Lacey Daley

I dance with people who are older than me. Someone told me years ago never to try it, but here I am, cooped up in ballrooms and dance clubs cavorting with people often three times my age. I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop.

I used to hide it, back when risking what was left of my name meant something. So I would go to school, sign in on the tennis roster, then leave. No one noticed, or no one asked. I knew about Ronnie not graduating because of it, and Jean too. Actually, I think Jean graduated but got absorbed somewhere into the nothingness of the habit soon after.

When I started, I only went to Teddy’s Lounge, a dimly lit and elegant place, where I could count on two older men for a Rumba Hour partner. The taller one, the one who wore the velvet vest and smelled like a cob pipe, had a firm grip and large hands that straightened my slouching shoulders. He adjusted his stride to mine to make the hip sway more natural. It was a fatherly gesture, like shortening an old golf club. When we got close, I could read this in his eyes. The other man was completely bald and would wipe his halo of shining sweat with his forearms, then press them against my lower back. That dampness became familiar and loosened my limbs. I missed it once he passed.

The better I got at managing my stigma, the more places I frequented. When the heat died out at Teddy’s and the crowd retreated to the bar, I would go next door to Havana. Things were all a bit sexier there, so I would shed my cardigan. The smoky atmosphere darkened my virgin glow and hid the logo on my tennis uniform. I danced the Mambo there, sometimes the Salsa. There was always a woman by the door who reminded me of my mother, minus the stale liquor under her breath. She was dark and called on me by tapping the nape of my neck. Even though the dances we did together made me sweat, I got goose bumps when her fingernails dug into my hip bones. I didn’t mind the marks she left. I studied these trophies on my skin when I was home and wishing I wasn’t.

Sometimes men took my hand, other times women, but it was always someone older. If it wasn’t my hand it was my hip, if it wasn’t my hip it was my waist. No matter what, there was always contact, touch meant for me. In dance, it was appropriate.

At the beginning, people stared. I would walk past dropped jaws and sharp fingers all the way to the spot-lit floor. My age was obvious. The black and blue around my eyes made everyone murmur, yet no one ever turned me away. I was new, I was different, and I didn’t have much to lose.

Nowadays I find myself at more and more venues: festivals, receptions, anything of the sort. I have regulars. They wait for me to show up, backs against the wall until I enter. They approach me. I don’t know their names and they don’t buy me drinks. Few words are exchanged. We simply dance on those wooden floors we’ve come to call home. They are mature and I am still small. Their fists are tight but not cocked, the pressure around my hand like an instinctive protection from harm in the wild. Their mouths are open but the only thing that comes out is the hot breath of a stranger on my neck. With my gaze to the hardwood floor, I put my feet in the path of theirs. There is friction between our bodies. Our trail catches fire.