Photo by Todd Quackenbush

I tapped my foot and stared at the triangle of skin between James Knox’s brows and the top of his sunglasses—red-framed today. “What’s your answer?” I clenched my arms across my waist. “You’ve kept me hanging for a week.”

He dropped his head, sighed, faced me. “Yeah, I’ll be your escort for Homecoming Court.”

I blinked at him, stunned that he’d said yes. This had to be the third or fourth time I’d bugged him about it. “Okay.” I pressed my lips together in a thin line, spun on my heel, and walked away.

What was James’ problem? If I hadn’t been so stubborn, sticking to my first choice, I could have spared myself the humiliation. Jackie had been right, as always. I was breaking my own heart. Okay, that was melodramatic—I didn’t know what I felt for James. Whenever he pressed for more than friendship, I skittered away. Now that I’d made a step in his direction, he backed up. All I knew was that he’d let me into the person inside through his songs and sometimes when he slowed his ten-speed and chatted with me while I walked home from school. And that mattered to me. He mattered.

Homecoming Court, 1976, w/ James Knox

A couple days later the yearbook photographer positioned the five Homecoming candidates and their escorts on the white sunned cement in front of the auditorium. I saw what I had to do—place my hand in the crook of James’ arm. Tension fizzed through my veins like warm Mountain Dew. Why did I have to touch him? He already thought I was chasing him.

At the last moment I laid my fingers on the folds of his barely proffered jacket sleeve. As soon as the camera clicked, I dropped my hand and stepped away. While James cracked everybody up wrestling out of his suit coat, I slipped back to class.

If I didn’t need an escort, I’d tell James to forget it. I was stuck. In more ways than I cared to admit.

If he annoyed me by taking seven days to say yes, I irked him taking twice that long to land a convertible for our lap around the football field on Homecoming night. I couldn’t imagine a dealership loaning a sports car to a seventeen-year-old girl. Much to my relief, James borrowed a beautiful boat of a car, a 1960’s Bonneville, from a buddy of his dad’s.

Homecoming night James rang our doorbell.

I made one last attempt to smoosh down the poufy hairdo Susan Sigler’s sister, Gail, had given me. I sucked in a breath, wishing for Dr. Who’s TARDIS to skip the next ten minutes, and opened the door.

James thrust a corsage into my hands. “Hi,” we blurted at the same time.

I motioned him in and introduced my family who huddled around the TV on half of our enclosed front porch.

My extra-large stepfather, our German shepherd sprawled across his lap and the cat curled around his neck, grunted a greeting from his recliner. Eleven-year-old R.J. stared from the sofa, still sporting dirt rings around his neck from a day of banana biking. Mom filled the air with chatter and smiles and the fairy-dust of flashbulbs.

A few motes of magic might be enough.

Thanks to being friends with James’ sister Diana I’d been to their house and knew the family.

Tonight, his scary-quiet dad smiled. Mrs. Knox’s whole face lit like it always did, as though I were one of her favorites.

I peered over Diana’s shoulder while she finished cutting around the tissue paper of a Butterick blouse pattern on the dining room table.

Linda, a freshman, curled on the couch beside her mother, complimented my dress, and I didn’t bother to tell her it belonged to Jackie’s sister, Dar Wiles.

Middle-schooler David shot us a smirk from where he sprawled on the floor in front of the TV.

As we walked away from the Knoxes’ tidy ranch, I wished I could hang onto their happy and take it home.

Me & James in rhinestone sunglasses he thinks he still has stashed away somewhere

At halftime, head majorette Debbie King was crowned Homecoming Queen. Having fluked onto the court in the first place, buzzing around the field in the Bonneville felt like more blessing than I had coming. James, however, told me much later he thought I should have won on the weight of the she’s-so-nice vote.

I’d tell Jackie, there was a reason I liked the guy.

During the dance I spilled out of the high school cafeteria with music and a stream of students. I crossed the breezeway to where James stood, his tie hanging loose, hands in his tux pockets.

I arched my brows and swallowed my last teaspoon of pride. “Dance with me.”

James frowned.

“Come on, it’s a slow song.”

He held out his hands helplessly as though I were asking him to streak through the cafeteria naked like one of last year’s seniors had done.

I wish I had a better shot of the Bonneville James borrowed.

“Fine.” I marched back into the sea of gyrating bodies and noise and grabbed the first guy I saw by the sleeve and pulled him onto the dance floor. I was done, done, done with James Knox.

An hour later, sweaty and wilted, I thanked James for being my escort and told him I’d found another ride home. He didn’t need to know it was with a girl.

“What? Don’t you want to ride in the convertible?”

I gave him a blank stare. This date might even beat out the guy who peed on the ground three feet from where I stood—for worst date ever.

Even mad, I didn’t wish I’d gone with someone else. James had wormed his way to the top of my list. And I’d shared the coolest coup of my high school career with my closest male friend. No coulda-shoulda-woulda’s changed that.

Eons later I analyzed the sloppy song of our teenaged selves. Dad forged my rhythm of desperation to please, disappointing, and trying with more determination the next time. James’ insecurity—that kept him from saying the truths in his head— tossed him into the rut of my rhythm. The feeling of not measuring up James evoked felt familiar. Right—in my off-key melody.

Court with escorts: (front) Debbie King & Chris Isaac, me & James, (back) Kevin Vincent & Theresa Raulerson, Riley Shackelford & Patty Martin, Brian Everidge & Dale Ann Clark

I eventually found out he’d been stalling because he needed permission from his Astronaut High School girlfriend to escort me. And dancing in junior high had humiliated him nearly to the point of hives.

Photo by Sgarton

After graduation we learned some communication skills, cranked down the drama, and became close friends—mostly via letters while we were away at colleges in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio.

In addition to sharing a passel of high school English classes and a passion for the written word, our lives unspooled in parallel lines, thousands of miles apart.

No surprise, we both majored in English.

Though I grew up in church, it wasn’t until my nineteenth birthday, December 10, 1976, I stepped past knowing about God into knowing Him. Unaware of my spiritual progression, James did the same ten days later.

James became a pastor.

I married a pastor.

James & Lilian Knox

Ann & Jim Miller

James married beautiful, intelligent Lilian and they raised a couple of kids and started two churches in Florida.

I married Jim, a guy who ushered in healing to all the broken places in my heart. We raised four kids and a couple of churches in Indianapolis and Phoenix.

I don’t wish I had more than that one awful date with James. I don’t wish we’d become more than friends on college breaks. But the handful of years we connected and counted to each other helped carve who we became.

Along our similar roads we grew up, measured up and failed to measure up. We counted in a lot more lives. And though we never found fairy dust, fledgling roots furrowed into forever.