Why Is It So Hard to Just Say What We Mean

"The Dance," a story by Nicolette Polek

woman dancing in a field

Why Is It So Hard to Just Say What We Mean

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The Dance

Esme and Ismer have a game they play at dinner. Esme looks at the table and memorizes everything—the silverware, the position of the steak, the saltshaker, and when she closes her eyes Ismer moves something, slightly. To the left, to the right, into his lap. Tonight Ismer switches their wine. Esme notices a lipstick stain on his glass.

After dinner they flop onto opposite ends of the couch, looking at their ventless fireplace, both thinking, separately, about what they will do that evening. For the entire day Ismer had been thinking of going dancing, ever since he overheard his colleague talking about salsa classes as a way to overcome anxiety. Ismer pictures Esme moving her body around under a dim light with her eyes slightly closed, smiling softly to some sort of rhythmic music. 

They’ve been together for seven years and have never gone dancing. In college, Ismer went out, and Esme stayed in. Recently, Ismer goes out, and Esme stays in. Ismer isn’t a rabid extrovert or wild pleasure seeker in any sense, but the idea of going dancing for the sake of it—especially with Esme—seems exciting, perhaps even reckless, something they could think of next week, in fond remembrance of a night when they let loose. 

“Do you want to go dancing?” Ismer asks.

Esme shifts her weight on the couch. She is pleased that Ismer asked, but feels vulnerable answering. For a few weeks, Ismer’s late-night office work has been distancing, and Esme feels like they need something. But the question is out of the ordinary. Why does he want to go dancing—for her benefit? Does he think she’s bored at home? The last thing she wants is to feel pitied, or like he’s “taking her out” to be aired. She does want to go dancing, though.

The last thing she wants is to feel pitied, or like he’s “taking her out” to be aired. She does want to go dancing, though.

“Is that what you want?” she asks. “I would if you want to.” She sits up, her tone lifts, but she makes sure that her preference isn’t clear from her voice alone.

Ismer thinks of Esme in the past as a reference point. She’s declined going swimming in the river, sliding down banisters, role-playing—specifically his wounded- civil-war-soldier-and-nurse fantasy—driving without maps, and cigarettes. He thinks of her gentle disposition, her attentiveness to safety and to him.

If he says “yes” she might be put in a position to accommodate him. He wants to prevent a compromise. Does he love her? Of course he does. Because of her he can be the most perfect version of himself: considerate, safe, and responsible with each decision and its impact. If she isn’t certain about dancing, it is not worth pursuing.

“I would only be doing it if you wanted to,” he says.

It is as though the lexis of their feelings is a separate creature within the house. Like a fat cat that holds all their secrets and stolen glances. Howling, obese, and grumpy, the keeper of their true feelings, bursting with things that want to be said.

Esme slumps. Ismer doesn’t really want to go dancing, she thinks, and if we go it won’t be fun for the both of us. Ismer thinks I’m a drip, she thinks. Though dancing would be entirely out of her routine, it was something she had recently wanted to do. In fact, she had been waiting for Ismer to suggest it. 

If she were to say yes, and persist, as she wants to, she would feel foolish. She knows nothing about dancing, and therefore if Ismer isn’t enthused at the prospect, who is she to say otherwise? Like the time they made breakfast smoothies and couldn’t impose upon each other the different sets of fruits they separately enjoy, sticking them in some dumb strawberry-banana limbo.

Esme fills the empty rooms of Ismer with a sense of wonderment. He wants to value the things she values. He wants to do the things she wants to do. He wants to buy her a scrap of fabric, a ruby ring, a token of endearment that solders them together.

“No, I think we want to stay home,” Esme says sheepishly, watching Ismer closely.

“All right,” Ismer says. He gets up and takes a deck of cards from the coffee table, gesturing toward it to ask if she wants to play a game. 

“Yes, sure, let’s play blackjack,” Esme says. 

She doesn’t want to play cards. They play blackjack every night. 

Esme wonders if, eventually, while appearing to be gracious to each other, they will end up spending weeks, or months, or maybe even many years, inside their house, in separate rooms, looking out from separate windows and desiring a thing, a person, or a place that is very far away. 

Ismer is pleased. He did well, he thinks. He suggested something that his wife enjoys, and therefore he can too. That’s the best he can do. The wind comes in from the open window and gently shivers the deck of cards. The both of them go back to being floppy on the couch.

That night they go to bed silently, feeling some form of contentment. Ismer watches Esme sleep, and swoons at the way her hair moves when she exhales a dream. A dream in which she is dancing.


Copyright © 2020 by Nicolette Polek, from Imaginary Museums. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.

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