I am dancing with a former wife, the mother of the bride, at my daughter's wedding. This is her second wedding, my daughter's second wedding, and the former wife I am dancing with is the second of my three former wives. I imagine a certain elusive significance in the numerical coincidence.
Though I can't really dance, and don't enjoy performing badly, they are playing something slow enough for me to fake my way through without embarrassing myself.
—One thing we always did well together, my ex says, is dance.
—You know, I say, I can't remember ever dancing with you before.
—How is that supposed to make me feel, she says. I remember three occasions at least that we danced together. My sister's wedding for one. You danced with everyone that night.
—I accept your version, I say, wanting for the sake of the occasion to avoid a fight, though my dancing with everyone, as she puts it, seems out of character.
—You were in your cups that evening, she says. That's why you don't remember anything. If you hadn't had a few drinks, you probably wouldn't be dancing with me now.
She likes to dispute and what I do remember of our marriage was the endless succession of petty squabbles we had in the seven almost eight years we endured together.
—I can tell from the way you're dancing, she whispers, that you're doing this out of a sense of obligation. I don't need that from you, do you think I do?
There is a live orchestra—a combo really—and the songs go on longer than the anticipated three minutes, sometimes sliding from one into another like a medley, making it difficult to determine the conclusion of one dance and the beginning of the next. —Are you getting tired? I ask her.
—Are you looking for a way out? she counters.
My eyes roving idly over my former wife's shoulder, I notice that my daughter, the bride, is dancing with her husband's father and that the man is holding her closer than seems appropriate. I pass on this disturbing observation to my partner.
An attractive woman dancing with a much older man winks at me as she glides by.
—You would think that, she says. That's so like you.
—Look for yourself, I say, turning us both around, the move only graceful in its imagining. We stumble awkwardly into our present configuration, brush into another couple that apologizes as we hit them.
—Do you see what I mean? I ask.
—Everything's a fog without my glasses, she says. Besides, the man's a professional ballroom dancer. It's impersonal—whatever he's doing is like a doctor's examination.
—Do you really want your daughter to have a medical check-up from a ballroom dancer, I say.
—I'm not going to deal with that, she says.
The fox trot we have been doing to some unrecognizable old favorite turns into The Anniversary Waltz, the emcee crooning the words in a self-congratulatory way, changing a word here and there to personalize the song.
I don't like this other father, this so-called dance pro, clutching my daughter in his proprietary way, and wonder what his son, her husband, makes of the display. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the vapid boy on the sidelines flirting with one of the bridesmaids, Lisa, my daughter's closest friend. no wonder he hasn't noticed his father's presumptuous behavior.
—Isn't it traditional, I say, for the father of the bride to have the first dance with his daughter.
My partner issues an exasperated sigh. —That's just the point, she says. They didn't want a traditional wedding. Haven't you heard anything your daughter has said to you?
—When this song is over, I'm going to dance with Sonya, I announce. I hope that doesn't offend the gods of anti-tradition that hold sway here.
—I think that's a perfectly wonderful idea, she says.
—I do. But you need to be careful, you know that don't you, not to ruin this evening for her. A marriage is a fragile thing as who knows better than you. Don't behave the way my father did on our wedding night.
Her remark, the intriguing senselessness of it, reminds me unhappily of old times. —I don't remember your father misbehaving at our wedding, I say, taking the bait.
—That doesn't surprise me, she says. What happened at our wedding, it so happens, determined the ultimate fate of our marriage.
—I don't believe that, I say. What could your father have possibly done that would have such an impact on our marriage?
When she makes a point of not answering me, I rephrase the question.
—Let's forget it, she says. This is not the time or place to take the skeletons out of the closet. Anyway, it was not so much what my father did that ruined things as what you did in response to what he did.
I have no idea what you're talking about, I say.
Of course you don't, she says. That's the whole point. If you did, you might have been able to sustain a long-term relationship with someone.
My memory of our wedding celebration is shadowy so I'm vulnerable to whatever charge of bad conduct she wishes to attribute to me. Still, I'd rather know what she has in mind (crazy as it may be) than to be left hanging. —So? I ask.
—You know more than you're willing to own up to, she says. Whatever else you are, you're not stupid.
(Whatever else am I?) I do remember dancing with one of the bridesmaids at our wedding and thinking (or am I making this up?) how can I be faithful to one person when there are all these other interesting and beautiful women available.
—My memory is a disaster area, I remind her. I have no idea what your father did that night that caused such a problem. If it was so troubling, why didn't you say something at the time?
—If you didn't know what it was, there was hardly any point in mentioning it afterward, she says. You do remember that he cut in on us when we were dancing. You do remember that much, don't you?
My will to remember her father cutting in on us while we danced offers me the illusion that I do. I even remember, or imagine I do, his tapping me on the shoulder in time-honored fashion.
—It did seem a bit competitive of him, I say.
—Then why didn't you stick to your guns? she says bitterly, digging a knuckle into my back.
—How was I to know you didn't want to dance with him?
—That's not the issue, she says, and you know it.
But I don't know what the issue is and that has always been the problem between us. If you're not in touch with the nuances of her private world, you will inevitably miss the point in some obscurely unredeemable way.
I didn't get to dance with my daughter at her first wedding—my back was out at the time or something—and I don't want to let the opportunity pass again. We were once close, but she turned against me for a while when her mother and I broke up and I moved out.
Someone pokes me in the shoulder blade which irritates me no end, particularly when it repeats a second and third time. It takes a moment to realize what's going on and, eventually, I turn to see who wants to cut in.
It is the groom's father, the man who had been dancing with my daughter and I yield to him with a mix of reluctance and relief. As soon as he dances off with my former wife, she gives me an unforgiving glance over his shoulder.
I then survey the room, looking for my daughter Sonya who seems to have disappeared at her own wedding. That I can't pick her out of the crowd worries me, though I don't know why it should. I notice the groom still chatting with one of my daughter's friends and I amble over in their direction. A sense of urgency leads me by the hand.
—Have you seen Sonya, Gregg? I ask him.
—I thought she was dancing with you, he says. —The truth is, we had a fight and we've been avoiding each other since.
—On your wedding day, for God's sake. I've never heard anything so stupid.
—That's the kind of thing my father would say to me, he says, and walks away as If I had slapped him.
—Sonya's in the Ladies' Room, Mr. B, Lisa says. If you want, I'll go get her for you.
—I can wait until she comes out, I say.
—Suit yourself, Mr. B. I'll tell you this much, I don't think she's coming out any time soon.
—I was hoping to dance with her, I say. You know, the traditional father-daughter dance at a wedding.
—I didn't have a traditional father myself so I don't know anything about that, Lisa says. If you're looking to dance, Mr. B, I'll dance with you.
—That's very kind of you, Lisa…but…
Before the thought is finished we are on the floor doing one of those high energy rock-and-roll dances I usually go out of my way to avoid.
I watch what the guy alongside me is doing and imitate his moves. —Way to go, Mr. B, Lisa says.
—What were you and Gregg talking about? I ask her, but the noise of the music and the distance between us makes it hard for her to hear me and she shrugs her response.
I shrug back as if it were a phrase in the dance and then I notice the man I've been imitating is also making shrugging gestures.
Lisa flashes me an encouraging smile.
—How is it someone as charming as you has never married? I ask her.
Lisa avoids my question, and I wonder, feeling awkward, if she thinks I'm flirting with her.
That's when I notice Sonya in the far corner of the room, her back to me, talking to someone from her mother's family. I want to go to her but it seems unacceptable to break ranks while the music is still holding sway.
I improvise a slide step as if it proceeded inevitably from the shrug, as a means of edging closer to my daughter. Lisa picks up on the slide step after awhile and embellishes on it and so between us we have this complicated series of steps going. I have the sense that I have mastered something unusually difficult.
Someone bumps me from behind and, in delayed reaction, I lose my balance and find myself tumbling in slow motion to the hardwood floor. I take the brunt of it on my right elbow.
When I get to my feet, the music has stopped and almost everyone on the dance floor seems to be looking my way. Discombobulated, I limp to the sidelines, looking for a place to sit down. I hear my name echoed in loud whispers, the tone mildly disdainful, though I tend, friends have told me, to imagine that people are talking against me when they're talking about something else altogether. An elderly woman offers me her seat and I reluctantly decline the offer.
As soon as the pain in my elbow subsides, I resume my search for Sonya. I can't account for the limp that accompanies me since I have no recollection of hurting my leg.
My former wife appears, moving toward me in a determined way that makes me want to run for my life. —I want you to talk to your daughter, she says in a perfectly reasonable voice.
—I'd be glad to if I could find her, I say.
—This is serious, she says, taking my arm. You have to tell her that she can't leave her marriage because of a silly argument. She won't listen to me.
Sonya is standing a few feet away at the moment, wearing and unconvincing public smile.
—What's the matter, darling? I say.
—Nothing, she says in a small voice.
—We haven't done the traditional father-daughter dance yet, I say. The evening's not complete without it.
—Please, she says. The way I feel, the last thing I want to do is dance. Don't you understand anything?
—Don't speak like that to your father, says my former wife.
—Daddy doesn't mind, she says. Do you, Daddy?
I mind everything, though it seems unfatherlike to say so. —If she doesn't want to marry Gregg, I say to her mother, I don't see any reason to try to persuade her otherwise.
—She's already married to Gregg, my ex says. They just had a little lover's quarrel. It's our job to help them make it up.
—What if she doesn't want to make it up?
—Of course she wants to make it up, she says.
We each look to Sonya for validation for our opposing claims.
—I can't stand to watch you fight, she says, sighing. I'm going to go somewhere else. She walks off.
—Why do you think this is fighting, my ex calls after her, and then walks off herself in the same direction.
I watch them muddling through the crowd in single file, until they disappear down the aisle that has the Restrooms sign. Before I can trail after them, which is a budding intention, Lisa slides in front waving her arms to catch my attention. —I've been looking everywhere for you, Mr. B, she says. Dr. Carsik, Gregg's daddy, wants to talk to you man to man. Those are his words, man to man, not mine.
—Why didn't he approach me himself?
—He has this crazy idea that you don't like him, she says.
I don't, though I have no idea why he thinks he knows that.
Dr. Carsik appears and holds out his hand to me. —My friends call me Buddy, he says, squeezing my hand in a viselike grip.
— What do people who hardly know you call you, I ask.
He waves a scolding finger at me. —You're living up, or is it down?, to your reputation, he says.
Lisa steps between us. —Dr. C would like you to talk to Gregg, she says to me. He thinks Gregg will listen to you.
—This is all Lisa's idea, he says. She has the idea that Gregg admires you because you're some kind of writer. Happens I'm skeptical but anything is possible with Gregg.
Since no one knows where Gregg is at the moment, we go our separate ways to search for him or at least that is the agreed-on plan. Actually, I'm less concerned with finding Gregg than doing what I can to ease Sonya's unhappiness.
As it turns out—isn't that always the way—I am the first to discover Gregg who I see coming out of the Men's Room, sucking on the butt end of a tired cigarette. I am about to call out to him when an attractive woman who I'd noticed earlier on the dance floor comes up to me.
—You don't remember having met me before, do you? she says. You have, you know.
There is something familiar about her, but I can't come up with a name. —I should know you, I say. Give me a minute.
—I was at your sister-in-law's wedding, she says. You danced with me. I'm a second cousin of your former wife.
—That was a long time ago, I say, reading her eager, interesting face to no avail.
—I was younger then, she says.
An image comes into my head of a seven or eight year old child holding out her arms and whirling herself around. I had gone up to her and asked her what she was doing. —Dancing, she said.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Gregg and Sonya talking to each other, their voices hushed, Sonya's hand covering her mouth. I have the sense that she is crying, though no tears are apparent.
—Your name is Anna, I say, the name arriving from wherever unbidden.
—You were so nice to me—that part I can see you don't remember—I was going to warn you not to marry my cousin, she says, her smile unbending. That would have been presumptuous of me, wouldn't it.
—I would have saved me a lot of trouble, I say.
—We all need our trouble, she says.
—Tell me what you've been doing, I say. Bring me up to date.
She laughs at my request. —I haven't done anything that's worth telling about.
—Are you married? I ask.
—Well…yes, she says. Sort of.
—How can you be sort of married? Either you are or you aren't.
—It's not a factor in my life, she says.
Before I can ask her to explain herself, Sonya comes over, Gregg standing (his back to us) a few feet behind.
—We need to get out of here, Dad, she whispers to me. Could we take your car? I promise we'll bring it back tomorrow.
—So you've made it up? I say, secretly disappointed.
—Sort of, she says. Once we get out of here, things are bound to be better.
What can I do but giver her the keys and an over elaborate description of where I parked the car. —Do you want to tell me where you're going?
She shakes her head. —We want to go somewhere no one knows about, she says, giving me a quick hug and then scooting away, Gregg in tow. I watch them collect their coats and leave the building, feeling inexplicably heartbroken.
So I don't get to dance with my daughter at her wedding.
Anna, who has been standing a discreet distance away, comes over to mumble something about what a pleasure it was to see me again, which means of course that she also is planning to leave.
—How about a dance before you take off? I say, remembering what a winning child she had been thirty years ago.
She looks at me bemusedly with her mouth partly open as if she were sucking on my offer like a lozenge, looking for the right words to phrase her kind refusal. Then I notice that the music has stopped and the band is packing up its instruments.
—Well, she says. I promised I'd be home by ten o'clock.
—Is this your husband, your sort of husband, you promised?
—Uh huh, she says.
—Perhaps we can share a cab, I say. Which way are you going?
After we collect our coats and walk to the door, Anna says, —I don't think it's such a good idea sharing a cab. Do you mind very much?
—I do, I say. I was looking forward to spending more time with you. But if…
—Then let's do it, she says.
I feel a momentary sense of triumph which drifts away as I hold it by the tail.
Just as a cab arrives—it takes a while—my former wife comes out of the building and calls something to me that sounds like, —Thank you, or —That's so like you. Or, which is not possible —Love you.
As the cab takes off, Anna says to me, —Do you know what I've been thinking about?
I don't of course, though I nod ambiguously. Why, I wonder, do women always expect you to read their minds?
—I've been thinking about my own wedding—do you know how it is?—how all weddings seem the same wedding. I think it's because your daughter reminds me of me. It all came back to me in a rush when I watched her take her vows. Mine wasn't a big wedding—just some close friends—but it was in a hall bigger than we were at today. As Roland put it, we didn't want it to look as if we were doing something sneaky.
My own memories somehow mingle with hers, though I hang on her words as she recites her story. I have the impression I'm listening to a monologue in a private play.
—Roland is my second husband and I married him a few months after the divorce to Jack was finalized. The thing is, Jack and Roland were partners in a business venture and we got involved while I was still living with Jack. Messy, right? Anyway, I left Jack for Roland because I thought I wouldn't be doing what I was doing unless it was for love…. You don't want to hear the details. I should mention that Roland was going through his own messy divorce when we got into our thing. We were out on the dance floor at our wedding affair when it struck me that I was making a huge mistake in marrying Roland. It was not just that I loved Jack more, thought I thought that too, but that I needed Jack, needed to be married to Jack, in order to be interested in Roland. This was all going on in my head when Roland, who was a little tipsy, tells me not to expect too much from him. He was being evasive but I knew what he meant. He meant there would be other women on the side, that that was the way he operated. —Remember, it cuts both ways, I said and he said, —Oh God, do I need this, as if I wasn't even there. Something clicked off in me after that and though we got along—Roland's mostly a nice man—the marriage ended for me the day of the wedding.
—But you're still with him, I say. How long has it been?
—Four years, she says, resting her head on my shoulder, but it's never been a real marriage. I've never felt married to him the way I felt married to Jack.
My place is on the way to Anna's so the cab stops for me first. What happens next goes something like this. I press some money into her hand to cover the cost of the ride, which, after a failed attempt at returning, she hands over to the driver. She refuses her change and follows me out of the cab. Not a word is exchanged until she says, taking my hand, —I'd like to see your place.
I have every intention at this moment of inviting her up and letting things take their course.
Still, the charm of my memory of her as the precocious little girl I had danced with at a wedding thirty some years back has dissipated during her story in the cab. I continue to find her compelling, but it is my history—perhaps my karma—to avoid complications. Haven't I had enough difficult people in my life?
—You made someone a promise, I remind her.
—Did I say that? she asks. If I did, I said it to avoid whatever we seem to be getting into now. Roland doesn't care what I do. And what do you care what Roland thinks anyway. You don't even know him.
A cab lets someone out at the next building and instinctively, I put my arm around Anna and urge her toward it, opening the door for her with an uncharacteristic grace of gesture that surprises us both.
She takes a moment, apparently puzzled at the turn of events, before climbing into the cab. —Will we ever have our second dance? she asks.
—There's always another time, I say automatically.
—No there isn't, you jerk, she says and pulls the door shut.
I stand at the curb alone in the dark, watching the taxi gradually disappear, taillights flickering in the distance like jaded memories.
Jonathan Baumbach has published over 80 short stories in such places as New American Review, Esquire, TriQuarterly, and Antaeus. His most recent novel, Detours, is his eleventh book of fiction. He's been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, O.Henry Prize Stories, and All Our Secrets Are The Same.