The phone rang and he got it on the fourth ring.
“Yes?” He said.
He muttered to himself, “Jesus Christ almighty,” and leaned back, his free hand slapping the wall behind him with a crack. Blonde and beautiful, wild and funny, with dancer’s legs so strong she could squeeze the life out of you in about 30 seconds, it was his married lover and dance partner who’d left him standing alone one dreary winter day on a sidewalk in Manhattan about ten years ago with a kiss on the cheek but not a single tear. At the sound of her voice, he winced as visibly as if he’d touched a red-hot iron. He’d been waiting for this call like a child waits for Christmas, and deep down knew that one day it would come. Yes he was shocked, but he really wasn’t surprised at all.
She said, “So, what? Are you speechless, Manny?”
He blinked, took in air.
“I guess you could say that, Hon.” He’d called her Hon or Honey during their entire life together, a different, earlier ten-years of love and closeness and dancing and deception, all accomplished with the intensity of a bull fight, the passion of a tightly-spun Tango. “Shocked speechless.”
“Well goddamn, don’t sound so excited,” she said. “I thought you’d be glad to hear from me.”
He let out an inaudible grunt.
“Glad? You walk out as though we had nothing, like all the years meant nothing. No explanation, nothing. Like, why for instance? Then one day you call out of nowhere and you want me to be glad?”
She was silent for a few seconds, and he heard a rustling, like she sat down or changed position.
“So, what? You’re mad at me? After ten years you’re still mad?” “What do you think I should be, Blanche?” He said, weariness and frustration and anger creeping into his voice. “You want me to shake it off in five seconds?”
“Well, okay, I suppose you got a right. Not that it was all my fault. There’s enough blame to share around. Now get over it already.”
“Blame? What blame? Are you serious? Where the hell do you get blame?”
She was silent for a few seconds and he heard her moving around again, shifting around.
“Look, Manny, I didn’t call to fight. I just want to talk, can’t we please just talk?”
He blew out a breath. He ought to hang up, leave her standing there holding a dead phone. But he could not. He called himself pathetic, but he could never shake her off.
“So you live down here now, in Florida?” She said, as casually as though nothing bad or offensive or passionate had ever passed between them.
“I’ve been here since you left. I had to get out of there,” he said.
“Sure. But God, Florida. What do you do in Florida?”
“It’s not New York, Blanche. There’s no Roseland in Florida.”
“Of course not. There’s no Roseland except for Roseland, right, Manny? But you’re still dancing, keeping in shape?” “Sure, my wife and I, we dance. We have a nice dance floor. I had it built special.”
“So you are married, Manny?”
He shifted on his feet.
“Yeah, well, after a few years, where the hell were you? So sure, I married. It’s been five or six years.”
“Really? Is she pretty, Manny?”
“She’s a real beauty.”
“Prettier than me, huh, Manny?”
“Look, Blanche, let’s not do this, okay?” “It’s only natural that I’d want to know about her. You’re the only one I ever really loved, Manny, you have to know that.”
“What are you up to, Blanche?”
“I’m in this place Orlando. Having a blast over here with the Mouseketeers. This mouse business is a regular riot. Everything with the mouse. Have you seen the way they play it? It’s a riot, I’m telling you.”
“What I mean is what are you doing?” He said. “Oh, sure, I’m teaching, Manny. Just like we did. Teaching ballroom. There’s some new stuff that’s fun. This Salsa thing is terrific. I bet you’re great at Salsa.”
“Listen, Manny, where is the wife? Is she around?”
“She went shopping.” “Oh, yeah? She’s shopping for clothes? You make a lot of money? What are you doing now? I bet you’re making a killing. You were always a smart bastard. You’re rich, or what?”
“Far from rich, Blanche.”
“You were always a good bull-shitter, too. Bull-shitters, they make the money. I bet you’re filthy rich.”
“Listen, Manny, if the wife’s shopping, why don’t you come visit me? Where are you, exactly?” “I’m in Tampa. It’s a couple of hours from Orlando.”
“Yeah, I know where Tampa is. What do you think I’m stupid? I know where Tampa is. On the water, right? What do you call it, The Mexico Gulf, right?”
“So why don’t you come over here and see me? Just a visit. You can bring the wife if you like.”
“I told you, she’s shopping.”
“So just bring yourself. What else you got to do?”
“Where are you teaching? If I come over there, where do I go?” “Oh, I’m in a fancy hotel, very fancy. Biggest goddamn hotel I’ve ever seen, Manny. I’m telling you, not even in New York do you see places like this. Fifteen hundred rooms. Can you imagine? They have conventions, lots of out-of-towners. So you’re coming?”
“All right, you talked me into it. What else is there to do?”
She gave him the address to something called the Kroner Center and he drove ninety minutes on Interstate Highway 4 east, from Tampa to Orlando.
Blanche rushed up to him in a few minutes, put her arms around his neck and hugged him for a long time. She was wearing a black skirt that was way too tight for dancing and silky red and white top cut low enough to show off plenty of skin. She was sexy and vivacious and full of excitement and fun. She smelled exactly as he remembered, a spicy scent that gave caused chills because it reminded him the sexual adventures they had shared years ago.
“Manny, my God, you got fat. You put on weight. You need to get in shape. I’ll help you.” They rode a massive elevator to the fiftieth floor, which had been furnished to look something out of a French history book, everything gilt edged and fine. She led him to her room and opened the door with a key card. It was a big room, maybe a double, but nothing like a room you could teach dance in.
“You’re not going to teach much ballroom in here,” he said. “Is there another room where you give lessons?”
“Oh, there’s plenty of room. I’ll move this stuff around. You’ll see, there’s plenty of room,” she said. “Here, sit,” she said, offering him a cushy red chair with big padded arms. She sat on the edge of the king-sized bed that had not been slept in.
“What happened with Harry? You divorced him?” “He divorced me,” she said, serious again. “He caught on and it made him crazy.”
“But you’d already left me. What, did he catch you with somebody else?”
“Look, I don’t want to talk about it. I just couldn’t do it anymore and he couldn’t either. It’s too painful to discuss, Manny.”
So, it was as he had suspected. She had fallen for somebody else, or maybe just decided to go to bed with somebody else. Then she got caught.
He looked around the hotel room, still stuck on how she would teach anybody anything about dancing in this small space. On a countertop, Manny noticed an assortment of liquor bottles, Scotch, Vodka, Rum, Bourbon. It would not have been supplied by the hotel, not even this one.
“You’re buying drinks for the students now?” He said. “Oh, it loosens them up a little. You know how stiff they are at first, especially the men.”
“We never gave out drinks,” he said.
“Ah, Manny, you’ve turned into a prude. And I’ll tell you, Manny, you look a little old.”
He winced at this.
“We’re all getting old, Blanche.”
“I suppose. But it’s the looking old that hurts. You might be old, but you don’t want to look old.”
It was a strange truth coming from Blanche, who had always been bold, sure, but never philosophical, but a truth nonetheless. Of course she was right, as much as he hated to admit it, he had allowed himself to start looking old and now it would be doubly hard to turn back the clock, if it was possible at all.
“But look, I’m still young, don’t you think?” She stood up, looked at him seductively and thrust her hips to one side. “I can keep you young, too, Manny. You know I can.”
He had always been vulnerable to the way she flaunted her sexuality, the brazen talk, the aggressive flirting, which she was very good at, as though born with it. The years of separation had not dampened his enthusiasm. If anything, he was feeling more susceptible to her carryings on. And what if she could keep him young? It was a tempting offer, one he never expected. It might break him of the addiction of the NFL, Joe and Troy, chips and dip.
She turned suddenly and said, “Hang on a sec while I pee,” and hurried to the bathroom, her heels sinking into the carpeted floor. Her purse was on the nightstand and stuffed in the top of it was something that looked like it had been torn out of a newspaper. He unfolded it and read the classified ad in the “Personals” column. It had been circled in red and said, “VERY PRIVATE dance lessons in my hotel room. $200 per hour. Call my cell for appointment.”
He heard the bathroom door and dropped the newspaper clipping back into the purse. She came out of the bathroom looking fresh and with a big smile. She poured herself a shot of Scotch and dropped an ice cube in it.
“Manny, have a drink. On me.”
“You’re not giving dance lessons in this room,” he said.
“What do you mean? Of course I am. I’ve been doing it for months. I have a travelling circus. Las Vegas, Chicago, San Francisco, and now Mouseland. It’s a riot, I’m telling you.”
“For $200 an hour? I think I know who’s going to answer that ad.”
She looked at the nightstand and saw the newspaper clipping had been unfolded and dropped back in her purse.
“Listen, Manny, I told you I lost everything in the divorce. I’ve got to survive.”
“But, this is — “ he said, but cut it short.
“What? What were you going to say?” ‘Nothing, Blanche, really.”
“You were going to say I’m basically a prosti, right? Weren’t you going to say that?” “No, Blanche, honest, I wasn’t.”
“Well that’s wrong. I do teach, damnit. I do. I swear, I do. Tango, Waltz, Fox Trot, all the basics. Here, I’ll show you,” and she jumped up and took a few steps toward the window, humming music, but the steps were all off and she looked awkward and suddenly large.
“Okay, Blanche. I believe you.”
It was difficult to even form the thought in his mind that the woman he loved for so long, who he may very well have married if the circumstances had been just a little different, a woman who roused him to extreme passion and intensity, then broke his heart, had turned into a fairly obvious prostitute. This façade of giving dance lessons was so transparent, so transparent, he felt like a fool for not realizing it immediately. Everyone experiences hard times, but to resort to prostitution seemed outlandish, impossible, and unreal. Suddenly, he felt sorry for her.
She straightened up and glared at him with hardened eyes.
“So high and mighty,” she said. “Tell me you never paid for it. Just tell me that,” she said.
He did not answer immediately, but stared back at her accusingly. Where his first emotion was to feel sorry, he now felt anger, betrayal, a bitterness that she was using him and had no genuine feelings at all. More than that, it put the lie to the business about her once loving him. She had never loved him, never, only used him, took advantage of his tenderness and feelings for her, to get out of him what she could. Then she ran off to a greener pasture. He had finally seen it all, but too late, too late to save himself from being duped. He didn’t care if she resorted to prostitution, but to con him into yet another payoff, that bolted to the top of his mind.
“You called me to get money, for god’s sake. What an idiot I am for not seeing it. And you’re still lying, or lying again, right? You left me for somebody else, didn’t you? Somebody you met one night when I wasn’t around. Did you think my money had dried up, or did the other guy have a bigger bank account? All that stuff about loving me was just bullshit, Blanche, wasn’t it? You just said that so you could get me to give you another handout. What a dumb shit I’ve been.” She looked away from him.
“Maybe you ought to go,” she said. “I guess we’re through talking over old times.”
He started toward the door.
“Of course if you were to make a small contribution, it wouldn’t hurt,” she said. “Anything helps, Manny.”
He looked at her then and for the first time saw the desperation in her eyes, all the barriers had come down and she was begging. He saw a thick wrinkle on her neck which she had neatly concealed with a red scarf. Now she looked old, very old and very haggard and probably not able to talk any more men out of their money, except as a direct payment for services rendered, and if they had $200 to spend for sex, they might think they could find a younger prostitute. So they had both gotten old. He realized that she no longer cared if he had seen through to this truth, she no longer cared what he thought of her. She had to survive, like any animal. He had once thought of her as an artist, a professional dancer that could stir emotions, cause an audience to feel chills with her moves and spirit. What a fine line there was between artist and animal. And he felt sorry for her again.
He reached into his pocket and came out with a few bills, three twenties, a ten, four singles.
“What’s the going rate for talking over old times?” He said. “This is all I have with me.”
“Oh, please, Manny, don’t make it harder than it is.”
He tossed the bills down on the bed and put the money clip back in his pocket.
“Thanks, Manny. It’s been hard lately, very hard.”
“I’m sorry, Blanche. Real sorry.”
“You know, Manny, if you wanted you could stay a while, maybe have a drink, maybe we could relax a little and get comfortable. You’re the one that used to say dancing was just foreplay. Remember that, Manny? Here, let me make you a drink.”
He smiled and shook his head.
“I do love my wife and all,” he said. “But I won’t lie to you, driving over here I thought about whether it might happen. With you, sex was always special. But you’re basically doing it for a living. That takes it out of the category of love or even just sex. For you this is just a business deal.”
“Why don’t you cut the crap,” she spat. “Don’t tell me you’ve never paid for it.”
“I guess everybody’s paying for it one way or another,” he said.
“No, I don’t mean paying for it because you’re in a marriage and its tit for tat. I mean cash for sex. Don’t tell me you never put up cold cash for a piece of ass.”
“I won’t tell you that, Blanche. There have been times, yes. But so what? What does it mean?”
“It means you’re no better than me, I guess. Doesn’t it?”
“I guess that’s true,” he said. “I never said I was.”
“Okay, then,” she said, and picked up the bills and stuffed them in her purse. “I’m real glad you came over. If you change your mind, call me on the cell, Manny. It’ll be just like old times.”
“Oh, sure,” he said.
Driving home through the lonely parts of Florida, he went back and forth between feeling sorry for her and angry at her, sorry, angry, sorry, angry, maybe a dozen times.
Joe Registrato is editor of AliveTampaBay.