[ToC]

 

THE DANCING PLAGUE

Benjamin Rybeck

The young women, probably 200 of them by now, dance on the campus mall. Sometimes they dance in formation. Sometimes they bob and clap while another girl gets out front and does something vaguely sexual or old fashioned. They do not stop. Not when the dorm RAs try to bring them jackets. Not when the police come and park their cruisers on the mall. The cops can't exactly do anything. They have no laws to enforce. The girls do nothing wrong. Just dance. Sometimes the police watch them for an hour or so. I wonder if my dad is ever one of these cops. I can only imagine what he might think, shaking his head, muttering, "Look at these fucking wise guy girls," turning his rotund body away from the mess, squeezing back into his cruiser, checking his insulin. My dad checks his insulin all the time. At 51, he has already lived three years longer than any doctor expected him to. He must be doing something right.
      We recognize the girls from our classes, but we don't know much about them. All semester we stared at their legs, and their fingers curling through their hair, and their lips pursing right before whispering the answer to a posed question. We got the sense these girls had moved from away to attend school here. Not locals, like us. We need to work hard. Keep our scholarships, not let our parents down. We do not go home for Christmas, because we go home often enough, most of us having only moved 10 minutes away. We figured the girls would be out of here as soon as winter break started, heading off to brick houses in the Berkshires, to beach houses in Florida, to Paris with their parents. But instead they started dancing.
      In our classes, a few of them seemed a little stuck-up, and a few of them seemed a little rich. I recognize one of the dancers, Chelsea, from my American history course. She is the heaviest girl dancing on the mall. She sweats and jiggles. The girls in the American history course made fun of Chelsea. Told her that she should try to pick out the $20 clothes from the thrift store instead of settling for the dollar bin. Thing is, I saw her once at that thrift store. I pull most of my clothes from the dollar bin too. The girls in my classes never teased me because of this. Maybe there's something to be said for being ignored by girls. Sometimes Chelsea sat next to me in class, but I never talked to her. That day in the thrift shop, she recognized me as I pulled a pair of torn bell bottom jeans from the bin and held them to my body. "Looks good," she said. I nodded and smirked and left the store immediately, buying nothing. She never sat next to me in class again. She kept her head down as the girls begged her for fashion tips. But now, I watch her with admiration. Who knew she could dance this long? Who knew she could move her round body like this? I certainly couldn't. I'm like my father. I check my insulin every half hour or so. I don't want to begin college the same way I ended high school: having a seizure during class because my insulin tube is twisted around the keychain hanging off my belt, not enough of it streaming into my body.

We are the boys left in the freshmen dormitory during winter break. We watch the girls in shifts. Rodney likes to watch in the morning. He wants to be a dancer himself. He likes the peace at 8am. He likes to straighten his long back and try to move his willow of a body along with the girls. Christopher likes to watch in the afternoons, during his lunch. He has some convoluted theory that the rhythmic dancing helps him eat more slowly, which he thinks he needs to do to stave off the freshmen fifteen. Grady and Tom have taken up smoking in the evenings, and so they sit out there for hours lighting each cigarette off the last, watching the girls from the shadows. I watch the girls most nights from my room, when I should be catching up on the work I didn't complete last semester. A few of my professors were generous enough to grant me incompletes, since I spent the second half of November in and out of the hospital, getting tested, getting fitted for new the tube that will not (they tell me) get tangled, that will run forever into my body, keeping me alive. My dad's face went red when he heard about this. He squeezed his fists. "Don't you think that staying alive is a little more important than school right now?" I asked him. "Don't be a fucking wise guy," my dad said. I should be taking this time to finish up my work. But most nights I watch the dancing instead.
      We have done nothing crass with the girls. In the beginning, when Tom spotted them on the mall on his way home from the library where he had used the campus internet to quickly download enough porn to last him two weeks, he joked that we should stand in a line at the window and moon the girls, or jerk off, or something. We nodded and moaned complacently but never wound up aiming any body parts at the girls. Mostly we have watched curiously, but respectfully. In the mornings, Rodney has begun to get an idea for a dance performance he can do in one of his classes next semester—a performance that uses his body in a way it can be used. He marvels at the fact these girls never stop, and wants each of his own dance moves to look like the moment after dancing, when the dancer rests. In the afternoons, Christopher has stopped eating altogether. At night, as Grady and Tom smoke their cigarettes, they have begun saying nasty things about the girls, talking about fucking so-and-so up the ass, or slapping their cocks against so-and-so's tits. But they say these things with unsharpened voices. Most nights Grady and Tom hold hands as they watch.
      We spend Christmas together, giving out booze the few remaining senior boys across campus bought us and cigarettes we bought ourselves as presents. We get drunk and kiss one another with hands blocking our mouths under the mistletoe. We laugh and dive against each other and periodically return to the window. I ask the others if they think the girls might be getting cold, so we make hot cocoa and take the cups—hundreds of them—outside and set them on the frosty grass. But the girls are busy doing a series of choreographed-looking moves that involve swirling hands and pirouettes. We sleep in the lounge that night and when we wake the next morning, we go outside and find that no one has touched her cocoa. We bring the cups inside, one by one, and flush the liquid down the toilet.

A few days after Christmas, my father has a stroke. It happened when my father was walking the beat, just like he's done every night for the last twenty years. He heard a noise like a gunshot down on Fore Street and started to run, but then stopped running and seemed to spin for a moment like a ballerina before hitting the ground. Some people exiting Vignola's saw this and called 911, but most of the cruisers were streaming by anyway, occupied with hunting down the source of the noise on Fore. It took fifteen minutes for a cruiser to break off from the parade and find my dad face down on the cobblestones.
      I tell the guys to keep an eye on the girls, and I leave for the day, to visit my dad at Maine Med. He looks like a whale lying on the bed. He is short enough so his feet don't dangle off, but wide enough so that the slightest movement left or right looks like it will send him tumbling to the floor. I ask him how he feels and he makes a motion with his hand like he's jerking off the air.
      "Mom said you danced on the street," I say.
      "Someone pops a balloon and everyone goes running," my dad says. "Nobody told my body that it's three years too late."
      The disease is bad. The sugar coursing through the veins corrodes them. The body weakens. Most people have their first and last stroke at 48 or so, but my dad has made it to 51. I look just like my dad. The same bulbous nose. The same curly hair. The same drooping left eye. Until my dad was 48, I saw in his face a future version of myself, and it was a version that I felt proud of. Sure, I'd want to be a little thinner, but still, my dad, built well with muscles out to here, was nothing to scoff at. But in the last three years, I've seen a version of myself that extends further than it should. His muscles have turned into fat. His eye has begun to droop even more. My dad sometimes says he's living too long. It's been hard for me to look at my dad for these last three years and not feel like I was seeing something that should not exist—like seeing a walking ghost of myself, like some version of myself that I will never become, because the disease has accelerated already in my body faster than it did in my dad's, and I will probably not beat the odds like him.
      I sit by my dad and rest my hand close to his.
      "Don't touch my hand," he says.
      "Don't worry. I'm not going to touch your hand."
      "Just saying."
      "Are they going to take you off the beat?" I ask him.
      "I guess that depends on how many foot soldiers they need to go hunt down renegade balloon poppers," my dad says.
      "I'm getting my work done," I say. I feel like I should reassure him in some way. I feel like I should let my dad know that he has not danced in the street for nothing—that he did not dance and fall while his son spends all break staring out a window.
      My dad flicks at the tube running into his body as though thinking about pulling it out.
      "You're okay," I say.
      "Pop a balloon and watch me come running," he says, and makes a fist around the tube, but does not move his hand after that.
      "If I had to run, I would have fallen too," I say.
      "You've got a few more years, I think," my dad says. He loosens his fist. His arm falls to his side. He sighs. "So long as you get your work done," he says.
      "Just so long as nobody pops any balloons around me," I say.
      "Don't be a fucking wise guy," my dad says.
      When I get back to the dormitory that night, the guys have nothing new to report. Apparently some of the girls broke into the Charleston. That's about it. All the guys are waiting up for me in the lounge. We want to have a potluck together, but we don't know how to cook, so we walk down to the 7-11 and buy frozen dinners and heat them up in the common room's microwave. We set out the steaming plastic trays and walk the line with forks, spearing chicken strips and pieces of corn, shoveling mashed potatoes into our mouths. They ask me how my dad is doing. I tell them my dad is fine. They remember the night early in the semester when my dad wanted to take everyone to dinner. At the end of the night, my dad reached into his wallet and realized that he had forgotten his credit card. They talk about how awesome it was when my dad pulled out his badge and held it up to the waitress and told her he needed to speak to the manager. And then how awesome it was when we all ran from the restaurant together once the waitress had turned her back, my middle-aged dad laughing like a child and leading the rest of us, children all, into the night. They tell this story a dozen different ways. They think it makes me feel better.
      I don't tell my version of the story. How the next day my dad returned to the restaurant and told the waitress he had to run out the night before on police business and then paid her for all the meals, and used up his week's spending money to leave a huge tip because of how bad he felt. I didn't tell them that after we ran from the restaurant, my dad and I sat together in his car for twenty minutes trying to catch our breath, each of us pricking our fingers and checking our blood sugar levels after the big meal, each of us trying to still laugh and failing together, my father—that ghost of myself—looking more like myself than I'd ever seen before.
      The guys see how my face is getting and suggest we go look out the window. So we go, and we see them. The girls dance. Hundreds of them. Pirouetting and rolling their hands and sweating. Not eating and not drinking. Not sleeping. Not resting. How can they keep doing this? I want to turn from the window, and grab each of the guys, and scream into their ears, "What is happening to our lives?" These girls do not dance out of joy. The girls dance to taunt me—to show me what my body and my father's body cannot do.

In the last weekend before the new semester starts, the guys lose interest in the girls. Rodney is too busy calling local dance troupes to see which ones might be interested in the sort of project he has planned for the next semester. Christopher passed out from hunger a week ago and has spent the last part of his break in the campus hospital, talking to doctors about eating disorders. Grady and Tom spend most of their nights alone in their shared dorm room with the shades drawn, with the lights out, with the TV on, getting to know each other's bodies. My father calls me but I do not answer my phone. He leaves me a message. He says, "I'm laid up for the next few weeks. Do your work." I do not call him back.
      I am the only one who still watches the girls. I watch from my room with my lights off, peaking through the shades. I watch them bob and roll and flail, their limber bodies looking like water, looking clear and fluid as waves. Because I am the only one who still watches the girls, I am the only one who sees it when they begin to stop dancing, for no apparent reason, on Saturday afternoon. It begins when one of them just strikes a pose, her arms extended as though awaiting a hug, and then walks away. By the afternoon, half of them are gone. Some of them dance into the night, but by Sunday morning, the display is all over. The mall is empty, except for the students returning from their winter breaks with new jackets, new suitcases, with warm hand-outs of parental money resting easily in their pockets. We hear nothing about the dancing on Sunday. We even see some of the girls in the dormitory, washing their clothes, using the common room's microwave to heat up tamales. They look fine, happy, and refreshed. They ignore us, just like they always did, just like they always will.
      That night, I notice something the other guys don't. I notice, alone in my room, looking out the window, that the dancing plague is not over yet, because Chelsea is still out there, still dancing by herself. Three weeks now, and the girl has not stopped. Even now that the others have all left, Chelsea does not stop. She dances. Her plump body gyrates. Her plump body pours out into the night air. I watch her dance. I bite my lip, standing at my window. There is something so obnoxious about this, this girl still out there, overstaying her welcome. She dances out of spite. She dances like she has something to prove. But nobody stops to watch her body pulse. People walk by holding hands. People ride by on bicycles. How has her body not collapsed yet under its own weight, taking her spinning down to the ground along with it? I hate it when somebody has something to prove.
      I turn from the window and go to my desk and stare at the list that hangs on the bulletin board in front of me: the list I made of the work I still have left to do to pass my classes from last semester. An essay analyzing 20th-century American history from the perspective of a lawyer arguing for workers' rights today. An essay discussing the discrepancy between body and mind from a Kantian point of view. An essay on the subject of Willy Loman's last moments, and the sacrifices (or lack thereof) he makes for his family. I chew on my pencil and stare at this list. I break the graphite off in my mouth and crunch it between my teeth. Where to begin? And, really, why bother? In a few years, my father will fall again, and then not get back up. In a few years, I will see my future frozen in his face at the wake. What do I have to prove?
      I return to the window and look outside. Chelsea has stopped dancing. Chelsea, now, is lying on the ground, on her side. Chelsea is not moving. The people still walk and cycle by. Nobody stops. She is just some girl sleeping out there. Nobody knows what I know. I close my shades and return to my desk and try to scribble out a few words in a notebook. "Willy Loman and the Attributes of Hard Work: Family Responsibility in Death of a Salesman." This is all I write. I stare at this title. I cannot go on. I have nothing left to say.
      I gather my blanket and pillow in my arms and take the elevator downstairs. I walk out to the mall, through the throngs of returning seniors, drunk and rowdy and hollering out new versions of old fights that didn't go the way they wanted them to, and I kneel on the cold grass next to Chelsea and I touch her shoulder to try and wake her. She is passed out. Breathes softly. Sleeps. I lift her head as gently as I can and squeeze the pillow between her hair and the ground. I drape the blanket over her, tucking it around her neck and under her feet, and I watch her for a minute. Beads of sweat cover her face. She smells bad. She has not showered in weeks. I sit with her and watch a group of nighttime joggers jog by, talking as they go, laughing as they go. I stand and return to my room, leaving Chelsea lying on the ground by herself.
      But this has been pointless. By the time I get to my room and peak between the bars of the venetian blinds, Chelsea has stood back up, and has recommenced her dancing, doing it with more fervor than before. Her eyes shine like flashlights in the dark. The lights on the mall make her look like a performer on a stage who cannot see the audience and cannot envision the moment when the show will end. The poor girl does not know her own body. She does not know that one day she will not be able to go on. I watch her for a minute and think about how long I would have lasted in this dancing plague. Natural selection would have taken care of me after a few hours. I would have been on the ground, fiddling with the tube connected to my body, trying to recover. Natural selection would have taken care of my dad too. That night when we ran from the restaurant and we sat in the car, I thought about this. As my dad and I struggled to catch our breath and mimed each other's movements, I thought, for just a second, that maybe that was the end right there. Before my dad's stroke, before I spent time in the hospital getting the tube inserted into my body: God, I thought that was the end right there, sitting with my dad in the car, each of us huffing like we had plastic bags caught in our throats, each breath like a cork we were trying to swallow.
      But that was not it. We go on living, my dad and I. We will be joined by a desk now. I will sit at mine tonight and finish my work before the next semester begins. And my dad will take a seat at a desk too. My dad will be off the street. My dad will chew on pencils until one day soon a trip to the coffee maker will spin him to the ground like an old ballerina collapsing on a stage. Until that day, my dad and I will be joined at a desk. Until that day, my dad and I will be side by side, each of us knowing what his body can do.
      I turn away from the window, leaving Chelsea by herself once more. She'll stop dancing eventually.

 

 

 

 


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Both of my parents are diabetic. One of them is a police officer. I went to college close to home. It's all as simple and literal as that. As for the rest, google "the dancing plague." How could I resist? I just wish I'd remembered while writing the story the bit about them building a stage to keep the people dancing.