In April 1959 I answered a newspaper ad written by an internationally renowned folk-dance teacher. He was looking for people to join him in teaching folk dancing in a variety of European countries for 11 weeks during the summer. I’d been longing to go to Europe. This seemed a great way to go since I’d been folk dancing for years. What made it possible to apply was that his timetable coincided with my public-school teaching schedule. I responded immediately.
R., the man who interviewed me showed me a record he’d made. I noticed the list of countries he’d taught in and read some testimonials from groups that had employed him. He asked about my dance and teaching experience, then put on the record. The first piece of music was to a dance I knew so it was easy to follow him. When he led dances I didn’t know, I followed as best I could. I guess I was good enough because he invited me to join him in Vienna, Austria where the work would begin. Once in Europe he’d pay all expenses. I’d leave the day after my last day of teaching and return two days before the start of the new term.
I applied for a passport, told my parents, and answered their questions as best I could. They wanted to know more about him, what countries we’d be going to, who we’d be teaching . . . Mostly they worried about me going to Europe by myself. When my mother kept hounding me about traveling alone, I reminded her she’d hitchhiked to the Grand Canyon with a girlfriend when she was 19. “I’ll turn 23 while I’m on the plane to Europe,” I told her, “and I’ll be going with a group.”
Once in Vienna, I immediately learned there would be no group, just R. and me, but the first week was such a heady mixture of learning new dances and teaching large groups of enthusiastic participants that I gave it no thought. R. spent a lot of time with his girlfriend, a lovely young woman who danced like she was made of air. I asked her for suggestions as to how I could improve my dancing. “Think of dancing as floating,” she said, happy to help. When I asked R. why he hadn’t asked her to be his teaching partner, he avoided my question and changed the subject.
When it came time to leave Vienna, I arrived at the train station and saw R. and his girlfriend hugging passionately. She was crying. I looked away. When our train was announced, R. met me as I walked to where we had to board. Once the train started moving, he got up from his seat across from me and sat next to me, putting his arm around my shoulder—too close for comfort.
I tried to move his arm but he tightened his grip. “What are you doing?” I asked, annoyed.
“Getting to know you,” he said, his tone seductive and demanding.
“You have a girlfriend.”
“So what? She’s in Vienna. You’re here with me. That’s all that matters.” Something in his tone of voice frightened me. Against everyone’s advice, I’d signed up to teach with a stranger for 11 weeks. Now all their warmings seemed to be coming true. To calm myself I told him I had to use the bathroom. He reluctantly released me, managing to stroke my body as I left.
That night he came into my bed. I fought him off but he was bigger and stronger. I froze inside myself and let him do what he wanted, just as I’d done when I was a child, waiting for the bad time to be over.
In the morning, when he was in the bathroom, I looked for my passport and envelope with my money. I couldn’t find them. When I asked if he’d seen them, he said no. There was no time to challenge him; we had an early teaching session.
The pattern of teaching together, where we worked well as a couple, contrasted sharply with his sexual predation. I reverted to an old coping mechanism, becoming emotionally numb. I decided my only way to escape was to pretend everything was fine. About two weeks after we’d left Vienna, we went to the train station, ready to go from Switzerland to France. He usually bought our tickets, but on this day he was distracted by business he needed to take care of. I casually offered to buy our tickets. He shrugged and handed me our passports and his wallet. Inside was the envelope with my money. I put it and my passport into my bag. I used his money to buy his ticket to France and stayed at the ticket booth until it was almost time for the train to leave.
He was already on the train, waving frantically. I boarded, handed him his wallet, ticket, and passport, waited a minute or so, then grabbed my suitcase and jumped off as the doors closed and the train began to move.
Stunned by the sudden turn of events, I sank down on a bench, watching the train slowly disappear.
I was free. Free to wander around Europe for eight weeks. I celebrated by going to a café. The coffee was hot and comforting, the brioche delicious. Lots of choices to make, but for the moment all was well.
How do you respond when you’ve made a choice that has dire consequences?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.