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At a wedding reception in Thrasher Park, a wooden dance floor set out in the grass in front of the swings teemed with dancers young and old. The DJ played old soul, funk, “The Electric Slide,” and “Cha-Cha Slide” while Pauline, the oldest living black woman on earth, danced wherever her gin flask carried her around card tables near a series of grills broiling steaks, hot dogs, burgers, and fish.
From behind a nearby chain-link fence on the basketball court, Johnny browsed the potato salad, greens, wedding cake, chips, corn on the cob, and Kroger can sodas. His friend A. J. had invited him to the party, but he didn’t come to eat. He came to play some basketball and maybe see some pretty girls.
Though the music was loud enough for Johnny to feel the beat rumbling up from the asphalt, Johnny didn’t sing along with the other players. He couldn’t. He didn’t know the words because he couldn’t hear the words, and he had never spoken a word in his life. He only felt the beat and heard music with his eyes.
Bored with playing one-on-one, A. J. nodded toward the dance floor. “Come on,” he said. “You gotta dance.”
Johnny sighed. It was the story of his young life. A. J. dragged him into one adventure after another, Johnny’s hearing aids growing larger the closer he got to girls.
They weren’t the largest hearing aids ever made, but to Johnny, they were huge, like earmuffs the size of basketballs, and they were useless. They preceded him wherever he went and made him stand out more than his whiteness did at Thrasher Park.
At the edge of the dance floor, a pretty brown girl with dark eyes and long black hair held out her hand to him.
“Go on,” A. J. said, shoving him slightly.
Johnny let her take his hand while two Peavey loudspeakers made the floor jump under his feet.
He wanted to tell her he was a lousy dancer. He wanted to tell her that she looked pretty. He wanted to tell her his name. He wanted to ask her for her name. All he did was smile at his basketball shoes and feel the warmth of her hand.
While other dancers did handstands, splits, the Worm, and spun around, Johnny did more marching in place than dancing. He watched the girl’s slender hands rise in the air, noticed her burgundy fingernail polish, watched her bare feet move near his, tried to keep up with her, the prettiest girl there, her hair whipping in front of him, while older boys leaned forward in chairs under the trees and watched her dance. He read her lips as she sang along, wondering what her lips tasted like, wondering why she chose him, the only white boy there, wondering why his feet stumbled while hers glided so easily across the floor.
He stepped on her toe. “Sorry,” he mouthed.
She smiled. “It’s okay,” she said.
He shook his head.
She grabbed his hands tightly, and he could feel the beat coursing through the tips of her fingers. “It’s okay,” she said again. “I have nine others.”
Johnny smiled. Her pretty lips were easy to read.
They continued to dance, her eyes looking into his whenever he dared to look at her face.
The beat ended. Dancers faded away to the food. She still held his hands. They were alone on the edge of the dance floor.
He wanted to say thank you. He wanted the music to start again. He wanted to know her name.
“Thank you,” he whispered or hoped he whispered.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
A. J. waved him back to the court where a game was starting.
She squeezed his hands and released them before turning and walking away.
Johnny liked how she walked, as if she were dancing to the beat of his heart.
He drifted through a game of basketball, not complaining that no one passed him the ball though he was usually open, not caring if he made a single shot, not caring if his team was winning. He watched her dancing with her friends as lights winked on and the air turned cooler. She became a slender silhouette with flashing hair, a dark barefoot star moving through the night with the coolness of a breeze.
Johnny decided that moment to love, protect, and cherish her and this moment forever because he was the only white boy there, the only deaf boy there, the only one watching only her face and her hands, the only one who saw her shining on.