IF YOU ASKED THEM, Jim and Hilda would have insisted that they were absolutely not going steady. But the knowing winks and glances when they happened to be in the same room told them that no one believed it. Between basketball and the fact that they had most of their classes together, they spent almost their entire school day in the same rooms. They didn’t hold hands or hang around together between classes. By unspoken understanding, they made a point of not sitting together at lunch, which would have doubtless advertised a major relationship in the eyes of their schoolmates.
Hilda was so used to riding to and from school on her bike, that she did not realize what a change her classmates perceived when Jim started doing the same thing. They would not have understood that he preferred the freedom of the bike over taking the bus. They also did not know that he peeled off the Pariser Strasse less than a mile from the school to go home, while Hilda continued into downtown Kaiserslautern on the bike path.
The spring of their junior year was different. One day, as they unlocked their bikes to go home, Jim asked, “Have you been thinking about the prom?”
Hilda paused with the Abus u-lock in her hand.
“I only thought of it today when I noticed the tittering and eyerolls in physics class.”
“Oh, yeah. What was that about?”
“One of the guys on the team said I was totally dense not to see the girls coming on to me.”
“I admit that you do have a lot of batting eyelashes following you around.” She grinned and batted hers in an exaggerated, slow motion. They laughed. “So, what about the prom?”
“Why haven’t you thought about it?”
“I don’t know. I know everyone is excited about it, but I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you’re American, Hilda.”
“I am, but, like you, I’ve never lived there. At least you spend your summers in Montana, but my grandparents are in London and here. Except for the girls on the team, my friends are all in town.”
“Would you like to go?”
“Are you asking me?”
“You’re the only girl I’ve ever dated. Seems to make sense. I’ve been afraid to ask, because it might signal something, or you might be offended.”
Hilda looked at him while she snapped her u-lock to the bike frame. She glanced at the students walking away from them or boarding the buses.
“Yes. I think it would be fun. Besides, dancing with anyone else would be awkward.” She grinned. They were both well over six feet tall.
“What about the others?”
“What did Bonnie Raitt say to that?”
“‘Let’s give them something to talk about.’ I like it.”
They swung onto their bikes and rode home.
One had to be eighteen to have a driver’s license in Germany, so it never crossed Hilda’s mind that a natural consequence of the annual Weasley migration to Montana would include her friend’s getting his own license. Sergeant Weasley lent his son the family car, a Volkswagen Beetle, for the prom.
“Have you driven much?” She asked him on their way to world history one day.
“Yes, I have. Mom doesn’t like to drive. When there’s a commissary run or another errand, she’s happy to let me drive. And on vacations, I do most of the driving. Dad says he drives for a living; he’s fine to have someone else do it.”
“So, this will be the classic setup?”
“Yup. I’ll pick you up at six-thirty.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
Hilda had a black gown, which she wore for classical concerts, recitals, and other musical performances. Tongai and Margareta quickly fought down her insistence that it would be fine for a prom.
“My fault for not asking for duty in Kansas, mudiki.” Little one in Shona. “After you spend some time in America among your peers, you will understand how much the prom means to them.”
“And your friends will all want to know what you wore to your prom, long after you leave here,” said her mother.
For a week, Margareta and Hilda visited dress shops after school. In the end, the tailor who had made many of Margareta’s costumes for the stage suggested a slim gown that clung to her figure but allowed her to move easily.
“This will be easy,” he said, looking at Hilda’s mother. “It’s the dress we made for die Zauberflöte in 1974. Remember that one?”
“Too bad we couldn’t keep the dresses back then. I liked that one.”
“True. But I have the patterns, and Hilda here is a carbon copy of you.” He stood back and admired the teenager. “I was just thinking that either white or a pastel would set off that fantastic skin. You could not have worn a colour like that, Margareta.”
“I agree. What do you think, Hilda?”
Hilda felt a little embarrassed but also pleased to be part of this conversation between masters in their fields. “Are you talking about the outfit on the poster in Baba’s office.”
“That one, yes.”
“I’ve always admired it. I think I’d love to have a dress like that.”
For the hair, Margareta marched Hilda to the most expensive hairdresser in town, which happened to be between their apartment building and the Pfalz-theatre.
“Mama, isn’t this too much? We can put my hair up.”
“Nonsense, dear. Rike has been waiting sixteen years for this. She would be offended if I let anyone else do your hair for something like a prom. She said so before every show after I married your father.”
“She was the hairdresser for the Städtebundoper?”
“She still is. And she made me promise.”
In the salon, Hilda sat while Rike Messner examined her hair closely, running her fingers through it, and massaging Hilda’s scalp.
“This is remarkable. She absolutely has your hair, Margareta. I can feel it.”
“So, as easy to work with?”
“Oh, yes. This will be a pleasure. Come, Hilda, let’s look at some magazines.”
Jim pulled into a free space outside Hilda’s apartment building. He was still getting over the fact that his father ordered a tailored tuxedo for him. Sergeant Weasley had never shown that much interest in the social life at school.
“It’s a rare chance to get you a quality tux at an affordable price,” his father had said. “We would have had to rent one Stateside. You can keep this for weddings, funerals, command performances – even opening night at the opera, since you seem to have developed a taste for that. A tux is never a waste, as long as you don’t outgrow it.” He patted his flat stomach. Jim knew that his father had never had to let out any of his original uniforms.
Jim took the box with the corsage from the passenger’s seat. He almost dropped it in the street when he cracked his head on the door frame. Pausing to let the dizziness subside, he locked the car and walked upstairs.
Hilda felt upset, excited, happy, and afraid. This was a new experience for a girl who had always gotten away with standing taller and acting older than her classmates.
She had been Jim’s friend since fourth grade; she could not imagine going to any event at the school with anyone else. She didn’t hang out at school. Her classmates were friendly, but she wasn’t tuned into their world outside of class and the basketball court.
The reality that she was going to a dance, let alone the prom, with a boy, let alone the captain of the basketball team, had not hit her until this week, when she overheard two girls in the washroom speculating about who Jim was taking to the prom.
“I’ll bet he asks Mirella. He can ask anyone, and she was the homecoming queen last fall.”
“You crazy? Mirella is so into Matt Dukens that I don’t think she knows Weasley is alive.”
“Everyone knows Weasley is alive. Have you seen his pecs when he shoots those three-pointers?”
“Not just his pecs.” Hilda was surprised that their giggling annoyed her. “Still, I’ve never seen him on a date with anyone.”
“Maybe Paisley? I saw them a month ago coming out of Forrest Gump.”
“Yeah, but they’re both jocks. That could have been a coincidence, and no one’s ever seen them together here at school. Besides, he could have any white girl he wants at the prom.”
Hilda took in a breath and clamped her hand over her mouth. She had not thought about her skin colour since the first day of fourth grade so long ago.
“You’re probably right. Except for that one movie, I’ve only seen them in class.”
“They do sit together.”
“Doesn’t count. The teachers have been putting those two in the back row forever.”
“Personally, I would love to be able to hide behind Weasley. Much more interesting than the blackboard.”
“Yeah, better view…” The conversation trailed off. Hilda waited to be sure that they had left. When she opened the door to the stall, she was alone in the washroom…
The doorbell rang. Hilda took a short breath and walked to the living room. Margareta went to the door.
Hilda gasped when Jim came into the room. She had never seen his hair combed. Or wearing a tux. His clean, strong chin made her realize that he had never shaved off his fuzz until tonight.
He stood there with his mouth open, taking a short breath as if he wanted to say something. The box in his hands was quivering slightly. Hilda snapped out of the trance first.
“You look good. Really good.”
“You’re – I mean, you’re –” he ran out of words. He looked around for help, but there was only Margareta, standing in the corner smiling as proudly as a mentor watching her protégé win first prize.
“Pick an adjective, James. She won’t bite.”
“Uh, beautiful. No! Stunning. Amazing.”
“Thank you. Maybe I should wear skirts instead of jeans more often at school, eh?”
“I just – I knew you were good-looking, but you’re hot!”
Hilda chuckled and looked at her mother. “Is that what the reviewers wrote when you wore this dress?”
“No, I think that was the reference to smoking hell.” She laughed. “Hilda told me, James. I will call it the Smoking Hell aria from now on.”
Jim chuckled, relieved to have laughter break the spell. “Is this your dress?”
“No, but the tailor who made mine still had the patterns and chose new fabrics and colours.”
“Here.” He offered Hilda the corsage and helped put it on.
“Would you care for something before you go?” Margareta asked.
“I don’t know. Do we have time?”
“I think so,” said Hilda. “Let’s relax and get used to this.”
“Okay. Thanks, Mrs. Paisley. That soda we had before?”
“Sure.” She left the room. They sat on the sofa.
“Is your father here?”
“No. He’s on another mission. The army has my schedule, and they make sure to send him away anytime something interesting comes up. Like our eight-grade graduation, my confirmation, and the prom.”
“I know how that feels. I’m glad to have my dad around for high school. When he was here at Pulaski Barracks, he was in the field almost all the time. At Ramstein, he has a desk job.” Jim thanked Margareta and took a sip. “He is – or was – a helicopter mechanic. What does Mr. Paisley do?”
Hilda looked at her mother, who gave no hint. “We’re not sure. Baba was an Army linguist during the Cold War, but he’s in special operations now.”
Jim put down his glass. “What time do we need to be back?”
“This is Germany, James,” her mother said. “You could go clubbing all night at your age.” She looked at Hilda.
“I have a solo during Communion tomorrow. I’ll need to be rested for that.”
“I’ll return her when she tires of me, ma’am.”
Margareta laughed. “Good plan. I trust her.”
Hilda admired the confident, careful way that Jim drove. She had seen enough craziness from the other students. She complimented him.
“It’s Dad’s car and the only car. I can’t afford to be stupid with it.”
“Well, I feel safe.”
“Don’t drop me off. Just park in the student lot and let’s walk in together.”
A crowd of noisy students in prom dresses and tuxedos had gathered outside the main entrance to the school. When Hilda rounded the corner from the parking lot on Jim’s arm, conversation stopped as if someone had pressed a big mute button.
Hilda felt Jim’s hesitation. She squeezed his arm and invisibly pushed him to keep walking. During the twenty yards to the door, she noticed how both boys and girls were staring at her. The boys’ expressions were a mixture of surprise and lust. And something else on some of the faces. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it felt negative. The girls were checking her out as they often did, but some were staring at Jim with stunned expressions.
“I guess the eye-batters are getting a surprise,” she whispered to Jim.
“Ya think?” He grinned broadly and extended a high five to the right guard on the basketball team. That gesture snapped the moment and conversation resumed, although at a lower level than before, as Jim and Hilda entered the school. Couples from the two basketball teams followed them in, which made everyone else conclude that there was nothing more interesting happening outside.
Soon, the dancing, drinking and eating was in full swing.
“You’re a good dancer, Jim,” she said on the first slow number.
“You, too. I never thought about it before.”
“This isn’t your first dance, is it?”
“No, but it’s the first time I could talk to my dance partner without shouting or getting a crick in my neck.” He backed his head. “I haven’t seen you at a dance before. Why not?”
“You’re my first date, remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” He seemed intensely happy and spun her in a couple of double-time counts before settling back.
A few couples disappeared before eleven, but Jim and Hilda were among the large exodus to the parking lot at the end. They walked slowly, holding hands. By the time they crossed the student parking lot, it was almost empty.
“That was wonderful, Jim. I don’t want this evening to end.”
“Me, neither. Hey, what’s this on the car?” He pulled a notebook-sized page from under the windshield wiper. His face paled as he read. Hilda could see a single word bleeding through. It was too fuzzy to read.
“Jim, what is it?”
He held the note out to her. “I thought we didn’t have this kind of trash here.”
Hilda read the scrawl in red magic marker. Her first reaction was fear for Jim.
Her next was to scan the parking lot. “We’ve got company.”
A trio of boys approached them from the direction of the housing area east of the school. They wore tee-shirts and jeans. Hilda recognized two of them as seniors. The largest one was repeating junior math and physics with her and Jim, having flunked them last year. The one next to him spoke first.
“Didja get the message, Weasley?”
“What do you want, Ramsey?”
“Kick your ass, nigger-lover.”
They were close enough now that Hilda could smell the beer on their breath. She nearly laughed when the thought went though her mind, drinking cheap Budweiser in Germany. Figures. These were the kind of people her baba had told to be ready for. She just didn’t expect it until boot camp. She breathed slowly and moved into the alert state that Tongai had drilled so many nights in the forest.
“No one is kicking anyone’s ass tonight, Ramsey, unless you three want yours trashed. Just go away, all of you.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to, black bitch?”
“You and your two friends. Now leave!” The big one lunged for her. She pulled his arm through and chopped the back of his neck with her elbow. Ramsey came at her, but she used his momentum to swing him into the third boy, who had Jim bowled over from a punch to the solar plexus. As the two assailants went down, she followed them with a straight kick in the back, which cracked Ramsey’s face on the pavement. The one under him started to move but stopped and put his hands up in terror when Hilda dared him to move with a flash of her eyes and a foot on his groin. Jim was standing straight, breathing carefully.
“Jim, do you have a phone? We need to call 112 or get a teacher out here.”
The military police station was just across Fifth Avenue from the school, so the response was quick. The sirens brought the teachers out. When they saw that the police were taking charge, they let the principal watch and shooed the onlookers back into the building.
The sergeant who responded recognized the three boys. “Ramsey and his buddies.” He looked at the three of them on the ground, and watched Hilda shake her head at the big one when he tried to move. “What happened here?” he asked Hilda.
“These three put a note on the windshield of my date’s car, then attacked us as we were about to get in and leave.”
Jim gave the sergeant the page with its blood-red insult. “Ramsey admitted that he wrote it.”
The sergeant whistled and handed the note to his partner, whose eyes flared with rage. He called for backup and handcuffed the three boys.
An hour later, the MP who had responded first drove Jim and Hilda back to his car from the MP station.
“Sorry Ramsey ruined your evening. Don’t worry about him. His father has been warned twice already. This will put the whole family on the next plane Stateside.”
“Thank you, officer,” they said. He drove off.
“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Jim asked as they sat in the car.
“Third generation Army brat. My father taught me.”
“Thanks. They would have made a mess of me.” He took the car keys from his pocket. “Did this ruin your evening?”
Hilda leaned over and put her hand on his before he put the key in the ignition.
“It could have, but now it will be the most memorable prom ever…”
Hilda tried to let herself in as silently as possible, but the light was on in the living room. Margareta looked up from her book.
“I didn’t expect you back so soon, cära,” she said. “Isn’t there a tradition of a little something after the prom?” She glanced at the wrinkles in the front of the evening gown and looked back up.
Hilda paused to read her mother’s arched eyebrow and the twinkle in her eyes. Then she got it.
“We tried, Mama, but it’s too hard to make out in a Volkswagen.”
© 2022, JT Hine