A Real Dance
Sofia Cruz stood in the garishly bright room deep within the labyrinthine Oregon State Penitentiary. The flood of white - the tiled floor, the walls, and the fluorescent lighting – made it difficult to know where the walls ended and the floor began. As she stared into the identical room through the bulletproof glass partition, wearing loose-fitting jeans, a sweatshirt and tennis shoes – a frumpy far cry from the slit dresses that she preferred – the familiar sound of shuffling feet drew closer in the hallway. She fixed her gaze expectantly on the door in the opposite room. With an electric buzz and a click, the lock popped and Ben Chandler hobbled in with humped shoulders, flanked by two guards. Once the steel door was secured, the guards removed the leg irons and handcuffs, then receded to their corners. Sofia watched the usual transformation of Ben, who straightened his spine and turned to face her. The slight smile on his lips added no expression to his vacant eyes. Sofia pushed play and they each struck the pose: in mirror image of one another, one hand extended to the side, the other arced for the partner’s back. At first, Ben stared into Sofia’s eyes and moved in lock step with her, but soon he closed his eyes and moved wherever his own feet led him.
“How is teaching the tango to someone on death row even community service?” her roommate Marta had asked months earlier.
“You’re a risk junky. Some people just go skydiving, you know.”
Until Sofia’s second DUI, she and Marta used to teach tango at the Latin Club, often staying on to party afterwards. And if they weren’t teaching, it was surely lady’s night somewhere – no cover and two for one drinks. It was how they met guys.
Now when Sofia left for the lessons, she called to Marta, “I’m off to see my boyfriend.” When Steve from Sofia’s office asked her to dinner, Marta joked, “Bad Ben’s not gonna like it!” and when it didn’t work out with Steve, Marta consoled Sofia, “At least you’ve still got Ben. See if he’s got any friends, would you?” They could joke about Ben because they didn’t know what he’d done.
Once Ben closed his eyes, Sofia did the same. She conjured a scene from a family beach vacation in Argentina. Her parents were lying in the shade of a large parasol planted in the sand, applauding her cartwheels. It was always this memory.
The alarm on the guard’s wristwatch sounded. Ben stopped dancing, his shoulders slumping once again as he stood still for the irons. Once he was out of the hallway, a guard opened Sofia’s door to escort her out. She stepped into the corridor and was startled to find a second man there.
He introduced himself as Bill Pierce, Ben’s counselor. “May I speak with you, Ms. Cruz? I only need a few minutes.”
Sofia followed him through the maze of white hallways and armed doors the way ships move through canal locks, until they reached an open carpeted area that was painted a warm nutty color, where there was a reception desk, water cooler, and doors to several offices around the edge. Soft jazz wafted from unseen speakers. It could have been the windowless core of any office building. Mr. Pierce led Sofia into an office with his name on the door, framed diplomas and licenses adorning the walls. She sat in a wooden chair across the desk from him.
“Ms. Cruz, I have an odd request to pass on to you from Ben and his family. Ben is scheduled to be executed on November 25th, some sixteen days from now.”
“Oh.” Though she knew he was supposed to die, she assumed it would still be years. To know the date, and for it to be so soon, was somehow stunning.
“We routinely entertain special requests from death row inmates in their last 24 hours. Some ask for a special meal, others for time with their family. Ben has asked for what he calls a real dance, meaning with you in the same room.”
“The warden has cleared the request with the conditions that two guards be present in the room during the dance, and that we disclose to you the details of what Ben did to get here.”
She’d hoped to hear that it was against policy.
“Shall I continue?”
“Sure.” It was reflexive.
“On October 19th, 1999, the Oregon State Police arrested Ben in a barn on the outskirts of Forest Grove. There were chains hooked into the old timbers, and Ben was covered in blood, strands of human hair and skin fragments. The bodies of six women were recovered from fresh graves in the dirt floor of the barn, each with ligature marks around her wrists, and each had been raped multiple times.”
She was horrified. “I don’t know what to say. I could dance with the Ben from twenty minutes ago, but…” She missed the willful ignorance that she’d maintained for eleven months.
“This is your choice, with no deleterious impact on your diversionary sentencing agreement. Before you decide, I suggest you speak with his mother. She’s hoping to hear from you.”
“You’re really thinking about this?” Marta was sitting on the couch as Sofia paced in front of the fireplace mantel in their rented apartment. “You stopped visiting your own parents, but you’re thinking about dancing with a killer? Sofia, this won’t ease your guilt.”
“They’re not my parents.”
“Excuse me, the people who named and raised you.”
Sofia stopped in front of the picture on the mantel, taken on the beach during that vacation in Argentina. She was kneeling in the sand between her parents’ beach chairs, under the parasol. Just a few months later, the lawyers would come calling, hushed conversations in her father’s study. One night, Sofia was washing dishes when her mother said, “Honey, there’s something.”
Her father walked in from the den. “Carlita. Don’t do this now.”
“When would you have us do it?” She turned back to her daughter. “Sofia, you were adopted as a baby.”
Her father’s neck shortened as he turned to look out a window.
“Mija, in every other way, you’ve always been ours.”
In the coming months, the story evolved. Her birth mom was a political prisoner, labeled a subversive. They didn’t know, her parents assured her. According to records introduced at trial, Sofia’s birth mother was tortured and killed in prison after she gave birth to Sofia. Her parents continued to plead ignorance, but the money trail ended in the bank accounts of their personal friends in the government. The judge called them monsters at sentencing. For a while, Sofia visited them in prison, but whatever it is besides blood that makes someone a daughter – the unyielding faith, the sense of duty, the love – peeled like layers of skin.
Looking at the photo on the mantel, she missed the surety of who she was. She used to see herself as an extra cute caricature of her parents, one that would gradually fade into her mother’s thick calves and her father’s moles and dandruff. Now who was she fading into?
Sofia sat in an overstuffed armchair across the coffee table from Dolores Portillo. A small fire crackled next to them in the stone hearth. Behind Dolores were the large bay windows that looked out to the street, and farther to the left the foyer and the last turn of the wooden staircase, the bottom step bull nosing slightly into the expansive living room. Hardwood planks ran from the bay windows into the dining room behind Sofia.
“Ben came to us when he was eleven. His birth parents were hamstrung by drug debts and sold Ben to an uncle, who put him into the sex trade.”
Though it was a tragic story, Sofia could muster no sympathy for Ben.
“At sentencing, we tried to argue that Ben had suffered a psychotic break as a result of the trauma he’d experienced, but his actions were too horrible for the jury to consider mitigating circumstances.”
“When he came to us, Ben barely spoke. He stayed in his room, wouldn’t go to school, any touching was out of the question. We had to leave his meals on a tray outside his door, and he’d wait until he heard us walk away to get it. Back then, I taught tango lessons right here in the living room. The first time Ben heard the music, he came down and sat on the stairs and just watched. Afterwards, he’d go up again, but the next lesson, he’d be right back down. Eventually, we practically converted our home into a tango studio.”
There was a long pause during which both women sipped tea. Tarnished brass lamps rose in slender stalks from the old oak flooring and threadbare fabric stretched over the furniture. Family photos hung from the walls; Sofia knew that Dolores needed the pictures of Ben, to prevent her truth of Ben from being erased by the stories of what Ben had done. Sofia lowered her gaze to the oak floor, which was screaming for a refinishing.
“The scuffs of a thousand tango lessons,” Dolores said. “Have you taught tango long?”
“I learned in Argentina and started teaching when I moved to the States, in clubs mostly. Ben’s my first private student.” She immediately regretted the attempt at humor.
Dolores stared into her teacup. “We never actually adopted Ben. With his therapeutic needs and the costs involved, it was better for him that way. But I’m the only mother that he’s got.” She lifted her gaze to meet Sofia’s. “He told me that before he dies he wants this one real dance.”
Dolores’s stare pressed on Sofia. “I have to think about it.” She was dissuaded less by any risk to herself and more by the knowledge of what adult Ben had done to those women, a disgust towards this man that a brutal childhood did little to temper.
“My son tells me that your tango lessons have made these past few months manageable.”
Sofia abruptly stood. She didn’t want to be that important to Ben Chandler. “It was nice to meet you, Dolores.”
Sofia was moving to the door, Dolores Portillo on her heels asking if she really had to go, when Sofia saw a picture on the wall of Ben and his foster family. She stopped momentarily for a closer look. The picture was taken in front of the house. Ben looked about eleven and was standing with what appeared to be Dolores, her husband and son. Ben was short and skinny, with slumped shoulders and sunken, vacant eyes.
On the drive home, she couldn’t get the photo of young Ben out of her mind. The look Ben had on his face every time he entered the room across from her was already on his face at eleven, a decade before he did those terrible things. Why couldn’t Ben have just been bad all on his own, like her parents?
Sofia waits in the usual spot, but nothing feels the same. Now she knows what he did to those women and that in seven hours he’ll be dead. She hears the shuffling in the hall and watches the door on the other side of the bulletproof glass partition. Ben is slumped as he enters but straightens once he’s free of the irons. They approach each other and place opposite hands on the glass to greet. Two steps back, they strike their pose and begin to dance. Ben closes his eyes but Sofia keeps hers open this time. She looks at her watch; in fifteen minutes the guards will escort Ben to her room.
With his eyes closed, Ben looks very much at peace, but when the guards signal that the time has come, he appears agitated. As one guard reaches down to reattach the leg shackles for the walk next door, Ben quickly grabs the taser gun from the guy’s belt. Before the guards can react, both men lie incapacitated on the floor. Ben removes their belts that hold their guns and keys and moves towards the door. Sofia is watching in horror, locked in her room. She bangs on the door, hoping to alert someone, but Ben is already in the hallway.
Seconds later, Sofia hears a key in the door, then the buzz and pop. She back pedals to the opposite corner. Ben is standing in the open doorway holding the guards’ gun belts. Sofia is crying. “Don’t hurt me,” she repeats a few times. Ben secures the door and looks up at her, still holding the guns.
Sofia has slid halfway down the wall, still weeping and trying not to beg. Ben looks at his hands. He slowly moves to an empty corner of the room and drops the gun belts. He quickly stretches his left arm to the CD player, restarting the music, then spins towards Sofia, who reflexively lifts her arm in front of her, as it looks like Ben is now coming for her. But Ben has stopped in the middle of the room, holding the pose.
“Dance!” he commands.
Sofia moves towards him mechanically. She presses one hand to his, the other on his back. Ben’s breath buffets Sofia in the face in quick, agitated bursts and she turns her head. Her legs tremble as she guides him around the room. Regaining muscle control, the guards next door bang on the glass. They tell Sofia that help is coming and order Ben to get on the deck and wait. Sofia pictures a SWAT team moving stop and go through the system of electronic doors. She looks up at Ben’s closed eyes, at his meaty hand gently holding hers and at his big feet submitting to her lead. She closes her eyes too and guides him by touch around the small room until the door blows open. In an instant, she feels a body shove her into a wall as guards tase and shackle Ben. They carry him out like a felled tree, feet first. Sofia unconsciously moves her head to the side to look at him. Ben smiles faintly and is gone.
About the Author: Paul teaches English as a Second Language at a high school in Portland, Oregon. His stories have appeared in the Madison Review, Actual Paper, Shout Out UK, and Widdershins.