It was 7:00 pm and we were late because Margaret was driving, and she was always late. Now she was flying down Route 2 like we were competitors in “The Amazing Race” while groping around behind her in the backseat to find her purse.
“Here,” she said, dropping the bag in my lap, “write the check for me,” and with that, she slammed on the brakes. We abruptly stopped so close to the car in front of us that I could read the fine print on its bumper sticker: “What if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?”
“If that’s true,” I said reading it aloud, “we’re in trouble.” We were late for our first lesson in Lindy-hop, a precursor to jitterbug. I had left my 16-year-old daughter Emily on her computer at home, visiting college websites, taking virtual tours. I felt a little guilty that I had had to rush dinner to go out on a weeknight.
Our classmates were already on the floor when we arrived at Corky’s Hard Bean Café which had offered up space for these Tuesday night classes. We dropped our checks at the registration table and found places in a small group of women clustered behind Tina, the female instructor.
Tina was petite, about 30, with a dancer’s body and brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. The other women looked 35-45, friendly, self-depreciating. Their expressions were anxious, excited, determined; everyone had a faint flush of something else that looked like hope. Margaret, model-tall and just as beautiful, looked like hope, and it was her hope and determination that had brought us here.
The group’s attention was riveted on Tina who had begun by demonstrating the basic “swingout.” This step was to be our ticket to proficiency she assured us. A good swingout would get us anywhere we wanted to go. I have since learned it is the single most difficult basic step in dance. And of course, it requires a partner.
Tina was wearing a short skirt that flared when she snapped around. I admired this maneuver immediately. I wanted to snap too, but I was in jeans. She wore a sleeveless white blouse as well although it was winter and soon, we knew why. Lindy-hop is quite a workout. I glanced over at Margaret. She was concentrating on Tina’s feet as if they might explode.
Margaret was living with a brain tumor—living in a state of urgency and grace—and in the limbo of not knowing what was next she had decided to dance. To keep her company, I followed her lead. I said yes in those days to any Margaret adventure. Yes, meant another day of not letting go.
Exactly one year prior to this evening, we had been at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in a prep room, watching students insert IV’s before Margaret’s surgery. She had insisted on being awake for it. The first time the tumor was removed, before it began growing again, she was under general anesthesia and awoke unable to speak. Her brain had had to rewire, to refile words in the right mental filing cabinets. It was three months before “thanks” stopped coming out “window,” and whether “help” or “hope” was the word intended, was anyone’s guess.
As a group we repeatedly tried to duplicate Tina’s footwork. We learned steps with names, “The Texas Tommy,” “The Side-by-Side Charlestown.” Tina repeated herself patiently, as if we were exceptionally slow. Trust me, this was necessary. Next to us, the men who had shown up for this initiation were imitating George, the male instructor. He was also about 30 and a perfect complement to Tina. I could imagine their likenesses on top of a wedding cake. George had a headset mike. We heard the men practicing a step called the “Hard Bugger.” George and Tina made eye contact across the café, the scent of mocha beans in the air. “We’re ready,” she said.
The two groups merged awkwardly, sliding, shifting, trying to form two lines to stand opposite each other but there was an unequal number. More women than men. Those who had secured partners shrugged sympathetically at those still maneuvering but didn’t budge. Finally, we came to rest with one extra woman sitting out. It was not me and I felt terrible. On the verge of offering the lonely leftover my place, my partner grabbed my hand.
He was, I discovered later, only pretending to be a beginner—he was actually in the intermediate class that met directly after ours and had come for review. Everyone wants to dance with someone slightly better, so I was in luck. “Stop pushing,” he exclaimed, when I anticipated the move he was a beat slow to deliver, then a bit put out, “You’re not letting me lead!” I was flustered and embarrassed. Deeply confused, Apparently, I’m a pushy leader. Didn’t know. Now I do. But if I am a leader, why am I so directionless?
I apologized, we held hands again and proceeded to learn a dance so intricately stylized it would never translate to partners who have not had the same class. So, I asked myself, am I here because of Margaret or Cecilia?
Cecilia was the daughter of a friend. She was an exuberant six-year-old with a very round face, and a head that appeared too large for her sturdy body. We were at her ballet recital and the group performing before Cecilia’s was a gymnastics class of 4-year-olds. They scuttled onto stage, then tumbled, rolled, flipped and basically hopped up and down in place with enthusiasm. I glanced at Cecilia. She was rapt, transported. She had found her calling and it wasn’t ballet.
As her group of little ballerinas was called forward, Cecilia blasted onto stage with a somersault and proceeded to imitate what she’d just seen—careening, cart-wheeling—bowling over the other ballerinas, now teary in their tutus as they shuffled clear of a flushed and triumphant Cecilia.
These nights have come to mind because I’m longing for Cecilia’s bold spontaneity and Margaret’s grace. I don’t know what’s next in my life and there’s no choreographer. I work all the time. I don’t know how to play, and I have been unable to craft a vision for the future. We are legion those of us in some kind of transition. I mean, isn’t that all of us? Isn’t that you?
Margaret’s uncertainty had a physical manifestation that was beyond her control. The rest of us are just people whose children have taken flight or are well-established now in lives of their own. People who are no longer partnered or needed or who no longer work 9 to 5. It’s time to dance our own dance.
When I got home that night, Emily was thinking about what she’d like to do with her life—maybe a career in photojournalism. She had examined the entire country for a state she’d like to live in—not this one, she said with certainty then glanced quickly at me with crystal-blue eyes, in case voicing her independence had hurt me. It had saddened me, but I laughed because I admired it.
Emily is launched into her own life now and Margaret has died.
Sometimes I dance alone in the kitchen or in front of the bathroom mirror. I “Shake it Off” with Taylor Swift. I get the “Shivers” with Ed Sheeran. I pretend I am awesome and that my moves are all cool when in fact, I don’t know my next step.
What’s up with that, Tina? The basic swing out was supposed to get me anywhere I wanted to go.
In all the years love was based on a connection or service to someone else, the only prayers I needed were, Thank you and Help. In that order.
But if I’m going to dance alone—and we all have to eventually—I’d ask this:
May Love herself be my partner. When I cling to those I need to release, to life as I know it, may she hold me in her arms. May she tell me it’s all right to let go.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.