Clinging to a 'Safe' Barrier

It was the night of my friend J's surprise 13th birthday party. Her parents had ushered all of her friends into the upstairs area of their family-owned restaurant, the lights were then dimmed and we waited for J to arrive.  No one dared to look at anyone else, afraid that one or the other might just burst into laughter and ruin the surprise. We waited.
After a few minutes her parents led a blindfolded J up the stairs and just as they removed it we all screamed "SURPRISE!"
Following the pizza and cake the adults corralled us onto the dance floor. In fact they practically forced us over to the dance floor, not wanting to waste the money they had spent on hiring a DJ, and the fancy rainbow lights that now swam in lazy arcs around the room.

For those of you who have been following the blog, you'll remember that I, being the only person I knew in a wheelchair until age 24, had no idea how to dance in a wheelchair. And actually I didn't learn until the night before prom during my senior year of high school, and for that I give full credit to a quick Google search: "wheelchair dancing." 

So that night pre-2000, pre-youtube video, pre-Google search, I had absolutely no idea how to dance. But beyond being a girl in a wheelchair I was in the 7th grade, and like most 7th grade girls I would absolutely not be caught looking the fool in front of my friends. My plan that night was to avoid, avoid, and avoid. Slowly and painfully the popular kids paired off, most of the girls wiggled and waved their arms around in groups, and most of the boys slouched coolly on the side goofing around with their buddies.

As the dance went on I chatted with my friends, swapped gossip, probably made fun of other kids in that mean way most middle school girls do, and then I saw my friend D sitting alone by himself on the other side. Not thinking anything of it I rolled over to him, making sure to stay on the very edge of the dance floor and out of the spotlight from the glittering disco ball hanging from the ceiling. If I don't touch the dance floor, and the dance floor doesn't touch me - then I won't have to do anything weird. It was like the middle school version of cooties.
"Hi, what's up?" I asked.
D was a twin, the quieter of the two and a bit more book-ish you could say.
"Not much. Having fun?"
"Sure, yeah I guess."
At that age it hadn't occurred to me that boys and girls act drastically differently in the middle of a dimly lit room with a dance floor. Immediately I realized that this wasn't during the school hours, and we weren't sitting next to each other in science class or trying to escape from washing the lunch tables in the cafeteria. Neon lights flashed, spotlights circled all over the place, and just then a slow song came on. There was a mass exodus from the dance floor and the crowd fled to their self-assigned walls.

"Hey Sandy, wanna dance?" He turned to me and asked. I looked at him completely baffled and as disgusted as any 7th grader could.
"Ugh, no!" I stammered.
"Oh.. um okay." I remember he shrugged and quickly looked away. For the rest of that night I spent it on my 'proper' side of the room, and the next day in school everyone talked about having had the time of their lives.

It has been decades since that incident, but in between then and now I have probably done this repeatedly: pretended or hid my actual intentions in order to feel safe. There have been countless times when I have voluntarily dropped the barrier on myself, put up a front, took up an attitude because it was easier to hide than deal. Looking back on that party it's obvious that it wasn't that I didn't want to dance with him, it was because I didn't know how, didn't want to look vulnerable or caught doing something strange. In that moment I jumped towards what I felt safe and comfortable with, and at the time it was to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else.
Years later I look on that moment as one that I regret. Sometimes we are faced with barriers and other times we latch on to barriers hoping they'll prevent any harm from reaching us; however, most often we'll find that in those instances the harm is in the distance we've created by putting up barriers around ourselves.

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