The Thornback and the Red-Headed Man
Runner-up in the 2023 Winners Circle Open Nonfiction Contest
© Copyright 2023 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo property of Sara.
Granny called me a “thornback,” a derogatory term given to women of her time who weren’t married by the age of 30. Yes, I was a thornback—a single woman, approaching her 31st birthday. My biological clock was ticking; and I feared becoming a spinster whose only companion was a Siamese cat. But I would’ve preferred remaining a spinster rather than spend a lifetime with a boring man whom I didn’t love. Yet, I wanted to share my life with someone—someone special. More precisely, I yearned for my soulmate.
My seemingly endless quest for a soulmate led me to a nearby high school where a local square dance club was offering singles square dance lessons. I soon found myself inside the school’s gym donning a frilly square dance outfit, clutching my dance card in one hand and a folding paper hand fan in the other.
“Bow to your corner; bow to your partner,” the Caller’s voice crackled through the loud speakers. “Join hands and circle left.” Ladies’ petticoats swished; and men’s boots shuffled across the shiny, wooden gym floor. I watched the dancers from the sidelines feeling like the painfully shy, awkward, chubby teenage girl I once was—the wallflower who hid in the shadows at school dances wishing but at the same time fearing some boy would ask me to dance.
“What are you doing!” I scolded myself. “Remember how the seventh-grade dance ended? You’re still just as clumsy. Besides, what are the chances of any man asking YOU to dance? You should just go home. This is crazy!”
I scurried to the exit door, hoping to escape without being humiliated. But just as I placed my hand on the door’s push bar, I glanced to my right and caught a glimpse of a red-headed man whisking himself and his partner around the dance floor. I paused; his eyes met mine and locked momentarily. Then he flashed me an effervescent, magnetic smile—the likes of which I’d never seen. I returned his smile and imagined following his lead as we glided together around the dance floor.
“Do Paso,” uttered the Caller. “Lead right; partners promenade home.” The music stopped, and partners bowed to one another. The squares disbanded with the single men drifting to one side of the gym and the single women migrating to the other. I loosened my grip on the push bar; turned around; and ambled my way back across the gym floor joining the other women who’d gathered around the refreshment table.
“Honey,” one of the older women tapped me on the shoulder, “are you enjoying square dancing?”
I turned around and faced her. “Yes. And you?”
“Yes, dearie. I love dancing, but there aren’t many men here my age. I’m guessin’ them younger fellas are keepin’ your dance card full.”
“Well, no. Not really.”
“Oh, honey, don’t you go frettin’. Men are just shy little boys on the inside and are a tiny bit afraid. Sometimes they can’t see what’s right in front of them.” She handed me a cup of punch.
“Any of them younger fellas caught your fancy?”
“Yes.” I turned toward the group of men. “You see that man over there—the red-headed man sporting a cowboy hat?”
“Yes, dearie, I do. He was eyeing you earlier. Perhaps he’ll ask you to dance.”
“You saw him eyeing me?”
She nodded; my heart trembled and flapped inside my chest like a newly caged bird.
“Surely he’ll ask me to dance.” I crossed my fingers behind my back.
The Caller turned on his microphone. “The next dance begins in five minutes; so gentlemen, find yourself a partner and square your sets.” The men disbanded, and the red-headed man moved in my direction.
“Look! I think he’s walking towards you,” said the older woman.
“Don’t get too excited,” I said to myself. “He’ll NEVER ask you to dance!”
“Ma’am,” the red-headed man tilted his cowboy hat, “Might I have this next dance?”
I smiled at him deliberately staring into his twinkling indigo-blue eyes. Then my mouth went dry; I was at a loss for everything—no words, no breath, no thoughts. Nothing. I fanned my face, quickly gathering my composure. “Yes,” my voice quivered. “I’d love to.”
Without saying another word, the red-headed man took my hand in his and ushered me onto the dance floor. The music began, and I melted into his arms as if I’d always belonged there. He spun me in delicate circles and guided me around the dance floor—just as I’d imagined. When the music stopped, he placed his hand in the small of my back and escorted me to the refreshment table.
“Thanks for the dance.” He tipped his hat. “My name’s Bill. What’s yours?”
“Sara,” I said, wishing with all my heart that he’d ask me to dance again.
“Would you like to dance the next tip, Sara?”
“Sure, I’d like that,” I replied trying hard not to look overly excited.
“Actually, will you dance the remaining dances with me?”
“Yes,” I stammered, warmth rushing through my cheeks.
The Caller announced the next dance; Bill stretched out a beckoning hand and lead me onto the dance floor. After the final dance, he walked me to my car; and we sat on the hood talking nonstop until sunrise.
“Oh no! It’s morning! I must get to work,” Bill said. “But…but I don’t want to leave.”
“I don’t want you to leave either,” I replied, my voice trailing off.
At that moment, he brought my hand to his lips and placed a gentle butterfly kiss upon it; without saying a word, we both knew the kiss was a beginning—a promise of much more to come. Indeed, from the moment our eyes first locked, we were never strangers; and I felt like a part of my soul had loved Bill since the beginning of time.
Two weeks later Bill proposed, and we married shortly before Valentine’s Day. We’ve lived a lifetime together and enjoyed a beautiful, loving relationship. But ours hasn’t always been the idyllic romantic liaison I’d envisioned having. We’ve occasionally hurled one another into an abyss. We’ve shared each other’s burnt edges and scars; endured the strain and the shadows; coped with the worrying and the yearning; and surrendered to the sweetness and the madness of living together. Through it all, our unconditional love kindled that first night has sustained us for nearly 40 years, giving us hope and allowing us to grow stronger together.