A Dance to the Music of Time
March 6, 2015 | by Sadie Stein
Back when I was at my loneliest, I decided it would be a good idea to force myself to do all sorts of things alone. It’s not that I had an aversion to solitude: I’ve always enjoyed, for instance, dining solo, and I like watching movies without the pressure of other peoples’ reactions. But that was not enough; that was too easy. If it was not galling, if it didn’t make me feel acutely self-conscious, somehow it didn’t count. Accordingly, I started singing karaoke and riding carousels and seeing bands with grim determination. I won’t pretend this phase lasted long, but it was horrible while it did. I still can’t hear the song “Veni, Vidi, Vici” without a pang.
The point was not to meet anyone; I shunned company. It was some combination of self-improvement and self-punishment. One June evening, I determined that I would go dancing. I didn’t want to—of course I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do any of it.
I dressed with care. This was important, because the person I was trying to be—the person I was not—for some reason dressed in a fashion I privately termed “circa-1980 Harlequin romance heroine, pre-makeover.” This involved an enormous pair of glasses, an occasional chain to suspend it from my neck, and a wardrobe vaguely reminiscent of Jane Fonda’s in Nine to Five. On this occasion, I was wearing a particularly dowdy polyester dress with a beige skirt and an attached blouse.
I didn’t know of many places to dance. But I remembered hearing about a bar in Chinatown that played old records on Tuesdays (it was a Tuesday) and so I got on the subway and rode an hour, and, with the help of the station’s area map and the directions I’d written myself on a bit of scrap paper, I finally found the place.
I showed the guy at the door my ID and went down a flight of stairs to a dim basement. No one was playing any dance music; well, no one else was there. I ordered an Amaretto Sour—I hated them, but it was part of the character, and it ensured I never had too much to drink. I tried to project a combination of confidence and deep preoccupation with my own interesting thoughts. The bartender (who was wearing a T-shirt that said MARLA HOOCH on it) ignored me.
I’d been there half an hour and was thinking of leaving and doing something else unpleasant—like going to Benihana—when some other people arrived. It seemed like some kind of birthday party, because the first few colonized a table in the corner and others kept trickling in and joining them, greeted with hugs and shouts and the occasional introduction. They came up to the bar and opened a tab; they ordered beers and whiskeys; one of them asked when the DJ would start.
After a while, he did. He played what mostly sounded like obscure disco tracks. I waited for other people to take the floor, but no one did. I ordered a seltzer water. The song changed. Now it was a twist song, but not one of the hits—the lyrics were about doing the Twist in different American cities. I had a knot of dread in my stomach, but I’d come here to dance, and I wasn’t allowed to go home until I had. Besides, I reasoned, as I pushed back my stool and walked with leaden feet to the small dance floor, as soon as they see someone’s dancing, everyone will join in.
I started to dance. I did the Twist. I twisted wildly. I tried not to picture myself. The song ended. Another began, a song I now know was “The Beginning of the Heartbreak,” because I looked it up later. No one joined me. I pondered what to do. I decided I had to brazen it out. I twisted and twisted. I twisted until I got a stitch in my side, at which point I switched to the Pony, the Frug, the Swim, the Watusi. Then, when I couldn’t think of any more dances, I just did the Twist again. Extemporaneous movement was out of the question. This was the longest song I’d ever heard.
Then, blessedly, two of the larger party took the floor. When the song ended—after what felt like at least eight minutes—I sauntered off the dance floor and into the grimy single-stall bathroom. Once the door was locked, I huddled on the toilet, head in my hands, shaking and breathless. I sat like that for a minute, and then someone gave an exploratory knock on the door so I ran the tap as if I hadn’t just been sitting there freaking out, and squared my shoulders, and left.
Outside were two girls—younger than I. As I passed, one of them touched my arm.
“I just wanted to say,” she said, “when you were out there, doing the Twist? We were like, that’s the coolest girl we’ve ever seen.”
I smiled warmly and winked and quickly settled my tab and hurried out before someone blew my cover. And I remember thinking, Well, that’s the point of being alone—it’s not anything to do with you. It’s about being something in someone else’s life, and no one ever knows the difference, or the truth. That’s why people like bad movies and bad fiction, and it’s worth it, it’s worth it, it’s worth it.
I made only a few wrong turns this time, and then I was on the subway. Forty-five minutes into the ride, it was just me and a man across the aisle of the train car. And then I looked up, and I saw he was masturbating, and we were between stations.
I got up quickly and at the other end of the car, moved into the next. Normally I was afraid to do that. There were a couple of other passengers in this one, but at the next stop I moved an additional three cars down before I sat down, and even then I was jumpy and scared, even if I knew it really had nothing to do with me.
That was one of the best nights of my life.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review