On Friday night, I drove my son back to the school he had left on the bus four hours earlier. Now, though, it was a transformed place: no longer just a place of boredom, occasional interest, even more occasional tears. It was the place where a milestone has now been planted deep in the earth, the place of the First Dance.
In the car we approached the cafeteria door, my son wearing the jeans he had worn all day but with the addition of a button-down shirt, not tucked in though (fashion-immune, my son nonetheless had a small moment of panic a half hour before we left: "Oh, I wish I'd asked somebody else what they were wearing!"). The door of a car before us opened, and from it emerged a . . . a what? A girl-woman, in high-heeled silver sandals. A slinky dress. And blonde hair arranged as if by paintbrush into a multitude of glistening arcs, each held by a rhinestoned clip. I had a sudden understanding why none of the boys I liked when I was this age liked me back: we were living in different countries, in different centuries too, that's why. My boy, who still plays with Legos and is in his All Weapons, All the Time phase, does not exist in the same space-time continuum as these girls. (I now saw a gaggle of them crowded around the door, pointing to their friend; they were nervous as all get-out yet dressed to thrill).
He grimly opened the door of the car--I know he would have pled with me to keep driving and take him home, but for the fact that those six girls had spied him, too--and without a word of goodbye got out. As if there were a noose hanging from the disco ball in the decorated cafeteria, just waiting for him.
I know the anxiety. It doesn't just disappear all at once, when we leave sixth grade behind. ("Oh, I've mastered all that. I'll never again care what others think of me so much it keeps me awake all night. I'm done!")
I still have it, if in slightly reduced form, when I go to a party where there are strangers. I still have it, when I get up to read in front of an audience. I still have it, when I feel judged by an editor or the panel of a prize committee. But nothing ratchets it up quite like publishing a book. That is where I am at. Every step along the way--getting back the edited manuscript (I let it sit, in its unopened FedEx envelope, on my office floor for two weeks before I mustered the courage to open it); seeing the first jacket designs, like the prom dress you will wear on what feels like the most important night of your life, and then the fights where you implore your publisher to take off the frilly sleeves and remake it in something other than scratchy polyester; the interminable wait while a list of eminent writers decide whether or not your brand-new baby is worthy of a read and a comment for use as a hook on the back of the jacket (in today's new publishing world, apparently not, I've learned).
There's more. Much more to make my stomach lurch in the coming months.
The day after the dance found me in Troy, New York, in a blazing hot parking lot. I was there to take a Total Control riding clinic, the culmination of a dream first dreamed two years ago when I witnessed one at the BMW MOA rally in Tennessee: Is it possible that I could ever ride like that? I wondered as I saw riders inscribing small but precise circles at even speed, inside knee kissing the tar.
I worked hard. I tried hard. My clothes stuck to me as if they had been painted with glue, and my helmet was damp whenever I put it back on. I hope I learned; I felt as though I didn't, but the instructor insured me I would realize later that I had. I will try to treat it as a fun game, as they taught; I will not let my anxiety turn my frontal lobes off while it consumes the primitive brain stem. I will control my out-of-control fears about not doing well enough, not writing well enough, not looking cool enough at the dance.
One student in our class stood high above the others. One student moved elegantly, precisely, an instant master of every exercise. At the end of the day, I turned to her. "I want to tell you that you are the prettiest rider here--both out on the course, and when you take your helmet off." She smiled widely. She was indeed pretty; what I envied most, though, was her skill on the bike.
"What's your secret?" I asked conspiratorially. But I didn't really expect her to be able to tell me such a thing. It had to be too big to voice.
It turned out not to be.
Her smile widened as if to light the whole world. "A life lived in joy!" she explained.
There is no question to which this is not the appropriate answer. I left there thinking on this all the way home. A week later, and it is still in my mind. When it's my turn to go to the prom, I hope I can remember. But better than that, I hope it's soaked all the way down. So that it's everywhere, in me and all the potentially lost moments of this life.