The bikini. The bikini and the tight Hawaiian sarong and those heels I had, oh those fabulous heels with the peek-a-boo toes.
They always likened it to a movie, one of those love stories like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, Romeo and Juliet, Bogart and Bacall. My sister, Baby, up there on stage in her pale pink dress, her hips moving with Johnny, her arms graceful, her balance impeccable like she hadn't been the only girl at our birthday parties who couldn't run the length of the yard with an egg on a spoon. A great story. My smart, innocent sister, falling in love with the dance instructor. A scandal anywhere else suddenly turned into the climatic, sentimental ending in the Kellerman's grand gala ballroom. And oh how we all danced.
I remember the way the early sun flickered through the trees lining the golf course. Those trees that by night always saw some forbidden couples weaving through, barefoot, shushing each other and drinking from bottles of wine swiped from the kitchen. It's easy to get a bra strap caught on the rough bark of a tree, lose an earring in the soft coolness of the sand traps. It was easy to catch a heel in the loose plank on the bridge pathway leading down to the pond, to the staff cabins, where the music had a harder edge and on a clear night you could see the smoke from the cigarettes drifting in the air.
I tell the ladies at the shop stories of that summer sometimes. People love to talk when they're getting their hair done. The mamba and the cha-cha, and bingo on the quad. The buffet lunches with turkey wraps and Caesar salad. The talent shows and scavenger hunts and mai tais on the patio. The beehive hair-dos and French manicures. Mom and Dad walking on the golf course with their arms tucked, Mom's sweater tied loosely around her shoulders. Robbie and his ridiculous rants about the homeless, a cigarette tucked between his lips, that battered copy of The Fountainhead sitting on his dresser. A soft, bouncing Latin melody drifting out of the dance hall and sound of one-two-three, one-two-three as some done-up housewife got her lessons?
Baby—sorry, Frances—isn't a medical doctor, but to make Daddy proud she's still got that title in front of her name. Daddy brags about her to his poker buddies and his patients—his little girl all grown up, a fancy professor in a small, respectable private New England school. She is the one the family can speak of. She's the one who made them proud, not the one who married beneath her and opened a beauty shop—a salon—in the less respectable side of town.
Baby—sorry, Dr. Houseman—gives lectures, publishes books. She discovered a rare set of illustrations from a famous 17th-century French painter that caused a big stir in the art historian world a few years back. When it snows enough to shut down her university for days, she sits in her tiny apartment listening to jazz and falls asleep while reading. She never talks about that summer at Kellerman's. Never speaks of Johnny.
Everyone was looking at her that night. No one noticed when I left. No one noticed me sneak out into the night, into the cool air, just a hint of the autumn coming. I wandered around the grounds alone, the lights from the cabin twinkling just a little, but still in the mostly dark I could see the sky, oh all those stars and all the blackness of possibility in between. I remembered thinking that the world was just out of my reach and if I could walk far enough I could pick it up in my fist and have it. Like Baby had it.
And then, coming back, I ran into Johnny's cousin Billy loading up the rest of the stereo equipment into the back of his van. He had danced with me earlier in the ballroom, twirled me around and told me how much he loved my little dress, my ridiculous dress that I could barely bend down in. And I smiled and I told him thank you, but I was still thinking about Robbie, and I was still thinking that every guy was just there to tell you what you wanted to hear and that was that.
"Lisa!" he said there at the van, and the surprise, the pleasant surprise in his voice was right there between us. "What are you doing out so late?"
And I blushed, thinking about Robbie again and that night that we went out to the golf course and painted little tattoos on our shoulders with leftover paint from the arts and crafts building. But that final night at Kellerman's it was Billy standing there, not Robbie, and when he saw that I was a little cold he rooted around in the back of that van and he handed me a sweatshirt. It was dark and I had no idea how long it had been in the back of that van but I put it on anyway and it smelled so good. It smelled like the woods, like that really earthy clean smell from back in those days when Baby and I used to run out to the trees back behind our house and try to find the leprechauns. Like earthworms and cedar and the air, just the clean, fresh air. That's what Billy's sweatshirt smelled like.
Here's what I wonder—did Johnny ever come to visit at Harvard? Did Baby invite him up for the weekend, take him to a polo match or a debate club tournament, show him around her residence halls and the library, buy him some beers? Or maybe he just showed up one day, in the way that Johnny Castle did—all nervous energy and muscle car tension, his hair a little too big next to those fraternity chaps, his clothes a little too rough by the light of the Ivy League clock tower. Was that what finally did it?
Or was it he that grew tired of her?
Oh Baby, I know you regret it now, whatever happened. I know you do. I know that you've been chasing the ghost of that girl on the dance floor that night at Kellerman's, searching for her in those rare canvasses that you probe, in the windows of the little cafes in the college town that you call home. And Johnny, looking for him, too—catching yourself turning for a second look when you pass someone on the street with his strong jaw, study the street performers with their acrobatic dance moves and quick smiles. Hope for a card for your birthday, a note in the mailbox, a knock on the door. You want just one more dance. You want Johnny to say Frances, come out of the darkness, come here to me and remember—just like riding a bike. Just like in the movies. Come here close, lock your hands in mine and listen, listen for the ga-gunk, ga-gunk of our hearts.
That night we drove off the resort grounds. Billy and I in his van. We drove out to the mountains and we parked at the top of one of them. I never told anyone this. There were loose stones at the edge of this cliff and it was scary but you could see the whole valley and our tiny resort, almost lost in the vastness of the rest of the valley. Billy put his arm around me. "I won't let you fall," he said. And I believed him. I still believe him. Even now, so many years later, sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, I burrow up next to him and I feel his strength and I know he'll never let me fall.
Tonight when I go home to Billy, I'm going to tell him how much I love him. I'm going to show him the story in the paper about Kellerman's closing, and we're going to talk about how we always meant to go back there one of these days, just to see. And I won't tell him that I'm glad we never did go back, that the reality is never quite as good as the memory, that the grass probably wasn't as dewy in the morning as I remember, that they probably eventually repaired that loose plank in the bridge. We won't need to tell anyone that story anymore because it didn't end that night in the ballroom. The true love stories never really end, they just keep on going long after the credits have rolled and the streamers have been swept away. They keep going and they don't look back.