This story is by Nirissa Reddy and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Fairy lights framed the deep purple banner strung up above the stage and silver glitter spelled out “Class of 1995”. Every so often a waft of woody musk and jasmine flowers ignite tiny sparks in me. This long anticipated night of celebration was finally here. I ran my hands up and down my thighs pretending to smooth my lavender A-line evening dress but I was really relishing the luxurious feel of satin fabric against my skin.
Sitting at the round table with nine of my closest confidants, I cherished every giggle and ridiculous comment. Most of us were accepted at colleges far away from our little Afrikaaner town in central South Africa. It was likely that this final high school dance would be the last time we would all be together. From the disco ball hanging at the centre of the circular wooden dance floor, a complex display of glittering light passed over our table continuing on to the next. I sat between my best friends Sam and Mel.
“There’s Thabelo.” Sam said as he rose. Thabelo swaggered across the dance floor. I tugged Sam’s coat hoping he would sit but instead he shouted, “Thabs!”
Thabelo turned around. There was an utterly pointless whine inside my head, “Noooo.” It was too late; he was standing at our table. Damn it Sam!
“Can you take some pictures of us please?” Sam asked.
“Sure.” Thabelo grabbed Sam’s digital camera and stepped back. He was much taller since our last awkward encounter four years earlier.
“Guys this table is an eyesore. Let’s stand for this one, come on, let’s do this on the dance floor.” Sam said beckoning everyone to get up.
Thabelo’s confident smile was backed by his coal hued three-piece suit with satin lapels and a maroon bow tie. A young man with a Lenny Kravitz inspired afro hairstyle and a strong jawline surely left all the girls weak in the knees, even if they couldn’t admit it. Strikingly handsome, that’s what he was, yet I had done everything possible to avoid him.
“Kate, come on!” Sam gestured.
I wasn’t in the habit of taking my mother’s advice but as I manoeuvred my five inch stilettos toward Sam I wished I had worn those chunky heels. Sam’s hand cupped my bare shoulder pulling me in closer to the others.
Thabelo was standing right in front of me and still, all I saw was hurt in those almond black eyes. No, I can’t be right. I had to be imagining, after all he was smiling. He stood there patiently taking picture after picture to satisfy the groups urge to make every possible awkward pose. Each time his head flew back in laughter before the next click.
I was only thirteen when I did it yet everything inside me still felt twisted. It was an end of year school dance when he approached me and I wasn’t ready for his confident stride.
“Would you like to dance?” his young jovial voice penetrated the silence between songs drawing all eyes to us.
The couples on the dance floor were not mixed race, not one. We all knew despite the change in law an unspoken separation still existed. A sneering group of girls giggled in pleasure at my embarrassment. Why hadn’t he asked one of them? Why me?
He stepped closer reaching for my hand just as swiftly as I stepped back.
As the next song began, eyes still stared at me from all corners of the room waiting to brand me, waiting for an excuse to ostracise me.
“No!” I was thoughtlessly loud.
“Go away!” My flailing hands were telling further parts of the room that I was rejecting this untoward behaviour.
His hands recoiled into his chest and the corners of his mouth wilted. His cheerful spirit dived into the depths of the salty layer now glazing the surface of his bold black eyes, threatening betrayal of his masculinity in a single blink.
Startled at my cold superfluous reaction I remained grounded in culpability as I watched him somnambulate over to the nearest chair. I wanted to explain. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to; it wasn’t because I didn’t like him; and it wasn’t even because he was of colour. It would be a first in this little town. People wouldn’t stop talking about it. My parents would surely find out. How would I explain it to them? I would surely be outcast for saying yes and I didn’t want that. That was a good enough reason, wasn’t it?
Now I stand here in discomfort, surrounded by friends attempting a ridiculous air jump.
“Okay guys, on three.” Sam started.
“One, two, three!” Everyone jumped but me. I could hardly smile.
“Hey you missed that one Kate.” Sam shook my shoulder.
“Again. One, two, three!” This time I jumped. Landing clumsily, I gripped Sam’s waist, laughing as I tried to regain balance.
A little moment of joy, that’s what he had asked me for. A simple happy memory he would perhaps one day tell his grandkids about. Did I really have the right to take that away from him?
“Peace sign! Peace sign!” Someone shouted from behind me and everyone stuck their V-shape fingers in the air.
What peace? The years of discomfort and avoidance that followed was one sided, my side. He treated me as if nothing had ever happened.
“What the hell Kate! Are you drunk?” Sam laughed as his yanked my arm into the air.
Now these pictures would cement this dance in my memory as a final shameful array of mugshots. He’s staring at me. Is it because he knows how I feel?
“Kate, seriously. It’s our last dance before we all go off to college.” Thabelo said. He was tending to my pursed face by dangling the camera by its wrist strap. It might as well have been a stuffed purple dinosaur, for me, the toddler in glittering stilettos.
“We’ll never see each other again. Smile girl!” He’s just taunting me now and rightfully so. I forced a grin.
“That’s great!” Thabelo said and he continued.
What if in that one moment I solidified his belief that he could never fit in, forever changing the trajectory of his life? It would all be my fault, wouldn’t it?
“Last one guys. Pull the ugliest monkey face you can!” Sam chuckled, then widened his eyes and stuck out his tongue.
Mere feelings of shame couldn’t undo hurt and embarrassment I had caused him. On Sam’s nudge I quickly stuck out my tongue.
“Thanks Thabelo. I think we got more than enough.” Sam said breaking away from the group to get his camera back.
“No problem Sam.” Thableo said.
“Wow! They came out amazing!” Sam said, as they both clicked through the dozens of pictures with some of the group behind them and some walking back to the table.
“Yeah, Kate definitely looks amazing.” Thabelo said and they both laughed.
I lowered my head and plodded away.
The lights dimmed, I sat and the DJ played one of my favourites by Sade called ‘By your side’. Sam shoved the camera in his inside coat pocket and turned to his crush Ellie. They were followed by other couples taking to the floor. All this time had passed but nothing had changed. People held close what was familiar and safe.
“Kate, what happened? You looked like a zombie in all of them.” Thabelo had come around and stood right behind me.
“Oh whatever!” I laughed nervously.
He was lingering. Say something, don’t just stand there. I sensed him move and turned to see him extending his hand, palm up towards Mel sitting beside me.
“May I have this dance?” he exuded even more confidence than the day he had asked me.
Mel looked down and undid the perfectly folded purple napkin decorating the centre of the white and gold rimmed porcelain plate in front of her.
“Your dress turned out stunning Kate.” She was repeating what she had said much earlier that evening.
Witnessing Thabelo’s hand retreating and his head descending, I never imagined ever having to endure this heartrending moment again. I couldn’t let it be.
I reached out and took his hand in mine and rose. His head lifted and his handsome face brimmed with a glowing smile.
“Thabs, I would love it if you would dance with me?” I said.
Mel’s eye widened.
“Kate? After what happened, I didn’t think. I mean, of course. Yes.” Thabelo said.
As I had imagined, people ogled as we danced.
“After all these years, why today?” Thabelo whispered.
“I realized, if you could be brave enough to ask then I owed it to you to be brave enough to say yes.” I replied.