Jacqueline Masumian, a graduate of DePauw University, is the author of Nobody Home: A Memoir. She grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and has enjoyed careers as actress, performing arts manager, and landscape designer. Her stories have appeared in Mused Literary Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Still Crazy. Her blog is on Goodreads.com.
“Swing your partner! . . . now swing your neighbor! . . . then grab your neighbor . . . and walk along!” he called, half speaking, half singing. And they all did as the caller commanded, fifty people in a wide circle, promenading around the room. The smiles, the giggles, the merriment seemed of another era.
My husband and I had joined one of the earlier dances and bumbled our way along until Will threw up his hands saying, “This is really not for me.” Then he wandered off, and I was left alone. While the dancing itself had been for me pure pleasure, now just watching would be nearly as much fun.
Men and women and teens and small children and grandmothers, a crowd of people had braved the freezing February evening for this dance event—some with infants strapped to their chests, others with arthritic limps, most of them dancing breathless to the point of exhaustion, but all radiating good will and joy. Red-faced and panting, they followed the caller and did his bidding as best they could. Most of the crowd, new to contra dancing, guffawed at their missteps, reeled with dizziness, caught themselves and trotted on to swing the dancers facing them, then those at their sides, continually switching partners. The insistent rhythm of the fiddle was too glorious; regardless of their ability they could not stop.
I’d found a perch in the corner of the old barn, now called The Grange, on a set of wooden steps that led to a loft. Elevated, I could watch the formations, the bodies swooping back and forth, in and out. Holding hands, flushed and glowing with sweat, the dancers formed an arch and tunnel for others to pass through. They seemed united, an unending snake of goodness weaving about the room.
I was the outsider, the observer, as usual. Though accustomed to being on the periphery—of Will’s life, of everything—I now found myself wishing I could join in, break right in to that happy circle on the dance floor. But I’d lost my partner. It wouldn’t be right to intrude as a solo.
One of the men on the floor was a seasoned dancer. His eyes had met mine fleetingly during the dance as we’d partnered for a moment. His rough complexion, the color of putty, was surrounded by a furious mass of sandy-gray hair. Two-foot long dreadlocks, adorned with occasional beads, hung down his back. The locks hadn’t seen shampoo, it seemed, in quite a while. Why would a middle-aged white man wear dreadlocks, I wondered. What was the message? During the dance I hadn’t gotten close enough to him, but I could imagine what unfortunate aroma must emanate from his body. His Henley shirt and smooth gabardine trousers, though, looked clean, and all the women he danced with, a constantly changing pattern, beamed with pleasure at his skilled dancing. Light on his feet, in soft leather shoes, he knew what he was doing.
I caught a glimpse of Will across the room and waved at him, hoping he’d join me on my perch, but he didn’t see. He was looking for something else. He disappeared into the kitchen, and I sat enjoying the happy dancers and clapping them along. The indomitable fiddle played on and on, and even from my seat in the corner, I felt a warm glow. I thought perhaps here was a place I could belong.
After a while a cramp in my hip made me rise. I climbed down the wooden steps to find my husband.
I had learned about the barn dance through a member of my community garden⎯I had admired her religiously organic plot⎯and I thought the event would be a lark. Pot luck supper and cider. Pure old-fashioned entertainment. I’d learned contra dancing many years ago, before I met Will, and had found it exhilarating. Maybe I could take it up again, I thought, and have a new activity to get me out of the house.
One morning I broached the topic with Will. “Guess what, we’re going out this Friday night to a special event,” I said, being deliberately vague. Too many details and he’d disparage the idea. We hadn’t been to any kind of dance in a long time, let alone a barn dance, and I knew it wouldn’t be to his liking, but I wanted to go. I was curious about who and what I might find there. It would be a departure from the tedious dinner parties and benefits we usually attended on weekends.
“What kind of event?” he asked, as he yanked to straighten his tie. I could tell he was barely listening, just humoring me till he could dash out the door and start his workday.
“You’ll see,” I said, trying not to sound coy. He seemed satisfied with that, pre-occupied with business concerns and how his day was going to play out. In a moment he had slammed the door, and his slick little sports car carried him away.
The edges of the barn room were filled with on-lookers, clapping and calling to friends. I slipped past them toward the kitchen, thinking Will must have gone back to retrieve his beer glass. The kitchen was crowded with people who’d escaped the melee on the dance floor. Pans and trays with bits of leftovers from the supper were strewn on the counters. A woman with two small children⎯an infant in her arms absentmindedly grabbing at the mother’s jersey-clad breast and a toddler stooping to retrieve a bit of cookie from the floor⎯ stood near me. They partially blocked my view, but beyond them in the corner of the kitchen were two people, their heads bowed, caught in intense conversation. They were oblivious to the noise and confusion around them. Will and a blond woman I didn’t know were focused on something no one else could see or feel. He was scowling, as he always did when insisting his way was the only way. She, staring at him through a strand of straw-colored hair, a plastic glass of red wine in her hand, had that look of petulance only a dissatisfied woman can muster. Her stare fell from him to the boots on her feet, high-fashioned, high-heeled boots, serious boots, menacing somehow. I started to slip past the woman with the two children towards my husband, but I stopped. I’d be an intruder on whatever they were discussing. After twenty years, I knew the barrier signals. I could sense when he didn’t want me near him.
Looking more closely, I realized I did know the woman he was talking to. Her name was Celia. We had met her at a party some months earlier and, since it was my habit to use association to hold people’s names in my head, I began to sing “Cecilia” silently. “Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart, you’re shaking my confidence daily . . . ” Her gestures as she made cocktail party conversation, prattling on about the lack of decent services in our town, were manic; she had a bright red artificial flower tucked behind her ear. She seemed determined to do all the talking. Will nodded and smiled at her. I stood to one side, staring at the white polyester carpet, locked out of the exchange somehow.
On the way home from the party that night I’d said, “That woman Celia, she seems odd.” The bright lights of oncoming cars blinded me.
“Yeah,” he said, “bit of a wreck actually.”
“Yeah, Dave was telling me. Her husband dumped her. Just walked right out one day. And the next month her daughter was killed. Crushed to death in some freak car wreck.”
A shudder ran through me. “Oh, poor thing.”
“Yeah,” he said, “her only kid, too.” The rest of the ride home he was silent. When we pulled into our driveway, he jerked the keys from the ignition, and headed inside.
Now, amidst the joyousness of the barn dance, I thought Will might be consoling her, though Celia’s misfortunes had occurred over two years ago. And while it was unlike Will to be comforting someone, I thought it could be. I turned to hide myself from their view and followed the young mother into the candlelit supper area that had been set up along one side of the barn. Nearly stumbling on the toddler, I made my way to an empty chair near the dance floor. My heart was hammering.
I could still see the dancers, spinning, reeling, moving in a circle into the center of the room with a huge “whoop!” then backing out to the circumference, drunk with delight at their own silliness. Very few people had brought liquor of any kind, yet inebriation filled the air.
Then I saw Celia. She had left the kitchen and broken into the dance circle on her own. Her boots picked up the rhythm of the music, but instead of the light stepping most dancers had affected, she stomped. A loud percussive beat on the old wooden floor. The other dancers were oblivious to her, wrapped up as they were in their own dance maneuvers. But to me the stomping cut through all else⎯the laughter, the music, the cloak of merriment enveloping the crowd. Her solo movements disrupted the pattern of couples. She twirled and pranced and stomped in a dance of her own making. She seemed desperate to hammer her high heels through the floor, to leave dents in the old wood. A fierce smile filled her face, her teeth flashing like fangs of a dog. She mocked the easy sashaying feet around her, determined to make herself noticed.
And the fiddle continued.
I couldn’t take my eyes from her. Had Will said something to her to cause this rant?
All at once the man with the dreadlocks calmly slipped away from his dance partner and moved to Celia’s side. He grasped her forearm, steering her away from the circle into an empty corner opposite the band, near where I sat. His other hand he placed quietly on the small of her back. As he continued his own set of dance movements, his intent gaze into her face and his gentle touch directing her, Celia seemed to settle. Her glance dropped to the wooden floor, and as they moved in rhythm, her limbs relaxed and the fierceness gradually dissolved. Her feet, stumbling and dragging in defeat at first, accepted his guidance and picked up the lively rhythm of the fiddle.
I could sense Will standing behind me. I turned; he was holding my coat and scarf, the familiar sign he was done, it was time to leave. His parka was already zipped.
Astonished by what I’d witnessed on the dance floor, I said, “Did you see that?”
“See what?” Disinterest clouded my husband’s face. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“But we’ve barely danced at all. I came here to dance.” I was not going to let myself be dragged away. I turned my eyes back to the couple in the corner of the dance floor.
Celia’s eyes were still focused on the stylish boots on her feet. They moved now in a lilting motion to match her partner’s. He was holding her hands lightly, confident she would not flee, and she was like a tamed creature caught in a spell. After several moments the music came to a close and, while the crowd cheered and applauded the band and each other, the quiet couple stood still. Celia lifted her head and caught his glance. With no change in his expression, he squeezed her hands and released her.
I stood to watch Celia as she wandered through the crowd in the direction of the loft steps where I had sat moments before. She found the top stair and eased herself onto it, wrapping her arms around her knees.
Will thrust my coat at me. The acrid smell of the damp wool made me think of home. My home where I felt so alone.
“Not yet,” I said. I pushed past my husband and found myself heading toward the dreadlocks man. In a blur, the dancers parted, forming a tunnel that led me to him.
“Hello” I said, extending my hand to him as if to dance, though the band had stopped and was taking a break. I stood mute, unsure what I’d come to say. At last, my ears ringing, I managed to utter, “I saw what you did.” He smiled as though he knew me and nodded to acknowledge my remark. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and inhale whatever fragrance arose from his body, but I settled for holding his warm, dry hand and staring into his dusty blue eyes. The candlelight from the dining room behind him formed an aurora around his ragged hair. The creases at the edges of his eyes held years of knowing, his putty-colored skin was scarred with pockmarks. He understood me but declined to respond.
“Anyway,” I finally said, my awkwardness subsiding, “I’m glad I came tonight. I’m happy you were here.” His warm gaze seemed to pull something more from me. With words coming from I knew not where, I asked, “Shall I stay?” My heart was as calm as it had ever been.
He shook his head ever so slightly. “That’s up to you,” he said. Though his eyes gave me no further guidance, his deep voice continued, “Isn’t it?”
~ Jacqueline Masumian