This story is a follow-up piece to “The Salsa Queen of Princeton,” which was published in last year’s Summer Fiction issue. In “The Salsa Queen,” the 47-year-old protagonist, a single mother, struggles with her kids’ nagging and her mother’s disapproval of her lifestyle – “Grandma thinks you’re an asshole,” her 12-year-old daughter tells her in the opening line of the story. Finally the mother works up the courage to go to her community education dance class.
As she makes her way from her car to the classroom, she hopes that maybe, just maybe, this will be the night that she meets the man of her dreams.
You’re supposed to let me lead,” he said, unable to hide the frustration in his voice as he pulled away from me.
I dropped my hands, equally frustrated. I had thought a dance class would be a fun ‘couples activity’ for us, more intimate than sitting silently in a movie theater, less intimate than the horizontal mambo (not that we hadn’t indulged in THAT). It had been enjoyable at first, but his constant desire to practice the tango over and over again was lessening my desire to spend time with him. I was starting to feel like a possession, as if the only reason for us being together was to dance the tango. The tango is a very male-dominated dance, with the man moving the woman around the dance floor; she’s supposed to wait for him to initiate her actions. The tango position is called “The Embrace”; the dancers’ bodies are pulled close together, the man’s right hand placed around the woman’s back, the woman’s left hand placed above his right bicep, two people standing nose to nose almost. Luckily for me he’s of an average height, and my nose just grazes his lips (and he has lovely lips). All my life I had wanted tall, dark and handsome, and whenever I had gotten it I had gazed squarely into the middle of a chest (vertically and horizontally). He was short, light and cute, with deep sea blue eyes and an English accent to die for. I gazed at the floor of his deck. “Can’t we take a break?” I asked, none too happy with the petulant tone in my voice.
He sighed and stepped further back. “You said we’d practice tonight.” A look of disappointment flashed over his face. He went over to the railing and leaned against it. Taking a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket he lit one and took a long drag. I wasn’t too crazy about the smoking, but so far it had been his only fault, that was until this dance class started. Now he smoked and wanted to practice the tango every waking minute. I looked up at the sky and listened to the tree peepers’ incessant symphony. Stars shimmered in the black velvet night overhead. The sounds of tango music flowed softly from the CD player near the door. “I’m just a little tired tonight,” I answered.
“You’re always tired any more.” Now it was his turn to sound like a child not getting his way.
I looked at my hands. Well, here it was, our first fight. Nothing to be concerned about, right, sooner or later every couple has to have their first fight. I caught myself as I heard that word in my head; couple. Are we now officially a couple? The rules had changed so much since I first started dating sometime in the last century, and after 10 years of marriage, divorce and 5 years of single motherhood I wasn’t all that confident that I knew what the rules were anymore. I tried to ask my younger co-workers for advice, but it was somewhat unnerving to seek guidance froma person who was born the year I graduated from university. There seemed to be no hard and fast rules anymore. Was it first date drinks, second date dinner, third date sexual intimacy, or was it first date dinner, drinks, sex, or was it just drinks and sex, or do you just walk up to the first attractive guy you meet and say “Open for business”? And don’t get me started on the whole absurd “cougar” or “MILF” moniker. There’s nothing like having your definition as a human being reduced to your ability to attract the opposite sex. It wasn’t any better than being referred to as either a “nice girl” or a “loose woman.”
I looked over toward him in the dim light. He had strung fairy lights all around the deck, and the first few times we had practiced we had pretended we were dancing at a garden party at a chateau somewhere outside of Paris, or at a milanga in Buenos Aires, or on the promenade of Gatsby’s Long Island mansion. I really didn’t want to fight, not tonight when it was so beautiful in the moonlight. I walk over toward him in time to the music. ONE two THREE four, ONE two THREE four, letting my arms glide around my body. I smiled as I caught him trying not to look at me, saw the way the tension left his body to be replaced by desire. I stood next to him at the railing. “Where are we tonight?” I asked in my most sultry voice.
He stepped on his cigaret and crossed his arms across his chest. “I don’t know. Where are we?” His voice was tight and wary. SIGH, I thought, this wasn’t going to be easy. I continued to look over the railing into the dark backyard. How do you explain to someone who’s been nothing but nice to you that it’s hard to let go of the fear that you’re screwing up again? That you don’t believe in happily ever after or Prince Charming sweeping you off your feet, even when you’re treated like a fairy tale princess. No, that’s not right, I thought, he treats me like a wonderful human being, someone who’s funny and intelligent and sexy, someone he really respects and likes spending time with. I leaned my head against his arm. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be difficult,” I whispered. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to relax and let go of the past.”
I heard him give a short bark of a laugh. “Tell me something I don’t know.” He kept his arms across his chest. “I’m not him, you know,” he said quietly.
I felt as if I had been slapped. He was so right, he wasn’t my ex, he was a million times better, the answer to a million prayers. I took a deep breath as I tried to keep the tears at bay. “I know you’re not, and I’m really grateful to you for that. Ijust hate being told what to do. It brings back bad memories. I just feel like I have to be in control all the time. Strong and tough.” I bit my lip.
He sighed and shifted his weight, bumping his shoulder against mine. “You’re not the only one who’s been hurt, you know. This is hard for me too. I’m not trying to control your life; I’m just trying to learn this bloody dance.”
We stood side by side, facing in opposite directions. I didn’t know what to do, and Ihated not knowing what to do. I started to speak softly, still not looking at him. “Somebody once told me that it’s wrong to tell people to ‘get over it’ when something painful has happened to them, because you never really forget. You have to think of your psyche as a giant pantry, and all your life experiences are items on the shelves. The painful ones are still there, but if you’re working on getting on with your life you find a place for them on the shelf. Sometimes they spill over and you have to clean up the mess, but for the most part they sit on the shelf, and you can say, ‘Oh, yea, I remember when that happened,’ and then you close the door to the pantry. Close the door to the pain.” I took another deep breath. “I guess I need to rearrange my pantry some more.”
The music stopped playing as the CD ended. We stood silently next to each other; it took me a while to realize that he had turned his head and was staring at me, a smile on his face, trying desperately not to laugh at me. “What?” I asked as my lips began to mimic his. Had we averted the crisis? He bumped his shoulder into mine again as he started to walk across the deck to the CD player. “You’re not so tough,” he said.
I tried not to smile. “Tough enough to handle you,” I answered back. “It’s the tattoos, you know.”
He laughed and changed the CD. “I like your tattoos,” he said. There was no missing the hunger in his voice.
Now it was my turn to laugh. I kept my back to him as I pretended to look over the dark yard. The music began to play again. “Where are we tonight?” I asked as I looked over my shoulder at him.
“Paris,” he answered, “in a flat overlooking the Seine.”
“What room are you in?” I asked, feeling the tension building between us.
“The living room.” I could heard him move across the deck toward me.
“And what room am I in?” I stepped back to him as I felt his hand brush across my hip. I could feel his breath in my ear as he brushed his lips against the back of my neck.
“The bedroom,” he whispered as he kissed me.
I turned to him and put my hand on his arm as he placed his hand on the small of my back. He pulled me close to him; our stomachs pressed against each other for an instant. I took a deep breath and exhaled as I let him move me across the deck.
V.L. Sheridan lives in East Windsor and works at the McCarter Theater Center for the Performing Arts in Princeton.