By Renee Agatep
“I must have danced 90 foxtrots tonight.” Irena lit a cigarette just outside the door of The Liberty. “Can’t you do a rhumba or a waltz sometime?”
Another cigarette, another cigarette, all night, six days a week. A hundred taxi dance hall girls lined up on the wall, a hundred cigarettes, every one of them coursing through Amando’s lungs as he sang from the stage. His thick pomade was saturated with the stuff, his hair still lingering with the smell after scrubbing his scalp raw each night.
“Did you get 90 dances?” Amando asked. “You must have made twenty-five dollars this week.”
Irena took a long last drag and stamped the ember in her plain oxfords. She remembered when Amando kept count.
It wasn’t lost on either one of them that Manny and the Melodic Hawaiians didn’t have a Hawaiian among them, but these rubes in their dull brown shoes couldn’t tell the difference. No sense in riling up the white boys with a banner outside announcing a Filipino band, not when the dance hall already snapped with Manong in shiny black shoes, moving across the floor like movie stars, making these farm boys look like fools. Especially not after what happened in Watsonville.
“Paid off the gown at the dealer today.”
Good thing, too. It was time to move on out of the Imperial Valley, back out to the coast, then on to Stockton. The gown was a new favorite, her bare arms fairer against emerald velvet, and it seemed to work like a charm. Irena had hardly had a break all night, and at ten cents a dance, five cents went straight to her pocketbook.
Amando kept her fur behind the bandstand, away from most of the soft drinks that spilled from the hands of increasingly drunk patrons as the night wore on. He used to watch for that sort of thing, but he’d learned to stop jumping when a commotion broke out near Irena, that she took care of herself before even the managers could get to the scene. He used to play every conversation out in his mind, though he couldn’t hear a word over the five-piece band. These bumpkins were suspicious of city girls, and Amando knew all her disarming lines by heart.
Gosh, it must be beautiful living in the country. Way out here in all this fresh air, with the trees and flowers and all.
The hall inside was nearly empty now, the band taken down. It was a hard habit to break; letting her wrap the fur about herself.
“Did you see the news?”
“No, doesn’t matter.” Irena shrugged.
“Which is it? Did you see it, or it doesn’t matter?”
Irena had watched his face on the bandstand all evening. He came back to the stage at 10:15 with that scowl so typical of him receiving bad news. She’d hoped they could go one more night without talking about laws and judges and the opinions of people they’d never meet, not even for a two-minute dance.
“Does it make a difference, Amando? What’s legal and what’s not? What they know and what they don’t know? We know.” She packed her satin dance shoes into her bag, wrapped her blonde head in a silk scarf before he opened the door of the car.
“Makes a difference to me.” Amando loaded the trunk of the Model T with Irena’s bags. “You know that law means we’re not married? Not anywhere?”
“Laws can’t change that kind of thing.”
Amando started the car and held Irena’s hand as they drove out of El Centro.
“Maybe we call this California thing quits. Head east, to Chicago.”
Irena had come from that way, Chicago. He always talked like this, like Chicago or New York might be something better. His kind of hope was something else.
He still looked at her face in the oncoming headlights. Peaking from under the scarf, the dark roots of her hair would remain until the next town, before she made it to the next hairdresser. She’d pay for peroxides to lighten it orange, to yellow, finally to blonde. They’d pile her hair high on her head in some eye-catching fashion, and Irena would remind them no ringlets, no curls. Fancy things fall in the sweat of four-hour foxtrots.
Amando still dreamed of her hair, pouring over his pillow, its waves unbent by the bleach and the heat, soft and cool, coal-black as the sea.
This story originally appeared in Hawaii Pacific Review.
Photo “Jitterbug Dancers 1938” by staff photographer Alan Fisher. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c34893