Dance, Rockette

The cottage was only a rental for the month of August, so it wasn’t up to Eve to keep the garden alive, but it had been hotter than usual for a couple of days and the blue hydrangeas that flanked the front door were drooping tragically in the late afternoon sun. She got the hose and sprayed them down, then went around back and watered the roses. The children were out on the lawn playing a game with their babysitter, Mattie, who was the seventeen-year-old daughter of friends in the city. If she’d had her druthers, they’d have gone someplace livelier than Connecticut, but her husband, Rick, had fond memories of growing up in Old Lyme, and it was an easy commute from the city. For the past three weeks he’d been spending long weekends out here, arriving by train late on Thursdays and going back to Manhattan Monday mornings, but starting today he would be staying all week. It was the last week, the end of summer.

She went inside and upstairs to her bedroom, where she put on a peach-and-white-flowered blouse and a pair of slim white pants. Orange sandals and her strand of south sea pearls, gold earrings in the shape of scallop shells; as she brushed her dark hair, she noticed a rime of gray roots that would necessitate a trip to the salon as soon as she got back to the city. She assessed her appearance in the mirror. Chic or dumpy? A little of both. Almost immediately after her fiftieth birthday, or so it seemed, her bright-eyed prettiness had faded, but she couldn’t complain; she’d had her day.

She drove over the bridge that spanned the Connecticut River, wide here where it met Long Island Sound, the marshlands emerald, the water slate gray, the cloudless horizon glowing pink. She turned into the train station lot and parked facing the platform so Rick would see her when he disembarked. Rummaging in her purse, she got out of the car and lit a cigarette. The kids would go crazy if they knew she occasionally smoked, but Rick didn’t care. She inhaled deeply. She had five minutes to herself. Rick might have bought a few beers at Grand Central to drink on the trip, in which case he’d be blurry when he got off the train. But he’d been looking forward to this evening at the Rosses’ all week—Ben Ross was his old high school pal—so perhaps he’d remained sober this evening in anticipation of a better drink. 

The train was announced and after a few minutes arrived. Rick was the second passenger out. Eve waved and watched him come down the ramp. He’d loosened his tie but looked otherwise tidy. 

“Right on time,” she said as she ground out her cigarette with her heel.

“I thought we were going straight to the party,” he said.

“We are,” she said.

“But you need to change,” he said.

She looked down at herself. “This is what I’m wearing.”

“Do you think it’s dressy enough?”

“What did you expect, a tiara?” She knew what he was thinking. Ben Ross had invented some small but necessary technological widget that had made him wealthy, and while she and Rick were well-off enough to live in a three-bedroom on the Upper East Side, Rick had struggled along the way, moving firms twice before finally making partner. Renting the cottage for a whole month had been a bit of a stretch. Eve guessed Ben’s good fortune had gotten under Rick’s skin. He and Ben had been playing tennis at Ben’s club every Saturday morning, riding there together in Ben’s sleek black Ferrari. “I think I look nice,” she said. “I’m wearing the earrings you gave me.” 

“I didn’t say you don’t look nice,” he said as he got into the driver’s seat. Eve handed him the keys. “But I think Ben and his wife might be expecting us to be dressier.”

“It’s better to be underdressed than overdressed,” Eve said. 

He started the car and drove out of the lot. “I think it’s better to be just right.” 

“Okay, Goldilocks. Do you want to go home so I can change?” 

“We’re already late,” he said.

“Better to be late than early.”

“What’s with you tonight?”

“Nothing. What’s with you?” He didn’t answer. She looked out at the river. Mattie was bored, the kids were bored, she was bored. The pleasures of Old Lyme had long been exhausted. They were all looking forward to going home. She wondered if Rick had found whatever he’d been looking for by returning to the halcyon scene of his youth. But Rick was a simple guy, meat and potatoes, not given to self-reflection. 

*

The Rosses’ house was reached by a narrow road that wound through a forest of oaks. Nothing had been done in the way of landscaping, and the road was unpaved and bumpy. A branch scraped the side of the car; rocks flew up from beneath the tires. A deer flitted past. There was a sudden odor of skunk. Finally, the road widened, and a stone cottage appeared. 

“How sweet,” Eve said. It had a charming, rose-covered trellis.

“That’s not their house,” Rick said. “That’s the caretaker’s cottage.” Of course it is, Eve thought. Rick drove on for a few more minutes until they reached a white-pebbled drive that led to a three-story, gray-shingled house. Four cars were parked on the edge of the drive. Rick pulled up behind the last one. “That’s the house,” he said unnecessarily.

“Well, that is some house,” Eve said. She’d never seen a house with a widow’s walk before. But the house wasn’t old, the widow’s walk was an affectation: no one had ever used it to scout for homecoming vessels. A flight of steps took them up to a deep porch that was furnished with a row of wicker rockers like the veranda of a seaside hotel. 

Rick knocked on the side of the screen door. “Hello!” he called into an empty front hall. 

“Hang on!” came a woman’s voice, and then the woman herself. She wore what appeared to be a knee-length, very tight, pink-and-white-striped T-shirt, her pelvic bones popping out like knobs, and a pair of pink high-heeled sandals that looked impossible to walk in. Her hair was long and thick and reddish blond, cascading down her back. Diamond earrings in the shape of chandeliers swung fetchingly from her ears. “Well, don’t just stand there, come in!” she said. “I’m Helene, Ben’s wife.”

His first wife? Eve wondered. Surely not, she was too young. “We’re Eve and Rick,” she said.

“Oh, I know,” said Helene. “Come on, follow me. We’re all out back.”

They went through a large living room that was furnished almost entirely in white—no pets or children, was Eve’s first thought—and out onto a flagstone terrace. A glass-topped table was set for eight, with a tiny vase containing a pink rose at each place. Candles in crystal cylinders stood in a line down the center of the table. The silverware appeared to really be silver, sparking in the last light.  

“What a beautiful view of the river!” Eve said. 

“We’re on a bluff,” Helene said. She pointed to where a flight of wooden steps began. “Those steps over there go down to our dock.”

“You have a boat,” Rick said as if he already knew it. 

“Yes, but we hardly ever use it. There are so many other things to do.” 

Such as? Eve wondered. She would enjoy a boat ride. Maybe Ben would take her on one if she asked him. He stood on the lawn with a woman and three men who all had drinks in their hands.

“Buddy!” he called and came over to Rick. 

“I don’t want to rush anyone,” Helene said. “But Gladys says dinner is ready.” Now Eve could see she wasn’t so young after all. Forty-five at least. Obviously, she’d had work done on her face: her skin stretched taut over her cheekbones and sharp little nose, her forehead was smooth, her lips artificially plump. Her breasts were the size and shape of cantaloupes, revealed by the deep scoop of her neckline. Ben was a big guy with a considerable belly. Helene was painfully thin. She waved her arm as if to corral her guests. “Everyone, come on!”

The man and the woman were husband and wife, and the two men lived together. Tad and Gina and Timothy and Pete. Tad and Gina were Helene’s “oldest friends in the whole wide world.” Timothy and Pete were merely neighbors. 

“Ben and Rick went to Old Lyme High together,” Helene said. She sat at the head of the table, Ben at the other end. Eve was sandwiched between Timothy and Tad. The table was meant to hold six, but they were eight. Eve would have thought she and Rick were the odd ones out if they hadn’t been invited last week.

“Rick was cool,” Ben said. “I was a loser.”

“Now Ben is cool,” Rick said.

“And you’re the loser?” Pete said.

“I’m an attorney,” Rick said. He picked up the empty wine glass by his plate and looked at it with disappointment.

“No, I mean, obviously I’m joking,” Pete said.

Timothy turned to Eve. “You live in Manhattan? And what do you do?”

“I take care of our children,” Eve said. “A boy and a girl.”

“I would have thought your children would be grown up,” Gina said. “Ours are, more or less.” Like Eve, she wore linen slacks and a casual blouse. So there, Eve thought, I’m not underdressed. 

“I came late to motherhood,” she said. “I was thirty-eight when I had my first.”

Pete looked at her over the top of his eyeglasses. “You must have done something before coming late to motherhood.” 

Eve paused. I really can’t stand you, she thought. “I was a Rockette,” she said. Rick stared at her.

“No way!” Gina said. “Wow!”

“You never told me that,” Ben said to Rick. 

“It’s ancient history,” Eve said. “I don’t talk about it much. It’s hard on your body as you can imagine. I had to stay in tip-top shape all the time. And the constant rehearsals and spectaculars—well, let’s just say the glamour faded after a while, though I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world, and of course I keep up with the girls. I ended up quitting when I was thirty and becoming a flight attendant. Rick and I met on a flight to Hong Kong. It was lust at first sight. Ever heard of the mile-high club? We conceived our first child in an airplane lavatory.” There was a long silence. Ben cleared his throat. This was the most fun she’d had in a month.

“Gotcha,” she said finally. “I worked in public relations. I can’t do a high kick to save my life, and I’ve never even been to Hong Kong.”

Pete and Tad screamed with laughter.

“You had me going!” Gina said. 

Ben shook his head in admiration. “You could make a living as an actress.” 

Eve twinkled in the light of their attention. “Oh, now. Do I really seem like the mile-high type?” 

“Never mind a Rockette,” Pete said. 

*

Dinner was served by a maid who wore a black dress and frilly white apron. Eve thought the costume was Ben and Helene’s idea of a joke; she’d never seen anything like it in real life. Rick sat next to Helene, who ignored him in favor of Pete. At the other end of the table, Ben held forth about politics. Eve worried that Rick wasn’t having a good time, but Ben was his friend and he’d wanted to come, so it was on him if he wasn’t having fun. She was happy enough eating grilled tuna and chocolate mousse in a little porcelain cup while exchanging wry remarks with Timothy, who was as nice as Pete was not. Tad talked about himself. Gina flirted with Ben. Pete and Helene were as thick as thieves.

When the mousse cups were cleared and the coffee finished, Helene produced a joint. “I got this from an economics major at U Conn,” she said as she lit up. “Lovely boy. Making money hand over fist. He’s got everything you could want: cocaine, pills, whatever.” 

She took a toke and passed the joint to Rick. He looked at it as if he’d never seen such a thing, then took a little puff. When it came around to Eve, she almost said no. She hadn’t smoked pot in decades.

“Oh well, okay,” she said. She took the joint. The smoke rasped her throat. She held it in her lungs for a few seconds and coughed as she exhaled. 

Timothy applauded her. “That’s the way, Rockette!” 

“I don’t know what possessed me to say that,” Eve said. “My kids love the Rockettes. We always go to the Christmas Spectacular. They dress up like toy soldiers, it’s cute.”

“Your kids dress up as toy soldiers?” Gina said. She took a toke and waved the smoke away from her face.

“No, the Rockettes do,” Eve said.

“Oh God, you’re not going to talk about your children, are you?” Pete said.

“She’s not,” Gina said. “I asked a question. People do have kids, Pete. They refer to them sometimes in conversation.”

“Sadly,” Pete said. “‘Never work with children or animals.’ Do you know who said that?”

“W. C. Fields,” Eve said. All of a sudden she was as stoned as she’d ever been. Pete’s head appeared to shrink. She looked at Helene, who was taking a second toke. “What’s in that stuff?”

“Marijuana,” Helene said.

“That’s right, W. C. Fields!” Pete said. “You should go on Jeopardy!

“I knew someone who was on Jeopardy!” Gina said. “A girl I went to college with. The funny thing is, she didn’t even seem that smart.”

“Let’s go into the living room,” Helene said. She got up and stumbled on the flagstones. “Watch out, everyone!” She giggled. 

The light in the living room was rosy and mellow. Eve sat down in a deep, snowy couch and lit a cigarette.

“Feel free,” Helene said. “Go right ahead.” 

“Can I bum one?” Gina said. Eve handed her the pack. “To tell you the truth, I can see you as a Rockette. Those long legs of yours.”

“Dance, Rockette!” Pete said. “Show us a high kick!”

“You know what kind of dancing I love?” Eve said. “Swing dancing.”

“Oh, I love swing too!” Timothy said. Eve squinted at him. His voice echoed as if from a cave. “Ben, find something on Spotify we can dance to.”

Ben lumbered out of the room. In a minute, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” came through invisible speakers. Eve snapped her fingers in time to the music. She was a good dancer, but Rick would never oblige her, and perhaps he was right not to: he danced with a bumbling lack of focus that made him impossible to follow. He sat on the opposite couch drinking a snifter of something tawny. She looked at him. Home soon, he mouthed. Or maybe he said it aloud.

“Come on!” Timothy said and pulled her up off the couch. He took her into his arms with surprising strength and assurance, leading her over Helene’s carpet. It had been years since she’d danced even a foxtrot; it took her a moment to catch the rhythm and move as one with Timothy. She felt the flexibility of youth return to her limbs as she ducked under his arm and twirled out again. He pulled her to him and they rocked vigorously back and forth.

“He’s in the army now,” he sang. “Ta dah, ta dah, ta dah.”

“I think I better stop,” Eve said after a few minutes. “I’m dizzy from all this twirling.” 

“Helene!” Timothy called. “Take Eve’s place.”

“I don’t know how,” Helene said. 

“I do,” Gina said. She got up and joined him. Eve was released. 

“Bathroom?” she said to Helene.

“Through there, first door on your left.”

She sat on the toilet, and with her elbows on her thighs she rested her head in her hands. If she closed her eyes, the world stopped whirling. Most “good times” weren’t particularly fun, she decided: fun was for children and simpletons. After a while she exchanged the toilet for the floor and lay on the cool tiles like a starfish. The ceiling was painted with vines and fronds and colorful birds, a genteel Connecticut jungle, as if Helene and Ben expected people to lie on the floor all the time and wanted to give them something to look at. The smell of gardenias or jasmine came from a scented candle. She thought she could stay here all night. 

There was a knock on the door. Helene peeked in.

“I thought you looked green around the gills,” she said. She extended her hand and helped Eve up. “I guess the pot disagreed with you. And you drank an awful lot of wine.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Eve said. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Nobody does,” Helene said. “Gladys has a habit of topping off people’s glasses, so you never know how much you’ve had. I’ve told her not to time and again. She’s as dumb as a box of hammers.”

“She looked pretty silly in that maid’s costume,” Eve said.

“I know, right?” Helene said. “Ben insisted. He thinks it’s classy.” She laughed shortly. “He doesn’t have the first idea what classy is.”

They went out to the living room. Eve gingerly sat down. Helene brought her a glass of water. Pete and Timothy were slow dancing to “April in Paris” like teenagers in love.

“Where is Rick?” Eve said. No one answered. She went upstairs and looked in all the guest rooms, three of them, empty and spotless. Lingering in the vast master bathroom, she examined Helene’s army of face creams and potions, dabbed perfume on the insides of her wrists. The bathtub was reached by two marble steps; the shower was the kind that shot jets of water from the walls. She checked out the contents of the medicine cabinet: Klonopin, Vicodin, codeine; Sensodyne, Advil, Certain Dri. She took a Klonopin, put it back, and swallowed two Advil instead. 

“Does anyone know where Rick went?” she said when she came back downstairs.

“Home, probably,” Tad said. He sat next to Helene, smoking another joint. “I saw him go out of the room with a pretty glum look on his face.”

Eve went to the front hall and looked through the screen door. Their car was still in the driveway. She walked out to see if Rick was sitting inside it, which he might have been if he was feeling sulky enough. Cupping her mouth with her hands, she called his name. Nothing. The pulsing scream of late summer crickets and the fainter sound of “April in Paris.”

*

Lit only by the moon, the steps were rickety and steep. Eve hung on to the single railing with both hands and crept down to the river. She knew Rick was down there, she could feel it, though he didn’t answer when she called. She was afraid he’d fallen and was lying unconscious on the beach or had drowned in the placid water. She reached the dock and walked out to where Ben’s boat was tied up at the end. It was a speedboat, sleek as Ben’s Ferrari. Rick was sitting behind the wheel. 

“Jesus, Rick. I nearly broke my neck on those stairs. What are you doing?”

“I was thinking about going for a ride,” he said. He held up a tiny replica of a buoy with a key dangling from one end. “I found it on a hook inside the front door.”

“Get out of there and let’s go home.”

“Join me.” He patted the seat beside him. 

“Just for a minute,” she said. She took off her sandals and climbed over the side of the boat. Rick’s face in the moonlight was dead white. “I guess you weren’t having fun.”

“No, but you were. ‘Dance, Rockette!’” he said in a fair imitation of Pete’s nasal voice.

“I embarrassed you, is that it?”

“Yes. No.”

“Which?”

“I want this,” he said.

“This boat?”

“This boat, this house, this everything. I’ll never have anything like it. There’s no way in the world.”

Eve was silent. Water lapped against the boat’s hull. A village winked on the opposite shore. Rick sighed. 

“I loved high school. You know that; I’ve told you about it. Ben is right, I was cool. I was the goddamn prom king, the captain of the football team. I was the cliché.”

“You enjoyed yourself,” Eve said. “Not everybody can say that about high school.”

“I think those years were the best of my life.”

“You don’t love these years?” she said. “Being married to me, raising our kids?”

“I like these years fine,” he said. 

“But they’re not what you imagined for yourself.”

He shrugged. “Don’t most people imagine something better for themselves than what they end up getting?”

“Not me,” Eve said. “I love you; I love my children. I have enough, and I feel lucky.” It was true, more or less. She was mostly content. She started to get up. Rick could fuck off.

“Wait.” He grabbed her arm. “Go for a ride with me.” 

“You can’t run off with Ben’s boat.”

“Why can’t I? I’ll return it. He’s too stoned to notice.” 

She sat down again. She was still pretty stoned herself. She put her fingers to the outer edges of her eyes and felt two nests of deeply etched lines. Rick was still handsome, not a strand of gray in his hair, the prom king forevermore. “Do you think Helene is beautiful? Do you want her as well?”

“I don’t want her,” Rick said.

He untied the line and turned the key in the ignition. Slowly, he reversed the boat until it was clear of the dock. As he gunned the motor and the engine roared, Eve felt a ghost of a thrill. The river ahead was undisturbed, a sheet of black glass to be shattered.

Author / Ilustrator

  • Louise Marburg is the author of two collections of stories, The Truth About Me and No Diving Allowed. Her third collection of stories, You Have Reached Your Destination, is forthcoming from EastOver Press in November 2022. Her work has appeared in such journals as Narrative, Ploughshares, STORY, The Hudson Review, and many others. She has been supported by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Writing Workshops, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in New York City with her husband, the artist Charles Marburg.

  • Photographs courtesy of WM Robinson.