By Lisa Lepovetsky

It never would have happened if I hadn’t signed up for those dancing lessons. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like to dance – I do. I’ve always fancied myself a frustrated Ginger Rogers or Martha Graham or even Isadora Duncan. (Though I wouldn’t want to be strangled with my own scarf, of course.) I even tried to get my husband Leon to learn ballroom dancing, so we could dance in competitions. He did his best, but I pretty much gave up those dreams when the children came along. You can’t dance a tango when your belly’s out to here. Three times.

So I settled for choreographing the musical scenes in the local plays or the occasional night of fox trots and jitterbugs at restaurants and night clubs when we’d spend a weekend in Harrisburg.   I think Leon and my parents were relieved I didn’t follow my dreams and go to Philadelphia or New York to dance professionally. Instead, I worked as secretary for Leon in his accounting business. We remodeled the second stall of the garage to make an office for him, and that way, I could be a stay-at-home mom and work at the same time. The best of both worlds, as they say.

By the time the last child left the nest, I was past forty, and in no shape to consider serious dancing.  I became a grandmother at fifty, and threw myself into their activities, like a good grandmother should.  I went to all their games and performances, and Leon and I cheered them on. Until Leon fell off the ladder while painting the eaves last March fifteenth, the day after my sixtieth birthday.  At least he didn’t suffer; that was a blessing. Or that’s what I told everybody, as I rattled around that big house by myself, with nothing to keep me occupied. The double indemnity clause left me very comfortably set, so I didn’t need to get a job right away – or ever, if I were careful. Leon had sold the business five years earlier, to take an early retirement so we could travel. I did a lot of jigsaw puzzles in those weeks after Leon died. My friends came around for a while – they all loved Leon – maybe a little too much – but I subtly made it clear that I didn’t want their company.

And then my granddaughter Isobel started taking dance lessons in State College when she turned eight.  It was a half-hour drive from Harrods Run, but she loved to dance, and went over twice a week, rain or shine.  Katie – that’s her mother – had started an evening nursing job at the local emergency health clinic around the same time, and needed someone to drive Isobel to classes.   Isobel’s father worked until seven, so of course, I volunteered.  Everybody expected me to, and really, what else did I have to do?

The first few times, I sat in a folding chair in the corner of the big rehearsal room and read a novel while I half-watched Isobel take her lesson with the willowy Miss Ella. I was the only “parent” in the room; the rest of the students were local and their moms just dropped their children off and picked them up. Then one night after the class, Miss Ella took me aside while Isobel changed clothes.

“Isobel tells me she’s very self-conscious with you in the room,” she said. “She didn’t want to say anything to you because she was afraid of hurting your feelings. I think she has real potential, but she’s too stiff, not focused. I wonder whether you’d consider finding somewhere else to go for the ninety minutes she’s here.”

I was startled. I’d had no idea Isobel felt that way. “But I don’t know where I’d go,” I said.

“I have a suggestion,” she said. “Isobel tells me you were quite a dancer at one time. She says that must be where she got her talent.” Again, I was taken off guard; I’d had no idea Isobel even knew I’d danced. Her mother and I never talked about it.

Miss Ella continued. “There are three dance studios in this building, so we can have more than one class at a time. And one of the classes scheduled during this time is an adult ballroom class.  Nothing fancy, mind you, just basic steps and moves, but I thought you might like to join them while Isobel is with me.”

I was startled to feel my heart skip a beat; I ignored it. I began to shake my head no, but Miss Ella held up her hand. “You don’t have to decide right now. You can let me know on Thursday when you bring Isobel back. On the other hand, you could go to the university library – I understand it’s a very nice facility.”

Then Isobel came bouncing over on her tiptoes, and Miss Ella said, “Then I’ll talk to you Thursday, Mrs. Woodley,” and turned away to usher in the first students for her next class before I could respond.

Isobel chattered away on the way home, but I hardly heard anything she said. Could I consider dancing again, after all these years? Was that even a possibility? Of course not.  I was a slightly overweight woman in my sixties (although barely, I corrected myself), and hadn’t done any dancing for probably a dozen years. Of course I wasn’t going to take ballroom lessons from some little nymph half my age – that would be ridiculous, not to mention humiliating. I would do the reasonable thing: take myself to the university library and spend the ninety minutes in a more productive way. I could do some research I’d been wanting to do on quilting. Several of my friends were in a quilting group, and had encouraged me to join, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I was confident the library would have just the books I’d need.

Then I pictured myself sitting alone among dusty old books, poring over articles on the art of quilting.  Or just finding a quiet corner and reading my romance novel – alone. I was still thinking about it when I pulled into my daughter’s driveway. Owen, Isobel’s father, came out to meet her, shivering in the brisk air.

“Winter’s coming, Paula,” he said as he unloaded Isobel and her gym bag. “Almanac says it’s going to be a bad one. You’d better get a couple cords of wood for that fireplace; pretty soon there’ll be a shortage in Harrods Run, and you’ll have to look out of town.”

I shrugged. “I’ve hardly used the fireplace since Leon passed. I don’t know whether I’ll use it at all this winter. The furnace works fine.”

Owen told Isobel to go inside and finish her homework, then turned back to me. “How are you holding up, Paula? We haven’t seen you for a while, except in passing. We worry about you.” He’s a good son-in-law, tries to care, but he just won’t let the past rest. None of them will.

“I’m all right. I’ve just been keeping myself to myself lately.” And suddenly, out of nowhere, I made the decision to sign up for those ballroom dancing lessons. I’ve never been an impulsive woman, but I did it anyway.

Thursday night I arrived a bit early and followed Miss Ella’s instructions, climbing the two flights of stairs to the third-floor ballroom. I was winded from the climb, and considered retreating and going to the library after all. But I forced myself to enter the large, mirrored room.  Instead of a Miss Ella clone, I found a middle-aged man in a tuxedo. His hair was barely graying at the temples, and his eyes were a strange violet color. 

“Bonjour, Madame,” he said as he reached out to shake my hand. His name was Louis (“Loo-ee, not Loo-is”) Bouget, and I quickly discovered he was originally from a small village in the Basque area of France.  He’d been in the states since he was a teenager, and his accent was barely noticeable at times. I signed the application and paid the fee on the spot.

There were eight other people in the class, all couples, all in their fifties and sixties – except for one younger couple who wanted to learn some fancy moves for their wedding reception.  I was afraid I’d feel out of place, and would have to dance with the other men in the class, but Louis drew me onto the floor to demonstrate the steps with me.

“As you recall, mes amies, we learned some of the basic moves and holds last week, so we’re moving on to the waltz tonight.” He held my right hand out to the side, away from our bodies, and I could feel his right hand on the small of my back. Surprised by how much came back to me, I was easily able to follow Louis as we waltzed around the room to the romantic strains of “The Blue Danube,” though I remained a bit stiff and uncomfortable, with everybody watching.

He encouraged the others to come out and try it, first walking them through it without music, counting aloud:  One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. I was relieved to relinquish the center of attention, and sat watching while he patiently instructed them where to put their feet and hands. Then he called me out to the floor to show them once more.

“When the gentleman steps forward,” Louis said, “his leg goes right between her legs, and the reverse is true.”  He held me away from him, so the other students could have a good look, but I still felt his thigh brush against mine as we slowly moved around the floor. I thought I heard him sigh.

The engaged couple, Amber and Todd, caught on pretty quickly, but there were some cries of pain from the rest as toes were heavily trod upon. Finally, the ninety minutes was over, and we all prepared to leave. Louis came over to me as I buttoned my coat. He was smiling broadly, and I noticed deep dimples in his cheeks.

“You obviously have had some training, Paula.” (He pronounced it “Powla.”) “I must be honest – I’m glad you don’t have a partner.  It will make things easier for me, for my teaching, I mean.  I hope that I’m not being too forward.  I’m afraid I sometimes forget myself when a beautiful woman is involved.”

I laughed and assured him that he wasn’t, and hurried downstairs to pick up Isobel. I felt my face burning, and I chided myself. You’re not a teenager anymore, so act your age. By the time I’d reached the bottom of the stairs, I felt calm again. A beautiful woman, indeed. But I realized I was smiling, and caught myself smoothing my unruly hair on the way to the car.

I admit it, I was hooked. I couldn’t wait for Tuesday and Thursday to come around each week. I bought some new clothes, and had my hair styled for the first time since Leon died. I began wearing makeup again – just some blush and a little lipstick, but still…

The lessons were to last eight weeks, and I’d started on the second week. After the waltz, we moved on to the foxtrot. Slow-slow-quick-quick, slow-slow-quick-quick. I gradually forgot about the others watching, and enjoyed the feeling of being in a man’s arms again. I’m sure you understand. I’ve always considered a bit of silliness to be a widow’s prerogative.

By the seventh week, we’d moved through the waltz and foxtrot and rumba to the final dance in our repertoire – the tango. As we began, Louis held me about a foot from him, his right arm outstretched and his left hand lightly behind my back.

“This is the form for the classic Argentine tango,” he began. “But it has a lot of complicated moves, which you are not ready for. So we’ll learn the basic steps for the American tango. It is not difficult, and you can add more advanced tango steps as you desire.”

He nodded at me, and I could see the intimacy in his eyes. “The gentleman holds out his hand for the lady to grasp.” I did this, and suddenly he pulled me to him with his left hand, our hips coming close together.

“You will be dancing much closer than we’ve been doing so far, so gentlemen, watch the ladies’ toes. I’ll demonstrate with Paula slowly before we add music. Be sure to keep your knees bent.” That was no problem for me. Being that close to Louis made my knees weak. I think that was the moment I realized I was in love. Or at least in lust. I hadn’t considered having an extramarital relationship since Leon and I were married, and decided it was high time. If Leon could do it, so could I. And with Leon dead, it wasn’t really extramarital, was it? Louis obviously felt the same way.

Louis began humming in his deep baritone, and we moved, still tightly together, around the ballroom. Slow-slow-quick-quick-slide. I could feel his pelvis grinding against mine, and my palms grew sweaty. My breathing came faster. I smelled spearmint on his breath. At the end of the demonstration dance, he dipped me. Then, after Louis put on the music, the others swarmed up and tried it. I sat on one of the folding chairs and watched. Toward the end of the class, Louis had me come up and we did the promenade and a couple of fancy moves.

“Alas, next week is our final class, mes amies.  I will review all the dances you have learned, and add some extra moves, if you like. I am at your disposal.”

I caught him winking at me, and I winked back. We both pretended there was nothing going on. Then we all exited the dance studio, to walk off into the warm spring night. Next week was Isobel’s last class for the season, too. I would have to make my thoughts known by then. I walked Isobel to the car and realized my car keys had fallen out of my coat pocket. Serendipity. I told Isobel I’d be back shortly.

As I went back to the studio, I rehearsed what I was going to say. Something about loneliness and kindred spirits and inevitable attraction. I tapped on the glass door to get the janitor’s attention, and when I explained my problem, he let me in.

“Is Monsieur Bouget still here?”

The janitor looked confused for a moment, then brightened and said, “Oh, you mean Louis. Yeah he’s still in the building, but I’m not sure where. Maybe try his studio.”

When I got to the third floor landing, I found my keys. I heard Louis’s deep musical voice. I wondered who he was talking to, and heard Miss Ella’s voice. I stopped and listened. At first, it sounded like they were just cleaning up and putting chairs away.

Then Miss Ella said, “I think Isobel’s granny has a crush on you.”

“That’s what keeps them coming back season after season. They fall in love with ‘Monsieur Bouget.’” I realized with a start that Louis’ voice had no trace of a French accent until he said sarcastically, “Monsieur Bouget.” In fact, I’d have sworn he was from the Bronx.

Miss Ella giggled, and Louis said, “Come over here, you little devil.” And then there were the sounds of shuffling and moaning and clothes rustling. My God, I thought, they were making love right there in the studio. It was all happening again.

I nearly stumbled hurrying out to the car. I apologized to Isobel, and we were silent for the rest of the trip home to Harrods Run. I understood what I must do. It was meant to be, can you understand? I had to find a way to make him realize that he loved me, not that anorexic Miss Ella. And I only had a few days to figure it out. But by the time I dropped Isobel off that night, I had the germ of an idea. I even went to the university library and did some research, so I’d be prepared this time.

Isobel wasn’t with me that night because she had some school banquet to attend. I got to the studio early, but nobody was in the foyer. I pushed on the door, and it opened, so I went in. I couldn’t let the wind and rain ruin my new hairdo, could I? I went up the steep stairs, hoping to find Louis alone, so I could reason with him. I knew begging wouldn’t work, you see. I’d tried begging with Leon. It didn’t work then, and I knew it wouldn’t work now. I’d appeal to his mind, if not his heart. I found Louis in the deserted ballroom, at the top of a high ladder, fussing with the cover on one of the lights. He was standing on the top, the way you shouldn’t ever do.

“Isn’t that the custodian’s job?” I called to him. He started at the sound of my voice, and the ladder wobbled a bit. He clung to the light and looked down.

“Oh, Paula,” he said in his Bronx drawl, “you startled me.” He put a hand to his chest, and his French accent returned. “I’m afraid the custodian is working on the furnace just now, and I wanted this light replaced for tonight’s class. Why are you here so early?”

“I needed to talk to you without the others around.”

“Can you talk while I change this bulb? I promise I’ll listen carefully, ma chere.”

“I suppose,” I said. “It’s about us, about our relationship, I mean. I think we should take it to the next step.”

“The next step?” he asked, without looking down.

“I think we should go out together on a real date – dinner and dancing and… whatever.” I felt my face grow warm under the foundation I’d so carefully applied that evening.

He finally glanced down at me. “But Paula, I’m afraid I love another woman. I cannot love you both.”

It was Leon all over again. Leon on the ladder, telling me he was leaving me for my best friend.  Telling me to have my own affair, to cut him loose.

“I didn’t want to lose you then, Leon, and I’m not about to lose you to Miss Ella now,” I said carefully.

“Who’s Leon?” Louis asked. He just couldn’t see what was going on. He was blinded by Miss Ella’s blond light.

I started shaking the ladder. He bent and tried to grab at it, but of course he was too off balance by then, and he and the ladder both came crashing down. I went over to him where he lay unmoving on the floor. I touched him with my toe – pointed, of course.

“Louis,” I said, “are you alright?”

He moaned softly and whispered something. I think it might have been “I love you.” I bent down to hear him better, and he whispered, “Help me.”

That’s what Leon had said, and I was frantic then. I hadn’t known what to do. I’d had to just let
him die there on the driveway before I called the ambulance. But this time I was ready. I took his head gently in my hands and twisted – at an angle, just like the books said.

Lisa Lepovetsky has been published frequently in anthologies and magazines, including EQMM. She holds an MFA in writing from Penn State University. She also writes and hosts mystery theaters under the name “It’s A Mystery!” and has published a novel, SHADOWS ON THE BAYOU

Her short stories, “A Real Gift” appeared in omdb! in March, 2015 and Serenity,
appeared in  September, 2014.

Copyright 2015 Lisa Lepovetsky. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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