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The Dance

It is 1967 and my parents are out for the evening. My twin older sisters are twelve—babysitting age—and I am eight, my younger sister six. We have pushed the green couch and Danish modern coffee table as far against the wall as they will go, and the radio is tuned to suburban Washington DC's top soul station. "W-E-A-M," we sing along with the jingle, "good time radio!"

And then, the magic begins. Four beats and then Diana Ross is singing, "Baby love, my baby love, I need you, oh how I need you." We dance with abandon, skinny hips wriggling, arms flailing, white cotton socks sliding on the wood floor so that we can move like James Brown. It is my favorite thing, dancing and singing like this, but we only do it when our parents our gone. It's a secret, but it is not the only secret we've already learned to keep.

It is 1970. Our family has moved to suburban Denver where my father has been transferred. My mother, a native Marylander, is not taking it well. When my sisters and I arrive home from school in the afternoon, her bedroom door is closed, as it was when we left for school that morning. Day in, day out, it seems, this is the routine until four or five o'clock, and Mom emerges hair-smashed and empty-eyed to begin preparing dinner.

We are watching Aunt Bea fuss over Opie on the living room television, but we are watching our mother from the corners of our eyes, collectively, or taking turns, but always keeping watch. She moves slowly, as if she is under water.

One day when we come home, the door to the old Danish modern stereo cabinet is open, and Mom is fiddling with the controls. She stands, opens the hinged lid to the record player, extracts an old 78 from its paper sleeve and gently threads it onto the spindle. As the first notes jump out of the speaker, Mom's eyes flash, her shoulders begin to shimmy. "Crazy, man, crazy," sings Bill Haley, and her fingers snap in time.

"Come on," Mom says, reaching a hand toward us. "Who wants to dance with me?"

We hang back, shy, embarrassed, so Mom shrugs and begins to jitterbug by herself, one hand holding an imaginary partner's. The other hand waves in the air as our mother sways her hips across the floor and back, in perfect time and with a skill we did not know she possessed. She stomps so hard the crystal in the dining room china cabinet clink together in unison with her dance steps. She has forgotten us now, she is gone, way gone. She is crazy, man, crazy, we tell each other with the looks in our eyes, but we stand there watching anyway. We are transfixed. We cannot move.

It is 2000, and my mother has been dead for 10 years. The book I am writing is about a mother and two daughters, not four. The main character, the oldest daughter, left home to escape her mother, as I did at one time. The younger sister has stayed close to home for too long to care for her mother, as I also did. The mother has my mother's disease, but she is alive and struggling to stay well, as my mother so often tried to do, but ultimately, failed.

I see the mother in the living room, extracting a record from a crumpled paper sleeve. I see the oldest daughter, staring at her in wonder, loving her so. The mother begins to dance to the music. She reaches out her hand, smiling, eyes shining, and says, "Who wants to dance with me?"

My fictional character and I become one, tripping over ourselves to reach her side, to feel her hand on ours, to learn this thing she is so good at. She leads with the proficiency of a man, pushing and pulling just so, and we are dancing as if we know how, feeling the surge of rhythm in our virgin feet, our still-straight hips. We twirl beneath her arm, slide the length of it as she pulls us in, then snaps us back out, smiling and snaking her head to the beat. She is so alive, so happy to be dancing with her daughters in that damned suburban living room. I close my eyes, hands hovering above the computer keys, not wanting to type anymore, not wanting the music to stop.