Thursday afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot in front of the University Center and was preparing to trot over to the bell tower to wait for Joseph, when I saw that he was already on his way towards my car. He climbed into the passenger seat and we were on our way.
The college that facilitated contra dancing, Warren Wilson, was a good hour and a half from our own college, so we had a bit of a drive ahead of us.
Once on the road, I became acutely aware of how alone we were in the car. I have always been one to find silence slightly frightening when I am feeling nervous or socially awkward. The natural reaction I have in that context is to fill the silence with lots and lots of words.
Our drive started out that way. I was staring at the road and battling silence with talking despite that prickly feeling that my audience was being bored to death. I was telling him about my church family and our Summer of Love, the birds, the greenhouse, and ... oh no, now I was telling him all about Eddie, my broken heart, my bad luck in love. I had to stop myself! I was about to cram my fist in my mouth, but one tiny peek over at the passenger seat left me astonished.
He was listening.
His blue eyes, engaging and glinting in the setting sun, looked somewhat enraptured.
"So what happened, then?", he inquired.
"You're not bored?"
"What? Bored? Why would I be bored?"
And so it went for the rest of our journey. At ease, I ceased talking nervously and carried on like a normal human instead of some kind of crazed hyena. We talked a little about Eddie, then about God, and his family. He wasn't a Christian, even though he had been raised Lutheran, but he was deeply interested to hear about my relationship with God. He wanted to know what I believed, why I believed it, when it started, and where I was in it now.
He pulled my testimony out of me like a sponge.
When we pulled into the parking lot at Warren Wilson, we sat quietly for a moment before making the trek to the dance hall. Wind rustled the branches overhead. I could hear fiddles, stomping feet, and joyful whooping.
Contra was like being transported to another country. The usual rules of social interaction don't apply. Personal space doesn't exist. There isn't a soul around who will judge any part of your outfit, hair, body, tattoos, or friendships.
Line dancing is like a roller coaster we make for ourselves.
No sooner had we paid our way in, then a girl I had encountered a few times in the past (we shared many of the same friends) by the name of Azalea came running up, launched herself into Joseph's arms and yelled, "It's so good to see you here! Want to dance this one with me?!"
He told her that I had the first dance, since I had driven him there, but that he would save the next for her.
I took his hands and did my best to show him the ropes of contra. I whispered quickly to him that the lady should always be on his right and gave him a quick rundown of as many important terms as I could think of offhand. Forward and back, promenade, balance and swing, allemande, and my personal favorite: the four person "hey".
That first dance with Joseph was a little halting, but overall he picked it up pretty swiftly, I thought.
Contra can be rather fast paced, and with all the keeping up and gleeful bounding about, it is likely that one will be quite sweaty at the end of a song. Joseph and I were happy, but also both sweaty and out of breath by the end. He caught me up in a bear hug and asked if I wanted to accompany him outside into the cool night air for a break.
Collapsed on the concrete steps, rehashing the dance and encouraging each other, we were interrupted by Azalea. She came over, said hello to me, and then lay down on the step with her head in Joseph's lap to ask how he liked contra.
He grinned and said that he really loved it.
"Then quick! We'd better go!", she shouted, pulling him to his feet.
He looked over his shoulder at me and sort of half shrugged, following her in.
I watched them disappear into the fray, sighed, and took myself on a little walk down a trail to a rope swing that was hanging from a tree. It was peaceful just to be and swing there a while.
When that night of dancing had ended, I found Joseph and Azalea sitting on the wood floor looking engrossed in conversation. I hated to interrupt them, but we had to go back to our school if we were to get back at any decent hour. Azalea too, for that matter, since she went to the same school as us.
On the way home, Joseph said that he had only met Azalea once before, with the same mutual friends that Azalea shared with me. The next thing he said was that he was hungry. I was hungry too. Full of dancing endorphins and oh so hungry!
We decided to stop by a Wendy's and grab some food, but we didn't want to eat there... or in the car. Aha, a tree in a park. That's more like it. I parked the car and we commenced tree climbing.
Sitting in the branches, eating our fast food, small talk became real talk in no time. We were back to discussing things of consequence. Since I wasn't driving this time, I could see how intense Joseph's gaze was when he was listening. Sometimes, though, when it was his turn to talk, he would get shy and pick at the tree's bark, or find a twig to break into 800 pieces.
He confided that there had been a time when he thought smoking weed was the most fun ever. Once or twice he had tried mushrooms, but they sent him on a terrible trip that was like a horrific nightmare he thought he would never wake up from. Explaining how awful it was, he swore and then looked surprised. "Oh! I'm sorry!", he gasped, "Did I offend you? You don't cuss, do you?"
"Sometimes I cuss.", I blushed, "I try not to ... but I'm not offended. Personal choices and all that..."
He told me that he felt smothered by the way his family did Christianity and he just didn't know who God was. He didn't understand how there could be a God who loved, who was merciful, who longed to pour grace out on the raw weakness and imperfection of humanity, when there was poverty and suffering in the world. It was the age old question. The problem of pain.
I had so many things to tell him that they all tried to come rushing out at once and got so clogged up that I was rendered speechless. I tried again, "You know... that is a really huge question. I think it can't be answered in one night. It might be more of a process if you want to understand...", and I told him that he would be more than welcome to come meet my dear Hanwells some church night... if he wanted to. He was thoughtful for a few minutes and then said, "Yeah, that could be cool."
All that was left of our meal was paper bags and wrappings. It was time to go home.
Joseph fastened his seatbelt and then caught my eyes to say, "Thank you so much for taking me with you tonight, Sarah! It was wonderful. It feels like we've been friends for a really long time, doesn't it?"
I smiled in agreement. It did feel that way.