by Martha Anne Toll
He was spinning in front of the mirrors, humming, when she arrived. “Katya Symanova.” He walked toward her and picked up her chin. “I missed you.” Bumping his forehead against hers, he put his hand on her buttocks and pulled her in. “It’s not the same, being away,” he whispered.
As if he had left under duress. Traversed Europe against his will. Suffered himself to sleep with the Prima Ballerinas in a host of Continental troupes. “Welcome back to New York, Mr. Yanakov,” she said, her palm on his chest to separate herself. She lay on the floor to stretch. Had he figured her out already? She rolled onto her stomach and grabbed her ankles, rocking like a baby’s cradle pushed without heed.
“Come here,” Mr. Yanakov said, motioning her to stand.
He tipped her head, stepping back to scan her torso wrapped in a tattered black sweater, her V-neck navy blue leotard thoroughly worn. Could he see John painted all over her, the brushstrokes visible beneath her clothing?
Nicked with fear, she asked, “Recognize the physique?” as lightly as she could manage. Mr. Yanakov angled her left and continued his gaze down her thighs and knees and calves and feet turned out in old pointe shoes. “Seem familiar?” Her voice shook.
“I’m telling you, it’s not the same,” Mr. Yanakov repeated, shaking his head.
Was he saying he needed her? It was he who had just returned from choreographing a bevy of talented ballerinas. Surely he hadn’t thought of Katya as he flicked their wrists, rearranged their legs, and entreated them (in and out of bed) to inspirit his creation.
“You understand me,” Mr. Yanakov said.
Please, not now, when she was infused with John’s touch. The sound of last night with John was a flare’s sparking whoosh.
“I have the 1962 fall line up,” Mr. Y continued. “Veiled Road, Madison Avenue, and Rain Song. But we don’t have to do that now.” He moved closer. “We could do other things.”
“Let’s do it now,” Katya said, a little too eagerly.
The sound of waking up with John was chance’s cadence: this morning’s music. “I’d love to see what you’ve been up to,” she said to Mr. Yanakov. Katya had emerged overnight—unexpectedly–to become all the things she could not be. Her body spontaneous and unplanned. Her heart left ajar. “We’re here; we may as well,” Katya said to Mr. Yanakov. Talking with John last night was not the means to explain the next dance step, but the key to the choreography.
“If you insist.” Mr. Yanakov strode toward the turntable. “Warhol’s already agreed to do the sets,” he said, grinning.
It was drizzling when John met her after class yesterday afternoon. “Where to?” he had asked, brushing her lips.
“Could we stop at my place?” Katya asked. “I’d love to shower and change.”
“Of course.” He folded his arm around her.
The drizzle steadied to rain as they headed west on 46th Street. Leaning against him, she noticed the shabbiness of her neighborhood: windows barred, rusted fire escapes hanging like so many paths to nowhere.
“Be down in a minute,” she said when they reached her walk-up. She ran upstairs, the rain beating harder. It was pouring. John would be soaked by the time she finished her shower. She checked to see if her apartment was presentable. At least she had made her bed this morning. Back down the steps, her heart pounding. John was a lone figure on the sidewalk. Water droplets covered his wavy hair in spite of his black umbrella. “Maybe it’s drier inside,” Katya suggested, holding open her front door. Rivulets of rain slid down his face. He was smiling.
“I’ll wait here,” he said, pausing at the foot of the steps to close his dripping umbrella.
“It’s cramped at my place, but at least I can give you a chair,” she said. “If you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind at all,” he said.
“Where shall we begin?” Mr. Y put on a succession of discs and listened to each of them for a few minutes. “Never mind.” He turned off the record player. “May as well start with Rain Song. I’ve asked him to read it.”
Mr. Yanakov didn’t answer. When he was in process, he kept everything in his head. If something happened to him, his work would be lost with the speed that Katya’s mother had been flattened on Astoria Boulevard. Katya must be the only one paying attention to his prodigious output, every step imprinted on her like ritual scarification.
“This one’s for you.” Mr. Yanakov eyed Katya. “To dance alone. Let the rain sing you a lullaby,” he whispered, walking toward her, snapping his fingers. “We’ll put the music underneath. Let the rain kiss you,” he said softly. “Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Great poetry, isn’t it?”
He paused, lost in thought. “The poem is called ‘April Rain Song.’ Wouldn’t it be something to have Langston Hughes read it during performance?”
In the shower yesterday, she had gone through her litany of anxieties. She could dance her hardest and her best, but get to know the man sitting on the other side of the wall. Who already felt like a friend. Luxuriating in the hot water, she took a bar of grapefruit scented soap to lather her breasts. She washed between her legs, suds running down, surprised by a pinprick of regret that John had never known, and would never know Katherine Sillman, the name she had been given at birth. Would never experience the feel of the house in Queens where Katherine had grown up, her mother prone on the ochre sofa. Would never know Katherine as a student. Her mother missed her first performance because she was dead, struck by a truck as she went to buy bourbon. Young Symanova falling in front of an audience of thousands, her nascent hopes dashed by an errant left foot. The long arduous road to Prima Ballerina. Pockmarked—or more probably enhanced–by hours in Mr. Yanakov’s bed.
Katya kneaded shampoo into her hair, citrus whiffs filling the bathroom. No one visited her at home. Except the man beyond the door, blown in with the rain. A warm stream massaged her back. She was terrified to open the door and find John there. And more terrified to find him gone.
“We’ll have Langston Hughes at the mike reading stage left,” Mr. Yanakov said.
“I think of running,” Katya said, moving to the corner of the studio. She tore across the room.
“Good,” Mr. Y said. “Make an ‘X.’ One corner of the stage to the other.” He closed his eyes. “Let the rain sing you a lullaby.” He thought for a moment, then pointed imperiously. “Come center.”
She came center and crumpled to the floor, rolling with her arms over her head.
“The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.”
She stood and bent slowly sideways, stretching left and right, right and left, extending back and forth.
“Go on,” Mr. Yanakov said.
She stepped out of the shower and threw on a pair of black slacks and a print blouse. Rubbed the steam off the mirror so she could see to brush her hair. Marshaled her courage to open the door.
“Katya.” John stood up. He took in the sweep of her body and laughed.
Katya looked down. “Oh.” Her blouse was askew, several buttons undone at the bottom. She started to cry. All the things that hadn’t aligned. She should have done things differently. Not succumbed to Mr. Yanakov, not wanted him so badly. She shouldn’t be hiding the truth from John.
“It’s pouring,” John said, running his hand down the back of her head. “We don’t have to go out.”
She looked up and nodded, tracing the shape of his cheekbones and the lines of his mustache with her index finger.
He scooped her up and placed her on the bed. Moving aside her wet hair, he bent over and slowly, carefully, unbuttoned her cockeyed blouse.
“The rain makes running pools in the gutter,” Mr. Yanakov recited.
Her arms in front of her, palms parallel to the floor, reaching.
“Nice,” Mr. Yanakov said.
Wet with sweat, remembering John’s every word, each one drenched in emotion.
Mr. Yanakov trotted around the perimeter of the studio, waving his right hand in circles above his head. Continuing his recitation, “The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night/And I love the rain.
“I’m still stumped about the score,” he said, stopping to consider her. “Show me more.”
Naked, she reached inside the shoulders of John’s jacket and slid it off. Fingering the knot in his tie, she loosened it and pulled it through his shirt collar. Her assertiveness was both a choice and an affirmation. Just for tonight.
Propped on her elbow, she watched him undress. His body hair matched the swath of dark brown across his forehead. He picked up his clothes and put them on the chair next to her little table, then surprised her by walking around the bed to settle along her back. He ran his palm slowly down her front and felt the outline of each rib. Turned her over to kiss her open mouth. Rolling between her thighs, he licked her shoulders, wet from her hair. Each of her nipples, erect and hard. To the left, to the right, to the left again.
Through months and years she had practiced, tethered to a strict, unbending schedule. Relentlessly thrusting higher, farther, longer. She had pushed herself beyond the limits of endurance–her profession’s essence. Relied on her disciplined body to deliver heart-stopping performances every night. A soloist atop a company of dancers who lived the way she did, who shared her ambition to explore every muscular nuance.
She wrapped one, then the other leg around John. In them was the measure of her experience. She closed her eyes and let him take her over and through herself.
Somewhere during the night, she glimpsed what it might mean to be whole.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.
“That’s what I mean,” Mr. Yanakov said as Katya stopped for a drink of water. “You understand me.”
His work was her inspiration. Her inspiration was his work. She could reverse it too. Her work was his inspiration. His inspiration was her work. She could try to ignore the time spent in his bed and focus on these tautologies instead.
“I have an idea,” Katya said, looking up at Mr. Yanakov as she uncurled herself from a ball on the floor. “Skip the music,” she said. It would work for John, too. He could watch unfettered by music.
Mr. Yanakov was puzzled.
John had insisted they talk, even after such lovemaking. Weeping in her arms over his lost family. His father, shot for violating curfew. His mother and brother, marched to the gas chamber. He had lost himself singing in the Commandant’s living room. There were no words to comfort. For John, music was poison.
“I’ll dance to the sound of an afternoon shower,” Katya said to Mr. Yanakov. “The rain will be the score.”
“Interesting,” Mr. Yanakov said thoughtfully. “A ballet without music.”
“It would feel different,” Katya said. “I’m used to taking my cues from the music.”
“Right,” Mr. Yanakov said slowly.
“But I could do it,” she said excitedly.
“You’ll find the rhythm from the poetry,” Mr. Yanakov said, shaking his head enthusiastically. “I like that.”
“Rain Song” is an excerpt from Martha Anne Toll‘s novel in progress. Her fiction has appeared in Yale’s Letters Journal, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, Wild: A Quarterly; her essays and book commentaries on NPR, in The Millions, [PANK] Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Narrative Magazine, and the Washington Independent Review of Books. She directs a social justice foundation aimed at preventing and ending homelessness, abolishing the death penalty, and other aspects of criminal justice reform. Please visit her at www.marthaannetoll.com and tweet to her at @marthaannetoll.