The weather reports are predicting snow. I keep checking my e-mail to see if tonight’s Valentines dance will be canceled but it appears to still be on.
I’ve never been to a Valentines dance before (or any holiday dance for that matter) and I originally wasn’t planning on attending this one but when my volunteer supervisor told me it would be fun and I should come, I decided to think about it. When I received an e-mail saying more volunteers were needed for the dance, I sent a reply saying I would be there.
I won’t have to worry about bringing a date or hooking up with anyone at this dance but I will have to worry about setting up the decorations. This is a worry for me because my fine motor skills are even worse than my social skills and anything that involves work with my hands is unlikely to turn out well.
At least my social skills have improved, even if my fine motor skills haven’t. Sometimes skills atrophy from lack of use and god knows I was quite anti-social in recent years. A year ago I wouldn’t have even considered attending this dance but I wouldn’t have even known about it because I wouldn’t have been volunteering in a special needs expressive arts class at the community recreation center. This dance won’t just include the students from my class but various other people from the special needs community.
My mother drops me off at the recreation center and points out that no one appears to be there. I point out that the dance hasn’t started yet and assure her that the people will come. Upon entering the building, I see the DJs setting up their equipment and the other volunteers decorating the walls with red paper hearts.
“Kira, I’m so glad you came !” Lois, the expressive arts teacher exclaims as she hands me a paper heart and some tape. The other volunteers are hanging the hearts throughout the room, one after the other, making it look easy. It’s not easy for me though. As I feared, the hearts become useless in my hands. Rolling the tape so that it sticks to both the heart and the wall is too complex a feat for me. Eventually I manage it in a haphazard way, only to be told that I’ve taped the heart to the wrong wall.
“Kira, what grade are you in?” a volunteer asks me.
“Oh, I’m an adult.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You look so young.”
Exchanges like this are the story of my life.
The dancers are beginning to arrive. Quentin glides up to me in his wheelchair.
“Kira, you and I have something in common. We both go to Richards University!”
I’m attending Richards University for the third time after dropping out twice previously. This time I’m determined to finish my bachelor’s degree.
Quentin has a job at the Richards school cafeteria. I remember the times I spent eating in the cafeteria with my friends when I first attended the college-and I remember the times I spent eating alone there, feeling self-conscious. I remember when I found out that one of the girls in our friends group had asked the other girls not to invite me to come eat with them because I was “special” and she didn’t like that.
The music starts and the strobe lights are turned on. Glancing out the windows covered in signs that say ‘Happy Valentines Day’, I can see that snow is falling. Some people are dancing, some people are watching others and some are wandering around aimlessly making animal noises. One guy hoots and tears a heart off the wall. Oh well, if it was one of the hearts applied by me it wouldn’t have lasted long anyway.
I’m one of the people dancing. On this dance floor I have no room for self consciousness. I have this inability to sit still and am often ”dancing” around, no matter the time or place. This often gets me negative attention or expressions of concern from others who find my movements odd or socially inappropriate. Now that I’m in an environment where it’s considered socially appropriate to wildly move about, I’m not holding back. Several of the dancers are wearing flashing hearts around their necks. I find myself wishing I had one too.
An intermission is called and we head to the kitchen where refreshments are served. As I fill my plate with melon and a pink frosted cupcake, I notice a woman with short brown hair and glasses. She’s not one of the students from the expressive arts class I volunteer in but she’s a familiar face nonetheless.
“Hi, Maren. It’s Kira. Remember me from Camp Everest?'”
“Yeah, we were in the same bunk at summer camp back when we were in high school.”
A flash of recognition passes over Maren’s face. She recites the first and last names of our camp counselors.
I remember how outraged I was when I first arrived at Camp Everest and saw that my bunkmates were Maren and people like her. Yes, I knew this was a camp for disabled kids and I knew that I was disabled but I wasn’t that disabled, not in the way these people were disabled. My bunkmates were weird and you could tell they were disabled just by looking at them. I could pass for normal, at least at first glance. I had my fair share of problems but I was bright and articulate. My bunkmates were intellectually impaired and had trouble speaking in coherent sentences.
However, as time went on, I got over myself. I came to enjoy camp and the company of my bunkmates, especially Maren. I realized that I could roast marshmallows on the campfire, go boating on the lake, hike in the woods and it really didn’t fucking matter if the people I was doing it with were ‘”lower functioning” than I was. So what if the conversations were punctuated with random exclamations, questions and requests to go to Binghamton? When it came down to it, my bunkmates were much nicer to me and more fun to be around than some of my more” typical” peers.
A few months after camp ended, I received a postcard from Maren. It read “Hi, Kira. My name is Maren. What is your mom’s name? When is her birthday ? What is your dad’s name? When is his birthday?….”and on and on until she ran out of room on the postcard mid question.
“Where do you live now? Where does your dad live? Do you drive?….Why don’t you drive….?'” I’m back in the present moment, on the dance floor with Maren. The final question she asks me is what my phone number is. I hesitate for a split second and then give it to her. She enters it in to her phone and then goes to tell one of the DJs that she wants her to be a plumber.
The music has resumed. The snow is picking up. A woman hands me one of those flashing heart necklaces. I pull out my phone and try to coordinate the flash of the camera with the flash of the heart necklace.
The swirl of colorful lights, the falling snowflakes, the rhythm, tempo and lyrics of the music are all coming together to create a dazzling, magical effect that leaves me feeling energized and giddy. A slow song comes on and the DJs instruct everyone to find a partner. I make my way to the other end of the dance floor. Two boys with Down Syndrome are dancing together hand in hand. Maren has stopped dancing to gaze out in wonder at the rapidly accumulating snow.
“May I have this dance?” I ask Quentin. He smiles and takes my hands in his. I propel his wheelchair towards me and we sway with the music.
“Kira, you should join the special needs choir.”
“I’m not very good at singing.”
“That’s okay. They’d still take you.”
Now the dance is ending and people are leaving. They are thanked for coming and cautioned to be careful in the snow. The volunteers stay behind to take down the decorations. I am unable to get the decorations hanging from the ceiling off of their hooks.
“Kira, did you have a good time?” Lois asks me.
“Yes, it was a lot of fun. I think the snow added to the effect.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
I reach for my winter coat.
“Thanks for your help. See you on Wednesday.”
“Yeah, I’ll be there.”
I zip up my coat and walk out in to the snowstorm, the flashing heart necklace thumping against my own heart.