Should I Stay or Should I Go? by Kendall Defoe

You know the song, and he doesn't have to say anything to anyone now, not in a student-to-teacher tone nor an over-laugh for a joke so stupid his friends had to laugh. He had to laugh. He was swinging his arms side by side and in his own happiness.

You know the situation. The school gymnasium felt like a greenhouse — a living museum of noises and bodies — when he got there. Very little light except the few touching a crystal ball suspended above the star-patterned crape streamers trailing away from the air ducts, lamps and pipes to the walls, open bleacher seats and stage with the heavy panels now shut. The DJ was on a raised platform forced against a wall facing the main entrance and this was his first thought in the heat: Why not take the stage? A hum of bodies was dancing in front of a stack of tiered speakers to a song that was popular when he entered school (not in his sophomore year). Why did they play that, he thinks as he moves down the wall and sees some friends sitting on the wooden benches. No girls, of course. Matt had bad skin (a constellation of red and white in a nebula running from left temple to his nose). Jeremy could try; in fact, he does try. With his deviated septum, some girls think it is cute when he speaks to them. Nothing serious ever happened, except for one fight that wasn't really a fight (Jeremy pushed into a garbage bin that would not fall over in the cafeteria and a lot of laughter). And Michael was all into drawing wizards and dragons; no princesses or queens. And his problem was…? It was weight and how he saw it on his own body. Matt, Jer and Michael were all skinny (or skinnier) and he envied them that much. Fashion was now on his side and he wore oversize shirts and jeans that sagged down to his brother’s basketball shoes (a lot of hell for that later). Not too much cologne, a blank white V-neck shirt, denim with side pockets and cleaned kicks on his feet. This must work.

You know what he does. The sound changes (muted), and there is a new tempo in the air and couples are pairing off. If he could, he would hide under the bleachers and wait for different records. He would not chance it now. Some teachers were on duty (he noticed how they moved among the slowness). That was Mr. Piannini from his science class (Chemistry) and he hated most of his students so much that you never asked him for help (a bad grade did not bother him, but he stayed away from a “Hello”). No eye contact, but Miss Blades did not miss a trick. That was her phrase. Every history class with her used it (was that right?) and the class could catch the right tonal shift in her voice and know when she was about to say it. This happened with the right stance (chalk in hand and notes on the lectern). She smiled back at his smile and made a mock frown at his missing partner in the gym. By the time he knew to shrug through it, she had walked off into the warm darkness.

You know his friends notice. Jer and Matt are heartless. With his lisping grin, Jer asks when the wedding is taking place, and Matt just follows with a stumbling laugh. A few couples nearby could hear all of this and laughed (nothing he could do about that, either). Michael never smiled at any part of this show. He was still sitting on the bench and putting his scowl on. He wondered why – out loud – why they had so many slow dances. Jer blinked; Matt stared. The tempo changed.

You know who he was looking for, right in the dim lights and dark edges of bodies in motion. She was not in the nearby crowd that laughed and he almost wondered if she even went to their school dances. The best student he knew in math (Algebra/Geometry, Calculus) and science (Chemistry, Physics) trying to perform a dance that can actually make sense with the noise? He could not even think through it. But he could find the bathroom. Out of the heat and beats, he went past some lockers and found a boys’ room he rarely used. And then there was another problem. Matthew Richardson. The other Matt. Ten-ton torturer. Not really his nemesis so much as a general irritant for anyone who had an embarrassment about themselves that could not be ignored. Not really his name, of course. It was “Fat Matt” when he could not hear you (not original or clever, but clear enough). He pushed kids into lockers, shoved them out of line at bus stops, threatened to beat them up on stairwells. He was never beaten up by “Fat”; none of his friends were, either. There was only the rumour of a beating at another school (“Fat” was a transfer problem their first semester). There were no actual beatings he could name, but this was not a comfort as Matthew blocked him from the door, framing his bulk in square green tiles and fluorescent light.

You know the routine. He says something about you being at the dance; then he goes after your clothes and body (you are even on both points), how much you suck, your mother sucks, and your sister would have sucked if he had change for a five. There is no response to this. This can make things worse and tonight is special. The washroom is empty and he wants to put someone’s head in a well-used receptacle, but his victim is faster and manages to drop, roll and kick at the back of a kneecap. Fat drops with some pain, but is soon outperforming with his bison-thick arms that push his victim into the metal door that opens inward. He would have made it to a well-used stall with him if the sound of his victim’s body had not travelled like sonar down the hallway. It had to be Mr. Piannini, right? He doesn't take sides (doesn't really care who did what – the kid on the floor trying to catch his breath; the kid who keeps puffing himself up as the blood enters his face). He just wants both of them out of there or he'll have them in the principal’s office tomorrow morning (yessiree). At least he can walk away with his bruises and tell Jer, the other Matt and Mike what happened. The light seems sharper in the hallway.

You don’t know this, do you? How, when the second slow dance ended, the couples that needed air came out from the faster tempo and he was almost back inside, but she caught his attention first? She knew him from class and smiled. He also smiled, and that was when he noted how it hurt when he did anything with his face. He grabbed at his jaw and neck and felt throbbing pain like an electric shock through his brain. And she, alone with him and the other people in that vestibule, looked at him. She touched his face and looked like she cared. Who did this?, she asked. He said it was an accident; that was another accident because there was no way she would believe that he left the marks of his own fingers (all red and purple). And then there was Fat, and then his look; and then they were looking at each other, she figuring it all out without another word. He had never seen her with such a hard face, not even during the quizzes and tests and he could not help staring at her now. She stood in front of Matt, blocking some of the human traffic and drawing stares, and cursed him out. It was a good vocal performance (one that should be recorded and sold and certain record stores he knew). Matt, still Mr. Fat, could have pushed her aside. He could have gone inside and ignored her anger. But no; Fat stood still. He knew that Matt had better not laugh, not even when the crowd grew and stayed to watch. It included Miss Blades (she looked impressed), and they were all trying to hide their laughter. And then, just like a switch turned the other way, she stopped, walked past Fat Matt, and kissed his victim on the cheek before entering the gym (another signal through his body). He made sure not to linger when Mr. Piannini came down the hall to find out what all the laughter was all about and didn’t he tell him to not cause any problems for him (yessiree Bob).

You know the last part of this. He told them all what happened and they could not see the marks, or even imagine her angry performance, but they believed him (even Michael). She was now by her friends, not too far away (he noticed this), and he gave her a Boy Scout salute. Jer looked like he would collapse with an open jaw when she smiled with a buoyant grin. He would never forget it; that, and her wave back. He noticed that her friends were two other girls (he knew them; they were also brilliant with math and science). No guys around; not now. Did she come here without a guy? Was she guyless? She was hot (no surprise or joke there), but he did not know her with anyone. No jocks, no nerds, no prom-night bait. She really was alone. And, with all of these thoughts colliding with the sound of the dance beat, he now paused, looked at Jer’s oily face, the other Matt’s closed eyes on the beat, and Mike’s stiff look, and began to walk over to the trio on the way. And it would have been great. It could have worked. It really could have. But he forgot that Fat had not been so scared off that he would leave. He could not hear everything Fat Matt was trying to say over with the music, but he saw his reddish face step across in the flashing light and shadows and he knew there would be a revenge; a bad one. The same bruise-making hands were now tapping on his chest, pushing him deeper into a crowd that had begun to clear a space in front of the DJ for them (he was so far away from her smile). And then the final miracle of the night took place.

You know the song. Those opening strums, a pause; a following of three coarse licks on what he always thought of as a rusted-out guitar, something like a spring uncoiling and growing both loose and tight. And then…bass hits the drum with slight pauses that made it all so much sweeter, more daring than he had ever thought of it. It is his moment.

Yes, his arms are swinging. Some of the guys ahead of him have already formed a circle and are chanting in many breaths. Heads are bent down to the second pause, like a tribal meeting of the wisest elders. There will be bodies slamming together and they – who are they, really? – cannot stop a thing. Mr. Piannini warned them when they came in; Mrs. Blades told them what the teachers and other staff wanted them to do at the dance, or else they would not allow another one ever (wink). He didn't see them and he didn't care. The song was still on that chorus and there were a wave of bodies with shaved heads, tight shirts, locked turns and a common cause. No one really cared about his look and he was in the middle of it. Matt (so Fat) was not in the mix; he could not be. Too many victims and too much memory behind them in such a brief amount of time. He was not them. He looked out to see Matt wedged in with some students who tried to ignore his bulk (did not really work for them).

She? Her? He had done a perfect circuit (one parabola) by the second turn of the chorus and she was still there. No one had stopped the other bodies from rushing at each other. There would be different lectures on the same theme in many classes the next day (yessiree) and a final assembly talk on how to behave at dances (a vice-principal and the principal on the stage with no smiles allowed). But that was tomorrow and this was tonight and she saw him throw himself back at a crowd that knew how to respond to the slams and bounces. And Jer, his Matt and Mike saw him as he was thrown near her and she was still and smiling (just waiting) and they would talk to him about her look. It was like, man, she respected what you did with Matt and now she loves you, damn. He could not say this to himself. Not yet. You know how this works. You know what the song means. You know that she will always be that other body; the one you wait for in the crowd.

Writer/Reader/Poet/Dreamer... Kendall is a college instructor, experimenter with the written word, and someone who thinks that books are worth saving. (Also: librarians and snail mail—damn you, Canada Post and certain school boards!) I just hope that someone gets a laugh and enjoys my work...