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Love at Last Dance
By Jonathan B. Ferrini
Traffic inches along the 101 freeway at rush hour south of San Francisco on a Friday evening, except for the luxury buses racing up the carpool lane. I can make out the images inside the buses through the tinted windows of young tech employees returning from work to homes throughout the Bay area. The luxury buses are provided by the tech companies at no cost to their prized employees who recline in comfort and enjoy wifi. The young employees are healthy, successful, and optimistic about the future, but I know something they don’t know because you learn it with maturity. Nobody prepares us for sickness, old age and death.
I grew up in the area just south of San Francisco now called “Silicon Valley” in the sixties and seventies. I’ve watched the farms, independent businesses and affordable homes replaced by steel and glass headquarters of tech companies. This area was once populated with regular folk representing a variety of races, income levels and age groups, which made the Bay area a beautiful microcosm of America. Today, it’s sadly divided between the successful and those living in their shadow. The blue collar middle class lifestyle I enjoyed as a youngster is gone. I couldn’t afford to purchase the house I grew up in and still call home. It's difficult to live where everybody seems younger, smarter, and more affluent than yourself.
Traffic has started to move again, and I’m buoyed by the fact that it’s the second Friday of the month, which means it’s the “Beauties and Beaus Ball” that I never miss. The dance starts at eight, but I arrive at 6:30 to help Mrs. Pike set up the ballroom for the evening. Maybe tonight will be the night I find love?
My last passenger of the day is Harriett Lim whose stories about her jet set life in 1960’s Hong Kong are fascinating and make the trips to and from her doctor’s appointments read like an Ian Fleming novel. Harriet owned a successful night club in Hong Kong called “The Harem Club” which was frequented by actors, singers, models, artists, filmmakers, stewardesses, and the “cool” from throughout the world. Her lavish penthouse atop a downtown skyscraper with a commanding view of the harbor was not only her home but served as a salon for her intriguing guests. Harriett hosted many a secret lover including well known celebrities whose names I’ve been sworn to secrecy. Harriet was born to a wealthy family in China who owned a great deal of property on the mainland. Harriett was a trailblazer. She was wealthy, single, and a shrewd businesswoman with many influential contacts throughout the world. At the time of the Cultural Revolution in China, Harriet’s family property was confiscated, her family members killed or imprisoned, and her family fortune wiped out. Harriett’s political contacts informed her that Chinese spies were on their way to Hong Kong to kidnap her back to China to stand trial. Harriet was forced to flee Hong Kong and sold the nightclub at a discount price and the money was used to bribe immigration officials and obtain a visa to the United States. Harriet arrived in the United States virtually penniless and quickly made her way to San Francisco where she found work in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants.
Harriett viewed San Francisco as a sister city to Hong Kong and saw it becoming a destination for the world’s elite. She knew that being bounded by water, San Francisco land would escalate in value and she was determined to profit. Harriett obtained a real estate sales license and began selling homes to Chinese immigrants. Within a few years, Harriett was one of the most successful real estate agents in San Francisco. In addition to earning sales commissions which she used to purchase rental properties, Harriett formed investment syndicates and began purchasing high profile real estate throughout San Francisco. Today, Harriett is one of the wealthiest women in San Francisco with a vast real estate empire. Harriett has a quick wit and a wry sense of humor. Harriett’s stories always end with the same note of optimism which goes “you can have whatever you want in life if you persevere. Success the second time is always sweeter!"
Harriett is 99 years old. We have an ongoing bet whether she will reach 100. I hope I lose.
I’m Roland Lokout, and I drive a van equipped with a wheel chair lift for the “Happy Home” hospice facility. Happy Home consists of two wings. One wing is reserved for the wealthy. They dine and live as if staying in a Five Star hotel. The other wing is reserved for those subsisting on Medicare and social security benefits. That wing isn’t so “happy”. The duality of the “Happy Home” residents is a metaphor for the Bay area today.
I didn’t seek this profession. It sought me. I visited my dying father at the not so “happy” wing and drove him to and from his medical appointments. My gentleness with dad and friendliness to the other patients caught the eye of the Happy Home management who asked me to drive the wheelchair van. I’m good at my work and have befriended many wonderful patients and their families over the years. Despite earning a BA in history from a local state college, I’ve never been ambitious and driving for the “Happy Home” is my first job. I filed my first tax return at age 50! I was an only child and born to a couple who didn’t expect a baby in their forties. My father was a machinist and punched a clock at an aerospace factory. My mom was a housewife who told me that I “ruined” her life. She was also fond of telling me that I was “stupid,” “unattractive,” and would never “amount to anything in life.” Mom was bipolar and unprepared for motherhood. She was fortunate to have married my loving, doting father who tolerated her psychosis. Before dying, my father told me mom unsuccessfully attempted to give me away as a baby. I don’t blame my father for not interceding in her abusive behavior because he loved mom and was ill-equipped to deal with mom’s abusive behavior save institutionalizing her which he would never do. Mom destroyed my self-esteem by the time I reached junior high school and throughout my life I feared failure. It was easier never to apply myself so it took me ten years to finish college and I never sought employment. Dad felt guilty about mom’s abuse and although he attempted to motivate me to find work, he allowed me to live at home unemployed with an allowance until the day he died. Mom died before my father and I don’t miss her. I live in our family home and it's filled with my parent’s possessions which I cannot bring myself to discard. Our home is mortgage free and I pay the upkeep and my living expenses with my job at the Happy Home.
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s quotation, “'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” has never been true for me. My last name is apropos because I feel that I’ve been “locked out” of love and romance. I’ve always been socially awkward and never had a girlfriend. My first and only date in high school was with a foreign exchange student who reluctantly agreed to attend “grad night” with me. She ditched me and I was left alone for the remainder of “grad night” watching my classmates dance and celebrate. I never received therapy for mom’s abuse so I’ve sought the love of my mother from women. Love is fleeting for me like a warm Santa Ana breeze kicking up, warming me for a moment, and then disappearing.
I’m fortunate to work in the “happy” wing and have had favorite patients to care for over the years. May was an elderly former English professor whose hands were crippled by arthritis and her eyesight was failing. May never married and didn’t have visitors. At the end of my shift, I would enjoy meeting May in the library. She was always seated in her favorite reclining chair near the fireplace. Because of May’s failing eyesight, I always approached her slowly and whispered, “May, it’s Roland.” May would smile and reach for my hand. The staff provided May with a pot of Earl Grey tea, a fine china tea cup, and saucer. She would motion towards the tea cup and I would carefully raise the cup to her mouth for her to sip. I’d read passages from Chaucer, Keats, Byron, Browning, and Bronte to her late into the evening until she fell asleep. One evening after my shift, I entered the library and didn’t find May. I inquired as to her whereabouts and was told by a nurse that she was in bed. I knew from past experience with the elderly that such a change in routine meant death was near. I quietly entered her room and softly announced my presence. May was in bed lying in a reclining position. She looked tired and was ashen grey. May smiled and motioned towards a novel by Jane Austen atop her night stand. The novel had a specific page and passage marked. May asked me to read the passage. “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love." Just as I finished, May struggled to sit up in bed placing her frail arms around my neck and whispered, “Remember these words, Roland”. May’s embrace failed, and I gently laid her to rest on the bed. She was gone.
I often stare through the rear view mirror into the back of the van where Claire sat in her wheelchair. She was only in her forties, emaciated, and dying from cancer. Claire was beautiful. Her long black hair was kept combed and immaculate by the caregivers. Claire was a successful concert pianist, never married, and traveled the world giving recitals and recording her performances. She had the look of the most popular girl in class and was likely the head cheerleader, class president, and prom queen. Claire liked me for who I am on the inside, not the outside. I will never forget Claire. I loved her.
I look away from the rear view mirror and memories of Claire just in time to slam the brakes as the traffic stops at the red light ahead of me. The wheelchair slams into the front of the van jolting me back to the reality of my lonely and loveless life. The light turns green and a few turns later, I arrive at the “Beauties and Beaus Ball”. The ball is held at the city recreation center gymnasium. It’s 6:30 pm and I arrive in time to help Mrs. Pike prepare the gym for the ball. I enter the men’s bathroom to tidy up. I’m amazed that I still fit into my high school tux after all these years. I gently comb what hair I have left into place and spit polish my shoes. I spray myself with the bottle of my father’s Hai Karate cologne. I leave the men’s room and enter the gymnasium which serves as a basketball court but will be our ballroom tonight.
Mrs. Pike is the organizer of the ball and its promoter for the past twenty years. She is an octogenarian and a tough as nails, no-nonsense retired San Francisco Police matron. Mrs. Pike was married to a sailor who deserted her, and I suspect the ball is a way to stay connected to the days of her youth and romance. Mrs. Pike has a warm spot for me and allows me to assist her with the setup and breakdown of the ball in return for waiving the $20 admission fee for men. Women attend for free. Mrs. Pike also permits me to greet the women as they arrive and escort them to their cars at the end of the evening so that I have an opportunity to ask them out on a date. Although I’ve chided her to stop smoking, Mrs. Pike is a chain smoker and a cigarette dangles from the corner of her mouth as she tells me to mix the punch, hang the streamers, dust off the vinyl records, and prepare the PA sound system consisting of a record player and microphone. When she dims the lights of the gym, Mrs. Pike will switch on an inexpensive home disco lighting system which creates ambiance to the gym. The makeshift ballroom is strangely out of place within this Silicon Valley Mecca of technology and privilege. I’ve completed the setup and it's eight o’clock.
The first to arrive are the men. They are mostly regulars consisting of software engineers who are high on intellectual achievement but lacking in social skills. They are the “heart and soul” of Silicon Valley and rewarded handsomely by their employers. The regulars also include pensioners and a few elderly gentlemen who haven’t lost their dance moves. By 8:15, the women begin to arrive. Although there are a few regulars consisting of retired age women who come to kick up their heels and dance for the sake of dancing, the young beautiful women are Asian and Eastern European immigrants who are dressed to impress. They all look like princesses. Although they barely speak English, they know how to ask “what you do for a living?” Mrs. Pike tells me they come to meet successful men they can marry and obtain citizenship. Mrs. Pike dims the lights and the dance begins. As usual, she scratches the vinyl LP as she drops the stylus down upon the “Blue Danube Waltz”. The men and women pair up on the center of the “dance floor”. It’s always a competition among the men to find a beautiful dance partner but the women are selective. They’ve developed the ability to ferret out the successful by appearance alone.
As usual, I find myself sitting on the sidelines with the retirees and the elderly guys. We talk about sports in between music changes and are approached to dance by the older women. We can’t decline their invitations, and these women are patient and enjoy showing us how to dance. Halfway through the evening, I’ll work up the nerve and ask a beautiful young woman to dance. It’s wonderful to hold one close and feel her breath on my cheek and smell her perfume. It isn’t long before they ask in broken English what I do for a living. When I tell them I’m a driver for a hospice, I’m dropped like a hot potato. Word spreads amongst the women and my chances are forever doomed for the night.
At 11:30 pm, Mrs. Pike slowly raises the lights and announces, “Thank you beauties and beaus, we look forward to seeing you next month. Tell all your friends about us.”
Before breaking down the ball with Mrs. Pike, I’m charged with escorting women to their cars through the dark parking lot. I’ve had professional business cards made up specifically to hand to these women in hopes of arranging a date. My card reads “Roland Lokout, Palliative Care Specialist” and includes my phone number. I’ve walked several women to their cars this evening, handed them my card, and return to help Mrs. Pike close down the gym. We lock the doors to the gym by midnight.
Mrs. Pike thanks me and says, “Roland, honey, I hope tonight was your night. See you next month.” As Mrs. Pike drives away her headlights illuminate my business cards strewn throughout the parking lot. I retrieve each of them and hope they will bring me better luck next month.
I met Claire several months ago. Word spread throughout the “happy” wing that a beautiful world-renowned pianist had been admitted who was terminally ill with cancer. It wasn’t long before Claire showed up on my schedule of doctor’s appointments for the day. I knocked and a mild voice asked me to enter her private room. Claire was lying in a hospital bed which had been raised permitting her to watch TV, read, or look out the window. I noticed the morphine drip which had been placed into her arm and knew her condition was serious and death was imminent.
I introduced myself by saying “Hello Claire, I’m Roland. You have a doctor’s appointment this morning, and it’s my pleasure to be your driver. I’ll wait in the doctor’s lobby until the doctor is finished and bring you back.”
Claire waived me off without saying a word. Medical appointments are at the discretion of the patients. Claire was introverted and didn’t want to leave the hospice. It’s normal. I politely excused myself and read a note in her chart which read “DNR per Attorney Conservator.” I’ve seen this notation before and came to learn that DNR signifies “do not resuscitate” and conservatorship suggests Claire isn’t capable of managing her affairs. I didn’t see a list of visitors and the attorney was a partner in a prestigious San Francisco firm. Claire was financially well-heeled. It saddened me that she was alone and dying.
Weeks passed, and Claire didn’t want to be removed from her room. I always asked if I could bring her anything and was curtly told to leave her alone. Claire was becoming weaker, and the circles around her eyes darkening. She wasn’t eating. I knew Claire’s time was growing short. She enjoyed binge watching episodes of network celebrity dance programs. One evening after my shift, I visited Claire and asked if I could bring her anything and was told “Get out of here and let me die alone and lonely.” I shot back saying it doesn’t have to be this way Claire! Claire became enraged saying, “You don’t know me. You don’t what it’s like to be a poor girl from Oakland wearing hand me downs and teased by the other kids. You don’t know what it’s like to struggle to follow your dream of mastering the piano while practicing on an out of tune YWCA piano! Now that I built a beautiful life for myself, it’s stolen from me!” I shouted back do you know what it’s like to never have known love? To be rebuffed by women including my own mother? I was the awkward kid my classmates enjoyed teasing. It took me ten years to earn my history degree from an undistinguished state college. I didn’t want this job but it’s the best I can do. The highlight of my life is attending a monthly ball held on a basketball court and I can’t even get a pretty girl to dance with me. There are times I would trade places with you and everybody else in the place that is dying until I meet somebody like May and Harriet who teach me life is worth living to its fullest. All we have is time so make the most of it.
I never had the courage to stand up for myself and vent much less to a beautiful woman and it felt good! Claire gave me a blank stare. I was sorry to hear that she also had a tough upbringing and felt bad about confronting her. I turned and headed for the door and Claire spoke up. “You like to dance, Roland?” Yes, Claire, I do. “Tell me more about the ball, Roland.” She motioned for me to sit in the chair beside her bed. She was intrigued how such an un-glamorous ball could exist within the center of Silicon Valley and wanted to know every detail.
In the following weeks, Claire invited me to watch the dance programs with her, and I noticed how she marveled at the dancer’s ability to move effortlessly around the dance floor. It warmed my heart when Claire grinned or managed a subdued laugh as one of the amateur dancers couldn’t keep time or step with their professional partner. I brought her lattes and ice cream which she struggled to consume but it made her happy. Claire had a tough childhood. Her father deserted her alcoholic mother and they subsisted on welfare. Claire's mother hosted many a late night visitor for grocery money. Claire and I shared an unpleasant relationship with our mothers which created a bond between us. Claire spoke fondly of the many world capitals she visited and played for adoring audiences accompanied by world renowned orchestras. Claire was also able to meet many a statesman who visited her backstage after the performances. I'm sure she had her pick of suitors, but she was in love with the piano. It was ironic that fate brought a world traveler and a guy who never left home together. It was during these evenings that I knew I was falling in love with Claire. I also noticed that she was pressing the self-dosing button with increased frequency on her morphine drip.
The second Friday of the month arrived and time for the ball. I didn’t want to attend because I’d rather be with Claire, but I had an obligation to Mrs. Pike so I couldn’t cancel. I arrived at 6:30 and helped Mrs. Pike set up. I immediately retreated to the sidelines for the evening.
Mrs. Pike noticed that I was withdrawn and approached me asking, “What’s the matter with you Roland?” I told her I had fallen in love with a beautiful dying concert pianist who enjoys dancing but is confined to her hospital bed. Mrs. Pike suggested that I invite Claire to the next dance. It was a terrific idea, but I knew we were running out of time before Claire passed. Mrs. Pike asked me to point out a girl about the same size as Claire. I selected a young beauty just about the same height and Mrs. Pike said, “Roland, honey, let me take care of the rest. I can’t wait to meet Claire. See you next month.”
It took me a few days to work up the nerve to ask Claire to the ball. Claire was weak and I couldn’t see how we could get her out of bed and onto the dance floor. The sparkle in Claire’s eyes was dimming and I knew from experience she didn’t have long so I asked her if she would like to attend the ball with me. Claire struggled to comprehend the invitation asking herself is it conceivable that a man would be inviting a dying woman to a dance? Claire pointed to the IV within her arm and the bed shrugging her shoulders about the futility of the invitation. I suggested to Claire that it would be my honor to take her in the wheelchair, and we could attend even if only to watch. Mrs. Pike was one smart cookie because Claire’s wardrobe consisted only of hospital gowns, to which I replied Mrs. Pike has a gift for you. I retrieved a box with a ribbon and bow and helped Claire open it. Claire beamed like a kid on Christmas. Inside, Claire saw a beautiful satin ball dress and a makeup kit including my favorite perfume. It also included a handwritten invitation from Mrs. Pike saying, “Please be our special guest at next month’s Beauties and Beaus Ball.” Claire was flabbergasted, and a tear ran down her face. Mrs. Pike had given me the night off so that I could arrive and depart with the other guests.
The next several weeks were the slowest I ever recall. I knew there would be no warnings when Claire’s time came but I was able to witness a dying woman muster every remaining ounce of life and strength in her body to stay alive. I’ve seen the same phenomenon in comatose dying patients who often wait for the last relative to arrive bedside before letting go. Claire was determined to make it to the ball!
The second Friday of the month arrived and a bevy of nurses attended to Claire’s bath, wardrobe, makeup and hair. As I entered her room, I witnessed the most beautiful woman I ever met sitting erect in her wheelchair. Claire was beaming. I pinned the corsage on her gown, and I wheeled Claire down the hall and into the lobby. The morphine bag swung back and forth from the hanger attached to the wheelchair. The nurses and staff each commented on how beautiful she was. As I wheeled Claire to the van, it felt like Prom night for both of us and the journey to the ball was short.
Mrs. Pike greeted us like VIPs saying “Claire, you are beautiful. Welcome. I’m so happy you and Roland could join us.”
She directed us to a center court position where Claire could view the ball and where she had placed a chair for me to sit alongside Claire. One of my retired bench-warmer buddies brought us punch and cookies and tactfully departed. The lights dimmed, and Mrs. Pike selected one of the most romantic Strauss waltzes, “The Voices of Spring,” She didn’t drop the stylus this time. The gym looked like a Vienna ballroom tonight because I was with Claire. The women were beautiful, and the dancing was extraordinary tonight. Claire was transfixed, and I noticed her keeping time with one of her feet. Claire reached for my hand and didn’t let go throughout the evening. I knew that Claire and I wouldn’t have another opportunity like this again and uncharacteristic of a man with low esteem, I leaned in to Claire and asked, may I have this opportunity to dance, my lady?
Claire paused, a big smile filled her face, and she struggled to stand. I caught her before she fell back into the chair and held her tightly around her skinny waist. As we moved towards the dance floor, the IV tube anchored Claire to the wheelchair. With one graceful move, Claire reached for the IV line and removed it from her arm. I placed my arms around Claire’s tiny waist and carried her to the center of the dance floor. She was light and felt like a bag of bones. Her body was limp, but she held her arms tightly around my neck with every remaining ounce of strength she had left in her body. It was necessary for me to carry Claire in an upright position as she was too weak to stand, but we danced and I could feel her breath against my neck and her heart pounding with excitement. Her perfume was the familiar scent that I had raved about to Mrs. Pike on many an evening. We were oblivious to the stares from the other dancers who gracefully made room for us to dance. On more than one occasion, I caught a teary-eyed glance from a beautiful dancer. Claire hummed the bars of the waltz and whispered romantic sounding words in French and German to me. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know their meaning. I could feel the meaning. We never left the dance floor and as the ball room emptied late into the night, Claire and I were alone dancing in the center of the ballroom. Mrs. Pike dimmed the lights and spun the disco light ball which shot colors of the rainbow throughout the room. Claire was electrified, and we were alone sharing a magic moment. It was after midnight, and Mrs. Pike made a motion to me that it was time to leave for the evening.
As I rolled Claire from the ball, Mrs. Pike leaned in and kissed Claire on the cheek saying, “it was my pleasure to meet you my dear. You and Roland were the beauty and beau of the ball. Goodnight.” Mrs. Pike turned to me and her hard-as-nails veneer was replaced with tears as she said, “Goodnight, Mr. Lokout. You are a true gentleman.”
We returned to the hospice, which was quiet as the nurses were on their rounds. I wheeled Claire into her room and carefully lifted her into her bed. She held my hand with a weak grip and stared into my eyes. Her grip became stronger; she closed her eyes and puckered her lips. I leaned into to kiss her gently. Our hearts raced, and our lips quivered. I experienced a life time of dating in our innocent kiss. As we separated, I gently laid Claire back into the hospital bed. I reached for Claire’s blanket and she motioned for me to lie beside her. I straddled the edge of the hospital bed and gently positioned myself next to Claire and placed my arm around her. We drifted into a deep sleep. I was awakened by nurses outside in the hall making their morning rounds and knew it was time to rise. I reached over to kiss Claire on the cheek and found her still. Her eyes were open and a trail of tears had dried upon her face. She was smiling and gone forever.
It’s been a year since I lost Claire and each and every month I find myself back at the ball armed with my cache of business cards. Mrs. Pike has been nudging me to try online dating and has recommended dances throughout the Bay area where I may have better luck. Since knowing Claire, my self-esteem has improved and I may follow Mrs. Pike’s advice.
Harriett recently passed having made it to 100! The front page newspaper article reported that her real estate empire was placed into a trust and the rental income used to help the homeless and immigrants. I’ll always remember Harriet and May’s advice knowing it will bring me love one day. Alfred Lord Tennyson and Jane Austen were right!