Sweating, laughing, we slam our bodies against the metal bar of the exit door. A blur of black tank tops and spandex capris, the two of us hurl ourselves out of the dance studio and into the dusk of the asphalt parking lot. We plop down on the stairs and fish into our dance bags for pen and paper. You must be sisters, another student says on the way to her car and we look at each other and giggle like schoolgirls. But I’m 40 and she’s 51. We’re not sisters.
It’s a hot July evening. We’ve just finished our Tuesday class in a mirrored room that reflects the sharp moves and bold leaps of two dozen intermediate jazz students, many of them in their twenties. We have to work hard to keep up.
You dance and I’ll write, I tell her. Five, six, seven, eight, and her long legs twitch across the blacktop while I jot down the names of the steps she’s performing, the ones we just learned in class. Then we switch off and back again, Wait, here’s the next… yeah that’s it. Our muscles remember the moves, our minds read each other’s until we’ve captured on paper all 16 new counts in an individual dance routine that we practice together. Our bodies collapse into relief.
Seated side by side on the stairs, we twist toward each other, knees touching. She leans in to push a damp clump of bangs out of my eyes and I inhale a mixture of her sweat and Shalimar cologne. The parking lot spins. I clutch my stomach and look into her eyes but she scoots away from me. In the space between us, I hear a door slam, a lock click.
Winking stars, a glowing moon—our time is almost up. I need to get home to my husband and three children and she, to her husband and cats. Our goodbye hug smashes the thick, moist air between our bodies. From my minivan, I watch her start her Mercedes, then follow behind for a few minutes, the lonely night stretching out before me.
Growing up in the 1960s, my house was quiet. I longed for the sister I never had. My much older brother was out with friends or away at college most of my childhood. His girlfriends, long-limbed sylphs with throaty laughs and purses full of lemon drops, inspired a painful yearning for someone to scratch my back and braid my hair, little intimacies that would have never occurred to my mother.
Driving home from dance class, I suddenly realize what’s wrong with me. My years of yearning have warped me. I’ve always secretly needed more from my female friends than they seem to need from me. Now my need has mutated into an ugly and unspeakable desire for the more, more, more I’m injecting into my relationship with this woman everyone thinks is my sister.
She and I begin meeting regularly at her house to practice when she has the place to herself, husband at work, kids grown and living on their own. She performs, I watch, we switch. As the routine grows longer, it’s harder to get it right, but we work until we do, then collapse into her soft, tan couch. The familiar mix of sweat and Shalimar. The spinning room. Her fingers through my hair.
But on this day, she doesn’t scoot back. She moves toward me. Her lips hover over mine like a question mark but she already knows the answer and I know what comes next. Five, six, seven, eight, I move toward her.
She kisses me.
Softly, asking, probing, then exploding into fire, tunneling through my insides, burning away my denial, revealing to me that this is what I must’ve wanted all along. Not a sister but a lover.
When I open my eyes, she’s looking at me, all the way through me. I feel like I can finally see myself now that I see us: our bodies falling into a shared rhythm, my hand cupping her chin, her fingers tracing my clavicle. No need to write it down or refer to someone else’s choreography. It’s ours, we already know it, have known it all along—the moves, the beat, the umms and ahhs and oh my gods.
But the next sound is out of step.
Oh no, she says. My son, at the window.
I run to hide in the windowless hallway, she races to the front of the house. She reports he’s backing out of the driveway and I wait for more, some kind of explanation to make sense of her son showing up, looking in. I hope you enjoyed this, she says, because it’s never gonna happen again. Then: You need to leave. We do not hug goodbye. The door slams. The lock clicks.
My body doesn’t feel like it’s mine as it transports my hollow heart to my van, drives it home, makes a meal I can’t touch, answers homework questions. That evening, it snuggles on the couch with my six-year-old, The NeverEnding Story on the TV screen as he asks why I’m crying. Because it’s a sad part.
A year later, talk-show host Ellen Degeneres will declare “Yep, I’m Gay” on the cover of Time. But in 1996, there are few public faces on which to pin my mangled epiphany, no internet of course, only the occasional movie or book in which the lesbian protagonist goes insane or kills her husband—or both. Just don’t tell me if you do is what my husband said the time I wondered aloud about the idea of two women together. After 15 years, he and I have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell understanding when it comes to each other’s emotional lives. I won’t tell him about this. I won’t tell anyone.
Just before the next class, she says her son didn’t see us. I wait for more words, words that might explain how she knows, might assure me she’s reconsidered yesterday’s flashpoint response. But all I get is Let’s practice, three sharp syllables that underscore her previous, angry Never. Again.
In class, my moves are neither sharp nor bold. Afterward, she alone pushes against the exit door as I trail behind, empty, dull. Moving across the asphalt, I try to remember the steps but my brain is swollen with grief and my feet are leaden. We’ve lost our rhythm. She doesn’t want to talk about it and I’ve given up trying to read her mind.
After walking to our cars, we hug stiffly, an aching distance between our bodies. I follow her Mercedes out of the parking lot, and at the first stoplight, she speeds through the yellow. I stop and stare ahead, watching until she disappears.
Nancy Fowler is a longtime journalist who’s earned numerous accolades including Emmy and Edward R. Murrow awards. She lives in St. Louis with her wife and two cats but her southern roots often draw her back to Birmingham. She’s beginning to write in a more personal voice and is halfway through an MFA in creative nonfiction at Lindenwood University. Her memoir-in-progress chronicles her fight for custody of her young children after coming out in the 1990s and realizing Missouri law deemed LGBTQ people unfit parents.