There is a man in the sandbox. He is wearing an expensive suit, although it is past one in the morning. He is dancing. Not the awkward, self-conscious dad-dancing you might expect. He bends and leaps, sand spraying up around his patent-leather shoes. When he turns, his glasses glow in the streetlight. His feet leave complex divots and swirls in the sand for tomorrow afternoon’s children to puzzle over. They will think he is a unicorn and dig his marks apart with shovel after curious shovel until they forget it was there. The man is not magic. This is the first time he dances in the sandbox. Why? At first, he doesn’t know why either. He hasn’t danced in years, and sometimes staggers out of half-remembered pirouettes. It’s summer, the shirt under his suit is slicked with sweat, and his wife will be waiting up for him, wondering where he is. But he dances, even as his glasses slip down his nose, and something inside him unwinds with each plié and pas de bourré, until he laughs out loud, falling backwards into the sand.
I know my dad was in the sandbox because I’m up when he gets home at one in the morning on Wednesday. There were monsters in my dreams and Mama has told me the best way to settle back down is to go downstairs for a glass of milk. The microwave is whirring when the front door clicks and Dad walks in, soaked with sweat and humming, “You are My Sunshine”. He’s smiling like he hasn’t in weeks. He stops when he sees me.
“Why are you still up, sweetie?”
“Just a nightmare.”
He nods. “Well, get back to bed soon, okay?”
I nod back at him. The microwave dings. I turn away to open it, and when I straighten, he is disappearing up the stairs, skipping every other step. His shoes have left a trail of sand, the grit pinching my toes. Which is why I think he was in the sandbox. It’s the only sand nearby.
The man comes back to the sandbox often. Now that he’s started, he realizes he needs this release, this freedom of almost-flight. Tonight he does not laugh. His muscles bunch with remembered movements, and he pushes them to see what he can do. The leaps are higher, the pirouettes tighter, he sinks into each plié deep and even. He is dancing too hard to do anything but gasp. But he smiles, joyous, triumphant. He spins so ferociously the glasses fly off his face. It brings him back to earth. He remembers the time. The next thirty minutes are spent blundering around on his hands and knees to unearth his glasses. Tomorrow afternoon, the children will see dinosaurs in his tracks.
Dad used to be a dancer in college. That’s how he met Mama. She says all the girls were after him those days, what with his slick hair and the way he spun across the floor. Mama could only dance passably, but one day at an ice cream social, he whirled her away and that, she says, was that.
When I was little, they used to tango together in the living room, Sunday afternoons. Music blaring from the speakers, just the two of them, back and forth. They would forget we were there. It’s the only time Dad looked so free and weightless that he could have floated up the stairs. He had that same look when he came home after dancing in the sandbox.
He goes again next week. This time, he tells us over breakfast that he’ll be out late on business. A day trip. He tells Mama to not wait up. But I know he’s dancing in the sandbox again. His business meetings didn’t used to run until one in the morning. That’s what Mama says, wringing the dish towel she’s cleaning the counter with. Dad says he’s stressed and how would she know how late his meetings go? It’s true that he looks stressed. He promises to get home sooner than he did, that last time was an exception. Mama still isn’t happy. What about the girls, she says. They hardly see you anymore. Dad ignores her.
After breakfast, he makes a point of clearing away the plates and sending me and Charlie out the door with our backpacks on, ready for summer camp, though he’s late for work and keeps checking his watch. Mama watches us shrug on our backpacks with her lips pursed. She goes back upstairs and closes the bedroom door so softly there’s barely a click.
That night, Mama’s lamp is still glowing when I fall asleep.
The man in the sandbox whirls in tight pirouettes. One, two, three, four. It’s not just that he is improving with practice. There are fairies here tonight. They have brought their leafy drums and pine-needle fiddles and they dance with him. It’s magical. He is not magic. He cannot resist the heartbeat rhythms of their music, and so he dances until dawn, glasses flashing in the lamplight. Tomorrow, the children will solemnly trace their steps along the circle. They know what it looks like when the fairies dance.
It’s Sunday night, the first time we’ve eaten dinner together this week. Spaghetti night. Dad’s treat, he says, bringing home the boxes. Sorry I wasn’t here for Friday. But Mama is silent and Dad only asks us a few, stiff questions about our day before they disappeared for a grownup conference. They haven’t eaten. Charlie and I clean our dishes and put them in the dishwasher. The rest stays on the table. When bedtime rolls around, the doors are still closed. We tuck ourselves in that night. I’m almost asleep when Mama raises her voice.
“You went with her to the beach? You never took me to the beach!”
“I offered. You don’t give me the time of day. Have your own fella on the side? Mitch, maybe? You know, you couldn’t have been more obvious if you’d spread your legs for him right there in the kitchen.”
“Mitch is a work friend. And I told Charlie I’d take her to the mall. Unlike you, I keep my promises.”
“Yeah, right. You know, I’m not even worried. Old, stuck-up bitch like you thinking anyone wants to sleep with an icicle.”
“It was enough for you. Guess you forgot who was chasing who in college. Guess you forgot how you walked out on your own mother when she wouldn’t let me in.”
“Well, maybe I’m sick of freezing my dick off every time I walk into this house. Maybe my Momma was right. Lucky you to get pregnant before I could leave you.”
“What, my house you mean? The one I paid for while you were being the rich little parasite you always wanted to be?
A door bangs open and heavy footsteps thunk down the stairs. I stumble out of bed. Downstairs, the front door opens, then crashes.
When I go to Mama’s room, the door is locked. I go to Charlie’s instead. Charlie is up too, lounging on her bed with a book, looking even more pissed off than usual. She hates me. Mama says it’s just hormones, but she always has, even before she was a teenager. But there’s no one else around.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“What do you think?” She turns a page. “Dad’s being a dick again.”
“Don’t say that.”
“What else would you call it?”
I don’t respond. After a minute or two, Charlie puts down the book and sighs. “He goes out clubbing,” she says.
“Dancing with pretty girls.” She turns back to her book.
“But what—oh. Ok.” I stop asking because stupid questions make Charlie angry and her lip is already curling. Instead, I close my eyes and see my father whirling around with pretty girls. Fairies. Maybe he doesn’t really want to be there. Fairies can be cruel, and they whirl him around and around until he can no longer tell up from down and though he loves dancing, he hates this one, and he can’t stop.
When Dad staggers into the door with a thump at five in the morning, I know it’s because he’s drunk with fairy dust and dancing.
There is a man in a sandbox. He is wearing an expensive suit, although it is past one in the morning. If you wait long enough, you might see him dance.
Dad is stacking his boxes in the driveway. He’s moving into an apartment in the city until he and Mama work things out. When Mama says this, she bites each word off. When Dad says this, he rolls his eyes. I’m sitting on one of his boxes and he nudges me off of it before picking it up.
“Why do you have to go?”
“Why don’t you ask your mom?” He nods toward the house.
I pout. “Charlie said you were dancing. There’s nothing wrong with dancing.”
“I agree. Unfortunately, your mother doesn’t.” He grunts as he wedges the final box into the trunk.
I don’t want to say it. It’s his secret. It’s our secret where he’s been going. But if Mama knew, he could stay.
“Don’t leave. You can explain you were dancing in the sandbox.”
“What?” He turns to stare at me.
“The sandbox. You went dancing. I saw the sand on your shoes. That night.” He gapes at me. Then he puts down his head and starts shaking. I think he’s crying, until he lifts his head.
“Yes, sweetie. I was dancing in the sandbox. With unicorns and elves and fairies, I imagine.” He chokes on his laughter. With a final wave, he gets into the driver’s seat and shuts the door.
The next day, I wake up early, before anyone else, and run to the playground down the road. I don’t know what I expect, but as soon as I turn the corner, I cover my eyes. I don’t know why. I know Dad hasn’t done anything wrong, and if I can show Mama, she’ll have to let him come back. It will be true. It has to be.
I open my eyes. The sand is smooth.
Anna Zheng is a senior at the Paideia School. She's been writing poetry and prose of varying quality since fifth grade and occasionally succeeds in producing something she actually likes. She hopes to keep writing and publishing as she becomes an adult.