Storyglossia Issue 35, September 2009.

The Dance Partner

by Mary Larkin


There's a new man in town. A new man at the local dances to spin me, twirl me, promenade me, swing and dip me. A tall man, a handsome man. His name is Zack and he's not wearing a wedding ring! We dance and dance and I am delighted and smitten. Be still, my heart! Go slowly.

"Can we dance this last waltz?" I ask him shyly.

"No, it's traditional to save the waltzes for your partner. I promised my wife this dance."

"Oh, of course," I reply. I had not known. Not known a thing, no inkling.

The new man continues to attend the dances, and continues dancing with me. His wife has only come to two dances with him. He dances with everyone, but I feel he especially enjoys dancing with me. I think about him so much that I try not to think about him. When he does not come to the dances once or twice, I worry. When I do not go, he comments that he looked for me. When I leave the dances without telling him goodbye, he says I always disappear. I try not to like him. I try not to wonder if he likes me.

Finally, I am almost at peace with myself and with him. I have danced with him, he has been my favorite partner for a long time—since May and now it is December. We dance and smile spontaneously, we enjoy one another on the dance floor. We hardly ever step on one another's feet. We have become a good couple on the floor. Our movements are in synch, our bodies move in tandem. Together. Some people begin to talk, but there is no basis for any of it. I have put my heart away. He is a happily married man. But we do look good together.

Rachel, his wife, is beautiful. She looks like a character in a Bergman film. Her hair is pale wheat but with the slightest hint of copper, as if the sun were setting on the fjord. Really, most people would just see her as a blonde, but she's more than that. Her forehead and cheeks are wide—Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian looking. She seems so strong and solid, but is not large at all. She is shorter than me. Her body, her balance, make me believe she is a solid person, a balanced person, a good person. Kind, slow to anger. But capable of anger—honest anger. She does not look the type to play little games, but the type to live her life on the square. She is so beautiful she could be one of Botticcelli's dancing maidens, or she could be Guinevere, Arthur's Queen. But Guinevere was a deceiver, a committer of adultery. Rachel looks too good to be an adulteress.

Their son Matthew, who is six, is getting over chicken pox. For Halloween he was a robot. Rachel made the costume. Now, two weeks before Christmas, Zack tells me what he and Rachel will be giving their son. Lots of toys, of course. And a Flexi-Flyer. He tells me about their trip to a county north of here where they got their tree. They cut it down themselves. My father never took us to chop down a Christmas tree. No one has ever taken me to cut down a tree. It makes me more sad than wistful to witness all this familial love, this caring, this nurturing. My own family seemed perfect, but wasn't really. Not deep down where it counts, where there was nothing. I try not to envy this man and his good wife their happy union. I am not jealous, I do not wish it away from them, I only wonder why some people get all the love. Week after week, month after month of dancing with a man who is so content and so married is beginning to hurt my feelings.

Waltzing, I ask him, "How many years have you and Rachel been married?"

"Eight. Eight years," he tells me.

"How do you do it?" I ask. "I don't even know anyone with a good marriage! My sister is miserable, my parents were miserable, my friends are miserable. And I am divorced—did you know I was married once? I was. A long time ago." I stop myself before I tell him just how long ago it was. "It is so wonderful that you and Rachel are still together," I continue. "I am in awe. How do you keep loving the same person happily for eight years?"

"We are getting separated," he answers.

For the first time in all this time I take a misstep, crashing into him, unable to recover the count. "I'm sorry!" I say. "I mean for stepping on you, I mean that you are getting separated. I'm sorry. I don't know what to say," I say.

"It's been coming a long time. She moved down here more than a year ago, but I didn't come down until December. It's been over forever, it seems."

"Aren't you sad?" I ask without realizing I may be prying.

"Sad? No. It's time."

"But Matthew—you'll stay near him. You won't be moving back north, will you? You wouldn't leave Matthew."

"I've thought about it. I could go back up. I have more work there. But there should be work for me here, too. No, I'll stay here."

"Do you think she loves somebody else?" I ask.

"I wondered. I talked to my friends. They told me 'the husband is the last to know.'"

"Oh, you would know," I tell him.

So now I don't have to feel guilty about wanting to dance with a married man. He won't be married much longer. Now I don't hesitate to go to him on the dance floor, to ask him to save the waltz for me. I don't have to contain my feelings or my smile, they can flow out to him, and I don't have to look away or close my eyes when he looks into mine. I can look back into his.

I wonder why she no longer loves him. I ask him why it hasn't worked out. He says that she gives all her attention to the boy. Her interests have changed. She no longer likes the dances or the dancing, he tells me. But that is where they met—on the dance floor. I wonder is that where I will meet a man who loves me? That is where I have met Zack. Will he love me? Is he a good man for me to love? Have I already fallen in love with him?

I get carried away, swept away, thinking of him. I like it when he takes me in his arms and spins me around. I love the waltz steps we take: tender capes, gentle parallels and switchbacks, dashing dips. I want to Tango with him. I feel like a schoolgirl. Then, I wonder, perhaps I am older than him. That is it: he is not interested in me at all, I am too old for him. I do not know how old he is, but I know how old I am. I am forty-six going on forty-seven. Old. He must be younger, much younger, because his son is only six. Oh! He must be thirty-nine at the very most. Only thirty-nine! I'm a cradle robber. He thinks of me as an old maid, I am sure. I feel that I am so foolish to be smitten with this younger, married, family man, a man who sees a spinster, an auntie when he dips me. I am mortified.

But maybe they got married later in life. Maybe it is a second marriage for them both. At the next dance I ask," Is it a second marriage?" He says it isn't. Hmmm. Maybe he waited so long before getting married, until he was, say, thirty-five, and now they have been married eight years, which would make him forty-three—not too much younger than me. Or did he marry at thirty? I have no idea. I cannot tell his age. I wish I could get a peek at his driver's license, but that is impossible. I will have to ask him how old he is, but should I do it point blank? Or should I couch it in other terms, disguising the question and hiding my interest? Do you remember Kennedy's assassination? I could ask. What grade were you in then? Of course, if he was in diapers, it will be obvious to him that not only was I far beyond the diaper stage, but that I was in school and old enough to remember the event in detail—Jackie, dressed in her Chanel suit, throwing herself over the President. He will know that I am a decade older than him. Does he already know that I am older than him? Am I? Maybe I am not.

Maybe she's divorcing him not because she's in love with another man, but because she is a lesbian, I tell myself. This would be better than finding out that she is leaving him because of some severe character flaw that he has—perhaps a violent temper, like the last man I dated. That was a lesson too late for the learning. I must go very slowly with this new attraction. Oh, it is more than a mere attraction, I admit. Much more. For me it is, but for him? If his wife has shunned him, which is what she is doing (divorce has to be the ultimate cold shoulder, unless of course, you count murder), have they continued being intimate? Do I dare ask, Are you still intimate? Last week he told me they are friends, but how friendly does he mean? Does he mean intimate? Men are funny about the words "friend" and "intimate," and about the word "love."

I had a lover once who had broken up with a woman months and months before we met. He no longer "loved" her, but he still "cared" for her. He felt sorry for her. And by his own account, they hadn't been intimate in months. They were friends, he said. She was older than he was and he was older than I was, which made her very old. She was fifty! I was thirty-two, so she wasn't any competition at all. Besides, she was, he said, a little overweight, divorced, and a grandmother. No competition at all. I was not concerned that after devouring wonderfully prepared dinners at my house on Tuesdays, he would go over to her house to help her. He visited her because she stayed up later than I did. He was helping her edit her poetry collection. After all, I did not want to seem overly possessive. I wanted to demonstrate my trust. I was surprised to later learn that the woman whose identity he had kept from me was Tracy, a pert and perky, twinkly-eyed, sandy blonde ex-cheerleader type who looked like she could blow the socks off the entire fire department. I was even more surprised, stunned, really, when Tracy herself told me that on Tuesdays, after gorging on the fruits of my culinary labors, he would kiss her and put his hands down her panties. When I confronted him with her confession, he repeated that she was a friend—he just felt sorry for her. I can still hear him tell me, "We are not and have not been intimate in months." What he actually meant was that he hadn't stuck his dick in her. You have to learn the lingo. I don't think I want to ask if Zack and Rachel are still intimate. I might not be able to decipher his answer, or, if I can, I might not like the translation. Maybe Zack will think I am a sexy older woman like Tracy.

What if it is not Rachel who is the lesbian—what if it is Zack? That must be it. I have been chasing after a gay man. Oh, I am such a fool! I cannot stand to think of it: me, all gussied up and dressed to the nines, lipstick glistening, mascara smudged, traipsing across the wooden floor in front of 200 other dancers, with their 400 eyeballs watching, watching me make an utter fool of myself. Vanity, thy name is Woman! Degradation by lust and age. No, no, no, it is too horrible. Surely he is not gay.

I imagine myself querying him: Is Rachel a lesbian, do you think, Zack?

No, he will say, no, that was not the problem.

What was the problem, Zack? I will say to him then. She is beautiful. Her breasts look wonderful, like buns of dough risen and ready for baking, her ass is much firmer than mine could ever aspire to be. Can you really not desire her? Can you really avoid intimacy with such a divine creature?

Then he will say, There is no intimacy because I have no desire for her. None at all. I am, you see, he will say to me, barely able to voice the words that will crush me, I am a homosexual.

Oh, Zack! Zack! Why didn't you tell me before? Don't you see that I have fallen in love with you—madly in love? Irrevocably in love, Zack. Are you sure you are gay? Kiss me Zack, kiss me to see if you are really gay.

Then I will throw my arms about his neck and draw him to me, and I will kiss him tenderly and then passionately, playing every card I have. I will tantalize his lips and tongue with my tongue, I will press my little breasts against his chest, rubbing them against him so that my nipples become erect and he will feel them distinctly, then I will run my hand down his back and over his buttocks, pulling him against me, against my mound of Venus, which I will press into him. I will feel whether or not he has an erection. First, I imagine that yes, it becomes hard, quite hard, and large!

Oh, see Zack, you see! You are not gay! You are not a homosexual! You desire a woman! You desire me, I will say to him. But that fantasy metamorphoses like a fudgesicle left on the counter in June, and his cock is no cock at all, but limp and flaccid, a little wee-wee, a pokey, a penis nonerectus. Now I let go of him, shamed.

I'm sorry, I say, Forgive me! Forgive me for exposing your secret!

It's no secret, he tells me, everybody else knew.

I look up to see other couples looking at us, some of them giggling. A few extremely attractive men look on jealously, not because they want to be with me, but because they want to be with him. End of fantasy.

It is hopeless. I do not know if Zack likes me especially or not. He is my favorite dance partner, but am I his? He has my number, so why hasn't he called? Will he ask me on a date when they are separated? Or am I too old for him? Is he gay? Does he even like me at all? Does he think I am silly and foolish? Wait, maybe he thinks I am a slut. Everybody dances with everybody there. Two or three of the men get too close. They are capable of making a waltz with the Virgin Mary look like a scene from "Dirty Dancing." He has seen me dancing with those men. Maybe he thinks I enjoy or invite their attentions. But I don't. They plague me. Except for one man, who is a lot of fun, but totally harmless. He just makes it look bad when he puts his thigh between the woman's. I'll have to remember not to smile or laugh the next time I dance with that man. And I will tell Zack, I am not bad, sometimes I just dance that way.

And it is Christmas, and he has not even called me. It seems like he would pick up the phone and call me to say, Merry Christmas. It is actually the day after Christmas. He did not call yesterday, nor has he called today. But it is only 4:30. He may call me yet. He may say, I came out to my workshop to call you. I didn't want to upset Rachel. How are you? How was your Christmas? I want to see you when all this is over between me and Rachel. Will you wait for me? Will you save me the waltz?

Copyright©2009 Mary Larkin

Mary Larkin earned her PhD in Creative Writing and English at Florida State University and an MA from Hollins University's Creative Writing Program where she won the Andrew James Purdee Award. She is a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a Pushcart nominee, Guest Author of the Great Smokies Writing Program, a Writers@Work National Finalist, a two-time finalist for the Doris Betts Fiction Award, the recipient of the Sewannee Conference Tennessee Williams alternate scholarship and the Blumenthal Writers Award. Her short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, The Nebraska Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Red Mountain Review and other journals. She's on the women's competitive sailing team in Sarasota, Florida.

Interview with Mary Larkin