The Waltz

The Waltz

A Story by Kherry McKay

My mother never got ready quickly for dates with my dad. It always took her several hours. First there were long showers in the bathroom. She washed her luxurious hair, twisting it until each strand discharged water. Next, using her hair dryer, she dried it. This was in the early seventies, when hair dryers first came around. They were of a huge kind; they looked more like Han Solo “blasters” than electrical appliances.


My mother had been an off-Broadway actress and dancer when she had been younger. She'd spent many long hours in front of dressing-room mirrors. She had the same style mirror in her bathroom, surrounded by round light bulbs, lights that felt to her familiar.


She often invited me into the bathroom to talk with her while she finished drying her hair. She would peer at me through the mirror as she dried and combed, standing with one foot forward, her knee sticking out past the hem of her maroon robe. She would put on base pancake, then eyeliner, then a variegated assortment of makeup which she chose much as Van Gogh might have, from a painter's palette. She was an artist.


In my earliest memory of the ritual, I was about nine, feeling nervous. What was this incredible thing I was beholding? My mother was spending hours in front of a mirror. She said “looking beautiful” was important. She worked hard to “...make the best of things,” as she said of the ordeal. She plucked her eyebrows before starting to apply makeup.


I stood mesmerized. Why did she need to look so beautiful? She already was beautiful. Why did she think this was so important?


I was maybe in the fourth grade or so. I noticed pretty girls in my class, but I couldn't imagine any spending the same amount of time in front of a mirror.


My mother would choose a perfume next. She had many to choose from, each in antique sprayers with elongated nozzles. She would pick one and squirt a little in the air.


“Do you like this?” she would ask.


I would move through the mist, feeling the perfume on my face.


Sometimes I might shake my head and twist my nose. She would then select another perfume and spray a little of that brand into the air. I would nod, feeling intoxicated by the alcohol fog. Then, she would put it on in earnest. Sometimes I would have to leave the room so she could “apply it properly.”


Later, she would come down to the living room fully dressed. She would put on shiny red lipstick in the kitchen, waiting for my dad to come home from work to pick her up. Maybe they would go out dancing, or just to dinner.


As I got older, I became more shy. I rarely joined her in her bathroom, and when she came down in her dress, I would often tell her she looked wonderful and then slip away to my room. Often she would kiss me on the cheek before I got away, and that always involved leaving a dark lipstick mark on my cheek.


My mother struggled with depression, but I never sensed she was depressed as she was ready to go out. I suppose that's why they were cherished moments, the “good times” I had with her. She was rarely cross, whereas much of the rest of the time she nagged, shouted, and vented her disappointment upon me.


I always thought she looked beautiful when she departed, but as I said, I always thought she was beautiful. I saw her gardening one morning. She rarely wore blue jeans, which weren't much worn by her generation, but she was in dark denim that day. She had gloves on and had a gardening trowel in her hand. She looked happy for once, as if working in the soil had removed her depression. The sun was far off to the right of her, and it glinted above her hair making her look like she had a halo. Beautiful, she was.


Aging more, I fell out of the routine of observing her as she prepared for outings and dates with my dad. There were new tensions in the house. It wasn't easy to be a teenage boy in the house with a depressed woman. Sometimes it was almost unbearable. My mother was not the kind of person a teenager could “talk to.”


I often wondered if she resented giving up her budding career at singing and dancing to be a mother, but she never said she did. She seemed content to be a mother, and certainly loved parts of being home and taking care of us.


Someone said depression is anger turned inward. You can be angry at others or you can be angry with yourself. I sensed she was angry with herself, for some reason.


So, one day I asked her: “Mother, are you angry at yourself or something?”


She wasn't expecting the question, and it made her sit down quickly as if the air had been knocked out of her lungs. She looked at me intently.


“How did you know that?” she whispered.


“I didn't know that but wondered. Are you?”


She looked away, but her head involuntarily nodded yes.


“Mom, what for?”


She looked back, a single tear in her eye. It made her look away again.




After a moment, I said again: “Mom?”


“I used to love to dance,” she said. She had the far-off look of a person that would never dance again, never see the paradise that once she had known.


“You can still dance,” I said.


She gestured with her whole face that she could not. “It wouldn't be the same.”


After a second she added: “There wouldn't be an audience.”


“Mother, we can be your audience. Me, dad, Sis.”


Without thinking, she turned to face me and took my hands, pulling me up to a dancing position. There was music in the room from the stereo, a waltz. I think it was The Blue Danube. A few weeks before, she had taught me how to waltz. “Part of being a gentleman is knowing how to waltz,” she'd said.


It was a winter afternoon and was raining outside as my mother and I started to dance. She cried. At one point she hugged me, and her tears fell onto my neck. I watched rain cascading down the windowpanes as I felt her tears on me.


The music changed to several other waltzes, and still we danced.


I heard my father come home. Something inside me suddenly felt fear. Looking back, I guess it was an Oedipal instinct, although I wouldn't have known what to call it then.


Somehow from the moment my dad came home, I was no longer dancing with my mother; rather, I was dancing with my father's wife " a powerful distinction.


My mom and I continued to dance. My father came into the living room, put down his sport coat on the back of the couch, and watched. He could see that mom had been crying.


I tried to stay with the music. One-two-three, one-two-three. I hoped that he would cut in, but he stayed to the side and watched, his feelings inscrutable.


The rain ran down the window in sheets.


“Oh,” she said. “You're home.”


He nodded quietly.


“Let me run upstairs,” she said. “My makeup has run. A little fix-up is needed. It will only take me a few minutes.”


She let go of my hands and left the room.


I turned to face my dad. I was afraid he was going to accuse me of starting her crying because of something I said. But the look on his face was one of compassion, not of anger.


After a moment he cleared his throat, catching my gaze. “I have learned something I'm going to share with you, because you're old enough to understand, I think.”


I couldn't think of anything to say back.


“Women,” he said, “were put on this Earth to love. They must love always, at all times. They must never be without something, or someone, to love. They can learn to love more, but can never learn to love less. Do you understand?”


I didn't understand, but I looked at him as if I did.


“We take women from their progression of loving when we fall in love with them, marry them. We turn them into 'wives.' We say, 'Love us.' We have children with them. We say, 'Love the children.' And they do.”


I'd never heard him open up that much. It was scary.


“But all these first loves are still inside them: Their first dance; the first horse that they loved; the way their father's beard stubble felt to their small, girlish fingers.”


Outside, the rain had tapered off.


“When a woman is sad, it's not because she doesn't have enough to love. It's because she has too much, and she isn't quite up to the task, in the moment, of managing it.”


I heard my mother's feet on the staircase, coming down.


“She says she misses an audience,” I said, trying to help.


He turned and looked at me closely. “I suppose that's probably true. We'll have to give her a little more applause from now on, won't we?”


I wanted to nod, but I was a boy, and, although I couldn't articulate it then, something surrounding the taking care of her needs ahead of my own felt wrong.


She came into the room. She had reapplied her makeup and had draped her velvet wrap around her shoulders. Her perfume smelled wonderful.


“It's stopped raining,” she said in a hopeful tone.


The doorbell rang. It was the “sitter” having come to watch my sister and me while my parents were out.


My mother kissed me softly on the cheek, pausing and leaving a red lipstick mark with her lips.


The front door closed. The sitter, the next-door neighbor, asked me how I was. She was a college girl; my parents didn't like to leave children alone when they went out, even as we got older.


I looked out the window, not answering her. On the driveway, my dad was helping my mom into the passenger seat of the car. I could see her smiling face. She looked happy; she looked as if she were adored by millions.


I realized in then it would take me a long time to locate my “audience” " a long time, indeed. I would never find my true audience (the folks who would most appreciate me) until I learned to fully love my mother, to love her even for the parts of her which were somehow missing, the parts sublimated by fear. I felt her adult-sized hands grabbing my hands and pulling me toward her at the beginning of the dance; and I re-experienced the tears she shed on my neck.


I recall how beautiful she looked as she combed and dried her hair. . . .


I'm still working this out.


I'm working this all out, my beloved friends and those who care about me.

© 2012 Kherry McKay

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Added on September 19, 2012
Last Updated on September 19, 2012