Saturday, October 18, 2008

But Enough About PTSD; Let's Get Back to Joy

The night of New Year’s Eve 2007 remains on my mind as life resumes its post-holiday routine. I decide I need at least a weekly dose of joy to buoy me through the upcoming year. It’s January 20, 2007, a Saturday night, when I take Bret and my friend, Juliette (an English teacher for gifted students at BAK Middle School of the Arts), to Noche, a new local dinner/nightclub in Palm Beach Gardens. The space is only about six weeks old and I have heard there is a good DJ, which is a rarity in Palm Beach County; I don’t quite believe it. As a New Yorker transplanted to Florida, I’ve learned how easy it is to be punk’d here. Things aren’t always the way they’re presented. A restaurant boasting “Asian fusion” really just means they smother some dishes in soy sauce. A museum’s “Premiere Matisse Exhibit” really just means they’ve hung six of his least known works in a very small back room. A public garden’s “Japanese Inspired Display” really means there are some bonsais planted in a corner. In the case of Sonny’s ‘BBQ Pit’, it really just means that a machine is pumping the smell of ribs into the parking lot. In Florida, you learn not be believe the hype. You hear the description and then scale down your expectations.

Noche, however, has gotten some pretty good independent press. The review in the Palm Beach Post (written, as a matter of fact, by an ex-New Yorker) opened with, “Let me start by warning the staff at Noche that I am moving in,” and went on to describe the hi-tech dance floor and sound system and the wonderful crowd. I think maybe this time I can take the credentials at face value. Try not to be so cynical. At the very least, it will be a fun night out with Bret and Juliette.

Located in a marina in a cove off the Intracoastal Waterway, Noche is owned by Carmine, a short, unattractive Italian man with a permanent scowl who, it is rumored, had and then broke ties with the Mafia, who then broke one of his knees in a late night attack he escaped with a knife. The space – including a lounge, a bar and a dining room – is beautiful. Decorated in bronzes and golds with soft yellow lighting, it is both trendy and homey with a working fireplace that divides the lounge from the dining room. Word on the street is that the building is cursed. Not one single restaurant has lasted a full year. But Carmine owns two other successful Italian restaurants nearby, so he’s tapping a new market with this Latin fusion menu and the variety of music. On Thursday nights there’s a live Latin band that plays salsa, bachata and merengue. On Friday and Saturday nights a DJ plays everything from 70s disco, to Top 40, to rock.

The article highlighted the wonderful outdoor patio and I particularly want to sit out there for dinner, but the temperature is too chilly and the breeze too strong, so Francisco, the gorgeous Latin lover-looking maitre d’, seats us at a table beside the dance floor.

“The perfect table so that later you can dance, no?” He winks as he holds out Juliette’s seat.

Juliette hates to dance.

“No!” This is Juliette's favorite word. She loves to punch it out with the official force of an agent stamping a passport. “I’m only here to watch,” Juliette says, as we settle into our table.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Francisco croons in his Italian accent. “The music will be very good.”

“That won’t matter to me!” Juliette says with a sort of sing-song lilt. She has a habit of speaking like this when she’s being particularly snooty, which happens whenever she feels self-conscious, which happens a lot. Juliette turned fifty-four this year. She’s a tiny woman, with straight, shoulder-length brown hair that she streaks with tones of warm blonde. She’s slender, a little hippy and slightly pockmarked. She wears a lot of Capri pants and camisoles. The single mother of an arty daughter she doesn’t quite understand, Juliette has parented alone since her divorce from Mark after he and a local cop were caught using a small commuter plane to fly firearms from Florida to somewhere deep in the rebel hills of Columbia.

“We’ll get you on the dance floor,” I tease her.

She laughs a haughty, sort of condescending laugh. “Oh, no, you won’t!”

“I bet we will,” Bret says.

Juliette shifts uncomfortably in her seat. She lowers her eyes and sets about deliberately arranging her napkin in her lap.

“I doubt it.” Juliette always likes to have the last word.

We order a smothering amount of tapas. The conversation is slow going. Juliette is clearly out of her element and feeling anxious about our proclamations for the rest of the evening. She constantly looks around the restaurant and lapses into deep silences at which Bret and I uselessly try to chip away.

Around 9:30pm we polish off the remaining bites of a shrimp quesadilla just as waiters and busboys begin clearing dinner tables from the dance floor. It’s like this a lot in South Florida. You think you’re in a restaurant, and then all of a sudden the tables are removed and the space transforms into a nightclub. At 10pm Noche’s DJ appears and music suddenly erupts from the speakers mounted around the ceiling of the dining room.

A few people immediately step onto the dance floor. The clientele is older and wealthy. They wear Chanel suits and cultured pearls, Brioni ties and Gucci loafers. Their generation doesn’t really know how to freestyle. Like my parents, they learned to dance at sock hops, so mostly they partner dance, which means a sort of East Coast Swing, no matter what the music is. After a minute or two of watching, Bret and I can no longer sit still. We abandon Juliette who shoos us away with a flick of her wrist.

Within an hour the crowd becomes younger. Hipsters in their thirties and forties take up residence at the bar. They wander around the space. They lean against the walls and sip mojitos while observing the dance floor which has now filled with a younger element that, not knowing how to partner dance, bops to the beat in a wholly other fashion. The music is good, the crowd sings the chorus to popular songs; everyone is friendly and everyone is having a good time.

I get caught up in the music and the freedom and the flow of unstructured movement. That familiar energy surges through me the minute Bret and I step onto the floor. The music enters my body through my feet and squirrels up through my limbs and my spine through my neck into my head where it whirs around like a mental massage releasing some sort of joy endorphin. I am consumed by sound and a happy feeling of excited freedom. No thoughts exist, no determinations hover, no decisions linger, no problems await. Everything is transcended in melody and harmony and movement so that I am transformed from someone struggling with the past to someone who lives only in the present, from someone who resides solely in her head, to someone who is fully in her body. My history, my depression, my physical symptoms are all neutralized to puffs of smoke that curl up to the ceiling and disappear.

A huge smile involuntarily curves my lips. I’m having a good time. I’m wonderfully moving and grooving to the beat. I’m allowing the music to infuse my soul. For once, my body and mind are not suspicious of each other, are not fighting with each other for control, are not about to deceive and/or betray each other. Instead, a temporary truce has been called and my body and mind are actually uniting for a little fun, which, as the night goes on, becomes a big fun and I’m filled with a sort of energy that makes me levitate to a plane of delirious freedom. I’m released and cheerful and content. I’m feeling like I can dance! Like I’m sexy and divine. I’m rocking my hips and shaking my ass and feeling invincible. I own the floor. I’m some kind of fabulous. I am good out here!

And then they arrive.

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