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Fiction Contemporary Drama

It started with that damn plié.


And look. Let's get something clear right off the bat: I am not a bigot. I'm not one of those guys who's angry at the world just because his son has a little sugar in the tank. I knew what was up a few years ago, when we were on the couch watching a Toys-R-Us commercial and Jesse pointed to the screen, begging me for that atomic-blonde Holiday Barbie. Right then I saw he wouldn't follow in my footsteps. I knew he'd never join the varsity football team or get his championship photo superglued in the school paper, posing with a cheerleader around his arm.


Which is fine by me. We're just too different, and I've made peace with that.


But what I haven't made peace with—and God help me, I've tried—are those ballet lessons.


***


Fortunately, because the whole ballet thing was her bright idea, my wife, Whitney, is the one who's been chauffeuring Jesse every Friday to Madame Mikhailov's School of Dance for Girls (and Boys) for the past four months.


Unfortunately, because she's spending the day helping her sister move, I'm the one who's stuck driving him now. Earlier, my wife told me to think of it as the lesser of two evils. I'm not sure I agree.


"Now take a left up here, Dad," Jesse says, pointing. Whenever he tells me which way to turn, he aims his finger in that direction like a human compass. He shifts it again. "Now take a right at the light and we'll be there. See?"


Madame Mikhailov's School of Dance for Girls, it turns out, is a nondescript brick building sandwiched between a laundromat and a corner store that isn't actually on the corner. From my spot fifteen feet away, I can see the hot-pink flyer on the window, the sloppily-written "(and Boys)" scribbled beneath the original typeface. Beyond it are the profiles of a dozen twelve-year-old girls.


"Be back soon," Jesse says, though his lesson lasts an hour. He leans in, gives me a quick hug, then slinks inside the building.


Along the sidewalk are a gaggle of women, the mothers of the other ballet students. They're posted up and down the street like parking meters. They look excited to be there, to watch their kids through the window on the outside, looking in. It's not hard to imagine Whitney among them, nattering away about celebrity gossip and buttermilk biscuit recipes.


But me? I stay right where the hell I am, parked on the curb. The less I see, the better.


And I do a pretty good job of sticking to that, until ten minutes to eight o'clock when I slip and look at the window, wishfully thinking Madame Mikhailov might've let the students go home early.


Inside, Jesse leans on the ballet barre, lifting one leg flamingo-style, the only boy in the class. He's taller than the others, huskier. Still, he moves with just as much care and precision as the girls, dancing in perfect sync with them, gliding from position to position. It should make me feel proud, I know, but it only succeeds in making me turn away from the window. 


What my wife doesn't know, even after thirteen years of marriage, is that there was another woman I almost married before her, a dancer: Arora. Even her name could do a pirouette—spin it around and the letters held their straight-backed pose. She tried routinely to teach me how to dance, commandeering her father's old garage for practice and even signing us up for ballroom classes once, but I would always trip and stumble. Football doesn't prepare your feet to move any way but forward, in a straight line.


Later, though, I would always rehearse the steps in the hidden comfort of my bedroom. In the midnight hour, I'd slide across my floor, bounce around like a kid after too many energy drinks, slow my body to a tango speed. I suppose I wanted to impress Arora by going from nothing to something, by dazzling her with my sudden dance prowess. But that was before she left me to be with another dancer.


It's an odd feeling, thinking about Arora after all this time. Almost like getting cut in the same place you already have a scar. This is why I didn't want to come here. Suddenly she's all I can think about when I watch Jesse plié and jeté and sauté across the hardwood floor, rising and falling, jumping and arcing his body into impossible shapes and angles. She's who I'm envisioning when my son, in his sweat-soaked white leotard, returns to the car, trailed by his classmates saying "Good luck next Friday, Jesse" and "I can't wait for the big show."


And she's the only thing on my mind when he asks, halfway through the white-knuckled drive home, if I'm okay.


***


"Don't forget about tonight," Whitney says the next Friday. She has a habit of doing that, waiting until I'm about to leave for work before mentioning something important.


"What's tonight?" I ask, but not before checking the date on the newspaper on the kitchen table and reminding myself that our anniversary isn't for another month. That's a mistake you only make once.


She stops where she is, hunched over a piece of toast. She points her butter-drenched knife in my direction like an indictment. "The recital."


We stand there in silence and listen to the sound of running water from the bathroom. It's been background noise for the past twenty minutes. Lately for Jesse, every shower seems to be an opportunity to transform the bathtub into an aquarium.


When it's clear that I need another hint, she shakes her head. "Jesse's ballet recital. It's tonight at seven. Don't tell me you forgot."


The watery, week-old voices of Jesse's classmates swim around my head: Good luck next Friday, can't wait for the big show.


My face starts to move on its own, so I fake a cough to disguise it, pounding my chest for added effect. Then I say, slowly, "Of course I didn't forget. It's just that we're so backed up at the office, and the Henson account needs to be finished by tonight, and—"


"I don't care if it's the Henson account or the end of the world," she says. "Can't someone else do it? Jesse's worked very hard on this. He's been practicing every night, in case you haven't noticed. And you should want to be there to support your son."


"I do want to," I tell her reassuringly, and I'm grateful for once that my football career fell through, because working in sales has its advantages. Grabbing my phone, I add, "I really do. I'll try my best to get everything finished and be there in time. Promise." Then I give her a kiss. Not on the lips, like I'd planned, but on the cheeks, because that's the way she turned when she saw me coming.


"Seven o'clock tonight, Kurt," she says again. As if to emphasize his mother's point, Jesse chooses this of all moments to stop the shower, and the words pinball off the kitchen walls. "Seven."


Only she has the power to turn a time of day into an ultimatum. It's just a shame she doesn't have the power to stop a person from making bad decisions.


***


At 6:00, I leave my sun-stained work office.


At 6:15, I double-check the message I sent at lunchtime while the traffic light is red.


At 6:25, I triple-check it while the traffic light is green.


And at 6:33, when I pull into the parking lot, that's when I turn off my phone.


Through the windshield, the beach is just as I remember it, all seashells and starfish and lullaby-soft waves. Nothing's changed since I was here last with Arora, almost twenty years ago, the last date we ever had. Staring at the golden sunset, I fight back the urge to read my message again. By now I can probably recite it without looking anyway, down to the last ellipsis and the desperate double question mark after Will you meet me tonight at seven o'clock??


All that matters if that Arora said yes.


It's more than I was expecting, considering I hadn't, up until a few days ago, even known she was back in town. After she dumped me and stopped replying to my phone calls, she and her new dancer-boyfriend moved to Belize. This I knew from the occasional postcards that would invariably end up in eight perfectly paper-shredded pieces. What I learned today is that he dumped her years later for a man, and Arora quietly moved back home to take care of her parents.


Meaning, I have a chance.


When I finally looked her up on Tuesday, when I sent that Facebook message at lunchtime, I had no clue what would happen. I certainly didn't expect a reply, positive or otherwise, and especially not the barrage of exclamation points and smiley emojis I received. Not after the way things ended the first time.


The numbers on the dashboard roll over, ushering in 7:00. I scan the parking lot, but mine is the only car here. Another minute ticks by. Then another.


It occurs to me, not for the first time, that I don't know what will happen when Arora does arrive. It was pure impulse asking her to come here, and I can practically hear my varsity football coach yelling at me about the importance of having a game plan. Which I do, kind of. I'm keeping my wedding band on, that much I've decided. It's the least I can do, since Whitney is probably doing the same thing I'm doing right now, looking around that room trying to find me. Maybe it'll keep me from doing something stupid—though maybe it's too late for that.


And maybe I'll show off some of those dance moves she never got a chance to see.


But then what? What exactly am I hoping for?


Yawning, I close my eyes and try to think of what comes next.


A knuckled knock on the window stirs me. In the time my eyes have been closed, the orange horizon has turned to a streaky blue, pocked with twinkling stars. The dashboard says more than two hours have trickled away. My eyes are still adjusting to the night when another knock comes. I startle, willing my heartbeat to slow down, then turn to my left to meet Arora.


A delighted, toothless grin is what awaits me. The owner is a man wearing shabby clothes, ripped and frayed. Even his beanie has holes. He scratches his scraggly beard, waves at me, mimes rolling down the window. I blink. He mimes again. I roll the window down a hair.


"Could you spare a couple bucks, buddy?" he asks. His voice consumes every inch of the night.


The parking lot is empty. It's just us. Arora isn't here anymore.


She probably never was.


"Just for a bite to eat," the man says.


It's an odd feeling, getting dumped by the same person a second time. Almost like getting cut in the same place your scar is healing. Maybe I should've known from the over-enthusiasm, should've seen it coming from her readiness to accept a date with someone from a lifetime ago. Because once your heart's been broken like that, once somebody's dumped you, you want your turn to do that to someone.


I can sense something hollow and raw festering in my stomach.


"Just a few bucks," the bearded man is saying. "That's all I need, buddy, then I'll be out of your hair for good. You won't ever see me again."


It could be two bucks or twenty or fifty. I open my wallet and toss the bills out the cracked window all the same. It's just one more loss. Then I throw the car in reverse and brace myself for the jilted silence on the ride back home.


***


The house is quiet, stuffy with the stench of pepperoni pizza. In the bathroom I splash my face a few times with cold water, look in the mirror, note the gray hairs that weren't there a week ago, the wrinkles trellising the sides of my eyes. It was stupid to go up there tonight, I tell myself for the hundredth time. More than once I've substituted "It" for "I."


When I try the handle to the bedroom door, the stubborn resistance of the lock greets me. I can't hear Whitney's snoring. It's clear she's awake, but she doesn't open the door when I try the knob again, so I head to the closet down the hall in search of a blanket for my long night on the couch.


A noise halts me midway. Then it comes again. As quietly as I can, I draw myself closer to the source—Jesse's room.


The taps of his footfalls on the floor ring out, soft as feathers. Every few seconds comes the sound of sniffling. I picture him in there, my son, bleary-eyed and limber, prancing around in the dark, dancing by moonlight. Hosting his own private ballet.


Then, before I know it, the picture changes, morphs, and it's me in there dancing my heart out, doing the twist and the rumba and the tango. Just like I had when I was practicing to win Arora's love.


And maybe I got something wrong. Maybe we're not so different, my son and I.


When I twist the doorknob, it silently surrenders to my grip. Jesse's left it unlocked. The handle is cool to the touch. If I wanted, I could throw the door open right now and waltz in, explain why I couldn't make it to his recital, apologize to him like that.


But I don't.


Instead, I tiptoe straight past the closet, past the couch, and out the front door. The night is balmy and moondrunk. The air smells of springtime, earthy soil and peonies. I don't stop walking until I'm facing Jesse's dark bedroom window. Only then do I begin to move in a different way.


It takes a while but the steps start coming back to me, like a lost dog finding its way home. There, under the moonlight, I'm half my age again, sliding across the grass, kicking my ex-footballer feet in every direction, using all the moves I never got to show Arora. Sweat rolls down my forehead and armpits, and my joints start to sting, but I force myself to keep going.


And then something happens.


In the middle of doing a one-man salsa dance, I get to thinking about last week, watching Jesse at Madame Mikhailov's. How fluid and natural his body looked. As best I can, I will my own body to bend and curve the way his had through the glass window. All at once my movements shift; the dance steps I learned in Arora's dusty garage all those years ago are replaced by moves from my son's repertoire. In my care the motions are clunky, uncoordinated, graceless—but God help me, I'm trying.


My gaze is trained on Jesse's window the whole time I'm dancing his dance. And maybe his eyes are closed, or maybe he's chosen now of all times to slip under his bedcovers and drift off to sleep. I can't be sure. Either way, I'll keep moving, keep waiting for him to see what it is I'm doing out here, to know that I'm sorry. However long it takes.

February 04, 2023 04:46

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22 comments

Valerie Shand
14:50 Feb 07, 2023

You have done an excellent job creating a main character I loathe wholeheartedly. I mean, "a little sugar in his tank"? Yuck. What a bigoted self-obsessed jerk. It takes talent to create a character your readers can feel such a strong antipathy toward, so great job.

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Mike Panasitti
14:42 Feb 06, 2023

Zack, great story. I find it disheartening that several of the commentators here used the word "scumbag" to describe the MC. If that's the word that describes a character, or better, a person, with human flaws, don't we all, at one point or another in these attenuated lives we have on earth, fit the bill? There's no way a rough-edged father who, by the end of the story, feels identification with his ballet-dancing son, deserves to be compared to a serial killer simply because he's had moments of flawed judgment. Fine literary craftsmansh...

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