the day after the dance

At the Dance of Atlantis, sea horses sculpted from three-foot blocks of ice sit at either end of a large table and stare each other in the eye as they slowly deteriorate.  Between them is a lagoon of ocean blue punch with floating latex squids and iced cubed mackerels swimming throughout.  Black fishnets drape the gymnasium walls and retracted bleachers.  Within the nets, schools of construction paper sea bass and catfish swim about…all paying homage to the night’s guest of honor, a huge paper mache marlin hanging from the ceiling, just above the center of the basketball court.

Clara stands beneath the arch of eels and seaweed and looks over Atlantis.  Her dress is homemade and aqua marine.  The fabric was hand selected by her mother for its shimmering quality.  When the light hits it right, it looks just like fish scales.  She watches her dancing peers, but only momentarily.  Clara’s explanation to herself of why she’s dateless is that her role as planner and executor of the dance has been a cumbersome one.  It was her job to find the music, her role to secure the sea horses and it will be her duty to crown King Neptune at exactly 10 p.m.

Fifteen minutes from the crowning, Clara is nervous.  Crowning The King makes her nervous.  She’s seen The King in passing.  He is well known and despite the alleged anonymity of the royal couple, the identities of King Neptune and The Mermaid Princess are already common knowledge among the students.  The ceremony will be no surprise to anyone in attendance tonight.  But she has watched him, when he wasn’t looking, and neither was anyone else.  Clara takes a deep breath and brushes the inside of her left forearm with circular motions from her right index and forefinger, a childhood trick she uses to reduce stress and anxiety.

At just the right time, she walks under the arches and up the plastic steps to the King of Neptune and The Mermaid Princess.  She steps delicately out of the darkness and into a radiating beam of light.  With fragile fingers, she arranges the King’s crown, fumbling slightly, but no one notices.  The King reaches to fasten the pin on her corsage that’s come unhitched and their eyes meet for a brief moment.  He smiles as Clara’s eyes drop to the ground and she begins to shake.  It isn’t her job to crown The Mermaid Princess and she’s relieved.  On the platform above the ocean, Clara senses tension between the Royal Couple.

In the life of a King, priorities become menial.  Roles become irrelevant because, after all, they all pale in comparison to that of The King.  The Mermaid Princess knows this and she’s frequently reminded in the halls, after school and in her room as she waits by an oversized pink phone.  It was never her intention to become royalty, really.  Four months ago, she was content just being Rhonda.  She met The King, Justin, at a party following the defeat of a rival school in the basketball semi-finals.  She remembers the taste of beer on The King’s mouth and lips.  Standing in the spotlight above the eel and seaweed arches, The Mermaid Princess misses Rhonda.

After the crowning, the festivities ensue.  Clara dances in circles until she’s dizzy and short of breath, in need of a dip in the ocean punch.  Behind the half-melted head of a sea horse, she sees The King and The Princess.  Harsh words and tears seem to run off their faces and into the ground.  An afternoon’s preparation of hair and make-up is destroyed in a matter of seconds and the couple fractures like a splitting cell. The Princess runs, leaving trails of mascara.  The King stands solitary, watching her go until, for the second time in an evening, his eyes meet Clara’s.

A pull of a single string illuminates a bare light bulb that hangs from the ceiling.  The equipment room is dark and smells of stale sweat.  Football helmets hang on hooks above racks of basketballs, and they line the wall as far as the dangling light allows them to be seen.  The King lifts her up and onto the counter.  Through the backside of her scaly dress, Clara feels the threads of a volleyball net, used just hours earlier.  Her knees are gently pressed open by The King, and then she’s worried and there’s confusion.  Clara knows she’s not as beautiful as The Mermaid Princess.  Why has she been brought here?  The King smiles.  He has seen her, and he knows that she’s seen him.  He hasn’t approached her for selfish reasons, he says.  He’s been reluctant out of fear that he would unveil the secrecy of a protected crush and unlock all that comes with that.  It must be hard to be The King, Clara thinks.

With her eyes closed and her lips partly open, Clara holds what she notes as the most vivid breath of air she’s ever known.  The soft lips of The King press firmly against her mouth and Clara’s first kiss sears it’s way into the night, and then into history.  But wait, where is the Mermaid Princess?  He blinks and his lips part too…into a slight smile.  She…she’s gone.  Stammering words fold a crease in Clara’s brow.  It’s quickly detected by The King.  I mean, she is right here.  The next kiss detonates across her body.  Clara has never been The Mermaid Princess before.

In the morning, Clara is in the kitchen early.  There’s food, but not for her.  Instead she feeds butterflies by swallowing memories from the night before.  What are you humming dear?  Humming? She knocks the last food from a dirty plate into the sink and rubs the plate with a sponge. I wasn’t humming…  An insider smile begins to spread across her mouth.  She thought the humming was inside.  She thought the humming was an overdrive gear in her heart that she’s never had a reason to use.

In her bedroom the phone is a little closer to her bed.  The volume on the ringer is a little louder and the stereo plays a little softer.  And Clara’s on her bed, on her back, staring at a point on the ceiling until it begins to spread into a canvas.  On it, she replays the dancing pictures of the previous night.  She closes her eyes and her lips part for the kiss.

At The King’s house, breakfast has passed.  Justin is still sleeping.  The curtains in his room are drawn and his lair is cavernous.  A rhythmic pushing and pulling of breath is the only sound.  When he awakes, his first thought is of food.  Hey, hey!  There’s King Neptune coming down the stairs at half past noon! He’s bleary eyed and a household hero as he rustles through Apple Jacks and the Sunday morning sport’s page.  At 3:30 it’s half-time during the game.  He tries to remember what started the fight.  By 7 p.m. he’ll have it solved and he’ll dial The Mermaid Princess at 9.

Rhonda is a strong girl, but she spent most of the night and morning hours awake, trying to get past the idea that royalty may be weakening her, eroding her insides in a way.  The swing in the backyard was built for fun, but everyone in her house knows that it is a seat of pensive time and exclusionary safety.  The swing’s boundaries are respected by all.  She watches her toes slide past the grass, over lava rocks and then they are in the sky, artificially free until gravity sends a serving of reality.  She rushes to the ground.  Synergy is on her mind and she wonders why pain promotes growth and happiness breeds stagnation.  At one o’clock lunch is served in the house of The Mermaid Princess.  But in that house, she’s just Rhonda.

Clara’s eyes close and then race.  The captain of the basketball team meets an average girl. Her eyes open.  Average.  She closes them again.  An average girl with a heart that gives gold. A persistent worry has been temporarily suspended.  Clara’s late night fear is that all she has to give will never be received.  She’s afraid her dreams, her hugs, her smiles and shrugs, will be warehoused…boxed and stacked, never to be opened.  At twelve noon she quells the butterflies with a falsely constructed appreciation of the game.  I can play coy, she smiles.

Its 3:30 and she’s missing the Sunday movie for the first time in over a year.  Two sisters go with mom and dad, but only after a strong conviction from Clara.  She’s not sick, she’s tired.  It’s a reasonable answer and as the mini-van backs out of the driveway, she rolls to the floor and opens the yearbook for the fourth time since morning.

The King can’t barbecue, but his dad sure can.  Steaks is the top ticket item on Sunday and Justin can finish his and anyone else’s leftovers.  Where’s Rhonda?  You should call Rhonda. He chews the skin of a twice baked potato and his memory is jostled.  She’s got homework. But anyway, the Rams lost and he needs to touch base with some others to debrief this pressing matter.  The clock next to the sliding glass door reads 8:32.  He remembers his homework.

The blue liquid crystal numbers read 9:01 and Rhonda answers the phone before the first ring has finished its echo.  Rhonda, she tells herself. You are Rhonda. But the King has a soothing way of making her feel needed.  With an added bite of humor and a familiar flavor of mutual understanding, The King helps her to a standing position.  The support feels accommodating and she temporarily suspends her fear of enrichment.  The Mermaid Princess breathes over a suppressed judgment and realizes she has merely fallen down.

The King is in bed by ten.  It’s been a big weekend.  They’ll be plenty more.  In the life of royalty, celebrations are frequent and alone time earns a quiet appreciation.  The last thought before dreams begin to rise from his bed is a vague recount and sensation of the weekend’s motions being siphoned from his conscience.  As he drifts into black, an indescribable calm washes over him.  He sleeps soundly with the comfort and soothing of what it means to be The King.

At 10:30 Clara is on the floor and the butterflies are fighting.  Average, she thinks.  The flowers in her eyes begin to wilt.  The boxes in her heart begin to close.  She takes inventory of upcoming projects and finds solace in her executive roles.  When the salt in her tears reaches the flowers, they begin to die.