Turning Points

At the annual Hawaiian party, Helen McKay dances in triumph. But for Ben and Florence Oliver, life spins out of control.

February 19, 2004|By Story by Ellen Gamerman

Brahms' "Lullaby" fills the living room.

Ben Oliver has turned on the music box and tinny notes play in a loop, circling around like the miniature ballroom figures twirling inside it. Ben takes his wife's hands, lifts her off the couch.

"You ready?" he asks. "Here we go."

One step, then two, then three. A soft waltz on the carpet.

Ben can see Florence is tired. Earlier tonight, he tried to boost his wife's spirits, but when he talked about all the things they have to look forward to - starting with this evening's dance in the Crystal Ballroom at Leisure World - she just went fuzzy. So he took her to where the focus is still sharp, back to their past.

He reminisced about their wedding day, when he waited for what seemed like hours outside St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. - his bride lost in downtown traffic, Ben half-thinking she'd stood him up. His face flushed with relief when she finally arrived and they stood at the altar and said those words: Until death do us part.

The lullaby loops around again, but Florence stops dancing. She looks down at her long white muumuu and her purple lei.

"That could be trouble," she says, taking off the flower necklace.

Ben puts it back on her.

Tonight's the Hawaiian party. Everybody's supposed to be festive.

"You got to wear that," he tells her.

Is she too weary? Ben wonders. He has been looking for a sign lately, something to tell him when to give up these Saturday nights in the ballroom. He needs to know when to call Florence's last dance. It will be his last, too.

Ben shuts off the music box, gets Florence's purse and wraps his wife's hand around his arm.

He has abandoned the wheelchair for the evening; she can lean on him.

"Don't let me walk too fast."

"OK," he tells her.

Time for the tropical affair. This evening in late July has been a highlight on their calendar for months.

Ben's private background music - warring thoughts of future dances, final dances - loops inside his head. To end these evenings means surrender, giving up experience and connection in exchange for greater safety. To continue them means defiance, keeping Florence engaged in life even if it exposes them both to hidden dangers.

Tonight, defiance prevails. Ben leads Florence from the building to his favorite dance of the year.

She waits by the guardrail outside. He swings the Cadillac around.

He walks his wife to the car, puts her in the front seat, locks the doors.

Ben has decided they can keep moving forward as usual. He has pushed the dangers far from his mind.

But by the time their evening ends, that car will carry home an unwelcome guest:

A lasting fear, realized.

"Aloha!"

The bandleader gets in the mood as the Crystal Ballroom fills with dancers in Hawaiian outfits. There is more exposed flesh and frenetic energy than usual tonight. A dancer lassos her lei over her gray head stripper-style, a few women add hula moves to their rumbas, and a widower wears a shirt with topless island women silk-screened in the pattern.

Helen McKay makes her way to the dance floor, her boyfriend Peter at her side.

The 74-year-old widow has pulled herself together for the evening despite a ballroom collision two months ago that flattened a vertebra and crushed her confidence. She suspects her back injury is doing its best to turn her into one of those tiny old ladies. Since her accident in this enclave of senior citizens in Silver Spring, she has lost strength and started to walk hunched over.

Now her muumuu drags on the floor.

"I'm shrinking," she tells her friends.

But Helen is ready for her date tonight. She made Peter a big dinner - crab au gratin, homemade coleslaw and Hostess buttered rum buns - determined not to allow her back injury to pre-empt their romance any longer.

Her boyfriend holds onto her, matching Helen's steps as well as her outfit. His shirt, which once belonged to Helen's late husband, bears the same bold flower print as her dress, and they move together in perfect color-coordinated harmony.

Peter won't wear that shirt home tonight. It would reveal the secret life he leads here, far from his sick wife. So before he leaves, Helen will give him back his own clothes. She works to protect this affair just as she studies each step she takes now, looking for the equilibrium in both.

In the ballroom, her boyfriend of 12 years leads her toward a quiet spot on the floor.

He pulls Helen close. She leans into his shoulder, clutching him.

The band plays a slow song - "Always" - and Helen steps carefully over the place where she fell.

Across the room, the singles table fills with women wearing flowers in their hair. They know the Hawaiian lore: a blossom on one side means a woman is married, on the other signals that she's on her own. The women can't remember which side is which, but their single status is clear given where they're sitting.

Billie Saunders, the Ballroom Dance Club's second-in-command, directs the bachelors toward them.

She does the head count: 191 people tonight.

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