Joel glanced at his vibrating phone, knowing that answering a call in the middle of Dr. Nehan’s immunology lecture was beyond rude. He was so startled by the caller ID that he read the words out loud as he rose from his chair, “Mount Sinai Hospital.”
His professor stopped mid-sentence and all eyes turned to Joel as he started side stepping down the row of desks toward the door of the small lecture hall. A foreboding sensation entered his heart, and he knew instinctively that something must have happened to Winnie.
“Hello, this is Joel Anderson,” Joel said breathlessly into the receiver, bypassing the need for them to ask to speak with him. “Is my wife okay?” Joel hadn’t even made it to the door of the lecture hall yet.
“She’s stable.” Thank goodness for the intelligence of an emergency room doctor to give Joel the most important bit of news first. “I’m Dr. Sunil. Your wife, Edwina was brought in by ambulance after collapsing during a dancing class. She is very weak and in and out of consciousness. We’re admitting her immediately to transfer her to a more specialized medical ward.”
“Medical ward?” Joel turned back toward his lecture hall full of classmates and spoke directly to the guy who’d been sitting to his left. “Grab my bag and laptop for me. I’m flying to New York City. My wife’s in the hospital.”
There were a few gasps and whispers of, “I hope she’s okay,” and “Safe travels,” and “I’ll pray for her.” Joel thanked them and turned his attention back to the emergency room doctor. Not a full minute had passed since the phone had begun ringing.
“For now she’ll be moved up to the medical ward, but in the next few days we’ll want her admitted to the psychiatric ward.”
“Why the psychiatric ward?” Joel asked. “She’s not insane… is she?”
“Mr. Anderson, are you aware your wife has an eating disorder?” the doctor asked.
“Yes…” Joel gulped, guilt washing over him because he was in Michigan at all. He picked up his pace down the hall, wishing he could run to his car, pack a few things and get to the airport. He should have left three weeks ago when he realized she was sick. He was still in denial about how sick she was.
He glanced at the closed doors of the lecture halls as he passed, knowing he wouldn’t be coming back. At least not for a long time. He wondered if they’d hold his spot in the program but realized he didn’t care anymore. Medical school could wait. He didn’t need to be a doctor for the trial he was about to face; he needed to be a husband.
“I knew she’d gotten really thin and that she needs to get some treatment, but I thought she could wait until after the season was over and then take some time off work.”
“She won’t be leaving the hospital for several days, possibly even weeks,” the doctor said.
“Weeks?” Tears sprang to Joel’s eyes and his voice cracked.
“Edwina has anorexia nervosa. She’s dangerously thin, severely dehydrated, malnourished, her blood sugar is too low, her heart rate is too low, and she’s not aware of her surroundings.”
Joel crouched to the ground and pulled his hair with the hand that wasn’t holding his phone. Tears flowed unabashedly down his face and sobs wracked his body. Someone’s arms wrapped around him. One of his fellow medical school students, probably. Someone who cared about him enough to hold him at a time when he was too weak to hold himself together. He knew he needed to be strong for Winnie, but he needed just a minute to break down and digest the information he’d just been handed.
“Eating disorders are a psychiatric condition as much as a medical condition. They’ll get her stabilized up on the medical ward and then have the psych consult there before taking her upstairs.”
“I thought you said she’s stable now.”
“There are varying degrees of stability, Mr. Anderson.” The doctor sighed as if frustrated talking to an ignorant child. “She’s not in cardiac arrest, but her condition is life threatening.”
“Life threatening?” She wasn’t that thin, was she? Joel hadn’t seen her in three weeks. Apparently, she’d gone further downhill than when he was in the city for her performance. He needed to hurry. Standing suddenly, Joel shook off the comforting arms and wiped his eyes. He turned to nod a quick smile of thanks to the man who had provided support. Joel didn’t even know the guy’s name, nor did he take the time to ask, just hurried down the hall. The only reason he hadn’t taken off at a full run was so he could hold a conversation with the doctor.
“Mr. Anderson, you’re the only person listed as next-of-kin, and the only person I’m authorized to speak to, so if any of her family or friends wants additional information, they’ll need to come through you.”
“I’ll call her mom and dad,” Joel said. “And I’ll be on the next airplane from Detroit. If she wakes up, please tell her I’m on my way and that I love her.”
“Travel safely, Mr. Anderson.”
“Thank you, Dr. Sunil. I’ll be there and soon as I can. Thank you for taking care of my wife.” Joel couldn’t have said another word if he needed to because his voice choked with tears. As soon as he disconnected with the doctor, Joel dialed his father-in-law. “Mr. LaFleur, I need a ride to the airport and I’m leaving my car at your house. Winnie’s in the hospital and I’m flying to New York indefinitely.”
“What’s wrong with our daughter?” Warren asked. “Hang on, I’m putting you on speakerphone. Teri, come here. Joel’s on the phone. Winnie’s in the hospital.”
“Oh my gosh, what’s wrong with my little girl?” Teri cried out.
Joel was glad Warren had thought to bring his wife into the conversation so he didn’t have to repeat himself. “She collapsed during ballet class.”
“Has she been drinking enough water?” Teri asked, her tone more dismissive than Joel would have expected. “She always gets lightheaded when she forgets to drink enough water.”
“Mrs. LaFleur, Winnie has an eating disorder. She’s anorexic, dehydrated, malnourished, and her condition is life threatening.”
“I’m sure she’ll feel better when she gets some fluids in her. Are they giving her Gatorade or something? She needs some Gatorade.”
“Gatorade?” Joel stopped short. “I’m sure they have an IV in her arm. She’s not conscious, Mom. She won’t wake up. She’s very sick. Very sick.” Joel realized for the first time that he was in denial how much Winnie’s mother was part of the problem.
“Are they going to keep her in the hospital overnight?” Teri asked.
“The doctor said she’ll probably be in the hospital for several weeks.”
“Several weeks? Why?”
Joel was done dealing with his mother-in-law and spoke directly to her husband. “Warren, I’m heading over to my apartment to pack a few things and then driving to your house. Could you get online and find me a flight from Detroit to NYC this afternoon?”
“Of course,” Warren said. “Drive safely, son.”
“Thanks, Dad, I will.” Joel hung up and took off at a full run.
Winnie raced down the last few steps knowing she would be late again if she didn’t hurry. She bumped into the wall at the bottom of the stairs as she tried to take the corner too quickly, ignoring the way the movement gave her vertigo. She dropped her bag in the corner of the practice room and hurried to the bar.
The company had already begun warmups and Winnie received a pointed look from across the room from Madame Audrey. Winnie already felt like she was under a microscope and fought a yawn, not wanting anyone to know how tired she was. She’d only been with the company a few months and wasn’t sure how long she’d feel like the new kid. She had to be perfect for now.
She and Joel had been on the phone late into the night planning for Thanksgiving break. Having performances with Nutcracker and Swan Lake gave Winnie the excuse to stay in New York City over Joel’s holiday so he was flying here. As an added bonus, Winnie had an excuse to miss Thanksgiving at her mother’s house for the first time since she was born. That made her smile as she bent her legs in grand plié.
Down, and up, and down, and up, and relevé, and return to demi plié. Winnie could do warmups in her sleep and got lost in the stretching and bending and reaching, warming her body from the chill outside the studio.
Her body craved the soup she’d planned for lunch and she fought against her hunger, knowing the sooner she warmed her body, the sooner the soup would seem less desirable. She wouldn’t need to drink something warm because she’d already be warm. She would though. She would force herself to drink the warm, vegetable soup with savory broth. Her stomach growled but she ignored it. Not time for lunch yet.
In the back of her mind, Winnie could hear her former ballet mistress, Madame Jocie asking her every day, “When was the last time you ate?” No one asked her that anymore. In the company, she was responsible for her own health. She had control now. As long as she showed up on time, put in the work, and performed at her best, no one paid any attention. Not that they didn’t care. They did. They just didn’t know. She wasn’t going to tell them.
After forty-five minutes at the barre, the members of the company split up into various practice rooms to begin rehearsals. Winnie would practice for three ballets that day in addition to a performance that evening, a total of about eight hours of dance. She had to reserve her energy in order to peak at nine-thirty that evening. Her performance had to end even stronger than it began, or she wasn’t satisfied.
Winnie was one of six understudies for the part of Sugar Plum Fairy but unless five other girls, all of whom had been in the company a year longer than she had, all suddenly couldn’t dance for whatever reason, she would be dancing the part of one of the Spanish dancers or Flowers. She needed to be ready at a moment’s notice to step into whichever part she was needed.
At University of Michigan, she’s been the elite dancer, at her performing arts high school she’d been the best of the best, but in her first year at the Ajkun Ballet Theatre company, she was lowest on the totem pole. That was okay. Everyone had to start somewhere. She was honored to have this opportunity.
Throughout the morning she threw herself further and further into her head, focusing on feeling the dance rather than remembering the steps. She knew the steps. She’d studied them all her life.
If the ballet masters or mistresses told her to perform a fouetté rond de jambe en tournant, she could extend her working leg to the front, whip it around into a spin, retract the toe to the knee of the supporting leg and complete the turn before they told her how many rotations.
Unfortunately, the number of rotations that morning was infinite, or so it seemed to Winnie’s increasingly fatigued body. She didn’t want to admit weakness and request an early lunch, so she kept spinning. They would make some correction. One of the dancers in the front row was out of time and they’d start the whole sequence over. Someone else had their arms in the wrong position, someone else had the wrong facial expression, someone else started too slow, someone else started too fast, someone else didn’t spot in time with everyone else, someone else… someone else… someone…
Someone said her name softly amidst beeping and darkness and haze and she tried to force her eyes open because she recognized that voice except Joel wasn’t scheduled to fly to New York until Wednesday afternoon and it was only Monday. She let the darkness pull her under again. The world was more peaceful in the darkness.
Joel lay in bed watching Winnie sleep, saddened and frustrated about her appearance. Yes, she was as beautiful as ever, elegant even. But how had she done this to herself. Why had she done this to herself? What was wrong with the culture of the theatre that made women think they needed to be thin in order to be beautiful?
He loved her curves. There weren’t many curves left.
The blanket draped over her naked form wasn’t fully covering her and Joel lifted the blanket just little more and took a moment to examine her in the moonlight. Her breasts were smaller, her ribs were more visible, as were her hips. She was starving herself. Tears sprung to his eyes.
For the first time Joel allowed himself to admit what he’d probably known all along. He almost said the words out loud as he thought them in his head. My wife has anorexia nervosa. My wife has an eating disorder. My wife needs to get treatment. Immediately.
He was in medical school. He should have identified this a long time ago. If only he’d allowed himself to admit the signs that had been there all along. He blamed himself. If he’d followed his gut instinct months ago, she could have been in treatment all this time. She could have been getting healthier instead of wasting away like a skeleton.
How was he supposed to leave her on Sunday evening? How was he supposed to go back to college and pretend he didn’t know what he knew? How was he supposed to abandon his wife? He had made a vow to care for her in sickness and in health.
He was failing as a husband. He’d brushed off his responsibilities, justifying that he’d already proven his ability to care for her in sickness and wanted all the spoils of her health. He needed to take a step back and realize his vows were about to be tested again.
Joel took another silent vow that he would find a way to help his wife. She deserved his commitment. She deserved his willingness to set aside his own needs, set aside his own education and career if that’s what it would take.
He would set aside his life to save hers.
Book Club Discussion: What would you do to save the love of your life?
“What is your problem?” Winnie tossed her keys in a little dish just inside the door of their apartment.
She’d been here alone for two months and realized the place was a mess. Here she was bringing her husband home to New York City after he’d been stuck at medical school in Ann Arbor for the past eight weeks and she hadn’t cleaned. There were sewing supplies on the table from when she’d been sewing ribbons onto her new toe shoes and fixing the hem of one of her costumes. None of his favorite food was in the cupboards and she’d thrown away any meat that had been contaminating the refrigerator.
“You were scowling the whole time we were having dinner with my family.”
“Did we have dinner with your family?” Joel asked with sarcasm, slipping off his dress shoes near the door and hanging up his sport coat in the hall closet. “Because you barely touched the bowl of soup you had in front of you.”
“I was too nervous to eat.” She lifted her chin in the air, frustrated that he’d somehow forgotten her aversion to eating in public.
“Winnie, you’ve lost too much weight.” Joel sounded like he was going to cry. “You don’t look healthy.”
“If I weren’t healthy, I wouldn’t have had the stamina to dance nonstop for two hours this evening.” She pushed past him and headed for the bathroom where she washed the makeup off her face and pulled her bun down from her hair, shaking her once thick curls down over her shoulders. Years of pulling her hair into a bun had weakened the brittle stands but she still looked beautiful. She still was beautiful, more so now that she was finally almost thin enough to fit in with the other professional dancers.
She turned to where her husband was leaning against the door frame of the open bathroom door. “And just to prove my level of stamina, I plan to spend the rest of the night showing you just how much energy I have left.”
“I’m afraid if I make love to you, I’ll break your little body,” Joel said with concern and darkness in his tone.
“You’re not getting out of it that easy.” Winnie practically shoved him out the door and redirected his path toward the bedroom. “I have been missing you to the point of frustration and you are going to make love to me whether you want to or not.”
“Trust me, I want to.” He chuckled softly. “I’m just… nervous.”
“I’m fine, Joel. I’m better than fine.” She stood in front of her husband and started unhooking the buttons on the front of his white dress shirt, seriously considering ripping them off to gain easier access to his incredible body. Finally, when she had them all undone and could touch the skin of his defined chest muscles, he responded with a soft moan. Still, he didn’t reach to remove her clothes and she whispered with desperation, “Joel, please make love to me.”
That woke him out of his stupor, and he gently pushed her back toward their bed. She climbed up, shoving pillows and blankets out of the way and pulled him down on top of her. Finally, his hormones overpowered his rational thinking and instinct took over.
Winnie couldn’t fathom how they’d allowed themselves to be away from each other this long and couldn’t imagine letting him get back on an airplane Sunday evening. The three weeks between now and Thanksgiving were an eternity and then two more weeks of torture until he’d be with her for all of Christmas break. Her prize would be nineteen days of bliss over the holidays where she didn’t intend to let him out of her sight.
Gone was the pain and difficulty from their honeymoon. Their bodies knew how to love one another’s, and they did. With abandon. With passion. And finally with tears.
The same tears that racked Winnie’s body with sobs after a particularly exquisite dance performance flowed through her body now and Joel’s tears mixed with hers as they clung to one another.
They’d experienced this several times over the course of their marriage when the passion of their lovemaking had led to mutual sobbing, pouring out their hearts to one another without words, just holding each other and never letting go.
She held him for countless minutes afterward and never wanted to let him go.
“I still don’t understand why we can’t stay at your apartment?” Teri LaFleur wasn’t taking a hint and Joel decided he was going to need to be more direct. “We’re hardly going to see our daughter the whole weekend other than while she’s on stage. There’s no reason for a hotel when you have an extra bedroom at your apartment.”
“Winnie and I have been apart for eight weeks.” Joel wasn’t sure how her mom wasn’t taking a hint. “We aren’t going to want anyone with us at our apartment tonight or tomorrow night. And be surprised if you see us for brunch tomorrow morning.”
“Please, it’s not like you’re still on your honeymoon.” Teri rolled her eyes and kept shuffling down the row of seats. Joel was starting to regret inviting Winnie’s family to New York City to see her first official performance as a professional dancer. The theatre was getting crowded, and Joel was losing his patience.
“Teri, leave it alone,” Winnie’s father, Warren, grumbled to his wife. “We’re staying at a hotel.”
“Trust me, we don’t want to be around them tonight.” Marshall, Winnie’s oldest brother reached over and offered Joel a fist bump and an eye roll. They’d come a long way in a year. Last Thanksgiving, Marshall had tackled Joel in a fierce battle over his little sister’s virtue. Amazing what a wedding ring and a mutual understanding can do for a relationship. Now, in early November of the following year, he had a kindred brother-in-law who had his back.
“Thank you,” Joel said, glancing down at his ticket. “I think we passed our seats. They’re right here.”
“Were these the best seats we could get?” Teri asked, turning around and getting settled. “They’re practically nose bleeders.”
“Mom, they’re the first balcony, front and center,” Gage said, looking down at the elegant velvet seats lining the floor of the theater below. “That’s hardly nose bleeders.” As the younger brother, Gage was barely out of his teens.
“She said all the costumes are identical and we probably won’t be able to tell which swan is which,” Joel said.
“We can play ‘Where’s Waldo’ Swan Lake style,” Gage suggested. “We’ll call the game Where’s Winnie?”
“The first person to identify the correct swan gets a free drink on me,” Joel said. “As long as you point her out, because I am dying to see my wife. Just being this close to her gives me a… uh… feeling of excitement.”
“You do realize you’re sitting two seats away from her father, right?” Warren glared at Joel.
“And in between her brothers,” Marshall said through gritted teeth.
“All of whom empathize with my frustration.” Joel leaned forward and put his knees on his elbows trying to hold in a snicker.
“You’re lucky none of us threw you over the balcony,” Marshall said, failing to hold in his own laughter.
“I don’t understand,” Teri said with a blank stare. “What are you upset about?”
“Never mind, Mom. It’s a guy thing.” Gage reached over and patted his mother on the shoulder.
“Oh look! The lights are dimming!” Teri bounced with excitement and turned to face the front of the stage.
Joel’s frustration increased when the first half dozen dancers were all guys, and they took way too long making way for the women to finally dance their way onto the stage. Winnie had been correct. All the costumes were nearly identical.
“There she is,” Joel whispered. Maybe because her skin was a lovely olive tone just a shade darker than the other pasty, white dancers. Maybe because he’d memorized every curve of her body in the months since they’d gotten married. Maybe he was a moth and she was the only flame in the world. There was almost a spotlight shining over her. She was there, dancing for him. As if he was the only person in the audience.
“Which one?” Gage asked. “I can’t tell the difference.”
“That’s because she’s not dancing for you.” Joel wasn’t sure if his words were loud enough to answer his brother-in-law or, like this dance, his words were meant for him alone. “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life.”
Two hours passed as if mere seconds and then the curtains fell, and the audience rose from their hypnotized state. Joel could barely move until suddenly he realized the quicker he left the balcony, the quicker he’d see his wife up close. Then he couldn’t leave the balcony quickly enough and nearly plowed over his family and fellow patrons of the theatre.
What felt like hours passed before dancers began emerging from backstage to greet friends and family in the lobby. The principles and leads appeared first, which caused a bottleneck of well-wishers.
Lesser cast members pushed their way through the throngs until suddenly there she was, twenty feet away, still dressed in full costume and makeup.
Winnie must have seen Joel almost the same time he saw her because her shoulders fell, and her expression changed as soon as she met his eyes from across the lobby.
“There’s my girl,” Teri called out with excitement, hurrying forward. Joel wanted to shove his way past his mother-in-law and tell her to take a hike back to Michigan so he could take his wife home to the apartment he hadn’t seen in eight weeks.
Winnie graciously hugged her mom and accepted the bouquet of flowers her mom handed her, all the while gazing at Joel over her mom’s shoulder. Joel crept forward as if in a daze.
When he was within a few feet of her he held out a single burgundy rose so dark it was nearly black. Joel knew Winnie would understand. Burgundy roses signified deep passion of the strongest kind. Combined with the black ribbon he’d tied around the stem of the rose, this gift represented the passionate black swan with whom he intended to share a night alone.
Winnie’s eyes smoldered and barely left his to take the rose from his hand. She shoved the bouquet of flowers gently back to her mom and draped her arms around Joel’s neck. He picked her right off the ground and she wrapped her legs around his waist and clung to him like a monkey. He wanted to rip off the stiff tutu that encircled her waist, hindering his ability to feel every inch of her body. Their mouths connected in a kiss almost too passionate for the lobby of a ballet theatre.
Someone whistled, probably her younger brother, Gage. Someone else pulled at his arm, trying to get his attention, probably her mother. Someone cleared their throat with impatience, probably her father. Finally, her brother, Marshall said, “The sooner you let us say hello to our sister, the sooner you can say goodnight to her family.”
That got Joel’s attention and he pulled away, setting Winnie back on her feet. It was only then that he realized what was wrong. The words slipped out as if on the own volition. “You’re so thin.”
“Thank you.” Winnie beamed with pride and Joel didn’t have the heart to tell her that he hadn’t meant that as a compliment.
“You look beautiful, darling,” Teri said. “My goodness. Look at that figure.”
Joel was looking all right. He was looking at a skeleton of the woman he married. Her muscles were still toned and defined but there wasn’t much else on her bones.
Winnie spun around as if to show off her new body and Joel took a step back in shock. He saw the same shock in the eyes of her brothers. She’d lost too much weight for eight weeks. She wasn’t healthy.
His physical desires for his wife were placed on hold while he gaped at her receiving affection and praise from her parents.
“Is she okay?” Gage asked Joel quietly.
“I don’t know,” Joel answered. “I sure hope so.”
“I got a job!” Winnie burst in the door of their apartment to find Joel leaning over the dining room table which was spread with colorful anatomical drawings.
He’d been pouring over study materials for weeks memorizing things he knew he’d need once med school officially started in the fall. His dedication and preparation were inspiring, but Winnie needed to interject herself into his evening. This was too exciting.
“Remember the Ajkun Ballet Theatre that I auditioned for three weeks ago?” Winnie asked.
“Uh…” He lifted his shoulders and creased it brow. “The one you really liked?”
“Never mind, you don’t have to remember all of them.” Winnie waved her hand dismissively. She hurried across the room and threw herself into his arms. “I’ve been training with them for weeks and they invited me to join their company!”
“That’s amazing, Edwina. I’m so proud of you.” He wrapped her in a bear hug. “What part will you have? Will you have a lead?”
“No, no, it’s not like that. The company does lots of performances throughout the years. We’ll be constantly preparing dozens of shows. I have to be ready at a moment’s notice to be a lead or a supporting part. The more ballets I know how to dance, the more useful I’ll be to the company.”
“I’m sure you’ll do a great job.” He seemed at a loss for what else to say.
“What’chu working on?” Winnie had to understand basic anatomy and physiology in order to be a dancer and a strong athlete. But most of what she had studied was macro level. Muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments. She had no interest in veins and arteries or the inner workings of the brain, stomach, liver, and heart.
“The first exam for my kinesiology class is tomorrow and I’m studying the neurobiological effects of physical exercise on adaptive plasticity and how it relates to enhanced cognitive function in older adults. I think this could really help me apply the techniques to healing sports injuries.”
“Umm… when did you start taking a class in kinesiology?” Winnie picked up one of the colorful anatomic drawings.
“Couple weeks ago.” Joel took a step back and tucked his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Probably about the same time you auditioned for the Ajkun Ballet Theatre.”
“I’ve been pretty absent the past month, haven’t I?” Winnie felt bad that she’d been neglecting her husband.
“That’s why we came here, right?” He leaned against the kitchen table. “I’ve been trying to stay out of your way so that you can do whatever it is you would have done this summer if you’d never met me.”
“Honey, you didn’t have to do that. You could have come with me.”
“To a dance studio?” He scoffed. “Thanks, but I’m happy with my study of neuroplasticity. Like you mentioned a few months ago, med school’s gonna be intense and you’d be bored staying at college with me.”
“I don’t want to be apart from you though.” Winnie’s heart plummeted into her stomach, realizing what today meant. She was now a professional dancer. And Joel was starting into medical school. He would be leaving for Ann Arbor in a few weeks.
“I’ll fly over here every time I have a long weekend or something. And Thanksgiving. And all of Christmas break. We’re both going to be so busy.”
Winnie couldn’t tell if Joel was trying to convince her, or himself. Maybe both. He opened his arms and she tucked herself up close to him, the excitement of the day muted by reality.
“I am so proud of you, Winnie,” Joel whispered into her hair. “You are achieving your dreams. Nothing is holding you back. No one is holding you back.”
She pulled away and looked up at him. “I’ve never thought of you as holding me back.”
“I hope you never do. I hope we’re able to support one another.” He reached up and smoothed the hairs that had come loose from her bun. “In sickness and in health, right?”
“You’ve already proven that.” She leaned forward into another hug.
“Shall we do something fun tonight to celebrate?” Joel asked.
“Don’t you have a test to study for?”
“I can be done for the night.”
“How about we go over to Juice Press, get some smoothies and take a walk in Central Park?” Since Winnie was the one celebrating, she figured he wouldn’t mind going to her favorite vegan restaurant.
“That sounds like the perfect date.” He leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose. “And while we’re walking you can tell me all about your new job.”
“And you can tell me everything you learned this afternoon in preparation for your quiz tomorrow,” she said with a teasing lilt to her voice.
“I’m liking this date more and more,” Joel said, grabbing his wallet. “Let’s have a great summer and let the fall wait until autumn.”
“And let autumn give way to winter,” Winnie said, sashaying toward the door to leave their apartment.
“When I will watch you dance in Swan Lake.”
“And I will wear the black swan costume,” Winnie said in a seductive voice.
“Okay, let’s take a quick walk in the park and come back here for the rest of the night so we can talk more about that black swan costume.”
“I’ll be the black swan if you’ll be the prince.” They held hands as they walked down the hall to the elevator.
“Let’s just bring the smoothies back to our apartment and skip the park…”
“We can afford something better than this, can’t we?” Joel spoke quietly through the side of his mouth. “What did you tell her our budget was?” Joel tried not to gag at the smell in the hallway of the apartment complex, somewhere in the depths of which there was a cat who didn’t know where its litter box was located.
“I didn’t tell her a budget,” Winnie mumbled. “I told her that we just graduated college and were coming here to interview at dance companies. She said this is where all the newbies come to live.”
“I cannot live here, Edwina. I can’t. I’m seriously not able to breathe.” Joel didn’t wait for Winnie to take a step further. “Ma’am, with all due respect. We need to be shown a different apartment complex.”
“This is the only apartment available in your price range.” The apartment manager stuck her chin in the air.
“What exactly is our price range?” he baited her, knowing they hadn’t given her one.
“Unemployed college graduates with degrees in dance?” She snickered. “You’re all the same. The best I can find for the least amount of money.”
“Thank you, we’ll see ourselves out,” Joel said, taking his wife’s hand. “We’ll get a hotel room for the night.”
“Don’t you want to see if she has anything else?” Winnie tugged his arm so that he had to stop and turn back around.
“She said that’s the only apartment available.”
“In our price range.” Winnie raised her eyebrows.
“But she doesn’t even know our price range.” Joel pointed back toward the annoying apartment manager.
“Exactly.” Winnie turned around and spoke directly to the woman. “Ma’am, we have plenty of money. We need to live in a cleaner environment.”
“You think you’re too good for this apartment complex?” the snooty woman asked, her high heels clicking on the cheap linoleum floor of the dank hallway.
“In this condition?” Joel asked with rhetoric sarcasm as they followed her down the long hallway to the exit door. “Yes. Everyone is too good for this place. No one should have to live like this.”
“Well good luck finding something this close to the theatres.” She strode over to the front door of the complex and held open the door for them.
“Thank you for the tour,” Winnie said politely, nodding to the woman on their way out. Joel didn’t bother. When they were out on the street, Winnie look around. “Now what?”
They were both still dragging a wheeled suitcase and wearing backpacks they’d used as carry-ons on the plane. Joel took out his cell phone and pulled up Google Maps. “There’s a Fairfield Inn just around the corner. Let’s go there for tonight and do some research.”
“Good thing we’re both athletes.” Winnie was breathing heavy and Joel slowed his pace. “This place is further away when dragging a suitcase.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sorry. I’ll drag both of ours.” With ease he took the handle from her and kept walking, one behind each arm. He was already cranky after a long delay on the tarmac in Detroit Metro, the lack of first-class seats available on the plane, plus the annoying and smelly apartment. What was a little more discomfort?
The Fairfield Inn turned out to be a decent choice. Their room was clean and comfortable and the clerk at the main desk was generous with her time explaining some of the nearby possibilities for housing. They collapsed in the bed to take a quick nap before venturing out to find dinner and conducting more research.
Lying there in the coolness of the air-conditioned room, Joel opened his eyes and chuckled at Winnie curled up in the near darkness from the closed curtains. “This reminds me of when we were first married.”
“Why?” Winnie mumbled without opening her eyes.
“Exhausted and too tired and worn out to make love.”
“Speak fer yerself… I’m wide awake.” Her soft snore moments later confirmed Joel’s assessment. They slept through the dinner hours and ordered room service at almost midnight.
The following morning, they made some phone calls and found luxury apartments practically next door to the Lincoln Center. They would need to purchase all new furniture again, but Joel didn’t care. If he was going to be stuck in this concrete jungle for the summer, at the very least he didn’t want to live in the slums. If his wife did stay here into the fall season, he wouldn’t be worried for her safety. He’d miss her. But not worried.
In a sadistic and selfish way, he secretly hoped she didn’t find a job at a theatre.
“Congratulations, both of you!” Winnie’s father, Warren LaFleur held up a glass of champagne, toasting to his daughter and son-in-law’s graduation from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, the University of Michigan.
“Here, here!” Joel’s father, Dean Anderson raised his glass in solidarity. The Andersons had flown in from California the day before graduation and were staying at Winnie’s parents’ elegant home in Farmington Hills. This gave Winnie and Joel a place to celebrate with both families without needing to brave a crowded restaurant, and without Joel’s parents having to stay in a hotel.
Winnie was grateful for her parents’ hospitality and excited to get reacquainted with Joel’s family, Lynnette in particular. They’d had a fun discussion in the kitchen while the women were cooking.
“You look healthier than the last time I saw you,” Lynnette had said, nudging Winnie’s shoulder. “Good to see some color in your cheeks and a sparkle in your eyes.”
“It’s amazing what happens when you’re able to keep food down,” Winnie said, knowing what question was coming next.
“And I’m assuming things in the bedroom are going better.” Lynnette wiggled her eyebrows up and down.
“A thousand percent better.” Winnie felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment at talking with her mother-in-law about sex. “Thank you again for your advice.”
“Okay, wait a minute”—Winnie’s mom, Teri, interrupted—“When were you sick, and why didn’t you tell me all this? I’m your mother.” Jealously laced her words.
“We were at the Anderson’s house right after our wedding, so Lynnette helped me with a major challenge Joel and I were having.” Winnie lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whispered. “It hurt to even try.”
“Oh, well, you need some lubricant.” Her mom waved her hand dismissively and took another sip from her glass of wine.
“That’s what Lynnette said. And she took me right to the store.” Winnie draped her arm through her mother-in-law’s arm in solidarity. “From now on I’m giving that as a gift at every bridal shower I attend. Women need to know about this before they ruin an otherwise beautiful moment on their wedding night. Not that I had any fun on our wedding night.” Winnie shuttered, remembering the horror.
“What happened on your wedding night?”
“I spent the whole night puking up the rich food from the reception,” she told her mom, embarrassed that she’d never shared the story with her. “I think the first full meal I kept down was the spaghetti Lynnette made for me four days later.”
“What is it with you and food?” Her mom asked rhetorically. “If you would just eat like a normal person, you wouldn’t be so affected like that. There was nothing wrong with the food at your wedding.”
“Some foods just don’t agree with my body,” Winnie defended. “I don’t eat this way because I’m trying to be difficult. I eat this way because I know what makes me sick and what keeps me healthy.”
“Well, you look a lot healthier than you did.” Lynnette wrapped her arm around Winnie’s shoulders. “And have you started seeing a doctor yet?”
Winnie knew what Lynnette was really asking without coming out and saying as much in front of Winnie’s mom. She wanted to know if Winnie had gotten treatment for her eating disorder. “No, I’m fine as long as I eat the right foods.”
Lynnette pursed her lips and creased her brow but let her off the hook. “Promise me you’ll talk to someone if you get sick again.”
“I promise.” Winnie could tell Lynnette wasn’t going to let this go but was thankful she hadn’t pushed the subject in front of her mother.
A question from her father brought Winnie back to the present. “Can you hand me your plate so I can dish you up a piece of lasagna?”
Winnie clung to her plate with both hands, pressing the fine china into the table as if someone was going to snatch the plate away from her and contaminate the space with something she knew she wouldn’t eat. “No, thank you, Daddy. I’ll stick with salad and breadsticks.”
“I made vegetable lasagna specifically for you.” Her mom’s voice rose with emotion. “You’re not even going to eat the meal I prepared?”
“Your recipe contains beef stock, Mom,” Winnie said. “I watched you pour it into the sauce.”
“It’s just a cup of broth in the whole pan of sauce.” Her mom dismissed Winnie’s concern. “I don’t understand what the big deal is. How much longer are you going to stick with this vegetarian nonsense? You used to love my cooking.”
All conversation at the table had stopped and Joel rested his arm across the top of Winnie’s chair but didn’t try to rescue her from the interrogation. Winnie appreciated that. She wanted her husband’s support but didn’t want him trying to fix her problems. Winnie lifted her chin with confidence. “I’ll be a vegetarian for the rest of my life, Mom.”
“Of course, you will.” Joel leaned over and kissed the side of Winnie’s head. “Maybe someday your mom will understand. In the meantime, I’ll take Winnie’s portion.” Joel held out his plate to his father-in-law with a forced smile.
Her mom pursed her lips but didn’t say anything else.
Joel’s dad changed the subject. “So, what are you kids’ plans now that you’ve graduated? Joel, you’re starting med school in the fall, right? Winnie, have you chosen a career?”
“We’re going to New York City for the summer, actually.” Winnie’s whole countenance shifted with excitement, not only thankful for the distraction from her eating habits, but also for a transition into her favorite topic of conversation. “We’d like to see if I can get hired by a theatre to dance.”
“She’s very talented.” Joel smiled and winked at her. “They’d be crazy not to have you in their company, if not a lead.”
“She is very talented,” Lynnette said. “I was blown away by the video she showed us from December. You must be very proud of your daughter.” Lynnette turned to Winnie’s parents.
“We are,” her dad said, lifting his chest with pride. “For lots of reasons.”
“We recognized her talent when she was very little,” her mom added, excitement in her tone. “She always wanted to dress in pretty costumes and spin around the house, leaping through the air, posing and bowing to her imaginary audience. She was adorable.”
Winnie couldn’t help beam at her parents’ and in-laws’ praise. This was why she was heading to New York City. She’d wanted this all her life. She was a dancer. And she was going to dance forever. She took another bite of her salad, excited for her future.
“I’d like to go to New York City.” Winnie burst in the door with excitement, interrupting Joel’s much-needed study session. He was falling behind in a couple of his classes because he couldn’t keep his hands off his wife. Capping his highlighter marker, Joel tucked a notecard into the correct spot on his textbook intending to give Winnie his undivided attention.
“That could be fun,” Joel said. “We’d need to wait until after graduation before taking a vacation.”
“I want to go for the whole summer,” she said, sitting across from him at their dining room table. “And possibly the fall.”
Joel sat back hard against his chair and gripped his hands into his hair, pulling gently. “Uh… I’m starting into med school in the fall.”
“Which is why you won’t really miss me because you’ll be too busy.”
“Trust me, I’ll miss you.” His voice lowered in frustration. They’d been married less than two months and part of that time had been spent in sickness rather than in health. The thought of Winnie being gone for even a single day was unfathomable.
“Let’s just go over to New York City for a few weeks after graduation and see if I get hired by a theatre and if I even like living there, and then at least we’ll know if there’s a possibility of me having a dancing career. Please?”
Career. Joel hadn’t thought of that. She intended to make dance her career. Of course she did. He just never put the puzzle pieces together. Ballet. Theatre. New York City. Yeah, he was an idiot for not seeing this course for her life. React quickly, Joel. Support your wife. “Absolutely. Of course. Summer in New York City sounds fantastic.” Liar.
“Thank you so much!” Winnie bounced with excitement and Joel opened his arms to welcome her onto his lap. “I danced for hours today listening to the whole suite from Swan Lake, picturing myself as any one of the many dancers in a company. Can’t you just see me with beautiful white feathers wrapped around my head? Or… in that black, mysterious tutu as the black swan?” She wiggled her eyebrows seductively.
“You will be a vision in white.” Joel leaned closer for a chaste kiss. “And a temptress in black.” He pulled her closer for a much less chaste kiss. Heck if her reaction to his kiss brought out this kind of response, he’d sew her that black costume himself.
He forgot about his studies and pulled her thick parka off her shoulders gaining easier access to the soft wraparound sweater and every layer underneath, and there were many layers. Leotard, tights, sports bra, everything came off, right there in the dining room. She pulled his clothes off him just as quickly as he pulled hers off.
Joel wondered if he’d ever tire of making love to his wife. The thought occurred to him that he wouldn’t have a choice if she stayed in New York City and he returned to Michigan for med school. He shoved that thought aside as quickly as he shoved his textbook and notebooks and pens and calculator off the table, making room for a much more desirable study subject.
Graduation was still weeks away, and fall was a million days from now. A million days of passionate abandon in each other’s arms. A million days of pretending the world could never interrupt their perfect existence. A million days pretending a million was infinity and beyond.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What other kinds of challenges might they face if they're separated?
The music stopped suddenly and Madame Jocie’s voice pierced the echoing silence. “You’re off-balance. What’s wrong?”
“I’m lightheaded,” Winnie said. “I just need some water.” She walked toward the mirror where her water bottle sat on the floor beside her backpack.
“When was the last time you ate?”
“You ask me that every day.” Winnie’s frustration showed in her clipped tone. “I can’t eat right before practice. You know that. I’d be puking up my food and you’re the biggest advocate for avoiding that.”
“Nutrition stays in the body,” Madame Jocie said.
“If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard you say that I’d be a rich woman.”
“If I had a dollar for every ounce of food you’ve eat since the day I met you’d I’d be pauper on the street.” She strode over to her stash of fruits and nuts and other snacks and dug through for Winnie’s favorites then tossed Winnie a little packet of macadamia nuts and a banana.
Winnie opened the bag of nuts and set the banana aside. Too much sugar. The nuts had too much fat but at least they tasted good, and she would just eat a few.
“How’s married life?” Madame Jocie sat cross legged right in front of Winnie where she couldn’t avoid eye contact if she wanted. For an fifty-something former prima ballerina, she was still youthful and flexible and willing to do anything she asked of her students, which was a lot.
“Amazing.” A tiny smile played at the corners of her mouth. Five weeks had passed since the semester began, and Winnie was eternally grateful to Madame Jocie for ordering her back to her apartment on the first day of class.
The past month had been absolute bliss. Neither Winnie nor Joel had any real obligations or deadlines other than typical college classes, quizzes, tests, and practices. Every day they both hurried home to spend most of the evening in bed together. Some time during the evening Joel would cook himself a nice big meal and Winnie would make herself a protein shake or smoothie. They would do homework or study or just lay around and talk for an hour or two after dinner and then head back into the bedroom.
Madame Jocie interrupted Winnie’s daydreaming with a pointed question they hadn’t discussed in a long time. “Have you decided what you’re doing after graduation?”
“Joel’s starting in medical school, so I guess we’re staying here for a while.” Winnie shrugged, knowing what was coming next.
“What about New York City?”
“We could probably go over there for the summer and then come back in time for fall semester.”
“Fall is the most important time to be in NYC.” Madame Jocie wasn’t saying anything Winnie didn’t already know. “You’d be a shoo-in for Swan Lake at any of the theatres.”
“I know.” Winnie gulped. No longer hungry for the nuts, she set the half-empty bag beside her unopened banana and took a drink of water.
“I can get you in contact with all the right people.”
“We’re newlyweds,” Winnie said. “I’m not really interested in being away from my husband right now if you know what I mean.”
“I was young once.” Madame Jocie’s knowing grin didn’t last long. “But you owe it to yourself to at least give your career a chance. Medical school is an intense time in a person’s life. Joel will barely notice you’re gone for a few weeks or months at time. He’ll be too busy. You’ll both be too busy.”
“I’ll think about it,” Winne said. She stood and brushed the chalk off her rear end and tights and walked to the middle of the practice room. “Would you kindly turn my music back on so I can practice? Actually, why don’t do switch songs and start a playlist of songs from Swan Lake so I can get some motivation to make a choice about my future.”
“Great idea.” With a full smile, Madame Jocie tapped a few buttons on her sound system and Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet composition blasted through the speakers.
Winnie stood in the center of the practice room for a moment with her eyes closed absorbing the sound and imagining herself on that stage in full costume, hair clipped up in white feathers, a stiff taffeta tutu jutting out from her hips, and the prince choosing her to be his swan.
She transported herself to that lake of tears where Odette waited for nightfall to become a human once more. The lights lowered, the curtain parted, she lifted her chin and let herself float into the world of dance.
Book Club Discussion Questions: today I've been listening to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake for inspiration for this chapter. If you were Winnie, would you go to New York City and leave your new husband home alone for several weeks or months?
Winnie came home to an empty apartment. She wasn’t surprised. They were both supposed to be at practice. Joel wasn’t due home for two hours. What was she thinking coming home early? What was she supposed to do now? Pace the floor while waiting for him? And what was she supposed to do when he walked in the door? Blurt it out?
“Hi, sweetie, did you have a nice day? Can we try again to have sex?” She tested the words out loud and felt silly.
She thought about ways she could show him her desires rather than tell him. Looking around their living room with its brand-new furniture and tastefully muted decorations, she noticed a couple of candles. Perfect!
Winnie took the candles into the bedroom where she set them on the table by the lamp and used a match to light them. What else?
Her underwear drawer had lingerie with the tags still in place, so she found scissors and snipped off the little plastics then laid the lacy garments across the bed.
Then she remembered that little blue and purple box unopened in the drawer of the bedside table. She snickered at the main marketing message, “Looking to spice up your sex life? Yeah, right. More like start our sex life.” She kept reading out loud even though she was the only person in the room. “Tingling sensations for her, warming sensations for him. Together, they’ll give you both thrills and chills. Humph, I don’t care about thrills and chills. I just don’t want it to hurt.”
“I promise not to hurt you again,” Joel said from the doorway of their bedroom.
“Ah! You startled me! I didn’t hear you come in.” Winnie put her hand to her heart, not as much embarrassed to be caught reading the marketing material on a box of personal lubricant as she was shocked to see him. “You’re home early.”
“You as well.” He leaned his shoulder against the doorframe. “Looks like you came home for the same reason I did. You beat me to the whole lighting-the-candles thing.”
“Great minds think alike.” Winnie giggled and held up the little blue and purple box. “Shall I keep reading?”
“I think you and I can figure out the rest without the instruction manual.” Joel pushed away from the door and walked slowly forward.
“I was going to put on lingerie too.” Winnie gulped.
“Might as well leave it off because it won’t be on long.” Joel stood in front of her and placed both hands on her hips. His eyes smoldered with desire.
“Are you as nervous as I am?” Winnie asked.
“Probably not,” Joel said, shaking his head slowly. “But I’m not the one who was in pain the first time.” He reached around the back of her head and pulled off the scrunchie that was holding her bun in place, releasing her hair so that it fell across her shoulders.
The fragrance of her shampoo wafted into the air and for some reason that alone made her sigh and relax. Like comfort food or warm socks.
“You should wear your hair down more often.” Joel’s voice was husky as he laced his fingers into the hair as the nape of her neck.
“Okay,” she squeaked out, surrendering into his arms.
Joel lifted and cradled her all the way onto the bed, lying down next to her and propping himself up on one elbow. “I love being married to you.”
“I love being married to you, also.”
“I know I’ve said many times that there’s more to marriage than sex, but I think we need to try again. I want to be connected to you in every way physically possible.”
“Me too,” she whispered.
“My darling, with your permission, I’d like to make love to you slowly, carefully, and methodically. And I promise not to hurt you this time.”
“I trust you.” Winnie laid back onto the comforter and waited for his lips to join with hers.
She didn’t have to wait very long.
They barely left their bed for two days.
Book Club Discussion Question: Do I torture my characters? Making them wait TWO WEEKS after their wedding to finally have sex?
“So… how was your honeymoon?” Madame Jocie’s knowing grin was accompanied by an eyebrow wiggle. Winnie hadn’t even set her bag down near the door of the practice room.
“Nonexistent.” Winnie shook her head at her ballet mistress. “I got sick on our wedding night.”
“I saw you a few days later at the Rose Bowl and you seemed fine.” Madam Jocie reached for Winnie’s hand. “Did you get sick again?”
“Not exactly…” Winnie hesitated. How much did she want to confess to her ballet mistress? She’d already confessed everything to her mother-in-law. “We tried to have sex a few days later and it hurt so bad I made him stop. And then I started my period.”
“So, you haven’t… at all?”
Winnie shook her head, emotions pricking her eyes.
“You need to try again.” Madame Jocie’s horrified voice was definitive.
“I know. I just don’t know how to suggest we try again,” Winnie admitted. “I think he’s afraid to ask because he thinks he’s putting too much pressure on me.”
“Find a way to tell him otherwise,” Madame Jocie insisted.
“He keeps telling me that there’s more to marriage than sex.”
“That may be true but it’s still an important part of marriage.”
“I know, but—”
“No buts!” Madame Jocie pushed Winnie toward the door. “Forget practice. Go home and make love to your husband!”
“You don’t think I should—”
“The only thing you need to do right now is go home.”
“Okay, okay.” Winnie held up her hands in surrender. “I’m going, I’m going.”
* * * * * * * * *
“There’s the married man!” one of his teammates called out as Joel entered the locker room for the first time since Christmas break.
“Look at you, stud,” another of his teammates said. “How was your honeymoon?”
Joel gulped and set down his gear bag near his locker. “Great.” He avoided meeting anyone’s eyes and opened his locker.
They were all regrouping and reorganizing after getting home from the Rose Bowl and everyone went back to their business. Except Shane.
Shane leaned his shoulder against the locker beside Joel, his eyes narrowed. “I need to put in five miles before practice. You in?”
“Yup.” Joel slammed his locker shut and turned on his heels, thankful for the distraction and knowing exactly what Shane was doing. He was dragging Joel out of the locker room so he could get the full story.
They hadn’t gotten a quarter mile in and Shane spoke up. “Talk.”
“Let’s just say I still need a cold shower every single day.”
Shane stopped and pulled Joel to a halt. “What? Why?”
“Winnie got sick.” Joel pulled his foot up behind him, stretching his hamstrings. “And then she started.”
“Dude, tough luck.” They started running again. “She looked fine yesterday.”
“She was fine yesterday,” Joel said.
“So, what was the problem?”
“We fell into bed exhausted.” Joel felt the irony of that statement as he jogged off excess energy.
“That’s no excuse,” Shane said.
“We flew home from California yesterday, moved into our new apartment, had company over. What the heck do you expect?”
“I expect you to tell me the truth,” Shane said. “What’s the real reason?”
“I’m afraid I’m gonna hurt her again,” Joel mumbled.
“We tried. Once. She cried out in pain and that messed me up in the head. I don’t want to hurt her again.”
“So, slow down and do it right this time.”
“How the heck am I doing it wrong?” Joel’s voice rose without him meaning it to. “There’s only one way to do it.”
“Not true, man. You’ve gotta find a way that works for both of you. Do some research or something.”
“What do you want me to do a Google search for, ‘How to have sex?’”
“That’s a start,” Shane said.
“You idiot. I’m not doing research to figure out how to have sex with my wife.”
“Fine then, keep taking cold showers.” Shane had a point.
They ran in silence for a few minutes, Joel seething. Finally, he grumbled, “What if she doesn’t want me?”
“What?” Shane stopped him again. “Why wouldn’t she want you?”
“Because I hurt her.” Joel shuffled his feet and stared down at the pavement.
“You didn’t hurt her on purpose.” Shane’s voice was softer and more compassionate.
“I know,” Joel choked out. “Doesn’t make it any easier.”
“Maybe things won’t be easy. But it’s still important.”
“There’s more to marriage than sex,” Joel mumbled for what felt like the hundredth time in the past two weeks.
“You’re right,” Shane said. “But sex is still an important part of marriage and you need to find a way to make this work.”
“When did you become a marriage expert?” Joel felt a partial smile play at the corner of his mouth.
“About twenty seconds ago when my best friend needed a kick upside the head. Look, I’m not all that religious but I once heard a pastor say that there’s no way to get closer to God and to your wife than the joining of your bodies. This is part of God’s plan for our happiness on earth. You need this for your marriage.”
“Then get your act together, man.”
“Forget practice,” Shane said, pushing Joel hard in the shoulder. “Go home and make love to your wife.”
“But shouldn’t I—”
“No butts,” Shane interrupted, pointing in the direction of their apartment complex. “Go home!”
“Okay, I’m going. I’m going.” Joel turned back and almost sprinted toward the locker room.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Anybody wanna take a wild, stab-in-the-dark guess what Chapter Nineteen will be about?