It’s Thursday night on Friday Harbor; I’m sitting on a bar stool, watching a woman dance. She has tightly wound curls and loose smile. I think she knows the boys in the band. Beyond her is a table of four men, all dressed in vertically striped shirts, and though they will not tell anyone who they are, I am certain that one of them is Where’s Waldo, and the other three, his brothers. A group of ten women in their sixties wearing plastic leis spill onto the dance floor, one after the other, and a drunk bride to be, barefoot and bloated, with a cheap plastic tiara and a feather boa sways in the doorway as her friends smoke.
I’m sipping a beer, a little too bitter for me, and make a mental note that someone should tell Bill O’Reilly that Where’s Waldo has been found, living large in the San Juan Islands. I’m alone, having returned only a few hours earlier from a three day kayak excursion. Only a few of the group are still on the island. The couple from Michigan, the two young adventurers who live anywhere, and everywhere, and my friend from New York have scattered for the moment. I’m happy to be free of the chatter, happy to watch people dance.
There were fifteen in the group to start, kayaking and camping for a short three days. We rowed along the San Juan Islands, looking for whales. We didn’t find any, despite their considerable size, but the sky was beautiful, the wind, heady, and our leaders told stories that skipped like flat rocks across the Puget Sound. Some people know how to talk just so, their voices wrap around you and keep you strong. They’re tricksters and crows with good hearts, sad souls, mischievous minds.
I wonder how many secrets the water knows. So many people. So many heavy hearts. Does the water remember it all?
Is that why there’s more water on earth than ever before? Does the weight of our worries equal the amount of water dispersed.
There’s a tap on my shoulder. One of the group is back, a gangly twenty-two year old who knows how to dance. We join the Where’s Waldo’s and the women in leis on the dance floor and though it’s been a while since I last danced, we knock out a song or two.
I learned to swing dance a few months after I left my husband. I was sleeping on couches, relying on the charity of friends, trying to find my way back to stasis. I wanted to do something fun. So, I took a class until I ended up sleeping with the teacher. I remember crying on the stoop of a brownstone before and after each session. I had decimated my personality during the four years of my relationship. Being alone seemed so lonely.
In the kayaks we were to close shore and yet, I felt so far from land. When I signed up for the trip, I assumed it would be an easy float. Surely, I told my friend, they wouldn’t run a trip that was too challenging. They didn’t know who would show up to row. But there’s this little fact I neglected consider: when you’re working with things far bigger than you, pushing against the wind, and rowing against the tide, even breathing can be hard. On the water, I wasn’t thinking about all those years ago, swing dancing and crying on stranger’s stoops. No one wanted to hear my stories. And I didn’t want to tell them. I simply wanted to keep moving through the water. Sometimes rowing hard, sometimes hardly working, as the tide carried us along.
At night, I slept outside, and when it rained, the raindrops felt like kisses. It was cold and my feet felt wet, even though they were dry. My eyes drifted open during the night and I’d see through the slits that the stars had decided to spatter the sky.
I had a dream one night that a coworker, a male, hired a surrogate to have his baby. This surrogate was a breatharian. She nourished herself only by her breath. I voiced my concern. I didn’t think a woman could grow a baby solely by breathing. But every time we checked, baby and mother were doing just fine.
Back to the table, the group reconvenes wearing various degrees of drunk. My too-bitter-beer waits, abandoned in the middle of the table, for someone to drink it. I’m not drunk, but I am happy, diving into the ocean of bright eyes and artful smiles. And then, my dance partner holds out his hand and we hit the floor one last time. He is young, but he is wise.
When I was a kid, I used to jump off the high diving board. I’d climb up that narrow rung ladder with wet feet, walk to the end of the board, and jump until I flew. Mid-air, I’d pull my legs into my chest, grab them with my arms, and cannonball into the water below. One day, a month or two after my father died, I discovered that I was afraid of heights. Diving into the water poolside became an impossible task. It was as if I could feel the ground shifting beneath my feet. I was standing on the waves of an uncaring ocean, unable to balance, afraid to fall. I’m not sure what I was afraid of. Or what I’m afraid of still.
I have this fantasy. It’s that I’ll move somewhere, out of the city, and be even happier than I am now. That I’ll find peace in quiet and joy in stillness. That I’ll be able to make a living outside the fray, and that the magic of life will permeate every breath I squeeze from my lungs.
Another swing dance teacher, the one I didn’t sleep with, used to say that a swing dance is like a three minute love affair. Daunting at first, then beautiful, sad when it’s over, but a great ride.
If the San Juan Islands were a person, I’d be telling you that this afterglow is me recovering from a hell of a fling.