Reagan had been smitten with Erica ever since he had first come to work for Strategic Systems Services. She had already been there a year when he had started and on the first day she had been assigned to him as a “buddy” and had taken him out to lunch at the Uno's down the block. Dirty blonde hair, a gray blouse with the top buttons open to show the even palate of her breastplate, she had sat across from him sipping on a Diet Coke and Reagan had honestly thought he had met the woman he would marry. Over the following months, as her spring wardrobe switched to summer, he grew only more certain, knowing she was the most beautiful woman in the office, probably in the whole building. He was in love, there were no two ways about it, and as they attended meetings together, worked on the occasional project together, sat in on conference calls with their boss, just the three of them, and the days turned colder and her bare legs were replaced by stockings, her sandals by heels, days at work became, for Reagan, his chance to talk to her and her alone. He probably wouldn't even have come if it hadn't been for her, he would have quit ages ago, probably. But there was no point in speculating – there was her, and so he stayed and arranged his days to give himself the most chances to talk to her – and so that Thursday, like every other Thursday, he was seated next to her during the staff meeting, listening to Bill talk about the annual dance lessons to get ready for the holiday party.
“Do you think you'll go?” Reagan asked her when Bill had sat back down up front.
“Yeah, maybe.” She kept her eyes forward. She always paid such close attention during these meetings. It was admirable.
“Yeah, me too I think,” Reagan said, wiping his nose on his sleeve. He officially decided to take that class later in the week, when he had confirmed that Erica was already signed up.
That Saturday, he had a dream of the two of them dancing, tangoing alone in an empty ballroom, her wearing a long black dress with a slit up to her waist, he in a tuxedo, the two of them together, bodies pressed up against one another. He could barely wait for Wednesday, when they would have their first class.
Of course they would accept his CV. Six years of tap, American Ballet Theater, touring with Alvin Ailey, even the occasional ballroom competition, how could they not have? It wasn't for them to reject him but very much the contrary, and Malik, lying back on his bed, groggy from having been woken up by the call even though it was almost noon, looked long and hard at the name on the display as a tinny incarnation of a Nina Simone song clinked along, and he wondered if it had really come to this, if he was really going to go through with it.
Did he really have a choice though? He knew what the CV didn't show: that he was thirty years old, that he had had to practically beg for the principle role in Alvin Ailey, that they had dropped him mid-tour. “Sorry Malik, some people just have it, and you just don't.”
He answered. Sarah, the same woman he had spoken to earlier, her voice friendly but businesslike, thanked him for sending his CV and told him she'd be glad to have him and they talked about the details. Dance classes, ballroom classes, offered in offices, usually with the goal of teaching a few steps before a holiday party. They would spend the first five weeks on the foxtrot, and then do the tango for the next five weeks. “It gives the students,” Sarah explained, using a word Malik himself wouldn't have used for a group of office-monkeys trying hard to stave off terminal boredom, “a chance to feel like they're really getting good.” Sarah would go with him the first day and they would meet everyone and then unless there were enough people for two classes, he'd be on his own, he just had to make sure someone from the class signed the time sheet when he was done and he would be paid monthly based on those sheets and no, his hours wouldn't include getting there early to make sure the conference room was set up.
They made plans to meet the next day, Wednesday, fifteen minutes before the class was to start, and Malik hung up the phone and laid back in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering if he would be able to fall back asleep.
The next morning, Malik was in Conference Room A of Strategic Systems Services Inc, blinking off a hangover and sure he had made the biggest mistake of a career littered with them. Bigger than the fight with his high school choreographer; bigger than trying to seduce the wife of his tap instructor; bigger than turning down the spot in the company for Chicago. Sarah, middle-aged and lithe, in a black unitard with a red skirt, hit play on the boom box in the corner and then stepped over to him, hand on his waste, hand in his hand, and as the music began she narrated the steps to the crowd of office workers that was watching across the room.
“Quick quick, slow slow, quick quick, slow slow,” they moved easily through the space, Malik sliding along on autopilot, waiting desperately for the song to end, sneaking glances at the uniformed audience, an army of neck ties and khaki. “Quick quick, slow slow, quick quick, slow slow,” after three circles of the room Sarah stepped back over to the machine and hit stop. “That was the foxtrot,” she said, switching to another tape, “we'll teach that first and then we'll switch to the tango, which we'll demonstrate now.” Play, she was back in Malik's arms and again they were moving through the room, though this time in straight lines – shifting abruptly – Malik threw in a twirl out of boredom – catching a smile on one of the cuter women watching – Sarah shot him a glance as they snapped back together. She went and hit stop on the machine.
The next Wednesday, Malik was alone, there hadn't been enough for two classes after all, and with no small amount of trepidation he faced the minions, dutifully aligned and nervous across from him in the conference room, maybe ten of them, all ready to mirror his moves. They learned the steps first in a group; he gave them some tips on how to lead and how to follow, demonstrating with the cute blonde woman who was in front, and then they paired off, the cute woman going to the boss, a strange boy Malik had caught wiping his nose on his sleeve earlier to another of the cuter women, the shockingly tall man being picked up by a comparably tall woman, and the four more overweight women standing alone in the corner.
“Quick quick, slow slow.” He hit play on the tape and Reagan and Michelle, Sarah and Steven, Bill and Erica, Claire, Marie, Laura, and Anne danced as Malik passed through, raising elbows, lowering hands, raising hands, patrolling the crowd like a chaperone at a high school dance, guiding the pairs around the room, “Quick quick, slow slow,” twirling, turning, memorizing the steps. “Quick,” forward on their toes, “quick,” Malik slid into Anne's arms, “slow,” he guided her forward, “slow,” she felt his firm grip, “quick,” leading, “quick,” down on the balls of their feet, “slow,” Malik went on to Reagan, “slow,” whose hand had been turned, “quick,” reminding him to lead, “quick,” and then went off to Laura, “slow,” barely moving, “slow,” he was in her arms, “quick,” and they danced.
After the second class Reagan was slow in leaving the conference room, waiting for Erica to be on her way to the door too. He didn't care much for dancing except to see her, he had hoped to dance with her even, but there had been no chance of that yet, she was always wrapped up with Bill, their boss, someone Reagan couldn't exactly cut in on. She was probably trying to score brownie points, but Reagan didn't want to think bad things about her, he wanted to love her, to believe she was as good as he had imagined her to be. At last he saw her turn towards the door, leaving Bill to talk to the instructor and Reagan moved to meet her, reaching the black double doors before her and then holding them open awkwardly to let her pass through, wiping his nose quickly on his sleeve as he followed her out.
“Thank you,” she said.
Reagan let the door shut behind them.
“That was fun, huh?”
“Yeah it was.” She was walking fast, her black heels squishing on the carpet, a whisking sound as her legs moved that Reagan decided had to be her stockings, her silk-covered thighs, sliding against each other not two feet away from him. They passed some other people in the hallway who Reagan noticed looking at Erica and he had to fall behind her to let them pass and they moved down the hallway like that, her in front, him behind, shooting little attempts at conversation at her, never quite catching up to her. Eventually they reached her cubicle and she stepped in and sat down in her chair and turned her monitor back on and Reagan stood in the little entrance waiting for her to notice him. When she looked up, the image of her desktop gradually emerging from the darkness behind her, she smiled politely as if surprised he was still there.
“So yeah,” Reagan had forgotten what he had wanted to say, “I guess I'll see you at the staff meeting tomorrow?”
“I'll be there,” she smiled and turned her chair to face the screen which was now almost totally visible, and then looked back at him over her shoulder, her hair half-obscuring her eyes, her smile almost coquettish, conspiratorial, “See you later.”
“Yeah, see you later,” Reagan turned from the cubicle, more in love with her than ever.
Again Malik was waiting for a phone call, it seemed he was always waiting for phone calls. Lying in his bed staring at the ceiling, he went back over the audition he had had the day before. It had gone well he thought, he had done his best, danced his best. And it wasn't like they were the Bolshoi, or even Broadway, he knew he could handle it, it was just – how had it come to this? He remembered wanting to be an artist, wanting to create great pieces, to dance the best, to use his body to express what he had never expressed before, and now… now he was teaching dance to office rats while waiting for a callback for a role that wasn't far removed from dinner theater. And even those office rats, those cubicle monkeys, they were almost constantly in his thoughts. The class took more organization than he had expected, and the sense he had whenever he thought of them, that he was prostituting himself, that pole dancing might have been more dignified than this, had given him an almost constant sense of nausea that only found relief in the minutes following their Wednesday classes when the time before he would have to see them again was as long as it would be all week.
Did they appreciate it, what he was giving them? Did they enjoy it? Did they benefit from it? Did they notice how he moved, did they take note of his poise, of his posture, of his balance and his grace? Did they notice all the things which he had spent years learning to do, which he had spent his life learning to do, which he had devoted himself entirely to learning to do, did they notice any of it? Or was he just a fitness teacher to them, teaching them slow aerobics, giving them an excuse to not sit in their cells all day?
He had a gift, or had had a gift at least, and it was going to waste. “You have a gift,” his mother had told him, “a gift,” his aunt had echoed. It was just that simple, his mother sitting him down one day when he'd skipped tap class to watch TV at Robbie's house. “You have a gift, Malik,” she said it with such confidence that it had ruined him forever, awakening a sense of potential that only now, as he waited for a call-back for an audition for a part he didn't want, did he realize was completely unrealistic. If he had had a gift, he would have heard back already about this last audition. If he had had a gift, he would still be with Alvin Ailey. If he had had a gift– he didn't have a gift now. He was better than the office-monkeys maybe, he didn't have “two left feet,” as they probably would have said, but he didn't have a gift either, and so now what? Teaching dance to people with no sense of rhythm. He would wind up like Sarah – had she had a gift too maybe once? She moved well in his arms, but she was just doing it for a class, any one of his students could do it that well after enough instruction, there was no soul, no emotion in it, it was just a job for her. But she could pay her rent at least, what was so bad about that? She sold gifts, that was what was so bad about that, she was selling his gift, she was a pimp, no more no less.
He picked up his phone to call her. He would quit, he had had enough, this was ridiculous, it was a waste of time, it was a waste of his potential. He scrolled through the phonebook and found her name but just as he was about to hit send the phone rang in his hand, Nina on piano, Oh Sinner Man. A 718 number. This would be Syd, he'd promised Malik the favor of a call to let him know their decision and here it was, the decision. Taking a deep breath, Malik answered.
He didn't get the part.
They started by going over the steps once more in lines and then paired off again, the same couples as last time Malik thought, and got ready to dance. It was eight weeks till their holiday party, he kept mentioning it to them like it was a huge recital, and Bill, the boss, fat with a mustache, who danced like a sack of potatoes, smiled every time he did it, even suggesting during their break the week before that they ask the band to play something special and they could all dance together. The girl next to him, the cute one, had looked mortified. Bill wanted Malik to come to the party, Malik would ask Sarah. If he could get paid for it, why not?
“Quick,” Malik started with Bill, knowing where his time was best served, “quick,” again he moved his hand up onto the girl's lower back, “slow,” made sure he kept some space between their bodies, “slow,” and then moved on to another couple, “quick,” the snot-boy, “quick,” who seemed incapable of leading, “slow,” always watching the cute girl, “slow,” to his partner's consternation, “quick,” Malik was off to play escort, “quick,” taking turns with each of the women, “slow,” whisking them around the room, “slow,” showing off, “quick,” satisfying fantasies, “quick,” prince charming, “slow,” the fairy tale that would never come true, “slow,” then back to Bill, “quick,” and his wandering hands.
Snot-boy's name was Reagan, Malik learned it during the fourth class, asking when he almost let the nickname slip, knowing at once he'd remember it. Of course his name was Reagan. His dad was probably Limbaugh. Uncle Thurmond. Brother Bush. What was he doing there?
“Quick quick, slow slow. Quick,” he was on autopilot, “quick,” lifting Bill's hand, “slow,” back to Reagan, “slow,” who danced like Dick. “Quick,” to the corner, “quick,” to the girls alone, “slow,” who weren't too bad really, “slow,” just to heavy maybe. “Quick,” better than the others, “quick,” so he spent more time there, “slow,” till his hands were clammy, “slow,” and he moved on, “quick,” Bill's hands had dropped, “quick,” the cute one looked like death, “slow,” Malik looked at his watch, “slow,” and lifted Bill's hands.
Reagan didn't wait for Erica after class that Wednesday, instead he left as soon as class ended, leaving her to talk to Bill in the corner. He had grown frustrated with the pace of their love the past few weeks, with the fact that they still hadn't danced together. His dreams had persisted. He needed to be coy he had decided, to be subtle, to not let her know how he felt about her. He wasn't going to just throw himself at her feet, he was a man, he had his pride. He went back to his cubicle and then passed by hers several times during the afternoon. She was there once but didn't look up and he had to force himself not to stop and talk to her, to remember how to behave. He made phone calls to potential clients, he put together a report on all the opportunities for future business, just like Bill had asked him to do, even working late to do so, all the while watching the hallway to the lobby, visible just through the door of his cubicle, to see when Erica would pass by, whether or not he could maybe get her attention on her way out, maybe ask her out to get a drink or something. One by one the workers passed on their way out though and he didn't see her. He finished his report and it was seven and giving up, assuming she had snuck out when he wasn't looking, he printed the document and went to leave it on Bill's desk, hoping at least he could get credit for the late hours, even though his real mission had gone unaccomplished.
The light in Bill's office was off and Reagan knocked lightly but then pushed the door open, knowing Bill would be gone, he usually was long before that hour though Reagan hadn't seen him leave. There was noise in the office though, and as Reagan clicked the light on he had a moment of confusion – was that Erica crouching behind Bill on the couch? “Get out!” Bill's voice shouted and Reagan mumbled something about his report as a woman – was that Erica? cowered behind Bill's back, his shirt un-tucked and half unbuttoned. “Get out!” Bill shouted again, and not knowing what to do Reagan tossed the report onto one of the open chairs and then turned to go, turning the light off as he left, it seemed polite, and heading back to his cubicle. It was only as he stuffed the papers into his bag that things started to coalesce, that he started to compute, to put them together, to make sense of it all. The dance classes, the late hours, the staff meetings, she had been doing this all along, seducing Bill to advance her career, no wonder she had no interest in Reagan, no wonder he had had no luck getting her attention. He was breaking his back just to have a conversation with her and meanwhile she was fucking the boss. So typical. Women. Reagan didn't even wait for his computer to shut down and tossed his bag over his shoulder before wiping his nose on his sleeve and heading out through the lobby.
“You had a gift,” Malik's aunt said as he settled in to the plastic-covered love seat in her living room and she disappeared into the kitchen to find a vase for the flowers he had brought along, yellow ones, daisies maybe, he didn't know. The loveseat was just across from an easy-chair, also plastic covered, and the mantle, lined with photos of his cousins, his grandparents, his mom, himself even, in the corner, stretching on a bar. “You had a gift,” his aunt said again, the past tense prickling Malik's ears so he wished desperately he hadn't come after all, looking up at his aunt, shuffling slowly, overflowing in her muumuu, a squat plastic vase before her with the flowers looking limp and near death sticking out above. He should have bought them anywhere but from the bum at the exit from the metro. He should have brought nothing rather than that. They wouldn't live a day. “And now you're sharing it with the world, I don't see what's so bad about that?”
“It's not sharing a gift, it's teaching the foxtrot to people who will forget me ten minutes after the last class. Sharing a gift is dancing for Alvin Ailey, this is nothing, this is hell.” Malik stood from the seat and paced the room, wondering at how the conversation had immediately turned like this. But that was family, they knew what was bothering you, you couldn't hide from them. And this was his aunt, she knew it all, she had raised him practically since his mother died. His mother. Her presence was almost tangible in the room with them and he walked over to the mantle without thinking and picked her photo out from among the lineup, the photo he had at his house too, her smiling on her birthday a couple years before she died, his aunt's version bordered by a worn fake silver frame.
“She would be proud of you for doing this,” his aunt said. Malik felt himself tear up suddenly, the way he always did when people talked about his mother, especially when his aunt did. He knew she did it intentionally like that, like an incantation almost, a way she could bend him to her will, and he resented her for bringing that back, for pushing on the sore spot. “I think you should do a good job and turn this into something permanent maybe. I know you like dancing on stage and traveling, but maybe that's just not what the lord has planned for you, maybe you're meant to teach. I bet you're good at it even aren't you.”
“I'm not bad I guess,” Malik said, putting the photo back on the mantle, “but I still don't think this is what I'm meant to do.”
“Oh come now, I bet you bring a lot of happiness to these people, I bet they look forward to it. You had a gift Malik, you have a gift still, but the time when you could have become the next Alvin Ailey has passed, you're almost thirty, it's time to settle down, to have a steady job, meet a woman, have a family. This job could be great for you, it's a way for you to show people what it means to dance.”
“The foxtrot is barely dance.”
“To you it isn't maybe, but to them I bet it is – to them it's art, to them it's expression.”
Expression. He couldn't believe that. Couldn't even imagine it.
“Remember when you first started dancing? You were a flower, or a tree,” his aunt's laugh made Malik smile too, “you didn't just come hopping onto the stage like Gregory Hines but you still loved it, you were still happy. Dance is movement, it's freedom, it's about your body, it's like prayer even.”
Malik looked at his aunt then, obese, sprawled in her favorite chair, the remote control resting on the end table just next to his flowers. As soon as he left she would turn on the TV, she would spend her night staring at the box, get up to heat up a frozen dinner, all aches, all arthritis, all alone. “Maybe,” he said, and he sat back down on the loveseat. Maybe she was right, what did he know?
That Wednesday, Malik got to the office earlier than usual and more hungover than usual and he was in the kitchen helping himself to free coffee before class when he heard that Bill had been fired. Two minions wearing the same blue shirts and khaki pants that Malik had discovered was a sort of uniform for these people stopped talking when he walked in and then started again once they realized he wasn't a coworker. Probably thought he was the janitor. Bill, fired, Erica, emergency staff meeting, lawyers. It was probably the most exciting thing that'd happened all year, the only bit of change in these people's whole lives. One of the guards getting arrested for selling drugs to the inmates. Malik couldn't have cared less though. Sipping his free coffee, he walked to the conference room where a few workers were already waiting. The Earlies. The cute one, Reagan, some of the fat girls. Always first, desperate for their hour of exercise. It was quieter than usual, but Malik didn't care, he slid the tape into the boom box and busied himself with arranging the things in his bag so no one would talk to him. After five minutes, he turned to look at the class. The cute one was in the corner, her eyes were pink. Reagan was clearly trying hard not to look at her. There were only two or three others.
Malik paused, unsure for a second. No Bill. No one seemed ready for anything. What was he doing here?
“Please?” the cute one said then, “Can we just dance?”
She looked Malik in the eyes, her own were pink, her nose running, and for a second Malik couldn't think why on God's green Earth she wanted him to put on music, why on Earth she wanted to dance, what the foxtrot could possibly have to offer this woman. But then what did he know? What did he know about anything?
Malik hit play. They paired off. “Quick quick, slow slow.” They danced.