The honourable mention entry in Room’s 2014 Contest Creative Non-Fiction category.
Sitting on the edge of the tub I look at the large, red sore on my stump—the edges of its oval shape roughen in the heat of the shower, small bumps push to the surface.
“What do you call your amputated leg?” H asked, years ago.
“Technically ‘residual limb.’”
“That sounds like something you can’t wash off.”
“Like you’re a tree?”
“Like part of me is.”
I slide on my prosthesis, my daily shapeshifting act from three limbs to four, from crawling to walking. And tonight, at the age of 35 and for the first time in my 22-years-an-amputee life, I’m going to shape shift again: I’m going dancing.
“You’ve got this! You’re already a superhero – honestly. If anyone judges you for learning to dance … for fuck’s sake you’ve only got one leg! Fuck them! And no one will I bet. You can leave if you hate it. But you’re amazing. Seriously.” my friend pep talks me over speaker-phone while I get dressed. “And F seems like a fun person to try it with.”
“I’m a swing dancer.” F said when we first met a few weeks ago. He joked that I’m part robot, the flashing green light on my new microprocessor knee blinking in agreement. “I bet you could dance.”
I delight in this stranger’s confidence.
Later at his place, post Manhattans on a city-view balcony, he suggested we start with blues dancing and all I can tell myself is “you never have to see him again” as a reason to try it. Why else did I move to this big city but to say yes?
My spine straightens to the feel of his hand on my back, a quick breath in. I try not to reveal how I could just stand there for that. Touch.
“It’s basically like high school slow dancing,” he tells me.
“I never high school slow danced.”
I can’t stop laughing or grinning, I can’t not look up at his face, trying to follow his verbal direction, untrained and unconfident to just follow his physical cues. I can’t help saying again, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” And in saying it I wonder if it’s hard to believe? It seems simple enough, this dancing with another person business. What took me so long?
He tells I’m funny (I imagine he means foolish) while suggesting I rest my head on his chest, close my eyes, and follow by feel.
“I might ask if I can kiss you if we keep dancing.” We stop.
“It’ll be easier if we get you drunk.”
The day of my first Junior High dance was only a year or so after I lost my leg. I purposefully didn’t wear my prosthesis to school that day – at the time it wasn’t unusual for me to show up on crutches, my lack of a left leg impossible to miss without the prosthetic on—and I was sure that if I did, no one would ask me to dance. The prospect terrified me.
Giggling with my fellow self-conscious, pre-teen friends on a bench at the side of the gym while we watched the cool kids sway, Mr. D, the math teacher, kept our gang of wallflowers company. N, sweet, blonde, chubby, warm, kind, funny N, approached us in a fit of young bravery. Each of the other girls on the bench sat upright wondering who he was aiming for.
“Do you want to dance?”
I hadn’t stat upright, I hadn’t looked up. It took a nudge to realize he was asking me. I balked.
“I don’t have my leg on!”
He asked again “do you want to dance?” Hand outstretched.
I’d had a crush on him for so long. And I’ve always regretted saying no. It could have changed everything in that horrible battlefield of adolescence, first boyfriends and first kisses.
Even Mr. D chimed in “come ON! Dance with the boy!” N shrugged it off and walked away. Mr. D widened his eyes at me. He liked N and me. Both misfits with aching hearts.
I wore my leg to the next school dance and waited for N to approach me. He never did. No one ever asked again, because it was the last time I went near a place anyone could.
“Saturday, dancing?” F texts on Wednesday. I reply with how much I want to, how much it scares me, and, “if you can laugh with me, not at, I’d like that.” Saying yes at last.
“I can do that.”
Plans are made to stop at his place first. “I do make a decent drink.”
He does. Strong, too.
And now: buzzer, door, elevator, that balcony’s city view in the daylight, friend, wife, cocktails. Smart, funny, new people, and I try not to feel nervous. I know this is moving towards what feels like cliff jumping and I so want to back out.
A second round of drinks and F says, “Well lady, are you tipsy enough to get going?” Yup. I consider my last chance to back out.
Dovercourt House, our destination. “I’m paying your cover in case you hate this,” he tells me. Up to the second floor. We get one more bravery-drink and sit on the sidelines, I feel anxious and out of place. I tell him he has to hold my hand. I take one of his in my two and press it to my belly, where nervousness kicks back. He knows every other person. “Hiiiii!!!” they all squeal. He tells me who he likes dancing with most, who’s awkward, who gets too grindy. He tells me some etiquette – “people are going to ask you to dance. If you want to say no you can either say ‘I’m only dancing with this person’ – but then you really have to only dance with just me – or you can say ‘I’m sitting this song out’ but then make sure you do actually sit that one out. Or maybe you’re never going to come back, in which case who cares what the fuck they think, say whatever you want.”
It feels like a dream sequence – part high school gym, part Dirty Dancing. Once our drink is done F says, “you ready?” and we’re up, stepping off that cliff, a first dance after all these years of purposeful wall-flowering. I laugh through most of it. It feels great. I feel like a sore thumb, awkward and different from the rest. We sit down. He dances with someone else. I watch the room – more dream sequence feeling. The host announces there’s going to be a “battle” and that there are two songs left. “We better get another one in,” he says. The second time I’m a little more relaxed, but asking a lot of questions “wait, do that again? What was that?” He raises his eyebrows saying, “I’ll do it when it makes sense with the music silly.”
They ask the crowd to push back and we sit on the floor, the lights come up. The performance that follows reminds me of a scene out of West Side Story, a kind of dance-off between “Toronto” and “Montreal” but it’s very Sharks vs Jets. It’s another world.
Judges vote and Toronto wins. They get the crowd to part down the middle for a surprise performance by two supposedly renowned dancers. Two men do a fantastic number up and down the aisle and I’m just happy I brought my fan, waving it wildly in my face to cool off. The summer night wraps everyone in sweat and steam.
The performance is over, the lights go back down, F says, “do you want to check out the swing floor?” We go upstairs to a room where a live band is playing and it’s still like out of a movie to me, hazy, lights low. A girl comes over and tells me her sister works in prosthetics and asks if she can take a picture of my leg. My flowered leg, my new prosthetic cosmesis laminated with floral fabric, a constant accessory. “If you can’t hide it, decorate it” a great drag queen told me once and from far away it appears a full-leg tattoo. Up close, the mechanics, the hinge, are clear.
F and I get another drink and sit on the side of the Swing room. He introduces me to a few friends, he dances with a couple of them. It’s so fun to watch, legs kicking all over the place, spinning, swirling, some of it is so fast. His friends tell me what they like about him and ask “how do you know him?”
I don’t really.
We head back to the blues floor and while F dances with someone an older gentlemen (mostly the crowd is under 40) of 60+ years, German (I learn) and straddling the fine line of charming and smarmy – asks to me dance. Or more accurately finagles the conversation so it seems like I ask him. It turns out he didn’t notice my leg. While dancing I say, “I’m new at this” to which he replies, “I can tell.”
“I only have one leg, so …”
He’s a more forceful lead than F and in some ways easier to follow because of it, his hands pushing harder to guide our dance. “Can I ask you an intimate question?” he leans in and continues, “do you water ski?”
“No” I reply tentatively.
“Good, because blues dancing is not like water skiing. You need to be up on your toes.”
“I don’t have toes.”
The song ends, I thank him and reach for F who’s nearby “I was worried about you,” he laughs.
A remarkably clean smelling young man in a smart suit and a great hat asks me to dance twice. He lives in Montreal but he’s from Paris. He leads differently again, has his own ways of leading, gives me different tips. Thankfully no smarm. “Use your arms more. And ask other people to dance, you’re great.” He pulls away from me more often and I notice I like the assurance of F’s more constant touch.
In the dance hall, I continue to learn the etiquette. I see F across the dancefloor and make a bee-line for him as he stands at the bar. I nearly knock one couple over and run into just about everyone. On the other side F says dryly, “major faux pas lady, always walk the outskirts.”
“I knew it as soon as I did it.”
We get another drink though neither of us needs one. We dance again, I lose count of the times. I don’t lose count that three times in the evening he kisses my forehead. I find it hard not to picture him a lover, and as I start to dance with other people it constantly crosses my mind. Hands, legs, listening.
I think of H.
“I’m not going to call it your stump. It’s your little leg.” H loved my little leg, he knew every scar, the indent in the femur, the calluses, the roughness, the softness most of all. What would he say if he saw me tonight? He knew my old limits best, he would be as amazed as I am at the changes the new microprocessor knee makes, at the changes being alone in a new city has made to me. He never did dance but I imagine him proud of me, happy for me. I picture him at the side of the room, his silhouette that I could draw in the dark, and see him feeling left out of some part of my life again. He often did.
In the haze of sweat and blues music, what I love (almost) most is having my fingers intertwined in someone else’s while he leads me to the dance floor, into a sea of swaying people. Anticipation. Suggestion.
Above all, I fucking love dancing. It’s not like I don’t feel my body move in the everyday, but not like this. I’ve never liked that cut-short side of me enough, never trusted it enough, to be part of something with someone else. I’ve never listened like this, too afraid my body couldn’t reply if I did.
Tonight I am all ears, every sound, every moment, every hint from the lead’s fingers “this way,” “here,” sinks in and my body replies yes. Each time I’m surprised I know that word.
Dancing with F gets closers, hands rest on hip bones, we get clumsier. “We’re both drunk. If you fall I fall too and that will be how we know it’s time to leave,” he tells me. Sitting again with our heads against the wall he says what both of us are thinking, “I don’t want to dance anymore but I don’t want to go home.” The rum in us has ideas.
I watch his mouth as he talks, the way he purses his lips, the way the edges curl when he laughs.
“I could never see you again and I would always be grateful to you for this,” I tell him, wanting to convey the more than twenty years that lead to this night. He shrugs.
I lean my head against the wall, the music and people a blur now, and think it again while I watch F as he looks out at the 2am revellers: “I will always be grateful to you for this.”
How long I’ve been heavy, how long I’ve waited on the sidelines hoping to be asked for this dance. And how I surprised myself when I said yes – after so long it seems sudden.
Fingers interlocked again, he leads me around the edge of the room, and we step into the night in search of a cab, shapeshifters still.