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Short Stories - Just Like Dancing

published in Long Story Short in July 2011

Just Like Dancing
by William Doonan

It wasn't happening.

Sarah leaned over the long table so that her chin rested on the edge. She stared at the hundreds of pieces of broken Anasazi pottery that lay sullen before her. There's no dancing, she thought. Some of the pieces had tiny incised circles, some had wavy lines, and more than a thousand years had passed since they last saw any use. It was a matter of faith, Sarah knew, even for an archaeologist.

On a good day she could pull it off; she could close her eyes and hold the broken pots, and get a glimmer of what things were like when the pots were whole. And when that happened it was just like dancing, where you held someone close and felt their heart, and you could know all about them without even having to talk.

But not today.

She leaned back and stared at the crusty pipes overhead, wondering absently if she should have gone to law school instead.

"Wow, this sounds good," called Caroline from the back of the basement lab that the graduate students shared. She held up a cooking magazine to indicate the source of her merriment. "Roast duckling in peach sauce. Doesn't that sound yummy?"

"Boy does it," Sarah said. She didn't appreciate this aspect of Caroline as much as Caroline did. She had eaten at Caroline's apartment only once, and while the fricassee was tasty, she spied a rather bulk amount of bologna in the refrigerator. She imagined enough Tuna Helper lurking about to feed legions.

And the day passed.

Later by about seven she found her stride and was playing pool the way you can only on your best days play pool. She sunk the eight with such an angled shot that Luke felt moved to bow.

“I know you had a rough day with the ceramics,” he said, “but you’re a master at the pool table.” Neither a student nor an archaeologist, an electrician by trade, he loved her and he was trying to be mindful of the arcane complexities of her world.

“It’s just hard to know what to pay attention to, what’s important," she told him. "I have to keep reminding myself that the people who made the pots have been dead for a long time. So it probably doesn’t matter too much if I get the analysis right or not.”

Next game, Luke followed her break with three soft taps that should have left him set up for the fourth but somehow didn’t. He stepped back from the table and breathed deeply, loving the smell of the smoky air. He twisted chalk onto the tip of his cue and watched as Sarah lined up her shot. She's perfect, he thought. Her hair was coming undone and her clothes were all wrinkly. She didn't even blink as she eyed the cue ball. He imagined that they were alone somewhere quiet and he would count her eyelashes.

"What?" she asked, because he was still staring at her.

"You’re lovely," he said.

Sarah searched about her next shot but then backed away from the table. "You can't keep doing this. We have discussed things. I have to focus on grad school, and you have to respect my decisions."

He nodded. "I do respect your decisions. I remember every moment I could have kissed you and you wouldn't have pulled away." He scanned the table to find the best shot, even though it wasn't his turn.

A short while later, Sarah sunk the eight ball, winning her fifth game. "Five takes it," she said. That was their rule. They moved to the bar and drank beer from big plastic cups.

A few stools away, a heavy couple dressed entirely in denim were arguing loudly and being sloppy with their drinks.

"It's just a tattoo," said the woman.

The man shook his head sadly. "But it’s a big one."

Sarah drained her beer and Luke filled her cup from the pitcher. "What should we do now?" he asked. "There's nothing on TV tonight."

"We should dance," she said. "Maybe we should dance."

Luke tried to remember when he had last heard music in this bar. He looked around in hopes of a jukebox but saw none. Finally, he set off on a search and found one in the back behind a big refrigerator. He gave it a hard pleading look because he really wanted this, but it was covered up to its belly in grime, and all the little cards with the song names had fallen out of their slots. He stayed with it a few moments.

"No luck," he said, returning to his stool.

"We have to do something," she said. "Name some options and I'll pick one."


She gave him a hard stare. "Within reason."

Luke refilled his own cup. "We could get married," he said. He had long ago determined that he would always say what he felt. "We could build a deck. Or we could take a trip. We could go to Prague."

Sarah listened, nodding slowly.

The lab was always cold in the morning, even if it was blazing outside. Sarah dreamed that the dead Anasazi potters had come back and were angry to see only broken pieces. You have to be more careful with your life, they told her.

Caroline burst in through the side door. “I made truffle tarts last night,” she said triumphantly. “The trick is to make sure to keep stirring, otherwise the butter will burn.”

Sarah nodded. "I try to never let the butter burn," she said. She had bought a new coat and was cutting off the tags. It was a grey coat, suede and not too heavy, with deep pockets. She bought it because she heard that sometimes it could get very cold, especially in the evenings, in Prague.

The dead would have to wait.

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