It's almost the beginning of every teen slasher flick ever made.
We've just come from Mauthausen, and some of us haven't quite recovered from the experience, and when the bus stops in the city center of this tiny Austrian town, we'll be shuffled out of our seats and into the cars of complete strangers and expected to spend two nights in a foreign house, totally isolated from everyone we've come to know in the previous two weeks. It's just a home stay, nothing to be scared about (I did two weeks of home stays when I went to Japan, so I have a little experience in that area), but it's been an emotional day, and the last thing anyone wants is to be away from their friends tonight. I've lucked out - there are more kids than host families, and I end up sharing a family with another girl, Erica. I think she's more relieved than I am.
Brigitte is a year ahead of us in school. Tomorrow is her last day in class (all she has to do is pick up her grades), and tells us that she and her classmates are having a party tonight to celebrate. It's been a long day, Erica and I are exhausted, but we pretend to be excited.
We stop at the house long enough to put our suitcases in our room and use the facilities before we're back in the car. Brigitte's mom is driving, which I don't understand until later in the evening when Brigitte starts drinking. She tells us that the party is at her friend's "little house," but the street lights of the town are melting away in the rearview mirror as we drive deeper and deeper into the woods. I almost lean over to Erica to say "This is the part where we all get killed," but by the look of her face in the dashboard lights, I don't think she'd find it funny.
There's a light up ahead, flickering between the trees. The little house turns out to be a two-room wooden cabin ten miles outside of town, and there are close to twenty of Brigitte's friends packed into the tiny great room. Her mom drives away; Brigitte promises to call her when we're ready to come home. I'm amazed she can get cell phone reception out here.
There's a boy at the door handing out bottles of beer. He tries to press a bottle into my hand, but I politely wave him off. I never could get a taste for alcohol. Erica shyly takes the offered bottle, looking around as if she thinks someone's waiting to bust her for underage drinking. She forgets that we're miles from the nearest chaperone, and everyone in the cabin is legally allowed to drink. A chorus of excited squeals sings out from the long table in the corner - a handful of girls from our group are also at this party, and they also have a growing collection of bottles and plastic cups spread out in front of them. They wave when they catch our eyes, and we slide down the bench next to them.
When I go with to school with Brigitte tomorrow to get her final grades while Erica stays behind sleeping off her first hangover, these girls will corner me in the back of the classroom with worry in their eyes. They want to know if I'm going to rat them our to the chaperones when the group comes back together. We did all sign the agreement not to drink on the trip, but I won't tell. If someone had gotten hurt that'd be a different story, but hangovers notwithstanding, everyone woke up fine this morning, so their secret is safe with me.
Later, riding the bus across the boarder into Italy, the line of gossip up the aisle reveals that everyone went to a bar with their host family, and nearly everyone spent at least one evening drunk off their asses. My Morman friend practically glows when she describes her first taste of Red Bull and Vodka. One boy ended up in Hungary, and has no idea how he got there without his passport. When we ask about it, he just shakes his head and smiles wryly - clearly, we don't want to know.
I'm sure the chaperones knew - I don't know how they couldn't. Or if they didn't know for sure, they must have suspected that a group of unsupervised American teenagers would relish the opportunity to bend the rules a little. They must feel the same way about this sort of thing as I do - out of sight, out of mind, and as long as everyone stays safe, there's no harm in turning a blind eye.
Back in the cabin, there's a fairly drinking game working it's way around the table, and the American girls excitedly take sip after sip. I feel like an old duck when I think, "They'll regret that in the morning." A young man and woman duck into the side bedroom; as he pulls the wood paneled sliding door shut, I see her reach for the top button on her pants, and in a stunning moment of naivete, I assume they're getting changed for school tomorrow. (Seriously, it was at least three years later when I finally realized that Oh My God, they were having sex back there. I don't have a good reason for being this dense. Sorry.)
One of Brigitte's friends squeezes onto the bench next to me. I don't remember her name any more - I don't know if she ever gave it to me. She offers me a cigarette.
"I don't smoke."
"I should quit," she says, and takes another drag. She starts to ask me about America, about Indiana, my school, my friends, my family. Everything I tell her is pretty commonplace, there's nothing particularly exciting about my small town home, but she hangs of my every word. She tells me about how hard she's studying her English, because she wants to move to American to work someday.
"What do you want to do?"
"I have no idea," she says brightly, waving cigarette smoke away with her hand. "I just want to be there." It's a familiar feeling.
It's past midnight now, and while there are no official classes tomorrow, everyone still has to be up early tomorrow for grades. Brigitte's mom is on her way. Something quiet and contemplative falls over the party, and a girl in the farthest corner begins to sing.
"Life!" She calls, and the boys and girls around her join in the chorus. "Life is life! Bam ba, ba da daaaaa..." They're all a bit drunk and charmingly off-key. It's the beginning of a different type of teen movie now, the kind that starts off too maudlin and ends with lots of tears and feelings. I know this song, but I don't remember why. It's not my place to sing, but I hum along on my own.
Into the woods, and out of the woods, and home before dawn.