I liked the sharp pop of the tap shoes, and the rhythm that sounded like it came from a room full of drums and not a single pair of shoes. Practice was boring though, and once I was signed up and committed, I didn’t know how to quit. I was only 10. Things got out of hand, beyond the control of a kid, and by the time I understood that I was to perform at a recital, solo, dressed as a hobo, with charcoal smudges on my cheeks and a paperboy cap it was far too late to back out.
All I remember now is the curtain parting and seeing all of those people out there. The music started, New York New York, Frank Sinatra and just that quick I was hopelessly lost. You only get one chance to come in on cue.
The prickly heat of shame and a clumsy buffalo shuffle. My shoes didn’t sound like they did when I was wearing them at home, dancing like a maniac in the empty kitchen. When the song ended I don’t know if I bowed, or stood there, humiliated.
Now I can be fairly sure that the audience of parents and siblings did not give a rip if I was faithful to my choreography. One hobo kid shuffling on a stage was the same as another. To this day I can’t bear to hear that wretched song. As a grown-up, anonymous in a hotel lobby, those first ba-bum-bump notes make my cheeks flush.
Saturday night was different. I did it as a favor for a good friend, the kind of friend you don’t say no to for anything. Will you be in my show? He asked. You don’t have to do anything, but you are the only one who can do this for me. Like so many commitments in our lives, I just said yes, confident I would survive whatever consequences.
So, dressed as a walking nightmare- the horrible poisonous thing that grows like black mold in relationships- I followed him out on cue to the melancholy melody on a Wurlitzer, and crawled into bed on stage. Underneath my mask I felt safe, belligerent, and dangerous. I could see faces looking at me, mouths turned down, eyes blank- afraid to make contact with my monster.
When it was time to get up I missed my cue. The final heavy note hung in the room, all of us now infected by the dark mood. Hold tight to your dear ones, for they are safest up close, or far away.
My friend slapped my arm. Get up. Confused still, I looked in his eyes, searching for direction. That frightened kid hobo missing another cue. Get up! His angry eyes said this, and the bum’s rush was coming.
I swung my feet to the floor and stood, imposing and fearsome. In my ugly swagger I straightened my collar and slowly swept the room, searching for cowardly eyes before I took my leisurely exit.