Updated: Mar 24, 2022
By Ginger Keller Gannaway -
Eighth grade continued its theme of sucking gutter water. Viv’s body began betraying her in new ways. By twelve she had gotten used to her uncoordinated, weak left arm and leg, but at thirteen the period cramps, boob soreness, and unwanted hair surprises gave her new reasons to see her body as an enemy. Did she become sullen and hopeless because of puberty? Or did her body and mind turn against her because she let go of optimism and religion? St. Anne’s Catholic School made sure she went to confession and mass at least once a week; she prayed lots of Hail Marys, but did she believe? Her mind ping-ponged from “God is good” to “Life is shit.”
The girls in her class went from “I like him” to “We’re going out.” She watched them flip their straight, smooth hair and give boys knowing smiles. She overheard tales of kissing in dark corners at dance parties or letting boys “feel them up”; however, the thought of even talking to a boy created underarm sweat stains on Viv’s white cotton uniform shirt. She now shaved her legs up to her knees, but removing the soft black armpit hair was tough. Viv could not get her cerebral palsied left hand to hold the razor straight and steady enough to swipe away the hair. Her spastic fingers either dropped the metal razor and it clattered in the sink, or they loosened their hold so the razor turned sideways. She nicked the tender curved underarm area so often, she had weeks with one shaved pit and another hairy one. Weird that the faulty side was her right one now!
Viv didn’t get invited to the first two dance parties that school year (both hosted by boys in her class). But Sammy Andrepont’s mother believed her son should invite all 42 eighth graders to his January birthday, so Viv obsessed for days about dance party etiquette. Rebecca, who had attended the other parties because both birthday kids were her cousins, gave Viv advice about what to wear and how to fix her hair. Of course, Viv’s biggest worry was the dancing.
American Bandstand viewing only got a girl so far in 1970. Practicing the jerk before her bedroom mirror destroyed rather than built up Viv’s confidence, but sisters G. and Kelly came through for her in the big living room. As Momma’s hi-fi spun the Beatles’ Abbey Road, the girls twisted, jerked, and swam through “Get Back” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Viv shuffled with small gestures to keep rhythm with the Fab Four. She mimicked the Charlie Brown Christmas dancers, adding occasional hip action when Ringo went wild. She closed her eyes to channel G.’s expert swimming motions or Kelly’s twirling improvisations, yet imaginative movements got her off-balance if she relied on her left leg too much or forgot her left arm could not fully straighten itself much less make easy backstroke moves or wrist flips. Why did her brain promise motions her appendages could not master? How can a mental image have technicolor confidence when reality was a blur of embarrassment?
But dancing at home with her sisters was safe and reminded Viv of warm sunshine on her back when as a five-year-old she napped in the rear seat’s curved space connected to the window. She and her sisters fought for that tight spot on summer afternoons when Dad drove down Louisiana backroads. That dreamless sleep told Viv her world was safe and good, and she believed that lie until Dad would brake suddenly to avoid hitting an ancient Cajun’s beat-up Ford truck as the farmer left his gravel road and settled into his preferred 32 mph. Then Viv would tumble from her sanctuary and land on one of her sister’s head and shoulders before tumbling to the car’s floorboard.
“You gotta pop your butt this way,” said G. Viv mistook her middle sister’s general second person pronoun for a criticism of Viv’s attempt to move beyond her shuffle dancing. So Viv stuck with the Charlie Brown moves while Kelly showed off head bobs that matched up and down swimming moves as she held her nose to submerge and surface. Viv studied her sisters and imitated their dance moves in her head. Too bad all of her worry about fast song dancing meant nothing the night of her first dance party.
Viv’s party time was split between hanging around the well lit snack table eating Ruffles and drinking Dr. Pepper or leaning against a wall near the darkened dance floor of the sunken living room. She watched her classmates’ hesitant dance moves as boys in starched shirts and slacks asked girls with uneven eyeliner and uncomfortable shoes to dance. An hour into the party, Viv remained a spectator and stopped tensing up every time a new record was played. She focused on the dancers who exhibited as many awkward, silly moves as smooth, cool ones. An extra tall teen did the swim as if he was motioning to be saved from drowning, and no one was sure if this was intentional or not. Viv also saw a few couples move to dark corners where upholstered chairs and a loveseat hid.
Viv chatted with other female wallflowers, most of whom had danced once or twice. Even tomboy Esther danced. At 11:52 p.m. Viv resigned herself to a dance-less night when she heard the opening of George Harrison’s “Something.” Viv felt a more perfect love song would never be written and George would forever be her favorite Beatle. She watched the head cheerleader lean into the arms of the top-scoring basketball player. She did not see Curtis Fontenot walk towards her wearing a bold striped shirt, fitted slacks, and polished short black boots. His cool attire made him stand out as much as his dark roux-colored skin did. He stopped in front of Viv and looked to his left towards the snack table as he said, “You wanna dance?” Viv looked down to retie the yarn belt of her royal blue vest Grandma had crocheted for her. How could her one chance to dance be a slow dance? What should she do? When did Curtis get there? Why did he come? Why wouldn’t he come? Viv wanted to look the only colored kid in her class in the eyes, smile, and say, “Sure,” but the cruel gods of adolescence made her follow Curtis’ sideways gaze towards the dining room where at least eight kids stared at them. Viv opened her mouth and burped. The burp surprised both of them and Curtis brought his own steady eyes to her post-belch widened ones. Viv cleared her throat as she met his stare.
His long eyelashes gave his dark brown eyes a soft focus glow. Viv heard his eyes ask, “Did you really burp at me?” Her pale blue eyes behind her brown eyeglasses said, “Too much soda pop.” Curtis’ eyes were as smart as they were beautiful. They said, “That’s ok. Let’s still dance.” So Viv’s eyes moved up and down to say, “Mais oui,” and her right hand moved in mime-like unison with his left hand as Curtis led her to the dance area just as the Beatles sang, “Somewhere in her smile she knows…”
The first half of the dance belonged in a movie. Curtis and Viv moved to guitar sounds and held eye contact. They swayed a bit and he led her through the smooth love of the song. Her eyes focused on his and for two minutes Viv felt the warmth of confidence.
Partygoers glared and muttered about this unusual couple. Curtis was one of only four black students at St. Anne’s. He arrived mid-year from New Orleans and kept to himself. The students had grown up with Viv and were used to her cerebral palsy limp and crooked arm. She was known for making good grades and sharing homework answers with her classmates.
Curtis gave her a quick smile, and Viv felt invincible. Then those gods of adolescence reminded her of the trouble with her left foot and she stomped on her dance partner’s new boot. Curtis did not get rattled but made a slow turn to lead Viv back into the groove. She followed his lead until the “I don’t know. I don’t know” lyrics and wished the song would end. She noticed the boy nearest them slumped over his short partner who seemed to be holding him up during their back and forth swaying. Viv did not know where to look because eye talk with Curtis would insure more mess-ups.
At least eight inches separated the couple, but Curtis, who had danced with dozens of family friends and cousins, believed he could end this dance with a twirl or two. This was also his only dance at the party, and he’d spent thirty minutes mustering up the courage to ask a white girl to dance. He figured Viv would say yes, and Beatles songs were short. Her unsteady nervousness challenged him, but as Harrison sang “You know I believe in you,” Curtis’ left hand brought Viv’s right one up as he led her in a pirouette and leaned in to execute a slight dip. Right then an elbow from another dancer jabbed Curtis below his shoulder blade forcing him to lose control of Viv. The dance dip became a fall and Viv came close to landing on her butt. In a heartbeat Curtis grabbed both of her forearms. Her eyes sought his to yell “What the hell!” and his dark browns said, “I got you” with enough force for Viv to believe him. During the song’s guitar solo Viv and Curtis stood straight, locked eyes, and squeezed each others’ hands.
“Something” was the night’s last song, and Sammy’s dad flipped on the overhead light and yelled, “Last call!” The mom smiled and clapped like the kindergarten teacher she was. “Ok, time to go, ya’ll! Merci beaucoup and bon soir. Y’all’s parents are waiting outside. Allons!”
Viv and Curtis repeated their mime movements as they let go of each other’s hands and backed away. Both looked at the floor, and Viv turned toward the chairs near the snack area to find the suede purse with the beaded fringe she’d spent two week’s salary on. Curtis slipped out of sight and away like a secret.
Viv fumbled with her purse, processing the drama of her first dance. A ninth grader, smacking gum, approached her. “I can’t believe you danced with a colored,” she said. Viv unzipped her purse and searched for nothing as she tried to ignore the buxom redhead who wore enough blue eyeshadow for triplets. The girl said, “He had cool clothes but I bet he stunk, huh?” and winked at Viv. The girl’s right eye’s fake eyelash stuck a bit and she struggled to reopen that eye. Viv wished she could say,“You smell, stupid girl! Like a water moccasin in a dirty ditch,” but all she did was push past and say, “I gotta go.” Viv told the mom “Thank you, Ma’am,” at the kitchen door and the Mom answered “Bon soir, cher,” with a smile of relief.
Outside the cold air gave Viv a bit of calm. Party goers headed to parked cars with engines running. Two girls giggled as they passed and hurried to a brown pick up with its windows down. The truck’s radio played a country tune, but Viv’s brain changed the guitar picking to washboard-player’s zydeco…zydeco…zydeco sounds.
Viv and Curtis moved on a dark wood dance floor with twelve other couples in a beach side arena from a long time ago. A sweaty man in a rumpled suit held a microphone. “Yawsir! Yawsir! Yawsir! And there they go. Still dancing, folks!” Viv’s bobbed red hair looked as tired as she felt. Her extra-large blue eyes gave the announcer a disdainful glare before she looked at Curtis. “What a loser,” she said. Her dance partner’s glassy-eyed stare revealed nothing. Then the band upped the tempo and the marathon dancers struggled to move faster. The Yawsir jerk said, “Look at them go, folks. Let’s hear it for these kids!” Viv’s left hand squeezed Curtis’s shoulder as he quickened his steps. They passed a pregnant girl almost being carried by a tall, gaunt angry guy and a short old red-headed sailor dancing with a woman in a flowing white gown who was a head taller than her guy. Viv said, “Pointless and rotten,” as Curtis fought to keep them moving along. A smattering of claps from a sparse crowd urged the competitors on as the drummer kept up with two horns and a piano. “That’s right, folks! Show ‘em your support! Look at ‘em go!” said Yawsir man. So a few audience members between bites of peanuts tossed pennies at the dancers. Viv concentrated to stay upright and felt pitiful. Curtis stared at a spot above her head and far away. A penny pinged off Viv’s right cheek just an inch below her eye. “Hey!” she yelled towards the darkened crowd.
She then made out her brother Claud’s shadowy form near the family’s Mercury parked nearby. “Come on!” he said. “Dad’s waiting.”
Viv put her head down and walked leaning in towards the night wind and whispered, “Pointless and rotten,” to the world at large.
Ginger Keller Gannaway grew up in south Louisiana, and even though she now lives in Texas, she will forever have a Cajun soul and a need for beaucoup bon temps. She co-writes a blog (sittinuglgysistahs.com) and has written three novels.