Last Dance

Appeared in the April, 2011 issue of Rose and Thorn, which is no longer available. It came from a prompt for a contest in McSweeney’s that I didn’t win.

Last Dance

Nadine has a puppet in a box—a marionette, actually. She hurries against the stinging wind past the row of brownstones near Prospect Park. Boundaries of snow mark the territories of indifferent homeowners and she almost slips on an icy patch from yesterday’s short-lived thaw. The bus stop is only six blocks away but it seems farther. She is determined to be on time; Kenneth prizes punctuality.

The case, about the size of a small steamer trunk, made of wood and painted a flat black, had drawn no interest on the bus or the on subway ride from Queens, despite being adorned with red ribbon and a big red bow. It takes two hands to carry, and she can barely keep from ramming it into seats or the legs of other passengers. For that reason she has foregone a purse; her basic needs fill the pockets of her pea coat and she feels bloated with the cargo.

Worn from the effort she is glad there are only five steps up to Kenneth’s front door. She pauses at the bottom to catch her breath and compose herself. She’s been here a hundred times, but she never stops feeling the need to make a good first impression.

She scales the stairs and knocks.

“Here she is,” Kenneth calls out. “Right on time.”

He opens the door wide for her and her box. Nadine hefts it inside and sets it gently on the white tile of the foyer.

“Is that for me?” he asks in grand fashion.

“Of course,” she says, removing her coat. She has always found it hard to be coy.

Kenneth bends down and peers at it from all angles, then raps on it.

“It certainly seems . . . sturdy,” he says.

Catherine comes in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Nadine!” she says, hugging her. “You’re the first, as always.”

“I love that about her,” Kenneth says, taking her coat. “Get her a drink, Cat dear.”

“Wine, please,” Nadine says, and Catherine glides back into the kitchen.

Nadine thinks of what she might say, now that they are alone, but the doorbell rings.

“Can you see to the coats,” Kenneth says, “while I tend the door?”

Nadine nods eagerly.

The Silvermans arrive and she takes a load of coats to the study. The room is darkly wallpapered, with a hardwood floor, oriental rug, and rich woodwork. She scans the room and sees it: the marionette, on a crafted wooden stand in the corner. Kenneth calls it KJ, for Kenneth Junior. It looks remarkably like Kenneth, with wavy light brown hair, rounded chin, and blue eyes. He won it in a poker game in college, and started to mess around learning how to work it. He’s gotten involved in a few shows, and even built a little stage he keeps in the basement.

She gazes upon KJ and imagines her gift, sharing the stand.

Pete and his wife arrive, and Nadine fetches another pile of coats. Then she hears Melanie, who finds her in the study.

“Coat duty again, Nade?” Melanie says. “I told Kenneth I wasn’t going to make you schlep mine.”

“It’s no big deal.”

“Have you ever noticed how he never does any work at these things? Cat does the cooking and makes the drinks. Probably even cleans up. He sticks you with coat duty—why is that, by the way?” Melanie’s tone is less questioning, more accusatory.

“I’m usually the first one here.”

Melanie shoots her a sidelong glance and tosses two coats on the love seat.

“Dean came?” Nadine asks.

“No, Stephen. Dean’s been out of the picture for a month. How could you not know? Oh, that’s right, you don’t return my calls.”

Nadine feels herself blushing. “I’m sorry. I’ve just been busy with the gift thing and all. You know.”

“Not really,” Melanie says.

Nadine adjusts the coats so they won’t get wrinkled. “I’d better get back.”

Kenneth, Nadine, Roger, Melanie, Christie Silverman, and Pete all met at Columbia, in freshman chemistry lab. On the first day, Christie tipped over a Bunsen burner, resulting in the evacuation of the entire building. They decided to skip out to a little deli on W. 120th, and it was over corned beef and Coke that they formed a study group to get them through the course.

The study group became tight and cliquey, and each of them rarely did anything without at least one of the others. Nadine and Melanie were both pre-nursing and became especially close.

Kenneth met Catherine his final semester at Columbia. They’ve never married, and from time to time they separate. They’ve been back together for two years and two months—Nadine has kept careful track. Catherine has never warmed up to the gang, stemming from the days at Columbia of trying to fit into a group with a shared history, and having to put up with a sort of initiation process of inside jokes and a great deal of smirking. Since she and Kenneth got back together, they have rarely seen any of them, but as a gift to Kenneth, she’s throwing him a thirtieth birthday party.

Everyone has brought gifts, which Kenneth insists on opening right away.

“Look at this,” Kenneth says after opening the case. He lifts it from its cradle and holds it up. “She’s wonderful, Nadine.”

“I thought KJ needed a girlfriend,” Nadine says.

Kenneth admires it.

“You shouldn’t have,” he says. “This is way more than the ten dollar limit.”

“Naw,” she says. “I picked her up at a second hand store. I cleaned her up, did a little painting, made her a new outfit. It was mostly labor.”

In truth she had combed the stores in New York for months, finally finding a girl marionette at a shop near Broadway. It was in fine shape and cost her three hundred dollars. She spent weeks making new clothes, re-doing the hair, and touching up the facial features until it looked just so. Secretly she calls it NJ, though she dared not make it look too much like herself

Kenneth retrieves KJ and his stand, and hangs the new marionette next to it. Nadine flushes with happiness seeing them together.

“What’s her name?” Roger asks.

Nadine shrugs.

“What about CJ?” Stephanie says. “For Catherine Junior.”

Nadine blanches and her stomach knots.

Kenneth laughs. “Yes! CJ. I love it.”

“It looks a bit like her too,” Pete says, “around the eyes.”

“And the hair, maybe,” Stephanie says. “How’d you make it look like her, Nadine?”

Nadine is sick. “I didn’t.”

Catherine makes a tight-lipped smile, and her eyes dart from face to face.

“What’s the matter, Cat?” Kenneth says.

“You all are making fun of me again.”

There is an almost palpable tensing of nearly everyone in the room.

“Honey,” Kenneth says, “I think everyone meant it in a positive way. The marionette is beautiful. You’re beautiful.”

“I don’t think it looks anything like me.”

Kenneth takes a deep breath and recomposes his posture, like he’s performing an exercise he may have learned in couple’s counseling. “Alright, love,” he says, “we’ll just think of another name, that’s all.”

Catherine stands and apologizes awkwardly, then goes to the kitchen. Kenneth stares at the floor for a minute like he’s silently reciting some sort of mantra, then excuses himself.

“This happens every time,” Roger says in a whisper loud enough for everyone remaining. “I’m almost glad we never get together anymore.”

“Why does she even bother with us?” Pete says. “We’re insufferable.”

“I miss getting together.” Roger drains his drink. “Fuck her if she can’t take a joke.”

Their attention is drawn to the marionettes. They can hear muted discussion from the kitchen, yet the puppets seem calm, almost happy, like they’re waiting to take over the roles of Kenneth and Catherine, lacking only a script and capable puppeteers.

“I agree with Catherine,” Melanie says. “I don’t think it looks like her at all.”

“Of course not,” Pete says, “I really was making fun of her.”

Stephanie shoots him an evil grin. “You’re the one who’s insufferable.”

Stephanie’s husband, Rick, has been sitting quietly near Pete’s wife. “Not everyone can be a spouse to one of you people,” he says.

“Shut up, Rick,” Pete says, deadpan, “no one asked you.”

“They’re not married,” Nadine says.

Melanie gives Nadine a sad look, which Nadine doesn’t notice.

Stephanie goes to Rick and sits on his lap. “Oh, baby,” she says, smooching him on the face, “you’re a dear for putting up with us.”

Pete’s wife gives Pete a little smile, and Melanie checks on Steven with a wink. Nadine notes that she and Roger are the only ones without . . . well, someone. She wonders if Roger notices that even the damned puppets have someone now.

At dinner Nadine has the only seat with a view of the marionettes. Kenneth sits at the head, just to her right; Melanie to her left. Catherine sits across. The talk is neutral: Yankees, price of gasoline, bad bosses. There is very little mention of Columbia or the old days. Out of the corner of her eye Nadine thinks she sees the marionettes move. She looks over but they haven’t. It happens again, then again. She wonders if it’s a trick of peripheral vision, or if KJ and NJ are having their own little party. That thought warms her and she imagines them talking secretly.

 I love you, K.J. I have always loved you.

 I didn’t know.

 How could you not know?

 Because I’m oblivious and narcissistic.

 Right.

 Why didn’t you ever say anything?

 Because I was scared you’d reject me, and then what would there be to hope for?

 That’s no way to live.

 Tell me about it.

Catherine passes the asparagus to Kenneth, who discretely brushes his fingers along her hand, and they make brief, adoring eye contact.

 Why won’t you marry me? KJ says.

NJ looks like Catherine now. She’s become CJ.

 Because your friends hate me.

 Love me, love my friends.

Kenneth tells a story about a trip to the Philippines. In his enthusiasm he knocks his napkin to the floor, and Catherine places it in his lap. Nadine sees her hand linger as he talks.

Nadine thinks she sees the marionettes move again. NJ is leaning over to kiss . . . she isn’t sure yet which one it is. It’s NJ. Yes. NJ curls her arm around his neck and pulls him tight. They kiss a long kiss.

 Why have we never kissed before? KJ asks.

 You had all those other girls to kiss.

 Well, they made themselves known.

During dessert Nadine sees Kenneth wipe a smudge of chocolate from Catherine’s cheek with his pinky. With her eyes Catherine dares him and he licks his finger slowly.

Nadine notices KJ and NJ are now dancing, waltzing around the room to music only they and Nadine can hear. They spin and turn, and at the end KJ dips her low. When she comes up, she’s CJ again.

 It’s okay if we don’t marry, CJ.

 Maybe it’s okay if we do.

KJ takes CJ for another turn around the room, and the music swells, and they disappear around the corner.

After dinner, everyone gathers for coffee in the living room. Kenneth takes KJ from the stand and does one of his favorite song and dance bits. Nadine goes to the bathroom, and when she returns she stops just inside the living room and watches. Catherine has NJ. She and Kenneth are working the strings and doing voices, and everyone is laughing.  Nadine tries to imagine herself making NJ dance and sing, making her friends laugh, pleasing Kenneth. But she can’t see herself anywhere in the picture. She can only see Catherine.

Catherine catches her eye and smiles, then breaks into song. Nadine goes to get her coat. Melanie slips in behind.

“Leaving, Nade?”

“I’m not feeling well.”

Melanie looks her over carefully, as though she can discern Nadine’s ailment by inspection. She helps find Nadine’s coat in the pile.

“That was a nice gift,” she says. “I’ve never seen Catherine have so much fun with us.” She adjusts Nadine’s coat collar. “They’re calling it CJ.”

Nadine forces a half-smile.

“Are you about done waiting?” Melanie says.

Nadine hugs her. “I’ll call you.”

Melnie raises an eyebrow. Nadine brushes a strand of hair from Melanie’s eye and kisses her on the cheek. “Really.”

She quietly opens the door and slips out into the cold darkness. She feels lighter, even more so than the unburdening of a puppet case would suggest. A cab drives by and she almost hails it, but decides not. Some things are better done one step at a time.

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