Despite its supernal name, Providence had done little to dazzle me as I ricocheted in and around Rhode Island.
Before I'd ventured into the Rhode Island School of Design's art museum, the most stirring encounter I'd had was with a slab of bacon the size of a brag-worthy fish catch at the offbeat restaurant Kitchen.
Kitchen, by the way, doesn't have a website, seating for more than 10, or any tolerance for credit cards, so take that.
Surely, I thought, there must be more to Providence than impressive hog meat and a breezy rush hour commute. So I searched.
I searched for divine Providence in the bottom of a tumbler in the amber dim of the elusive Avery, but all I found was melted ice. I searched on a bar stool at brassy, brunchy Julian's, but all I found was an embarrassing Romaine heart stem in my salad. ("You mean you don't want to eat that?" Har.) I searched in an examining chair at a podiatrist's cramped, anachronistic home office, but all I found was a weeks-overdue diagnosis for my limp (ankle sprain with inflamed tendon, origins unknown).
It was a chance invitation to WaterFire, the semi-weekly spectacle that sets Providence River temporarily aflame, that illuminated the city as a true charmer.
The invite came from my host's mother as she stopped by the farm while I was alone one afternoon. After a quick chat, we agreed to be one another's dates and I happily put it at the back of my mind while I went back to my daily routine.
We arrived at WaterFire well after sunset and egged on each other's excitement for what would become the most magically romantic night of my life, to be shared with a New England dairy farmer and mother of three.
WaterFire is enchantment.
Anchored on the river were dozens of tall pyres fed and stoked by black-outfitted volunteers on small boats. Cords of wood were kept stacked in arched recesses under the bridges at each street crossing.
See? Told you.
Weaving along the fires were kayakers with Day-Glo koi cutouts attached and hovering three feet above their heads. Swearing along the fires were ferriers and gondoliers who were tired of swerving to avoid the careless kayakers.
Couples climbed down to small knolls below the streets to huddle and sip wine and wave. Above them, mournful music, whether opera or Jeff Buckley or something vaguely global and percussive, was piped along the water's edge.
And somewhere amid the throngs of the smiling and spellbound, a large, masked man offered long embraces to anyone willing to approach him. (I was curious, but wary of an errant erection. Or perhaps I was being presumptuous.)
The Public Caresser and a brave volunteer.
The night cooled and drops of rain turned into a steady drizzle. It was past my date's bedtime, but I stayed on alone until the end.
Clumps of revelers shivered and shrank and then went home. Under the bridges, glittering chandeliers were taken down and packed away, leaving behind shadows and damp stone.
The performance artists were long gone by then, and the river began to empty. All that remained were the pyres flagging in the wind, and a handful of meandering koi-yakers.
A starlit walkway.
The ride home was quiet, and the farm quieter still. The cat was at the back door, crying to be let in from the rain then darting back into darkness when I opened the door.
I stood on the porch for a moment looking out into the night, dazed and dreaming and smelling like woodfire and cold.
To the right, the cows sent up their alarms. I went in to the kitchen and stood under the single overhead light at the sink, politely quiet for the sake of the farmhouse ghosts and wondering if the cat would come home.