There is a night in London, nearly eight years ago, that has wandered free from the hidden back hallways of my mind. Trust your own head, poppets. It knows what you need to get you through the dark nights.
We were already family, though we’d only known each other for weeks, for months, for days. The Amazon and Mickey were there, just in the very beginnings of their romance, which made them agreeable to anything as long as various parts of their bodies were always touching. Stella was there, game for whatever the night brought, already prepared cheer me on or cover my back, even in those very early days. Smiley Joe was there, popping his head in doorways and nodding hello to strangers on the sidewalk, just like he still does. Is it just him, I’ve always wondered, or does coming from southern California make one friendlier? Is it possible to smile that much and still be sane? There was a new boy too, just arrived that day, fresh from his college graduation back home. I don’t know if he ever noticed that I hummed Mrs. Robinson every time I passed him, but everyone agreed that he looked exactly like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. He was lovely though, clever and friendly and clean-cut, which is pretty much what warmed my element in those days. In these days as well, if truth be told. (I would have loved to have gone Anne Bancroft all over him, but I was 23, lacking in years and panache. I didn’t know how to make it work. Eight years later, I still don’t know how to make it work, but sometimes, I know enough to pretend.)
Anyway. It was one of those early summer nights where the weather was perfect, and just for once, the streets weren’t wet, and it wasn’t drizzling and beyond the lights of Soho, the sky was clear and the stars were bright. We knew we were headed out, and we knew we were going to have fun, and the only question was where were going to find it. All of us were sufficiently open of mind and empty of pocket to not settle at any old place, which is how we ended up wandering London’s streets that Saturday night, unsatisfied with what was readily on offer, but not bored yet, because I think we all knew, on some hidden level, that something good was coming.
It was a street not very far from home I believe, where we encountered the brash Spanish man urging us in, in, come in and have a drink, come in and try us, try us, have a leetle dahnce. I’d love to say that he was a handsome young toreador, but you all know that’s a complete lie. He didn’t have a cape, and if he’d been wearing chaps adorned with silver coins, we probably wouldn’t have stopped. But he did have a crisp open-necked shirt that shone against his olive skin, and espresso-dark eyes, and a desperate smile that said, “Lady, I just want to prove to my father that opening a bar in London wasn’t a crap idea.” It was a doorway, and it was cement steps leading down to God knows what, but the sound of Latin music was trickling up the stairs, which was a huge selling point for me, and there was no cover, which was a huge selling point for my friends. (You know me better than that, poppets. I don’t balk at covers.)
And down we went, into another world, into a heady fusion of Spanish cantina, Argentinean bordello, and Mexican resort nightclub. It was dark but for the candles that glowed from red sconces on the walls, and the odd strobe that bounced from a corner, and splayed out from the disco-ball. The place wasn’t very big, and it wasn’t very full, and we shone pale and inept on the dance-floor, but dear God, we had fun that night. This was in the days before I sold my soul to Arthur Murray, poppets, so while I was eager, I lacked skill. (It’s amazing how ‘eager but lacking skill’ applied to so much of my life back then.) After about a minute of signalling to the experts on the floor that my hips were available for training, I was grabbed by a boy who may have rumbled with a Jet once upon a time, who ordered me to relax, and to just follow him. Far be it from me to argue.
I let him make figure eights with my hips, and I let him teach me how to bend my knees, and I let him spin me and twirl me and pull me back against him in time to staccato meringue beats and euphoric salsa melodies. I let his hands whisper sweet nothings on my back, and for a few minutes on that dance floor, I may even have let him teach me a few things that had very little to do with dancing. And then, in a flash of lights, I cha cha cha’d away from him and into the arms of another Shark, into the arms of Smiley Joe and into the arms The Graduate. We danced with friends, with strangers, with girls, with boys. We threw our head back and whooped and laughed, flushed with the magic of a dance-floor that loved us.
We straggled home hours later, surprised at how wonderful it had been, sore of feet but thoroughly happy. A few weeks later, we went out in search of the place again, always thinking it was one street over, or maybe just a little further down. We thought we found it once, and headed down a set of stairs gleefully, even though there was no olive-skinned man with dark eyes welcoming us in. We stopped short in our tracks when all we found was a dank little hole in the wall, empty and broken-down, tinny music trickling pitifully from a corner. “This can’t be it,” we muttered, and trooped back upstairs to the London sidewalk. After a while, we stopped looking, knowing that even if we found the place, we’d never find that night again. Some things just weren’t meant to be duplicated.
It was enough that we had it once, though, because it taught us to keep our eyes open for magic.
It’s a wonderful skill to have.
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