The other day, “The Lady in Red” came up on a random list of tunes on our Apple TV.
This song always makes me nauseous.
When I was eight, I began to wear glasses, and life changed radically. I believe that my new four-eyed state became the excuse that the other kids needed to make fun of me. It was the perfect explanation for my funny big words, my weirdo imagination, and my incredible advocacy for the underdog. I was a nerd, a geek, and a goof, and now the glasses were the evidence my classmates were looking for.
My self-esteem changed radically, and I discovered a whole new level of self-consciousness. I HATED my glasses and this feeling has carried over into my adult life.
In my first year of high school, I finally worked up the nerve to go to the Christmas dance after skipping the other two that came before. I decided to be festive and wear a red velvet tunic, black tights, and the pointiest shoes that I owned. I teased my bangs into the most brilliant peacock I could manage, and of course wore my glasses. My stupid, red, Sally Jessie Rafael glasses, which by the way, those goddamned hipsters have brought back into fashion.
I hung out awkwardly with my small group of friends, and during a pit stop in the cafeteria to use the bathrooms, the football coach, Mr. Bullard, approached me.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he asked. He was my gym teacher, and should have known my name.
“Um, Schnoo.” I replied.
“Schnoo” he said “I need your help. We’ve told Mario* that he has a secret admirer here, and that she is going to reveal herself to dance with him for a special song, and I need you to be that girl.”
I was confused, and skeptical, but I went along with this. Mario was the quarterback who I had a fairly huge crush on, and I figured this might be the only way I would ever get to dance with him.
Fast forward to later that evening. I hadn’t danced with anyone all night long. Then, suddenly, Chris De Burgh’s “Lady in Red” comes on. Bullard is there, tapping me on the shoulder. He says “This is it.”
The D.J. announces “Mario, this song goes out to you from your secret admirer.”
I walk tentatively to the crowd of jocks that Mario is in the centre of. I ask him to dance. He turns crimson, and all the other dudes start smirking. One of them is already doubled over. He reluctantly accepts, and we start to dance.
Missing the point entirely, I’m actually enjoying this. He smells so nice, and he’s so handsome, and just for a moment I allow myself to pretend…then I feel hundreds of eyes on me. I look up and the ENTIRE football team and ALL of their pretty, perky girlfriends are laughing. Laughing at Mario. Laughing at me. I realize then that I AM the joke. Mr. Bullard picked the dorkiest “Lady in Red” he could find to round out their stupid prank, and god only knows what kind of fabricated love notes came before this moment.
I die a little inside, but I carry on until the end of the song. Mario (dick head) starts hamming it up for his pals. He’s stroking my hair, and dipping and twirling me. My 14-year-old brain decides to see this through because it might be my only opportunity to ever dance with a boy so handsome. And popular. When the song ends, he makes a big show of bowing to me and all his friends crack up again.
After that, I call my mom for a ride home. I pass Mr. Bullard in the hallway. All the other kids love him. He’s so funny, and he really “gets it”. I decide that he too must have been a big dork in high school and is making up for lost time now that he’s finally in charge of all the jocks. I hate him. This doesn’t change over the next four years.
It’s a long time before I go to another school dance. The next one I appear at, I FINALLY have my long-awaited contact lenses. I have an ok time. I’m still an outsider. I’m still not one of the popular kids, but I don’t want to be anymore. I’ve carved out my own world with the drama geeks. I still don’t dance with anyone, as I recall, until the very last song, which is always the same song – “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. I feel someone tap me on the shoulder and I turn around. It’s Eric, the Asian boy with Down’s Syndrome. He wants to take me for a spin. I glare at the jocks, who are all staring and guffawing, take him by the hand, lead him to the dance floor and endure his teenage hard-on for the entire eight minute tune. I do this because I know what it’s like to be different, and how much it sucks to be laughed at for that.
Then, I decide to never go to another school dance again.
This lasts until graduation, when my seventeen year old self decides to bring my 24-year-old local indie rock-star boyfriend as my date. Three people ask me if he is actually my uncle, and he hits on every girl he gets the chance to talk to, and one or two of the boys.
I hated high school, and I hate Chris De Burgh, but whenever I hear “Stairway to Heaven” I think of Eric and I wonder what he’s doing now.
*Mario may not have been the name of this quarterback but at a Catholic High School in Stoney Creek, it’s a pretty safe bet.