By Don E. Noel
Jennie and the orchestra were belting out Cole Porter. Quick-quick, slow: When they begin…the beguine…it brings back a night…
“He has a pigeon,” Sasha whispered as she passed Rita at the swinging kitchen doors. “Same woman, three numbers now. On the far side, where I’m serving.”
Sasha was Rita’s best friend at the Paradise Inn. She’d helped her get the job and more recently volunteered to help manage Roberto, Rita’s boyfriend. Manage, meaning get him back into line.
From the tables Rita was serving, he stood out: a young man dancing with an older woman. A few open steps, in perfect time with the music, then wheel. Nice variations. She knew Roberto was a great dancer; they’d met in a dance hall. Medium-tall, guapo handsome, hair ebony. A weightlifter’s chest, emphasized by his short brocaded tuxedo, almost like a toreador’s chaquetilla jacket, that he’d found in a second-hand store when all this began.
What mattered was how close they were dancing.
Rita cleared the dinner dishes, left the tray on a rack and threaded through the tables to the dance floor. Roberto’s back was to her. This was an older crowd: the Unionville Class of 1983 Reunion. The woman hadn’t lost her figure or at least wore enough Spandex to still look good. She had shoulder-length coppery hair, which was surely a dye job. Her eyes were closed; his right hand was not at her waist but in the small of her back.
Finally, they turned. Roberto’s eyes were open, watching for other dancers. He saw Rita, gave her a smile and wink. She glared, he wheeled away. She shouldered the tray back to the kitchen.
On the carving counter was a short boning blade, thin and razor-sharp. On impulse, she grabbed it with a dishtowel and put it on a tray of dessert puddings. Hoisting the tray, she paused at the full-length mirror just inside the outbound door. Management encouraged them to look good. More than good, she thought. A Columbiana, she was built at least as well as that ageing Spandexed fake redhead on the floor; she danced better too. Her black hair was as long, although tucked into a net when she worked. She frowned at her reflection, making fierce black eyes.
Sasha, coming in the other door, caught her. “Pretty good, babe!”
A compliment from Sasha meant something because she was, herself, a blonde bombshell. Ukrainian by birth, but a citizen now, lucky lady, with a husband and two kids. She thought everyone should enjoy domestic bliss.
“Thanks.” Rita tried to smile at her in the mirror.
“Enough woman for any man,” Sasha persisted.
“Wouldn’t you think?” Rita said, heading out to serve the pudding.
Sasha hadn’t noticed the knife.
Rita had been a waitress for three years. Although a motel, The Paradise was mostly a banquet hall: The wait staff brought course after course to crowded tables and cleared the rubble.
If the group was male with an open bar, it could become a gauntlet of gropes as the evening wore on. High school reunions, on the other hand, high school reunions were a joy. The women often dressed in school colours matched by crepe-paper streamers; older, not rowdy, only a few drinking too much. Many said ‘thank you’ when you set a plate down— most men with wives. Always a surplus of women, though, divorced or widowed.
This Class of ’83 had wine for happy hour. Rita and Sasha and all the waitresses carried hors d’oeuvres as people renewed acquaintances, talked about how far they’d come, showed off pictures of grandchildren. Their name tags had yearbook photos, which prompted polite lies about how little they’d changed.
In fact, the men were gray-haired, if not bald, and most had varying protrusions of paunch. The women – thanks to hairdressers, facials, yoga, uplifting bras, maybe a facelift or lipo – didn’t show their age as much.
They took a class picture while rolls and salads were put on the tables. Tony James and His Orchestra began; people table-hopped and danced between courses. Most of Tony’s players were as old as the reunion people, so oldies came naturally. Some guests sang along, or mouthed words, or asked each other who recorded that song. The dancing was mostly shuffling back and forth to the music. Even the men who could lead were a bit age-stooped.
So Roberto stood out. A man should dance head back and chest out, playing with his partner how a toreador plays a bull, first at a distance with the big cape, admiring, then closer in with the muleta.
Rita was ready to teach him about the short sword hidden in that little cape.
She set the tray on the rack again and slipped out to the lobby where Tommy, the desk clerk, played computer solitaire. “There’s a redhead in a long black dress, Tommy. Stacked well enough that you would have noticed her. Is she staying here tonight?”
“A single on the second floor. You want me to ring her? Let you leave a voicemail?”
“No thanks,” she said. “My message isn’t for her. But thanks.” She hurried back to work, biding her time.
“You were late again.”
Roberto had discovered these reunions two years ago. He arrived early to pick her up after work one night and saw those single women looking lonely. He was dressed plainly but asked one to dance, then another, then a third before Tony played Good Night Ladies.
Rita waited until they got back to their third-floor walk-up so he wouldn’t miss the fire in her eye. “What was all that dancing about?”
“That was amateur night, chica. I can make money doing that.”
“Tips, baby. I’ll bet some of those women will pay to dance with me.”
“I’m not enough for you?”
“You’re plenty for me,” he said, patting her culo. “I’m talking about just dancing. We can put the money away to start our family.”
He, of course, knew that would soften her up, but she didn’t let him off the hook. “I don’t want my boyfriend to be a . . . isn’t there a word?”
Roberto was a boricuatwo-century but had left Puerto Rico young enough to get a good New York education. “Gigolo,” he said.
“You don’t just jiggle when you dance.”
“No, no. Gigoló. A dancing partner. Perfectly respectable. I’ll dance with reunion ladies, and we’ll put the money in our nest egg.”
She relented. Still, she went to the library to look it up. Male dancer, yes. But also ‘a younger man supported by an older woman in return for his sexual attentions.’
His new sideline was at first as squeaky-clean as he promised. He took Rita to The Paradise, and if he found it was a reunion crowd, he went home for a shower and shave, dressed up and came back to stroll among the tables. After a time, he’d start inviting single women to dance. Rita never heard the invitation, of course, but he bragged about his technique as he drove her home.
“Hello there,” was his line, “I wonder if you can help me? My name is Roberto. I’m a ballet student, but just now can’t afford to keep up classes. I need to keep practicing, though. I wonder if you would do me the honour of taking a turn on the dance floor?”
He wasn’t a ballet student; he drove a bus. But with his looks, they believed him and loved how he helped them cut a fine figure their classmates would admire. When he escorted them back to their tables, they invariably slipped him some cash to help resume his supposed ballet classes.
He bragged about his performance on the way home but always handed over the money, more than a hundred dollars most nights.
She let the money stifle her jealousy. She opened a savings account at a neighbourhood bank, and their start-a-family savings began to grow.
Then one night, Roberto sought out Sasha. He told her he had to leave early and asked her to give Rita a lift home. He was dragged into their apartment at four in the morning.
She was still awake. “Qué diablos! Where have you been?”
“I gave a guy a ride home.”
“Sure. A guy. In your bus, I suppose.”
“No, really; he was too drunk to drive himself. He offered me $200 to take him home.” He pulled two century notes out of his shirt pocket. “Here, for our family fund.”
Too tired to argue, she went to sleep, turning her back, so she barely felt him crawl into bed.
She felt him next morning, though, hard as a rock at ten o’clock, wanting to make love. “You’re supposed to be at work!”
“I called the dispatcher. Said I was sick. I want to be sure we’re still okay, you and me.”
Roberto wasn’t only a good dancer; he was a wonderful lover. She wanted to believe him. He promised she’d never need a ride home from Sasha again. They made love without a condom.
When her period didn’t come the next week, Rita got a test kit at the drugstore. Pregnant. Which made a difference the next time he had “a man who needed a ride home.”
In Sasha’s car, she cried most of the way to the apartment. Sasha turned the engine off. “You don’t have to put up with this,” she said. “There are other men. Throw the bastard out.”
“I can’t; I’m pregnant.”
“Oh, God! Does he know?”
“Rita, you gotta tell him. He’s going to be a father; he’s got to be responsible. I’ll have Ted find him at the depot, talk to him.” Ted was her husband.
“And tell him I’m keeping an eye on him. I do the tables nearest the dance floor.”
“Thank you, Sasha.”
Rita didn’t tell him right away, though, and Ted may not have spoken to him before it happened again.
“Does he know yet about the baby?” Sasha asked as Rita wept again on the way home.”
“You’ve got to tell him. And tell him you don’t believe his giving-rides-home stuff. Don’t tell him tonight, though, in the morning. Be all sweetness and light, and then lay it on him over breakfast when he’s not expecting it. When he’s vulnerable.”
So Rita didn’t wait up and pretended not to hear him tiptoe in. In the morning, she woke him without a kiss and got breakfast. They couldn’t afford eggs often, but Roberto always wanted them after they had sex – “restored his resources,” he said – and she put eggs over-easy in front of him.
If he got the signal, he didn’t show it. She pressed the point.
“You were late again.”
“Another guy who’d had too much.”
“And where did he live?”
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He took just a moment too long. “West Newbury.” He embroidered it. “Someday, we’ll live in a town like that. Nice neighbourhood, two-car garages. His wife hadn’t come last night. She’ll bring him this morning to get his car.”
Maybe I should write down the numbers from the car’s speedometer to get the truth out of him, Rita thought. No, hardly necessary. She ignored the lie and did what Sasha urged. “We’re going to have a baby,” she dropped on him.
There was no joy on his face. “Oh, my.”
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s sooner than we’d planned,” he said and managed to add, “but it’s wonderful! We should get married.”
Be tough, Sasha had urged. “I’m only interested in a faithful husband,” Rita said.
He got it and gave her a lengthy apology. “I don’t mean these things to happen. The devil puts temptations in my path.”
“So I should give you five Hail Marys, and all is forgiven?” Rita said. “Go see a priest.”
He actually wept; it would never happen again.
“You’ll give up the dancing?”
“We’ll need the money for the baby.”
She relented, he promised, they made love.
“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”
Two months went by; more dancing, more money in the bank, no funny stuff. Until this night with the Spandexed redhead.
“Did he see you watching?” Sasha asked.
“And he didn’t right away take her back to her table? Bad sign.”
“I’ve had it,” Rita said. She let Sasha see the knife. “It’s time this toreador got gored.”
“Oh my God! You can’t do that. You’ll go to prison and then get deported. Your baby will be put up for adoption. Why ruin your life?”
“I don’t care; he’s already ruined my life.”
“Let me think,” she said. “Go tend your tables. And give me that knife.”
Rita let her take it.
Ten minutes later, in the kitchen, Sasha had another plan. “You’re barely showing. Picking up a man for the night is entirely credible.”
She explained her plan: Turn the tables on him. It was time to teach him his lesson.
And then throw him out, Sasha insisted. It wouldn’t be easy, living alone on waitress earnings. But the new baby bank account was in her name, so she had a cushion. She could find a smaller apartment. Maybe think about abortion; she’d be unlikely to find a new man willing to disregard a swelling belly left by another man. In any case, show him the door.
Okay, Rita said, let’s do it. So she told the kitchen boss she was sick and took a taxi home. Sasha would catch Roberto toward the end of the evening, between dances. “Have you seen Rita?” she would ask. “She said not to wait for her tonight. One of the guests is drunk and needs her to drive him home.” And, she would add naively: “Does that make any sense to you?”
Roberto dropped the redhead like a bomb and stormed out to the lobby to ask Tommy if he’d seen Rita. “No,” Tommy said truthfully. Rita got all this later, of course. Roberto strode out to ask Vincenzo, the doorman if she’d left with anyone. He hung around until the guests had gone home and staff had cleaned up. Sasha waved goodnight to him.
Meanwhile, at home, Rita packed his belongings. Everything. They only owned one suitcase each, and she didn’t want to lose hers, so most of his stuff went into plastic garbage bags. Then she took a bath and went to bed. Maybe he dozed but was quickly wide awake when he came home at two.
“You’re late again,” she said, playing innocent. “Someone else needed a ride home?”
“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”
“Right here, sweetheart. Didn’t Sasha tell you I came home early because I wasn’t feeling well?”
“That’s not what she told me.”
“Maybe you misunderstood. I had morning sickness.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“The doctor said it could come at any time.” She was cool. “What did you think?”
That stopped him. He didn’t want to say what he’d been worrying about all evening.
She let him stew for a minute before asking the question that was the punch line of Sasha’s plan. “How did you feel about our marriage the last few hours?”
It was a pleasure to watch him; she told Sasha later. He frowned, trying to figure out what she meant. Then his eyes opened wide as he got it. He started to scowl, angry at being duped. Finally, his face softened into a smile, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I deserved that.” He looked around and saw all his stuff on the floor. “Are those things mine? What’s that about?”
This was the moment. Pick ‘em up, you gigoló deceiver, she was ready to say, and get out!
But first, be sure he knew what he was going to miss. Let him spend the rest of his life regretting what he’d let slip away, wishing he was still with her, helping bring up a man-child.
“If you put your ear on my stomach, you can hear the heartbeat,” she said. “The doctor says it’s a boy.”
Don Noel is retired from four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford, CT. He took his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. You can visit Don at www.doneonoel.com.