One of my favorite parts of Pride and Prejudice has always been the Netherfield Ball– maybe because I had my own Netherfield Ball-esque experience when I was in college, complete with dancing, rude potential suitors, and misunderstandings. My story turned out rather differently than Elizabeth’s–but it was still a definite turning-point in my life. It happened this way:
When I was in college, the ballroom dance club on campus was very popular. I’d grown up watching old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies– and of course reading Jane Austen books–so I started to go to the meetings. I absolutely loved it. The dancing was fun, the music great, and the people I met there all friendly and fun and nice.
Well, for the most part. There was—
Okay, I really don’t want to be mean, here, but I am completely unable to think of a nicer way to put this: there was a certain contingent of creepy skanky older men looking for an excuse to put their hands all over the hapless girls they wound up partnering. And it was impossible to completely avoid them, even if you came to the lesson with a partner, because the instructors insisted on everyone rotating partners in the interests of getting used to dancing with more than one person.
So, on the night my story begins, I had had the bad luck to wind up with one of said creepy skanky older men for one of the dance rotations. And this particular guy also had two left feet and couldn’t keep a rhythm to save his life. Which wouldn’t have been a problem–I mean, I know plenty of wonderful people who just can’t keep a beat. Except that this particular guy kept tripping over and/or stepping my feet and then blaming ME.
At one point he stepped on my feet for the dozenth time, stepped back, folded his arms across his chest, scowled, and snapped, “Try it by yourself a few times while I watch!”
I pinky-swear I did not make any part of that up.
So, I was gritting my teeth and doing my best to just smile and get through this while praying that the instructors would call a new rotation and I’d be able to make my escape. And then the guy said, “So, do you have a boyfriend?”
Caught totally off guard, I answered, truthfully, “No.”
And then my brain kicked in and screamed at me, You idiot! He’s going to take that as an invitation to ask you for a date!
I should perhaps explain here that I am HORRIBLE at saying no to anyone. Back before I was a published author, I once made a phone call intending to quit a freelance editing job and wound up signing on for the duration of the project. (The client was this really sweet 90 year old man, you see, and yes, his writing was fairly incoherent and his handwriting atrocious, but he was so nice and just grateful to the point of tears for anything I could do, and . . . )
At any rate, if I am bad at saying no now, I was six hundred times worse at just-left-home-for-the-first-time 18. It would be hard to find words to describe the complete, utter panic I felt at the prospect of having this guy ask for a date and having to turn him down. I mean, there was not a worm’s chance in a henyard I was going to go out with this man. But at the same time, I knew myself and I had a horribly clear mental image of him saying, Want to go out? And me, my tongue absolutely refusing to spit out that, “no” saying instead, Um, okay.
And then I’d be forced to fake my own death and drop out of school to get out of it.
So I did the only thing I could think of. I backpedaled. Completely incoherently and in probably the most unconvincing and totally flustered way you can possibly envision. I think what came out of my mouth was: “NoNotReallyWellKindaSortaYes!”
My temporary partner, unsurprisingly, said, “What?”
Well, okay, I was committed now, so I took a deep breath and said, more calmly, “What I mean is, Yes. Yes, I have been seeing someone.”
And my partner gestured across the dance floor at my regular practice partner, the boy I’d come to the lesson with that night, and said, “Is that your boyfriend?”
Now, it is at this point in my story that an alien force temporarily took possession of my brain. That is the only explanation I can think of. Because my regular partner was a boy in my year who lived in the same dorm I did. We’d been introduced by a mutual friend because the friend knew we both went to ballroom dance and were looking for practice partners. We’d chatted a few times on the walk to and from ballroom club meetings, and I thought he was a very nice guy and we always had a good time dancing together. But I didn’t know him even remotely well.
Nevertheless, as my temporary partner gestured to him and asked, “Is that your boyfriend?” I heard myself say, “Yes, that’s right.” Honestly, I have no idea what I was thinking. Maybe for a split second it just seemed like a good idea–like a concrete, visible boyfriend would be more convincing than some hypothetical guy in the background. Still, as soon as the words left my mouth, I flashed hot and cold and asked myself whether I’d completely lost my mind as the reality of what I’d just said set in. I mean, I wasn’t even 100% sure my regular practice partner did not already have an actual, real girlfriend.
I think the instructors called a new rotation soon after and I escaped without the creepy skanky guy asking me out after all. Which was good. Except that I now faced the hideously embarrassing prospect of having to admit to my regular practice partner what I’d done. Because as embarrassing as it was going to be to tell my practice partner the truth, it would be infinitely worse if the story somehow got around and he heard it from someone else– and wound up thinking I was some kind of weird stalker girl who went around making up fictional relationships with guys she barely knew.
So I spent the rest of the evening with my stomach in knots trying to think of a way to tell him, dreading the end of the lesson when we’d walk back to the dorm and I’d have to explain.
As it turned out, he was pretty great about it all, though.
We have three children, now, and as of next week, we’ll have been married for 15 years.
Happy anniversary to my own Mr. Darcy! Jane Austen herself couldn’t have written me a better happily-ever-after.