by Libby Sommer
It was just after eight on a Friday night when I finally arrived at the Crystal Ballroom again. I’d spent ages driving around trying to find somewhere to park. So when I did locate a spot way down Bishops Road, I rang Aravind on the mobile to say I’d be late. He was still caught up in traffic. He blamed the rain.
‘What are you wearing?’ he asked on the phone.
‘A black leather jacket,’ I said. ‘But when I take it off I’ll be in red and black. And what about you?—although I should be able to recognise you.’
He’d told me that he is the only black man at the ballroom dance venues.
When I walked into the Grand Ballroom it all looked pretty crowded, but I found a table towards the back where I would be able to see the dance floor and the rock and roll competition and watch the door.
He’d said on the phone that he’d be dressed in black and red too. So when an olive-skinned man in a maroon shirt and black trousers opened the door, I thought it might be Aravind. I gazed so intently he came over to the table.
‘Is your name Aravind?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘My name is Joe.’
He turned and walked over to the bar.
The place was pretty dark and I don’t see very clearly at the best of times, let alone when I’m wearing those dreadful contact lenses.
‘I don’t know how you do it Sofia,’ Ingrid has said to me more than once. ‘If anything happened to Dennis I wouldn’t be able to put myself out there like you do.’
Finally Aravind walked in. I knew it was him for sure and gave a wave. Even though I’d seen a photo of him on the dancing-partner website, I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe it was the cut of the camel leather jacket he was wearing that padded out his shoulders—I don’t know what it was—he hadn’t mentioned a jacket. He was far more attractive than I expected.
He was looking around the place with a frown—two vertical lines between his eyebrows that cut his forehead into deep grooves. ‘The Flaming Guitars’ were playing Blue Suede Shoes up the front. The bar ran down one side opposite the door. I had already bought a lemon, lime and bitters—the standard choice for serious dancers. And, after all, I didn’t want him to feel he needed to buy me a drink. He was out of work. He’d lost his job.
‘Forget him,’ snaps Ingrid as we walk along the path by the cliffs at Bondi and I tell her about my latest attempt to find a regular dance partner. I like her to know that I’ve got a life—that I’m not sitting at home in front of the television every night.
‘Stay away,’ she says emphatically. ‘You don’t want that. You don’t want to start anything up with a man without a job.’
I ignore her and press on, determined to give her all the details.
‘He walked over to my table. He looked so gorgeous. His thick black hair fell forward across his smooth dark skin. Sensitive eyes, generous mouth. I was really surprised.’
Ingrid slows down, almost stops.
‘I couldn’t think of a thing to say to him at first. He had this way of speaking—each word carefully chosen—English-school accent—I think boarding school in New Delhi. He took his jacket off, put his umbrella under the chair and dug his shiny, two-tone black and white dance shoes out of his bag. I sucked on my straw and tried not to stare at him.’
‘I thought you’d seen a picture of him?’ Ingrid says.
‘Yes. Two photos on his website—password protected, of course. He didn’t look black to me, but I couldn’t see him clearly. They weren’t close ups. He said he and his wife call themselves “bar-b-cued ozzies”.’
‘Did his wife come and watch?’
‘Don’t get involved with him. Don’t break up a marriage,’ Ingrid hisses, stumbling as the front of her runners catches on the path.
‘You know I don’t take any notice of things that you tell me,’ I say reaching out to steady her.
‘Yes, but I’m sure you know better than to get involved with a married man.’
We walk on.
‘His wife doesn’t like to dance. He told me she encourages him to go out rather than sit at home looking miserable. I’d asked what she enjoys doing. He said she likes cooking, and that he loves eating her cooking. They used to have dance lessons together but she only did it to please him. He could tell from her body language that she didn’t enjoy it. She won’t even go to the club up the road with him.’
‘His wife needs to watch out,’ Ingrid says in a clipped voice that sounds just like her mother’s. She gives me a gentle push on the shoulder to move me to the side of the track as two joggers pass.
‘He said he keeps telling himself that it’s important not to fall in love with his dance partner.’
Ingrid rolls her eyes and says, ‘Oh, sure.’
‘But the women you dance with know you’re married with kids,’ I’d said when he came back from the bar with his own glass of lemon, lime and bitters. He replied that you can’t control that kind of thing. You can’t control where your heart takes you. It just happens, he said. He has two dance partners already—one for competition and one for lessons. That’s what the photos are on his website. Him and his two dance partners.’
‘So why’s he looking for another one?’ Ingrid scoffs as she sips from her bottle of water.
‘He doesn’t go social dancing with the others. He doesn’t like to have to do a particular sequence of steps all the time. He prefers to do whatever moves he feels like.’
‘He’s not very available with a wife and two dance partners,’ Ingrid sniffs.
We walk on in silence.
‘So, what happened then?’ she asks with a sigh. ‘You may as well tell me the whole story.’
‘We got up for an old Elvis number, a slow rock and roll. That was the plan. We started with this style and then, depending how things worked out, would get on to the ballroom and the Latin at another time. We were going to have a few dances together and then watch the competition. But one of the men from the band came over to our table and asked us to enter the comp. He’d seen the two of us on the floor. He said that if we didn’t put our names down he wouldn’t have enough people to make the competition worthwhile. “It’s up to you,” said Aravind.
‘I told the man from the band that this is the first time Aravind and I had met, let alone danced. “Well, you look good together,” he said. He wrote our names down on a piece of paper before going back to the stage.’
‘So you danced with Aravind in the comp?’ Ingrid asks grudgingly.
‘What happened was he wanted to do some drops. He whispered it to me. “We can do some drops,” his voice rising with excitement.’
‘Drops? You didn’t did you?’ says Ingrid. ‘What about your back?’
‘I know they’re dangerous, especially with someone you’ve never danced with before and when you don’t know their signals. I felt nervous but safe. Aravind is such a strong lead. I told him, though, that we’d have to go outside and practice on the footpath if we were going to do drops—except it was raining. He said I didn’t have to do the drops if I didn’t feel comfortable.’
Ingrid and I move aside to make room for a man with a collection of dogs on leads to pass us.
‘Ingrid, I’d do anything just to keep on dancing with him—he’s great. He’s so much better than me. It’s a real challenge. Apparently, I was beaming so much when we were dancing together that Simon said if I’d died right then and gone to heaven, I would have been happy. You know Simon? My old mate from years ago? He and his wife were there too. They entered the competition as well.’
‘So, did you win?’
‘We came second. Simon and his wife came third. They were a bit pissed off because they’ve been dancing together for years and it was our first time. We had to dance to two numbers, one fast and one slow. Jail House Rock and something else. I think it was Wooden Heart. Anyway, we ended up coming second and winning a bottle of Champagne—drops and all. And at the end, when they called out our names to come up and collect our prize, they said over the microphone that it was our first date and could be the beginning of something special.’
‘So are you going to see him again?’ Ingrid asks, her attention drawn to the ocean.
‘He insisted that I take the bottle of Champagne home and he carried it all the way to the car for me. The rain had stopped. He gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. It felt rather nice.’
‘His wife really needs to watch out,’ says Ingrid leaning forward on the rail to get a better look at the rocks of Ben Buckler.
My mind wanders back to that night with Aravind. After I drove home I put the water on to boil for tea and had a shower. In the bathroom I lifted my hair up off the back of my neck and smoothed my skin under the light and wondered when we would dance together again. That night I’d visited that very special place full of passion and excitement that I only ever touch through dance. I stared into the mirror, straightened up, belly pulled in, shoulders back, chest proud. I poured the water into the pot, selected a fine bone-china mug from the cupboard and took the tray into the bedroom and hoped he’d ring soon.
‘So here’s the thing, Ingrid. I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know whether I should wait for him to initiate contact. Anyway, I was talking to my old mate Simon about it and he said that seeing how it’s a dancing-only relationship—an equal arrangement—it’s okay for me to ring Aravind. But Simon said not to wait too long if I wanted to dance with Aravind again. Not too long. Anyway, a few days later Aravind emailed and invited me to partner him at a ball coming up in a couple of weeks. We ended up seated at the same table as his competition partner, Wilma. A tall, elegant blonde. “What are you doing here?” she asked me. “I invited Sofia,” Aravind answered firmly on my behalf.’
‘It’s not looking so good,’ Ingrid says as we head around the corner and down towards the café.
‘Aravind had almost every dance with me at the ball, but when the opening bars of Edelweiss started up Wilma came over and invited him for a dance saying to me, “It’s our competition waltz.”’
‘Territorial,’ Ingrid says in her I-told-you-so voice.
I won’t go into it with Ingrid. I decide to change the subject. Today she is wearing her super-brief denim shorts, straw hat and big hoop earrings. She looks like an ageing hippy. She grips the rail that leads to the café like grim death as we descend the steps that bypass Waverley cemetery. Holding on to what? I wonder as I gorge myself on spring’s blossoming—the jacaranda in morning blue, bougainvillea in brilliant scarlet, the heady scent of jasmine.
I’d really like to see Aravind again. Maybe Simon was right when he said not to wait too long. Have I been stuck in a rut, waiting?
And for what?
Bacon and eggs. The smell wafts through from the kitchen and settles in the café like a cloying fog. Here I am, side by side with Ingrid and Amanda, drinking coffee.
I’ve told them Aravind has asked me to come for a visit. He’s moved to Newcastle because he can’t get a job in Sydney. He said I could come on a Thursday and we could dance Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and go to the bowling club on the Sunday afternoon. Stay until Monday.
Amanda tips a half packet of sugar into her latte and stirs. ‘Don’t worry about Aravind’s wife. Go for it. His wife lives in Sydney and he lives in Newcastle.’
Ingrid darts a wide-eyed look from Amanda to me. She spoons out the dregs of her flat white.
Amanda’s smile is mischievous now. Without allowing for a pause. for a rebuttal from Ingrid, she turns to me. ‘You are going to visit him, aren’t you, now he’s invited you to come and stay?’
‘He’s got two bedrooms. He said I was welcome to sleep at his house, if I feel comfortable with that.’
It was late morning on a Saturday when I stood at the coach terminal in Newcastle, where the taxis line up, waiting for Aravind to pick me up. We had missed each other somehow, walked right past, so he rang me on the mobile to see where I was.
I am keen to tell Ingrid the whole story of what happened as we wait for the band to set up at the Crystal Ballroom. ‘That was the first time I’d seen him dressed casually in shorts, tee-shirt and a pair of walking sandals,’ I tell her. ‘Eccos, I think. Just like your Dennis wears.’
Ingrid shakes her head, her shoulders set high and tense. ‘So you went to see him after all?’
I don’t meet her gaze, but take a sip of my Kingfisher beer, and keep going with the story. ‘Usually he’s in his black ballroom trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. He opened the door for me to get into the car. It was parked right in front of me. That’s what I mean. We must have walked right past each other. And you know what? His car is an Audi, not a BMW. It’s got the four silver rings on the front and back. He said his other car has a cat on the front.’
‘A jaguar,’ Ingrid puts in.
‘That’s one symbol I do know.’
Ingrid and I have settled ourselves in at a table near the front of the ballroom as people begin to fill the chairs that surround the circular tables. Dennis is upstairs playing the pokies.
The big band begins with Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood’. The trumpets, trombones and horns lead the way and a thrill rushes through my chest. Dancers in their evening wear, some in chiffon and satin and sequins, others in flounced skirts and sneakers, approach the floor. The chandeliers make a Goth-like contrast between the obligatory black of the clothing and the pale made-up faces. Quick steppers dance around the edges trying to avoid a collision with the Swing dancers who take the middle of the floor.
‘Hopefully, there won’t be any altercations this evening—especially when I’m up there,’ I say. ‘I hate it when a dance partner gets angry with the other dancers or when someone tells you both off.’
‘Exactly,’ Ingrid agrees.
‘That’s what happened when I was dancing rock and roll with Aravind when I went to Newcastle. It was a very crowded dance floor with a live band. Four women were dancing together near us and twice they told Aravind off. “You can’t dance rock and roll here,” one said. “There’s no room. Do you know you’ve already bumped into my friend?” I stood with my back to the women trying to ignore them between the brackets. It was a rock and roll band after all. They spoke with such venom that I wondered if they were racist, him being Indian.’
Ingrid lifts her eyebrows and sips her lemon, lime and bitters in unmistakable disapproval. ‘What about his wife and children?’
‘The children aren’t children any more. They’re grown up. And they haven’t even come to visit. It’s been a year already. They call Newcastle a dump. He said they think most places are dumps. I asked where they would like to go. “London or New York,” ’ he said.
Ingrid stares into her drink and turns the glass.
‘I stayed at a hotel, not far from the coach terminal,’ I continue. ‘Just for the one night. I wanted to check out the lay of the land before staying longer. And he’s only got the one toilet. I thought that might be the case. He said that. He’s thinking of putting a second one into the laundry so when people come to stay it will make things easier. He showed me his room with its big double bed and an outlook on to some trees at the back of the block of units and then the second bedroom. White bedspread, his guitar under the bed. He must have tidied up before I came over.’
‘Well you would,’ Ingrid states.
‘Yes. If you’d invited someone over for dinner you’d tidy up before they arrived. It was pretty amazing though that he’d rung me as soon as I’d got on the coach from Sydney to say he’d like to have me over, either for lunch, or for dinner before we went out to the dance. I was very surprised.’
Ingrid blinks, sips her drink. ‘I don’t give advice and I don’t want other people giving me advice.’ She shrugs and sips again. ‘Just give me the details.’
I keep going. ‘I said to him on the phone, “What a nice person you are.” “Is there anything you don’t like to eat?” he asked. “I’m about to go out and do the shopping.”
‘In my rush to assure him that I eat anything, anything would be fine, I forgot to say I’m not crazy about seafood, apart from fish of course, and that I don’t eat dairy. So I had my fingers crossed, and toes, when he served up a seafood chowder and garlic bread and a very oily fatty salad, forgot to say I can’t digest fat, and I worried all night that I’d get another allergic reaction to the calamari. But it was okay. He was so proud of himself for having made dinner for me.
“My first time,” he said with a big grin. “Now I know I can do it.”
‘Thank God I didn’t vomit it all up. Anyway it was very touching. When he almost insisted I have another piece of the micro-waved garlic bread I had to say, “I don’t usually eat garlic when I go out dancing.”
“Don’t worry,” he assured me sticking his tongue out like a dragon. “We’ve both eaten it.” ’
Ingrid’s gaze settles on me for an extended second, a pause just long enough to show she’s absorbed what I’ve said but she won’t be drawn into putting her thoughts into words.
‘He’d picked me up from my hotel,’ I continue. ‘And when we walked in to his unit the food was already on the plates that were set up on the table. He took the plates to the microwave one at a time to warm them up.’
‘So what was his place like?’ Ingrid asks.
‘Very small. The little balcony off the lounge dining area looked out on to a brick wall. He liked it though. Seemed very proud. I asked him if his wife had helped choose it. She had. “What do you usually eat?” I asked when I realised he didn’t usually cook a meal.
“You’ll laugh,” he said. “But I buy these frozen dinners and just heat them up.” He went to the freezer and pulled one out to show me.
‘He’d seated me at the head of the table and he sat opposite, down the other end. In the middle was the large meat and cheese salad and the bowl of garlic bread.’
I tip some more beer into my glass and take a sip before going on with the story. Out on the dance floor in front of us, Natalie, the band leader, has stepped up to the microphone. Her voice issues meltingly from the stage in a rendition of ‘It Had To Be You’. The dancers are up close in couples, working together with their bodies in the backward flow of the Foxtrot.
I turn to Ingrid and drop back into the telling of what happened. ‘Aravind had decorated the unit totally in white and green. I’d asked him if that meant he had lots of pot plants.
“No,” he said. “Just imitation plants.”
“Oh no,” I said. “Imitation plants get very dusty.”
“So do the real ones,” he said.
‘Anyway, he had a small glass desk against one wall and wanted to buy a green or a white office chair. He seemed very proud of his colour scheme. The green leather lounge was one of five that he’d brought from the family home in Sydney.
“You’re not going to stay here forever are you?” I asked when he told me about some of his decorating ideas.
“Why not?” he said. “I might.”
Ingrid clanks her glass down then rolls an elastic band off her wrist and ties her blonde hair in a ponytail on the top of her head. She’s dressed in a red flounced skirt and flat shoes ready to practice the new Swing routine that she and Dennis have learnt. Her hair ready, she folds her arms and leans towards me. ‘It must be hard for him living away from his family.’
‘He did it before for three years. That’s why he knows he can do it again in Newcastle.’
‘So?’ Ingrid sips her drink, sips it again and looks at me. ‘Did anything happen?’
‘Not much. He hadn’t rung either of the clubs to check if the band was playing on the Saturday night. They weren’t. We drove around Newcastle in the pouring rain and had to keep getting out of the car into the wet. Not much fun. Anyway we ended up at some club way out of town. No proper dancing.’
Ingrid blinks. ‘No proper dancing? You mean you went all the way to whoop-whoop and didn’t even get to dance?’
‘We bopped away to a live band but there was no eye contact between us. He watched the tennis on a video screen on the wall. I kept changing my position so his line of vision was altered, but he seemed to be able to see a video screen from each side of the dance floor.’
I’m remembering when the band had begun to play a ballad from Nicolette Larson, a piece I loved so much to rumba to. A dreamy song that made me want to beg him to sweep me away in its sensuality. But Aravind looked right past me the whole time, disconnected. He wouldn’t take me to the core of the music and suddenly I felt stupid for going all that way to visit him and for letting the soppy sentimental mood of the rumba overwhelm me. I don’t say any of this to Ingrid.
‘Don’t laugh at me, Ingrid,’ I say. ‘Don’t be a mean bitch.’ I say this matter-of-factly, as though there should be absolutely nothing wrong with me going to see Aravind. ‘At the end of the night he drove me back to my motel and walked me to my room. I didn’t ask him in. Why would I? He hadn’t even looked at me on the dance floor.’
‘You didn’t want to be rejected,’ Ingrid declares. She reaches across the table in a maternal manner and pats the back of my hand.
‘I really don’t understand what the story is with him,’ I say, after a pause. ‘Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Different cultures.’
She gives a considered nod, like someone checking the list of ingredients on a packet at the supermarket. ‘Indian men don’t know how to romance a woman. They’re used to having their relationships arranged for them. They think Western women are going to come along and sweep them off their feet and drag them away.’
I laugh and take another sip of my cold beer. ‘The funny thing is that when we went for a coffee the next morning after the Saturday night and I was in the Ladies Room and came back out, he told me the waitress had been very chatty. She asked him what we did last night. He told her we’d had a fantastic night. I was pretty surprised when he said that. A fantastic night. What I remember is that there was a lot of sitting in silence.’
‘A friend of mine used to counsel a woman who was married to an Indian man and they’re very close to their families,’ Ingrid says waving her straw. ‘They don’t leave their wives. But you wouldn’t want to get married again would you?’
‘Having sex with someone changes everything. I’d be happy to leave it at the dancing.’
The band starts up again with ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ and, as the music swells, the dance floor fills. The dancers stride, glide or spin by.
Ingrid glances at her watch, gasps, ‘Time is marching on. When are we going to get a dance? Where’s Dennis?’
I shrug, anxious to finish the story. ‘Aravind rang his wife on his car phone when he was driving me back to the coach station on the Sunday. He wanted some advice from her about trying to get out of a dinner with some friends of theirs who were visiting Newcastle. His wife told him not to go if he didn’t want to. He complained that all they wanted to do was sit around and eat. He told his wife that I was in the car and he was dropping me back to the coach station. “Who?” his wife asked. “Sofia,” he repeated. Then he handed the phone over to me and I had to speak to her. It was all very awkward.’
Ingrid leans over the table towards me. ‘He just wants to be friends, that’s all.’ Her tone is impatient now. ‘I told you before, Sofia, Indian men never divorce their wives.’
‘Yes, you always know best, Ingrid,’ my tone catches on resentment but I laugh. ‘I should know that by now. I should listen to what you tell me.’
The band has begun to play ‘Let’s Fall in Love’ when Dennis enters and is spotted by Ingrid who waves at him across the room. He saunters up carrying a plastic cup full of peanuts.
‘There you are,’ says Ingrid.
Dennis plonks the container on the table, then grabs Ingrid’s wrist and leads her out to the floor. He steers her through the mass of dancers. I startle when there’s a tap on my shoulder from behind.
A man extends his hand. ‘Follow me,’ he says.
He squeezes my fingers gently.
That’s the thing. It’s just like I’ve always said. It’s the excitement of not knowing. The possibility that something unexpected might happen.
Libby Sommer is an award winning Australian author of My Year With Sammy (Ginninderra Press 2015), The Crystal Ballroom (Ginninderra Press 2017), The Usual Story (Ginninderra Press 2018), Stories from Bondi (Ginninderra Press 2019) and Lost in Cooper Park (to be released by Ginninderra Press late 2020). She is a regular contributor of stories and poems to Quadrant Magazine. Aravind and Aravind Again are extracts from her novel The Crystal Ballroom (Ginninderra Press).