I won a dance contest in junior high. In grades 7 to 9
we were expected to make the transition
from grammar school children to young adults.
At lunchtime, the Student Council played records
over the public address system, and the girls danced
in the hallways to the rhythm of rock ’n’ roll
while the boys sniggered awkwardly against the walls.
But when the school sponsored an after-school dance
in the gym, we were expected to go forth onto the dance floor
Noah’s Ark style, one boy one girl, hand in hand,
with the boys doing the asking and the leading
except on Sadie Hawkins Day when it was ladies’ choice.
The boy who chose me to dance with him in the contest
was a tall boy in the ninth grade named Henry
who must have noticed me dancing, and dance we did
all the way to first prize. Henry lived a few blocks from me,
and in courtly fashion he walked me home from school that day
still flushed with triumph.
This isn’t a story about first love, not even about first kiss,
and Henry doesn’t appear again in my life until high school
when I was a sophomore and he had the lead in the senior play.
I can’t remember the title of the play, but I vividly remember
when he said the line, “You can trust me,” Peggy stood up
in the third row and shouted, “Yeah, that’s what you told me,
and now look where you are and where I am!”
Then she walked up the aisle with her big belly
and out of the school that expelled her.
My brother Fred, three years older, had none of the courtly
veneer of my dance partner. He was a bully
who would barge into the bathroom when I was bathing
and brush against my body in the narrow upstairs hallway
to feel my breasts when they began to grow.
Once when he thought I was asleep, he came to my bed
flashlight in hand and pulled down my blanket.
I jumped up –– backed him out of my room to the hallway ––
pushed him down the stairs.
This story has a long arc that touches down after he dies
of a heart attack at forty-two while he was in bed
with a woman who was not his wife.
He lived on the other coast, and we had not spoken in years,
but I knew he left two daughters.
Years after he died, his younger daughter found me
through the Internet, even though I’d changed my name.
She asked what her father was like when we were children.
Was he kind? In a quiet voice she asked if he ever touched me
where I did not want to be touched.
My niece told me that when she started having her period
she thought about ways to kill herself. She told me she prayed
that her father would die, and when he died she was glad,
but she thought it was her fault.
When I told her about pushing him down the stairs,
she said, “Good. Someone was able to push back.”
Everyone has a private life.
I was fortunate to have a secret sharer
to let inside where pain and passion reside.
Our mothers become friends when they sit together in shul.
While they talk in the kitchen of his apartment,
we play in the playpen. When they talk on the phone,
he hears one half of their conversation; I hear the other.
I know the nights his father doesn’t come home;
he knows when mine does –– and that he scares me.
By fourth grade we’re classmates doing homework together.
The next year is the dangerous year of my parents’ divorce.
At a time when divorce is shameful, he knows it saves my life.
In winter when snow is on the ground, he’s on my side
of the snowball fight on the way home from school.
In junior high, he asks me to teach him how to dance the Lindy.
Ignoring Fred’s mockery from the doorway, we dance in my room.
When he tells me he kissed a girl at the skating pond in the park
I’m disappointed because I want it to be me. “Nah,” he says,
he who has no sisters, “It’d be like kissing my sister.”
Unconsummated desire fuels my fantasies, asleep and awake.
I watch him rehearse “Flamingo” with the high school jazz band,
the sound echoing “like a flame in the sky” as I walk home.
I listen beneath his window as he practices his horn.
He’s my can’t-help-falling-in-love-with-you first love
who teaches the heart to love.
He goes to college Upstate; I the Midwest.
We both marry the wrong one, and then the right one.
From time to time, we reach out to each other.
Milestone birthdays (his in March, mine in May) and death days ––
we’re with our mothers when they die –– mine at 97, his 101.
With two brothers dead and one brother lost,
he is the only one who knows me since childhood.
After Sandy hits the Island, he sends me a message to check
if I’m all right that I see weeks later when the power comes on.
Recently he sent an obituary of a classmate who helped to create
the spacecraft that flew by Pluto. That’s what we were doing
as we were growing up. Probing the vast universe of the unknown.
I thank my lucky stars that I had someone who shared
my fears and my passion, who eased the one and ignited the other.
Though this story does not end, I’ll leave you with this image
of a teenage girl and boy riding up in the elevator to his apartment.
The boy stops the elevator, turns off the light, and in the darkness
between floors, he asks, “Do you trust me?”
When I answer “Yes,” he turns on the light and presses up.
Patti Tana, Professor Emerita of English at Nassau Community College (SUNY), is the associate editor of the Long Island Quarterly and the editor of the anthology Songs of Seasoned Women. Patti is the 2009 Walt Whitman Birthplace Poet of the Year. Author of ten books of poems, her most recent collection is Bumper Crop (2022), a digital book with photographs by her husband John Renner, posted at http://johnrennerphotography.com.