Johnny and Eric had loved to dance. Just about every weekend of their six years in Knoxville, they'd make their way to one or another of the local gay bars and dance until closing time. They knew every good dance bar between Louisville and Atlanta. When they got to Washington in spring, 1983,they made their way first to one, then another of the dance bars and finally ended up going to the Equus, a neighborhood bar in Capitol Hill.

There was a fresh wind blowing in the gay scene then. They started frequenting the Equus just at the time it underwent a change in format, from disco to country & western. The management provided an instructor, Ron the Texan, who got everyone out on the floor to learn. Awkward as they might be, everyone did it. The men didn't just do it: they loved it. They were dancing with someone again, after all the years of solo disco flights.

Johnny and Eric tried it and loved it along with everyone else. There was the schottische, the ten-step, the barn dance and every week a new line dance to learn. But their favorite remained the first dance they learned -- the two-step. Slow, fast or dirty, it was their dance.

At first Eric led, and that pattern held for a long time. But slowly, for whatever reason, it began to change, and they found themselves dancing with Johnny in the lead -- hat off and held behind Eric so they could put their heads together, holding each other tight. They danced every weekend until closing time.

In time Eric was sent off to Japan for four years on his job. He'd come back for a few weeks twice a year, and Johnny and Eric would dance, but things changed. Styles changed, dances changed, people changed, bars changed.

Johnny went out to Japan to join Eric for the last half year. When they finally came back to Washington for good, they found they were out of the scene. They wanted to dance, but somehow the will wasn't there. Johnny's feet got worse, and he began to waste - nothing spectacular at first, but his energy was down.

Their dancing years were over. Johnny continued to listen to C&W. Garth's "The Dance" was his favorite. Eric lost interest even in that much. It all seemed a ghost of the past.

After Johnny came home from the hospital to hospice care, Eric put a radio by the bed for Johnny to listen to. He spun around the unknown channels. By chance, he stumbled across 102.9 FM, WKIK, "California Country." (What was 'California' country, anyway, Eric wondered.) The C&W it played was soft, old and slow. It was filled with loss and yearning and searching. The nostalgia of it comforted Johnny and Eric. They remembered, if only very briefly and dimly, how it used to be. Eric left the radio on for Johnny to listen to, and he took comfort in it.

After Johnny died, Eric wrapped himself up in the farmhouse in his grief and loneliness. He kept it dim to preserve the moment of saying goodbye as he remembered it. He burned vanilla-scented candles for the scent of the cocoa butter he had used to rub Johnny down, trying to keep his skin intact - futilely, as it turned out. He said prayers for him every night and talked to him.

Wherever he was, whenever he could, he would turn on the radio to 102.9 and crank it up all the way. He studied every word of every song, trying to find meaning in them that he had never recognized before. Each statement of loss, every adjustment to it, each search for a path out - he clung to them.

Time went on, and the grief and loneliness only became worse. Eric went to a therapist. It was a last resort, and he was reluctant. Pay for such things! he thought, when people should be able to reach out to each other freely and tell them their problems as friends. What is this, he thought - an escort service of the heart?

The therapist's name was Gordon. Gordon was a compassionate, gentle man. Eric was taken with him, to his surprise. Gordon simply listened to his grief and let him cry or laugh as he felt.

Every night Eric would drive home from work and turn the radio on to 102.9. It wasn't any good in the District. All he'd get was static, but he left the radio on full blast anyway. It was like an early warning system. By the time he'd get to Clinton, WKIK would begin to come in, and at the Brandywine turn, it would come in strong and fierce. He was in heaven.

One night he stopped to wait for the red light at the Brandywine turn, and an old two-step was playing. That's when it happened. Suddenly, Gordon was with him. He certainly hadn't been there before. Eric hadn't been thinking about him, but there he was, smiling and dressed in western to the hilt, topped in a black Stetson. Then, just as suddenly, Eric was dancing with him! He wasn't just dancing: he was leading and looking deep into Gordon's eyes. It was shocking and sensual all at once. Someone honked behind him. The light had turned green. It was all he could do to remember to drive on.

The image recurred more and more frequently as the days went by and Eric would listen to the radio. It no longer contained itself to dancing. He had an irresistible desire to flirt outrageously with Gordon, to pose, to touch. In the end, it always came back to the dance. With Gordon it was like a dream: perfect timing, coordination, body language. Gordon responded to every signal and suggestion. It was being back together with Johnny, and for that while, he felt very good.

He told Gordon about this. Gordon encouraged him to deepen the bond with subtle clues and suggestions of his own interest in the C&W scene. For all Eric knew, it might be an extravagant, luxurious lie, simply a means to provoke Eric's fantasy. Whatever Gordon's motives, the feelings were real, and Eric trusted him. Gordon's interest seemed to lie in letting him look at what lay within and what it meant, not at Gordon himself.

And draw them out Gordon did, at length and at depth, but not without a price. There still was Johnny. There still very much was Johnny. Johnny was still alive. Eric didn't know what to do. At night, when he'd light the candle and say prayers, he would talk to Johnny. He let Johnny know what was happening, carefully and indirectly at first and then more openly.

He was coming home after work at the Brandywine crossing again, with 102.9 cranked up. An oldie was playing, and Eric and Gordon were dancing, when Eric had it. He turned and called Johnny and told him to take a look at all that was going on. What are we going to do about it, Johnny? What can I do? I just can't help this. He felt despair.

Johnny was there. He looked at Eric and Gordon. He didn't say anything. He never would have, anyway. He smiled at Eric, took off his hat and cut in on the dance. Off he danced with Gordon, Johnny in the lead. He took him away, to enjoy him by himself for a little while. Who knows, maybe they went off to rope some calves, or, God forbid, even compare notes, Eric thought. This time, he drove on, suffused in their warmth.

May your spirit be with us, Johnny.
May your soul be in heaven.
May your heart be with your friends who went on before.
May your eyes be on us, forever.
Be in peace, Johnny.
May peace be upon us all.

The End