Revising Leah

September 12, 2008

You’re Invited to Dinner With the Nells Family (Things I Like #4)

One scene in the novel that has improved quite a lot compared to the 1996 edition is the scene in which Leah and her family have dinner together the night of the Homecoming football game. Naturally, Leah hasn’t told her parents anything about Homecoming weekend, so they have to find out about it from a TV newscast while they eat. The scene shows how Leah’s parents have adapted to their daughter’s anti-social behavior. They’re able to have a conversation with her without actually having a conversation. It also gives an indication of just how desperate they are that Leah lead a normal life:

As the newscast went to a commercial, the sports anchor appeared on the screen and teased the audience: “. . . and after the break, tonight’s a big night for high school football!” he exclaimed. “A number of teams are playing their homecoming games tonight, including . . .” and he proceeded to list the names of a few schools, including Leah’s.

When she heard the name of her high school, Leah accidentally bit her tongue instead of the food that was in her mouth, and the sharp pain made her wince. Her parents, though, had known nothing about why this weekend was so important until now. Mr. Nells asked his daughter, “Is this your school’s Homecoming weekend?”

Leah nodded and continued to chew. She stared down at her plate and didn’t look at her parents. She didn’t want to answer the flood of questions that she could sense was coming.

“Why didn’t you go to the game tonight?” her father asked. “I could take you if you wanted to go. Jeez, I haven’t been to a high school football game since I was a senior in high school. I’d love to go to one again.” Mr. Nells’ memories of high school, romanticized after almost twenty years, came rushing back to him. “I can still remember my high school’s Homecoming games. Those were always the best, even when our team lost—which happened most of the time!” Leah didn’t look up, but she knew he was smiling. “I know you’re not a fan of football,” Mr. Nells continued, “but that doesn’t matter. I’m sure there will be a whole lot of girls at the game, girls who don’t like football any more than you do”—Leah thought about Heather. She wondered if Heather and David were going to be at the game tonight—“but that’s not why you go to something like that. It’s fun just to attend the event, to be part of a big crowd, to hear them cheer when a touchdown is scored, to hear them chant the school song, or to listen to the marching band play. I’ll bet you’re the only one who’s going to stay home tonight.” The visions his words conjured excited Leah’s imagination. In her mind, she could see the boys in their red and white uniforms running up and down the field; she could hear the excitement of the crowd as a team scored a touchdown; and she could feel the suffocating press of several hundred other spectators all around her; and she imagined David and Heather, standing together in the stands, cheering for the team and celebrating when they scored. “You really don’t want to go?” her father asked again.

Leah shook her head no.

“Well, I personally never cared much for football games,” Mrs. Nells said, trying to take Leah’s side. “But I hated to miss a dance. I think I only missed two dances during all my years in high school.”

“I’ll bet you were quite the socialite back then,” Mr. Nells teased.

His wife laughed, “That’s right, I was!” There was a pause, and Leah kept her eyes shut, fearing her mother would start reminiscing too. Instead, Mrs. Nells asked, “So when is the dance? Saturday night?”

Leah opened her eyes and nodded. Her fork played with the food in front of her. She gently coaxed the food towards the edge of her plate, as if she were encouraging it to get up and run away.

“How come you aren’t going then?” Mrs. Nells asked, ignoring the true reason why Leah would be home alone tomorrow night and on every future dance night. “Aren’t freshmen allowed to go?”

“We’re allowed,” Leah replied.

“Well, you never know,” Mrs. Nells said to her husband. “When I was in high school, freshmen weren’t allowed to attend the Homecoming dance, but I think that was because they held the dance in the school gym and there wasn’t enough room for everyone to attend.”

“I don’t think most schools do that anymore,” Mr. Nells said. “I think most of them hold dances at convention centers or public auditoriums instead of the school gym.”

“Really? That would have been so great if my school had done that. A gym is no place for a dance. Where is your school going to have its dance, Leah?”

Leah honestly didn’t know. She shrugged her shoulders.

“You should have gone,” Mrs. Nells said wistfully. “Didn’t anyone ask you to go to the dance?”

That was what Leah had been dreading. It was the most humiliating question they could possibly ask her. Leah didn’t reply. Instead, she stuffed a forkful of food into her mouth and chewed vigorously. She just wanted to finish her meal so she could excuse herself from the table.

Her silence gave her father a chance to lie to himself. “I’ll bet somebody did. What boy would pass up an opportunity to date a pretty girl like this?”

“He’d have to be blind,” Mrs. Nells agreed, “or maybe just stupid. I’ll bet she had several offers to go to the dance.”

Leah didn’t try to persuade them that the reason why she wasn’t going to the dance was because no boy had asked, especially not the boy she wished would have asked her; she let them believe what they wanted to believe. If they wanted to think their shy daughter had been asked to go to the dance, then she’d let them. If, on Saturday night, they wanted to wait by the windows watching for some Romeo to show up and carry Leah off to a fairy tale land where she wouldn’t be afraid to talk and where she would be surrounded by friends, then that was their choice. Leah, however, had no such illusions. She knew that tomorrow night, while David and Heather and the rest of her class were dancing and laughing and living, she would spend it the same way she spent every Saturday night—alone in her bedroom with a book. While she sat in her room, staring at the blank walls as the minutes passed, David and Heather would be staring into each others’ eyes, hoping that their evening would last forever. They would dance, they would hold each other, and they would kiss. The distance between herself and David would grow wider and more hopeless. Leah looked at her parents, lost in their own fantasies, and decided that the three of them were a pretty pathetic family—but she wasn’t sure who was more pathetic: the dateless girl spending the night of the big dance by herself in her bedroom, or the parents who foolishly believed a boy would arrive on their doorstep with flowers, a limo, and a promise to rescue their daughter from her solitude.

The chapter ends here. I like this ending because it demonstrates that while Leah is inexperienced in a lot of ways regarding social behavior and customs, she is very much aware that the isolated life she leads is not at all normal, and that she’s missing out on a lot of things that her parents and her peers consider important.

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