***the story of a very dark, scary night last June in which my sisters and I dance with old men, talk to strangers, get lost, find the holy grail (just kidding) and eventually make it back home without being kidnapped. (Warning: it's long.)
It was early June. We went to the contra dance because Sadie was invited to play the fiddle. We might have gone anyway, just to see what it was like. We do strange things sometimes. And going to a contra dance in an old creaky building in a little college town on a Friday night, in the company of a bunch of middle-aged people who may or may not have criminal records -- I'm just saying -- could definitely classify as strange.
The dance was held in the old city hall building. It had a tile floor and a high ceiling and pictures of prominent citizens from 100+ years ago on the walls. Most of the people there were over the age of fifty. I don't know about you, but if it's not somebody I know, dancing with a middle-aged man is not my favorite thing in the world to do. I don't believe that line "it's only awkward if you make it." That's awkward, no mistake. Far less awkward is when the little five-year-old boy there with his mom comes up and asks sweetly if you'd like to dance. I was pleased when he seemed to attach himself to me.
We danced around in circles while the string band played Scottish reels that all sounded the same. You know when you go someplace you don't normally go, and it feels like it's not actually happening for real? Like it's just a weird dream? The later it got, the weirder the whole thing seemed -- except at the same time it seemed normal. My mom, who brought us, left to go home. We would ride back with my sister Molly. We were on our own.
The crowd....talk about interesting characters. Everyone there could have been in a Dickens movie. There was the man wearing a t-shirt with a female country singer on it, which he told us he'd bought because she looked just like his dearly departed wife. That slippery older guy "Tom" who was giving out his 'card'....(Mama, where'd you go?) The couple with the tap shoes who seemed like they'd been dancing together since they were both a lot younger. I was a little terrified of everybody.
The most intriguing were those two girls, about our ages. They both wore long skirts. They obviously weren't sisters. One had a cute face, hair in a ponytail and acne just like the rest of us. The other was taller and graceful, with hair way past her shoulders and a round, rosy face. She was more beautiful than any girl I'd ever seen. She was shy, but us girls introduced ourselves because we like to talk to people. I couldn't understand what she said her name was and I literally thought it was "Papaya" until I learned later what it really was.
She was wearing a long brown skirt and ivory stockings. She was fascinating. From time to time I saw her sitting down at the edge of the room, bent over a little notebook. What was she writing? Was she a storyteller? A poet? A spy?
It was eleven o'clock and high time to drive home. Poor Molly was exhausted. She'd been talking to the two girls, and learned neither one of them drove and they didn't have a ride home. They lived nearby, they said. I don't know if they asked or if she offered -- all I heard was we were going to take these girls home. It was past eleven. They didn't live too far.
We got in the Jeep and it was illegal because we couldn't all buckle, but it was way too late to worry about anything like that. The only thing we worried about was Mama. She had told us to come right home. Surely she would understand, we thought, and Sadie called her just to explain what we were doing and let her know we'd be a little later.
I almost heard her voice through the phone across the seat, she was so mad. Sadie tried to smooth it over.
"They don't live very far," she said. And then,"Mama, they're nice girls!" All of this, while both girls were right there in hearing. The Jeep, the old Jeep, is not very big. I wanted to crawl under the seat but there wasn't room.
Mama was livid. It was almost midnight; Molly was sleep-deprived; we didn't know where we were going, we didn't even know these people, and who knew what kind of dangerous trap it might lead to. I'm guessing there was something else wrong because on any normal day we wouldn't get that kind of flack just for giving two pleasant strangers a ride home. Finally Sadie got off the phone, but we knew we were in for it now. It made for a very heavy feeling in the air of that tiny little Jeep stuffed with six girls.
"You turn here," the Papaya girl said.
She said it probably twenty-five times in all. We turned off the main road onto so many smaller ones, up hills and then down again, around sharp corners, deeper into the woods, out again, until I was so dizzy and disoriented I had no clue in heck where we were. And they told us to keep going. You don't live far, hm? I thought. I'd say wherever we are is pretty far from anything in this world, and we're not even at your house yet. Maybe Mama was right. Maybe we are headed for danger. And that's when I started to be suspicious. Maybe they were luring us into a trap, and planned to kidnap us and hold us hostage. We drove farther and I felt more and more uneasy. Imagination is a terrible thing.
"It's here," she finally said. I was sure we had come to the very ends of the earth.
It was a place so far removed from anything that there was total darkness. The sky was clear and you could see the stars, without any light from any city pinking them out. The dark made their farmhouse fuzzy, but I saw the barn across the road, and a cat scampered across the path in front of us. I didn't feel any sense of time here, except that it was very late. It could have been the 21st century. It could have been the 19th. I looked around for men with guns and gunny sacks while the others pondered a very real problem: now how to find our way back to our home, approximately a million miles away?
The Papaya girl said she'd ask "Mr. B." She went into the house and appeared a few moments later with a map drawn on a piece of yellow legal paper. It showed us how to get back to route 380. From there we could manage. She thanked us and dropped something on the seat. Sadie picked it up. "Hey, is this yours?"
She didn't answer. She just went inside the house.
We unfolded the roll and found it was money, with a note that said Thank you and the girls' names on it.
Following the extremely rudimentary map, we made our way into the night. We were really out there. There were hardly any houses at all. Still worried about our mother, we decided it'd be good of us to call her. Nobody wanted to. I don't remember how I got nominated to do it.
"Hi Mama," I said, trying to sound like everything was fine. "We took them home, and we're on our way back, and everything's okay, and we don't want you to worry."
"Okay," she said. Still mad.
It wasn't until after I pressed end that I realized, oh dear, that really sounded like a hostage call.
"Where are we?" one of us said. I think we all took turns saying it.
It's a terrible feeling to be lost, but it's an even worse feeling to be lost after midnight. Compound that with the unpleasant knowledge that your mom is thunderously angry with you, and you're not having that great of a night. But as bad as it is to be lost, it's that much more wonderful to see a sign and suddenly realize -- YES, I know where we are now! We're getting closer! We're almost there! I thought maybe we'd make it home by daylight, and I was ecstatic.
By some miracle we made it home. I collapsed in bed and was dead to the world until the next morning when I had to face my mother; and it must not have been that ugly of a scene because it's funny but I don't remember it a bit now. The night before seemed now like a hazy dream, something out of a Tim Burton movie. The more the day wore on, the farther away it felt. Like we had all woken up from some kind of spell in which we all imagined the same thing, and it didn't really happen.
But Sadie still has the thank-you note and the map, so we know that it did.