From sixth to eighth grade, I attended (was dragged to?) Cotillion.
Cotillion strikes me now as little more than a vicarious debutante ball, where middle school parents dress up their kids one Friday night a month and send them out into the world—or at least the high school gymnasium—to practice being little socialites. I can’t remember ever using anything I learned in Cotillion, be it dance move (seriously, when was the last time I had to do the pasodoble?) or social etiquette (I am criminally incompetent when it comes to which fork to use). But during the time I went to Cotillion, I didn’t care. I had a tuxedo hand-me-down from my cousin with lightning bolt designs sewn into the sides. Any excuse to wear that was worth two hours of awkward dancing, awkward social interaction, awkward just being twelve years old.
For the very last Cotillion convocation—I don’t think they were called “convocations” but I’m sure it was something equally pretentious, so convocation it is—the organizers decided that the boys would bring drinks for two and the girls would bring dessert for two, and we would all sit together in pairs on the gym floor and eat and talk and maybe fall in love and get married and have kids and pay exorbitant amounts of money to send our kids to this ridiculous Cotillion program all the soccer moms talked about. Or something.
Anyway, the point is I was terrified. I would have to ask a girl to spend twenty minutes of her young life eating dessert with me.
When I showed up to the high school gym that night, holding two glass bottles of Coca-Cola lovingly arranged in a faux-antique metal pail by my mother, I was still terrified. And after a foxtrot or a tango or a Lindy hop or whatever other dances I stumbled through I didn’t feel any more confident.
Suddenly it was announced that we were to find partners for the drink/dessert swap, and the gym floor became a maelstrom of frantic preadolescents. To this day I am unsure how the next thirty seconds unfolded, but I somehow found myself next to the cutest girl in the room and I was asking her if she liked Coca-Cola. She said yes, and we made our way to the middle of the gym.
Now, a few caveats to this otherwise happy-Hollywood-ending reminiscence. First, I don’t think I was what anyone would call a cute twelve year old. I already had thick glasses, and for some reason thought that the bigger the pair the better they looked; I was barely five feet tall; I shellacked my hair into starkly parted place with half a can of Suave hairspray each morning; and I was wearing a tuxedo with goddamn lightning bolts on the sides. Second, this girl probably was the cutest girl in the room, though I readily admit that my memory of the event is undoubtedly trying to inflate my ego. And finally, of course she said yes—she had to say yes. Cotillion rule number one, drilled into us at the beginning of each dance in order to give the five-foot-tall kids with thick glasses a chance in hell at getting a partner. Otherwise, every girl would have danced with Shawn. He was tall, and his hair was spiked with frosted tips. He looked like a boy band. I hated Shawn.
As we found a place to sit down, I could tell this girl wanted Shawn to be sharing her dessert, which was still mysteriously sealed away in a red box. I somehow overcame all my preteen social ineptitudes—again, not quite sure how this happened, but divine intervention is a distinct possibility—and told a joke. I was twelve. It was probably a knock-knock joke about elephants. But she smiled. And I melted.
I handed her one of the cokes, and she reached into her box and pulled out the most beautiful pair of fruit tarts I have ever seen. I feel like I must have spent a lot of time staring at that fruit tart, because I can picture it perfectly: the ivory custard reflecting the fluorescent glow of the gym lights, the wedge of kiwi dominating the middle of that gleaming custard canvas, the lone raspberry below, the two slices of strawberry leaning jauntily on the pastry’s rim, the three blueberries dotted together above, lounging like Sirens on the beach. The name of the girl, on the other hand, is a mystery to me now. I think it was Kelly. Or Kristi. Maybe Kathy.
We sat there, Kelly or Kristi or Kathy and I, eating our perfect fruit tarts on the hard linoleum floor, barely talking, just smiling.