Lee entered the small, narrow pub, a three-man band playing rockabilly blues on a stage at the back of the former offices of an old downtown lumberyard.
At first, he couldn’t see anyone familiar.
Then, as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, seated at a long table across from the barkeep’s station stood his family financial advisor, Evanc, and a group of her friends.
“Lee! What are you doing here?” Evanc waved Lee over.
Lee looked around. He didn’t know his advisor was going to be there, expecting someone else familiar. As he walked over to join the group, which was arranging itself for a selfie, Lee noticed Nats was holding a camera to snap a shot, too.
As they posed, Lee also framed an off-angle photo to capture the wild outfits of the three amigas.
Lee kept looking around and didn’t find the friend who invited him.
“So what do you think of our outfits?”
Lee looked at Evanc and her two friends. They wore brown outfits with a dark flame emblem on their chests.
Evanc gave the thumbs-up and punched Lee in the shoulder. “You’re all right, Lee.”
One of Evanc’s friends leaned toward Lee, holding her hand on his chest to steady herself, yelling into his deaf ear. “We’re Ravagers.”
Lee couldn’t hear a word she said. “What’s your name again? I couldn’t hear you.”
The woman, who stood short of Lee’s shoulders, stood up on her toes and pressed her mouth against his ear. “I’m Neffie. We’re Ravagers. You know, from Guardians of the Galaxy.” She pushed back to look up at his face.
Lee nodded. He had wanted to party with some friends at the Yuri’s Night gathering earlier in the evening but the activity that kept him humble and honest — his job — required that he work a weekend shift to fill in for several absent employees.
Neffie leaned in again. “You’re cute. I’m drunk.”
“Uh-huh.” Lee had never grown used to looking nice, handsome, or cute to men and women. He still carried in his thoughts the image of his ten-year old self, chubby, nerdy and usually picked last for pickup sports games in the playground. Although he had grown into a good-looking man by his mid-teens, the ten-year old image was most prominent.
Neffie slapped Lee on the arm to get his attention. “Oh, you. I bet you think I’m drunk.”
Lee shook the momentary glazed look off his face as Neffie grabbed his hand and slipped her fingers between his. He looked over Neffie’s head to see Guin had entered the room, along with one of her students, Matym.
Guin glanced at Lee, barely sharing eye contact.
Their years of knowing each other had given them the familiarity of eye conversation. Her glance said, in a friendly, familiar, slightly standoffish way, “I recognise your presence and I just want you to know you don’t own me, you don’t have the right to think you know me and I’ll speak to you when I want to.” They also let each other know they were in a little bit of nonspecific pain that may or may not be between them and may or may not be resolved anytime soon.
Neffie pushed on Lee’s chest. “What’s your name?”
“I promise you, Lee, I won’t remember your name at the end of the night. Right up front, I’m not going to pretend.”
Lee nodded, looking into Neffie’s eyes. Black eyeliner accented with iridescent glitter made her brown eyes stand out. The black and silver feather boa weaved into her hair, black with blond highlights, added to her slightly exotic look.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lee noticed Matym looking at him. They shared a smile.
“Excuse me, Neffie, I’ve got to catch up on an unfinished story with a friend of Evanc.” He unclasped Neffie’s hand and helped her sit down.
Neffie looked up and smiled at him the whole time. “You really are cute. Evanc says you’re only into guys.”
It was Lee’s turn to lean into Neffie’s ear. “Not really. I don’t discriminate.”
Neffie’s eyes widened. “Oh, dear. Don’t go away!”
Lee walked around the table, taking in the group dynamic. Evanc was chatting with Nats; another of Evanc’s friends was shoulder to shoulder with a young man, deep in conversation; Guin was laughing at a story Matym was telling; and Neffie was following Lee with her eyes.
The band switched to a blues song. Lee stooped down to hear the end of Matym’s story and held his hand out to dance with her.
Matym was still relatively new at West Coast Swing. They swayed to the blues song for eight beats to get the feel for the tempo and then combined a few West Coast Swing dance steps with a blues swagger. Lee had danced with Matym many times over the last few months and was impressed with her progress. Like many new dancers, she was not yet used to owning her dance moves, waiting for Lee to lead her, but Lee clearly saw the influence of Guin on Matym’s foot pivots.
They laughed when they bumped into each other, Matym turning on her special smile as she spun into Lee’s arms. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem. You’re fine.”
As the song ended, Lee dipped Matym for the first time and then walked her back to the table.
Nats stood up, proudly putting his hands on his hips for everyone to notice his manly kilt, English racing cap and hairy legs. “A round of beer and drinks on me!”
The barkeep took their orders, the members of the group taking turns to go to the loo, playing musical chairs.
Eventually, Lee and Guin sat across from each other, having slowly broken down over the course of thirty minutes a few barriers they had placed between them over the last few months — a look here, a laugh there, an agreement with a conversational statement, a head shake then a quick stare at each other when they disagreed, making sure they were on the same page.
They lived their friendship as they loved to live life, through the eyes and body language of dancers.
Guin tossed her hair back, a move that she knew told Lee she wanted to dance. He nodded at her ever so subtly.
They met in the space between barstools and tables that served as a dance floor.
They gripped hands, not looking in each other’s eyes, as they normally did when they hadn’t danced together in a long time.
Nats, anticipating Guin’s usual ownership of a large space on the dance floor, cleared a few tables.
The band began a new song, a hard driving Southern rock tune they had premiered a month ago at a local biker bar.
Guin looked up from the floor and into Lee’s eyes. They held their look for just a fraction of a second longer than normal, almost breaking into a smile. They instantaneously knew this song was written for them.
Guin pursed her lips and struck a pose.
Lee pulled back, putting a little bit of pressure on their grip, feeling Guin’s resistance as she raised her free arm in the air and spun past him, every footstep a work of art in itself.
For some couples on the dance floor, the guy always leads. For others, the woman always leads. For experienced dancers, it was not leader and follower but a partnership, an unwritten agreement of trust and physical focus, erasing all elements of the universe not associated with the space between them but pulling the whole universe into their dance at the same time.
It was in that space on the makeshift dance floor that Lee and Guin didn’t own or owe each other but they were fully committed to something greater than themselves, where all the barriers finally fell away and they could be everyone and everything they wanted to be.
As they danced, they lost the need to look in each other’s eyes to check the status of their relationship, looking for the simple joy of seeing unqualified happiness in each other’s eyes.
As they danced, they experimented with a new language they had written together over the years, creating a whole new subculture in a matter of seconds.
They were free.
Then the song ended and they walked back to the table.
Nats clapped. “Well done.” His band of ten years, specialising in Irish and pirate music, had broken up a few weeks ago so he was free in his own way, able to sit and drink with his friends rather than perform on stage weekend after weekend.
Guin pulled her hair back to cool off her neck.
Lee finished off the last half-pint of his beer.
They looked at each other again, Guin turning her head slightly and squinting through her glasses, her eyes asking if they were more than dance nerd friends.
Lee nodded, affirming their status.
He glanced at Evanc, the tie that still bound him to his old life. He had to figure out how to tell his financial advisor that his old life was going away, that a major life event was happening so he could go on with his new life, ending the legal agreement he had made 30 years before and felt honour bound to uphold until it was over.
Being true to himself tried Lee’s patience but he knew who he was, even when in times past he had wanted to end his life rather than cut the subcultural connections he’d been taught to hold sacred, despite disagreeing with their sacredness.
Lee was on the right path.
Guin looked away from Lee, letting him know that no matter who they were together, she needed no man.
Lee agreed. It was their independence that they cherished as much as their dependence on a dance high. He reached for Neffie’s hand and led her to the dance floor, pulling her in close for a fast blues song, showing off to the rest of the group, sending Neffie and him into their own closed zone of understanding, ending with an elated dip to the floor.
As they returned to the table, Matym looked into Lee’s eyes. “I bet you wish they played the extended version of that song.” She winked.
At nearly one o’ clock in the morning, the night was still young.
Despite what would happen the rest of the evening, including long sessions when the whole group danced in a circle, their body movement freely flowing, or walking away from each other in the carpark at the end of the night, Lee was certain he was making the right longterm choices.