Isabel Henderson

Isabel Henderson.

It was my first night drinking since February. I’d decided to take a break from alcohol for all of March—now that I have the freedom to buy it legally, I don’t feel as compelled to jump at it when offered. But mostly, I just wanted to see if I could make it for a whole month. When I told people about my teetotaling, they assumed it was for Lent. They wanted to ascribe my willpower to a God I don’t believe in; they believed in Him more than my own power of conviction. Fine.

That night it is pouring—a perfect excuse not to go out. I take shots in a friend’s room, trying to catch up. We go to TI first. The lights are on and a sparse crowd stands around, clutching anemic beer.

All I ever want to do when I go out is dance. I’m not particularly interested in holding a yelling conversation with someone who won’t remember what we talked about in the morning. I want to do something that is only acceptable from the hours of 12 to 4 a.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays: move my body to the music (ideally, ripping off Ciara circa 2004).

A boy I vaguely know comes up to me. “I read your article,” he says. It is a pickup line whose power has been exhausted. “I read it, and then I went back the next day and read it again,” he claims. One of his friends comes up to us, and I shake his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he says. I can’t decide if I would be more upset if he were lying or telling the truth. Though we have several mutual friends, I’ve spoken to this boy exactly twice—hardly interactions worth telling one’s friends about.

I keep asking the boy what time it is. A famous musician is playing at Terrace at midnight. At a quarter past he asks if going to Terrace is more important than he is. “Yes,” I say, the taste of whiskey gone from my mouth. “Yes, it is obviously far more important.”

He tries again. “If you stay, I’ll make it worth your time,” he whispers into my ear. His breath is humid, beer-sticky. I tell him to fuck off, almost serious. He laughs. “I’ll come with you, then,” he says. I say, “I just want to dance.”

And so I am back on the dance floor with the boy. He teaches me how to do swing moves and I roll my eyes but comply anyway because he is a fantastic dancer, he knows this, it is his currency in a dim basement filled with muscular calves and chiseled jawlines. Then we are grinding, dancing close enough for me to be aware of how hard he is. He brings me out to the edge of the crowd. I refuse to dance up against him on a wall. “I’m not going to be that girl,” I explain. He continues trying to bring me over there. I ignore his efforts. He keeps trying to kiss me, and I will not make eye contact. I’m stubborn in my belief that I can continue to have a good time. I have faith in his ability to get the message.

He brings his mouth to my ear again. “You’re like this girl who totally has her shit together—” he starts, and I begin rolling my eyes, “—and then I see you out, and you go absolutely wild.”

He grins, expecting this compliment to seal the deal. I say I have to go to the bathroom. I am shaking with anger. I splash my face with water, and listen to two girls puking in the handicapped stall. One of them is sobbing. “He’s not even coming,” she babbles. I make sure that a third friend is taking care of them.

The boy is waiting for me on the stairs outside the bathroom. I sneak past him, using a football player as a shield. He comes up behind me and wraps his arms around my waist. I’m tired of this. “I’m not going to hook up with you,” I declare. I’m mad at myself for feeling guilty about this, for feeling like I’ve wasted his time. He is unfazed. “I have your number, I’ll find you at Terrace,” he says. A friend spots us and gives me a thumbs up. “Nice!” she mouths. I find another friend to leave with.

At Terrace, Nat Baldwin of the Dirty Projectors plays his upright bass and the only thing that keeps me from tears is my meticulously applied eyeliner. “This is what every night should be like,” we are all saying to each other, standing in a decaying mansion listening to an incredibly talented performer. Afterwards a friend and I go up to him and tell him how great the performance was. I want to go home and curl up around my body pillow and write bad poetry. I stay because what I really want is to share this night with someone, to fill an empty vessel with my sadness, to hand it over to them, this is yours, for it to cease to exist because this person is capable of filtering my fear into happiness.

The boy I danced with texts me and I ignore it. My phone dies, and I breathe a sigh of relief. He finds me in Terrace and I say I’ll be down in a minute and I have neither watch nor phone nor any desire to be around him so I stay here, on the collapsed arm of a couch, talking to high freshmen.

I leave with two friends and we sit in someone’s room until 6 a.m. talking about love and frustration and other topics we considered more important than sleep. I walk home in the rain, holding no one but the red umbrella I’ve somehow managed not to lose. I am alone. That night I have vivid dreams detailing a committed relationship to a beautiful, kind boy; it feels like I am planning in my sleep. When I wake up he is gone from me but it still feels like a possibility, not so much a dream as a portent; you could have this. I am greeted with text messages detailing everyone’s sexual exploits, and have nothing to add. “I had a dream about a perfect relationship,” I text a friend. “I woke up in someone else’s cum,” she replies.

***

Weeks later I am still thinking about what that boy said to me, either a misplaced compliment or conscious negging. The hunger in his whisper about how this good girl “goes wild,” what Freud would likely define as a classic Madonna-whore complex.

What I say to him is this: I do not go wild. I wanted to dance and you were the one who dropped cheesy pickup lines and pulled me up against a wall and followed me around the club.

You go wild. Some primitive and instinctive urge compels you to hunt. I am not one girl in the classroom and another on a dance floor; I can think about sex in lecture and contemplate Kant when your dick’s pressed up against my thigh. I do not want one thing in the daylight and another in the dark; I am not human in one setting and prey in the other. Just because something moves does not mean you have to chase it.

***

Recently, I brought this incident up with a group of guy friends. Our conversation turned to incidents on the Street. “I’ve never really seen anything that looked threatening,” noted one guy. The rest of them nodded in agreement.

“Are you kidding me?” I interjected. I explained what had happened to me a few weeks ago. I mentioned another incident when, while dancing at Ivy, a boy had attempted to put his hands down my pants. When I moved away, he yanked me towards him by the elbow, so fiercely that my head snapped back. I immediately went home with a friend, absolutely shaken.

“So just don’t go to those places,” the group of tall, fairly able-bodied friends told me. To these boys—open-minded, thoughtful, lovely people—it seemed very simple.

In that moment I was too frustrated to explain why they were wrong, so I will attempt that here. First, it is not my behavior that has to change. I am not going to stop dancing because of boys’ behavior. If I had been seriously violated in some way, I might reconsider, but the few minor events I’ve experienced do not take away from dozens of weekends spent having fun with my friends. Regardless, this is not the real problem with discounting these events. You don’t tell someone who’s been mugged to “just not go out on the street.” You prosecute the perpetuator of the crime, you attempt to understand why these acts occur.

Second, it is worth considering the act of dancing itself. I often worry that the way I dance may be construed as sexual. I shouldn’t have to change the way I move—a style culled from friends around me, dance lessons, music videos—because I fear that the way I express myself will lead people to call me a slut, or men to assume that I am willing to hook up with them. Obviously, many people dance as a kind of mating ritual, in the hopes of attracting someone. But I shouldn’t have to worry that this non-verbal act will signify that I want something more. I shouldn’t feel anxious about telling someone, “No.” I shouldn’t worry about where to draw the line between dirty dancing and a hookup. Especially when I’ve stated, in explicit terms, that I am not interested.

Part of the issue is the power politics of dancing on the Street: the most common way that couples dance together is grinding. With heterosexual couples, this usually involves a male behind the female, making rhythmic pelvic thrusts. I doubt that they worry about their dancing appearing sexual, the way I worry about my own movements signifying consent. Often girls do not know a boy is behind them until he’s already grinding—I can count on one hand the number of times I have been asked to dance before the fact. This means that a boy can spot a girl from across the room, or watch her from behind, before choosing to dance with her; girls crane their necks to try to see his face, or rely on signals from a friend across from them to see if he’s someone appealing. I don’t dance with every boy who comes up behind me; I might walk away or say, “No, thank you.” But the disparity in autonomy of choice creates an intrinsic unbalance in power.

In each of these incidences, I did not feel seriously victimized or in any real physical danger. Perhaps none of the boys remember clearly what they did that night, or their actions were amplified by alcohol.

But what’s truly scary to me is the guilt I feel. Guilt for not hooking up with these boys who danced with me, for not letting their hands and mouths make contact wherever they wanted, for not following with their idea that dancing is consent. Guilt for writing about these experiences, because perhaps they’re typical and not serious enough to warrant a discussion. I am scared by my reaction to certain aggressive actions, more than the actions themselves.

***

I remember the first time I grinded with a boy, at a middle school YMCA dance. People from across the county gathered in a half-lit gym to dance to “Candy Shop” and “1, 2, Step.” A group of my friends danced together, before one of them pulled me aside. “Let’s go like this,” she said, facing me, getting close, mirroring the way I moved. I was wearing a lilac polo shirt and a pleated white tennis skirt, an outfit that my 7th grade self was very proud of. Two boys spotted us, and sandwiched us. I watched the way my friend danced: eyes closed, changing her rhythm so she could move her back against this boy’s stomach, fitting her neck in the crook of his neck. The boy I was dancing with had his hands on my waist, then hips, then a thigh. I kept taking his hand off, reminding me of a game we called “alligator”: placing one hand on top of the other to see who would end up on top. There was never any winner: it always just turned into chaotic slapping. Suddenly, I lost the game. The boy put his hand underneath my skirt, feeling the built-in shorts underneath. I quickly extracted myself. I had never felt so dirty in my life. I made sure no one had noticed; I was worried that they would call me a prude.

I had painted fantasies of dances in my head for years before finally attending one. I thought that the music would bring courage to all of the boys I liked, that they would ask me to dance with them to slow songs. My hands around their carefully-trimmed necks, thumbs brushing the rough places where the clippers missed. Their hands around my waist. After a few songs I would dare to rest my head on their shoulders, and everyone would see; they would know that I was wanted.

Instead I accepted the offer of a boy I’d grown up with, who was like a brother to me. We swayed dispassionately to Coldplay’s “Yellow.” I did not put my head on his shoulder, mostly so I could watch the boy I had a crush on dance with my best friend. So many memories of middle and high school dances are like this: searching for the bobbing heads of boys I liked. Trying to discern—from across the room, in poor lighting—do you want me, too. 

When I returned home from the YMCA dance I washed that skirt twice, watching it go round and round in the machine as my parents slept upstairs. After it dried I hid it beneath the long jeans and knee-length skirts in my drawer. “Wasn’t that fun?!” my best friend asked, when she called the next day. “Totally,” I said. We went to the dance again the next week.

Sometimes I think we’re both still swaying in that airless gym, with the lights gone dark; that I’m still just a girl who feels guilty for not enjoying it when a boy puts his hands on her without asking. They don’t play slow songs anymore, but I just want someone to ask me if I want to dance.