I am a woman of rich inner means, of hips which widen, and of feet which grown clumpier as the years go by. The word “dance” doesn’t call to me as it did in my younger years.
At twelve, my twin Liz climbed out of a tree, swung into the back door of our twelve-room house, and ran upstairs to our bedroom. We shared this room. She drew a line down the middle of the room. No crossing. Twins are like that. But on Friday nights at 7:30, all the twelve year olds in our town dressed in either suits for the boys or dresses, stocking and shiny patent leather shoes for the girls.
Harry Raymond’s Dancing School held Friday night sessions in a huge sagging yellow house with white trim on Centre Street in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, near the Shawmut Bank. My father or mother drove us, and we sat in the back seat feeling like victims in a Black Mariah, wheels silently thwopping towards Harry’s.
Dressing for Harry’s was a weekly penance. Red, silky-type dresses made by my mother, with tiny cloth buttons and Peter Pan collars. Under the dresses, the dreaded undershirt, and down further the garter belts which were like magnets to the seamed beige stocking that we reluctantly hauled over our young girl thighs.
This was a mournful time for us, a time we didn’t fight with each other because we were too locked into the mutual tragedy of garter belts—long, floppy, rubberized, stretchy thin bands with hooks on the end. The clips at the end were like a snake’s mouth—open, slide over nylon stocking, close, and clip, as a metal slider of small proportions would pull the length of the strips tight. A beginning rite of passage where I would learn women’s looks are for pleasing, pleasing men. Am I okay? All right? As in, are my seams straight? Liz and I were poised on the edge of some type of womanhood, reluctantly brought into the fold of How Do I Look? Does This Please? Will He Like Me?
Once left off on the curb, we clumped up beat-up, wide stairs next to a rickety white banister and headed towards the powder room. Jannie Cleary with her curly red hair seemed unfazed. I wondered if she wore a bra, because she seemed to carry an aura of confidence. “She likes boys,” Liz whispered to me with a downward twist of her mouth.
We filed out and sat on chairs in a huge circle around the edges of the ballroom. We sat like cows watching Harry Raymond, a thin double for Liberace, glide across the floor, moving by each young girl saying, “Girls’ legs are meant to be closed.” Then, each week he’d tap Liz’s ankles with his slim black and gold cane, and say, “Ladies do not sit with their legs apart,” because Liz always sat as if ready to spring upon a horse and ride off into some elusive West.
First we learned the Fox Trot: 1 clump, 2 clumps, 3 clumps, sway together 4. During the week at Ruthie Anderson’s house, we danced the fox trot with each other. Ruthie was Protestant, and we were Roman Catholic. Our mothers were best friends—daring in a world of people who kept to their own.
Then we learned the waltz—1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3—feet stomping instead of sliding on the old wood floor as we moved like fledgling dancers auditioning for a musical. Eventually we sweated through the waltz.
Girls had to sit and wait to be asked to dance. The boys liked Liz; she was cute and sporty. I sat there like a female Prince Valiant, a large red square of silk, my hair a dark clump of blunt and my bangs sort of straight, but not really. My throat filled with doubt, as one by one, the seats around me emptied. Finally after thinking I’ll just put my throat on a hook, tall small-headed, round-chinned Holland Morgan stood silently before me. His brown eyes questioned me, and his right eyebrow went up as in a “why not,” and we wordlessly cobbled our dancing feet together. A fox trot. Step, Step, Step and Step; learning to hoof in a measured square to a musical beat.
Then, as if Zeus threw a thunderbolt into my mouth, I heard myself motor mouthing about dogs, our once poodle who died. Holland knew of this sad event. I spoke droolingly of our beige non-altruistic pug and our copper-toned farting boxer. Words poured out of my mouth like an overfill of Chicklets spilling out. I don’t remember his response.
Years later, when I was twenty, I met Holland again. He was a friend of my step-brother. I fell in love with him because of his writing. He called me Cynthia one winter night as we walked over to Howard Johnson’s for coffee in Kenmore Square, and I was shattered. He was at Dartmouth, and I worked down on State Street for attorneys. I lived with roommates near the back of Fenway Park, near Kenmore Square.
I still dream of Kenmore Square because my mother died one icy day in our apartment on Bay State Road. Old issues maybe, or deep wounds, not all caught up by the therapist’s dust buster. Liz and I were seventeen. We had a pug and a boxer, and Liz and I would walk them across Storrow Drive, and walk by the river, the wind whipping through us in the winter. It was a good day when I realized, after Holland, after Bob, after blah blah, I wanted what they had: words, empowerment, not to be lost. I was a dance in progress, and it’s taken me a long time to become myself. I no longer wear stockings with seams, although they are coming back, and I’m glad that time period is over. Some people want to go back when times were good. Good for whom? I might ask. Then I think it’s all some sort of dance—this life—a dance indeed.
Copyright © 2013 Esther Bradley-DeTally
I teach four six-week classes on writing. My background training is from Oakley Hall, who was majestic novelist and teacher and co-director of Squaw Valley Workshop, and also from Jack Grapes, whose name is whistled in freeway corridors like a slick wind, a pied piper of a writing teacher. Both of these men earn my verbal praise every day. I have traveled from Moscow to Siberia, and to Ukraine, and then returned with my husband to live in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and Minsk, Belarus. I studied writing methods at UCIrvine, and also took several courses under a superb journalist, Joe Bell.
I teach a class on Tuesdays at The Women’s Room, a place that leaps with great words and giant hearts. The women are either volunteers, homeless or in transition, and it is a great place of support.
On Monday nights, I teach in the basement of Ten Thousand Villages, near California and Lake, from 4:30-6 p.m., for donation. That, plus a few on-line gigs and tutoring gig, plus Baha’i activities and commitment to racial justice, keeps me busy. I have a novel in the second draft process.
Esther has written two books, Without a Net: A Sojourn in Russia and You Carry the Heavy Stuff. Her blog can be found at SorryGnat.wordpress.com.