Weekly Short Story: The Dance

I WAS JUST AN ADD-ON. It wasn’t like I was a kid who needed to be taken to ballet class or needed a proud papa smiling from the aisle seat at the high school cafetorium when I received a certificate for Straight A’s at the end of the school year. I had a father who had done all of that. Except for the ballet part. It had been piano lessons.

Mother’s wedding colors were blush and champagne. Blush because the faint pink color looked good against her light skin and it was something that she had always wanted. Back when she had married my father, it had been in the preacher’s house. She’d worn a light blue sheath dress the color of a summer sky and dime-store pearls. I’d seen the pictures, yellowing with age, back when photos were square with a white rim that served as the frame. Her hair was flipped up at the end and my dad sported a thick moustache popular of the era, like MLK’s, and his hair was already balding. He was in a dark suit. I suspected it was the only one that he owned.

Now that she had a chance to do it again, it was all blush pink and champagne. Wine and roses were the colors. And the groom? Well, as I watched from the door of the tiny dance studio, the groom was someone who I did not know.

I walked around the dance studio, click-click-click against the hardwood dance floor. The instructor had not told me to wear the heels, but they were the same shoes that I would wear at the wedding and this was supposed to be a surprise. A gift that my future stepfather Melvin had concocted and I agreed to because I thought that it would make my mother happy.

Because when I saw my mom hanging on his arm, she leaned into him, on him. She gripped his perennial old Members Only windbreaker—the jacket that had to be left over from the beginning of time, or at least the 1980s, which honestly was just about the same thing. Her head of thinning, dyed auburn hair with gray roots lay against the khaki of his jacket, reaching just at his shoulder. It made me realize how hard it must have been all those years without someone to lean on.

That picture? It was the only reason why I was here.

And I would put up with whatever was necessary because that was another lesson that I was taught. You do what is necessary. Even if what was necessary turned out to be strapping your feet into blush sandals that made your brown feet look like a trussed-up ham hock on Thanksgiving morning.

Only two-inch heels, but for a girl who was used to running around in sneakers or shoes that slipped on, that was a stretch. But if there was one thing that I knew how to do, it was to be prepared.

So my feet stuck out against the straps, the heels clicking along the floor from underneath my jeans. I wore a bright, multi-colored blouse that was machine washable and appropriate for work (double score!) and a faded blue cardigan that soon enough I would have to discard; pills were starting to form on the edges.

“Your father?”

I looked up. It was the dance instructor. She was white, with brown hair flowing around her shoulders, and wearing a pink leotard and black, wide-legged pants. She wasn’t what I expected, but then, I wasn’t the one who had selected her. That had been another thing that Melvin had selected, along with the dance studio that was right off the interstate on a five-lane highway masquerading as a road.

It was going to be a pain to get back home, but then, my schedule was more flexible than his. My mother would wonder where he was if he spent too much time away, especially since she had snagged him for the cake tasting and the critical decision of choosing between buttercream or cream cheese frosting. Because she had had such a small wedding the first time, she wanted to have the big one now.

The dress.

The cake.

The bridesmaids’ dresses.

“Father?” I repeated what she had said. “Oh.” I shook my head, my feet sliding into first position – heels together. “He’s not my dad.”

“But, he said…”

I held up my hand. Let’s just stop the crazy right here and right now. “He is going to be my stepfather. I mean, he’s not my dad. He is going to marry my mom.”

A smile crept to her lips and her hands came together to clasp in front of her. “That’s so sweet.”

“Yeah,” I said, and looked at my watch. It was silver band with a slash of gold running through the middle of the silver so that I could wear it with anything. It was showing that he was a couple of minutes late. I slid my feet out to second position. I’d learned the positions when I was a kid from a squat picture book picked up from the library. I’d wanted to be a ballerina, but it wasn’t practical. Black girls did not become ballerinas. Black girls became doctors, lawyers, and engineers, as my dad had said. Ballerinas were from families that had money and resources and had more than one generation of college education behind them.

Third position. I slid my right foot in until it was next to my left foot, the right heel to the middle of my left foot. It was something that I did when I was nervous. Going through the positions even though I had never had one dance lesson in my entire life except this one. Just a nervous habit.

The smell of his cologne proceeded him. It was always like that with Melvin. He stomped on the wooden floor, wearing sneakers, gray sweatpants, and a navy blue sweatshirt.

“I’m here,” he said, and came to stand right beside me. “You found it all right, Melinda?”

“Yeah, Melvin,” I said. “I found it just fine.” I nodded, my face tight, turning to the teacher. My feet pointing straight to her. Ballet was over.

“Well,” she said. She turned toward Melvin, “Mr. Brown has talked to me about what he had in mind. We were hoping that you would like it.”

“Um, okay.” She seemed happy. Just way too happy about this thing. I mean, she was a dancer, but that could mean anything, and my mother wanted a Father/Daughter dance even though Melvin was not my father.

She walked. Except I shouldn’t say that. Unlike my clunking on the dance floor, she more like glided, making no noise, and I think that had something more to do with the way that she carried herself rather than her shoes, which were more like slippers.

I looked up for the first time at the mirrors. I had been avoiding them. It was something that was a habit of mine. Do you understand the depth of my love for my mother to be here in these shoes standing in front of a bank of mirrors?

The banjo-strumming strains of “Rainbow Connection” filled the room.

What an…odd choice.

“Well,” she said, and she grabbed Melvin. Okay, she didn’t grab him, but she was definitely forceful and knew what she wanted. She situated his arm and she turned that graceful head toward me. “It’s a waltz,” she said. “I’ll show him and then you will just follow his lead.”

Why had he chosen that song? It was the song that I’d danced to as a little girl on my father’s feet. Oh, how he loved music.

And watching them, it was just too much, but I had learned a long time ago that you could cry, you just couldn’t make noise. It was just too much. I turned around to at least cut out one stimuli in the scene. The air? It just got too, too heavy. I took one step; my heavy feet clopped along the wooden floor and Melvin’s cologne stuffed down my throat. I caught one foot in the other, going too fast, and got my feet tangled into each other and down I went, catching my fall on the floor with my hands, pain radiating up through my arms.

I closed my eyes to concentrate, keeping the tears behind my eyes, which was where I needed them to stay. The song ended while I knelt there with my hands on the pitted floor, pushing against them, pushing up against them so that I could breathe.

The space in my lungs grew smaller.

A hand on my shoulder.

“We need a moment.”

And the feet that I thought didn’t make any noise slid past me and out the door.

“It’s okay, Melinda.”

He got down on his knees and slipped his arm around my shoulder. The same arm that my mother had leaned against as I had watched, standing apart from them for so long.

I sniffled them. “I’m, uh…” I said. Stopped. Get it together. This guy isn’t here for you. This is your mother’s life. Not yours. “Melvin,” I said, “I’m fine.” I hated the quiver in my voice that I heard slip out.

He hugged me tighter. I needed to get away. I needed to find some place to skulk away and hide and cry in private. Somewhere where no one would see the snot running down my nose and no one would know if the red-rimmed eyes were from not enough sleep or just because I’d been crying and no one in my life, to be honest with you, would know except my mom and she was slipping away from me now.

And that was the worst part about it. The utter silliness. I needed to be happy for her. I was happy for her. I just needed some time to slip away and get to happy.

But Melvin wouldn’t let me go. I pushed up against the floor, turning, and hid my face right in his chest.

“It’s all right,” he whispered in my ear.

And it was his kindness that had done me in. I sank into that all-weather jacket that he had saved and took care of like a pet, and let loose the tears that I’d kept behind my eyes. Wetting the jacket.

The tears giving away to shaking. The shaking, to the snot running down and out of my nose, and then devolving into hiccups.

He held me the entire time.

And I found my hands clutching the crook of his jacket, his arm, so hard that it looked like there were wrinkles.

A gasp from the dance teacher sounded behind me. And it brought me back.

I pulled back, and this time he let me go. The jacket still held wrinkles from when I grabbed it. I smoothed the jacket sleeve. “I’m sorry,” I said.

And then wiped my nose and the snot that had run to upper lip with my arm. At least it would dry on my arm.

He dug into his sweatpants and took out a handkerchief embroidered with MB with a rose in between. They had been a Christmas gift that I’d gotten for him when my mom had told me how old fashioned he was. When I think about old fashioned men, I think about handkerchiefs. I didn’t think that he would have them or that he would carry them around in his pants like he actually used them.

I took it in my hand, running my fingers against the raised embroidery, and looked up at him. “You still have these? You use them?”

He nodded slightly. “They are very useful,” he said. My knees started to ache. I had a sixty-something (he wouldn’t tell me his age and I didn’t push because my mom had been dodging that question for years; I certainly couldn’t ask her soon-to-be husband for information that my mother had slyly avoided herself) year-old man on the ground. And I was a mess.

I wiped the mess off my arm with the handkerchief and looked at it. What was the etiquette for this?

“You can keep it,” he said, answering the question for me.

“But it was a gift to you for Christmas.”

“You can, uh, wash it and give it back to me.”

I nodded, looking down at it. And stood up and then held out my hand to see if he was going to be stubborn. At forty, I didn’t need to be crawling around on floors, and at his age, I knew that he didn’t either.

He waved my hand away. And he made his way to his feet bit by bit until he stood beside me.

The silence stretched out between us with the undercurrent of a tango, with that instrument that you wear strapped on with a piano, playing next door.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just that—”

“Your mom said that you liked the song. That’s why I picked it. I just thought that you would like it.”

“It’s just that it brings back memories, you know? I mean. It was with my dad.” I looked up at him. “Do you ever stop needing your parents? Is there ever the right time to lose them? Are you ever old enough?” Melvin would know. Both of his parents had passed. We would be his only family now.

He shook his head. “No.”

I was being selfish. I was being wrong. My mom deserved happiness. And Melvin had to be something because she had sworn that she didn’t want to get married again, but here she was making it happen with Melvin. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s all right. I mean, I understand. You know, I don’t want to be anything but your friend.”

And that was the weird part of it. “I know. Really I do.”

“I just thought that you would like to dance. Your mom talked about how you were always moving your feet. How you always wanted to take dance classes.”

“This…this is for me?”

He broke eye contact and shrugged, moving around me to the other side of the dance studio. “I, well…”

“I, uh…” I couldn’t say anything. But something, sometimes it wasn’t needed.

I walked over to the CD player, which looked like a baby boom box, and took out the CD. “Rainbow Connection”, was off the table, but that didn’t mean everything was. I picked up the CD cases that were beside it on the small, imitation oak table that looked like it belonged in a foyer and started picking through them. I stopped at The Temptations. Mom liked them. I liked them.

I looked up with the CD in my hand.

“How about ‘Get Ready’ by The Temptations? It’s upbeat. It’s happy, and this is supposed to be a celebration.”

“It’s not a waltz.”

“We don’t have to dance to a waltz. We can make our own traditions,” I said. The words were out of my mouth when I realized that we could. I wasn’t an add-on. I could establish my own relationship with him. Different from the one I had with my dad, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t be meaningful. He was trying. He was reaching out to me. The least I could do was to try, too.

“OK,” he nodded, his head his jowls shaking. “The dance could be fun.”

“I’ll get the teacher,” I said. I clicked across the floor, my steps clean and clear, and peeked my head out the door. “We’re ready,” I said.

Melvin held out his hand.

I grasped it.

THE END

About Irette Y Patterson

Irette Y Patterson is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. She has been published in FIYAH, Strange Horizons, Translunar Travelers Lounge and on the website of The Saturday Evening Post. When not writing, you can find her digging around in her garden or catching the latest musical in the theater.
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