Everyone huddles in the back corner of the downstairs studio. It’s all neon flames against sallow skin, sagging so you can see shadows underneath: orange hair, fuchsia fingernails, yellow sports bras. I’m barefoot. I remember when I was a kid in gym class, sitting cross-legged on the floor and peeling up the laminate like dead skin. The gym teacher, a big bullish woman in tearaway pants, would cuff me on the head and tell me to quit it.
“How are we doing today, girls?” I ask.
I was instructed to be cheery. I set my bag on the piano in the corner. “Good” and “great” and some silent smiles greet me. This is my first time subbing for my friend April and teaching her dance class because she is off across the state trying desperately to get a man to forgive her. She knows I spent some time in Turkey – of course you know how to dance, what else were you doing over there? she asked, and I knew she was just begging me to make a joke about how it’s not ‛what’ I was doing but ‛whom.’ She was really softballing it to me but I didn’t swing. She thinks I could use the experience, teaching. She tells me I need to get out of the house more. She thinks they could use it; April’s been the only volunteer instructor for this bunch of middle-aged women for a solid three years. It will be good for them, she says, to have my joie de vivre, my style, my verve. But they don’t know me, and I haven’t built up any respect or trust with them. I am, for now, the enemy: a new pair of eyes.
I have them line up against the back wall, facing me and the mirrors they hate so much. Some women shift, some shake their heads and give a tired, I’m-game-if-you-are grin. Already I am starting to sweat. My mother is in the back; she waves and then draws a pinched thumb and forefinger across her lips. With this gesture she promises me I won’t hear a peep from her. Lips sealed. She will not embarrass me. She will let me shine. I nod and try to forget she is there.
With so many eyes on me, it feels like the earth is circling closer to the sun. Every pulse, a little warmer. They are all about the same age as my mother, mid fifties to early sixties, and in a town this size I assume they are all friends, but aside from my mother I have never met any of these women. I have no idea how or why they are friends, if they all meet for soy chai lattes before class or convene afterward at the local wine bar to compare notes on their children, their husbands, their failures as women. They’re not listed on the emergency contact forms posted to our fridge. I wonder which, if any, of them get calls in the middle of the night when my mother thinks her teeth are falling out, or when she is in a panic about an irregular-shaped mole. What about when my father had his second heart attack and collapsed on the living room rug, biting his tongue and bleeding onto the carpet? Does my mother talk to them about me, her only daughter, currently living at home because her ex-boyfriend kicked her out of the apartment they’d shared since college? Do they click their tongues and think on me with pity?
I bend over the cheap CD player in the corner. “Sounds of the Middle East” – my mother loaned me the disc. I know what she thinks of the Middle East already; she spends most of her free afternoons watching the news. I come downstairs and the television in the kitchen is on, glaring doomsday pictures of yellow scrubland, smoke and sudden explosions. Maybe she listens to the music and it makes the images go down more easily. I walk back to the group and face the mirror with the rest of them. I hold out my arms as if I am balancing on a tightrope.
“The first thing to work on,” I say, “is our posture. We want arms out, chins up, stomachs in, and legs relaxed. On three.”
Their arms rise and fall with mine. I had to look most of this up on the internet the night before. I did take a class when I was in Turkey, but most sessions seemed to consist of an hour of “improvising” a handful of traditional moves to Turkish electroclash. Just in case, April wrote me a cheat-sheet that is currently folded inside my gym bag. We practice the percussive movements first: the bang-bang-bangs that hit the beat right on the quarter note. We do hip drops, hip rocks, hits, twists, and lifts. We try a few shimmies. Each move, when I announce it, causes a brief scattered pause as the women blush hard, reposition feet, and throw their eyes back up to the mirror. It’s hard not to be suggestive when running a belly dancing class full of women who hate their bodies.
Now we’ll try a hip shiver.
Remember to find your pelvic floor. Feel the movement down there. Feel it.
Smile, ladies. I feel like I’m catcalling them. Come on, smile. Enjoy yourself. Look like you’re having fun.
In the mirror I see myself, thin as I’ve ever been. Then I see my group. My girls. A collection of wrinkly statues. All fifty-plus. I’ve had sex with men this age. Over the hill. Past the horizon. Nobody gets all the moves right – some women have the proper gravity and solidity for the percussive stuff, some the liquid wispiness and delicate hands needed for the shimmies, but no one can combine it all. No one can be everything, and no one is very good at this dance. Hips sag to one side or the other, arms out but wrists limp, faces grimacing and eyes determinedly trained on the space above their reflections in the mirror. Nobody can look herself in the eye.
Gabe used to make the same face when I told him something he didn’t want to hear, like that I was ever unhappy. His eyes would go blank and laze around my forehead. When I told him that I had gone home with a waiter with long fingernails named Bahir on my way through Istanbul, I used the hotel phone. I was drunk, I told him, hoping the word for my inebriation could also be a synonym for accidental or misguided. I imagined his face. I knew how his eyes would be blank and stricken, fixed somewhere just above my hairline. He hung up before I could finish.
My arms drop to my sides. I wheel back around to face the group.
“Why don’t we take a break,” I say. Postures collapse like puppet strings have been cut as the class ducks to the back corners. They sip out of water bottles and smile weakly at one another.
My mother pops up behind me. “You’re doing a great job, sweetheart,” she says.
I lean against the piano. Hair sticks to the back of my neck. I fan myself with an old course catalog. “Tough crowd,” I say.
“I’m just happy you’re here. That we’re both here.” She smiles. “Two girls making it out on their own, huh?” She pats me on the shoulder and goes back to her group.
Making it out on their own. Something like that. She makes it sound so brave to have your husband forcefully taken away from you by ill health and then scrambling to cope with the aftermath. I felt a little brave when I flirted with other men, right in front of Gabe’s face. He had chosen me, picked me out of a crowd and stamped my forehead with his seal. That was it. If anybody was going to end the relationship, it would have been me, so I paraded around and tossed my pretty head and had myself a ball while he waited with fingers crossed that I wouldn’t ruin it all. That I wouldn’t throw it away just because I was bored.
And here is this roomful of women, some divorced, some widowed, some married but who knows how happily. Encased in pounds of lycra and shapewear, trying to regain a little something – something that they might have once had in their youth. Is it the feeling of being desired? Being chased after by some man, any man, plucking at the hem of their skirt with desperation in his eyes? I want it to be something only I have access to. Something I can grant at will.
“Okay, shake off the tiredness, ladies,” I say. “I want everybody to close their eyes.”
They arrange themselves behind me. I watch my bare feet measure out long steps across the wooden floor. I think of my mother standing at the back, promising not to say anything. I wonder what she gets out of this class. What she thinks about as she shakes, shimmies, and vibrates with her friends – if they even are her friends. What sort of fantasies are ushering her through mid-fifties widowhood.
“Imagine that you are in a bar. A fancy hotel bar. There are long red curtains everywhere, and the chairs are all dark wood, and there’s jazz music playing. A really sexy song. Frank Sinatra or something. Whatever gets you going,” I say. Giggles. I guess I should expect that. There’s maturity here, but no dignity, no resigned limp to the end of the line. “It’s a late Saturday night, and almost everyone has gone home.” I take a deep breath. “But there’s one man sitting, all alone at the bar. He’s handsome, wealthy looking, the most desirable man you’ve ever seen. Picture him.”
Who knows if they do? I try, but my efforts are only rewarded with a brief, fear-thrill-baited second of Gabe coming home from the lifeguarding job he had in college, peeling off sweaty shorts and complaining about his teenaged girl employees. He hated their flightiness, their lack of ambition, their superficiality. I push it away and think of myself with another man, not Bahir, not the older men I have dallied with. I try to think of myself not just having an affair but really being together with someone, and whoever it is being more smitten with me than I’d ever thought possible.
“Is that man our husband?” A dark-haired woman raises a tiny hand. I smile and wink at my girls.
“If you want,” I say.
“Actually, no, it’s not,” I say. “This man is not your husband.”
They nudge each other. Smiles spike the corners of their mouths. They spread apart, each in her own space. Though the basement studio has no windows we can hear the rain whipping itself against the thin walls above. They taught me in school that hot air rises, but it doesn’t feel like it’s rising. It feels like it’s all trapped down here, ballooning between us and above our heads. Great blooms of hot air, hot breathing. The walls are panting. They beg me to finish. Keep talking. Tell us more. Get to the end of the story. Finish it.
“This man is alone. He’s tapping his foot to the music.” I close my eyes again. “He has your favorite drink in front of him. Red wine, I guess. He looks lonely but not desperate. You’re not sure if you should approach him. You’re wearing your favorite outfit, the one that makes you look skinny.”
I place my hands on my stomach, feeling the muscles underneath. I am powerful. I will outlast them all. I feel like running, dodging bullets, skipping town.
“All of a sudden he looks at you, right in the eyes. You know without a single doubt in your mind that he wants you. He wants you more than anything.”
My hands slide down my hips.
“Now,” I say, dropping my voice lower, “how do you walk towards this man?”
When I open my eyes I look straight to the woman in the front, the one standing right behind me. Her red face, closed eyes, mouth slightly parted. It is my mother. They are all my mother. The mirror is dewy with the sweat of collective pent-up sexual frustration coming from these bored housewives, all of whom are my mother. I turn back to the mirrors, rocking my most rocking saunter. I end with my hands drawn up behind my neck, Gabe creeping back into my mind as I think of him biting that skin, then a quick vision of the Turkish waiter but only in flashes and then he too turns into somebody else, some man from years past, some man I haven’t met yet, pressing me against the wall.
I spin to face the group. Not one quivering muscle has moved.
I lift my chin. “No problem. We can always try something else, something a little more basic. Maybe some camel walking.” I stride to the CD player to turn off the music. As my back is turned I hear smacking footsteps on the floor.
My mother is doing her best drag queen impression with one hand on a bulging hip and the other punching the air back and forth like a metronome. Her thin lips press firmly together, cheeks crimson and eyes still trained on that spot above her on the mirror. When she reaches the other side, she sets her foot down with a slap and looks at me with just a little relief mingled in her triumph.
“Well, honey,” she says. “What do you think about that?”
The group erupts in applause behind her. Atta girl, Marsha, they call out. Her eyes shine, slick as the sweat on her upper lip. She wants a pat on the head too. Tell me I did good. Tell me it’s all going to be okay. I want to say it. I really want to. But something stops me – the truth of it. I can’t lie to my own mother.
“I think it’s time to get started,” I say instead. “Everybody ready?”
I turn the music up, my hand slipping across the buttons. It fills the room with its sliding perverted rhythms and before I can position myself back at the front of the class my mother grabs me by the hand. I pull back but her grip is strong, and she loses all form and grace as we spin around. Her hips waggle. She wants me to dance – to dance with her, to enjoy this newfound freedom – the two of us making it out on our own. She lets go of my hands and throws up her arms: snake arms writhing with middle fingers perfectly extended. I can’t follow her moves. I don’t have enough practice. She is the star. The group cheers us on. In the cheap cracked mirror I catch glimpses of us dancing. Our bodies are so distorted I can barely make out my reflection or tell us apart – where I am and who’s copying whom. The woman in the mirror has my same hair color, my same long legs. She looks like she knows what she’s doing.