My heart was still racing and my body just couldn't stop shaking. Sitting in the hallway outside of the gym, I took deep breath after deep breath, trying to calm down. I shut my eyes and covered my ears in an attempt to banish the incessant barking that reverberated through my mind. Slowly, the tremors running through my arms and legs subsided a little, and I reopened my eyes to the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights against the linoleum floor. Resting my back against the gymnasium wall, I could feel rumbling from the music inside. I glanced over to the closed doors where I could hear the sounds of all my classmates having fun and laughing. Yeah, they were probably all laughing at me.
Why do I always have to be such a goddamned coward when it comes to barking? Why did I have to run out of the gym crying like that? I can't go back in there, right? Not after that. I could just hear all of the names that they'd be calling me: crybaby, 'fraidy cat, wuss. Beside, no girl would want to be seen with a friggin' coward like me.
Slumped down in the hallway, tears still running down my cheek, I felt like a pathetic, scared, little child – like my sixth-grade self after being ambushed by that gang of dogs. I guess it's just fitting that tonight ended the same way that middle school began, with me bawling my eyes out because of my lame phobia. I let out a sigh as I remembered that day. Back then I promised myself that something like this would never happen again, that somehow I'd become stronger or braver. Well so much for that promise. And so much for tonight.
I leaned my head back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling tiles. This night has been such a failure. I should just go home before it gets any worse.
I picked myself up off the floor and began walking down the hallway toward the exit. As my footsteps echoed down the long corridor, I heard the door to the gym squeak open behind me and the music from inside the gym pour into the hallway. Shit, someone's coming out. I tensed up, imagining that a group of the guys were going to give me a hard time about what had just happened. I quickly wiped the remaining tears from my eyes and glanced over my shoulder.
Fortunately, I saw a familiar cream-colored cat in a blue dress peering out from the door instead.
"Daisy, what are you doing out here?"
Daisy lacked her usual cheerful smile as she stepped out into the hallway, letting the door swing closed behind her. "Oh I, uh," she looked up at me and paused, "I saw what happened in there."
"Oh." I didn't really feel like talking about it at the moment, feeling content to leave the issue floating in the silence between us. Only the muted beats from inside the gymnasium permeated the corridor.
"You're not leaving, are you?" Daisy asked.
"I dunno, maybe. This dance is getting kinda lame."
Daisy ran over and grabbed a hold of my arm. "But Paulo, you can't leave yet!"
"You're not mad at Davie, are you?"
"No. Of course not." I looked down at Daisy as she hung onto my arm. "He was doing what any guy woulda done. It was my fault. I'm just a freakin' idiot and a coward."
"No, you're not."
"You saw what happened in there!"
"So? Nobody cares." I gave her a skeptical look. "Well, I don't care! Come on, Paulo, is that what's bothering you? Are you afraid that people will tease you about your fear of barking?"
"Yeah, like I care what they think." It was now Daisy's turn to give me a skeptical look. "Okay, okay, I am a little sensitive about that, but that's not the whole reason."
"Well then, what's bothering you?" Daisy kept tugging at my arms insistently. "Are you…" Her voice dropped a bit. "Are you upset that Lucy isn't here?"
Daisy's question caught me off guard. Why should I care whether Lucy was here or not? It's not like she's the only girl I was after. Sure, she was the hottest girl in school, the one I had been crushing on ever since I moved to this town, but there were so many other girls who were just as attractive and fun to be around like… like—well, that's not important right now.
"Oh, er, no, I'm not upset about that. It's just…" I paused to try and find some way to communicate the emotions racing through my mind at this point: the kick in the balls I felt from all the rejections tonight, the shame of acting like such a coward at David's barking. And maybe Daisy was right – maybe I did really resent knowing that Lucy would always be hopelessly crushing on Mike. It's not like I couldn't get any girls. Hey, I got to second base with the head cheerleader! But when it came to the girls I actually freakin' cared about, they were all crushing on someone else. Yeah, I always played the cool and aloof ladies man and it was irresistible to some, but what does it tell you when the girls who know you best only have eyes for Mike? It really fucking sucks knowing that you're not good enough – that you'll never be good enough – for them.
All this dance did was remind me of how it all made me feel so goddamned unwanted. Sure, I could always point to the fact that I've made out with so many more girls than Mike, but it just wasn't the same. None of that was anything real. It was just my way of coping with the fact that I couldn't get what I really wanted. But tonight, even the hotties I chased after exactly because I had no feelings for them didn't want any part of me.
I looked down at Daisy and sighed. "This dance has just really sucked."
"But you were so excited about tonight, almost as excited as I was. It's the big farewell-to-middle-school dance. It's supposed to be special, right?"
"I'm just not feelin' it tonight," I said as I tugged my arm away from her grasp and walked across the hallway toward the windows. I leaned my forearms against the windowsill and stared out into the darkness. But against the harsh glow of the fluorescent lights illuminating the hallway, all I could see out through the glass was my own reflection – a moody, slightly disheveled face staring back at me.
Man, you really look pathetic, don't you? Listen to Daisy, dude: it's the final freakin' dance of middle school! Is this how you want to remember tonight, moping around like some sissy emo kid? Boo hoo, I'm a frickin' coward. Boo hoo, I'm gonna be all alone tonight. That's bullshit and you know it.
I refocused my vision on the window, and behind my reflection, I saw Daisy. Like so many times before, she noticed when something was wrong with me, she came after me, and now, she was here to try and make me feel better.
"Paulo, please don't leave," Daisy said as she placed her hand on my shoulder.
I turned to face her, and looked down into her big brown eyes. She knew full well I couldn't resist that face.
"Fine, Daisy," I replied. "I'll stay."
"Yay!" Daisy's face lit up as she leapt up with excitement and grabbed a hold of my arm again. "Hey, why don't you show me your new dance moves that you've been talking about!"
Before I could respond Daisy dragged me back into the gymnasium. But as we entered and made our way toward the dance floor, I couldn't help but notice that Daisy was smiling again.