One of our last giddy evenings together, Penny and I dined at a restaurant whose reputation was better than its menu — which is probably why so many homecoming kids were there, in satin and sequins, white polyester suits and bright ties. We ordered a bottle of wine and found ourselves among them.
“She’s too put together,” Penny said. I had picked out the prettiest for her. “Where’s the one with boots and black eyeliner?”
All of the boys were dopey, narrow shouldered and moon-faced. I waited for Penny to suggest one — maybe the bow tie, maybe the flattop who danced in his seat.
“I hated my homecoming,” she said. “My date spent the last three dances with Amelia Fleischer. The exchange student.”
“I didn’t go senior year. No date at all.”
“What would you do now,” I asked Penny, “if you had the evening over?”
“Dance with Charles Williams or key his car.” She emptied her glass. “I would fuck his friend Marley. Every girl he ever dated fucked Marley. I’d keep the streak alive.”
She asked me, “Who would you go with? Who would you ask?”
I nodded at the one in the restaurant whose dress was too big, too pink, for her chair. She sat gathered, fists full of tulle.
“Gross, dude.” Penny shook her head.
“Fess up,” I said and filled her glass. “One for you.”
She stared. “Neck muscles.” One of the boys couldn’t fasten his collar
“Wait, wait, wait,” she said. “That’s who you’d want. Who would you end up with?”
“Gestures? Maybe Too-Loud. You?”
She said, “I’d settle for Flattop.”
What was left of our food was cold or hard, plasticy cheese in the cordon bleu, duchess potatoes spongy. We’d taken cash out of the house savings — something we’d been trying to jumpstart for months — because we couldn’t remember our last date. Penny wore heels and a necklace I’d bought her years ago. I wore the leather jacket she wasted money on last Christmas. The shoulders were rounded, collar ribbed. “It makes me look like a dad,” I’d complained. “It’s for an adult,” she’d said.
We ordered another bottle and the cherries jubilee, and Penny moved to my side of the booth so we could watch the kids clean their plates of steaks. They flaunted and fought, postured and flagged. They were infants. Bright eyes, red cheeks. I touched Penny’s runner’s knee, kissed her where she plucked her mother’s sideburns.
“We have to get home,” she said. “Soon.”
The wine dragged me to the bathroom and made me steady myself with the wall above the urinal. Bow Tie was in there and had no such problem. Before washing his hands, he pecked at his phone.
“Excited about the dance?” I asked and zipped up my jeans.
He widened his eyes at me.
“I never went to homecoming. Seems like a good time.”
“It’s a little weird,” he said.
I rinsed my hands and waved in front of the paper towel dispenser, waiting for it to see me.
“Y’all need some booze?” I asked.
The parking lot of the restaurant was wide, and too many of the lights were out. Bow Tie and his date sat and smoked on the trunk of a Buick older than either of them. I wrapped my coat around the case of beer I’d bought.
“I think we’re safe here,” Bow Tie said. His date tore the paper back. She handed one can to Penny and one to me.
I offered a cheers, but Bow Tie was trying on my jacket, slipping it over his rented coat. The shoulder seams sat on his biceps. Pulling up the zipper gave him a hollow, golden gut.
“You guys are cool,” Bow Tie said.
Penny didn’t open her drink. She grabbed my shoulder to itch behind the strap on one heel and stared at Bow Tie, searching for what, I couldn’t tell.
“Dance gonna be a shit show?” I asked.
“At least it’s not my house,” his date said.
“Unless you know a better place?” Bow Tie added.
Suddenly I wished we’d invested in that house savings, bought something that wasn’t one of eighty-five units, filled it with furniture that hadn’t been dragged off a street corner or found at the thrift store. Something made to last.
“You can’t have that jacket,” Penny blurted.
He slipped it off. “Thanks for the beer.”
“Any time,” I said and cradled my coat. They ducked into their car and peeled out of the parking lot.
On the drive back, Penny put her unopened can in the cup holder between us. She closed her eyes and lay her head against the window.
You guys are cool. I looked at my belly below my jacket, permanently creasing the leather. I noticed the thin hairs above Penny’s lip and the furrow in her brow. Once off the main drag, I cracked her beer, drank deep, drove home slow.
TJ Fuller is a writer and teacher in Portland, Oregon.
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Image: detail of a painting by Andrew Stevovich