My parents welcomed the invitation to attend Great-Aunt Rose’s 50th anniversary party as if it were a summons to jury duty. Instead of looking forward to dressing up and delighting in seeing family members who rarely got together, they adopted their usual “What am I going to wear, the food probably won’t be any good, and the band will be too loud anyway” attitude.
“Do I have to go?” I whined. Living on Long Island in the mid-1960s, finally old enough to be invited to boy–girl parties, I expected to spend Saturday nights with my friends.
Yes, I was told, my attendance was required. I put on my best pout, but in secret was hugely relieved. I hated boy–girl parties—and for a reason probably only Anita would understand.
Anita, Great-Aunt Rose’s daughter, belonged to that nimbus of relatives we saw a couple of times a year, at clan-gathering events like anniversary parties. She and her husband, Phil, though just a few years younger than my parents, seemed in a generation all their own. Maybe it was because Anita worked outside the house, as so few other women in my family did; she was pretty, and liked to wear makeup and dresses that were tight on top with skirts that swung, showing off her legs as she moved. She looked as if she didn’t wake up in the morning expecting a thunderstorm to ruin her day, and she didn’t spend the afternoon at a party looking at her watch.
As for Phil, I didn’t know much about him except that he wasn’t an engineer, accountant, or teacher, but something somehow shadier, maybe a salesman. Unlike anyone in my immediate family, he’d have a drink in his hand. He and Anita not only liked to dance, but were the first ones on the dance floor and the last to leave.
The salient fact was that Anita was tall, about as tall as I was, and yet she’d managed to get herself married anyway. Phil was no great catch, let’s face it—barely her height, a little heavy—but he was a husband; it counted.
That I was a tall girl tormented me. It wasn’t my only problem, God knows; my hair was way too curly, and my mother wouldn’t let me wear makeup or any outfit that wasn’t two sizes too big. But being too tall was intractable. There was simply too much of me for any boy I liked—all of them shorter than I was by several inches, and none of whom would ask me to dance.
My friends, all of acceptable height, spent boy–girl parties flitting from one flirtation to another. On the sly, they’d trade stats: who danced with you, how many times, for fast or slow songs; where did he put his hands, did he touch your breasts or try to kiss you on the lips. And I’d stand by with a pathetic smile plastered on my face wanting to die, batting zero.
That’s not entirely true. Usually near the end of the party, Tim Huntley, one of the few boys taller than I was, would walk up to me, peel me off the wall to which I’d been stuck, and dance with me. Even then I remember thinking I should one day thank his mother for raising him well. It wasn’t much of a dance (he’d stand too far away for me to put my head on his shoulder), but at least I’d be moving my feet.
As soon as the song ended, he’d deposit me at my spot near the record player, where I could pretend to take an unusual interest in the albums that were playing. When the doorbell would ring upstairs, which meant the first weary father was there to pick up his daughter, everyone would groan, but I’d rejoice for the first time all night. In the car, I’d be grateful that my father was too tired to talk beyond asking if I’d had fun, and satisfied when I’d say, “Yes.” Home, he’d go right to bed, and I’d sob for hours.
What was wrong with me? Why was there so much of me? I can still close my eyes and summon up the deep humiliation—both the public aspect, that I’d disappoint my family by remaining a childless and crushingly lonely spinster for the rest of my life, and the private shame, that I’d die without ever knowing what it meant to have a boy’s arm around my waist, my head buried in his chest.
Aunt Rose’s party was in the private back room of a dingy restaurant. Slowly, the clan gathered, its members dour, not knowing how to cut loose, however valiantly they wished they could. Even on their day off, they looked ground down and worn out from managing plumbing-supply stores, working in elementary schools, and doing other people’s books.
Except for Phil and Anita. Holding hands, they greeted everyone, smiling broadly. As soon as the piano player struck his first chord, they headed for the dance floor. I stood with my parents, sister, and grandparents near the dais, watching them do a kind of lindy, thinking to myself that they looked so out of place they might have been left over from the last party, or early for the next.
As the pianist segued into “The Shadow of Your Smile,” a few other couples walked onto the dance floor, but Anita and Phil still commanded my attention: they were the best-looking couple, they danced the closest, looked as if they were having the most fun, her head on his shoulder. They knew things I’d never know. Exiled forever from the country of romance, bitter and bereft, I watched them shamelessly, as if this were the closest I’d ever come to penetrating the secrets of attraction.
When I saw them walking toward us, unexpectedly, I worried that perhaps they’d noticed me staring. But Anita, gracious as ever, claimed she was a little winded, took a seat and began talking with my family. Without a word to anyone, Phil approached me, extended his hand, and said, “May I have this dance?” I flushed. My parents bristled.
Sensing not only my resistance but my parents’ disapproval, he gently squeezed my hand. I held back. Anita smiled. Phil tugged on my hand, just a little. I followed him to the center of the dance floor, and when he turned to me, I studied him perhaps for the first time. He was what I’d call portly; his face, though kindly, was a bit fleshy. He’d been an athlete, I remembered hearing, a tennis player. We were about the same height.
“I don’t know how to dance,” I said, now beet-red.
“Yes you do,” he said. He positioned my left arm around his waist, took my right hand in his and said, “Just follow me.” Which to me meant nothing, nothing at all; I was as clueless as if he’d said, “Just juggle these four apples.” When I stepped on his foot, he pretended not to notice. Instead, he pulled me a little closer. There I was, in the magic zone in which I’d always dreamed of finding myself—not at arm’s length, as if I smelled funny, but close enough to see pores, to smell intimate smells, to feel a heart beating, to feel the strain of fabric over flesh. But it was the wrong heart, the wrong body. He was old and heavy, not good looking—and a relative, for chrissake. How pathetic was that?
“Close your eyes,” he said, as if reading my mind. It won’t help, I thought to myself. I saw Anita, still talking with my parents, looking at us, smiling, encouraging me. My mother’s eyes were fastened on Phil’s hand, looped around my waist. She didn’t like what she saw; I was crossing one of her many boundaries into unknown territory. She was weighing what to do: whether to let this inappropriate dance continue or to create a scene. I closed my eyes. I let him take me, not in those tiny circles I was used to with Tim Huntley, but across the floor, from one corner to the next and back again. For the first time in my life I experienced myself as weightless, strangely, unexpectedly caught up in the music, swept away, excitingly out of control.
So this is it, I thought to myself, breathing a little faster. We both were. The flush on my cheeks spread to my hands, my thighs. Giddy, on the verge of laughing, I sensed a wonderful danger I couldn’t articulate that had something to do with not knowing what came next. This is what all the fuss is about! Though he didn’t breathe a single inappropriate breath, or move a finger in a way that made me feel uncomfortable, I felt, for the first time in my life, desirable.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t want to kiss Phil, and I certainly didn’t want him to kiss me; nor could I imagine him wanting to, not with his stunning wife waiting for him when this charity dance was over. This wasn’t about the two of us; it was much more impersonal. Phil simply opened the door to an unexplored room in the house I’d lived in for years, letting me in on a surprising secret: what drew you to someone was less about how you looked than how he could make you feel, make you move. That my hair wasn’t straight and I was stepping on his feet, that he wasn’t particularly tall or young, none of this mattered. It was something that caught you up for reasons you couldn’t explain to anyone else, but it filled you up and made you feel alive. And sweet Lord, it could happen to me!
I hadn’t thought about that dance in more than forty years, and I wouldn’t have recalled it if I hadn’t emailed Anita on a whim, about a year ago, after a long silence. We quickly caught each other up: I told her about my husband and kids, she told me about her kids and about Phil, who’d been struggling for the past decade with diabetes. True to form, they were staying active and engaged, even after he’d needed to have a leg amputated. Just a few weeks ago, she wrote to tell me that he’d passed away.
Ambushed by unexpected sadness, I sat down to write Anita a condolence card, only to realize it was Phil I wished I could write to, my prelover, who so gently prepared me for the pleasures ahead, with whom I’d first glimpsed the astonishing variety and roguish nature of sexual attraction. Too late: that he’d set my adult life in motion had become clear to me only after learning of his stillness. And even if he were alive, what were the odds that he’d remember the dance that had proved so pivotal to me?
He was a dancer: he danced to thousands of songs, whenever he heard a melody and could scrounge up a partner; and when that was denied him, he found other ways to keep moving. But the music lasts only so long. Every song has its last chord—which is why he’ll always be pulling me close, respectful, but ever insistent, to whisper, “Relax, close your eyes if only for a few moments, and just follow me.”
Illustration by Adam Niklewicz
Roberta Israeloff is a freelance writer who lives and teaches writing in East Northport, New York.