Danny Zuko never asked to be the one.
Some said what made him it was what happened at Thunder Road. That’s when Danny became hotshot (it used to be Kinickie). Some said it was Rizzo thinking she was knocked up. Ain’t no mama (no matter how sugar) gonna be queen of the Pink Ladies, which bumped Rizzo down and Kinickie down with her. Some say it happened as late as the school carnival, when Sandy (oh, Sandy) showed up in them tight, tight black painted-on . . . She was number one after that, and Danny was head of the T-Birds.
But there was no question he was the one, and Danny had the word from the bird: he had it.
He’d been so afraid of not having it. At the bonfire, the Frosty Palace, he’d snubbed Sandy because he was afraid he wasn’t cool enough to dig it. If he was hanging with this cheerleader chick, he’d thought, they’d know he ain’t got the stuff. Then they had the dance and National Bandstand. Sandy left, but it was then Danny knew he’d get her. He knew he had it.
The thing was, these new guys coming in, they didn’t got it.
Goose was like a dog, if you asked him. All bark bark bark and no bite. Davey just wasn’t smart enough to head up this venture. DiMucci was alright; he had flavor, but something just wasn’t clicking. And the clock kept on—well, you know. Time to graduate and go, but Danny couldn’t leave the name of the T-Birds with these bozos.
“Not my problem,” Kinickie would say, backing away and holding off with hands. “I’m not the coolest cat any more, you know.”
“I don’t understand why you care anyway,” Sandy would say. “You’re going to college. Do the T-Birds really matter?”
“Sandy,” Danny just said. “Sandy, I thought we had an understanding.”
“Yes,” she said quickly, demurred. “Of course, the T-Birds matter.”
He showed her that night a whole lot of matter, and how. He (his) was the one; he gave it to her good.
He had summer school, of course, Sandy was just bunk about college, and “graduate and go” was going just a little slow while he made up some class so he could pass. This meant he was the one for maybe six more weeks. He had to find a replacement, or by the end of next year the T-Bird would just be pocket-protector wearing—nerds.
Danny was strolling down the hall, thinking about this, pulling the vogue from behind his ear and lighting up. He passed the gym by, not thinking too much, wandered through the locker rooms. Swung by the rehearsal rooms where the cheerleaders practiced. Watching the smoke curl around his face in the mirror with the bar across, he was thinking about Sandy in knee-socks. That was when he heard the music in the next room.
It was just a dance class, some summer rec-re-A-tional affair with a bunch of squares, a record playing. There weren’t any tutus, but it was straight like that—something Sandy might have done before she got so hot. Learn to dance, in class, no less: how pathetic. This was all for wusses and mama’s boys, this swing or cha cha, jazz, some shit like that. Ballet. Danny was just going to pass on by—until he saw the guy.
He wasn’t too tall, but he was built across the shoulders. The skin and the eyes—definitely Italian, and Danny didn’t know why he hadn’t seen him before. The answer was in the hair, which Danny could see was just as olive oil as all the rest of him, but not oiled, per se. Didn’t know a thing about the jelly or how to get a roll in, right in the middle, with side-burns straight up to the top.
“He’s the one,” Danny later told Sandy. He brought her the next day to see the class. They watched it through the open door, where the instructor couldn’t see them.
“This isn’t couples.” Sandy frowned. “This is modern. It’s the bop.”
“Dunno what that is.” Danny shrugged, because he was just that cool.
“Danny, we’ve done the bop.”
“That?” Danny scoffed. “I don’t dance.”
“What about the jive?” said Sandy. “What about at the dance? National Bandstand.”
“That?” said Danny. “That’s just my moves.”
“You don’t call that dancing?”
“That stuff just comes naturally.”
Sandy rolled her eyes. “And yet somehow very choreographed.”
Danny nodded his roll at the class. “I don’t do this pussy stuff.”
Sandy frowned. “You know I don’t like that word.”
“You know I don’t like getting told what to do,” said Danny.
“Yeah.” Sandy kept on frowning. “I know.”
“Sandy, Sandy,” said Danny, because that’s what he always said when she got mad. He grabbed her and swirled her around, the way she liked. He used to like how her wide long skirts would whirl around her, but of course Sandy’s skirts were neither long nor loose any more. “Don’t you see it?” he asked her, turning her to face the dance room.
She giggled and peered over his shoulder. “See what?”
“It,” said Danny, turning with her. “He’s got it.”
“That hotshot,” said Danny. “Right there.” And he tipped his head down so his curl pointed and his eyes smoldered right across the room, in that way he had.
Sandy followed his gaze. “What, him? Twinkle toes over there?”
“He ain’t a twinkle toes,” said Danny, a little annoyed to hear her call him that.
Sandy followed the guy’s movements for a little while. “He’s not so good-looking,” she said finally.
Danny looked again. The boy was out on the floor, doing his moves. Sure, his hair was loose and clean. He had on a big goofy smile, and was that a—shit, it was: a leotard. But Danny hardly saw it. He only saw it. “He’s the one,” was all Danny said, again.
“What is this ‘it’ you’re always on about?” Sandy wanted to know.
“Look at him,” Danny insisted.
Sandy peered. “Is it the lips?”
“No, it’s his . . .”
“You really gonna rhyme?” said Sandy.
“Not this time,” Danny said quickly, because he always felt like Sandy was somehow making fun of him when she pointed that out. “His biceps, is all I’m saying. Head of the T-Birds has gotta be a tough guy. That’s what we’re all about.”
“Are you sure ‘it’ isn’t his pelvis?” Sandy went on.
“What?” Danny snapped his attention back to her, all incredulous. “No! Doesn’t mean a thing.”
“Yours does,” Sandy told him, and rolled her hips against his. “A T-Bird’s got to show his Lady a good time.”
“Oh yeah,” said Danny, and gave her it right then.
He was kissing Sandy, hips rolling against her through their clothes, and she was just melting black liquid in his hands, so hot. He looked over her shoulder at that boy who had it and just thought, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Sandy, that boy’s got it.
It was the rest of the T-Birds that needed convincing.
So did Johnny.
That was the boy’s name.
“The T-Birds?” said Johnny, when Danny stopped him before the next dance class. “Me?” And he laughed it off, with a great big smile, bright eyes—right at Danny, which Danny wasn’t used to.
“Yeah, you!” Danny bristled.
“But Danny,” Johnny said. “You’re hep. You’re radioactive.”
Appeased, Danny did his slow smile. “Don’t go nuts.”
Johnny just laughed at him, and Danny still wasn’t used to that. “I just mean,” Johnny said, “in case you haven’t realized, I’m one of the dorks. No one would ever pay attention to me.”
Danny frowned, looked from side to side, put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
(Johnny’s eyes got big, and he had this face, like could break your heart, like he’d never had a hand on his shoulder. Danny didn’t see.)
“You like that?” said Danny. “No one paying attention?”
Johnny, distracted, looked up from that hand. “Well—no, but—”
“Then we go together.” Danny clapped him on the back. “Come on. Let’s wheel it.”
They went to Johnny’s.
Johnny’s family lived in a tenement building not so far from Danny. Johnny’s old grandmother sat knitting with knobbly knuckles in the corner, and the place seemed full of black haired children. It felt good and familiar and home, except for the smell.
“What is that?” Danny said, nose wrinkling.
Johnny laughed. He laughed a lot. “That’s dinner,” he said. “Mama’s cooking.”
Danny tried to explain to Johnny that you didn’t talk about your mama, not to any school friends.
Johnny laughed again. “What? I’m supposed to pretend I don’t have parents?”
“They’re just not in the picture, is all.”
Johnny just sort of looked at him. Then he laughed (again). He thought it was a joke.
“Righto,” said Danny, realizing it was going to take some time. “You got any black threads?”
“What? Oh.” Johnny laughed again. “You mean clothes. Yeah, I guess I could check.”
“Cast an eyeball,” said Danny.
“Sure.” Johnny seemed to think this was some big fun. “I’ll cast an eyeball.”
“Look, when you’re a Thunderbird, you’re not going to laugh like that.”
Johnny laughed again. “Like what?”
“Like that. Ain’t no joke. Life is dead serious.”
Johnny wasn’t laughing now, but his eyes still were. “Like what? What’s so serious?”
“Your girl, for one,” Danny said, because they needed to get him a girl, and stat. “If your girl left you, your life might as well be over. Maybe some day when high-yi school was done, somehow, someway, your two worlds will be one in heaven.”
Johnny was still trying not to laugh. “You mean because after high school you’re dead?”
Danny shrugged. “Might as well be.”
“What’s high-yi school?” Johnny wanted to know.
“You’re still laughing.” Danny was starting to get mad.
“Sorry, Danny. I guess I just don’t see what the big deal is.”
“You’re going to be the big deal. You’re gonna be the one. That’s what this is all about.”
“I just don’t . . .” Johnny trailed off, and laughed.
“I can leave,” Danny said. “I can walk out right now. Stranded here, branded a fool—what do you think they’ll say Monday, at school?”
Johnny stopped laughing. You could see him thinking about it, people talking about him at school, how he was going to be a T-Bird but Danny’d seen he didn’t have the stuff. Didn’t have it. Johnny was the sort of kid people talked about anyway, what a square he was, but that kind of gossip usually didn’t get too far. He wasn’t really important enough for people to take notice of.
But if he was a T-Bird, then he would get noticed. People would talk. People would look. But if he tried to be a T-Bird, and failed, people would do all that, and laugh.
“Yeah, that ain’t so funny, is it?” Danny said. “It’s about an image. You got to get them to love you.”
Johnny asked what he was supposed to do, then.
“It may hurt real bad,” Danny said. “You know it’s true, but you gotta believe me when I say you’re helpless without me. Or else love will fly all alone, and you’ll sit, and wonder why-yi-yi-yi. Why I left you.”
“But why does it gotta be ‘why-yi-yi-yi’?” Johnny wanted to know. “Can’t it just be ‘why’? I mean, are we singing?”
Danny shrugged him off. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I mean, do I have to talk in rhymes and stuff? Like you do?”
“You’ve got it,” that’s what Danny said. “Look. We go from there. Go cast an eyeball for those black threads.”
While Johnny was looking, Danny tried to find something to slouch against. A wall, maybe, the table; it wasn’t cool, of course, to hold your own weight. He reached behind his ear for the stick then stopped and put it back. “Sorry,” he said, to Johnny’s old grandmother. “You know, I’m not bad news.”
She said something to him Danny didn’t understand, so Danny switched to Italian and said, “Capiche?”
But granny just jibbered and jabbered until a sort of chill went down Danny’s spine, so he went to find Johnny. “There’s something wrong with ti nonna, man,” Dan said, in a bedroom with a bunkbed and a double for two where Johnny had out one black funeral button up. That’d just have to get taken care of later. “It’s freaking me out.”
“My who?” said Johnny.
“Your grandma, ti nonna. She’s talking like it’s crazy talk.”
Johnny just laughed again. “Oh, her. She doesn’t speak English.”
“She don’t speak nothing, man.”
Worry hit Johnny’s eyes. It transformed his face. He had such sweet eyes, the way they could go all to panic. “Bunica,” he called, rushing into the other room. “Mama mare.”
Danny followed him out, creeping slowly ‘cause that old lady gave him serious creeps, in time to hear a low, quick conversation in gibberish.
“She’s fine,” said Johnny, turning around. He was smiling just fine, like nothing had ever happened, and grandma went back to knobble knitting.
Danny was still freaked. “That ain’t Italian.”
“Romanian.” Johnny started to laugh, then stopped himself, remembering how he wasn’t supposed to laugh. He said instead gravely, “What? You thought I was Italian?”
“Of course you’re Italian.” Danny couldn’t believe it. That smell was starting to make sense. It wasn’t marinara. “You gotta be Italian.”
In his efforts not to look so bright-eyed and amused Johnny started to look sensitive, like maybe he was defensive or something. “You mean dark hair, tan skin?”
“Yeah, you gotta, to be the one. Italian’s part of it, you know.”
“What?” Maybe now Johnny really was starting to get defensive. “You’re not even Italian. ‘Zuko’ is Polish.”
Danny pulled a face. “Do I look like a Polack? Italian stallion, right here. But my ma was Irish,” he added as an afterthought.
“I thought we didn’t talk about our ma’s,” said Johnny.
Danny couldn’t explain. He just told Johnny the Italian thing was important, and kept on saying it all the way to the next day. He even tried to convince him to change his last name from Negulescu to Nogerelli.
Meanwhile Johnny kept trying to convince Danny he was Polish. “’Kinickie’ is Polish. I mean, that’s as Polish as you get. And he’s a T-Bird. So why . . .”
Sandy, who was with Danny mostly whenever Danny didn’t have his summer classes, said, “I think the idea is ‘not Anglo-Saxon’,” she tried to explain.
“Don’t know him,” said Danny.
Sandy just went on. “Except when you think about it, some of the Irish could be considered Anglo-Saxon. And really, while Italians and Irish faced a lot of assimilation troubles earlier in the century, many of them are far more integrated now. Now the big new wave is Eastern European. And Puerto Rican.”
“Like Poland,” Johnny suggested.
Danny scowled. “I ain’t having ass-imilating troubles.”
“Sure you aren’t,” Sandy said. “That’s my point. I mean, it would be different if you were Puerto Rican, and my brother was head of a white street gang. Or vise versa. There was that ‘two worlds’ element to our romance, but it wasn’t exactly Romeo and Juliet.”
“With singing,” Johnny suggested. He was still trying to figure out that part of being a T-Bird.
“The singing’s non-diagetic,” Sandy assured him.
“Look,” said Danny, annoyed. “I ain’t Puerto Rican. Or Polack. I’m Italian.”
“Fully integrated,” Sandy reminded him.
Danny frowned. “Sure. I like to be in America.”
Johnny shrugged. “Okay by me in America.”
“Everything’s free in America,” Sandy pointed out. “So really you can style yourself however you want.”
“Good.” When Danny talked like that, the conversation was over. “Johnny, you’re Nogerelli.”
Later that day, Sandy had left to go catch up on gossip with Frenchie. Danny and Johnny were at the school, but Danny wanted to cut out.
Johnny looked uncertain. Maybe he didn’t really want to change his name, pretend to be Italian, and stop laughing altogether. “I’ve got my class,” he said, looking over his shoulder to the dance room.
“Forget about it,” said Danny.
Johnny was obviously torn. People were already filling up the mirrored room with the bar, and the teacher was putting on a record. “It’s all I have,” said Johnny. “Dance is what I am.”
Danny looked around to see if anyone had heard, quick, shifty, the way he used to have to be with Sandy. Christ, these cubes, couldn’t they all reform already and get sewn into their pants? Remembering that cigarette, stubbed out in his face with a four inch heel, Danny fumbled for a light to cool himself down. Drew in, said, “Kid, you don’t dance.”
Johnny swallowed. “But I’ve got to.”
“Not now,” Danny said, around his vogue.
Johnny opened his mouth, and closed it. Then, slowly, he shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t go this way.”
“Not so fast,” said Danny. “You don’t got to dance.” He drew on his cigarette, the smoke curling ‘round his roll. He used that look he had, his eyes intense. “What you’ve got is moves.”
Johnny looked more vulnerable than ever, like he didn’t know what was going on. “I’ve got to . . .” He trailed off, with the way Danny was looking. Danny standing there, just smoking, all lounged up against the doorframe, lazy there, like liquid painted in long black.
“Moves,” reiterated Danny. He rolled his hips.
It was a loooooong, slow lazy roll, and Johnny couldn’t take his eyes away. He licked his lips, and Danny flicked his cigarette. “Come with me,” said Danny. “I’ll show you.”
Helplessly, Johnny went.
Danny showed him.
Johnny, Danny said, was made for it, and Danny was gonna give it to him. Danny was gonna wipe away those puppy-dog eyes until Rydell High was quakin’ in their thighs. Johnny, he believed it, because Danny told him so, and Danny had it too. And Danny was going to give it to him. Give it to him good. Yeah, Danny kept on telling Johnny, you got it—you got it—you got—you got—it.
The T-Birds didn’t think Johnny had it.
“Isn’t his nose big?” said Doody.
“And his face small,” said LaTierri.
“What we’re saying is, he ain’t pretty,” said Kenickie. “None of the Pinks’ll even go for him.”
“We’ll get his hair slicked back,” Danny said. He sounded like he thought it was the final word, and Johnny was grateful. “That’s all there is to it.”
“The problem isn’t in his hair,” said Goose. “The problem’s in he’s Romanian.”
“The problem’s in his mouth.” Kenickie was still stuck on how Johnny wasn’t pretty. “He don’t have your sensual lips,” he explained to Danny.
Everyone sort of looked at him.
“Well he don’t,” said Kinickie.
They were all in the garage, the old T-Birds and the new. Sandy had dropped by after her college tour, and Danny had brought Johnny to show them.
“Where you gonna get him wheels?” said DiMucci.
Danny glared, starting to get annoyed on Johnny’s behalf, now. “You ever heard of borrowin’?” he demanded. This all felt so familiar. Too bad he had the corner on melodrama, or else he could’ve called them all out for being such downers. He couldn’t believe they didn’t believe in him.
“Hey Johnny,” said Jaworski. “You got any cigarettes?”
Everyone else laughed, because it was obvious Johnny was the type that didn’t smoke.
“I’ve got them!” Sandy volunteered. She handed them over to Johnny, and explained how it was best, when you were first changing over, to flick your cigarette down on the ground as quickly as possible so they don’t hear you cough. “If you grind it out in front of their face,” she was whispering, “they think you’re just being cool.”
Johnny looked slightly panicked. “You’ll have to tell me about it,” he said, down low under his breath.
“Stud,” she added for him.
“Sandy knows all about it,” someone was saying, before Johnny could ask Sandy what she was talking about. “Maybe you can borrow her threads.”
“Black,” Goose supplied.
“Tight,” said DiMucci.
“Leather,” said Jawoski.
“He better shape up,” they all agreed.
“Come on, guys,” Danny told them all. He clapped Johnny on both shoulders. “Now, this boy could be a major player. You know that? Now look at this.”
Johnny was looking sort of like a rabbit, scared out of his wits, but Danny just spun him around. He couldn’t show under the hood to explain, after all, so mostly he had to deal with trunk. Danny was checking him out. “Now, this boy could be . . . charismatic.”
Danny backed up, whipped his jacket half off. “MELODRAMATIC.”
Then his jacket was all the way off and whirling in his hand. “EMBLEMATIC,” he said, and threw the T-Bird jacket at Johnny. “Why, this boy could be . . . GREASE LIGHTENING!”
“Am I supposed to put this on?” Johnny asked, looking at the coat. He guessed that’s what Danny meant by emblematic. Then again sometimes Danny seemed to say things just because they rhymed.
“God, not again,” said an unidentified voice.
Then things went kind of crazy. Danny was jumping onto things and dancing around. “We’ll get him greased hair-dos and some black leather duds,” he sang.
“Keep talking, whoa keep talking,” another unidentified voice said.
“Okay, but is this really talking?” Johnny wanted to know. “It really seems like he’s singing.”
“I told you, it’s non-diegetic,” Sandy said.
Johnny’s eyes were glued to Danny’s hips, which were swiveling. “He also said no dancing,” he pointed out, and swallowed hard.
Sandy felt a little sorry for Johnny. She knew Johnny just wanted to dance. She also knew the effect Danny had. Gently, she said, “It just means we all pretend it never happened afterwards.”
Slowly, Johnny turned to her. “Maybe it just means this . . . all of this . . .” Johnny gestured to the T-Birds leaping around the room, “is normal. Like, we’re going to get to do this every day, so it’s not out of the ordinary if we burst into song. Or dance,” he added, his voice burning low on the word. He was staring again at Danny.
“That’s an interesting take on the diegesis.” Sandy watched for a while, too. “I mean, how else do you explain the sometimes poetic way in which Danny expresses himself when not in song?” Thoughtfully, Sandy examined the full extent of the musical number. Then she shook her head. “Interesting, but untenable. I mean, they may be singing diegetically, where’s the music coming from?”
Johnny glanced at her. “What music?”
Sandy’s eyes went wide. “Oh no,” she whispered, and Johnny got taken in.
“A T-bird motorcycle and some real Italian blood, oh yeah,” Danny was singing. “With one comb, maybe four, they’ll be waiting at the door. You know that ain’t no shit; he’ll be getting lots of tit—he’s Grease Lightning!”
Then something even stranger than the dancing began to happen. Time began to speed up.
Nearly two weeks passed, but Johnny could only remember a few isolated experiences, all of which seemed to happen too fast, whirlwind style. And yet, through it all, he could hear Danny’s voice. Danny’s voice was the constant, the one holding everything together. Johnny had to keep listening to it, or else the speeding and condensing of his life would make him lose his mind.
“You’ll get used to it,” whispered Sandy. She wasn’t there, and yet he could hear her in his ear, as if they were still in the garage where Danny had begun to sing.
“What is it?” Johnny said, latching on to her instead. It made him feel ill not to listen to Danny, like motion sickness. He didn’t know at what point in time he was. “Sandy? What’s happening to me?”
“It’s called a montage,” she whispered back.
“It’s awful,” he told her.
“You get used to it.” Her voice faded away.
In Johnny’s montage, he got a motorcycle, and learned to drive. He seemed to learn extraordinarily fast. This was partly due to the changed time of the montage, but also, Johnny suspected, because he wasn’t very good. He didn’t learn to do any wheelies or big jumps. He knew he could never face The Scorpions with this kind of skill. All he could do with it was show off; there was no substance to it.
The fact was, Danny had a limited amount of time to make Johnny into the one—both because summer only lasted so long and because montages couldn’t show details. Danny, being savvy, knew the most important thing was the look. Skills and that shit would come later; he had to make Johnny look like he had the stuff, first.
Johnny also learned to smoke during the montage. Sandy was right—it was best to flick it out as soon as possible. This was a problem, though, at school. You weren’t supposed to litter at school—so Johnny learned to swallow it.
Danny frowned and shook his head. People didn’t speak during montages, Johnny had learned, which was why Sandy had sounded so disembodied and made him queasy. Voices interfered with the time and place of the montage, and also the song, which Danny was still singing. Usually someone talking ended a montage and switched time back to regular again, so Danny refrained from speaking during this time. So it was that Johnny had learned the frown and headshake meant, “uncool”.
He’d first learned this when they’d gone to get him black pants.
Johnny had tried some on, but Danny had frowned and shaken his head. So Johnny tried on some different ones, but Danny just kept frowning, just kept shaking his head. Johnny tried on more and more and more pants, and noticed something peculiar. The pants were just getting tighter and tighter and tighter. Danny was thinking about what the T-Birds had said about the Pinks not wanting him, or something.
At last Johnny’s pants were so tight he could barely walk, and Danny nodded and winked. Johnny seemed to remember Sandy saying something about how if you were going to go down this road, you needed to be sewn into your pants, but Johnny had just assumed she wasn’t serious.
Sandy, Johnny was beginning to realize, was always serious. Just like Danny. That girl really knew her stuff.
Danny didn’t approve of Johnny learning to put an entire cigarette in his mouth to hide it, but he couldn’t say anything due to the montage. So Johnny just ignored it.
But his name did change to Nogerelli. He found out later that the timey-wimeyness of the montage had somehow given Danny the chance to change his name on all the school rosters and even the credits. Johnny guessed that’s what having it meant.
And of course, there was the hair. Johnny had to try it several times in the montage, combing his hair up on the sides and rolling it up top. There was a lot of grease involved, and Danny shaking his head again. One time Danny reached over and pulled the curl out, down Johnny’s forhead, and they both laughed.
You were allowed to laugh in montages, Johnny learned, as long as you made no sound. You were allowed to look like you were having even more fun than you were actually having, when Danny’s hand was in your hair, and he was breathing down your neck, looking down at you. Handing you your comb, pushing it into your hand like it was a piece of him he was giving to you, and it was slick and greasy and warm from his touch, and—
Time may have been moving too fast, his life reduced to just these instances with Danny, but Johnny still remembered that scene. He could feel the grease on his forehead. He could feel Danny’s finger, slipping through his hair. He could feel Danny’s eyes.
Johnny had been staring at his own reflection for too long, trying to get the roll right. His own eyes were brown and soft, too much like a deer’s, and Danny’s were so blue. So intense. So close together. Danny was taller, so he was looking down at Johnny, his hand in Johnny’s hair. Slipping through it, twisting the curl just so, down to Johnny’s forehead, anointing with the wet slip of fingers. The comb pushing into Johnny’s hand, while Danny’s eyes drifted down to Johnny’s lips. The moment seemed to stretch out forever and ever.
Later Johnny learned this was because the music had ended, and the montage was ending as well. When Johnny turned away from the mirror—and away from Danny, his hand, his eyes—he was a T-Bird. He had on the jacket, the pants, the vogue behind his ear, the perfect roll on his greased head, and comb in hand.
Then they were in the garage again and Danny was dancing like he’d never touched him. “Go grease lightning,” he sang, “you’re burning in the ladies’ eyes.”
“Grease lightning, go grease lightning,” the others sang. Everyone was there—both generations of T-Birds, and the Pink Ladies had decided to join them. Sandy and Rizzo were showing Stephanie the ropes.
“Go grease lightning,” Danny went on, “you’re thrusting through the heated thighs.” Then he paused, and all at once, his hips were a torque of their own. “You are supreme,” he told Johnny. “The chicks’ll cream—for grease lightning!”
Johnny knew Danny meant it as a compliment. Normally, it would have been. Girls had never gotten wet over Johnny before, not that he knew of, and no guys had ever told him girls would. That it was Danny, whom all the girls got wet for, who thought this—Danny must think he was something special, too.
But Johnny didn’t want to know what Danny thought the girls would think of him. He hadn’t wanted to turn away from his reflection and from Danny. He hadn’t wanted time to return to normal, or for that moment to ever end.
Maybe he just felt sick and his head ached because of the jolt of returning to normal time. “Is the montage over?” Johnny whispered to Sandy.
“Definitely,” said Sandy, somehow also managing to chant, “go grease lightning” at the same time.
Johnny swallowed a sigh. “What’s this then?”
“Reprise slash coda,” said Sandy, who was really starting to get into it. “Watch out, it’s a double chorus! Go, go,” she chanted. “Go, go—”
Everybody together went, “Go, go, go, go, go, go!”
For a moment, Johnny just watched as they geared up for the final chorus. He felt lost, confused. Now that the montage had ended, he was supposed to be a real T-Bird, but he didn’t feel like it. He still felt like his plain old self—Johnny, the square; they made fun of him in school, called him names because of the dancing, twinkle-toes, twink, and fairy. He’d been trying to be like Danny, but he wasn’t. Without Danny, he wasn’t anything.
It felt like it had only been a couple seconds since Danny was touching him in front of the mirror, grease in their fingers. Now Danny was dancing, singing, leaping about the garage in a large finale sequence. As Johnny watched him, a new determination began to steal over him.
If he was enough like Danny, maybe Danny would . . . respect him. He wanted to be just like Danny. Johnny wanted to be one of them. And right now, they were doing the only thing Johnny knew how to do. The only thing he did really well. The only thing he cared about besides—
This was it, Johnny saw. This was the moment he had been montaging for. This was why Danny had picked him; this was why Johnny was a T-Bird after all. The motorcycle, the smoking, the Italian—that could come later. This, right here, was what Johnny was.
So Johnny danced. He danced with Danny, their every move matched. It was as though it was choreographed, the way they were so in synch. This was how you knew you were a T-Bird or a Pink Lady; you moved in time and knew the words before you ever heard them. This was how everyone had known Danny and Sandy were made for each other when Sandy showed up tricked out at the school fair—she and Danny had moved in perfect harmony.
“Go grease lightning,” said Johnny, taking over the song. Danny smiled at him in approval. “You’re burning in the ladies’ eyes.”
“Grease lightning, go grease lightning,” the others sang, now with real feeling.
“Go grease lightning,” Johnny sang, “you’re thrusting through the heated thighs.”
Then Danny joined in and they sang in unison, adding a big ralantando. “You are supreme,” they sang to each other. “The chicks’ll cream!”
No one had heard it this good since “You’re The One That I Want.”
“For grease lightning!”
After that, it all came true.
Johnny was a pussy wagon.
At first, Danny was smug. He had told the T-Birds, hadn’t he? And they hadn’t believed him. But Danny was the only one of them that knew it when he saw it, and he’d made Johnny over so the rest could see it.
The only problem was, as it turned out, Johnny had even more of it than Danny.
“I don’t get it,” Danny complained. “He’s not near as hot as me.”
“Got a kind of sweet face, though,” Rizzo asked.
“His eyes aren’t intense like mine,” Danny said.
“Yeah, they’re not as close together,” observed Frenchie.
“And his chin is nothing like mine!”
“Praise be,” said Stephanie. She was a junior yet, but most likely in line to be queen of the Pinks when school started again. She’d been making sweet eyes at Johnny ever since the ‘Grease Lightening’ finale.
“What’d you say?” Danny demanded.
“Nothing,” said Stephanie.
“And you bunch of bozos!” Danny whirled on the Thunderbirds. “Holding the door open for him?”
“Thought you wanted him to be leader,” said Goose.
“Yeah, but none of you shits ain’t held no door open for me!”
Sandy tried to explain that Johnny was a better dancer than Danny, and maybe that had something to do with it. “He could be on Broadway. ‘Stead of stuck here. You—you could be a movie actor, that face of yours, but not on Broadway. Well, not the lead, anyway.”
Danny huffed. “What are you even talking about?”
“Hollywood,” said Sandy. “The way the Broadway stars get stuck with sequels and shit.”
“Don’t know nothing about Broadway.”
“Listen, Sandy. I don’t dance. You got that?”
“Shore,” said Sandy.
Danny supposed he would have to put up with it. It was better than nothing, right? Leave the T-Birds with someone to carry out the legacy anyway. And sequels were never as big as the originals, so maybe he wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Four months later
Winter holiday, Danny stole back with Sandy, seein’ what was shakin’ at Rydell High. Johnny kept his cool, turned his hair up in a roll, and tried to show Danny that he had it. He was the one—but Danny had always had it too. They had it together. Maybe they could do a number, like “We Go Together”, or something else like that: reminiscing, because ever since Danny’d gone there’d been something—absent.
Things started to fall apart when Danny found out Johnny had broken up with Stephanie.
“Pfft.” Stephanie fanned her hair. “I broke up with him.”
“Johnny,” Danny demanded. “What’ve you been doing?”
“Don’t sweat it,” Johnny joked, brimming totally with sham confidence and stark hunger for approval.
“Don’t you know, the T-Birds and the Pinks, they go together, like—”
“Rama lama lama?” Johnny said, disappointed because they obviously weren’t going to go on to the ke ding a dinga a dong. “Sure. I got it under control.”
“How?” demanded Danny. “How you got it under control?”
Johnny opened his mouth, then shoved a cigarette into it because he didn’t got a thing to say and that was what you did. Johnny and Stephanie had split up mostly by mutual agreement. Once or twice Stephanie saw another side to him; she’d been to his apartment and seen his grandmother. She’d seen him move once when he thought no one was looking, and it was like he learned to dance in class, no less, all for wusses and mama’s boys, swing or cha cha, jazz, some shit like that. Ballet, she’d say.
“How come you never do that where I can see?” she’d asked.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he’d told her, cool.
“And ti nonna, man, she don’t make no sense.” Stephanie was chewing gum.
“She does,” Johnny insisted, face glowering. “But you don’t speak her language.”
“You mean she ain’t I-talian?”
“You ain’t either,” he told her. “Honey, you ain’t even Polack.”
“We just don’t talk about what I am.” Stephanie popped her bubble. “I’m blonde.”
Johnny looked around in case anyone was listening. “Well, we don’t talk about what I am either. I had to be Italian. I’m Italian.”
Stephanie looked shocked. “You’re not! You’re really not!”
They hadn’t broken up because Johnny wasn’t really Italian. They broke up because Stephanie said, “You aren’t for real, are you? I bet you don’t even love me.”
“You’re a babe. Real hot mama.”
“You know, I’m sort of gettin’ tired of the cycle side-chick stuff. Ever think of lyin’ low?”
“Yeah,” Stephanie was saying. “We could blow this joint. Try somethin’ new, ya know, maybe Shakespeare.”
“He Italian?” Johnny joked.
Stephanie poked him in the ribs. “Look you, play it straight with me.”
“I’m straight,” said Johnny, drew himself up. “Straight enough.”
“No, you’re crooked. You’re just an act.”
“Ain’t it all an act?” Johnny wanted to know.
“Sometimes, you can take it too far. I want something real,” she said, and that was why Stephanie had it for Michael and that cool rider.
Johnny didn’t think he could say those things to Danny; he was real bent out of shape. Danny had put so much into him, and now Johnny blew it up somehow. He hadn’t thought having a girl was all that important. Chicks weren’t all they were cracked up to be anyway; after all they didn’t have it. It was all that Johnny really wanted. He’d been trying so hard to have it.
But obviously having the Pink was important, and Johnny felt he shoulda known. He woulda known, had he really been Italian, never been a twinkle-toes, always just been like Danny wanted him to be—like Danny’d made him into, that day in front of the mirror.
Sometimes Johnny still could feel Danny’s hand on him, in the oil. Danny’s been standing behind him, pressed against him; there’d been a whisper in his ear, “Yeah. Baby, you’ve got it.”
But now Danny was frowning in disappointment, and Johnny felt like he was back to being such a square.
“Hey, hey,” said Johnny. “I’ll get her back.” He hadn’t been planning on it at all, but if that made him who he was then maybe—
“Fat chance,” said Stephanie. “Say Sandy—how are college boys?”
“College boys?” said Danny, infuriated. “Don’t you know that you’re a Pink?”
“No ordinary boy is gonna do,” said Stephanie. “I want a rider that’s cool.”
“Who’s ordinary?” Danny demanded.
“Don’t sweat it,” Johnny said again. “Look, I’m the pussy wagon, remember? Grease lightening,” he added, thinking it would cheer Danny up. “I’ll just get me another.”
Danny was still really ruffled. “How?”
If they knew anything, the T-Birds knew their cue. “Well come on and tell us Johnny,” DiMucci said, falling to his knees.
“The secret to your success,” Davey finished, falling as wall.
“You gotta take a tip, from the king of hip,” Johnny said, because that was what Danny had wanted him to be, and he was trying to be the best. He turned up the collar of his leather jacket. “Because you know that he’s the best!” he finished.
“What is this?” Danny said, frowning.
Sandy leaned in. “Don’t be hard on ‘em. You used to do this all the time.”
“Not . . . this,” Danny said.
“I’ll go prowlin’,” Johnny suggested. It was something he’d been working on. “I’ll go prowlin’ tonight. Well, there’s this spot that I’ve discovered where a guy’s guaranteed to score. I’m gonna show you cats some action like you’ve never seen before. We’re gonna get some action—”
“Cut it out!” Danny shouted.
Johnny had leapt into the middle of the garage, where for some reason there was a microphone on a stand. He was swiveling his hips, leaning into the head of that microphone like it was something sweet, and he moved against the pole of the stand like it was—well, it was almost as if the pole of that microphone was a whole ‘nother person, and that person had it too.
“I want to know where the spot is,” Sandy said politely, “where a guy’s guaranteed to score.”
“The grocery store,” said Johnny. He was breathless and grinning. “See, it rhymes! And there’s this whole pun about the female butcher and the tongue she gives.”
“That’s really funny,” said Sandy. She was smiling kindly, and yet seemed sort of sad. It was as though she knew what was coming.
“Thanks!” said Johnny, earnest.
“What the—” Danny grabbed the microphone away from Johnny’s hand. “The grocery store?”
Johnny’s brown eyes went huge. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Do you really go prowling at the grocery store?”
Prowlin’, Johnny wanted to correct, because Danny had worked hard on gettin’ him to drop his g’s, but somehow he didn’t think Danny would be pleased. After all, Danny was right. Johnny didn’t go prowlin’ at the grocery store. Johnny didn’t go prowlin’ at all, actually. He didn’t really care about a debutante, who showed really class, or tall girls, with legs all the way up to her—he didn’t really like smart girls, and it didn’t actually matter whether she was stacked.
Johnny didn’t like girls that much in general.
He knew what was expected of him, though. He’d been—he’d been hip to the word on the street, he thought, and he knew he was supposed to go prowlin’; he knew he was supposed to get satisifcation, and—and Johnny didn’t know where you went to get those things. He’d just guessed. “Come on,” he told Danny, trying to laugh it off. “You can go prowlin’ anywhere. Take . . .” He racked his brain. “Gym class?”
“School,” Danny said, like it was such a drag.
Johnny knew he’d said the wrong thing. Doggedly, he tried to explain. “Yeah, or biology.”
“Put your pollen tube to work!” DiMucci shouted.
“Make your stamen go beserk!” Davey echoed.
“What even is a stamen?” Johnny asked.
“Oh,” said Davey. “It’s the part of the flower with the pollen. It fertilizes the pistol, see, and—”
“Are you . . .” Danny looked like he could drop dead twice. “Are you learning things in school?”
“But it’s about reproduction,” said DiMucci. “It’s dirty, so it’s okay.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. He remembered how he wasn’t supposed to laugh and high school was supposed to be the most serious thing that had ever happened to him. Somehow, he’d gotten it all wrong.
“I don’t even . . .” Danny had his hand to his forehead. His lips were curled, his teeth grit. “Just tell me one thing. Why is there a microphone in the T-Birds’ garage?”
“Oh!” Johnny realized it might make Danny feel better. “The song, it’s not for real. It’s for the talent show.”
Danny took his hand away from his forehead. “What?” he just demanded, in a quick, tight, kookie way.
Johnny swallowed. “Yeah, see, we’re doin’ Prowlin’ for the talent show—Davey, DiMucci, me, maybe some of the other guys. Don’t worry. The chicks’ll cream.”
“What the fuck?”
Johnny looked just like a kicked puppy. Lip even quivering, he fumbled for a cigarette. He barely remembered even how to smoke it, couldn’t do it. Danny was just looking at him like he was—like he was—like he didn’t have it, and worse yet, far worse, was never going to get it from Danny ever again.
Without quite knowing what he was doing, Johnny stepped toward him. Danny flinched back. “Don’t touch me,” he said.
Johnny looked around. Most the T-Birds were staring at Danny like he was goin’ ape, but it wasn’t really any consolation to Johnny that they were on his side. All he’d ever wanted was right in front of him.
He turned to Sandy, eyes wide and liquid brown. “What . . .” he began, his voice just soft and sounding so uncertain.
“It’s that you’ve gone an made it diagetic.” The pity in her eyes was explicable, now.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Johnny said, and turned pleadingly back to Danny.
“You’re singing,” Danny spat, “in the school talent show.”
“But you always sang,” said Johnny, not digging it.
“Never,” said Danny, “never.”
“And . . . the dancing?”
“NO.” Danny’s whole body was saying just that: NO.
That was when Johnny realized: it was all lighting up the tilt sign: a sham. It wasn’t something you could show people. It wasn’t something you could ever admit to. It was something you had to hide, and hide, and hide. Danny had been hiding his whole life, and he was ashamed. Johnny tried to figure it: Danny had never seemed afraid once in his whole life. But the truth was, Danny was, and it was about not being—what? Hep? Cool? The one among the T-Birds?
Did Sandy have the same fear? Johnny wondered. Was that why she’d changed so much, and sewn into her leather pants; was that why she seemed so sad sometimes? Or was it that she knew all about Danny, knew and helped him hide?
Johnny had hidden so much. He’d given up so much—his clothes, his hair, his lungs, his name. It had all been worth it, because he could be a T-Bird and he hadn’t had to give up the one thing he really needed in his life, and that was it. The things that deep down, were important to him: dance, and Danny.
But now Johnny was going to have to choose.
Johnny looked at Danny, and went over to the microphone. “Come on you birds,” he told the guys. “Let’s practice.”
Danny stayed there frozen for several moments more, as though rooted to the spot.
Johnny looked right at him. “We’re goin’ prowlin’,” he told him.
“Walk, talk like a T-Bird,” DiMucci and Davey said, because this was what the T-Birds were now, and they weren’t ashamed.
“Prowlin’,” Johnny howled out.
“Walk, talk like a T-Bird.”
“Prow-ow-ow-owlin’,” Johnny sang, and he was still singing straight to Danny.
He was moving, too, showing Danny that he had it and was proud of it, and no one was going to take it away.
He was down on one knee with the microphone stand between his legs, and the way it was moving—well, there could be no mistaking his meaning.
Danny couldn’t take his eyes away from Johnny’s hips. No one could, really. What Johnny had said about the chicks and cream was maybe true for more than the chicks.
But Danny—Danny had never been able to handle the truth.
“Because I’m the leader of the pack!” Johnny told Danny. They’d made it to the finale chorus. “I’m goin’ prowlin’!”
“Walk, talk like a T-Bird.”
“Walk, talk like a T-Bird.”
“Prow-ow-ow-owlin’,” Johnny sang.
Danny turned around and left. Johnny no longer cared.
Johnny did stay Italian, though. Everyone thought he was anyway. And he still had it.
Maybe he’d turn out real straight, like a cop or something.