The Dance was originally published in The Battered Suitcase in December, 2008.
The strains of something vaguely Garth Brooks drifted through the half-open door of the patio. Tinny. Flat. The hum of traffic rising from the street ten floors below possessed more rhythm.
Rose glanced at her watch. The vermilion digits ticked off the seconds. The shadows of dancing couples slid across her table. She wondered if he’d show? He hadn’t been at the conference earlier in the day. But then, he’d written to say he wouldn’t be. Other commitments, he’d said, not commenting further. So like him, of course. Outside his poetry, he divulged little of his personal life.
She had a picture of him. An old one, he’d said. She had emailed him one of her. Likewise old. She had recent ones. Still in the camera. The digital age. Less clutter. No half full photo albums, pages browning with age. Gathering dust. She hadn’t been happy for a long time. The newer photos showed it. Hence the old one. Haughty and seductive. Full of mirth. It mirrored her feelings of their eleven month, online relationship.
Old photos. Old times. She wondered if they would recognize each other?
The music shifted to a tired rendition of an old Beach Boys tune. There was a changing of the guard on the dance floor. She glanced at her watch again. Took a delicate sip of her Chardonnay. Grimaced. It tasted more like verjuice than wine. Next year they’d have to find a fancier place to hold the convention.
She set the wine aside. Considered a cigarette. Rejected it. Rising from her seat, she walked over to the wrought iron railing. It was woven tight with night-blooming jasmine. The scent heavy. Sweet. She stared out at the lights. She had never been to San Francisco before. There was something magical about the energy in the air. Or was the magic the anticipation of him?
You’re a long way from Verdigris, Oklahoma Rosy old girl, she thought, turning from the railing.
Thorn stood in the shadows. Watched her as she crossed the patio. He watched the sway of her dress. The way the hem brushed against the back of her calves. The easy way her body moved beneath the sheer fabric. She had a shawl wrapped about her shoulders, drawn tight across her bosom against the cool night air. He felt a moment of envy for the shawl.
He shivered. From the cold? The envy? Desire? He wasn’t sure. Fear? How long had it been since he’d been in the company of a woman without the protective barrier of cyberspace to shield him? He considered turning around. Running. Back to the isolation of the small, Northern Minnesota town he’d flown in from. Back to safety. Back to the pale glow of his laptop. Her words weaving soft blankets of warmth and comfort. Hard pillows of despair.
He had seen her leaving the conference hall. Walking with a group of women. Laughing. Talking loud. He recognized most of them from posted photos on the forum site.
Their physical features familiar. She stood out amongst them. Her red hair a flame he felt drawn to like a freezing man to a hearth.
He studied her now in profile. A little older than her photo. A little heavier. His hand went unconsciously to his cheek. Traced laugh lines on a face that had forgotten laughter. He’d been told his features were craggy. That the lines etched into his skin gave him character. Like the worm holes and gouges on antique furniture gave it character.
Character. Lines and whorls. Hair more chalk than anthracite. Love handles that hadn’t felt a woman’s love in years. Character? Yeah. Right. The image in his morning mirror just made him feel old.
He took a deep breath. Stepped from the shadows. She turned from the railing. Their gazes met. She smiled nervously. His heart pounded.
He shifted uncomfortably on the wrought iron chair. Patted the breast pocket of his grey wool suit. Fumbled out his cigarettes. Felt the blood rush of embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice sounded weak and jittery to his ears. “Do you mind?”
“Oh. No,” she said. “Not at all.” She produced a pack of her own. Slipped one out. Put it between her lips. He produced a blue Bic. Lit hers. Then his own. The smoke rose. Intertwined. Drifted away in the jasmine scented breeze.
She was leaning toward him. Waiting. A finely woven chain hung about her neck, the golden strands hanging down like a trail marker to the dark cave of her cleavage. He resisted the urge to follow the trail. Failed. When he looked up, she was smiling. He blushed again with embarrassment. She laughed.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “What’s the point of a strategically placed necklace above a low cut dress if no one dares to look?” She laughed again. The sound made his lungs feel too small. His heart too heavy to beat.
“How long have you been a Buddhist?” she asked.
A look of confusion crossed his face. He glanced down. Their hands were nearly touching. He could almost feel the warmth of her finger tips. He longed to reach out, touch her face. Trace the lines of her nose. Her lips. The cleft of her chin. He shivered. Looked up.
“Oh,” he said. “The forum, you mean.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Pagan Poets For Buddha.”
He was unsure what he should tell her. Would it matter? Would his confession end it here? “I’m not a Buddhist, actually,” he said. “I’m not even sure I’m a pagan.”
“Really?” she said. Smiling. Her eyes sparkled. It made him feel as if he’d been plugged into a wall socket. Wet.
“Neither am I,” she continued. “A Buddhist, I mean. I’m not even very religious. Anymore, anyway. Growing up, I was the verger at my church. The goings on behind the scenes sort of turned me off from religion. Maybe I’m a pagan. I guess I don’t really know.”
“Why the forum, then?” he asked. Curious. Relieved his confession hadn’t turned her away.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I like the people there. I live in a very small town. Not a lot of poets. Not a lot of readers, period. The library is the size of an outhouse, and it’s only open an hour or two a day. If at all. I suspect the town’s idea of a good poem would be something printed on the inside of a Hallmark card. What about you?”
He wanted to tell her it was her that had kept him on the forum. Trapped him there. Enthralled despite the fear she stirred in him. How he had been surfing the net for months. Visiting every poetry chat site he could find. Staying a week or two. Lurking. Leaving without a word. Until he found PPFB. Found her.
“The same, I guess,” he said. “Small town. Doesn’t even have a library.” His fingers closed the gap with hers. Touched. The closing of a circuit. Her fingers responded. Exploring as his explored.
“But you are a poet,” he said.
She flushed red. The color high in her cheeks. “I try,” she whispered.
He recalled her words. Line for line. Stretched over time and bandwidth. Pulling gently at his empty places. Making him feel a loneliness he’d kept hidden from himself at great cost.
“You do more than try,” he said.
The waiter refilled their wine glasses. Disappeared without a word. The party was hitting its peak. Groups of people, sweaty from the dance floor, came and went. Talking loud. Laughing. Walking to the iron railing. Ruffling the jasmine. Staring out at the lights. Returning to dance some more. Passing them as though they were not there.
She traced the lines of his fingers. His hand. The boney ridge of his wrist. His skin seemed to vibrate beneath her touch. Her fingertips tingled in response. There was a warmth flowing through her that was more than just the wine.
“So,” she said. Pushing conversation. Wanting something else. Fearing what she wanted. Reluctant to let it pass. “What time did you get here?”
He looked away. Smiled shyly. She felt her throat constrict. Her mouth go dry. He had a smile that made her panties damp. She took a deep breath. Sipped her wine. Waited.
He looked up. Grey-blue gazing into green. Searching. “Early,” he said. “Earlier than I said I’d be, anyway. I was in the back of the auditorium when you read your poem. It was beautiful, by the way.” He smiled again. She shrugged the shawl from her bare shoulders. Let it slip to the floor.
“I watched you leave,” he continued. “Ducked into the men’s room before you got to the lobby.”
She started to ask him why. Stopped. Knowing the answer. Knowing she would likely have done the same.
He reached into his pocket. Removed a folded square of paper. Unfolded it. Set it on the table. “I wrote this,” he said. “In the back of the auditorium. It might be a little hard to read.”
She turned the square of paper around. Peered at the words. Read them till they blurred with tears. She brushed her hand across her eyes. Unsnapped her tiny purse. Removed a folded square of paper. Unfolded it. Set it on the table.
“I wrote this for you,” she said.
The waiter topped their wine glasses. “Bar closes in half an hour,” he said. The party was winding down. The band shifted into something slow. Sounding better. Probably the wine.
His gaze asked the question. She nodded in reply. Awkwardly, they rose from their chairs. Stood frozen for a moment. Slowly closed the distance. He raised his left arm. She raised her right. Their hands clutched. Fingers intertwined.
Their bodies came together. His right arm encircled her waist. Her left arm draped his shoulder. He pressed his hand against the small of her back. Her silk blouse was damp with perspiration. He ran his thumb over the ridges of her spine. She gasped. Pressed her hips into his. Her breasts tight against his chest. They began to dance.
The patio was small. Cluttered with tables. Chairs. Potted plants. They moved through the obstacles as if guided by faulty radar. Not exactly Fred and Ginger. She stepped on his toe. He banged her against a chair, knocking it over. Neither of them noticed. She brushed his cheek with her fingers. His skin warm to the touch. Her touch cool against his skin.
She let go of his hand. Draped her right arm over his shoulder. He dropped his left to her side. Slipped his hand beneath her blouse. She leaned her forehead against his. Her eyelashes brushed his skin. Their lips a breath apart now. Straining for contact. She ran her hands up through his hair. Caressed the back of his ears. His neck. A shiver ran down his spine. He kissed her. She kissed him back. Faintly, at first. Then harder. Her tongue darting along his teeth. She smelled of lavender and cigarettes. He tasted of white wine.
His fingers explored her rib cage. Slipped beneath the soft fabric of her bra. Lightly brushed one nipple. She shuddered. Bit his lip. Pulled him closer. Pulled his shirt from his pants. Ran her hands up and down his bare back. Fingernails etching fine lines in his skin. They moved about the patio. Slipping in and out of shadows. Knocked over a plant. Another chair. Holding each other. Exploring. Grasping. Pulling at each others clothes. The band stopped playing. The lights went out.
“It’s dark,” she whispered, her breath hot against his ear.
“Not dark enough,” he replied.
The waiter set the tray on the table. Emptied the ashtray. Picked up the wine glasses. Set them on the tray. He spotted something lying on the floor. Reached for it. A shawl. Alpaca from the feel of it. He looked around. The patio was empty. He glared at the overturned chairs. The broken pot. Must of been a hell of a party.
He draped the shawl over his arm. Reached for the last two items on the table. Two scraps of paper. Something written on each. A gust of wind lifted them. They fluttered in the air a moment. Like dancers. Spinning. Floating over the jasmine covered railing. Tumbling end-over-end into the San Francisco night.