The interior of La Cortina is smoky when Maria steps inside. Not the stogie kind of smoky, though that will come later when the havanas are passed around after the customers have been sent home. This smoky is all chilies, candles, and wood-fired ovens, just enough to give the small restaurant interior its delicious scent and atmosphere.
This evening the cluster of tables, usually brimming with people filling themselves with Cuban-style tamales and rice, are pushed back to the walls, chairs stacked up to achieve maximum floorspace. The wooden boards are scratched and pitted but only add to the character of the place, and Maria would rather be dancing on those than on unforgiving tile.
She’s not the first to arrive, hanging her coat on the rack beside the door and greeting the people she knows after she pays Soledad her entry money. Mostly the other people here are older---retirees looking for something to keep them active---but there are a few younger couples too.
She’s arrived just in time for Flor to turn on her salsa playlist and park herself at the front of the room, clapping her hands for attention. They all know the drill---grab a partner as Flor leads them through a gentle warm up. Maria waves at Joel, her usual dance partner, who’s getting a rum and coke at the bar.
Joel’s not too heavy on his feet for someone in his sixties but if Maria’s honest, she wants somebody who can keep up with her. There’s little chance of that. Few singles attend, even if she did meet Chad here originally. She grits her teeth and waits for Joel to come to her, even as she circles her hips as Flor instructs, letting the tension ease out of her body.
Dancing is her happy place. Singing is one thing, but to sing about your troubles is to be reminded of your troubles. There’s nothing of that in dancing---only her and the clave, and whoever is leading her across the dancefloor. She can shut reality out and pretend she’s in a bar in Santiago de Cuba with nothing more pressing to worry about than the beat. It’s a way of working energy out of her body, the impulse to move channeled into something achievable, something that isn’t running far and wide into a world she’s never seen, until she is tired enough to go home and sleep and not feel trapped in this dusty corner of civilization.
When the tap on the shoulder comes, Joel is still weaving his way through the small crowd. It’s somebody else entirely who asks “May I?” from behind her.
Maria spins at the sound of the voice, one she knows but can’t place. Not right away.
She knows the face too, though it’s been years since she’s seen it. It’s familiar in many ways and changed in more, thinned out so the cheekbones have become sharp enough to strike a match on, scruff lining an equally keen jaw, hair sprinkled with the first hints of silver.
“Kyle Valenti?” she asks, hands finding her hips, tilting her jaw upwards in challenge. “When did you get back into town?”
Kyle shrugs, nonplussed by her cool welcome. The last time she’d seen him had been in the wake of...well, everything. The end of a disastrous summer where he’d been one more person to leave her behind, even if they’d not been on speaking terms since she heard what went down at prom. “Good to see you too, Deluca.”
Flor clears her throat loudly, pointedly. Maria turns to reach for Joel, but finds she’s been replaced. Sheriff Valenti is on his arm, looking nervous and excited in a floral dress.
Maria’s got no choice but Kyle and he knows it. At least he has the grace not to look smug as he places one hand on her hip, and takes the other in his own. He smells good too, something citrusy and fresh that isn’t the Axe body spray he used to favor.
It annoys Maria for some reason, and she responds the only way she knows, needling at him. “You lost enough friends that you have to rely on your mama for your social life?” She ignores the little voice inside that reminds her she spends her only night off every week dancing with the better part of the Roswell bingo club.
“I’ve not been back in town long,” he says, brow furrowed in concentration as he tries to pay attention to the steps Flor is demonstrating. “Still making connections. And there’s absolutely no shame in spending time with my mom. She’s been wanting to try this for ages.”
This sequence is instinctual to Maria by now. She doesn’t even need to come to the classes anymore, shifting her weight and swaying her hips to the music while letting her attention rest on Kyle. After the Pony closes she puts her own tapes on and salsas around as she closes up---but coming here gets her away from the Pony and into the company of people who aren’t drunk rednecks.
“How’s Mimi?” Kyle asks, but she presses her lips together, shakes her head. Whatever he sees in her expression, his eyes widen, questions and concerns flitting across his face, before he changes the subject. “Do you hear from Liz often?”
She shrugs, lets his hands guide her in front of him. “Sometimes. She’s busy saving the world. You?”
“Just trying to save the residents of this town. I’m a surgeon now.”
“Wow. Your little black book must be stuffed.”
His hands are very warm. Gentle. His eyes too. And damn him, he’s got rhythm. He manages to keep pace even as he replies to her very earnestly.
“Look, Maria. I’m not the idiot kid you knew a decade ago. I get it---I was the quintessential jock. I said awful things to Alex. I abandoned you when you were grieving Rosa because I had no idea what to do. I’ve changed a lot since then and it’d be nice if we could be friends again.”
Earnestness looks and sounds good on him. She swallows, hard.
“We were never friends. Not really. We only hung out because you were Liz’s boyfriend.”
“We were friendly. Could we start there?”
She gives an airy shrug, her chance to respond lost in the way Flor calls upon them to demonstrate a sequence of steps, trilling with excitement as they nail them. For the first time Maria has somebody who can keep up with her and isn’t tripping over his own feet---and he knows how to move his own hips, especially after a hands-on adjustment from Flor which has him raising his eyebrows at Maria.
Then the music really kicks in and they’re moving, cutting a path through the other couples, Maria’s pulse racing to catch up with her breath. She’s moving the way she always wanted to do when she began coming to these classes, and Kyle Valenti of all people is right there with her, grinning at the way they step and shift, one two three one two three, her skirt spinning out around her knees. The air practically crackles between them, charged by their movements, and every step feels like Kyle has taken her right out of Roswell and to somewhere more exciting.
She finally catches onto the trailing end of their conversation when the song shifts to a new, slower rhythm. “Valenti, if you keep moving like this, I’ll be as friendly as you like.”
Maria didn’t mean it like that. He *knows* she didn’t mean it like that. But it doesn’t stop his slow smile, which dimples his cheek, or the glint in his eyes.
“Careful. Don’t want my mom to have to cite either of us for being overly friendly in public.”
She tuts at him but keeps ever moving, and she knows now that he’s watching the sway of her hips as she twists and dips in his arms.
When the night ends---soon, it’s always too soon for Maria, but tonight especially---she lingers to say a real hello to Joel, who does not seem to have missed her presence or found his new dance partner wanting. The sheriff is spending her time speaking to the members of her community, even out of uniform, and Maria realizes this is about more than dancing for her. This is her putting in the hours, being a face and presence that they can trust. When Kyle cocks his head towards the door, Maria follows him.
The air outside is crisp and cold compared to the smoky heat within, but for all that Maria doesn’t find her blood cooling all that fast. Being able to dance, really dance, for the first time in a long time has stirred something within her. There’s something kindling that’s been dormant for a while, quiet and subdued amongst the drudgery of the bar and taking care of her mother.
“Do you plan on coming back next week?” she asks Kyle, and is alarmed to hear a hint of need within her voice.
He hesitates, and it’s enough to let her know that he didn’t intend to, not unless his mother wanted to. Not until Maria asked him to. “Sure,” he replies, and offers her another smile, one warm enough to spark another ember inside her. “I’ll be here.” He leans in to brush his lips against her cheek and she gets a lungful of that clean aftershave. “And maybe we could go out someplace after? You’re right---I don’t have many connections left here, but I’m willing to put all my friendliness into you.”
Maria rolls her eyes as she backs away towards her truck, but she can’t repress the shadow of a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. “You keep that black book empty, and we may just have a deal.”