As the school bus wound up the curving mountain roads, we caught glimpses of the sea and the harbor below us and the city lights just beginning to shine in the gathering dusk. Large, exotic trees shaded the road, and old, stone walls buttressed the highway cuts. I was a freshman, going to a private, all boys boarding school, and a dance had been arranged with a girls' school high up in the Riviera section of Santa Barbara.
As always, we were excited about leaving our school for any reason, but going to a dance was a particularly good reason. I had had little experience with girls, and going to a dance at a girls' school was preceded by great expectations. Back then, I think I was in love with all girls from a distance, though in reality I knew none well. Expectation was all.
It was a beautiful campus, ivy climbing the walls of the buildings, gardens layered in terraces along a hillside, with views of the city below. Inside the room decorated for the dance, a large bowl of red punch surrounded by trays of cookies sat on a table. Some of the older students already knew each other and, in the darkened room, stood talking in small groups. Folding metal chairs framed the room along the walls, and shy girls in starchy, stiff blue, peach, or yellow dresses sat silently in small groups, their wide, evasive eyes fluttering like moths.
At first, I stayed with my friends, a ragged clump of freshman boys in rumpled blue blazers or too large tweed jackets, our narrow ties choking our buttoned down necks, hands in our pockets, waiting for something, anything, to happen.
The music started. It was very loud, far too loud to talk over. It looked like we had to dance. Some boys started asking girls. The small, shy girls sat in thinning ranks along the edge of the room as the dance floor slowly filled up. The enclaves of unattached boys grew smaller and smaller.
Figuring that it was probably less uncomfortable to dance than not to dance at this point, I finally walked up to a sitting girl and asked her the ritual question: "Do you want to dance?" She had a thin face and short brown hair and looked uncomfortable in her long dress. We dutifully slow danced silently and woodenly until the music ended. She fled back to her seat. But I persisted in dancing with other stiff, unspeaking girls, drank enormous amounts of red punch and began to feel looser and more relaxed. It wasn't so bad, really. Some girls began to talk, and small, more intimate groups of boys and girls began to form, disintegrate and reform elsewhere on the dance floor.
While slow dancing, I noticed over my unspeaking partner's shoulder a really shapely girl in a very tight green dress emerge from the half-darkness. She had dark black hair. She seemed older than the other girls, more mature, from the real world beyond the fictions of this teenage dance floor. She was pressed against her dance partner in a tight embrace, mouths together, hands everywhere at once. This was no girl. This was a woman. I could not take my eyes off her. I had never seen such passion before, except in rare moments in darkened theaters on celluloid, but then that would be Doris Day, and Doris Day was like everyone's mother, not this frenzied girl, oblivious to all around her. Her metallic green dress seemed melted onto her hips, and she and her partner moved as one in their own private orbit in the middle of the dance floor.
It was late in the evening. The metal chairs lining the walls were empty. The smaller, shy girls in stiff dresses had all evaporated, perhaps gone silently home. The shadowy dance floor slowly spun around, encircling the girl in green and her partner, now glued together: they had become their dance, which was no longer a dance at all, but a firm love lock. Rocking like a boat at sea, dancing with someone whose name I did not know, and staring wide-eyed at the girl in green, I lost all track of time. There was no time, only the Righteous Brothers: "OOOOOOOOh my love, my darrrrling, I huuuuuunger for your kisssss, your touch, oooooover time..."
Suddenly, a black form flashed on the edge of my vision. It was moving in a relentless straight line, plowing like an icebreaker though the drifting floes of half-conscious dancers slowly rocking on the still ocean. The indistinguishable, dark shape knocked dancing couples aside and plowed into the girl in green. The girl screamed. The hooded nun had grabbed her by the hair. The nun wrenched the girl in green away from her partner, pulling her all the way off the dance floor. The girl never reappeared. Her mysterious partner also disappeared silently into the night, with no protest, like a dream lover at dawn. It was all over in less than ten seconds.
The dance went on, but the lights were now brighter, the floor felt firmer and harder, and I noticed that my loafers needed polish. Doors were opened to let in the cool November air. Beneath the bright lights, along the periphery of the small dance floor, other nuns appeared, or perhaps they had been there all the time, stationed at intervals like pillars holding up a temple, faces smiling, hands clasped.
I knew nothing of nuns. I had seen them from a distance, of course, but they were usually walking together in small groups on State Street or leading lines of uniformed schoolgirls in white blouses and blue checkered skirts across intersections. When I was in elementary school, there had always been a smiling nun waiting for kids to get off the school bus at the house where they studied the catechism on Thursday afternoons. But I had never seen one in action.
"OOOOOh my love, my darrrrrling, I huuuuunger for youuur touch...." The dreamy lyrics slowly pooled and drained to the last drop off of the polished tile dance floor. A group of us, boys and girls, drifted outside, tempted by the broad French doors opening to a patio with lawns and terraced gardens silhouetted against the moonlit Pacific, lying still as glass beyond the city, far below.
Someone said, "Lets go. Lets go out into the garden. Come on." It was a girl's voice. A few dark figures darted out onto the lawn and into the shrubbery. Then we all started running, seven or eight of us, into the cool moon shadows, through the paths along the square patterned rose gardens, past small rock-edged pools and ivy slopes. We started laughing uncontrollably, running as fast as we could, sprinting up stone steps, down steep paths to cool, dark hollows in the formal gardens. We were scattered, boys lost from girls and girls lost from boys, laughing, a random game of crazy tag in the late autumn night.
Colt, one of my classmates, ran up to me, and we stopped, breathing hard, bent over, choking with laughter. All of a sudden, his eyes grew wide, and he shouted, "Oh my Godddd!" and sprinted off. I looked around and saw a nun flying across the lawn directly at me. In the moonlight, beneath her long habit, she appeared to be swiftly gliding on ice with her arms outstretched, her face dark beneath her hood. I ran like hell, as fast as I could, into the darkness, jumping over rose bushes, stone walls, plowing through the shrubbery, oblivious of the rock framed paths, fragmentary images of the girl in green flashing before my eyes like a beacon. The others had scattered. We each ran alone, disappearing into the night. After hiding in the bushes, I finally decided to head for the only safe place left: the bus. Colt was there already. We died laughing.
The ride home over the dark Casitas Pass Road, in the small yellow bus with its shuddering brakes and grinding gears, was long. Moonlight bleached the tall mountains to the north. I had the puzzling sense of having briefly visited a strange country where the natives dressed differently, behaved oddly, and sometimes spoke an obscure dialect that I could barely understand. But, now, in spite of it all, girls were becoming very different for me.
I liked slow dancing with the warm, unspeaking girls in their bright colored dresses. I liked their bare shoulders beneath the narrow dress straps and the way their chins felt resting on my shoulder. I liked the way their expensive perfumes mingled together on the dance floor into something rich and strange. I liked running crazy together with the girls through the rose gardens high above the sea. I guessed I was happy. Yes, I was happy then, happy as a confused boy could be. I drifted off to sleep before we got back to the dorm.
Later that night, I dreamt of the girl in green. And sometimes I dream of her still. She is slow dancing with a stranger. She is wrapped tightly around him, wrapped like thick strands of wild ivy clutching the round trunk of a tree. And, sometimes, black in black habit, a nun stands deep in the forest shadow. She has no smell, no face.