Something was funny. I could tell that from where I stood with Gabby, Tashanda and four other girls. There was a group of guys, mostly the jocks, talking to Robert. They would normally never talk to Robert, except during a practice when they were ordering him to do something. Robert was the Manager of the Football, Basketball, and Baseball teams, and most of those teams had the same members, changing only slightly from season to season. Robert was slow, or intellectually challenged, or whatever PC word they concocted to go with it. He’d been in my class in the first grade and then transferred to the Special Education Classes when he couldn’t keep up. When we got to high school, they mainstreamed him, or put him in the lowest level class possible and then just promoted him automatically to get him out of the system. Surprisingly to a lot of people, he actually passed some classes on his own. Since he was not only slow, but socially awkward, he stayed by himself and was left alone for the most part. Occasionally some of the kids would play pranks on him.
Robert left the group of boys and walked toward us, quickly at first and then slowing as he got closer, and slowing more when he was real close. He stood watching us, pushing his glasses with the thick black rims up on his nose with the forefinger of his hand held like he was saluting, and as his nervousness increased, so did the saluting. It was going so fast now that we were about to laugh when Gabby rescued him. “What’s wrong, Robert?”
He looked at his feet, then at each of us in turn, the idea that what he was about to do would be registered throughout the school. He saluted twice more, then turned to walk away, then turned back and walked up to me. “Michelle, will you go to the prom with me.” It wasn’t phrased as a question, but blurted out, like something planted in his mind from an outside force. Something totally unnatural.
A couple of the younger girls started to giggle. The older girls smiled and understood what had happened. A couple of them felt sorry for Robert for having been put up to something meant to embarrass him. I could feel the heat starting to flush my cheeks. This was a hell of an embarrassing position to put me in. I was one of the popular girls, and I’d been dating Donnie Ray since the beginning of the year. Of course I’d go to the prom with him.
I took the couple of steps to get closer to Robert and I could see he was shaking. As goofy as he was with that silly salute, I didn’t like to see him feeling this humiliated. I was scared he was going to wet his pants. I took his arm and started walking away from the group so I could talk with him and calm him down a bit.
“What have you been up to this year? I don’t see you in the halls very much.”
“I’ve been managing the teams.” The pride was creeping into his voice when he said this. He’d loved that position since the ninth grade when he showed up for football tryouts. The coach took one look at the way he walked and assessed the situation. Robert was lucky it was Coach Grey that was checking people in because the other coaches would have sent him packing laughing at him. But Coach Grey was a cut above the rest of them and asked Robert to be the manager. The manager is a thankless and nasty job, but at least he’s with the teams, and gets a school jacket. Robert was extremely proud of his school jacket. It had his name on the front with “Manager” in big letters where the numbers would be for the regular team members.
“So why do you want to take me to the prom?”
Robert blushed and would have started saluting, but I had his arm. “Well, I was standing with the guys, and I said I thought you were real pretty.” Robert’s face was crimson with that. “And Paul said so why don’t I ask you to the prom and I said aww shit and then Donnie Ray said yeah go ahead and ask you and I said aww shit and then they were all saying like I had to ask you or I wouldn’t be on the team no more.”
My face was flushed with embarrassment before; now it was more flushed with anger. Donnie Ray was part of the bunch that put him up to this, and I’d assumed I was going to the prom with him since we’d been dating for the whole year. He was assuming the same thing, I’m sure, but then, he’d never really asked me. Never asked me. It dawned on me that he figured he didn’t have to ask me, and nobody else would ask me because everybody assumed I was going with him.
Robert blanched at my outburst. He jerked his arm away and stepped back. “I’m sorry, Michelle, I didn’t mean it.”
“Oh, damn!” This was getting out of hand. “Robert, it’s okay. I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at those boys.”
“They’re making fun of me, aren’t they.” It was a statement. Robert was slow, but not stupid.
“Yes, they are. Bastards.” Honestly, I was more angry because they’d chosen me to use for their prank and because I’d suddenly realized Donnie Ray was taking me for granted. “But the joke’s on them. I’ll go with you.”
“You will?” Roberts glasses slipped off his nose and fell to the ground. He retrieved them and put them back perched on his too short nose.
“Yes, Robert. I will. But isn’t that your bus over there? You don’t want to miss it.”
“Yeah– Yes. Thank you Michelle, thank you so much.” Robert took off at a run for his bus.
I walked back to the group of girls who had been joined by the boys that put Robert up to the prank. They were laughing at Robert running for the bus. His run was awkward, but their laughter just infuriated me more.
“Look at him run. Bet he cries all the way home.”
“Ha. What a sucker.”
“Gullible isn’t in his dictionary.” Donnie Ray said.
Gabby looked at my face and softly said, “Oh, shit.” Tashanda followed her gaze and started to smile, she could imagine what was coming.
“Why would you say he was gullible?” I sounded so innocent, I hoped.
“Well, didn’t he come over here and ask you to the prom?”
“Well, hell, everybody knows you’re going with me.” Donnie’s voice had a bit of false bravado in it.
“Do they? I don’t remember you asking me anytime in the last six months.”
“Aw shit, Michelle, some things are just accepted.”
“Yes, some things are just accepted. Like I just accepted Robert’s invitation to go the prom, since no one else had bothered to ask me before deciding to use me to pick on him.” I looked at all the boys who were standing there with grins that had the look of being painted on under eyes that started to fear. “You fucking assholes.” I walked away. Gabby, Tashanda and three of the other girls walked with me.
“Did you really say you’d go with him?”
“Are you really going to?” one of the freshman girls asked.
Poor girl got the blunt end of my anger. “Now you think about that. If I said I was going to go with him and then changed my mind or stood him up, I’d be a bigger asshole than them. What the fuck is wrong with people?”
She cowered a little, “Yeah, you’re right.”
“Geez, Michelle, that’s about the bravest or stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Shit, I know. I’ve got to figure out how this is going to work. Robert can’t even drive and I’m sure he doesn’t know how to dance, at least I’ve never seen him at a dance.”
“Do you think he can afford this? His parents don’t have much money.”
That brought another round of thoughts through my head. Robert’s family, his Mom, Dad, and younger sister, lived in a small house, a shack really, by the Ogeechee about two miles down a dirt road that mainly led to fishing camps. His dad worked at the feed mill bagging and loading, and I’m sure it didn’t pay more than minimum wage. He was known to drink his paycheck before he got home some weeks, but rumor has it, he’s been better in the last few months since Robert’s momma started meeting him at the feed mill on payday and then buying him one six pack of beer.
I had a lot of planning to do, and Robert had to be a part of it.
Word spread quickly. I doubt if there were more than seven people in the school that hadn’t heard that the cheerleader was going to the prom with the team manager, although, most people had a more derogatory name for him. I got a lot of stares and some comments and I could feel the whispers behind my back.
At lunch, Robert found me and said, “Michelle, lots of people are telling me you’ll stand me up or something. Look, I’m sorry I got suckered by those guys, and you don’t have to go with me. I know you’re Donnie Ray’s girl and all.”
I took his hand and looked him in the eye. “Robert, I said I was going with you and I am. We have some things to work out that you might not have thought of, but we’ll get through it. Can you meet me after school?”
He smiled, “You bet!” I squeezed his hand and he left for whatever he did to avoid people.
I had biology class just after lunch. I walked in with two of my friends just like a normal day. Then before we got started, got quite a surprise when I walked into biology class and Mr. Singer told me I was wanted in the Principal’s office. I was surprised, but not worried. My daddy is the Superintendent of Schools, so I keep my nose clean and behave. In school, at least. When I got down there, his secretary told me to go right in. I walked in to face Robert’s father and mother and both of them were steaming. Mr. Jones, the principal, didn’t look too happy either.
His mother let into me, “I don’t know what kind of crap you’re trying to pull with my son young lady, but it’s going to stop right now. I ain’t going to have you and your hooligan football team making no more fun of him. He a good boy and I don’t like tricks being played on him and all y’all smarty pants making a fool of him and hurting him by setting up bogus dates and then breaking his heart and all.” Finally she stopped to breathe.
“Yeah.” His father added.
Mr. Jones was a little calmer, “What do you have to say for yourself, Michelle?”
“Y’all are dead wrong if you think I’m doing this to mess with Robert. I’ve known him since Mrs. Minor’s Daycare when we were three or so. Some of the boys were messing with him yesterday and put him up to asking me to the prom, and since my regular boyfriend was one of them putting him up to it and hadn’t bothered to ask me, I said yes. And I’m going to go with him.”
“Well, he can’t go.” His father put that right out there, and that was the wrong thing to do to me. Or to Robert. Later, I was really proud of myself for holding back and not lashing right out, or poking him in the nose, which is what I really wanted to do.
“May I ask why he can’t?”
I could see this embarrassed them. “’Cause he can’t afford no fancy prom. Period.”
“Well, that’s not really a problem. It’s not that expensive and I can help him with it.”
Anger was boiling up a bit in Mr. Evens. “We don’t want you charity.”
Oops. “Well, I didn’t mean that it would be charity.” Thinking fast and lying through my teeth here. “My uncle can always use help around the farm, even afternoons and weekends so he can earn his money.” Mr. Evens saw beer bottles with that, I think.
“He can’t dance.” His mother added this.
“Shucks, none of the boys can dance. They just bounce up and down or hold you and rock back and forth. I’ll teach him better than that in the first hour there.” Well, that was a lie. Tashanda has a cousin that works at a dance school in Savannah and she was going to get him some lessons. I had dance lessons and loved it, but it doesn’t do me any good with these clods.
“I don’t want my boy’s feelings hurt.”
Mr. Jones finally stepped in, “I’m sure they won’t be. I know Michelle’s family very well, and they’re very upstanding people.” He better say that, my daddy’s his boss. I smiled. “Okay, Michelle, you can return to class now.”
Why did I feel like I just stepped onto the stove?
That afternoon, Gabby, Tashanda and Robert and I met to plan out how we were going to get him ready for the prom. We told him about the dance lessons and he was really excited. I said I’d take him to Savannah this weekend to rent a tux. Then I explained what a tuxedo was. Gabby had a friend who worked for a limo service and she said she’d try to get a car for prom night so I wouldn’t have to drive. Later we found out that Miss Royce, one of the English teachers, took Robert aside and gave him etiquette lessons on what to do at a dance. My uncle agreed to let him work part time to earn some money to pay for his date. Robert would never know the “discounts” or the credit he received were all covered by me. What’s a girl to do?
The night of the prom, Robert picked me up in the car Gabby had helped him get. There was mud on the fenders from the trip down the road to the fish camps, a road more often driven by 4x4 pickups. He brought a corsage, so I could leave the spare in the fridge.
At the dance, we danced, really danced. He’d learned quite a few and I’d gone in to practice with him. The one that stunned everybody was the Salsa. Robert still looked a little goofy with his too small nose that turned up at the end and the big glasses, but his personality had changed with a little more confidence. The girls that were close to me were a bit jealous of the way he treated me the whole night. I was the object of his attention, not next week’s game or last season’s deer hunt. Two of the girls knew how to Salsa and asked him to dance. He was flying high. One of the guys from the team asked him if he’d like to bring me to the Green’s clubhouse for a party afterwards.
Okay, I’ve got to explain what a clubhouse is. Lots of people have houses in the town where they work and then have a cabin off on some piece of property out in the country they call a clubhouse. Some of them are rustic, and some are quite elegant and cost more than the houses in town.
Robert was really excited about the invitation, but I asked him if he knew what would go on at this party. Of course he didn’t.
“Well, they’ll have a couple kegs of beer, some whisky, probably some dope. A lot of the boys and girls will be going off to the bedrooms to have sex. Nobody will be dancing or anything like that. I’ll go with you if you want to, I just wanted you to know what goes on before we get there.”
His face turned pale. “Really? I don’t think that’s a place I ought to go, and certainly not somewhere for you to go.”
I was happy with that. Very happy he wouldn’t get the idea that we’d get stoned and have sex at some party. He was really a nice guy. I couldn’t think of a single guy I knew that would turn down a chance to go somewhere where we might have sex. “I’ve got a place we can go.”
I gave the driver directions and we went to a place down on the Ogeechee way below where he lived. It was wide there and very pretty. We got a blanket from the trunk and went and sat on the bank and watched the water and talked. Probably for about an hour or two. I’m sure the driver thought we were having sex, but I didn’t care. He wasn’t paid to think.
When it was time to go, we were both getting sleepy, Robert asked, “This doesn’t mean you’re my girlfriend does it.” He sounded a little sad, but he also sounded like he knew the answer.
“No, Robert, it doesn’t. But I’ve had a better time with you than I’ve ever had on a date before, I think. Thank you for that. And I’d really like it if we could still be really good friends.”
He beamed, even in the dark. “Okay, I’d like that, too.”
The car took us to my house, and as I was getting out I knocked on the drivers window, he rolled it down and I shook his hand and thanked him while slipping him two twenties for a tip. He smiled and said, “Your very welcome, Miss.” I knew Robert wouldn’t know to tip him or wouldn’t have much money to do so.
“Robert aren’t you going to walk me to the door?”
He got out of the car — I guess he’d forgotten about this part — and he held my hand while we walked across the lawn. “Going to kiss me goodnight?”
Robert leaned in and kissed me on the cheek.
“Oh, Robert, not like that.” I put my arms around his neck and put my lips on his. He started to get the idea, then I opened my lips and started to play with his lips with my tongue, he learned fast. I pressed my body against his all the way to the knee and we kissed until he let go. There was an audible gasp from him.
“Good night, Robert. Thanks again.”
“Oh. Oh, my God. Thank you, Michelle.”
He took off toward the car walking a little awkwardly from the lump I’d felt grow in his pants. I wondered if that made me a bad person to do that before his ride home.