The sixth time I call Sakura for packing advice, she shows up at my apartment, two coffee cups in hand and her ever-present patient expression firmly in place. I wave her into my living room, and she hands me the cup of tea with the paper tag dangling.
My apartment, paid for with my mother’s deep-pocketed guilt, glows in the dim light of my living room lamp. It’s not normally a place of disarray, but now it looks like a bomb went off in it. I have two suitcases open on the floor and piles of clothes on my coffee table. I almost apologize, but Sakura plops down on the sofa amongst the chaos without a second thought.
“You’re overthinking this,” she says, leaning forward to put her coffee on the crowded table. “We can do laundry at hotels. Pack two of everything and a week’s worth of underwear and you’re golden. Seriously, Alyona. Where’s Zed? Why isn’t he helping you?”
“He had to pack his own bags first, but he’s coming over in a bit.” I almost ask Sakura what she meant early when she called us out in the studio. She’s danced with us for almost two years, and it’s not like we’re the only ones from our Lyon School class to end up in Philadelphia. People know about us. Nothing’s changed. Zed and I are what we’ve always been.
But at the last moment, just as Sakura looks up suspiciously at my silence, I duck away from the question. I turn back to my packing. “What if one of my suitcases is stolen? Or lost. Or ends up in London when we’re in Amsterdam.” I sit down on the floor hard, sloshing hot water all over myself. I lick off the back of my hand before pulling a few pairs of jeans down into one of the suitcases. Two more sit on the coffee table, waiting for the backup suitcase. When I look up, Sakura’s texting someone furiously. “You’d better not be texting Zed when you should be helping me. I want to be packed before he gets here.”
“Zed who?” She flashes me a brilliant smile and I roll my eyes at her. Zed’s seen me more of a disaster than this, but I try not to make it a habit. Same as we’ve always been.
“I’m sure there’s somewhere to go shopping in Amsterdam, but if you’re really worried, stick a few extra clothes in Zed’s suitcase. You’ll be spending half your time with him anyways.” It’s the type of needling remark I’m so used to hearing I can’t be bothered to reply.
My phone goes off and Zed’s picture pops up on the screen. I roll my eyes at Sakura, who smirks a bit as I answer. “Hey. Sorry, Sakura’s being Sakura. You don’t need to rush over here.”
“Heard you were being Aly. I’m already on my way with dinner, but what’s the packing emergency?” I can hear the bus naming the streets as he rides it north from his South Philly house to my apartment in a ritzier area of town. “Pj’s and a few leotards. What else do you need?”
“Tell me you packed more than pj’s and tights, Zed,” I say, putting down everything in my hands and staring at Sakura. Even she looks alarmed.
“I think I packed a hoodie. Sometimes hotels are over-air-conditioned.”
“Oh my God,” I say. “You’re such a guy. Go home and pack.”
“I’m kidding, Aly. I’m packed. You should try taking a deep breath. Does wonders for one’s sense of humor. Should I stop for anything else before I come up?”
“Alcohol?” I suggest, rolling a pair of warm-ups and tucking them into a pocket of my suitcase. “Alcohol. Lots of it. The kind that I can put in the tea that Sakura brought me.”
“She’s a smart woman,” Zed says, and then the background noise changes. Outside my apartment, I hear the dinging of the bus’s doors opening. “Now let me up.”
Sakura buzzes him in and he appears in my doorway a moment later, crystals of snow marking up his coat and his hair. He looks mischievous and silly with his duffels slung over his shoulder, holding a plastic bag that brings the smell of Chinese food wafting into my apartment. I bite back a smile. “You moving in?”
“Kitten,” he drawls as he drops the bags on the floor and flops onto the couch next to Sakura. He holds out the plastic bag on a finger. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“You can stay if you help her pack,” Sakura says, taking the food from him. “That’s the rule. If you distract her, I’m kicking you out.”
“Hi,” Zed says, sticking out his hand. “My name’s Zed. I’m her best friend. Clearly we haven’t met before.”
“Alright!” I cut in before the only two friends I have can start arguing over who has my best interests at heart. “Enough. Both of you.”
Sakura heads for the kitchen. “What do you want to eat, Aly?”
“She’ll eat anything if you put it on a plate for her,” Zed says, surveying the mess in front of him.
“You’re bossy sometimes,” I tell him. “The lo mein, Sakura.”
“You wound me,” Zed says, and then slides onto the floor to sit cross-legged between my piles of clothes and my suitcases. He picks out a couple of pairs of jeans, a few shirts and sweaters. He grabs a handful of underwear, which makes Sakura nearly miss a step as she comes back into the room, holding out plates of food. I lost any sense of modesty when it came to this guy a long time ago. He tosses it triumphantly on top of the leotards, tights, and warm-ups already in the suitcase and raises his hands in the air.
“All hail the conquering hero!” He turns to Sakura. “She is decisive and sure-footed when it comes to ballet. Everything else? You have to be the decider.”
“I think I should resent that,” I mutter, straightening everything Zed dumped in the suitcase.
I zip it up as Sakura says, “Should I be taking notes?”
“You can be the backup in case I’m not around,” Zed says. “Aly, eat those noodles before they get cold.”
My eyes leap up to his. My heart doesn’t just skip a beat but trips and tumbles to the floor of my abdomen. “You’re not going anywhere.”
He reaches over to run the back of his hand down my cheek affectionately. One of the first partnering classes we ever took at the Lyon School involved this motion in a dance and it turned into a tiny thing we did, just not normally with an audience. His eyes sag at the corners, though his expression stays bright.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he promises. “I was joking. But not about the food. Eat.”
“As touching as this is,” Sakura says as I reluctantly pick up a fork, “if you have this covered, Zed, I need to get home. The husband might want to see me before I abscond to Europe for a month.”
“Tell Gabe we say hi,” Zed says. “We got this.”
“He should totally come,” I add. “I don’t mind if he crashes in our hotel room.”
Sakura laughs and says, “You clearly haven’t heard him snore. I’ll see you two chickens tomorrow.”
As soon as she leaves, Zed rummages in his bag and surfaces with the Center Stage DVD. I squeal with delight, grinning as he hands it to me. I knew he’d give in and watch the movie I wanted to watch. I load it into my computer and clear off the coffee table, trying to remind myself that I have plenty of time tomorrow to double-check everything before our evening flight over the ocean.
“Popcorn?” Zed calls from the kitchen.
“Not with Chinese food. That’s gross,” I call back. “There’s coffee if you want it.”
“I want to sleep tonight so maybe not.” He flicks off the lights as he comes back into the living room with the box of remaining lo mein. When he hits the couch, his limbs going everywhere, I’d be hard-pressed to believe that control of his body and grace were the primary skills required for his job. But then he pulls me against him, his thumb running down my bare arm, and I remember that he always knows exactly what he’s doing.
* * *
After I’ve showered, I sit on the floor of the bathroom, combing the tangles out of my hair, listening to Zed humming just on the other side of the door. Most nights, I like the company. But tonight, something shivers beneath my skin. Two days he was gone, and when he showed up today at my door, the explosion of my heart splattering against my rib cage surprised me. Our banter fades away this time of night, and then I’m unsure of where to go next.
“Aly, you okay in there?” Zed calls, rapping his knuckles on the door.
Don’t mind me. Just untangling my feelings, I want to say, my fingers and comb both sorting out a particularly gnarly knot in my hair. Instead, I call back, “I’m dressed, just brushing my hair. You can come in if you miss me that much.”
Colossal mistake. When Zed opens the door, he’s shirtless, his jeans sitting low around his hips, his abs defined enough that I want to run my fingers along the indents. He doesn’t notice, rubbing his hands absentmindedly through his floppy hair. Zed’s accidentally beautiful in a way that few people manage to pull off, with his dark hair and dark eyes, the way his eyes and smile tend to light up at the same time.
“You’re sitting on the floor brushing your hair,” he says, fishing the spare toothbrush out of my vanity without asking. He watches me from the mirror, like we’re in barre class in my bathroom.
“Standing felt tiring,” I admit. “I’m tired of being on my feet.”
He tries to say something through his toothbrush and I wrinkle my nose. He spits out the toothpaste and rinses out his mouth. “You’re such a princess sometimes.”
“Too bad you’re not my Prince Charming,” I say without thinking and open my mouth to take back the words, but shut it immediately. I can’t rescind that without admitting the truth: he kind of is Prince Charming.
“Charming, sure. Princely, less so. We don’t have those in Central Pennsylvania,” he says without missing a beat. He slides down onto the floor with a sigh and stretches out his legs, using his toes to overturn the tiny trash can. I roll my eyes at him and he grins at me. Sometimes I forget that we’re both still teenagers.
He scoots closer and leans against me, his bare arm warm against mine. I’m hyperaware of the way my tank top clings to my damp skin and how short my pajama shorts are. It’s silly. We spend all day together in tights and leotards, but right here, it feels different. I press the word for it away from the front of my mind.
Tomorrow, when we fly to Amsterdam, we’ll be rooming with other dancers who might not be interested in putting up with our platonic cuddling late into the night. Not to mention, we’ll be exhausted from the dance schedule ahead of us. Neither of us have mastered the entire choreography to our pas de deux from Forsythe’s brilliant In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. We haven’t performed professionally together since school. This feels big, in ways I can’t entirely understand.
He elbows me a little. “You’re thinking so loud you’re giving me a headache.”
“What if I can’t dance In the Middle?” I turn my face into him, closing my eyes and inhaling deeply. He’s warm and smells of aftershave and snow still, a crispness that clings to his clothes and hair.
His fingers walk slowly up my leg, from my knee to my thigh. I shiver and his arm shifts against my nose and mouth when he laughs. “Ticklish, Alyona?”
I love my nickname, because it is his alone, but when he uses my full name, my breath pirouettes in my chest, spinning me higher and higher. My skin hums everywhere he touches me. This is why I do not—cannot—let myself think this is anything but platonic. There’s too much at stake. Friendship. Careers. Hearts.
“We’re going to learn it in time,” he reassures me, and for a second, I can’t figure out what he’s talking about. His hand flattens on my arm. Right. The ballet. “We always do. We’ve never not learned choreography.”
“First time for everything,” I say and I can practically feel my skin turn bright pink. Oh, God. I want to crawl into a hole and die, but instead, I’m sitting on the floor with him and I keep saying stupid things.
All the muscles south of my ribs seize up tightly at the quiet, thoughtful noise he makes. He presses his lips against my forehead abruptly and says, his voice a low hum that turns me inside out, “Breathe, Aly.”
“I’m breathing,” I whisper. And maybe I let my lips brush against his arm a little more than I should. He swallows.
“Look at me,” and his voice makes it a command, not a request. I lift my face free from its safe spot and force myself to meet Zed’s eyes, not to run around his face, or touch his body, or think about anything other than the ballet.
I make the effort. He doesn’t.
He runs an inquisitive finger from the corner of my eye, across my cheek to the corner of my mouth, and then down my jaw to my collarbone, then to my shoulder. His finger takes my breath, my heartbeat, the heat from my body with it as it runs down to the delicate skin on the inside of my elbow, to the blue veins in my wrists. I’m afraid he’s going to ask why my pulse is hammering.
“Pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone and taking risks,” he whispers, his voice low and husky. “That’s what we do. We’re artists.”
Is that what we are? Right here, half-naked and exchanging curious touches? Staring at each other’s mouths? Artists.
I have to slide away from him before I do something crazy. I push myself a few inches away, inhale deeply and sink against the bathtub wall. Zed’s cheeks turn red and he frowns at his feet, pointing them at the overturned trash can again. I stretch and curl my toes around his shin.
He glances up at me and I say softly, “That ballet. It’s like asking me to change who I am out there.”
Zed’s eyes dart away from mine and settle on my blistered, misshapen, bloody feet. “I know. No matter what, you know I’m still here.”
I knew that, but I like hearing it. I pull my legs beneath me and stand up, offering him my hand. When I pull him to his feet, I step into his embrace and he rocks me back and forth.
If taking risks is what we do, if we’re artists to our very core, then what he and I have is the next dance we’ll have to conquer.