Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997

Eileen Cunningham '97, who majored in political science and The Writing Seminars, is a co- winner of the 1997 Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts, which she won for her short story, "The Dance."

O N    C A M P U S E S

The Dance
By Eileen Cunningham '97
Illustration by Leslie Wu

In my memory, they will always be dancing. They will be swirling along, flickering like flames, or very old movies, slowly, through the bars of the stairway railing. It is warm where I am hiding, and they are dancing and I am watching, and it will always be so.

"Dancing, darling, is your best and darkest art," she whispers, just loud enough for my close, hidden ear. He smiles, draws his hand across her cheek, softly, and moves faster. The record skips when they dance close to the player, and the light from the lamp shakes when her hip catches it as they pass. The faded green carpet shines emerald in the lamplight and the fluid music turns the room from drywall to marble.

I catch his smile again before he spins, his back suddenly where his face had been, her face now visible, radiant. They are in their moment, and I am in my pajamas, watching undetected from the top of the stairs.

My mother hums to herself in the seat across from me, legs tucked under her body in what her guru calls the Lotus Position. Her eyes are closed and her hands outstretched, the left almost brushing one of the small windows in the car, the right hovering over the aisle. She always chooses the seats by the door, she tells me, the four special ones facing each other. They're usually saved for families with children, but we trudge from car to car searching for an open set of those seats. She says we all need room to breathe, to look out the windows and stretch our legs. She says we will stand rather than take another seat, and stand we do, for two stops, until the seats empty of their loud, sticky cargo. The entire time we stand, we are silent--me, watching her, she focusing inward on some mantra she doesn't say aloud, out of respect for the other passengers. Her face doesn't change with the shimmy of traveling, not even when we are thrown against the wall by a particularly vicious bump.

Sitting down across from her, I pick a wet lollipop stick from beneath my thigh. The smell of damp children hangs in the air around us, forcing my nose into a disapproving crinkle. The clacking of the track overpowers the dull whispers of conversations. Someone behind us snores loudly in one earsplitting honk, and then falls back into unsettled breathing. The seats are scratchy, with one particular lump in the middle of the back which makes me slouch deeper into the chair to get comfortable. Across from me, she hums louder, accusingly, because I know this is how she reacts when she thinks I am acting inappropriately. She tunes me out farther, reaching inward to places I cannot fathom. I wait for her to tell me not to stare.

Watching her, I see that everything about my mother is blue. It's not a bright, warm blue, or even a sedate navy, but the palest, most vaporous periwinkle. Her eyes, her flowing clothes, the jewels in her ears and the paint on her toenails. More than these things, though, is the blue of her skin, pulled tightly across her cheekbones, pulled so tight the veins pulse light blue beneath the surface of her temples. The delicate skin under her eyes is blue as well, with such a fierce dedication to its blueness that no makeup could ever cover it.

I see that everything about my mother is blue. It's not a bright, warm blue or even a sedate navy, but the palest, most vaporous periwinkle.
I watch her shift uncomfortably as someone passing in the aisle knocks into her arm and travels on, not looking back. She always told me how romantic train travel is, how the simplicity of the journey was well worth any inconvenience. Of course, this is only our first trip by train, my mother always opting for more comfortable methods before now. The man across the narrow lane glances out from behind his paper to look at my beautiful, blue mother. She thinks the blue about her radiates an otherworldly serenity. I see only the exhaustion of her perfection, not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle unattended to around her blue tinged face.

The trees pass so quickly they blur into brown smudges of bare branches. We are traveling now across blue, blue waters, a darker, deeper color than my mother's could ever be. The water looks so close I can almost feel it lap against the car.

It was by my father's suggestion that we ended up taking the train. It is so much more economical than flying, he said, so much more convenient. My mother argued that we could get home faster if we flew, that we wouldn't have to wait for trains that get delayed at every stop and stop at every city. He smiled through the phone. I could feel his expansive smile communicating itself to my mother, translating into the wince on her face. For that one moment, my mother was the telephone receiver, taking the electric signal that traveled across the wires and communicating it to me. He smiled and said that if we took the train, he wouldn't have to be there to pick us up. He could remain at his work and see us when he got home. My mother smiled at me when she explained once again about the beauty of the train, and I saw the hurt in her face.

We had been up the East Coast looking at colleges, my mother loving each one more than the other, each one more than I. We ate quietly at the roadside diners that dot the small highways of the East, bumping along the back roads of New England in our rented car. She gushed over the cute sophomores at Vassar. She raved about the campus of Wellesley. It was all she could do to contain herself at Harvard, almost falling over a curb in the middle of the freshman quad, so rapt in her flirtation with our guide. I followed along silently, wishing to be far away from the perfection of this blue woman and the wave of attention and laughter that clung to her like a perfume.

"You know," she said to me as we sat in the sun at Vassar, "I could have gone to any school I wanted to, had your father not stolen my heart away at 18." She laughed a little too loud and ran a blue veined hand over my short brown hair. The sun shone off the silver of her hair, giving her a halo. She sat there, The Madonna, sacrificing her child to educational systems of America. She reached for her purse and knocked it off the rock. One of the guys lying on the grass jumped up and grabbed it off the ground, handing it to my mother with a winning, charming grin. The blue sky shone around his head and the grass was greener where it touched his feet. I realized suddenly he was smiling at her, he made a comment about visitors to Vassar, and they were off, deep in conversation. I sat, silently, until she was done, venturing a shy look at the boy who didn't see me. She smiled and waved as he left. He turned around again to smile and say good-bye.

She is sitting now, by herself on the couch, smoking a cigarette she told everyone she had given up. She is completely alone in her isolation, motionless, waiting for him to come home. Even if I could call out, tell her I was there, she would still be utterly alone. She picks up the phone and I know she is dialing grandma's number, but she places the receiver down quickly, before it could even ring, I'm sure. She picks it up again and calls him at work, but again she gets the machine. I can hear the beep from my place at the top of the stairs, but she doesn't leave a message. She sits and waits.

I had long returned to bed when I heard him come in. It's very late, and her voice is smiling. He says he's tired, but she insists on a hug, a dance. I settle into sleep as the music begins below.

I remember one night when my grandmother, my mother's mom, was over at our house for a rare visit. She lived so close, but she didn't come to see us too often. She clucks over me in a thick voice, telling me I'm beautiful, beautiful. I smile shyly but my mother tells her to cut it out, not to fill my head. I remember us sitting on the tan couches in our living room, the three women in a gossipy pose. The smell of good cooking was in the air, and it mingled with my grandmother's White Shoulders perfume, wrapping around me like the softest of blankets. My mother stood behind the couch, brushing my grandmother's hair, and I sat on the floor as my grandmother brushed mine. The three of us in a line, connected by touch and brush. The feel of the brush through my hair was almost electric. The pure pleasure of the attention and the sensation would mix to a heady level, making me wriggle on the Indian patterned rug, smiling to myself. "You have your mother's hair," she would tell me. "Iris always had the loveliest hair."

"Mommy's hair is gray."

"Silver, darling," my mother answered.

"It doesn't matter that she doesn't want to dye it like any normal woman, just that you have that thick, pretty hair of hers. You could do worse than looking like your mother, you know. She got places with those looks."

"Yeah, Mom, I got here."

I looked around the room there, taking in its cool features. We had long moved from our first house, the house of the dancing. Daddy rarely got home in time to see me off to bed, and he was always too tired for dancing. "We're not young anymore, Iris," he would say. This room without music was white and clean and airy, with soft, light wood floors covered in Indian rugs. This is a room out of a magazine, one that looks like no one lives in it.

My grandmother glared at my mother, told her not to discourage me. My mother told her that she would never discourage her daughter to use the brains God gave her. "My baby doesn't need to be beautiful," were her words that night. It wasn't long after my grandmother's death that I cut my hair very short.

The jolt from the car brings me back to reality. My mother is sitting by her window now, like a normal person, not some Yogi. As the train begins to crowd, she moves our things from the seats next to us to the floor underneath our seats. A young man sits across from me and smiles, and I smile back, because he is beautiful. At once, my mother's voice surprises me. "Where are you on your way to?"

She smiles at him deeply, the blue of her radiating off like heat. He takes his eyes from me and begins to talk to her. I turn toward the window and look away, trying to ignore my mother, that boy, the world. I see her still, though, tossing her silver hair, touching the top of his hand. She is a powerful woman, I think, just like my father always says.

She is still chatting with him when we pull into home, into Baltimore. She shoots him an engaging grin and hustles us off the train. On the platform the light is unkind to her, the shadows emphasizing the lines of her face. We stretch and she gives me a hug. There is peace on that platform, warm in the embrace of my mother. We are together, connected, as she wraps an arm around my waist. We pick up our bags in our free hands and head out to the taxis.

I'm not surprised, but I am disappointed. When we walk through the door, it's sitting on the dining room table. It isn't hers, it isn't mine, it belongs to the other. It's a nice scarf, probably pretty expensive. We stare at it for a moment, I cursing my father for not keeping it out of our house, she hushing me, telling me to go unpack. I hear her crying as I head up the stairs.

The smell of the Lysol in the bathroom makes my stomach turn as I wash my face from the trip. I look down into the basin and see my hands shaking. At least now, there will be a conflict, a resolution. Today stasis ends.

I go into my room, but I don't unpack. Instead I flop onto my bed, burying my face into one of the scented pillows my mother is always throwing on there. I'm not crying, I'm not moving, I'm just ... waiting. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for what has been coming all my life. I have spent 18 years watching them, paying close attention lest I miss it when it comes. In my memory they will always be dancing. Mother and Father, moving together and apart, countering each other's steps, meeting in the middle and falling away at the end. This dance of balance, of looking away and burying themselves in things that didn't bind them. She could have her guru, he could have his job, his "bit on the side," as my grandmother might have said. Now things could not go on as they had. Things were changing, I was leaving for school. The pink curtains and bed linens she had chosen would give way to my desires, my tastes. The dusty dolls could come down now, replaced by whatever I would put there. Things had been put into motion, into the universe as we knew it. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the waiting, the watching was done. The dancers had lost their rhythm.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the waiting, the watching was done. The dancers had lost their rhythm.
I pluck at the bedspread as I listen to her come up the stairs. He won't be home for a while, so there's tension, strained calm. She pushes open my door the tiniest bit, looks at me questioningly. When I don't say anything, she comes inside.

"You haven't unpacked," she states, looking at me quietly. The birds outside sounded loud, garish compared to her voice just then. She opens the suitcase and starts to put my shirts away in the white chest of drawers in the corner. "I thought we wouldn't unpack now," I say, suddenly uncertain of what is going on.

"Why on earth not? You must be excited to tell your father about the trip we just took. You're going to be going off to college in the fall--he's dying to know which school you like the best." I am sitting up now, propped against a Snoopy doll and the wall. I am looking and seeing the blue woman of always, but she looks so tired, almost gray. I am seeing one woman and hearing quite another and it is a few more sentences before I understand. "It is going to be lonely in this big house without you. You have always been my pride, but more than that, my job. Do you know I never worked a day since you were born! It's not many women who can say that, you know. To say that they skipped college to marry and never had to work a day. That, I'm afraid is part of a passing generation. Of course, that would never be for you." She prattled on, not meeting my eyes, watching the silent tread of her feet traveling their circuit from bed to dresser, dresser back to bed.

"Oh, I do worry about your leaving us. I have tried to protect you from the world, I thought it was best, but now I get so scared to send my baby girl out there." She stops midtrip and looks at me for the first time since she entered the room. "You are not beautiful. If men tell you that, don't believe them." She turns from me and begins to chatter on again. "You don't need looks to get you to where you want go. I am so proud of your going to college. You will have so much opportunity for jobs, not to mention travel. Oh, how I envy your going away. The fun you will have! I hope you'll miss us all too. I will always be here when you have vacations, though. You'll always have us to come home to. I mean, where else would I be?" She laughs at this, but it hits me now how their dance is only for two. As I have watched for years, on the outside, they have circled and met each other step for step. There is no one outside this dance for my mother. There is nowhere to go. Of course we will unpack. I mean, where else would she be?

The dancers have not lost their rhythm, my mother will shift hers to meet his. She will have her guru, he will have his "bit on the side." Stasis is maintained. My time of watching is over, though. She is telling me that now. She is looking at me and freeing me from the hold of their dance. Nothing is going to change here. There is nowhere for it to go, in her mind. She will continue to fly and travel by train. She will radiate her blue serenity, flirt with young men, and play them like fine violins. She will exercise the power that I have watched for years, while cringing with the weakness that I only now see. That much is clear now. Nothing is going to change here, but there, wherever it is I am going, nothing will ever be the same.

I stand up from the bed now, stretching long in the afternoon sun. I reach over and hug her. Running a hand over my hair, I look at my travel rumpled face in the mirror over my dresser. We hold each other staring into it, two mirror images of one another. I look exactly like her. Exactly like her.

The Sudler Prize is awarded annually to the graduating senior from Arts and Sciences or Engineering (or the fourth-year medical student) who demonstrates excellence in music, theater, dance, writing, painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, film, or videotape. Sharing the award with Cunningham this year is pianist Loren D. Walensky, an MD/PhD candidate at the School of Medicine.