Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "A Conversation Between Body and Soul"

This poem is spillover from the May 2, 2017 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] alexseanchai plus conversations with [personal profile] alatefeline, [personal profile] chanter_greenie, [personal profile] stardreamer, and other fans. It has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. This poem belongs to the Calliope thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains some intense topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. Calliope and Vagary are in a mess of a bond, which complicates their consent for anything involving each other. They're trying to make the best of it, and making some progress, but it's just not a great situation. So there is awkwardness, fumbling, social anxiety, tripping over all sorts of emotional baggage, Vagary's low self-esteem, Calliope's standoffishness, boundary issues, trust issues, reluctant touching, gender issues (one of the few things Vagary handles gracefully), physical tension, crappy dancing, telepathic spillover, bystander assumptions, trying not to cry in public, knowing when to give up, reference to bad therapists of the past, Vagary's perspective of their initial bonding, and other angst. They do make some good progress, though, and nobody gets punched in the face or groped in personal places. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"A Conversation Between Body and Soul"

Vagary wiped his hands on
his pants and rang the doorbell
just as he'd been told to do.

Calliope opened the door,
beautiful as always.

"I know it's customary
to bring flowers but that
seemed weird and I couldn't
show up with nothing, so here,"
Vagary babbled, holding out
the pink-and-blue pinwheel.

She took it from him gently, and
her face softened into an expression
that he had never seen on her before.

"Thank you," said Calliope. "These were
my favorite toys when I was growing up,
because they were always moving."

"Yeah, I thought maybe you
would like pinwheels because
of all the wind spinners that you
have hanging around your yard,"
Vagary said, waving a hand.

She followed his gaze
to the plain copper spiral,
the helix of two-toned butterflies,
the sun-and-moon concentric rings,
and the confetti-colored whirligig.

"I didn't realize that you were
paying attention," Calliope said.

Vagary was always paying attention,
but it didn't necessarily do any good.

"You look nice," he said, hoping
to change the subject gracefully.

Calliope tensed a little, her hands
smoothing the cocktail dress made of
ivory satin overlain with pale blue lace
and even paler pink satin trim.

"I hope this is right," she said.
"I'm still not used to dressing up
like this, but my gender coach said
that it's a good idea to practice."

Vagary was so used to seeing Cal
en femme that he sometimes forgot
she hadn't been born that way.

"It looks like what I've seen people
wearing to dance in," he said. "The flyer
said Friday is Swing Dance Night, so
our outfits should fit right in."

"Good," said Calliope.
She stuck the pinwheel into
a planter of lavender petunias.
"Let's go before I lose my nerve."

Vagary looked at the pinwheel
twirling above the blossoms
and tried not to interpret it
as a sign of acceptance.

"Okay," he said. "Lead the way."

Calliope let Vagary ride in
her car because it was easier than
trying to meet in a crowded dance hall.

Frisky Feet was a big barn of a building
with a wooden floor and strings of lights
hung from the exposed rafters overhead.
It had a stage at one end, with a kitchen
and a multipurpose room at the other.

A quiet lounge full of comfortable and
mismatched furniture nestled beside
the men's and women's restrooms,
with a dottie beyond the other two.

The crowd would have been
overwhelming to most telepaths,
but Vagary always did his best work
in a throng where he could skim thoughts
from the pitch pool instead of trying
to read an individual directly.

Most people clustered near
the stage where the big band
was playing a lively swing tune,
but there was another huddle
along the service window where
the kitchen handed out snacks.

Vagary took note of the options,
which included a wide variety of
protein bars, beef jerky, mixed fruit,
apple slices in peanut butter cups,
yogurt granola parfaits with maple syrup,
meat and cheese packs, hummus trays,
fiesta lettuce wraps, and ground beef kebabs.

There were beverages too -- bottled water,
coffee, tea, and assorted fruit juices.

It would be good to have some food
ready at hand, because the dancing
was bound to make them hungry.

Vagary tapped his foot, following
the music as the band wound down
and prepared to switch to a new tune.

"Let's get this over with," Calliope said,
which made Vagary wilt inside.

She never wanted to be with him,
which was his own fault, but it still
felt like a punch in the gut every time.

"Maybe it will get easier once we're
actually dancing," Vagary said.

"Fine," Calliope said, and then
their arms tangled because they were
both trying to take the same position.

Vagary thought he understood
the problem, but he had learned
the hard way not to assume anything
when it came to dealing with Calliope.

"Um, where did you learn to dance?"
he asked as politely as possible.

"In high school, doesn't everyone?"
Calliope said, still trying to get her hand
on his back instead of his shoulder.

"Well, I suppose you were
wearing different clothes then,"
Vagary said. "Usually, the person
dancing skirt takes the following role."

She'd made a point of reminding him
that she hadn't been doing it all that long,
and he tried to be supportive of her identity.

"Oh. Right. I haven't really ... relearned
how to dance," Calliope muttered.
"No time like the present."

She fumbled her way into
the following position,
but it was a disaster.

Vagary was only so-so at
leading, and Calliope had
no idea how to follow
his signals at all.

They stumbled, they
stepped on each other's feet,
and they almost tripped
at least twice.

He could feel the tension
in her back under his fingers.
She'd mentioned that in therapy,
that she carried stress in her neck
and shoulders. It felt like touching
a board, smooth and unyielding.

The music was nice, but
the dancing itself was miserable.

His legs cramped. Vagary
turned his attention inward,
as much as he could without
losing the beat, trying to loosen
the stiffness in his hips and ankles.

Calliope kept anticipating his moves,
carrying herself through the dance
instead of letting him lead her.

Her thoughts leaked through to him
in fits and starts: I hate ... worst idea ever
... give him a piece of my ...

The skin contact just made it worse,
because Calliope was wearing
a sleeveless cocktail dress, and
Vagary was supposed to keep
a hand on her upper back.

"You're, um, spilling over
a bit," Vagary told her.

"My bad," Calliope muttered
as her shielding firmed up.
"I should've worn a dress with
more coverage, but this was
all I had for a casual dance."

"I'd offer you my jacket, but I wore
a sweater vest because I didn't want
to be too formal," Vagary said.

This wasn't the kind of swanky place
where you could rent or buy fresh clothes
if you sweated through what you arrived in,
so they were stuck with what they had on.

Meanwhile, Calliope had bunched
her hand in his vest so that she wouldn't
actually have to grasp his shoulder.

It made Vagary feel like garbage,
something to be held at arm's length
and then thrown away as soon as possible.

When the music stopped, it came as a relief.

"I need a drink," Calliope said. She headed
for the service window, with one hand
rubbing the back of her neck.

"I don't think they serve alcohol here,"
Vagary said. He hoped not. This
would be a hundred times worse
with even one of them drunk.
"We could get fruit juice."

Calliope didn't seem enthused,
but she picked out a bottle of
cranberry-pomegranate juice.

Vagary bought a hummus tray
and some carrot-orange juice.
"Would you like some?" he offered.

Calliope wrinkled her nose --
she didn't like sharing things
with him, or even eating food
that he'd touched in passing.

After a moment, though, her hand
darted out to snatch the little cup of
chicken balls, holding it between them.

Vagary let her have those,
hoping it would keep her happy.

He contented himself with the hummus,
which came with sweet pea pods and
carrot coins, zippy red pepper strips,
and several wedges of pita bread.

Something must have given them away,
though, because a woman stopped by
wearing the winged-slipper pendant
of a designated dancer, and said,
"Is this fellow bothering you?"

Vagary promptly backed away,
but Calliope said, "We came here
together, for an assignment."

"That's no excuse for him
to make you uncomfortable,
and you don't look happy,"
the dancer said. "I could
make him leave if you like."

"If only it were that simple,"
Calliope said under her breath,
then louder, "Thank you for
offering, but we're fine."

As the dancer left, Vagary
heaved a sigh of relief.

Calliope wasn't defending him,
but at least she hadn't dumped him
on the dance floor like a bad date.

The other woman was right, though;
Calliope didn't look very happy, shoulders
tight and feet pointed toward the door.

Vagary cast around the room for inspiration,
and settled on the other dancers. "Who
do you think is wearing the best dress?"
he asked her. "This seems like
a good place to get inspiration."

Calliope gave him a startled look, then
turned her attention to the dance floor.

"The light blue blouse with darker skirt
looks nice," she said eventually.

"I like the red with the white polka dots,
and it has a back," Vagary said.

"I don't usually wear red in public,"
Calliope said. "It draws attention,
and I keep thinking I'll screw up."

"Okay," Vagary said.

"Oh, that one!" Calliope said,
leaning forward. "I want that dress."

Vagary watched the elegant redhead
twirl past in a lovely dress scattered
with sprigs of pink and blue flowers.

"You like the multicolor stuff,
don't you?" he mused.

"Yes, I do," Calliope said.
"It just seems ... more me."

"Good to know," Vagary said.

It was, especially since Calliope
rarely talked about her own interests.
If he got to know her better, then
he might make fewer mistakes.

After they finished their snacks,
Calliope seemed to perk up a little.

"Shall we try open position this time?"
Vagary asked as the band began
heading into the next tune.

It meant a bit more skin contact,
but it let them stand farther apart.

"Good idea," Calliope said, and
Vagary resisted the temptation
to melt because she rarely
praised him for anything.

He showed her the comfy grip
that he knew for open position,
which at least kept them from
mashing each other's hands.

Now that she had room,
Calliope watched his feet.

Technically, that wasn't
a good method, but it did
stop them from stepping on
each other's toes, so Vagary
kept his mouth shut about it.

After all, it's not like he was
a good dancer anyhow.

The music swished and swirled
around them, and they were
starting to get the hang of it.

"Want to mix it up a bit?"
Vagary suggested.

Calliope looked around at
the other couples doing aerials
and elaborate spins. "And risk
breaking a leg or something?"

"Nah, nothing that fancy,"
he assured her. "Sugarpush
is just a little back-and-forth."

It was easy to send her away
from him, although she hesitated
over the return -- but Vagary had
anticipated that, signaling a bit early,
so she came back right on the beat.

It wasn't exactly graceful,
but it did work, and it gave them
something to do beyond repeating
the basic steps over and over.

For Vagary, though, it turned into
a heartbreaking pantomime of
their whole relationship.

Calliope hadn't warmed up to him,
and still tensed under his touch.

By the end of the song,
his throat ached from trying
not to cry in public.

"This isn't working,"
Vagary said with a sigh.
"I think we should quit now."

"But it's a therapy exercise,"
Calliope protested. "It's not like
we're doing this shit for fun."

Vagary winced. "I know. We're
doing it to feel out our boundaries
and try to find safer ways to touch,"
he said. "It's really not working,
though, and Mr. Gallagar told us
that uncomfortable touch would
just make matters worse."

"You don't think he'll get mad
that we didn't finish?" Calliope said.

"No, because we learned what we
came here to learn, and it happens
that dancing doesn't work for us,"
Vagary said. He hesitated, but
couldn't resist adding, "Have you
had other therapists get angry?"

"Yes, but I fired him," Calliope said.
"He didn't know what he was doing.
My gender coach is loads better."

"Okay, that's good," Vagary said.

He hadn't been able to get away from
his butthole therapist, not until Kraken
came for him, but he'd been a teen
at the time and short on options.

He felt grateful that Calliope
had managed better, at least.

"You realize this is the first time
you've backed off without me
telling you to?" Calliope said.

It wasn't, actually, but she
had been out cold when he
put her on the hotel bed and
backed away as far as he could.

It hadn't helped; she'd woken up
infuriated with him anyhow.

Vagary had been so panicky
when he realized that they were
bonded, his only thought had been
how to prevent even worse damage --
the horror stories about bonds gone awry
had given him nightmares for a week.

His initial actions had prevented
that catastrophe, but only later did he
come to understand that they also ruined
all hope of having a real relationship.

"Shut the barn door after the horse
is out, why don't you," he scolded himself.

"It wasn't the first time?" Calliope asked.

Vagary was surprised that she noticed.
"Um ... well ... no, it wasn't," he said.

"I haven't seen it before," she said.

"You weren't really in a state
to tell, the first time, and after that
it's been mostly me holding off, trying
to stay out of your way as much as
possible," Vagary explained.

"Hmm," she said. "That first day,
I woke up alone in the bed.
Is that what you mean?"

Vagary nodded. "Yeah,
the bond was pulling at me, but
I didn't know how to handle it yet, and
I didn't want you to think I'm a creeper,
so I set you down and locked myself
inside the bathroom for a while."

Where he'd had a good cry
over what happened, before
he realized that it could be
a good thing, and before
it went so horribly sour.

"You were pacing in circles
when I woke up," Calliope said.

"Yeah," Vagary said, rocking
back and forth with the memory.
"The bond wouldn't let me go far,
but too close would've been creepy,
so I just ... put it into a loop."

"That was more thoughtful
than I gave you credit for,"
Calliope admitted.

"I wasn't really thinking
clearly," Vagary said. "I was
just trying to keep it from getting
worse, and I made it worse,
only in a different way."

"Well, at least you tried,"
Calliope said. "That's something."

"We both tried tonight, too,
and it didn't turn out much better,"
Vagary grumbled. Maybe
they were just cursed.

"I wish we could go back
to the way we were before
any of this happened, but that's ...
probably not possible," Calliope said.

"I know," Vagary said. "I feel
like I've messed up everything."

"It's not just you," she said quietly.

"What isn't?" Vagary said,
turning to look at her.

"The dance going wrong,"
Calliope said. "I mean, sure,
I hate you touching me, but I was
stiff because I was nervous, and
the tangle over lead and follow
would've happened with anyone."

Vagary tried to concentrate on
the less-personal parts of the list.

"If you like the idea of dancing, then
you could always relearn how to do it
from the following side. I think they
offer lessons here," he said.

"Maybe someday," Calliope said.
"I think another part of what went wrong
is simply that dance is supposed to be
a conversation between body and soul.
Our souls got stapled together, but
our bodies haven't really caught up."

"You mentioned that it takes you
a while to warm up to people,"
Vagary said. "Could be that."

"And you?" Calliope said.

He shrugged. "I've learned
to take what I can get,
when I can get it."

It wasn't always
comfortable, but it
was better than nothing.

"That's as sad as me being
a disaster on the dance floor because
I forgot that women are supposed
to go backwards," Calliope said.

"Meanwhile, it's better to crash
and burn with me than when you
were on a real date," Vagary said.

"Thank God for that, at least,"
Calliope said with a laugh.
She gave him a sidelong look.
"Can I say that you saved me,
or is that rude in supervillain?"

"I don't mind it," Vagary said.

As long as she wasn't yelling
or hitting him, he was really
quite flexible about things.

"Then thank you," Calliope said,
"for saving me from wrecking
some future date, and for being
a gentleman. I didn't know you could."

She didn't know a lot of things
about him, but that was okay. They
hadn't known each other for long.

"Shall we go?" Vagary said,
offering her his elbow. "It's
a nice night out, so there's
no point wasting it in here."

"Yes, let's," Calliope said
as she curled her fingers, warm
and willing, over the bend of his arm.

Vagary would take what he could get.

* * *


"Dance is a conversation between body and soul."
-- Anonymous

Cal's house is modest in size but beautifully decorated. The exterior has warm gray stone at the base with pinkish-gray siding above. The siding color is called "pigeon." Formerly owned by a municipal artist, the house has several stained glass windows and doors.

Frisky Feet Dance Hall has a mostly open floor plan. The dance floor fills most of the space. A quiet lounge lets people get away from the ruckus a bit. The multipurpose room offers space for meetings or classes.

For swing dancing, men often wear a vintage suit, but a sweater vest over a shirt and tie creates a similar but less-formal look. This is Vagary's outfit.

Women typically wear either a dress or a blouse and skirt at shin length, and the skirt should be cut full enough to flare during twirls. This is Calliope's dress.

Learning to dress as a woman can be tricky for transwomen. A gender coach helps a lot, and Cal has a good one.

While a date can be platonic, the concept tends to drag along a lot of romantic baggage. There are pros and cons to bringing a gift on a first date, along with tips on what to offer. Because Terramagne-America has retained a lot more social cohesion, the customs seem more conservative in comparison to local-America, so the historic expectation of flowers on a first date remains closer to their contemporary practice. Vagary gets stuck between not wanting to make this look like a romantic date, and not wanting to make himself look like a cheap jerk. You can see a very similar case in Lawrence dithering over whether to bring flowers in "Turning Leaves." Here are some basic guidelines about how to impress someone on a first date, which generalize well to platonic occasions.

Pinwheels are fun wind toys that are easy to make. See the pink-and-blue one that Vagary presents to Calliope.

Whirligigs and windspinners come in many styles. Check out Calliope's spiral wind spinner, butterfly helix, sun and moon wind spinner, and confetti whirligig.

In trans and crossdressing communities, en femme means "as a woman" and en homme means "as a man." The fact that Vagary accepts Cal's presentation without blinking is one of the few things she likes about him, and I think she'd like him a lot better if she actually paid enough attention to notice it more. Since she tries not to notice him at all, she tends to overlook his good qualities.

Petunias make great potted plants. There are a few varieties that naturally bloom in a range of shades. When I was little, my grandmother had some self-seeding petunias that would bloom pale, and over a few days each flower would darken to lavender or pink, so they always had different-colored blossoms. She called them "yesterday, today, and tomorrow" but when I looked it up, that's some other southern flower, and I couldn't find a reference to color-changing petunias. :/

Pitch pool is a term for the ambiance of a group consisting of surface thoughts, emotions, and energy given off as all those auras rub together.

Swing music is popular for dance occasions. Enjoy a list of danceable swing songs and listen to a sampler online.

Dance snacks should be healthy and easy to eat. You can make your own protein bars or shop around for commercial ones. Very tender jerky can be made from ground beef, or bought in various flavors. Fruit cups or apple slices in a cup with peanut butter are easy to prepare. So are these Vanilla Maple Yogurt Parfaits. Meat and cheese packs are cheaper to make than to buy. Hummus comes in dozens of flavors and makes terrific snack trays. Vagary's hummus tray came with a few chicken balls. Lettuce wraps are tasty and tidy if you actually roll them like this. When made properly, ground beef kebabs stay neatly on their skewer as you nibble them off.

Wanting someone who doesn't want you is bad enough when you can walk away, but when you're stuck with each other anyway, then it sucks extra much. Because of the bond, much of the usual relationship advice doesn't apply to Calliope and Vagary. Learn to recognize when someone's not really into you, and know how to deal with it.

Ballroom dancing is an exercise in partnership. Dancers communicate through body language, one leading and one following, the two halves requiring equal skill. While the usual expectation is that men lead and women follow on the dance floor, some prefer to reverse the polarity, and a few people are switches.

Although interest has largely faded in local-America, schools in T-America customarily still introduce the basics of ballroom dancing in junior high and/or high school. There are many reasons to teach dance, but a leading reason in T-America is for the social-emotional growth. It teaches people how to negotiate contact and cooperation in a physical yet nonsexual context.

Learning to dance has many benefits. The right workout helps build a dancer's body. There are instructions for ballroom dance, slow dance, waltz, and many others. The more dances you know, the more popular you will become as a partner, and the more fun you will have on the dance floor, because you will rarely have to sit out due to not knowing the steps.

Etiquette of social dancing varies according to venue. Social dance clubs in Terramagne-America are more flexible than local-America, which means they put less pressure on people to accept most dances or mingle with many partners. The first and last dance are customarily reserved for one's escort if attending as a couple. However, it remains true that skilled and willing partners are the most popular. Here are some more advanced tips on dance manners.

Swing dance includes East Coast Open and East Coast Closed in terms of positions. Here is a comparison of different positions used in ballroom dance. Closed position brings dancers near each other, customarily with follow's hand on lead's shoulder or upper arm. Lead puts a hand on follow's upper back (more platonic) or waist (more romantic).

Gender roles in dance can be complicated, and often support stereotypes that some people find objectionable. Challenging them often gets people banned from classes and competitions; either you support the rape culture gender roles or you don't get to dance. Happily, enough people have said "Fuck that noise!" that gender-free dance instructions are now available, largely thanks to the QUILTBAG community. T-America does better on this score, but it's still not rare to see arguments over this shit. Notice that the dance monitor correctly reads troubled body language in the couple, but jumps to the conclusion that this is all Vagary's fault simply because he's presenting male and statistically speaking most harassment comes from men. Historically, gendered dances often featured same-sex partners in contexts where few or no opposite-sex partners were available, and nobody thought anything of it. In those situations, men often wore a skirt or a hoopskirt frame, and thus were sometimes said to be "dancing skirt." Handkerchiefs, hats, and other accessories have also been used to distinguish roles.

Drinking alcochol for stress relief is popular, but generally a bad idea. Drinking on a date is even worse, and raises the chance of dating violence.

Cranberry pomegranate juice has health benefits. Here's one brand that also includes ginger.

Carrot orange juice is another popular combination that's easy to make.

Food sharing communicates intimacy, which is why people prefer not to do it with people they dislike. It tends to promote happiness and connection.

Talaria are winged slippers or sandals, a symbol of Hermes the messenger. They have subsequently been used to represent track sports and other things involving fancy footwork. In this case, such a pin is used to indicate designated dancers. It's their job to invite wallflowers to dance and make sure people don't harass each other. They're basically party monitors who dance.

People-watching can be a fun activity. Check out the blue swing dance outfit and the red dress. Calliope hankers after this floral dress.

Open positions allow dancers to interact without being in close contact. Hand holds in swing dancing include this easy one.

There are plenty of tips on how not to step on your partner's feet and how to avoid getting stepped on yourself. Watching your dance partner's feet is not one of them, because it tends to impair performance. However, it does work pretty well, so is worth considering if you care more about avoiding each other's feet than about how you look. A majority of the problem here is simply that Cal learned the lead role, so keeps making the wrong moves while trying to reverse everything.

The Sugarpush is a basic figure in West Coast Swing, danced in open facing position. It involves lead gently pushing follow away and then pulling follow back in.

Boundaries are essential in personal relationships and families. It's important to talk about boundaries with your partner. They can form different patterns, some healthier than others. Vagary's boundaries are flimsy at best, and have been for some time. Calliope's are rigid in reaction to the bond, but used to be more flexible, a clear sign of traumatic damage. Recognize the signs of your boundaries being broken and what to do when people cross them. Conversely, think about ways you may violate other people's boundaries and how to respect those.

Many things other than "no" can convey the same message. Learn the body language of no, nervousness, and discomfort. Even in a nonsexual context, it is polite to back off if the negative signals are piling up. Vagary has actually gotten better at reading this stuff based on his level-grinding social skills.

Know how to tell if a friend is struggling, ask if they're okay, and comfort an upset friend. Calliope may not want comfort from Vagary, but does appreciate him backing off.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, entertainment, family skills, fantasy, fishbowl, gender studies, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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