Reality is not always probable or likely.

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The Stardust Dance

The Startdust Dance

fiction
by cary gitter

The Stardust Dance

Serena wheeled the old man around the auditorium of the Jewish Home for the Elderly, at 105th and Broadway, to Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.”

She was only twenty-eight but knew the 1939 recording by name, having grown up listening to big-band cassettes with her unusually old dad. He’d fathered her late in life and was eighty-three now. Despite his age, though, Serena’s dad was still limber, lucid, and living with her mom—nothing, thank God, like the sad cases she saw in this room tonight. They were residents of the Jewish Home: two dozen ancients all trapped in wheelchairs, diversely disfigured, with dementia in their eyes. And they were here, as she was, for the “Stardust Dance,” a social event held at the facility every other Thursday.

This was Serena’s first time volunteering at the Upper West Side nursing home. This was also, she’d realized with a sting of shame, the first community service of any kind she’d done in a decade, since a brief stint at a New Jersey soup kitchen to impress colleges. In her defense, she was a twentysomething professional woman, a copywriter, with a busy city life—of dinners and drinks and parties—which left little room for good works. Anyway, what had brought her here tonight was not some sudden surge of altruism, nor any newfound concern for the ill and aged.

No, Serena had taken the 1 train up to the Jewish Home for a more self-serving reason. Long story short, just six weeks ago, in September, she’d made the biggest mistake, done The Worst Thing, of her young life. In what now seemed to her like a fit of insanity, she’d betrayed her loving live-in boyfriend of two years, Louis, by fucking Jared, a charming asshole from her Midtown ad agency. Her first-ever infidelity, not counting college, and completely out of character. Yet one night, after post-work cocktails on Third Avenue, she’d somehow let a long-running, harmless office flirtation with Jared explode into a kiss and a tipsy trip to his Murray Hill lair. The sex was movie-hot. Amazed and ashamed, she’d kept fucking him for two trancelike weeks, before being caught by Louis—who inadvertently glimpsed a “sext” from Jared, of all clichés—and confessing everything.

A couple weeks later Louis left. Serena had sobbed and begged him for forgiveness, but when he’d asked her why she’d done it, she, to her own horror, couldn’t say. Fear of commitment? Frustration with the relationship? Temporary insanity arising from the thrill of a forbidden fuck? As she stammered for an answer, Louis declared he didn’t know how he could trust her again, and he moved out of their shared Astoria one-bedroom to a friend’s in Williamsburg. Jared had also moved on, to his next conquest. Leaving Serena alone and stunned, feeling as if an evil alien had invaded her body and plunged it into the senseless fling that had upended her decent life and cost her the best man she’d ever known. Except—this was the terrifying part—she was the alien.

Now it was raw October, and Serena was still so dazed and depressed by her betrayal and the breakup that her do-gooder friend Kyle, a frequent volunteer with the organization New York Cares, had brought up the Stardust Dance over coffee. “Rena, why don’t you come with me next Thursday?! To the dance at the old folks’ home? I think it would be great for you now to, like, try helping others … instead of just wandering around hating yourself? It’s a super-fun event too!” Huh. She was no volunteer, but maybe this wasn’t a bad idea. After all, selfish sexual treachery had led her to this low, Louis-less point, so maybe some selflessness was what her soul needed. Maybe helping out at the dance was a chance to try being a better person, to do a little karmic penance, atone in time for Yom Kippur. What’d she have left to lose?

So here she was.

Kyle had explained beforehand that “Stardust,” as he and his New York Cares crew called it for short, was not in fact a real dance. It couldn’t be: almost all the Jewish Home’s residents were wheelchair-bound, not to mention demented to various degrees. Serena saw how the event actually worked when she ran, a few minutes after its seven-p.m. start time, through the swinging doors of the facility’s dreary, wood-paneled, sixties-era auditorium.

On opposite sides of the room two rows of about a dozen decrepit residents of the home sat waiting in their wheelchairs, in contorted postures of eagerness. Among them was a tiny Asian woman in John Lennon glasses, with limbs twisted every which way like tree branches; a bald white woman whose immense obesity spilled out of her seat; a blind African-American man with unsightly blotches for eyes and a bulbous protrusion under his shirt, below the belly. They and the others, having been brought down from their beds for Stardust by choice, were waiting excitedly for one of the ten or so New York Cares volunteers to ask them to “dance.” Which, in this case, really meant being wheeled around and around in a circle on the dance floor, to World War Two-era tunes emanating from Kyle’s iPod speakers at the front of the room.

This, then, was what Serena was doing now, with a nameless old man in a worn Yankees cap: wheeling him around—part of the caravan of residents and volunteers, a veritable circle of life—to the singing saxes of “Moonlight Serenade,” which, embarrassingly, were making her feel melancholy over the loss of Louis. Squeezing the wheelchair’s handle, she glanced at the wall clock—seven-twelve; forty-eight minutes to go—and admitted she was already having second thoughts about coming. Honestly, the dance was sort of depressing, and wasn’t it absurd that she was here? Did she seriously believe that by becoming a community saint like Kyle overnight she could magically undo the fact that she’d mindlessly cheated on, thrown away, the love of her—

“What’s your name, young lady?”

The voice, shaky but sonorous, cut short Serena’s self-flagellation. A confused moment passed before she realized it belonged to the old man right in front of her, the man in the Yankees hat whom she was steering. When she’d knelt beside his chair before and asked him to dance, he’d said nothing, only smiled and nodded, so she’d guessed he was, due to some disorder, incapable of speech. Wrong.

“Um. My name’s Serena!” Her best cheery chirp—and loud, so he’d hear. Come on, you’re a volunteer now. Play along.

Se-reee-na.” A reflective pause as Glenn Miller’s orchestra slid into its song’s swirling final bars. “Lovely name.”

“Oh, thank you!”

The record ended, and the other volunteers stopped to applaud and wait for the next track on Kyle’s playlist. Serena slowed the man’s chair to a halt. Now that he’d spoken, and seemingly lucidly, she was curious about him. She’d still been too disoriented by the whole strange Stardust scene to get a good look at him before they’d hit the floor—he’d been just one in a row of geriatrics. So she took advantage of this between-song lull to slip around for a frontal view.

“What’s your name?”

“My name … is Dr. Henry Blum,” he announced, proudly emphasizing the “Dr.,” and he looked the part. In a navy-blue track suit with white stripes down the pants—framed by Nike sneakers gray from wear and the baseball cap that covered a full head of similarly gray hair—he appeared, Serena discovered, in somewhat better physical shape than the other residents in the room. His clean-shaven face was old but not slack, still firm as life. He looked, in sum, like a well-heeled, retired Manhattan doctor who’d one morning left his brownstone for a stroll in Riverside Park and, by some mysterious mistake, ended up instead in a wheelchair at the Jewish Home.

“Nice to meet you, Dr. Blum.”

“A beautiful girl like you can call me Hank.”

She knew she wasn’t beautiful—a tad too much waist, a few acne scars to conjure teenage insecurities (Louis hadn’t minded)—yet Serena felt foolishly buoyed by the compliment, even if it came from a senior citizen devoid of sexual currency. At least he seemed to have his marbles.

“Thank you—Hank. That’s sweet.” In her peripheral vision Kyle was flashing her a “good job” thumbs-up.

The music started again. Serena immediately identified the recording, from the five bangs of the band that kick it off, as Artie Shaw’s 1938 rendition of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” One she’d heard endlessly with Dad but actually liked: not schmaltz like “Moonlight Serenade,” it was haunting, with Shaw’s lonely, lilting clarinet.

The volunteers were beginning to wheel the residents to the new song, but before she could come behind Hank’s chair to resume steering him, he gripped her wrist, startling her. Elderly hands usually felt clammy; Hank’s, though, was warm and dry. Except for a purple discoloration—bruise, burst vessel, who knew—it might’ve been a younger man’s.

“Listen, will you—” He stopped, closed his eyes, swayed his head. Artie Shaw was clearly affecting him. Old people don’t have to hide these things. “Serena”—opening them again—“would you be good enough to take me over to the corner there?”

“The corner?” Mother to child: “You don’t want to go around again with everyone else—”

“‘Begin the Beguine.’ We loved this song.”

“Sorry—who?”

“Me and Laurie. My wife.” As if it were a given: who else? The second he said “wife” an image of Louis, face full of heartbreak as he carried his belongings out of their apartment, materialized in Serena’s mind. “Take me over to the corner, please?”

So Serena did, assuming Hank wanted to sit out the song in nostalgic reverie for his presumably late spouse. Fine with her; pleasant as he was, this wheelchair pushing got old fast. As she cut across the scuffed wood dance floor with him—through the pageant of fresh-faced volunteers undulating to the music and time-ravaged residents struggling to clap their gnarled hands or tap their swollen feet—she wondered about his life. How did it feel to embody the cruel irony of being a doctor who was now permanently, pitifully, a patient? How had he landed in the Jewish Home, a facility whose disrepair appeared to rival that of its inhabitants?

“I was an East Flatbush boy,” he began out of nowhere: an apparently telepathic response to Serena’s interest in his history. “Jewish, you know.”

She positioned his chair in the spot he’d requested, away from the crowd. “Uh huh?”

“I graduated from City College.” Every word came deliberately, like dictation. “But then I was drafted. There was still a draft, you know, in the fifties.”

“I know. My dad’s actually in his eighties? He was drafted too, but he got out of it.”

“Ah. Well, I went. A Jewish kid from Brooklyn, and they sent me down to Fort Gordon, in Georgia. Believe that?” A hoarse laugh. “I was the first Jew some of those good ol’ boys ever saw. They asked me where my horns and tail were. That’s true.”

Serena smiled. She believed him, having heard analogous anecdotes from her Jewish dad, who’d grown up dodging rocks flung at him by New Jersey Italian toughs set on avenging Christ’s killing.

“They had a dance one night at Fort Gordon, for us trainees.” And now Hank’s voice smoothened, his eyes changed. Inside them was the mirror ball from the distant dance he was describing, sending out silver glimmers. “That’s where I met my wife. Laurie was a Georgia girl, a Baptist, can you believe it? I fell in love with her accent. We danced. I don’t remember if they played ‘Begin the Beguine’ that night, but she was nuts about this song.”

If Serena had seen Hank’s recollection in a movie, it would’ve struck her as corny. But because it was his life—and also because of the whiff of flatulence from his direction that now offset the romantic reminiscence with a dose of earthly reality—it didn’t.

“And your wife is …”

“Dead.”

“I’m so sorry.” Sympathetic pause. Bright tone of consolation: “Do you have kids, Hank?”

His abrupt answer was a dismissive, disgusted flick of his right arm, a gesture that told Serena all she needed to know about his relationship with his children and why he was here instead of with them somewhere or in a better nursing home.

And then, to her astonishment, as “Begin the Beguine” launched into its final lap, full band blaring, Hank took hold of the threadbare padded arms of his wheelchair and, straining as in basic training at Fort Gordon, propelled himself into a standing position.

“Um, what’re you doing?” She tensed up, ready to catch him when he fell.

“Let’s dance, Serena.”

“What?”

“This is a dance, no?” He was doing it: he was standing—knees trembling, steady as a feather.

“I’m sorry—are you supposed to be out of your chair?”

He extended his arms, which wavered slightly like car antennas. “The song’s almost over.”

Serena turned to see if Kyle and the other volunteers were noticing or disapproving of Hank’s being on his feet. But they were oblivious. The energy in the room had evidently reached a critical mass, and they were whirling the residents in a wild altruistic frenzy.

She felt one of Hank’s hands touch her back, the other grasp her right hand, and, spinning back around to face him, Serena found that, yes, they were indeed dancing. Instinctively she placed her hand on his shoulder to complete the picture. The twenty-eight-year-old woman, in fine health and having fucked over her lover and fucked up her life, and the octogenarian man, frailer than he’d first appeared and floating in a sea of memory—the unlikely couple rocking in place, unseen, to Artie Shaw’s clarinet climax.

Beneath the brim of his frayed cap and the gray foliage of his eyebrows, Hank’s eyes stared into Serena’s—and somehow became Louis’s eyes. And suddenly she was back in her betrayed ex-boyfriend’s arms, in the middle of their once-shared living room, moving to slow music filtered tinnily through Louis’s laptop. And at the same time she was Laurie, the gracious Southern belle at the Fort Gordon rec hall six decades ago, intrigued by this handsome Yankee, Hank, who’d someday be her husband.

Serena, of course, didn’t know at this instant that a scolding Jewish Home nurse would shortly approach them and force Hank back into his wheelchair, or that his period of lucidity would end then and give way to his usual state of dementia, which she hadn’t yet witnessed. But for this moment their dance and their transfiguration—Hank into the lost Louis, Serena into the lost Laurie—gave her a strange peaceful feeling that made her glad she had come tonight to Stardust, where she nonetheless knew, deep down, she’d likely never return.

("The Stardust Dance" was previously published in Issue 8 of Newtown Literary)

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