The One That I WantChapter One           

           Imagine, if you can, that you are sixteen again. That first kisses are still a possibility, that the giddy anticipation at life’s open roads is still fiery in your belly, that a perfect satin dress and a rose corsage can still make you feel more beautiful than you ever could have hoped for. Sit back and imagine all of these things: taste them, revel in them, and then understand that this - even at thirty-two, even happily married and desperate for a baby - this is why I love prom. I get why you might not, why you might think I’m some sort of stunted adolescent, why you might think that I’m one of those girls you’d have loved to hate in high school. But that’s not it: I love prom for everything that it represents – hope, innocence, possibility. So before you judge me, before you hear my story, know that. Know that I get it, it’s not as if I don’t get it, don’t get why I should have long since moved on from prom. But I can’t help myself. I love the heady anticipation, the spiraling dance floor, the rush of adrenaline before the king and queen are crowned.

           And now, once again, it’s July, one school year behind us, another on the horizon, the wave pulling out the grads, the tide washing in new ones, and just as I have done for the past five years, I am planning prom. And yes, I freaking love it. I freaking own it. Welcome to my life.

           Today, behind my desk in my office, I tap the eraser against my yellow notepad. This year will be the best in memory! I think. Westlake Does Paris! Last year, we did Under The Sea, which felt a little tired, and the year prior, the prom committee had nearly come unhinged when deciding between the Roaring Twenties and the Seventies, so instead as a compromise, they settled on the 1950s, which didn’t work on any level.  Half the kids ditched the theme entirely, while the other half showed up in poodle skirts and skinny suits that they must have borrowed from their parents, and spent the duration of the evening looking decidedly uncomfortable, uncelebratory in every way. 

            I’m giddy at the thought of erecting a faux-Eiffel Tower in the gym, elated at the proposed beret party favors. That none of us has been to Paris is beside the point. Or maybe that’s the point entirely.  I lean back in my chair, the wheels squeaking below me. Yes, come December, City of Lights will be perfect. Parfait!

            Westlake High School holds its annual prom in December, an aberration, most certainly, but the tradition started nearly two decades ago when the teachers union was threatening to strike all spring, and the students rallied the principal to push the prom to the dead of winter, lest they were deprived of the culmination, the exclamation mark for the years they’d logged. The principal acquiesced and the students got their prom and no one bothered to change it back the next year.

           And though it is just July and though prom feels so very far away - with the heat wave that’s pushed in from Montana that has us shedding all but the most necessary of clothes, and with the sun that doesn’t sink below the skyline until nearly nine o’clock, and with at least a third of the student body begrudgingly enrolled in summer school - my to-do list for prom is long and getting longer.  And yes, I have more pressing items on my desk – approving detention for Alex Wilkinson, who, on the third day of summer classes, has already been booted from algebra for trying to feel up Martha Connolly, and calling the parents of Randy Rodgers, whose GPA has torpedoed below the athletic requirement for the fall football season– I’m brushing it all aside for prom. 

            I glance over my notes. Crème puffs on trays?  Baguette and cheese buffet! Tyler, my husband, tells me to give it up, to stop pouring so much of myself into these kids, into this life inside the halls of Westlake High, and I suppose that he’s partly right: that maybe I’m a little too close, too tied up in my alma mater, but what the hell. If there’s anything to get too tied up in at this place, it’s prom. Because I’ve long thought that prom matters, has some sort of intangible, relevant effect on these students, their last gasp of childhood before we send them out into the adult world, where many of them, so, so many of them in Westlake – with unsteady jobs, with iffy paychecks, with perhaps shadowy prospects for the future - will be burdened with the complications that the post-high school world brings.  So why not revel in it just a little bit? I’ll say this to Ty when he mocks me. Why not make it as perfect as perfect can be? I’ll answer to Susanna, my friend since forever who doesn’t quite share my shiny optimism.

           I scribble down, Check budget for cost of renting Arc de Triomphe, just as a fan of sweat spreads across my forehead, and I spot a tiny spider wobbling along my keyboard.  Lately, because the only thing hotter than the outside air is the air inside my office, I’ve taken to leaving my windows open, and a family of spiders has taken up residence just below the sill. This one - no bigger than the tip of my pinky finger – is slipping on the keys, faltering by the letter Y. I jimmy my to-do list under its weensy legs, and it panics, turning the opposite direction and attempting to flee right off the page. I rush to the window, just before he makes a suicide plunge off the paper, and drop him outside, back with his family, wherever they may be.  

            “Are we really doing this?” A voice calls out behind me, and I pull myself back inside, careful not to clang my head into the pane. Susanna has thrown herself onto my lavender loveseat, her cheeks too flushed, her skin a little too glistening, her tank top flat against her moist skin. “Jesus, is it nine thousand degrees in here, or what? I feel like my insides are boiling.”

            I reach for the Polaroid on my desk. “Say cheese!”

            “God, not right now, Tilly!” she says, sweeping her brown hair into a bun off of her neck, trying to sound angry but mostly too hot to care.

            But the camera has already whirred to life, spitting out a shiny white square that, in less than two minutes, will have captured the moment forever. It’s a policy of mine, as guidance counselor. Sit on my couch, risk getting snapped. On the wall behind Susanna, I’ve created a giant mural of all the various faces who’ve sunk into my worn loveseat, looking for answers.

            “So really, are we honestly doing this?” she says again. “This musical? You’re serious about it?”

            Okay, another confession: I have a wee bit of difficulty saying no, refusing requests when I have reason, every right to refuse them in the first place. I am the person who other people know will invariably say yes, so I’m asked for a lot of things, which means that I also say yes to all of said things. So, two strikes against me, as Tyler would say, mostly because he likes to use baseball analogies whenever possible, but also because, yes, he’s right, my will is not my greatest asset.

           So when Principal Anderson called me three nights ago at home, apoplectic that due to budget cuts, or as he put it in a tight voice that reminded me of someone who had pulled a groin muscle, if that stupid Department of Education actually cared about educating any of these children rather than their goddamned bottom line!, he had to fire Jancee Cartwright, the music department head, and now he had no one to coordinate the fall musical, and did I know anyone who might be able to pitch in? Well sure I do, I replied, and then promptly volunteered myself, as well as Susanna, who teaches ninth and tenth grade English.

            “You starred in Grease our senior year, Suse,” I say now, watching her cheeks turn from a shade vaguely resembling fuchsia to one nearly perfectly cherry red, a shift I decide to attribute to the heat. “You’ll do great. It’ll be super-fun! Just like old times!”

            “Old times were fifteen years ago, Tilly!”

            “Thirteen,” I correct. “And who cares?”

            She sighs, her equivalent of a white flag.

            “I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” I say, already giggling at my joke, ignoring the truthfulness of it, but she just looks at me blankly. I can see her eyelids sweating. “From Oklahoma? Get it?”

            “Oh,” she says, then closes her eyes. “I think I might have heatstroke.”

            “I know. Me too,” I answer, reaching for the Polaroid, flapping the photo back and forth, back and forth, flap, flap, flap, the tiny, pitiful breeze from its makeshift fan offering no respite. 

           Susie’s face is just starting to crystallize in the image when I feel something gush inside my underwear. Crap. I set the photo down on my desk, watching her features slowly come into focus, and try to mentally calculate how long it has been since I last ovulated and when Tyler and I had sex. 

           There, her hair is pixelating. No, this shouldn’t be my period, I think.  Not yet. And now I can see the slope of her shoulders, the way her collarbone has gotten too skinny with the stress from Austin. This was only our third try, but still, it’s been hard to understand why I’m not pregnant, because I want it so very, very badly.  As if wanting something like this means that I can will it to fruition.  Here she is now, basically complete, with her clown-colored cheeks, her features annoyed and damp and weary.

           Tyler and I had waited eight years to start a family. While the rest of our friends in Westlake were breeding at the rate of one child every other year, we remained a duo - a happily intact duo - but a duo nevertheless. Tyler wanted to wait, wanted to ensure that we could handle the financial burden, snip my father’s purse strings, and because I understood his need, I waited too.  Until finally, three months ago, he was promoted, and came home that very night and said, “Let’s do it.”  Whether he meant that literally or in a more general sense, we did, we did it that very night and many nights since, but still, nothing to show for our efforts.             

           Something warm has definitely made its way into my underwear. Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap, crap, crap.

           “Here,” I toss the Polaroid toward Susie, flinging it like a Frisbee, and it lands on her stomach.  “I’ll spare you this time.”

           She holds it up, takes a quick glance, and mutters, “Good God,” then dumps it into my purse on the floor by the couch.

           “Meet me at the bathroom in five,” I say, grabbing a pile of sheet music and dropping it on Susie’s chest. “And take a look through these. Anderson narrowed our choices. Oklahoma. Grease. The Music Man. The Sound of Music. The rest is up to us.” She grunts in reply as I head out the door, the eager faces of my students tacked up on the wall, watching me as I go.

           The girls’ bathroom just down the hall smells like cheap tile cleaner and something slightly malodorous that infests all high school bathrooms. I drop a quarter into the tampon machine, but it’s out of tampons, and I’m thus forced to settle for an industrial-sized maxi pad.  The rusty hinge on the stall door creaks as I open it, and I tug down my skirt to reveal…nothing.  No red splat to announce my period, no heavy spurt to tell me that I’ve arrived with the pad about 15 minutes too late.  Nothing.  I fold myself over, peering closer, my pulse accelerating for the imminent arrival of bad news, certain that I felt something, but no, the lip of my underwear is unmarred, perfect.  Probably just a wayward giant ball of sweat.

            The door to the bathroom swings open, flip-flops flip-flopping their way into a stall a few doors down.  The student quickly finishes her business, and the whoosh of the toilet is followed by her immediate exit.  Teenagers have no time to wash their hands, no consideration of the germs that might plague them.  They are invincible.  Bright.  Untarnishable.  The world beckons.  I hear it from them every day when they flop on my office loveseat, their nonchalance practically oozing off them, their aspirations for the future simultaneously hopeful and ridiculous.

           I press the pad into my undies, just to be sure, just in case I missed it, and shimmy my underwear back up my hips.

           The bathroom door squeaks open again.

           “Tilly? You ready?”

           “No period,” I say smiling, opening the stall door to greet her. “Cross your fingers.”

           “Are you late?” 

            “No, not yet, but you never know.”  I run my hands under the faucet, then flit them under my eyes, a momentary reprieve from the heat, and look at reflection, wide-eyed and anticipating and ready in every way for what comes next. The prom. The musical. The baby that just might be brewing inside of me.

           “Fingers are crossed then,” Susanna says, and I study her in the mirror, noticing how faded she looks; how just a year ago, she, like the students here, was bright and shiny and not even close to used up, and now, how she’s dulled, muted even.  The gray circles under her eyes, the pull of her jaw, her wrinkled skirt.

            “Let’s go,” I say, grabbing my bag from the chipped Formica counter, its innards overflowing with contact names for follow-up calls for college applications and potential after-school job notices.

            I hurl open the bathroom door and stride down the empty hall of Westlake High School.  Everyone, even the most delinquent kids, has been dismissed for the afternoon, for the long holiday weekend, full of barbecues and fireworks and cold beers with neighbors. Right now, though, mostly everyone is at the fair.

           We walk by the athletic display, stuffed full of trophies from state championships past, and I catch a glimpse of the team photo from Tyler’s senior year: he was the star shortstop and team captain and eventually, MVP of the championship game.  If you search the newspaper photo that’s pasted up next to the trophy, you’ll see seventeen-year-old me, my face distorted with sheer euphoria at Ty’s victory, my body lithe and firm and supple underneath my cheerleading uniform.  I rarely stop and gaze into the display these days, but still, just knowing it’s there is enough to fill me with complete contentedness.

           Susanna and I reach the exit. The outside air is suffocating, the sun relentless. I close my eyes and smile up at it, despite my open pores and my sweaty underarms and my best friend’s cheeks, which are now red like army ants. I have the Arc de Triomphe, and I have the fall musical, and I have a husband who loves me, and my best friend beside me, and I might, oh, I just might, have a speck of a child growing inside of me.

            I open my eyes and grin at Susanna. “Oh, what a beautiful morning.”

            “What are you talking about?” she says, her veil of excitement gone entirely. “It’s four o’clock already.”

            I raise my eyebrows.

            “Oh, I get it. Oklahoma.” She laughs.

            “It just wouldn’t be the same if it were called, ‘Oh what a beautiful afternoon,’ now would it?” I say, waiting for her to unlock her minivan.  “But it is.”  I smile wider. “A beautiful afternoon.”

            She rolls her eyes as the doors snap unlocked. 

            “Come on,” I say.  “This is going to be fun.”

            “More like trouble with a capital T,” she answers, climbing into the driver’s seat and igniting the engine.

            “A Music Man reference! She’s alright, ladies and gentleman!”

           We laugh together, an open, freeing joy that has glued our friendship together since kindergarten.

            For a second, I consider asking about Austin, about whether or not Susanna has reconsidered taking him back, whether she thinks they can find a way to mend their marriage, stay true to their vows. But she is smiling now, enjoying the moment, and it feels so much easier not to ask. Later, I will. But no, not now.  And besides, before I can even broach the subject, we have pulled out of the parking lot of WHS, our windows down, the air rushing through our hair, the radio already on, and for a moment, it’s as if we are seventeen all over again.