Ray makes a mental note to stop saying things like "I'll try anything" to Fraser. He can't even count the number of stupid things he's been dragged into because of that ill-judged sentence. And now it's the reason he's spending a perfectly good Saturday afternoon in a high school gymnasium, holding hands with a sixty-year-old named Eva, while an accordion -- an accordion! -- wheezes out the opening notes of a lively tune and a man with a string tie and an auctioneer's lungs says, "Bow to your partner ... bow to your corner ...."
Dancing. He likes dancing. But not this kind of dancing. This is the kind of thing he's always associated with guys who marry their cousins. He bows toward Eva's tanned and wrinkled face, pivots and bows to a big woman who looks like she could load hay bales. How did he let Fraser talk him into this?
The gym smells like gyms always do, like old sweat and mildew and whatever that stuff is they make basketballs out of. Ray holds both of Eva's hands, listens to her petticoats swish as they walk in a circle, picking up the required step-and-glide movement from watching the tall, rangy guy in front of him, all too aware of Fraser behind him. A new call, and Eva pivots out under Ray's arm. She's wearing three-inch heels, and she hardly has to duck.
There's a big fan in the doorway stirring the stagnant air, but Ray's already starting to sweat a little. His palms are damp, and every time Eva's hands aren't in his, he surreptitiously wipes them on his pants. The real pros here have bandannas sticking out of their jeans pockets, and now he knows why.
Men into the center and back. Women into the center, passing each other, into the arms of the opposite man; Ray finds himself doing a quick turn with a little fox-faced girl in a denim skirt, scrawny and shy and probably not a day over fifteen, then sending her back to the center and reclaiming Eva. In his mind he can picture the patterns they'd make if you looked down on them from above, if you could tune out the music and the shuffling feet, wipe out the sweat: beautiful, hypnotic. From down here it's just on the edge of confusing.
Within the boundaries of this rigid form, Fraser is a good dancer, the kind of dancer whose partners mysteriously feel graceful and confident, as though suddenly discovering that they themselves know how to dance after all. Ray watched the fox-faced girl while he and Fraser were sitting out the last song, saw the painful blush that heated her face when she made a mistake. But in Fraser's square she never stops in mid-figure with a miserable look of confusion and humiliation. Fraser's hands send her in the right direction. Fraser never steers her wrong.
Four hands to the center, Fraser's hand warm under his in the middle of a stack of male hands. A quick turn and reverse and now Fraser's hand is over his. Then the men turn outward, stand pat and clap as women whirl from partner to partner, hands touching lightly like birds landing and taking off again.
Fraser on his left, tapping his foot with mechanical precision. He's delicately flushed, hair at his temples damp. Before Ray's usual self-protective instinct can make him avert his eyes, Fraser glances his way, and gives Ray a bashful smile.
No way that's what it looks like, but the thought of it makes his head spin, makes his chest contract with longing.
Ray mechanically grasps and releases the hands as they're presented to him. He responded to that look, he knows he did, can feel the flush heating his face. He doesn't look to see if Fraser sees. He steps and glides and somehow through well-practiced force of will prevents his hands from reaching out across the square, from grasping the wrong partner. There are rules.
He would like to explain these rules to Fraser. He would like to say, "Guys like us, Fraser, we don't --"
And Fraser would say, "Don't what, Ray?" He knows the tone of voice. "All women are our sisters, Ray." "It's nothing untoward, Ray." Damned oblivious Mountie, and Ray would feel like some kind of pervert for even having seen anything to object to in what was, after all, a perfectly innocent gesture of friendship. Or would have been, if Ray didn't have such a resolutely dirty mind.
And so it goes on. Big warm hand on his calf: "Just looking for where she's hidden the bomb's starter, Ray." Strong fingers counting over his ribs: "Just making certain you aren't injured, Ray." Hands gripping his face, mouth against his: "Buddy breathing, Ray." Until he's mad with casual contact that doesn't, can't, couldn't possibly mean what he wants it to mean.
And the effort it takes to keep his hands to himself! The amount of mental concentration it requires, day after day, not to put his hand on Fraser's knee or lean across the car and lick his ear ... Ray makes stupid mistakes and forgets words and drives like a maniac, all from devoting much-needed brain cells to the task of telling his imagination: Don't, don't, don't.
And so it's a relief, really, to let the dance tell him when to touch and when not to touch, and no touch can be out of bounds, it's never the wrong time, the wrong message, humiliating failure, down in flames.
Real life is confusing, but a dancer always knows where he's supposed to be.
There's not much touching called for between guys, here in the gym -- square dancing is as straight as the animal kingdom, in fact probably more so. As straight as Noah's Ark. But there are moments: a restrained grip on Fraser's forearm while the gaily clad women whirl around the outer circle in the opposite direction, skirts hissing as they turn. Face to face, shoulders just brushing, advance and retreat.
Once he hears a few of the words, the song snaps into focus for him -- he didn't recognize it because he's used to hearing it slow. Slow, it's sad, melancholy. But with this lively beat, and all the feet hitting the gym floor, it sounds almost optimistic:
The river is wide, I cannot cross over,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Build me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.
The square has broken in half now, and two couples circle, then fly out, women describing a wide ring as Ray and Fraser walk a tighter circle, shoulder to shoulder, until the four of them are ranged out into a line. Ray and Fraser are side by side, facing in opposite directions, like some slapstick parody of the Mounties on guard duty. Ray pictures him and Turnbull pivoting circles around each other in their red coats, and grins.
Now they're back to back, and for a moment Ray can feel Fraser's body heat before they swing into a small square, which folds back into the larger one.
Star now: four men's hands pressed palm to palm at the center of the circle. Twirl with their partners, and then the men's hands go into the center again. Ray's fingers grip Fraser's wrist as they circle, each with his partner on his arm at the outside of the circle. It's like a fireman's carry, hands clasping arms for maximum strength, to bear another person's weight.
They've split the square now. Ray and his partner and another couple are moving off to the right while Fraser and the fourth couple circle off in the other direction. Another figure and they split again, and again, and around the whole gym floor until the four couples come back together, the original square miraculously restored, and Fraser is back at his side, and the song is over.
They stand there for a moment, panting and applauding the musicians and grinning at each other, and then the band sweeps into a waltz and five hundred women in dancing shoes besiege Fraser, begging to be his partner. Ray goes off in search of a cold drink, then stands on the sidelines, gulping bitter tea, watching Fraser and the fox-faced teenager waltz.
Step and turn, forward and back. Fraser's not so stiff waltzing. It's as though he too feels freed by the old familiar steps, the patterns that you can sink into, unthinking, and always know which way to go.
Over the heads of the other couples, Fraser looks at him, and again there's that smile, fleeting and sweet.
Ray presses the half-empty plastic cup to his hot face and watches them move away, across the gym floor. Fraser is gallant, handsome, and the girl is looking up at him, eyes gleaming. So easy, the world makes her dreams, fairy tales with the roles ready to step into like dance positions, arms slightly bent, step and glide. Not at all like the muddle in Ray's brain as he tries to make sense of how he feels, thinking of his partner, his friend, those blue eyes, that valiant, solitary soul.
There are no steps for that, no rules to help Ray know his place. Even trying to be friends and partners, they stumble a lot, step all over each other's feet. But then, Ray's been married, and he knows that even knowing all the right steps is no guarantee of anything. Do the tango with somebody who's trying to do the waltz and all you do is hold each other back. Do the right steps with the wrong partner and you don't have effortless grace, you just have a life that feels like it belongs to somebody else. A gap between where you are and where you dream of being that doesn't get any smaller no matter how much ground you cover.
A sweeping turn and they're moving back again. The girl is looking at Fraser.
And Fraser is looking at Ray.
No. Fraser is looking at Ray. His head swivels a bit with each turn, just enough to keep Ray in his vision as long as possible. Ray is abruptly aware of his hair, which must be even more of a rat's nest than usual -- of his red cheeks and the sweat darkening the neck of his T-shirt. Of a hot feeling in his face that means he's blushing, again.
And then, just as abruptly, he's not aware of any of that. Because they're close enough for eye contact now, and Fraser knows he's looking back, and Fraser is giving him a smile that --
But there's no mistaking it, no writing it off to wishful thinking this time. He meets his partner's eyes over the girl's head, and Fraser's look clearly says: You are the partner I would have chosen.
A shiver goes through Ray's body as they dance closer and that look pins him in place, a cool silver sensation that takes the tension right out of his limbs and gives him, instead, the dancer's liquid physical confidence, the certainty of someone who doesn't have to be aware of the steps, because his hands and his feet already know them.
There are rules. But tonight for the first time he sees how easily he could walk out of the square if he chose to.
And he chooses to.
Soon, very soon, he will walk through the wheeling crowd and take the hands that were meant for him.
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