First Dance

Fiction

When I found out that Julia Orpana was organizing our school dance, I knew I had to be there. I asked my friend John Kelly if he’d go with me. I was standing in the noisy kitchen of his place on Spadina Avenue near Bloor Street, waiting for him to walk me the rest of the way to school. A large iron stewing pot filled with coffee sat in the middle of the table. His parents and six brothers and sisters huddled around the pot, each breaking off hunks of crusty bread and dunking them in the coffee. The coffee was beige with milk, and Mrs. Kelly had used honey to sweeten it. John’s youngest brother, Attila, was on his knees in his chair, the coffee dribbling down his chin as he slurped it from the bread.

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John’s family spoke only Hungarian to one another, as did mine. In fact, they weren’t Kelly at all but Kulcsar. An officer at Pier 21 in Halifax had decided that Kulcsar wouldn’t fly in Canada, so he renamed the family Kelly. We were Beck, and our officer was all right with that, so we got to keep our name. Too bad for the Kellys. They weren’t used to changing their name the way we were. They were Hungarian Catholics. Hungarian Jews changed their names every half-century or so just to blend in. Beck was chosen when Franz-Josef ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Before that, our name was Horvath, and I don’t even know what it was before that.

Mr. Kelly asked me if I wanted to pull up to the table, but I patted my belly and said I was full. Actually, my stomach churned as I watched the frenzy around the pot. Mr. Kelly was a car mechanic and could never quite get his hands clean. But he also had a part-time job that we boys wanted all our fathers to have. On most Wednesday and Saturday nights, he was the Good Humour ice cream man at Maple Leaf Gardens, where our Leafs played. I saw John’s father a couple of times on his way out wearing big round badges 
on his jacket that read, “ESKIMO PIE, 59¢,” “Ice-Cold COCA COLA, 29¢,” “RAINBOW BAR, 39¢.”­

We were almost late when John finally wiped his hands and mouth on the communal towel and got up to leave with me. He was much taller than I was, so we were both awkward for our own reasons. We were at that age when some of us shot up toward the rafters while the rest of us stayed tiny as children. John was a day older than I was but a foot taller. I kept waiting for that extra day, the day when I would wake up with my feet dangling over the end of the bed, when I could stride into the kitchen on long legs and, in 
a manly, hairy voice, greet my awestruck family. “Yes, I have joined the land of the giants and I need now, please, to be fed.”

John and I rushed along Lowther Avenue toward Huron Street Public School. We were snorting steam like horses. “Moira’s going to be at the dance,” I told John. “You like Moira.”

“I like her, but I don’t know,” John said. We were speaking English now. John was not allowed to speak English at home.

“What don’t you know? You like Moira and I like Julia, and they’re organizing the dance together. It’s for Valentine’s Day.”

“OK,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

But by Friday, John was sick with the flu, and when I went around to pick him up in the morning, his father told me at the door that John couldn’t go to school.

“What about the dance tonight?” I said right away.

“No dance,” he said. His face looked stern. I stood waiting on the stoop. Mr. Kelly said, “Come by on Monday, little kozmopolita, on your way to school. He could be better by then.”

He closed the door and left me to head off on my own. I was angry at him and at John. I didn’t feel brave enough to go to the dance on my own, the shrimp without his pal, the giraffe.

That night at dinner, my brother, Noah, said that I was a suck and should go by myself, be a man. Noah had already started high school at Harbord Collegiate while I was heading for junior high at Lansdowne in the fall.

There are Hungarians, and then there are others, not quite Hungarian, not Catholic, not originals. Cosmopolitans.

I told my family how the Kellys ate their breakfast together, soaking bits of bread in a big coffee pot.

Parasztok,” my father said. “Peasants.”

“Robért!” my mother snapped.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“Nothing,” my mother snapped again.

“Lowlifes,” my brother said.

“Noah!” She was snapping like mad now, looking at each of us fiercely.

We ate cabbage rolls quietly together now until I asked, “What does kozmopolita mean?”

“Where did you hear that?” my father said.

“John’s father said it.”

“Did he say it to you?” my mother asked gently.

I nodded.

“Now you’re even,” Noah said. “It means cosmopolitan.”

I could see the whites of my father’s eyes. “It doesn’t mean anything,” 
he said.

“It does,” I said. “Doesn’t it?”

“Be quiet and eat.”

And so I was and I did. It wasn’t until after in our bedroom that Noah explained that we were mutts.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Cosmopolitans are not purebreds. There are Hungarians, and then there are others, not quite Hungarian, not Catholic, not originals. Cosmopolitans.”

I fell back on my bed. What was I here then, I wondered? Here in Canada? What would Julia say to that?

My eyes burned with rage. “You should go to the dance,” Noah said. “Don’t be an idiot.”

“Will you come with me?” I asked.

“And what?” said Noah, “dance with a girl child? I don’t think so.”

“I’m going to go by myself, then,” I said. “I will. I’ll go by myself.”

“Good man,” Noah said. “John can’t do anything for you anyway once you get there. You’ve got to concentrate all of your limited charm on Julia.”

“Yes. Julia.” I’d almost forgotten about Julia, whose features, as I stared out the window and crossed my eyes, disassembled for me like a Picasso, whose auburn hair, caramel eyes and porcelain skin reassembled above me in the darkness of my room at night and hovered like a white angel, giving me hope for the coming day. And Julia’s parents spoke English the way Julia spoke English, with the same clarity and grace. I heard them once in the schoolyard, when they came to pick her up. I’d thought at first they might have been something else with a name like Orpana—Italian possibly—but no they were not. They were Canada Parents.

What would I wear for Julia? I tried on my entire wardrobe: my matching beige top and bottom, which Noah said made me look like a prison guard; my white shirt with the dark grey stripes, which made me look like the prison cell itself; my black pullover and black pants—mortician; my black sweater with white t-shirt underneath—priest. Noah wouldn’t lend me his grey flannel pants because they would have needed to be hemmed. He was as tall as John Kelly.

I went through my father’s closet. He had a knit black sleeveless vest in his closet that an immigrant relief agent had given him when we got to Canada. I’d never seen him wear it and, when I tried it on, I saw why. It was gigantic. My whole family could have gotten into it together. My father could have pulled it over his car in winter. What did the relief agency think—that Lief the Lucky had returned to their shores?

I tried on a Tyrolean hat, but Noah, who’d snuck in behind me, began yodelling. I pulled on a white shirt that was far too small for my father, 
but it was made of a strange, almost see-through fabric. “Love the blouse,” Noah said, “but I can see your boobs.”

Finally, I settled on my own brown corduroys with their sucky elasticized waist, but I could conceal it under the beige top I’d started out with. I bathed, doused myself with my father’s German aftershave, bathed again, then rushed to dress and leave.

I walked through the nip of the early dark like an adventurer, someone bound for the Emerald City, someone at once enchanted and uneasy. The yellow brick road was frosted over with a pale blue film. I hustled along Lowther and did not even turn my head at Spadina to see what the Kellys were up to, if anything at all. I would have Moira and Julia all to myself, or 
I would have no one.

The streets were empty of pedestrians. Was no one going to this dance? 
I sped up still more but worried I’d break into a sweat even in the cold. A crow sat heavily in the bare branches of a maple and cawed at me, its leathery wings shielding it from the wind. Certainly the wind was having its way with my hair, so that by the time I stepped into the school’s bright and warm corridor leading to the gymnasium, I looked like Rasputin.

I ducked into the bathroom to straighten myself out. I said, “Julia, Julia, Julia,” in various romantic ways, showing most of my teeth, which made me look fierce, then none of them; then I mewed the word “Julia,” sliding down its length and up, then barked it: “Julia!” A guy who’d been in one of the cubicles burst out and made a run for it. I tried on a few senseless smiles in the mirror, but they added a bozo quotient to my puniness as a human being.

I swaggered out, turned down the corridor leading to the gym, and there they sat in front of me: Moira and Julia. They were at a table selling tickets. As I drew close, I saw that Julia was wearing a forest green dress with a broad round white collar, as if her head sat on a platter. It was a dress a nun might have worn, but she was as pretty as ever. Her skin was as winter white as the collar. A green ribbon held the rope of her copper hair.

“Hi, Jake,” Moira said, as I dug out my quarter. Julia took my hand. She held it for too long, I thought, but it was because she wanted to stamp it with the green image of Neptune, the wet ink kissed by a chill from the air. My face felt hot. I hardly noticed Moira, didn’t see what she was wearing, didn’t hear what she was saying. All I saw and felt were Julia and Neptune. The green god gripped a triton in his fist.

I went into the gym, but my eyes stayed on the door, where a square of bright celestial light was cut out of the darkness. I could feel someone sit down beside me. It turned out to be my friend Larry Wilson, who was there without a girl too. “I didn’t know you were coming,” he said. “We could have walked together.”

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I nodded just as Julia and Moira walked in to the gym. Larry got to his feet, and so did I. Moira headed to the back with the cash box.

Larry Wilson took Julia away and danced with her. Just like that. His 
parents spoke English the way hers did. And I saw her giggle as they danced, more than once.

When he was finished, “I Remember You” came on, and I walked up to Larry and Julia on the floor and asked if I could have the next dance. Julia looked timidly down at the floor as I held up my hand, emblazoned with Neptune, high in the air. But I danced like a clod, frequently pushing when I should have pulled and pulling when I should have pushed, my knees knocking against hers. She looked off to the side through the whole dance, as if some drama were occurring there, but I checked a couple of times and there was nothing of note.

And then Moira cut in. For a moment, I thought it was Julia she wanted to dance with. In my stupor I assumed that everyone, girl and boy alike, wanted to dance with Julia.

But she took my hands instead, covered Neptune entirely, and led me around the floor gently. She was a more comfortable size for me. Julia was already taller than I was, but Moira had stayed small like me. The walls were festooned with Valentine hearts, and some hung above our heads.

Moira spoke in questions. “It’s nice here tonight, not too crowded? Alfred Hitchcock’s new film is about birds? Nasty ones? My dad works for The Telegram, so he got to see a preview? The birds attack people? All birds, even little twittery ones? They attack everybody, even children?” 
We swayed passed Julia, miraculously standing on her own at the side. Larry was by himself on the other side, and both appeared to be watching us.

As the song wound down and I was ready to spring for Julia again, Moira held on to me, moved in closer. She had a nice clean smell, like soap.

“Did you hear yesterday, Thursday, on actual Valentine’s Day, a doctor took a kidney from a dead guy and gave it to a live guy?” I shook my head. “My father heard down at the paper?”

“Oh,” I said, and then eased into the dance and started to enjoy myself.

I danced some more with Moira but held out late to dance one last time with Julia, when “Great Balls of Fire” was played. I wasn’t good at that sort of dancing, but luckily she was looking off to the side again so it couldn’t have mattered. By then Larry Wilson had slipped away, so I walked home on my own, floating along the blue sidewalks, remembering Julia.

I didn’t wash my Neptune hand all weekend. Even in the bath, I wrapped it in a linen towel and held it high, out of harm’s way. I refused to play ice hockey with Noah for fear my hands would become sweaty in the gloves and smear the green god. I felt like an immortal, felt alive and fearless, able to rule the heavens and the seas, able to blaze along the earthly winter corridors the humans called streets, past homes, parks and dales.

On Monday morning, I went around to pick up John and he was still coughing but pulled up, all the same, to the big steaming pot of coffee before it was time to put on his coat and toque.

“Did you go to the dance?” he asked me as we walked.

I nodded.

“Was Moira there? And what about Julia?”

“Yes, they both were.” I didn’t say another word.

“Oh,” he said and broke into a fit of coughing.

When he sensed my presence, he spun around and, with a wild look in his eye, said in Hungarian, Kozmopolita.

At lunch, John was sitting with Larry Wilson by the time I caught up with him. I’d brought a schnitzel sandwiched between slices of challah bread, and Larry marvelled at it as he bit into his peanut butter and jelly on white. Larry had never seen a sandwich like mine. We checked out John, who was eating what looked like a roast beef and sauerkraut sandwich, but he didn’t seem to be taking any notice of us. After a little time, I realized he wasn’t talking at all. When I tried to catch his attention, he huffed at me and looked ready to attack. What had Larry said to him? Had he said something about Moira? I glared at Larry, but he turned away now.

It was then Moira came along with a tray and asked if she could sit with us, as Julia looked to see where she too might sit. I held up my hand to her, the one bearing Neptune fresh as the day he was imprinted.

Julia looked at it and said, “Don’t you people wash?”

I glanced first at John and he was staring back at me, one leper to another. I gazed down at my sandwich, a sick feeling rising in my stomach like lava. The two girls decided to push on, sit elsewhere, across the cafeteria, among the washed. Larry shrugged. John wrapped up his own sandwich into its wax paper, crunched it into a ball whipped it at the distant garbage can and left me with Larry.

I saw John after school, but he didn’t wait. He was walking very quickly ahead of me and coughing out steam when I called to him. He didn’t slow down or turn around so I had to run. When he sensed my presence, he spun around and, with a wild look in his eye, said in Hungarian, “Kozmopolita.”

“Peasant,” I shot back, in English. I’d forgotten the Hungarian word.

And John steamed off toward home.

That night I shovelled a flat potato back and forth across my plate like a hockey puck until my mother asked me what was wrong. I didn’t look up and didn’t answer. She said, “How do you expect to grow big if that’s what you do with your food?”

I looked her over, then my father, then Noah before abandoning my dinner altogether and taking off for my room. Noah had the decency to leave me alone. I lay there in the dark for a good long while and, before I knew it, it was morning. Someone had managed to get pajama bottoms onto me, but not a top.

On the sunny cold walk, I called on John. I had to ring the bell several times before anyone answered. Mr. Kelly opened the door and said John had gotten worse. He’d coughed all night.

“So he’s not going to school?” I asked in Hungarian.

“No.”

Then John appeared behind his father. He was pale, but the wild look was gone from his eyes. “I feel better,” he said to me in English.

His father turned suddenly and clipped his son on the ear. “No English in this house.”

John looked ready to cry and disappeared into the darkness of the hall beyond the vestibule.

Mr. Kelly then simply closed the door in my face.

I was upset the whole day. I didn’t speak to anyone, didn’t see Moira and Julia at lunch, avoided Larry Wilson and slipped away home as soon as the final bell rang.

Once again, I didn’t enjoy my dinner and spent much of the evening in my room until I heard the phone ring. My father knocked on my door to say it was for me.

“Jake, I was thinking about you?” It was Moira. “After lunch yesterday, 
I mean? I thought you might be upset?”

“That’s nice—that you called. How’s the guy with the new kidney 
making out?”

“I don’t know—I have to ask my dad?”

“Have you phoned John Kelly too?” I asked.

“Yep, I have?”

“You have?” Suddenly my mood lifted.

“We’re going out to see Sweet Bird of Youth—you know the one with Paul Newman? My dad got tickets down at the Telly?”

“What about The Birds? Aren’t you seeing that?”

“No, it’s not out yet.”

“Oh,” I said. “So how come you called me?”

“Because John thought I should?”

I felt better that night in bed with Noah snoring away across from me 
in the darkness, but I didn’t see any angels.


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