"The Dancer"

The first time I saw Carmina, she was dancing up a storm in Burrowski Park. There were ten other girls dancing with her, twirling and spinning and jumping around in their flowy, floral dresses. Yet Carmina was the only one I could see. I remember the way she stood out—was it because of her soft, mocha skin? Was it her long, dark brown hair or was it the way she danced so effortlessly in her white dress dotted with tiny red roses?

I’d just arrived in town that morning after flying for five and a half hours from Los Angeles. I could not figure out why my parents had left their warm climate, in ground swimming pool and palm trees for a New England Hippie-Town I’d never even heard of. It’s a weird thing people do when they get older. They want to change their lifestyle and it doesn’t matter if they’re perfectly happy with their current one. Usually you hear about peoples’ parents heading south to Florida, or traveling West to California.

Well, my family’s weird. They went from balmy California to a town of frigid winters, color-changing falls and these weird little clothing stores called ‘boutiques’. I’m the nineteen-year-old guy. I’m the one who’s supposed to like urban stuff like coffee houses and art exhibits, yet I’ve never gone to either one. People tend to think that since I grew up in L.A. I’ve lived some super-exciting life. I haven’t. I’ve hardly done anything at all.

As I stood watching Carmina and her dance group spinning around the park in a beautiful June afternoon, I felt like a creepy stalker. What she was doing, her dance, was so beautiful, so honest, so revealing. I almost wanted to apologize for seeing it. I was being stupid. There were about a hundred other people gathered in the park—some sitting on the grass on blankets and others hanging around with friends watching the dance.

When finished, they landed gracefully on the balls of their feet and curtseyed. Usually a curtsey is lame. When Carmina did it she made it look normal. The crowd of fifty or so onlookers applauded and I joined in, but I felt like applause wasn’t even enough. If I wasn’t so awkwardly silent I would have cheered. I knew if I did I would make a spectacle out of myself and I never do that.

I’d flown to Boston and then had a taxi take me to Southampton Massachusetts so I could spend the summer at my parents’ new house. They were out for the day at some exhibit so I wasn’t meeting them until seven that evening. I had six hours. Six hours to build up the courage to say hi to the beautiful dancer. Six hours to find out her name. I faltered, and then found a spot on the grass to watch their next dance.

There was a band behind them. A male pianist sat hidden under a woolen hat I imagined must have been painfully hot in the eighty-degree weather. There was a girl with a guitar and dreadlocks. She sat on a stool tuning her instrument. Then there were the dancers. They were young. All somewhere between eighteen and twenty.
The band started up again, and the dancers began to swing their hips, twirl and move. I sat, mesmerized, not wanting to look at anyone but the beauty in the white and red dress.

I pushed my rectangular glasses up the bridge of my nose and hoped that didn’t make me look like too much of a geek. Was everyone looking at the dancers or were they looking at me? Were they wondering who this skinny, dorky guy was, sitting and gawking at beautiful girls in a park? Did they think I wasn’t free-spirited enough for this town? Was I not cool enough? Was I too ordinary for this town?

I tried to tune out everyone else and just focus on the girl. The swing of her hips, the color of her skin, the bounce of her hair. I wound up spending the next hour watching her dance. When the show stopped an older man took a microphone away from the guitarist and held it to his lips, which were concealed beneath a caterpillar-like mustache.
“Thank you everyone for supporting the Dancing Princesses Dance Troop. Donations are welcome—you can put them in the can over there up front. This is the second stop on our country-wide tour. We’ll also be performing in Boston, New York, and many other cities and towns across the country. For more information, visit our website. It’s listed in the pamphlets over there on the table.

“For those of you just joining us, the Dancing Princesses Dance Troop is a group for young ladies between the ages of sixteen and twenty who love the art of dancing. We only accept the best of the best into our Troop and the young ladies work very hard at keeping their performances beautiful and perfect. I hope you enjoyed and let’s hear it one more time for the Dancing Princesses and their backup musicians!”

The crowd applauded again and the musicians got to their feet and bowed. I was already making my way over the table where there was a stack of pamphlets and a sign-up sheet for their email list. I grabbed a pamphlet just to give myself something to do. The show was over so all the girls were waving at the crowd and thanking everyone for their donations.

I dug through my jeans pockets and pulled out a crumpled up one-dollar bill. Trudging over to the can, I dropped it inside and caught the girl in the white and red dress’s eye at the same time. She smiled at me with a mouth full of pearly white teeth and looked so sincere, as if I was the only person donating money. Then she looked away and took a big gulp from her water bottle. She even gulped beautifully.

I hung around a while, back on the grass watching her. She talked and laughed with other girls, answered questions for some curious hippies in the crowd. Then she left, walked over to the pamphlet table and sat down on a nearby chair. She removed her shoes, put her foot up on her thigh and began massaging it. No one else was around. My hands trembling a little, I approached her.
I ran my fingers through my shaggy blond hair and started wishing I’d showered before visiting town. I had been on an airplane all morning. I looked gross and I had stubble. I needed a haircut. I needed soap.
Nevertheless, I stopped next to her and stood there like an awkward little boy until she lifted her head and squinted at me. I realized I was probably blinding her, because I was making her look up at the sun so I pulled up another plastic chair and sat down.

“That was a great show,” I said. She smiled again. Up close I could see that one of her bright white front teeth slightly overlapped the other. It was an adorable little flaw that made her no less perfect.

“Thank you,” she said. Her voice was sweet and soft with the slightest hint of pain. It made me want to hug her. “This is my last year with the Troop. It’s been a good run.” She’d stopped looking at me and was now concentrating on her foot again.

“Are you turning twenty-one?” I asked.

“No, no,” she said with a slight laugh that wasn’t exactly sarcastic—more sympathetic. “I’m only nineteen. I’m just moving on.”

For some reason, I had no problem talking to her. I wasn’t uncomfortable around her the way I was with most girls. Usually girls have other things they like—things like art and music and poetry and books. They don’t understand about video games and computers and stuff like that. At least in my experience they don’t. This girl probably didn’t either, but I didn’t care.

I ruffled my hair a little in an attempt to not look like a complete nerd with my wire-rim glasses and twiggy body. “I, uh, though you were the best dancer out there,” I said. “You looked great.” I needed to find another word other than ‘great.’ She didn’t seem to notice and blushed a little.

“I was not,” she said, though it wasn’t with modesty. It was with honesty. “My foot screwed me up.”

“Your foot?” I noticed she was still rubbing it. “Are you hurt?”

“I broke it last summer,” she said. “I was so afraid I wouldn’t dance again. Well, I can still dance but not well enough for the Troop. You heard Mr. Browne up there. Everyone has to be perfect.”

“What are you talking about? You danced just fine.” I couldn’t figure out what perfect was, if not this girl. She was beautiful; she was fit; she was a dancer; she had these really nice, full lips and she talked to me like I was actually there. Most beautiful girls don’t do that with me.

“You’re sweet,” she said. “And thanks. I’m Carmina.” She put out her hand and I shook it without caring she’d just been rubbing her foot with it.

“Ethan,” I said.

She stood up. I followed. “Well, it was nice talking to you. I’m not in town too long, so uh, bye.”

Was that it? I’d never see her again? As she headed back over to her dancers, I realized I couldn’t let her leave. I’d spent my young life hidden behind computer screens and not talking to women. I’d never met anyone like Carmina before. So that’s why I called,“Hey, wait a sec.” I jogged over to her and saw a couple of her friends giggle when I approached. I didn’t take much notice. I was busy thinking about what I was doing and how stupid it probably was.

“Yes?”

“Do you want to, um, go out for coffee or something?”

“Now?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Or later. I’m free until seven.”

A girl leaned over from where she was gabbing with a couple other dancers. “She’s busy having a life,” the girl said. She was a little older than Carmina, I think, but not much. Her face was caked in makeup and her lips were shining with lip gloss. She looked tired—like she was burned out.

I tried to glare at her, but she just giggled and turned back to the other two girls she was talking to. “What’s he, like, in junior in high school?” one of them asked. “Poor kid.” I felt my face burning, and almost made a run for it but then Carmina said,
“Sure.”
“Huh?”
“Sure, I’ll go for coffee,” she said, like it was no big deal at all. “Now’s good.” Just like that she walked out of the park with me trailing behind her. We were walking down the sidewalk, weaving between fairly small crowds when she said,“Do you like Mocha Market?”

“Uh, sure, okay,” I said.

“Have you been there?”

“I’ve never been here,” I told her. “I’m from L.A.”

“Seriously? That’s so cool. You must have such an awesome life.”

See what I mean?

She led me across a crosswalk. “First thing you should know about Southampton—the cars don’t stop around here, even if they’re supposed to. So don’t get hit. That’s how I broke my foot.”

“You were hit by a car?” I asked with a jolt. How terrible.

She didn’t answer. “So how long are you in town for?” she asked.

“All summer. My folks just moved here. How do you know the town so well if you’re just on tour?”

“I grew up here,” she said. “I love coming here on tour because I get to see all the people I haven’t seen since high school. We’ve been here on tour for three days now.”

We walked a little without talking. Then Carmina said, “This is the place.”

We were stopped outside a door that I would have easily missed if I’d not had Carmina as my guide. It was a hole in the wall with a dinky wooden sign above it that said Mocha Market. She opened the door and I followed her in. We walked down a narrow hallway and entered a small room of tables, people typing away on their lap tops and a counter where a woman was handing out mugs and to-go cups.

“They have the best Cappuccinos,” Carmina told me, and I didn’t want to admit I’d never had Cappuccino before. I ordered one. With our drinks in hand, we found a table in the back.

“So what was that girl’s problem, back there?” I asked.

“Oh, that was Zoe,” she said, as if that just answered my question. “She’s been in the troop longer than anyone and really shouldn’t be anymore because all she ever does is complain and act like a bitch. It’s her last year. She doesn’t like me very much. I think she sees me as competition. I don’t really know why.”

I looked at Carmina and couldn’t imagine any girl wouldn’t think she was competition.

“Can I ask you something?” she inquired, leaning forward a little. “And be honest, ‘cause you have no reason to lie. Alright?”

I nodded. “Do you think Zoe’s pretty?”

Oh, for God’s sake! How could she ask me a question like that? Why do girls ask stuff like that? How the hell was I supposed to answer? How did she want me to answer?

She was looking me straight in the eye, completely unfalteringly, waiting for a response. Her dark brown eyes were boring holes in my skull. I needed to answer. But what could I say?

“She’s pretty,” I said. “But not like you. She looks fake…and kind of old for her age. There are too many of her in the world. You’re better. Don’t ever worry about that.”

She looked down at her Cappuccino and I think she was blushing again.

I eventually had to leave, because I needed to shower and get dressed before going to dinner after my day of air-travel. I had already dropped my stuff off at my parents’ new apartment earlier in the day.

Once I said goodbye to Carmina I walked across Main Street to my parents’ apartment complex. Their place was pretty small with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. They told me they wanted to live simpler.
I showered, shaved and cleaned my glasses. Then I dressed in a blue button down shirt with kakis and went downstairs. I walked down Main Street again until I found a restaurant called Rene’s.

They were standing outside, my mother with her graying hair in a perm and dad with his comb-over. They were the same parents—the same sun-tanned, poorly-dressed parents. But something about them was different. They were calm. They hugged me and mom gave me a kiss on each cheek. They took me inside and we were seated by the window.

“How are you, love?” she asked. “How do you like the town?”
“It’s interesting,” I said, unsure of what else to call it.
“It’s my dream town,” she said. I looked at dad. He was being very silent.
He’s a science-fiction writer. He’s published some short stories and a couple novels. He was never very successful, though he’s done alright. Mom was always a housewife. That’s all she’d ever been. A housewife and mother. I often wondered why she didn’t want to get a career.

“How did your semester wrap up?” Mom asked me. “Did your final exams go okay?”
“Yes,” I said. “A’s on all of them.” I’m a good student. I study Computer Science. I’m not sure why, but I almost felt ashamed of how much I liked school just then and wondered what Carmina would think. Would she feel I was wasting my locked up in libraries and computer labs while she was out dancing in parks?

“Good for you,” Mom said, smiling. For a moment I saw her eyes flicker with sadness. Then it was gone. I knew something was up. And I didn’t know how to ask what it was.

We ate burgers and fries together, which was very informal for my parents who used to enjoy Italian restaurants and Asian places. Then the waitress asked if we wanted desert. I was about to say okay, but Dad said, “No, thank you.” He tossed some money on the table.

Minutes later, we were out the door and walking back to their apartment on the now dark streets.
“You look good,” mom said. “You shaved.” Nothing she said sounded like the mom I knew. Her voice was soft and kind. She wasn’t harsh. She wasn’t aggressive or stressed. My mom used to be kind of a high-stress person.

That night at around midnight I was sitting on the futon bed in my parents’ guest room, reading. It felt strange being a guest in my parents’ home. I used to be a part of their house. Now I was a visitor—a weird intruder who didn’t belong.

I put down my book and walked out into the living room where my mom sat alone watching T.V. She didn’t used to stay up late.

“Hey, you alright?” I asked.

She looked at me and I saw her eyes were glistening with tears. I sat on the couch next to her. “What is it?”

She shook her head and didn’t speak for a while. In the dark with the TV flickering light off her face she looked like a different person. It freaked me out.

“I don’t know how to tell you,” she said. “How can I possibly…” She trailed off, and I started to fear something was seriously wrong.

“Are you sick?” I asked. She shook her head.

“It’s nothing like that,” she said. “It’s your father. Me and you’re father. We’re splitting up.”

I sunk further down into the couch and looked at my mother, almost like she was a stranger. The mother I knew was madly in love with my father. The mother I knew was always talking a mile a minute and running around, constantly busy. I didn’t recognize this woman, struggling for words on a new couch I’d never even seen before.

“When did this happen?” I found my voice cracking. It wasn’t like I was a kid with splitting parents. It wasn’t really going to change my life. The thing was, I’d always imagined my parents staying exactly the same after I moved out. I would change; I would live a new, more interesting life and they would remain as they’d always been.

I realized then how stupid that was. Mom leaned her head on my shoulder and took my hand. “I want you to know how proud I am of you,” she said. “You’re so smart and so kind. And handsome.”

“Mom, you don’t have to say that stuff,” I said, embarrassed.

“Oh yes I do,” Mom said. “Because it’s true. And because I love you more than anything in the world.”
I tried to keep my eyes from getting misty and looked around the room nervously. “Where are you going to live?” I asked.

“Here,” Mom said. “This place. I’m the one who’s in love with this town, not your father. He’s going back West.” I didn’t even want to think about how complicated that was going to make visiting them on holidays.
“What are you going to do?” I asked. Mom wasn’t old. She was only fifty-seven. This couldn’t just be the rest of her life. Living alone in an apartment in some town made for young people.

“I have news,” she said. “Exciting news.” I didn’t think I could handle any more news in one night.
“I’m going to school.”

My eyes widened. “School?”

“That’s right,” she said. “The University of Massachusetts has a program for people getting their degrees later in life. I’m going to become a Nurse. Like I always wanted.”

I could hardly wrap my mind around that. A Nurse. My mother working, going to school and living without my father. I know it sounds sexist, but I’d always thought of her in terms of my dad. He was the one who brought in money. Everything she did, she did with him. Thinking of her with a career was great, yet terrifying.

“I think that’s enough for one night,” she said. “I’m going to bed. You should get some sleep too.” I didn’t think I could sleep if I tried. She kissed me on the forehead and stood. “I’ll see you in the morning. Goodnight.” She walked off, but I’m not sure where she slept—in the same room as my father? Was that weird? Did she have a separate room? I didn’t really want to know.

I stood up and started pacing. I began to feel nervous, then strangely angry. I needed to run. I needed to escape. I needed to get out of this town where I didn’t belong. My heart was pounding. The room was too small. The apartment was too small. I needed air. Without thinking, I ran out the door, down the stairway and out into Downtown Southampton.

There weren’t any people out. Burrowski Park was empty unlike earlier that day. I walked around, pacing the sidewalks, breathing deeply and trying to calm down. I was trembling. It was like I didn’t have a home anymore. This town was cute but it wasn’t real. It was fun but it wasn’t comfortable. My parents were living in some fantasy world of coffee shops and dance shows in the park.

I suddenly felt really silly for being so mesmerized by Carmina earlier that day. Who was she? Some fantasy girl in a fantasy town. I was never going to see her again. I might as well have just dreamed her up in the first place. As I walked down the street I realized I didn’t have any idea where I was going. I stopped and sat on a bench. Then I heard my name from a distance.

“Ethan? Ethan, is that you?” I looked around. It was a girl’s voice.

“Up here!” I looked up and to my complete surprise, Carmina was leaning out the window of one of the town’s taller building, above a little clothing store.

I jumped to my feet and waved up at her.

“Are you alright?” she called down. I didn’t know how to answer that and when I didn’t she said, “Wait one second.” She disappeared from her window and a minute later opened up a door in front of me on the sidewalk. “Come on up,” she said.

I almost said “no it’s alright”. Then I realized I didn’t want to go back to my parents’ place. I followed her up the stairs.

“This is my friend’s house,” she said. “I’m staying here while I’m in town.”

“Where do your parents live?” I asked. She didn’t answer. I walked with her into the apartment and then the living room, looking her over and noticing how amazing she looked in just a pair of boxer shorts and a baggy t-shirt.
“My friend’s asleep,” she whispered. Then she sat cross-legged on the couch and I sat next to her. “So what are you doing out so late?”

“Life’s complicated,” I managed to say.
She frowned. “What happened?”
Normally I don’t open up about my problems to people I hardly know. Carmina was different. I felt like I’d known her for years.

“My parents are divorcing,” I said pathetically. “They’ve been married for like, thirty years and they’re divorcing now.”
She put her hand on my shoulder and I looked at her. She was just as beautiful now as she’d been earlier. I think one of the things I admired the most about her was the fact that she was always comfortable. Whether it was sitting in a café with a complete stranger, dancing in front of a crowd in the middle of a park or now sitting in her friend’s living room with me. She was never nervous, never awkward and never shy. She looked me straight in the eye.
I’m not really sure where the courage to do what I did next came from. Before I could second-guess myself or come to my senses, I leaned a little closer and kissed her.

To say I took her by surprise would be an understatement. She made some sort of yelp and then threw herself back, almost toppling off the couch. She scrambled to her feet. For a second or two neither of us spoke. Then she said, “you can go now.”

I hopped up from the couch, horrified. Had I really just done that? Had I been stupid enough to believe that this beautiful, perfect girl could actually like someone like me?

“What the hell?” I asked, trying to hide my embarrassment with anger. “Why did you invite me up if you didn’t want to be around me?”

“There’s a difference between being around somebody and making out with them.”

“It was just a kiss, Carmina,” I argued, feeling almost like I’d violated her or something. I kissed her. That’s all. Why was she reacting like this?

“Carmina?” A man’s voice sounded from down the hall. “Carmina?”

“Shit,” she said under her breath. “Really, Ethan, you need to get out of here.”
“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Shh!” she urged me. “Please, Ethan, just go.” I saw fear in her eyes and realized she was serious. This was about more than a kiss. It was about whoever was coming from down the hall. I headed toward the door, but not in time. A guy, probably about twenty-five came storming into the room in nothing but boxers.

“What the hell is this?” he demanded. He looked at me and his eyes narrowed. “What have you been doing out here? Who is this, Carmina?”

The way he said her name made it sound like something filthy and dirty. Like calling her Carmina was the ultimate insult. I wanted to hit him and I’d never wanted to hit anyone before.

“Nobody,” she said. “Just a friend I met earlier.” She looked sheepish now—even nervous. It was like she was a different girl from the one I’d been talking to just five seconds ago.

She diverted her eyes from him and looked at me. “Goodbye Ethan,” she said. “It was nice meeting you.” And then she turned back to the guy. “I swear, I wasn’t doing anything.”

“You better not have been,” he grumbled. “You better not be cheating on me.”

My heart sank. Since I’d met her about eleven hours ago, it had never even occurred to me that she wasn’t single. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe she wasn’t interested in me at all. Earlier I hadn’t been able to stop gawking at her. Now I couldn’t even look at her. I turned, dejected, and left her apartment.

I should have popped her boyfriend in the face. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when someone steals your girl? The only problem was Carmina was never my girl. I’d somehow managed to convince myself she was when she was really a total stranger shacking up with a jerk while she was in town on tour.

I got outside and started roaming the empty sidewalks looking at nothing but my feet as I walked, afraid I might catch a glimpse of my own reflection in a closed store window. I didn’t want to know what I looked like. I didn’t want to look at my greasy hair, my stupid glasses or my pale skin. I didn’t want to face the fact that I hated everything about myself just then. I hated the fact that I wasn’t good enough to meet a girl in a park and have her like me. I hated the fact that I wasn’t tough enough to stick up for the girl I liked when some asshole was treating her badly.

Eventually I wound up back at Burrowski Park. I was standing on the soft, grassy earth trying not to look ahead where I’d seen Carmina dance earlier. I stood in place, wind whipping around my face and closed my eyes.

My parents were splitting up. Carmina wasn’t interested in me. I had absolutely no place in Southampton, a town of free spirits and artists. I belonged back in a big city where I could blend into the crowds and live on my computer without anybody noticing.

I’m not sure how long I stood in the park with my eyes closed. At some point I heard Carmina’s voice from behind me. At first I thought I was imagining it.
“Ethan? Are you okay?”

I turned. She was actually there, wearing her baggy t-shirt, shorts and a pair of sandals. Her hair was blowing around her shoulders in the breeze and I could only see the shimmer of her eyes from the light of a nearby streetlamp.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Well, we never got to finish talking, did we?” she asked, meandering over to me.
“No, your boyfriend busted us,” I said hotly.

She shook her head. She looked absolutely angelic in the faint light. At that moment I hated her beauty.
“He’s a jerk,” she said. “But I have nowhere else to go when I come here on tour.”
“Where do all the other dancers stay?” I asked.

“At a hotel. Unfortunately if I go to the hotel he comes there and finds me. He takes me back to his place. He’s very possessive. Hates my dancing. Only tolerates it because he says it keeps me fit.”
Anger twisted my stomach in knots. I had to start pacing around again. “You shouldn’t be with a guy like that, Carmina,” I said. “You can do better.”
“Hey, it’s not really your business.”
I knew she was right but I was too angry to really think clearly. “If it’s not my business, then why are you here?” I shouted. “Why did you call me up to the apartment? Why did you go out for coffee with me?”
She crossed her arms, as if holding herself. Then she just sat down right there on the grass. It was hard to stay angry when she looked so beaten. I stopped pacing, walked over and sat next to her. She looked relieved.
“My parents were killed a year ago in a car accident,” she said. “The same accident where I broke my foot. They ran a red light and drove out into oncoming traffic.”
Her eyes were wide and teary. I felt so uncomfortably sad I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t been expecting what she said at all. I put my arm around her shoulder. She didn’t push it off. She just leaned against me.
“Since they died, I’ve felt so alone. That’s why I got together with Jack. I know he’s an ass, but he was there for me after the accident. Sort of.
“Anyway, I went out for coffee with you and invited you up because I had this insane idea. I thought that…for some reason…I thought you could be my knight in shining armor. That you’d sweep me off my feet and save me from him. I got this weird, wacky, stupid idea we’d run off together and I’d never have to see him again.”

I had no words. I just gawked at her. I felt horrible for making such a big deal about my parents divorcing when hers had died. And I was stunned by how much importance she’d put on one chance encounter.

“I know you’re not my knight in shining armor, Ethan,” she said. “I know there really aren’t any such people. I’m alright to save myself. Its how things work in reality. I guess I was just being hopeful, you know? I kept hoping someone would show up out of the blue and just…save me.”

She was hopeful. I should have been hopeful. If I’d stopped doubting we could be together, maybe we could have been. I found myself wishing I hadn’t spent so much time sitting in front of a computer screen, hiding. I wanted to have something interesting to say to Carmina. I wanted to be that confident hero guy who could save her from her jerk boyfriend. I wasn’t, though, and I think we both knew it.

Carmina stood up suddenly, kicked off her sandals and walked over to the spot where she’d been dancing earlier. Just like that she began twirling around with her baggy shirt billowing around her small body almost like a dress. There was no music, yet the way she moved I could almost hear the pianist playing again.

“Come on, Ethan,” she said, reaching for my hand. “Dance with me.”

At first I didn’t stand. Then I started thinking about what she’d said—about how I could have been her hero. I wasn’t going to miss out yet again. I got to my feet and walked awkwardly over to my beautiful new friend. She took my arm and placed it around her hip. She wrapped her arms around me and gingerly rested her head on my shoulder. I’d never been much of a dancer, but with Carmina as my teacher it felt natural.

We just swayed for the longest time with only the night sky above us. And when we finally tired of dancing, I kissed her and she didn’t pull away or get mad. It only lasted a couple seconds, and didn’t happen again.
I will always remember Carmina’s kiss.

After, we collapsed under a tree and looked up at the moon. She rested her head on my chest and I listened to the sound of her breathing for the longest time as she fell asleep.

When I woke the next morning, I was alone. I looked around. There was no sign of Carmina. I stood and brushed some dirt of my legs. I’d stayed the entire night in the park. When had she left? Had she gone soon after I fell asleep? Had she stayed the whole night? Her sandals were gone too. There was absolutely no sign of her.
I started back toward her boyfriend’s apartment. When I arrived I rang the bell and the guy’s voice sounded from the speaker.
“Carmina? Is that you?”

“No, uh, this is a friend of hers,” I stammered. “Is she not home?” The sound of the guy’s voice gave me chills.
“Never came home last night,” the voice said. “When I woke up all her things were gone. Ran off with that scumbag who was in here last night, I bet. I tell you— when I find him I will kick his sorry ass…”

I didn’t get to hear the rest of what he said because I left mid-rant. The sun had just risen. The sky was pink and the sidewalks were still fairly empty. I knew I should go home—my parents would be wondering where I was and I hadn’t taken my cell phone with me. I couldn’t bring myself to go inside just yet, though. I had to go back to Carmina. I had to go to the only place where I could truly picture her.

I arrived back at the park in moments and found it still empty. No band, no dancers. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around half expecting to see Carmina. Instead it was my mother. She had on shorts and a t-shirt with a wide-brimmed hat. She looked like any other local taking a stroll.

“Lovely park isn’t it?” she asked. “I come here every morning.”

I tried to smile away the tears in my eyes so my mother wouldn’t notice. “You’re real happy here, in this town aren’t you?”
“I’ve never been happier,” she told me.
“Even though you and Dad”—

“Your father and I haven’t loved each other for a long time,” she said. “It’s for the better. He belongs back in the big city where he can hide. Here, in this small town…I feel like I can really be somebody.” 

She walked to a bench and sat down with a sigh. I meandered over and sat next to her. The mother I knew was in love with my father. My real mother, just like the real Carmina, wasn’t the person I thought she was.

“You know, some days they have concerts in this park,” Mom said. “Some wonderful young performers were here the other day. Maybe you’ll get to see a show this summer.”

I didn’t answer and instead gazed at the spot where not twenty-four hours ago I had first seen Carmina dance. If I imagined hard enough I could almost see her there again, twirling around in her white and red dress, her hair shimmering in the afternoon sun. In my mind she was the innocent, carefree Carmina who I wanted to meet—the beautiful dancer with no expectations and no baggage.

Slowly the image faded, and I was just sitting on a park bench with my mother. I realized it was more likely I had imagined Carmina in the first place than it was that she was still here.

The first time I saw Carmina she was dancing up a storm in Burrowski Park. And the last time I saw her she was doing the same. Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can still see her dance.