The Perils of Dancing (a short story)
I am afraid of the dark. When I was young, I didn’t like to sleep because I feared those tiny little colorful beads we see when we turn off the lights. I couldn’t tell them where to go, what to make. They moved on their own accord, dancing to their own mechanisms. They could be beautiful. They made circles or spirals or zigzags, like a display of synchronized swimmers. I remember napping with my mother and telling her that they looked like colorful grains of sugar swirling through the air. Though, more often than not they didn’t dance so gracefully. Sometimes they molded themselves into something cruel, grotesque, overpowering. I saw them writhe and slither into a face I didn’t recognize – an old man with withering, melting cheeks.
I was afraid of being alone in small spaces too. I didn’t like to shower because I was completely isolated. I couldn’t help but imagine that I was the only person in the universe, that reality ceased to exist outside the doors of my bathroom. As soon as I entered, my brother, my mom, my dad, the walls of my house, my neighborhood, my school, my hometown, my country, the world, the universe, the cosmos melted away and it was just me and the violent spray of water beating down on my face. I hated closing my eyes. I saw those intimidating dots, their menacing spirals bouncing, bubbling, thriving around on the inside of my eyelids. I waited for them to zig zag outwards and swallow me into their eternal darkness. They told me that I was unsafe, that I should be ready at any moment to lose any sense of a stable reality.
Eventually, I realized that these fears were small manifestations of a fear of death. I mean it’s a wonder that we’re alive today. Each one of us could die a thousand and more times in a day. Every decision, every minute action, every choice that we make and every choice that our predecessors made were choices that steered them towards our production. I could have been nonexistent at any point in my bloodline. Somehow, Grandma Begum lived long enough to reach the nice marriageable age of twenty-two where she happened to give birth in a deathly political climate just before her husband died. Somehow, her son found the one woman, in a country of eighty million women, who had an egg that would latch on to the two-hundred million sperm cells that were unleashed on one fateful February day. All the universe’s internal and external mechanisms had to have been and have to be working in exactly the same rhythm to produce such a beautiful and original tune for us to dance to at this particular moment. So I must be in a universe where a version of me actually survives the infinite ways I could die. It should be comforting knowing that I die in another space and live in this one, but I dream about my alternate self, dead, in another universe. She doesn’t dance. Instead, she drives a perilous vehicle. She drives and drives, dreaming about dancing.
I have a recurring dream in which I am driving down a long road. This road is gray and it’s nighttime and I don’t know where it’s going. There’s no scenery. Just the road, its long yellow streaks, and darkness. I don’t feel anything at first. No wind, no sound, no breath. With no end to the road in sight, I sense a pressure in my abdomen, a pressure that slowly creeps towards my chest, and finally settles in my throat. It makes its way up to my ears and it feels like being on an airplane as the altitude changes. The pressure lies cozily in my ears, refusing to pop. Next, I’m falling. The road is there, the car is there, I’m there driving with intense clarity, but it feels as though I am falling. This, surely, is how I am to die – in the hands of a frightening subconscious. I only hope that the alternate version of myself that outlives this deadly predicament can find its way out of the car and into certainty. Once I’ve resigned myself to death on the winding roads, I, of course, wake up… to the warm welcome of swirling dots. They leave me alone, deciding that the dream was sufficient enough.
I started swing dancing three years ago. I loved watching people dance. A boy and girl danced in front of me. He was like a giant metronome, looming over her. His body was sturdy, carrying her from one part of the floor to another with a precise stability. He was mechanical, stiff, and his ability to keep rhythm was impeccable. They danced together, and he knew at what measure to push her forward and at what measure to pull her back. I watched them swing opposite feet backward in unison, kick them outwards again. His hand pushed hers away from his body to indicate that they were about to do something different. She kicked towards him and then reversed until he was behind her. Both of his hands were on top of hers, controlling when they kick forwards and backwards. I enjoyed the way they swayed together. They both hopped when the beat stoccatoed. Hops and swivels and bounces, kicks, pulls, pushes. Someone leads and someone follows. The music dips and the dancers dip too. They were graceful, his rigidity adding to the elegance.
I was almost run over by a perilous vehicle. Well, actually I was the perilous vehicle. Or maybe it was my dream-alternate-dead-self trying to take over my present dimension self. I was driving and all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe. The sky was a pale pink, the storefronts along the road bubbled with people, but I was stuck struggling to inhale behind the wheel. My dead-alternate-dream-self rose out of the eerie depths of her reality and forced me to acknowledge her. Cars and trucks and buses and bikes zoomed past me, clouds roamed the skies, people walked the sidewalks, but the air was thick. Slowly, the skies darkened ever so slightly, my vision blurred, and my pulse quickened. I felt it first in my lower stomach: a knot, a twist, a pressure, a noose. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the word “worry” comes from the Old English term, wyrgan, for “strangle.” Just like in my dream, a worry rustled in my abdomen, crawled toward my chest, and strangled my throat. My heartbeat quickened and I felt for a pulse to make sure that I was still alive, to make sure that I was still human, to make sure that the other version of me wasn’t claiming this version of me. I struggled against her, wondering if finally, it was time to join her after months of her visits. Someone told me that you can’t feel pulses in a dream. People say a lot of things about dreams though. I read a book on lucid dreaming, a state in which you wake up within your dream and gain control of your surroundings. The book said you can’t tell time in dreams. Maybe it’s true. Can you? I was too distracted by how my lucid dream exaggerated and distorted my vision. You don’t know where you are, but you want out. Being in the recesses of your mind isn’t as fun as you thought it would be. There is a figure standing beside you that looks vaguely like your grandfather, but wait, that is weird because your grandfather died before you were born and you have never actually seen him before. You want out of this strange place where you can feel your feet firmly planted on the ground, but the clocks don’t tell time and you can’t feel your pulse. You want out, so you push the walls of your head until it throbs enough for your sleeping body to feel it. You sense it, not in your head, but in your thumping bumping worried heart.
Focus on counting. Five, six, five, six, seven, eight, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Keep the pace, be a metronome. Inside turn. Feel your partner’s hand as it twirls yours around. Swing out, the momentum pushes you forward and past him, but he catches you before you keep spinning outwards. Feel his hand on your back as it brings you towards him. Five, six, seven, eight. Sugar push. He left hand pulls your right hand toward him only to push against it. Rock step backwards, landing on your right foot. Five, six, seven, eight. Keep rock step triple stepping. Step step. Charleston. Right foot: kick in front of you, kick behind you. Left foot: kick in front of you kick behind you. One, two, three, four. Texas Tommy. He twists your arm behind your back and your body unwinds into the next twirl. Five, six, seven, eight. Keep dancing, keep with the rhythm, listen to your footfalls. Feel your mind fade, vision unfocus. There isn’t much that matters when you’re dancing with someone.
I shifted in my seat. I turned up the radio. I sung loudly, trying to drown out whatever crashing thoughts I had in my head. There was a loud honk and I couldn’t tell if it was actually just my humming that had progressed into a stagnant buzzing noise, so I kept driving. I tried to keep with the universe’s odd and original tune, muttering high and higher tones. It’s a different sound every time I try to listen for it. Sometimes it’s sad and sometimes it’s poppy and upbeat. Other times, I refuse to pay attention to it and it sounds like the radio when you’re trying to match the pace of the universe’s rhythm. There is no metronome to keep its beat, to control its chaos. The sound almost isn’t a sound at all. Headlights flashed, wheels turned presumably by my hands, and eventually my perilous vehicle wound up on the side of the road with the hazards on. This version of myself made it out alive.
There are, of course, the perils of dancing too. So many people on one dance floor. You have to dance closely, make sure that your elbow is well away from his face. Don’t step on toes, crash into dancers beside you, the old, rusty air conditioner on the wall. Pull a follow too hard and she’ll spin out of control and who’s to say she won’t stop spinning? She’ll spin and spin, faster and faster until she turns into one of the colorful dots that swarm into menacing shapes when she closes her eyes. But he catches you after propelling you outwards. He reigns you back in, catching your momentum. He reassures you that there are no dangers of dancing.
Nothing happened, really. My hands stopped shaking and I convinced myself that I could read clocks and feel my pulse. The radio played at a normal volume, the tunes worked with and not against the universe. I sat in my seat for a while on the side of the road and watched cars pass by me. Some passengers laughed and some sang. I counted five red cars, seven blue cars, and two gray cars. Once my pulse ticked at a slower pace, I drove onwards and my dead-dream-alternate-self stayed in her dimension.
The room dims. The lights hanging off the ceiling softens, glowing against the pale brown wall of the large room. People float gracefully across the wooden floor and you watch. You watch the gleeful woman, laughing as her partner twirls her. You watch the white-haired man counting his steps in his head. You watch drifting feet and blurring bodies until someone asks you to dance. You focus on counting. Five, six, five, six, seven, eight, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Keep the pace, be a metronome. Inside turn. Feel your partner’s hand as it twirls yours around. Swing out, the momentum pushes you forward and past him, but he catches you before you keep spinning outwards. Feel his hand on your back as it brings you towards him. Five, six, seven, eight. Sugar push. He left hand pulls your right hand toward him only to push against it. Rock step backwards, landing on your right foot. Five, six, seven, eight. Keep rock step triple stepping. Step step. Charleston. Right foot: kick in front of you, kick behind you. Left foot: kick in front of you kick behind you. One, two, three, four. Texas Tommy. He twists your arm behind your back and your body unwinds into the next twirl. Five, six, seven, eight. Tandem. He pulls your right arm towards him, indicating that he wants a kick, and a turn backwards. With both his hands on yours, he controls your frontward and backward kicks. Kick out. Kick back. Kick out. Kick back. Your mind fades as he moves you. Relax into his control. Keep dancing, keep with the rhythm, listen to your footfalls.
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