“Who says I’d lose, dammit?”
“I say. Twenty. Is it a deal?”
“You’re throwing your money away.”
“No, I’m a sure winner, because you can’t dance worth shoats and shinola!”
“Where’s your money?” cried Bug, incensed now.
“Where’s your car!?”
“I don’t own a car. Never learned to drive. Where’s yours?”
“Sold it! Jesus, no cars. How do we get to the tea dance!?” We got. We grabbed a cab and I paid and, before Bug could relent, dragged him through the hotel lobby and into the ballroom. It was a nice summer afternoon, so nice that the room was filled with mostly middle-aged men and their wives, a few younger ones with their girlfriends, and some kids out of college who looked out of place, embarrassed by the mostly old-folks music out of another time. We got the last table and when Bug opened his mouth for one last protest, I put a straw in it and helped him nurse a marguerita.
“Why are you doing this?” he protested again.
“Because you were just one of one hundred sixty-five close friends!” I said.
“We were never friends,” said Bug.
“Well, today, anyway. There’s ‘Moonlight Serenade.’ Always liked that, never danced myself, clumsy fool. On your feet, Bug!”
He was on his feet, swaying.
“Who do you pick?” I said. “You cut in on a couple? Or there’s a few wallflowers over there, a tableful of women. I dare you to pick the least likely and give her lessons, yes?”
That did it. Casting me a glance of the purest scorn, he charged off half into the pretty teatime dresses and immaculate men, searching around until his eyes lit on a table where a woman of indeterminate age sat, hands folded, face thin and sickly pale, half hidden under a wide-brimmed hat, looking as if she were waiting for someone who never came.
That one, I thought.
Bug glanced from her to me. I nodded. And in a moment he was bowing at her table and a conversation ensued. It seemed she didn’t dance, didn’t know how to dance, didn’t want to dance. Ah, yes, he seemed to be saying. Ah, no, she seemed to reply. Bug turned, holding her hand, and gave me a long stare and a wink. Then, without looking at her, he raised her by her hand and arm and out, with a seamless glide, onto the floor.
What can I say, how can I tell? Bug, long ago, had never bragged, but only told the truth. Once he got hold of a girl, she was weightless. By the time he had whisked and whirled and glided her once around the floor, she almost took off, it seemed he had to hold her down, she was pure gossamer, the closest thing to a hummingbird held in the hand so you cannot feel its weight but only sense its heartbeat sounding to your touch, and there she went out and around and back, with Bug guiding and moving, enticing and retreating, and not fifty anymore, no, but eighteen, his body remembering what his mind thought it had long forgotten, for his body was free of the earth now, too. He carried himself, as he carried her, with that careless insouciance of a lover who knows what will happen in the next hour and the night soon following.
And it happened, just like he said. Within a minute, a minute and a half at most, the dance floor cleared. As Bug and his stranger lady whirled by with a glance, every couple on the floor stood still. The bandleader almost forgot to keep time with his baton, and the members of the orchestra, in a similar trance, leaned forward over their instruments to see Bug and his new love whirl and turn without touching the floor.
When the “Serenade” ended, there was a moment of stillness and then an explosion of applause. Bug pretended it was all for the lady, and helped her curtsy and took her to her table, where she sat, eyes shut, not believing what had happened. By that time Bug was on the floor again, with one of the wives he borrowed from the nearest table. This time, no one even went out on the floor. Bug and the borrowed wife filled it around and around, and this time even Bug’s eyes were shut.