Faux Pas

The first time I danced with a girl I was fifteen years old. It was a school dance and, as I stuck to the wall with the static cling of teenage nerves, a girl named Tara came over and ordered me to dance with her. For the next four minutes she held my hand while we awkwardly swayed back and forth. It was to a song called “Kiss Me.” She didn't.

 That’s a lie. The first time I danced with a girl was in my grandmother's kitchen. It was a Friday night. I was fourteen. I helped her cook something— my jobs in her kitchen generally involved putting my hands in the squishy stuff. She slid some plates into the oven to warm them and, fifteen minutes later, asked me to touch them to see if they were hot enough. 

I remember every second: the shock of how very hot things feel very cold, the way my finger stuck to the plate, the skin tugging as I pulled it off, screaming as my grandmother ran the cold water. “Bet you won't do that again,” she told me. “Don’t just do things because people tell you to.'”

We ate dinner that night while listening to my grandfather's old Harmon-Kardon radio in the kitchen. When it was time to clean up, “They Can't Take That Away from Me,” with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, came on. “Dance with me, kid,” she said. 

I danced with her right there in the kitchen. Her hands felt like paper and she smelled like the little blue flowers from her garden.

That’s a lie. The first time I danced with a girl was with my mother while she was dying. She’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer the January I was twelve and took eighteen months to die. She told me a few sordid family tales, offered no parting wisdom of any kind, and did the best she could to let me know she loved me by teaching me how to cook and to dance. One night in our living room, she gripped the door jamb and then collapsed on the floor. It was the first weekend in December, eleven months after the diagnosis, and my father was several hours away. I picked her up and put her on the couch, where she immediately fell asleep. 

The next day she put on Spanish dance music, carefully held out her hand, and said she wanted to teach me how to merengue.

“The most important thing,” she told me, “is that when you're dancing with a girl, you gotta put your hand square on her ass. You have to be sure she understands exactly what your intentions are.” 

She was fifty pounds lighter by then, and while the music blared at deafening volume we rocked gently, moving only inches at a time, and she held me closer than any person has ever held me before or since, as if she were trying to give away secrets her body just couldn't hold.

My mother was severely mentally ill. She had postpartum depression after my birth, which evolved into what was then called manic depression. I remember her clearly, but did not ever know her, in the poetic sense of the word, beyond her talents: She was a deeply, naturally gifted artist of whom the world has never heard. She was institutionalized, repeatedly. She was often terribly, terribly violent to herself and those around her, and suffered a horrific psychotic break. Everyone tells me she was lovely, before me, that is—the life of every party, a raucous, boiling joy moving like a tightly-bound coil. I wouldn’t know. My first fully-formed memories of my mother all occur after the doctors had electrocuted her.

That’s a lie. The first time I danced with a girl was at the Green Acres Mall with my mother. I was eight years old. There was a song playing on the mall speakers. It was by Donna Summer, the Big Summer Hit, absolutely everywhere, and I was completely obsessed with it. 

My mother, who was there to buy fabric, and I were in the middle of a suburban mall pavilion and I told her we needed to dance, right that second. In my memory, the volume of the song crescendos in a roar throughout the entire shopping mall.

I’m going crazy just to let you know, Donna belted into the microphone, and it's a kinetic joy, remembering it now: I began swinging my bony arms and legs in every direction, hopping up and down in wild ecstasy at the music. The volume becomes even louder: You’d be amazed how much I love you so. When I get my hands on you, I won't let go.  

My mother, then thirty-nine years old, threw her fabric on the ground and started jumping up and down and throwing her arms and legs around, too, right along with me, while a large crowd gathered and stared, and the golden, permanent radio declaration filled the entire building: This time, I know it’s for real.

©B.A. Van Sise

©B.A. Van Sise

B.A. VAN SISE is an internationally-known photographer and the author of the visual poetry anthology Children of Grass. His visual and written work has previously appeared in The New York Times, Village Voice, Washington Post, and on BuzzFeed, as well as in major museum exhibitions throughout the United States.

Website: bavansise.com
Instagram:  @b.a.vansise