The old man looked around and frowned. He despised the place.
“Give it some time, Max. I’m sure you’ll like it better when you get settled in,” the staff nurse said with a rehearsed professional smile.
“Not possible,” he growled. “There’s nothing but old people here.”
“Well, Max, you are eighty-eight. You should fit right in with our other residence members.”
He still couldn’t believe it. His son put him there. He felt betrayed.
“Dad, we have to put you in a home,” his son announced without debate. “You keep getting lost.”
“I wasn’t lost.”
“Dad, you kept walking around the same two blocks until people got creeped out and called the police. You want to get arrested whenever you go for a walk? It’s for your own safety.”
“I wasn’t lost,” he insisted again.
“All right then, Dad. If you weren’t lost, where were you?”
“Cincinnati,” he answered incorrectly, and ended up in this place he hated with the nurse and her prepaid pleasantness.
“Come along now, Max,” she encouraged. “It’s the Friday night social. All the residents will be there and you might meet some new friends.”
The nurse steered him firmly by the arm down to the cafeteria where she deposited him next to a table of cookies and fruit punch. He took a sip of punch and spat it back into the glass. He wanted a bourbon in the worst way.
Surveying the room, he saw people sitting and talking, but mostly just sitting. In a space where some tables had been cleared out, three couples were dancing with a stiff rhythm to recorded music.
“Would you like to dance?” a woman next to him asked.
“I don’t dance,” he answered with a gruff voice to chase her off. It worked. “I need a bourbon,” he thought again with an irritated look at the punch bowl.
But as he turned to flee back to his room, he knew it wasn’t for bourbon. He was lonely, and he realized sadly that it was the worst kind of loneliness. He would feel less lonely by being alone.
Then he saw her across the room. His heart stopped.
It was Molly sitting by herself behind a table. He was sure of it. It had been sixty-five years since he had last seen her, but he remembered her immediately. Even from a distance, he recognized those brown eyes and the delicate dimples adorning her smile.
The memories flooded into his head. On Army leave, he had seen her across a dance floor, just like tonight. He hadn’t hesitated. He weaved his way through the gyrating couples and walked straight up to her.
“I’m Max. What’s your name?” he shouted over the music.
“Molly,” she answered with a slight blush from his sudden attention.
“Come on, Molly. Let’s dance.”
It was more a command than a request. She was slightly intimidated by his direct manner.
“No thank you,’ she demurred.
“Come on, Molly. Let’s dance,” he urged again with a smile.
“No, that’s all right,” she said after a slight hesitation.
“Come on, Molly. Let’s dance!” He would not be denied. He took her hand and pulled her onto the dance floor.
That’s how it started. They danced and laughed, and eventually touched when the music turned soft and slow. They felt each other’s breath and then each other’s lips, and finally the excitement of freedom from obligation to anything other than the moment. They made love. Just once.
And then he went to war.
He never saw her again. Four years of mind scarring horror erased his memory of those special moments. But now, he could not believe he was looking at Molly across a dance floor once again six decades later.
She looked up and saw him. After a momentary look of confusion, she gave him a big smile.
In that unlikely place, he felt overwhelmed from moving through loneliness, surprise, forgotten joy, to desperate hope undermined with uncertainty, all in a single moment. Her smile, he suddenly realized, meant everything to him. Despite the sorry limits of his life, his improbable discovery of that smile might give him back the good days of the past and a last chance at happiness in his life to come. It was all there with Molly, sitting behind that table, smiling at him.
He grabbed a glass of punch and tossed it down his throat. With a knot of excitement in his stomach, he walked past the couples on the dance floor to where she was sitting. She looked up at him and gave him that smile once more.
“I’m Molly. Who are you?”
“Molly, I’m Max. We met at a dance in Hoboken when the war started.”
Her smile grew slightly as she nodded.
“It was a long time ago, Molly. Do you remember when we met that night? I kept having to tell you, ‘Come on, Molly, let’s dance.’ It took some doing. But when I got you out there, we wore that dance floor out.”
He laughed at the memory and felt almost giddy. Her steady smile buoyed him.
“I can’t believe I found you here, Molly. Would you like to go somewhere and talk, just the two of us?”
He gave her the look that got her on the dance floor years before. She raised her eyes to his, still smiling, and rolled herself back from the table in a wheelchair.
“I’m Molly. Who are you?”
His smile faded.
“I’m Molly. Who are you?” she repeated mechanically through her uncomprehending smile.
He felt emptied, as entirely empty as he now realized Molly was. His eyes turned to the floor as his shoulders sagged. He took a slow deep breath until he looked back up at her. Walking around the table, Max grabbed the handles of her wheelchair and started to push.
“Come on, Molly. Let’s dance,” he said as he glided her onto the dance floor.