“I have a car,” he whispered in my ear while we danced, and for a moment I was tempted to whisper back, “Me too. It’s a Corolla. Do you know anything about how to fix window seals?”
For the last six months I danced every week at a place with a $3 cover called Andrea’s Cha Cha Cha. On voice mail messages I left for friends in Portland, meant to entice them into coming out and dancing with me, I called it Andrea’s Chach or Andrea’s Cha Cha, and my friends rarely called or even texted back to say they couldn’t make it. So I started to go alone after work. I paid my $3 cover and made my way down to the basement where I hopped onto a bar stool in my work clothes and waited to be asked to dance.
A couple of old Cuban men who were not afraid to shake it alone out there on slow nights were nice enough to regularly dance with me in the early evening, and then the younger Mexican boys who couldn’t pass for 21, even in the dark of Andrea’s Cha Cha, would get drunk and courageous enough to ask me to dance. And I danced, and danced, and danced. Even in the dark I think it was apparent that I knew some cumbia and salsa, but in order to even fake my way through the cha cha cha I had to whisper, “cha-cha, cha-cha-cha.”
No one seemed to care, though. Most of the men wore cologne and gel, and sometimes they would mistake the smell of the cologne and gel of other men for the smell of me. “You smell good,” a guy I was dancing with said one night, and then I took stock of what I honestly smelled like: sweat and the raw almonds I ate while closing the tutoring center where I worked, and that made me smile, and me smiling made him smile.
When a man I was dancing with whispered the sweet nothing in my ear — “I have a car” — it struck me as so crude and clumsy that it was almost sweet, and it made me smile. Encouraged, the car owner brought me back to his bar stool when the song ended, and he showed me a bottle of water to try and seal the deal. “I only drink water,” he said and winked.
So despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary in the rest of my life, dancing at Andrea’s Cha Cha started to make me think I might be a) pretty good at dancing, and b) pretty damn desirable. Men said I smelled good, and after dancing with me, wanted to drive me home (even when they had only had water to drink). Although I was rapidly putting on weight, working as a community college tutor, and living with my mom in a moderately depressed funk, there was a moment in the week when I would enter the dance floor at Andrea’s Cha Cha and think, Who amongst you doesn’t want me?
A few weeks ago I moved to Philadelphia, but before I left Portland, I decided I ought to throw caution to the wind and pay the $10 cover to get into a larger club a few blocks away from Andrea’s Cha Cha I had heard of called the Mambo Lounge.
When I entered the dance floor it struck me that Andrea’s Cha Cha, the place I had allowed to seriously affect my self-esteem for the last six months, was a dive bar. Here at the Mambo Lounge, just blocks away from the Cha, women were dancing with formal postures in shiny dresses with slits and heels. They looked like they had taken lessons, and so did the men who were really leading them in the grand ball room, and they were noticeably not wearing…I had a flashback to Andrea’s Cha Cha, where some guys wore jerseys and baseball caps, and I had another flashback to seeing people in the parking lot drinking before they came into the Cha Cha so that they didn’t have to waste money on the $4 beers inside, and then I remembered that time when one Cuban man hit another Cuban man over the head with a beer bottle, and everyone (except for one very drunk cupel who kept dancing) ran out of the bar because they knew the police were being called. That’s when I realized that I was being told I smelled nice and that I could catch a ride in a car at Andrea’s Cha Cha because I was one of the only single females in the dark basement. I was attractive because I paid for my own beer, and I laughed at everyone’s sleazy come-ons. At Andrea’s Cha Cha I was attractive because I was a regular dancer at a dive bar with a $3 cover. • 28 April 2008