“I’m on the verge of extinction!” my first dance partner shrilled, pressing an icy palm into the small of my back. “Cold fingers,” he said, rubbing his hands together.
“It’s okay,” I laughed, patting his arm. Something about him felt reassuring, familiar. With his tweed coat and easy smile, he reminded me of my adoring grandfathers, both long gone.
“Quick, quick, slow!” bellowed my next dance partner, perhaps a former drill sergeant.
“Quick, quick … sorry!” I yelped.
Despite his gruff manner, though, the guy had moves. Together, we were like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire — that is, if Ginger had towered over Fred and both had been directionally challenged. I grew a little worried; I didn’t want to be responsible for any broken hips. Mercifully, he soon turned red so we both sat out the next song.
As I watched an elderly couple shuffling on the dance floor, my thoughts wandered to my ex-boyfriend, Dave.
We’d met the previous winter, when I was recovering from a bad bout of pneumonia. (I have cystic fibrosis, a lung disease that requires me to take steroids and frequent doses of antibiotics.) Just as I started to feel better, a mutual friend suggested Dave and I meet for coffee.
Intrigue! I summoned my courage, slammed some DayQuil and met Dave at a cafe. He turned out to be tall, lanky, funny and smart. I was instantly attracted, and — in spite of my croupy coughing — so was he. We talked and laughed over tea, hot steam rising between us.
Over the next few weeks, we danced a skittish two-step, slowly getting to know each other. We’d both had our hearts stomped on before.
“I feel at home in myself with you,” he said one day, taking my hands in his. Two steps forward.
Then I didn’t hear from him for a week. Two steps back.
One night, he made a bold move.
“I haven’t felt like this about anyone in years,” he said. Instead of saying goodbye at the door to my apartment that evening, Dave came in and stayed till morning. Ten giant steps forward.
The next day, we went out for a long lunch. While we were swooning over each other and sharing sashimi, my beloved mother died of a heart attack, a thousand of miles away in Iowa. She’d been making coffee in the apartment she shared with her friend when she slumped to the floor.
Dave walked through a snow squall that night to bring me a hot, foil-wrapped falafel sandwich. I remember its warmth in my hands, how hard it was to swallow. Later, he stroked my hair as I lay in bed, reeling with the anguish of losing my mother and the euphoria of new love.
Looking back, I realize I imprinted on Dave like a baby duck. The logic was perfect in my mind: The universe had taken my mother away, but it wouldn’t be so cruel as to leave me with a gaping wound in my heart. No, Dave would fill it — despite the fact that, I was coming to learn, he had substance abuse issues and a serious fear of commitment. We’d live happily ever after. That was the math.
You can see where this was headed, right?
As I sat there on the community center bench, six months after our disastrous breakup, it dawned on me: Some things in life don’t add up. And sometimes, just when you think you’ve found your lifelong dance partner, the song ends and you spin apart.
“Say, did you come to dance or what?” the voice of a silver-haired man broke me out of my daydreaming.
I smiled and stood up.
In a roomful of men my own age, I wouldn’t have noticed this man. But here, amidst the shuffling carousel of seniors, this handsome elder really stood out. Unlike everyone else in the room, he was taller than me. He also had style: black satin shirt and gold necklace style. He strode up to me and bowed.
“May I have this dance?” he asked.
I felt a surge of admiration for him — for his outfit, so carefully planned, for his slicked-back hair, his full-body tremors, and the peppermint pocketed in his cheek. But most of all, for the wicked gleam in his right eye, which said: I’m still a handsome devil, and you’d be lucky to dance with me.
“I’d love to,” I said. And I meant it.
I took his hand and off we spun, dancing circles around everyone.
“You’re very good!” I yelled into his good ear, the left one. “Where did you study?”
“Eighty-seven!” he sang out.
No matter. We were flying. Disco beats pulsed through the speakers as my new friend and I whirled past couples in musty suits and squeaking orthopedics. Feeling girlish and free, I threw back my head and laughed like I hadn’t in months.
In that moment, none of it mattered: his age, my battered heart, our beaten-down bodies, or the sad songs that played inside us like broken records. (Surely at 87, he’d had his share of heartache.) What mattered was that we had, to paraphrase my late mother, picked ourselves up by the bootstraps and tried again.
Soon, this man, too, turned red and had to sit down. Worried that my next victim might have to leave the building on a gurney, I called it a day.
That night, as I lay in bed, my thoughts turned to Dave, as they did every night. And every morning. And every time I saw a sunset. Or a sunrise. Or took a walk in the park, saw a funny movie or a terrible one, or laughed, cried, breathed in, breathed out, or did absolutely nothing at all.
One of the last times I saw him, we were dancing in my living room. We were bouncing around to Weezer, laughing and pretending to forget that I’d soon be moving across country and our time together would end. Then a slow song came on and he pulled me close for one last dance. Nothing fancy, no formal steps, just the two of us pressed together the way people do when they both know it’s time to say goodbye.