We all had braces. When we smiled or laughed, we flashed steel and colored rubber bands. We shared a language. We talked about tightenings, fittings, about which brands of gum were safe to chew, and about how you had to be careful when you kissed a girl because your two sets of braces might get stuck together and then you’d have to call the orthodontist. Braces went with the feeling of being too tall for your body, of having the first few dark hairs on the upper lip, of furious wanting, of not knowing where to put your hands. Suddenly, we didn’t know what to say around friends’ parents, around girls. We couldn’t avoid our braces. They were the first thing you saw when you looked in a mirror. You wished they didn’t belong to you, that they did not convey something deep and true. But they did. They were our awkwardness, made real, in the middle of our faces.
Still, I got a girlfriend. Her name was Violet, and she was in the sixth grade, and she had braces. I knew that calling girls was a big part of having a girlfriend. I didn’t know how to do that. But I knew how to study for tests and how to do book reports and how to read sheet music, and so when I got home, I got a Post-It note from Mom’s desk. On it, I wrote out a list:
• Vanilla Ice.
Vanilla Ice was a good one. She’d have something to say about that. Later that night, after dinner, I called. I was hoping for a busy signal, but it rang. I thought about hanging up but then a girl’s voice said, “Hello?”
“Violet?” I said.
“This is Seth,” I said. “From the eighth grade.”
“I know,” she said.
And then I just talked. I told her about what I’d just eaten at dinner and after that it was just words. When I went to bed that night, my stomach still felt small, but I remembered that I’d talked to a girl, that I’d actually done it, and then I felt better.
We were laser beams completely taken with songs: these little brightly wrapped packets of sugar from which our gazes could not waver. One at a time, like movies at a single-screen theater, songs appeared, dazzled us, and died. We were efficient filters, holding on to only that which lodged. The songs came and went.
In the eighth grade, it was Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” It was a song of rhyming tough-guy words built around a simple bass line and beat and it tasted like concentrated Kool-Aid. When the DJ at Friday dances played it, girls screamed and boys formed big circles. We chanted the lyrics, not knowing what they meant but sticking to the words as if they were scripture. For two months, there was no room for anything else.
Or was it less than that? Only six weeks, or four? Because, soon, the top-40 station in Cumberland stopped playing it every morning and instead only played it every other morning. Soon, kids groaned when it came on and, like that, the spell was broken. The song was cheap. It was like eating butterscotches. You sucked and chewed and ate another and another until your stomach felt bad and then you had to stop.
And Vanilla Ice would have gone away, except that Mom had heard about his tour and bought tickets. When the day came, we met one of her friends from work and her two kids. The boy, about ten, had a mop of hair. He was quiet. His sister, with dark, curly hair, was in the sixth grade. She was pretty. They lived in Mount Savage, a tiny, hard mountain town where the boys were tough, where everyone hunted deer. The girl looked me up and down and said, “You don’t look tall enough for the eighth grade.” Still, I liked her.
Our moms talked but the four of us, squeezed into the back seat, headphones clamped to ears, bobbed our heads. I sat next to the girl. Her name was Jill. Sitting next to Jill was easier than sitting next to Violet. There was no pressure to do anything. I could just sit and be.
It was pouring when we got into Johnstown. We had enough umbrellas to cover all six of us, if we walked slowly and bunched together, but we still got wet. The rain was cold. We saw, as we rounded a corner, a line of soaked people. We got in line and immediately, bunches of kids, teenagers, got in line behind us. The line wasn’t moving. We huddled under our umbrellas but the rain splashed up from the sidewalk and soaked our jeans. Just in front of us was a girl. She seemed much older than me but was probably 18 or 19. She wore a lot of make-up but it had begun to run down her cheeks. She and her friend didn’t have an umbrella or even a raincoat. They wore cotton flannel button-up shirts. I could see the outlines of their bras. Water dripped from their noses.
“Hey,” one of the girls said to me.
“Hey,” I said. She was, I realized, pretty, through all the make-up.
“Would you mind?” she asked, pointing to my umbrella.
I looked at Mom.
“Sure,” Mom said.
I handed the girl my umbrella and then moved closer to Ryan. We waited. My teeth chattered and my legs shook. A great murmuring rose up and after that the line moved quickly. We walked at first but then jogged, to keep from getting swallowed up by those behind us.
Inside, the air was humid and smoky. Many years later, I’d come to know this smell, the smell of rock clubs, of certain dark bars, the armpits and breath and sex. People were bumping into us in the near-dark, but we found our seats, halfway up. I leaned over the railing, to watch. A lot of the guys had long hair and many of the girls wore glow-in-the-dark necklaces. As they waited, they held lighters in the air, like the crowds did in MTV videos. In the dark, the flames looked like a hundred candles afloat on a choppy sea. I didn’t see any other kids sitting next to their mothers.
A man came out and everyone cheered because we thought it was Vanilla Ice, but it wasn’t. Then there was a burst of music-like noise and a group called The Party came out. We stood at first, but it was hard to stay excited. They did a few songs, and danced, doing a lot of sprinting back and forth. When they left the stage, everyone cheered. We waited another twenty minutes and then the emcee came out. Everyone screamed. He left. Two guys dressed all in black came out and everyone screamed again but they only tweaked the microphones. Finally, the arena lights went out and everyone screamed, even louder. Mom yelled into my ear, “Are you excited?”
There was a tremendous explosion of light and sound and then, through the smoky air, a green laser shot out from somewhere above the stage. It scanned over our heads, back and forth, very quickly, until finally it spelled the words, “Ice Ice Baby.”
A sharp wave of sound hit my chest. Mom covered her ears. Ryan, mouth open, stared. The dancers ran out first, pumping their fists, gyrating. They wore what looked like baggy track suits with reflective, shiny strips along their sleeves and pants. Then another cloud of smoke rose from the stage. A shadow appeared on the smoke, a silhouette. The silhouette stepped forward. It was Vanilla Ice. Everyone recognized him at the same time. Everyone screamed. I screamed. He went into the first song, and it was not “Ice Ice Baby.” We sat. He sang another song that also was not “Ice Ice Baby.”
And then we heard the bass line we knew so well. The arena shook from the noise. We stood again. The people behind us shot us dirty looks. Vanilla Ice rapped his lines and the four of us rapped along. Then the song was over. It had sounded almost the same as it had always sounded on my Walkman.
After that, for a long time, the dancers faked humping each other. I glanced at Mom. She looked confused, mildly interested. Vanilla Ice ran and jumped across the stage, from side to side, pausing at certain points to thrust his hips. His hair was blond. It had been shaped so that it pointed forward, like a baseball cap. He looked cool, but I was uneasy. I felt out of place, either too young for this concert or too old. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be having fun or not.
The music got softer. Vanilla Ice stood in the center of the stage, holding the microphone very close, as if he were trying to eat it. We sat. The dancers stood in groups to the sides, heads bowed and hands clasped in front of their crotches, as if in deep thought, or prayer. Then Vanilla Ice smiled a big smile. “Y’all know what’s comin’ next,” he said.
“What’s he talking about?” Mom asked.
I shrugged, but I knew.
“Awww yeah,” Vanilla Ice said, as a beat thumped. The dancers inched closer.
The song he was going to sing was about sex, and a specific kind of sex. “I thought she was an angel and soft as a cream puff, Until I seen her come out with the whip and the handcuffs,” he said. I couldn’t tell if Mom could hear the lyrics. But I knew them. I knew every lyric on the album.
And then it was over. The big lights came on and then, for the first time, I could see the arena clearly. Some of the advertisements around the boards were hung crookedly. As we filed out, I looked down. There, on the arena floor, trampled and wet, were mesh baseball hats, half-smoked cigarettes, broken umbrellas, and a whole slice of pizza, cheese-down.
Out in the concourse, the six of us gathered. Mom put a twenty-dollar bill in my hand. I wandered toward the souvenirs. A man smoking a cigarette stood in front of shelves of T-shirts, pencils, posters. It became clear to me what I’d do. I’d buy Violet a poster, take it back to Cumberland, give it to her, and then we’d kiss. Then she’d put the poster on her wall and think of me when she looked at it. There would be more kissing. There would be closeness and warmth, and it would happen because of this poster.
I gave it to Violet a few days later, before school. She said thanks but she was in a hurry to get to homeroom, and so she shoved it into her locker. A few weeks later, we went to a birthday party. It was late, the lights turned low, parents grabbing coats and ushering kids out to waiting cars. Sitting on an upholstered chair, I pulled Violet onto my lap. I could tell her friends were watching us. I knew I was supposed to say something, and so I said, “You’re beautiful.” She smiled and said thank you and then I leaned in and put my lips on hers. Her lips were dry. She smelled of Big Red gum. Our lips touched for a second, maybe two, and our braces didn’t get stuck together, and then it was over.
That night, sitting in the front seat of our minivan, Mom driving, I was glad I’d done it. For the millionth time, I hoped only that the next day might bring ease, just and only ease. I could picture this sense of ease and it looked like swimming effortlessly against a strong current. It looked like flying, above the rolling mountains, above the muddy rivers, and I was good at it and everyone liked me, and there was warmth that lasted forever.