the short story project


Last Dance

I see your name in the opening credits, Dan, a two-second flash, and I am stabbed with a rush of disbelief and something like hope. It might be you. Could it be you? After all this time? The movie goes on, and then it comes to the second or is it the third scene and Tom Hanks is sitting in some kind of waiting room, blocking everything out with the opera coming through the headset he is wearing. I hear a man’s voice, higher than I remembered. It could be you. That careful, slow way of enunciating that I used to study, fascinated, at the formal movements of your mouth; the way the lips formed each word around the teeth. Then the camera pans in, and it is you Dan. But it hurts to see you once again. My God it hurts. You look so gaunt, and your jawbone, one of your handsomest features back then; it is too angular. Your neck, impossibly thin, how can it hold up your skull? Your hair, why is it so short? And then you smile at the end of your one line; it is supposed to be some kind of joke. Your smile is a cruel parody of what it once was, a skeletal grin. And it dawns on me. You are one of them. You are dying of AIDS. And you’re not acting, even though they have paid you to be in this movie. 

 It is 1977 and you and I are dancing up the aisle of First City Church. The service is well underway and we are twirling and leaping to the sound of a thousand voices. They are whispering, shouting, singing in Tongues, the lyric arpeggios pouring forth as the Spirit moves. A rivulet of sweat trickles down the back of your neck as we stand before the altar in prayer now. Pastor starts the altar call and we dancers move quietly to the side, except you, Dan. Because you join the other Elders now, with your right hand clamped onto Sally Yee’s tightly permed head. Pastor raises his hands, stilling the voices to a low hum, except for the Amens and Yes Lords that swim up like fish to the sun. I do not remember what Pastor says that night, nor how many people are healed. Nor do I recall how many are slain in the Spirit, caught as they fall backward by the black-suited ushers who are always right behind to lay them out on the carpet, until they come to in a teary daze.
What I remember is you, offering up a thanks to the Lord before that congregation. “When I wake up in the morning, I thank God that when I get out of bed, my feet hit the floor and I’m alive and well.” I made it my prayer right then and there, Dan. Every day I say it. 

“Dan?” I ask you one fine summer day. “Hey Dan?” You turn and look down at me with your blue eyes, waiting. We are walking side by side down a country road, just you and I and the birds. I am sixteen or seventeen and why are we walking like this? Maybe the women are cooking the evening meal; the men are practicing the songs for tonight’s worship, and you and I, we know the choreography so well that we decide to take a walk. Besides, we’ve left your wife Sarah nursing little Nathan. She’s probably singing him to sleep now in the rocking chair in the prayer room.
“What is it? What’s your question this time?” you say to me kindly. I take a deep breath because I am nervous, but then why should I be? You always answer me true.
“Okay how do you know when you’ve met the right one? I mean, the person you’re meant to marry?” I ask. There is a lengthier pause than I usually get from you. You are deep in thought. “Well kiddo, you just know. It feel right. God will tell you.”And that’s it. But it leaves me unsatisfied because I’m still not sure about this guy I’m dating. Hey by the way, seventeen years later and I still wake up to him every morning, happy. Are you surprised? I wish we could have you over for a barbecue and some beers. Hear your stories about Tom Hanks. Meet our son.
Oh I’m sorry Dan.
How old would Nathan be now? 
Remember Nathan’s dedication at the Fellowship? You and Sarah asked me to dance a solo at that one. By 10:00 the best damask cloth has been laid out, all the china cups are stacked three high on the sideboard and the sandwiches are under damp tea towels in the kitchen. By 10:30 the cars are filling up the circular drive and the ‘Sister this!’ and ‘Brother thats!’ are being passed around with mighty hugs. The house is so full, there is barely room for me to move but a few steps, when it comes time to dance, but I improvise. Then you and Sarah are up at the front with Nathan in your arms, and the whole time, you’re looking into your firstborn’s eyes and you’re so proud of him. Sarah reaches for him, but you don’t let go, you just press your lips against his temple and send whispered prayers into his ear. 
 Later, after the feed, people spill out onto the back lawn. It is a hot August day and soon the suit jackets come off, the high heels and hats are lying strewn under the folding chairs. The kids are let to run free like pups under the lengthening shade of the birch trees and people start to talking like they do.
I am caught in a conversation between Harlen and Steve. It is about the End Times, a favourite topic of Steve’s. I want so desperately to get away, but instead I keep nodding assent and taking sips of lemonade. I am too polite and too new at this to say excuse me. Now their voices are rising with increasing vehemence and Harlen quotes a passage from his Bible, punctuating each key word with his finger. Steve is frantically flipping through his Concordance, but then you are there.
You’ve been listening and you say, “Look up 1 Corinthians 15, somewhere near the end, Steve,” and when he is too slow you say clearly enunciating, “Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead shall be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”
You take my arm and lead me away, Dan and I love you for it. As we leave, I hear Steve’s voice getting farther away, “So you see, our earthly bodies will rise up even if we are dead already. Taken up, like the ones still walking around will be. Harlen, won’t that be wonderful when the Rapture comes.” 
You were the one who taught me to dance, did you know that? Bet you didn’t. I don’t mean technique. No, I mean you taught my spirit to dance. We are down at ArtPark to see Alvin Ailey and I’m so excited that you’ve invited me along with the company. When twelve black men leap onto the stage it’s electrifying. Why, it soars right to me, then to you and on down the row, until we’re all jumping up from our seats. When it’s over we’re whooping and hollering and we have to stop at some club back over the border just so we can dance. There is no audience. There is no choreography. There is only joy. 
It’s Labour Day Monday and everyone’s gone away, so I go for a bike ride and I find myself heading along Lakeshore toward your house. I always thought of that house as a Hansel and Gretel place, with its white picket fence, the red gingham curtains and the smell of Sarah’s baking. What a haven of industriousness her kitchen was with the constant production of breads and rolls, cinnamon buns and pies. Sarah did well for you then, whether you realized it or not. After she moved back home to Cambridge with the boys, she became ‘Sarah’s Kitchen’ with a sizeable startup capital raised through love gifts from the Fellowship. But that was much later.
Anyway that day, I wheel into your driveway and I can see you and Sarah through the kitchen window. But it’s the voices that make me pull my bike into the side garden instead of banging up the front walk like I’m used to. You speak slowly and patiently to her, so low I can’t make it out, but she’s cutting in between sobs, “What do you want me to do! Just what do you want me to do!” over and over. And I sneak away, frightened. 
Now that I think back, what you did was probably the hardest thing you’d ever had to do. All Pastor said was that you’d left a letter. Oh the women were wailing at that meeting! And Sarah being pregnant with your second child. At first they thought you had run off with Jenny from the company. You’d always partnered her so well, your long limbs so perfectly matched like a pas de deux by Balanchine himself. Working together, day after day, then the touring on the road and all the physicality, the lifts over and over! No wonder. But it’s not Jenny at all. 
 So I take the subway downtown the following week like always, to take the company class with Margot. Thursday after school like always, and you are there in the row behind me. And we start the warmup to George Benson’s ‘On Broadway’, and I see you in the mirror with your arms rising above my head. I feel your breathing behind me. As we arabesque and pivot around to the right, I see your chin through the corner of my eye and your long, perfect line, and your sculpted chest and arms, pivoting around like always.
I am not the best form in that class. My leaps are lacklustre. I’m off-centre in my spins. I don’t have the heart and Margot senses it and doesn’t yell at me. I deliberately take my time in the changeroom after. Powder my armpits thoroughly. Retie the string around the neckline of my peasant blouse. When I lift the curtain, there is no one left in the studio and my heart sinks. But then I see the flap of the men’s changeroom curtain and there you are.
You look at me. “Come here”, you say so quietly it fills the studio. I sit beside you on the bench near the door. There is a small, dark man hovering at the entrance. Not a dancer; he has no presence at all. Not an actor like you, who can fill a room with one breath. He must have read your glance for in a moment he’s gone.
And I cry into your neck and you give me your towel, and you apologize that it’s used, but that’s what I want.Your smell, your touch, your final goodbye. I don’t ask why, I don’t ask how long, I don’t ask. You walk me down the warehouse stairs and to the corner and at the lights at Yonge we cross to the other side. You reach down and give me a kiss on the cheek. “Be true to yourself,” is all you say, and then you are gone.
I never go back to take class with the company, and after a while I stop going to the Fellowship. Your name was never spoken again. There are certain things I don’t believe in anymore, after those days. Now I’m just an Anglican, the kind they used to warn us about; but then Pastor’s dead of cancer; Steve started his own home church in Fergus; and there was the night they found Harlen with a bullet in his head, bankrupt or charged with embezzlement, I can’t remember rightly.
And now, a lifetime later, I see you in Philadelphia. The irony kills me. The Fellowship was called “Philadelphia House”. Phila-delphia, as in brotherly love. Did they put out a call for actors with AIDS or something? What did you do for your audition Dan? Give a sample?
As I watch the movie, I search each crowd scene for you then finally, I am rewarded. Tom Hanks has just died and there’s a gathering in his house. The camera pans the room and there you are, chatting, for nineteen whole seconds, and then you are gone. You know, I caught Tom Hanks being interviewed on TV later and he was talking about how hard it is for him to watch that movie. How of all the gay actors who were in it, more than half are now dead. He is crying, Tom is. 
 After I see that, I have a dream, Dan, a dream about you. I am at Roy Thomson Hall and it’s a packed house. The lights are dimming when I find my seat. The curtain rises on a single spotlight, on single crouched form. A lone piano starts, so slowly and simply the melody goes, and you begin to move, for it you, Dan, who they’ve all come to see. The choreography is Graham, so it is tailor-made for your long, strong limbs. Then the air changes; the whole audience senses it. They shift and lean in as I do. Your body begins to speak. First with a timidity, then to a primal beat as you rake the stage with great swooping arcs, your body an instrument of angry intensity. Each pulse takes us farther, to a place we had never expected to go, never have dared to go on our own, but for your urging us on with your body. Until suddenly, you fling us into a release, and we are caught suspended, in the lightness of surprise. It ends with a single spotlight on you. You are spinning. Spinning, endlessly free in the hushed silence of the auditorium. And the very last thing to be seen, before the spot goes out, is your dazzling smile, your eyes closed, your face uplifted in rapture.  

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