Until last week, for several weeks, our air space was jammed with the frequency of Homecoming: the powder puff football game and which class had the strongest athletes, then the “real” football game (actual words used by actual boys) and whether we’d defeat our rivals, then the dance, which was the most painful part, a reminder of how complicated being young is. It was both entertaining and excruciating to watch Owen begin to understand the gaping maw between his prevailing view that the world is a black and white place – easy to legislate, govern, and operate within if adults would just move over and let teenagers be in charge – and a growing sense that maybe life is not that simple after all.
The real sport of Homecoming was negotiating the dance. The pre-game show began weeks before the event as boys negotiated amongst themselves which girls to ask and how. On our way to swim practice each night, Owen’s friends debriefed.
Here is a sample conversation from the car (A conversation highly similar to this was reenacted every night for at least two weeks):
B: You should ask Emma because she’s going to say no to Brian and she will say yes to you.
Owen: But I want to ask Izzy.
D: Dude, you can’t ask Izzy. Tim’s asking her.
Owen: But what if I ask Izzy before Tim does?
B: You can’t do that because Tim already told us he’s asking her. It’s like stealing. Not cool.
Owen: But what if I do?
D: Don’t do it, man. That’s lame. You should ask Emma.
Owen: You should go with Emma.
D: I can’t go with Emma. She’s super quiet and so am I and nobody would talk all night.
B: D’s going to ask Jane because she talks a lot. She’ll make it fun. And you should ask Emma.
Owen: I don’t know. I want to go with Izzy. What if I ask Kate?
B: Dude. I’m asking Kate. D’s asking Jane. You should ask Emma. It’ll be fun, I promise. Plus, you just got here, so you need us to help you understand them.
Owen: Them who?
B: Girls, dumbass.
There was a long pause while we waited to turn left into the pool parking lot. It sounded settled to me. We pulled up to the front door and the boys loitered in the car, gathering up their gear bags.
Owen: So. I can’t ask Izzy? I mean. For sure Tim knows WE know he’s going to ask?
B: You kind of suck at this game.
Once they’d settled the girl question, the issue of the ASK descended. My recollection, which may be wrong, is that being asked to Homecoming used to go something like this:
(Written on a note passed to me in history with Doritos stains on one corner):
Wanna go to the dance with me?
(Written on a note shoved inside the slats of my locker door)
Will you go to Homecoming with me? Check yes or no and bring it to English.
In those days, which Owen tells me were uninspired, boys didn’t ask girls in person. It was almost always on a note, or through a friend, and in this way not much has changed since the dark ages. Except that now part of THE ASK has to be creative, thoughtful, unique. A big statement that others see, a “treat” meant to impress with a sugary crust of embarrassment.
Me: So, you’re going with Emma.
Owen: Yes. Not Izzy because she said yes to Tim.
Me: I see. Have you asked Emma yet?
Owen: Not yet. I have to figure out how to do it.
Me: I see. You mean, when you’ll have a chance to see her to ask her?
Owen: No. It’s not like that. You have to DO something. Like creative.
Me: Like creative how?
Owen: I was thinking about putting a piñata in her front yard? Inside would be candy and a bunch of ASKS wrapped around the candy, and when she breaks it open, it all falls out?
Me: I see. So you’re going to find all that at the store, then wrap each candy with papers that say something clever, then put the candy inside the piñata, then take it to her house after asking her parents and then hang it on a tree in the front yard and leave a stick or a bat to whack it open with? By tomorrow?
Owen: Geez. You make it sound like such a big deal. Also. I thought you might help me do it.
Me: But I’m not going to the dance with Emma.
Owen: Mawwwwmmm. I’m just brainstorming here. I’m supposed to do something creative. Can’t you just help me think of something, you know, clever?
Me: What about just asking her?
At this point he left the room, shaking his head.
As Owen deliberated, his friends settled in on their ASK. They pushed the ASK date ahead. B bought a betta fish (also known as a Siamese fighting fish) and left it in a tank in Kate’s room with a speech balloon asking her to the dance. It was an interesting choice – given the known aggressive nature of this species, which is not a “schooling” fish but one that prefers solitude and without it will fight— but I wisely kept my thoughts on metaphor to myself. D put some pink flamingoes in Jane’s front yard with a poster asking her to boogie with him, which was also funny because D had confessed to me that he hates to dance.
B and D waited for Owen to figure out his ASK, and then they all agreed to go forth and ASK on the same day.
The night before the ASK:
Owen: I’m sick of brainstorming. I’m just going to get some flowers and leave them in Emma’s locker.
Me: Sounds good. How will you get her combination?
Owen: B’s getting it. Will you get me some flowers today?
Me: Sorry, pal. That’s your job. You can walk over to the shopping center and choose some. We’ll put them in water until you’re ready.
Owen: Wait. I have to do it?
Me: Yes, sir. Because Emma is not my date. Take your wallet. Please don’t get carnations; they’re grandma flowers.
Off Owen went to flower shop at the market, where he chose six red roses, proudly brought them home remarking on the deal he got, then threw them on the counter, sighing with relief. I felt bad, having sent him into battle with so little information. We had a nice chat about the loud statement a flower like the red rose makes in the romantic world, at the end of which he just shrugged and said, “I’m not going to marry her or anything. They’re just flowers.” And that was that.
We hadn’t even gotten to costuming yet, and I was already exhausted. The boys all chose bow ties. Those had to match the dresses. Emma’s mom picked Owen up after school one day and off they went to the mall to choose a bow tie that matched the champagne color in Emma’s dress. I can only imagine what this must have been like for Owen – shopping, which he hates, with a girl he hardly knew and her mother who was in charge of choosing part of his outfit. For my part, I was relieved, since I also hate shopping. He came home with a bow tie that cost forty dollars and went to bed early that night.
Then began negotiations about dinner and which restaurant would be good for a party of 12. B was in charge of reservations, and there was a lot of conversation in the car about the automatic gratuity for parties so large and whether it was a scam. Then there was the issue of transportation. As sophomores, many of them not yet driving, they decided it was totally uncool to have parents ferrying them around. They booked a limo, and Owen was in charge of organizing that. Meanwhile, his stash of earned cash was dwindling.
We expect him to use his own money for many things, and this policy has been instrumental in his more thoughtful and miserly approach to spending, for which I am grateful. There’s nothing like having some skin in the game of spending to learn about money management. I suggested he and Emma split the tab for the night and was told that’s not how you do it. When I asked him why, he shrugged and said, “I guess that’s just how it works. I think the girls pay when there’s a Sadie Hawkins dance or something, except I’m not sure we have that kind of dance at our school.”
We paid for the clothes, but the tickets, dinner, flowers and transportation were up to him. It was hard to watch him struggle with how much the night would cost and whether it was worth it. He wisely kept to himself any bitterness he harbored about his friends’ parents’ footing the entire bill for the time.
By the time the actual dance arrived, and we’d learned how to tie a bow tie courtesy of YouTube, and gotten more flowers, and showed up early to the garden of friend’s house to take pictures, my boy seemed to have lost the bounce in his bungee. But he rallied.
The night was a success, thankfully, and Emma proved to be a fun date, though the next morning over breakfast Owen confessed he was glad it was over.
Owen: Now I can focus on swimming and school. I think my math grade has dropped.
Me: Was it worth it, do you think?
He chewed his bagel and thought a minute.
Owen: I think so. I mean, we could have had a dance without all that, you know, stuff. It was a lot of stress. Plus, I’m broke now. Life is expensive, you know?
Me: I do know.
He shook his head and opened the sports page and we were quiet for a minute.
Owen: I mean, I’m just not sure about events where the boy has to pay for the whole thing. It’s like you say. Where’s the skin in the game if someone else is paying for you? I just don’t know about it.
I kept to myself all the things I wanted to say, or the high-five I itched to give him, or how I’d asked myself that same question more than a few times.
Me: What if I come up with a creative ASK for cleaning the bathroom and washing the car? It’s a paying gig.
Owen: Okay. You can skip the flowers and candy, though.