The other night I let the boys watch Mamma Mia. They like a good musical and sequined jumpsuits as much as anybody, and for days afterward, I could hear their voices humming butchered ABBA lyrics. I had to smile. Not because I love to hear my children singing Swedish disco hits from the 70s, which of course I do – but because for me, ABBA doesn’t conjure up Broadway or Meryl Streep. When I hear ABBA, I think of a night long ago, when a gallant older man made me feel like the prettiest girl in the room. When I hear ABBA, I think of my first dance.
Many first things, dances included, don’t really measure up to our expectations. And if they don’t, we romanticize them in memory, and let ourselves pretend that the first time was magnificent, not mediocre. But sometimes, those firsts really are better than the fantasy. Sometimes, a first time is so perfect that the rest pale by comparison.
It was 1981, in the People’s Republic of China, and I was eleven years old. My father had taken a sabbatical from his job teaching English at a small liberal arts college in Kentucky to travel to Wuhan University, where officials had hired a team of American and French professors to boost their graduate program. I would have preferred Paris, New York, or at least someplace with a McDonald’s. But nobody consulted me, so I spent a year in China, where both my parents spent most of their weekdays in classrooms, leaving me and my younger brother Will to fend for ourselves.
The days spent unsupervised led to adventures, like the time we captured a baby bat or tiptoed along the tiled roofline of a nearby building. Our freedom wasn’t quite so thrilling the day we spied over the hill and witnessed a pig butchering. I’m not sure who screamed louder; me or the pig.
The two French boys Gilles and Christian, who lived next door, were in the same plight. Out of boredom, we routinely staged wars – all three boys against me, or when my brother remembered a little family loyalty, a Franco-American battle royale involving pseudo karate kicks, tree-climbing, and plenty of middle school insults.
We’d run out of the schoolwork imported from home months ago, and my only diversion was a daily French lesson. At first, those lessons had been conducted by Joelle, a glamorous hairdresser from Lille with long blonde hair and red lipstick. She would giggle and fuss over me as I learned new vocabulary words. That hour every day was my escape-- from the boys, from our dreary apartment, from the mounting tension between my mother and father. For that hour, I basked in the compliments she lavishly bestowed and the girl talk we cobbled together in broken English.
But after Christmas, she’d gone home to France, and left my lessons to her husband Bernard, a biology professor. Bernard had a deep, crusty laugh like a Gallic Santa, but he was less into giggles and lipstick, and more into verb conjugation. French lessons were still a welcome distraction, but I missed the perfume and silliness.
The Chinese government, which had brought my parents and a smattering of other foreigners to this university, discouraged mingling with the locals. So our makeshift neighborhood hunkered down in a grim apartment complex. A cafeteria prepared our food, a bus took us into town, and most weekends, we had a party.
I guess the parties were the school’s way of making sure we didn’t wander into town on a Saturday night and accidentally spread democracy – enough records and rice wine, and even grown-ups could be kept under control. But regardless of the reason, those parties made the long, dull weeks seem tolerable.
The dances were held in the recreation room of one of the apartment buildings. Jacques, a twenty-one-year-old math teacher who looked like a short Christopher Reeves, spun records as the adults danced and smoked.
Jacques and I had a sort of older brother-cynical younger sister relationship; he joked and I scowled. He teased me during our weekly Saturday bus trips to town and I glared in return, both embarrassed and wonderfully flattered by the attention. But he was cute, he knew how to pick a tune, and whenever I requested a song, he’d make sure it was the next one played. Once he took me for a ride on the back of his motorcycle – sending my mother’s blood pressure sky-high. I didn’t care – I was still reeling from the secret thrill of wrapping my arms around his back as we careened down a narrow, dusty road with no guardrail.
Every Saturday, he brought out his vast record collection, transforming the nondescript recreation room into a delightful, tipsy, dance party. The women took extra care with their clothes, the men laughed too loudly over cocktails, and everyone danced, regardless of ability or sense of rhythm. Everyone danced. The drinks flowed freely – sometimes too freely, as I downed a couple of glasses of rice wine one night before my parents caught on, much to the delight of all the French who thought I was a charming, if young drunk. My mother wasn’t nearly as amused, but in my defense, I wasn’t allowed to drink the water and there wasn’t any milk or juice, which left tea, coffee, or an occasional contraband Coca-cola. Really, my mother should have expected nothing less than for me to turn to booze.
One warm spring Saturday, the apartment complex buzzed with excitement. The school year was almost over, which meant everyone would be going home soon and leaving the artificial confines of our little enclave. That evening’s party would be my last, and I meant to make it a good one.
At my request, my mother braided my hair into scores of tiny, thin plaits early in the day. When she took them out that evening, my long brown hair was a flowing, wavy mass that, I was sure, would have made even Donna Summer proud. I chose my outfit carefully that night; a peach, pinch-pleat skirt with enough polyester and glitter thread to suit any budding disco queen. The skirt had a blouse to match, but the short puffed sleeves looked too babyish. A peach-colored swimsuit with a ruffled halter neckline matched perfectly -- and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I was impressed. The ruffles hid my total lack of anything yet resembling breasts, and the peach shade transformed my freckles into a tan. My mother raised her eyebrow at the ensemble, but I ignored her.
When we arrived at the party, Sondra, the sophisticated Yale graduate who during our stint in Wuhan, had committed the impossibly romantic sin of dumping her fiancé in a Dear John letter for a darkly handsome Zou-Zou, complimented my get-up, and I knew I’d hit fashion gold. I felt like I was floating as I drifted across the dance floor to trade barbs with Gilles and Christian. The music started, the beer and cigarettes came out, and my mother left me alone. Glaring at my brother as I angled for another conversation with Sondra, I barely noticed the tap on my shoulder. But Sondra did, and she nodded behind me.I turned around.
Jacques stood in front of me and held out his hand. “Would you like to dance?”
I nodded and followed him to the middle of the floor as the static of the record needle dropping onto vinyl pierced the silence. I was conscious of everyone watching us, the adults all wearing identical expressions that said “Aw, isn’t that cute?” But it didn’t matter. My favorite song, “Fernando” by ABBA began to play and Jacques put his hand around my waist, and gave me one of his crooked smiles.
As he propelled me around the room, I stood taller, willing my feet to follow his. Luckily for both of us, his lack of height meant we could actually move together without listing from side to side. I glanced at his face, and then embarrassed by his grin, I looked away. The windows were open and the scent of dogwoods wafted in through the smoke, a sweet-smelling breeze mussing the heavy curtain of hair falling down my back. I listened to the song, to the words that sang about how there was something in the air that night, Fernando.
We talked, I don’t remember about what, but I remember his eyes and the way he smiled at me. Not patronizing, or indulgent – but like we were equals. Like he asked me to dance, not because it was the nice thing to do, but because he actually wanted to. Even I knew that wasn’t probable, but his ease and unrelenting charm let me believe it, even if only for a few short moments.
When the song ended, he bowed, and returned to the records. I headed back to the boys, who were already making faces at me, ready to tease me for the unforgivable transgression of trying to act grown-up. Rolling my eyes, I pretended a casualness I didn’t feel. What I felt was alive, a spark running through my body as the wind picked up outside, and Jacques switched the record to something faster. I traded glances with Sondra, who looked suitably impressed, and I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face as I walked over to the window, letting the air cool my warm cheeks even as my hips twitched to the beat of the music. I turned around to face the dance floor, a crowd beckoning me to join the adult chaos that suddenly seemed like a place I belonged. Behind a table, Jacques slid another record from its sleeve and, catching my eye, he winked.
A few weeks later, my family left China. After we drove away from the university, I never saw Jacques again. But I still remember him and that dance. Probably, I always will. Because life is full of less than perfect moments. Moments that shake my confidence, and make me forget that I used to be a fearless eleven-year-old girl with dreams of a disco dress and an ABBA song. On that night, in that moment, I felt beautiful and sure of myself, and like anything I wanted in life just might happen.
One spring night, I danced with a Frenchman in China.
And it was magical.