The Next Generation
Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
Ken didn't know what to think when Judith turned him down.
He had thought the best way to go about asking her was to just barge straight ahead and come out with it, and avoid mentioning Lori's intervention.
"I don't think I'd better," she replied, and that seemed to be just about that. There wasn't anything more to say to her, and the conversation ended quickly.
At school the next day, Lori managed to corner Ken after civics class. "Did you ask her?" she asked.
Ken told her about the short phone call the night before.
"That's funny," Lori said. "She told me she couldn't think of anything nicer than to go to the prom with a guy like you."
"Beats me," Ken agreed.
"She probably was too surprised to think about it," Lori said. "Give her a chance to think about it and ask her again."
Ken ran across Judith two or three times during the day. He always had a smile or a cheery "Hi" for her, but usually she just nodded back and turned her eyes away.
While Judith may not have been saying much, Ken's surprise phone call of the night before had put her mind into a turmoil.
Judith couldn't remember the accident, but she could remember all too much of the years afterward. At first, she could barely feel her legs, much less move them; it had taken a lot of physical therapy to keep them from withering away. The therapy and operations had been agony for the little girl, but had restored some of the feeling and even a little of the control to her legs. But, while doctors and therapists could do a good deal to heal the damage to her body, it seemed her life had been damaged irreparably.
She could remember being a normal little girl, able to run and jump and play. As her battered body had slowly mended over the years, she had been all too aware that children she had gone to school with were still normal, still able to be as active as she had once been. It had taken years for her to fully contemplate that she might never even be able to walk without crutches again.
She could remember the hopes she had when she went back to school. She had hoped that she might again somehow be a normal person, but going back to school in a wheelchair, in a classroom with children that had been a year behind her, taught her that she would always be different.
Her body grew stronger as time went on, but somehow never enough to be a part of the life that surrounded her. She had grown into rather a pretty girl, slender, with a nice smile when she smiled -- but she never smiled much.
Physical therapy had eventually given her legs enough muscle to allow her to use crutches. That opened her life up a bit more, but by then her reluctance to mix with other people had become a part of the way she lived.
She found herself looking at the lives of others as if through a window of impenetrable glass. She could watch, but felt she couldn't participate; it seemed hopeless to try.
As she had drawn away from doing what other people could do, she had also become distant from them. She didn't like to admit that she was different from other people, while she wished she could be like them. She could share pleasantries with someone like Lori, but not feelings, hopes or dreams.
When Judith told Lori that she could dream of nothing nicer than going to the prom with someone like Ken, it had been just another dream of being normal that could never come true. As well as any other girl her age, she could imagine the glory of a stunning formal, the romance of dancing until all hours of the night, and just how memorable the occasion could be.
But, she knew in her heart that such a dream could never come to be; there could be no dancing, no excited plans of prom dresses or corsages. There was no point in getting her hopes up; such a thing could never happen to her.
Ken's call had left her in a state of surprise that almost left her speechless. Her natural reaction had been to avoid the disappointment -- but at least she had been asked!
There was at least one little touch of a dream that had become real, one victory scored over her body.
In her dreams that night, she promenaded -- on her own two feet -- onto the dance floor with Ken at her side, and danced until a ruddy dawn as if there had never been an accident.
Ken felt he owned it to Lori to call Judith back a couple days later. "Just called up to see if you'd changed your mind about going to the prom with me."
Judith was even more surprised to get a second offer of a prom date with Ken than she had been with the first, and couldn't help be a bit suspicious. When people took pity on her, they were often TOO nice to her. "Just why do you want to go with me?" she asked.
"Why not?" he stalled, his mind working furiously until it came up with an adequate white lie. "I got to thinking about it. This is a ballroom dance, right? I don't dance. It makes sense, when you think about it."
The phone was silent in Ken's hand for a long time before Judith's voice softly said, "I can't."
Ken was curious. "Why not?"
She replied, more firmly, now, "You don't dance. I CAN'T dance. I don't expect you to understand, but you have no idea of how out of place I'd feel at the most formal dance of the year."
Ken struggled for something to say. "It's not like you have to dance," he said uncertainly. "No one would expect you to, anyway."
"That's not it," she said, surprising herself. "I'm the one that wants to dance. You have no idea of how it would feel to go and not be out on the dance floor. I don't care how silly I look. I know I'm different, and I look silly. If I'm going to a dance, I want to be able to dance."
"All right," he said. There was a spark in her that he had never seen before, and he couldn't help wondering about it. "You're going to the prom with me. I don't know how we're going to do it, but somehow or other, we're going to dance."
She was silent for a moment. "Let's just make sure this is going to work," she told him, finally. "Let's face it. You don't know how to dance, and even if I could, I don't know anything about it, either."
"Well, we both get to learn from scratch," he said. "Maybe that'll help. Maybe you know someone that could give us some ideas."
"It's possible," she agreed. "I know a physical therapist that might help out. I'm just not sure I'll be able to go through with this. Until we know this is going to work out, I'd just as soon we didn't announce it all over school that you and I are going to the prom." The thought dazzled her for a moment. "Wow," she said in a distant voice.
"I can't believe I just said that. You and I are actually going to the prom."
"By the way," Ken said. "I've got a present for you." He handed Judith a box; inside was an orchid corsage that matched her gown perfectly.
It was the rare times like these that made all the operations and therapy seem worthwhile. Judith could even stand without her crutches in sight as her smiling father took picture after picture of her in her elegant prom dress and her date in his rented tuxedo. Someone that didn't know better would never suspect that her date was holding her close to support and balance her.
She fought to keep tears from rolling down her cheeks and ruining her makeup. It was hard to not believe that this was another one of her dreams of being a normal person, but Ken's strong arm didn't feel like a dream.
She brought herself up short. Once again she told herself that tonight she was going to be like a normal person.
All too soon, her mother brought her crutches back to her, and she wanted to cry again. Maybe it was a dream, she thought. The crutches reminded her all too easily that she wasn't like everyone else.
She looked up to see a tear on her father's cheek. There'd been enough crying in her family over the years to fill Willow Lake, but somehow, she knew this was different. "My little girl is absolutely beautiful tonight," he said to himself as much as to anyone else.
"That you are," Ken agreed.
"Don't put me on," she said curtly.
"I'm not," he told her. He stepped back to look at her, making sure she knew he was looking, and he wasn't joking. The crowning glory of her honey-blonde hair cascaded off her bare shoulders, framing her flawless face in a vision of almost unreal loveliness that seemed as if it should have been on a television screen. He didn't know the words to describe the gown that she was wearing, except to say that it was peach colored, strapless, low cut, floor length, and unbelievably nice.
He did know that Judith and Lori had spent hours searching the stores in Camden, trying on one dress after another in hopes of finding exactly the right one, and he'd never seen Judith as happy as she had been when the two had reported that they had found just the right one.
"You look absolutely stunning," he said, after a marveling look. "I'm proud of you, too."
Ken had decided this was no night for driving his old Chevy. His father had been able to help him out, borrowing a new Cadillac sedan from an old friend that lived in Geneva. Ken had spent the afternoon waxing and polishing the car by way of repayment. He held the door for her as she got in.
"Don't stay out late and don't strain yourself," Judy's mother called out as Ken walked around to the left side of the car.
"I'll be careful, mums," the excited girl called as she arranged her crutches at her side.
Over the years, it had become a tradition in Will Lake for the people going to the prom to meet at a pre-prom banquet. Since the prom was held in a hall in Geneva, the county seat twenty miles away, the banquet was also held there, at a fairly nice restaurant called "Bernetti's".
This was not Judith's first trip to Geneva with Ken; they had made three or four trips in his old Chevy to meet with Beth Mohr, the physical therapist, to work out some methods of dancing -- this this was the first time the two had been out that could really be called a date.
In fact, this was the first time she had been out with anyone that could really be called a date, and Judith was a little nervous. Except for Lori, no one knew that she and Ken were going to the prom together, and her excitement was tinged with a little fear of what other people would say.
As the Cadillac sped out of town, Judith pulled herself together. All of a sudden, she realized that she didn't mind what other people said or thought. She had decided days before that even though it seemed like this couldn't really be happening to her, she was going to make believe that it was and that she was no different from any other girl on the night of the prom.
She sat in the car a respectable distance away from Ken, so as not to muss her glorious dress as much as for any other reason, and tried to find something to say, something proper for the occasion, something wouldn't break the spell of this special occasion.
There was always the weather. "It's such a lovely evening," she said softly.
Ken was not quite as enraptured with the occasion as Judith was. "Been a bit on the dry side," he said. "We've been getting the corn in pretty good, but we need some moisture in the soil to make it germinate."
"You know, Ken, we've known each other for years," she replied, "But I'm not even sure where your farm is."
"Out around Arvada Center," he told her. "We've got 400 acres of our own, and lease another 360. It's mostly grain and beef."
Though Judith lived in the little town and never had much contact with the surrounding farms, she knew from hearing her father's conversations to know that that meant. The Sorensens had a medium-sized farm, big enough to be a full-time operation, but not so big that it demanded hired hands very much.
She also knew that she didn't want to talk about farming; this was a night to enjoy the romance of the occasion. To change the subject, she asked, "Did you tell anyone else you were going to the prom with me?"
Ken shook his head. "No, not even Bob -- you know, Bob Watson. Of course, he's been so surprised that Lori Mattson agreed to go to the prom with him that he wouldn't have heard me if I had told him."
"A lot of people don't seem to like Bob," she observed. "I've often been able to understand how that must make him feel."
Ken smiled to himself; he expected he knew what had made Judith say that. "Did Lori tell you what made her decide to go with him?" he asked, knowing the reason but hoping that it had remained a secret.
"She said she thought she ought to make sure she had a date while she had the chance," Judith reported.
"She'd have had the chance," he told her. "Jennifer Savage kept four different guys hanging until the night before last. I don't think at least two of them are going at all, now."
"That's just like her," Judith smiled. "She just has to make sure she has the last bit of attention. But think of the poor girl that was asked at the last minute by one of the guys she stood up."
"I don't follow you," he said, puzzled.
"Think of it," she said. "First, she thinks she isn't going to have a date for the prom. Then, she has to scramble around, get her hair done, find a prom dress, and all of the other things, and all of the time she knows that she's a second choice, or not even that."
Ken turned to glance at Judith. She had a vacant look on her face; it was easy to see her imagining she was the one in that position. "You're no second choice, Judith," he said. "Tonight, the second choice girls get to envy my beautiful date." He changed the subject, asking, "Did Alison get a date?"
"She's going with Phil Wines," Judith replied. "That was pinned down a long time ago." This was more like her dream, she thought. There should be some idle conversation, flattering remarks and gossip about friends at this stage. Maybe there was something else she could do to help her make-believe along. "Why don't you call me Judy?" she said. "Judith sounds like such a stuck-up name."
"Come to think of it, you do seem more like a Judy than you do a Judith," Ken replied. "I like that."
Judy had every right to be nervous as Ken pulled the Cadillac to a stop under the awning at Bernetti's the classiest restaurant that Geneva had to offer, but somehow, the desire to enjoy the moment overcame the jitters. Ken held the car door for her as she got up on her crutches, and she stood waiting under the awning while Ken went to park the car.
As she waited, she watched the next car pull up to the awning. It was Keith Worden's year-old Buick; Keith helped Jennifer Savage out of the car. Judy noted that Jennifer had selected the guy generally acknowledged to be from the richest family in the class.
"Hi, Jennifer," Judy said sweetly.
"Judith, I didn't expect to see you hare," the tall, haughty blonde aid with just enough emphasis on the "you" to make it sound cutting. "Who are you with?"
"Ken Sorensen," Judy replied, and answered Jennifer's next question before it could be asked. "He asked me quite a while ago."
"I didn't know they had a new Seville," Jennifer said, making a mental note. "Well, have a nice dance."
There was enough emphasis on the last two words to sting, but Judy didn't notice. At that moment, Ken came up, dressed so elegantly in his tuxedo to escort Judy into the restaurant. With him next to her that evening, even Jennifer Savage couldn't destroy her dream.
Judy was even happier when Ken escorted her across the floor in the traditional promenade of couples at the prom a couple of hours later.
Somehow, the decorating committee had managed to turn the grungy old rental hall into something of an elegant ballroom that somehow resembled an outdoor garden. At any other time, a critic might have called the decorations tacky and overdone, a crepe paper extravaganza, but they were just the thing to create the proper mood for as traditional an event as the prom.
The prom was truly the height of social aspirations at Willow Lake High School, and now Judy was sure she was there. For a moment, at least, she was the center of attention as her handsome date escorted her across the floor, the eyes of the junior and senior classes upon her.
Ken and Judy found a seat at a table near the dance floor, but they sat for no more than a minute before the orchestra began to play, and for one crushing moment, the fear of making a fool of herself almost overwhelmed her. But the, Ken said, "Shall we?"
Judy had said she didn't want to come to the prom if she couldn't dance; there was no turning back, now. She pulled herself to her feet, let Ken take her in his arms, and whispered, "Hold me tight." In a moment, they were out on the floor.