“Each dance, Elmore, has a specific narrative. Take the waltz, from the German wälzen, or to turn. It’s a dance of conquest, in which the lead, usually, but not always male, allows the partner, usually, but not always female, to conquer him. The lead begins by pursuing the partner, but becomes, on the third beat, the pursued. This is the turn.”
“It’s very sensual.”
“It’s not sensual,” Suzie said. “It’s militant. The dance is about the Thirty Years’ War, and the brutal interrogation of Viennese prisoners by their Protestant oppressors. The mind games they played were paramount to torture. I’ve also heard the dance referred to as ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop.’”
“Where have you heard that?”
“In various circles. Dance circles.”
Elmore stood up, and dusted the pie crumbs from the front of his trousers before switching the record.
“So, dancing, Elmore, is just like acting.”
“How long is side B?”
She didn’t know why he was there, in her apartment, how he had gotten there, how she had descended from 12G to the Lafayette Street exit, her legs suffocating under her stockings in the humid swamp of mid-August, how she had ended up in a country bar, a tourist bar, looking for tourists, and finding Elmore, an old acquaintance, half-forgotten.
“You put yourself in the role of a Viennese prisoner, and voilà, you’re waltzing with the best of them. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to deconstruct the narrative of a dance, and this can be problematic. I’ll see a couple, or an individual, dancing, and it will take days before it clicks – He’s pointing out a flock of birds in the sky to his newborn daughter, or the heat is off in their apartment building and they’re shaking from hypothermia. Now, the running man is an existential dance. The where is not important, but you need to understand why you’re running, on a philosophical level. If you don’t know the narrative, how can you expect to experience any sort of catharsis, or stay on beat, for that matter?”
She dimmed the lights.
“The line dance?”
“A line of defense. You’re part of a small principality forming a barricade against an invading fascist régime. I find it best to imagine tanks are involved. Most dance is combative in nature, your partner being the enemy.”
Then her hand was on his chest and she was kissing his rough cheeks, his closed eyes, the way she’d seen done hundreds of times on TV, when the moment was so passionate, mouth kissing simply would not do.
“Twenty, or twenty-five minutes.”
“What?” He was surprised to find himself unbuttoning her skirt, removing his shirt.
“Side B. Twenty, or so minutes. It’s got “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on it, which is pretty long. Ten minutes almost. Do you have protection?”
He nodded, and she led him to her lips.
Sometimes when she is alone, Suzie pretends she is the organizer of a large factory union in the thirties. She and her fellow workers demand an increase in salary and when it is refused, they strike. They are replaced by scabs. They are beaten by men with crowbars and bats. They go hungry. In the end, they always go back to work, without the raise. This fantasy resides in a certain masochistic corner of Suzie’s brain that she doesn’t understand, and she doesn’t question. She has never told anyone.
“The tango is one of my personal favorites and involves a woman who is too drunk to walk home. A stranger, who is not her husband, is there to keep her from careening to the sidewalk, which she barely knows is there, since she’s so schnockered. The man, though he is pressed for time, having a wife and kids of his own to meet, must stay with her until she has sobered up enough to walk unaccompanied, which is often late into the night, or even early the next morning. It’s a dance of obligation, and of regret – one of the hardest you can perform and even harder to teach.”
“Have you ever done it?”
“Once, when my family was vacationing in Miami. A man of thirty, or forty, I don’t know, approached me at the mall, invited me to his dance studio and plied me with liquors, silver tequila mostly, cold shots. I was an unsupervised child. Not bad, per se, just, in need of surveillance. A fourteen-year-old-girl needs some kind of surveillance, or she’s liable to crack up.”
The speakers hissed with the slow groove of a guitar solo, one of Clapton’s finest, and Suzie’s hips responded accordingly, fluttering to the soft, starved pains of e minor. She arched her back and moved her fingers down her sides, kneading the blended fabric of her t-shirt, hooking her belt loop in her crooked thumbs. The drums came up, and she pounded out the two and four, flats against the floor,
echoing off the walls of the lightly furnished studio apartment. There was the couch, its solo assembly a three hour, two bottle, ordeal, that ended with an episode of incoherent, tearful sputters, and handfuls of tan, plastic screws that went nowhere at all. The bed was twin, the hardness of which was allayed with half a dozen throw pillows of various sizes, textures, smells. One pillow, in particular, smelled like home, the beach, maybe almonds, her mother’s perfume, White Diamonds. It had come from a garage sale in Susquehanna and had never been within a hundred miles of her childhood house, or the beach, or her mother, who had been dead some time before the pillow was acquired, though Suzie ignored these facts. The kitchen was unmemorable, unremarkable, unkempt. Suzie piled dishes in the sink, and left sticky, batter-smeared egg beaters on the top of the range, for weeks sometimes.
“Elmore,” she said. “Come dance.”
She pulled him across the room, pulsating in the spotlight of two faux marble table lamps, her shadow winding in the carpet under their bare feet. She stepped forward, to the left, and he followed.
“Don’t touch me,” she said, and how could he? The air around her neck, her shoulders, her arms, was thick with an invisible force, a glow of energy, of sound and movement.
“What does this dance mean?” he asked.
“It means, Elmore, you’re falling in love with me.”
She woke up irritated, angry, finding even the simplest morning task, turning the shower head, or unfastening the toothpaste cap, a struggle. A string of multi-syllable curses issued low and endless from her cracked lips. There was not enough space in her bathroom, Suzie thought. A woman couldn’t move. She flipped both of the switches next to the sink and a flood of harsh, white light washed over her. Her nightshirt, she discovered, under illuminance, was the same color as her skin, and turning toward the mirror, she met a stranger, her shaggy nudity puncturing the scene. Suzie extended her left leg into a simple tendu, trying to recall the name of her junior ballet teacher, a lithe woman with a perpetually stretched face. At the time, the woman had seemed ancient, but she couldn’t have been more than thirty-five. Suzie bought her legs back to first-position, and rose up on the balls of her feet, the inches between her heels and the cold, vinyl tile a distance she could not begin to comprehend.
“I can’t believe I forgot about the Charleston!”
Her father’s house was a mess, not like she remembered it at all, though this was a subject she found difficult to broach at the dinner table, with her father and stepmother staring at her like a piece of meat, like some goddamn cut of chicken, raw and bloodless and infected. It was Thanksgiving and she had driven out to Oyster Bay, but she had not left early enough to figure in the staggering crush of holiday traffic and it was already after dark. “The Charleston, as you may have read, is the dance of the twenties. It’s Gatsby’s dance. However, the real art of the Charleston lies in its politics.”
“Yes, Sue,” her father said. “It’s a satirical dance, to mock teetotalers.”
“Let her finish,” Deborah said. She was not Suzie’s mother, though she stank of White Diamonds, of the beach, of almonds.
“You’re wrong, Papa,” she said, topping off her burgundy. “You’ve never been more wrong.”
“Well, then tell me what’s right, Sue.” He sat back in his chair, a wall of suspicion, of irritation and depression, of grief for her mother. This, Suzie understood, was paternal love in all its ugly incandescence. Love beamed here, shining at the dinner table. Love filled the room with its bewildering voice, singing, these are the days that you’ve lost and will continue to lose. Outside, love crashed against the beach in horrible, cacophonous waves.
On her way home, pulled over on the shoulder of the road, she talked her way out of a DUI. The officer’s name was Mitchel. He was born in Hicksville, and had never pulled his gun on duty, of which, he said, he was very proud.
– There was a time when I thought Suzie was, hands down, the smartest girl I’d ever met. Which is – What? Oh, you want another, Elmore? Yeah, two more on my tab, under Daniel Patterson. It’s, like, a bright red card. You can’t miss it. Not as much ice in mine. No, I got a cavity. It’s the worst. Now, what was I saying about Suzie?
– It sounded more like a warning, really.
– Well, I don’t know about all that. I mean, listen, El, I knew you were sleeping together, but not, like, you were in love with her.
– How could I not be?
– And she can’t dance.
– No, she can dance, Danny. She was classically trained. It’s just everything that comes out of her mouth that’s bullshit. She tried to tell me the waltz was about the Thirty Years War. Now, I just keep Wikipedia open on my phone. I check it when she’s in the bathroom. ‘The Thirty Years War?’ Who even thinks of that?
-Anyway, she’s got this thing. It’s very alluring, the way she just comes after you.
– One hundred percent. A, uh, femme fatale is what they call it.
– That’s it. That’s what she is. I mean, when I first started seeing her a few years ago, she was, like, this force in my life. Nothing else mattered. John would call, you would call, my mom would call, and I wouldn’t even look at the phone.
– Danny the Ghost.
– Completely, but that’s because, oh, thank you. No, I think we’re good for now. Ah. Oh, thank you. That’s so much better. My tooth thanks you. That’s because she –
– I have perfect teeth.
– Enough. I know. You have a good job, that’s why. Hey! Watch it, pal! Jesus, this holiday crowd is the worst.
– I hate this song.
– Why do we come here, Elmore?
– Good ambience?
– …So, you gonna call her tonight?
– Why? If I don’t, you will?
It’s New Year’s Eve and for some awful reason she’s in Time Square and there are cops everywhere and it’s gigantic speakers and it’s pop acts and EDM and the mayor has made a speech and the news anchors are huddled around a case of sparkling wine, blowing on their scarlet fingertips like some Tompkins Park vagrants, and keeping the cameramen at bay. Elmore is somewhere in the crowd and he’s calling Suzie’s cell, which is on silent, and she’s staring up at the clock, 11:45, and at the ball, which is twice as gaudy as the year before, but so what, everything is.
She hasn’t seen him in a week, not since he showed up Christmas night banging on her apartment door, cradling a bag of gifts, his lips pulled back in a widescreen grin. She told him she would be spending the weekend with her family in Long Island, but she was lying and he knew it, though at the time she thought maybe she would really try and get out there.
“Go home,” she said, unfastening the deadbolt anyway. Then they were in bed, and Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were seeping out of the speakers, and she breathed the sweet trombones and trumpets, and her body hummed to Louis’ low growl, and her sweat stuck to Elmore’s dress shirt, which he left on, which had become his habit.
“A lot of jazz dances don’t exist anymore. The revolutionary European dances of the twenties and thirties have simply vanished.”
“Because of the war?” he asked. His pants were draped over a chair by the bed, and he fished in the pockets as he spoke, finally extracting a crumpled pack of Camels. When did he start smoking, she wondered. Did he always? Was it getting trapped in her comforter, the stink of nicotine, in her hair and on her breasts and in her blood?
“Yes,” she said. “Because of the war. Many of those dances were never even named, but they were wild, transgressive.” He offered the cigarette and she shook her head, her eyes on the ember.
“One dance,” she said, “one dance was said to be so intense, the dancers could actually leap out of their bodies, and look back at themselves.” Would it never leave? Was it sticking, like leeches, to her clothing? Her furniture? Was it on the throw pillows? Where could all this smoke go?
“I can’t imagine,” he said, smirking.
He stubbed the ash out in a nearby wine glass, and she
a deep throaty growl that would have made Armstrong proud.
Now, in Time Square, Suzie checks her phone, and his thirty-four texts, his sloppy apologies, locational inquiries and amorous proposals are all underscored with the naïve notion that this night, any night, can still be saved, that in fifteen minutes he’ll find her in the throng of drunks and she’ll rush into his arms, and the ball will descend while they push forward into the future.
This is a mistake, she says out loud, but the sound gets lost in the onslaught of air horns and screaming teenagers. What she wants is to be on the subway, not tonight, the packed cars a crude simulacrum of so many SoHo clubs, girls with glittered faces, men with gin soaked lapels and sunken eyes, but on the subway on a Monday, unimportant, slumped against the sliding doors with vocational commuters, headphones in their ears, riding out of the city, toward the obscurity of a cheap studio in Harlem, a two bedroom in Corona, the dead winter beach of Coney Island. A couple are having a conversation too close to her ear, and instead of leaving, Suzie cuts further into the bedlam, toward the barricade.
All eyes on the LED screen now, and its minutes and seconds and milliseconds. Here, they worshipped time, like some old god, if only for an hour, as nines became eights and eights sevens and sevens sixes, every metamorphosis a triumph of modern living.
“Miss.” A man’s voice cuts sharp through the dissonance. “Miss, arms behind the barricade, please. You’re too close.”
She apologizes, but doesn’t step back. The crowd does it for her, bodies pressed against hers, shoulders shifting, a unity of heads and arms and feet, all shifting, eyes glued, primed to take in the first moments of the new year, with its new media, and its new politics, and its new dances. Suzie feels her body pivot to a pocket of space.
“I’m not going to tell you again, miss, ‘behind the line,” the voice says. The future is palpable in his hot breath.
And she knows there will be a moment soon when it will all escape her, a moment when she will be unable to decipher the undulations of young bodies, throbbing to sub notes, electric and cunning. And Elmore, she supposes, will dance whatever dances they offer up. Of course he will. Elmore, who found paradise in simple two-steps and jerky pelvic thrusts and uninspired head nods, would buy into it all, never understanding he was betraying his own narrative, while she strived for something more.
There is more space now. The breath is getting closer, the voice louder, violent. It wants to hold her. It sounds so much like Elmore telling her he needs her. And she drowns out all of it, because she’s moving.
And she’s dancing. She is jitterbugging, she is lindy hopping, she is swinging. The numbers on the screens are a blur, but she knows that they are close, because the crowd is counting down, and she keeps such perfect time. A hand grabs her arm, and she shrugs it off, like she shrugged him off, like so many dresses, and she twists away from the cutting voice, evading pursuit.
And all around her, the crowd is forming a body, but it is not her body, her body that can Mambo, and Samba, and ballet, and disco, her body that can boogie-woogie, and Calypso, and tap dance, and belly dance, and line dance, and square dance, her body that knows even those forgotten dances, secret and forbidden, and because they are so close, she dances them now, transforming, brilliant and wild, breaking out of her skin. Here, there is no one to hold her. Here, she is a pioneer. Here, she is a scientist. Here, she is shouting and kissing and aching. Here, she is living.
And the crowd roars, “Happy New Year!”
And here she is.
Kevin Hinman is a Southern California writer and rapper who has been slamming words together with a mad man’s abandon for nearly three decades. His fiction has appeared in Temenos Journal, blink-ink, Newtown Literary, and Mojo. His new album ‘Beat Therapy’ is available on all streaming platforms and at www.speshtodeath.com.