The folk dance festival was held in a football field at a high school in Northridge, and since it was sponsored by the local community center, it wasn’t funded well enough to hire more than local groups. Fortunately, they had a stage large enough to accommodate both the Black Dog Morris Men and the musicians. It was a plywood-and-metal framed structure that bowed alarmingly under the weight of the six dancers when they landed simultaneously.
Jackie, like the men, wore a black and grey rag coat, bell pads on her legs, and a bowler hat. She clapped when they finished, and helped Jason by shouting out her pre-planned hecklers’ comments at the right time. The original plan was to have four-man sets since they had been light of dancers after Bryan left, but instead Tim asked Kyle, a member of one of the sides in Vancouver, to come down for the weekend. Jackie seethed in indignation that they hadn’t asked her instead, but at least they hadn’t let new-boy dance yet.
Vax stood next to her in the crowd, watching the men intently, as if trying to learn the dances. Maybe he was. Maybe he was just watching their legs. Brent was kind of cute, although he was married, and Tim was definitely attractive, although he was a total jerk. Jackie had to admit Vax himself was pretty hot, now that she thought about it. She loved the way he smiled. He had a small dimple on one cheek that was just adorable. She didn’t usually go for the pale guys, but Vax made blond and untanned seem really sexy. Maybe it was just because had such a lean hard body.
Too bad he was gay. Men were just impossible.
“What’s the name of this dance?” Vax asked her, eyes not leaving the stage. He had a perfect profile too. Why did the gay team get all the hotties?
“And is this a Fieldtown dance too?”
“Yeah, technically the stepping is, but I choreographed it, so the figures aren’t traditional.”
Vax watched them until the dance ended, and then Jason introduced the last one.
“This last dance is said to be a fertility dance,” his voice boomed to the crowd even without a microphone.
“What kind of dance?” Jackie shouted on cue. “A virility dance?”
“No,” he explained patiently to the audience. “A fertility dance.”
“Too bad!” Jackie shouted lustily, and got a couple of chuckles from the audience.
“Why do you shout those things?” Vax asked her over the ring of sleigh bells and the clash of sticks.
“It’s part of the show. Jason and I wrote out a little script. We change it slightly, depending on the audience. It makes the difference between a good show and just a bunch of dances strung together.”
“And this?” Vax fingered one of the gray strips of her rag coat. “Is this part of the show as well?”
“Rag coats are traditional,” Jackie said. “We’re more of a border team anyway, and none of us would be caught dead in something as dweeby as a baldric.”
“Where did you buy them? If I’m going to dance with the Black Dogs, I’ll need proper clothing.”
“You can get the hats at a shop downtown. I made the rag coats last year.” It took four weeks of hard work to make them all. That was back when she thought the Black Dogs might let her dance someday. Bastards.
“Could you teach me how?”
“Maybe,” Jackie hesitated. “What’s in it for me?”
“I would bargain with you. Perhaps there is something I can teach you that you would wish to learn?”
Jackie still hesitated, unsure of what she might be interested in. The Black Dogs finished their set and everyone clapped. Jackie worked her way across the crowded grassy lawn to greet her friends backstage.
“Do you work every evening?” Vax followed her.
“I have Mondays and Tuesdays off.”
“I teach intro to ballroom dancing on Tuesdays,” Vax said as they walked to the small white canvas tent which served as a changing room for the groups with more elaborate costumes. “Why don’t you take my class?”
“I’d be bored in a beginner’s course,” she said. She started to open the flap, but caught sight of women changing into brightly colored skirts and realized she couldn’t escape there.
“But you like to dance,” Vax said, when she turned around to face him. He put a hand on each shoulder to make her meet his eyes. “I can get you into my classes for free if I claim you’re there to help me demonstrate. It shall be all review for you, but at least you can dance for a while. Jackie, please? I don’t know how to sew, I need your help. This is not just a ploy to get in your bed.” He smiled at that last part, and looked so adorable Jackie knew she had lost the argument.
“What time are your classes?” She said dourly, folding her arms and looking down.
“Seven to nine at the Glenn Activity center. The session runs until the end of June. You can come to the classes twice a week for free, if you help me make a rag coat. Will you agree?”
Jackie sighed. “Fine. You got a sewing machine?”
He shook his head. “We’ll h—”
“Hey guys. How’d we do?” Dave interrupted, carrying the stick bag over one shoulder and his bell pads over the other. Chuck, Jason, and the rest of the dancers followed him out from behind the stage as a blast of mariachi music accompanied the next group of dancers.
“Dave, you still don’t jump high enough on those capers,” she said. “Might have something to do with the Doritos and Oreos.”
“Really?” Dave asked, looking down as he patted his belly.
“Don’t let her get to you, Dave. You were fine,” Tim said, consoling his chubby friend with an angrier than usual glare towards Jackie.
“And Bruno missed the intro on the second dance,” Jackie said. “Brett, you’re still half a beat off with your hankies too. I can help you with that if you want.”
Tim made a derisive snort.
“It’s not bad enough that you’re hanging around like a groupie, now you’re going to play Yoko?”
“I know how to fucking dance,” Jackie said.
“You’re not a dancer.”
“Fuck you I’m not a dancer. I’ve been dancing since I was four. I know how to fucking dance. I know how to Morris dance, and when you ask my opinion, I’m going to give it to you.”
“You want my opinion?” Tim went on without waiting for an answer. “You should find someone else to hang out with. Those things you shout are stupid. No one likes them, and no one has told you because they all feel sorry for you.”
“That’s not—“ But she saw Bruno’s face and realized it was true. “You don’t like my script?”
Brett coughed and looked away.
“Well, maybe it could use a little work,” Dave said, not meeting her eye.
Tim shifted his bell pads over one shoulder, giving a merry jingle at odds with his fierce expression. “You say you know how to dance? Well go and dance with someone else. You’re not one of us, Jackie, you never will be. We’re an all-male side. If you don’t like it, find someone else to hang around with.”
She glanced around at the other men, men she thought were her friends. Bruno, Dave, Brett, and even Vax wouldn’t look at her, like they were waiting for her to go away. Just like all the other dance troupes. It was Briar and Clover all over again. And Dobra Plesa. It didn’t matter that she could dance better than any of them, she wasn’t one of them and never would be.
She turned away as she ran. The last thing she wanted was for these bastards to see her cry.
When Jackie was angry, she did things to make herself even more upset. Perverse, she knew, but something about eating food she hated and listening to music she despised made her self-pity seem justified. She considered eating chili fries, but didn’t feel like driving that far. She also considered hooking up with an ex-boyfriend who had always been a reliably guilty indulgence, except that asshole found some nice girl and married her. So instead, she decided to go to the mandatory bridesmaid gown fitting that she had, until that moment, intended to blow off entirely.
The bridal boutique felt so girly that Jackie felt her estrogen levels skyrocket just walking into the place. It was a smallish shop made even smaller by a forest of white-robed mannequins. It reeked of rosewater, and everything was covered in lace and white silk flowers. Vivaldi’s four seasons played on a loop tape in the background, like being on hold with her insurance company.
“He—llo!” The proprietress, a relentlessly cheerful woman dressed in pink, sang her greeting and smiled as if Jackie were an old friend rather than a reluctant bridesmaid. She had a round face and a helmet of shellacked hair.
“Yeah, uh, Melbourne-Fenwick wedding?”
A girl in her late teens, who appeared to be her daughter, was at the counter folding gloves into a pile. She beamed at the name, as if this were the best thing to happen to her all day.
“Oh, we’re so glad you came!” they chorused, and then laughed at each other, as if this were not the first time they’d accidentally said the same thing at the same time. Their voices were so high they were nearly falsetto.
“You must be Jackie! Now we have both bridesmaids!” They giggled, then clapped their hands and rushed into the back room. If they were any more sugar-sweet, her pancreas would go into shock.
Jackie rolled her eyes. She caught sight of the other bridesmaid half hidden behind a mannequin. Elaina had long, straight hair and glasses too large for her face. She didn’t look any happier to be there than Jackie.
“Here we aaaare!” The bridal woman and her daughter came back carrying dresses sheathed in clear plastic. “Aren’t they lovely?”
Elaina put her hands in front of her mouth like she was stifling a laugh. Jackie wasn’t as successful, but she turned her laugh into a cough/choke at the last minute.
“You don’t like them?” the older woman asked, face a picture of dismay, as if they themselves sewed the dresses by hand from their own designs.
“Is that what the bride chose?”
“Well, no, not exactly. She preferred the color called ‘persimmon’ but that’s seasonal, and we weren’t able to order it in time. We called her, but she said she was leaving all decisions to her mother, who suggested we use peach.”
“Yeah,” Jackie said, “Cause peach is exactly like dark orange.”
“I’m so sorry. If you don’t like them, maybe—
At that point, the bell hanging from the door chimed, providing enough of a distraction that the four of them turned. Jackie didn’t recognize the woman who came in. She was in her sixties, with a worn face and graying hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“Ms. Edgerson,” the bridal girl called out. “The dresses are in.”
When she caught sight of the poofy peach monstrosities, the woman’s face softened, and she let out a little cry of joy, as if she were seeing a duckling or a new baby. When she smiled, she looked like Kit. Oh. Kit’s mom.
“Oh, oh, oh,” she came forward and touched the dresses with the tips of her fingers, sighing. “They are so beautiful. Aren’t they lovely, girls?”
“Sure,” Jackie said, and tried to meet Elaina’s eye.
The bridal girl and her mother exchanged looks of faint relief.
“Did, Kit see these yet?” Elaina asked. “She doesn’t really like pastel.”
“I wanted pink, Kit wanted orange. Peach is a perfect compromise.” Kit’s mom said. “Is mine ready too?”
The bridal women nodded and brought out a dress in pale yellow. Its style could be entitled “quinceñera for the older woman.” It had a shapeless waist to hide a thick middle, long sleeves to hide a woman’s flabby arms, a poofy skirt that fell to the floor, and enough lace and satin roses to push it into absurdity.
Sure enough, when Kit’s mom tried it on and came out to model it, she looked like she had been frosted by a zealous yet novice baker with a sweet tooth and a very deep vat of lemon icing. Elaina put her hand in front of her mouth again, and Jackie turned her choked-back laughter into a coughing fit. At the bridal women’s insistence, Jackie and Elaina went into the changing room to try their own dresses on.
The dressing room was swathed in more folds of off-white sateen, like the inside of an upscale bassinet. Or maybe a coffin. She put the dress on and turned to view herself in the mirror.
If anything, the dress looked even worse on the hanger. Well, this was one friend’s wedding she wouldn’t get laid at.
From the other stall, she heard Elaina’s burst of laughter.
“Makes you look like a chubby toddler, doesn’t it?”
“I’m a pretty, pretty princess!” Elaina said, laughing. “Oh, Goddess, I can’t believe Kit would ever do this to me.”
“It’s not Kit, it’s her mom. You saw that woman’s face out there. She’s eating this shit up.” She pulled the dress off over her head and hung it back on the padded satin hanger.
“I suppose it’s Kit’s fault for not paying closer attention.” Elaina said, coming out of the changing room. “Well, no one expects to reuse bridesmaid dresses anyway.”
“Don’t say that, there’s always Halloween,” Jackie said. She held it in front of her. She wouldn’t describe the color as “peach” so much as “sherbet,” and the design wasn’t “pretty princess” so much as “outfit of a creepy doll.” She shook her head. Kit was going to owe her big.
Jackie and Elaina walked out of the dressing room with frozen smiles. Kit’s mom was chatting with the bridal women like they were old friends. The bridal daughter handed Jackie a receipt to sign, and Jackie winced when she saw the sum, but the invoice bore the word PAID, circled twice, which went a long way towards making Jackie forgive her friend for the horrid dress.
“Do you know what time the bus comes around here?” Jackie asked.
“I drove. You want a ride?”
“That’d be great. Thanks,” Jackie said.
She didn’t know Elaina well, except that she and Kit used to be roommates, so after they talked about the wedding, a subject which quickly exhausted itself, they lapsed into silence.
Elaina unwisely decided to drive by Ipswich park, which was still clogged with traffic from the folk festival. Jackie felt her throat close and tears prick her eyes.
When she first joined, they’d told her that they’d let her dance with them later, but that positions in the side were done on a seniority level. That made sense to her, in a way, because the Black Dogs said they were about the dancing first, the drinking second, and the performing third. But now that Vax had joined, she wasn’t the newbie anymore, and they still didn’t let her dance.
She thought it didn’t matter to her, that as long as she got to dance on Tuesday night practices, and as long as she was part of the group, it didn’t matter that she didn’t actually perform out with them. It seemed a good compromise. Tim got to keep his misogynistic and anachronistic “all male side” and she got to dance. But now she was ashamed. She knew she wasn’t part of the team, but she thought she was the manager, not the mascot.
Why did she do this? Why did she always go where she wasn’t wanted? It was like she had an inner Jackie that lived off rejection, that thrived off it. And now she couldn’t even dance with Vax at his intro to ballroom class, because he was one of the Black Dogs.
Elaina pulled up to a red light. Screw them. Screw the Black Dogs. Screw Vax most of all, for taking the place that should have been hers.
As if stepping right out of her thoughts,Vax crossed the street in front of the car. She narrowed her eyes, startled by the coincidence, but yes, it was really him. He was heading away from the park, along with a group of children wearing soccer jerseys and a couple of co-eds with University of Seabingen sweatshirts.
He was wearing his usual designer jeans and white oxford shirt with the tails untucked. His hair was loose, falling to just past his collarbones, and artfully tousled. She put her head out the window and was just about to call out to him when Vax turned.
“Tali!” Vax called out, and the woman’s head snapped up.
The woman had long, fair hair and a build like a cheetah. She walked with her hands clasped in front of her and her head tilted towards the ground. She could have been a swimsuit model, if she had better posture.
Vax said something in another language, and she startled. She turned as if to go, but he placed a hand on her shoulder. He said her name again, softer, and stepped even closer, until they were standing as close as people on a breath mints commercial. Even if Jackie had been able to understand the language he was speaking, she wouldn’t have been able to make out his words. Tali shook her head and nodded in turn. Vax leaned in, until their noses were almost touching, and the woman cringed, but she didn’t back away. Then, just as the light turned green, Vax leaned forward and kissed the woman gently on her eyelids.
“That fucking liar!”
“What?” Elaina turned back and caught sight of Vax. “Oh, you know Vax?”
“What? What the hell? How do you know him?”
“We used to date.”
Jackie’s confusion quickly turned to outraged realization. “You’re the one who used to date him? I thought she was talking about Chris! I thought he was gay!”
“He’s not gay,” Elaina gave a naughty chuckle which didn’t match her plain-Jane clothes and giant eyeglasses. She paused in the middle of an intersection, trying to make a left turn but blocked by throngs of pedestrians, mostly families with young children. “But he is a liar.”
“You can’t leave it at that. How is he a liar?” And why did they bother chatting about the wedding when Elaina was hiding this juicy gossip under her belt the whole time?
“Stay away from him. That’s my advice.” Elaina finally made it free of the folk festival crowd and pulled into the traffic on 45th.
“Why, what did he do?”
“He’s a thief.”
“He stole something from you?” Jackie asked.
“Not from me, but—” Elaina shook her head. “It’s what he does for a living.”
“He told me he was a dance instructor.”
Elaina snorted. “Yeah, right.”
“Who was that woman? A girlfriend?”
“What street do I turn on?” Elaina asked.
Her tone made it clear that the conversation was over, whether it was over or not. Mental note: ask Vax what he does for a living. Then again, why should she? She was over him too. She was over all of them.