It was the coldest night of January 2009; Minnesota does not fuck around with January, temperatures and wind chills dip below zero regularly to test your mettle. You can brag about surviving them later. I put on two pairs of tights and threw a furry vest over my turtleneck dress for extra warmth, but it was still an impractical outfit. John and I joined our handful of friends on the street outside of Dinkytown and we walked to Andy’s party. The others were in the basement, sticky and sweaty from dancing and spilled keg beer. The heat and Talking Heads rose to meet us as we walked down the stairs to join.
Later, my stupid vest abandoned on the floor, John and I were alone upstairs in the kitchen. Someone had put “Silver Lining” by Rilo Kiley on the iPod, a song both of us loved. And in the unspoken language you have with your best friend, your partner, the Will to your Grace even though you both deny that, we locked eyes and reached for the other’s hand. I danced to him in swishy little steps in my broken-down boots with the busted heels and we twirled around the room singing to each other. Someone came in to watch, but we didn’t notice. Those four minutes were ours. As far as we were concerned, no one else had ever danced to this song before us.
That night, we left the party together as we always did. It’s very, very cold at 1:30 AM in Minnesota in January, but we didn’t wait for a bus or call a cab. “Let’s just sing every song we know,” we said. “That will help us forget that we’re cold.”
And so we did. For our entire walk home, all 25 minutes of it, we sang whatever popped into our brains. I don’t remember feeling cold at all.
I spent most of my working hours with Anthony and we bickered like a married couple. It happens when you’re running a store together nine hours a day, five days a week. I’d bitch at him for not getting enough change for the register drawer, and he’d snip at me for eating a McDonald’s sundae behind the counter. I’d call him a slob. He’d tell me I was too uptight. I hate being told to relax.
We had fooled around a few times that year, bolstered by the godawful winter and some lethal, boozy punch. We were close to the same height, both blonde and blue-eyed and good-looking in a healthy, corn-fed sort of way. Anthony was the one I went to when I’d done something really stupid at a pool party, busted up my knee bashing it on my steering wheel, fucking a boy who immediately left me for another girl. I crawled into the store the morning after, hungover and makeup-free, and went right into his arms. I don’t really like to be hugged, let alone touched, but I always felt so secure in Anthony’s embrace. Maybe that’s how it’d feel if I had a big brother. He let me cling to his stocky, muscled chest as long as I needed. He was always so warm, radiating heat.
When we’d get into tiffs at the store, both of us stubborn as cattle, he’d stop in the middle of the carpeted circus of rolling racks carrying discounted Varvatos shirts and dad jeans and beckon to me. He’d go into a lunge, point a finger at me and wiggle it along with his eyebrows, demanding I come towards him. I always did. He’d grab me, pull me close and dance with me until I laughed and forgot why I was so pissed at him. We’d twirl, we’d spin, he’d dip me low til I squealed and customers would laugh at us.
Later that year, when he drunkenly pinned me against a wall and asked me through a mouthful of whiskey why I wouldn’t date him, when he followed me down to his vomit-splattered bathroom repeating the question and yelling at me to answer, I tried to remember the dancing to bash out the bad memories. It didn’t work then, but it does now, two years later. Certain songs will play while I’m ringing $10 t-shirts and I’ll pretend he’s standing behind me, waiting for me to wrap up with the customer so we can dance again.
Our small town bar was bustling with people; there was a band playing, a band of men who lived nearby and appeared to play cover songs when asked. They weren’t good, but they weren’t bad. They played Tom Petty and “Fishin’ in the Dark” and things like that, the kind of songs Midwesterners like to hear when they’ve been drinking. Comfort songs. I’d been celebrating my old classmate Donny’s 21st birthday with my four best girlfriends, the girls I grew up with and love like sisters, drinking rounds of Bud Light.
I always liked dancing with the men I grew up with, farmers and agronomists and the like. They knew a few dances, they led, they held your hand confidently and chatted sweetly, simply with you as you danced. My dad doesn’t dance, but my brother does. Some of my uncles do too. And I, like my mother and her band of sisters, love to dance with a man who knows how.
Donny’s sister, drunk and grinning, pushed my uncle Jeff towards me. “Dance with your niece!” She crowed. My dad’s brother had been silent, grouchy, through my childhood; he was mad at me when I was little and drew kitties, pink and blue and childish, all over the cement of the shop with chalk. That defined our relationship for the next few years.
Most of my paternal uncles are quiet men who mumble a few words at their niece who lived on the home farm, a girl they watched grow from a tiny child singing “Somewhere Out There” to anyone who would listen to the young woman I am now. I know that all of them are proud of me and that they love me, but they just don’t have the words to say it. From them I have inherited a lonely streak, a sharp tongue and quick wit and a tendency to hit the bottom of the bottle a little too hard sometimes.
I was buzzed enough to grab Jeff’s hand and let him push me awkwardly around the floor for a few minutes. It was the only time we ever talked for more than a moment or two and the only time we ever touched. He died a year or two ago, cancer, left three grown daughters and a son who is now 14, shy and mumbly as his kin. I didn’t go to the funeral; I stayed with Grandma and chatted aimlessly at her as they buried her son. I know she appreciated my company, but she never said it. She didn’t really need to.
I keep this memory wrapped up in my brain, wrapped like a present and labeled “SAVE” in heavy red printing. In my mind, it’s tied with a velvet ribbon I can run my fingers across when I feel particularly grey, when I’ve stayed up too late or slept too long or driven too far. Maybe I should let it go, but it’s too pretty to forget.
It was the night of your birthday and all the guests had left. My mouth tasted like champagne and grilled peaches; you were tipsy with gin. The living room of your house was silent and dark, save for the icy blue light of the computer screen. We stood in the middle, your hands on my waist and mine threaded up in your hair. You had turned on an old Dire Straits song, one I knew you loved because you mentioned it when we’d first started dating, and we were swaying to it, my black silk dress and bare feet, you singing and me smiling into your face because you couldn’t sing but I liked it just the same.
We had many lovely moments, other moments I threw in that box in my head, but nothing as simple and perfect as that. I hope you spend every birthday dancing with a girl that way.