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" Dissecting the Angel | 2008 | Fantasy and Reality "

07.01.08 12:56 a.m.

That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.  

-Dorothy Parker


Take This Waltz

In lieu of a date at Dave and Nikki's wedding reception, I have a mostly empty clamshell, two green plastic sword toothpicks, and a chicken bone. These are almost as good as human company. At least, they are until a courteous member of the waitstaff insists upon relieving me of the remnants of my nervous eating and I have to start fresh. I accept that it is my own fault for RSVPing as dateless since my preferred companion is an ocean away. Despite the glut of women in my life, I lacked the imagination that could fathom any being willing to provide me better companionship than the friends I make from hors d'oeuvres. Speaking of which, someone needs to bring me another stuffed clam so my appetizer friend can have a head.

My wallowing is not so bad until the head waiter, seeing that I am sitting at a tiny table, nursing the diet soda I was fool enough to order before the bar opened, proclaims to everyone within earshot that I am alone and that they ought to take pity on me in about as many words. I stammer that I have friends, they just happened to be busy having just been married, and look down at the plastic sword that came with my latest meatball but quickly decide that it is a woefully inadequate weapon with which to exact a murder/suicide. No one responds to his exhortation, forcing my solitude into their awareness and rendering it pathological and pitiable where it was once simply ignored. Awwww!

I am grateful beyond words when everyone is shuffled into the dining room. There, at least, I am free from my empty table. In fact, according to the place cards I scanned before entering, I am seated exclusively with people who have had the foresight to bring dates, but I am happy enough chatting to the middle aged woman across from me who has brought her twentysomething daughter (one of Nikki's childhood friends) as her date. I get on well enough with both of them that we make idle conversation about school and jobs, until I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn and see the judge who married Dave and Nikki an hour before standing over me with a smile spreading his lips.

"Hi...?" he begins, offering me his hand and hoping I will respond with my name, which I do.

He introduces himself, though I know him well enough. "Thomm? This is my niece," and he shoves her toward me. She is a cute girl, brown hair and soft body, but my immediate instinct is to instruct her on prepositional phrases and the use of monologues in Hamlet. I understood from the man's introduction that his intentions were matchmaking. As I reconstruct by eavesdropping on their conversation later, the girl witnessed the head waiter announcing that I was unaccompanied but only saw from a distance, enough to mention to her family that I was attractive, but not enough that she would have noticed I am also twelve years her senior.

I shake her hand and tell her, summoning up my best Jane Austen assurances despite my increasing social awkwardness, what a pleasure it is to meet her. I can tell how much this introduction has caused her to blush, very little of it in a good way, and let it end so she can run back to her table, to the solace of her cousins or siblings. Would that I had such companions to return to, but I recognize a kindred - though greatly lessened - anxiety in her and am pleased that she has companions available to soothe it away.

The wedding itself was lovely and brief, as I think more weddings ought to be. The gazebo behind the reception hall served as their altar. Dave wept through his vows, moved with the sincerity of finally marrying his best friend in a proper way. Nikki managed to get through her vows without her voice cracking, though possibly because tears would damage the wings of the butterflies she released after Dave and she were pronounced husband and wife. It had been a while since last I saw two people so irremediably happy and at ease with one another, even in the requisite formal clothes.

I am doing well during this part of the reception, eating the courses that are continually presented to me and talking with the woman across from me, until the overly attentive head waiter comes to check up on me. "Oh," he says over the music, "It looks like you finally found some friends." He moves out of the way before I can stab him with my fork, but this remark causes my anxiety to flare up again when I had been doing such a good job dousing it with pasta and bread. Dance!

Nikki stops by my table on her circuit around the room and mentions that my girlfriend is still out of the country. I nod my head, just glad to have a little bit of conversation with someone I know. Nikki seems a mix of sympathetic and scheming and later tries to fix me up with any of her friends, but most of them are not my type and, much more so, I am incessantly fond of Melanie. I would rather not be with Melanie than be with anyone else, but this message is hard to convey to Nikki over the din of a wedding reception.

Having finally had too much of just sitting and looking too covetously at the dance floor where Nikki is dancing frenetically to every song that comes on, having definitely had too much of dwelling in my head and feeling faintly wretched, I walk over to the young lady who was introduced to me earlier. She had rarely left the dance floor herself, displaying a confidence that wouldn't be mine without a good social buffer or a sincere buzz. Whenever she did leave the dance floor, I heard my first or last name volleyed over the din of conversation.

"Hey, is your uncle still giving you a hard time about me?"

"Yeah," she confessed with that adolescent tone that can say so much, in this case, "They are mentioning you every other sentence to harass me. It is driving me a little crazy. I understand it is in good fun, but there is a limit to what I can stand before I get murder in my eyes. And ohmigod, you are kind of cute. Cute guy is talking to me. Cousin/sister, look! Cute guy is talking to me!"

"I thought so. That's lousy. What do you say to dancing with me when the next slow song comes on?"

"Yeah!" she replies, saying just as much with so little.

Minutes later, a suitably slow song comes on, one of the anonymous dozens that must contractually be played at any wedding, and I look to her for confirmation that this won't cripple her with mortification. She smiles and stands up, and I lead her to the dance floor.

"Sorry it couldn't be for a better song," I apologize needlessly, just to have something to say to her.

"No," she yells back over the music, "this is good."

"Is this going to make the teasing better or worse?"

"Probably worse," she answers and puts her hand on my shoulder. I put my arm on the small of her back, several inches below where the small of her back will be in a year when she hits a growth spurt, and take her other hand in mine though our fingers don't meet. Our dance is stilted and uneasy, whether because she doesn't have much practice slow dancing with taller men or because I'm not sure what to do when touching a young girl. When I've slow danced in the past, it was all about heads on chests and intermittent kisses, an excuse for rhythmic contact. None of that applies here, so we shuffle our feet in a circle. Every time she looks up at me, she blushes and glances away, laughing nervously, as if for confirmation that she is in an unlikely and embarrassing situation.

"We need to go near my uncle!" she exclaims halfway though. I oblige, letting her lead me near this man and his wife. We keep dancing and he passes us for a revolution. On the next turn, he eyes glimmer in recognition of me, then light up when he sees my partner. He grins infectiously and shakes my hand emphatically, as though I'd just proposed to his niece rather than brought her on the dance floor.

I told myself that I was asking this girl for a dance because it was a nice thing to do. I had cast myself as somehow noble in the situation, the attractive older guy who gives her a dance to silence those who do not think she is capable. But the fact is, she did me the favor. She gave me an excuse to get out of my seat - and head - for a few short minutes. The dance is not a perfect one, not the choreographed number Hollywood would lead you to expect, but it is enough that I am able to stay on the dance floor through three other songs before the internal angst and discomfort drag me back to my seat for twenty minutes.

Soon in Xenology: Hanniel. Chrissy. Self-pity/evaluation. Interviews. Fireworks.

last watched: Wall-E
reading: The Princess Bride
listening: Highly Evolved

" Dissecting the Angel | 2008 | Fantasy and Reality "

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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