Stacy Parker Le Melle, This is for All the Best Dancers at St. Bernadette’s

I leave the Catholic Church in my early teens and only return on occasion, and only to parishes that I think are progressive. But in 1999, I decide to go to the Holy Thursday service to hear the telling of the Last Supper. This is during my exile years—the time I retreat to my hometown of Detroit after leaving my White House job to pursue life as a writer. I am sleeping in my old bedroom and taking temp jobs in glassy office parks. I am searching, but feel very stuck. I am 25.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The big suburban church that night is standing room only. I’m ten minutes late and can only find space against the back balcony wall. I stand. I wait. Soon I hear the story: how Jesus reveals what the disciples cannot believe, that one of them will betray him, and that another will deny him three times before the cock crows. We know how the story ends but it is Catholic ritual to meet on this night and listen.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But tonight there’s this young man down the pews. He’s white, with a crew cut. He’s looking at me. Looking at brown, all-by-myself me. A little older-than-himself me. And all I can think is: what kind of girl does he think I am? He’s reading this picture, but how can he know that I am only here to hear this part of the story, that I won’t be back tomorrow or on Easter Sunday? How can this buzzcut boy have any idea how disobedient I am, when there’s all of this anticipation of passion, thick as incense smoke, in the air?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The church lights darken and we file out as the Good Friday vigil begins, but in the parking lot, the young man and I have a quiet moment—a how are you? A may I see you again? And when he calls me, at a respectful time the next day, I learn he is from Bloomfield Hills, that rich northern suburb near mine where Mitt Romney grew up and Aretha Franklin’s house burned down. I don’t know what to make of this young man with the haircut that passes him off as both a grunt and a boy child. The haircut that makes him resemble the white boys that shot cold glances at me in school hallways (if they noticed me at all).
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But yet, there’s his voice: present, kind, lacking edge or anxious posing. A decision is made. When he asks me out, I say yes.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎We need to talk about his car: a 1965 cherry red Mustang in perfect condition. This is the vehicle he pulls into my parents’ driveway. When he opens the door for me—of course he opens the door—he invites me to be the beige Grace Kelly, and I oblige, if tying a scarf around my head and hair is obliging. And as I slide in along that bench seat and quickly reach over to reciprocate the courtesy, I imagine I’ve submitted to a reverse virginal procedure, not as rude as hymen reconstruction (the opposite intent of the Ford manufacturers, I’m sure) but what you imagine is happening when you rub mud on yourself and slip into the Dead Sea or when you sit in a clean steam room and ask the water to heal.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Yes, I slide into that 60s movie, that movie that never was because no one in the 60s was making films about The Lovings, or about a Romney boy asking out his crush: the outspoken brown girl who is attractive to him, and to others, but not all, definitely not the other white boys in her high school, for she is neither fair nor fashionably slim. Yes, she already has a few notable achievements, given her prestigious work in Washington, DC and her scholarship to Oxford. There’s plenty enough to like about her. But if they made that movie, I’d watch with hands over my eyes because you know there’d be cross burnings, disownings, and so many tears. I think about my white mother and black father who met in 1973.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎If they made a movie about my mother’s relationship with her grandparents thereafter, there’d be two acts of blank screen—the decades of no talking, of closed doors and willful omissions.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But no cameras follow as he drives us to the most thoughtful dates. A stable for horseback riding. A night at Barnes and Noble—browsing together, choosing our purchases carefully, with the real action happening in the parking lot, in the car, when we sit so close together and read to one another.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He reads to me from a short story collection, the author Richard Ford. The words on the pages come soft from his mouth. He is not purring in my ear but there is an entering, the kind that a man’s voice can create, the way water can find its way into the mantle of the earth to where there is more water waiting to absorb it. Street lamps burn and so does the interior light, and in the silence between sentences we can hear the hum of Telegraph Road—up here in the far suburbs where there’s more roadside trees and sod and shops called shoppes, and he reads to me, and then, I read to him.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎You’d think I’d been assaulted the way I hover above, outside of my body. I’m in the moment but so outside of it, too, unbelieving that this young man would be so full of intent beyond the beeline to unzip the garments that must be stripped away for sex. I watch as if this were a movie, because I can’t help but ask: who does this? No other man of any color or creed has been so bulls-eye solicitous, planning the kinds of things I loved to do. Who does this, I think, except the virginal twin that he is?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎For he’s a virgin. He told me this. I don’t remember how I reacted. I’m sure I tried to act as if I didn’t find his admission startling. Yes, we’re talking about the way you train your face not to betray any emotion other than acceptance when you hear of someone’s disability. Everything I’ve been taught about men and sex leads me to worry there must be something broken about him. A man who is still a virgin in his early twenties, on purpose? A man who is handsome and has resources and to the world looks like the perfect buzzcut boyfriend—why would he abstain? Oh, there’s that Catholic wait ‘til you’re married business, but how could he evade the same raptures and routines of every other young man I knew? All the heat seekers, always seeking? I couldn’t believe that he’d choose virginity unless he had to, unless something, and I’m not talking obedience to the church, was holding him back.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Or giving him an advantage, for he’s a twin. I have yet to meet his brother, but I know they both live in their mother’s house. This brother has been with him since the very beginning and I feel envy, because what is a twin but the perfect intimate, the completion of the yin and yang in the womb? Maybe you can’t have sex with your twin (or you shouldn’t) but so much of what I seek when I touch another is the chance of great knowing, the chance to be allowed somewhere inside a person, and they inside you, in a sudden borderlessness that of course cannot last, but is profound. I wonder if this boy, this perfect buzzcut boy, already has this intimacy at home, and that’s why he can stay a virgin, if it is indeed the case that he is a heterosexual man, with a red-blooded sex drive he’s been really good at containing. I am twenty-five. I don’t know what to think.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎When he drops me off, there’s no scene in the driveway. No fogged windows. No nabs at what’s in my bra or panties. I think there’s a lingering kiss, but there’s nothing that makes me worry my parents or the neighbors could be watching. Just a nice, chaste goodbye, one that I imagine makes him feel successful.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎And then he invites me to the party. The swing dance party. This is his hobby. His love. He and his friends dance in each other’s basements, or at special nights at local clubs. On this night, the party is in his parents’ Bloomfield Hills basement. A regular two-story colonial, nothing new-money obscene about it in a town full of recent wealth. I am not intimidated, but I never forget that this is Bloomfield Hills, even as the mother smiles (so very welcoming) even though I have never met her and don’t know if this is how she always is. This, despite my being older than her son, despite our color difference though, if you listen to us talk, listen to our tongues, our accents, there’s cultural sameness, for I grew up here in these white towns of suburban Detroit, and the tongue, my tongue, is shared, is mine, is theirs, is ours. Yes this weighs on me, as does the knowledge that I don’t know how to swing dance.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I’ll teach you, he says.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎
No, I don’t know how.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎
Oh, I’ll show you.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎
We’ve all seen Swingers and the big swing dance revival has been around but hasn’t died yet. I admired the dancers I saw on screen, and wished I could be as pretty as a twirled Heather Graham with her pinwheeling hair, wished I could take it back to the major movie of my childhood, Grease, and declare that I was the best dancer at St. Bernadette’s, and out-dance Olivia Newton John for the trophy on nationwide TV. People still threw swing dance parties, teachers gave classes, but I never stepped forward, never tried to learn, just as I’ve never learned card games, never learned anything that involved instructions while also trying to drink. Never learned how to dance “correctly” with another person, if correctness is based on form, adherence to agreed rules, and one person leading while the other follows. I love to dance, but it’s always been solo in a group. We watch each other, mirror if we want, but nothing lockstep about it, no shoeprints in a pattern, no teacher telling us to do it again.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎My black grandmother said she used to dance swing. She could Savoy Ballroom with the best of them. But that talent didn’t transfer to me, the way the dream sequence wants, with no work, just inheritance. I know that if I walk to the center of that Bloomfield basement, I will not suddenly know what to do to make the perfect boy look like he found the perfect girl. I will ruin the picture. This is my fear. My failure.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I tell buzzcut boy no. On his dancefloor. There are lights above. Maybe even a disco ball. Is that polished concrete? All I see are the encircling white friends, so supportive with their smiles. No. I feel them. The clutch of expectation. His smile, his outstretched hand. Please. Please dance with me. No. I shake my head. No. I can’t. The friends clap. The friends plead. He is the host. I am his girl. They want to see their friend made happy. They want the motion picture we have promised. No. I shake my head. This is taking too long. I’m resisting too long. Suddenly I can feel the anxiety as they realize I must mean it, that I won’t be budged. But there’s one last communal plea: the beloved boy has chosen you and we love him and therefore we love you right now so please, our friend has asked you to dance, won’t you give him this dance?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎
Fifteen years later, I’m still ashamed. If a human reaches out his hand to you, you grab it. At least for a dance. I thought I knew how the story ended. How the dance would be disastrous, how there could be no future for us, no matter how winning the smiles or welcoming the mother, how in my mind, now, he is not even his name, he is a haircut, a car, and in quiet moments, a voice. I thought I knew the ending so I wrote it like that. So much so that years later I will be married and I will be in a writing workshop with a brilliant and damaged writing instructor. The kind of man with a chest wound that gapes so wide I can see the sun rise on the other side. We will workshop a classmate’s story and debate how believable it is when this rambling man character tries to settle down and have a relationship with the angelic woman protagonist. I will speak up, say that it is indeed possible that he can try, that he can even believe for a while that he can begin fresh and start a new kind of life with the virginal bride. And with a deft swiftness my teacher continues my thought, sketches a scene of a Tumbling Dice kind of man sitting at a Texas table, so close to the rivers that flow to the Gulf, sitting across from the woman’s hearth in a perfect four-square house. She wants only to make everything right so he will stay, and for that night, that month, maybe that year, he will. But then that ache speaks inside him. His eyes follow the curves of the passing women passing through town. And he has not healed. Not healed enough to be able to be the man the woman wants him to be. And he leaves.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎And the teacher calls on the next raised hand, but I am still in that moment, that shared understanding that for humans, really, anything is possible. Or, when it comes to relationships, there’s limitless ways to fail.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But if I could return to that fiction workshop, I’d pull the writer aside and say, hey, you do what’s true to you. But as a reader, I’m curious to know what happens to the Rambling Man in the next town, or better yet, what kind of room is created for the spurned woman by his departure. For that’s the gift of rejection: an open space.