The Looking Glass
The brightness of their skin and the curvature of their bodies delighted him. To him, they were the birds in the trees, resplendent with color, as they moved about the dance floor on musical wings. The rhyme and reason of feminine nature had resided in far-off lands before he found ballroom dancing. Still, women did not gaze at him; their glances swept over him, indifferent to his rounded middle and gruff features.
James was proud of his well-polished shoes that shone like his face. A dozen pairs of black wingtip Oxfords and brown leather Brogues rested in chronological order on his shelf, documenting a history of dance through the holes worn in their soles. Few things gave James more pleasure than standing in front of the looking glass before a dance, his belly brushing the smudged mirror as he tugged his bow tie into place and smoothed the curls of his salt and pepper hair. Waltzes played in his head as he trotted down the street under the flickering lamplights, whispering, “One, two, three, one, two, three,” in time with the clip of his heels. His heartbeat hastened with his steps as he neared the doors flung wide open to the public, beckoning dancers in from the dusky streets. Beams of light emanating from within the doorway drew him closer, while strains of music, fast-paced foxtrots, and sensuous tangos, melted his shyness, note by note.
Chandeliers glinted from the domed ceiling, collaging the dark wood floor in reflections while gossamer skirts muted the light into softness. The women began noticing James halfway through his first dance that night, once his legs were warm and his balance tuned. “Look,” they spoke in hushed tones to each other, “the old man in the tweed waistcoat dances like a gazelle.”
While their beautiful beaux watched perplexed, James led the chiffon-gowned women, one by one, through a series of masterful spins and perfectly executed steps until their hair, pinned tight and perfect, came loose, wisping around their faces and bare shoulders.
One lady, laced with pearls and gold thread, who had danced many a night in the grand ballrooms of Paris and London, could not recall ever being led through a waltz with such tenderness and grace. She and James wove through the elegant couples as if they were floating on air, their feet barely brushing the gleaming floor. Never before did she feel as accomplished a dancer in the arms of another, and never before did she feel so desirable. The feeling was so intense that, as the world spun around her, all the colors and people merged into a kaleidoscope of jubilance. For that, she loved the arms that guided her. Once the music ended, James thanked his partner with a simple bow and moved on to enthrall another woman with a tango.
James knew the ache of a life unmarked by love. He began alone in the world, an only child born to an ailing mother and distant father. Noise of any kind was forbidden because it might worsen his mother’s condition. Silence had raised him. The only voice he remembers hearing was the nurse’s when she doled out instructions and pills to his mother. James’ memories of her as she lay dying, though tender, were edged with the unfocused effect of make-believe. Fatigue and pain tethered her to her bed until she slipped away soon after his fifth birthday. Since words never existed as a form of comfort, he found refuge in numbers instead. There was something uplifting about the logic of mathematics, something wholesome in patterns and formulas that created an oasis of understanding in a strange world.
Yet there were a few things that numbers couldn’t offer. Physical intimacy and human connection were like the stars to James, bright and burning in some faraway place where their warmth couldn’t reach him. He watched women and stars, otherworldly and unreachable. After his mother died, there was no one to offer him any affection other than the aging nurse who cared for him. The solitary child crept unwilling into adolescence during the four years that his father was away in the trenches of France. Now, with his gangly limbs and lowering voice, he yearned for human connection with repressed desperation.
A misty London morning seeped cold into James’ clothes as he shuffled to school. Bicycles swerved around automobiles, conducting a chorus of honking in their dusty wake. Children scrambled through the ruins of bombed out buildings, piling half-bricks into forts, and hiding behind heaps of rubble. The Great War was still a raw wound in Britain’s side, and people itched to hurry its healing with new fashions and new ideas. None of that mattered to James as he slouched from math to gym class, feeling all the reluctance of adolescence and introversion. A regular depression descended on his narrow shoulders. He always found that the switch from the comfort of mathematics to the awkward display of his body in gym class left an unpleasant taste in his mouth and tension in his chest. The gym shorts revealed his spindly legs to his classmates, and self-doubt made his limbs fly akimbo.
“Does anyone know where jazz comes from?” the instructor asked her students. This Monday morning’s class was unusual. Rather than running around in what James deemed a useless pursuit of a football or basketball, the students were to participate in a beginner’s ballroom dance class. A group of boys stood in the corner mumbling complaints, while the girls flushed pink with pleasure. James felt his throat close with mortification, and his palms dampen with the thought of close proximity to the opposite sex. Instructed to stand facing each other in two lines, boys on one side, girls on the other, the students stole furtive glances at one another, searching for signs of acceptance in their partners’ faces. Others feigned boredom, rolling their eyes and scuffing their feet in an act of indifference.
“Hold hands now,” the teacher said as a Dixieland record crackled to life. “Boys with your left foot, girls with your right, and like we just practiced, triple-step and triple step.” The students shuffled one way and then the other, unable to look one another in the eye. James had died a thousand deaths since the beginning of the class. His partner, assigned at random, was one of the prettiest girls he knew, long-lashed and smelling like lavender. She had long been in the habit of smiling at James when he passed her in the corridor in a friendly, if somewhat patronizing, way.
He couldn’t remember how the steps went, but his feet fumbled around in an almost acceptable resemblance of the dance. James had never touched a girl’s hands for more than a few accidental seconds before. Now he pressed soft fingertips for minutes on end. He couldn’t help noticing the loveliness of his classmates’ slim wrists and the delicate curves of their necks. There was something enchanting about the sound of their breath panting through parted lips, rhythmic and soft.
The evenings that used to consist of cold cheese toast dinners followed by bleak hours of maths problems were now composed of light and music. With trembling voice, he’d approached the dance instructor after class to inquire about further lessons. Merciful to the unlikely dancer, she managed to suppress a smile. She drew James aside, under her wing, as if to whisper a wonderful secret in his ear, and gave him directions to an old warehouse where lessons and dances took place throughout the week. There was something exotic about her rouged cheekbones and mascaraed lashes that James both feared and venerated. She belonged to the ethereal world of painted faces and magnetic personalities that his own grey living was so far from.
An entire week stole by after his conversation with the dance instructor. The notion of entering the warehouse pinned his insides to the wall across the street where he watched people stream in and out through the rust-framed doorway. He came every evening to see them skip into the warehouse, some seasoned and grey, bearing themselves with poise, others young and eager, tripping over their brand new shoes, bought with a year’s worth of pocket money. James was painfully aware of his shabby clothes. Yet night after night, drawn back like a moth to a flame, he hovered near the threshold of the warehouse, unable to touch the heat for fear of getting burnt. He persisted in this moth-like manner till a sweet-faced woman caught him hiding in the shadows one night and insisted that he come inside.
Stumbling characterized James’s first few lessons. His senses staggered with the chaos of people moving about him, saying things to him, and bumping into him when their dance steps collided with his blunderings, offering a kindly “Whoops! Pardon me,” before they continued on their merry way. The steps were impossible at first, but with a painstaking progression, the beat of the music began making sense, and his feet found their way through the sequences. James returned to the echoing warehouse to dance every day. At first, the others regarded him with benign humor, encouraging his awkward attempts and reaching out to him with words of guidance. He responded with glances of thanks and mumbled apologies when he trod on someone’s foot or knocked a partner sideways on a spin. There was a sweetness to his gentle hands that made the girls comfortable in his arms, unafraid to make mistakes and at ease in their own skin. After a few months of practice, the other dancers began to love James; he had developed into an accomplished lead and knew all the regulars with the intimate knowledge born of communicating through motion. The burlap-scented warehouse was his paradise.
James’s father owned a convenience store on a cobbled alley not far from the Wimbledon Courts. Locals frequented the place for penny stamps and sweets. Now that James was sixteen, his father asked him to do errands on a regular basis, sometimes meeting sugar suppliers on the Thames to increase the next week’s order, or balancing the books and recording profit margins. Often he came to work at the shop after school let out, even more since his father hired Sophie to work behind the counter. She was the same age as James, and had just finished her last year of schooling in Barns Green, a countryside village south of London. Seeking employment, she had made her way closer and closer to London’s smog-cloaked middle, until she chanced upon the shop.
Sophie was what most people would describe as plain, but James was spellbound by her every feature from the moment they became acquainted. Upon introduction, her slight fingers reached out from a threadbare sleeve to grasp his hand in an earnest handshake, while her eyes, wide with trepidation for the booming city, betrayed her need for a companion. A few days later, while James sat in the corner, shuffling bills into order, a movement in the store caught his eye. He saw Sophie leaning close to a woman who was stooped over and gnarled with age. As the old lady croaked out a list, “bread, milk, tea, scones,” Sophie spun around the shop, reaching on tiptoe to whisk something off a shelf one moment, then bowing low to the ground to fetch something else the next. As James watched her slender frame weaving through the store, he felt that she was dancing, bearing loaves of rye in a box step and bottles of milk in a promenade.
Most people James knew treated him with condescension he had come to loathe. He knew that in their minds he was a motherless child raised without proper etiquette. He was a bashful nobody, an oddity, who would never make much of himself. Sophie gave James the same respect she showed his father; she was aware of James’s mathematical competence and admired him for it. Though he was unaware, Sophie also knew of his accomplishment as a ballroom dancer through a mutual acquaintance and delighted in his determination to take up an art form so unsuited to his quiet character.
Though James had been dancing for over a year now, his rising confidence was still unable to overcome the blushes that bloomed on his cheeks whenever he saw Sophie.
“How do you do today, Master James?” Sophie asked whenever he visited the store.
At first, James could only manage a small nod or the faintest of smiles. With time, he managed to form, “Very well, thank you,” and then, with great effort, “Very well, thank you, and yourself?” to which Sophie would respond with news of the day until James rushed away to regain control of his pounding heart. Once, he had watched a young neighborhood lad walk into the store and ask Sophie if she wanted to go to the pub for a pint later that evening. She accepted, and James felt like he had been punched in the gut. The warm glow that suffused her pale skin after the youth left filled James with an emotion he had never felt before and his gentle hands closed into tight fists.
Later that evening, James danced in the warehouse as usual, but his mind was circling far above the clouds, in the heartrending sphere of first love and envy.
“Where are you tonight, James?” a plump woman squinted up at him through her spectacles. Perceiving the dilemma behind his flushed cheeks and far off eyes, she chuckled and patted him on the shoulder when they finished the dance. “It’ll be alright, laddy. There is always a way to a young woman’s heart. Ask her to a dance, why don’t you?”
James brightened at the prospect. Yes, perhaps Sophie would spin into his world, skirt twirling around her ankles, and dance with him all night if only he had the gumption to ask. His heart soared and his fingertips brushed the stars that seemed so distant before. The next moment his stomach began churning and boiling with fear. Sophie would reject him, he was sure of it. She would be polite, but inside she would scoff at his audacity and pity him all the more for it. Dark shadows of anger and fear flitted across his face, and he drew away from the warehouse throng to watch their joy from the musty sidelines, feeling lonelier than ever before in the biggest city on earth.
James’s perceived solitude ate at him. He felt as if his body was dwindling away. He avoided the shop. In any case, the more he hemmed himself in, the more he thought of Sophie, unable to banish visions of taking her hands in his own and floating around the dance floor, twirling her again and again, her eyes glittering with laughter.
Though James had been dreading it for days, the moment finally came when his father asked him to look over the books again. Unable to disobey him, James crept into the shop with downcast eyes later that afternoon. Customers were gossiping with Sophie about the latest neighborhood scandal; she greeted James with a nod of acknowledgment before carrying on with her conversation. Business was booming, and the books were a mess. As he set to work with agitated determination, he caught a reflection of himself in the shop’s window. The window, so cold and impartial, was a cruel looking glass. His undefined jawline and crooked nose seemed even more unattractive to him than usual. He trembled as he organized sales entries, casting furtive glances in Sophie’s direction while she busied herself with closing up the shop. She caught him looking at her and smiled at him with all the sweetness James loved her for. A tingling heat set fire to his skin; there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape.
Sophie drew the shutters down over the window and stepped towards the door to leave. As she turned to bid him goodnight, James looked at her, his eyes daring, and asked: “Will you dance with me tonight?”
It was the bravest moment of his life.