It is a searing October, one that you wait for, yet are still surprised by when it flares in the quiet of morning. From the bed, we can see in the distance a few orange and ruby leaves fall against a blue sky. Here the buildings are densely packed and light struggles to wend its way through shadow. I roll out of bed, disturbing Ian in the process. Padding across the hallway, I half-expect her to be there, packing the last few things that had been strewn around her sleeping bag. The furniture was taken the night before. She only stayed overnight because another friend nearby was picking her up. Later she had a plane to catch.
The bedroom holds a cloying dampness that escaped her foggy bathroom. She might have raised the window sash and dried things out. Encouraged the outdoors to inhabit the new emptiness. But she isn’t one to adore nature’s wiles. A difference between the two of us. She only tolerates city offerings, whereas I am a glutton for both.
Pale. A silent, pale room. Not like her overreaching life. That is what I think as the room stares back. Whiteness overwhelms me, its sheer blankness, how it pulses nothing in my direction, a clean slate for someone else’s urgent imagination. Not mine. I only see her still, as she was a week ago, narrow bed pressed against a corner farthest from the window, her powerful, long legs draped across the sheets as she leaned against a large pillow. She said the color white soothed her, kept things simpler and the mind freer. There was one picture on the wall: she was wearing an ivory dress, playing in the expanse of green grass behind her childhood home. He mother reclined in a chaise lounge by the pool; her father sits beside her in a wooden chair that seems to have been moved from the house. It was all the vivid colors she needed there, she said: green and blue-green. Her parents actually wore greys and taupes. Blended in with the greyish background. It was a family preference, a quietness of color, of style. Sotto voce. Even the impressive stone house was pallid. She loved that picture; it was the last taken with them, she told me, before she left home. Before her growing renown distanced them.
On second thought, her sateen pillow had tiny rosebuds on it. She liked the idea of roses. When once we got a bouquet and placed it on the dining room table she caressed them, then pinched her nose with thumb and forefinger. They were reminiscent of her mother’s failed garden.
“They were dreary, their heads drooping, petals ruined. Mother cut them off without a thought, planted things that required little care. Yes, she was thoughtless–I so loved them once.”
Her recalled words jar me. I know she spoke of roses as if she was speaking of her youth. Speaking of her parents. They wanted her to be a lawyer or surgeon, like her aunt or father. She was their only child but she danced, anyway. Could not do otherwise.
I hear Ian as he rouses in bed, then pads up behind me.
I can feel his smile. He means she has left just a small trace of herself. He means she has done what was promised: all but disappeared. I think he worried last night that she might change her mind, hang on to the door frame as he pushed her out.
How little he knows her, her strength. So unlike him.
Ian’s eyes meet mine, revealing tentative relief. He places his hand on my cheek, kisses me though I can barely feel his lips. My eyes are open. He is trying to not make any ripples, to keep the morning calm. And also trying to ferret out my love for him without my noticing. This, despite the words that rattled the walls a week before.
I stare at her shoe and turn to him. He shrugs, hands held up, then moves toward the kitchen. He will make omelets with potato and onion and bell pepper. The coffee will be freshly pressed and poured into small china cups resting on saucers. It was how I liked it once, before last week. Now the china we found at the antique store begs to be chipped, even thrown.
The shoe looks dangerous on the floor of the white room. I know it well. Today it assumes the presence of a weapon, a benign object that really is an explosive. It is strange it fell from her bag and she didn’t pick it up. It’s one of a pair I admired; she wore them with black slacks and velvet jacket lined with Chartreuse silk, a favorite color to wear recently, a color I chose for her. Monochromes are becoming less prominent. I wonder how she, a dancer, could neglect it, even in a terrible hurry to get to another city, another ballet company audition. The far-flung stages. A virtuosic life.
It was not unexpected, what happened. Only a matter of time, I thought from the start. Ian: beautiful, strong, lean and graceful despite an embarrassing virility. And terribly well-mannered. People love or hate him easily. And he feels he can pick and choose.
Ian knew her weeks before I did. He dances–danced–in the same company. She needed a room after her last boyfriend grew tired of her long hours rehearsing and performing and a few eccentricities, she said. We had an extra for six months before our long-term roommate returned from Italy. She moved in and made it hers immediately until last week, when she unmade it, left us, then returned to pack two days ago. The bedroom was occupied by her presence for five months and one day.
“She had to leave, anyway, because Lee soon comes back,” he reminded me yesterday. “She’ll bounce right back in Germany. We’ll be better than ever.”
I was brushing my hair with hard strokes, dislodging every snag. He kissed my neck as I swallowed tears.
She: Marisa. Marisa Tellis-Delgado. My finest of friends. Extraordinary principal ballet dancer.
Ian is not as gifted but his charisma makes up for it. For now. I don’t dance, did once. Yes, for eight years. I do not miss it. But Marissa and Ian are two who cannot live without it. I, on the other hand, can live without almost anything. I see what such obsession does to people whose undying passion is their very lifeblood as well as their work. It insinuates itself into their innards, becomes their breath of life. The past, present and future. There are more options than that, and I need choices to make my living whatever I want it to be one day to the next. I love pastry-making and jewelry design, apple trees on the half-acre we maintain outside the city and riding horses in the woods. I need less activities, perhaps. More friends.
But even when he fails me, I stay with only Ian.
Yet what would you do if you connected to someone and that someone cared in return and it was all you ever hoped for in true friendship–until your husband decides otherwise? It was a revelation, becoming friends with this woman. But he said it was too much. I needed to spend more time with him but what he meant was less time and energy with her. His insatiable hunger for attention and appreciation! His relationships must support his needs, first and last.
Ian dances his life. He is selfish with it. I have to live mine. And I give it away. Maybe too often.
So he drove a wedge between us. It didn’t take long. He placed himself where he should not have been.
“Marisa and I had lunch together,” he said when it started. “We suddenly realized how much we have in common.”
“Suddenly? Hasn’t she been living in our flat for months? She’s quiet but not that quiet. Why the lunch talks now?”
He yawned as if bored with the topic yet it was necessary to report. “I don’t talk about much, just interests like dance and music. You. We work together. I don’t want to interfere. She likes me, not just you. I can have friends as well.”
“I hope so. What do you mean by ‘interfere’?”
“Your … devotion to her.”
I was polishing a silver ring I had just finished. It shone in my hands.
“You mean, our friendship? You mean, that I have found someone I enjoy talking with and sharing my time with while you devote yourself primarily to dance?” I shook my head in disgust. “Ian, I have made a close woman friend at last. Don’t ruin this.”
“Marissa is important out there in the dance world. Charismatic, smart, incredibly talented. Everyone adores her, not just you.”
I saw him make a moue with his mouth, like a little child.
“Oh, stop. Marissa makes time for me for reasons you don’t understand. It’s like we’re sisters at heart…sympatico. You have time for you.”
He mentioned the next day he met her for lunch again. Marisa said nothing of it to me. Sometimes she and I walked together early in the morning or met after rehearsal for tea. We might stay up after dinner once or twice a week, talking for hours in her room or the living room if Ian could stand it. Two weeks passed, then a month, but I didn’t realize what was happening until Marisa finally mentioned it.
“I keep running into Ian at the dance studio but also Beauford’s Restaurant. He practically waylays me even when I’m with someone else. I suggested we see enough of one another at work and here. But he is either pursuing me or he thinks we’re such good friends.” She put her hand on my wrist, shook it a little, gave it a squeeze. “Like you and I are. Imagine! I don’t even connect to him unless we are dancing. You know how that goes. And he talks about you, little gripes. I’m sorry, but can you suggest he be less relentless?”
I told him I knew he was bothering her and to back off. Marisa was not only important to me. She was, after all, a tenant.
“Don’t run her off as you have others.”
“I just meant to be friendly. And don’t rehash what’s done and over,” he hissed and turned on the television.
He has issues with people sharing our space but he must have this expensive flat. Must have his way. Must have me to himself. I trust him despite his beauty because I know his secret, that he is afraid he is no one valuable. Jealousy lurks in his blood, a sickness waiting.
The last night we three were together he spoke up as he served coffee.
“So, Marisa, I think we should address things.”
She placed her willowy arm along the back of the sofa. “What things?’
Ian sat between us on the easy chair. I was in the rocker, rocking, the green cashmere throw draped over my legs, thinking about lighting a fire in the fireplace. I stopped moving and braced myself.
“You know…whatever you want to call it, how you’ve gathered up both of us, how you seem to require us each to share more with you than we’d like. To follow you around like lovelorn puppies, like groupies.”
“Speak only for yourself, Ian,” I said, trying to control myself. “You are being ridiculous and rude.”
“I’ll say what I observe to be true.”
He shot me his offended look and turned back to her. She seemed bemused, as if she couldn’t interpret his language. He continued.
“Marisa, you’re greedy. Isn’t it enough that you’re a star? You can’t have my wife, too!”
Marisa’s jaw dropped. Her amber eyes glimmered in lamp light, her dark wavy hair swayed.
“Ian, that’s absurd. You think I’m in love with her, or both of you? Or just you because you’re so dashing, wonderful? What an ignorant idea. I cannot get rid of you, my friend. I dance with you and see you here and you try to get me to spend more time with you…you seek me. I do not seek you.”
She gazed at me, eyelids heavy with misery, then back at him. A deep breath was inhaled and released.
“You are utterly mistaken. I care so much for Helena. She’s honest, frank even, yet so kind. She’s smart and savvy and likes to laugh. At silly things! How often do we find that in our mad, competitive world? It is a relief to have Helena in my life–someone who understands dance but is not swallowed by it. Who is good to me for my own sake! Not for what I accomplish. Not how much money I can bring in. Not how I can make someone look better on stage. She just knows me, like that! ” She snapped her fingers sharply. “I would choose her over ten of you. And I suggest you examine your motives.”
Marisa stood up, every muscle moving in perfect alignment. A queen unafraid. She put hands on her hips. “You haven’t a clue to your unhappiness. You can’t bear to share her? Well, of course not. She’s a treasure! While you, Ian, are a fool. And, I might add, a bore.”
Marisa left. After a few seconds I followed. Ian was immobilized by her steady rush of words, each aimed with precision at his ego. But he called out, anyway.
“You don’t belong here! Get. Out. Helena, please stay here!”
I wanted to yell back at him, but nothing left my lips.
So now, this morning, the room is cleared out, stripped of Marissa’s quietly burning presence, left like a bone to bake in the last flame of October. I go back and pick up the shoe from the polished wood floor. I take off one of mine and put hers on. It fits as it first fit. I walk out her room, past Ian in the kitchen where he is whistling and cooking. I keep walking, out the front door. I want things to go on as before but I don’t think they can. Love of a partner may be less crucial than that of a friend. It depends on who loves best.
Still, right now it’s just Marisa’s shoe on one foot and my old one on another. She is sitting at the Headliner Cafe with scones and coffee. We’ll talk about something good before she heads to Germany and is dogged by fame. We will plan visits, promise “for always”. I may be gifted her other shoe. But the opulent glow of that room has already begun to dim.