Two weeks before the formal, Sarah organised for me to buy a tie that matched the bag she would be taking. It had been set aside for me. I was assisted by a hardbody who handed me the tie and turned to the next customer. I walked out of the store without paying for it, then sent a text message to Sarah: ‘You’ve already paid for the tie, right?’ She called me instantly.
‘You have to go back,’ she said. ‘No, I didn’t pay for it. You have to pay for it. It’s your tie. I bought the bag. They match. That’s the whole point! They’ve got my details, they just called me.’
‘Nick, why did you … why did you walk out of the store without paying for it?’
The weekend before the formal, Sarah fell in love with a Russian male model she met at a party. I was told repeatedly that at one point during the night he thought Sarah had left the party, found her, and hugged her. He had an ‘amazing’ body, was a black belt in various forms of martial arts, was living in an apartment by himself, was younger than me and taking business classes at university. This was all she could talk about in the week before the formal.
I was able to ignore the Russian since, after months of build-up, I was actually convinced our formal would be a good night.
I wanted to pick Sarah up in a cab, but her hairdressing appointment took so long it became clear we didn’t have enough time to wait around until the party before the formal would end. The solution was to have my mother drive me to her place, pick her up, and take us to the party. I pressed the doorbell, humiliated. Almost immediately, Sarah stood at the glass door, posing in her dress and the bag that matched my tie. Her hair was huge. She looked very thin. She opened the door and I tried to hand her a bunch of flowers I was hiding behind my back that she didn’t notice. Her mother, who was by now in love with me, appeared and took them. ‘Sorry they’re almost all dead,’ I said. ‘It was the only flower shop open.’ I attempted to tie a corsage around Sarah’s wrist, but was trembling so much and finding it so difficult that her mother took over. We posed for a couple of photos.
In the car I was silent, gripping the handle above the window just as the year before, rolling my eyes at the female conversation, holding a handkerchief against the cut on my chin which occurred minutes earlier while shaving. Sarah asked if we could play a cassette tape she’d prepared, filled with nauseating dance music.
We arrived late and in a total rush. As every couple entered, they had little choice but to make a dramatic entrance down a staircase. Everyone was surprised how hot Sarah was. They knew she existed – Kevin and Larry had spread the word that yes, she was real; they’d heard her voice on the phone. Larry even brought in her school’s yearbook one day to piss me off, since his sister went to the same school, though Sarah was conveniently absent on the day all the photos were taken. I’d continued my story that we met each other at the dance by chance, as if it wasn’t organised.
My braces had been taken off days earlier and I was planning to spend the night devouring liquids. I was incredibly tense, drinking quickly, sipping from my hipflask, constantly needing to move, to consume. Sarah could not stand still, moving her arms and legs to nonexistent music. She met Kevin and Larry for the first time. She was the centre of attention, holding multiple loud conversations at once, continually asking people’s names. There was a huge spectacle when we couldn’t find any water to comply with her strict non-alcoholic diet, though everyone joked that she appeared to be drunk at all times anyway.
The guy throwing the party, Mike, who later went to university with Sarah, led me down a side path of his newly renovated house to his newly installed fountain.
He said cautiously, ‘Your girl, she’s … nice.’
He urged me to throw a coin in, to make a wish.
‘I just hope it’s a good night,’ I said.
Needless to say, nobody had organised limousines for transportation. On the chartered bus taking us to the formal, I rushed to the back seat, forcing Sarah next to me, and then, after Mike pulled his shirt down to flex his pectoral muscles, held Sarah’s hand against my chest and did the same.
I felt the urge to throw up early in the bus trip; it was so obvious Sarah took another seat. Nearby girls winced. But it never happened. I just had this drunken stare, my eyes watery, and concentrated very hard without thinking until we made it to the palatial hall for our formal.
Upon arrival we were informed that alcoholic beverages would not be available due to the number of under-age girls in attendance. We were seated and given food nobody even pretended to eat. Sarah didn’t sit anywhere near me and I remember sensing this was payback for something I had done in the past. I watched her flirt with a waiter as she asked for more water. I was inconsolable and irritable at the news we wouldn’t be able to drink. Sarah was loud, telling one guy at our table he should be an actor, asking the girls about their dresses, undeterred even though they barely bothered to respond. My general impression of her in the time I was sobering up was that she was unable to focus on more than one thing at a time, but she felt several million things were deserving of her attention at any given moment. She said to Kevin, after giving him a hug, ‘You’re like a big teddy bear!’ – potentially the worst moment of my life, but, mercifully, Kevin and in fact the entire table openly loathed her within minutes.
Inappropriate awards were announced. Agonising, drunk speeches were made. Finally we left the tables. It wasn’t like in movies where there’s slow dancing and a live band to ridicule. Hardly anyone was in a relationship.
Sarah wanted to dance. Badly. Months earlier she made me promise to dance, but once there she realised the futility in asking, and seemed afraid even to look at me.
While everyone danced, I sat alone back at our table, craving attention, the same way I did at the previous year’s formal by sitting near a row of steps everyone passed, arrogantly stretching out my legs. Larry and Sarah managed to drag me to the dance floor for around ten seconds, but it was no use. I tried to bribe a waiter into getting me some alcohol but had no luck. I saw Sarah batting her eyelashes a few times and acquiring a beer from a nearby bar we were cordoned off from, then cheerfully hand it to the guy she was talking to.
Later she made a big scene by calling my name as I walked through a crowded area where everyone was smoking, asking me to hold her handbag, which I took and continued walking without looking at her.
Guys said, ‘That girl is crazy.’
They asked, ‘Where did you find her? The zoo?’
The formal was over by midnight. Not a single after-party was organised, so the rest of the night would be a mystery. Kevin and Larry went home to have sex with their girlfriends, who looked like they were about nine years old and had no chance of getting into any clubs anyway. Me and Sarah tried to find Steve (who had a fuckable girlfriend but nowhere near as hot as Sarah) and held hands some of the way.
Since we were alone, I thought it might be a good time to bring up something that had been bothering me all night.
‘So I noticed you’re not wearing a thong,’ I said.
‘I’ve told you, I never wear them,’ she said.
‘But … this is a special occasion,’ I said.
‘All the more reason for me to not wear one!’
I stared into the distance, defeated.
I felt like her bodyguard again, especially since so many guys walking past us or in cabs yelled suggestive comments at Sarah, which she rarely noticed. Men in suits drunkenly lurched in her direction reciting marriage proposals and I would take her by the hand and lead her in the opposite direction.
We were only accepted in exclusive clubs with huge cover charges and high ceilings and limestone walls and loud music and impossibly expensive drinks. I asked a bartender incredulously, ‘Eighteen dollars for tap water?’ and nevertheless drank a few relieving watered-down bourbons. I had to leave Sarah in a crowded elevator after being escorted away for holding a drink. Sarah danced with random people, looking back at me periodically to check I hadn’t left; at one point so disgusted she found a chair for me. She was asking for dares, constantly moving, impossible to talk to.
We tried to find another club, something with less intense music, but weren’t permitted anywhere because of Sarah’s age. The bouncers were very unsympathetic about this. The expensive clubs tolerated us because Sarah was attractive and I was wearing a suit; the cheap clubs didn’t because she couldn’t drink as much as men, and would likely cause a fight between the guys who were already drunk. There were no options.
Freshly rejected and asked to move away from the entrance to a cheap club, standing on a dirty, unlit sidewalk, on broken glass, I stared at Sarah, smirked, and opened my arms offering a hug, assuming it couldn’t possibly get any worse. As she rolled her eyes to the back of her head I couldn’t fully appreciate how wrong I was – to me, the defining moment of our friendship, and the final mental image I still have of her. She stood back and composed herself and just glared, eyes frozen, arms crossed, mouth set hard – a woman’s stance I was quickly becoming familiar with. Then she submitted and weakly wrapped her arms around me for a moment, then we stood apart from each other again, silently deciding it was time we went home. There were more comments and whistling from guys in passing cabs, which she was again oblivious to, and I gave the finger to them.
We found a cab and I sat in the front, with Sarah in the back; as when I picked her up earlier in the evening. She asked the driver to play her nauseating dance tape. We did not speak.
As we pulled up to her house, I said, ‘I’ll get the door,’ bracing myself to make another apology.
‘It’s alright,’ she said.
‘No, really,’ I said, opening my door slightly.
‘Seriously, don’t,’ she said, walking past the cab and through the gate at the front of her house, and I slammed my door and ordered the driver to move and I haven’t seen her since.
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