Wet Paint – Salsa

Faffing about with a new story this evening.

For the next session I’ve told my students – controlling idea! Motif! Images! And trying that out for myself, and needing buckets of work. But maybe a more interesting way of working than I usually do. AND, a flipping break from The Novel which needs more mechanicary.

Salsa.

After him but before you.

Dipping the rosemary dusted wedges into the paint-bright salsa, I heard it. The slow thud of music. The click and twist of a rhythm that I knew.

‘Salsa,’ you said, rolling your eyes. ‘It always reminds me of old cougars on the sniff for young men. Don’t you think?’

*

Manchester at night. The side streets I’d never felt a part of. A sense of something underground, a connective tissue.

The owner nods Hello. He is small and round but like a Don in this place. The culture of heels and dresses. Handshakes and kisses. People you recognise by their dancing. Not that one, he gets a bit too close. Accents manipulating English into something exotic. A sweaty soup of people on the dancefloor. The icecream man salsa guy. The butcher with expert rhythm. To be looked up to, in here.

We’d studied together, our group. An intensive course to prepare us to teach people to speak our language.

And even then, in the time I’d felt the most connected, I still felt missing. I was still searching.

I’d felt myself changing in that dark heat and neon. The silhouettes of dancers. Those on the dancefloor, and the images that decorated the walls. The people who only bought a bottle of coke. The gang-like wars between the Cuban dancers and the ballroom-esque. Others arriving alone, unpacking beautiful shoes from silk bags. We all moved from the baby dancefloor with the guy and the big boots, tapping out a rhythm, to the middle, to the top. Until my hair flew and my clothes got tighter, but more simple.

I learned to turn. I stood straight. I learned about my hips. My thighs grew lean, my stomach taut. I learned Spanish from our friends, the students we had taught.

Hola.

Guapa.

I googled it.

Once, a group of people clapped. Clapped like they were cheering me on. Like I was one of the women we would watch in amazement when we first started going. Me? And I would spin tighter. Faster. On my own. No partner. I thought of Fame, and the girl spinning in circles and felt ridiculous. But elated.

The foreign music became engrained, a soundtrack. I hummed in Spanish.

And I practised in my room at night. Alone. I thought of Whitney Houston. I sweated in front of the mirror and imagined somebody loved me. Watching, they loved me. I danced with earphones in, the music a secret. My shoulders flashing with sweat. Until I was tired and could sleep. I would wash away the sweat in the poky bathroom, my eyes on the water-splashed mirror. The flush of health in my cheeks. I didn’t want the neighbours, the cluster of men who smelled sweetly sour, to know what I was doing.

Every so often, I would wonder what other people would think if they could see me. And I would feel sadness dull the high.

I worked for Wednesday nights, sometimes Thursdays and definitely Friday. I moved about dull facts, itching, tight, tense. Waiting. And then I would dress.

Little by little, one by one, we moved on. One went to Japan, another to Indonesia. Maybe two went to Japan. The students went home. The crowd changed until we were part of the regulars. I stopped going as much. I met a man and I tried to satisfy myself in him. When it ended I went back. I danced with strangers. I felt the press of nervous men’s palms against mine. The tickle of cigarettes. Or the detached casualness of an expert. Someone smooth. Small talk.

You’re quite good. How long have you been dancing?

Oh, months now. We come regularly.

The answer changed after each relationship.

Oh, years now. Off and on.

Until:

I haven’t been for years, to be honest.

And lips would smile in a way that was ‘winning’. And eyes would look through me, dully.

I saw our faces, heard our laughter, I remembered our togetherness with the same feeling I used to get when I imagined someone watching me dance alone. My body remembered the moves. The signal of body language. A twist here, a palm up there. To mean that I must do this or that. But it couldn’t be the same.

I went back once, on a whim, with a friend. Street clothes, jeans. No twirly skirt, no gold heels. No girl learning to stand up straight. The same owner, still the Don, still shaking hands and touching shoulders and praising the beautiful. The same silhouettes on the walls, the pink and yellow cocktail paint that glowed in the dark. The heaters up to make us sweat. My hair stuck to my neck. I danced a little, I wasn’t asked much. My smile got tight and weak.

My friend and I shared a look. She jerked her head with a question.

The club smells of wet paint and BO. I think of a cellar. I see girls fringing the dancefloor, straight and hopeful, passed on by the good dancers in favour of the beginners. They swirl straws in glasses. I’ve lost touch with the group, bar one. He’s been trying for years to marry someone, and might, finally, be on the right track.

I nodded.

*

I swirl the wedge in the dip and taste the bite of lemon and sweet tomato. We see young girls trickle down the staircase, thin as scarves, stretching out Lycra, towards the music. They’re unsteady in their heels. But I can see them, learning, stumbling. Standing straight. Until they can dance in heels and pumps, realising that’s all they need.

‘Dunno,’ I said, shrugging, my hair slipping over one eye. ‘I don’t dance.’ But I’m smiling.

———————

Edits

——————–

Wet Paint

Sarah Dobbs

Dipping the rosemary dusted wedges into the paint-bright salsa, I heard it. The slow thud of music. The click and twist and kick of a rhythm that I knew.

‘Salsa,’ he said, rolling his eyes. ‘It always reminds me of old cougars on the sniff for young men. Don’t you think?’

*

Manchester at night. The side streets I’d never felt a part of, before. A sense of something underground, a connective tissue.

The owner nods Hello. He is small and round but like a Don in this place. It’s a culture of heels and dresses. Handshakes and kisses. People you come to recognise by their dancing. She’s the one who scythes through the crowd in her tulle skirt, pulling men’s gazes. Don’t dance with that one. He gets a bit too close. Accents that make exotic Play-Doh of English. Until you’re leaning close. And your brain figures that the stress is in a different place and he just meant Coffee.

This sweaty soup of people on the dancefloor is where I belonged. It’s where the ice-cream man is a King. The albino guy who owns the butchers in Oldham has the Midas touch. Turning ordinary wallflowers into roses.

We’d studied together, our group. An intensive course to help us teach people to speak our language.

But even then, even then, in the time I’d felt the most connected, I was still missing. Me. A poster taped to a lamppost that people passed by. Was anyone looking for me?

In that dark heat and neon and glowing teeth and whites, I’d felt myself changing. My silhouette matched that of the dancers, the tutors. The people I’d been in awe of. We started to watch, with knowing patience, when hen parties came in. Then, I didn’t see the cliched images of dancers on the walls. See that they needed paint. Or feel the repetitive beat of the same song. Or the groups that started on the baby dancefloor with the big bald guy with the massive boots. Just as we did. Most migrating to the middle.

I saw the gang-like wars between the Cuban dancers and the ballroom-esque in their starched shirts and mirror-bright shoes. The people who arrived alone, cradled a drink, unpacked beautiful shoes from silk bags and made a waltz of this rhythm. I didn’t see the sadness of that.

When two of us made it to the top, my hair flew. My clothes got tight and simple.

I stood straight. I had learned about my hips. No apologies for heels. My thighs grew lean, my stomach taut. I learned Spanish from our friends, the students we had taught, and the owner who reached for my face with two meaty hands and pressed.

Guapa.

I Googled it.

Once, a group of German tourists clapped. Cheering me on. Like I was that woman in the tulle skirt. Me? And I would spin tighter. Faster. On my own. No partner. I thought of Flashdance, and the girl spinning, reaching. Elated.

I used my school French.

I added to the German I had learned from a box.

I hummed in Spanish.

At night, I practised in my room. I thought of Whitney Houston. I sweated in front of the mirror and imagined somebody loved me because of this. I danced with earphones in, keeping the music a secret. My shoulders would flash with sweat. Until I was exhausted, and could finally sleep. I would wash away the sweat in my poky bathroom, eyes on the mirror’s water-spots. Cheeks infused with blood. I would hear a cough through the walls. Did they know, the neighbours, that cluster of men who smelled sweetly sour, just what I was doing?

Every so often, I would wonder what other people would think if they could see me. And sadness would keen through the high, like white spirits through gloss.

I worked for Wednesday nights, sometimes Thursdays and definitely Friday. I moved dull facts about my blue screen. I chatted with colleagues about geraniums and their children. Itching. And then I would dress.

Little by little, one by one, we moved on. One went to Japan, another to Indonesia. Maybe two went to Japan. All the students went home, their holidays at an end. I started a new job. I met a man and I tried to satisfy myself in him. When it ended, I went back alone. And remembered those people with one drink and silk bags. I danced with strangers. Smiled at the groups. I felt the press of nervous men’s palms against mine. The tickle of cigarettes. Or the detached casualness of an expert. Someone smooth. Small talk.

You’re quite good. How long have you been dncing?

Oh, months now. We come regularly.

The answer changed after each relationship.

Oh, years now. Off and on.

,

Until:

I haven’t been for years, to be honest.

And lips would smile in a way that was ‘winning’. And eyes would look through me, dully.

The class would end and the club would start. The part we had waited for. I saw our faces, heard our laughter, I remembered our togetherness with the same feeling I used to get when I imagined someone watching me dance alone. My body remembered the moves. The signal of body language. A twist here, a palm up there. To mean that I must do this or that. But it couldn’t be the same.

After the classes, I would pack up my shoes and walk out, slightly bent, but swiftly. As if I had somewhere to be.

Years later, I went back, on a drunken whim with a colleague. Jeans. No twirly skirt, no gold heels. The same owner, still the Don, still shaking hands and touching shoulders and praising the beautiful. I think he half-recognised me, as he zig-zagged past. Embarrassed for me. That I no longer had that vigour in my cheeks. A thing that made him want to clasp my face and stamp it, Guapa.

There were the same dancing silhouettes on the walls. The pink and yellow cocktail paint that glowed in the dark. The heaters up to make us sweat. My hair stuck to my neck. I danced little; I wasn’t asked much. My smile got tight and weak.

My friend and I shared a look. She jerked her head with a question.

The club smells of wet paint and BO. It makes me think of a dressed-up cellar. I see girls fringing the dancefloor, straight and hopeful, passed on by the good dancers in favour of the beginners. They swirl straws in glasses. I’ve lost touch with the group, bar one. He’s been trying for years to marry someone, and might, finally, be on the right track.

I nodded.

*

I swirl the greasy wedge in the dip and taste the bite of lemon and sweet tomato. We see young girls trickle down the staircase, thin as scarves, their bodies stretching out the Lycra. Unsteady in heels, they scatter towards the music. I imagine their stumbling movements becoming polished. Them finding something dormant in themselves. Until they can dance, first in heels then pumps, hands unashamedly on hips. And realising they don’t need the glitter.

‘Dunno,’ I said, shrugging, my hair slipping over one eye. ‘I don’t dance.’ I smile.

 

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