I began this several years ago, wasn’t satisfied with the ending, and set it aside. I can’t show you my new ending — that would make it “published,” and literary magazines want only unpublished work — but I’d be glad to know if you find the characters interesting, and think you know (0r want to know) how it comes out.
Jennie and the orchestra were belting out Cole Porter. Quick-quick, slow: When they begin…the beguine…it brings back a night…of tropical splendor…
“He has a pigeon,” Sasha whispered as we passed at the swinging kitchen doors. “Same woman, three numbers now. On the far side, where I’m serving.”
Sasha was my best friend at the Paradise Inn. She’d helped me get the job, and volunteered to help keep my boyfriend Roberto in line. No: to get him back into line.
I could see him in my mind’s eye: a handsome young man dancing with an older woman. A few open steps, in perfect time with the music, then wheeling. Nice variations. Roberto was a great dancer; we’d met in a dance hall. Medium-tall, guapo handsome, hair ebon. A weight-lifter’s chest. His short tuxedo with its pegged waist and brocade — almost like a toreador’s jacket — showed it off.
What mattered was how close they were dancing.
I cleared the table I’d been heading to, left the tray on the rack and threaded through the tables to the dance floor. His back was to me. This was an older crowd – the Unionville Class of 1978 Reunion. The woman hadn’t lost her figure; had shoulder-length coppery hair. Her eyes were closed. His right hand was not at her waist, but in the small of her back.
Finally they turned. His eyes were open, watching for other dancers. He saw me, gave me a smile and wink. I glared. He wheeled away. I went back to shoulder the tray to the kitchen.
There was a short knife on a carving counter. A boning blade, thin and razor-sharp. I grabbed it with a dishtowel, put it on a tray of dessert puddings, and hoisted the tray.
I paused at the full-length mirror just inside the outbound door. Management encouraged us to look good. More than good, I thought. I’m a Columbiana, built at least as well as that aging Spandexed redhead out on the floor. Dance better, too. My black hair was as long as hers, although tucked into a net when I worked. I frowned at my reflection, making fierce black eyes.
Sasha, coming in the other door, caught me. “Pretty good, babe!”
A compliment from her meant something. She was a blonde bombshell. Ukrainian. Had a husband and two kids. Thought everyone should enjoy domestic bliss.
“Thanks.” I tried to smile at her in the mirror.
“Enough woman for any man,” she persisted.
“Wouldn’t you think,” I said. I went out to serve the pudding.
She hadn’t noticed the knife.
I’d been a waitress for three years. Although a motel, the Paradise was mostly a banquet hall: The wait staff brought course after course to crowded tables, and cleared the rubble. If the group was male with an open bar, it could become a gauntlet of gropes as the evening wore on.
High school reunions, on the other hand, were a joy to serve: the women often dressed in school colors matching crepe-paper streamers; older, not rowdy, few drinking too much. Many said ‘thank you’ when you set a plate down. Most men with wives. Always a surplus of women, though, divorced or widowed.
This Class of ’78 had wine for happy hour. We carried hors d’oeuvres as they renewed acquaintances, talked about how far they’d come, showed off pictures of grandchildren. Their name tags had yearbook photos, which prompted polite lying about how little they’d changed.
In fact the men were gray-haired, if not bald, and had varying protrusions of paunch. The women – thanks to hairdressers, facials, yoga, uplifting bras, maybe a facelift or lipo – didn’t show their age as much.
They took a class picture while we got rolls and salads on the tables. Tony James and His Orchestra began right away; people table-hopped and danced between courses. Tony’s was a small combo, most as old as the reunion people, so oldies came naturally. Some guests sang along, or mouthed words, or asked each other who recorded that song. The dancing was mostly shuffling back and forth to the music. Even the men who could lead were a bit age-stooped.
So Roberto stood out. A man should dance head back and chest out, playing with his partner the way a toreador plays a bull, first at a distance with the big cape, admiring, then closer in with the muleta. I was ready to teach him about the short sword hidden in that little cape.
I set the tray on the rack again and slipped out to the lobby where Tommy the desk clerk was playing computer solitaire.
“There’s a redhead in a long black dress, Tommy. Stacked well enough that you would have noticed her. Is she staying here tonight?”
“A single on the second floor. You want me to ring her, let you leave a voicemail?”
“No thanks,” I said. “My message isn’t for her. But thanks.” I hurried back to work.
Roberto discovered these reunions two years ago. He was early to pick me up one night, and saw those single women looking lonely. He was dressed plain, but asked one to dance, then another, then a third before Tony played Good Night Ladies.
I waited until we got back to our third-floor walk-up so he wouldn’t miss the fire in my eye. “What was all that dancing about?”
“That was amateur night. I can make money doing that.”
“Tips, baby. I’ll bet some of those women will pay to dance with me.”
“I’m not enough for you?”
“You’re plenty for me,” he said, patting my ass. “I’m talking about just dancing. We can put the money away to start our family.”
He knew that would soften me up. But I didn’t let him off the hook. “I don’t want my boyfriend to be a . . . what’s the word?”
Roberto was a boricua, but had left Puerto Rico young enough to get a good education in New York. “Gigolo,” he said.
“You don’t just jiggle when you dance,” I said.
“No, no. It’s French. A male dancing partner. Perfectly respectable. I’ll dance with reunion ladies, and we’ll put the money in our nest egg.”
I relented. Still, I went to the library to look it up. Male dancer, yes. But also ‘a younger man supported by an older woman in return for his sexual attentions.’
His new sideline was at first as innocent as he promised. He took me to the Paradise, and if it was a reunion crowd went home for a shower and shave, dressed and came back to stroll among the tables. After a time he’d start inviting single women to dance. I never heard the invitation, of course, but he bragged about his technique as he drove me home.
“Hello there,” was his line, “I wonder if you can help me? My name is Roberto. I’m a ballet student, but just now can’t afford to keep up classes. I need to keep practicing, though. I wonder if you would do me the honor of taking a turn on the dance floor?”
He wasn’t a ballet student; he drove a bus. But with his looks, they believed him, and loved how he helped them cut a fine figure their classmates would admire. When he escorted them back to their tables, they invariably slipped him some cash to help to resume his supposed ballet classes.
On the way home, he bragged about his performance, but always handed over the money, more than a hundred dollars most nights.
I let the money stifle my jealousy. Our start-a-family savings began to grow.
Then one night he found Sasha, said he had to leave early, and asked her to give me a lift home. He dragged into our apartment at four a.m.
. . . .