of separate environments, all the resident paradoxes of one or the other system must resolve themselves. A paradox is just a glitch in the mechanism. Nothing more. A non-translatable word used in a foreign context. They resolve themselves when they must, and only then. They merge instantaneously into their surroundings. But you, Kim... You take nothing as input and produce nothing. You are a black box with no inner workings. And boxes can't talk. So shut up."
They rode in silence to Omni, the world's largest supermarket. Ben looked at Kim with intense disinterest. "Let's get some bread."
Kim noticed a group of her friends huddled around the open hood of an old Chevy. Their faces looked grey and eerie in the halogen glow.
"You go get your bread. I'm going to talk to my friends."
"Rock on, Kim. I'll catch you on the flip side."
Kim walked over to the group of boys. One of them looked up and started making catcalls. The others recognized her despite her finery. "Hey Kim! What's up? What's the big occasion?!"
Ben walked into the store and looked around the vast display of food. "I should be careful not to make any hasty decisions I might regret latter," he said to himself. Slowly and methodically he wandered the aisles of the store considering the many possibilities. Finally he arrived at the bakery. After carefully examining the four loaves of fresh Vienna bread, he chose one and set off for the beverage aisle.
Outside Kim was complaining.
"He doesn't give a shit about anything, except his bread and Hi-C drink. It's so annoying! It's like I'm not even there!"
One of the boys looked up from the engine, "So he took you to the Prom and wouldn't dance with you? I'll dance with you." There were snickers from the other would-be mechanics.
"Thanks. I'm a little overdressed for you."
Another boy handed her a bottle of green vodka, "Here, try this. It's my own special mix. One part Kool-aid, six parts vodka." Kim took the bottle and drained a quarter in one gulp. "Whoa there, light weight. Don't hurt yourself!" he laughed.
Kim gave the flask back. "It's not myself I'm going to hurt. I just needed that to get my nerve up. Would you guys do me a favor?"
"Anything for you, Kim," they all chimed.
"OK, but first know this: I only want you to scare him."
Inside the store Ben was still wandering the aisles carrying his loaf of bread and a can of Hi-C fruit punch, made with 10% real fruit juice. Kim found him as he laboriously scanned the cookie section.
"Are you ready to go yet, Ben?" she asked pleasantly.
"One more aisle to check."
"Why? You've got everything you're going to buy. You never get anything besides bread and that sick juice substitute."
"I wouldn't want to make any hasty decisions that I might someday regret."
They walked slowly down the aisle and turned to go down another. Kim grabbed a can of Campbell's soup off a shelf.
"How about this? Why don't you try something nutritious?"
"I only eat good food."
"No, you only eat bread and drink Hi-C."
"That, what you're holding in your hand, is not good food."
Kim put the can back on the shelf and walked further. She grabbed a can of tuna.
"What about this, Ben?" she demanded furiously. "Is this good food?"
"No, that is bad food," Ben replied serenely.
Kim's bland face suddenly transformed. Dark fire blazed out of hollow eyes in a paperwhite mask of evil as she lunged toward Ben and brought the can of tuna down on his head. Ben fell to the floor dropping his bread and juice. His foot disturbed a display of ketchup bottles. The pyramid tottered, then collapsed. Glass shattered everywhere. Ben lay still in a rapidly spreading pool of red.
Kim stood motionless, contemplating what she'd done. Her hands were shaking and the can of tuna dropped to the floor.
"Ben?" she whispered.
Ben lifted his head. Slowly, he sat up. He looked around in embarrassment. Putting a hand to his head he said wonderingly, "Kim? What happened?"
Kim helped him up. "Oh, Ben. I don't know what came over me. I'm so sorry." She was beginning to cry. "I never meant to hurt you. I just wanted your attention. I just wanted you to notice me for a change and treat me like a real person. I didn't want to hurt you. I don't know what came over me. I'm so sorry. Oh, I'm so very sorry."
Ben rubbed his head and looked at the broken bottles. "My goodness! Look at this mess! I better clean it up before someone gets hurt." He leaned over and began picking up some of the bigger pieces.
"Ben? Are you all right? I'm so sorry. Will you ever forgive me? Ben?"
Ben hummed lightly to himself as he picked pieces of broken glass off the tiled floor.
"Ben? Ben. Just leave it. Someone else will pick it up. Ben?" She touched his back and looked carefully at his head where she'd hit him. There was no blood, only ketchup. "Ben, can we go? Are you sure you're OK?"
Ben looked up at her and smiled. "Hi Kim. Are you hungry? I am!"
"Oh, Ben. I didn't mean to hit you. I don't even know why I did it. I'm so confused. Please don't make fun of me. You always make fun of me. Let me make it up to you. Let's go back to your house and pretend this didn't happen."
"What didn't happen? I'm hungry." Kim took the shards of glass out of his hands and put them back on the floor. She pulled him to his feet and led him down the aisle. Ben looked at all the food he was passing and smiled. "I'm really hungry! Where's the cheese? I want some cheese!"
Ben raced to the dairy section, leaving the astonished Kim far behind. He grabbed a package of American cheese and proclaimed, "Lunch meat! Now I need some lunch meat!"
He ran to the meat department and took a package of lunch meat off a refrigerated shelf. Kim hurried after. "What the hell are you doing?" she panted.
Ben opened up the cheese and meat and carelessly slapped them into a makeshift sandwich which he devoured in two enormous bites. "Yum!" he mumbled.
"Ben? Oh my God! What are you doing?"
Ben swallowed a big chunk of meat and cheese. "I'm hungry. Do you know what's for breakfast tomorrow?"
Kim took his arm tightly so he couldn't escape again. "I'm taking you home." They walked to the front of the store as Ben continued eating. Kim paid for Ben's items. He seemed oblivious.
Kim guided the unprotesting Ben to his car. "Give me your car keys. I'll drive."
Ben handed over his keys, "I could use a hamburger right about now."
"I'm going to take you home and you're going to go to bed."
As they approached Ben's car, Kim's friends walked up to them. Kim shooed them distractedly away. They ignored her, and the largest of the boys confronted Ben. Both of them wobbled. Ben smiled at the ruffian, who scowled back.
"What are you lookin' at, fag?" growled the boy.
Ben pointed at his pants, "Hey, guys, wanna see my dick?"
Other boys from the group began to laugh and the one standing in front of Ben seemed upset. Then he hit Ben in the face. Ben's nose broke with a sickening crunch. Blood gushed onto the asphalt.
Kim screamed, "You asshole! You broke his nose!"
The boys shook hands and laughed as they walked back to their car.
Kim helped Ben up again as blood blended with the ketchup on his ruffled shirt. "Oh, my God! Are you OK? Ben? Ben?"
Ben smiled, baring his blood stained teeth. "What? Are you my mother?"