08 September 2006

Dancing With The Dead

I was supposed to go out tonight - it's Friday night after all - but the trains were screwed up again so I finally gave up on the idea and came back home (luckily it's all of two minutes from the station) to do some long-overdue blogging. The flat seems eerily quiet tonight - no, that's the wrong way to put it: actually it's eerily noisy. Well, quiet and noisy at the same time, if you know what I mean.

It's the first time I've been vividly aware of the emptiness. Olivia's been gone since July, but I've only spent about a week here on my own since then. Yesterday morning I dreamt I was talking to her on the phone, trying to get her to explain something to me, but I said something that seemed to upset her, and the line went dead. I was trying to figure out if she'd hung up on me, or if there was a problem with the phone when I woke up and realised that I'd never be able to ask her anything again.

Ever since then I've been hearing noises around the flat. I'll be upstairs in the kitchen and I'll think I hear the door opening downstairs. Ah, that'll be her coming back from shopping and she'll need me to carry the bags upstairs and listen to her complain about hard it is pushing her trolley up the (almost nonexistent) hill from Portobello Road. Or I'm down in my study trying to do some writing (or more likely wasting time reading the Pop Punk Message Board) and there are footsteps upstairs. She'll be calling down to me in a minute, wanting me to change a lightbulb or fix the coatrack that's fallen off the back of the door again, and I try to put aside my resentment at being disturbed, but then the call never comes.

For years I looked forward to having this place to myself and simultaneously felt guilty because I knew that would only happen once she had passed on. Now I have it to myself, but not completely, it seems. I don't believe in ghosts, but there's undeniably some kind of presence in these rooms besides my own. It's not scary or creepy or anything, just mildly unsettling.

I've been thinking of another dead person, a young girl, actually, who I used to know back in the early 1990s. She was a dancer, an incredibly talented ballet dancer, the best ballet dancer I've ever seen, and I've seen Nureyev, even if it was in the waning years of his career. We weren't close friends, but close enough; she'd been the girlfriend of a young friend of mine, but had dumped him for someone in one of her shows, and then dumped the new guy when she had a chance to come down to the city and train with the San Francisco Ballet.

I only saw her a couple times that summer, and she wasn't always the best of company. Obsessed with her classes and even more so with her weight, she was trying to live on a diet of nothing apart from brown bread and coffee. It didn't do much to enhance her moods.

But one unusually warm San Franciscan night, she relaxed enough to walk across town with me and sit on a hillside above the Castro drinking beer. Only one or two, of course, but we were both mildly giddy as we strolled back toward her apartment over the moonlit streets rich with the scent of night-blooming jasmine. We stopped at the corner grocery - she couldn't stand the thought that she might wake up some night after the stores had closed only to find that she was out of bread - and while we prowled up and down the cramped aisles under the watchful eye of the Arab shopkeeper, the radio began to play "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers.

Awash in nostalgia for all those high school romances I'd never had, I impetuously swept her into my arms and we danced until the song ended, in great, sweeping Busby Berkeley circles that somehow fit elegantly into the two feet of aisle that separated the canned peas from the dried dogfood. The Arab never batted an eye, just sat there Sphinx-, even Buddha-like, and took our money without comment when we paid for the loaf of bread she'd held clutched behind my back the whole time we danced.

That was the last I saw of her for quite a while. I was looking forward to attending her first performance with the SF Ballet, but it never came about. First there was some talk that she might pursue an academic career instead - she was a gifted scientist as well as a dancer, and had won a full university scholarship - but in the end she did neither, and instead replaced her bread and coffee diet with an amphetamine one. A couple years later I spotted her and a girlfriend as they zipped past, eyes bulging out, tongues frantically wagging, and looking like a pair of scarecrows who'd lost most of their straw.

It was all downhill from there, and though I never received an invitation to the funeral, I'd long since buried her in my mind. It occurred to me one day that while I'd had sex with, or made love with, or even been in love with a number of people who were now dead, she - who I'd never so much as kissed - was the only dead person I could surely say I had danced with.

That gave me something to think about for a couple years, until I found out that she wasn't dead at all, that she was married with a kid and selling real estate in some small town in the Central Valley. I'm ashamed to say that I was a little disappointed.

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