Friday, April 8, 2011

Dancing Classes

My first published short story appeared in the Washington Review in 1988.

                                               DANCING CLASSES

There was a time when my parents went to dancing classes. Lord knows whose idea it was. I don't remember them actually going or what night of the week they went. But I do remember them practicing in our living room with a manual open on the dining table and a sheet spread out on the floor which showed them where to put their feet. And I remember my Dad holding my mother in the crook of his arm and the shy, self-conscious looks on their faces.

At my brother's wedding I stood on the sidelines and watched as the photographs were taken. Gusts of wind swept between the gravestones and made the bride's dress billow. Women clutched at their hats but I took mine off and let the breeze cool my head. The summer outfits were a kaleidoscope against the grass and the silver flint of the church.

I was already finding it hard to stand. I had driven up from London early and had a couple of stiff drinks in the pub by the river before turning up at my mother's house. Before I got out of the car, I sprayed so much Listermint down my throat that my eyes started to water and I had to wipe the tears of mascara away with spit on my hankie.

My mother looked magnificent. I don't know if she had slept much the night before but she looked poised and relaxed, like Grace Kelly in early middle age. We kissed, our mouths not touching each other's cheeks with the age old caution of made-up women.

"You look lovely. You'll be quite the most glamorous woman in church," she said, straightening my shoulder pads.

In the background, coming in and out of doors into the corridor, aunts and uncles carried shoe cleaning brushes and tiepins and hair curlers. My mother went off to put on her hat and I went to sit down in the living room. The old retriever came and put his head on my knees. Across the room by the big open fireplace sat my father's wing chair. The table beside it, usually stacked with newspapers and boxes of Jamaican cigars, was empty. I got up and went to the drinks cabinet and sneaked half a tumbler of gin. On top of the breath freshener it tasted like urine.

As the clock tolled the quarter hour, we trooped across the road to the church, watched by Saturday afternoon shoppers and teenage girls pushing prams. It was stone cold inside after the sunshine. I pulled at the fingers of my gloves in the front pew and kept my head down. I could see my brother's hands which he was holding behind his back as he talked to his best man, the knuckles white.

The service flowed around us and we bobbed up and down for the hymns. I sang as loud as I could to the back of my brother's neck. He looked happier now, holding his bride's hand. They were led off to the vestry to sign the register. My mother moved away from me, edging down the pew to join the bride's father. And behind them out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bride's mother turn up her face to greet my father.

The photographs seemed to take forever. The photographer had placed my parents side by side and they stood stiffly together, an island of tension in a sea of bonhomie. I raked through my clutch bag searching for the twist of silver paper I kept in case of emergencies and stuffed it inside my glove. As soon as we got to the hotel, I ran into the Ladies. I realized as I peered in the mirror that I hadn't done a terrific job with the mascara. I managed to get the pills down while I was in the cubicle, pretending to wee. I emerged into a flutter of middle-aged ladies adjusting their hats and spraying themselves with Tweed.

"It went very well, don't you think?"
"She looks so lovely in that dress."
"Isn't it nice that the weather's held?"
"You're looking well, dear." To me. "Will it be your turn next?"

In the receiving line, my brother's eyes were as blank as stones as he leaned forward to kiss me. I retaliated by kissing the best man full on the mouth. Behind me, I heard my brother croon and beam at a stream of people I didn't know. I drained one champagne glass quickly and went in search of another.

So many people to avoid. I ducked and dived among the crush, fetching up against relatives from time to time but mostly surrounded by strangers. This was the bride's mother's domain. She moved among the throng, choreographing the scene. We met by the cutlery end of the buffet table and she forced a cold smile in my direction. I raised my empty glass to her and bowed.

I watched my mother in animated conversation with someone. She looked as if she were the happiest, the most carefree person in the room. By the picture window, my father looked up and caught my eye. He smiled, the sort of smile a small boy tries when he is caught red-handed, using charm as a last resort. A palms-up sort of smile, intended to disarm. I turned away and the alcohol in my stomach began to burn like a slow fuse.

By the time it began to get dark outside, my feet seemed to have cushions of air between them and the floor, and my head felt like it had gone into orbit. It had been several hours since I had had a lucid conversation with anyone. My teeth were coated with the syrupy aftermath of champagne. The last time I had staggered to the Ladies, all I could see in the mirror were two huge eyes as if the rest of my face had shriveled like a dead leaf and dropped away.

Then the dancing started. This was no disco but the local dance band trying to be eclectic. I felt the need to sweat some poison from my system and headed for the floor. But the music was stately and couples moved to and fro with serious precision. I was about to back off but the best man caught my hand and launched us off.

It was a bad idea. A wave of sickness threatened to break over me as the faces whirled by. I wasn't sure what my feet were doing but they seemed to spend more time on my partner's shoes than on the floor. He was a tall young man, not at all handsome, and my eyes were on a level with his prominent Adam's apple.

The music slowed. I recognized the tune and attempted to hum it. I gave up worrying about standing on my partner's feet and let myself lean heavily against his chest. His very posture was puzzled. My nausea started to recede. Slowly it began to feel pleasant, drifting to a sad song, my cheek against the rough shoulder of his jacket. I began to feel comforted somewhere deep down as I used to when I was a child and my father would sit by my bed pushing my hair back from my forehead while I hovered between the sleeping and waking of fever. As we turned on the floor, I saw the bride sitting with her parents. Her father had his arm along the back of her chair and her mother held her hand and, together for one quiet moment, they watched the dancing. The song finished. The best man let me go to applaud the band and I dropped like a stone.

These days I too go to dancing classes. They are held in a gym not far from my office. I try to go twice a week if I can, in the evening after work. The instructor has a great technique for dealing with trouble.

"Sweat it out," she shouts at us over the throb of the music. "Work it off. One-two-three-four. Feel that power, feel those muscles build. Five-six-seven-eight. Feel those problems going. You're taking control."

A room full of women kicks, swings, bends and stretches, determination on every face. There is rhythm in the room but each body keeps its own beat. How much easier it is to dance in step when you dance alone.


1 comment:

  1. Wow! What a taut, packed story. Can't believe I haven't seen this one before. Love it!