I freeze in the doorway of Café Rumba. I’m too old for salsa, I have to be. My hips haven’t swayed for a long time, unless you count pushing open the door to the doctor’s office when my hands were busy with Mother’s wheelchair, and the last time I checked, such motion does not inspire unbridled passion in the opposite sex. I put on my favorite black pumps tonight, the ones with just a hint of sheen, but now I fear they are too formal for this dance-and-let-dance affair. I also have on my favorite crushed velvet dress, perfect for a winter wedding but, again, perhaps ill-advised for a steamy milonga. The dress shimmers in low light — that’s why I like it so much — though there is a tipping point that makes my pear shape look more like runny plum. Please God, don’t let the room get so hot that I regret my choice. Salsa, I’m told, generates a lot of heat, thermal and otherwise.
Mother hated this dress on me. And if she were still here, she would have let loose plenty of opinions about my coming here tonight, too. “There’s no call to be so gussied up on a Wednesday, Nancy, even for a dance,” I can hear her wheezing from her station at the card table in the living room. “It’s not becoming on a woman your age. Do you want those Latin men to mistake you for a streetwalker?”
Only Mother would have believed any outfit selection of mine could lure men in our mild-mannered town into a pay-by-the-hour motel. We don’t have those anyway in Nordeast; we’d have to go to the Holiday Inn by Route 494 instead, and that would eat up a working girl’s whole commission. What I would have had more trouble explaining was that it didn’t matter what I wore — the point was that I was going out. Out of the house. Alone.
Beyond the bouncer in the double doorway, I see the salsa diehards warming up. Their very practice swivels look sultry. One woman in the corner — who, come to think of it, looks older than me — is putting on her shoes. She is dressed in black from head to toe, hair dyed to match, and she’s not so much sitting in the folding chair as draping herself upon it. She reaches down her taut calf and, with a languid flourish, pulls the ankle strap tight. The effect stuns me. There’s more sex in that movement than I’ve experienced in total over my lifetime, and that includes my 21-year marriage to Darren, with whom I was quite satisfied for 14 of those years and miserable for the 7 leading up to the divorce, and also that one fling in college that involved an inadvisable amount of wine but still makes me blush whenever I think about it.
Despite the cold, I start to drip sweat.
The dancers look nowhere near as tame as the clip art figures on the flyer I first saw on the Curves community board last Tuesday and then again in the teachers’ lounge on Thursday. The simple 8½-x-11 sheet detailed the free lessons-cum-open dance sessions happening weekly at Café Rumba, “the hottest ticket in town.” Toner streaks cut through the early-’90s image of two tango dancers frozen in a swoon. What caught my eye both times, besides the incongruity of tango dancers on a salsa advertisement, was the promise in Comic Sans at the bottom of the sheet: “Find your passion … for passion!”
I mulled over that phrase all weekend. Were the flyer creators assuming a base level of passion in everyone? Could passion be taught? Unleashed? Did hopeless cases exist? Was I one of them? I relayed this train of thought to Cynthia on our Monday-morning walk, and she rolled her eyes at me. “Nancy, would it kill you to go and — I don’t know — try it? No one’s around to stop you anymore. You want it, you do it. And for god’s sake, please don’t overthink anything written in Comic Sans. Ever.”
Cynthia was right, of course. She usually is. Which is why I rushed my dress to the dry cleaners and left school right on time today. Oh, and took a small nip of Irish Mist from the liquor cabinet. Anything to keep me from overthinking.
“Ma’am?” The bouncer raises his eyebrows at me and tilts his head at the growing line of hoofers behind me ready to escape the bleak midwinter. Most of them are hopping from one cold foot to the other, careful to avoid the dirty slush along the sidewalk outside the club.
“So sorry, here you are.” I hand him my license and he dutifully inspects it — a run-of-the-mill procedure for which I am suddenly, wildly grateful because it lets me pretend for a moment that I don’t look every day of my 51 years, with extra wear thrown in after Mother’s two strokes. He nods and hands it back to me. Over his shoulder, I see that Sexy Shoe has taken to the floor with a much younger man. They are drooling their legs across the parquet, no music yet, simply moving with each other.
I smile at the expressionless bouncer and edge around him through the second door, already propped open, defeating its proper Midwestern purpose of blocking relentless drafts. People made bulkier by their winter coats pen me in. I ricochet off one woman barreling through the crowd who screeches over her shoulder at her huffing companion, “Stan, hurry! I see an open chair!”
Café Rumba used to be Vinelli’s Garage. Of the crowd gathered here, I am likely among the 12 percent old enough and native enough to remember that bit of trivia. Daddy used to bring me along when the Chevy came due for an oil change or the brakes started squeaking again. I’d sit on a wobbly bench near the multi-paned garage doors at the front and watch the grease monkeys at play. And I always made sure to keep my ruffled socks and starched jumper well out of range of the oil slicks, or Mother would wear out me and Daddy with another awful tirade upon our return.
Tonight, the only oil in sight is the pomade I thought went out of style in 1957 but is evidently enjoying a resurgence within the Twin Cities’ immigrant community. Whoever renovated the place — a local family, the Padins I think I saw in the paper — has whitewashed the three-car-wide interior and added a dated drop ceiling that looks as if someone first walked across the panels with an aerator. They don’t go in much for adornment. A Blessed Mother painting hangs by the doorway, and small tea lights feebly flicker on craft-store sconces against the walls. Otherwise, the whitewash runs uninterrupted. Its simplicity offsets what I’m suspecting is the chief reason for Café Rumba’s skyrocketing popularity in town: Who needs décor when you have a throbbing mass of people eager to see and be seen, to touch and be touched?
I glance behind me at the distinctive garage doors, now transformed into the front windows. The panes are already fogging up in confusion over the viscous heat within and nippy bite without. Inching my way over to where the wobbly bench used to be, I watch the entry line snaking its way down Fitzgerald Avenue. It files inside steadily — the bouncer has found his groove — and within minutes, everyone’s soggy hand-knit caps and Vikings scarves are tipping the coat racks and obscuring the chairs. I hide my purse behind one such mound. God forbid it and my car keys walk away tonight — Cynthia is away for a couple days, and I’m not sure who else I could call to come fetch me.
“Bienvenidos a la Café Rumba!” The D.J.’s smooth voice coats the din, puts coasters underneath the clacking heels, adds a bit of slick to the pompadours. The crowd pipes down imperceptibly. From my vantage point along the perimeter, I watch eye communication fly across the room. Already, potential partners are sizing each other up, filling unspoken dance cards. I furtively peek around. No one is peeking back.
“Who’s in the mood for a little …” — here the D.J. pauses for dramatic Latin effect — “…SALsa?” I’ve never heard the dance name pronounced that way before, as if someone were sighing the A to a lover in a clandestine embrace, as opposed to the sharp, nasal A I use when asking the 15-year-old Superfresh employee where the Pace brand is in the condiment aisle. The exotic pronunciation works magic on the crowd; they cheer and clap and crowd a little closer to the turntable at the far edge of the parquet, back near where the garage manager’s office used to be. Grinning, the D.J. waves his arm to the right of the room and says, “Please welcome your … instructors!”
To my surprise, Sexy Shoe and her barely legal partner move to the center of the floor, cutting through the throng like heated butter knives. People step aside for them, in awe of their cat-like ability to prowl while walking. Once in the middle, Barely Legal fixes his eyes on his partner’s face and takes her in his arms. She in turn lifts her sharp chin but lowers her lashes, combining “come hither” and “I have mace” messages to admirable effect. They strike me as locked and loaded, a phrase I hear the seventh-grade boys use in the library when they’re playing gunfight amid the stacks instead of picking out books for the week. This pair’s interpretation of the phrase, however, is the real deal; they carry danger in the curve of their backs and gunpowder in the nearness of their torsos. Despite already standing 20 feet from them, with hedgerows of bodies in between, I back away. I’m hot enough as it is — no need to push it.
The D.J. starts the music, a number full of Spanish guitar and wailing vocals. Their eyes never straying from each other, Sexy Shoe and Barely Legal carve out the dance floor with hips and heels. The appreciative crowd whoops in segments, an aural wave, whenever they sway past. The couple is now swinging around to my corner of the room, ready to begin the formal lesson. The people in front of me reflexively step back and bump me. The backs of my knees hit the folding chair. I teeter and jut an arm toward the window for support.
Someone grabs my elbow. “Whoa there. Steady now.”
The voice is deep, rounded, without the prairie-flat intonations that wallpaper my life here. I look up at my steady-er. An older gentleman, maybe 10 or so years on me, a soft kind of plump, but well-dressed enough to hold it all in. A respectable head of brown hair and full beard with trailing brushstrokes of gray at his temples and in the mustached creases around his smile. The neatnik in me wants to reach out and incorporate the silver streaks with my fingers, as if they were splashed there during an art lesson. I don’t, of course; personal space is to be respected, even at a salsa lesson.
In the same breath, we notice he still has me by the elbow. He laughs, one woof of a HA!, and says, “Let me release you before this unruly mob misunderstands my intent.”
I titter. Titter! Only women in Austen novels do that. Soon I’ll be turning about the garden and overhearing younger women vowing to one another that they will never turn into a divorced, childless, and — gasp! — boring matron like Lady Nancy. The man drops his hand. I extend mine. We shake. His grip feels much the same as it did on my elbow, assured and warm. In the center of the room, Sexy Shoe and Barely Legal are sharing instructions I can’t hear.
“I’m Robert, formerly of ‘not from around here.’” He holds my palm a beat beyond his introduction.
“I’m Nancy, formerly of ‘not anywhere but here.’” As much as I want to leave my hand there, I must withdraw. The sweat working its way down my arm will surely ruin the moment I’m hoping we just had.
“Have you come here before?”
I flirt with lying. But then my better (and apparently sexless) angels catch up with me. “Not since I was a kid, when this was still a mechanic’s shop. Is this your first salsa outing?”
“Here? Yes. Ever? No. I spent probably a year’s worth of future retirement income on lessons a while back after my wife passed away. A worthwhile investment, though, because it proved this old fart does have hips.” To illustrate his point, he swivels with the vigor of a man at least 20 years younger.
I choke back another titter and say, “Oh my.” Cynthia pipes up in my head as clearly as if she’d followed me across town: Oh my, Nancy? Oh my? Do you have any color in your life? Then Mother: Never trust a man who says he’ll take you dancing. Your father told me we would go, but we never did. I turn them both off and focus on Robert. “I have to confess, I’m envious you came armed with skills. I’m a complete newbie. You’ll be a hot ticket in the old town tonight.”
Sweet mercy, I’m rusty.
He woofs again, twice — HA! HA! “Well, we’ll have to see if your prediction bears out, though I’m feeling pretty good about the evening already.” He grins down at me. More sweat pops out of pores I didn’t know existed. “Care to limber up with me?”
With no further preamble he lays both hands at my waist. Nothing aggressive. Nothing untoward. Just gentle and confident, a well-liked belt I’d stuffed at the back of my sock drawer and forgotten about until this moment.
“Now put your hands on my shoulders,” he says. I rest my fingertips there so as not to disgust him with my liquidity. “Do you feel the rhythm in the music? Quick quick slow, quick quick slow. Say it with me, it’ll help you find it. Quick quick slow, quick quick slow…”
As he chants it, almost under his breath, he maintains his light pressure on my hips, pushing me back as he steps forward. I catch a whiff of Old Spice. My tentative step connects with the floor.
“Good! Now same thing back again. Quick quick slow, quick quick slow…”
He pulls me forward while he backs up. I sneak a peek at my feet, but he catches me. “Uh-uhn, no floor-gazing! Trust me. If I’m doing my job right, you’ll never have to think about what you’re doing. You’ll just be free to sail around the floor and be your gorgeous self.”
He smiles. I sweat more. We sway in time with the music, quick quick slow, quick quick slow, moving infinitesimally closer on every count of slow. I can do this. All it takes is basic rhythm, a good partner, the right attitude. One foot, one step, one try at a time. Nothing to fear but fear itself, Daddy used to say, but the only thing I fear in this moment is the song ending and my courage evapor—
I land on Robert’s toe. Hard. With my heel. To his credit, he barely flinches, though his eyes do squinch a bit. Sexy Shoe and Barely Legal whirl through my peripheral vision as the music speeds up beyond our cozy rhythm, while the apologies tumble out of me unchecked.
“I am so sorry! How clumsy of me, that must have hurt, I promise it won’t happen again —”
He woof-laughs. “It comes with the territory, dear partner! We’ll chalk it up to beginner — yow!”
In my flustered state, I have stepped on his other toe. He winces hard this time. Shame races up my neck and inflames my face. I am now not a runny but an oozing red plum, squashed on the dance floor, unfit for consumption.
Then I spot her out of the corner of my eye: Sexy Shoe swiveling her head toward us from her central post. Her severe chin snaps. Her razor-edged cheekbones sharpen. Even her coiled black bun tightens. She rotates on the petite ball of her right foot, and the flexible salsa shoe, glued to her form after what I’m sure is several lifetimes’ worth of instruction, slides along with her, eager to catch her footfalls. With each languorous step, her neck extends, her torso elongates, her legs stretch, and her toes — her pointed, wicked toes — exhibit more of a backbone than I as a vertebrate have ever had.
Sexy Shoe’s glittering eyes meet mine over all the bobbing, shaking heads. The music continues to roll through the speakers, the D.J. continues to croon sweet Spanglish nothings into his mic, but I feel as if I’ve been slapped across the face with a high heel. She is aware of me. She recognizes my kind: the reluctant impostor, the ineffective dilettante, the wannabe “passionista” who even under threat of torture couldn’t identify her life’s blood. She must smell my sweat-sopped dress and read it as weakness — weakness that should be eliminated from the floor as quickly as possible to ensure survival of the sexiest.
She is now beside me. Her stony resolve chills the once-warm aura Robert and I had created. Raising a pencil-dark eyebrow at me, she cocks her head and brushes Robert aside with one imperious wave that says, Be gone.
Robert swallows. “Well, how about that. I’ll… I’ll wait over here.” He drops my arm — he’s been holding it since I became transfixed by the roar of this woman’s movement — and retreats to the coats along the wall.
Her eyes have not left me. One skinny arm slithers up. I stare at it. Her eyebrow clicks down three notches to a stern furrow. She smacks my arm into place against hers, joining us palm to palm, skin on skin. Her other arm encircles my ample midsection until her hand rests on my shoulder blade. With a snap! the space between us evaporates. She has made us one beyond my consent, and only now will she move to dance.
“Follow me.” Her voice is coated with cigar smoke.
Good rule-abider that I am, I wait for more direction. None comes. She stares deeply into my eyes, just as she did with Barely Legal. How can he stand it? It’s only been eight seconds and my eyeballs are about to melt.
And we’re off.
Sexy Shoe lunges forward, full pressure on my outstretched arm. I can’t help but move with her; her arms are an iron corset. I strain to find quick quick slow, quick quick slow in the thrumming music, but there is no longer any room for calculation. Instinct holds the reins.
Forward forward backward, backward backward forward, sideways sideways rock. Her hand grips my back, its pressure and intent clear through the crushed velvet and my Spanx control top. We whip to the right. My feet grapevine on their own. We whip to the left. Her arched arm swoops over my head and twirls me toward the gaping crowd. I can’t make out any faces — they’re a mass of melted crayons, blurred and smoothed, coloring the edge of the room.
Sexy Shoe is wrapped around me now, or so it feels. She has subsumed me through sheer, blunt will. We are no longer in the café or of the café. We are a packed soccer arena in Barcelona cheering full-throated, feeding off our own excitement, building concentric radiating waves to coax a win. We are a blaring horn section at a musicians’ club in Little Havana, stage lights glinting off our wailing instruments, riffs reverberating through the lounge. We are a hidden plaza in Brazil not yet relinquishing its daytime heat to the cool moon, pulsing with subliminal energy, known only to couples who rendezvous, laughing, in the shadowy alleys leading up to it.
And I. I am all the verbs I so rarely make real. I am shake, shimmy, strut — actions I can’t remember remembering, so I must learn them all again in a matter of moments, except I don’t really have to learn after all, because somewhere deep down I know them already, much to my flushed surprise.
One final horn blast, and I’m suddenly upside down. She has dipped me. This little bony thing has somehow tipped over my not-insubstantial frame without dropping me, and is still boring out my eye sockets with her glinting ones. Did she ever break her gaze? Was I too ecstatic to notice?
The whole room, now hanging from the ceiling, is hooting and clapping. The inverted D.J. pauses the music so the crowd can celebrate my public exhilaration. What would Mother say? Probably nothing — by now she’d have fainted from the shock. Cynthia would cheer. But they’ll never really know, will they? Here I am in a part of town I never visit, sweating from hairline to heels, in the arms of a tiny, magnetic woman for whom timid dancing is tantamount to sin, and the skin-tingling epiphany of it all is that I have fallen — quick, quick, no slow — for this blood-pulsing, heart-pounding, inside-out scenario. I have moved across a dance floor tonight, yes. But the trembling in my body and mind tells me I have moved much further than that.
Sexy Shoe drags me up. The room tilts back to a starburst version of the one I was in before, and now I’m looking down at the dark crown of her head. She releases me. My back and arm throb from the impression. The D.J. cuts in: “Brava, señoras! Now everyone, are we ready to take it faster?” The crowd yells in agreement and moves back to its blob-like formation, their arousal a heartbeat within the opening bars of the thumping music.
Robert shoulders his way back through the crowd behind Sexy Shoe. He is laughing. For a minute, I have to recall who he is.
“That was amazing! You’re a salsa star! Ready to get back out there?” he says over the rising volume. Sexy Shoe narrows her eyes at the sound of his voice and pivots so quickly that her skirt flays my thighs. She slaps her hand to Robert’s chest just as he reaches us.
“No,” she commands. “Good dancers try on many partners. Let her practice.”
To underscore her point, she pulls the nearest man off the wall, a young Hispanic gentleman who looks to be about 20, and pushes us together as if we were rusted mannequins — right arm holding up my hand, other hand on my back, enough breathing room but not too much. We smile shyly at each other. She surveys her work. Nods once. “Okay. Now go.”
Like that, she is gone, dissolving back among the dancers, slinking away toward fresh prey. My new partner leads me to the dance floor where our feet fall in line with the movement around us. Robert, a bit forlorn, watches me from the sidelines. I’ll be back, I mouth to him over my partner’s gyrating shoulder. And I will, I think. Maybe. Just not yet.
The Post would like to extend special thanks to its staffers who helped with the selection of finalists, as well as to its distinguished panel of guest judges who shared their time and talents, including Peter Bloch, Ed Dwyer, Holly Miller, William Jeanes, Estelle Slon, Michael Knight, and previous Great American Fiction Contest winners Lucy Bledsoe, Linda Davis, M. West Moss, Celeste McMaster, and Myles McDonough.
This article is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.