You would think, after being on this Earth for, what, fifty, sixty years, people would be wise. They would be set in their ways, confident in their quirks, complete masters of their own ships. But going on date after date, Robert soon realized that was just not the case. His wife had been dead for nearly a decade then, and he figured Eugenia could forgive him. He wouldn’t marry again, he promised. He just didn’t want to die alone, and really, a nice little lady to just hang out with til then would be nice.
It all made him feel like a teenager. Not in a “I’m in the prime of my life” type of way, more like “both our bodies are going through embarrassing changes that we don’t quite know how to talk to each other about.” Replace new pubic hairs with new gray hairs, pimples with wrinkles, dropping testacles with hanging stomachs, and everyone was right back to where they started, making awkward conversation and wondering how soon this part of their life would end.
There was a surprising variety of people on the elder dating scene, Robert did have to admit. Recent divorcees with lofty alimonies they didn’t know how to handle, widows who couldn’t stop reminiscing, withered fashion icons of past golden ages who seemed surprised that they, just like everyone else, suddenly had to deal with the effects of old age. And almost none of them seemed to have learned a damn thing. They’d lived through countless presidencies, several wars, crisis after crisis, trend after trend. They’d seen their teen idols die, buried friends and family members, had kids and grandkids and still -- nothing. Nothing seemed to stick, no conclusions were made, no cycles were broken, no realizations were had. So many lives so perfectly wasted.
The conversation always arrived at the same point. She’d ask so what do you do for a living and he’d say oh I’m retired. Then she’d say oh what have you been doing with your retirement and he’d answer that he finally began writing, that he actually just finished his first short story ever, and then they’d say oh, well, what’s the story about and he’d say he didn’t want to talk about. It was a silly story really, nothing he’d ever show to anybody, just a little last-minute experiment. He didn’t ever want to bring it up, but somehow it always floated up and he’d push it back down, embarrassed to even have brought it up, and it’d pop back up to the surface like a buoy you couldn’t sink, and the lady would keep pressing and he would keep resisting, and they’d keep at it like that for a few minutes because frankly, there wasn’t much else for them to discuss.
After a few months of nonsense, Robert was ready to quit. Maybe the universe was sending him a sign. Maybe it was time to pack up the old condo, sell off his belongings, move to a remote lighthouse on the New England coast, and take up the life of a short story writer while he still had the chance.
One more shot, he decided. One more date. Then it was time to call it quits.
They met on a dating app, quite modern. Robert was always pleased with himself for being able to figure out its mechanics. He picked the meeting spot, a nice, cozy restaurant in a quiet part of town. It had an outdoor patio, a view of the street, candles on the table, lazy vine tendrils circling the perimeter, absolutely charming. She came a few minutes late, waddling in on flat-heeled shoes. She was a round woman, with a soft and pleasant face, a mouth curved in a permanent and delighted smile, eyes that couldn’t seem to focus on anything in particular. Like an overgrown lamb that never really had to fend for itself. Mauricia.
She plopped down in the chair beside him. They ordered wine. She never stopped smiling her dumb smile, her watery eyes looked both at him and all the space around him. She couldn’t decide what to order, and he ordered for her. She thanked him, and put her fleshy hands together beneath her chin all still and composed like a fortune teller preparing to read cards. A tiny gold chain dangled off one wrist.
“So, Mauricia, what do you do for a living?”
“I just retired,” she said, and smiled again, softly, mysteriously, as if she just delicately revealed a secret.
“What did you do before retirement?”
“I took care of Ms. Colby.”
“Who’s Ms. Colby?”
“My dance teacher. Former dance teacher.”
“You were a dancer?”
She laughed, as if he’d just said the most ridiculous thing.
“Not according to Ms. Colby I wasn’t,” she giggled. “She said my feet were so flat you could use them as an ironing board.”
“That’s pretty rude.”
“No, that’s just how she was. She was always like that. I started taking her dance lessons when I was like, oh, six, seven years old. Me and ma, we’d just moved down here to the South. I was such an uncouth little girl. I think ma desperately wanted to make a little lady out of me, and of course ballet seemed like the best way to do that. I didn’t really want to, but I also wasn’t necessarily opposed. And ma got me the sweetest little tights and leotard and tutu, all pink, I couldn’t resist. ‘Course, I was a bit larger than all the other girls in the class. They were all little sticks and I was like a squash. And they all seemed to know much more than me what to do in class. Ms. Colby would say first position -- they put their feet together just like that. Tendu, port de bras, it’s like a whole ‘nother language.”
“It’s French, I think.”
“Well, I was just a young girl then, I didn’t know French! I didn’t know what that lady wanted me to do! But all the rest of them seemed to know. She would have one of them, Jessica or Sue-Ellen go by herself, show the rest of the class how it’s done. I tried my hardest to copy them, I really did, but my chubby little legs didn’t know how to move like that. And it made Ms. Colby mad.
“She never yelled though, at least in the beginning. She was a southern lady, she wouldn’t raise her voice for no reason. But I could tell she was always disappointed with me. She’d make little comments here and there -- don’t stick your tongue out when you leap, you look like a cow! But she said things like that to all the girls. I could never really tell how well I was doing, so I counted the number of times she yelled at me at any particular day. If it was less than three, I was doing good. More than three, I was messing up. But really, some days were just yelling days for her -- all the girls got attacked.
“And it always smelled so bad in there. It was an old studio, right between a grocery store and a nasty sandwich shoppe. But that’s just the smell that comes with old tights and generations of sweaty feet. Dust too.
“Ms. Colby though, she was always put together. Queen of her palace. She was a dancer herself when she was young, went on Broadway, the whole deal. But then she retired, she got fat, she had kids. Her daughter is a Rockette and her son dances in the Disneyland parade. Isn’t that nice? She dyed her hair red and always kept it short. I never used to understand why old ladies did that, but now I do.” Mauricia chuckled, patting her own short hair. She continued:
“After two years or so, it becomes apparent who’s really got a future in this world and who doesn’t. Some of the girls are born more limber, more flexible, graceful. Some aren’t. It’s just genetics and luck. And dance teachers, they spot those things right away -- the flick of a wrist, the turn of an ankle. The markings are already there.
“That’s when the attacks start coming harder. Foot higher! Arm rounded! Why can’t you just do it right! She’d come right up to you and stab you in the thigh with her sharp little claws. Some girls get more critiques than others, and harsher critiques. She’s growing tired of us, the chubby, the inflexible, the gangly-limbed. But our parents are still paying her a fortune, so she has no choice but to busy herself with us. And we resented each other -- nobody wants to associate with the outcasts -- and we began to resent her too. She was like a mother hen that dismissed half her brood, only took care of the prettiest chicks, showered them with compliments and praise and opportunities. It was hell for the rest of us.
“By the time I was in junior high, the studio had gotten more popular than ever before. All the neighborhood moms sent their kids there. She was flush with cash. But everyone knows the real money in the dance world is in the dance competitions. So she started sending girls to competitions, at first just one or two at a time, only the very best ones. Eventually, she had an entire dance troupe prepared with routines like circus acrobats dancing for peanuts. And my goodness, did they bring her in a lot of money.
“Those of us who weren’t good enough for even normal dance, much less competition, well, we were just thrown to the gutter. Given no mind. But we couldn’t just quit dance lessons. Our mamas had already invested so much money in the affair, and somehow were still under the delusion that we’d emerge as ballerinas.
“And then we were all in high school, and Jessica got kicked out of school for selling acid on campus. Ms. Colby wouldn’t dare have such a scandal on her hands -- she kicked her out of the troupe too. Out of the dance studio. But Jessica was the most popular, and all her friends followed her. They went across town to another, a rival studio.
“Ms. Colby wasn’t phased though. She wanted more. She opened another studio herself, a studio just for competitions. They had the flashy costumes, the nice studio space. Ours just became more and more decrepit. Roaches would fall from the ceiling. I’m not kidding! So of course, eventually people finally began to quit. The competition studio wasn’t doing too hot either -- Jessica had taken everybody actually talented with her when she left. It started going under financially, and she had to sell the second studio.
“By the time we all graduated, why, there was no one left at either studio! Just dust and roaches. I felt bad, so I stayed behind, took a few dance lessons here and there. I wasn’t going to college anyways, I was just working, so I figured, might as well. I helped clean up here and there too, doing some sweeping, some dusting.
“Then we found out she had skin cancer too. The money from selling the one studio was enough to keep her going for a little bit, but there was no one to take care of her -- daughter was still on Broadway, son was still in Disneyland. So I did a few grocery runs, bookkeeping, the like. She was just getting worse and worse. She didn’t dye her hair anymore -- all the grey ends were poking out. And she didn’t have talons anymore. Declawed like a tamed cat.
“She hung on the old crow, she really did. For decades, she hung on, growing poorer and paler and balder. The kids came to visit a few times, but the rest of the time it was me. Basically a live-in maid and nurse at that.
“And you know what? She was still the same mean hag all those years. Never changed til the day she died. Attacked everything I did all the time. Died penniless and angry. And I thought she sold the studio, but it turns out she didn’t. The deed didn’t go through, something like that. No one else wanted it, so I went ahead and just bought it.”
Mauricia scooped the last bit of her food onto a fork and bit down triumphantly. Robert sipped his wine. She shook her braceleted hand in front of him.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s quite nice.”
“My own collection, designed it myself. I’m setting up a boutique where the old studio used to be.”
“So you’re opening a jewelery store? I thought you said you were retiring.”
“Retiring for the time being,” she said, as if explaining to a kindergartener. “As soon as I get everything figured out, the boutique will be up and running. It’s about time a girl achieved her dreams.” She grinned, quite proud of herself, then suddenly her eyebrows shot up.
“Oh, poor Robert, I’ve been so rude, just talk talk talking about myself this whole time. I never even asked you what you’ve been up to! How’s retirement treating you?”
“Oh, well, I just started writing short stories for the first time.”
“How interesting! What are the stories about?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”