I made many of my closest friends in college when I broke my foot and hobbled around pathetically, in obvious need of frequent assistance.
How do adults make friends?
They go to country-western bars with their roommates, evidently.
So, I stand stuttering in russet light, intimidated by the scornful bartender and the lack of menu. Am I just supposed to divine what’s on tap?
I’m used to Michigan, to Eastown and its valiant effort to embody Portland imagined as a much smaller town and infused with a strong air of midwestern reserve.
Ye, I don’t think I am as pretentious or naïve as the bartender’s eyebrows and folded arms seem to imply.
Hey now, I think. I’m not an outsider here. I was born in the west. I grew up dancing in the barns and shooting off illegal fireworks in the dusty cow pastures of friends. And I don’t like country music generally, but I love Dolly Parton because I’m not a monster. I feel like I’d hate any beer I’ve seen in a television commercial, so…
“Can I get a rum and Coke?” I yell to be heard over some wailing cowboy’s lament.
“What kind of rum?” the bartender asks, somehow managing to be heard without affect, inflection, or putting much effort into enunciation.
“Bacardi is fine,” I say in the exact tone of someone on iceskates for the first time. They are always leaning forward, feet struggling to keep up with the torso. They think they should have been given some of those buckets that help children keep their balance. They feel very young, but too old to be learning this for the first time.
I’ve been off-balance and out of rhythm since I walked through the door.
“Here you go, hun,” the bartender says and hands me a plastic cup.
To my roommate’s substantial credit, she has not abandoned me before my awkwardness rubs off on her. She does not comment on the fact that I am hovering a mere breath from her elbow. (She’s significantly taller than me, particularly in her venue-appropriate cowgirl boots).
The dancers on the dappled floor make it look easy. Flocks of guys and gals integrating and separating and pairing off, like fragments in a kaleidoscope. Older couples who have had their jeans for decades but their new hips for mere months. Texans who ventured north.
I sway, conspicuous until a guy in a baseball hat asks me to dance.
“Now, I have to warn you, I’m totally new to this,” I say. It is almost the truth. And people like to teach. Knowing something someone else does not can revive flagging confidence. His touch on my back is so light and hesitant, I think he must be more nervous than me.
“Oh?” he says. Somehow, his grip loosens even further.
We both look at our feet. We skirt the dance floor. I quickly lose the rhythm. His hand is sweaty. Or mine is. Or both. I think I have accidentally started leading instead of following.
“How did you get started dancing?” I ask. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to talk. But I know how to lead a conversation: open with a strong first step that is easy to follow.
“I had a bad break up,” he says. “My friends made me come.”
“Good for you,” I say.
I’m leading again, and to a rhythm the song does not share.
Later, some of my roommate’s friends join us. There is a young woman whose introversion and discomfort in this situation are so palpable I wonder if she is undergoing this as some form of exposure therapy.
Then there is the Montana-born teacher in the Marine reserves who appears to have already downed several drinks, given the volume of his voice and how funny he finds me.
He is new to the area. He teaches history and is the opposite of every history teacher I have ever had. His build is wiry. A look of concern rounds the table when he walks off to get another drink.
He returns with what he calls “a blue dolphin on the rocks.”
“Sounds tropical,” someone says.
“It’s not what you would expect,” he says, his grin indicating he is setting up for a joke. People love to teach.
He explains that “blue dolphin” is code for ice water. You order it incognito to save face with your Marine buddies. He thinks it’s very clever.
Everyone drinks blue dolphins. Grand Rapids wants to be Portland. I think that appearing natural in a country-western bar will validate some aspect of my identity. And I am smiling at a man who clearly wants to appear more Marine than teacher.
But if everyone is the man behind the curtain, of what use is the curtain?
And, after all, vulnerability and passion make people interesting, just like good dancing is equal parts grace toward a stumbling partner and firm confidence.
So, thank you to the gentleman who loudly counted out the beats of the “Copperhead Road” line dance. I will not be dancing the “blue dolphin.” People like teaching. And, as awkward as it is, befriending by humbly learning is more comfortable than breaking bones.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.