Swing Out of the Blue: Chapter One

Sophia locked eyes with the boy seated across from her. She allowed her lips to curl into something that wasn’t quite a smile. She slid out two chips.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.

Sophia shrugged.

Earl searched her eyes for a hint, and Sophia stared back impassively. She had perfected that talent years ago. Don’t let them see what you’re thinking, her mother often said. Sophia had discarded the advice this week. She’d only shared her video with only a handful of dancers at Queen’s University, but that was enough. Her friends had seen her secrets. It was too late to take them back.

Earl deliberated over his cards. Sophia didn’t know him terribly well, but they’d shared classes and now some study groups. He seemed too trusting for poker with his baby face and an almost perpetual smile. His hair was brown and untidy, and he wore a plaid shirt unbuttoned over a black t-shirt. Sophia raised her eyebrows and folded her hands into her lap.

Earl dropped his cards onto the table. “It’s yours.”

Sophia kept her face blank. Don’t let them see what you’re thinking. She kept up the act a moment longer. Then she threw her cards face-up onto the table and grinned.

“Pair of tens? You pushed me that far on a pair of tens?”

“Next time let’s play for money,” Sophia said, teasing.

“Maybe I’ll skip a few steps and write you a cheque.”

She paused, pretending to consider. Then she said, “Nah, I prefer beating you. I like the faces you make.”

Earl made a face in response, and Sophia grinned again. She liked that Earl was good-natured about getting a rough time. Sophia had been relentless when she learned that he lived, of all places, on Earl Street, but he had taken her teasing in stride.

The clock on the wall caught her eye. “Sorry, guys, I’ve got to get to campus.”

“One more hand first?” another player asked.

Sophia hesitated. Swing dancing would no longer be an escape. Would the friends who’d seen the video greet her with curiosity? Pity? Condescension? Judgment? Sophia would need her poker-face strong tonight. She could use the practice.

“One hand,” Sophia agreed. “Then I’m due at the dance.”

“Wait,” Earl said. “It’s tonight? I can join you.”

Here’s your chance to practice your poker-face. Part of her was eager to dance with Earl. He was built like a runner, lean but strong, and his smile was contagious. Still, they barely knew each other, and Sophia had enough to worry about tonight without entertaining a novice.

Carefully, Sophia said, “You’re interested in swing dancing?”

“Last study group, you said it changed your life the moment you walked through the door. I’ll try anything once.”

It’s not like that anymore. Melancholy threatened to pierce her façade. Keeping her expression neutral, Sophia lied, “I’m on door duty tonight. Come next week instead?” She sensed Earl’s disappointment, so she added, “Hey, I’ll give you a crash course now.”

Sophia slipped her right hand into Earl’s left, enjoying the sensation of his hand closing around hers. Facing him, Sophia bent her arm at the elbow and guided Earl to do the same. “Your arm always stays in the same place,” she said. “It moves with your body, and my arm moves with your arm. So if you step forward …” He did, and Sophia moved with him, backing away a step. They took another step together, their joined arms keeping them in sync. Then, Earl smiled and stepped backward, bringing Sophia toward him.

“How’s that for a first lesson?”

“I get it,” Earl teased. “Always keep Sophie at arm’s length.”

“Not always.” She hugged him. “Come next week. I’m serious.”

“I just might.”

Once the door shut behind her, Sophia broke into a run. She skidded to a halt beside her bike and fumbled with the lock. She kicked off and rode hard into the dusk.

It followed, as she knew it would.

Her burden was doubt and unease, a vague, shapeless thing. Sophia pumped the pedals faster. Campus emerged on her left, its limestone buildings pale as ghosts. She could feel the darkness giving chase.

Sophia leaned into the wind, her hair sweeping behind her. Her heart was pounding. She turned left and scrambled up the hill. The clock tower emerged, then faded into the distance. Still her burden dogged her. She gritted her teeth, but there was no point in trying to fight. Sophia Peretz had never been a fighter.

The darkness was inside her now, seeping through her veins, burrowing into her bones. It was a pulsing in her temples, a stifling of her mind. She was weary. Empty. Hollow.

She would feel better once she got there. Sophia was terrified of the dancers’ reactions, but she usually did better with people around. She had to remember that.

Sophia slipped off her bike. As she locked it, the shadow remained with her, hovering beneath the streetlamps and the stars. She took the stairs to the student centre two at a time, then yanked the door open. The depression’s grip lessened while she was moving, but in an instant it was back smothering her.

Sophia stood in the hallway catching her breath. She thought about bounding up the next flight of stairs, but she knew what the ride must have done to her hair. She trudged to the bathroom instead, fished in her purse for a brush and wrenched it through the waves and tangles. Sophia touched up her make-up and added an extra coat of lipstick.

Heading back to the staircase, exhaustion dragged on her steps. You do better with people around. This is going to help. She hoped that was true. Too many dancers had seen the video, and she was about to face them. Sophia paused at the bottom of the stairs and looked wistfully over her shoulder. The doors of Wallace Hall were closed and the lights were off, but she couldn’t resist a glance. You said it changed your life the moment you walked through the door, Earl had said. Could she recapture that feeling from three years ago? Had dancing changed so much?

Nerves had mixed with anticipation that September night during Sophia’s first year at Queen’s University. Wallace Hall was resplendent with its vaulted ceiling, large windows and panelled wood extending halfway up the walls. The wood floors stretched from the raised stage at one end to the stone fireplace at the other. Beneath the lamps suspended overhead were portraits of the past university principals gazing serenely at the dancers below.

More than a hundred students packed the room, and their energy was palpable. A few students practiced complicated spins that made Sophia dizzy just watching. On the stage, people fiddled with laptops and sound equipment. Some students stood by the walls, nervous and excited. More chatted in groups, and many were searching for crannies to store backpacks and extra shoes. Most of the boys were dressed in jeans or khakis and t-shirts, the girls in slacks or summer skirts with t-shirts or tank tops, but some wore buttoned shirts and blouses, and at least one boy sported a full three-piece suit. Two girls were discussing vintage-dress shopping; one had found something decent at Phase 2, the local second-hand store, which made her the winner in Sophia’s books.

The girl in the centre of the room wore a black fedora with a white feather above a white tank top, black skirt and white Converse shoes. The headset of her wireless microphone lodged in her jet-black hair, only partially obscured by the fedora. “Welcome to the Kingston Swing Syndicate!”

After that, Sophia’s memories of the night were a blur. The lesson had rotated her through so many different dance partners that she gave up trying to learn anybody’s name. She remembered stumbling over steps and turning the wrong direction more often than not, and she remembered the teachers teasing each other and cracking stupid jokes. After the lesson, Sophia sat on a table, listening to the music and watching the intricate patterns the dancers wove. Every so often, somebody would ask her to dance, and she would slide off her table self-consciously and weave through the maze of bodies to claim precious space on the floor.

The crowd thinned as the night wore on, but even as the DJ announced the last song, thirty students remained beneath the lamps and the portraits. Sophia was about to leave when the girl with the fedora approached. After a quick introduction, they were together on the emptying dance floor, the girl leading Sophia through increasingly complicated slides, spins and stops. Elated, Sophia realized her feet were miraculously keeping up.

That was more than three years ago. Now Sophia had only a few months of university left. Then would come the real world.

Sophia turned away from the darkened Wallace Hall to hear faint music from above. She started toward the staircase, toward the plucking of a bass, the pounding of a drum. You can do this. One step, then the next, the shadow on her mind growing lighter as it ran up against the barrier the notes were weaving. The saxophone reached for her, the piano guided her steps, the trombone beckoned her onward.

Sophia Peretz stood taller and opened the door.

“Welcome to the Kingston Swing Syndicate!”

Today it was Andy’s voice reaching the thin crowd. “I’m Andy Liu, your club president. With me is Fatima Haddad, and we’re going to teach you a dance called the lindy hop.” Neither needed a microphone to be heard by only twenty students. Grand and gorgeous as Wallace Hall was, Andy had called it a blessing in disguise when the university shoved them into a smaller room upstairs. “There’s nothing more depressing than a huge room that feels empty,” he had said.

Except a small room that feels empty, Sophia had thought.

She sat by the doorway and pulled out her dance shoes. Andy was shouting instructions to the gathered students. They’re lindy hoppers. That meant something, even if she couldn’t describe why. She would never have shared the video otherwise. They’re my people.

“We’re just going to walk,” Andy shouted. “Step, step, step, step. If you can walk, you can dance.”

The video problem was Andy’s fault, really. Sophia couldn’t deny him a video that he appeared in, but it felt wrong to send it to Andy without first sharing it with her roommate, Tima. Of course, she couldn’t ask Tima to keep the video secret from Ahmed, and once Ahmed had it, Zack would be the only club executive member left out. But if even Zacksaw it, then why not Linh, and Ilya and Kirsten, and Jaime, and Carly, and …

By the time Sophia finished tying her shoes, the students had mastered the basic footwork, and Andy was teaching them how to connect with their partners. “Leaders, you want your hand on her back.”

“Or his back,” someone shouted from the circle.

“Or his back,” Andy agreed. “Just beneath the shoulder blades.” Lindy hop required a leader and a follower: one partner to initiate the moves and another to carry them through. Traditionally, men led and women followed, but nowadays it didn’t matter which partner did what. Sophia preferred to follow, but only because she hated spending an entire dance thinking about what moves to lead next. The whole point of dancing was to get away from thinking.

“Followers, drape your left arm over your leader’s.” Tima’s voice sounded small next to Andy’s. “Nice and relaxed.”

Tima’s boyfriend, Ahmed, didn’t have a partner, so Sophia walked over to him. He placed his arm around her. “Glad you made it. Fatima wants your feedback on her lesson.” Sophia liked how Ahmed always called his girlfriend by her full name. Fatima disliked nicknames, but the girls at her high school had insisted on calling her by the first part of her name, which they had twisted to sound like Fatty, so she was determined to establish her own nickname, Tima, at university.

“Everybody listen up!” Andy shouted. “This will be the hardest part of the entire lesson! Leaders, raise your hands high in the air so the followers can see you. Followers, rotate one partner clockwise.” He walked around the circle, pointing. “I know, we’ve all been raised on digital clocks. Clockwise is this way, people.”

Sophia thanked Ahmed and skipped to the next leader in the circle, a newcomer she hadn’t seen before. He was galloping on his triple-steps, the signature lindy hop footwork where the first step was slower and the next two caught up. Sophia galloped alongside him as best she could.

Two rotations later she reached Zack. He was finishing a conversation with his previous follower, a short, skinny girl with long hair that couldn’t decide whether it was blonde or a very light brown. After the girl had moved on, Sophia nudged Zack. “Making friends?”

He blushed furiously. “Sh—she’s a good dancer,” he stammered. “Will be, I mean. A good dancer. Soon.”

“Come on, Zack, I tease everybody.”

“I know.”

He still looked hurt. Zack had become a surprisingly good friend, but even so, Sophia often didn’t know how to deal with him. He took everything so personally.

“That was really nice last night, when you offered to go downstairs with me.” Her reassurance wasn’t enough. Zack bit his lip, and Sophia could guess what he was thinking: Then why didn’t you come? “I mean it,” she added.

That seemed to get through to him, and he offered her a nervous smile. “Thanks, Sophie.”

The lessons had a rhythm. Starting from walking and triple-steps, the teachers built step on step until the students were dancing. They weren’t just stumbling over new moves. They were flowing one step into the next as the music carried them. It was transformation, and after three years, it still amazed Sophia to see it.

When the lesson ended, Sophia scanned the room for a beginner to dance with. Now was the critical time when students either retreated to their dorms or remained and became dancers. She spotted a likely partner, but mental exhaustion flooded her so quickly that she had to lean against the wall for balance. Somebody else could play ambassador today. Sophia needed a real dance.

She didn’t realize how stressed she was until she relaxed into Zack’s arms and the tension drained from her. The music was slow, and Sophia stepped deliberately, emphasizing each movement in her arms, her centre, her hips. Zack was more confident in dancing than in conversation. He stepped forward and led Sophia to spin once and then twice. Already she was starting to forget. He caught her, redirected her, dug into the ground to anchor her as she crossed in front of him, her feet tapping an intricate pattern. He tried to copy her, but she let go of his hand and spun away, forcing him to abandon his attempt at the fancy footwork and chase after her. They were both laughing by the time he had her in his arms, spinning rapidly one around the other and sinking together into the music.

Swing dancing became athletic as the music grew faster, and after a few dances, Sophia was panting. She found her water bottle and gulped from it between shortened breaths. She loved the feeling of her heart pounding. She felt alive here, with the heightened senses, the bright colours and the floor glistening beneath her feet. Lindy hop was the blur of a room whirling around her. It was connecting with a partner, locking eyes and opening arms.

It didn’t last. An hour after the lesson ended, only six diehards remained. They were standing on the sidelines when Andy came over from the DJ table. “Anyone still dancing?”

“I am!”

It was the skinny girl Sophia had noticed during the lesson. The newcomer had potential, and her enthusiasm was encouraging, but Sophia felt forlorn watching them take the dance floor alone. A small room that feels empty.

Tima and Ahmed were whispering in a corner. Zack was preparing to leave. Sophia stepped toward him, but something stopped her. The emptiness was returning, a loneliness leeching her energy.

She had to dance now, before she fell too far.

Sophia raced to the DJ table and scanned Andy’s laptop. She needed a fast song with a beat that would drive her. She needed a song that would engulf her so she couldn’t think, so she could get away.

Andy barely had time to thank his last partner before Sophia swept in to claim him, her chosen song pounding in their ears. Everything was fluid motion, clarinets and horns and the floor sweeping beneath her. She felt a rush of adrenaline, an ache in her quads and abs and Andy’s strong frame holding her. There was nothing in the world but her and Andy and the music, moment by precious moment.

When the song ended, her surroundings once again took shape. Zack had left. So had the skinny beginner. So quickly, the high faded. “Let’s wrap this up,” she said.

They packed up the sound system and rearranged the chairs and tables. When they were done, Sophia flicked off the lights, and they took the stairs together. As they approached the exit from the building, Sophia glanced down the corridor at the room where she had first learned to relax and release, but Wallace Hall was still locked and dark. Sophia’s temples throbbed, and she shook her head to clear it.

She and Tima said goodbye to the boys on the steps of the student centre. Sophia unlocked her bike and wheeled it along the sidewalk. She wished Tima would ride with her, but her roommate hadn’t been on a bicycle in years and was scared to try again. “Where’s your helmet?” Tima asked.

“You sound like my mother.”

“I’m not nagging.” Tima’s voice was soft but forceful. “Just making sure you didn’t leave it at the dance.”

“It’s in a drawer somewhere.”

“You really should—”

“Now you are nagging,” Sophia complained, but playfully. They had become fast friends when Tima joined the dance club two years ago, and living together hadn’t dampened their connection. “Check this out.” Sophia pulled out her phone. She noticed with dismay a text message praising her video. The half-hearted compliment was well-meant, but Sophia also heard smug superiority: Now I know your problems, and you don’t know mine. Sophia ignored the text and searched through her e-mails. “My mom,” she said, passing the phone to Tima, “is trying to scare me into wearing a helmet by sending me gruesome photos of bike accidents.” She smiled at the mixture of amusement and horror on Tima’s face. “That’s a fun one.” Sophia pointed at a photo. “See those bits of brain on the street?”

Tima shuddered and handed the phone back. “Why would she send you these?”

“Why motivate someone through positive reinforcement when you can do it through fear and brain-bits?” Sophia asked.

“So, you don’t wear a helmet because you prefer risking brain-bits on the street to admitting she’s right?”

“Sure,” Sophia grumbled. “Take her side.”

They turned onto Barrie Street and walked southward along the edge of campus. “Your mom was great when I met her,” Tima said. “I was worried, you know, what she would think of …” She gestured at her headscarf. It was patterned with saxophones for the swing dance lesson she had taught tonight. “But she was lovely.”

“My mom cares about appearances.”

“Don’t we all? I don’t show the world everything I’m feeling. That’s why your video—”

Tima paused, as though afraid of saying too much. Sophia didn’t want to discuss the video either, but for Tima’s sake, she said, “What about it?”

“It’s just—we live together, and you were going through so much, and I had no idea.”

“I don’t talk about it.”

“Isn’t that lonely?”

“Not really.” Sophia could say little more. She had chosen to share the video, but it was still disconcerting that Tima knew about her depression. Sophia turned her eyes to the sidewalk, gripped the handlebars of her bicycle and wheeled it forward. Tima followed.

They passed the university’s Biosciences Complex, where Sophia spent most of her days, then the medical school and a row of old houses. They were almost at King Street before Tima said shyly, “Have I told you where I volunteer?” Sophia shook her head. “It’s called MHAC. Mental Health Alliance on Campus.”

That startled Sophia. “Tima, do you—”

“No,” Fatima said quickly, “not me, I just—” She froze, embarrassed. That was the problem with people trying to help. Sophia had no doubts about her roommate’s intentions, but nobody wanted to be branded. “I didn’t mean that.”

“I know, but it goes to show—”

“No, it doesn’t,” Tima replied. “Just how I was raised, I guess.”

“How’s that?” Tima looked uncomfortable, so Sophia added, “You know everything about my mom. Your family lives right here in Kingston, and I never hear about them.” Sophia knew the basics, of course. Tima’s parents were immigrants from North Africa who’d moved to Canada before Tima was born. Her mother was a professor at Queen’s University. Her father worked in corrections, which was a euphemism for prisons, the town’s other major industry. Fatima had a sister, too, who was still in high school. Yet beyond those facts, Tima rarely spoke about her family, and it was weird. Sophia knew the life stories of her previous roommates, and they weren’t even dancers.

This time, Tima ignored Sophia’s question altogether. “I found out about MHAC during a psych elective. They brought in this kid who had one of the conditions we were learning about. I couldn’t believe it—the way I was raised, you would never talk about it—but he got up in front of a hundred students and told us what it was like.”

Sophia’s stomach turned as she realized where this was going. “I can’t do that.”

“You already have. MHAC is about peer outreach. They train students as speakers, so other students can hear stories from people like them. Exactly like your video.”

Sophia kept her face carefully neutral to hide her dread. “I can’t.”

“You created one of the best pieces of advocacy I’ve ever seen. You’re a natural.”

Sophia had been called a natural dancer, too. That was enough. “If you’re not … you know,” Sophia said, still unable to say the word depressed, “why are you helping them?”

Tima avoided the question again. “They’re not scary. They’re just like any other student club. We’re the Queen’s chapter of a national group, and every March, there’s a massive summit in Toronto. It’s bigger than Festival.” She paused. “You can start smaller. Little talks to groups of ten or fifteen, so students feel more comfortable getting help. Isn’t that worth it?”

“Nothing’s worth this,” Sophia snapped. “That video was the worst mistake of my life.”

“I don’t believe you,” Tima said, “but I like you angry. It means you’re taking off the mask.”

“What mask?”

“You know what mask.”

There was a difference, Sophia reflected, between quiet and shy. Fatima might be the former, but she wasn’t the latter.

Fatima sighed and continued. “I don’t get this stuff. I know it’s important, but I don’t really understand. We need your wasps.”

The wasps were one of the better moments in the video. Sophia had animated a swarm of them, darting and stinging, draining hope. Suddenly, the buzzing stopped. The wasps retired meekly to their nest. The nest was inside Sophia’s head.

Sophia felt them buzzing now, and she gritted her teeth, wiped her face blank and grasped for another excuse to turn Tima down. She finally settled on, “I’ve got my hands full with dancing.”

The darkness was gathering. Her dance with Andy burned in her mind, but instead of the adrenaline and the music, Sophia remembered her desperation waiting for his previous dance to end, wondering whether she would make it. Once she and Andy graduated, who would keep swing dancing alive at Queen’s? Tima was a great friend and roommate, but she had too many other commitments. Andy had already asked her to be president next year, and she had refused.

As mildly as she could, Sophia said, “I don’t want the club to fold.”

It wasn’t mild enough. Tima’s face went from frustrated to exasperated. “Neither do I, but why does it matter so much to you? It’s a student club that you’ll never see again once this school year is over. You’re not going to stay in this town. Nobody does.”

Strangely, Sophia hadn’t thought about it that way before. She knew why she needed to dance, but Fatima was right. Kingston was a university town, and Sophia could dance anywhere, so why did she care? She couldn’t explain it, but when Sophia imagined Wallace Hall locked and dark, knowing that she and Andy had been the club’s last, best chance, pain blossomed inside her and thought was drowned out. It would simply be one failure too many.

“Andy’s been after me all month,” Tima said. They were almost at their doorstep. “I don’t have time. Between MHAC and my courses and applying to law schools and Ahmed and everything else—”

“It’s fine,” Sophia said, faking confidence she didn’t feel. “I’ll deal with Andy. It doesn’t have to be you.”

“Who, then?” Fatima asked, but before Sophia could answer, they were interrupted by a bicycle careening toward them, its lights blinking and flashing. The bike pulled up in front of them, narrowly avoiding a collision. The rider was tall, panting and close to tears. She ripped the helmet off her head and shouted at Tima, “I can’t take it anymore, I can’t, I can’t take them—” The girl froze, and her eyes went wide. She looked Sophia up and down. When the girl spoke again, she was quiet, almost shy. Like Tima.

“Fatima,” the girl said, with a certain amount of awe, “is that her? Your roommate who made the—”

“Looks like you get to learn about my family after all,” Fatima said quietly. “Sophia, meet my little sister.”

Enjoyed the first chapter and want to know what happens next? Find out how to purchase the book! A portion of the proceeds will support mental health charities.

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