Editors’ Choice: Dallas Woodburn

The Belly Dancer

“You hear about the belly dancer?” Donny asked George. It was a warm Saturday afternoon in late June and they were playing gin rummy on George’s sun porch. Donny swept the cards off the table and began to shuffle.

“What belly dancer?” George said.

“At that new Greek restaurant downtown. I’ve heard she’s something else!”

“Greek food?” George shook his head. “I don’t like Greek food. It’s all lamb.” More than forty years had passed since his Navy days, but George still refused to buy anything Japanese and the countless galley dinners of gamey mutton had forever banished his appetite for lamb.

George’s wife, Mary Ellen, looked up from across the porch, where she knelt watering the potted petunias. “It’s not all lamb, George,” she put in. “There’s vegetables. And chicken.”

George scowled at her, feeling betrayed. “How do you know they have chicken? You’ve never been there.”

“Every decent restaurant serves chicken,” she said. She stood, wiping her hands on her skirt. “Besides, I want to see this belly dancer.”

“All right!” Donny declared, slapping the deck of cards down on the table. He beamed at George. “It’s settled. I’ll call Sue and have her meet us there. We can get a table before the dinner rush.”

“They won’t have chicken,” George said.

***

He was right.

“See?” he said to Mary Ellen. “This place is not a decent restaurant.”

“Oh, hush,” she said.

George put on his reading glasses and squinted at the laminated menu. The lighting was dim; heavy tapestries covered the windows so the last of the day’s sunlight was rendered useless. George leaned closer to Mary Ellen, thrusting his menu at her. “Can you read this damn thing?” he asked.

“Yes, and I think I’m getting the lamb gyro.” She smiled sweetly at him.

“What’s a gyro?”

“It’s a type of sandwich. They make it with pita bread.”

“What’s pita bread?”

“It’s like tortillas, only thicker.”

“Huh. Well, I don’t like lamb.”

“I know you don’t, dear, but I do.”

George turned his menu over. There was nothing written on the back, just a picture of some Greek God lording over some Greek temple. He turned his menu back over. The laminate felt slick and greasy. “The writing’s so small, I can’t read this damn thing,” he muttered.

“Here, want me to help?” Mary Ellen asked. She was using her schoolteacher voice. George hated when she used that voice on him. He was eight years older than her, and their own kids were grown and gone, and still she talked to him like he was a child.

“I’ll manage,” he said.

“I think I’ll get the veal,” Sue said. “Or maybe the vegetables with rice.” She was a petite woman, much younger than Donny (and, for that matter, George and Mary Ellen) and she favored cowl-neck sweaters and bright red manicures. To George it looked like her fingers were always bleeding. Donny met her just two weeks after his divorce to Connie was finalized. He was driving home from the hardware store when Sue rear-ended his truck at a red light.

“No, I’ll get the veal,” Sue said. She set her menu down and smiled across the table at George.

Donny hadn’t picked up his menu. His eyes roved around the room. “Wonder when she comes out,” he said.

“Donny is so excited to see this belly dancer,” Sue remarked. She reached over and rubbed his knee. “I’m gonna have to get myself a belly dance costume, huh honey?”

“Yeah,” Donny said. He turned his chair slightly to face the kitchen doorway.

“You ever seen a belly dancer before?” George asked.

“Only in the movies,” Donny said.

“There’s something mysterious about belly dancers,” said Mary Ellen.

George didn’t think mysterious was the right word. More like furtive. Clandestine. In the movies, the camera would zoom in on their veiled faces, and their half-narrowed eyes would gleam as if they knew a secret everyone else didn’t know.

***

The food arrived. George picked at his hummus and mousaka. Their plates were cleared away by the time the belly dancer wiggled her way to the center of the room. Her hair hung in lank, ropy curls and rolls of fat swayed on her exposed belly. George nearly laughed out loud. Sue puffed out her cheeks and caught his eye, and then he did laugh a little. He steeled himself for Mary Ellen’s chiding, but she didn’t say anything. She and Donny stared at the belly dancer, wide smiles on their faces, utterly entranced.

The bill came, and George paid. He would make Donny pick up the next one. The belly dancer waved a gauzy strip of blue fabric in front of her face. She flung it towards their table, but it landed feebly a few feet away. Donny lunged forward and grabbed it, then slid back into his seat, glowing. Mary Ellen reached across the table and fingered the fabric.

George sighed. “You gang ready to head out soon?” he said.

“Already?” Mary Ellen said. “The belly dancer’s just started.”

“I’m ready!” Sue announced. “Donny?”

“No, not yet,” Donny said.

“I know,” Sue said, shrugging on her coat. “George can take me home. Donny, you and Mary Ellen stay as long as you want. Here’s my keys – you can drive my car home.” She leaned over and kissed Donny on the cheek, but he barely stirred.

***

George opened the car door for Sue, then walked around to the driver’s side. His stomach felt tight and unsettled. Damn Greek food, he thought.

The drive was silent. Sue leaned back against the headrest. Gingerly, she placed her arm along the armrest between them. Her fingertips no longer looked bloody, just shiny and dark.

Sue spoke when George turned down her street. “Know how Donny and I met?”

“You rear-ended his truck.”

“Well, but the light was green. Donny wasn’t paying attention.”

George laughed. “Donny never pays attention.”

“Sure was tonight. To that belly dancer, I mean.” Sue fiddled with a pearl earring. “I remember climbing out of my car after the accident. I was so worried the other driver would be furious. But you know what Donny said to me?

The first thing he said?”

“What?”

“He winked at me and said, ‘It’s okay, sweetheart. You’re such a pretty little thing, you don’t need to be a good driver.’ And I thought, here’s a man I can have fun with.”

They approached a stop sign. Slowing the car, George glanced over at Sue. They passed under a streetlamp and for an instant her face lit up and her teeth gleamed in the shadows. All at once George understood what it meant to yearn for something unfamiliar, just to break the monotony of your life.

“Sue,” he said.

She met his eyes and smiled. George pictured Mary Ellen and Donny, sitting at that half-lit table, spellbound by that belly dancer: the swish of her hips, the sway of her arms, the enticing jingle-jangle of her costume, promising something exotic, daring, new. Secrets that remained secret. George glimpsed Sue’s house and accelerated down the empty street. Listening for the first slight strains of music. Waiting for the dance to begin.

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