Yes, she looked good. Slimmer than she had been in a long time, though she had never been fat. Mick would have approved of her looks. Her face was a map, of course. Of a beautiful country is what Mick would have said. Serena even had her hair dyed again just before Christmas, back to its native color, a deep brown-black. It wasn’t cheating since this was her true color, minus the gray. Mick would have approved of the hair too. No sense in letting yourself go, he would have said. She remembered always being afraid of becoming an old dancer one day and smiled at the reflection of her dark, almost black eyes in the mirror. Often her eyes moved quickly and sharply, but today they lingered in the calm excitement of anticipation. There was nothing to be afraid of. Why she had known amateurs who had first started dancing at age sixty-four. Her wine red tango dress, with a discreet slit in the drape over the left thigh, fell over her tall, angular frame becomingly. She raised her left arm over her head in a combing motion of self-caress. The music she played in the background to set the mood languished and swelled dramatically, through Por Una Cabeza at the moment, that crowd pleaser. As far as she was concerned, it was a solitary-person pleaser as well.
Everybody said she needed to get out more, see people, mingle.
Primping like this in front of the mirror was almost like getting ready for a competition or a professional show years ago, either alone in a hotel room or else cramped together with a coed bunch of dancers. The guys were gay more often than not and in any event preoccupied with their own appearance, so that it didn’t matter much what was exposed to whom in the back of some stage or in a perfunctory dressing room outside some ballroom of a club or a church or a hotel.
Serena outlined her eyes in solid black. She hadn’t done this for ages. She had never been an expert at stage makeup. Usually, she had been too impatient. But now she had all the time in the world. Though even now she’d never go to the length of powdering her underarms with a thick powder brush like she had seen some of the other professionals do over the years. She wished she had someone with her to banter with, to giggle with, to gossip with. She had always had a bit of a gossip problem. What with all these yahoos running around in the world, who could blame her for looking down her nose at the majority of her fellow human beings? She wasn’t impolite about it either. Only those who got to know her pretty well could tell whom she looked down on. It wasn’t very satisfying to look down on anyone in solitude without an appreciative and preferably like-minded audience. For example, she liked to look down on people in the chain dance studios, just money-making enterprises with no class, in her opinion. That was only fair because she knew they, in turn, were looking down on the independent studios like the one she had worked in which also taught jazz and ballet and hip-hop. To each their own. At least carrying your nose up in the air wasn’t likely to ruin anyone’s posture.
Besides the gossip, Serena remembered the luxury of having a companionable someone help her button her costumes or fasten her necklace. Not that her tango dress had any buttons or that she wasn’t flexible enough to fasten the ruby necklace by herself. She wondered if there were women who truly were not flexible enough to fasten their own jewelry or whether that whole scene was just delicious drama. Maybe it was impossible for a very fat woman or an arthritic one or for someone fastening a bracelet with one hand.
Serena had married late in life at age forty-seven. Mick had been nineteen years older and was already retired by then. They had been married for seventeen years.
Mick had not been one of her dance students. In fact, he never set foot in the dance studio where she taught except to pick her up every evening after she was done with her lessons. When they did dance together, it was a sedate waltz or foxtrot at the Country Club and only steps that he already knew from way back when he hadn’t known her yet. Certainly none of the showy stuff that she had done with her various dance partners over the years. She felt it was not her station in life to instruct her husband in anything, much less in dance where she had the obvious advantage. Every time Mick had come to watch her perform in a show, he had been filled with compliments and pride on her behalf. But to dance like that was not his scene and at sixty-six years of age, which is how old he was when they had first gotten together, he felt, and she agreed, he couldn’t be expected to turn into a competent partner for her with her more than thirty years of dance experience.
Her eyes in the mirror misted. Time to get on with your life, my love, he would have said to her, even if it takes some nerve at first – which was a sentiment echoed by all the people around her. When Mindy, a much younger teacher still working at the dance studio where Serena had worked, had invited her to the New Year’s Eve tango night at a club downtown, Serena had been thrilled. This was the time. This was the place. She had even gone to two of Mindy’s tango classes to brush up. Not that Serena needed any brushing up. Tango had always been her favorite dance, long before the Tango Argentino craze of the nineties and the new millennium had taken the entire world by storm. “That’s not a dance, that’s a religion,” they quipped in more diversified dance circles. But it was always good to propitiate the gods of dance by preparation, a sort of sacrifice, an offer of time, less violent than blood, just as she now did too, make an offer of her time the evening before New Year’s Eve by doing a sort of rehearsal scenario.
Everything fit. Her body moved well and looked sinuous and flexible, better in candlelight, of course, than in harsher light on arms that had lost some of their tone and a face with a map to the past. Her hands were capable still, arranging powders, colors, hair. Tonight she wouldn’t put in the false eyelashes—too much trouble for just a rehearsal. But she did put on the red ruby choker Mick had given her and it looked gorgeous above the red sheen of her dress.
Take good care of yourself, my love, he had said to her before he died. Promise me.
She had promised.
He had always had a chivalrous sense of worry about her, even when they first met. They had met because she liked to sit out on her terrace balcony, sunning herself at length on summer mornings.
“It was so close to the ground,” Mick had confided to her after they were already married and living in his house a block and a half away across the street. “Anybody could have climbed up and over that concrete wall. And you so beautiful.”
“Is that why you married me? To rescue me?”
“No, my love. I’m far more selfish than that. I married you to save myself the trouble of having to climb up there on your balcony like some latter-day Romeo. At my age, no less.”
She simply had never thought about there being any danger to her in having a street-level balcony. She had grown up in a small, midwestern town where it didn’t matter whether your balcony was close to the ground or not, or whether you were male or female when you sat out on it. Somehow, she had never acquired the skittish city woman mentality.
Every morning at ten o’clock, more or less, Mick walked past her building to a corner newsstand café to get his paper and drink a cup of coffee. Not as economical as having the paper delivered and drinking the coffee at home, he conceded, but far more enjoyable. And every morning, Serena sat out on her balcony, reading usually, and sometimes just leaning back in her chair with her eyes closed, enjoying the fact that she had a balcony in the first place, and enjoying the fact that she didn’t have to be in the studio until early afternoon.
First, they nodded to each other when he passed. Then they said hello. One day he asked her out for a cup of coffee. She accepted. It was a timely maneuver because they were heading into fall and potentially no more lengthy fresh air sessions for Serena. The next week, he asked her out for a drink. Then dinner. And after dinner, they were married within three months.
Mick’s first marriage had not been happy and he didn’t like to talk about it. What had his first wife died of?
“Frustration,” he once quipped in a moment of uncharacteristic sarcasm. According to the medical profession, it had been cancer, which claimed him, in turn, some twenty-five years later. But in his case, it had nothing to do with frustration.
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” he kept telling Serena.
For her part, Serena had happily lived what she considered the life of the modern woman until she was forty-seven. She was free to do as she pleased. She went on dates. She didn’t miss not being married, no sir. The idea of marriage itself wasn’t so bad. But the men? It seemed easier to just date them. None of them inspired the kind of urgency that begged to live out one’s whole life with that same person. None. And with sex it was rather similar. Yes, she had participated in the sexual revolution, or at least she was part of the appropriate generation. She was in her twenties during the freewheeling sixties with its birth control pills and free love, etc. But to her, it always was a question of free for whom, exactly? Free or not, sex seemed to always favor men, so it was something she didn’t enjoy as much as she might have if it had been a more egalitarian arrangement. As a consequence, she didn’t take advantage of her sexual freedom excessively.
Most importantly, she had had her career, which she enjoyed tremendously. To be able to dance and get paid for it—how much better could it get? Her little brother was a lawyer, so she knew she’d never want for anything. If something disastrous were to happen because she played at life as a dancer, he would bail her out. But it never came to that. And now she was in her sixties and he was still, or again, her safety net, destined to bail her out if necessary, but the likelihood of that was slim.
She wasn’t planning to go back to teaching dance, or coaching either, which really came to the same thing, except that you got to charge almost double. She could probably even become an examiner or a competition judge without too much trouble. But why should she? Why should she do anything? Just because she could? She gave herself an intense look in the mirror. Tango intensity. Tragic. Sinuous. A tragic little salute to life. She stood up to rummage in her CD collection for a tango number she used to love and had once choreographed a performance to Revenge. It had to be somewhere, though neglected for at least ten years.
When she was fifty-five, she retired from teaching dance and any kind of work. It seemed like they could afford to live on his pension and her social security and small savings. They lived well at that. People always asked her, did she miss dance? No, not particularly, she would tell them. But of course she did. How could you not, with a body trained to move with lightning speed and control?
For the first eight years of their marriage, Mick had taken her to work and picked her up from work every day. He’d have dinner waiting for her back home, unless he took her out, which he liked to do. Before he died, he had apologized to her for never taking her out anymore because he didn’t have the strength. After she had retired, she did all the cooking and housework. When he offered to help with the dishes, she would tell him, “No, you’ve served me long enough. Now I’ll serve you.” And she had done so until he died.
She didn’t want to dwell on his death. She always told people that the two of them had never fought, not even once, all during their marriage. And she firmly believed this.
She missed Mick. She missed talking to another human being without fear of being judged. She had told only one young friend that Mick and she used to sleep in the nude until almost the very end. But then she immediately felt self-conscious about this business of talking about two elderly bodies lying naked next to one another. She feared that her young friend wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t be able to accept the beauty and the dignity of it, and after that, Serena never told anyone else about it again and that was that. Chapter closed. Chapter unspoken from now on. Funny, she thought, you were entitled to talk about all kinds of things to do with grief, and yet the thing you missed the most, your husband’s thin, elderly, beautiful, warm, breathing body curled around yours—that thing you were not entitled to speak of, not without someone cringing. The other person, or you yourself. It didn’t really matter who was the one cringing.
She wasn’t able to find the song Revenge anywhere, so she returned to the mirror, Best Tango Album In The World still providing her with background soundtrack. She placed her two hands on her two hips. Great figure. Great provocative posture. Her bright tinted lips, remarkably plump for her age, were pursed in provocative coquetry as well. She was a beautiful woman at age sixty-four. Classy. She had always been classy. Mick had compared her to Jackie Kennedy once, probably because of the sunglasses she had worn on her balcony sunning days. Except he had insisted that Serena was more beautiful.
And then the sob broke loose in her, while she still looked exquisite in her slinky dress. Suddenly, she knew she wasn’t going to go to any New Year’s Eve tango party. What for? Whatever for? She was supposed to get herself to mingle with people. The refrain was in her head like a doctor’s prescription for some unpleasant medicine. What for? She wouldn’t be able to find what she wanted. Mick wouldn’t be there. Her youth wouldn’t be there. Her heart wouldn’t be there. She saw her skin flush red and puffy under her eyes.
Slowly and with great deliberation, she took off the red tango dress. She would keep it in her closet for a while, then give it to someone she liked or to some charity. She shrugged herself into her soft white robe to take off her makeup. But the rubies Mick had given her, she left those at her throat for a while yet, a beautiful deep shimmer against her delicate, slack, pale skin and the fluffy white of the robe.
Then she curled up on a chair by the telephone, long legs tucked under, toes inside the robe, and dialed Mindy’s number to let her know she would not come to the New Year’s Eve dance. She hoped Mindy wouldn’t be there in person so that she could leave a cheerful message. But Mindy was there. Next, Serena hoped Mindy wouldn’t ask why. But Mindy did ask.
* * *
Beate Sigriddaughter is poet laureate of Silver City, New Mexico (Land of Enchantment), USA. Her work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and poetry awards. In February 2018 FutureCycle Press published her poetry collection Xanthippe and Her Friends and Červená Barva Press will publish her chapbook Dancing in Santa Fe and Other Poems in 2019.