It was 2010 and my classmates and I ventured to Mama Africa, a discotheque in the heart of the small Peruvian city in which we found ourselves. For the month of January, we studied the culture and heritage of the Andes by visiting important sites all over the country and taking Spanish classes. Somehow I got a non-lab science credit out of it. I was a sophomore in college, not quite twenty, and freshly single enough to have bangs. In truth, it had been almost a year, but only a few months since he started dating someone else. So there I was, nineteen and traveling around Peru for knowledge and enjoyment.
The discotheque was relatively empty when we arrived at the early hour of 10PM. But the DJ was good, and there were enough of us for a quorum, so we started dancing. For me, this resembled an exuberant imitation of a wounded wildebeest. The year before I discovered an enthusiasm for dancing when I joined the Ballroom Dance Club. I did not, however, discover a particular talent for it.
After an hour the club filled up, and a large group of Brazilian men arrived. Many of them began dancing with my female classmates. Due to an incident in the seventh grade, I have a specific fear of the being-asked-to-dance process. In order to avoid a potentially embarrassing misunderstanding, I looked at the floor whenever a dancing-together scenario seemed possible. The theory being, “Why risk rejection when you could just avoid the situation altogether?” This question could be the subtitle of my memoir. As my classmates were picked off one by one, I found myself alone in the crowd on the dance floor.
I periodically looked around to make sure my classmates were still nearby, and each time I did so, I noticed a guy around my age looking at me. He was what one might call… extremely nice to look at. So naturally, I assumed that I was mistaken and it was a coincidence that we had made eye contact thrice in a row. It wasn’t until he came up to me and introduced himself as Pedro that I realized I was incorrect. Looking directly at me for an extended period of time did mean he was interested. What a world.
I had never been in this situation outside of Friday nights at Ballroom Dance Club, but my classmates seemed to be enjoying dancing with their respective strangers. In that moment, any theology potentially relevant to my situation evaporated from my mind in the face of this beautiful Brazilian man who wanted to dance with me.
It was my first time in this situation, dancing intimately with a stranger, so there were an awkward series of moments where I had no idea what I was doing. The myriad of unknowns of the situation and my moral qualms about it caught up with me when I realized that this was a leap I maybe didn’t want to take after all. As we danced, I found myself wondering, Where is he from? Who is he? What does he believe about life? What does he think happens when we die? How was conflict handled in his family of origin? You know, the basics.
After a few moments, he started kissing my neck. And by few moments I mean almost immediately. Looking around, I noticed that many of my classmates were now making out with their dance partners. I thought, Oh, I see now what is customary in this scenario.
I have severely overcommitted.
My first thought was of the social etiquette involved in extricating oneself from this type of scenario, because I’m Southern. To be clear, I found Pedro to be extremely attractive. But in spite of what my bangs implied, I was not down to rebound. My ex was the only person I had ever kissed, and while it was an enjoyable experience, it also left me conflicted. I now knew what it was to kiss someone for a prolonged period of time. It was nice. And yet, the idea of doing so with a stranger felt less straightforward.
I weighed my options. If I were to go for it and kiss this stranger, would I likely feel relaxed or anxious as I tried to fall asleep that night? I reasoned that the overall the probability of feeling anxious was high, and I would like to avoid that. With that decision made, I wondered if could I keep dancing with him and avoid any escalation? I deployed my standard avoid-eye-contact technique. After a few moments of that, he asked, “Why won’t you look at me?” I mumbled incoherent excuses.
I deduced that he would absolutely try to kiss me if I did not extricate myself. I concluded that I was done with this whole situation. I made eye contact with one of my male classmates and mouthed Help me. He pulled me away; Pedro accepted this turn of events with stoic perplexity. He melted back into the crowd and our group left shortly thereafter.
It was an unfamiliar calculus I had to do in those moments. I reflected on it as we all walked back to our hotel. How was it that I both wanted and definitely did not want to kiss Pedro? Finding myself in an unfamiliar situation, I had little concept of what may or may not be expected to happen if I partook in said kissing. In my panicked mind, it was an inevitable slippery slope ending in either sex or death or both.
Not once in my calculation did it occur to me that I had the power to say, “No, I would not like to do that.” That does not mean that he would automatically respect my “no,” but I didn’t get an aggressive vibe from him. And even if he had continued after I said no, I had support in the form of male classmates who agreed to assist in any extrication before we even arrived at the discotheque.
But I assumed that, in spite of being stone cold sober with the moral flexibility of a piece of rebar when it came to sex, I would be so swept up in the moment that all inhibition would vanish and that would be that. Simply because there was a moment when I thought kissing him might be enjoyable. In that moment, I wasn’t particularly afraid of not liking the experience on the whole, I was afraid that I would like it so much, it would release something in me and that one time experience would become a habit. And then, ten years down the road, who would I be? I didn’t know.
That night back at the hotel, I stood in the hallway talking to my classmates. One of the girls who had made out with her dance partner stood at her door brushing her teeth for seven full minutes. The hygiene element of the evening’s dilemma hadn’t occurred to me in the noise of the discotheque. I had no idea how I would feel about that night in a month or a year. But watching my classmate’s aggressive brushing, I was grateful that that night I would not lie awake wondering if Pedro had a head cold or mouth herpes. And for the moment, that was edifying enough.