It’s the day after Christmas. Today’s cocktail must be sophisticated, but unpretentious. Definitely not single-malt scotch, then. I’ve spent too many evenings in the past year with men who swagger stupidly because of single malts, their gold and platinum cards peeking from their starched cuffs like a magic trick. One of them always spills before the night ends, either drinks or secrets. They always assume I want a sweet drink, too cloying to pack a punch. Nowadays, I always want a punch.
A martini, then. Hendrick’s gin. Pure hooch, and more festive than drinking at home alone. I can talk to someone here; strangers hearing my stories stay strangers, if I choose.
But the bar is nearly empty this mid-afternoon. I drink my martini fast, and select a George Michael song on the jukebox. A pale man slides off his stool and approaches me wordlessly, arms opened wide in invitation. He wears a single earring; it twinkles with light caught from somewhere, though the bar is dim. In his loose, cream-colored sweater, his arms look like angel wings. I want a dance partner, but I deserve a devil. I shake my head, and he clutches his chest where his heart would be. I shake my head again and the man flies upward, dissolving through the dark rafters overhead.
I start to waltz by myself to “Careless Whisper,” George Michael’s song about betraying a friend, insisting his guilty feet lack rhythm. I know all the words and join in, dancing as I sing “I’m never gonna dance again.” I twirl and sweep across the empty bar floor where all the stickiness has been mopped up, a floor glossy enough to allow for a little glide to go with the melancholy. Forget the devil. For this song, dancing alone feels right.
George Michael died on Christmas day last year, though brown leaves still scurried and scraped as if it were Halloween. The following afternoon, my best friend Rita and I met in my kitchen to play all of his hits, one after the other. Rita had recently ended her final round of chemo, so I treated us to expensive champagne. A George Michael Dance-Wake required thorough tipsiness; Rita, not much of a drinker, clung to me with her thin arms to stay steady. It reminded me of slow-dance practice with Rita in middle school on her back porch, trying to figure out how close together we should stand and where the boy’s hands and ours should go.
“Okay, here’s a thought,” Rita said as we sipped and swayed. “If there’s a God in Heaven, pretty soon I’ll be dancing with George Michael himself.” We’d been in love with him since we were teenagers.
“No way, you bitch! I get first dibs!” I said, and Rita smiled. “Besides, we both know you’re going straight to Hell in a handbasket.”
“What does that saying even mean?” Rita asked.
I didn’t answer, and we stepped apart, awkwardly, for a moment. But then it was time for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” in which George Michael pleads with his lover to take him club-hopping. The song demands crazy dancing and loud shouting, and we complied. Rita wore the wig she’d named “Esther” after the swimmer Esther Williams, a platinum cap of stiff little curls, utterly unlike her former real hair. “On purpose,” she proclaimed. “It’s my chance to vogue.”
As George Michael wailed that he wanted to “hit that high!” Rita swept Esther off her head, twirled it on her index finger, and threw it into the air. The wig landed atop the stove, where a pot of chicken soup sat on a low flame. Laughing, we stomped out Esther’s smoldering curls to George Michael singing “Freedom.” The glare from the kitchen lights bathed the top of Rita’s head, thin tufts of cotton-candy hair wisping above her ears, as we destroyed Esther.
“Now you’re going to Hell in a handbasket for sure,” I said.
“Why does a handbasket make it so much worse? And whose hands could carry me in a basket, anyway?” Rita asked.
“I’ll carry you,” I said, touching her cheek. “I’ll always carry you, Reets.”
But later, I didn’t. I couldn’t.
During my afternoon waltz, my one-year waltz, my arms grasp for ghosts in the yeasty bar air. I reach gracefully, so it will still look like dancing. When I complete my performance, breathless and a little sweaty, I say breezily to the bartender, “George Michael! What a fucked-up dude.” I pause, then add, “What a loss.” I long to summon the pale man with the earring, let him give me a chance on the next George Michael song, but he doesn’t reappear.
Mary Hannah Terzino writes in Saugatuck, Michigan, overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among others. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is an occasional contributor to Brevity Nonfiction blog, an online publication about writing.