When Grown Up, I'd always figured, I'd wear fancy dresses and go to exciting nightspots like the glamor girls in the endless TV movies that I watched all through high school. Ah, to be swathed someday in swirls of silk, whisked away by suave-suited men! Out on the town, whatever that was. You couldn't really tell from the movies, but someday I'd go, too, dressed to kill.
So here I am, in front of the TV; only I'm not in high school any more. I'm over 21, dammit -- I am Grown Up.
So where are the glittering swirls? The suave-suited men?
Okay: No one was going to wave a magic wand and turn me into a princess. If you want glamor you have to make it happen: No more Saturday nights sitting around the farm with the guys, singing Gram Parsons songs in beer-soaked, roach-clip abandon. Time to fulfill the fantasies of glamor and sophistication.
The first step was to cultivate Sarah, my boss at work. Thinner, taller' and older, she epitomized sophistication: She bought her clothes at Ann Taylor's, drank tea with lemon and bought hard-back books.
"Look, let's do something some weekend soon, okay?" I said to her the next day.
"Sure," she said, puzzled and bemused.
She suggested we go to the annual Grand Waltzers' Ball at Glen Echo Park. "I love to waltz," she said with more enthusiasm than her usual hauteur allowed. "I used to waltz every weekend in college."
"Yeah, I like waltzing, too," I replied. I'd never actually gone waltzing, but I knew how to do it. My mother, in a burst of enthusiasm over Tchaikovsky one day, had insisted that waltzing was something I should know, so she'd dragged me around the living room. Now, as visions of Natasha, Prince Andrei, punchbowls and chandeliers danced in my brain, I wished I'd paid more attention. Prince Andrei. Hmm.
Sarah thought about partners, too.
"You know, we should bring at least one man along, just to make sure we have someone to dance with, worse comes to worst." So I called a former classmate who had mentioned that he took lessons at Arthur Murray's once. Visions of Fred and Ginger danced in the air after I hung up in the phone. Yes, he'd love to go waltzing.
As weeks passed, the coming waltz evening assumed even grander proportions. Sarah found out that the Old Europe touted a May festival that night, with heaps of asparagus and May wine afloat with strawberries. So we planned some spaetzle and schnitzel before Strauss and Mozart. After that -- who knows?
I constructed my outfit for the big night. Basic ingredient: one antique gown from a vintage clothing shop, an Olivia de Haviland of a gown, low-necked and full-skirted. Navy taffeta. It glistened like the sea in moonlight, and rustled when I moved. Great waltzability, with a cream-colored crocheted shawl draped around my shoulders, my grandmother's diamond-and-pearl butterfly necklace around my throat, pewter roses twinkling on my earlobes and patent leather on my feet.
Maybe, maybe he'd even bring a corsage! I'd never had a corsage.
When I was at an age where girls before me and girls since (I hear) fasten orchids onto organdy straps, I was fastening black armbands onto my workshirt sleeves. Where girls of other eras went to sweetheart dances and homecoming dances and proms, I went to anti-war sit-ins and Earth Day demonstrations. So enough with revolutionary chic. Bring on the Waltzing ball.
Waltz day dawned one of those maddeningly delightful spring days, the kind that remind you what it's like to feel the sun warming your limbs as they move untrammeled by layers of clothing, through fields alive with flowers. Forsythia were in splendid yellow bloom and the trees looked green again. Excitement about the coming evening and the wild weaving of a bluegrass fiddle on the radio infused me with restlessness. Forget the Sunday paper, forget the housework. Time for some rites of spring. There'd be plenty of time to get ready for the ball later, I thought to myself as I got into my pickup for the long drive out to the farm.
Rich's high-school sweetheart's parents owned the farm. Rich and the girl had long since broken up, but it didnht matter. Rich, Kevin and Steve had lived there so long that it was hard to imagine the sagging frame house without them.
At the end of the driveway, several beat-up old Volvos squatted on cinderblocks. The guys all drove Volvos, and they kept spares around for parts. Rich and Joe nodded off-handedly as I pulled up. The dogs, Ozzie, Harriet and Emmy Lou, began to bark and the ratty screen door swung open. Kevin emerged squinting in the sunlight. "Hey, you're just in time. We're just getting ready to plant some mary-gee-wanna and you can help if you want. Been saving these seeds all winter," he added, taking a sip from his beer.
"Howdy, girl," Jimmy drawled from underneath his CAT diesel hat. "Fine day, ain't it?" He was sitting at the slab of a kitchen table, his feet on the edge of a cast-iron wood stove. Even in summer, when its black surface was cold, people were drawn to the stove, perhaps because of all the winter nights when everyone circled around its warmth. The evenings had assumed an almost ritualistic pattern that adhered even in warmer weather.
Soon, with shovels, hoes and seeds, several of us, and the dogs, were headed up toward the old barn.
"Why don't you stay for supper?" Kevin asked, listing other friends who would be coming by.
"Thanks, really, but I got to get rolling," I said, hoping my neighborhood drugstore would still be open. I had to buy stockings for the dance.
The afternoon's brightness paled to an early evening glow that whispered of coming summer, and as I neared home all of Carroll Avenue was bathed in a soft pink. Oh glorious day and even more glorious evening! And -- what luck! -- the pharmacy was still open. I dashed in and bought my stockings. Back at the house, the curtains fluttered in the night breeze and the curl of warmth lingering in the air made my flesh tingle.
Carefully, slowly, I showered, shampooed, powdered and perfumed. My ex-classmate was coming to pick me up, even though that meant going completely out of his way. What a gentlemen! Perhaps when he got here, we'd have a glass of sherry and go for a walk in the garden.
Ceremoniously, I put on each piece of my costume. How delicous to slide a silky slip over my sweet-smelling body. Oh so deftly I applied lipgloss, mascara, too. Done at last, I gave Olivia de Haviland a swirl and she responded with a ladylike rustle. My mirror image reflected the vision I'd hoped for. Hard to believe it was me, I looked lovely. Now if he'd only get here before the incandescence faded.
Hopes for a walk in the garden evaporated as nightfall extinguished the last bits of sunset. Where was he? I started to apply more lipgloss, but stopped. I didn't dare add one more thing, lest it all come toppling down. The clock ticked the evening away. At last, the thud of footsteps on the porch.
"Wow, you look nice," he said. "Sorry I'm late. What time is it? Hey, we better get moving." So much for sherry. Oh, well, maybe later. At least he noticed the way I looked. He looked pretty slick himself in a navy linen suit, white shirt and red-striped tie. Sarah was waiting for us at the restaurant in her waltzing skirt: a long sweep of lilac topped with a crepe blouse.
Despite strawberries, May wine and candlelight, dinner proceeded uneventfully, until Sarah's boyfriend showed up, creating a furor with the waitress because he had jeans on. The meal came to a hasty end, and we set out for the dance.
Glen Echo Park is out on the edge where Maryland ceases to be Washington and becomes country again. The Waltzing Ball is held in a large pavilion in the park's center, and as we approached it we could hear a string quartet, throbbing in waltz tempo.
Inside, a kaleidoscope of couples glided past: older couples in tux and gown, a young couple in medieval garb and even a troupe of youths in Bavarian dirndls and lederhosen. Sarah and her friend immediately spun off into the throng. Waves of "The Blue Danube" washed over me. I swayed to the lilting rhythm and smiled beseechingly at my date. He glanced around edgily. "Let's just watch for awhile," he said. "This isn't the way I learned." The way? There was no way. Out on the dance floor, anarchy reigned, but everyone was having fun. That's all I wanted to do -- not win any prizes.
But waltz after waltz we stood and watched. I tapped my feet and folded my arms. I unfolded my arms. I could have cried every time they played a waltz I knew, because I wanted to dance to it so badly and they probably wouldn't play it again. When Sarah, red-faced and perspiring, asked to rest a while, I almost begged her boyfriend to dance with me, but I knew he'd feel uncomfortable since he didn't know my date. So the four of us stood there until Sarah and her boyfriend whirled off again.
When my date finally said, "Okay, c'mon," I bounded onto the dance floor like a springer spaniel. All right! Now we're going to do some dancing! Lets whirl and spin until we get dizzy. Just let the music weave its spell --
"Look, would you let me head?"
"Huh?" Lead? Was I leading? I thought I was waltzing. I opened my eyes.
"Come on, like this. . ." He was doing some stiff kind of step: describing little squares with his feet. Must be what they call a boxstep. Was this Arthur Murray's excuse for a waltz? This computeroid fidgeting? Dammit! I wanted to whirl!
"Hey, come on. Let me lead!"
"Why? Give me one good reason why."
"Look, let's just get out of here."
All right, so you're not a waltzer. Better to leave, I guess, than stay here and endure terminal wallflowerdom. Cheer up -- the night is young. He'll probably take you to a jazz club in Georgetown or something, I told myself. I waved to Sarah, took a last panoramic glance at the scene and marched toward the door. Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" waltz fell on my ears like a taunt as we walked in silence toward the car.
He turned on the ignition.
"Where are we going?" I chirped.
"Well, after I drop you off, I'm going home. I'm tired."
Home? Was he kidding? I looked at his profile and despised it. He wasn't kidding. I suddenly saw myself clomping up the porch steps, into the empty house from which I'd sallied forth with such high hopes scant hours ago. Mother of Mercy, was this the end of Olivia de Haviland? No. I refuse to let it. There had to be some magic left in the night; a Prince Andrei who would turn up at midnight for the last waltz.
"Stop!" I cried. "I'm getting out. I'm going back." Adventure called and I would answer. Running back toward the music, I felt as if I'd just gotten back to the dorm after a weekend home. Free again!
Only when I re-entered the ballroom, no prince appeared to take my hand and whirl me into enchantment. The couple in medieval garb still waltzed wildly, as did a few others. But the crowd had thinned considerably and almost everyone, had gone. Even the string quartet was fiddling with the instrument cases. I waltzed out. Terrific. Just dandy. Here I was, 11:30 on Saturday night, out in the boonies no car, no buses and less than a dollar in change. And in this getup. Well, even if I had to sleep in the park, I was still glad I'd come back. Looked like I was going to sleep in the park, too. Every friend I tried calling was out -- probably on a date. How wonderful to have such socially active friends. Wait! I knew who wouldn't be out on "dates." Even now, they were probably sitting around the stove, drinking beer and singing.
The phone rang a few times. Finally an answer. "Hello?"
"Hi! Thank goodness!"
"Hey, what's happening?"
"I'm out at Glen Echo. Whatchall doing?"
"Oh, sitting around, drinking a few beers."
"Great, Listen, I know it's a long way, but would y'all do me a favor?Please come get me. I'm stuck."
"What's wrong with your truck?"
"It's home, that's what."
"Okay. Hang on. We'll be there."
"Oh, boy, I really appreciate this. I can't tell you how much. Where shall I meet you?"
"Well, it'll take us a while to get there, so why don't you go wait for us at Trav's?"
"Sure. Great. See ya soon. Thanks again."
Next to the park, Trav's was not your average Washington bar but a workingman's mirage in moneyed Montgomery County, a dim-lit haze of plastic Schlitz signs and scarred tables.Scarred patrons, too: grizzled old grits and beer-bellied young slack-jaws. An honest-to-god honkytonk. And I was terrified of walking in alone. Well, if I craved adventure, this would be it, all right. I started over.
"Hey, you been dancin'?"
I looked up. A tall, gangly young man in a green flannel shirt stood in my path.
"You wanna dance some more?"
"Where ya going?"
"Well, I drink beer, too."
"I'm meeting some friends."
"I'll keep you company till they show."
Now, that wasn't such a bad idea. At least it would keep me from feeling like a tin deer on a rifle range when I walked into Trav's. Okay, pal, tag along. Just don't get cute.
His name was Francis and he was a house painter, he told me as we walked toward Trav's. As we got closer, geometric shapes appeared out of the blackness. A tall link fence stood between us and the promised tavern. "Looks like we're going to have to walk back and around," I said.
"Oh, come on. You can climb this," he said as he nimbly reached the top. Must've been an ace concert-crasher in his day. Probably still was. All right, just because I have rose earrings doesn't mean I'm a sissy, right? I tossed my shawl and bag over and jabbed a patent-leather toe in a lower link.
Made it! Didn't even catch my gown or run my stockings. Lead on, Macduff. I'm ready for Trav's. I ready for anything.
My bravado evaporated like beer foam when we walked in. All eyes were on us. Aside from two gum-chewing honkytonk angels behind the bar, I was the only female in the place. I certainly was the only one in an antique gown. Francis fetched us a couple of drafts. Pedal-steel twanged from the juke box and nasal voices sang of love. "Let's dance," Francis said. "C'mon, your friends ain't gonna be here for a while."
Suddenly, I could see the string quartet. They were playing the "Blue Danube" again. It swelled and thundered in my ears, drowning out Willie Nelson. The medieval couple was still waltzing.
"Dontcha wanna dance?" Francis asked.
The string quartet disappeared. I looked down at the slimy floor. So this would be my waltz.
Just then Kevin and Steve walked in the door, and I flew across the room ad hugged them. "Am I glad to see you guys!" They grinned, and bought a six-pack. I said good-bye to Francis and we walked out to where Jimmy and Rich waited in the old white Volvo station wagon. Rich started the car, handed me a beer. So much for sophistication.
I kicked off my patent-leather shoes, pulled open the pop-top and joined in the chorus of "Hickory Wind" as we rattled off into the countryside.