A Sheltered Life, With Dancing
By every estimation of their high school peers they were the best-looking couple on the dance floor. The gymnasium had been transformed by loving parents and student volunteers into a thing of, if not beauty, at least attractiveness, with multi-colored crepe-paper streamers floating down from the ceiling. The couple danced with the kind of effortless precision that could only have come from a great deal of practice together. During the slow tunes from the amplified phonograph her head rested lightly on his shoulder, and when the tempo increased very little changed except that, briefly parting but still holding hands, he would circle her head gracefully, then his own, drawing her back slowly to resume their former closeness.
John his name was, a popular soccer player and the sort of extraordinarily handsome fellow who invariably turned every senior girl’s head but was not known to be dating anyone. But who was the astoundingly beautiful girl with flowing dark hair, they all wanted to know, until someone, a neighbor of their wealthy Dallas family, said she was his sister, Deena, who attended a private school. So far as anyone could remember, John had never mentioned having a sister.
In September of that year he entered Southern Methodist University and joined a fraternity, which pleased his parents. The following year Deena joined him and was courted by nearly every sorority on campus but, much to their parents’ dismay, decided to go her own way by joining the Independent Students Association, which was thought by some, including her father, to be a near-Socialist organization. Her brother, as always, supported her without question.
John’s fraternity sponsored a good many formal dances, and John and Deena’s graceful dancing became something of a sensation. Very few of his fraternity brothers knew the beautiful Deena was his sister and would ask for her phone number, to which John would merely shake his head no, and later he and Deena would laugh about it.
This kind of thing continued, in various permutations, for four years. In May of John’s senior year the traditional college graduation dance was held at a local country club, and unlike the high school dances had been, this was truly an elegant affair. The preceding dinner was catered by the best restaurant in Dallas, the endless champagne a superb year. As the thirteen-piece professional band began playing, John and Deena were the first couple on the dance floor and hardly left it all evening. Deena’s gown was an off-the-shoulder deep maroon velvet, highlighting her alabaster skin and nicely complementing the maroon cummerbund of John’s tuxedo. As they swirled across the polished floor, her hand at the back of his neck and her forehead pressed tightly against his chin, other dancers made room for them, as though realizing they were witnessing something special and even unique as the two almost seemed to become one person.
It was their last dance together for a long time.
Often over the years they had marched together, holding hands, in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, their determination to make the world a better place, or at least a saner place, brightly apparent in their eyes. But despite their determination and their arguments with some of their peers, the war was by then in full fury and John, two weeks after graduation, went through naval pilot training at Pensacola and was assigned to an aircraft carrier in South Vietnam. He and Deena wrote nearly every day, though sometimes her letters to him, full of love and hope and good wishes, were delayed by more than a week. When his plane was shot down near Chu Lai, it took the U.S. Navy nearly a month to inform Deena and their parents that John had miraculously parachuted to safety. Some twenty years later she occasionally called him “Tom Cruise,” referring to the overly romanticized movie Top Gun. He told her she was far more beautiful than the actress Kelly McGillis in the film, and she laughed and thanked him, though she already knew.
Following his tour of duty and her graduation from college, they discussed what they wanted to do. One thing was certain–they both wished to leave the cloying political and religious atmosphere of Texas, and when a decent job in the burgeoning California technology industry opened up for which John was qualified, they moved almost overnight to a house they bought south of San Francisco on Monterey Bay. Their parents tried to talk them out of it but, seeing this was hopeless, offered to pay part of the cost of the house and furnishings. The siblings turned them down.
John was good at his job and was promoted several times over the years, with commensurate increases in pay. For her part, Deena became active in many of the Southern California charitable organizations as well as those promoting some semblance of equality for immigrants. There was a scare at one point that she had breast cancer but the tumor turned out to be benign. At the urging of his fellow veterans John eventually joined the VFW, which gave him and Deena an opportunity to attend the Saturday dances at the local hall, and to their great pleasure they discovered that, if anything, they danced together now even better than they had before, each anticipating the other’s movements so perfectly it was as though they were telepathic, reading each other’s minds or, more realistically, their bodies.
One of their favorite restaurants was an upscale French bistro overlooking the Bay called Le Chat Noir. One evening they were having a late dinner on the deserted patio, and before the café au lait John asked Deena if she would like to dance. There was no dance floor in the restaurant and therefore no dancing, but just as the waiter was about to tell them they could not continue, the manager shook his head and smiled at the couple who were regular customers. As they danced among the tables it began to spatter rain but they were oblivious, Deena even raising her lovely face to catch the drops as they fell. It was, they agreed, one of their best evenings in a long time.
Sometimes they would fly down to Baja for a long weekend. They discovered a secluded beach away from the throngs of tourists where they swam nude every afternoon before returning to their hotel to dress for dinner. It was their habit, at cocktail hour, to sip frosty piña coladas on the deck and watch the sun slowly, brilliantly disappear into the ocean. For a small inn their hotel had excellent food, and since they had no interest in the noisy bars and restaurants along the malecón they usually dined on the hotel’s open-air patio. The hotel also had a small terraza for dancing to a live band. One evening, as they glided seamlessly across the multicolored tile floor, they overheard one of the waiters say to another, “Qué pasión!” And it was true, their dancing was nothing if not passionate.
Over the years in happy seclusion at their house on the bay Deena worked in the garden nearly year round, growing vegetables such as peppers and beans, herbs John used for cooking, and flowers, primarily showy ones like hibiscus, morning-glories, and poppies. Digging in the dirt, she claimed, made her feel more a part of the earth. John at some point took up playing a guitar he’d had since college, and long, pleasant evenings on their patio after supper he would serenade Deena with plaintive Brazilian love songs.
Some months after her sixty-second birthday Deena, complaining of constant exhaustion, began losing weight. In a series of terrible visits to doctors and hospitals, along with several MRIs and painful internal examinations, it was determined that she had advanced, inoperable uterine cancer. Her doctor wanted her to stay in the hospital but John wouldn’t hear of it, and together with the help of a hospice nurse he took care of her, night and day, feeding her what little she would eat, bathing her, trying in every way he knew to comfort her. Late one night a month or so after leaving the hospital she feebly grasped his hand, pulled it to her parched lips, and whispered, “I love you, John. I always have, you know.” And then she stopped breathing.
He buried her in a cemetery plot they had chosen together, next to an ancient oak tree. The stone mason completed the headstone they had both wanted, engraved with two hands clasped tightly together as though to ensure a peaceful pas de deux into another, magical world.
After Deena’s death, John, distraught, unable to sleep or even eat because of his overwhelming sadness and loneliness without her, took matters into his own hands. He signed up for a tourist bus tour to Tijuana, where on Avenida Revolución he found a veterinary supply shop that would sell him a small bottle of Nembutal. Back home, he took an antiemetic for two days to prevent vomiting, then lay down on the huge bed with the bottle of Nembutal beside him. He had looked for and found a particular photograph of himself and Deena standing at a railing at a seaside restaurant, with a single sailboat passing across the gorgeous reflection of the setting sun. They were laughing together, their arms around each other’s waists. It was, he thought, one of the beautiful Deena’s best photographs ever. Smiling at her, he poured the contents of the drug bottle into a small glass and drank it down. “I love you,” he said aloud, already drowsy. Shortly after that he fell into a deep sleep, from which he would never wake.