The sound of the car door slamming was lost beneath Sandy yelling, “Mom! Mom!” and Steven shouting over him, “Sandy, don’t slam the -- Slow down!”
No one seemed to notice them, just another family out for Sunday evening stroll through the park -- or another divorced couple switching the kid after the weekend. Frances barely had time to brace herself before a high-powered six-year-old barreled into her knees.
“Moooom, I wanna dance!” Sandy spun enthusiastically and careened into the ground. Frances managed to hide her grimace at the thought of the grass stains on his new pants, helping him up with a hand under his arm.
“We went to see the ballroom competition.” Steven’s smile was almost apologetic. “He’s been convinced he wants to salsa for forty-eight hours now.”
She crouched down beside Sandy, flicking grass and dirt from his knees and wiping a smudge from his chin. “Salsa, huh?”
“Yeah!” Sandy’s enthusiasm was bright and genuine. Frances ruffled his hair as she stood. “I wanna dance!”
“I figure he’ll forget about it in a day or two,” Steven offered.
Frances looked down at Sandy, who was spinning again, lopsided and dizzy and giggling. “You’re probably right.”
It’s getting colder, a nip in the air, and the battered anatomy textbook on Johnny’s equally battered kitchen table has five sheets of notebook paper tucked into the back cover. They’re all letters that start out I’m so sorry I haven’t written, and in the front is a letter from Penny accusing him of that very thing.
You haven’t even told Baby, have you?
And of course he hasn’t. It was hard to keep in touch after that summer at Kellerman’s -- Johnny with no money to make the three-hour drive, Baby too young and too busy with college to drive herself. They wrote letters, hers longer than his, full of dreams and ambition and what she was doing with herself. They always ended with What’s new with you? but Johnny never knew how to answer that question.
I applied to nursing school, he wrote in one letter, the first one that’s hidden in his textbook. I got into nursing school -- I guess I never told you I applied, is written in the second.
“I’ll tell her, Penny,” he insists, trying to unwrap himself from the phone cord as he stretches to put a battered saucepan under the steadily dripping leak in the corner. “When I have something to tell. I’m not even through my first semester yet. What if I wash out? What if I end up back at some other resort, teaching middle-aged women the merengue?”
He’s the only man in his class, and there are times he doesn’t know how to take comments from the other students, from his instructors. He keeps mostly to himself, studies hard and does every homework assignment meticulously, and promises himself that if his grades are good enough at the end of the semester, he’ll finally write Baby and tell her. Maybe he’ll even splurge on a phone call.
But when the time comes, when he’s holding his report card full of B’s and C’s with one shining A, when he counts his spare change and calculates the number of minutes he can afford to talk on a long-distance line, the operator tells him the number’s been disconnected.
He doesn’t find out why until New Year’s. Penny tells him she got a Christmas card from Baby, that she’s moved, she has a new address (and, he supposes, a new phone number), and the fact that he didn’t get a card himself makes him unsure about writing or looking up her new number.
Maybe after he graduates, he tells himself, turning Penny’s letter over in his hands, leaning against the kitchen door that creaks ominously under his weight. Maybe when he can tell her that he’s an RN, that he’s volunteering with the Peace Corps, that her father made him want to make a difference in people's lives and she made him believe that he could -- maybe then he’ll call.
Monday morning, Frances was two minutes late to the office. Her secretary, Sally, met her at the desk with a cup of coffee and a stack of depositions.
“Ms. Houseman, the Baker attorney called about your hearing this afternoon.” Sally handed her one of the folders, flipped open to the relevant pages of the Dobbin case. “He said you’re going to have to reschedule--”
“We can’t reschedule! That’s ridiculous.” Frances took the folder and flipped to an earlier page. “Mrs. Dobbin has been waiting long enough already. She can’t go another week without her power being turned back on; it’s getting colder every day.”
“Call McNamara back and tell him absolutely not. Or better yet, put him through to me and I’ll tell him.”
Sally followed her into the office, arranging the other depositions on her desk and reading off the sticky note pressed to her index finger. “You also have calls from the detective on the Marley case, from Annette Hastings, and your sister called about your parents’ anniversary party next month. Something about the catering menu.”
“Thank you, Sally,” Frances said, taking the while-you-were-out slips from her and stacking them neatly on the corner of her desk. “Oh, and Sally, if you have a spare moment today, can you see if you can find information on children’s dance classes? My son has retained interest in something for three whole days, and that’s a record.”
“Of course, ma’am. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
She closed the door quietly behind herself, and Frances felt the room settle in the wake of her energy. She sat in the chair, blowing out a slow breath and picking up the stack of slips with names and phone numbers scrawled on them. She hadn’t really spoken to her sister in ages, not outside birthdays and Christmas, but this anniversary party for their parents was kind of a big deal. After they’d nearly divorced the year before, they wanted to have what their mother was calling a “re-commitment ceremony.”
Early last Christmas morning, she and her father had shared a cup of tea out in the gazebo behind the house. Through the steam curling up from his mug, her father had confessed to her that it was simply a matter of letting things get away from them until they didn’t have a bond anymore.
“You have to work at relationships to keep them growing,” he’d mused. “You’d think I would know that.”
She’d laughed, shaken her head. “You’re talking to the wrong girl, Dad,” she’d muttered into her cup. “My divorce papers were signed two years ago.”
He had clasped her on the shoulder in his awkward, earnest way, and they hadn’t spoken of it again. She wondered what he thought of this ceremony now, whether he was participating in any of the planning or just letting her mother do it. And Lisa, of course, she amended, looking down at the sticky note.
She stuck it to the corner of her desk and picked up the slip with her other to-call list on it. She’d call Lisa later.
Dear Penny, the letter starts, because he’s given up on all the ones that start out Dear Baby or Dear Frances. It’s been six years; that door’s been long closed.
Dear Penny, I never knew anywhere could be so damned hot it would make me wish for Kellerman’s basement again. I can’t take a breath that doesn’t taste like hundred-degree swamp water. Other than that, it hasn’t been too bad so far.
He taps his pen against the lined yellow paper, chewing on the end of it. He knows half of this is going to end up redacted, that they’re going to think he’s talking in code. He’s too honest to talk in code, though, something his roommate laughs at him for.
Guy I bunk with has it worse than me. This is his second tour, and he’s seen more than I have. Keeps him awake at night. Keeps me awake at night too, sometimes, way he wakes up yelling and carrying on. I think that’s why they put me with him, if you want to know the truth. Thought because I’m a nurse I can do something to help him out. Boy don’t they feel stupid.
He doesn’t write to her about the stories Sol tells him about the two Purple Hearts he’s already received, about the time he floated above the jungle and watched them zip his body up into a black bag.
“Scared the shit out of them when I woke up in the back of the truck,” Sol had laughed around the filter of the cigarette he was lighting. “Scared the shit out of me too, though.”
He also doesn’t write her about the color of Sol’s eyes or the way they turn sad and honest sometimes late at night when they’re talking about hopes and regrets and the worst decisions they ever made.
“Hey Johnny,” Sol had said on one of those nights, arms braced on his knees, olive drab shirt open over a dirty white tank top as he fiddled with an unlit cigarette. “You ever wish you’d skipped out on the draft? Headed north to Canada maybe?”
Johnny had shrugged, tamped his own pack against the heel of his hand before he’d opened it. “Nah. I mean, I hate it over here, but I figured people needed my help. Met a girl made me feel like I was worth helping, and I figured I could pass that on to other people. Thought I was gonna go into the Peace Corps until I got my draft notice.” He'd pulled out a cigarette and held it between his teeth to light it, inhaling thoughtfully before he admitted, "But you know, the more I'm over here, the more I remember kids I grew up with back home. We didn't have shit either, you know? Makes me think about how dancing changed my life." He'd shrugged.
Sol had leaned over, lit his cigarette from the end of Johnny's. "Hey man, I can dig it. Kinda wish we'd had something like that in the neighborhood where I grew up, you know?"
He also suspects they put him in Sol’s bunk so he could spy on him, but that was before they realized they couldn’t afford to kick a man out of the army for the way he looked at other men. And Johnny wouldn’t have told them shit anyway; it wasn’t any of their business whether he feels Sol’s gaze burning into his back when he pulls off his shirt to get ready for bed -- or whether he watches Sol sleep for more reasons than trying to stave off his nightmares.
“Who’s the girl?” Sol asks a few nights later. “The one you met. She the one you’re writing all the time?”
Johnny looks down at his yellow paper, only one paragraph there and over half an empty page of things he’ll never tell Penny staring back at him.
“Nah. I write Penny. She’s like my sister. We’ve been tight since we were kids.”
Sol blows out the smoke from his cigarette, makes a little understanding noise and watches Johnny scratching the pen across the paper.
After a minute, he asks, “So why don’t you ever write the other one?”
Johnny doesn’t stop writing, telling Penny about the food in the mess hall and the food fight that Sergeant Claflin started and blamed on one of the lieutenants. “She’s got her own life,” he says absently. “I was only in it for a few weeks.”
There were far fewer shrieks and giggles than Frances had expected to hear coming from the big open room where Miss Walters taught her Caterpillars Dance Class, but when she peeked in through the glass window in the door, she could see that all the children looked happy, gazing up at their teacher with rapt attention. One or two fell into distraction but were swiftly corrected with a smile and a firm word. Sally had outdone herself with locating this one.
Frances turned away from the door before her presence could distract the kids, walking slowly along the polished hardwood floor of the hallway, coat folded over her arm. She wanted to speak to Miss Walters about the possibility of getting Sandy into one of the beginner classes, but she would have to wait until the current group of kids was dismissed. She peeked idly into a couple of rooms as she passed them -- one empty, one with adults bent over tiny desks, laboriously copying down simple sums from the chalkboard -- until her attention was drawn by an oddly familiar voice down the hall.
She stopped, staring toward an open door at the end of the hall where she could barely see a long-haired teenaged boy slouching against the wall, gesturing, clearly bargaining.
"C'mon, teach," he said with a crooked grin. "You ain't really gonna make me do that girly shit, are you?"
"One, it's not girly," that voice answered, and Frances didn't realize she was moving toward it until she heard her steps on the hardwood floor. "Two, girls work hard at this 'shit,' as you call it, and I personally know several women who could kick your ass at this without breaking a sweat. In heels, too." The teacher moved into view, though Frances could only see one shoulder and the back of his head. A lot had changed, but the way he held himself, the rebellious little curl of hair at his neck...
The man paused, turned sharply, and the teenager behind him snickered loudly. Frances stared; she had been so sure it wouldn't really be him. He's older, of course. Worn, but somehow brighter, more settled than she remembered him being. Of course that was -- God, twenty-six years ago now. She was sure she'd changed too.
Not that much, apparently, because it only took him a moment to place her.
She laughed, head tilting back with the overwhelming nostalgia of it, the way it swept over her, made her feel young again. "Nobody's called me that in over twenty years," she said, beaming at him, brushing her hair back when it fell over her eyes.
"Sorry, I'm sorry," Johnny said, sparing a moment to glance back at the teenager -- now joined by some of his friends who were crowding around him, trying to see who their teacher was talking to. "I just -- wow. I didn't expect to see you here."
She turned to gesture toward room where young children were lining up to put on their coats and wait for the mothers, fathers, and nannies that were coming noisily up the old wooden stairs. "I was just here to see about getting my son into Miss Walters' class. He wants to learn to salsa."
Something flickered across Johnny's face at the mention of a son, but his smile didn't dim. "Runs in the family, huh?" he teased. "You have a son, wow."
"Sandy." She smiled. "Alexander, but we call him Sandy after Sandra Day O'Connor. Family tradition, I guess." She hesitated, then added all in a rush, "He stays with his dad on the weekends." Maybe it was stupid, but she didn't like Johnny thinking she was still married to Stephen.
A scuff behind him made Johnny turn to see the teenage boys still gawking at them, and he stepped through the door toward her, blocking it with his frame, and lowered his voice. "Listen, I've got to finish this class or I'll never get them to pay attention again, but... it was really good to see you again, Frances."
"You too, Johnny." She glanced over to the children leaving, watched Miss Walters putting her own coat on, and made a snap decision. "I've got to run too, but... are you busy later? Do you want to get lunch or just coffee or something?" Her face felt flushed; she felt like she was talking too fast, like it was her first time defending a client in court, the first time she won a mock trial in law school, the first time she carried a watermelon up to employee housing at a summer resort in the Catskills.
Johnny looked surprised, but he smiled, warm and soft. "Yeah, I'd like that." He swallowed, and she watched him wet his lips like she remembered he used to do when he was nervous all those years ago. "There's... there's a lot I want to tell you. I'll be done with this class in twenty minutes, if you've got the time...?"
She was supposed to have a meeting in an hour, but she could find a payphone, call Sally and tell her to clear the afternoon schedule. You have to work at things you really want, she could hear her father saying.
"Sure. I'll... see you back here in twenty minutes." She felt awkward giving him a little wave and dashing away, but she had to hurry to catch Miss Walters, calling out to her, glancing back just once to see Johnny showing that long-haired boy how to hold his frame for the cha-cha. Johnny caught her eye through the door, and she smiled, shoulders straightening as she held out her hand to Miss Walters to shake.
"Hi, I'm Frances Houseman, and I wanted to talk to you about dance lessons for my son."