When I read Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, the book took me back to the relationship I had with Dick, the man who introduced me to competitive dancing. If you want to be taken back as well, check out Dick The First and Dick The Second. In short, Dick morphed from charming into controlling as fast as I turned into a decent dancer.
And yet I wondered, after he waltzed out of my life, how much of the responsibility for that dysfunctional dynamic was mine. Even as I moved on with new dance partners and new men, the niggling sense of shameful guilt did not.
I did a superb job picking out the next few boyfriends. I found the emotionally unavailable guy, the user who wanted an in with my Hollywood employers, and the cheater.
“When I was twenty-six/ It was a very bad year…”
Somewhere in THAT fantastic dating streak, I saw Dick again at a dance studio. He had a new partner. A sweet young thing. One he’d met in a bar, even. Dick refused to so much as look at me. However, Protégé B went from smiling shyly at me to saying hello. I didn’t know why she would want to connect in the face of Dick’s obvious disapproval, but I said hello back. I watched their first dance competition. They placed first and second — in the same categories I had placed first and second with Dick. Deja vu, indeed.
Not long after that, as I was getting into my car, Protégé B and Dick exited the studio together. She peeled off, came over, and asked questions about my convertible until Dick was out of earshot. Then Protégé B cut to the chase.
“What happened when you and Dick were partners?”
“Uh…does he know you’re asking me this?” I did not want to deal with Disapproving Dick a second time.
She shrugged like she didn’t care, but lowered her voice. “Here’s the thing. We used to have a lot of fun practicing, but now…”
“It’s not like it used to be, right?”
She nodded. “He’s gotten critical. Cold.”
“Are you guys a couple?” I held my breath.
She shook her head.
I exhaled. “Thank God. Don’t go there. In fact, don’t go anywhere with him. Run. Find another partner. Because, trust me, it’s only gonna get worse.”
Protégé B must’ve taken my words to heart. She not only dropped Dick, she found a partner in another state.
Dick looked at me once again. And glared. I stayed far away from him…until an unfortunate dance competition where Dick drew me as his random partner.
Through gritted teeth, between dips and spins, Dick lectured me on how I lost him a partner.
My hands shook, but I hit a line, smiled at the audience, and whispered, “You lost your own dance partner, DICK. Twice.”
Dick smiled back. “Killer duck coming.”
I bent my knees and spun, nailing the move. The audience applauded. But Dick’s sotto-voce chastisement continued. He criticized me for gossiping about him. He insisted that everyone knew it was only because I was bitter and vengeful after he had dropped me.
It was a thoroughly unpleasant dance.
The judges sent both of us through to the finals. Judges are sometimes idiots.
Thankfully we got different partners. I won with my friend KL’s husband. Dick and his partner took second or third. I didn’t even look at Dick, but my delighted partner hammed it up during awards, loudly announcing that he was “finally standing in front of the great Dick!”
You’d think I would have been thrilled, and yes, it was gratifying, but I would have preferred not to have any interactions with Dick at all. He still had the power to unsettle me, to make me second guess myself. Maybe I WAS out for petty vengeance.
When he showed up at the studio with Protégé C, my partner and I switched to a different studio. But dance gossip travels through every studio, and I soon heard that Dick and Protégé C were a couple off the floor as well.
Less than six months later, when I was standing by the water pitchers in dark ballroom, chatting with KL, Protégé C appeared. She asked me about my relationship with Dick.
I attempted evasion. “Listen, Dick doesn’t like it when I talk about him.”
Protégé C’s lip quivered.
KL shot me an exasperated look. “For goodness sakes, Autumn, look at the poor girl!”
I looked. And I saw myself, two years earlier: skinny, devastated, tearful. All self-confidence gone, ground into oblivion under Dick’s Cuban heels. She needed compassion. She needed help. She needed to know the truth.
Why on earth WOULDN’T I tell her about my relationship with him?
Had the imaginary light bulb that went off over my head in that moment been real, it would have lit up the entire ballroom.
I still craved Dick’s approval.
Well, fuck that.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Romance, like you’ve never felt before. Butterflies, glorious fantasy dances, up till dawn, couldn’t get enough of each other, made you feel like you were the queen of the universe, right? And then, suddenly, maybe you made a small mistake. One you made before. Only this time, Dick isn’t laughing. He’s frowning. And you don’t want him to frown, so you try harder, but the harder you try, the more critical he gets and it’s all gone wrong and it’s all your fault and oh, my God, next thing you know it’s like he doesn’t even want to be seen in public with you anymore and you can’t figure out how you got here and you’d give anything to get back to glorious goddamned butterflies.”
Protégé C whispered, “How did you know?” She blinked, and two tears ran down her forlorn face. KL handed her a tissue and put an arm around her.
I motioned at the doorway. “Let’s go get you something to eat, and we’ll talk.”
She said, “I should warn you, I have a hard time eating these days.”
I patted her arm. “I know, baby, I know.”
As KL escorted her out of the room, I looked back at the floor one last time. There was Dick, dancing up a storm. Laughing, even.
I caught his eye, smiled, raised the back of my hand at him, and curled down my fingers into a fist. Well, not all my fingers.
I left the middle one up for several beats. Then I brushed back a loose strand of hair with it, turned, and went to tell Protégé C she was not crazy. And she was absolutely not alone.
After Protégé C left Dick, he gave up on the sweet young things and partnered with a married woman. We became civil over the next few years, and even danced together at various events without nasty commentary (mostly). When I broke up with my longtime boyfriend Ethan, Dick offered to take me out country-western dancing, “for old time’s sake.”
I snorted and refused.
On Saturday night, Dick showed up on my doorstep, dressed in a cowboy hat and boots. He handed me a sheaf of papers. “Those are insurance statements that prove I’ve been doing psychotherapy.”
They were, indeed. I let him into my apartment.
I took his hat.
I invited him into my bedroom.
And I told him to sit on the bed.
Then I took the very first dance plaque I’d won off the wall and hit him over the head with it.
Not hard, but not gently, either. Just enough so that Dick said “Ow,” and rubbed his head.
I put the plaque back on the wall. “NOW we can go dancing.”
We danced. We had a great time, and Dick wanted to get all cuddly. Dick also wanted to spend the night, but I sent him on his way.
I’m not a total moron.
Also, I’d already found the love of my life in my good friend and Chinese-American dance partner. (Andy didn’t know it back then, but I did.)
I might never have met Andy if I hadn’t dated or danced with Dick. In the end, I forgave Dick everything, because I wouldn’t trade the love I have now for anything.
Susan Blumberg-Kason, once an abused wife, says something similar in the close of her book: “I was past rancor and bitterness. After all, Cai had given me the great gift of my son.”
And as for Dick? Well, my friend EO called me recently. I hadn’t seen her since my wedding. We spent a few minutes catching up. I asked her how her love life was going.
EO said, “That’s actually why I’m calling. I heard that way back when, you and Dick dated.”
I winced, but made my voice as gentle and kind as I could. “Are you dating Dick now?”
She sniffed. “Yeah.”
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. Do you want to talk about it?”
But she couldn’t talk, because she was sobbing.
So I spoke instead. “Let me guess. Everything was flowers and perfection at first…”
Sadly, even therapy can’t help certain Dicks.