THE DANCER’S AFFAIR
By Jessica Widner
She is up on her toes. She is Manon Lescaut. She is a first soloist with the National Ballet of Canada. There she is, blown up, in a cabriole on the side of the Four Seasons Centre. There is her smile, her crown of sable hair, there are her ankles.
Her name is Lolita Elizabeth Hammershøi. Lolita from her father, who was not a reader and did not grasp the implications. Elizabeth, her mother’s beloved sister, killed at twenty in a car crash, young and vibrant, not yet reached her prime, a dancer. Hammershøi from her husband who is tall and handsome but not good for much else, who is out of town, and lying to her about it being on business.
Closing night. He has only seen her from afar. His throat feels a little constricted, his knees twitch. He stands outside her dressing room. In his hands there is a skimpy bouquet of calla lily and anemone. He feels foolish. He had a crush on a girl once when he was twelve, Elke with long, shiny black hair. He picked daisies for her from his mothers’ garden and stood on her doorstep to give them to her. When she opened the door she looked at him with curious eyes and took the flowers. But she still didn’t speak to him.
He is the assistant lighting designer. His name is Anselm Best. He has no middle name. He imagines that his lights kiss her feet, her cheeks, her dark, smooth arms, even though in Manon the palette is dull, the stage washed in grey like murky water. He has come from Lucerne and he still doesn’t know many people in the city, but he likes it because it is a city where many of the bar owners understand the importance of dim lighting. It is okay to be alone at a bar if the lights are dim. You can sit and watch people as if they are in a film. If they are not alone, if they are haloed by friends or lovers, then you are invisible to them.
He knocks. Lolita is alone inside. He knows because he saw her go in just a few minutes ago. She doesn’t open the door right away. He didn’t wait long enough, he thinks. She must still be undressing, wiping the stage make-up from her face. He could leave. He could throw the flowers away.
Lolita opens the door. She is still wearing make-up. Her face is powdered a couple shades lighter than her neck. She is in a grey cotton robe. “Hello?” she says. She looks at him as if she expects him to try and sell her something.
“Hi, I’m Anselm,” he says, “I’m the assistant lighting designer.” He holds up the flowers. She smiles, cracking the powder next to her eyes into fine lines.
“Come in,” she says. She shuts the door behind him. There is a bouquet of wild roses next to her mirror, still wrapped in clear plastic. He can see the back of the card. It reads, “O cloud-pale eyelids, dream dimmed eyes”. He is stung with a jealousy he has no right to. She is facing the mirror, looking at his reflection. She begins to wipe her face with a towel. She looks at him calmly. He thinks of a cat flicking its tail back and forth. Her costume has been thrown onto the floor, her tights inside out. He hadn’t imagined her being careless. He had a picture in his mind of her pressing her clothes into sharp folds, smoothing them with her palms. He imagined her pressing flowers between the pages of heavy books.
“I wanted to give you these,” he holds out the bouquet. She puts down her towel and takes it, clasping the wrapped stems with both hands. “I think you danced that part brilliantly,” he says. He is less embarrassed now. She is just a woman.
“Anselm,” she says, “That is a wonderful name. And these are lovely.” She looks down at the blooms, “How delicate.”
She lays the bouquet next to her vase of roses. She tells Anselm thank-you again, and apologizes for being tired. She always gets tired on closing night, she says.
“Are you new to the city?” she asks. She sits on her leather sofa, crosses her legs. He doesn’t dare sit next to her so he stands, tilts his chin downwards as if that will make him tower over her less.
“Yes,” he says, “I’ve been here four months. For four months.”
She stands. She asks him how old he is. She is sharp. She is detached. When she looks at him he feels like he is see-through, a ghost, or else something she has dreamt, imagined. He is twenty-six, he tells her.
“Ah, so young!” She says. Anselm smiles. There are a lot of things he had imagined telling her and a lot of things he had wanted to ask her, like, what does she think of in the moments of stillness on stage, when the heat of the lights is on her and the theatre is quiet enough that the audience can hear her breathe?
“I’d better go,” he says. She reaches out and her hand lands on his forearm. She looks at him in the eye and she thanks him and there is a pain in his stomach because he is in love with her, but in the stupid, fantastical way that teenagers fall in love. He should know better.
“Anselm,” she says one more time, “What a gorgeous name.”
~ ~ ~
She stands under a streetlight, a block from the stage door. The snow falls in heavy, wet flakes and gathers noiselessly at her feet. Cars move sluggishly through rivets of slush. She steps back from the curb, her phone pressed to her cheek. “Jan,” she says softly and the voice of her husband moves through a whispery veil of static to ask if she is okay.
“Are you at home?”
“Not yet, my love.”
“I thought you would be home by now.”
A pause. “Jan?” She asks.
“I’m here, sorry, I got cut off for a second.”
“I thought you would be home by now.”
“I’m sorry, Lala. I thought I would too. I’ll be here another couple of days. Until the conference is over. How was the final night?”
“Oh. I’m tired. I had a fantasy you’d be at home running me a bath.”
“Are you standing outside?”
“No, no, I’m in my dressing room.”
“Are you smoking?”
“You are standing outside aren’t you?”
“I am. But I’m not smoking.”
“Is it snowing? It’s all turned to ice here.”
“I can picture you then, standing all alone in the snow, shot with light from passing cars. How beautiful you are.”
“But it’s true.”
She doesn’t respond. A cab slows down in front of her, stops, and through the window she sees Anselm’s face. He had lovely hands, she remembers, and he was graceful and nervous, equine.
“Get into a cab, beauty,” says the voice in her ear.
“I will darling.”
“And I’ll call you in the morning. Or you call me, once you’re awake.”
She nods at the cab driver and holds up a finger. The wet snow melts and runs down the side of the car, the windows, so it looks like Anselm is gazing at her through deep water.
“I love you,” says her husband.
“You too, darling.”
She puts her phone in her pocket. There is a hole in the heel of her right boot and her foot is wet, chilled. Anselm gets out of the cab and opens the door for her. She climbs in, her coat bunching around her knees, making her momentarily clumsy. The driver has his seat pushed back so there is little room for the folded length of her legs.
“You were alone in the cold,” says Anselm.
“Thanks,” she says, “Let’s have a drink.”
Anselm tells the cab driver the name of a bar she’s never been to before. “Have you been there?” He asks her.
“I don’t get out much,” she says.
The bar is candlelit, with little wooden tables. It has the pleasant scent of some sort of incense, something faintly attic-like, old clothing maybe, the unfolding of a vintage fur coat. He asks her what she would like.
“Oh, just gin. Citadelle. A little ice.”
She goes to sit in the corner, hangs her long white coat over the chair which begins to tilt backwards under the weight of it. She catches the chair before it falls, looks at him, and laughs. He orders her a double gin, and gets himself a glass of Lillet Blanc, filled to the brim with ice.
They sit across from each other. She leans her elbows against the table and nests her chin into her clasped hands. “And, where are you from?” She asks him. She looks at him, and then at the space behind his left shoulder, and then at him again. She unclasps her hands and leans back, laying them flat against the table. She picks up her drink and swirls the ice.
“Is it very pretty there?”
“The Lake is nice.”
“I haven’t been. But I was in Lausanne once, when I was just seventeen. A long time ago.”
She puts her glass on the table and her fingertips flutter over the rim before alighting.
“Were you competing?”
She smiles at him. There is a tightness around her eyes. She picks up her glass and drains it, the ice falling back with an empty clink. “I was,” she says.
She doesn’t want to talk about Lausanne, or about dancing at all. Above the bar she can see dimly lit bottles of Westvletern 12, and Achel Brun. She remembers the time she went on a tour of Belgium with her father, when she was just twenty. They went to Achel Abbey and were served flights of thick, sweet, malty beer. The monks brew it, her father told her, to finance their monastery, nothing more. Westvletern, he said, is one of the best beers in the world, but they only started selling it when the Abbey began falling apart and they needed the money. It felt so special when she was sitting there, hiding from the heat in the cramped brewery that smelled of old wood, and the sweet ferment of beer, the only trip her and her father went on just the two of them, and maybe her favourite trip she’d ever been on. Is it less special now, she wonders, now she could order the beer right here, in Toronto, in the winter?
“Have you tried that beer?” She asks, pointing, “Up there?”
“Yes, once or twice.”
She is about to tell him the story, but decides against it. There is no reason to tell him.
He gets up to refill their drinks. When he sits down again she is eager to talk.
“Did you know, Anselm, that you wanted to be a lighting designer since you were very young? Did you know it before you knew what it meant?”
“I always liked the theatre,” he replies, “My mother took me when I was small, often, whether to the opera or ballet or to see the symphony. I liked the rushed feeling right before the show started, while my mother stood in line to buy a drink, and the bell started ringing, and everyone began walking all different ways to go and find their seats. And I liked the sound of the instruments tuning, in the dark.”
“Yes,” she says, “I like that part too, because it always makes me feel nervous. But good-nervous.”
“It is a glorious anticipation,” he says, “You feel it in your whole body.”
“Oh, yes,” she says. “It is like coming home.”
~ ~ ~
By the time they get back to her house, they are both a little bit drunk. She nearly slips on a patch of ice on the front walkway. He takes her arm and they walk up the stairs to her front porch where she laughs and says, “This is fun, isn’t it?”
She fits the key into the lock. She has a silvery keychain that jingles in a strange way, hollowly, like a chime. It makes him shiver. Before she turns the key he takes her by the upper arm and she turns her face to him and he kisses her. She pulls away and he is, for a second, gripped with the embarrassment, frozen in his veins, that he misunderstood everything. She exhales and he feels her breath, warm against his lips. Then she kisses him, her hand coming around to press against the back of his neck, her touch chilled, searing his skin.
The house is dark and when she turns on the lights he ignores the evidence, the men’s shoes, the big black coat hung on the bannister. He ignores the photographs; he wills his eyes not to work. Something he wants to tell her is that when he sleeps, he dreams without vision. All his other senses are present, keenly, but he dreams blindly across a landscape of sound, of voice and music, and of feeling. He imagines himself saying this to her, in bed maybe, saying that it feels as though he lives two different lives, one in which he can see and one in which he is blind. He wonders if she would like the sound of that.
He hears the pop of a cork. She walks into the hallway with a bottle of champagne. “Shhh,” she says, “Don’t tell anyone.”
He hasn’t even taken his shoes off. The house is so filled with beautiful, delicate items that she, already barefoot, pouring fizz over the edges of crystal flutes, seems intrinsically part of it, as if it created her, as if she were born of it. A strange thought. He is not really drunk, but enough so that he begins to feel sad, as if he is witnessing something profound but at the same time letting it glide away from him into some dark nowhere, a place he’ll not be able to find again. This feeling gives way to anxiety, a feeling that he has forgotten something, that he is in the entirely wrong place.
“Tell them what?” he says, finally walking through to the kitchen, taking his glass. She laughs and it makes the same silvery sound as her keychain. She slips a record from it’s case and holds the edges of it with her fingertips. Her dining table is round. Rich, dark wood, contrasted with an enameled white kitchen island. A modern kitchen, strange amidst the antique beauty of the rest of the furniture. Spindly chairs, a record player, two Schiele prints, crystal figurines on the windowsill. She puts the record on and he recognizes the first few notes of an Erik Satie prélude. She steps closer to him. Why is he just now noticing her earrings? They are like icicles. He reaches out and touches one with his fingertip.
“You’re beautiful,” he says and then, embarrassed, “These are beautiful, I mean.”
“Darling,” she says, refilling her glass, putting her lips to the rim slowly as if kissing it, “I need you to know that whatever happens between us can only be for tonight. Otherwise we’ll just get hurt. If that isn’t possible for you, I think it would be best if you left.”
Conscious of the pause, he tries to disentangle what he is feeling. Her in person, in front of him, like a figure from a long-loved painting come to life. Him, breathing the same air as her. His lips on hers, like a lost character in a fairy tale stumbling upon some enchanted land. But then there she is, real, eyes going from his face to the space around his face, to her feet, and back. Eyes always moving. Fine lines underneath them, lines that dark make up has smudged into. He wants to press his thumbs underneath her eyes, and rub it away. The creases around her mouth. Her breath sweet and sour, chemical. A woman in front of him, a body, and a face not as beautiful or young as many of the other women he had been with. What does he want? The experience, or the body?
He nearly laughs with relief. It can be either. His desire is strictly limited to the physical and the fantastical. Her heart—let the other man keep it.
“Of course,” he says and he takes her face in both hands and, before he kisses her, closes his eyes.
She pulls away and, breath warm against his mouth says, “And, dear, don’t say my name, please.”
She places her glass down and he takes her in both arms and presses the long length of her against him. Her mouth moves lazily against his, her hips tilting forward. She bites his lip and he tightens his grip around her waist, digs his fingers into the top of her thighs. He can feel her body begin, as a motor does, to heat, to wake, unfurl against him, and everything begins to slide.
~ ~ ~
“Oh, dear,” she says. She has gotten up from bed. Her sacrum is aching, the pain comes in short bursts, chasing itself down her legs. She turns on the light next to her bed. She isn’t sure if Anselm is asleep or not, his breathing is so soft. He has a stillness to him, a quietness, despite his physical presence. She had almost forgotten he was there.
“Are you ok?” he says. She turns to look at him. His eyes are still alert, awake. The light makes his face gold, his hair gold. She bends sideways to kiss him. His mouth is warm and it tastes like her. He pulls back, presses his finger to her bottom lip.
“I forgot the flowers. The flowers you brought me.”
“Maybe they’ll survive the night.”
She opens her side table and takes out a wooden box with vaguely Buddhist patterns carved across the top. She opens it and places a pouch of tobacco, rolling papers, and a metal grinder on the table. She opens the little bag from the dispensary and the scent fills the room.
“Do you mind?” He is watching her. So quiet he seems to absorb sound. “My back hurts. I won’t be able to sleep.”
He sits up next to her, his knees hugged to his body, and watches her, not speaking, as she rolls the joint, quickly. Watches her lick the paper, press it tight together. She smiles at him.
She hands him the joint and gets up, disappears out of the door. He hears her creaking down the stairs. There is a zippo lighter in the box. He takes it, strikes, lights.
She returns in a grey silk robe. It has a cigarette burn on the left breast. She has two pint glasses of water. “Let’s replenish our fluids,” she says.
As they smoke, she turns on the TV opposite the bed. Anthony Bourdain in Hokkaido, eating crab, sea urchin, salmon roe. “I want to eat that,” she says. Anselm presses his hand to her thigh. Time passes. They both feel far away from each other, until he starts to move his hand, his palm heating her skin, touching between her legs. She slips closer to him and they stay there like that for a while, until the credits roll on the TV show, until the next episode starts (Anthony Bourdain in the Ozarks).
She looks at him, his skin lit by the flickering blues, yellows, and greys from the television. There is a hunger for him, starting from the point on her skin his fingers are touching. It is like the beginning of a cramp. She places her palm on his cheek and turns his face to hers. He looks at her, his eyes beginning to drowse, and he leans in to kiss her neck, to take her ear lobe delicately between his lips. He starts to move his hand, “Does it hurt?” he asks her.
“No,” she says, “No, it’s nice.”
There is something he wanted to tell her, he thinks, but he can’t remember now. It doesn’t matter. He won’t speak to her again after the morning, anyway. But there was something.
He crushes his mouth against her neck, begins to say her name and feels her throat stiffen under his lips.
“No,” she says, but then she laughs, and her body remains open to him.
He reaches over her; he turns off the lamp.
About the Author:
Jessica Widner is a Canadian writer currently living in Edinburgh. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto, and is completing a Creative Writing MSc at the University of Edinburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Eunoia Review, LampLight Magazine, and Potluck Mag.