dance is the one that got away
dance is the one that got away
Mrs. Donnelly had the nicest armchair I’d ever sat in. I remember when it was hot in the summer, sometimes she would open her deck door when I was playing in the backyard and say, “If you get too hot out here, I’ve got some ice cold lemonade in my fridge.”
She always had her hair up in a messy bun, like she was just in the middle of something and had just remembered to put her hair up. I never knew what she did to be so busy though, because I know they had a nanny for the baby (sometimes the nanny would walk the baby up and down the street in the mornings, when it wouldn’t stop crying) and every time I glanced through that screen door, she was sitting in that arm chair and fanning herself.
The thought of an ice cold beverage always enticed me, but I’d never been inside their house before, and all I knew was they wore shoes inside the house (on the carpet!) and it felt strange to me.
Once though, when I was maybe ten years old, I was playing with my trucks outside when she opened the door. She had on a striped dress that clung to her skin like a wet washcloth, and her hair was down. She looked disheveled and had this lost look in her eye. Instead of offering me lemonade, she just stared off into the street for a long while. Finally, she turned towards my yard and jumped a little, as if only then noticing I was there.
“Billy! I’ve just remembered. I have some mail of your mother’s.”
“She’s not home yet,” I piped back.
“Well, come on in, it’s just in my kitchen. I’ll find it and you can pass it along. It looks rather important.” She turned back into her house, and without thinking, I followed her.
Her home smelled like cigarette smoke. It didn’t smell like cooking, the way my house always smelled. I felt weird stomping on the carpet with my dirty shoes, but she had these high heels on and I guess it wasn’t weird for her.
“Sit down, I’ll just go grab it.” She motioned for me to sit in the arm chair. And I did. It had a fun little lever on the side, and I popped it open. I remember it was warm and pillowy, like I could fall asleep in it. I could see why she liked sitting it so much.
I looked around and noticed the paintings on the wall. There were photographs, like from fashion newspapers and that sort of thing. We never had photographs on our walls at home, just Picasso and Monet painting replicas. She didn’t have a lot of toys, which I thought was weird with a baby in the home, but I guess the baby was still too young to make a mess anyway. There was one toy – it was a silver colored car on the coffee table. I reached over to pick it up and realized it was made of glass.
“That’s an ashtray, doll.” I looked up to see Mrs. Donnelly, holding two fancy cups in her hand. The kind with the umbrellas in them.
“I only had a little lemonade left, so I mixed in some syrup. I hope you don’t mind,” she said as she handed me a cup. “It might taste a little bitter, but it’s medicinal.”
She took a sip of her cup, and I did the same. It was funny tasting, and it did taste a little bit like medicine. But it was sweet at the same time. She must have seen me make a face, because she put her hand on my head then, and stroked my hair.
“Hasn’t your mother ever let you try her wine? It’s the same syrup they use in there.” She took another big gulp of her cup.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept drinking the lemonade and she kept stroking my hair.
“What’s an ashtray?” I asked.
“It’s a place to dump the trash that won’t fit in your lungs. Here, I’ll show you.”
She grabbed a cigarette from the table and lit it up. She took a long drag and blew the smoke towards her door.
“You want to try?” She asked. I nodded. She put the cigarette back in her mouth and leaned her face close to mine so that our cheeks were touching. I reached out and took the cigarette from her. My hands felt numb, like they were falling asleep. I remember looking at the cigarette and thinking it was very funny, so I laughed out loud. I kept laughing. I felt this lightness that made me giddy. I felt, suddenly, that Mrs. Donnelly loved me, and that I wanted her to love me.
That’s when she grabbed the cigarette from me and put it out in the ashtray. She exited the room, then returned quickly with an envelope.
“Give that to your mother for me, please.” She handed the envelope to me, and didn’t come any closer. I wanted her to touch my hair again, but she stood there silently.
“You should probably go home now, I’ve got to do some housework.”
So I went home. I went outside to play every day that week, but she never opened the door again. A few weeks later, it got too cold to play outside. And in the winter, the Donnellys moved away, along with their nanny. Now I think, Mrs. Donnelly must not have been a very nice person. But when I remember that day, I can’t help but think how nice that armchair was.