by Peter Barlow
The deejays had a name for him: El Disco Loco. Not that anyone ever called him that to his face. He was too good for business. He went out dancing six nights a week during the school year, and whatever bar he went to, so went the college girls, and behind them went the college guys who were trying to figure out what the fuss was over. Was it his look, perhaps, the shirt unbuttoned to just below the pectorals in a pattern that hinted at tiger striping, the pants that were tight in all the right places, the hair slicked back just so, the sparkling teeth, the puckish glint in his eye? Or was it the dancing, exuberant, louder than the music, expertly suggestive, gyrating from shoulders to knees, drawing the prospective partners in like a neon sign spelling out that this, ladies, is where the action is tonight? Either way, enrollment in dance classes at the university meant a two semester stay on a waiting list, and whatever bar he was at on a given night would sell out of the cheap beer and the plastic six-ounce cups it was served in, all in the name of getting close to the spectacle of Fernando.
When he wasn’t on the dance floor, Fernando waited tables at the Mexican place uptown. He would have looked out of place at the only other sit-down restaurant in town, the Szechuan one a block further up High Street, and his liberal arts degree qualified him to be either a waiter or a telemarketer, or so he felt. That was where I met him, the Mexican place, but I knew who he was well before then. I was one of those college boys once, a pathetic hanger-on, hoping that the cute girl at the other end of the bar would ditch the scrub she was with and come over after I sent her a drink. I wasted a helluva lot of money that way, ended up drinking one of whatever they were having whether or not I wanted it. But drinking and romancing costs money, so I took the waiter job. I guess I was okay at it. I didn’t spill the food on people or anything like that.
Fernando, though. It started with the smile, always the smile. His teeth had a hypnotic effect after prolonged exposure, or perhaps the women were trying to figure out how they got that white. Then the accent helped. Not quite overdone, enough to convince you that he was from Cuba (with a hard “u”), in a low baritone guaranteed to get your attention. And he ended every exchange with a wink and a señorita that seemed genuine every time.
One night not long after I started working there, I was still figuring out how things went and all, in walks this group of four college girls, seniors maybe, and one of them was a complete knockout. The hostess put them in Fernando’s area. He and I were standing at the bar, killing time ‘cause the place was half empty.
“Nice looking table,” I said.
Fernando looked over at them and shrugged. “Eh.”
“Are you kidding? Look at the one there. The blonde.”
He looked again. “She’s okay.”
Okay didn’t begin to cover it. She was well out of my league, I knew that. If I’d had Fernando’s hair, voice, and teeth, then I might stand a chance. As it was, all I had was a passing resemblance to Peter Noone, which meant nothing in my generation.
“The others, though,” he said and reached over, grabbed a cocktail napkin, and started writing on it. “Five dollars says by the end of their meal I’ll have at least one of their phone numbers.”
About an hour later the table of girls left. I was back at the bar keeping one eye on my one table of customers and the other on the TV, and Fernando slid the cocktail napkin in front of me on the bar. “Open it.”
I did. It belonged to someone named Linda. I looked at him, stunned that this incredibly average looking guy could so easily get a phone number. “How’d you do that?” I asked.
He gave me the shrug again, adding the smile. “Did you see the one of them leave the table for a minute?”
That would have been the knockout. “Yeah, I thought she went to the bathroom.”
“She did,” he said, “but not alone.”
As he walked away, feeling of anger and awe toward Fernando stirred inside me, anger because he got the phone number of the one I thought most attractive at the table, the one he thought inferior to the others, and awe because he could get it in the first place. He was attractive enough to women that they would give him their numbers. And, as he came back to remind me a moment later, I was out five bucks.
Fernando needed a roommate, he said. What little he made as a salary wasn’t enough to cover the bills. I wanted to get out of the dorms, so I took his offer to move in. The first night I was there he had a girl come home with him. Then the next, and the next, and the next. A different one every night. I saw them for the first time the morning after. I would come out to the living/dining room, beckoned from my bed by the smell of coffee already brewing thanks to the auto-timer setting, and I’d only just get my own mug poured when out they’d come. They would just saunter by, pretending I wasn’t there. Some tried to fix their clothes or their hair or whatever, try and look respectable. It didn’t always work. After I’d been there a month, the girl that came out of his bedroom was Linda. I was stirring my coffee when she wandered out in one of his shirts. On her it hung halfway down her thighs. “Smells good,” she said. “Any for me?”
I poured her a mug and watched her dump cream and sugar into the coffee before taking a sip. “Fernando good to you?”
She didn’t say anything for a long minute, instead pushing her hair out of her eyes and staring into the mug. “He’s a sweet man. Very gentle.”
Given the sounds that came from his room, “gentle” would not have been the word I used. The walls were thin; I knew more about his sex life than any man should. “You going to see him again?” Linda was the first one to stop to chat, have some coffee, and I’d been wondering anyway if, given the chance, any of them would care to repeat the experience.
“I might,” she said. “I might not. That all depends.”
“Whether or not he calls me back.”
Then you won’t be here again, I thought. I hadn’t seen Fernando call one back yet. Until now, but something told me he hadn’t called Linda.
I didn’t ask about the dancing for another week. I knew he went out and did whatever and came home with a girl, but usually I’d come home from the restaurant and he’d already be gone. Our nights off from the Mexican place finally coincided, and he announced that he was going out. “I’d like to come,” I said.
He looked at me sideways, measuring me. I could see the wherefores floating through his mind, but instead he settled on a simpler question. “Do you dance?”
“Yeah, I can dance.” I didn’t sound very convincing.
Fernando arched an eyebrow. “Do you understand the meaning of the dance?” he demanded. “Do you know the dance in your heart and your soul? Do you feel the rhythm of the music in your heartbeat? Do you—do you dance?” By this last question his face was three inches from mine. His breath smelled of guacamole and cola, and his eyes had taken on a crispness I hadn’t seen in them before. If I’d had the time, I could have counted the hairs in his barely-there goatee, he was that close to me.
I folded like a pup tent. “No. Not like that.”
“Then you cannot dance,” he said, turning and leaving. “Not with Fernando.” I stayed in and the next morning, just like always, the girl came out in search of the coffee she was smelling.
A couple of days later I was at home, enjoying a day off. Linda showed up. She didn’t call first to find out if Fernando would be there. She just came, looking for him. I told her he was at work, and her eyes lost what spark they had. “I have some coffee on,” I told her. “You can wait for him here, if you like.”
“No, I—” Her voice trailed off, her eyes darted from side to side, avoiding contact and committal. “I couldn’t,” she said.
“No, please. I insist,” I said, and held the door open further. “Come in. Have some coffee. Relax a little.”
She came in, sat down at the counter, clutched her purse with both hands like it was a lifeline. “This is awful nice of you. Was nice smelling it that morning when I was—” I put a full mug in front of her and got the cream from the fridge. She added some sugar and some cream, stirred, blew, sipped. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“His shift at the restaurant ends at six. He should be back after that for a few hours before heading up to dance wherever.”
“The Uptown Grill,” she said, blew, sipped again. “I’ll see him there.” She stood up and walked to the door.
“Wait,” I said. She stopped and turned back to me. “What is it? What is it about Fernando?”
Linda took a step back towards me. “He’s so—alive. He radiates it, how happy he is to be who he is, where he is, doing what he’s doing. And it’s like he wants to share that joy with anyone, everyone he can. Just—when he dances, when he smiles.” Linda gazed off into space for a moment. “He’s not afraid of who he is. What else is there?” She left. I put the cream away.
Fernando got home at six fifteen and walked straight through the apartment to his bedroom, slamming both doors behind him. It was that way every day. Outside of his romancing he was not a socialite. I knocked on his door all the same and hoped for the best. He shouted for me to come in on the second try. I found him staring at himself in the mirror in his private bathroom. “I want to learn,” I said.
He stared me in the eye. “You want to learn?”
“To dance. Like you.”
His eyes shone with mirth. “You? Dance?” I nodded anxiously. “You cannot dance.”
“I know. That’s why I want to learn how. From you. I want to learn everything. I want to know how you— you—”
“How I get the chicks.” He laughed. “There is more to it than just the dance, Paul. It is the clothes. It is the hair. It is the attitude you radiate to others. It is in understanding what your soul is made of. I can teach you every step I know, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to dance.”
“It’s a start,” I said.
“Come with me tonight, then, and see what it is you aspire to.” Then he showed me out of his room.
I was at the Uptown Grill at ten thirty. The beer’d been flowing for a while already. Students in assorted states of inebriation littered the pool tables and the bar like so many moths around a tiki torch. I had a corner table removed from the action a little, and an understanding with my waitress to keep the diet colas coming. I wanted as much of my senses as possible. The deejay’d been playing songs for a while, and girls mostly were on the dance floor. There were a few guys trying to wiggle and squirm their ways next to the attractive ones, but there was this pervading attitude of nothing doing. They were expecting their Fernando anytime now, and until then there’d be no action. The guys knew not to go too far away, though, to catch the ones Fernando didn’t choose.
He turned up a few minutes short of midnight. It was like watching the Red Sea part, how fast the people cleared a path to the center of the dance floor. His entrance was timed to the ending of one song as if he’d meant it to happen that way, and then it was on with the techno-salsa. There was some shoving on the fringes, jockeying for position to be noticed and danced with, even from the girls who’d already had a turn that night. After about five minutes, I noticed Linda in the crowd of girls. She was actively pushing other girls aside, frantically trying to get to the center. She made it a minute later and waited her turn; Fernando would at least get to them all once before making his selection. Her turn came after another minute or so, and I saw her lips moving and her leaning into him so she could be heard over the music, but if Fernando replied at all I couldn’t tell. She got her three or four spins before he twirled her back to the edge of the circle and moved on. Linda did manage to stay in the center of the circle but got no other turns with Fernando. She walked off the dance floor, out the front door, and away. I’d seen what I needed to see by then, and Linda looked genuinely upset. I caught up to her after half a block. “Linda? You okay?”
She stopped and looked at me. “I just wanted to talk to him. That’s all. He wouldn’t even do that much. He didn’t say a word.”
I didn’t have a ready response to that. I couldn’t tell her she was a one-night stand. She was working that out on her own as it was. What I could tell her I wasn’t sure, but I knew she had something on her mind, and I wanted to hear what that was. “You wanna go somewhere? Talk? Get some coffee or something?”
We ended up at the fast food place three blocks away. I ordered some coffee for the two of us, and we took a booth in the back corner of the restaurant, removed from the action of slightly drunk co-eds marveling at the mediocre food. “You fell for him pretty bad, huh?”
Linda shrugged and smirked. “I guess I did. He made me feel—I don’t know. Special.”
I knew the feeling she was thinking of. She felt like the only girl in the world when she was with Fernando. A lot of girls came out of his bedroom the next morning wearing his shirts and saying the same thing.
“I mean,” she said, “the son of a bitch approached me—not the other way around—in that stinking restaurant. I thought he was actually interested in me.”
“He said he followed you into the ladies room.”
This look of disgusted surprise came on her face, like somebody had just passed gas. “Hardly. He caught me on my cellphone outside the ladies room. I didn’t even go in, let alone with him. He told me I was the definition of stunning, and to give him my number, maybe we could go dancing sometime. I thought it was funny and cute of him, so I did. He never called.”
I turned that over for a moment in my mind, and even then I ducked behind a cliché. “He’s a pig. For that, I apologize.”
“That’s rare,” she said. “A man apologizing.” A smile slid on to her face, a small smile, just big enough to let me know she appreciated the gesture, but before I could enjoy it more she took another sip of coffee, and it was gone. “I never see you out on the floor dancing.”
“I don’t—I mean, next to Fernando, I’m not much of a dancer.”
“Nobody is, if you hadn’t noticed.”
This was true. Most of the girls who danced with Fernando weren’t all that great, and hardly any of the guys were.
“On the other hand,” she said and stopped, looking down into her coffee.
A long moment passed, then she said, “Nothing. Let’s go.”
I insisted on seeing her as far as her apartment. Not that I don’t think she couldn’t handle herself, but rather I was hoping that she would finish that thought. We got to her front door, and I wanted to kiss her goodnight, but instead she said, “Dance with me.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment. “What?”
“Dance with me.”
“I don’t—here?” I looked around. She had a third floor apartment, her door opening onto a walkway overlooking the parking lot. The only light was from the security lights at either end of the building, just bright enough to put everything into half-shadow.
“Why not?” she said. “Give me one good reason why not.”
“I just—I can’t. Someone might see.” I knew they wouldn’t, knew we were barely visible in the half-light, but I said it all the same. I took two steps backward and gave her a half-bow. “Goodnight, Linda.”
Fernando and I worked the same shift the next day, and I gave him a lift into work. “So, you saw the dance?” he said.
I nodded. That I had.
“Do you feel, in your heart of hearts, you can dance like that?”
No. No, I certainly didn’t.
“Bueno. I didn’t want to say anything, but I had a feeling. You, my friend—you are too much the intellectual to dance like that.”
That night I was in the same booth as the night before, same waitress, same standing order for diet cola. I watched the crowd, trying to figure out who was with whom, match this person to that, deduce who the roommates were just from the social patterns. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. People tended to stay in the same small group of friends that they came in with, the mingling between parties limited to a “How you doin’?” in passing. I looked around, trying to figure out who Fernando would take tonight. No one jumped out of the crowd, but then Fernando was himself not fickle with his choices. Some of the women were blonde, some brunette. Some had short hair, some long. Some were skinny, some weren’t. What they all had in common was that they were young and impressionable, and Fernando was someone larger than life willing to swoop down and give them one night in heaven. I suspect.
“I don’t get it,” someone said from behind me. I turned and saw Linda standing there. Her arms were crossed and she had a look on her face that could have been disappointment and could have been heartburn.
“It’s not what you think.”
“Oh, it couldn’t possibly be what I think, could it? It couldn’t be you being so pathetic that you had to come and watch Fernando again. What, are you trying to learn from him? Do you want to be Fernando 2.0?” She looked at the people crowded at the bar. “Oh, I get it. Hoping for a little best friend action. Well, I hope she’s cute.”
Linda turned to go, but I grabbed her arm. “I’m here for you.”
She just looked at me, her mouth slightly open. “What?”
“I’m here—I wanted to see whether or—whether or not you’d dance with Fernando again. I wanted to see whether or not you’d come back.”
Her look didn’t change. “Why on Earth did you think I would?”
“You did. You have. You came back last night. You’re here tonight.”
Linda shook her head and left. Had I been thinking I would have followed her, apologized for my lack of trust, for thinking she was every bit as shallow as the rest of them. I let her go, let her be mad at me, at Fernando, at whomever.
Almost a minute after Linda left, Fernando arrived. The deejay put on a nice upbeat tango-sounding dance mix and the circle of girls formed around him magically. Largely it was the same as I’d watched him do the night before with the steps rearranged to fit what was playing. The first few girls he danced with didn’t last long, maybe ten seconds each, all looking stunned first to be dancing with Fernando, then to not be. One actually looked like she was a better dancer than Fernando, or at least more willing to shake her ass in a direction other than his, so she didn’t last either. He settled eventually on a redhead I wasn’t sure I’d seen in the crowd earlier, or if I had I couldn’t remember what her roommate looked like. After a few minutes of gazing at the crowd and trying to figure out who was one person less, I left and started walking nowhere in particular.
After a while, I found myself in the parking lot outside Linda’s apartment. From street level it looked even darker than it had the night before, the wattage of the security lights barely enough to reach the ground. I could see someone climbing the stairwell headed toward the top floor. From the back, the person looked vaguely familiar. “Linda?”
She stopped, turned around, and headed down to the nearest landing, some fifteen feet above me. “Paul.”
“I thought I wanted to be Fernando,” I said. “I thought he had it all worked out. He’s so smooth, easy to approach, easy to talk to, so laid back. He gets his choice of women every night, and I saw that, and I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who’s got it figured out. Here’s a guy who’s got the answers.’ I can’t approach women—hell, I can’t approach people in general. I can’t even take their food orders without being embarrassed. I’m just Paul, the quiet guy in the corner seat, the perennial best friend. And Fernando gets your number easy as pie, you who I noticed the second you walked into the restaurant, and you came out of Fernando’s room that morning and I thought, ‘Well, Paul, there’s another one that got away. If you’d been more like Fernando this wouldn’t have happened. You wouldn’t be just the guy who makes the coffee anymore.’” The wind kicked up just then. I could see Linda hold herself to keep warm. “I—would you dance with me?”
She looked down at me. I couldn’t tell, but she might have been squinting. “You sure you can handle it?” she said.
She came down the rest of the steps and stopped in front of me. “Give yourself a little credit,” she said, taking my left hand in her right. “Just for once.”
I put my other arm around her waist. We swayed back and forth for a little while, then we went up to her apartment and did it again. It didn’t occur to me until hours later, well after the sun had come up, that I hadn’t set the timer on the coffee maker back at my place, that Linda probably hadn’t made any, but then she rolled over, and the smile on her face let me not care.