I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means "put down."
-- Bob Newhart
I thought he was kidding -- my father can spin an incredible tale. But, more often than not, he's been a living example of the adage, "Truth is stranger than fiction.""Are you serious?" I asked into the phone.
"Yes, daughter dear, I'm serious. You are welcome to join us if you so wish," he said, his voice coming close to the pitch it reaches when he is impersonating Bette Davis.
"Let me get this straight," I said, stifling a laugh. " You and Jane are going line dancing at a gay bar? And I can come along?"
"No flies on you," Dad said sarcastically. "Oh, that reminds me. When I told a buddy of mine at work, one of the nuclear engineers, that I was going to take line dancing lessons at a gay bar, he said, 'So, you're going to a Brokeback Disco?' Isn't that funny?"
I released the laughter I'd been holding in and said, "I'm in. I want to go."
"Great! I'll see you tomorrow at six. I've gotta run. I'm walking into a meeting." I disconnected the call and stared at the black telephone receiver. The only thing I found stranger than my sister and father's plans to dance the popular country music hustle at a Hillcrest hotspot was that I wasn't surprised. It's happened, I thought. I am finally fully desensitized to my family's weirdness.
An hour before our scheduled meeting time at Hamburger Mary's, where we would dine before stepping off to the dance floor of the connecting club, Kickers, I called Jane.
"Yo," she answered.
"Yo," I responded. "Hey, I'm going with you guys tonight. Want to pick me up on the way?"
"Yeah, but I'm running a little late. I wanted to buy cowboy boots, but I wasn't able to get to the store today. I have this hat, but I'm not sure if it's going to work. I guess I'll just bring it along and you can tell me what you think."
"Jane, don't worry about it. No one will notice what you're wearing."
"Barb, we're going to a gay bar. They'll notice." She had a point.
Jane worked at Nordstrom for years, chasing her dream to have a career in fashion before she gave it up to follow the money into pharmaceutical sales. Despite her career change, she is always ahead of the trends, and never oblivious to what she, or anyone around her, is wearing.
I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my building when Jane's SUV, the fashionable version of the minivan, rounded the corner. For the duration of our seven-minute ride to the other side of Hillcrest, Jane sang along, word for word, to the hip-hop and rap songs that played on her favorite radio station. She parked on Third Avenue and said, "Okay, honest opinion. What do you think of the hat?" I consulted my inner fashion queen and convinced Jane to leave the headpiece (which was more fedora than cowboy hat) on the dashboard.
Dad had been waiting for us at the entrance. As we approached, he called out, "They wouldn't seat me until my 'entire party' arrived!" Jane and I shared a guilty look for having made him wait 10 minutes, especially because we are all, each of us, obsessive about punctuality.
The place was bumping and the music was turned up loud. We spent most of our meal smiling and nodding, though our intermittent head bobs were bouncing more to the music than to words being spoken at the table. Regardless of our temporary deafness to anything but Madonna's latest remix, we continued to attempt conversation; by the time we'd finished eating, my throat was raspy from all the strain I'd put on my vocal chords.
"Oh no, we missed the beginning!" Jane shouted. Dad and I looked over at the dance floor, about 20 feet away.
"Not to worry," said the patriarch of the table. "What's ten minutes?" Jane and I shared another guilty look, but Dad didn't seem to notice. "We can jump in any time," he continued. I nodded in agreement. How hard could it be?
Apparently, the first few steps of any line dance are the most critical. The three of us joined the well-groomed gents in tight jeans and ladies with short hair in wife-beaters who were obediently lined up on the dance floor. We stayed at the back, watching the 30-odd pairs of feet in front of us for clues as the man with the microphone headset called out the moves. Jane eyed a few cowboy hats longingly.
"I'm so happy we're at the back so no one can see how bad we are," I said.
"I'm out. I can't catch up," Dad said, after fumbling a step. "I need them to do one step a hundred times. I can do all kinds of shit in aerobics class, but..." He trailed off and retreated to the raised platform behind us. A moment later the room shifted and the crowd turned on us, leaving Jane and me front and center, shuffling along in a pathetic attempt to figure out how the hell to perform a "ball and chain" and a "sailor's shuffle."
I could feel Garth Brooks and George Michael-loving eyes boring into my back, critiquing my unsure steps. After turning in the wrong direction and colliding with my sister (who seemed to be keeping up just fine despite our late start), I casually moved forward an extra step and stood next to my father -- as if all along the dance floor was merely a shortcut for me to reach the spot beside the bearded man with the glasses.
Dad and I watched Jane step and twirl; we laughed at each reproachful glare she threw our way for leaving her on the dance floor.
"The best thing about line dancing," Dad said, "is that you don't need a partner. Single people can go dancing and no one is left out." I'm not sure if he was trying to assuage my guilt for abandoning Jane, but either way, it worked.
The first lesson ended abruptly. The speed with which the dance floor emptied reminded me of that commercial in which a drop of high-tech cleaning fluid is added to a tank of dyed water and, in an instant, the water becomes clear.
"Hey, Marissa's here!" Jane said, as her friend made her way toward us. "Oh, great! I knew it! See her belt buckle? I knew she'd wear one. I should have gotten those boots."
I was responding to Jane's comment when Marissa reached us. "Yeah, this from the woman who shot an M-16 in 'the cutest little green jacket!'"
"Well, I was the best-dressed person at the shooting range that day," Jane said defensively.
"You guys are so funny," said Marissa. "You make up the craziest things."
"She's not kidding," I said, reflecting on the morning two months prior, when Jane called me to brag about her sharpshooting apparel. I had seen the green jacket of which she spoke -- it really did look cute on her.
Marissa made a face to indicate she thought we were trying to pull one over on her. So Jane busted out her American Shooting Center card.
Dad took advantage of Marissa's bewilderment and added, "You didn't know your best friend was a gun person? She's got 'NRA' tattooed on her ass!"
"Dad!" Jane said, looking around to gauge how many people might have overheard the joke. "The next lesson is about to start," Jane said, deftly changing the subject.
Dad remained where he was, less than a foot from the dance floor, sipping a bottle of beer and keeping an eye on three purses and two jackets. Marissa, in her four-inch copper lamé heels and that fabulous belt buckle over her blue jeans, took the spot to Jane's left. I, in my black sweater and black pants (covered in silver buckles and zippers), stood on my sister's right. Jane, in a glittering black tank top and dark blue jeans over pointy black boots, maintained a confident stance in the center, trying to suppress any thoughts of her missing accessories.
The three of us stepped forward in sync as the instructor called out, "One, two, three, touch!" I found the moves to be much more entertaining when I pretended I was performing the country version of Riverdance. Though the second lesson was set to a hick/techno sort of mix, I longed for hard house beats and spastically gyrating bodies.
"Hey," said Dad, when the second dance had ended. "There's this exhibit over at Limbo gallery focusing on the problems with presenting the gay male body in popular contemporary culture. Want to go?" Jane and I exchanged a smile.
"Dad?" I asked. "Are you sure you're not gay?"
"I'm straight as an arrow, Girls. But I love my little gay neighborhood."