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We Were Girls Once, Dancing

I cup my hand to the DJ’s ear. We’ve stumbled into that sloppy part of the night. The cake cut. The bouquet tossed. The grandparents and children on their way to bed, and the men around the bar loosen their ties and order another round. I claim my place on the dance floor, and when the beat drops, I sway, geeky and unashamed. One by one, my old roommates rise from their tables, smiling, shimmying forward, our reunion complete when the bride cinches her gown and hurries to join us. This is our song, a four-minute, bass-thumping time machine, and in this drunken snapshot, we’re girls again, the kind who sleep with cute boys and nurse hangovers and believe the world will one day hear our voices. The singer moans baby, oh baby, and we no longer point to each other as we belt out the words but instead lay hands on the seven-month curve of the evening’s sole abstainer. The baby kicks, and with our collective squeal, the men at the bar howl back.

Our husbands watch from the shadows. They’ve formed their own bonds, not friends so much as fellow travelers. Witnesses. Invested onlookers. The guitar solo kicks in, and in the disco ball’s flash, I spiral back to the girl who danced to this song on our beer-sticky kitchen floor. I’m older now, my heart broken in only the most expected ways. The gray understanding of how love changes. The job that asks me to jump a little higher every day. The mornings I’ve cried behind locked bathroom doors. 

The backup singers bring the heat of cathouses and tent revivals. Our circle pulls tighter, our arms around each other, and you could fill ten thousand libraries with my ignorance, but I do know this moment because I’ve lived it before. Lived it without music. Without dancing. A beach. All of us silent as we waited for the sun. A hard night’s comedown that pushed back the cold. And with dawn, a light I’d never seen, our faces painted in a shine that made me feel sorry for all those still asleep. I can’t remember who was the first to strip to her bra and panties, but soon our clothes lay on the sand, ghosts, the earthly wrappings of raptured souls. The brave ones dove into water the color of concrete. The rest of us inched forward, a numbing acclimation until we went under and emerged with a gasp in the calm beyond the breakers. The water lifted us, a sensation that felt more like flying than any plane ride, and I tried to tell the others I’d remember this moment forever, but I couldn’t force the words past my chattering teeth. The swells rose and fell. The rhythm of isolation and reunion. Beneath the surface, a different kind of dance. The work necessary to keep our heads above water. 

The song ends. The men at the bar raise their drinks. We hold our embrace, our faces close, confessions of love. The current brought us together, and the current pulls us apart, and maybe it’s enough to own such a memory. The truth that there was a time when the only histories we cared about were the ones waiting to be written. The truth that we were girls once, dancing. 

Curtis Smith taught special learning students in a public high school for 33 years, college students for the past 6 years. His last novel, The Magpie’s Return, was named to Kirkus’s Best Indies list of 2020. His next novel, The Lost and the Blind, will be published in 2023.