My son, who is 11, has started going to dance parties. Only minutes ago he was this little boy whose idea of looking really sharp was to have all the Kool-Aid stains on his He-Man T-shirt be the same flavor; now, suddenly, he's spending more time per day on his hair than it took to paint the Sistine Chapel.
And he's going to parties where the boys dance with actual girls. This was unheard of when I was 11, during the Eisenhower administration. Oh, sure, our parents sent us to ballroom-dancing class, but it would have been equally cost-effective for them to simply set fire to their money.
The ballroom in my case was actually the Harold C. Crittenden Junior High School cafeteria. We boys would huddle defensively in one corner, punching each other for moral support and eyeing the girls suspiciously, as though we expected them at any
moment to be overcome by passion and assault us.
In fact this was unlikely. We were not a fatally attractive collection of stud muffins. We had outgrown our sport coats, and we each had at least one shirttail elegantly sticking out, and the skinny ends of our neckties hung down longer than the fat ends because our dads had tied them in the only way that a person can tie a necktie on a short, fidgety person, which is by standing behind that person and attempting several abortive knots and then saying the hell with it. Many of us had smeared our hair with the hair-smear of choice in those days, Brylcreem.
When the dance class started, the enemy genders were lined up on opposite sides of the cafeteria, and the instructor, an unfortunate middle-aged man who I hope was being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, would attempt to teach us the fox trot.
"One two three four, one two three four," he'd say, demonstrating the steps. "Boys start with your left foot forward, girls start with your right foot back, and begin now, one . . . "
The girls, moving in one graceful line, would all take a step back with their right feet. At the same time, on the boys' side, Joseph DiGiacinto, who is now an attorney, would bring his left foot down firmly on the right toe of Tommy Longworth.
"Two," the instructor would say, and the girls would all bring their left feet back, while Tommy would punch Joe sideways into Dennis Johnson.
"Three," the instructor would say, and the girls would shift their weight to the left, while on the other side the chain reaction of retaliation had spread to all 40 boys, who were punching and stomping on each other, so that our line looked like a giant centipede having a Brylcreem-induced seizure.
This was also how we learned the waltz, the cha-cha and -- this was the instructor's "hep cat" dance step -- the Lindy hop. After we boys had thoroughly failed to master these dances, the instructor would bring the two lines together and order the boys to dance directly with the girls, which we did by sticking our arms straight out to maintain maximum separation, lunging around the cafeteria like miniature sport-coat-wearing versions of Frankenstein's monster.
We never danced with girls outside of that class. At social events, girls danced the Slop with other girls; boys made hilarious intestinal noises with their armpits. It was the natural order of things.
But times have changed. I found this out the night of Robby's first dance party, when, 15 minutes before it was time to leave for the party, he strode impatiently up to me, wearing new duds, looking perfect in the hair department and smelling vaguely of -- Can it be? Yes, it's Right Guard -- and told me that we had to go immediately or we'd be late. This from a person who has never, ever shown the slightest interest in being on time for anything, a person who was three weeks late to his own birth.
We arrived at the dance-party home at the same time as Robby's friend T. J., who strode up to us, eyes eager, hair slicked.
"T. J.!" I remarked. "You're wearing cologne!" About two gallons, I estimated. He was emitting fragrance rays visible to the naked eye.
We followed the boys into the house, where kids were dancing. Actually, I first thought they were jumping up and down, but I have since learned that they were doing a dance called the jump. We tried to watch Robby, but he gestured violently at us to leave, which I can understand. If God had wanted your parents to watch you do the jump, he wouldn't have made them so old.
Two hours later, when we came back to pick him up, the kids were slow dancing. Of course the parents weren't allowed to watch this, either, but by peering through a window from another room, we could catch glimpses of couples swaying together, occasionally illuminated by spontaneous fireballs of raw hormonal energy shooting around the room. My son was in there somewhere. But not my little boy.