The Sad Dance
They say you can’t remember things that happened to you when you were an infant, but I can. I remember lying safe and warm in blankets looking up at the stars. When I asked my mother about it she said, "How could you remember that far back Janette? I used to take you out in the back when you were fussy. You would cry and cry, it drove me crazy, until I found out about the night sky. As soon as I took you out there, you stopped."
I’m still that way. I remember stars were like pretty baubles to my baby eyes. But when I was in elementary school, I learned about the solar system and I couldn’t believe how such a big thing could have happened. I would go out on the front lawn and lay on the ground and watch the sky in awe.
"Janette, come in here right now," my mother would call.
"Just a minute," I’d reply, hoping for just a little more time. I whispered my wonder into the cool grass. Looking up, the big fingers of the elm tree seemed to hold up the firmament.
Or she’d say, "It’s time for bed, Janette, I swear, I don’t know what you find so interesting out there in the dark."
When I would try to tell her, saying, "Mom, did you know that the earth rotates? Right now we’re turning around," or "Mom, I saw the Milky Way." Her reply was always "hummm."
When I was in bed later, I’d sing every song I knew at the top of my lungs until she would call, "Go to sleep, Janette, stop that infernal singing."
The lace curtains on the window sent a pattern hop-scotching across my bed. In the mirror at my dressing table I would look at my face and wonder who the girl with the curly brown hair and green eyes was. The moon made my face into a beautiful orb of light, different from me as a pale daytime child. "Why doesn’t my mother love me?" I asked my reflection.
I’d pretend I was a princess in a castle being held prisoner by a wicked step-mother. Later I’d dream of dancing in moonlight in a dress that moved like grasses in the wind. I could leap and twirl in the air and fly across the night sky like Tinker Belle, trailing sparklers of light.
On the windowsill my elbows were bleached bones pointing away. "I want my father," I said to the strong and sturdy truth of the Elm. "Bring me my father," I wished on the flickering promise of the stars.
"You don’t have a father," my mother said, her words angry exclamation points, spoken in a staccato shrill.
"Everyone has a father," I said.
"Don’t get sassy with me young lady," she said, then looked up from her magazine and right into my eyes. "Janette," she said, "don’t ask me again about him. Lord, sometimes I wish you’d never been born."
My mother would have been a pretty woman if she had cared about how she looked and if happiness was somewhere in her heart. Her hair was dark brown and curly like mine, with hints of reddish gold that you could see in the sun’s light. She did her best to pull the grace from the curve it sometimes made against her cheek, coming loose from clips and bobby pins in protest.
I resigned myself to the straight line of her lips and the spittle of anger that struck my hand that day. Her mouth was taunt and a crease had formed between her eyebrows. There was anger in the gray of her eyes and it frightened me. The cold and forbidding signal on her face was "stop".
I wondered constantly about my father, but after that time, I never asked again. I wished I had a mother who would dance with me like I danced in my dreams, but our dance was graceless. As I took one step forward, she took one step back. It was a sad dance.
Since I didn’t know my father and my mother didn’t want me, I stayed away as much as possible. As the years past and I turned fourteen I was allowed to go places by myself. I found the library. Books took me out of myself and into other lives.
Words, were also magic steps to power. I would sit for hours with the dictionary, reading the meaning of unfamiliar words. I used these words as ammunition. Each time I used a word my mother didn’t understand I felt better about myself, but bad too. I could see under the stern exterior of my mother’s face at those times, and what I saw was vulnerable and unsure. Her face would soften and a flush appear on the paleness of her cheeks. Something in my heart told me that I was as mean as she was.
I would see her try to gain control of her feelings and when I was about to put my arms around her she would shake her head and say, "Who put all that nonsense in your head, Janette?"
I met Jake in high school. He was my good buddy before we fell in love. He listened. We became inseparable. He was the blond and sunny opposite of my darkness. He taught me about jokes and laughter. We would sing together and best of all he liked the night sky. Jake had a mother who hugged him and a father who clapped him on the back and they both had love in their eyes when they looked at him. We were married soon after we graduated. That day was the first time I ever saw a touch of pride creep from hiding and capture my mother’s face for just an instant.
She lived alone in the cave. That’s what Jake and I jokingly called her house because it felt so cold and empty. Later, when she got sick, I became her nurse. The physical closeness of moving her body made my skin crawl at first. I wasn’t used to touch between us. I remember being surprised at how soft her skin felt as I applied lotion to her hands and face. That fragrance of Pond’s cold cream became a part of her, sort of an olfactory signature.
One night she looked at me and I saw something I had never seen before. I saw compassion. "I’ll come back, Janette, I promise," she said. "There’s something I have to tell you. Watch for a sign." That was the night she died.
I had been watching ever since. Last night Jake and I were in the living room. The television was on the old movie channel. All around were the cushions of an ordinary life.
Even after seventeen years of marriage, Jake has a way of making me feel beautiful. "Girl", he said—he always calls me girl even though I’m thirty-six, "you’re so lovely and you smell so good." He took deep breaths into my hair
as if he wanted to inhale the essence of me.
He is not an old movie fan like I am. I was completely absorbed in the drama and tears were beginning to dam up behind my eyes. Jake tried to distract me by breathing into my ear and whispering, "let’s go to bed." When he exhaled I smelled chocolate pudding.
"Stop it Jake, this is the best part," I said, trying to ignore his advances.
"Okay girl, you’ve had your chance," he said and kissed my cheek and headed toward the bedroom.
I lay down on the couch and pulled a blanket up to my chin. It was then that the soft night fragrance of Pond’s cold cream settled around me.
After Mom died, I had found a jar of Pond’s behind the bottles of medicine in the bathroom-one that I had never used. When I opened it I saw the gouge her fingers had made into the cream. The fragrance and that small evidence of her life made me cry for the first time since her death three months earlier.
I took some deep breaths, thinking hazily that maybe the fragrance was the sign I had been looking for. Then, when I looked back at the television, the color movie I had been watching had been replaced by black and white and a beautiful, clear-skinned woman of about nineteen was looking directly at me from the screen with just a twitch of smile. Her hair was bobbed as was the fashion of the l920’s. She looked just like the photograph I have on the piano that was taken of a nineteen year old girl, nick-named Bucky by all her friends—before she was my mother. I closed my eyes feeling dizzy and disoriented and when I opened them again she was still there. I looked over at the piano and saw the empty frame. This can’t be real, I thought. I must be having some sort of crazy dream. The image still filled the television screen and now it had movement and dimension and sound. I sat up and pushed the remote control button to off. Nothing happened. My heart was racing as I watched my mother look down to adjust her silk stockings.
I could see out her window to a rose garden. I could hear the birds singing and see three girls sitting on a porch-swing, talking. From somewhere in the house music was playing. "Bucky, hurry up," one of the girls shouted. "We’re going to miss the first dance."
Their laughter drifted in the open window where Bucky was getting dressed. A black Cocker Spaniel danced around her feet.
"Get down, boy," she scolded, as he attempted to climb her leg and bury his nose in her lap.
She stood in front of her dressing table and closed her eyes. She was beautiful I could tell that her beauty at that moment radiated from happiness. When she opened her eyes again, she spoke. The voice was my mother’s voice but not her voice. It had the lilt of youth in it. "Bucky," she said to her reflection, "you look like the cat’s meow," then she pinched her cheeks and pulled at the curl that crossed her forehead like a letter "J". She lifted her arms and danced with a pretend partner, fox-trotting around the room with closed eyes singing, "If you knew Susie, like I know Susie, Oh! Oh! Oh! What a girl!" Then I watched her slip into the soft fabric of a dress, tie the sash at her hip, and admired the curve of her ankle. She dusted powder over her long neck and down over the rise of her breast, turned and moved away from her mirror. As she did this, she looked over her shoulder and frowned.
Someone knocked softly and looked in the door. "You look enchanting," said the woman I knew had to be my grandmother. I had seen pictures of her once that mom had kept in box in the closet. I had never known her and mom didn’t like to talk about her. She just said that they didn’t see eye to eye.
Bucky twirled around in front of her. "It’s impossible to dance the Charleston wearing a girdle." She complained.
"Nice girls do not go out without proper undergarments," her mother replied. "Why, when I was your
age, my mother cinched me into a corset. You’re fortunate that all you have to wear is a girdle."
When her mother left, Bucky made a face, then stuck her tongue out at her reflection in the mirror and left the room. I watched the dog sniff the floor where a trace of powder lingered, sneeze, then curl up on the braided rug.
The screen went blank for a moment and filled with static, then a new scene rolled for a moment then stopped.
Bucky and her friends were in front of a house where a party was obviously going on. The porch was washed with light and the sky had darkened into evening. I could
hear a piano as I watched them climb the stairs. A couple sat talking on a bench, and three or four young men leaned against the porch rail, blowing smoke into the evening air. "Hi, Bucky," one of them called out to her. She waved a greeting as she opened the front door, then immediately turned down the hall and headed with her friends to the lavatory. There, they quickly discarded their girdles and giggling, stuffed them into a carpet bag.
In a large sitting room a group of people stood around the piano singing, and several couples were dancing.
Bucky went to the kitchen where there was a big glass bowl of punch. A boy in the kitchen spoke to her as she filled her cup. "Be careful," he said, "that punch has more in it then just sugar and water."
Bucky returned to the sitting room and stood sipping her drink as she watched couples dancing. One of the boys that had been standing around came up to Bucky and took her hand. "Hi, my name is Vinnie. Come on, dance with me," he said, as he pulled her out to the dance floor. As they danced around the room, I watched Bucky look up and into his eyes and smile. He was very good looking. I could tell he knew his way around. He had the unabashed confidence of someone who had been with more than one woman. His hair was dark and wavey and was combed back from his face. His slacks eased over his waist and hips and his white shirt was rolled up enough to see the muscle of his arms. I watched his hand at the back of my mother’s dress, leading with the pressure of his palm and finger tips. I was drawn to the grace of his movement as he danced.
They had done the Charleston until breathless and as Bucky sat down to rest, Vinnie rushed to the kitchen to refill her cup. She finished her second drink fast as he pulled her back to the dance floor and the fox trot. I watched as she staggered a little before he steadied her with a hand around her waist. He kept his hand on her waist after the dance and lead her out onto the porch. I could hear the crickets singing as they kissed in the moon-glow.
"You have the most beautiful, soft skin," he said, touching her cheek with the palm of his hand. He pulled her to him and his hand moved down her back and curved around her un-girdled bottom.
My heart was racing. I wanted to warn her, to tell her to be careful, to remind her that she’d had too much to drink, that she was vulnerable, but the scene kept playing out and I was just an observer.
"Your hair smells like flowers," he whispered, burying his face in the soft waves. Her eyes were closed and she was holding on to Vinnie’s neck as though she might fall if she let go.
He put his arm around her waist again and led her down the steps and into the yard where she leaned against an oak tree. I could see the back of the tree digging into and catching at the soft material of her dress as he pushed himself against her. Then his hands were on her breasts
and all I could see was the oak tree and all I could hear was their breathing and the wind. Then I heard my mother’s voice, insistent, but as lost and unnoticed as the crickets hum. "Stop Vinnie," she said.
I tried again to turn off the set, thinking if I turned it off I would stop the situation that I could see happening to my mother before my eyes.
I watched helplessly as he pulled her to the ground beneath the tree and the next thing I heard was the pop, pop, pop of the buttons on his trousers. They seemed as loud as cannons on that quiet summer night. "Vinnie, no, help me," came my mother’s voice now, louder and full of fear.
The scene faded and a shot of the big yellow moon filled the television set. I could hear, as if from far away, the sound of the piano and many voices singing, "If you knew Susie like I know Susie, Oh! Oh! Oh! What a girl!"
Suddenly, the television switched off. All that remained of my mother was a lingering scent of Pond’s and my heart trying to separate from a young girl’s life, beating in a crazy kind of fear and exhilaration. I put my feet on the ground, like a drunk trying to steady the turning of the room. I fumbled into the dark, stubbing my toe on the coffee table and touched the cold glass of the television screen.
I turned to look at the photograph on the piano. "Mother," I said, as she looked at me with just the twitch of a smile.
Jake heard me crying. He found me curled up on the couch. He held me, and the warmth of his body brought me back to my own place in time.
I think about my mother all the time now and the feeling I get is no longer sad. She took a step toward me for the first time and the grace of the truth she gave me has freed me from the bitterness I felt for so long.
As for my father--I had begged the Elm, wished to the night sky, insisted to the silence of my mother’s knowledge, and finally got an answer--it came from somewhere beyond the complexity of the earth and stars and the turns that led me to that place in the heart of their youth, and that makes me feel really good.
Yes, I still go out at night and watch the sky, and although I don’t know where my mother’s spirit is, I like to think of her up there near the stars looking down on me.