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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

 

Fiction

A Beating Heart (Page 2)

I had little trouble navigating the boat using its on-board light. It was easy to understand and I could make its markings out but the directions it gave made no sense at first. The calm waters in the bay made it easy to steer the boat around the dockís piers and walkways but I had no idea where to go next.

I was able to do this despite not being tall enough to really see everything. However, things got more difficult as I reached the end of the docks. The waves began to increase in size and strength while the currents tried to push against me. I had to increase the engineís thrust to near full throttle to compensate and took the boat out a bit further into the water and I quickly became acclimated to its handling. I began to circle around and took the boat into its position, and sailed it past the buoys, far into the deeper sections where the channels would steer it. I sailed parallel to the beach and went past the familiar shoreline, kicking up the surf behind me. As I picked up momentum, the boat began to feel like it was gliding over the waves instead of being pushed around by them.

This increased my confidence and helped set my bearings but I was still careful not to get ahead of myself. I took a path through the shorefrontís main current and quickly passed the most familiar landmarks. I took a right and steered past a few small island patches. As I got further from the shore, the ocean seemed to calm down, and the boat began to glide over the waves. I went past the light house that Iíd always seen from a distance, and it looked a lot smaller than I thought I would. As I turned into the deeper part of the ocean, the familiar shoreline receded into the distance and I found myself completely surrounded by water. I could see the vague outlines of islands on the horizon and I knew I had to keep going. I watched the waves and currents sculpt the water beneath me, temporarily creating oceanic footprints that would quickly vanish. I watched the islands, and I wondered which one Iíd end up on. As I drew closer, my anticipation grew stronger. It didnít know exactly where Iíd end up, but I knew once I arrived, it would only mark the beginning.

The waves began to get a little choppy as I closed in to the island formation, but unexpectedly, the beacon steered me away from the larger islands as I approached. It didnít seem like I would end up on them after all. Just as I thought I knew where I was headed, the navigation took me on a different course. I headed towards a rougher section of water and saw a small tuft of land, almost hidden emerge from almost out of nowhere. It seemed to have sharp rocks and not much of a beach on it. I cut the engine, which slowed the boat down significantly and slowly moved towards the narrow coast. As I came close, I was a little relieved to see a small pier emerge from the shoreline. Several other boats were docked there. I looked and saw that they were much larger and more elaborate than mine.

I wondered how this place had seemingly escaped notice all these years. It was beginning to get dark and the sun was setting over the horizon, limiting my options to go somewhere else. I looked at the sign and the name of the island matched the boatís Ė which told me I was in the right place. I decided to go in closer and found an empty slot on the right side of the dock. I carefully ran the boat alongside the dock, pulled up the ropes and tied them to the metal pole. My heart was pounding at this point. I was a little bit nervous since I didnít know what was ahead of me. I looked back in the boat and was thankful for the safe, uneventful journey. Taking the small paper with me, I climbed up a ladder and began to walk up the narrow path over its creaky boards towards the shoreline. The wind began to pick up and the salty air began to cool down, which made me glad I still had my winter clothes on. As I walked down the pier and emerged onto the rocky shoreline, the uneven steps made walking a challenge. I saw a cluster of thick trees springing up from the slender coast, and they looked like they were hiding something behind them. As I walked closer to them, I saw a short path of rocks stretching beyond them into the wooded section. As I entered the forest, I could see a few lights twinkling just beyond them in the distance. I finally knew where I was going.  

As I walked on the rocky path, I found myself standing under the trees as the sun began its final descent into the night. It looked quite stunning at that moment, but there was noise coming from somewhere ahead. As I reached the edge of the forest, I sensed that I was in a place that few people knew about. I looked up the short hill and saw a somewhat small building up ahead. It wouldnít have seemed all that special anywhere else, but here in the middle of the island it seemed out of place. It was a white wooden structure with its open doors and windows making it look almost like a tent. I saw some people in the middle of the building moving around, which seemed strange until I heard the music playing. They were dancing with each other to old songs. I started to walk towards them when someone called out to me and waved his hand. He was much older than me, quite tall and looked regal in his tailored white suit. He was wearing a pink bow-tie and a matching carnation on his lapel. I could tell that he was someone in charge of the gathering.  Before I knew it, he was standing in front of me. I was quite nervous. I told him about the boat and my long journey to this island. I asked him if I was in the right place. He looked at me puzzled, as if he didnít expect to see someone my age there. I realized that he was expecting someone else to show up, and I remembered the paper in my pocket. I took it out and showed him the invitation that had been left for me in the boat. It had my name on it and my address, with a small picture consisting of symbols I didnít understand. He smiled when he saw it and pointed me towards the building. As I walked closer, I could see that everyone was well-dressed, which made me feel quite out of place.

As I reached the edge of the building, I could see the dance floor arranged in front of me. It was a very simple place and aside from a few windows, was largely open, allowing the wind to sweep through, creating a nice breeze. There was a surprisingly elaborate light and music system in place and I could see the pulsing colors reflected in the half-dozen mirror balls scattered in the ceiling. As they spun around, I was reminded of the daffodils I used to blow on when I was younger, and how I loved to see their seeds fly around on the lawn, each one gliding gracefully through the skies until they found their patch of land. Some would come down quickly while others would linger lazily in the sky, with no rush to return to the ground. They would sometimes intertwine and resemble dancers themselves. I looked at the assembled people watched them glide over the floor. There were around two dozen couples inside the building, clasping each otherís hands and spinning around to the music in time. I walked towards them and noticed that they were all finely dressed in white suits similar to the one the man I encountered was wearing. The women were wearing shimmering gowns with authentic touches like scarves, sunglasses and giant poodle skirts in various shades of bright neon blue, pink or sometimes, both. I was just a kid in a brown striped shirt and corduroy pants, improbably under-dressed and ill-equipped for the occasion.

They seemed to know all the moves, when to turn, the moments to stop and, the point to move again. I felt a little over-matched Ė they were all much older than me and none of them seemed to be anywhere close to my age. As I stood there, I listened to the music and it seemed to take a time warp, traveling from different eras in unpredictable patterns, I couldnít understand. I watched them dance for quite awhile, standing on the edges of the floor. I didnít want to join in, since not only did I not know the steps, I was much smaller than the adults and felt like I would have been crushed by them. However, the dancers were so elegant and sophisticated, I couldnít help but admire them, they seemed to be having a good time with one another, and none of them seemed to mind being watched by a small kid. After awhile, I noticed the night had come and the mirrored balls began to slow down a bit. They held onto each other closer and moved in slower motions. I watched them and they seemed to be almost sleep-walking at points. They were very precise in their timing and seemed motivated by each otherís movements, which made them look somehow more sophisticated than I was used to. I walked around the left edge of the room and saw a group of empty chairs next to the other side of the dance. Most of them were empty anyway. There was one seat that was filled. Someone was waiting for me.

I knew it was her the second I saw her. She seemed a little bit different than before. She had the same small dots, but her dress seemed a little more open and stylish than before, the ruffles and gear were gone and she looked a little less intimidating Ė freer and more open. Most likely, better for dancing, I thought. Her hair fell over her eyes easier, and her face seemed refreshed. One thing that hadnít changed were her mesmerizing eyes, which had a way of slicing through me in a way nothing had ever done before. I was surprised to see her sitting there alone, I figured that she would have a long line of willing partners. Why she waited all alone for me was something I could never figure out, but Iím sure she had her reasons. Regardless, she seemed a lot more comfortable than she did in our previous encounters on the hill and at the beach. I didnít understand why she picked this place to meet, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I took the seat beside her and she waved to me and held my hand a moment before letting go. We didnít really fit in with the other people on the island, but we both appreciated the moment. We could be together in the outside world, but no one here knew who we were or what secrets we held. That night, we could simply enjoy each other and not worry about being found out or ridiculed for it. Most of the other dancers were so entranced by each other that I donít think they even noticed us. We sat in the chairs and watched the dancers and their moves, keeping an admirable distance as to not interfere with their rhythms and steps. We belonged together but I donít think we felt like we belonged there, at least not at first.

It was a little bit strange to see these mysterious figures waltzing on the floor effortlessly while we sat there together, seemingly out of place, intruders in their fortress, a discordant note in their otherwise perfect symphony. The surroundings felt lush, perfectly suited to someone else. It seemed like such an odd place to have such a gathering, out in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by water. There was an inexplicable aura of magic permeating the open dance floor. All of this was going on while we were sitting there side by side keeping the moment for ourselves. She probably wasnít much of a dancer, I thought, I didnít want to put her on the spot, but then she surprised me by grabbing my hand suddenly and standing up. She put her arm on my shoulder and nudged me to stand up and walk with her. Reluctantly, I stood up and walked with her, and moved towards the center of the building. I did as she asked me too and she pulled me towards the floor with unexpected strength and resolve. We took our place on the side and began to dance, or move together. I didnít really know how to dance that much, but she seemed to know what she was doing. She held both of my hands in hers and we began to spin around a little, dodging the other dancers. I was lucky I didnít get crushed. It probably looked a little odd, since I was half her size and it might have looked from eye-level that she was dancing alone. It was a bit strange to find myself in this place, but in a way I didnít feel as alone as I usually did, even though everyone else was much older and taller than I was. She was a little gentle at first, but after a few minutes she began to move a little faster and began to move her feet around making small steps with an elegant move that made her look transcendent to me. I tried to follow her steps but would always fall a little behind, making our rhythm a bit out of sync at first. We were no match for the other couples at first, and I was sure weíd both be embarrassed by our lack of style and technique.

It was a struggle to keep up with the music, and I could only catch my breath during the ballads and slower songs. I remembered a technique from swimming with my brother the previous summer. Instead of waiting for the waves to hit, I anticipated them. I took this and used it to my advantage. I began to listen to the music and it guided me along with her. I became more confident as the evening unfolded and she became more daring with her moves. She began to swirl around and duck, making me lean over and jump around a little bit, which was a bit clumsy to anyone else watching but gave us a bit more flexibility as the songs began to change tempo and style as the night progressed. We really didnít mind too much, since we were guests at this affair, though Iím not sure who knew to invite us. It was a mystery that I never solved. Slowly, we began to come closer to each other and we began to dance close enough that I could hear her heart beating next to my head at points, which was really generous of her to allow. I was a little bit too young still to really be involved in that way and I think she trusted me anyway. As we continued to dance on the floor, I noticed that the lights were dimming and the mirror balls overhead seemed to relax and becoming less frantic. As things slowed down a little bit and she took me close into her embrace, I began to feel increasingly secure in my movement and rhythm.

We held out our arms and swirled around slowly through several songs, letting the strings and saxophones swell around us. She leaned into my ear and asked me if I could keep a secret. I nodded in her direction and she told me her name. I didnít really catch it precisely but it didnít matter. I think she knew I wouldnít hear it, at least not consciously. She wanted to keep her secrets and I understood completely. The songs played on and we began to submerge into each other deep into the night. I had rarely felt as close to anyone as I did that night. We finally had a chance to connect and it was more than I expected it to be. As I danced with her, swirling around the floor in seemingly endless loops, things became clearer. The worries I had earlier in the day dissolved under the glowing, pulsating lights.  I saw the stars and the lights converge. Everything coalesced and it felt like we were dancing inside the center of the world, and I allowed my fear to evaporate. I finally surrendered under her spell, with her eyes piercing through me like lasers. It was in that moment, with our nervous footsteps finally synchronized, as the songs played and we danced hand-in-hand, deep into the night, when I finally understood what she was waiting for.

As she moved, I felt something overcome me that I couldnít explain.

I knew this particular night would end, but it was only one of many nights weíd share.



- Story & Photographs by Michael Palisano

> Previously

The Outside World
An Unlikely Combination
While the trees slept
We Left Together 
Our Secret Code

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