he was a dancer. No, not that kind of dancer, but she could have been every bit as exotic. She was a ballad dancer, and the first night he met her at the Limelight, she made that fact obvious without uttering a single word. It was his birthday, and his cousin Jerome had met him there to help celebrate his twenty-fifth. Jerome, for the moment, was MIA or had probably scored a hottie of his own.
She had danced seamlessly from the other side of the dance floor toward him, her eyes fixed only on him, until she stood right in front of him, smiling her pearly whites and still in motion with the club music.
She took his hand and pulled him out onto the crowded floor, finding a space just for them, he half-hesitating after getting a glimpse, but would see even more. She danced rings around him, but did it gracefully, determinedly, with a skillful combination of free style and balladic precision. For his part, he tried his best to keep up with her, but he couldn’t, and they both knew it. Afterwards, he bought her a drink, and one for himself; she, a sex on the beach, and he, a screwdriver --- twain perfect metaphors of where the night hinted at between them, drawing them closer, and they both knew it. She had this sexy way of pushing her long, dark hair back behind her ears when she spoke, quirky, intelligent, as they discovered each other through small talk and sipped drinks. He couldn’t help but wonder in the back of his mind if his cousin had played a hand in her coming over to him --- that maybe he told her it was his birthday and to show him a good time, or if it was his lone charm. He would never know.
She lived on the upper west side of Manhattan, a ritzy apartment that had all the mod furnishings of an artist’s touch and flare. Books on the art of dance filled her bookshelf. Stylish furniture complemented the illustratively grand wall paintings. One in particularly was of the famous dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Another pictured a woman’s feet on her tiptoes in worn ballad slippers. He was impressed, to say the least.
That night, they drank some more, red wine this time. She threw on some soft classical music, which shouldn’t have surprised him but did, given that she danced to this kind of music for a living. Maybe he was expecting a little Luther, or some John Legend. However, after they finished their wine, none of it mattered. All it took now was one pined for glance at the other. He kissed her tenderly, all about her ovate, brown freckled face, which was salty, distinctly prettier than any woman he had been with in years. Her fingers dug deep into the back of his pants, squeezing his buttocks tightly as her lips met his, and it aroused him, made him assured, distend between his legs. Clothes quickly discarded, he drew her close to him once more, their bodies joined, tense, kindled in sexual anticipation, until they could wait no more. The sofa became their love nest for the rest of the night.
It would never be that good between them again. They’d had an amazing night together, and when they woke up in each other’s arms that following morning, he’d told her as much. In fact, he took it a step further, whispering that he loved her.
“Love me?” she asked, with a quizzical look. “Don’t be ridiculous. It was just a night of hot, casual sex, nothing more.”
“No. It was more than that. I felt something and…”
“You can’t be in love with me. You hardly know me. Look, you’re a really cute guy and a great lay but please…don’t make this any more complicated than it has to be. I might want to do this again with you sometime, but not if you keep talking this, ‘you love me’ crap. Okay?”
She waited for his response, but he said nothing, only pushing strands of her hair with his own hand behind her ears, the way she always did.
Many months passed, she, busy on the road dancing for the Metropolitan Dance Troupe of New York, and he, an IT tech installing computers for varied business clients. They hardly saw each other, a few scattered phone calls here and there, and when they did, the sex between them was quick, furious, and without any kind of feeling or genuineness, her body shivery and soft, the rhythm of her breath taxed then calm, when she climaxed. He, afterward, would cling to her as though his touch conveyed what he wanted to say, and when there were utterances of love out of his mouth, she would have no part of it, getting up immediately and dressing like the apartment was on fire.
“You’re doing it again,” she’d say, wiggling into her tight blue jeans, looking perplexed. “Why can’t you stick to our little arrangement? Why do you always have to bring love into it? You know how I feel about that.” He would apologize every time, but the apologies were mounting. She decided that the time was right to lower the boom on him.
“I…I may not be able to see you again…at least, for six months, maybe more.”
“What? But why? I said I was sorry.”
“It has nothing to do with that. The troupe is going on a European tour. But you’ll still call me, right?”
He was floored by her news, staring at her with a mix of penetrating doubt and sadness, thinking he would never see her again. Despite her denials, he knew that given time, she might have grown to love him…and now, he was being robbed of that time, more so than before.
“You’re…ending this, aren’t you?”
“Don’t say that. You knew when we got involved that this was always a possibility. Maybe the long break will do us both some good.”
He called her every so often, waiting to hear her quirky live voice, but got her voice box message each time. He left many thoughtful and endearing messages, none of which she returned. After several months, he was forced to concede that ‘the fling’ as she called it was over. But it had never been just a fling to him. Eight excruciating months later, when he had all but forgotten her, she called him unexpectedly to meet at her apartment. It was the first time he noticed the strange looking mask in the upper corner shelf of her mirror dresser draw.
She was ghostly thin, had cut her dark hair real short, but her face still had that same pretty radiance, the way he always remembered it. The road had taken a toll on her body, but not her good looks. He’d hug her, stop, and then hug her some more. But not once did he mention the L word. When he did stop hugging her, she began to tell him about her trip. The troupe had been to England, Germany, Switzerland, France, and so many other European countries. In her spare time, she shopped, made many new friends, and had the experience of a lifetime. He was happy for her, but while she spoke of her adventures over seas, he had a low boil anger simmering inside him toward her at the same time. Once he saw his opening, he let her have it.
“Why didn’t you return my calls? You knew how I felt about you. And why now?”
She took a deep breath, like a small child about to make a confession.
“You were right eight months ago. I was trying to end our relationship. But you have to understand, I had to concentrate on my dancing. It was the only way. I‘m sorry. I should have been upfront with you.”
Silence, along with the raise of an eyebrow from him.
“You do believe me, don’t you? Can’t we still be… friends?”
Friends? he thought, which made him feel worse. But in the end, he forgave her.
They did not have sex, her choice. He tried to entice her several times throughout the evening, but failed each time. He’d been with her so many times, knew the texture of her warm flesh so well, though it had been a while, but she kept telling him no, only wanting to hold him in her arms, share tingling caresses, intimate thoughts. Intimate thoughts? What had come over her?
She told him of a man named Adriano she met during her stay in Italy, tall, black-flowing hair down his neck, and very handsome. They met after one of her performances one eve, and a few days later, had slept with him. But the next morning when she awoke, she found him gone, no note, nothing…just gone. It shouldn’t have bothered her, but it did --- and she hadn‘t slept with any man since. But it did get her thinking about him, the way he used to stare at her in bed, the way he touched, kissed, had sex with her, and how he was always there the next morning, his arms around her waist, his chin resting gently on her back shoulder. She missed that, and more than that, she missed him…and they both knew it.
“Where did you get that hideous mask?”
“I got it when I was in Spain,” she said behind the bathroom door adding, “and it’s not hideous. I think it’s kind of cute.”
Cute? he mused…that’s what she always said about him. Dismissing her crude comparison, he quietly got out of bed and walked toward the mask. Curious, he took the mask off the shelf holding it in his hands. It felt like hardened clay, its grotesque features something out of the Mayan civilization on the Discovery channel. He playfully covered his face with it, staring into the mirror, a face no longer his, a will no longer his. Without warning, the mask stuck deleteriously to his face, like a thing alive, a sudden flash of light blinding him like an old Polaroid taking a picture. Upon regaining his sight, he saw the imagery of a woman being burned at the stake. People dressed like pilgrims stood all around her, and he could smell the ash colored smoke from her seared flesh, hear her anguished screams, the crackle of the flames. He began to fan himself, as if he was set afire along with her. Another flash --- the image now of a man stooped over on a guillotine, and another huge, dark-hooded man standing behind him. The images sped past him, as if he was on a carousel going much too fast, and they were more intense each time. There were crowds of people, the look of early seventeeth century England about them, frightened, eager, and tumultuous. The blade came swooping down, sharp, unrelenting, that he grabbed his own neck as though his own head had been hacked off from his shoulders. Another flash, another image --- of a chained man sitting in a chair, long, slinky black wires attached to him. He could see the warden, a priest, and an officer of the prison holding a switch, to death ever-lasting, finality. The sitting man is asked any last words before…
“Are you alright in there? Why so quiet all of a sudden??”
She came out of the bathroom, found him on the floor, stiff, mask perfectly attached. In a shrieked filled panic, she removed the mask, saw his eyes, those still, expressionless eyes, and smelled an odd, smouldering odor in the air…