SHORT STORY CONTEST
HER LAST DANCE
Mom is in our hotel bathroom fixing herself up. I smell her apricot perfume from outside the door. I’m supposed to get fixed up, too. No idea why Mom uses that expression. I mean, it’s not like we’re broken or anything. I bend over, let my dark hair fall forward, start brushing to make it fluffy like in those shampoo commercials. I check myself in the mirror, dab on bubblegum lip gloss and a smudge of cherry blush.
Then Mom comes out. “Well?” She spins around in her sleek black skirt. “What do you think?”
I swallow. Her dark eyes seem bigger, like they’re eager for something. “You’re taller.”
“Hah! I haven’t worn spiked heels in ages. What about my outfit?”
“You look pretty, Mom. Really.” And she does.
“Thank you, my dear.” Mom squints into the mirror as she puts on her gold hoop earrings. “You’re never fully dressed with bare ears.”
“Wish Dad could see you. Want me to grab the camera?”
“No, don’t bother.” She steps back to admire herself. “I don’t want him thinking we had too much fun.”
“How come you don’t get dressed up at home?” I ask.
She looks at me, her perfectly penciled eyebrows raised. “And just where might I be going? Ballroom dancing?”
I hate it when she gets snarky. “You could take Dad out. You guys stay home too much. I don’t need a babysitter anymore, for your information.”
“For you information,” she says, “once upon a time your father and I used to go dancing every Saturday night.” A shadow of sadness passes over Mom’s face. “He was pretty damn good.”
I try to picture my father dancing. Instead, I see him in his wheelchair spinning around the floor. He’s the one who needs fixing up. I don’t like to think about Dad being home alone with just boring old Carol around to dress him and tie his shoes. Mom says there’s no reason to feel guilty—this is our “well-deserved” vacation. I guess she’s right. So far we’ve had a decent time visiting Chicago, but I am not sure I like the idea of meeting Malcolm.
Mom picks up her silver handbag. “Come on, Becca, get your shoes. It’s eight o’clock already.”
I slip on strappy sandals and admire my red toenails.
Mom looks me over. “Your dress is a tad short.”
I shrug. “Guess I grew.” I don’t tell her that I like the way it shows off my legs.
“I can’t believe I was your age when I met Malcolm.” She shakes her head. “Better watch out. You blink and you’re forty.”
“Grandma let you date when you were fifteen?”
“Things were different then. Besides, Grandma loved Malcolm. God, could he charm her. No teenage awkwardness in that young man. He’d show up at our house with a pink carnation on every single date!”
Mom says I can’t start dating until I’m seventeen. Seventeen. She is so out of touch. I wonder if Malcolm will think I’m pretty.
Mom breathes out. “Ready to roll?”
* * *
As we walk through the hotel lobby, our heels click on the marble floor. I see my reflection in the mirrored walls. Maybe I should have worn my Sassoon jeans.
Mom tells me we’re meeting Malcolm in the cocktail lounge.
This excites me. “A bar?”
She waves her hand. “It’s fine. You’ll be drinking Coke.”
“But I’m hungry.”
Mom halts, then whispers, “Oh my God, that’s him.”
I see this big guy in a brown suit standing by the lounge entrance. He’s looking right at Mom, grinning, and holding a single pink carnation. He’s like a huge teddy bear.
He sings her name. “Suzy, Suzy.” They smile at each other for like a year. “You are looking good.” Then he actually whistles. Ugh.
I stand there feeling stupid. Mom takes the carnation and holds it to her nose. Her cheeks are flushed. “I was just telling Becca about your carnations.” Mom’s voice is all soft and dreamy. “Takes me right back.”
Malcolm offers me his hairy paw. “Nice to finally meet you, Becca. Your mother and I go way back.”
I shake his fleshy hand. “So I’ve heard.”
Malcolm’s eyes take me in, then land back on Mom. “She doesn’t look anything like you, Suzy. Must have got her Daddy’s genes.” He winks at me and says, “Your mom was what they call a looker. And—” He puts his paw on Mom’s back. “She still is.”
I hate him already.
“I’ve been trying to get your mother to Chicago for years,” Malcolm continues.
I glance at Mom for a sec, then Malcolm. “It’s hard for us to leave,” I mutter, “so we don’t get away much.”
Mom spreads her arms out. “Well, here we are!”
“I still can’t believe it,” Malcolm says, shaking his head. “I’m in heaven. Hey, let me buy you ladies a drink and we’ll toast our reunion.”
Disco beat pounds from the speakers in the lounge. Totally gross music. Malcolm picks a booth in the back. He motions for me to sit. I slide in, scooting over to the middle. Mom moves in next. Malcolm sits across from her. A red candle glows at the center of our table. Mom always says a woman looks best by candlelight. I hope I look good, just for looking good’s sake. I really don’t give a shit what Malcolm thinks of me.
Malcolm orders a bottle of wine for the two of them, and a Shirley Temple for me, which turns out to be a kiddie drink with a cherry and a tiny paper umbrella on top. I smile secretly thinking of all the wine coolers I’ve guzzled this past year. That delicious secret bubbles inside me.
Malcolm lifts his glass. “To old times.”
Mom clinks his glass. “To old times.”
“Speaking of old times,” Malcolm says, “when I heard you were coming to town, I dug through my stash in the basement and found our Bedford High yearbook.”
Mom throws her head back. “No! You still have that?”
“Do you remember what they wrote about you?”
“Remind me,” Mom says.
Malcolm takes a gulp of his wine, then leans forward like he’s telling a secret. “Future Radio City Rockette.”
“Oh, God. Well, that one didn’t come true,” Mom says.
“It sure could have!” Malcolm turns to me. “Your mom was a heck of a dancer. Wowzer! A sensation on the dance floor.” He shakes his head. “What a shame she couldn’t keep it up.” Malcolm’s words hang in the air like a bad smell. Mom stares at the candle. I fiddle with the drink straw. “How’s James doing?” the moron finally asks.
Mom brightens. “James has an amazing spirit. He’s gained some movement in his arms and toes, which is kind of exciting when you consider what he’s been through.” She swirls the wine in her glass. “And . . . he has hopes of dancing with me again. Some day.”
Malcolm taps his stubby fingers on the table. “There’s certainly something to be said for hope. Then again, I suppose one has to be realistic.”
I defend my father’s optimism. “Who knows what medical research will come up with in the future?” My voice shakes a little.
Malcolm looks at me with a sorry expression. Then he asks Mom what the doctors think. She tells him they’re less optimistic.
I tell him Dad’s come a long way.
“Well, he is darn lucky to have such devoted women by his side.” Malcolm lifts his glass again. “To medical miracles!”
His jolliness is really bugging me. He tries to steer the conversation away from the depressing topic of Dad and back to Mom’s dancing days. Malcolm starts telling a story about one of her ballroom competitions. “Boy, did I wish I was on the floor with her. Hey, Suzy, do you still have the trophy?”
Mom waves her hand. “I’ve no idea. Probably in my parents’ basement.”
“How about that spectacular dress?”
“You remember my dress?”
“Black and red, Spanish style with lots of sequins.” Malcolm points his finger.” Am I right?”
“You’re right,” Mom says softly. “Amazing.”
Mom’s eyes are watery. What is the matter with her?
“You were amazing,” Malcolm gushes. “I wouldn’t forget that sight as long as I live.”
He is really going too far. I am embarrassed for Mom. I try to think of something to say to change the subject, but Malcolm starts up again. “Before we divorced, Nancy and I used to take disco dance lessons. We got pretty good. That was about the only time we weren’t trying to kill each other.” He laughs too loud.
“Becca doesn’t like disco,” Mom says. “She’s a rock-n-roll girl. “
“Well, disco seems to be the rage.” Malcolm looks at me. “My niece Cassandra is fifteen and she’s kicking up her heels at all the dances.”
I fake a smile.
Malcolm snaps his fingers. “Hey, listen to what’s playing. Name that tune, Becca.”
I roll my eyes. “’Stayin’ Alive.’ The Bee Gees. It’s only on the radio like fifty times a day.”
Mom gives me one of her watch-your-mouth looks. Malcolm starts twisting in his seat. “What do you say, Suzy?”
“I don’t know how to disco,” Mom says, touching her pearly necklace.
Malcolm stands up and reaches out his hand. “Come on. You’re a natural.”
“It’s been so long—”
“One dance, Suzy Q. One last dance.”
Mom takes his hand. I can’t believe what happens next. I watch him pull her onto the dance floor. Malcolm gets right into it with the arm motions and all. Mom hesitates, then lets him spin her around. She laughs in a way I haven’t seen before. The next minute Mom is twisting and turning in her high heels, like she knows what she’s doing while that awful song kills my ears. Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. The other people in the lounge are watching. I’m about to die. I think about Dad and his numb legs. How could she do this to him?
When the music ends, Malcolm dances Mom over to our table. He wipes a napkin on his sweaty forehead.
I feel like puking.
Mom is breathless. “That was fun!” I want her to see my furious face, but she doesn’t look at me. Malcolm refills their wine glasses. They start talking about old times again, laughing at dumb jokes as if I’m not even here.
After a while, Mom finally notices my silence. “Are you okay, honey?”
“I’m not feeling so well,” I say.
“Oh. That’s too bad.” She puts her hand to my cheek. “You don’t feel warm.”
“My head hurts. Stomach, too. I think I need to lie down.”
Mom stares at me. I wait for her to say so long to Malcolm. Instead she says, “Why don’t you go back to the room and get comfy? Watch TV in bed. I’ll be up in a bit.” She hands me the room key.
Malcolm stands up as I slide out of the booth. “I’m sorry you couldn’t hang around longer, Becca. Hope you feel better. Great meeting you.”
I glare at my mother as I start to leave. She reminds me to lock the door to our hotel room.
* * *
In the lobby I plop myself down on a leather couch. I can see Lake Shore Drive lit up through the huge window. I want to be out there, doing something fun, not stuck in a disco lounge with my mom’s pathetic old boyfriend. As I watch people walk through the lobby entrance, I make a game of guessing their names and jobs. Eleanor Carmichael, secretary. Kyle Winston, lawyer. When I get bored of that, I stare out the window at the city lights and think about all the zillions of people and all the stories they carry inside them. Wherever you travel, you pack your stories with you, whether you mean to or not. Just like Mom. Maybe she’d like to forget about Dad’s tragic accident, but the truth is still jam- packed inside her, weighing her down.
Mom is taking forever to finish her stupid little date. What’s her problem? Isn’t she even remotely concerned about me? I wait some more. I cross my legs and admire my tanned skin. This reminds me of Dad’s useless legs. My memory of him walking tall and strong is blurry. What I do remember is sitting on Dad’s lap and getting wheelchair rides. He called them “wheelie dances.” I’m too old for that now.
In the lobby window I see a man’s reflection. I turn my head.
“Enjoying the view?” he asks. He has a trim dark beard and mysterious eyes. He’s dressed in dark jeans and a black button- down shirt.
“It’s pretty,” I say.
“Cities look better at night. You can’t see the grime.” He looks around like he’s expecting someone. “You a local?”
I shake my head. “I’m on a little summer vacation.” I try to sound calm, even though I feel that dangerous excitement growing inside me. “I live in Ohio.”
“Hey, small world. I’m from Dayton.”
“Really? That’s a coincidence.”
“Maybe not.” God, his smile is sweet. “I’m here on business. A photo shoot.”
“Cool. What do you photograph?”
“Like models?” I try not to sound overly impressed.
“That’s right. I look for newcomers. And, tell you the truth, I noticed you from across the lobby. I thought you’d make quite a picture.”
I can feel his eyes looking right through me, which makes the back of my neck get all warm. He tells me how he scouts teenage models and how much money they can make. He’s even gotten a few girls into movies. Would I ever love that.
“You alone?” he asks.
“Your date hasn’t stood you up?”
I smile. “No, nothing like that.”
I look out the window, see my reflection in the dark glass. I feel him studying me. I don’t know what to say.
“I’m Richard Smith.”
“Becca.” I don’t tell him my last name, just to be on the safe side.
“And what brings you to the Windy City, Becca?”
I try to think of a good story. “Birthday present from my dad.”
“Nice.” He rubs his beard. “Is your dad here?”
I look toward the bar entrance. “No. I wish he was, but . . . he doesn’t travel well.”
Richard Smith steps closer. “I can tell you miss him.”
I wonder if Richard can sense the ache behind my ribcage. “Yeah. I do.”
“Let me guess. You must be . . .” He looks me up and down. “Seventeen?”
“Good guess.” Guys always think I’m older.
“Well, happy birthday, Becca.”
I like the way he says my name, like he knows me. “Thanks, but it hasn’t been so happy.”
“An unhappy birthday? That won’t do.” His voice is like warm water. “Maybe I can make it better.”
I cross my legs and lean back in the couch. “Actually . . . having company would be nice.” Did I really say that?
“So . . . where’s your chaperone?” he asks.
“She is preoccupied at the moment. Taking forever.” I’m dying for Mom to come out right now and see me talking to a stranger. That would teach her a lesson.
Richard asks if he can sit down. I smile, and move over. I can feel his body heat. He looks me smack in the eyes. I could melt. “Any chance you’d like to pass the time with me? We could drive down Lake Shore. It’s really beautiful at night.”
I glance at the lounge again. What’s taking her so long? I wonder if she’ll let Malcolm kiss her goodnight. I try on a flirty voice for Richard Smith. “Sounds tempting.”
“You can tell me all about your unhappy birthday.” He waits for me to answer. “I promise to have you back before the clock strikes twelve.”
My mind says no, but my heart pounds yes. “Okay.”
As I walk with Richard Smith toward the hotel entrance, I look back once more for my mother. I hear the faint beat of the music. I’ll bet she’s still dancing. I’ll bet I’m the last thing on her mind. Richard Smith holds the glass door open.
Come get me, Mom.
I wait three more seconds, then step into the summer night.
Evelyn Krieger is the author of the award-winning YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Hippocampus, Sunlight Press, Grown & Flown, Tablet Magazine, Lilith, Teachers & Writers, Lessons from My Parents, Writer’s Digest, Family Circle, Winning Writers, Gemini Magazine, and other publications. She was recently awarded a four-week residency scholarship to the Vermont Studio Center. Evelyn lives in the Boston area. Visit her at www.EvelynKrieger.net.