The Magic Step

Sun Staff

"Start spreading the news," the singer wails.

"I'm leaving today. I want to be a part of it: Leisure World, Leisure World."

A wave of gray and white heads floats past the band. Light bounces off the spangled dresses and sparkling jewelry of women keeping time with partners in sports coats and hair pomade. In the past month, there have been ambulances, funerals, broken bones, heartbreak. But it is Saturday night in spring. The bandleader croons, the couples step forward and back, and the seniors-only community known as Leisure World spins happily in its own orbit.

The room is dark, shadowy, romantic. So, naturally, someone complains.

Ben Oliver is used to this; these are senior citizens, after all. He turns up the surrounding lights and lets a few minutes pass. Then, when no one's looking, he dims the crystal chandelier.

Dark again.


As president of the Ballroom Dance Club, Ben is keeper of the ambience. He is also guardian of dance-floor etiquette, dress code, style. Of course, he knows all the steps; more than two decades of practice in this Silver Spring enclave have made those moves second nature.

But the truth is, the man once known as the Fred Astaire of Leisure World doesn't dance much anymore. These evenings in the Crystal Ballroom offer something else now.

Surrounded by dancers, listening to the music, Ben can forget.

He can forget that he brought his wife, Florence, here in a wheelchair, that his life's work at this stage is to ward off disaster. He can forget his own troubles, too -- the quadruple bypass, the triple bypass before that, the kidney lost to cancer, the hands that shake so violently it's hard to raise a glass without spilling.

Inside this ballroom, he and his wife are not old, not exactly young.

They are every age they've ever been.

So Ben is not 77. His wife is not 81. They are 18 and 36 and 45 and 59.

One glimpse in the mirror can make an old man lose sight of who he once was. But at the dances, Ben can always recognize himself. He can find that part of him that will never change, the basic truth of him that took all his years to understand.

There's a break between rumbas. The voice of Ben's neighbor, Helen McKay, floats from the next table, high and light and delighted as she trills about her new tattoos. Four hours, no anesthesia, and what results! With this permanent makeup, bright blue liner eternally accents her eyes and her inked-on eyebrows are forever flirtatious. She's not as steady with a makeup pencil as she once was, but it's more than that -- all that fixing up just takes too much time. There are tap classes to attend, line-dancing lessons, Thursday dinners with friends.

And two dates a week with her boyfriend, Peter, on whose lap she is now sitting.

Helen is the belle of the senior ball. She can foxtrot and cha-cha the whole night and never once think about the widow's double threat: illness and isolation. She revels in this: She has a partner, and she can still dance. Never mind that she's a widow herself and, at 74, on the cusp of what some gerontologists consider the passage from young old to old old. The numbers are scary for everyone here. Ben already has lived as long as the average American is expected to. And every third person over 65 in this country dies before reaching Florence's age.

But the path into the last stage of life is not hard, like the statistics that define it. Instead, it is winding, one minute trouble and weakness and denial, the next ease and strength and hope.

Ben and Florence and Helen rise each day with their backs to the threat of the nursing home that looms large and final beyond the community gate. They look past the red emergency phones on the clubhouse walls and the daily funerals listed on the Leisure World TV channel. They take refuge in the familiar, the day-to-day, the moves they know by heart. They seek places where the fear is muted, havens like this Crystal Ballroom.

Yet even here, the reality of old age soon will confront them. They won't see it coming. And it won't be stopped. Every day, these people are haunted by the mystery of what comes next. All they can do is try to be their old selves, and something more than themselves, to make sense of what came before, to hang on to what they have, to find their own right ending.

Maybe it takes a lifetime to figure out how to grow old.

Maybe people never figure it out.

Or maybe they just wait, listen for the music, and dance.

It's a sunny day in Leisure World, but a cloud of confusion is settling on Apartment 3K.

"Something is going over my head," Florence Oliver says, "but I can't quite figure out what it is."

Florence listens to the tall stranger hovering over her -- a physical therapist with a big voice and thick hands who has broken the calm of the Olivers' neat little apartment. Ben wants the man to look at his wife's ankle, which is weak and causes her to drag a toe, which in turn occasionally trips her.

The rest of his wife's problems -- Ben leaves those unspoken.

The physical therapist works with the couple who used to shine in Leisure World's ballroom. They took lessons, practiced with a boom box for hours in an empty conference room, filled their home with dance music for extra inspiration.

Ben knows therapy won't return his wife to her old form. Their dance is different now, a series of fragile steps that keeps their life together. He's aware of what a fall could do, how it could unravel all they've built. One wrong move -- well, that's what this physical therapist is supposed to prevent.

The specialist talks about walking and falling and stumbling and rising.

Florence stares at him. Who is this man, filling her home with his action verbs?

The discussion continues. Finally, a pause. Florence chimes in.

"When do they serve the banana splits?"

The men look at her. No one says a word.

"Boy," Florence says, "listen to that silence."

The physical therapist studies her. He stops talking about her foot.

"What day is today?" he asks.

"Wednesday," Florence says.

She gets it right.

"What month of the year is it?"

She doesn't answer. He asks again.

"January, February, March, April, May, June, July ..."

Ben stops his wife. "You passed it."

It's April -- the 30th, to be exact. Just four days since the last ballroom dance, not long until next month's affair. This is the way Ben measures time, one dance to the next, leaping month to month until the year is done. It's more cheerful than the other markers -- the mealtime pills, the doctor visits, the regular news of another friend gone. The physical therapist observes his new patient, a woman with gray curls and an impish grin. Is he just not getting the joke? He studies her eyes, contemplating the mystery there instead of the tendons and muscles and ligaments and bone that soon will rest in his sturdy hands.

"What month?" he asks.

The room is quiet.

The specialist looks at Florence's husband for an explanation. But Ben won't speak for his wife. Nor will he explain the obvious to the visitor. Ben stands guard in his navy blue zip-up jumpsuit while the question hangs in the air. Finally, the therapist asks Florence to explain. "You're talking banana splits," he tells her. "I don't know where that's coming from."

She smiles at him.

And then she smooths over this awkwardness, seeming to speak for both herself and her husband when she explains, "We were just kidding."

Ben stands next to her, silent, a co-conspirator in this cover-up.

Dance nights for Helen McKay begin in the widow's boudoir. It is a shrine to her ballroom evenings.

This is how it works: One Saturday night a month, Helen enters her closet and selects an outfit encrusted with sequins or spangles -- anything to catch her in the light. She surveys her dance shoes, some on their second soles, the first worn out by all that gliding across ballroom floors. A dozen airtight bins labeled by style and color -- SILVER SPARKLE, GOLD-PLAIN, BLACK-SATIN LACE -- form her own dance-shoe filing system inside her closet. There are mysteries in this closet, too, secrets guarded in a locked box with orders for its handling should Helen die before shredding the contents. She tells her boyfriend Peter she ought to just get rid of it all now. But he knows she won't. A widow needs something to turn to.

The box holds her mutiny against all things depressing: the widow who dumped her boyfriend after his last stroke, the upstairs neighbor who jumped out her window to her death when she learned her illness was terminal, the woman who kept her dog's ashes in her bedroom so she would feel less alone.

It's not that Helen has escaped the misfortunes of her neighbors. Her husband died a year ago. Her body is brittle. She suffered some small strokes years ago; no permanent damage, but she knows she's at risk. And were it not for her two hearing aids and the baby monitor in the hall, she'd miss even the loudest knock on her door.

Still, she seems too young for this world of people who catapult themselves into old age, landing softly in unscuffed white sneakers, ready for early-bird specials and walkers and jokes about wild oats turning to shredded wheat. She laughs at the jokes too, but more like an outsider might.

Helen knows she is one of the lucky few; she can feel it in her bones on dance nights. The cobbler doesn't have to cut her high heels in half to keep her from falling. She doesn't have to wear a medical alert necklace instead of her rhinestone baubles. She can avoid the singles table, where widows bravely wait for a turn on the dance floor with bachelors imported from an old soldier's home. She doesn't have to live by old-lady rules. She has her friends, her boyfriend, the promises inside that box.

For Helen, life is all the things it has always been: love, loss, solitude, sex.

And the quiet thrill of a Saturday night.

No one has ever said the words in front of Florence. And as long as Ben is there to run interference, no one ever will. What good would it do for her to hear them? In Ben's language, the sickness rotting Florence's brain from the inside out is simply a memory problem.

"Benjamin! Come over here."

It is a Saturday in late May, the morning of the dance. Time for a wash, style and set. The Olivers are in the quirky home salon of a beautician who moonlights in her basement on weekends, a place in Wheaton that only Leisure World people seem to know about. Florence's head is wet, and she's trying to get Ben's attention.

A hair dryer -- the kind like a clear-plastic space helmet -- roars over another senior citizen's freshly pouffed curls, making her look like a geriatric alien. The noise drowns out the words Ben would never use if his wife could hear. "This Alzheimer's thing," he says softly. "It's insidious."

Florence twists in her seat by the mirror, looking at Ben on the sofa eight steps away while the beautician works around her head with a pair of scissors. Florence strains to hear her husband but can't. She calls for him.

Ben does not get up.

It's not just about memory, he says. His wife is changing.

"She's not doing any of those things that were so in character for her over the years."

His spunky wife loved reading. She adored any kind of game: Monopoly with their kids, poker with the guys, crossword puzzles before bed. Ben teased her that with Saint Anthony on her side -- Florence's favorite saint since childhood -- there were few competitions she couldn't win.

But now she doesn't do any of it.

Florence looks at those eight steps that separate her from her husband. Too many.

"Her world," Ben says, "is getting smaller and smaller."

He drops his voice lower.

"There are these little fits of anger."

Her stare is fixed on him.

"She's very possessive and clingy."

She calls again.


Her face flushes. She wants him by her. Now.

But Ben continues. If he leaves her in the den to prepare a meal or clean up, even if he has one of her favorite TV shows on, even if he says he'll be right back, in three minutes she is at his side. Nighttime is no better. When Florence stirs, he wakes automatically, watching from his pillow to make sure she gets to the bathroom safely. And he can't leave her alone anymore -- that's out of the question. That's when the worst could happen.

"If I leave her alone," he says, "she could fall."

It is strong and piercing, her voice, cutting through the whir of the dryer.


Ben stops.

"Come over!"

He walks over to his wife, says her hair's going to be pretty, tries to jolly her up by talking about the future. There's the ballroom dance tonight, and then, at the end of next week, a special trip.

Back in their apartment are tickets for the Olivers' 22nd cruise: one stateroom on the Continental Deck for a Caribbean voyage that starts Friday. There is so much they've loved about cruising -- the far-flung ports, the decadent meals, the tales of fellow travelers -- but it's the dancing that always inspired them. No matter that with every passing year more of the elegant moves were lost on their scantily-clad shipmates; to the Olivers, waltzing on the high seas still seemed grand.

Leisure World classes taught the couple technique, but cruising gave them style. Swaying across the oceans, they perfected the graceful moves, the timing, the romance of a ballroom dance.

Ben can still hear strangers applauding them in the ocean-liner lounges, saying they couldn't recall seeing a finer cha-cha. All that attention -- and to think the career federal bureaucrat used to get most of his praise for paperwork management.

Ben and Florence don't dance like that anymore. Now their signature move is a spot dance -- the two of them standing and shifting in one spot, not traveling at all, Ben clutching tightly his wife of 52 years.

"Well," Ben says, studying Florence's hairdo, "this will get you aboard ship, right?"

Florence settles down. Ben walks the eight paces back to his seat on the sofa.

After his little visit, Florence seems more peaceful, smoother, like her new curls. In this calm, the Florence of the past peers through.


That familiar nickname -- Ben and angel mixed together.


There are a thousand things she can no longer say.

"Don't go away."

The bags droop under his eyes, adding to the hangdog look he has had since youth.

"I'm not going away," he tells her. "I'm going to stick right here."

The hairdresser is ready for him now. Ben walks over for a quick trim. He sits before the mirror, relaxing by Florence, and allows his eyes to close. A minute passes. Florence taps his knee with her cane. He looks up. She sits back.

His eyelids grow heavy again. The next second, they close.

Florence leans up to his ear.

"You can't fall asleep," she whispers loudly.

Ben opens his eyes and stares into the mirror.

"I know."

"Bright are the stars that shine ..."

Dancers spin in the Crystal Ballroom.

"Dark is the sky ..."

Ben and Florence shift in one spot.

"I know this love of mine ..."

Ben holds onto his wife, waits for her to tire.

"Will never die ..."

There's Helen. The whole room can see her, dancing in the glow with her boyfriend Peter.

"And I love her ..."

On this warm spring evening, May 24th, the band will play its usual selection: Always, Crazy, Unforgettable. The musicians know this crowd well -- on many Saturday nights, they've driv-en the loop lined with townhouses and high-rises and pulled into the extra-wide parking spots outside the Leisure World clubhouse. Their destination lies just inside, on the dance floor, beyond the office that loans out wheelchairs. This evening, in the ballroom that doubles as a bingo hall on other nights, the band wears matching silver vests and gets jazzy with the old favorites.

Ben's feeling good tonight. In recent weeks, he has been revising his dreary premonitions: If his wife keeps doing those physical therapy exercises and wears a brace on her ankle as the specialist suggested, maybe their ballroom life isn't at the beginning of its end, maybe she'll be able to get on the dance floor a little more. He teases her -- tonight a spot dance; next up, the triple swing, right? He demonstrates with a jaunty hop-step.

Florence watches him and clasps her hands together.

"Like a bird!" she says.

Ben settles back into his seat next to Florence, and they run through their old routine: She says something. He tries to hear, leaning in. The tops of their heads touch, they meet each other's gaze. It does not matter what he says back. The gesture is nothing less than pure affection -- a move as intimate as the closest dance.

Sometimes every motion in this ballroom seems full of history.

One table over, Helen sits next to Peter. The tall 77-year-old with crinkly eyes says something; she laughs. He leads her to the dance floor.

Around the darkened room, there are whispers.

Some condemn. Others accept.

Helen steps easily, listening only to the music.

So much is unknown about the man who dances with Helen McKay; so much will never be known to these people. But Helen has made her peace. And the reasons why are found inside that box in her bedroom closet.

There's a note on it: "PERSONAL. RETURN TO PETER."

In case it falls into the wrong hands.

Inside is evidence of Helen's greatest discovery: that in the last part of her life she found what was missing from all that came before. The box holds the letters -- the story of a love affair between a lonely woman and a married man.

She has never covered up the truth; she will tell anyone who asks that Peter goes home to his wife when these Saturday night dances are done. He goes home to his wife after his twice-weekly dates with Helen. He goes home to his wife after telling Helen he loves her more than she will ever know.

She describes to her friends the Peter she sees -- a man who found her in a ballroom of senior citizens 12 years ago when they were both still entangled in troubled marriages. A man who all these years later hides his devotion to Helen while still caring for his ailing wife. A man dedicated to, and driven from, his octogenarian bride.

It is not the fact of their relationship that Helen guards -- she suspects Peter's family knows she exists by now. It is the depth of her feelings that she defends so closely. The shared intimacies spelled out in those letters are salvation for a woman entering the twilight years on her own.

The widow knows the limits. Peter places her hand over his heart as they dance, takes her home, holds her tightly. But by midnight, he is gone, back to his other life.

So Helen savors these dances. To her, they are like stolen time.

Here it is, finally: the cha-cha. Helen's favorite dance.

The evening is almost over. Peter grabs her, and they go.

Helen likes showing off, all sparkly and coupled up with her boyfriend like this. One of her ex-beaus is in the ballroom with his new girlfriend. Helen stopped dating him when she and Peter got serious, but she keeps sneaking glances at the couple anyway. She puts on a dazzling smile and pretends she doesn't care about being replaced.

Peter is an arm's length away. Helen tries to clear herself a spot on the floor.

Behind them, a dancer with palazzo pants and break-out moves already is in motion.

The cha-cha picks up speed.

Helen steps back and waits to find the beat.

Peter gets ready to hold onto her.

This is not the kind of dance Ben and Florence take on, so they sit, watching the ballroom swirl. Ben thinks he has done his job tonight. President of the club for the past 15 years, he knows the routine. He checked on the band, set the ballroom thermostat at 69 degrees and made sure the Leisure World staff laid out the brownies and strawberry punch on time.

The palazzo pants spin by, hips swinging, moving fast.

Peter sees her coming.

Helen does not.

On these nights, Ben thinks it's time for a bigger ballroom. It's so crowded -- nearly 200 people jostling each other, bumping through rumbas and swings. He wishes more of his neighbors would follow the line of dance -- the rule that keeps order in the ballroom by sending couples counter-clockwise around the floor. He believes traditions like this ought to be upheld.

Back on the dance floor: a shock.

No one shouts. No one runs for help. No one makes a commotion.

But distress shakes the room as firmly as the cha-cha beat.

Helen lies on the floor, struggling for breath, a crowd forming around her. Pain shoots up and down her spine. Her slit-up-the-side skirt is crushed underneath her, her shimmery top is losing precious sequins.

The palazzo pants are across the dance floor, still spinning, oblivious to the wreckage.

Helen's body wrenches in their wake.

Senior citizens know the gospel: Don't move, just in case something's broken. But Helen is too mortified, sprawled like this in front of everyone, including that ex-beau. Peter and another dancer -- an old medic from World War II -- help her up.

She grabs onto her boyfriend, clutching her back.

People clear a path. Peter is ashen, starts to explain.

"I was too far away to catch her ..."

He leads her to a couch outside the ballroom and lays her down. Her voice is panicked and rising.

"It feels like -- Oh, I don't know. It HURTS!"

Her throat is tight.

"I hate this! I hate this! I don't like being hurt!"

She stops for a moment to pick a brownie crumb off her fancy top. Then it starts again -- the pain!

Ben is standing over Helen now. He has looked for spilled punch on the dance floor, something the club could have prevented, something for which he ought to have been responsible. But he has found nothing.

Someone mentions the word hospital. Helen revolts.

No ambulance! She'll be fine.

But Ben doesn't like the look of this.

It's the line of dance. People are not dancing by the rules. See what happens?

He waits for a moment, but he knows there's little he can do.

Soon Helen will be lying in the emergency room.

Soon Peter will be lying to his wife so he can spend the night at the hospital with his girlfriend.

Ben turns and walks toward the music. There is a dance to finish.

And, six days from now, an ocean voyage.

Hardship awaits Helen, bad news she won't want to hear.

But Ben has the future to look forward to: an adventure of his own to begin.

• Chapter Two: Staying the Course

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