Even though the brunette and I had made eye contact several times over the course of the weekend, Iâ€™d never talked to her.
The two halves of the wedding party never mingled enough to provide a natural opportunity for conversation. At the dozen or so weddings of which Iâ€™d been a part, the bridesmaids and groomsmen showed up ready to be friendly and have a good time, but by contrast, most of Bearâ€™s friends were married and uninterested in getting to know Laurenâ€™s friends, the majority of whom were in relationships anyway. The wedding rehearsal and hours leading up to the big event looked like a middle school dance, with boys on one side of the outdoor church and girls on the other side.
Despite this segregation, the brunette acted unsurprised when I said hello and introduced myself. I mentioned the peculiar aloofness on the part of both sexes, and she echoed my surprise. We agreed that people at weddings sometimes prefer to catch up with old friends and acquaintances rather than make new ones. That was especially true, she added, of families who get to see their out-of-state cousins, aunts, and uncles very often.
Our conversation got off to a smooth start. Her name was Emmy. Yes, she danced, and yes, she would dance with me.
Asking a girl if she danced would seem like a strange question to someone who grew up outside Church of Christ culture in the South where a truly sincere Christian must practice abstinence from the Big Five: Drinking, Smoking, Cussing, Gambling, and Dancing. However, at a wedding where both of the families attended Churches of Christ and at a reception where the woman in question was taking pictures, not dancing, I had no guarantee that this lovely young woman was an infidel like me.
Once she agreedâ€”to my great pleasure and reliefâ€”I found myself in another pickle. The band was playing a country song, and though I grew up in Nashville and own cowboy boots and a guitar, I don’t know how to dance to country. Wildhorse Saloon was never my idea of a good time.
What kind of moron asks a girl to dance, and then asks her if she minds waiting until the next song? Brilliant, Austin. Fine show.
Emmy assured me that she didnâ€™t mind waiting. God must be on my side.
While we were waiting for the song to end, I was trying to tell her that I hadnâ€™t done too much time bumping and grinding.
I always found myself asking the following question: How does mimicing sexual intercourse on a beer-slick dance floor glorify God? Shaking my groove thing to booty rap would confirm what I already knew â€”that I found the way young women move their bodies sexually stimulating. Shoot, the way a womanâ€™s body moves of its own accord was sexually stimulating. Iâ€™d known that since puberty. Donâ€™t get me wrong, I love dancing, but I need no encouragement in the area.
Attempting to open up this thought process for Emmy was a tactical error.
What I meant to say was, â€œI havenâ€™t spent a lot of time bumping and grinding with girls. When I go dancing with a big group of friends, we all kinda dance in the same space. I donâ€™t dance with a particular girl so much as an area.â€
This is what came out instead:
â€œYeah, I donâ€™t really dance with girls.â€
Emmy cocked her head to one side and looked at me as though Iâ€™d just said, â€œAliens are our friends.â€
â€œOh gosh, that didnâ€™t come out right,â€ I said.
You would have thought English was my second language the way I was stumbling over my words. Those two degrees in English were really coming in handy. If I wanted to salvage the conversation, I had one of two optionsâ€”1) scramble to explain what Iâ€™d meant and risk digging a deeper hole, or 2) say something even more absurd with hopes that I would make her laugh.
I went with Option 2:
â€œWhat I meant to say was that I really only dance with guys.â€
[She laughed. Phew. A narrow escape. I have got to start thinking before I speak.]
I then explained briefly that I was talking about bumping and grinding, which seemed to make sense to her. About this time, her uncle, the father of the bride, sidled up and added to the fun:
â€œStop talking and ask her to dance already!â€
[Wow, Mickey, thanks! This conversation was going great, and you just made it even better!]
â€œI already have,â€ I replied. â€œWeâ€™re just getting to know each other a little bit.â€
Letâ€™s see, what had Emmy gotten to know about me so far?
1) that I had enough guts to walk up and start a conversation with her;
2) that my thoughts and words got jumbled;
3) that I may or may not have Touretteâ€™s;
4) that I was a prude who couldnâ€™t bump and grind without a guilty conscience.
No doubt, she was intrigued and ready to follow me around the world.
â€œGood,â€ Mickey said with a toothy grin on his face. He drifted off.
What did this brief interaction tell me? Her family was watching us.
That’s exactly what I needed! A bigger audience! I was so impressive to my audience of one, why not add another two dozen spectators? I always wondered what it was like for that one contestant in the Miss America pageant. One year, I was watching it with my family, and my Aunt Kay was entertaining us by pointing out which of women had breast implantsâ€”â€œMiss Alabama? Oh, definitely! You see how round they are? Real boobs that big aren’t perky.â€ Soon after Miss Alabama came Miss So-and-So, who tripped on her evening gown and tumbled head first down the steps.
What did that kind of humiliation feel like? Now was my chance to find out. Hopefully, the wedding videographer would capture some of it for posterity.
The country song ended, and the Dj put on something funky. Thank heavens. My goofiness is much less apparent on the dance floor. Emmy was fun. She obviously enjoyed dancing and was patient with my stiff gyrations. We danced for several songs, and I had a chance to ask questions about her work, her city, and her family.
She was a pharmacist, which meant that she was intelligent and had discipline. She described Winston-Salem as â€œa good Baptist town,â€ which meant that her faith was a priority. Her father was the hardest working man sheâ€™d ever met, which meant that she had respect for him. A Mississippi farmer, heâ€™d moved his family to North Carolina to better support them by going to work for a trucking company.
Right about the time our conversation took stride, we noticed that we were the only two people left dancing. Either we could be the center of attention or walk off. We walked off.
Over the course of the evening, I kept asking Emmy to dance, and she kept saying yes. Mystery of mysteries.
At one point, I took a bathroom break, and while I was washing my hands, the stranger next to me broke the silence:
â€œSaw you out there dancing with my niece.â€
[Yep, her family was definitely watching. ]
â€œYeah, sheâ€™s a lot of fun.â€
â€œSheâ€™s a pharmacist, you know.â€ Emmyâ€™s uncle delivered this piece of information like he was giving away a secret: “Want to know where to get good moonshine?”
Apparently, I looked like the type of guy who needed a sugar mama.
â€œThatâ€™s what she said,â€ I replied.
â€œSure is cute.â€
Was he trying to sell me a car?
â€œVery,â€ I said, and wanting to change the subject, â€œHow do you fit into this whole mix?â€
He told me about his sons, how all the cousins had grown up together and were really close. I told him that I have ten first cousins on my dadâ€™s side, and it was the same way with us. I liked big families. We shook hands outside, and he returned to his family.
This was getting better and better.
I walked with my friend Will and his wife Lacey to my truck where he was keeping his clothes, and grabbed a pen in the process.
Iâ€™d made up my mind: I was going to get her number. Taking risks is the fountain of youth, and I had nothing to lose. My cynicism needed a good punch in the mouth anyway.
Back at the reception, I picked Emmy out of the crowd.
When I touched her elbow, she turned and smiled.
â€œIâ€™m leaving,â€ I said.
â€œNo, not yet. My familyâ€™s staying until Justin and Lauren leave.â€
â€œNo, Iâ€™m leaving.â€
â€œOh! Sorry, I thought you asked… .â€
â€œI just wanted to say that I enjoyed dancing with you and getting to know you a little bit.â€
â€œYeah, me too.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know when Iâ€™ll be in Winston-Salem, but if I am, Iâ€™d like to give you a call. Would that be okay with you?â€
[Ambiguous and noncommital. Smooth move, Austin. Women love a man without a plan.]
â€œYeah, thatâ€™s fine,â€ she said.
I reached into my jacket for my pen.
â€œWho knowsâ€¦maybe in the next seventeen years, Iâ€™ll take a roadtrip there.â€
[Just shut up, you cottonheadedninnymuggins. Shut up.]
She gave me a polite laugh. â€œOkay, itâ€™s area code 803â€¦â€
I wrote her number down, and if I were smart, I would have said thanks, given her a quick hug, and made a graceful exit. Apparently, graceful exit isnâ€™t in my repertoire. I like to make an impression, which means, I like to leave a girl feeling like sheâ€™s eaten some bad shrimp.
What I was thinking is, â€œItâ€™s rare that I actually write down a girlâ€™s phone number anymore. I always just put them straight into my cell phone.â€
Is that what I said? Oh no. If I started out the evening with a moronic comment, I should finish it with another, put some pretty book ends on it.
â€œI couldnâ€™t tell you the last time I got a girlâ€™s number.â€
She raised an eyebrow.
â€œOh gosh, I just made myself sound like a total loser.â€
â€œWhat is I meant to say is that I canâ€™t remember the last time I actually wrote a girlâ€™s number down rather than putting it in my cell phone.â€
Why did I think my method for securing phone numbers was worth mentioning in the first place? Was this interesting? No. Would she think I was a weirdo for writing her number down on my arm? Probably not. Did I stand to lose something by flapping my jaw? Yes. â€œHey Emmy, did I mention how boring I am? That I make banal observations all the time? Didnâ€™t mention that? Well, I do. Wanna go out on a date? No? Didnâ€™t think so.â€
Luckily, before I could say anything else to make Emmy pity laugh, groan, or yawn, the Dj put on â€œSweet Caroline.â€ I grabbed her hand and said, â€œCâ€™mon, we have to dance with this song.â€
Thanks, Neil Diamond. You saved me yet again.
The song ended, and I said goodbye to Emmy without further incident. After doing some silly dancing with Joe, the groomâ€™s 77-year-old father, and some of the groomsmen, I drove home.
A few weeks later, I was telling my friend Patrickâ€™s wife Caroline about the wedding. The stories in which I say something stupid to a girl are her favorites. I wish I had fewer of them. After I finished recounting the latest series of blunders, she shared an insight:
â€œYou’re not very smooth.â€
She has a point. Other people donâ€™t have these stories, and being bold and being smooth are not the same thing. In fact, unless accompanied by confidence, poise, and charisma, boldness may simply set the stage for bad jokes, not wit; awkward conversation, not flirtation and laughter; hasty apologies and retreats, not chemistry and the prospect of romance.
Of course, making conversation with a woman carries inherent risk. She could snub you, or she could give you the local Rejection Hotline. Or, she could be a complete psychopath and tattoo your face on her abdomen. You never know what’s going to happen.
However, swallowing my insecurity, complacency, and cynicism to walk across that cavernous room, or pick my way across that crowded dance floor, or maneuver around the tables at that coffeeshop, reminds me that though fear of rejection may cast a long shadow, it is innocuous when I stand over it.
Taking risks keeps the rust knocked off my courage.
The enduring value of those conversations, no matter how brief, and interactions, no matter how warm or forced, is what they teach me about myself. Embarassment cannot kill me.Â Though enjoyable, the admiration of a pretty woman cannot tell me who I am as a man, and her affection cannot guarantee happiness or wholeness. Rejection may cut my pride, but it can say nothing about my worth in the eyes of God.
It took me a long time to realize that most girls are nervous when a random guy walks up: What if heâ€™s a creep? What if he only talks about himself? What if heâ€™s cheesy and I have to be nice and laugh at his bad jokes? What if heâ€™s funny and sweet and smart but doesnâ€™t ask for my number?
Their confidence is as imperfect and liable to falter as my own. They know they should just be themselves and offer an ultimatum, â€œAccept me as I am or leave me alone,â€ but they also have to fight the compulsion to impress.
What happened with Emmy? Iâ€™m not telling, but Iâ€™ll share what I learned:
If I sometimes lack heart-melting swerve, then perhaps I can offer a woman honesty, authenticity, and a willingness to admit my faults. These have more mileage in any relationship, and my female friends have reassured me that kindness and sincerity cover a multitude of amorous evils. Even saying the wrong thing can be endearing.
That’s good news for a man with plenty of guts and unreliable game.