Chapter 1: First Night Out
"Don't look so glum." Doreen sat down with a flourish. She ruffled my hair. She nearly knocked over the single rose in a vase on our table for two. I steadied the vase. She definitely made the votive candle flicker.
"I thought I was supposed to look sultry," I said. I might have been scowling. I've always been overly expressive with my face, or so I've been told. I was piqued at the gentle rebuff but managed to purse my lips in a more or less neutral expression.
"Sultry, for sure. Tragic even," she said. "But glum, no."
I took a sip of my Chardonnay. A mistake probably. Water or juice would likely have been the better choice of drink. I'd been sitting here for the best part of half an hour. Nobody had asked me to dance. When I looked at my glamorous friend, though, I couldn't help but smile. Doreen of the curly hair, of the unapologetic cleavage, of the provocative eyes, outlined in exclamation black with lifted cat-eye corners. Doreen of the cloud of perfume.
Doreen smiled back. "That's better. If all else fails, smile. It's supposed to be an adventure, no?"
I rolled my eyes and looked at the dance floor again. Three couples were dancing to canned music. No band today, which was good. The cover charge was less on nights without live music. The DJ wore a white jacket and sunglasses, though the lights were dim. Sunglasses in this light meant either excessive posturing or drugs. The couples on the floor looked good, but not too good. I hadn't been out dancing since Bernard left me for my then best friend some two years ago. I'd do okay, I imagined. I wanted to belong to the dance once again, though it felt almost foreign now. My secret fear was, what if Bernard suddenly showed up with my erstwhile friend? Unlikely, as they had moved to San Francisco. But you never knew. If they came against all odds, I would simply do my best to not sink through the floor, to do the cheesy thing of saying a cordial "hi" and then leave the premises for other plans I would suddenly remember I had.
More people came up the stairway to the upstairs ballroom over the ground floor restaurant that featured organic meat dishes and vegetarian food. Suddenly salsa music came over the speakers. Huh? It lasted about a minute and then was replaced by moody tango music again. Mistake? When tango strains with a soft male voice came on again, a young man stopped just short of our table nodding to Doreen to come dance. She nodded in turn and rose to meet his outstretched hand. They air kissed each other's cheeks.
I sat and watched. Nobody else approached our table. The violin strains felt like a sweet caress on the skin of my arms. Doreen and her partner danced well, better than the couples I had first watched.
A tall couple came on the floor, she in a red slinky dress with uneven hemline and cutouts at the waist, he in a white shirt and gray vest. Their dancing made me forget to breathe. The woman moved her legs and feet like precision instruments, as though absorbing the music into her body and then unleashing her muscles with exquisite explosions of grace. I couldn't take my eyes off her. I wanted to be her. Magic shimmered around them. The music was like honey, sticky and sweet. They danced in flashes of quick motion. Gorgeous legs and feet, especially hers, with silver stiletto heels, strong ankles, well-defined calves, and thighs that looked improbably long as they flicked through a slit in her skirt's red fabric. Her feet sliced through the air. Her back bone melted. Her heels touched and turned in unison. Then the music came to a soft end. She flexed her right knee and extended her left leg out behind in a graceful line. She looked up at the man with devotion in her eyes as he curved over her stretched out form. Pure magic, yes. The man looked down at the woman with the smile of a gentle god.
The magic crumbled so unexpectedly, it actually hurt. A line of disdain appeared in the man's mouth as he helped her to stand in an obvious assist which she didn't need and which contributed to the sudden awkwardness of the tableau. A furrow between his brows signaled to anyone watching that he claimed disassociation from this partner's inadequacy. Ordinary mortal again, he started speaking. I was too far away to hear his words. His high-cheeked tan face was stern. She still smiled at him, but her eyes held discomfort now, and a plea for mercy. The tops of her cheeks flared red as she stepped off the floor and toward the row of tables at the back of the room, all the while being guided by his imperious hand on her elbow.
Tears stung in the back of my eyes and threatened to spill. She had been so beautiful until that moment. She still was, but her unhappiness was so obvious. I couldn't even begin to imagine what his critique might have been. I tried to shift my mind into freeze mode. I wanted to reach in and reject what I had seen. Her lovely bare shoulders slumped, ivory against the red drape of her dress. Her ribcage was deflated.
Unable to do a thing about it, I finally averted my eyes. My fingernails dug into my palms. The ballroom felt like a jungle suddenly -- you looked around, amazed at the orchids, enchanted with the foliage. And then came the jaguars, the monkeys stealing things from your pocket, the endless mosquitoes, snakes slithering at you from camouflage branches.
I sat at our small table, crossing my legs, then uncrossing them, conscious of pressing my knees together as though watching myself from a distance, my ankles parallel now. Then I crossed my legs again.
Two songs later Doreen came back to our table and sat down with a candle flicker woosh like before. Her black fluttery chiffon top settled gracefully around her.
"Am I looking sullen again? No, 'glum' is what you said," I asked.
"Not too bad," Doreen replied.
I was tempted to describe indignantly the scene I had witnessed two songs back but then decided against. "Are you and the guy you just danced with an item?" I asked instead.
"An item? No. Why?" Doreen followed the young man's back with her eyes.
"You danced with him three times," I said.
"No, I didn't. Not today anyway." Doreen looked puzzled. "Oh, I know what you mean. We danced a whole tanda. Didn't you do that in your dancing days?"
"What's a tanda?" I asked.
"Guess not," Doreen said. "A tanda is a set of three tangos. Or milongas. Or waltzes. Whatever. You always dance the whole set with the same partner."
"Oh." This was news to me. "No, we always just danced a dance at a time. In the old days."
"Wasn't that long ago," Doreen said. "Long enough, I suppose. I thought the rules have always been the same forever. But then you probably danced with the one whose name shall not be mentioned all the time anyway."
"That explains the non-tango music that suddenly plays?"
"Yes. Gives you time to change partners. Oh, look. This guy who's coming up the stairs right now? You've got to watch him. He's amazing. Probably the best dancer here. And that includes all of the teachers."
An older man stood by the folding card table on top of the stairs where a young woman collected the cover charge and stamped wrists of those who had paid. He was about six feet tall, with a full head of neatly trimmed white hair framing a fine-boned face. His prominent features were large blue or gray eyes. I didn't want to stare at them too long. There was an unruffled elegance to his movements. The receptionist touched his arm and rolled her eyes apologetically in the direction of her phone, then up to the ceiling. He acknowledged her gesture with a smile and let his eyes scan the dance floor. He looked formal, more so than most of the other men, in a dark suit and white shirt. A light gray scarf hung looped around his neck and matched his also light gray tie. Silk? I was no expert at identifying fabrics.
The young woman at the card table, younger than I, maybe twenty-five, blurred into action after she concluded her call. She laughed, said something to which he responded with another smile and a shake of his head. She handed him change, stamped his wrist with enthusiastic flair, and then stood up to hug him with playful tenderness.
Before I got a chance to ask Doreen to introduce me to some of the dancers already, she was invited to dance again. I wondered if anyone was going to ask me to dance ever. Didn't seem like it. There definitely were more women than men in the club. What? Was I too old? Not dressed right? Not juicy enough? Too glum? The music was beguiling, though. The dream of dancing was beguiling, too. If only I could do justice to the dream.
Suddenly a lanky young man stood right in front of me extending his hand. "Would you like to dance?"
"I'd love to," I said. No, he wasn't my partner of choice. I would have loved to have danced with one of the two Latino types with their charming arrogance. Teachers probably. But I wanted to dance. Period. I would have danced with anyone at this point, just to prove that I could. To myself. To the other people in the club. Especially the men, the potential partners. My partner, Jeremy, was not very demanding, but his lead was solid. I understood now that I would stay on the floor with him until the music changed to something non-tango to signal to break up current couples. Jeremy. Thank you for your kindness.
"You're new here?" he asked.
"Yes." Was it that obvious?
"You dance well."
"Thank you." Thank you indeed. I almost said I couldn't have done it without you. Would there come a time when I would be bold enough to flirt by saying a phrase like that outright?
Back at our table, Doreen descended again, fragrant and grinning from ear to ear, but only for a moment. The older man she had pointed out earlier was walking in our direction from across the floor and looked at Doreen, his head cocked slightly to the left. Doreen gave a small nod and rose and moved toward him. They kissed each other's cheeks. So much for introducing me to any of the people she knew. Wow, but this man really could dance. Doreen looked like her limbs were made of liquid. Black chiffon fluttered around her and around him. They glided through space as though suspended in some magic spell. Now this would be a man with whom I would have loved to dance, too. He might be able to bring out some buried spirit in me.
I hadn't noticed an Asian man stand a little to my left, so mesmerized was I watching Doreen and her partner.
"Are you here to dance?" The Asian man sounded peeved.
"Oh, sorry, yes, of course," I said.
"Kwan," he introduced himself. He danced well and tried many different moves with me. Successfully, for the most part. His lead was strong, though it had an harsh edge to it. Or, rather, things were successful until I suddenly failed to follow something to his liking.
"When I pull up on your back like that, it means you should stop and hold still," he explained. Yeah, I thought, and you should convey that by a comprehensible physical lead, not through verbal expostulation. Out loud I said, "Oh. Well, thank you." I would try not to dance with him again, should he ever be tempted to extend me the honor of asking. Unless, of course, I got really desperate. Thinking of the old tango legends made me smirk. Tango was supposed to have started in the bordellos of Buenos Aires, with men and women dancing with each other to taste each other's compatibility before consummating a night, or a portion thereof, together. This one? No thank you. Too ambitious. Too inconsiderate. Too pushy. But I did not walk away from him while the music was still playing. I had no intention of burning bridges I might later still want to dance on if worse came to worst. When the tanda ended, I went to the bar to order a glass of club soda. I was thirstier than merely sipping wine, and swilling enough wine to quench my current thirst was not advisable if I wanted to stay upright for another little while.
The bartender was busy, but I was in no hurry. Sitting on the bar stool at the far left of the bar gave me at least the appearance of being occupied in this somewhat sparsely welcoming club. Out of the corner of my left eye, I saw Doreen's notable gentleman walk toward the bar. And me. Yes! I thought.
He came to stand beside me. He was handsome, white hair and all. The music crescendoed into a lovely violin caress. He smiled at me. Stunning blue eyes. He opened his mouth to speak when a billowy heavy-set woman wrapped in fluttering zebra-patterned black and white chiffon appeared out of nowhere and tapped his shoulder possessively. She trailed zebra chiffon and a strong scent of roses, together with a faint hint of buttery perspiration.
"Kevin, shall we dance?" she asked in a deep voice.
"Sure," he said. His face flushed. His stunning eyes gave me a last quick look sideways. Club soda in hand, I turned my back to the bar and watched them dance. Kevin. I had a name for whatever it was worth. He danced extremely well again. Close up he looked older than I had first thought. But as a dance partner he might be just about perfect. I disliked the zebra woman intensely but had to admit that she danced elegantly and expertly, despite her considerable bulk. I did notice that Kevin hadn't air-kissed zebra woman and took some satisfaction from that.
It was time to go home, I decided. Perhaps this wasn't my scene after all. I looked around to see if I could spot the beautiful dancer in the red slinky dress who had earlier on awed me and then brought stinging tears to the back of my eyes. I couldn't find her anywhere, not where I had last seen her at the back of the ballroom or anywhere else in the now fairly crowded place. I tossed down my club soda, went to the table I had shared with Doreen, and decided to leave my half empty glass of wine half full.
I waved when I managed to catch Doreen's eyes. Doreen and her current partner danced over to where I stood.
"Leaving already?" Doreen asked.
"Yes, I've had it for tonight."
"I hope you had fun."
I laughed. Better than glum, no?
"Oh, well, never mind," Doreen said. "Next time, okay? I'll call you."
I doubted I would put myself through the same ordeal again any time soon.
On the way down the narrow stairs to street level, I stopped to touch one of the beautiful candelabras at eye level on the left side of the wall. No live candles burned in them. The candelabras looked ancient. They were ice-cold to the touch. I half-hoped something or someone would call me back upstairs. The night was young. But nothing and no one called.
From upstairs, a three-some came boisterously rushing down the stairs, a man and two women. "Tango was just my three minute affair with a stranger with raven hair," the man sang. As they passed me, I caught a glimpse of his light brown hair parted in the center, Oscar Wilde fashion, over a handsome young face. Of the two women I saw no more than the swish of dark cloth, though I heard them both laugh with wordless champagne glee. When they opened the door, which led directly to the outside parking lot, a cold blast of wind swept a few snowflakes up into my face. I continued down the stairs.
The snow was light. It barely covered my windshield. I decided to drive to the sea wall for a stroll before going home to my efficiency apartment right on the edge of the business district. A few huddled figures passed me on my walk. A dog rolled in the snow. Other than that, everything was hushed with the gentle snow and the dark. It did not feel exceptionally cold. What tears there were on my face were forced on me by the sharp wind. That was all. I was far too old for tears anyway.
I stood braced against both wind and discontent before the rolling sea. On the surface I had everything I wanted -- okay, minus the ten million dollars, and minus the awesome man who would seductively romance me on my schedule and discreetly fade into the background at other times -- but I wasn't sure I wanted what I had. I wanted something more, something colorful and brilliant and eventful. Something like tango. I wanted to belong to a world that danced with dazzling colors and swayed to exquisite music, but where so far I almost always felt like a polite and well-behaved outsider.