As I’ve mentioned before, I’m taking a ballroom dance class with my friend Katie and her roommate Jamie. It’s a very particular kind of ballroom dancing called Motown Ballroom dancing, ballroom steps set to music as varied as Diana Ross, Al Green, Beyonce, etc. Someday I may write about the interesting racial dynamics in the classroom, but that is a subject to be handled with much care and so far I’m really not quite sure what to say about it. Race is an incredibly difficult and delicate subject in the best of times, and as a resident of one of the most racially stratified counties in the country I recognize the need to approach any kind of discussion about it carefully. Instead, I’ll turn to some significantly less firey subjects, and write about gender and mother issues. I.Am.So.Fun.
So Katie, Jamie and I are taking Motown ballroom dancing and last night we had to partner up with gentlemen in the classroom to practice the steps we’ve learned. I am quite sure every single woman in the room felt nervous about this, but partnering seemed to go smoothly and for those of us without fiancees or husbands accompanying us, if we didn’t partner with spare men in the room (which, believe it or not, there were several of), then the instructors danced with us. I practiced with two of the instructors, and after the first few tentative steps, my first partner, Jerry, stepped back and said “You need to learn to follow my lead.”
This didn’t surprise me, since I didn’t grow up in an age or a town where dance classes were required or really even encouraged. Jerry demonstrated how, by a squeeze of my hand or slight tug on my arm, I could anticipate the move he wanted me to make. “Ballroom dancing,” he said, “is about following me. It’s about looking at me, and working together. You have to let me lead you, let me show you what I want you to do.”
I have to admit, I took some kind of archaic joy is letting my hand rest on Jerry’s waist, my other in his hand, letting him dictate the moves we made (well, him and the other instructor, who continuously barked the steps over the music). It was the same kind of happiness I derive from baking a perfect, from-scratch pie, or decorating the table for dinner. It’s an old happiness, and one that I don’t like to admit exists to many of my friends, who claim they don’t cook or clean and look only as forward as their next career move. In this day and age, in fact, it’s down right embarrassing.
It’s the same kind of thrill, in fact, that I rebelled against for YEARS, and am reminded of why I did, every time my mother visits. Now first of all, I need to claim immediately, that I am incredibly fortunate with the mother I have. We have a great relationship and the older I grow the more I appreciate her. There are no ‘buts’ or ‘however’s to this statement, just some realizations I feel necessary to share in the context of this post.
I think, my mother thinks, I am perilously close to losing S. at any given moment. S. is tall and broad and dark, he carries off suits particularly well and likes to wear the same cologne JFK once wore, and he’s going to be a lawyer. When my mother looks at him, she says “You sure are lucky you got him. He’s a catch.” And undoubtedly, I am blessed to have the husband I do, but he is…such perfection…in the eyes of both my mother and his, that sometimes I want to holler “If he’s such a good catch, then why does he regard a full dishwasher as a foreign object, just leaving it for me to run and empty?” It is true that once, when we were visiting my parents’ house, I inexpertly poured S.’s beer so that it had too much fuzz on top, and my mom made me pour another one then and there, showing me how to tilt the glass. “If you want to keep S. happy,” she said, “You need to know how to properly pour a beer.” Over this last weekend, when S. lamented the fact that we don’t have a bath mat (I know! Enough already!) my mom purchased us one, and it is not unusual for my mom to fear that S. doesn’t get enough attention, love and support from me. I know she loves me, and I know she’s proud of me, and she raised me to be a certain, confident woman, so I’m not quite sure why she looks at S. as something I could possibly, completely, excuse the language, fuck entirely up. Of course his mother is much the same way, but (a.) he’s her only son and (b.) she never visits, so on the rare occasion she does, it’s understandable. I should point out that I am more bemused by my mom than I am hurt or upset – my mom is wickedly funny and entertaining and I don’t so much begrudge her as I am confused by her.
But, no matter how harmless she is, her actions and words (C., move so S. can see the television better. C., S. needs some more potato chips) do bring forth an angst usually suppressed inside of me, and almost entirely created by my father, who to this day mandates that girls simply must be raised differently than boys because, well, girls can get pregnant and be raped, actions that, through the language he uses, convey a passivitity on the part of women, never actually putting any sort of the action ONTO men (which reminds me of my friend Aa., who was telling me a story about his neighbor who ‘got herself knocked up,’ and when I said ‘You mean, someone knocked her up,’ he answered ‘Well, your incredibly off-putting, today.’ Or something like that.) So my brother always had later curfews and the ability to go to concerts and stay at friends’ houses, whereas if I was even ten minutes past my curfew, my dad climbed into his rusty suburban and drove through town, looking for me. I could get raped. I could get pregnant. On the few occasions I voiced my opinions on this matter, my dad would tell me to stop complaining, it’s just the way society happens to be and it certainly wasn’t his fault that girls and boys were different. I could take THAT problem up with God. If I cried, he told me I was oversensitive. There really was no winning this argument, and I tranlsated, what I believed to be, my lack of power, into a determination to NEVER let any man rule the choices I made. I doubted I would every marry or have children, recognizing both choices as part of the institution that made me feel, over-dramatic or not, extremely powerless and scared, as a young woman. Even though my mother in no way contributed to these feelings, when she recommends a recipe S. would like or worries if he’s getting enough sleep, her concern triggers within me a desire to defend every reason I have for NOT making the bed, for not greeting my husband with a drink in one hand and a paper in the other.
I’m fortunate that S. in no way expects me to do any of the things our mother sdid, and he is truly appreciative for every dinner I make OR pick up on the way home. He praises me if I manage to both iron and mop the floor in the same month, and we both regard the accumulation of household chores as something one or the other of us will eventually get done. I mean, the dishwasher won’t stay full FOREVER. Surely, somebody will eventually unload it. And somebody always does. And while I did follow S. when he went to graduate school, he also followed me when I did the same. Our lives are already, in so many ways, a kind of dance.
The truth is, there is something a little thrilling in a nicely prepared dinner, complete with candlelight, and there is romance is doing something kind for the one you love, whether it’s as simple as preparing a cocktail or as complicated as decorating a house beautifully. And it saddens me a little bit, that these sort of actions are practically politicized, that it’s a point of pride among my friends that they watch the food network but never pick up a spatula. Sometimes we no longer let men lead, even for a moment, so scared are we that we may never get the chance to do so again.
A couple of times friends have emailed and asked me to blog more about my marriage, but I don’t because marriage, my marriage, at least, is incredibly difficult to write about. I am,admittedly, a part of an institution I never thought I wanted to belong to. I will, if my husband needs me, put aside all of my friends, the rest of my family. If he wants us to move to South Dakota or Brazil or Antarctica, I would. I LIKE, occasionally, making his favorite dinner, I LIKE, knowing I can make him smile. I like the release of occasionally letting him lead where we go.
Last night our instructors had us practice dancing with our eyes closed, encouraging us to trust the music and our partners and ourselves. Now that I think about it, really, it’s a perfect metaphor for marriage, and the very little I know about it after six years. The music may constantly change, the steps may grow more elaborate, and often you may not have a clue what you are doing, but if you shut your eyes and trust your gut, release the insecurities built up inside you and all you thought you knew before, you’re bound to get nearly half the steps right. You’ll learn a quarter of the other steps, and the last fourth, well, you just have to hope they aren’t essential to the long haul.