“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.”