Tonight my parents put on their big band records. It is the last day of summer vacation, and this is the last summer of the 70s, and tomorrow I start eighth grade, my last year of middle school.
My mother tries to teach me to dance. She walks me through the steps. I follow her fuchsia toenails, her long tan feet, across the white wood floor. “Look, Fred,” she calls to my father, “Kate is doing the foxtrot.”
I’m a little worried. You always are. New year. Nice tan. Flat chest.
My father drinks a bourbon on the rocks, nodding his head slowly to the music, looking at the album covers. He squints at me. “Didn’t they teach you to dance at school?” he asks.
“No, Fred,” my mother says between counting beats for me, “that was the Robinsons’ daughter.”
My mother talks me through the steps. She is good at instructions, but I am bad at following them. There are certain things, she says, one should know how to do, like make a béchamel sauce, write a thank you note or iron velvet. According to her, I taught myself to walk, cruising around the perimeter of my room when I didn’t know she was watching, refusing to do anything but crawl in public. She says that on the day of my first birthday, in a new dress and the camera ready, I walked straight across the room. “You had a sense of occasion,” she said.
My father’s interpretation: “It was your birthday. There were presents.”
Everyone is always watching each other. Rumors travel faster than light. They speed up the stairs ahead of you to your next class, so that everyone always knows everything.
I can picture the long hallway of our old apartment, before we moved here, to the edge of the meatpacking district. I am a few days shy of my first birthday. My mother sings along with her Fifth Dimension record as she vacuums. I rise into the uncertain air. My room is at one end of the hallway, the room where my mother vacuums at the other. I am halfway there when the machine shuts off. I drop to my knees at the sound of her step.
“This is music,” my father says. “The stuff you listen to: bump, bump, bump. Don’t wanna dance no more with no big fat woman. Those aren’t lyrics.”
“A ten-minute song, containing eight words and two double-negatives.”
I am disappointed some of his songs don’t have any lyrics. “Take the A Train,” in particular. I would love a song about it: about the little old black lady with the rhinestone cat glasses and her immaculate clothes from the Sixties, and the VD posters, and the people who eat bananas out of paper bags, the people who commute in plaid shirts, and the grey polyester suit people of Chambers Street, the way you can learn Spanish from the ads. That’s my A train: 14th Street, Manhattan, to Borough Hall, Brooklyn. Six stops from here to school. Watch the closing doors. And it all starts tomorrow.
“I don’t even like disco,” I tell him.
“Beep-beep yeah, beep-beep,” he counters.
“No,” my mother pulls me back in time, “slow, slow, quick, quick.”
When my parents were growing up, there were more rules for how to do things. Even dancing. Even dating. They had report cards and letter grades. We get these paragraphs about our social development and attitudes to learning. In my mother’s mind, boys and girls can never just be friends, because there are signs, codes, lines not to be crossed. These days, the grown ups all want to be teenagers, what with their flared pants and their long hair and the unisex barbers and the pot they might be smoking. Parents are getting divorced like crazy and moms are going to law school, studying to be realtors or joining EST. So, clearly, the rules are being broken. But even so, I concentrate and try to find the pattern with my feet.
NYC, circa 1982