Duncan shifted uncomfortably on his bar stool, nodding his head awkwardly to the music, unable to find the beat. The club was too loud and brimming with hipsters, frat packs, woo girls, punks and hip-hoppers, anyone looking to take the edge off. Most of the patrons sitting at the bar were viewing the game on the overhead TV, but Duncan faced the dance floor, watching all the ways that women moved like oceans. What the guys were doing—hopping up and down, flinging their crotches—he didn’t really get.
He imagined himself out there. The crowd on the dance floor would slowly part and his body would sway and someone would swear that music was invented just for him. Maybe after he danced with a girl he’d ask her to an all-night diner, tell her about his life, how silly he had felt going to a bar just to meet someone but he was glad that he did because he’d met her.
Duncan gulped his whiskey and hacked like he’d eaten fire. He tried to work up the nerve to brave the dance floor, but every time he came close he felt with shame the tightness of his black slacks around his gut, fat spilling over the waistband. He pushed his index finger into the soft of his love handles.
Tonight, he reminded himself, he was supposed to be somebody. It was why he wasn’t gaming at home. It was why he wasn’t in cargo shorts and a Marvel Comics T-shirt. It was why he looked up “How to tie a tie” on YouTube. It was why he did sit-ups that morning. Duncan stood, straightened his tie like he’d seen suave guys do in movies and walked to the dance floor. It was slick from spilled drinks, and just as he reached the center, ready to let it all go, his feet slid out from under him and he fell to the wet ground. Looking up, he could see several people had stopped dancing and were staring at him, laughing. One man was pointing and jumping up and down like a child at a zoo. Duncan staggered to his feet and scurried to the men’s room, accidentally knocking into people, mumbling apologies along his path.
Racial slurs and blow-job promises tattooed the bathroom walls in black marker. It looked and smelled like someone had pissed in the sink. Duncan frowned at himself in the cracked mirror, his shirt damp and streaked with filth from the floor. He hunched beneath the hand dryer connected to the wall and poked at his belly fat. Suddenly the bathroom door flew open. Duncan flinched as a guy wearing black jeans and a tattered sleeveless shirt kicked the door wide and strode in. Colorful tattoos spiraled around his arms and his hair was dirty and wild. He was wailing A-ha’s “Take On Me” while swaying left and right.
The door-kicker cocked his head and pointed at Duncan in the mirror. Duncan froze.
“You!” the guy yelled, storming toward him.
“What?” Duncan asked, raising his hands defensively.
The stranger wrapped Duncan in a bear hug and shouted, “Preston! Preston fucking Myers! Holy shit!”
“That’s not my——”
“It’s me! Ritchie! Fuck, man. What’s it been? Sixth grade?”
Duncan stepped back, quickly scanning Ritchie. He was certain they’d never met. Ritchie had a look on his face like he was ready to eat the world and ask for seconds. He seemed feral and yet somehow holy, like an apocalyptic horseman. Ritchie seemed free.
“Yeah, man. Sixth grade at least,” Duncan said, scratching his head.
“Shit, that’s gotta be 15 years or so. You moved, right? What are you doing back in town?”
“You alone tonight?”
“Yeah, all my boys already left.” Duncan winced as he said it. It was the first time he’d ever said “my boys” and he debated its taste like a first cigarette.
“Their loss. You’re rollin’ with us tonight,” Ritchie said as he stepped to the urinal. He swung his hips back and forth, causing himself to shoot past the porcelain. His piss slid down the wall like raindrops on a car window. Unconcerned, Ritchie went back to singing the chorus of “Take On Me,” leaning way back as he screeched its last high note. Duncan sang along under his breath.
Out in the club, Ritchie seemed to know everyone; each time Duncan turned there was a new hand to shake.
“I’m Preston,” he’d say. “In town to see relatives.”
With every hand he shook, a question followed. How’s it feel seeing Ritchie again after all these years? What’re you drinking tonight? You gotten laid since you been back in town? When Ritchie’s friends leaned in to better hear his answers he kept it short and simple, smiling and nodding. He had a hard time keeping up with all the names, but it was easy to remember Alessandra. She was small and lithe and she grinned at him with strawberry lips as he introduced himself.
Duncan extended his hand, but she closed in for a hug instead. He instinctively sucked in his gut and curled his arm around her narrow frame.
“One arm?” she teased. “That’s weak.”
Before he could come up with a witty response she bounded toward the dance floor like a stone skipping over the water’s surface, hopping with each step as if her shoes had spring-loaded soles. Duncan figured that’s how happy people moved.
Ritchie put his arm around Duncan and shouted above the thumping music, “Preston, my man. Tell the triplets here about that sweet chica you snagged from me at the sock hop!”
Ritchie gestured toward three large men in button-up flannels, each with combed-back hair and a brown beard. They looked like members of a woodsmen fraternity. “Yo! Earth to Preston!” Ritchie belted as he patted Duncan’s back. “The chica.” Duncan tore his attention from Alessandra and searched for something to say that would coat him in undeniable coolness.
“Man, there were so many of ’em, I’m having a hard time remembering who you’re talking about,” he blurted.
“My man! You absolute fucking dog. Did I not tell you guys that my boy Preston was a fucking legend?” Ritchie hooted.
The triplets threw their heads back and roared with laughter, one clapping his mammoth hands and stomping in appreciation. Ritchie and his friends laughed with their whole bodies, like a good joke might break a bone. Duncan watched them admiringly. Not only do they laugh deeply, he thought, but they piss on walls. They ask questions and actually listen to the answers. They travel in packs like great wolves. And when the right song comes on, they dance.
A popular song blasted from the speakers and within seconds the dance floor was flooded, a storm of gleeful howls swirling around Duncan. It was the World Series when the winning run rounds third. It was a roller coaster just before the big spill. It was your favorite band coming out to play one more song. It was that thing that’s worth waiting for, because when it finally shows up, all you can do is scream.
Ritchie and the triplets moved toward the dance floor, and Duncan followed. But as the beat revved, Duncan stood still, paralyzed. Around him dancers were flailing, wet with sweat and beer. He scanned nearby faces. Afraid someone might recognize him from his fall, Duncan felt his breathing hasten. He decided to bolt for the bar, but then he heard her.
“You’re not gonna dance?”
Duncan turned and saw Alessandra bopping in front of him.
“Oh, this just isn’t my jam,” he said, hoping he sounded cool.
“Do you have ears?” she laughed. “It’s everyone’s jam.”
“You know, I just feel like I’ve jammed to it too many times.”
“We’re saying jam a lot.”
“Yeah, too much jam.”
“You’re cute,” she said as she twisted in circles.
Duncan watched her body move like it was what made the world spin.
The song ended, and with relief Duncan began to make his way through the waves of people to the safety of a bar stool. But as the next song gathered speed and the crowd boomed its approval again, someone grabbed Duncan’s arm from behind.
“Oh no you don’t, Mr. Sock Hop ’99! I remember you getting fucking nutty to this shit!”
Duncan glanced at the empty seat at the bar, remembering sitting there, choking on his liquor, suppressing a hard-on, watching the dance floor and aching for all the things he could be. With a nod he pushed past Ritchie, who barked joyfully and drummed his hands on Duncan’s back. Duncan shut his eyes for a moment, listening to the music, feeling it. Rolling his head to the buildup, grooving his shoulders to the beat as the rhythm bloomed. He gripped his shirtfront and hoped that the people who saw him fall earlier were watching. He hoped that the girl who laughed at him when he gave her a Wonder Woman Valentine’s Day card in fourth grade was watching, and the very first person who called him fat, and the ones who called him John Candy’s bastard child, who compared him to a Mack truck, who blamed him for putting Chow Down Asian Buffet out of business. He hoped they were all watching.
The beat dropped and Duncan ripped open his shirt, buttons exploding off the fabric like plastic shrapnel. He swung his arms and swiveled on his feet, his belly bouncing under his white T-shirt. His loosened tie flapped like a happy dog’s tail. He always thought he’d have to rely on secondhand moves copied from films like Footloose and Grease, but it wasn’t the case. He felt the music, his body greeting the rhythms and tones like a lover, laying it down gently, then rough. Duncan let loose, his feet burning as he spun. For a few blissful minutes, everything was a multicolor blur. He didn’t notice that a circle had formed around him until the song was over.
Duncan searched for Ritchie or Alessandra or the triplets but saw no one he’d met that night. A panic washed over him. Had he embarrassed them? Had he embarrassed himself? He stiffened; people were still dancing, but for Duncan the club had become quiet, the music sounding far away. He checked the bar, the men’s room, did a couple of laps around the dance floor, but no luck. Ritchie and Ritchie’s friends—everyone he’d felt a connection with—had disappeared. It was a social rapture.
“Preston! Outside, man,” one of the triplets hollered, urgency edging into his voice as he waved at Duncan from the door.
The club’s humidity was offset by the coolness of the evening air. Duncan saw a swarm of people gathered in the parking lot, and in the center was Ritchie, gritting his teeth at an angry midnight warrior with a popped collar and a flat-bill hat.
Duncan stumbled toward Ritchie, pushing weakly past the crowd. He felt his chest cave and his tongue turn to beach sand. Cold sweat glistened on the back of his neck. He glanced over people’s heads at the street beyond and imagined himself running away. No one would ever see him again. No one even knew his name. But instead Duncan stood at Ritchie’s side.
“Who’s the fucking marshmallow?” Flat Bill said.
“Don’t talk about my man like that,” Ritchie said. “He didn’t spill your drink. I did.”
“Jesus. Look at him. He’s out of breath just from walking over here,” Flat Bill sneered.
Duncan heard scattered laughter and felt like his skin was tightening around his bones. He stood up straighter. The laughter grew, filling his head, circling his brain. This was the only song he knew. It was a grand symphony churning his blood, making the spit that he swallowed taste like gasoline. Duncan clenched his fist and swung it as hard as he could. It connected across Flat Bill’s jaw, and he went down hard.
“Holy shit!” Ritchie roared, joining the cacophony of onlookers.
Holy shit, Duncan thought.
Ritchie laughed and whooped like a boy who’d found his favorite present under the tree on Christmas morning. Duncan saw Flat Bill working unsteadily to his feet and grabbed his arm to help him up. Flat Bill looked at him, eyes widening in confusion, then moped to his car. Duncan watched, wishing he’d apologized, but was frozen as he realized he’d stood up for himself. A hulking security guard strode over and informed Ritchie and Duncan that they weren’t allowed back in. The gawkers dispersed, chattering about what had just happened.
“Who’s the big guy?” Duncan heard someone ask. “The bulldozer that came from out of nowhere.”
Ritchie told his friends to head back into the club and not worry about him and Duncan. He waved off their protests and said, “Just because my night’s over doesn’t mean yours is.”
“What now?” Duncan asked.
“I’d better get going,” Ritchie said, digging his hands into his pockets and looking at the passing cars.
“Yeah,” Duncan said reluctantly. “Me too.”
“Already? You’re not going to go talk to Alessandra first? I saw you guys in there.” “I would, but——”
“But what?” Ritchie interjected.
“She wouldn’t like me, man. I’m fat and——”
“So fucking what you’re fat. Let me ask you something. Do you give tight hugs? Do you know any jokes?”
“Then you’re lovable, you fuck.”
Duncan slowly nodded.
“You know,” Duncan said, breathing deeply, “I’m not Preston. Have no idea who the guy is.”
“Man,” Ritchie said, looking Duncan over, “I figured that out within the first two minutes.”
They stood in silence. Duncan thought maybe he should’ve felt foolish, but he didn’t. He was caught up in a strange, overpowering sense of comfort.
“I’m really glad I came out tonight,” Duncan finally said.
“Yeah, a lot can happen on a weekend night,” said Ritchie, lighting a cigarette. “You can just be yourself, you know? And you carry that with you throughout the week. Be that wild thing breathing fire on the dance floor on Monday morning. And when someone calls you fat on Tuesday, you do jumping jacks in front of him, or scream ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ or knock his goddamn teeth out, because it doesn’t matter. You’re alive and you’re not confined to what anyone says you are.”
Ritchie took a long drag. “Only on the weekend do we seem to remember this,” he said, walking toward the street.
Duncan laughed and shouted, “I’ll run into you next time I’m in town!”
“You bet,” Ritchie called back, waving. Then he disappeared beyond the haze of the streetlights.
Duncan tried buttoning his shirt, forgetting that he’d ripped all the buttons off. A grin broke out on his face as he looked at the reddened knuckles of his right hand. He clenched his fist and felt pain wash over his skin. He knew what he had to do.
Duncan sprinted back into the club, past the disbelieving bouncer. He heard him exclaim “What’d I say, motherfucker,” but he didn’t look back. He ran to the dance floor. There she was—Alessandra, grooving, glowing in a wash of faces that didn’t matter. He didn’t wait to catch his breath.
“Listen, I have to make this really fast because there’s a fucking ogre coming for me,” Duncan gulped. “You seem happy. I don’t know if you really are, but I want to hear about your life. Come out with me. To a diner. Now. Please. And if you’re not hungry, watch me eat. I can do origami with the napkins and that one balancing trick with the fork. It doesn’t matter if you know what I’m talking about. Come with me and you will. And goddamn it, I’ll hug you when we’re done. I’ll hug you the right way. Just, please. Meet me outside.”
Before she could answer, Duncan took off, a few steps ahead of the bouncer. He pushed his way past men and women, spilling drinks and stepping on shoes. He didn’t say sorry—didn’t even think to. He knew the bouncer was behind him and Alessandra was somewhere behind the bouncer, contemplating what had just happened. Maybe she’d meet him outside. Maybe she wouldn’t. As he ran toward the door his inhales were deep and he thought that this was the type of breathing that kept you alive.
For the past 29 years, students have competed for the honor of winning Playboy’s College Fiction Contest. This year, Donnie Watson of Georgia Regents University wins for his story My Feet Are Fire. Amanda Moeckel’s winning entry is shown at the top of this page.