Weekend Fiction: ‘Pirouette’

When I was in ballet class as a very young child, my teacher told me the secret to a clean pirouette was to focus my attention on something stable, something unmoving in the background, and to try and keep my eyes on it. That way you don’t wobble or fall. Most importantly, you don’t get dizzy. I could never master it. What was her name? I can’t remember, but I still see her face, stereotypically severe and still, never giving away whatever emotion she was feeling. “Emotions are for dance,” she’d say when my lip would quiver. “Save it for the dance.”

I never liked dancing. So why now, while my sky was breaking above me, was her face all I could see? I tried so hard to focus on something, anything other than Randy’s eyes: a table. The lamp. That damned blue Lazy Boy that he just had to have.

“Jenny, are you listening?” he asked. “I can’t really repeat myself.” He was crying. Save it for the dance. “I am having a hard enough time telling you once. I really need your support right now.”

But who would support me? I focused on the table, where he’d set down his keys and wallet when he got in. He always set his keys and wallet on the table, never in the basket by the door that I’d put there specifically for keys and wallets. Depending on the day, I found this trait unbearable and endearing: maybe this is why he just couldn’t stand me. I could never make up my mind.

Focus. The driver’s license. The blurry pink line declaring him a resident of Indiana. The stupid grin, his spiked blond hair, his eyes, still piercing even when shrunk down for an ID photo. He hadn’t needed it tonight: he’d stumbled in the door about twenty minutes ago, smelling like a distillery and still shoving cash back in his pocket from having paid a cab driver. Who takes a cab home from work? Who gets home four hours late and doesn’t bother to call? I looked at the tiny picture of him while he tried to explain what happened.

“Jenny—Jenny, look at me,” he said, and he grabbed my hand. All of a sudden, his fingers felt like balloons filled with meat, not like the hands of the person I’d told I’d stay with forever. These were the hands he held me with on our wedding day. He held last week! I kept my eyes on the driver’s license.

“Keep talking.”

He started sobbing again, loudly. He’d talk and dry up a bit, but every time I spoke, he seemed to cry louder again. Did he feel guilty? I wanted him to feel guilty. I hated him so much. I also loved him, though. So I stayed still and waited for the rest of the story.

“I don’t know why you’re the one crying,” I said, finally shaking his hand away, never looking up. “You cheated on me. I’m the one who should be crying.” As I said it, I knew it was true, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something worse was coming, and I’d better save my tears.

“She’s dead,” he whispered. His head fell down towards his chest, lower than his shoulders. He was crying quietly now, but it was somehow worse. “Car accident.” Without thinking, I reached to put my hand on his shoulder, to comfort him. It took me a minute of rubbing his back in a small, firm circle before I realized what I was doing. I recoiled like he was on fire. Focus.

What do you say? I said, “I’m sorry,” and then I said, “What?” and then, perhaps strangest, I said, “I have to go upstairs.” I got up and left the room, him still drunk and crying on the couch, gutted. Gutless.

I stared at the ceiling for almost twenty minutes, and then I realized I had to ask. I walked to the landing, looked over the railing at him still crying in our living room. All in beautiful wood colors and tones, all in reds and browns, it was cozy, but that chair. That mess on the table. The man on the couch. All of a sudden, everything felt like a puzzle that had been forced together after it was wet.

“Rand?” I called, and his nickname felt like ash in my mouth.

He looked up, almost hopefully, but his face crumbled when he met mine. “What, Jen?”

“It wasn’t Kathy, was it?”

He didn’t have to answer. Of course it was. What kind of an idiot was I?

“Don’t come up to bed,” I said softly, not wanting to set off his crying. I didn’t want to yell at him. I didn’t even want him to feel worse, at least not right then. I did a few hours later—and then, suddenly and without warning, I didn’t again—and on and on. But he looked at me, so sad, and he nodded. My heart broke for him. Then for me. And who was I without him, anyway?

*

Randy had known Kathy for ten years—he’d been in college ministry at the church she’d attended as a young adult. He’d known her longer than he knew me, actually. When she joined a singles’ group at church, he’d been leading that too—trying to help young men and women partner up. To be as happy as we were. I’m not even joking. I guess if I sat and thought about it, I could paint you a lovely picture of the first two decades of our marriage, until that night in the living room when he blew it up. It’s so hard to picture that, now. But I remember one night, he had me come in to talk to the singles’ group—he wanted me to tell the women how to “prepare their hearts for marriage.”

It used to be, when he’d talk like that, I thought it was sweet that he was so deliberate about love. But now I don’t know how I ever took that seriously. (I couldn’t have, could I?)

I went to the meeting. They met in the basement of the church, down a long winding staircase, and I could hear the anxious buzzing of young women echoing up the passage. I was only a little older—I’d probably just turned thirty. I’d been married for almost nine years. I was younger than these women when I walked down the aisle. I couldn’t tell if they had disdain for that or not.

Kathy was in the middle of the room sitting on a cylindrical blue ottoman. She was wearing skin-tight pants that seemed painted on her legs and a crop-top turtleneck, cinched at the bottom just underneath her ribcage, but with the false appearance of modesty covering her chest. It was black and white striped. Why do I remember that? But there she was, holding court before we got there. Shoulder-length brown hair gathered in unnaturally perfect curls, perfect cat-eye black eyeliner. She was a Christian version of a catalogue model. When I got to the room, I realized how out of place I was: there was so much glitter and lip gloss, the air seemed to smell airy and sweet like cotton candy. The only places left to sit were next to two young women whose hair was done back in mock cornrows, secured with butterfly clips. I chose to stay standing.

“Hi,” I started, and when they didn’t stop talking, I said, just a little louder, “I’m Mrs. Donahy.”

So fast, Kathy’s head whipped around and she made eye contact with me. “Oh—you’re Rand’s wife?” she asked, using a name that usually only I used.

I immediately hated her.

That night, after we’d made love, I curled up in Rand, sinking my back into his belly. My face was on his shoulder, and he had his arms wrapped loosely around me. I remember that, too. Vividly. And I said, “I really hate Kathy,” and he laughed.

“What makes you think of her right now?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t like her.”

He stroked my hair, slowly. My hair was poker straight, but dense, and despite so many tangles, he’d mastered the art of slipping by them. “I don’t know why you’d give her a second thought.”

“I’m pretty sure she’s in love with you,” I said, but I couldn’t explain why. I didn’t have a single shred of evidence: nothing to pour over and over my mind as it tumbled around that statement.

Would you believe I never brought Kathy up again? I never said her name. He only brought her up one time in the last few years. He was so careful. He had been on his way out the door for work, flying to Chicago for a leadership conference at a big church up there. “Honey?” he’d called from downstairs, buttoning the wrist cuff on his shirt. “Will you call Kathy and let her know I’ll be late?”

“Kathy—the same Kathy from the singles’ group, years ago?” I was packing his suitcase in the bedroom.

“Yeah. Not anymore. You know, it’s been a while.”

“Why can’t you call her?”

“I’m on my way out the door,” he yelled up. I heard his plodding footsteps jogging up the stairs. “Please, hon?”

“Why is she going?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? She’s a secretary over at FUMC now.”

“You didn’t,” I said. “Did she ever prepare her heart for marriage?”

He smirked. “I’m not sure Kathy is the marrying type,” he said. Then he leaned over, kissed me, zipped his suitcase up, and grabbing it, ran down the stairs. “Tell her I’m on my way, please. Her number is by my computer on the desk.”

I don’t remember what I said. But now I feel like my whole world is spinning and spinning and I’m trying to piece together what the hell happened to my life. What happened? Was it something I said? Was he already sleeping with her then? When?

My mother says that I don’t want to know. I’m not so sure that’s true.

*

For almost twenty years, Rand has been what I focused on when I was spinning: I kept my eyes on him. Somehow, though, he slipped out between turns. I don’t know this man. The morning after he told me about Kathy, after she died, I must have stared at him while he slept on that couch for over an hour before I decided what to do. First, to the bathroom: I dug out a dusty curling iron and turned it on, hearing it singe and break the ends of my already-needs-a-cut hair. It smelled awful, but I worked until my hair (shorter than Kathy’s, but close enough) was in perfect curls. I emptied nearly a can of hairspray on them, wondering how much time and money it would cost to do this every day for the rest of my life.

Then the eyeliner. It took five Q-tips, but I eventually had a perfect Cleopatra line. I even pulled up the shirt of my button-down cotton pajamas to see what the effect of a crop-top would be, though I knew I could never really go through with it. My tissue-paper stomach reflected pale in the mirror. One more thing to worry about. Was Kathy skinny? When she died? I only remembered her as a twenty-something, a body and life I was falling further and further away from by the day.

When Rand finally woke up, I was already in the kitchen. I was squeezing orange juice and making French toast, his favorite. I could hear my younger voice in my head, talking in that church basement: “It’s important to always put your spouse first. Be prepared to love them more than you love yourself. Think of little things to make their life better.”

I was so naïve, then—but what else could I do?  I watched him smell what was cooking. I had the syrup sitting in a bowl of near-boiling water, trying to heat it up without using the microwave. He turned towards me.

“Jenny, what is this?” he asked.

“I’m making breakfast,” I said.

We looked at each other a lot longer than made sense given the exchange. He finally got up and walked over to the kitchen.

“Are we going to talk about last night?”

“Yes,” I said. “Sure. I have decided to pretend it never happened.”

He shook his head no. “That’s not how this works.”

“I’ve decided that you can move back into the bedroom after you’ve stopped grieving. You have one week. I need you to spend that week getting this out of your system.”

“Jenny, we need to talk about this. I really loved her. I—”

“No.” I said it plainly and politely. In the morning light, he looked so tired. The hangover must have been intense: Rand didn’t really drink, and he had dark circles under his eyes. He was beginning to look a bit like a catcher’s mitt: a charming shade of tan, but worn and creased by what the years had done.

“What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“Just what I said. I love you, and to keep loving you, you can’t ever talk about this again.”

I picked up an orange, cut it in half, and rotated it hard and deep against the juicer. “Orange juice?” I asked.

He nodded. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Here is where you say, ‘I love you, Jenny.’”

His lip quivered like he was going to cry, and he—just for a second—looked like I’d slapped him in the face. “I love you, Jenny. Really, I do—”

“That’s enough.” I said. I handed him a glass of orange juice. “Breakfast in ten. You’ve got time for a shower, if you’d like.”

I’ve never seen him walk so slowly up the stairs, as if he was counting each plodding step and marking out the distance between him and the last time he saw her. Each step, he was further and further away. I tried to imagine that as he walked towards our bedroom, he was getting closer to me again. I tried to pretend I didn’t hear his footsteps echoing really loved her, really loved her, really loved her as he disappeared in the horizon of our second story.

*

I lied. I remember what Kathy and I talked about that day. I called her and I said you better not touch my husband. I can’t focus too hard on it, though, because I can still hear her laughing. Not necessarily at me: she wasn’t outwardly cruel. But in that sarcastic, understanding way: “Oh, yeah, sure,” she said. “I’m doing the youth pastor.”

“I’m not joking,” I said, and she laughed even harder.

“You don’t have anything to worry about,” she said. “So why aren’t you coming on this trip?” she asked. “Rand said it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

“Don’t. I swear to God, Kathy. Don’t.”

“Chill, Jenny. Nothing’s going on. I promise.”

Jenny. I never told her she could call me that.

But then that laugh. It echoes. Some nights, I swear to God I can hear her ghost laughing, empty and hollow and like even the air is charged against me. Some nights I think she didn’t really laugh, that I wrote it in to torture myself.

*

One day, when I was a kid, my mother dropped me off early at ballet. No one ever got to the studio early, but Mom had a doctor’s appointment or something. I sat out on the hot summer pavement in my leotard, tights, and thin leather shoes, waiting for the building to unlock itself to me. In the heat, I pressed myself up against the side of the building, trying to glean as much coolness from the glass as I could. At one point, I realized I could see through a small crack in the blinds, and there she was—oh, and I remember her name! Mademoiselle Lee—and she was pirouetting effortlessly, like someone had strung a wire through her and pushed. She was so straight, so tall. And there were tears on her face. When she caught me looking at her from the window, she stopped immediately, almost as if she had never been spinning at all. She came and unlocked the door, and though she didn’t wipe her eyes, by the time she got to me, the tears were dry.

“You can decide what to do with your love,” she said. “You can decide what you feel. Only in the dance will you ever have to be completely vulnerable.”

That was the day I decided she was insane, that ballet just wasn’t for me.

I couldn’t help but think of her now every time I looked in the mirror and stretched my loosening, wrinkling skin into a smile across my face. I would decide to love him, anyway. Even if I had to slowly become someone else to do it.

Things slowly seemed normal, but not completely comfortable. Randy walked around as if I were going to break at any time, as if I’d yell at him. He had earned that, but he was only torturing himself. I’d made the decision. And sometimes, I’d cry in the shower, sure, but it wasn’t for him to know. I’d never give him the absolute power he had over me again.

“Above all, you must forgive your spouse,” I’d said to that singles’ group all those years ago. I remember looking around the circle at that moment and realizing they were all women. “You know, men are weaker. They just are. They don’t have the ability to bounce back the way a woman does,” I said.

Kathy had smiled. “You really think that?”

“Yes. We have to forgive. I think it’s one of the lingering punishments from original sin,” I said, hoping for a laugh. No one laughed.

And here I was, forgiving. And here he was, weak. And here I was, focusing at a point on the horizon, and spinning faster and faster.

I don’t know if he went to her funeral. I don’t know if he still dreams about her, or thinks about her, or if he sends ghost emails to her late at night, wishing to God she’d respond, but he’s getting better at his game face, too. One night, a few months after she died but shortly after I’d allowed him to come back into the bedroom, he came up behind me in the kitchen while I was doing dishes and put his hands on my hips. Without thinking, I leaned my back into him.

“Is this OK?” he asked.

“I’m fine with it,” I said, trying to cover up that I was torn between sadness and euphoria.

“I love your hair,” he said, and I swear to God, it ripped my soul in half. “It suits you. The curls. Can we dance?” he asked, trying to turn me around with my hips. I finally acquiesced, but as I met his gaze, I couldn’t help but wonder: had he danced with Kathy? What had they done?

“I don’t know how,” I said. It was a lie. And worse, I’d always wanted to dance with him. We hadn’t even danced at our wedding.

He went to say, “I’ll show you”—I know he did. But he dropped his hands and said, “That’s OK.”

“Wait,” I said, and then I got close to him, burying my head in the pocket of his shoulder. “We could just stand here and sway a little.”

He laughed. “Like in middle school?” But he took my wet, glove-covered hands. And there in the kitchen, we moved back and forth, left to right, with no music or rhythm or power behind it at all. I tried to relax, but as we tried to dance, I stared at the clock on the wall and waited for this, too, to end.

Katie Darby Mullins teaches creative writing at the University of Evansville. In addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize and editing a rock ‘n roll crossover edition of the metrical poetry journal Measure, she’s been published or has work forthcoming in journals like Hawaii Pacific Review, Harpur Palate, Prime Number, Big Lucks, Pithead Chapel, The Evansville Review, and she was a semifinalist in the Ropewalk Press Fiction Chapbook competition and in the Casey Shay Press poetry chapbook competition. 

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