Essay: Erin Gunther’s “On Dancing”

I watched the two of them dancing on the table, my father sitting on the couch opposite the spectacle, looking utterly horrified. My mother was dancing with a mutual friend of my father’s, Helene. They had been drinking all night. I was only nine years old and had not often been around drunken adults. My parents were not a dinner party type of couple, nor did they ever really fraternize with other couples their own age. These were older friends that they had met through mutual interests in tracking and survival classes. My father had taken a few Tom Brown survival classes and had somehow managed to find a place closer to home that offered classes in “wilderness survival pursuits.” My mother had gone along, and because my sister and I always seemed to add to the image of a “family unit” as opposed to “a couple,” we were also taken to these classes against our will.

Not that the classes were entirely unappealing. Being so young, I struggled with most things, like the fire-making, and was not interested in the others, like the tracking. My sister and I often created our own entertainment with our mischief, like picking through the food as all the adults were out doing a class, and creating obscenely ridiculous stories about all the adults in the classes. My sister always begged me to come up with new material, although most of our stories relied on slapstick humor and abrupt plot twists.

My parents became friends with most of the people in the classes. The “gatherings” they would put on usually involved food, bonfires, and at times activities to exercise the skills they had gotten from class. Carrie and Helene’s barn-turned-home was the perfect location for gatherings due to the secluded location and ample space inside. Carrie was the decorator. She had redone the wood floors in the barn and had decorated with the unique pieces that had caught her eye at various garage sales, like the multi-colored lights that illuminated the living room and the milk can by the door that held up a potted aloe plant. Carrie had a scrappy looking mutt she’d named Jimmy Newman and Helene had a skittish, unfriendly Chihuahua she appropriately named Zeus.

This particular gathering at Carrie and Helene’s had turned more into an opportunity to drink as the night wore on and the stories got sloppier. Not everyone that came drank. Jim and Patty, who had legally changed their last name to Eaglewolf, were not drinkers at all. They were in their mid-60’s, Jim having served in Vietnam and Patty, who had, in her younger years, avidly protested the war, bras, and authority and still had a poster of Janis Joplin on her wall. Linda and Bob had slowed down on their drinking, as they were also in their mid-60’s. Linda smoked cigarettes, talked with a southern accent, and expected that I call her Granny. Bob loved to revive old cars from his childhood and smoke Captain Black tobacco out of a pipe. They lived in Cleveland, Ohio and Jim and Patty lived in Akron.

Gary and Kathleen were the other couple there that night, also in their 60’s. They lived in New York, in the middle of nowhere, on a sprawling property on which Gary had built a main house and three other cottages. Kathleen had decorated each cottage and claimed that having multiple houses was the only way to stay sane being married to Gary. She drank Chai tea, decorated doll houses, and bought gnomes and musical frogs to sporadically scatter throughout their wooded property. Gary was a builder by nature and tractor salesman by trade.

Carrie and Helene lived in Brooktondale, NY in their barn house next to a farm with a cow pasture. They kept chickens for the eggs and when they caught wind that the farmer was going to butcher the cows next door, they paid him enough money for food and maintenance to entice him to keep the cows alive. The farmer had thought they were crazy, but had agreed to the arrangement with just enough monetary incentive. Carrie had previously been in an abusive marriage, had a son, divorced, and then met Helene. Helene hopped jobs working in various restaurants and rarely talked about her Cornell University PhD that she’d gotten in some technology field to prove to her father that she could do it. They were both closer to my parent’s ages, in their early forties.

I always wondered how my parents fit into the group. They were the only ones with young children that they dragged along to these events. Helene dubbed our family “the Goody-Goody Gunther’s” as a way to prod my parents about the apparent “perfectness” of the two well-maintained daughters, the charming father, and the smiling mother as one cohesive unit. I didn’t understand why they didn’t want to hang around with other couples their own age, why my sister and I weren’t sent off to friend’s houses or left to our own devices—seeing as I was nine and she was fifteen—while my parents spent time with their own friends.

Instead, we were dragged along as though it was a family reunion, and this night, like many other nights, we sat on the margins of the action and watched. I was almost falling asleep on the couch as it neared midnight between the pouting and the boredom, both of which had exhausted me as I had hoped that one of my parents would notice my sulking and take it as a sign to leave. As the drinks kept flowing and the voices got louder, I realized that I may as well be invisible. My sister and I complained to one another as the adults carried on, the only consolation being our collective misery.

My mother had been letting loose more than I had ever seen her do. Usually, she was reserved and always left most the talking to my father. On this night, however, she had been generously accepting the refills of wine in her glass. Carrie was a wine drinker, particularly deep red wines. My mother also was a red wine drinker and whenever we used to take trips to Long Point on Cayuga Lake, we would stop at the winery to get her the Long Point Ciera. They had clearly had too much to drink and were getting more obnoxious, dribbling the wine as they refilled their cups, laughing louder at their own slurred stories. My father sat rigidly in a plush recliner chair that he had neglected to recline, staring over the circular wooden table that separated him from Carrie and my mother who sat next to each other on a loveseat, giggling and sloshing their glasses. Bob had gone to sleep a while ago and Linda was get drowsy on the couch. Jim and Patty had their own private conversation going, Helene was out smoking with Kathleen and Gary was talking with my father, who seemed more distracted by his drunken wife than their conversation about lawn tractors. She was clearly breaking the “Goody-Goody” code, tarnishing the image of put-together perfection he tried so hard to maintain.

Helene had put music on. Evidently she and Kathleen had finished their smoke. The chatter in the room had died down as she came out dancing, one hand tapping a rhythm against her thigh and the other holding tight to a Heineken bottle.

“Come on, Jack!” she said to my father. “You gotta feel the music. Stop looking so stiff.” He laughed in his pleasant way, but didn’t make a move to get up.

“I bet Cheryl will dance with me then,” she said, and danced her way across the planked floor to where my mother was sitting. She laughed and for a moment resisted as Helene pulled on her hand, but finally gave in and stood up, wobbled for a moment, and let Helene spin her sloppily and dance in the middle of the living room. My sister and I watched, captivated, Carrie’s eyes lost their luster and her smile tensed into a thin straight line a she watched them over her glass. My father gripped the arms of the chair, but still he didn’t say a word. Helene, oblivious to the discomfort settling in the room, stepped on the circular table, still holding my mother’s hand and swaying lightly to the music. My mother followed suit and climbed up.

I realized this was the first time I had ever seen my mother dance. I had never seen her this free. She had always played music through the house, sung along, but never had I seen her make an attempt at this kind of bodily liberation. I had never seen her dance with my father as he did not dance. I had only ever seen her body controlled, moving in the movements that would clean the floor or make the bed or fold the clothes. Dancing was not something that happened in our home, or in the presence of my father. Our bodies were static, controlled, predictable.

Carrie turned the stereo off and Jim and Patty had made a move for their coats.

“I think it’s about time we called it a day,” Carrie said, placing her wine glass on the countertop with finality.

“Don’t be a party-pooper, Car,” Helene complained.

“We’ve got to get these girls home,” my father said. “I agree. I think it’s time to go, Cheryl.”

I remembered that night long after our awkwardly long drive home. I had seen my mother dancing and for a moment she had been someone else. She hadn’t been my mother and she hadn’t been my father’s wife. She had just been a joyful, drunk woman held in the embrace of another woman. At least until the music had stopped, until the magic of the movements had been lost, and they had stumbled down from the table.

 

 

***

Erin Gunther is a recent Ithaca College graduate with a BA in writing. Erin is currently completing an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College with a focus in nonfiction. Erin hopes to pursue a career in teaching after graduation. As a writer, Erin enjoys experimenting with form and rejecting chronology. Erin’s philosophy is to embrace the fragmented and chaotic as this approach allows more organic reflection in how to make meaning from life events.

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