That’s when she’d decided to screw up her courage and attend this Sunday afternoon dance. But now she sat, watching the rivulets of rain on her windshield, feeling melancholic and considering leaving without going inside.
She saw a familiar figure crossing the street — a flash of orange hair under a red umbrella. Marge spied her and started waving vigorously. She tapped on the car window and commanded, “Come on in!” Elizabeth rolled down the window slightly and laughed in spite of herself. “Okay, okay, just give me a minute here.”
When Elizabeth walked into the studio, she wondered why she’d been so hesitant. People welcomed her, and she was in demand on the dance floor. Soon, it was as though she’d never been absent. She found herself dancing with a new man who introduced himself as Carl Gilman. The first two times she had paid little attention to him. He was pleasant, probably a few years older than she, of medium height, and though not obese, carried an extra 10-15 pounds. His most striking feature was a healthy head of silvery gray hair. On the dance floor, he was limited to the two-step and the waltz, performing both in a methodical way. By the third dance, he began to talk more.
“Do you come here often?” he asked, using the standard intro line that the women sometimes joked about among themselves.
He told her that he hadn’t danced for many years and that he’d lost his wife to cancer two years ago. Later, she found him beside her as she got some coffee and a snack from the hors d’œuvre table.
Having found the return to the studio painless, even pleasant, she returned the next Saturday and again found Carl Gilman present and attentive. He brought her coffee and told her that he was retired from fulltime work but now did software consulting for businesses. She wasn’t surprised when he asked if she would have dinner with him before the dance the following Saturday.
Later, Marge commented, “Well, I see you have a new friend. I danced with him in the circle, and he’s no Fred Astaire!”
On Tuesday, Vera, the studio proprietor, called and asked if she would consider coming back to Wednesday group classes and dancing with Ed. Elizabeth said yes.
On their first date, Carl took her to Humboldt’s, a highly rated restaurant located on the top floor of a downtown high-rise building. They had a window table with a great view of the city and an extraordinary meal of roast duck in orange sauce. They talked about their former spouses. He and his wife and been happily married for twenty-five years, he said, and she told him about Jim, who was a newspaper reporter, a heavy smoker who had died suddenly of a heart attack. Once or twice, they were both on the verge of tears.
During the next month, he continued to ask her out. He treated her with an old-fashioned gallantry that amused her. Once, they went dancing on Saturday night, but it didn’t work out well. As his date, she didn’t feel free to dance with others, and she began to realize that he didn’t enjoy dancing much.
Meanwhile, Ed asked her to dance the rumba with him in the “Spring Fling,” the studio’s annual showcase. She said she’d think about it.
On Sunday, when she saw Carl, she told him about the invitation, explaining to him how the studio paired new dancers with more experienced dancers. She even mentioned Art and their swing exhibition.
“You must be a pretty good dancer?”
“I do okay,” she laughed.
He wanted to know about Art and Ed, how old they were. He approved of Art, but of Ed, he said, “Well, maybe Vera could find someone his age.”
She wasn’t sure what reaction she expected, but she felt chastened.
A week later, she told him that she’d decided she wasn’t ready to have a steady relationship with a man. Could they be friends? See each other occasionally? She wasn’t sure this was possible, but she wanted to be amicable, to let him save face. He looked disappointed but seemed to take it fairly well.
At the dance party the following Saturday, Elizabeth looked over a partner’s shoulder and did a double take. Art came in without Georgia on his arm.
As soon as possible, Marge rushed to tell her that Georgia had left Art and returned to her husband. She was excited, in a matchmaking mood. “As though I would want to immediately try to rein him in as a dance partner again!!” Elizabeth thought indignantly. Honestly, Marge was lacking any kind of restraint when it came to men.
After Art had danced with others a few times, he crossed the room and extended his arm to her. “Dance?”
She rose hesitantly, and he locked her firmly in his smooth, confident lead.
After a few moments, he seemed to remember that it would be polite to make small talk. “Still taking lessons?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes,” she said making up her mind on the moment, “I’m going to be dancing in the spring showcase.”
His eyes flickered on hers for a moment, something surfacing momentarily before disappearing back into dark waters.
“Oh,” he said, “That’s good.” He didn’t ask what dance or who her dance partner would be.
Carl Gilman came and danced with other women, but barely acknowledged her.
Sitting out a dance, she watched the couples circle the floor, enjoying a sense of familiarity with their individual styles. An attorney who spent a handsome amount on private lessons with his striking blond-plaited partner; they were easily the most professional dancers on the floor. An older man whose bent posture broke all the rules of good dance form but danced with such authority that he was considered a good dancer. A young couple who were fairly new dancers, so awkward and bouncy they made her wince, but they seemed to be proud of their beginning accomplishments.
As the dancers moved buoyantly around the floor to the beat of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” Elizabeth sat in their midst, momentarily alone, but not unhappy, feeling like she had passed some kind of initiation rite and now belonged here.
A line of poetry once studied in a literature class floated through her mind. “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” William Butler Yeats. She couldn’t remember the prof’s interpretation, something high-minded about a theory of art.
Then, Ed, who had become more outgoing as his dance skills had improved, was extending his hand. “You look like you’re thinking way too much,” he teased.
“I think you’re so right!” she said, smiling confidently, as he guided her firmly to the floor.