Imagine a college hallway, early morning. Students on their way to an 8:00 a.m. class, backpacks already heavy, strained breathing on the third floor landing.
This is not an elegant setting. The lights are fluorescent. Chairs, where three students wait to meet with professors about whatever project or paper is not going well, are often uncomfortable, plastic and chrome. Not one of them matches any other. Bulletin boards on the walls hold more noise than direction. But there is laughter, too. The comradery of Yeats or French 101 at first light.
I am walking down this hallway. My students have already gathered in the classroom behind me, ready to talk about Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind Sand and Stars, the life of a pilot of the West African Mails. We've just finished Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, the Buddhist search for enlightenment, and we are leaping into Romanticism, Colonialism, the individual and a sense of higher purpose. It's heady stuff if you are eighteen years old. It's heady stuff if you are fifty-five. So many new ways to breathe.
They are a fine group, these students, and I am on my way back to my office to retrieve a stack of papers I could not carry with the coffee and books I have already delivered. Because of this, my hands are empty. Mid-autumn sunlight filters into the hallway from a large window at the distant end, and if I said it was alpenglow, my facts would be wrong but the idea would be true. The hallway is not elegant, but it can be pretty.
I do not intend to cut the corner by the water-fountain so sharply. But there are only a few students in the hall, and those few still waiting in chairs, so I do. And then I am in her way.
A woman I do not know is standing in front of me, nearly on her toes, the interrupted cadence of her walk wanting to propel her onward. She was walking the same hallway in the other direction, and now she is not.
"Oh," we say, together, "sorry."
I step to my right, to let her pass, at the moment she steps to her left, to let me pass.
She is closer to my own age than any student, but still a good bit younger than me. Wearing a light jacket, she carries a purse instead of a backpack. Perhaps she is an expert, visiting some other class. I have no idea where she is going.
I step to my left, to let her pass, at the moment she steps to her right, to let me pass.
We pause, and then smile. I do not know this woman. I have never seen her, even once, in my life. But I know we are thinking the same thing, in exactly the same way. That first step is politeness. The second step is always dance.
I raise my arms, a standard waltz invitation pose. The students walking near us, the students in the chairs, are all watching us now, and the woman takes a step toward me. She grasps my one hand in hers and places her other on my shoulder. My free hand touches her side, near the small of her back.
I take a step toward her and lift my hand. She follows and twirls, on her toes, just once.
But we are not finished. She leans. Not toward me, but away. Her back arches. She releases her hands and I have to encircle her waist to keep her from falling. She leans completely, trusting me, a stranger. Her arms, slowly, and elegantly, sweep above her head. There is ballet in the hallway now. There is a swan, and a professor. Her arms allongé. Her hands nearly a terre.
It's entirely possible all this happened. I lift her back up and we both smile again. There was an invitation and it was accepted. We do not talk. Words would make this one moment small. The students have never seen anything like this, and they applaud. I step to my right and she passes.
So many moments, I think. So many moments when the invitation is possible. Whether it's accepted or not is irrelevant. So many moments when we are thinking the same thing in exactly the same way. So many new ways to breathe. An offered hand.