Last Dance Pre-Pandemic
For Margarette, a dear one who passed on too early. And a reminder to dance, even, no especially, when you or someone you love is suffering. I am reminded of Margarette’s laughter, a gleaming fountain that would gush from her and fill the room with magic; of the warmth of the light she would pour into you till you couldn’t help but glow; and of the ephemerality of this one precious life and, even harder to swallow, of those we love. An adaptation of a chapter from the memoir I’m working on.
“Cheers.” I raised my glass, swirled the ice in its golden honey liquid, and sipped.
Was it gift? I wondered. This ability to function on autopilot. To small talk strangers, fill my belly with the warmth of freshly grilled portobello and poblano folded into fried tortilla, and watch musicians position amps and foot pedals—while numbness buzzed through me. Was it adaptation? Failure?
I didn’t know yet that, in days, the world would be hoisted by a microscopic virus and dropped on its axis. That we would all be wobbly. This private upheaval had come in the form of a call earlier in the afternoon. I’ll hold the details of the caller’s story. Suffice it to say, someone I loved wildly was in the kind of emotional pain you rarely escape without scars and sometimes not at all. I had thought things were better. Here, I was hundreds of miles away. All I could do was listen till the caller’s sobs and rage had finally given way to sleep, and only gentle breathing came through the other end of the line.
To my left at the end of the bar, two men were closing out a business trip. The couple on my other side had seen this band many times. They’d traveled for the show and, though I didn’t know it yet, were dressed the part. We “newbies” (the businessmen and me) were in for a treat, she assured us, wide candy lips and licorice lashes beaming. A victory curl atop her head was held in place by a silk rose bandanna, and the other half of her gleaming locks tumbled over her shoulder as she cooed coquettishly to her partner in his faux vintage western button-up
, “We’re gonna dance our asses off, right, babe?”
Behind me, the crowd was a blanket. Its warmth grew with its numbers. I leaned into it without having to look anywhere but the darkness of the space behind the bar. There, the electric blue glow of a lonesome arcade game lit an assortment of decals on every available space, including the rafters.
I was glad a new friend had recommended this place. This bar had not disappointed. Nor had Bisbee, Arizona, an old mining town with whisper-thin streets, art-covered walls, and hillsides dotted with colorful roofs. I’d sat in this same seat last night, when everything was different—before the call. I’d been buoyed then by the glory of the previous evening’s gloaming. In the spot where I’d slept on my way in, the salmon-lemonade-lilac-coral swirl of light before it slipped to the other side of the planet for a spell had framed the Mule Mountains, grape-colored in the dusk. And it had been like a glimpse of eternity. I’d swooned at the lightness of so much possibility.
An army officer on weekend leave had scooted from the crook of the bar to the seat now occupied by the candy-lipped woman. Our conversation had been like match to flame, mostly because he, too, was touched by the potency of the written word. He loved Isaac Asimov and Octavia Butler, had enlisted as a means of paying for an education that had otherwise seemed out of grasp at the time. While reticent about both how he now felt about that decision and family back East, he gushed about future plans to see the world. We sipped each other’s beers and decided my port was the better of the two.
Two songs into the metal band that took the stage, we’d made our way across the street, where a trio on guitar, keys, and drums played American roots covers. We talked and played pool and downed a couple more beers each. Then he walked me home—to my van, in a lot in the center of town that restricted parking to seventy-two hours. Though I’d snagged a spot that was flatter than most, I’d still be sleeping slanted.
He leaned in under the Dipper’s gaze. His kiss was a slow, non-expectant farewell.
I hadn’t invited him in. Rather, I’d waited till I was sure he’d found his way toward wherever he was staying for the night and wandered back out. In a large square, I’d leaned against a stone pillar, watching the Milky Way and listening to the chatter of young voices sharing spliff-fueled giggles.
On stage now, someone did a soundcheck and then trickled back down the stairs and out the side door. I caught the musky hint of a spliff once more. In the halo of lamplight, before the door swung shut, flecks of snow twirled loosely to the ground, and a lone figure leaned against the post.
I’d spent the morning wandering through art-laden streets dowsed in bright sunlight, unaware of the plummeting temperatures to come. I’d found a new, flat spot for Ruby in a gravel-covered lot just blocks from this bar. Now, I stared at anarchist dispatches and punk art missives tattooing walls and stanchions, lit in sapphire incandescence; laughed lightly at jokes made by businessmen whose names I’d learned and forgotten in the same breath; and kept my hand on my phone.
I looked up, and the bartender smiled, his patience amid the bustle a kindness. “Say again?”
“All done?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you. It was delicious,” I managed.
“The chef here does make good food.” He held my gaze half a beat longer and then whirled to stack the plate in a bussing bar behind him, before turning to the guy leaning in close to my right between me and the couple from out of town, credit card in hand, who ordered tequila shots for six and two Coronas.
I felt at a loss. Impotent. Drawn to put miles under Ruby’s tires so I could do what I couldn’t—fix it.
The warmth of the whiskey, the crowd, the energy in the room kept me seated. As the din grew to a quiet roar, I pocketed my phone, my hand still cradling it. Just breathe, I told myself. There will be a way.
“A-one, a-two, a-check.”
The Russian accent was unexpected. (I’d somehow missed the Igor part of the band’s name.) And when I looked toward the stage, a grin like a burst of wind beneath an abandoned kite tugged at my cheeks.
“Hey, everybody! We’re Igor and the Red Elivses.” The voice and frame and zebra-striped, bell-bottomed lounge suit all boomed in unison, ending in a high-pitched intake of air like a belch on helium. Igor’s, “One, two, three, four,” launched a joyful burst from the trumpet behind him. To the gregarious front man’s left, a dark-haired woman plucked a triangle-shaped, cherry red base as giant as she was petite. Behind John Lennon glasses, she expressed exaggerated surprise followed by knowing uncertainty and then cried, “Caramba!” The drummer, her violet hair soft and flying like fairy dust and power, pounded out the beat.
For the next two hours, a rambunctious, joyous mix of funk rock, surf, and rockabilly with a Slavic bent swarmed the room, lifting first my shoulders into the air. Only a couple more songs went by before my hips and feet followed. I joined the swirling, jumping, rocking crowd beneath the stage, leaping and swaying till sweat trickled between my breasts and down my temples. I couldn’t know then this would be my last chance to see live music and dance in public for the next three years.
Earlier, when dusk had merely been toying with daylight, my finger had hovered for a long time over the red icon that would end the call. I’d listened to one more calm round of soft, elongated exhale, inhale, exhale and pressed end. The silence rang loudly. Out Ruby’s window, a light snow had begun to flutter. In the morning, I would see how it dusted the hillside, lacquering the smattering of bright buildings so they shone like gems. I’d come up dry on my earlier excursion to find either one of my typical indoor shower go-tos (yoga studios, gyms, rec centers, and the like) or a discrete spot to set up the outdoor shower. (I didn’t know then the indoor spots would soon go the way of live music and the dodo anyway. Nor did I know just how brazen I’d become when it came to acceptable outdoor shower locales.)
For now, I was spent. I shivered. Though it was only March, I was surprised by the snow in this southern town just eleven miles from the Mexican border. Tense muscles ached for hot water pelting my skin. There’s always a way, I reminded myself.
I fired up my small propane heater, drew my curtains, and lit a fire under my tea kettle. Gathering towels, soaps, cloths, and lotions, I waited for the kettle’s belly to be hot against my palm and poured steaming water into the orange bowl that at the time functioned as my sink (my slightly more modern one still a year from being built). Holding piece by piece of me over it—face first, an arm next, my chest and belly, a thigh, a calf, and finally one foot at a time—I soaped and rinsed. Outside, I watched through a tiny, rectangle cutout in the windshield cover as the snowflakes grew larger.
I lit the fire under the kettle once more, wrapped my robe around me, folded my towel in quarters, and knelt. Prostrating myself before the bowl and gathering my then long hair, I poured the freshly heated water against the nape of my neck, aiming the runoff toward the bowl. A muffled yelp of pleasure-meets-pain escaped my lips as the heat landed its initial jab, followed by soothing waves, like a skilled masseuse with hot stones. Steam rose from my still bowed head. The lathering was exquisite. The rinsing was slightly more difficult, given its two opposing aims—to wash out the soap and keep the floor relatively dry.
Head wrapped tightly in a towel, I dried the floor with a rag and continued with the part-by-part sanctification of my corporeal being. Turning slowly so each part had its turn in communion with the glow of the little heater’s coils, I worked lotion in until the skin was rosy and silky and hot to the touch.
By the time I dressed and made my way across the two blocks to where Igor and the Red Elvises were preparing to play, dusk had given way to velvety night.
Looking through photos from Bisbee, I found one I’d taken of a postcard earlier in the day. A coffeeshop had offered the blank cards to fill out—a project called something like A Card for a Stranger. I can’t remember the details. Maybe you could also leave an address to one day be a recipient? No one to deliver to Ruby van Jangles, zip code 11111 (the joke return address I used over the years, which today I discovered is the postal code of Vinius, Lithuania). So, I’d participated in only the writing portion.
A wish for magic in the day-to-day and breaths of fresh air had been my message to a stranger. I'd signed off with this line, “May you know that wherever you’re at is OK and that change is constant and that I wish you well.” This I wish for all of you and for my beloved friends who this week must bid farewell to wife, mother, grandmother, confidante, heart.
The Rolling Desk is where I’m at long last sharing the work of my life. You who are here are my early readers, giving me your time and welcoming me to your inbox. Be still my heart. Your comments, your sharing, and your subscriptions mean the world to me.
I’d love to hear in the comments. When is a time you’ve found an unexpected way through? Danced despite worry or fear? Or found yourself unable, not yet seeing a way through? When have you been surprised by an unexpected change? Keenly aware of the constant fluctuation that moves these lives we lead?