Chapter 15: Spring Formal Gods
“What’s wrong with you?” Parker asked as we walked through the school parking lot. Or rather, he walked and I sluggishly tagged along, my feet dragging along the ground. A few other senior and junior students were beginning to pull into the nearby vacant spots, their music blasting right past their windows. I wasn’t at all prepared to enter the campus. My eyes kept nervously flitting back and forth as students passed by around us out of fear. Knowing my luck, I would unknowingly run into Harrison and face a dilemma I couldn’t exactly run away from.
The kiss with Harrison was still burning brightly in my brain, not to mention on my lips. I’d only managed to get three hours of sleep because I kept touching my mouth, unable to grasp whether what had happened in the Jump was real. I began to wonder how many other girls were walking around in the universe having just been kissed with not a single iota of what to do next.
“Hey,” Parker said again, snapping his fingers in front of my face and causing my shoulders to jump in surprise. He stepped in front of me and firmly placed his hands on both of my shoulders. “You look like a zombie. What happened?”
The back of my neck was already burning up and my palms were becoming clammy. “Nothing,” I mumbled as we made our way into the building. The chatter and banging of locker doors strangely soothed me and brought my heartbeat back to a steady pace.
The kiss with Harrison was an accident.
We were in the dark.
Harrison became delusional.
Anything but the fact that the whole event was real and based off of true feelings.
Parker’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at me, and it took every nerve inside of me to stay still and unshaken, to keep eye contact and not flinch. When he finally shrugged his shoulders, I let out a small sigh. The spontaneous thrill of last night was enough to keep me reeling throughout the day. I didn’t need any more surprises.
“Good,” he said as we turned into the hallway where my locker was located. “Because I have something I want to talk to you about.”
“What is it?” I craned my neck around, desperately searching for Richel. She hadn’t tagged along on the car ride to school this morning. When I had opened the front door, it had only been Parker sitting in the front seat, his fingers drumming to an unknown beat inside his head on the steering wheel. I assumed she was either a) running late or b) taking care of last minute pageant itinerary. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps she would know what to do about this whole fiasco of emotions. She surely had been kissed by a handful of boys and would know how to handle a situation like mine.
“The spring formal is coming up,” Parker said. I nodded, my eyes still searching the packs of students nearby the water fountain and bathroom doors, trying to find the familiar individual blonde strands of Richel’s. Maybe she was already at school, waiting for me beside my locker. I needed to talk to someone. It couldn’t be Faith, despite the fact that I had known her longer. Richel already knew the whole story. With Faith, there would be too much catching up to do.
“This week, the same day as the pageant,” I confirmed. There was a large number of people milling around my locker, which wasn’t exactly making the day go any better. It was bad enough that my brain was cluttered, but to face more physical obstacles at school? I just wanted to survive the day and go home.
“It’s actually right after the pageant.”
As soon as we reached the herd of students, I attempted tapping on their shoulders to politely ask them to move, however there was no response from them whatsoever. It was as if they were standing in front of my locker on purpose.
I snapped my neck up at Parker, who was now standing in front of me and staring at me with a look I wasn’t quite sure I had received from him before. His eyes were carefully steadied on me and me alone. As soon as he spoke my name, the students spread apart, as if Parker was Moses asking waters to rise and split apart. Parker walked in the middle of them until he reached a figure hidden behind a swarm of pink roses. As soon as the hidden figure handed the bouquet to Parker, she fluffed her hair and grinned at me. So Richel had missed our morning car ride on purpose.
As Parker passed through the middle, each student held up a single piece of paper with a letter on it. I was awfully tempted to slap myself and question whether or not I was still in bed, dreaming. Although in this dream, it wouldn’t exactly be Parker walking up to me with the most beautiful bunch of roses I had ever seen before, even more beautiful than the ones my mom had growing in the back of our greenhouse. The stems were long, and the petals were a soft and tender pink, not the kind of pink like when you scribbled a crayon on a sheet of paper.
“I’m not the flowers-giving type of guy. I never ask a girl out in the open with everyone watching. I’ve never even been to a school dance before because they are quite possibly the most lame attempt at getting students to come together and bond.” My eyes moved to each letter being shown, and when he reached me, the girl beside him flipped up a question mark drawn in bright highlighter pink. “But I’d love to go to this upcoming one,” he said, pausing to hand me the roses, “with you.”
It felt like every possible force in the universe had struck my chest all at once. I, Nina Gregory, was actually getting asked to the dance. I would have a date to spring formal after all. After years and years of yearning to be asked through some gigantic, extravagant gesture, the Spring Formal gods had heard me. Someone was listening, and for once the odds were in my favor.
Yet all of it, every single moment, felt off. It felt unfamiliar to me as I held the bouquet in my arms and inhaled the sweet scent of perfume the petals gave off. The plastic rustled with every move I made, and the fact that there was a matching pink ribbon around the stems holding everything together should have been the magic touch. The posters spelling out SPRING FORMAL? was the simplest yet most thoughtful plan a girl could have ever asked for. And with Parker standing right there in front of me, looking fairly handsome in his dark green flannel and pressed jeans, the “yes” should have been resting on the tip of my tongue.
“Parker,” I said, letting out a careful breath. Everyone’s eyes were on me, including Richel’s. She was watching me with caution, a warning gleam in her eyes. She didn’t want me to hurt her brother, not when he was already in this deep. I knew she was completely right.
I would have said “no” in a heartbeat if Harrison hadn’t passed by. Leslie was at his side, holding her notebooks and happily chatting his ear off with her hand looped around his wrist. He was nodding, opening his mouth in preparation to reply, but he saw me. He watched whole scene unravel with an open mouth and I could tell he was taking it all in: the posters, the roses, Parker patiently waiting for my reply. Me, standing amidst all the spring formal pandemonium.
“I would love to go to spring formal with you,” I declared, because it was true. I deserved this. I deserved a Parker: a boy that had been treating me right all along. Harrison was filled with endless tangles and hurricanes. Parker was every special word in the dictionary and more.
The people nearby us in the hallway burst into applause, adding a few whistles here and there. Parker swept me into his arms, swinging me around, my sneakers flying off the floor. I felt my backpack thump against my spine, and without a doubt the roses were getting crushed due to Parker’s rather tight and over eager embrace. When he settled me back down onto the ground, Harrison and Leslie were gone. It didn’t matter if he had heard me agree to Parker’s request. What mattered was that now I had no choice but to begin getting over Harrison, and the sooner, the better.
“Are you okay?” Faith asked during volleyball practice as we did lunges across the gymnasium floor. Luckily, the school day had gone by fairly quick. What was strange, however, was when multiple boys greeted me in the halls in between periods, boys who had never noticed me before. Boys who probably were only noticing me now that I was someone’s spring formal date. Adding onto the fact that my date was a senior and I was sophomore made an inevitable equation for instant attention.
High school was truly proving to be as shallow as it gets.
Michelle was, of course, ahead of the entire team, more than halfway across the gym floor. My entire face felt hot and beads of sweat were dripping down my temples, yet she remained steady. I leaned my chin against my knee, taking another lunge forward. Faith and I had made the halfway mark.
Coach Tracy was running late to practice and made the unexpected decision of leaving Michelle in charge of all of us. Ever since we had vandalized her (ex) boyfriend’s car, she appeared to be in higher spirits. Perhaps there really was something liberating about getting revenge, or at least expressing how angry you were through the art of using a Sharpie and a tube of lipstick. She seemed brighter and happier, was cracking more jokes and no longer was on the verge of tears whenever she passed by a couple at school. She was enjoying her independence, and surely nothing could be more liberating than that.
Unfortunately, along with this new sense of independence was an overwhelming sense of authority. She had ordered us to do ten sets of lunges back and forth. We were on lunge number six, and clearly the entire team was drained and out of breath. But the sight of Michelle lunging ahead, pushing forward like that, made me want to push myself harder, too.
“Nina,” Faith said again, and I looked up at her, heaving.
“I got asked to spring formal today by Parker,” I murmured.
Faith smirked. “So I’ve heard. You know how news flies around here: at the speed of light.”
We both took a lunge together and I swiped the back of my hand against my forehead. “Everything that happened felt like it flew at the speed of light. Sudden, rushed…”
“Spontaneous?” she added, winking at me. I let out a small laugh before nodding.
“Very spontaneous. And sweet. It was unlike him.”
“Maybe you just don’t know Parker that well,” Faith suggested, wiggling her eyebrows at me. “Maybe Parker is a completely different person on the inside compared to what he shows on the outside. You know, all of those corny movie cliches actually being true.”
“And which corny movie cliche would Parker fall under, pray tell?”
We tapped the green line on the gym floor, signifying that we would now be starting on the seventh lunge. Michelle nodded wisely at us before focusing on her ninth.
“Obviously the bad-boy-is-really-a-kind-hearted-soul movie cliche!” Faith exclaimed, rolling her eyes and blowing air out of her cheeks.
I smiled softly at her remark, thinking back to all the times where Parker had acted kind to me. Had he nearly pummeled Harrison into the ground before? Yes. But he’d also opened up to me about his family, and he cared about Richel enough to keep a secret that was eating him up alive. Parker had a good side; it existed. “I don’t doubt that. Parker’s a good guy.”
“Is that why you said yes?” she asked. Michelle called out to finish up our last lunge, regardless of whether or not we were close to complete the given ten. The entire team’s shoulders loosened as we all desperately lunged at a faster pace.
“Not really.” I thought back to Harrison’s shocked expression when he saw Parker asking me to the dance. A horrible feeling was forming in my stomach, the kind of anxiety that built up inside of my body whenever I was dying to know what someone else was thinking. It was at times like these where I wished I was a mind reader. Life would be certainly be less stressful.
“Well, a girl doesn’t say yes for nothing. You must like something about Parker, right?” she asked. Michelle clapped her hands and we shot up, jogging over to the team huddle. The back of my T-shirt was soaked, and I was in great need of a long shower with cherry scented body wash. Michelle stood at the very front, smiling and breathing heavily. Her cheeks had bright pink splotches on them and a few strands of hair stuck out of her ponytail. But even I could see the distinct change in her, the visible modification that she was officially over the boy she’d wept over and worried about for far too long. I wondered what it felt like: to have a weight lifted off not your shoulders, but your heart.
“I’m sorry if I was a bit of a bitch with the warm ups today,” Michelle said. We all laughed. That was one of her best qualities: being straightforward with everyone. At first, it had seemed intimidating to me. Now, after a few weeks, it was one of my favorite things about her. “But I just wanted to let you guys know that things happen.” She took a shaky breath before placing her hands firmly on her hips and continuing. “Life hands us the worst cards sometimes. We can’t pick or choose them. We’re only dealt with them. But it’s up to us how we deal with the given hand.”
We looked around at each other, all feeling a bit lost as to where this spiel was heading.
“In these past ten minutes, I watched you guys push yourselves to lunge across the gym. Even if you were running out of breath, even if your body felt like it was going to collapse, even if you were losing internal or external strength, you found a way to keep going. You have to think the same exact way whenever you’re having an off day.”
My bottom lip felt wobbly. This speech was hitting close to home.
“As you all know, I’ve been an emotional wreck lately. I haven’t been in the best shape in terms of mind and heart because I let one person dictate my emotions. But then a smart team member reminded me that although I felt like the lowest of the low, I had to leave space for myself to grow, even if I felt like I would never reach that point of being okay again.”
Her eyes burned into mine and it took nearly everything inside of me not to burst into tears. It didn’t matter that I had originally joined this team for the pageant, or that I technically was only a placeholder player. There was something unbreakable that formed when you bonded with a group of girls over sweat and physical exhaustion. You watched each other fall, but you picked each other up. At the end of the day, we were there for one another, through thick and thin.
“Nina!” a voice yelled. The front gymnasium doors flew open and in came running a rather manic Richel, waving a small slip of paper in the air with her cell phone balanced between her shoulder and her ear. “Nina, we have to go!”
Michelle blinked in surprise before turning to me with a bewildered expression. “Do you know the crazy running towards us?”
I guiltily bit my lip and nodded, smacking my palm against my forehead as Richel continued to run towards us with a speed that could only be caused by one thing: the beauty pageant. Her footsteps could be compared to that of the hoofs of running horses. She came rocketing into the center of the circle. Michelle quickly jumped out of the way, holding her hands up in the air as if to surrender.
“Your dress,” Richel heaved, fanning herself with the slip of paper, “arrived. We have to go and do the dress fitting.” She waved the slip of paper in front of my face and I realized that it was a confirmation receipt stating my dress for the pageant was now in stock and ready to be picked up from a bridal shop. My eyes bugged at the words “bridal shop.”
“Bridal shop?” I asked. “Am I getting married?”
“You’re getting married?” the entire team loudly asked, their voices bouncing off the ceiling. Soon I was being peppered with questions from all different angles.
“You’re only sixteen! Why?”
“To who? To Parker?”
“Nina Deangelis… It has a nice ring to it.”
“Stop!” I screamed, placing both hands over my ears. The noise was unbearable, and the questions were causing my skin to itch. A hush fell over the whole gym, and Richel looked at me with the impatient expression I was beginning to grow fond of. She tapped her wrist to indicate the imaginary watch around it. Time was ticking. I looked around the group of girls I had grown close to in just a matter of thirty days and decided that if anyone deserved to hear the truth the most, it was them.
“I’m participating in a beauty pageant this Friday,” I said. “I joined this team because I needed another extracurricular activity to add onto my pageant resume. I’m sorry.” Faith wrapped her fingers around my hand and squeezed. I squeezed back. “But in the past couple of weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve never felt more accepted and welcomed from a group of girls before.”
Richel sent me a comforting nod, urging me to continue. The teams’ expressions were unreadable. “Thank you for that,” I said.
“And what time is this beauty pageant contest?” someone asked. We all whirled around and straightened our backs, standing just a little bit taller.
“Coach,” Michelle said, flustered that she had been caught off guard.
“Miss Gregory, I asked you a question,” Coach repeated, and I cleared my throat before finding the courage to look up at her.
“From four to six this week,” I answered. Her gaze was fierce like steel, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I would be cut loose from the team.
I blinked. “Sorry?”
“It’s at night, right?”
I carefully looked around at the team with cautious eyes before answering. “Yes.”
“I was planning to have practice this week.” I felt my shoulders slump, and Faith wilted. “But we can all reschedule to come to your event.”
My head snapped up at this sudden revelation, and I yelped, running over to hug her. She seemed taken aback at first, but her arms soon found their own way around me, tightly squeezing my waist. When she let go, the entire team engulfed us both.
“We’re all going to be there and support you, Nina,” Michelle said, nodding and smiling. A watery laugh escaped my throat. And here I had thought I would be getting banished.
“I hate to be the one to break up this sob fest, but Nina, we really do have to go pick up your dress from the bridal shop,” Richel cut in, tapping her foot against the gym floor. I pulled away from everyone, untangling their hands and arms off my shoulders, and took a deep breath.
“Right. Sorry.” As I slipped out of the gym and jogged over to Parker’s vehicle, I decided that Michelle had been right in her speech: despite the war that was going inside my heart, I had to remind myself that this would pass. That, in time, I would be okay.