Sally J. Johnson

Mama Never Told Me There’d Be Days Like These Because She Met My Father in Kindergarten and Carried Only His Name in Her Notebook All the Years Since

 

 

One prom is emerald green atonement under a whale’s ribcage. It swirls like the painted horses and tigers of the carousel one room over where we don’t get our pictures taken. He and I went as friends but he still left when the crowd got thick enough so I elevatored up the museum to be above everyone looking down. There a woman asks to take my picture. Was it a nice scene or maybe I looked that good? When she weighted the camera away from her face she said, “I’m sorry. You look so beautiful sad.”

 

*

 

At the band camp dance the gossip is: Sally Johnson has taken off her heels and is slow dancing with that smart trumpet player. When I break his heart three years later, he sets up a bed on my dorm room floor and watches Dead Poets Society until I take him to his train two days later. Even if we were young, even if it ends like that, those three years were good ones.

 

*

 

My foreign exchange student runs away during a winter dance. She flees with other foreigners to another high school’s dance. My date asks if she thinks she is in some kind of movie version of her actual life.

 

*

 

Every dance becomes a blister, a blur, a dress I’ll never wear again. Photographs of two people smiling. Each one waiting a certain amount of time to be smiled back at.

 

*

 

I go to my first prom as a sophomore by attending with J, a senior, a friend. He’s sneaking me and my boyfriend in. I don’t remember anything about that dance now except that J was the kind of friend who meant honestly that I could climb through his bedroom window if ever my house turned into a thunderstorm.

 

*

 

In graduate school we host a prom as a fundraiser for our literary magazine. I buy a vintage gown and go with my girlfriend. We are sparkly and shiny and so in love right then that there’s no telling we’ll be broken in six months. In those photos we look like movie stars.

 

 

 

 

*

 

I used to spend so long in the bathroom dolling up. Wearing what I wanted, wanting to look good for me and for my date. Refusing the furs my mom wanted me to wear. Redoing my mascara. Feeling opaque and invisible at once. A hurricane of self-love and hate in that bathroom smelling like sweet pea and hairspray. I remember this snow globe of love; this way I learned to feel like I looked perfect enough for anyone I wanted: my baby brother sitting his seven-year-old bones outside the door. Him waiting for me to look one last time in the mirror and come out for pictures so he could say, every single time, how good of a job he thought I did.

 

*

 

I walk around a dance floor asking friends if they’ll come to my after party. While we are sweeping the juice from the floor with our bare feet and borrowed shoes, my mother is placing white bowls of candy and chips around the basement just for us. Pop in the fridge. Liquor in the cabinet she is perhaps hoping we’ll sneak out when it gets late enough. I know she is upstairs, awake, listening for the time she can break up the party, when I come home alone. I eat a handful of M&Ms in my dress then count all the bobby pins as I pull them from my nested hair. I empty the bowls strategically into the garbage bin so the morning looks like an aftermath: half eaten, crumbs, some I leave untouched.

 

 

 

Sally J. Johnson received her MFA from UNCW where she served as Managing Editor for the award-winning literary journal Ecotone. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in the Collagist, Bodega, the Pinch, Weave, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. Find her on the Internet: http://sallyjayjohnson.tumblr.com/ and @sallyjayjohnson.

Categories: Uncategorized