A silver-haired man who rode over in the van from Ferncliff is making appreciative eyes at her, and Stormy is pretending not to notice, all the while batting her lashes and preening with one hand on her hip. He must be the handsome man Stormy mentioned to me.
I take a picture of her at the piano and send it directly to Margot, who texts back a smiling emoji and two thumbs up.
I’m setting up the American flag centerpiece, watching John lug a table closer to the center of the room at Stormy’s direction, when Alicia sidles up beside me, and then we’re both watching him. “You should date him.”
“Alicia, I told you, I just got out of a relationship,” I whisper back. I can’t take my eyes off him in that uniform with that side part.
“Well, get into a new one. Life is short.” For once, Alicia and Stormy are on the same page.
Stormy is now straightening John’s tie, his little hat. She even licks her finger and tries to smooth his hair, but he ducks away. Our eyes meet, and he makes a frantic face like, Help me.
“Save him,” Alicia says. “I’ll finish the table. My internment camp display is already done.” She’s set that up by the doors, so it’s the first thing you see when you walk in.
I hurry over to John and Stormy. Stormy beams at me. “Doesn’t she look like an absolute doll?” She swans off.
With a straight face John says, “Lara Jean, you’re an absolute doll.”
I giggle and touch the top of my head. “A cinnamon roll–headed doll.”
People are starting to mill in, even though it isn’t seven yet. I’ve observed that old people, as a rule, tend to show up early for things. I still have to set up the music. Stormy says that when hosting a party, music is absolutely the first order of business, because it sets the mood the second your guest walks in. I can feel my nerves starting to pulse. There’s still so much to do. “I’d better finish setting up.”
“Tell me what you need done,” John says. “I’m your second-in-command at this shindig. Did people say ‘shindig’ in the forties?”
I laugh. “Probably!” In a rush I say, “Okay, can you set up my speakers and iPod? They’re in the bag by the refreshments table. And can you pick up Mrs. Taylor in 5A? I promised her an escort.”
John gives me a salute and runs off. Tingles go up and down my spine like soda water. Tonight will be a night to remember!
We’re an hour and a half in, and Crystal Clemons, a lady from Stormy’s floor, is leading everyone in a swing-dancing lesson. Of course Stormy is up front, rock-stepping for all she’s worth. I’m following along from the refreshments table: one-two, three-four, five-six. Early on I danced with Mr. Morales, but only once, because the women were cutting their eyes at me for taking an eligible, able-bodied man off the circuit. Men are in short supply at old-age homes, so there aren’t enough male dance partners, not enough by half. I’ve heard a few of the women whispering how rude it is for a gentleman not to dance when there are ladies without partners—and looking pointedly at poor John.
John is standing at the other end of the table, drinking Coke and nodding his head to the beat. I’ve been so busy running around, we’ve hardly had a chance to talk. I lean over the table and call out, “Having fun?”
He nods. Then, quite suddenly, he bangs his glass down on the table, so hard the table shakes and I jump. “All right,” he says. “It’s do or die. D-day.”
“Let’s dance,” John says.
Shyly I say, “We don’t have to if you don’t want to, John.”
“No, I want to. I didn’t take swing-dancing lessons from Stormy for nothing.”
I widen my eyes. “When did you take swing dance lessons from Stormy?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Just dance with me.”
“Well . . . do you have any war bonds left?” I joke.
John fishes one out of his pants pocket and slaps it on the refreshments table. Then he grabs my hand and marches me to the center of the dance floor, like a soldier heading off to the battlefield. He’s all grim concentration. He signals to Mr. Morales, who is manning the music because he’s the only one who can figure out my phone. Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” comes blaring out of the speakers.
John gives me a determined nod. “Let’s do this.”
And then we’re dancing. Rock-step, side, together, side, repeat. Rock-step, one-two-three, one-two-three. We step on each other’s feet about a million times, but he’s swinging me around—twirl, twirl—and our faces are flushed and we’re both laughing. When the song is over, he pulls me in and then throws me back out one last time. Everyone is clapping. Mr. Morales screams, “To the young ones!”
John picks me up and lifts me into the air like we’re ice dancers, and the crowd erupts. I’m smiling so hard my face feels like it could break.
After, John helps me take down all the decorations and pack everything up. He goes out to the parking lot with the two big boxes, and I stay behind to say good-bye to everyone and make sure we have everything. I still feel sort of a high from the night. The party went so well, and Janette was so pleased. She came up and squeezed my shoulders and said, “I’m proud of you, Lara Jean.” And then the dance with John . . . Thirteen-year-old me would have died. Sixteen-year-old me is floating down the nursing-home hallway, and it’s like I’m in a dream.
I’m floating out the front entrance when I see Genevieve and Peter walking up, her arm linked in his, and it’s like we’re in a time machine and the past year never happened. We never happened.
They’re coming closer. Now they are about ten feet away, and I am frozen to this spot. Is there no way out of this? Out of this humiliation, and out of losing yet again? I got so caught up in the USO party and John that I forgot all about the game. What are my options here? If I turn and run back into the nursing home, she’ll just wait in the parking lot for me all night. Just like that, I am a rabbit under her paw again. Just like that, she wins.
And then it’s too late. They’ve spotted me. Peter drops Genevieve’s arm.
“What are you doing here?” he asks me. “And what’s with all the makeup?” He gestures at my eyes, my lips.
My cheeks burn. I ignore the comment about my makeup and just say, “I work here, remember? I know why you’re here, Genevieve. Peter, thanks a lot for helping her take me out. You’re a real stand-up guy.”