A Moment Of Grace

©1987 Marie-Lynn Hammond

Now that a reunion is in the works for the high school I write about below, I’ve changed a few of the names in the story … don’t want to embarrass anyone from those days. But, Roger and Gordie, I didn’t change yours. 🙂

In 1962 my dad, an RCAF pilot, was posted to St. Hubert, Quebec, near Montreal. As often happened, there was no house available on the base, so we found ourselves living a few miles away. Beloeil was a pretty little town on the Richelieu river, but we ended up in one of those modern, faceless suburbs. Our subdivision was so new that from our backyard all you could see, besides one more row of houses, were farmers’ fields.

The surrounding landscape was flat and unremarkable – except for one feature. Scattered about at ten or fifteen mile intervals were mountains – or rather very large hills, that rose suddenly out of the level ground and just as suddenly fell back. To the north were the Laurentians, so to me these elevations looked like stragglers who’d been left behind by the main herd.

The closest, and most imposing of these mountains was Mont St. Hilaire. I had just started my second year of high school, and I spent a lot of time staring out the classroom window at it. I had reason to – no one was talking to me. To be fair, I wasn’t talking to anyone either. Not only was I the new kid in school, I was younger than my classmates, shy, plain, and a borderline nerd who got good marks.

So I looked at the mountain a lot. I wrote poems about it and essays too, for English Composition. I sketched it with my Prismacolor pencils. I found solace in its dusky summer greens that were giving way to amber and scarlet. And I daydreamed about climbing to the top of it.

By December, the mountain was mostly charcoal and white. A few kids were speaking to me now; I’d even developed a crush on a handsome boy named Joey, and I finally worked up enough nerve to go to my first school dance. I sat with two other unpopular girls, Helen and Joanne. Everyone ignored us. Then it happened. Joey crossed over from the corner where all the guys hung out, and asked me – me! – to dance!

Even more extraordinary, it was a slow dance – some ballad by Bobby Vinton, I think. I’d never been held by a guy before. I was amazed, and terrified, and stiff as a plank. He seemed awfully tall, his arms and chest so – solid. He smelled of aftershave and, faintly, of cigarettes. I stumbled. I stepped on his toes – twice. Joey never looked down at me or said a word; he gazed, stony and expressionless, over the top of my head and out into the murkily lit gym. I just figured he was shy as well. When the song was over, he shuffled back to his buddies. They seemed to be laughing about something, but, foolish innocent that I was, their joking didn’t really register with me. I was too busy basking in the incredulous envy of my partnerless girlfriends.

Although it was my only dance that evening, for the rest of the weekend I floated, euphoric. Then, Monday morning, Helen came running up to me in the hall. “It was all a dare, you know,” she hissed.

“What was?” I asked.

“Joey asking you to dance! It was a dare!” Her voice was indignant but I also detected a hint of ill-concealed relish.

“I – don’t understand.”

“The other guys – they bet him a pack of cigarettes he wouldn’t ask you to slow dance. That’s all he did it for, you know!” Pouting on my behalf, she flounced off.

Oh the shame, the humiliation! Even the mountain gave no comfort that day. Snow was falling; it looked cold and forbidding. For the rest of the winter I hid in books and studiousness and my despairing poems. But around about early April, with the newly warm sun and the slush and the mountain hinting at fresh colours, I began to come out of my shell. I learned how to put dozens of bristly rollers in my impossibly straight hair and then back-comb it out into a stylish pouf. I bought my first tube of lipstick – Coty’s Misty Pink – at Woolworth’s, and I practised dancing with my girlfriends. A couple of boys, Roger and Gordie, began following Joanne and me home and throwing big wet snowballs at us. We feigned outrage but were secretly delighted. Once during algebra class I saw a rainbow materialize like a Prismacolor bridge over the mountain and I felt inexplicably happy.

In May there was another dance. Sporting a new flared dress, my hair curled, my lips pink, I was not quite so surprised this time when Roger asked me to dance. What did astound me, though, was what perfect partners we were. It was a fast jive tune, some bouncy, bebop-shaboom number. We never got tangled, never lost the beat. He’d spin me out, then reel me back in, smooth as a yoyo; we twisted and turned and twirled in step like teenage incarnations of Fred and Ginger. Gradually the other dancers fell away, leaving Roger and me the whole floor. When the song ended, they all applauded. I was blushing. Could this really be happening to me?

Alas, I’ve never moved like that since. In fact it’s now painfully apparent that as well as being left-handed, I also have two very left feet. That dance was a moment of grace, a brief reprieve from a life of out-of-step clumsiness. It was also a kind of turning point. Not long afterward, a sweet blond boy named Jeremy asked me out on my first real date. He suggested a picnic up on Mont St. Hilaire. There was a hidden lake half-way up, he said. I was thrilled. I would finally climb my mountain.

It was a perfect June day. We walked up through dappled sun and shade, the scent of pine in our nostrils. When we got to the lake, Jeremy kissed me. Oh the wonder of it! Sensation, elation, transformation. I was no longer a nerd, or an outcast. A boy was kissing me, and I even liked the guy.

We never did make it to the top of the mountain.