I Should Have Danced With Her

A personal history of missed opportunities

Illustrations by the author

In my high school gym class, they taught us how to dance. This was bad of them, having gym. Why is there gym?

If you immediately have an answer for this, you’re part of the problem.

I hated changing in the locker room. Before high school, I’d heard reports that they forced students to shower after gym. My fear lingered. I kept expecting the gym teacher to step into the room or unfold himself out of a locker and say, “Strip.” Those who remained clothed would be undressed violently by the nude and then dragged into the communal shower.

Only one good thing happened in the locker room. I saw my first real fight.

Brian Shaw, an old friend, battled against a wild kid, a youth freshly shucked from the deep woods. We had many wild woods kids at my high school. They had pine sap for blood, animal eyes in their heads, and they spoke only one language: heavy metal.

Erskine Academy was a Roman outpost, a hub of order surrounded by several barbarian kingdoms. Forest Kingdoms of Maine: Chelsea, China, Jefferson, Palermo, Somerville, Vassalboro, Whitefield, and Windsor.

I had been collected from the sticks of Palermo. Yes, I was of the woods, but not as much as many of the children raked out of the deeper forests.

Some of these kids were gigantic men. Bearded. Driving real trucks on real roads since they were 13. When they marched the halls in their steel-toed boots of war, they marched in straight lines down the dead center like Moses, like crows, and their eyes were on something far away that none one else could see. But I know what they saw. They saw the woods waiting for them on the other side of high school, their wolf parents ready to coronate them with crowns of knives and bones.

The forest child who fought Brian Shaw in the locker room hated him. Brian was “from away,” which is what Mainers say about anyone born outside of Maine. In other words, born unnaturally. And Brian hated the forest child for hating him.

Hate is like potatoes: it grows in the dark and each growth can produce many more, and in France, hate is salty and cigarette-shaped and wonderful, but it gives Americans heart disease. As my mother always says, “Hate in moderation.”

The fight

In this corner: the forest child. Small and pale, smelling of pot and chainsaws, a Gollum with long black hair and a T-shirt screaming the word “Pantera.” God, when he made this child, was in an Old Testament mood. Instead of a brain, he had filled the kid’s head with locusts and wasps.

And in this corner: Brian Shaw. From away. Thick glasses. Jacked-up teeth. A very smart and hilarious kid. A wordsmith whose words got him into trouble with the woods and its children.

Gollum yelled at Brian. Brian yelled back. Then the potato dance of hate began.

I was raised by the fighting professor: my beloved mentor Dr. Indiana Jones. The sound artists of those movies are the only people in the world who know what punches are supposed to sound like. When you punch someone, it’s supposed to sound like a cricket bat slapping a leather bag full of heads. Nazi heads.

And, according to Indiana Jones, when you fight someone, always punch them in the head. They punch you in the head too. The difference is, you’re from the United States, which means you’re brimming with diarrhea from all the amber waves of grain you ate, so you bring a gun to a sword fight.

What I mean is, you win big.

As I watched Brian and Gollum circle each other, I was terrified. Fights have gravity and can pull outsiders in. Study any cartoon fight or bar fight. Though they start small, they eventually include everyone. But I was also excited. I anticipated seeing haymaker punches to the head. Fists booming against faces as loud as gunpowder, sharp as bullwhips, but also deep, the sound of sucker punching a whale in the belly. Heads would jerk back. The fighters would wipe their hands across their lips, look at the blood, smile, then spit out a tooth or two. Brian would roar the incomprehensible alien anthem of all those who are from away, and the forest child would howl in the name of his barbarian gods: Slayer, Megadeth, and Alice, The One Who Is In Chains.

What I saw instead was a slap in the face of Dr. Jones, and a disgrace to archaeology.

What I saw were literal slaps to the face. Not punches. These were punch attempts, but the hands chickened out halfway to the faces and opened up like flying squirrels, gliding gently to their destinations.

No anthems were roared that day, and not a howl was howled. What noises were made? Whiny grunts. And each combatant hit the floor, but not from colossal knuckle blows to the head. No. They simply slipped on the greasy concrete. Greased by old sweat. Old shame.

Then the worst thing happened.

Gollum climbed onto Brian’s back and pulled his hair until Brian collapsed screaming on the floor and yielded.

I was so embarrassed. Hair pulling? My wind-pants and I turned away. But first, I saw a confused look on Gollum’s face, a look that said, “I… won, I guess?”

I hope he’s still guessing, because the answer is, “No, Gollum, you did not win. Animals fight that way, unchurched animals. They slap and whine and tear out each other’s hair and never once ball up their fists like Christians. God, the maker of fists, has turned away from you, he and his pants made of the wind.”

It was funny to go from seeing Brian and Gollum furiously slipping on sweat and slapping each other to seeing them ballroom dancing with reluctant partners in the gym.

It was not funny when I also had to ballroom dance with reluctant partners. The gravity of the locker room fight had not pulled me in, but the gravity of the dance floor? It got me.

It got all of us.

We learned to ballroom, to tango, and to swing against our will.

As a result, and to my surprise, I caught the bug. The swing dancing bug. I taught my sister how and we danced for relatives. It became our thing. Every time we saw my grandmother, she withheld her love from us until we danced. I didn’t mind. Swing dancing with my sister was like fighting her. I got to spin and toss and shove her around while roaring and howling commands like, “I’m the leader! I lead!” and “Follow! FOLLOW!”

The only dancing I did after that was the enforced kind at weddings. It’s not officially enforced, just socially. It is a living hell to be the lone stud sitting at a round table as big as King Arthur’s while all the knights are on the dance floor, wiggling the night away with their Under Armoured butts.

So, I danced. I refused to be that lonely knight, sitting there, a stunned smile on my face, thinking, Tonight I’ll be home again and this will be over. This doesn’t even matter. Yeah, I’m single, so what? A lot of people are single. What time is it? I know! I’ll eat this ice. Then I won’t look like I’m just sitting here, single. On the contrary, I’m eating ice. Your ice too, you dancing bastards.

But when I danced at weddings, I danced, as the kids say, ironically. I shimmied and writhed in funny ways. My goal was to make anyone watching me realize that I knew what I was doing. I was being funny. If anyone thought I was dancing for real, really trying, that would have been a disaster.

Therefore, dancing at weddings where almost everyone knew me, I was funny. Dancing at weddings where no one knew me…

Horrible.

No one laughed. They thought I was twitching like that in earnest. Really going for it. Hard.

I’m angry at them for judging me. “You couldn’t handle me really going for it.”

And I’m angry at them for their dancing, their ability to let go and twist and squirm and mean it, their freedom to become dumb metaphors. Here are a bunch of characters at the end of their stories, all dancing for the same reason because they’re strong now. They love themselves. It should be raining. They are spinning. The words “with abandon” are used.

Screw you and your spinning and your rain and your loving yourself. I come to the end of my story, this night on the dance floor with you, and I am very uncomfortable with every single one of my body’s musical shapes. That guy out there, doing the worm, vertically, that’s me being true to myself, but nobody celebrates that.

I should have danced with her

After college, I went to a low residency master's program for writing. “Low residency” means all the students and teachers gather together only a couple times a year. The rest of the time, each student is writing and reading at home and corresponding with a faculty mentor.

When I was halfway to graduation, the program gained the famous journalist, memoirist, and novelist Joyce Maynard.

And rumors claimed that at the next gathering of the school, there would be a talent show, a chance to catch her eye. Maybe she would be my mentor and teach me how to wear the heavy armor of fame.

The talent show rules: Participants were not supposed to offer poems or stories. Instead, we were encouraged to present hidden talents. Sing. Play a fiddle. March to the beat of a different drummer. Bring a drum. Whatever just surprise us.

So, I decided I was going to sing. I don’t know why I decided this. I don’t sing in public. In church, I always speak the hymns under my breath as if I’m uttering spells. For “Happy Birthday,” I yell the song to avoid singing it.

I guess I wanted to sing because Joyce was going to be there. She would see how brave I was to be singing when I had no right. She would know that bravery isn’t the absence of fear. Bravery is when you’re afraid, terrified, and you sing in public anyway.

Who hasn’t become a fool in the presence of power? You?

You haven’t lived.

I picked the song made famous by Hank Snow and Johnny Cash: “I’ve Been Everywhere.” To sing this song, you have to musically list about a thousand places. I have a good memory, so I learned the names of a thousand places and practiced every day. Soon, I felt ready to sing to Joyce.

I was shaving my head at this time in life. Why? I wanted to prove to myself I was good-looking enough to survive a tragic haircut. To cover it up, which of course I did, I wore a hat. Not just any hat, it was a woolen flat cap, the kind newsies wore a long time ago, and the kind used nowadays to tie off douchebags. It’s also the national hat of acorns.

I freshly shaved myself bald, placed my cap on top, then went to the bar where the talent show was being held. Soon, it was my turn, and I took to the little stage and began singing my song to a roomful of artists, looking everywhere for Joyce.

She wasn’t there.

A live band had been hired, and the drummer took it upon himself to lay down a rhythm while I sang, but my timing was so unique it presented no comfortable place for rhythm. I provided only a bed of uneven nails. No sane rhythm would lie down there, so the drummer eventually stopped. And I went on, rapidly naming place after place the songwriter had been, and thinking all the time, Me? I haven’t been anywhere, man, and where is Joyce?

I finished the song, received my pity applause, then sat down, bald as a broken acorn under my cap and red in the face. I clapped and cheered for other performers, but I didn’t really hear or see anything. I was too busy wondering if I had just ruined myself.

Then, suddenly, things got worse.

The talent show disintegrated and was born again, but it was a dance party now.

A whirlwind of people shoved tables out of the way to make room, and this put my seat, formerly protected by several tables, on the front lines of the dance floor.

And there she was, out of nowhere: Joyce Maynard.

Long brown hair. Turquoise jewelry everywhere. Eyes so big and bright brown I almost forgot to notice her shimmering silver pants, each leg a mermaid tail tucked into starry ballerina combat-boots. Whirling and twirling in the center of the dance floor. Where had she been before? In the air, that hint of danger, waiting for the magic of movement to summon her into our lives.

I watched her fearlessness, mesmerized, and wondered if she could ever mentor a man who only knew how to wiggle ironically.

Suddenly, as if she’d heard my thought and answered, “Of course. I could mentor irony itself,” she gazed out of the kaleidoscope storm she was weaving with the human bodies of poets and storytellers, and she saw me.

She smiled. Then she headed my way! No, she danced my way. And as she drew closer and closer, her arms began to reach out, and her hands opened to take mine.

Yes, this literary deity wanted to dance with me.

What was she thinking!

I was afraid. I’d already spent all my bravery. Could I do my hilarious wiggle here? Never. No one would understand.

When the famous writer was close enough for me to stand, for me to offer my hands, I did this instead: I put up one hand, the universal sign of “Stop,” and I shook my acorn head, the universal sign of, “No.”

I think I smiled while I did it. Did I? I hope so. That at least would have meant “No thank you.” I’m not sure. But I do know what happened next.

Joyce did not miss a single beat. She turned from me, still smiling, and wondrously spun her way back into the dance. It was as if she had not been rejected at all. Because she had not been. I had handily rejected myself. That’s all that happened. And to her, it was a very little happening. You could tell by the look on her face, the bliss. She had invited a very small creature into a deadly but necessary paradise, and that creature had made a mistake. He had burrowed. She knew there was no reason to be upset. She understood all the hurt was mine.

Could I have known that I would be too scared to dance with her?

Oh, yes, there were signs.

Another tragic dance floor, longer ago

There are things about weddings I hate. I hate it when they smash faces with cake. I like this at any other time, but not at weddings. Think of the makeup of the bride and groom, the hair, the fancy clothes. Now ruined with cake. I don’t care if people are laughing. It isn’t funny. I don’t care if people are clapping. People clap at dog fights too. Does that make my dog win? Sometimes. Clapping enrages him. My point is, just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean it should ever be done again.

I also hate the open mic. Disaster. To speak in front of people, you must be as prepared as Anthony Hopkins who reads scripts 300 times in a row, to get the language into his soul. The open mic is like stabbing an above-ground pool with a bayonet. It all comes out, and fast, and it’s full of ugly surprises.

But the thing I hate most is when a bride sits on a chair, then a groom, in front of his grandmother and pastor, takes part of the bride’s underwear off. Then he pitches the underwear at a little troop of men.

Am I remembering this right? Could this be something that actually happens?

Well, it happened at the wedding I went to long ago. But before the scrap of underwear was removed and flung, the bride had tossed her bouquet to a gang of women who fought for it on the floor.

A young woman emerged from the pile of bodies and held the bouquet aloft like Conan, like a Thundercat.

In the eyes of the man-squad forcibly gathered to catch the underwear, the young woman armed with the bouquet was not cool. And it mattered to the squad because, at this wedding, the dude who caught the underwear had to dance with the one who held the bouquet.

It mattered to me too. I was one of the dudes. I hadn’t yet learned to dance ironically, and I didn’t want to be paired in public with the uncool.

Though I don’t remember, I imagine the bouquet woman smiling, still beaming from having beaten up her friends and relatives for the flowers. I see her. She’s a winner and smiling big and having a great day. I imagine her looking at the groom as he prepares to sling underwear. She’s still happy. She looks at the gathered dudes. Still happy.

When the groom turned his back, the room counted “Three! Two! One!” then he threw the underwear over his shoulder.

Up it went. It soared. Most underwear isn’t aerodynamic, but this piece was blooming with bead wads, so it moved. Up and up, then down and down toward the men.

What the young woman saw next was unfortunate. What she saw was a group of men wildly diving out of the way of the descending underwear. That bit of cloth landed on the floor in the middle of us with a beady “crack.” We stood in a ring around it. No one touched it.

The woman had just seen many gentlemen endanger themselves by mad maneuvers to get out of the way of dancing with her. Everyone else saw too. It was all out in the open for everyone to see.

The DJ noticed the little tragedy and mercifully moved us along to the next event. That’s how it was handled. We simply skipped the underwear-bouquet dance. To this day, it remains undone. The ceremony is incomplete. For all I know, the bride and groom are now divorced, and I feel a little responsible.

About 10 minutes after I dove away from the underwear, it hit me. Not the underwear. That opportunity was gone forever. I was hit by what I should have done.

I should have danced with her.

I should have leapt into the air, reaching for that dropping underwear like it was my only ticket out of hell. I should have caught it in my teeth, proud as a bear catching salmon. I should have worn the underwear around my arm, my leg, my neck, whatever, and then I should have ballroomed and tangoed and swung with that woman all over the dance floor, sweeping away the memory of the men who fell there.

But I didn’t.

And if I couldn’t dance in front of people with a bouquet warrior princess because she was “uncool” and I was afraid, who else might I not dance with someday?

A poverty-stricken, soft Batman. Here are some drawings: arkories.tumblr.com. And here’s a blog: danwilliamsbayou.wordpress.com

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