Out of respect, I changed the names for this story.
In those days there were no pedometers (except perhaps a mechanical kind, used by marathoners), so I have no idea how far I walked with the church youth group. What I can say with certainty is that the entire time, I was goggling at Davis.
The tallest in our group by far, with raven hair and pale skin, he had a strong jaw and long nose with a rounded tip and flared nostrils which I thought was both distinctive and adorable. Most of all, he was funny. I've always liked funny guys.
The afternoon-long trek down country roads had been organized by our youth leader as a bonding activity, to be followed by a sleepover on the sanctuary floor -- boys on one side, girls on the other -- so that we could wake before dawn to prep the community room for Easter brunch.
As Davis took long strides down the country road, sunny fields stretching on either side of us, I pumped my much shorter legs to keep up. Giggling at his running commentary, I attempted to get in a few laugh lines of my own, gratified every time I could make him chuckle. His warm brown eyes danced as the sun glinted off his smooth, glossy hair.
It might have been easy to pretend no one else existed, except they did. Flanking us, in front and behind, walked the rest of the youth group. A phalanx of teenagers, striding through the countryside with mirth on our lips.
Then from behind me, Caleb panted up to join us, his mousy-brown curls plastered to his forehead with sweat. He pushed his oversized glasses up his short, unremarkable nose and, out of breath, asked me if I could hang back with him for a minute. He had something he wanted to talk to me about.
Before I could object, Davis took the hint and picked up his pace, giving us a little wave as his long legs took him farther down the road. I watched his back as he caught up with a few of the guys and grew more and more distant.
Soon, it was just Caleb and me, and suddenly I was aware of all the small noises. The gravel scratching beneath our feet, the clouds of gnats rising from the fields.
Caleb reached down and pulled something out of his tube sock, a folded-up piece of paper. He fumbled for words. I slowed down to listen to him, though I yearned to pick up the pace. Opening up the paper, he presented it to me like a precious parchment. "Would you... go to the prom with me?" he asked. My eyes finally made sense of the words on the pink paper: details of the spring formal dance at his high school. Both he and Davis were a year older than me, and unlike Davis, Caleb didn't attend my high school, but one in the next town, just north on the Susquehanna River.
For months, the three of us had played out a similar dynamic. A small parade, Davis in the lead, then me, with Caleb tagging behind. But on that gravel road, as Davis grew smaller and disappeared on the other side of a small hill, I realized I'd never catch him.
Against my better judgment, I told Caleb yes.
Me in my pink prom dress
Even though I wasn't terribly enthused about my date, I was somewhat excited about attending my first formal dance. My mom and I went shopping at the local mall, and I managed to find a dress in our budget that possessed every bit of '80s fashion flair: puffy shoulder ruffles, lace at the neck, and a poufy skirt in a shiny pastel-pink fabric.
On the night of the prom, Caleb arrived to pick me up in a white tux with a shiny pink vest to match my dress. He gave me a wrist corsage of little pink flowers with white baby's breath, and my mom took a bunch of pictures in the front hallway. I looked miserable in all of them.
Caleb ushered me to the car, a four-door Buick he'd likely borrowed from his parents, and chattered enthusiastically as we drove to the prom site, a local banquet hall. I had trouble participating in the conversation, not because my heart wasn't in it but because he kept veering dangerously close to the center line, putting me on edge. He didn't smell like alcohol, so maybe he was just very, very nervous.
The venue was festooned with decorations and backdrops that completely transformed it into a glittering cityscape, which to us country bumpkins seemed romantic. Or would have, if I'd been there with someone who made my spine tingle, instead of someone who left me feeling indifferent.
We got our prom portraits taken, and he got me some punch, then introduced me to his friends. A group of us took over a white-clothed round table, and the evening started to turn around. Whereas Caleb bored me with practically every word out of his mouth, his friends were charming. I warmed to a bouffant-haired girl who was so bubbly she was the personification of an '80s prom dress. She and I spent much of the evening making conversation, determining we had a lot in common. More, unfortunately, than I seemed to have with sports-loving Caleb.
Every once in a while, I accepted Caleb's invitation to dance, and we awkwardly shuffled around the floor, in two-footed '80s slow dance style. His hands rested lightly on my waist, trembling. I stared around the room, taking in the decorations, not a bit interested in staring into his eyes.
By the time he drove me home, still veering occasionally towards the center line, even Caleb could figure out what was happening. "Are you all right?" he asked, words he probably meant to sound considerate, but which betrayed a smidgeon of annoyance.
"Yes," I said. "I'm just tired. It was a long night."
We drove most of the way to my house in silence.
Caleb walked me to my door, where I deigned to give him a chaste kiss. Even he couldn't be fooled into trying for another and trudged back to his car, shoulders slumped.
I didn't need to worry about Caleb asking me out again.
I should have learned from that experience, but Caleb was only the first of several guys I half-heartedly dated in high school and college. They fit a pattern: humorless nice guys whom I found bland but tolerable. In almost all cases, I ended up bonding more quickly with their friends or roommates, although I wasn't enough of a cad to date any of those people. But I also wasn't kind enough to break things off in person, or even at all. Instead, I had a bad tendency to ghost people, before that was even a slang term. I'd stop answering calls, make excuses when asked to go out, and they'd eventually take the hint and slouch away.
Meantime, I continued chasing unattainable guys whom I found attractive, funny and exciting, making a mess of all those romantic attempts but somehow, luckily, managing to retain most of them as friends.
Ten years later, I was visiting my dad the year I married my first husband, and as he liked to do, Dad got me caught up on the local news. Never good at social niceties, Dad blurted out, "Did you hear that Caleb died?"
"No!" I exclaimed, feeling a stronger pang than I would have expected.
He produced a recent newspaper clipping, published the day after Christmas. Caleb had died in a car accident not far from his home. Well, he was a bad driver, I thought, then reprimanded myself. Reading the obituary, I learned that he'd just celebrated his one-year wedding anniversary. The news of his eventual romantic happiness made me feel both a little better and a whole lot worse. He hadn't enjoyed his happy ending for very long.
I remembered that long-ago, terribly dull prom date, realizing only then that I was partially to blame. Caleb had deserved someone who really wanted to be his date, who would have enjoyed the evening and shared his quavering nerves about making the right moves. I should have been honest with him from the start.