What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Reality is manifest in many ways, not least through dreams. Billie and I had danced a few times during the practica, but I’d been distracted. I had promised my editor a new story by midnight and nothing came to mind. When I gathered my things at the end and left, I saw Billie poised at the top of the stairs admiring the moon as it rose over the harbor into a warm night sky. She had thrown a faux fur stole across her bare shoulders and her satin dress shimmered in the moonlight. I imagined inviting her to walk with me to the waterfront. Once past the Tango Center, the sidewalk outside the Psychiatric Clinic tilted a little towards the street and we leaned into each other to steady ourselves, my hand at her elbow as now and again her thigh grazed mine. We took a shortcut through a parking-lot, deserted save for an idling police cruiser, a watchful figure at the wheel just visible in the glow of the instruments.

As we strolled along a boardwalk bordering the marsh, Billie described a tango pilgrimage she’d made recently. She said she had danced every night into the small hours, never overlooked in the discreet invitations that followed each set. We came to a ramp that led down to a floating dock. Our steps set in motion receding arcs of moonlit wavelets that lapped against cattails at the edge of the marsh.
“The men were predatory,“ she said, “Dancing, I could feel their lust down there.”
I was lost for words. I brought music to life on my cellphone and touched her waist, but she looked away towards the harbor and said, “Let’s walk.” I wanted to tell her that tango was just another way of walking, but she knew that better than I did.

We returned to the boardwalk, the sighs of a tango violin animating the sway of her hips. Side-by-side we strolled through a park that followed the contours of the marsh. My tentative hand found hers, and a moment later slipped around her waist. We paused in the moonlit shade of a water-oak and settled into a bench overlooking the silvered expanse of the harbor. Somehow in the course of our murmured conversation, a new intimacy arose between us. We adjusted easily enough, and I must have dozed off for a while in her lap, because I suddenly awoke, chilled in the cool night air. Sitting up, momentarily disoriented, I saw that clouds had obscured the moon, and I realized that Billie was no longer there. My first thought was that I’d imagined everything, but the faux fur stole draped over me testified to reality. I held the damp lining to my face, inhaled redolent wisps of Billie, and peered into the dark recesses of the park, expecting any minute to see her emerge. I called her name, softly, but heard only the faint moan of a ship far out to sea.

I walked back the way we’d come. The police car was still in the parking lot, but now it blocked the driveway leading back to the Tango Center. Its flashing blue lights stabbed at my eyes as I drew closer. I weighed in the balance whether to report Billie’s absence, or just keep going. Misguided caution overruled propriety, and I sloped off on a tangent, heading for where a wire fence ran into the marsh. I was negotiating the tricky transition from the parking lot to someone’s back yard when a spike of chain-link snagged me and my feet began to sink in pluff-mud. Shaking off my shoes, I may have cursed inadvertently and caused a general commotion because next thing I knew an officer stood there shining a steel flashlight in my face.

“Evening, sir,” she said, “May I see your ID?”
“Of course,” I said, adopting the demeanor of one engaged in perfectly normal activity. “Is there a problem?”
“There were cries down by the waterfront. I noticed you came through here earlier. Where’s your friend?”
“My friend? Billie? We walked down to the marsh a while ago. I woke up and she was gone.”
“Is that her jacket?”
“Yes it is. What kind of cries?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. Mostly we’re alerted by anything out of the ordinary.”

I pictured the dubious high relief image I presented, and wondered whether I qualified. Our conversation was interrupted by crackles emanating from bulky equipment fixed to her belt. She groped for a button and gazed at the moon while reciting a set of numbers that bore the stamp of conviction. She turned to me.
“Sir? I need you to come down to the station. You’ll have to make a statement.”
I was about to say that my statements were usually published in biomedical journals or less frequently as literary fiction, but I held my tongue. My shoes were lost in the marsh, God only knew what had happened to Billie, and I seemed to be under arrest. “Of course. Glad to help in any way.”

She opened the back door of her cruiser, and I slid inside, expecting to feel her hand on my head anointing me a common perp. The car smelled of cigarettes and old vomit, the cloth seat was sticky, and the Plexiglas partition in front of me was clouded with tiny scratches. She flipped some switches, and we sped out of the parking lot, lights flashing and siren wailing. Gazing out the window, stupefied by the turn events had taken, I caught sight of Billie walking briskly past the Psychiatric Clinic, leaning carefully away from the uneven slant towards the street, her arms crossed against the night chill.

“That’s her,” I cried, “that’s Billie! Drop me off right here, thanks.” I knocked insistently on the scarred partition, but the officer was fixated on a laptop that glowed and blinked beside her. She drove fast with only an occasional glance at the road, seemingly immune to the commotion behind her. I heard a loud pop and then a brief hiss.
“Sir? I need you to sit still and quit banging on the partition. We’ll be at the station in just a minute.”
“Ma’am, can’t you hear me? That’s Billie back there, we’re done here, let me out. I’ve got a deadline to meet.”
She caught my eye in her rear-view and blew through a red light.
“Sir? If you don’t stop banging, I’ll need to call in back-up.”

I twisted around and through the rear window I saw Billie, distant now, poised in front of the Tango Center where the lights were out and the doors were locked. She faced the waterfront, caught for a moment in a pool of moonlight. I lost her as we swerved through another intersection. I fell back in the seat and smoothed the sable folds of Billie’s stole in my lap. My watch ticked off the minutes to midnight. I marveled how insidiously tangos earlier that night had seguéd from metaphor into make-believe. We slowed and turned into the floodlit precinct. The siren died down and I steeled myself for the task ahead. A new story; a dream manifest as reality.

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