“Let’s dance, Barb!”
My father was oblivious to both the strained look on my mother’s face and to the squirming mass of toddler boy on her lap. I remember thinking this was odd, because — even then, at six years of age — I recognized the expression she wore. It was Mommy’s tired face, the one that meant I should stay in my room and play quietly, and not bug her with anything.
“I don’t think so.” My mother tossed her head. “You’re drunk, Albert — you’d just end up walking on my toes.” My brother Bobby was sprawled across her lap, his legs beating a constant tattoo on the table leg, which jumped with each kick. Drinks sloshed onto the white tablecloth. A wedding guest seated at the far end of our table telegraphed her disapproval with a pointed stare. My mother ignored her.
“What’s the big deal?” Dad cajoled. “Come on — it’ll be fun.” He tried to shuffle a few steps, only to end up bumping into a passing waiter. Mom turned her head from the spectacle of his dancing, and took a sip of ice water.
“Okay, Vicky, looks like you’re my best girl tonight.” I perked up immediately. I didn’t exactly know what it meant to be Dad’s best girl, but I liked the sound of it.
“Oh for pity’s sake, Al, stop trying to guilt me.” Mom wasn’t happy with the turn of events. She might even have danced to a song or two if Bobby hadn’t picked that moment to start stuffing cake into his face. Pink and white icing was smeared across his cheeks and hands, which he wiped on my mom’s yellow silk dress.
“Bobby, knock it off!” Mom looked around for help, but Dad was already leading me to the dance floor.
In retrospect, I feel bad for my mom, who had been tending to my brother and me for hours while my dad partied the night away with his friends. But that night I only recognized a chance to enjoy my father’s undivided attention – a rarity since my brother came along.
We danced our way through a fast song, both of us demonstrating more enthusiasm than skill. My father was spinning me in circles, and in between spins I jumped up and down, throwing my hands over my head. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Before I knew it the song had ended, and a slow one took its place. All around us couples paired off, the men slipping their arms around their dates, and the women closing their eyes and pressing close against their partners.
Confused, I looked to Dad for direction. He gave me a courtly bow and held his hand out in invitation.
Dad had me stand on the tops of his shoes, not caring when the soles of my Mary Jane’s scuffed up the shine my mother had coaxed from his loafers earlier that day. We danced the whole song that way, and when it was over he bowed low and led me back to the table amid exclamations of “How cute!” and “Isn’t that the sweetest thing?” One particularly buxom woman grabbed my father’s arm and told him what a good dad he was. Dad and I puffed up as the praise washed over us. I knew then what it meant to be Dad’s “best girl” and I liked it, very much.
I ran to our table, intending to ask Mom if she’d been watching, but she was focused on stuffing Bobby into his snowsuit.
“Vicky, get your coat and boots on.” She gestured to my pile of winter wear with a nod. “We’re going home.”
Mom turned then and pointed an index finger at my father. Her polished nail stuck out like a dart. “I can’t take any more of you tonight.” She rammed her arms into her wool dress coat. “You’ll have to find your own way home.” Her eyes slid to the woman who had praised my father’s parenting skills. “Don’t be too late.”
I don’t remember my father’s reply, but angry words were spoken and my mother walked away, tears in her eyes. I followed her, my hand bunched into the tails of her coat as we wound our way through the crowded reception hall.
I looked back one last time to wave good-bye to Dad, but he was dancing again, and didn’t see me.