By Sabrina Jaszi
Featured Art: Dance of the Trojans by Henri Fantin-Latour
Every Sunday my daughter calls from California. “Church today, Mom,” she says, not a question: a truth. Every Sunday I mimic her tone. “DanceCraze at the Lautner Center,” I say, and every Sunday Angelie lets out a tunnel of sigh, long, and black at the edges. Today is like every Sunday. At Messler High this week, I’m teaching orbits: the sun, the moon, and the Earth all moving around each other in perfectly predictable ways. I feel like telling my daughter about it, but I don’t have time. DanceCraze starts at eleven. Usually it’s free, except for next week, when the lady from TV is coming.
Today, as always, Robert snorts as I pass him in my tights and sneakers. I walk the six blocks to the Lautner Center and push through its double doors just a couple minutes early, in time to get my spot in the back but after the chitchat. The clock on the wall is ticking toward eleven and everyone starts marching in place. Lila C. is up on stage between the two droopy flags, with the emergency exit behind her. The crowd today is about one-half oldies, one-quarter hoochies, and the rest children and miscellaneous. Miscellaneous, that’s me.
We start out. All of us do what we can, whether it’s the real steps or just a little shuffle on the vinyl tiles. The lady from TV invented DanceCraze in ‘04 but now it’s everywhere, even in Africa. In Lautner Centers far and wide people dance the same routines, or similar ones, to the same songs, or similar ones. The group warms up, easy, easy, with a slow song. We stretch our arms long. We follow our breath. A janitor wheels through—dodging—with a trash bin. Then things really get started. It doesn’t take long. We move our feet in grapevines, boxes, and untranslatable Latin shapes. With our arms we wipe windows, shoot arrows, swing lassoes. We lace our fingers and make our hearts beat. Above our heads we make rainbows. We are sure to look up at the rainbows as we make them. “Sexy, sexy,” commands Lila C., and we all do sexy, keeping our eyes trained on her. There are no mirrors in the Lautner Center and we don’t look around, because no one—not even the hoochies in their synthetic, knife-slashed shirts—looks sexy. No one except for Lila C., who is whipping her wet, scalloped hair down her front, looks sexy, but we do sexy for Lila C., not for our husbands or boyfriends at home, not for Michael, the one guy in the class, a cop on his lunch break, who, up front, is concentrating very hard on his own steps, doing his own sexy. “You look great!” “You look hot!” Lila C. screams, and no one feels guilty. The oldies don’t feel like oldies and the hoochies don’t feel like hoochies. The kids don’t feel like kids. And me, I don’t feel like a Messler High science teacher. There are a couple of thirteen-year-olds now, peeking through the venetian blinds of the Lautner Center, pointing, like what they see is funny. That’s okay. No matter how badly we dance, no matter how much we mess up, someone to our right or left is doing it worse. Someone is just standing there and getting bumped into. And getting bumped into is the first step.
As the third song—a merengue—ends, Tia and Raylene jog laughing up to the stage to dance with Lila C. Tia is in a velour jumpsuit, and Raylene is in a shirt with rhinestones that spell out “Ooh La La.” Last year at Messler High they did not look like this. They were the type of girls who lie around the hallways after the bell in boots and black, who always have mascara on their faces somewhere other than their eyes. They were the type of girls who you would walk up to and ask, “How are you coping?” if you thought it wouldn’t make things worse. It always did with my daughter, who went through the same phase.
But this year, Sundays especially, Tia and Raylene are more than coping. On stage they miss the first few bars of the song—on purpose, for drama—then get into it. “Dance, dance, dance,” says the song, and they dance, whirling their arms. They dance well, they dance great. “Stop,” says the song, and unlike the rest of us, they stop just in time, and in that second-long pause they are full of breath. They look peaceful, grateful, maybe, for instructions they can follow.
The song ends, and Tia and Raylene get back on the floor. Lila C.’s little daughter Estela gets on stage to dance with her mom. She’s only four, but is a better dancer than most of us. She starts out dancing next to her mom, then Lila C. gets behind her and they dance like they’re one person: the woman that Estela will be one day and the little girl that Lila C. was, once, back in Rio. Her hair is in pigtails today and I can see her barefoot at Carnival, on a float or in the street, wearing a bright green costume with a headdress made of grass and a beaded mask, and dancing samba. As Lila C. cuts loose with her arms and legs, Estela takes a break. Lila C. shouts, “I am from Brazzzzzeeeeel!” and simply, “I feel so good!” We all stop trying to follow along. We all freestyle. A few more songs and it’s time to cool down.
Cool-down is the part of class I like least, when Lila C. says, “Grab hands! Hold on now! Squeeze!” and everyone forms a big circle. The circle extends out to the walls, then everyone runs to the center, and when they all get there, lets go. All around me women reach their hands out. Mine stays limp, but Maria takes it up. She’s my neighbor with the blue hydrangeas. Her hand is fat, hot, and beating—lumpish like it comes from inside her, and gross. I wait a minute, then let mine slip out. Before the song ends I am fading toward the door. I watch them from a distance, coming together without me.
Class lasts for one hour, after which people swell around the water fountain or just stand on the vinyl tiles, stuck in their sweaty spots. As I collect my stuff Lila C. makes announcements. “On Wednesday there’s gon be a benefit for breast cancer. I’m gon be leading a class outside to raise money. A lady who makes these cool bracelets is gon to be selling the bracelets and giving the money to charity. And don forget that next Sunday is the master class with the lady from TV, Karen Ritter. It costs four dollars, but it’s worth it to see the lady from TV.”
I leave while she’s still talking, because I have a stack of grading, and because, as always, I feel ashamed, suddenly, among all of these sweaty people: the oldies, the hoochies, and the children, who have now separated into their discrete groups. Another group, the hangers-on, lurks around the stage where Lila C. sits cross-legged. They are the fanatics—mostly oldies, but some other instructors from around town—who would come to class if they lost a foot, or if their brother died. Today they are all in a tizzy about the lady from TV. I’ll skip next week because their devotion embarrasses me. They’ll ask each other what could have stopped me, but forget about it in the end. They’ll be so excited to dance with the lady from TV.
My daughter Angelie is twenty and lives outside of L.A. in a forty-room dormitory with ivy on its front and a fountain in an atrium so high-ceilinged that birds live there for weeks, mistaking it for the outdoors. I know because I visited last year. Angelie is not in college, though. The dormitory, the ivy, the atrium, and the fountain are all property of Opus Dei. The sparrows may belong to Opus Dei. My daughter does, more or less.
Her junior year of high school Angelie wiped the black stuff off her face and made friends with a girl named Tara who had straight, heavy hair the color of rubber, and what struck me as a disconcerting lack of will. She was meek to a fault. Everything she said in her squeaky voice started off with, “Well I don’t know . . . ” She was the sort of meek that is dangerous. The two girls would go off together to do community service. Then it was weekends. Weekends a long time ago, Robert and I took Angelie to the zoo and the Natural History, whose carpeted walls sponged noise and light. Back then she loved the gem exhibit, but now she went in for outdoor church retreats and song-filled socials under facetless clear skies. I wonder, should we have put her on the swim team instead?
Next there was the man with the neat side part, the still visible comb marks, who stood on our doormat the day after Angelie’s eighteenth birthday; the black duffel bag she bought herself from the Ranger Surplus because I wouldn’t buy it for her. I hated that suitcase, and its dark hole of an interior. I hated that suitcase like the cat hates suitcases: knowing what it meant, and that it was bigger than me. I think often about what I could have done to stop her: smashed plates or her cell phone; bribed Angelie or talked to her. Instead I talked about her in my bed at night. I spoke hotly, huskily, quickly, thinking my anger was filling the room. It punched the drywall out, I thought, and broke the bolt. It marched down to Tara’s house and pulled her out by the hair. But not even Robert heard. Beside me he twitched to sleep. Angelie was far away, past the bathroom, down the hall. Really, I was whispering. All the lights in the house were off.
Other times I think I must have caused what happened with Angelie. I still believe that if I had not systematically denied her sugar—if I had let her eat Smacks, for example—if I had let her join the Girl Scouts, if I had bought her that ruffled top at Filene’s that she was much too young for, if I had not been so rational, maybe she would have become the kind of adult who could make her own good choices. I try not to think about “love bombing,” a recruiting technique that Opus Dei uses. When I do, I have to admit that my love for Angelie was not overpowering or explosive. It was more moderate. More than a bomb it was, perhaps, a plinking pellet from an air gun—ammunition for a squirrel or raccoon, not enough for a girl.
For Angelie, what’s happened may not seem so dramatic. What she’s given up, she may not even miss. Once a week she sleeps without a pillow. Every meal she goes without butter on bread, cream in coffee, pie, or seconds. She has a job. She shampoos Labradors at a dog salon near the dorm, then the Father takes her checks. (She “works for God,” she’s explained to me several times.) To talk to her is precious so I stay positive and avoid fights. I avoid church topics, say things like, “How’s the food? I hear there’s a big Koreatown in L.A.”
“L.A. is dangerous, Mom,” she says, implicating me, I feel, and telling me what my positivity is worth. Suddenly I am car jackings, drug deals, drive-bys. I’m trying to be cheerful for her, but I am all crime and food poisoning, too. She tells me not to worry. The cook there makes good, nutritious meals.
Angelie also likes to complain about California and what she calls “the cult of fitness” there. She says that people worship their weights—false idols. They bow down before their Bosu balls. Of course, then, she turns it on me. She says, “Are you really still doing DanceCraze, Mom?”
Angelie has a point about DanceCraze, of course. It is a sort of religion to which I am not completely immune. The week before the lady from TV comes, after pushing out the double doors of the Lautner Center, I walk halfway home before realizing I’ve forgotten my keys on the fold-out table at the back where everyone leaves their purses and water bottles (no one worries about stuff getting stolen). I go back to get them, but the doors are locked. Lila C., who is practicing a new routine on stage, sees me and opens them. “Hey, girl,” she says, “I been watching you.” She points one acrylic fingertip—long and smiley-face yellow—at her eye and then at me. “Did you eat breakfast this morning or something, girl? You’re looking good. Don’t hold back, girl, okay? It’s so good when you go all out.” Her words beat through me along with my still-fast pulse, and though she doesn’t touch me, I get a strange feeling like someone has squeezed my shoulders. “Are you coming next week for the lady from TV?” she wants to know. I tell her I don’t know if I can make it and hurry out, flustered. Usually I cool down on the walk home, but not today. I still feel like someone is gripping me, pushing me. I think of what Lila C. said and feel different as I walk down the same uneven sidewalk, past the same trash cans on the curb, and the cars with their same dents and bumper stickers. Our neighbors, the Crawleys, may be peering at me from behind their curtains, seeing what Lila C. saw. The feeling of their eyes on me is like a spotlight and I dance up my front walk. “What are you, in love?” Robert asks me as I chassé in. His tone, just his normal Robert tone, cuts through my earnest elation. It brings me back to where I’m standing, on my durable frieze carpet, good for heavy traffic.
I go sit in the shower and let the cold lines of water draw sense into me and cool my hot head. I decide, again, not to go see the lady from TV. I tell myself that I don’t want to become like the hangers-on, whose feelings about DanceCraze—a moderate-intensity workout—are out-of-hand, immoderate. For example, there’s a story they tell about Lila C. and the lady from TV. They wait until Lila C. has biked off on her big pink beach cruiser to tell it:
Lila C. looks good up on stage, they say, but when she gets down to dance on the floor with us, you can see her wrinkles, and her muscles, which are a little obscene. She is tiny. Five years ago Lila C. did not look healthy at all. She did not have those calves or the little sheaths for her feet with the separate toes. She did not live in the Spanish Colonial by the swan pond. She was working a corner down on Southeast Ninth. She looked like the hoochies, but worse. She was also pregnant with Estela. One day she leaned in the window of a white Town Car. She pulsed her hip to some music from a club down the street. “You can move,” said the lady inside the car, the lady from TV, and handed her a flyer. Six months later Estela was born. A year later, Lila C. got certified for DanceCraze and started teaching at an old folks’ home. Word spread about her classes. The oldies started bringing their daughters to class and soon she got the job at the Lautner Center, which is a bigger space, and the best gig in town because it is funded by a city health initiative. All kinds of people started coming to dance with her. Lila C. was into some bad stuff, the hangers-on say, but now look at her.
Of course, I don’t buy that story. Devotion—to anything—will make you believe the improbable and grotesque. Lila C.’s page on the official DanceCraze website has a tab on it labeled BIO. The story there is that Lila C. was a jewelry designer back in Brazil, where Estela was born. She emigrated to the U.S. with her husband, a German chain-maker whom she met at a craft show (he lent her a pair of display hands and a neck when hers were smashed in shipping). She gave up jewelry design to get certified for DanceCraze because, she writes, “Nothing in life had ever made me feel so good.” There’s something to be said for that, of course.
It’s Saturday, the night before the lady from TV is supposed to come, and I flip through channels until I find her. There she is, dancing in a pink, branded sports bra and cargo capris with little tassels on the butt. She is the red-haired point of a triangle of dancers. They spread out behind her, duplicates in blonde and brunette in a rainbow of sports bra styles and colors.
I go to bed and sleep badly. Robert is snoring. The sheets feel dirty, though I have just done laundry. I have a crazy dream: I am at the Lautner Center and the room is packed. The lady from TV is up on stage, but I can’t see her face. Where her face should be there is a blob of bright-white light. Lila C. is on the floor with us and we are dancing around her in a circle. “Freestyle! Freestyle!” shouts the lady from TV, her voice strangely deep, and Lila C. freestyles. She moves her arms like water in a fountain, like branches whipping the window. She is the most beautiful thing we have ever seen. Soon Lila C. is dancing crazy. Her limbs go everywhere, and we follow. We are tired but we keep freestyling. “You look great! You look great!” booms the voice from the stage. Lila C. is shouting too, things that don’t make sense. The floor gives way and we all drop, still dancing, into a white, white place. Then the music stops and Lila C. falls down. We all fall down. That is when I wake up.
I wake up laughing, surprised by how far I’ve gotten carried away without anyone pushing me, but also without anyone holding me back, and I do something that’s not like me—I take it as a sign. I look at the clock. It’s later than I thought and Robert is up. From the kitchen I hear one, two, three eggs crack, the sound of frying, and the radio.
In a few minutes Angelie will call. “Church today, Mom,” she’ll say, and when I am silent instead of responding with my usual, “DanceCraze at the Lautner Center,” she’ll think I’m not going, be pleased, and drop it. We’ll talk about dogs, about storms, about heat. For the time being, I’ll leave the rest unsaid.
Then, at ten-forty, I’ll put on my tights and sneakers and walk past Robert—“Get me an autograph,” he’ll say—and out the door. I’ll have my keys in one hand, and my four dollars in the other. It’s not a big thing, what we do at the Lautner Center, but it’s worth buying into. I’ll walk, more slowly than usual, to meet the lady from TV. Near the mailbox I’ll remember the hangers-on, their bodies arranged dumbly at the stage, an altarpiece. I’ll consider turning back, but Angelie will be in my head still. I’ll remember that moderation has done me as much harm as good in my life, if I am honest, and keep walking.
The street will be quiet and I’ll think of the explosion of a love bomb, loud and leveling, or snowing down a thick cover of pink petals. I’ll wonder how love bombs are built and detonated, exactly. I’ll think physics and fission: concentrated energy then release. Consolidation, then chain reaction. In a few blocks, I’ll hear music from the Lautner Center and as I approach the venetian blinds will shimmy—that crummy bass makes everything move. I’ll push through the double doors, find my spot, and start marching.
Up on stage the lady from TV will be solid with a ponytail—no blinding orb of my dreams. Her hair and her outfit will be average. She’ll chew her speech like potato bread; her knees will be thin, tights sacked around them. But the women around me and Michael will glow preternaturally, no, chemically. Their own health will pulse out of them, bounce on the walls, and come back. We’ll all be taut with energy moving our feet and arms fast, dancing a samba, a salsa, then a merengue. Sweat will glow through our clothes, and between songs we’ll release excited screams in little bursts and bundles of high-fives.
Soon, too soon, it will be over, time to cool down. The lady from TV will say through her microphone, “Circle up, now. Grab hands now. Now hold ‘em tight. Tight! Tighter!” I’ll push my hands out with everyone else.
If the hand I grab is shaking, I’ll squeeze it. If there’s a pulse in the hand, I’ll loosen my grip to feel it better. We’ll stretch the circle as far as we can to the beige, stuccoed walls of the Lautner Center, and then, still connected, raise our hands high. “One, two, three,” the lady from TV will yell and it will feel like an attack. Fissile materials, we’ll run at each other for the release. I won’t see faces across the room, just clothes—pink, teal, and Gatorade green. As we get closer I’ll see Angelie, a distant shape in sneakers, and no force will repel me from the center. I’ll rush with the others and toward them until we all collide and explode.
Sabrina Jaszi holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida and an MA in Slavic Literature from UC Berkeley, where she was awarded the Julia Keith Shrout Short Story Prize and the Roselyn Schneider Eisner Prizes in Prose. Sabrina also translates Russian fiction, most recently by Reed Grachev and Alisa Ganieva. Her writing and translations have appeared in StoryQuarterly, The Paris Review Daily, J Journal, Catapult, Subtropics, The Offing, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.
Piece originally published in NOR 13.