Remember the Dance

London – March 1989

We are in some sort of small warehouse. It’s pitch dark, except for black light glowing on Day-Glo painted walls. I’ve got a bad sinus infection. My head hurts so badly I can hardly see. Manuela and I are the only girls in this place. A bunch of guys dressed in baggy pants and fluorescent high top trainers are dancing like weirdos. Spastic shadows twitching to the worst music I’ve ever heard.

“This is acid music,” Manuela says. Her eyes blaze. “This music is God.”

I sigh in annoyance. Rome, Venice, Paris, and now London. We are getting on each others’ nerves, but we are stuck with each other until tomorrow morning when I go back to LA. I have to be at the airport three hours early because the terrorists who blew up the PanAm plane are threatening to blow up another one this weekend, Easter weekend. I just want to go back to the hotel and sleep.

Manuela grabs my hand and leads me through back alleys in search of some club called Heaven. We wait in line for a long time. We are dressed in the funky clothes we bought on High Street. She’s wearing bellbottoms that are so ugly I can hardly look at them. She says my leather hat and leather boots with skull buckles are outdated. So American. “No one listens to hard rock anymore.” She stifles a snicker. “That’s for old people.”

The music throbs around us as we meander endless corridors. Up and down. Around and around. Manuela is on the hunt for some musician she’s got a crush on. S’express. Bomb the Bass. People and groups and music I’ve never heard of. “There he is!” Manuela gasps. She walks up to a small-boned man of Asian descent. He is gay, but she’s hopelessly smitten. 

I stand back while she talks to these famous people. They look at me with respect when she tells them I’m from Michigan. I guess this music actually started in Detroit. Figures. The musical bombardment is relentless. Sadistic. I clasp my battered head in my hands and stifle a scream.

“This crap will never become popular in America,” I growl, as we finally make our way to the exit. “It sucks!”

“You’ll love it, too. One day.” Her deep brown eyes glitter. “You will always remember this night.

I sigh and shake my head. The vow to myself is etched in steel. Never, ever. 

Two years later, I sought out the merry asylum. My London story was a source of envy to my friends, who were fanatics about this new music. They heard a rumor, which beckoned us on a quest for the ticket seller. We found him at a tiny party store in Hollywood. The middle-aged black man screened us with nonsensical questions. “Are you sure you know what you know?” He bugged his eyes out and pulled his lips into a carney grin. 

I tried to keep a grip on my escalating buzz. “You’re totally messing with me.”

“Just trying to figure out if you finished high school.” He winked at me and gave us the precious treasure map. 

It led us to an abandoned warehouse in South Central LA. Interspersed in the vast crowd were people standing with arms crossed over their heads. “That means they’re selling X,” one of my friends whispered. “Ecstasy.” 

We passed them by, preferring the natural source of bliss we had ingested earlier. Smiley faces and stuffed animals and Dr. Seuss hats. It was a carnival of love. I believe it was that night when the music took hold forever. The repetitive beats brought me to a trance. It burrowed deep inside my cells, the friendliest of parasites. 

Just before sunrise, flashing red lights surrounded the warehouse. Sirens. We scattered into the streets, breathless with glee. 

I danced whenever I could, which wasn’t often. Work and responsibilities and financial challenges kept me from going out on a regular basis. Smaller clubs were my preference. The deejays were enigmatic figures hidden in booths. They were genies who wove tracks together into a vibrant tapestry. A magic carpet ride. The clubs were dark, smoky, spartan. They were simply receptacles for bodies moving together in the dark. There is a special intimacy in sharing a dance floor with strangers. Deep and warm, but without physical contact, or even acknowledgment. We shared a space, but our awareness was turned within. Glowing glances were exchanged when we caught the same groove and surfed it to shore. That shared euphoria. No other intoxicant was necessary. The dance floor is the only place where I’ve truly felt oneness with humanity.

Poznan, Poland. 2007. He took the stage and exclaimed. “I am Polish Electro Boogie Boy!” There are so many other characters that I will always remember. Nameless and their faces are obscured with time, but their dance was unforgettable. You can know so much about a person by the way they allow themselves to move. They way they inhabit their bodies.

The places I’ve danced. Nights that became mornings. Gatherings that brought me home to myself. In my days of deepest depression, I believe that it saved me. London. LA. Berlin. Chicago. Budapest. Noumea. Rio de Janeiro. Phoenix. And Sydney.

Sydney, Australia – September 1995

In Sydney, we clean up. We splurge on new clothes. Dig our makeup out of the bottom of our stinky backpacks. Unfurl. We made it. 

“A toast.” Maya holds out her palm to reveal three tiny squares of paper. “To surviving Papua New Guinea. And to Sydney. Magnificent Sydney!”

Amelia, our Australian friend, places one on my tongue, communion-like. The body of infinity. Forever and ever. Amen. Slow, deep breaths. Focus. With courage and respect. A new expedition looms ahead. Inter-dimensional. Be ready. 

“Peace, Dearie. It will be beautiful.” Amelia takes my hand. “Let’s go dance.” 

Into a labyrinth of murky rooms. Psychedelic frescoes shimmer on black walls. A tingle, then radiance. And away I go. A giggle moves through me. This effervescence. So different from the tainted, bone-jarring LSD trips of yesteryear.

Maya and Amelia whirl away. Into the shadows. A gaunt man wearing a yellow polyester blazer and red pants sits down next to me. He is surely younger than I am, but his eyes hold the weariness of eons. He spins a glittery plastic scepter in his hand. Round and round. Others of his kind slouch against walls and huddle in corners. Eyes downcast. Rumpled velvet and smeared makeup. Carnival carnage.

“Who are you?”

“We are the Vibe Tribe.” He lays the scepter across his lap. “Some call us The Ferals. A band of futuristic gypsies. We’ve spent the last few years on the road together.”

Tendrils of music swirl around me and seep into my pores. Liquid resonance. My heart swells and ascends. 

“This morning we will pack up our tipis and leave for Tasmania. And then it’s over. We are weary of the road, each other, the dance. The Ecstasy has stopped working. We tried.” A heavy pause. “Have we, as humans, lost the ability to band together forever?” He shakes his head.

Crestfallen and bewildered souls. A girl wearing a white dress with big black polka dots stares out at the world through spooky black-rimmed eyes. Her manic staccato cackle is consumed by the music. 

Maya’s whisper in my ear. “She scares me.” I turn my head to respond, but she’s dancing with Amelia on the other side of the room.

Feral boy speaks. “Some will wander forever alone, unable to re-integrate into society. That’s the price paid for searching. The longer you’re away, the harder it is to return. Maybe it’s better to die than to live in the past.”

I take his hand. “Dance with me.”

He pulls his hand away. “It’s all over for me.” He crumples against the wall and closes his eyes.

I sweep my eyes around the room. A slight, shiny distortion, like cling wrap, warps my view. Behold the membrane that separates me from other humans. The wall of There. Glide onto the dance floor. Into Maya and Amelia’s open arms. I smile into the face of a man with long black hair and limpid brown eyes. The shimmer of his hands down my back. The slow, deep seep of his essence into the cells. The eternity of our friendship unspools before us. He looks down at his hands and then back at me in wonder. My languid pirouette. The music throbs an obscene warmth though me. I lift my arms in surrender. Undulate myself into dissolution. Whatever you are out there, I am yours. Take me. The membrane dissolves. 

Tentacles of sound pull the dancers tighter in its grasp. Polka Dot Girl staggers to the dance floor. Spastic, jerky dance moves. Ferocious eyes. A battered marionette struggling to break free. Those who seem wild are often just imprisoned by a different force. 

I close my eyes. And see. My atoms are iridescent aqua blue spheres. I am the sky. They morph into tiny blue bubbles that float away on my laughs. I am joy. I am no more.

Drops of pink dawn drip through the cracks in the heavy black curtains. From the softest illumination. The music’s velvety tendrils recede. Back to the luminous abyss from whence they came. We shake ourselves off. Reassemble. 

Feeling at home in solitude is a gift. I gather this to my heart in a gentle embrace. Thank you.

The Vibe Tribe coalesces. A bouquet of wistful wilted wildflowers. They pause in the doorway. A silhouette of resignation. And then they are gone. 

The 1990s became the 2000s. Then came the organization. The marketing and promotion. The plastic surgery, the solarium tans, the skimpy costumes. The pouting. White shirts and waxed chests on the male variety. The deejays became superstars. The turntables morphed into computer programs. The awareness shifted to the exterior. The music became a stagnant pond, sub-genres blended together to appeal to the masses. The waves went flat. The soul took refuge underground. I lost the motivation to find it. It was inevitable. 

Vapors of laser phosphorescence dissipating in the sunrise. Always a beautiful, bittersweet sight. It was time to go home. Satiated and covered in dust and smoke and dried sweat. Grateful and already wistful. You could buy the music, play it at home or in the car, but the vibe was impossible to replicate. You could dream of next time. Eventually, it would be the last time. We are all middle-aged now. Those of us who danced together all those years ago. It doesn’t matter what became of us. We are still grooving together in the vast arena of memory. The dance continues. For eternity.

Hiking the Pebble

Before I moved to New Caledonia in 1999, I was a connoisseur of roads and paths. Interstates and back roads. Forest trails and city sidewalks. Michigan, California, Arizona. The states in between. America has an infinite supply of lines on maps. You can spend a lifetime exploring new routes and never see them all. But my road-tripping days came to an end.

Most of Grande Terre, New Caledonia’s main island, is uninhabited and inaccessible by vehicles. I exhausted the supply of road within months. I turned to the trails. So many landscapes to traverse. Beaches, of course. The arid ranch land north of Nouméa. Along the flowing waters of the Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue. I could gaze at the two round peaks of the Monts Koghi from my home. I learned those trails by heart. Few images exist of these wanderings. I carry them in my body.

The famous trails are marked, others are discovered by word of mouth. You must find your own way there and back. Hidden water holes. The strangest flora, much of it endemic. Primeval silence. I was not the first person to tread there, but it sure felt like it. But beware. Wandering down the wrong path can cost you your life. The boundaries of tribal land are invisible. In 2002, a Japanese tourist was the victim of a ritual murder on the Isle of Pines. Nothing was done about it. Nothing ever is.

I don’t understand why people like hiking. I’ve heard this remark on more than one occasion. Voices tinged with disapproval. Walking for hours and hours. No people around. How boring.

How to convey this communion with nature? Every step a sweet kiss on the Earth’s exquisite face. The atavistic gratification of traversing a land on my own two feet. And I guess I just don’t find my own company boring.

This pleasure came at a price. That picturesque red earth is made up of metals. Toxic metals. Nickel, chromium, cobalt. New Caledonia is the third largest source of nickel in the world. Dust kicked up by my boots, dust emitted into the atmosphere from the nickel smelters. The local produce is grown in this soil. Nickel is a known carcinogen. I am allergic to nickel jewelry, but somehow I didn’t make, or didn’t want to admit, the connection between this and the debilitating aftermath of any sort of physical exertion. No one else that I knew had this problem. For them, Le Caillou, The Pebble, was paradise. The longer I was there, the more severe the consequences of these jaunts became. I lost count of the nights I spent on the bathroom floor, throat shredded from vomiting, transcendent pain in my head. It took at least one more day to fully recover. Yet I persevered.

No way I was going to pass up an ascent of the Plateau de Dogny with my sister, who had come in search of Amborella, the oldest known flowering plant still in existence. Found only in New Caledonia, Amborella was the subject of her master’s thesis in genetics. Such a delightful morning that was. A German shepherd from the hotel at the trailhead trotted by our side, a gentle guardian. It is the only time in my life that I have been unable to complete a hike. Blurred vision, churning stomach, an ominous tremor in my cells. Just before the summit, I collapsed on the side of the trail and waited for my sister to return.

The Mt. Mou trail

A few months before my departure from New Caledonia in 2006, I did the infamous Mt. Mou ascent. My friend Lo and I were prepared for the inevitable bruises and scrapes. These are considered badges of honor. You haven’t truly hiked Le Caillou until you’ve climbed Mt. Mou. Dust underfoot morphs into moss-carpeted cloud forest. Tree roots transform into a staircase that disappears into the mist. Every step must be contemplated. Sometimes the only way forward is flat on your stomach through the decaying carcasses that have fallen across the path. Just beyond the peak, the wreckage of a WWII-era American military plane lies on the slopes. The exhilaration and relief that I felt at this place. No sign of any discomfort. Maybe this time would be different. But it crept up on me during the descent.

Photo taken by Lo Cherbeix

After I left New Caledonia, it didn’t take long for the symptoms to dissipate. I learned that they are indeed signs of nickel poisoning. Strength and endurance returned. It remains to be seen if permanent damage lurks in my cells. Even so, I don’t regret any of those explorations. These days, every hike is done with gratitude. Without pain, it’s impossible to experience the bliss of its absence.

The Light Man

MuschuIsland01

Muschu Island, Papua New Guinea – September 1995

It’s okay to wander off on your own here. The pandemonium of the mainland is nonexistent. So I do. Down the beach, away from Maya and Phil, who are lost in word communion. A tree branch hangs out over the water, as welcoming as the crook of a protective arm. I shimmy up its length, curl up on my side, and peer into the rising tide. A soft breeze blows. The branch sways so gently. I surrender to its comforting embrace. Cradle of daydreams.

MuschuIsland03

It’s not how long someone is in your life, but how profoundly their light illuminates. Out of the maelstrom of color and sound, the mass of tribes at the Goroka Show, Phil materialized. Camera in hand. He drifted towards us, his steps as ethereal as a phantom’s. Maya and I laughed when he asked if we were part of the group of expat high school students. Maya was twenty-one, and I was twenty-six. Both of us would turn one year older in PNG, in just a couple of days. If all went well. He threw his head back and laughed. There is no place like PNG.

Where are you from?

Michigan.

Me, too. Which part?

Midland.

I gasped. No way! I grew up in Auburn, but my family lives in Midland. I spent as much time as possible there when I was growing up.

I don’t believe you.

The Tridge, the Boulevard Lounge, Dow Gardens. My first job was at the Sweet Onion.

Woah. I’ve never met anyone from Midland outside of Midland.

Me, neither.

Phil was a biologist who was conducting research on elephantiasis in a village in the Sepik region.

I giggled at yet another synchronicity. We’re going to the Upper Sepik after this, after we drive back to Madang.

You drove that highway? Are you insane? He scribbled his phone number on a piece of paper. You’re staying at Ralf’s in Wewak, right? Ask Ralf to call me when you get there and I’ll come into town. And be careful driving back to Madang! He shook his head and vanished into the crowd again.

MuschuIsland02

The island chief and his wife bring us a dinner of fish and sweet potatoes. Phil chats with the chief in Pidgin for a few moments and then the couple disappears into the jungle again. The village is on the other side of the island. Malaria has struck. A woman is dying. She is taking fansidar, a nasty drug. Chloroquine rarely works anymore. The disease has mutated. Phil’s had malaria twice. I walk to the edge of the veranda and look towards the wall of green. A hush has fallen. The empty space before the final gasp.

After sunset, we hang a mosquito net over a corner of the veranda and settle ourselves in. Bathe in the glow of a single lantern. Phil steps into his room, and reappears with his guitar and a joint. The joint is passed around, sucked into oblivion. Phil strums the guitar, plays a few chords. The darkness gathers around the mosquito net. In the distance, over the sea, a single point of radiance.

Phil speaks. A night fisherman. They believe in UFOs here. They say it’s the Light Man. I believe in werewolves and vampires. He launches into a tale about his travels in the Carpathian Mountains of Poland. A village where he was the only foreigner. Everyone watched him with feral eyes.

I really want to visit Poland. I still have family in those very mountains.

He bows his head. Of course.

Random chords become rhythm. He plays a song that I know. One from my parents’ generation.

I love Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Do you know Helplessly Hoping?

Yes. Sing it with me, Julie.

I stiffen. I’ve never sung in front of people. My voice is terrible. I shake my head.

C’mon. Sing with me.

A long exhalation. My fragile little self dissipates. No one is going to hurt me here. Words pour out. Immaculate. My heart breaks free and soars. He enters the harmony. Our voices intertwine, transmit deep into the shadows. I venture into dangerous lands, but cower at the thought of exposing my spirit to anyone. It’s only love. It won’t kill me to open up to it.

The last chords of the song resonate into the night. Phil’s eyes blaze. You are one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.

MuschuIsland4

9-23-95 (from my journal, written sometime during that evening)
This is my paradise. I’m surrounded by palms, stars, and sand. I am restless in my peace. I am empty in my joy. And right now, I’m the freest I have ever been. Yet I’m stifled. This island is the perfect ending. I look like a grungy dork and I feel beautiful. I am tired and I feel alive. My ass is kicked and I’m victorious. Gentle storm in my soul. Rocky sand between my toes. Phil is the universe at this semi-microcosmic level. He is a gift to us. Saying yes, wonderful girls, I hear you.

Remnants of storm. My dreams are swept away with the waves. A savage itch on my backside. A quick look reveals a dense constellation of mosquito bites across both buttocks. I parade this masterpiece in front of Maya and Phil. Their eyes widen.

Phil reaches into his backpack and hands me a tiny bottle of Chloroquine. You must have slept too close to the net. They will bite through it. If you feel a fever at night, take these immediately and get to a doctor.

Okay, I say. But I know I won’t get sick. Never before have I felt so clean. Oh, but the itch.

We consume a breakfast of rolls and Nescafe. I grip the coffee cup to keep from scratching. Maya and Phil enter into conversation. I’m not ready for words. I’ve got to go.

Sunbeam smiles in reply. Then go, Julie.

As I approach the beach, I hear, Hey! I turn around. Phil has aimed his camera my way. Stick your butt in the sea. The salt water will help the itch. I burst into laughter and dash away,  across the storm-swollen sand and into the waves.

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**Not long after our departure, Phil sent us a long, poetic letter written in his ornate script. Dispatches from his hut in the jungle. From Papua New Guinea to Guam. We each received a personalized mixtape of music and spoken word. Hidden messages to be deciphered within. He had a lot of time on his hands between drawing blood and scrutinizing scrota. In the days before email and social media, such thoughtfulness was more common, but even so, I was deeply touched. He had made the effort to uncover my essence. Maya kept the letter.

We all moved back to America a few months later. Different cities and new lives. I spoke to Phil a couple of times on the phone. He was overjoyed with his new life in San Francisco. He was a big fan of the internet. I had just bought my first computer. Do you know that you even can look people up? He told me. Find people you’ve lost touch with. The last time I heard from him, in the form of a letter, he announced that he was getting married. I smiled to myself as I read it. May you be happy forever, my friend. As with all of my male friends who get married, I sent him a note of congratulations and then let him go. People have a tendency to drift away when they enter a relationship and very few spouses have the ability to comprehend platonic friendships with the opposite sex.

Every once in a while, I search for him online. Just to see how he’s doing. He has an original last name, so it shouldn’t be difficult. He has not turned up. It is an ominous absence. I’ve been able to track down almost everyone I’ve searched for. The ones I haven’t been able to find, I later learn that they’ve passed on.

Wherever you are, Light Man, may you shine forever.