He had been in town once, he was saying, in the silent moment, the moment just before the trees began to groan and sway. And there, on the street where the post office and the shops were, a little fawn had come clop clop clopping, disoriented, out of a stand of trees and then right along the sidewalk. Its hooves rang out against the concrete, striking sparks, and the distant funnel swam in the creature’s great, dark, terrified eyes. An immense roar broke open the enveloping green; grainy darkness poured out, and there he was, the boy, scrambling down into the cellar of Dillard’s Stationery just as the storm ripped the roofs from the houses on the next street and sucked them into the sky!
He was still, thankfully, sleeping heavily when she disentangled herself from him in the morning and got up to feed the dogs and cat; she would be able to have coffee alone in her kitchen, to bathe…
She had made her way during the rest of the night in flickering gradations of sleep and wakefulness through a thick loam, like fallen leaves, of discarded and forgotten sensations.
…The dim afternoon when Laura Empson had been cast as Giselle, and there had been nothing to do but go out and walk in the freezing drizzle. Such desolation! That cold hand that grabs your heart from time to time and squeezes.
Laura was a beautiful dancer, she’d insisted to herself, and better suited to the role. And Laura was much older, Laura was twenty-six, if she didn’t dance the part now, she probably never would. She deserved the role. Lovely Laura. Spot on for that silly girl, Giselle. And besides, there were roles that Vivian was suited for that Laura wasn’t…There was plenty of time for her, yet. Plenty of time…
There was a little jingle of bells as she opened the shop door, and he glanced up from a desk, where he was sitting with his feet up, reading. She looked away instantly, but it was indelible—the impression of the wonderful gray eyes, the broad, handsome, intelligent face, the soft white shirt.
The shop was airy and white. Silk and lace, velvet and beads and chiffon, dresses that would have been worn by lovely women long ago, floated on excellent hangers.
She stood at a rack, moving the hangers methodically, with a tight heart, not seeing the dresses at all.
Was he looking at her? Or was he reading again …
She was twenty. There was plenty of time, assuming that her life were, after all, to work out. She was safely out of the corps, dancing less but dancing real roles…Still, so many things could happen—there were so many dangers ahead…
There was another little jingle from the door.
The girl entering the shop had been crying, that was clear, though the cold rain wouldn’t have done much for her appearance, either. Sorrow or weather, her face was red and swollen.
This girl glanced, just as Vivian had, at the man sitting at the desk. She glanced at him and then she stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, incongruous, surrounded by the delicate, lovely, costly clothing. It was unlikely that she could afford a single thing in the whole shop any more than Vivian could.
“Hello,” the man said. “Come in. Have a look around.” His voice was mild, kind rather than cheerful, and he had a wonderful accent, American, but very pure.
The girl went over to a rack on the other side of the room, and started moving the hangers as Vivian herself was continuing to do. She was wearing the shabbiest possible coat, an old, bedraggled fur thing of the sort that was to be found in junk shops at the time for a few pounds. The fur was hanging off, disgustingly, in chunks, as if she had been flayed.
The clicking of the hangers along the racks continued on both sides of the room, slowly and rhythmically, as if two clocks were each pedantically asserting different hypotheses.
While Vivian moved the hangers at her rack, she turned surreptitiously to watch the other fraud, who was also unable or unwilling to leave the shop. There was no doubt about it—the girl’s long, scraggly hair was wet from the rain, but you could tell, from just that bit of her profile, that those were tears sliding slowly down by her ear, her large nose…
Vivian pivoted back to the dresses as the man closed his book and got up from his chair. He disappeared behind a curtain, and returned with a little bottle of something. “Hold still, darling,” he said to the girl, and she did.
Vivian dropped her pretense of inspecting the clothing and simply watched as the man patiently, moving from one side of the coat to the other, from the top to the bottom, glued patches of peeling fur back onto it. The girl wearing it stood stock still. It was all taking a great deal of time.
“There you go, dear,” the man said, straightening up and patting the coat with the girl in it. “Back in business.”
For a moment the girl didn’t move, but then she…revolved, actually, just turned on one foot and absolutely melted into the man’s arms, sobbing loudly.
How small the bulky girl looked in his arms! While Vivian watched, the man held her, stroking the dreadful fur, stroking the ratty hair, making comforting sounds—just like a veterinarian—until the girl abruptly took control of herself, sniffed wretchedly, wiped her streaming nose on her abused sleeve, and exited without a word. The man returned to his desk and his book without a glance Vivian’s way.
“Excuse me,” Vivian said after a minute, and he looked up. Her voice was hoarse. “If I cry, can I get a hug, too?”
It had been pure luck; the shop wasn’t his—he had just been minding it that afternoon for a friend. They spent the evening together and then the next day, a Sunday, inside by a fire, though it was only September. Out the window, the air was dark gray and vaporous; the light came up from the earth, reflected by the yellow leaves, the rain-gleaming pavement.
He loved dance, as it turned out, and became a privileged fixture at performances. Now and again he would lounge in the dressing room after a performance and watch in the mirror as she stripped off her sylph’s mask and replaced it with a little light street makeup. His presence was calming and festive. They were all mad for him—the company, the musicians, the director, the choreographers…It was as if they had all always found Vivian special.
His work was demanding—he was already beginning to be known. Sometimes he would disappear into it for weeks at a time. And sometimes he would just disappear.
She was dancing radiantly in those days; her body was pure sunlight. They made each other laugh until they reeled like drunks, they walked around the city together at all hours, they lay tangled in her bed with music at top volume. They were like a jigsaw puzzle with only a few critical pieces missing. He never pretended that they could stay together. When someone tells you that he’ll always love you, she’d thought back then, it means he just never loved you enough.
But the 23 percent of him that was heterosexual, he said, had loved her passionately and exclusively. Love, passion, exclusive…Just words. Crack them open and they were empty.
For some time she had evaded Simon, beautiful Simon, who also loved dance, who also loved to watch her, admire her, who perhaps even envied her…So she invited her two indispensible friends to the dress rehearsal of an austere, rather short, superbly effective piece, in which she had the starring role. Afterward, the three of them went for champagne and oysters. She had left off any makeup at all, as if to be invisible while she watched the spectacle that was certain to begin in moments.
She had never remotely expected to be able to take up with Phillip again. After a time, she had chucked all her photos of him into a drawer, and it had been many years since she’d actually longed for him. After the commotion between the three of them, life had settled down to two and one. Eventually, she’d practically become a member of the household. Of course, she had other friends, too, and a few decent love affairs happened along that had consumed her interest at the time…It was sometime in there that her life as a dancer came to an end—the brutal price dancers pay for making beauty with their bodies.
Still, there was always the feeling that one would get around to being young again. And that when one was young again, life would resume the course from which it had deviated.
She cried so rarely. That afternoon in the shop, she had laughed instead as he rose to embrace her. But over the last twenty-four hours she had kept losing herself to an undertow of tears. All yesterday she’d felt brittleness fretting her bones, youth streaming from her in galaxies of sparkly molecules…
As she made her coffee, fed the animals, moved quietly around the kitchen for fear of waking the boy, that sensation started up again, the one that had been plaguing her these days, of counting, counting—measuring the distance she was slowly traveling from Phillip’s death, counting the hours until her next class, when the young dancers would come in, not carefree, of course, but with sorrows that might still be reversed or at least compensated for, counting the years since Phillip had left to move in with Simon, the minutes as they passed, while her little flat filled up with trinkets, toys, mementos…
The fourth—fourth!—speech, a heap of platitudes, flatteries, and bizarre flourishes, was building to an unsteady pinnacle of boringness. Any second now, at least, it was sure to finally topple over, and dessert could be brought out amid the rubble. But no—whole new incoherent embellishments were suddenly being encrusted on! How Phillip would have hated this whole event. How he would have laughed, she and Simon had said.
This current speaker was a professor of architecture, German. His hands were shaking slightly as he read on and on, but his voice was a placid monotone. This was no doubt the rough draft of a paper he was preparing for some academic journal. He himself had translated it, as he had modestly noted in his extensive prefatory remarks—hours and hours earlier.
Adam was at Vivian’s right, head pensively inclined, eyes lowered, arms folded—an attitude of devotional attention. His life, which had turned out, apparently to his surprise, to be one of conferences and dinners more or less of this sort, must have given him plenty of opportunity to perfect these stealth naps.