By Fran Wolf
Ever since my father died, ever since I pulled the plug and killed him, Monday night had been therapy. My therapists say I have a tendency to denial. Tuesday was movement therapy. Thursday was my Fatherless Daughters’ Support Group. Those nights used to be dance nights. But Monday for the last year and half, I had therapy from 8:00 to 8:45, and then wrote in my journal at Café Caffeine alongside grey-haired poets and tongue-pierced barristas. Tonight, my therapist called before my librarian’s shift ended and said: “A change in schedule. You don’t mind, Carrie, do you? See you at 6:45.”
A new time, but everything else was the same.
“Maybe I’m ready. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I only did it a little.”
“The dancing is your choice, Carrie, you know that,” my therapist said as she looked past me to a picture of Icarus, his wings on fire as he tumbled from the sky. She leaned back in her chair, her legs tucked under a turquoise dress. ”Dancing compulsively through sorrow is like the fairy tale of the woman in the red shoes — an addictive, dysfunctional response to grief. You wanted space for solitude and healing. And I support you.”
“But all we do is talk about the same things, and then I go to Café Caffeine and write about the same things, and then I go home and cry about the same things. Maybe we need to do something else.”
“I’m not judging you, Carrie,” she said, drumming her fingers. “We create a space here for change. How you use that is up to you.”
So we analyzed and talked and then it was 7:30, and I was standing in the parking lot, rain falling on me. I looked at my reflection in my Civic’s window. My brown hair hung in a braid. Thirty-four, but I looked older in the raindrop image of my face. I looked up. Clouds hid the stars. I used to look for Orion after leaving a winter night dance. My father taught me my first constellations. He could still walk then; I must have been six or seven. I thought about finding a movie. I thought about Café Caffeine. Once I would have gone dancing. Swing. Even lindy though I couldn’t do a Charleston to save my life. A little waltz, some blues. Zydeco. Salsa! I didn’t lie to myself about dancing. I had no ear for the beat. But I had frame, strong arms, and just the right push of resistance in the hands. I’d be the first one on the dance floor, the last one off, and if a man didn’t ask me to dance, I’d walk up, smile, and tap one on the shoulder. And joy. I had joy.
A raindrop slid into my ear. I got into my Civic. I drove.
* * *
I parked a few doors from the Old Melody Tavern. It had continued without me. The blast of music when I opened the door, the money jar filled with $3 admissions (a fifty-cent increase), the morose volunteer ripping off tickets that no one bothered to take. Even the same band: Kudzu’s Kitchen. There was a roar of conversations under the music, and a swirl of floral print skirts as blue-jeaned gentlemen swung their ladies and half-sashayed down a wood floor. I was in my library-to-therapy, rain-damp black jeans, grey sweater, and beige lace-up walking shoes. I put in my money and stood in the shadows, my foot tapping to the beat.
I used to practice triple-time swing in the fiction aisles. I used to practice waltz pivots in the rare books archives. I love being a librarian as much as I loved dancing. Libraries have structure. Oh, there’s imagination and flights of whimsy. There’s randomness. But there’s mercy. You may not know the authors or have read the book open before you. But you know where you are whatever aisle you walk down. If only life could be like the Dewey Decimal system.
“Carrie! It is you!”
Susie laughed and rubbed her belly, saying, “Yes, look at me! Married and pregnant, and they said it couldn’t be done! I’ve got two more weeks of dancing and then it’s staying home…”
“Oh, I’ve been busy, too,” I stammered. “Learning about e-book archiving, thinking about a Ph.D, you know, all work and no play…”
“Well, it’s good to see you back in the world of the living,” interrupted Lisa. She was dressed for contra as if it was salsa with a Spandex black shirt, a sparkle of glitter at her cleavage, and a crimson skirt two inches too long to be a mini. She could carry it off, too, even at 43. Lisa gave me a hug and said before walking off: “Or is it just that all the therapists are on vacation this week?”
I asked Susie if she had a name picked out.
“We’ve got four books of baby names,” said Susie, repeating her favorites as Kudzu’s Kitchen droned a repetitive series of notes.
Sure enough, the caller hollered partner swing. The dance would end soon. Susie fled to the john. I stayed along the wall. Lisa and I used to be friends. Good friends. Lisa knew about my father. I hadn’t wanted to think of my father, not now when I was finally at a dance, but how could I not after what Lisa said? How could I not remember being a girl and watching my father grip the kitchen chairs’ top to chair top in hand over shaking hand. An abyss of empty space yawned between the chairs to the kitchen counter, perhaps three feet. My father would rock back and forth. One hand clutched the flimsy chair. The other, still shaking, reached for the counter. He would push himself off the chair and into the counter top bracing his fall with arms that were sweat and loose skin. He would sway over shreds of white notepaper where he had written the times of his last medication for Parkinson’s Disease. I would jump up, run to my closet, close my eyes, pump my fists, and know that if I just believed hard enough, my father would walk with me to the ice cream store, play Frisbee, stand up and say hello when my friends came over, fly off with me to a better world.
Dancers flowed off the floor seeking new partners. I still wanted that better world, but I stayed along the shadowed wall and looked at Lisa across the dance floor as she talked with two men. Most women didn’t like Lisa. Most men did. Her hair was shoulder length and frosted gold, auburn, red. She still had a zigzag scar on her left cheek from that car crash. It was like her to not have it removed.
The band whined fiddles into tune as dance lines formed. A man walked up to me. He didn’t say a word. We joined the nearest line. He had brown hair and he kept staring at a point just past my shoulder. Brown t-shirt. Navy blue jeans. The caller yelled, partner swing. My partner jerked his hands out of his pockets. We were off. Off step. Off beat. Off kilter. My shoe had slipped its knot. We tripped on it as we did a ladies chain with a courtesy turn, gypsy and swing your neighbor, then follow a right hand star up and down a line of couples kicking my ankles or crushing my toes as their feet snarled around my flailing shoe lace.
I lurched. I plodded. I remembered joy as if a ghost had returned to revive my stiff body. Sweat streamed down my face. I breathed in ragged gulps and blurted hello to an ex-boyfriend I hadn’t seen since my father died.
“I’m great,” Doug yelled above the music. His tight frame compensated for my spinning about as if I were an unbalanced top. “Married now. How’s you?”
He released me and was gone. My partner and I tripped over my shoelace past people who yelled: “…where’ve you been, just bought a house…what’s new, my daughter graduated…just got back from a Caribbean dance cruise, where’ve you …” Past my former fiancé Kramer, whose blue eyes widened during our gypsy turn, and who looked away, saying “…good to see you, of course, dancing again, I’m leaving for Boston, tenure track at U Mass…” He held me in a swing. Then he was gone. I watched his bald head and muscular frame stand out from the rows of dancers. I stumbled past Lisa who didn’t smile when she took my hand in a ladies chain. Finally the caller yelled last partner swing, gents keep it long and romantic. My partner stepped on my shoelace until my leg nearly pivoted apart at the knee.
Kudzu’s Kitchen killed the tune. I limped to the wall. I imagined Lisa saying, why, Carrie, you’re not dancing. Kudzo’s Kitchen began slaughtering a waltz. The break would be next. I could escape home then. I slipped further into the shadows, a fantasy in my head building of me in a black satin gown dancing with Fred Astaire to a Cole Partner tune, maybe “Begin the Beguine.” My therapists say I engage in magical thinking. But I know the way a dance gives you a swing and a step into all you could want. Only I was in the corner. Voices and laughter were on the dance floor.
* * *
Once home, I went to my spare closet. Stacked in dusty pairs were my black and white saddle shoes for lindy, my red Clarks with no skid soles, stiletto sandals I bought when my salsa confidence was rising. There were Spandex tops flecked with the glitter I used to highlight my cleavage during zydeco dances, and a green halter dress I bought just before my father died. Back then my brother had been seeking enlightenment at a Zen monastery. My mother was divorced in spirit, if not law. My father had a stroke, pneumonia, another stoke, pneumonia again, and the doctors stopped predicting when he would die and said instead that the Parkinson’s prevented physical therapy that would have restored the muscle use that would have made it possible to swallow the medications so he could have the physical therapy, and no one knew what my father understood behind his wide open blue eyes, and the choice was weeks, months, years alone in a body turned to stone on a narrow, sweat-soaked bed, an IV tube streaming nutrients into his arm. I said no. For him. Or for me? The doctors disconnected life support. He died a week later. There was nothing of my father in this closet.
On Tuesday night, I danced at my movement therapy session, expressing how I had made the world a better place at work. The library elevator had stuck. People were pounding on the doors and pushing the alarm buzzer. Someone needs to call the fire department, someone said. Someone needs to press the emergency button, someone else said. I had walked out from behind the reference desk, cut a path through the crowd, eased my fingers into the crack where the metal doors met, breathed deep and slowly, slowly pushed the doors apart. I didn’t think about it. I just moved. People stared. So did the movement therapist.
“Your body looked so hard,” she said, twirling her black ringlets. “Determined. Yes, I feel it was a response to your traumatic childhood. Be still for the rest of our session. Be your vulnerable, authentic self.”
On Thursday night, the therapist facilitating my Fatherless Daughter’s Support group agreed “Yes, it’s safe for you to feel your inner child, the frightened girl your father would have loved if he had fulfilled his role.” Yes, yes called out a Comcast executive who makes $100,000 a year but is ashamed because her father never said he was proud of her; yes called out a McArthur Fellow who writes poems about betrayal, disappearance, radical fathers who left on a Sunday morning to get the paper and returned years later when the McCarthy hearings were over and so was American communism; yes, yes, yes called out women who meet their fathers for coffee once a week but just don’t feel their father is there for them. “But women,” I said, “You didn’t pull the plug.”
On Friday, I left the library on my lunch hour and saw Lisa reading in the courtyard. I sat down next to her on a bench beside a madrone tree. Lisa looked up at me open and steady, just as she had in the days after my father died. In those days, she had been everywhere, picking me up at the airport, listening for hours in phone calls or over omelets and red potatoes at Valentino’s. I remembered what she had learned about fathers, daughters, death: the car crash that had scarred her, and days later, killed her husband; her father, who had never forgiven the marriage, and who had died, years later, without Lisa’s forgiveness.
“It’s been forever since I went dancing, I didn’t need you ruining it the other night,” I stammered. “You knew what happened to my father. I thought you’d understand.”
“Oh, but I did understand. I’m your friend, remember?” She took a bookmark from the hardcover and placed it between yellowed pages. The bookmark had my favorite Groucho Marx quote: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” She tapped the cover and said, “But you walked off from your friends. As if dying didn’t happen to all of us.”
“It didn’t just happen to my father…”
“Please. I know,” Lisa said. She touched my hand for a moment and said softly, “A respirator forcing oxygen into and out his lungs, a feeding tube in his stomach…”
“And maybe you wouldn’t feel so guilty. But you wouldn’t have loved him. Someone needed to love him enough to kill him.”
I blinked into the bright, cold January sunlight and felt pinpricks behind my eyelids. I didn’t cry. I’d been crying for a year and a half. I watched pigeons and sparrows in a world where there were wind-beaten madrones and a library filled with books and people searching for a good story. Not just a story to read; a story to live inside; a story to live by. People, who streamed in and out of the library, just as people had streamed onto the dance floor, kicked their heels and promenaded. People who changed jobs, careers, babies, and fell in or out of love while I had talked about my father, cried about my father, processed and expressed the father-daughter relationship, and shelved books, and nothing brought my father back or made me the one who didn’t kill him.
“It wasn’t fair,” I said.
“No, it wasn’t,” said Lisa, opening her book.
“You think I should go dancing again?”
Lisa was silent. I shifted on the cold bench.
“I’m pretty rusty, I suppose I could sign up for a beginner’s class somewhere…”
“I suppose you could,” said Lisa. She kept reading.
“I suppose there’s a swing class somewhere…”
“I suppose there is.”
“Although it seemed like everything was shifting to salsa…”
“Swing, salsa, somewhere there’s a class.”
“I suppose I could talk about it with my therapist, see what she thinks…”
Lisa snapped the hardcover shut. A horde of pigeons flew up.
“Yes. You do that. You talk to your therapist. Have her consult with her therapist. Then talk with your therapist again. Then years will go by, and you’ll be wondering if you’re ready to go dancing before you’re too old for a one-step.”
“Fuck you!” I was too angry to know what else to say.
Lisa turned to me, her scar gleaming like a snake about to strike. I thrust my arms out, palms up, blocking her. Her eyes softened. She nodded.
“Carrie, do you really want to know what I think you should do?” Her voice was as if we were still friends in a life I could go back to.
“Yes.” I lowered my hands but kept them stretched out.
“Take a beginning class somewhere. Swing, salsa, zydeco, it doesn’t matter. Tango, for God’s sake! There’s not a second that goes by that we don’t get closer to dying. What matters is living your life again. It’s the only one you’ve got.”
She looked me up and down. I know what she saw. Brown jacket and a beige shirt. Brown pants. She looked away and said, “Get your hair done. A perm, frosting, something. New clothes. Red lipstick. And don’t run off after the class. Talk with the women. Flirt with the men. The way you used to.”
“Do you think I should leave therapy?” I asked.
The Madison Street church bell chimed.
Lisa shoved her book into her briefcase. She shrugged and said: “Carrie, all a broken heart means is that you’re alive.”
She walked across the courtyard, turned, and blew me a kiss. Then she walked across Madison and didn’t look back.
* * *
By Sunday, I was done thinking about it. I picked up the phone. I hung up at the sound of the Monday therapist’s voice mail. I hit re-dial and left a message. She called to say we hadn’t reached closure and needed more sessions before she agreed to end therapy. The other therapists said the same thing. I said no. I was gone. I was scared.
Monday I did Internet searches during my coffee break. I signed up for a zydeco class that would start next week. I signed up for a waltz class that would begin next month. I wrote in my calendar every contra dance between now and then.
Monday night loomed. I made an omelet for dinner. I ironed a batik jumper. I found a pink t-shirt and dusted off my red shoes. I got into the Civic. I drove.
The Old Melody was jammed. I searched the crowd for a smile, a familiar face. We had searched, my therapists and I, through myth, theory, family story for the father as superego, the father as a bridge between daughters and the world, the father who is a daughter’s first and forbidden love, the father who is bearer of food, shelter, refuge in a night of nightmares. We found my father: a bookkeeper for thirty years who couldn’t walk into shops without people gawking at his tremors until, finally, he stayed home. Something was out of order. A library established clarity and predictability. But out here, in the world, the books and pages of life were strewn any old which way. Still open though; still read.
The dance started. I stepped onto the dance floor. I was lucky. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. Partner swing, yelled the caller. I looked into the eyes of this stranger, my partner. We turned in a counterbalance of speed and trust, smiled, and danced our way up the line.
Copyright 2015 Wolf