Girls Like You
It had been weeks since we’d touched each other. Which sucked, because of all the things that were wrong with our marriage, our ability to connect on a physical level had never been lacking. In a moment of complete and utter vulnerability, my husband came into the master bedroom I’d claimed as my own during our separation and asked me to dance.
Will you just dance with me? One song?
I agreed, mostly out of sympathy. The request was one driven by emotion, fueled by hours of conversation peppered with all the things we’d failed at. Never wanting to dance with me had come up somewhere between his habit of taking hours to text me back and my disdain for his family. I didn’t believe he loved me, and I was convinced that if he examined our relationship, he would come to the same conclusion. Slowly, years of secrets and pent up anger were beginning to leak out of me, weights like ball bearings I carried in my soul that had become tremendously heavy. It was between Christmas and the New Year, and I had just informed him that I was pretty sure our marriage was over. At the time I was trying to gauge just how much I’d have to tell him to get him to understand that I was done. Done with my own lying and self-deception, done with his approach to life, done with accepting the relationship we had the way it was. The least I could do was acquiesce to this one request, as much as it hurt that it was actually the first time in our relationship that he’d ever asked me to dance.
He instructed Pandora to play “Stay Radio”, a station we both liked that played mostly touchy-feely soft pop-rock and country, bands like Sugarland and The Fray. I set my book down and got out of bed, telling myself that the ease and familiarity of his embrace could not magically end the hurt between us. We stood there, swaying without regard to the music like awkward eighth graders at a Sadie Hawkins dance. He sobbed, and I held him.
We stood there like that, for a long time.
I wasn’t sure if he could really even hear the song playing, or if he could make out the words. He wasn’t one to pay attention to lyrics. I was the opposite, finding meaning and making sense of life through music on a daily basis. So, of all the songs that Pandora could have possibly thrown at us that evening, it was kind of cruel that it was John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.”
I took it as a sign.
From over my shoulder, his hot breath and tears like sweat on my neck, he whispered, “We should’ve learned how to dance.”
We should have done a lot of things.
The cold Chicago winter complimented the tension between us superbly through the New Year. He couldn’t afford to move out, so we lived around each other. There were days I felt like we were still the best of friends. There were days I planted landmines and waited.
I took off my wedding rings and consulted a lawyer.
He signed us up for counseling and dance lessons.
James was chatting up the owner of the dance studio when I arrived for our first lesson that day in March. Which was weird, because he wasn’t the type to chat up anyone. In the two decades I had known him, I could barely recall him ever speaking with a stranger so comfortably. In fact, his unbearable introversion was high on the laundry list of reasons I felt divorce was imminent. My livelihood depends largely on my ability to build relationships through rapport; it had always been a little embarrassing to me that he seemed incapable of volleying even a dull exchange about the weather, and during an event he could most likely be found in a corner somewhere staring at ESPN on his phone.
But there he was, dressed nicely and gesticulating, talking with a lady who was grossly overdressed for a Tuesday afternoon. I earmarked this as new-normal, the post-apocalyptic behavior of a man desperately trying to prove to his wife that he can be what she needs him to be. I groaned inwardly, took off my coat, and looked down at my feet. I’d been in these dressy boots all day. They had high, chunky heels and my feet already ached- a realization that spurned instant regret for agreeing to this at all.
I was the last person to arrive, and the instructor turned her attention from my husband to me with a warm wordy embrace. “Oh, there she is! Lovely! Welcome…Welcome!!”
Ushering me onto the floor, she instructed everyone present to take a place on any of the green masking tape x’s on the floor. She introduced herself to us, and after a five-minute monologue on the importance of dance, she prodded us to introduce ourselves. “Tell us your name, if you like, tell us how long you’ve been a couple. If you’re getting married… If you’re on a date… whatever brought you to this class tonight!”
It was then that I focused on the images of my husband and me in the mirror across the room, behind the instructor. We looked like total strangers with a comfortable chasm of space between us. Every other couple stood with, at the very least, the fine hair on their arms touching. Some held hands. One guy had his arm around the waist of the girl, a pose so sweet and real that I choked a little on jealousy. Two couples were on dates. Two individuals were regular students and just liked to dance, no date involved. The last two couples were getting married. Learning to dance so, presumably, they can have that perfect wedding video. Inwardly, I chuckled, Good Luck. And then, dismayed, my mind wandered back into the past where it planted its feet and crossed its arms in rebellious indignation.
When we met and started dating, I was seventeen and he twenty-three. He took me to my Senior Prom. We didn’t dance. He was clear that dancing wasn’t ‘his thing’. Twenty years later, the only dance we ever really shared was to “Power of Love” by Celine Dion at our wedding. That he’d made good on the vulnerable suggestion months earlier made me semi-nauseous and most definitely angry. It felt like manipulation. It felt like too little too late.
It was our turn to introduce ourselves.
“James,” the instructor chimed, “please introduce us to your beautiful wife…”
I felt like I had missed something, like the universe shifted on its axis for a moment, because she spoke to him like there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong in our world. I had no idea how he would respond, what he would say. I usually handled all the talking for us, especially the introductions. He usually happily deferred to me.
But this time, he didn’t. Instead, he reached for my hand and told the crowd my name and that we had been married twenty years. And that we were there because he should have learned how to dance with me long, long ago. It was excruciating, the way he was willing to carry the blame for my mistakes, as if dancing with me would have kept me from losing myself in an emotional and physical affair with someone else.
I felt like a room full of strangers had a front row seat to observe the autopsy of my marriage. It had to be as obvious to them as it was to me that this man was in denial, that he had been asked to identify the body but hadn’t yet accepted death as reality. Our marriage was there on the table, split wide open, exposed, and dissected. The cause of death was obviously neglect. Yet this man, my husband, was orchestrating a resurrection and I was terrified that if I allowed him to breathe life back into it, we’d have nothing but a new monster made up of old parts to contend with.
My throat constricted and hot tears threatened the corners of my eyes. As he grabbed my hand, I bit my bottom lip, my tell when I’m nervous and want to say something but can’t. I forced a smile, a little wave. I apologized for being almost-late. The me in the mirror looked calm and attentive. Inside I was raging.
The instructor started with the basics, an exercise that provided the focus I needed to survive the moment. We tapped and clapped and counted in time. One, two, three, four…. One, two, three, four… She joked about how easy people think it is to stay in sync, but how difficult it is in practice. I wholeheartedly agreed with her.
Our next instruction led to the activity I had been subconsciously dreading; we were told to face each other, practice the different arm positions, get a feel for the space and the frame of the dance. The instructor talked about eye contact and focus, how once you knew the dance the idea was to have an entire conversation with your partner, with or without words, as the two of you glide gracefully across the floor.
I was cynical, and uncomfortable. Eye contact, especially intense eye contact, had never been easy or natural for us. Normally, the most direct eye contact we gave each other was in moments of heated dispute, like the moment months earlier in which he asked me if I’d actually slept with the guy.
All winter, he looked at me like I might spontaneously combust. I hadn’t been fair. I sucker punched him with secrets and lies, and when I was done with that, I threw stones. Every stone was something he had missed over the years, something he took for granted, something he’d been oblivious to that made me miserable. I took responsibility for what I’d done, but I was digging deep and mercilessly for every reason I could give him to leave me. That’s what I deserved, it’s what I expected, and at the time it was very much what I wanted.
He refused. During one of the most intense conversations we have ever had, he looked me in the eye and asked me to let him fight for us.
And now, formally in his arms and listening to a dance instructor talk about what to remember when the music comes on, I could barely stand to look at him. I tried concentrating on my feet, I looked past him at the clock, I glanced at the other couples. He gently squeezed my side with his hand, and I knew he was looking at me. I knew that, for the first time in a really long time, he actually saw me. He saw the pain and isolation I felt, he saw the wrong turns we’d made together. In his eyes, I saw an immense amount of compassion. The reflection of me in them was not that of a philandering woman who couldn’t be trusted, a cheater, a liar, or a fraud. He owned the damage he had done and took it a step further- he was willing to take care of a heart that had been broken by another man, an opportunistic predator who spent years cultivating a relationship with me. A man who managed to convince me that my marriage was only about sex and that my husband didn’t really love me and barely even cared about me. A man who, when all was said and done, declared that none of it was real and he was just using me. To him, I was nothing more than the skin that I’m in, an amusement park he’d gained access to with an amazing performance in caring and sincerity. All I had left was the certainty that neither of them ever really loved me, that the things I brought to the table- independence, intelligence, affability, confidence- were all just things to be consumed by a man.
The music started, and we took our first few precarious steps together. I stumbled and struggled to stay with the beat of the music. He was hesitant to lead. The instructor stepped in for him. “You have to be the one to find the beat,” she said. “You have to make the decision and go with it. Take the lead.” He watched as she pushed me around the dance floor, as my rhythm improved with the instructions her body was giving me. “And you,” she said, addressing me. “You have to let him lead.”
We were getting the hang of it when the instructor lined us up and explained how we were going to swap partners on her signal. Despite the unfamiliar sweaty palms of the stranger in front of me, I felt relieved that, at least for a few moments, I didn’t have to bear the weight of my husband’s forgiveness. People talk about extending forgiveness all the time; they rarely talk about an inability to accept it. I had been neither naive nor delusional about the consequences I was creating for myself with every choice I’d made. I wouldn’t let myself believe he really wanted to dance with me.
The class ended. We’d arrived separately, so we left separately. I sat in my car and cried, then drove to the home that we still shared in separation. Our kids were sixteen and nineteen. They knew what was going on and watched us the way they watched Quentin Tarantino movies; as if at any moment the poetic dialogue would end and the bloodbath might begin. We had been fairly transparent with them, and as honest as possible. My son used humor to deal with it, saying he’d always envied kids who got two Christmases. As long as we could both be happy, he wanted whatever we wanted. My daughter, at just 16, wasn’t quite as affable; one day on the way to school she told me she felt like she was stuck in an earthquake and everything was falling down around her. The night we came home from that first dance lesson, I could see hope forming in the corners of her eyes. She was so much like him, it hurt. So forgiving, so willing to walk away from the wreckage and not look back, so overwhelmed with true, deep concern for the damaged woman in front of her that she could see through the betrayal and find grace. She asked us how it went. We demonstrated for her. She asked if we were going to go back. Her father told her, most definitely, we would go back as many times as it took.
Eight lessons later we found ourselves in Jamaica. On a night I’ll never forget, we went to a bar. It was early, only ten o’clock, and the bar was deserted save for the bartender and the DJ who was just setting up. Through the speakers came the irresistible voice of Adam Levine.
Spent twenty-four hours, I need more hours with you…you spent the weekend getting even, ooh ooh… James took my hand and asked me to dance. We tried to remember the steps, we got out of sync a time or two. We found ourselves looking at each other, really looking at each other, and laughing together as we counted out loud.
As it turns out, learning how to dance did more for our marriage than hours and hours of therapy. James learned how to take the lead. I learned to let him. We learned together how to close the space between us so that nothing could interrupt the dance- so those small, subtle movements and shifts of weight became a language we both understood implicitly. And no matter what happened, we would keep dancing.