The Dancer
by Asha Parekh
Illustrated by Becca Quant

*Editor’s Note: A version of this story was previously published in Prairie Schooner.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was, maybe nine or ten. The town was abuzz with the talk of “Renuka and her Dance Troupe.” What held my attention was that Renuka was close to my age. I found out from my mother while she was rolling rotli for our dinner, and I was standing by the stove toasting each one as it puffed up. The most amazing thing my mother mentioned was that this dancer, Reunka, would be staying next door.

The day Renuka and her dance troupe were scheduled to arrive, I was racing around the house and our garden. I was anxious to meet her and see what a real dancer my age would look like. I imagined a beautiful girl with long hair and breathtaking features dressed in something frilly and fancy. She’d better not be a snob, I thought. Just meet her before you get too wrapped up in this thing. I was terrible that way. I could fantasize about things for hours so that even a place like my own town no longer contained a shred of its ever-present, dull reality.

I was sitting on the cool concrete steps, leaning against the heavy oak door that opened onto our front garden, pretending to read. I heard a car pull up next door. I looked up and over the low hibiscus hedge and saw a large, bright orange combi van. It parked in the shade of a scrawny jacaranda tree that had never had a single purple blossom. A ton of people, all grownups, piled out. Over the top of my book, I kept a steady gaze at the open door of the van to catch a glimpse of Renuka. Finally, she slid out, and I saw a lot of hair and big, bold eyes but no frills. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and she looked pretty to me. She was thin and tall and moved without the grace I imagined a dancer held. Then everyone made their way into the house next door, and I wished I could be a fly on the wall. I wanted to get a closer look at Renuka. She seemed really normal so far. Which one of the grownups was her mother, I wondered. Who was her father? I went in to announce the news of her arrival to my mother.

“Don’t go rushing in there. Let them settle down,” she said as she turned toward the window to see if she could catch a glimpse of the goings-on next door.

I moved to the back verandah and stood hidden to see what I could from there. There was a lot of movement, that much I could tell from my view into the kitchen through the open back door. But no Renuka. I wondered if her dancing gave her immunity from kitchen duty. A good enough reason to become a dancer, I thought. After some time, I saw her again. She came out and stood facing the sun near the tall avocado tree, her hands in the pockets of her jeans, her head tilted, eyes shut, soaking in the sunshine on her pretty face. She was tall and thin, but she seemed so normal looking. Nothing like a dancer. No sparkle, no elegance. Just a girl who could be my next-door neighbor, I thought.

I walked over as quietly as I could, though it was difficult to move stealthily in gravel. I got closer, and she looked even prettier in her simplicity up close to me. She opened her eyes and looked at me and smiled.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m Kavita. I live next door.”

“Hi, Kavita. I’m Renu,” she said. “Auntie told me about you. She said I would be staying with you.”

“Only if you want,” I said hastily, not wanting to appear too keen to make friends.

She smiled. I felt awkward. What do you say to Renuka of Renuka and the dance troupe?

“So you’re a dancer?” I asked, feeling dumber than dumb.

“Yes.” She smiled. “I dance.” That made me like her instantly. Then she said, “I hope we can become friends while I’m here. I’m always traveling, and I hardly get to meet anyone my age. I’m really glad you’re here.”

“Well, to be honest, you’re the big happening in our town, and I’m glad you’re here. I’ve never met a real dancer before.”

“Now you have,” she said. “People imagine that I walk around in dance outfits and have dancing wings or something. But, as you can see, I’m kind of boring to look at. So when can I come over?” she asked.

“Anytime they let you,” I said.

“I probably have to eat lunch first. Come inside with me.”

We entered the kitchen, and though I’d been in Auntie Mina’s kitchen many times, it never looked this way before. There were all kinds of women standing around, and there were pots of food everywhere. On the counter, there were glass container full of salad, sweet siro, and puris. The intermingled smells made me hungry. Auntie Mina appeared from the dining room, where I could hear the men eating and laughing.

“Can Kavita eat with us, Auntie?”

“Yes, but both of you wash your hands, and sit down to eat over there now, okay?”

I followed my new friend and instant idol around till we sat down to eat. I paid more close attention to Renuka than to what was on my plate. I stole glances at her while she wasn’t looking. We talked and laughed like we’d be friends for years. The women fussed over us, piling our plates with food, commenting that we were not eating enough, regardless of the actual amount we were eating. Renuka rolled her eyes at all the fretting, and it made me giggle.

We went over to my house, and she wanted to play pretend. We did. We played every game she and I knew. I brought out my skipping rope, and we skipped, taking turns, learning new songs to skip to. Then we played hopscotch, wobbling on one foot, trying to avoid stepping on the lines drawn in the sand. Then Renuka taught me how to play five stones in the shade of the front verandah of my house. I was having more fun with Renu than I’d had with anyone. We played undisturbed while the grownups retired for their afternoon naps in the heat of the day. Then Renu wanted to play pretend again. She said, “You be the mom, and I’ll be the dad.” First I pretended I was in the kitchen cooking, and Renu pretended she was in the living room reading the paper.

“Renukani Ba—are you listening? I want some water,” she yelled at me in a loud voice.

“Okay,” I responded, “it’ll be a minute.”

“But I’m thirsty now,” she said in a feigned impatience.

I pretended to fill a glass with water and took it over to Renuka. She drank it and seemed satisfied.

Then she announced it was nighttime. She said, “Now we’re going to do what real moms and dads do at night. We’re going to play the kissing game. Come and lie down here next to me,” she said, pointing to the couch. I did. I’d never played the kissing game before, but I was ready.

Renu began to kiss me. She kissed me with soft, dry kisses, first on the inside of my wrist, then moving past my elbow. The kisses became slower, wetter as she was moving up to my shoulder and then my cheek. I’d never been kissed this way before or touched this way before. Renu was like fire on my body. When her lips reached mine, I wanted to kiss her, and she was next to me, and I wanted to kiss her more. Her kisses made my mouth water and my throat dry. They made me want to stop and kiss harder. My whole body and my mind were tingling. This Renu was some dancer, I thought. If this is what is feels like to be a mother, I want to be one quick. She was back at kissing my neck. “Like it?” she asked me in between kisses. I nodded, not trusting the words that might, might not escape my mouth.

“Now it’s my turn,” she said and lay down next to me. I looked up, not sure what to do. She held out her hand, and I kissed each finger. Feeling her flesh burning my lips, my mouth, my throat as I progressed up her arm to her soft, slender neck, the neck of a beautiful dancer. I kissed her, and she shivered, and then I moved up to her throat and then planted a kiss, a quick smack on her lips. I felt her lips move in that flash, and I kissed again, longer, wetter, not sure what was guiding me. “Oh baby,” she whispered in my ear, and I felt that “oh” resonate so powerfully. I lay down next to her, and she lay still next to me.

We fit in the groove of that old, dirty couch. She moved her hand to reach for mine and held it in hers, and that’s how we lay. I could feel a cool breeze. I could hear a distant, faint laughter from an open window nearby, and I could feel Renuka lying next to me in all her beauty, holding me in the palm of her long, delicate hand.

That night, sitting next to my father and mother in the front row, I watched Renuka appear on stage. Under the bright lights, with all the makeup and glitter, she looked more like a film star than the Renu I’d met in my neighbor’s backyard. Renuka in her dancing clothes left me breathless. All through the night, she changed outfits many times, each one more colorful and more elaborate than the last. I thought she looked most stunning in the deep purple outfit that was pleated in the middle and opened out into a rich, golden fan. She danced alone and with others, always stealing the show with her smiles, her ease, and the elusive grace I’d looked for that afternoon and decided she didn’t have. Her feet moved across the stage so rhythmically it was hypnotic. At her ankles, she wore a slew of bells that jingled and punctuated every step of her dance as the heel of her foot hit the stage and reverberated in time with the music.

She wore her hair in a long, thin braid that moved from side to side with her body. I could almost smell the jasmine and roses that laced around it. Twice I imagined I saw her looking straight at me and smiling just for me. All night I sat upright, intensely watching her every move, never tiring. Once my mother leaned over and whispered, “Isn’t she beautiful?” I just nodded, my eyes soaking in every detail on stage. The show ended, and Renu came out alone to take her final bow. She made a dancer’s pose and put her hands together, her head down. I looked right into her eyes, and she winked and smiled at me, and I smiled back with my forced, wooden smile I reserved for grownups. Even then I knew the best moments were behind us. I felt the loneliness ache in me even as I sat next to my parents in that large hall with the house lights on and Renuka on stage basking in the applause. All that was left now was to say goodbye, to send Renu off to dance in another town for another girl.

The day Renu left, I cried. I cried from that place Renu had abandoned. A place that was hollow and tender with her absence. Even then I knew that I’d have to go years in my solitude before I’d meet anyone who could capture me in the way that she had. I wished I could bring her back, somehow keep her in my life, always.

I just lay on that dilapidated couch on the verandah remembering Renuka in all her dancing glory as she moved her feet across the stage with the skill and precision of a magician’s hands. I imagined her sitting in her spectacular purple and gold dance outfit, her made-up face with all the jewelry adorning it, looking out of the window of the van moving farther and farther away from me.

I was filled with an anger, a sadness, a longing for her all fused together inside of me. I felt like a hundred tiny red firecrackers were popping off in my chest. I closed my eyes and imagined the bright orange combi flipping over, going end over end, and my Renu moving with it, hitting the floor and the ceiling, no seat belt holding her in. I imagined her long, delicate dancer hands reaching out to buffer her from the hurt, breaking, snapping in two as she landed finally on the side of the combi in a ditch near the road. I closed my eyes and cradled her body in my arms, feeling her caress.