“I know why we will break up,” he said suddenly. He was lying on their bed and lazily smoking a cigarette. It was a late Sunday morning, a time when they should have been reading the newspaper, but they never bought the paper. There was an unspoken agreement between them not to let the world intrude, as though their happiness would crack under the slightest pressure.
So instead of a paper stretched out, he was camped against the pillows with one hand in his lap and the other holding the cigarette. He fixed his gaze on the heel of her right foot. The kitchen was at an angle to the bedroom and, with her leaning lightly on the countertop to make a coffee, the round curve of her heel was the only part of her he could see.
“Hmmm?” She leaned back to look at him and her head came into view. She pushed aside an errant strand of hair and tucked it behind her ear. “Who’s breaking up?”
They had only just moved in together and had every reason in the world to be optimistic. Things had never been better. Sure, it wasn’t exactly the life they would have dreamed for themselves, but it was a comfortable enough place to carve out their existence. He had wanted to be a sports journalist but made a living reviewing sports equipment for a lifestyle magazine. She was going to be a singer but instead gave piano lessons to a stream of children who filed through the house. They made decent money and, as they didn’t have any family of their own, it was more than enough to cover expenses.
Their only quarrels were insignificant — a dirty teacup here, an uncooked meal there. These were, in general, much like the falling rain, an occasional disturbance that did nothing to alter the ebb and flow of their daily lives.
“I know why we will break up.”
His predisposition towards gloom unsettled her. Why was he saying this, why now? At that moment, she felt she barely knew him. What secret to unhappiness was he hiding? There was something dark, deeply pessimistic, that lay just beneath. Even as they held each other, as they made love, their surfaces collided but neither one reached the depths of the other.
He fixated upon her heel because there was nothing more solid to grasp. He was obsessed with her, obsessed with details of her: the smattering of freckles across her nose, the small scar above her left eyebrow, and the way her two front teeth leaned slightly into each other.
He could close his eyes and visualise the exact way she drank her coffee, her little finger always stretched outwards without her realising it. He recalled with perfect precision the asymmetry in the curve of her breasts and the bend of her toes. He knew by heart the gentle sway of her hips when she walked and the location of each fleck of blonde in her hair.
As she turned and smiled, “Who’s breaking up?” he could predict with deadly accuracy how she would flick her hair, the curling down of one toe (the left), the curling up of one lip (the upper). He even knew that her socks would be mismatched and which coffee cup she would be holding (the one with the chipped handle that she couldn’t bear to throw out), but he could not say for certain that he knew her. And if he didn’t know her, how could this feeling that squeezed the breath out of him every time he looked at her, how could this be love?
They had met through mutual friends. He was several years younger, a fact which made him feel more confident then and less confident now. She was seated in a cafe surrounded by a group of people engaged in conversation, and distractedly swirling her spoon around an empty coffee cup. When she glanced up, he got the feeling that she was looking not at, but through him.
People often told her that she had sad eyes, but it wasn’t true. She wasn’t sad. It was just that she looked at the world as though she had already seen every inch of it. The people laughing and chatting at the table seemed as naive as tourists. She didn’t need to raise her head to see things. Often, he caught her staring at an object or a person, absorbed in thought, as though sizing up, taking measurements.
That was the way she looked at him as he approached. He sat on the opposite side of the table and joined in the conversation, never once addressing her. She was surprised when he came to her as the group was disbanding and asked if he might see her again.
She said yes only because he asked. Not many did. Her eyes were too confronting.
She hadn’t been dancing when they met, and it wasn’t until he took her out that he even knew she liked to dance. He asked her where she wanted to go, and she picked out a jazz bar tucked under the railway line.
They entered down a narrow flight of steps and at a buffet counter, an elderly woman ladled soup into the bowls of customers filing past. At the stove behind her, an array of pots bubbled over with brightly-coloured broth, steam forcing open the lids and rushing out.
In one corner, a man with thinning strands of white hair combed carefully across his crackling scalp sat hunched over the keys of an old piano. He cracked his knuckles as if urging them to remember how to play. A bartender polished glasses with a faded dishcloth, the whole life of that little jazz joint etched into the lines on his face.
You could tell the three were a family and the straggle of customers bent over their soup were regulars. Most of them were so busy eating, ignoring the rumble of trains passing overhead, that you could be forgiven for thinking you had accidentally stumbled into a charity shelter.
Then the music began.
A lull descended as the pianist’s fingers, with a final snap, found the keys and tinkled out ‘Manhattan.’ Two by two, the couples shed their dull outer coats to reveal shimmering dresses and sharp dinner suits, filing towards the dance-floor like animals being herded towards Noah’s Ark. Along the wooden tables were rows of empty soup bowls that the old lady scurried to collect up in her crinkled hands.
They were the only ones to remain seated. She was gazing at the dancers and her eyes started to soften as though a light had been switched on, melting the steely grey into a gush of blue. He stared down at his hands, willing her not to look at him with those eyes he couldn’t recognise. He started when he felt the soft touch of her hand on his shoulders and heard the question he feared was coming.
“Want to dance?”
He loathed dancing. It made him feel nervous and awkward and confused all at once. Walking came naturally to him, yet as soon as he was forced to become conscious of the movement of each limb he possessed, he was fumbling and clumsy. He lived in terror of dancing, not because he was a shy person by any means, but because it inevitably disappointed people. Those who saw him walk assumed he would know how to dance.
In normal circumstances, he could make his way through life avoiding situations that required dancing. He turned down invitations to weddings, refused to attend festivals and concerts, had never set foot inside a piano bar. He loved music but preferred to listen to it in the privacy of his car where he could sing as loudly as he wanted while under no pressure to dance. When he listened to music, even when completely alone, he never felt the slightest inclination to bob his head or sway or tap his feet.
It wasn’t dancing in public that made him self-conscious, it was the act of dancing that forced him to become painfully aware of himself, his physicality. If he concentrated on any single part of his body it became heavy, the way a pianist stumbles over his keys if he focuses on the notes instead of the tune. Once he felt the heaviness of his body, he lost track of his own essence. When he danced, he was so intent on the parts — the details of himself! — that he ceased to exist.
Her face crumpled with disappointment at his refusal and her fingers slid back to her lap. He stood up to buy her a drink from the bar. As he turned back with a beer in either hand, he saw a man approach, lean over her and whisper a few words in her ear. She nodded eagerly, jumped up and they moved towards the dance-floor.
He sat alone sipping his beer. She was not a great dancer but, brimming with enthusiasm, the music moved around her with a natural ease. Her face was relaxed, her eyes laughing, and a surge of uncontrollable jealousy shook him so fiercely he had to steady his hands on the table.
The same feeling would plague him every time he watched her dance with another man afterwards. At no other time did he feel a hint of jealousy towards her, not when she talked to strange men, went out alone with male friends or chattered on the phone to them.
But when she danced, even the thump of the music could not muffle the noise that rushed around his head. They went to jazz bars, salsa clubs, and discos. Never before had he noticed the sheer quantity of people dancing their way through life around him. It seemed like the whole world had turned up in his city to dance, and there was no kind of dancing she could not enjoy. She would belly dance, line dance, waltz and tango.
Each time she rushed back to the table, to where he sat sipping his beer calmly while the rage bubbled over inside, and she would be laughing and talking gaily, “Baby, did you see me?” and he didn’t know how she failed to notice that if she just lifted the lid off his head, the steam would come rushing straight out.
Of course, he could have refused to go with her but that would have been worse, to be sitting at home, waiting, imagining her leg tucked under another man’s, her hand on his shoulder, his on her waist, twisting, shimmying, and all the while those eyes she wore only for other men laughing, laughing. The thought was unbearable. Neither was he capable of asking her to refrain from dancing altogether; he could see the irrationality of such a request when he himself refused to dance with her.
So, every weekend, he allowed himself to be dragged to another bar to watch her: “Yes darling, I saw you dance. It was wonderful.”
Looking at her heel now, he measured the physical distance between her body and his and imagined how many times he might multiply it without feeling any pain. He could taunt her with these secret thoughts by way of carefully-crafted comments that unnerved her: subtle allusions to a future that might exclude her, plans that he had reserved for himself.
Apart from their Saturday night outings, their relationship progressed without any hitches. In short, they began to see one another midweek then daily, until they were spending almost all of their free time together.
No one remembered whose suggestion it had been to share a house. He was the one with fewer possessions and one day he packed them all into a couple of bags and showed up at her place. She opened the door as if she had been expecting him all along.
This particular Sunday morning, they had already managed a few harmless months of co-habitation, during which she had only attempted to make him dance twice. In the first instance, upon venturing into the kitchen one inauspicious evening on his return from work, he found her cooking and she turned to face him, grabbing his arms and pulling him into a half-embrace. Only as his left foot crushed her right did he realise that they were supposed to be dancing. He made a quick half-turn and exited the room.
Later over dinner, they found themselves caught in an uneasy silence. This did not happen often, and he interpreted her reticence as a reprimand. It was the first night they slept side by side in the apartment without making love. He lay awake for what seemed like hours, inches from her, watching her chest gently rise and fall, and a veil had come between their bodies forbidding him to touch her.
The second time, he initiated the dancing. “Teach me,” he asked her. She switched on the music, and when he lifted his foot, he felt it plunk heavily back down. He heard the rhythm battling against the jerky motions of his body, saw his arms flail uselessly against her. As he reeled from the clash of hipbones and shoulders, she gasped at the crunch of his boot on her toe — the same toe that he loved to watch curl upwards — and she stopped.
After all, they had so much together, what should it matter if they danced or not? To watch his limbs move at odds with the music, seeing him grimace and force his feet around the floor as though they didn’t even belong to him, it filled her with dread.
It was the last time she asked him to dance, the last time he offered. The matter was swiftly brushed under the carpet and the next day, all had returned to normal. They went back to their weekly outings to bars and clubs and he sat alone at a table with a cold beer and blood boiling.
“I know why we will break up,” he said that Sunday morning. They had returned home late the night before.
As she turned, still gripping her coffee cup, she wondered why he would be imagining their break-up at this particular moment. Hadn’t they gone out last night and had a marvellous time? Oh, she knew by now he would never dance with her, for some people are simply not meant to dance. Most of her students loved the piano but would never be pianists. He could learn to dance if he showed the inclination, but nobody could teach him to like dancing.
However, she still believed that he loved to watch her dancing. She cared about him so deeply she wished to share every part of herself with him. She wanted him to have her swaying hips, the throw of her shoulder, the shuffle of her feet, the movement of her arms — yes, even if it could only be while they were wrapped around another man.
This was her compromise. She could accept his inability to dance, accept it even as something utterly beyond his control. But his eyes threw a spotlight upon her — as long as he was watching her, she was the most beautiful dancer in the world.
She sprang delicately into the bed and nestled her face in his hair. It was overgrown again and needed cutting. It smelled like raisins and pine nuts and reminded her of a field knotted with clovers. It made her think of cut grass and flying as high as a kite on the swings in the park down the road with her father pushing her. The long wisps of hair tickled her nose. She breathed in the pine scent.
“You’re totally nuts,” she whispered, and it made her smile to know that she was telling him exactly what was in her head and he didn’t even realise it.