6: awkward dance circles

Up until a few days before I was born, my mom did Jazzercise with me in the womb. It is one of few concrete sources to which I can trace my exceptional sense of rhythm and lifetime obsession with Whitney Houston. It was the early 1980s and my mom was on the cutting edge of healthy living. The gestational vibration of pop hits and the bounce of her belly to the beat of an up-tempo grapevine transferred to me her relentless energy and love for moving her body.

When I was a kid, I spent hours alone in my parents’ bedroom making up dance routines to the soundtracks of dirty dancing and top gun. As a teenager, I sweat my ass off near the DJ booth at the front of the Rio Americano small gym. I was always sober but more than once accused of being drunk.

No one could possibly go that hard without a wine cooler or two.

In college, I was a token white women in a rainbow of first-generation immigrant friends. My boyfriend was Cambodian. My best friend was Taiwanese. Pictures of me from that era are easy to spot for their absence of other men and women that look like me. My non-white friends had considerably more soul than the aforementioned Rio Americano high school students. We spent Saturday nights and weekday birthday celebrations in cool, hard-to-find, intimate hip-hop lounges where the bass was loud and the dance floors were crowded and tiny. It was my best life. One of my most special memories is walking into “The Room” in Santa Monica when the clock struck midnight on my 21st birthday. Tupac’s “How Do You Want It” was playing, perfectly timed. It’s my all-time favorite dance song and that night was my all-time favorite dance to it.

Fast forward seven years and the days of closing out my tab during last call and liquor-fueled taco stand runs on Hollywood boulevard seem like a lifetime ago.

I’m sitting in my apartment, alone, watching the Food Network on a Wednesday night. There’s a  stack of heavy law books on my coffee table and I’m exchanging sentimental text messages with my best friend from home about how hard it is to be away from each other.

My phone dings to alert me to an email. I sign in on my computer as to not interrupt the text thread.

It’s my not-quite-friend, Nick, and he’s urgent to “get my digits.”

I feel a small rush of excitement shoot through the center of my body. Unexpected, but not unwelcome.

I respond with something characteristically concise and witty.

24 hours later I’m sitting at a familiar Mexican restaurant on Wilshire boulevard. The long table is filled with 12 or 14 twenty-somethings who are engaged in forced conversation. I’m feeling light headed from my first margarita on an empty stomach and trying to stay focused on what the guy next to me is saying. His name is Luis, and apparently he used to be an actor. His wife is a semi-main character on a popular vampire show and for some reason I’m completely oblivious to how handsome and charming he is. It’s an inexplicable foreshadowing of the next two years. Attractive, engaging men are all around me and I barely notice them.

The dinner is a gathering of UCLA law transfer students that Nick organized. The days notice invitation explained the urgency with which he sought my contact info, a revelation that left me more disappointment that I could make sense of.

A partially eaten cheese enchilada, second margarita and complicated group check later, we’re filing across the busy west Los Angeles thoroughfare like kids on a fifth grade field trip.

Our destination is a smallish, poorly lit bar. Not quite a dive, but not the type of place where I’d go out of my way to use the bathroom. Definitely not as hip or underground as the urban joints of my youth. The music isn’t as good, either. I notice the dance floor is small but practically empty.

Half an hour later, my transfer student classmates have all had 1-2 shots or quickly slurped drinks and are feeling just loose enough to get on the dance floor. I can barely stand the thought of another conversation with a self-absorbed white guy about where I’m from, so I’m grateful when I feel the energy shift towards dancing.

The transfer student dinner party forms a clump on the back edge of the scratched-up linoleum and reluctantly, I make my way into it. My love for dancing is almost outweighed by my loathe for groups of uncoordinated white people bobbing and shuffling together off beat, but I’m still waiting for the second margarita to wear off before I drive home so I suck it up and try to enjoy myself.

Two and a half songs in I’m ready to call it a night when Nick finds his way to us. To make room for him, or shape organically morphs into a circle.

I’m more annoyed than ever.

The next track is a Justin Timberlake song and I bravely decide to stay and hear it. Immediately, my eyes are drawn to Nick. There are three people between us but I feel his energy like he’s right next to me. It’d been years since I shared the dance floor with a man who could move like that. It was so surprising I could barely focus on my own connection to the rhythm. I was suddenly more aware of my own body moving in space.

I stayed in the mix for an hour or so longer than I anticipated, relaxing enough to settle into a smooth, sweaty groove. I moved around the still-awkward dance circle but kept my left eye on Nick. I was mostly fascinated by him but also quietly interested in how much attention he paid to me. For all 72 minutes we were dancing together, I couldn’t really get a read on it.

I drove home that night reflecting on a rich history of my favorite dance partners considering whether I’d have another opportunity to see if Nick would become one.

He certainly had the talent for it.

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