By Courtney Justus
on a weeknight during Easter break at the Norcenter mall, his beat-up white sneakers in sweet synchronicity with the thumping music around us. He seemed to move like an astronaut: floating through the halls of the theatre where we performed together, rising into a baby freeze or a full-on headstand, boarding buses in Olivos and San Isidro and Béccar. Gustavo the theatre boy and break dancer living eight blocks away.
We met at my fiesta de quince, where he seemed to appear from out of nowhere, popping and locking to the Black-Eyed Peas without breaking a sweat, green and yellow spotlights flashing across him. Gustavo’s father was a friend of my uncle’s and the photographer for my party. Sometimes Gustavo accompanied his dad to events. A couple weeks after the party, Gustavo showed up to my musical theatre class, run by my uncle out of a basement space next to a church off Avenida Libertador, behind a metallic gate you could easily miss if you weren’t looking hard enough.
That night during Easter break, I’d asked Gustavo if I could ride the bus with him, to meet several of our theatre friends for dinner and bowling. At the bus stop at Francisco Borges and Maipú, we waited for the 59, the forest green and crimson bus that went all through Olivos down to Norcenter. My grandmother did not allow me to ride the bus by myself at night: a risky endeavor for any fifteen-year-old girl, even in Zona Norte. But because Gustavo was accompanying me, because I told her we’d catch a ride home with my cousin Sara and her boyfriend in his car, she let me go. At some point during the bus ride, I became aware that Gustavo did most of the talking and that I—more introverted, fluent in Spanish but still struggling with Argentinian slang—often did not know what to say other than “sí, claro” and “genial.”
The 59 snaked around the familiar highway loop just off the Panamericana toward Norcenter, which housed name-brand boutiques where I never bought clothes, a small ice rink and an alley where I bowled not quite terribly alongside our friends. Throughout the night, I remained conscious of how many pesos I had in my wallet and what my family would think of how much I spent. Back in 2011, a hundred pesos in your hand meant the night of your life. Now, it’s chump change, an afterthought, not even enough for a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk or a cup of coffee. While I don’t remember how much it cost to eat dinner at Norcenter, or use the ice rink, or bowl, I remember thinking hard about those numbers, making calculations in the back of my mind and trying not to show anyone that I was worried.
After dinner and a couple games of bowling, we moved to the nearby pool tables. I lingered at the edge of the group, wanting to play but also afraid of messing up, especially in front of Gustavo. As I leaned in for my shot, Gustavo said my name and put his hands on my waist, showing me how to lean, stand, aim. I convinced myself that it meant something. Moments later, I slotted two balls in a row, still without really knowing what I was doing. Our friends cheered for me. I beamed at them, then quickly passed the cue on to the next person.
The dance floor stood right across from the pool tables, catty corner from the bowling alley. Purple, white and yellow lights flashed across sleek tiles. Midway through our second game, Gustavo asked if one of us wanted to go there and salsa with him.
“Me gustaría probar,” I said. Probar: to try—or, for food, to taste.
Though we rehearsed choreographies every week for theatre, I did not consider myself a good dancer. Before that night, I’d never danced salsa in my life. But if trying to salsa meant the chance to be near Gustavo, the chance that he might finally see me, then I was going to do it.
The lights illuminated his beat-up sneakers and my old polka-dotted Toms, his grey hoodie and my red windbreaker. He always seemed to be wearing dancing shoes. Or maybe he just knew how to make all his shoes into dancing shoes. As he led, I became aware, again, of his hand on my waist, our fingers strung together. He showed me the basic step once, twice, but I kept messing it up. I stepped on his foot, moved back to starting position, then tried again. We only got a few steps in before I stepped on Gustavo’s foot and apologized, again.
I was not my cool, beautiful cousin who had an attentive boyfriend and clear mezzo voice; who seemed to have so many friends, I could never keep track of them all. I was not a girl who picked up choreographies on the first try. Who could sing “I Dreamed A Dream” standing perfectly still but convey a whole world in her eyes. I was just a girl stepping the wrong way as the boy I liked showed me the basic step over and over. I just wanted to keep Gustavo close to me, and I was trying too hard. My windbreaker was the brightest item of clothing in the room, my red lipstick a stark contrast to the little makeup my friends wore. What was I doing? Who was I trying to be?
I still love my red windbreaker but barely use it now. It makes me feel, as it did then, so bright, like a cardinal in a gray room, too much. Back then, I always feared being too much: for the theatre kids, for Gustavo, for my family members and school friends. At some point, I’d learned to start dimming the parts of myself that other people didn’t want to see. To place them in a room inside myself, one by one, like burned-out lightbulbs.
It would be years before I danced salsa again, at a ballroom dance social with a curly-haired boy I adored. We would only ever be friends—I knew this from the beginning—but I loved the way he smiled as we danced together, reassuring one another that we were doing just fine. How he seemed more excited to dance with me than my former boyfriend, a fellow theatre kid with wispy blonde hair, who’d waltzed with me on night walks by campus but thought too often of who could see us together and when. The boyfriend didn’t like when I wore eye shadow or lipstick. One of the few times in undergrad I had to wear full show makeup, for a movement theatre production we were in together, he mentioned how different we’d both look: I a heartbroken lover in midnight eyeshadow and an indigo dress, he an actor-storyteller, shirtless and covered in talcum powder, striking a zombie-like pose before collapsing at the very end of his act. This separation would only grow as the night dances and park bench kisses dwindled, as autumn and inconsistency separated us from one another.
There is a photo of me and the theatre boyfriend taken on the last night of that show, sitting alongside one another. Both of us slipping into different facades, all before I realized I did the same thing offstage, too: pretended that certain things didn’t bother me, downplayed how much I ached for more intimacy, never told him that I sensed his family disapproved of me before I even met them. I thought, with the theatre boyfriend, that I’d gotten everything that Gustavo did not give me: a girlfriend title, praise for my beauty and intelligence, shared stories of moving and language-learning and struggling to fit in. But like with Gustavo, I couldn’t show every part of myself. Even as I shared so much, there were certain things I couldn’t help but hide.
It would take me years to learn that I deserved someone who gave me the space to show every part of myself. Who did not feel that we should hide what we had. Who would lace up their sneakers for a dance or a walk whenever and wherever we wanted to go, simply happy that I could be there alongside them.
I only saw the spaceship shoes a handful of times. The first time was at my second cousin’s fiesta de quince, which Gustavo and I attended alongside a few other theatre kids. We came up with a three-part choreography to surprise my cousin, with music from Step Up and Rent, then ending with Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Sara hand-painted T-shirts for all of us and we color-coordinated our shoes, mostly Converse save for Gustavo’s spaceship shoes.
The venue was about forty minutes away by car, near the glitzy, built-up neighborhoods in Benavidez, where a lot of buses did not reach. Neither of Gustavo’s parents had cars, so I told Gustavo and our theatre friend Lautaro that they could ride with me. Even though it was my mom’s car, I let Lautaro ride in the front seat both ways; I wanted to sit in the back with Gustavo. In the ride over, Gustavo talked to me and Lautaro about his new sneakers, saying, “Son como naves espaciales,” white with a neat silver trim. Even now, I imagine Gustavo about to take flight, sneakers zipping him up into the air as he bent into a breakdance.
Throughout the party, I noticed Gustavo talking to Helena, a fellow theatre girl with wavy brown hair and green eyes, classy in a tight black dress and beaded earrings. As our friends all danced in a circle, Gustavo pulled Helena closer. She laughed and threw her head back. I tried to tell myself maybe they were just friends—I’d overheard Helena telling Gustavo about another boy and thought maybe she was interested in him instead—but couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Gustavo preferred Helena over me. If, despite my companionship and my mother’s generosity, Helena had something that I didn’t.
On the way home from the party, as my mom stopped in front of Gustavo’s apartment, Gustavo leaned in to give me a kiss on the cheek, a traditional Argentinian greeting. For a second, I believed he might kiss me on the lips, right there, the front light of the old brick apartment glowing right behind him. But instead, our cheeks touched, and he pulled away. Then he and Lautaro thanked my mother and got out of the car. For days afterward, I tried to convince myself that Gustavo had wanted to kiss me. That he still did. When deep down, I knew the truth: I was just a girl who was also his friend, who happened to live close by, whose mom had a car and was generous enough to take the three of us where we needed to go.
Of course the boy in spaceship shoes would fall for Helena. A star singer with a gauzy soprano voice who landed one solid role after another. A girl who claimed the intensive Cambridge exams in Math, Literature and History were not that difficult. A girl whose family had money, evidenced by the swanky quinceañera venue where she celebrated her birthday alongside nearly two hundred other people. That night, fresh off a performance of Chicago, the theatre girls danced to “All That Jazz” on the venue stage, where Helena led us in a white tulle dress. The upper layer of fabric like waves of cream, a dark sash around the empire waist. I’d always revered her, for being one of the first theatre girls to really talk to me beyond a simple hello or participating in an acting exercise. Helena and I sent each other emails back when I barely spoke Spanish, back when emails were a novedad, right on the brink of Facebook catching on but before it overinflated itself.
Helena’s family had put together a couple different slideshows for the party, as per the quinceañera tradition. The traditional slideshow of the birthday girl at every stage of her life so far, starting with her baby pictures, then early childhood up through adolescence. A few hours later, they showed one of Helena and her many friends. I felt comforted to see my own face there, even briefly. And, in all places, in the very last picture. I lay sprawled on backyard grass with Helena, my second cousin, and another girl from our troupe. They all smiled with their teeth, whereas I, shy and self-conscious of my braces, did not. I remember walking up to the three of them as they posed, camera sitting in the grass in front of them. When I asked if I could join, they replied, “Of course.”
I wanted to believe I was as close to these girls as the picture implied. And I wanted people to perceive a closeness, too. But even as I posed, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing, a connective tissue or spark. Like someone trying to step into a photo but getting cut out of the frame.
For Gustavo’s seventeenth birthday, he invited a group of our theatre friends—mostly the ones from my second cousin’s quinceañera choreography—over to his mother’s apartment. Though I knew when Gustavo’s birthday was, I had no idea the celebration was even occurring. I was sleeping over at a school friend’s house.
A few days later, I learned of Gustavo’s party through Facebook. In one photo, he stood holding Helena’s hands, clearly teaching her how to dance. Or perhaps she already knew and was simply following his lead. When I thought of everyone gathered under Gustavo’s roof—a roof I had once been under, too—my stomach twisted. Even Sara, who’d gone with her boyfriend, neglected to tell me about the party, either beforehand or afterwards. Had she just forgotten? Did she have other things on her mind? Or was she aware that Gustavo hadn’t invited me and knew, from him, that he didn’t want to? Maybe he’d already become aware of my feelings for him, and I’d been too caught up in my own hopes to even realize.
I could’ve asked Sara about the party. In fact, I saw her the day after it happened, when my mom invited some family members over for lunch. As we sat in front of each other at the dining room table, Sara seemed far more focused on her beef enchiladas and other conversations than on me. I had a feeling that she’d gone out somewhere the previous night, maybe with some of our theatre friends, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask her about it. I always let other people’s topics of conversation take precedence; even now, I often still do.
“Don’t you talk to your cousin? She was sitting right there,” our grandmother would ask me later, when I told her about Gustavo’s party. Her response made my throat ache and sent me into a fog of thoughts. Couldn’t she have asked Sara the same thing? Did she ever bother to ask Sara why she and my second cousin hung out all the time but never invited me? Even when I spoke to Sara of personal matters, then and in years to come, there seemed to be a hollowness to our conversations. Despite the comfort Sara later offered me when I confided in her about Gustavo, then about other boys, I wondered if her kindness was only for kindness’s sake and not my own. Due more to familial bonds and shared time together than an organic desire to see me happy with a boy.
Though I adored Gustavo at sixteen, I feel grateful, now, that I didn’t date him. I had not yet learned that his friendly, gregarious nature did not necessarily mean that he saw me or held space for me. That just because he knew how to lead, did not mean I should follow. At sixteen, I tried to be a follower (a people-follower, a rule-follower) at school, in theatre, at home, but eventually realized I could no longer fit the molds that people wanted for me. At sixteen, I’d become fixated on Gustavo, and on what made him choose Helena over me. On the idea that, because Gustavo had not chosen me, I was too much yet not enough for him. I fixated on everything I thought I lacked that Helena seemed to have acquired so easily. As if, through the snap of her fingers, the whole world had been granted to her.
I haven’t seen Gustavo in nearly ten years. The last time I tried to ride to a theatre party with him, during my last full summer in Buenos Aires, he ended up backing out. What I couldn’t have known is that I would have my first kiss that night, with a wild-haired boy in a striped polo, who liked to tell stories, just like me. That I’d hold him in the garden of our friend’s house, vines clustered all around us, my purple Converse digging into the dirt. That he’d pull me in on a wedding dance floor, my indigo dress shimmering like mermaid scales, and kiss me in front of all his friends. A boy who didn’t know how to salsa but would dance with me if I asked. At the time, seventeen and timid at the idea of intimacy, I stammered in front of his friends, hesitated if he tried to touch me in certain places. It wasn’t until later that I realized how much he must have cared, how confident he must have felt bringing me into his circle. There are pictures of us together at that wedding. I have never seen them.
A few days after the party, I saw Gustavo at theatre camp. If there are pictures of us together there, I have never seen them. My memories of those three days include only snippets of him. I recall the homemade slip-n’-slide crafted with a blue tarp, hose and dish soap, the rains that soaked every green tent so thoroughly, we had to sleep in a church nearby. I remember sitting at a concrete table, telling some friends about the kiss with the polo shirt boy, and how they immediately started to cheer.
At one point, Gustavo asked me about the party. We were alone in one of the musty cabins, waiting for the other campers to arrive. Something or someone interrupted us, so I never got to the part about the kiss. In fact, I later felt grateful for the interruption; even now, I don’t know how I would have finished that story.
I thought of Gustavo as I drove up the ramps of a cramped parking garage in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, years after I left Argentina for college in the United States. As I circled past spot after spot, car after car, I pictured Gustavo standing at the bus stop in front of the Carrefour on Maipú, black backpack slung over his shoulder as he waited for the red, white and blue 71. I remembered the spaceship shoes, how Gustavo rose on the tips of them like a ballerina but bent his knees like a ninja ready to fight. I wondered if he’d gotten the chance to dance again since the pandemic, to spin a girl across a floor like the one where I first saw him, knowing exactly when to step forward and when to pull away.
I thought briefly of Gustavo the last time I went swing dancing, on a Saturday night in Burgaw, North Carolina, concrete-walled dance floor across from the courthouse and antique store. I thought of him as I danced with a Marine, freestyling with my biggest grin and not caring who watched. He needed only hold out his hands, raise his thin eyebrows, and I’d walk to him in my red Vans and extend my hands over his, as if to say, “Of course.”
I didn’t think of Gustavo when I danced bachata for the first time, at an airy, white-tiled studio in Wilmington, staring down at my charcoal gray sneakers as I tapped and stepped and spun. I only focused on the steps I knew I needed to take, tried to let the music fill me. I let it remind me of Argentina, and how much I missed my friends there. How much a language that once turned me shy now felt familiar. Felt like home.
I didn’t think of Gustavo when I took a ballroom dance class in college, which the theatre boyfriend and I signed up for together only to break up that same semester. I didn’t think of him when my new partner, president of the swing dance club and a bow tie aficionado, taught me move after move, dipping me easily, his green eyes clear and focused. I didn’t think of him when I went on a swing dance date with the boys from San Angelo, where I face planted in front of their friends and then never saw any of them again. I didn’t think of Gustavo when I danced salsa at a social dance in Wilmington, which I almost skipped due to social anxiety. I only took a breath and stepped through the doors, ready to follow but also ready to learn to lead. My body slowly warmed with bachata and salsa and merengue, ran warm as I stepped clumsily but happily along to “Right Round,” ran warm when the crew-cut boy took my hand and pulled me in for “Um Cre Amabo,” spun me around again and again and again.
Courtney Justus is a Texan-Argentinian writer living in Chicago. Her adolescence spent in Buenos Aires, and her Argentinian heritage frequently inform her work across genres. She is a 2022 Tin House YA Workshop alumna and Best of the net nominee. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work appears in Thin Air Magazine, Barzakh: A Literary Magazine, Sky Island Journal, Jet Fuel Review and elsewhere. You can visit her at courtneyjustuswriter.wordpress.com.
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