by Abdeah Davis
Deep breath. With her left hand on the barre Hana unfurled into a standing second-position stretch. She exhaled, holding the position as she counted under her breath. Lowering her arabesque leg she settled into first position. Inhale, plie. Exhale, pointe. Inhale, plie. Exhale, pointe. She moved into second position and repeated the mantra. Inhale, plie. Exhale, pointe. Ending in fifth position she realised that her eyes were shut. She blinked, trying to adjust to the harsh stage lighting.
Across the stage Lula glared at her while tying the ribbons of her flat creme ballet shoes - shoes that had been Hana’s just a few month ago. She knew what Lula must be thinking; to Lula she was a treacherous impostor who had leeched off her misfortune and stolen her career changing role while she was recovering from an ankle injury. And she felt like an impostor too, landing the lead role had been a pure stroke of luck. When Lula crash landed Hana was just a backup dancer and one of two understudies. Not for a moment did she think that the Andrea would actually name her as Lula’s replacement; she was a newbie unworthy of centre stage and all the pressure that came with filling Lula’s shoes.
She gazed down at her feet. Her pearlescent pointe shoes hugged her feet tightly, the ribbon almost cutting into her ankles. She liked them that way, it made her hyper-aware of the precision - or lack thereof - in each movement. It was a constant reminder that perfection was a unegotiable standard of a ballerina.
She had literally stepped into Lula’s shoes, and Lula was not ashamed to show her resentment. The poor woman was stuck somewhere in the back row because Andrea had thought it not wise for her to jump back into such a challenging role so soon after an ankle injury. Hana agreed with Andrea’s reasoning, though she dared not say it out loud; permanently losing a ballerina of Lula’s calibre to an injury would be devastating. Lula was young and talented enough, Andrea had said, there was no doubt that she would get her chance again.
Hana moved back into first position, raised into pointe and counted, “One, plie. Two, coupe. Three, plie. Four, coupe.” She moved into second position. She always did the same warm-up, whether it was before rehearsal or a show. It helped her clear her mind and find her centre, but tonight it didn’t seem to be working at all. His face kept appearing, as vivid as if he was standing before her. She took another deep breath, trying to focus on her movements, but he was still there. She wondered what he was doing at this moment. Was he at his apartment? Was he still packing? Or was he already boarding for Paris? What time was his flight? She couldn’t remember.
She had been so surprised when Alec had shown up at her apartment. He stood at her door, hands in his pocket shuffling his feet like a nervous school boy.
“Hi,” he muttered awkwardly. “Do you think I could come in?”
Hana, unsure of what to make of the situation, simply nodded.
“I thought I should come and get the last of my stuff.”
“Uhm… It’s all in the study,” she said. He followed her into the loft and up the spiral staircase to the makeshift study area before the bedroom.
“So, how have things been?” asked Hana, trying to make small talk while he went through the boxes and gathered his things.
“I’ve been okay. Things have been quiet at work, it’s kind of surreal. My internship is ending soon,” he sighed in disappointment.
“And then what?” she asked. She secreetly hoped that perhaps he would decide to stay in Cape Town a while longer.
“I’m not entirely sure. Probably go back to Paris for a while. It’s been hard, making a decision without -”
“Do you want a smoke,” she interrupted him almost shoving the box of Marlboro at him in her haste. She knew exactly what he wanted to say - that it was difficult for him to envision a future that did not include her, a future in which they were not together - and she didn’t want to hear. She feared that if he said it out loud she would begin to question her decision in accepting the role and staying in Cape Town.
“I never did open that bottle of champagne,” she shrugged. She wanted him to stay. She was glad that he had shown up at her door when he did. Before she had not allowed herself to linger on her aching heart; instead she had submerged herself in dance, exhausting both mind and body so that she could collapse on her bed and fall asleep the moment her cheek touched her pillow. Now that he stood before her, all she wanted was to savour the way he smelt - of vanilla rolling tobacco and that cinnamon chewing gum he loved so much. She wanted to listen to the rumble of his voice as he chatted away in his layered French accent, she wanted to hear him laugh that rough hearty laugh that sounded more like a cough than anything else. She had simply missed him. And thought of him being anywhere else - let alone Paris - made her feel anxious and vulnerable. With him here everything felt comfortable and safe. “I was gonna go up to the roof anyway,” she insisted.
He considered it for a moment and then nodded. “I suppose a drink and a smoke wouldn’t be half bad right now.”
The slight breeze was surprisingly warm to Hana’s skin; for a moment she forgot that it was the heart of winter. Alec sat on the bench outside of the greenhouse, a half filled glass in his hand, besides him Hana marveled at the solar-powered Sun Star as it cast an eerie glow across Signal Hill. Alec was telling her about the cherry-burst Les Paul guitar he had recently bought. His band was still meeting him in Los Angeles in October, that was the only plan that was set in stone. Not too long ago that had been Hana’s plan too. She would go with him to Paris and meet his parents. Thereafter the two of them would backpack through Europe and then make their way to LA where the band would settle and Hana would begin her career teaching ballet.
Hana had always wanted to dance. At a young age she dedicated her life to ballet. She did everything right; she attend the best dance school in Cape Town, her academics were excellent. When the time came for her graduate high school she simply had to choose which university she wanted to attend and so she chose the University of Cape Town’s School of Dance. She was a diligent student, however as second year came to a close reality hit home and suddenly the dream of becoming a prima ballerina felt like nothing more than wishful thinking and she began to lose all hope that a career in dance was realistic.
And then she met Alec, a final year music exchange student from France. He was everything Hana had needed and more; an ambitious young musician with big dreams. Suddenly she felt inspired to re-evaluate her life and in turn her dreams.
She remembered the first time she saw him. Her friends had managed to convince her to join them for drinks and open mic at Obviously Armchair - a pub in the central student hub - after a late evening rehearsal. They had been huddling for warmth around the fireplace when she heard him doing a cover of Bastille’s Bad Blood during his sound check. His rough husky voice conjured up images of smoky lounges, old coffee houses and puffy couches, it felt familiar. She couldn’t help herself, she needed to see who that voice belonged to. She stood up and wandered over to the stage. He sat on a bar stool, his acoustic guitar sprawled across his lap, his cocoa skin glowing slightly as a bead of sweat rolled down his forehead. He swiped his arm across his forehead and squinted at the sound desk.
“Is the spotlight really necessary?” he asked.
“We can’t exactly have you performing in the dark now can we?”
He grunted in displeasure, placed his guitar in a stand and rushed toward the bar bumping into Hana. Her drink splashed onto the wooden floor and her now-empty glass clinked and rolled across the room.
He stared at her wide-eyed. “I’m so sorry.” He called over a waiter.
She shuffled uncomfortably. “It’s ok, my fault anyway.” He smiled when he realised that she had been spying.
“Let me at least buy you a drink to replace the one I helped you spill.” He took her hand into his, she felt her heart stop for a brief moment and she could feel her cheeks heat up as he led her to the bar.
Their relationship was as easy as that, a string of simple gestures that made her heart leap and her butterflies dance.
What had happened to them? She glanced over at him, he was staring back at her. She cringed at the thought of him watching her in such a vulnerable state, her mind wandering, over thinking, tripping over memories of a simpler time.
“Hana…” he whispered. His eyes were earnest and desperate. She felt naked under his gaze, as though a mask had fallen to reveal her true face. He saw pass her facade, pass her strength, pass her smile. When he looked at her he saw her right to the core, he knew what made her tick, what made her heart beat faster, what pushed her buttons. No one else saw her the way he did. He reached for her hand and cupped them between his rough hands. “Please, come away with me.”
“I can’t, you know I can’t.” She blinked trying her best not to let tears betray her. “The showcase opens in two days.”
“And what if I waited for you? I could delay my flight for the duration of the showcase. We could leave afterwards.”
“I don’t know what happens after the showcase.”
He dropped her hands, stood up and began to pace the rooftop. He stopped a distance from her, lit a rollie and then spun around and faced her. “What is it that you want?”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “I dunno what you mean.”
“What is that you actually want?” he insisted.
She hesitated. The truth was that she she had no idea. A couple of month ago she would have said that all she wanted to do was spend her life with Alec and teach ballet but now that there was the slightest chance that she could join a dance company everything changed. When Lula had broken her ankle and she was offered the lead role it had changed her life and she was still not sure whether it was a change for the best. Was it worth giving up a future with the only man she had ever truly loved?
“You’re throwing us away because you’re afraid to make a decision. That’s it, isn’t it?” He took two drag from his cigarette and began pacing once again.
“I can’t believe you’re giving up this easily. It’s like you can’t even give a shit that we might never see each other again.”
“That’s not true and you know it.” She knew he was frustrated but his words still cut like a jagged blunt knife across her chest, each word more painful than the last.
“Did our relationship mean that little to you?” His voice wavered a little as he swallowed the knot that had form in the base of his throat.
“Let me just point out that it is you getting on a plane and leaving, not me.”
“But you knew that from the very beginning. You knew that at some point I would have to go back to Paris even if it was just for a short while. We were suppose to do this together.” He took her chin between his palms and gaze into her tear filled eyes. “I was going to ask you to marry me.”
He was going to ask her to marry him.
She couldn’t shake the thought even as she danced her way through the final act.
He wanted to marry her.
If he had ask her a month ago she would have said yes. Had things really changed so drastically that her answer would have been different if he asked her now?
The curtains closed and the opera house burst into applause. Hana hurried to her partner’s side before the curtain reopened for them to take the final bow.
Everything about the moment felt wrong. All the applause and the praises from strangers were empty. None of them cared about her after the curtains closed, they only cared about how perfect her dancing had been and how well she had played her role. They didn’t care that she was going home to an empty apartment, that she had no one waiting to greet her in the foyer and whisk her home to a warm bed. No Alec. She was alone. Without him it all seemed meaningless.
Her answer was and always would be yes.
With new found confidence she stepped forward as the curtain open and took her final bow, the gesture filled with more significance than ever.
When the curtains closed for the last time she remained on the stage and shut her eyes.
Deep breath. She took it all in for the last time. The chatter back stage, the congratulations being passed amongst the dancers, the agents chatting to dancers about the possibility of joining one of the companies, the sighs of relief as dancers peeled off their performance shoes. She knew was never coming back, regardless of whether or not Alec could forgive her.
She rushed off towards the exit only pausing to toss Lila the pearly shoes. “They were always yours.” And then she ran into the cold night in nothing but a leotard, tights and a tutu hoping that the only man she ever loved would still be waiting for her.