Johan snaps his fingers in my face. “Do not idle! Start in second, end in fifth. Do you think this is rocket science? Two, three, four, go. No, no, no. Alyona! Where is your energy?”
Our three days of performances in Amsterdam begin tomorrow night. Then we’re off to Prague, Paris and Saint Petersburg. Zed and Adrian have been calling that part of the tour the Euro-P-ean Cities. We’re all sick of hearing the joke, but when Zed whispers it to me during class, I can’t help but smile. It’s a moment of relief exactly when I need it the most. All of us are exhausted from the intense schedule already. I have no idea how we’re going to get through the whole tour. I can’t feel my feet anymore, and I think my shins are made of thousands of tiny fractures.
I rise on pointe, sink into a demi-plié, and then move into a glissade, ending in fifth. I press my lips together tightly and step forward into arabesque. Pain has a sound in my bones, like a scream that I’ve never let out in all of my dance career, in all my injuries. I stretch my leg behind me as long as I can make it, putting all the weight on my right leg, which wants to give the same way I want to sit down, the same way I want to give up. The same way I just can’t imagine sitting down because I’ve never given up. I’ve never sat down.
Johan spins to the whole troupe, all twenty-six of us, there in the center of the floor, some people checking themselves in the mirror, but most everyone just standing still, grateful for a break, and we’re not even thirty minutes into our rehearsal. He raises his arms and then lets them fall.
“Are you all asleep?” Johan yells, and his voice bounces off the walls. I flinch, and I’m not the only one. “Are you all asleep? You have no endurance! You have no drive! They came here for a show, not to see American dancers falling asleep on their feet.”
No one says anything because there’s nothing to say. Glaring at me, Johan sends us back to start through the variation again.
At the end of class, we all lie on the floor, sweat stinging our eyes and our muscles throbbing dully. I lie on my back, hands on my stomach, eyes closed. Everything below my knee prickles, like it’s fallen permanently asleep.
Sakura pushes a water bottle into my elbow. “Alyona. What hurts?”
“So tired,” I say instead of answering her. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t in pain. Right now, it’s just registering slightly higher on the scale than other days.
“It’s hard to tour like this,” agrees Sakura. “But four nights, three performances, and then we’re on to Prague!”
“Not sure that’s helping,” Zed says, his voice low and quiet next to me. “Hey, Kitten.”
“I can’t dance,” I whisper. “I’m going to be such a mess out there.”
“On the upside,” Zed says cheerfully, “your hot mess is everyone else’s absolute best.”
“My hot mess is still my hot mess,” I mutter, a little sullenly, and his fingers brush my sweaty hair out of my face. “I’m going to screw you up.”
“You’re not going to screw me up.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do, Aly,” Zed says, and I sit up, opening my eyes to stare at him. He leans away from me onto his hands. The corners of his mouth lift into a smile, and I can’t keep my eyes off the lines of his lips. “Not only that, I promise to help you. I won’t let you fall. Everything will be okay.”
“You can’t promise that,” I say. “No one can.”
“True, but I’m pretty sure my best is a pretty good promise,” he says, leaning forward, touching his toes then turning his hands over so I can lay mine on top of his. He gets to his feet and then pulls me up too.
“Have I ever let you down?” he asks me, his eyes moving around my face like it’s a real question and he’s in search of a real answer.
I tilt my head when I frown at him. “Never.”
Relief runs over him, softening his expression and relaxing his fingers, intertwined with mine. “Good. Let’s get fresh air.”
“Company dinner at six,” Sakura reminds us as we pull on street clothes over our leotards and tights. It’s easier than changing, even if we probably smell like sweat. She grabs my elbow and adds, “Try and relax. Injuries are made worse by stress.”
Relax. Ha. I’m not sure if that word is in my vocabulary at all these days. Especially with Zed’s hand still holding one of mine. This feels different and I can’t figure out how, or why.
Outside, the weather’s foul, caught somewhere between rain and snow. Zed pulls out both of the ridiculous orange hats he bought us and tugs one over my head. He loops the tassels together beneath my chin, his knuckles grazing the line of my jaw, while his eyes remain on his hands, studious and earnest. He is always so earnest. I rise on my toes, despite my legs screaming at me, and kiss his cheek.
“Thank you for the hat,” I say. “Even if it’s a ridiculous color.”
“It makes you look—” he pauses, and then laughs a little bit, “—ridiculous is probably the only word for it, but here, we’ll be ridiculous together.”
He pulls the second hat over his head and it honestly doesn’t look any better on him. So we’re both laughing when we set off into the falling slush, the cold puddles gathering at the corners of sidewalks, and into a meandering walk far away from ballet and the strain on our minds and bodies. We walk through the city, stopping for coffee twice and picking at a cookie between us. Zed wraps it up and tucks it into the same pocket where he tucks my hand, the way he did back in Philadelphia.
He never makes me feel small, but I always feel safe. That’s so rare. Wanting to feel safe doesn’t mean I’m weak or can’t take care of myself. I’ve spent my whole life taking care of myself.
“How are your legs?” Zed asks as we study a map, trying to find our way through the city to this weird bridge we saw on the Internet. “Do you want to catch a cab?”
“I don’t know.” I glance down. “Dear legs, how are you?”
Zed laughs. “A new name for the ballet I’ll write you one day. Dear Legs.”
“That’s a terrible name,” I say, but my cheeks flush and I stare at the map in his hands. I didn’t know he thought of writing a ballet for me. I never considered myself a muse. “What was the original name?”
“Balancing the Somatic Equation,” he says, like he’s said a hundred times.
“Balancing, not Balance?”
He glances at me. “It’s not an order. It’s a journey. The Python Bridge is this way. You’re sure you can walk?”
I shrug and so he folds up the map and slips his hand back into his pocket around mine. His hand is rough from the cold, but I won’t pull mine away.
The Python Bridge is a red footbridge with a strange structure, twisting just enough to look like a snake’s body. The rain and snow combination, with a little bit of wind over the bridge, has kept most of the tourists away. I pull my hand out of Zed’s pocket and dart ahead of him, breathing the crisp winter air deep into my lungs. I step long and bright, creating light and bounce on the wooden stairs, and then turn, my arms outstretched to face the water. My smile makes my cheeks ache.
When I turn to Zed, he’s grinning, looking ridiculous in that orange and blue hat as he strikes a pose and then walks to me like we’re on a stage. When he bows and offers me his hand, I slide my fingers between his, gripping tightly. He lifts his hand above our heads, and when I pirouette, his free hand guides me from my waist.
I rise on my toes to whisper, “Thank you. I couldn’t do this without you.”
“You’ll never have to do this without me,” he promises and wraps an arm around me. For a full beat, I pause, still on my toes, unsure of what he’s doing or wants to do. Then I sink downward, biting my lip and letting out a long breath. I let him lead me on the first slow, hesitant step of a dance across the bridge. The steps rise from some dark corner of my memory, and I’m sure everyone around us can hear my wild heartbeat. In the slush and the setting sun, we slow-dance over the Python Bridge.
When we come to a stop, he leans down, close enough to kiss, and I can’t help but hold my breath and hope. He rests his forehead against mine and his voice is hoarse and rough. “Aly?”
“Yes.” My voice trembles and I have to take a deep breath, trying not to shake in his arms. This is a ballet without choreography. Some dances are meant to be improvised, but I’ve never been that type of dancer.
“I know you hate letting go,” he whispers, his lips brushing against the bridge of my nose. His touch draws everything in me up and toward him until I’m pressed against him and my fingers clutch at his jacket. “But you trust me, right?”
“With my life,” I manage to say.
“Then trust me to catch you,” he pleads, his hand sliding from my waist up to my face. He cups my face with hands that have touched me a million times, but never like this. His thumb runs a path across my cheekbone and I swallow hard. “I’m not asking for anything right now. But trust me to catch you.”
“I trust you.”
His thumb comes to rest at the corner of my mouth and I think, Kiss me, Zed. But he doesn’t. He sighs and presses his lips to my forehead instead and wraps his arm around my shoulder. I slip my arm around his waist beneath his jacket and we walk, slowly, tangled in each other and the questions in our minds, back down to the hotel.