"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Cathedral Square, Mobile, Alabama

Cathedral Square, Mobile, Alabama

I lead my daughter in a silver foxtrot across the grass. I’ve got about ten minutes left with her, and so as I dance with her I try to explain how awful it was to take ballroom dancing lessons with her mother. We’re on the stretch of lawn in front of the church, Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It’s called Cathedral Square. The lawn is wide open. No trees. No shade for us from this September sun, on this warm Saturday. I’m in terrible shape—I used to be a runner, but what the hell, now I’ve got a gut, I’ve got a double chin, I smoke, I don’t do anything right, I don’t even go to church. I’m already sweating under my ball cap.

The daylight’s going to start fading and there’s nothing I can do to stop time. Except this, dance with my daughter. I’m humming a tune as we move. The air isn’t moving. God isn’t that kind to me. So it’s only us moving. The tune is one of those happy jazz standards but it’s really sad coming out of me. The church is colossal, looming above us like an enormous ship, an old galleon, that has floated up from the Gulf. Here in the square are brick walkways, a stone colonnade. She glances up at the sky as we move, which must’ve made her dizzy because she takes hold of the bill of my ball cap and then lets go. She does get dizzy, like I do.

Wow, it’s like riding a bike. Slow, quick quick. Slow, quick quick. I turn her on a quick quick and that makes her laugh. She’s lovely. Her laugh thrills me. She’s radiant. Good God, what it is to be a father, moments like this.

I can hear the music from back then. It was ours, mine and her mother’s. That was way back—but, then I actually say this out loud to her: “That was way back. Your mother and I, we were in love.” We used to clear the living room to practice the foxtrot, the waltz, the others. We had a big ugly green chair. I carried that out of the living room. We had a rocking chair from the 1800s with a broken arm. We had an antique sugar bowl with a broken handle. Everything outside of us was broken, and that was precious. Now, everything inside is broken. We didn’t have a rug—hell, we couldn’t afford one—so the wood floor was bare, and open and ready for us. She chose the music. Frank Sinatra. The Way You Look Tonight. Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold… Good God, we weren’t moving to the music—it was the music moving us. Where did the music go?

“We started to fight,” I tell my daughter. “All that work in the living room was not about dancing. It was about the us of us. But I didn’t understand that.” Back then, I struggled, a turtle caught in a trawl net. A leatherback. A sea turtle can work its way out, get free—that’s the instinct. The turtle doesn’t understand its struggle. “My hips don’t move, you see, I just couldn’t make my hips move the way she wanted them to move, and so I just couldn’t do those dances your mother wanted to do. The rumba, the cha cha.” I negotiate the corner of the lawn. I haven’t forgotten how to negotiate corners. There could be a hundred couples out here, and I could negotiate all of them. “When I danced the samba, she said it looked like I was running in place.” I smile.

This makes her laugh. She’s ready for me to go on. She actually seems curious to hear me say these things. Remarkable! Usually I have to ply guys I know with beer, and still they can hardly bear to listen to me. I’m a burden to everybody, except my daughter. She appreciates me despite my faults.

I go on and say, “Well, of course I was running. That’s what a guy does when there’s a problem that can’t be fixed. My hips. The shouting.” I had to correct myself. “There wasn’t really shouting. Not like it sounds. Sure, we argued.”

We keep dancing, and one of the special things about this moment of dancing with my daughter in Cathedral Square is how it takes me back to that living room, to the joy of young love. My daughter’s a time machine. It makes me young again. It brings me back to an open heart and patience, and optimism about the journey we have ahead of us. The optimism that love will take us there, will get us through, all the way to the end. That was an early, simple view. Too simple.

  “Let me just tell you.” I slow down—I don’t mean to, so I try to correct it. I’m not trying to be creative with speed. I’m trying to be consistent. A regular guy. A dependable person. A father who’ll be there for his daughter. We are out near the center of the lawn. And I’m leading us slow, quick quick slow, quick quick slow. “You need to know,” I say, “that it wasn’t you.”

Her mother and I love her more than we love ourselves.

And then I miss a step—a whole step!—but she hardly notices. She doesn’t know what configuration to expect, though nothing could be simpler than this slow, quick quick slow, quick quick slow. A kid doesn’t know the steps, but she knows a misstep. She’s got such intuition. Back when, she wailed whenever her mother and I talked. When we weren’t even shouting. I asked out loud—I turned away, it was like I was asking the wall: “Why the hell is she always wailing when we’re having a conversation?”

Her mother said, “Is that what we’re having?”

I guess there were no conversations left. What was left for us? Our daughter was. Now I actually say this out loud to my daughter: “You were the best thing ever happened to us, to each of us, your mother and I.” Never has the us in a sentence been as divided as in that construction. I never expected to feel like I’d have to tell her she’s the best that ever happened. But then, you have to do what you can with moments you are given, because you are hardly ever given a moment. Like this dance. I say, “This is the Cathedral Square Ballroom. It’s ours now.”

I lead us back to where we started, which is at the street on the church side of the lawn. The church steeple above us may as well be a clocktower. My wife drives up, right on time. She always does—she doesn’t do things wrong like arrive late. I do things wrong again and again, at least in everybody’s eyes. She’s chosen burgundy for the color of her car. Not a color I ever choose. Her car, it looks like a big anatomical heart. It swings itself into a parking spot at the curb, neatly between the lines, as she does. It’s remarkable how consistent she is. I would say reliable, but there’s more to that—and I’m out of time, because I’m not the custodial parent.

She gently pries our daughter from my arms, and while she’s buckling her safely into the child seat, I put the diaper bag in the back seat of her car. And then without a word because words stopped working for us, she drives my daughter away from me.

Raised in small-town Alabama and now based in New York City, Christopher X. Shade is author of the novel The Good Mother of Marseille (2019). He is co-founder and co-editor of Cagibi, at cagibilit.com, a journal of poetry and prose. He teaches fiction and poetry writing at The Writers Studio. His stories and book reviews have appeared widely in various publications. Facebook: Christopher Shade, Instagram: @cxshade

Cover photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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