Chapter 1: a brief introduction to a fucked-up childhood
Héloïse is a quiet child. Blessed, says her nurse, with great fondness. Gifted, says her mother, with less fondness and more calculation.
Ballet royalty, they call her. Her father the best since Baryshnikov. Her mother on par with Klimentová. It had not been a match of love; Héloïse is only seven but she knows that already.
“Mamie?” she asks. She stands at the doorway to her own room like a stranger not yet invited in. Her nurse looks up from where she is preparing the oils that keep Héloïse’s feet from breaking after eight hours’ training every day.
“Ready for bed, darling?” she asks, in slow creaking Russian.
Héloïse nods, and scampers over to the bookshelf, bare feet noiseless on the wood floor. She inspects the titles for a moment before her little hands settle on a well-worn volume. Anna Karenina, in the original Russian. Héloïse blinks once, satisfied, and hops into bed. Her nurse follows, switching on the lamp.
Héloïse has read to her ever since she was five. Her Russian is as perfect as her French, thanks both to her nurse and the impatient choreographer who trains her in the afternoons.
She opens the book to the bookmark where they had left off last time. In a soft, high voice, she reads: “The young Princess Kitty Shtcherbatskaya was eighteen. It was the first winter that she had been out in the world…”
As she reads her nurse sits by her feet and rubs witchhazel nut oil into the calluses there. Then comes the scraping of the rough skin at her heels. Héloïse has learned not to twist away from the touch of the pumice stone but she winces nonetheless, her voice faltering. Once the flesh feels like it has been scoured raw her nurse taps at her ankles.
“Merci,” Héloïse says. Her nurse kisses her forehead and plucks the book from her sleepy hands, setting it on the bedside stand.
“Look at those eyes,” she says. Gently she pinches one of Héloïse’s cheeks. Héloïse smiles, embarrassed.
“Love you, Mamie,” she mumbles.
“With all the love in my heart,” her nurse says, clutching her chest. Héloïse giggles and swats her away, losing for an instant the solemnity that sits always over her face.
“Bye,” she calls, and her nurse blows her a kiss before turning off the lamp and closing the door behind her.
Héloïse is ten when she comes dashing into her room and for the first time sees her mother there, standing straight-backed and uncomfortable by her nurse’s chair.
“Maman." Stumbling to a stop, a rambling story from the day's training still on the tip of her tongue. "Why are you here?”
“To say good night, dear.”
“Where is my nurse?”
Her mother shrugs. It is, like every one of her movements, precise. “Out for the night. She will be back tomorrow. Can I not say goodnight to my own daughter?”
“You can,” Héloïse says stiffly, and gets into bed, pulling the blankets up to her chin. Her mother frowns at her.
“You are too old now for a nurse, really,” she says. Thoughtfully.
“She is my good friend. She helps me train.”
That placates her. Héloïse knows, always, her foremost priority.
“Your training is going well?”
“How many fouettés are you up to now?”
Her mother’s mouth twists. “Not bad,” she says. “But you’ll need thirty-two to be the Black Swan.”
Héloïse bites back any response. After a moment the gaze softens.
“Keep working, dear."
“Good night, Maman.”
“In Russian,” she asks. “Say it in Russian.”
“Good.” Her mother turns, rising briefly to her tiptoe out of habit. En pointe. Even now, in the warmth of Héloïse’s room, she looks as if she is dancing. “They will adore you at the Bolshoi.”
The door closes. That night Héloïse rubs in the witchhazel nut oil herself, and drags the pumice stone against the callouses on her feet.
Héloïse is thirteen and she skips training for the day to go to the park with the girls from the studio. She eats a chocolate scoop of ice cream from a cone and tosses a coin into the dazzling splendor of the fountain. When she returns her mother is waiting in the studio, arms folded and mouth pursed into a single angry line.
The next day her nurse is gone.
Héloïse is twenty-three and she loathes ballet like nothing else in the world. She is steps away from becoming a principal at the Bolshoi. There is nothing she dreads more than being called forth and presented with a new contract. Her mother is impatient, as she always is. She calls Héloïse every week and demands- are you training? Are you trimming your nails? Do you need new pointe shoes, I will send you some next week, you will need them when you make principal, and one of these times Héloïse allows herself the luxury of hanging up first before she throws the phone across the room.
Her Moscow apartment is bare but for the shelves of books that line every wall, and the ugly avant-garde art that someone had installed before she moved in. Her living room is empty, just the bookshelves and the barre and the mirror wall behind it.
Héloïse has few friends. The other dancers regard her with cool suspicion, and the few words they trade are clipped and polite. The only conversations she has are with the woman who comes by every other day to drop off the frozen meals that her mother’s nutritionist has designed for her. Every day she sleeps at nine and wakes at five. Her feet ache with every leaden step toward the Bolshoi studio. On her off days she sits at home and reads.
Héloïse is unhappy. She is not afraid to confess it, though there is no one to confess it to. Sometimes she wants to stand outside on the tiny balcony and scream if only to have something to do. But still the truth remains, bare and simple and inescapable. There is nothing in Moscow for her.
Chapter 2: an illicit guide to securing a free education
One of those few off days she rents a bike and rides down the banks of the Moskva River, the wind stinging against her nose. Moscow is nearing the end of its never-ending winter but the cold bites viciously through her coat nonetheless, and by the river is worst of all. Héloïse enjoys it even if it means the aches will be twice as bad tomorrow.
Ahead there is a sign to turn left, across the river. Héloïse follows the road, weaving in between the cars and ignoring the annoyed blare of honking. When the riverbank is replaced by green forest, she slips off the road and onto the sidewalk, freeing her feet from the pedals and coasting for a few seconds in a delirious rush of wind.
The next road is the Universitetskiy Prospekt. On a whim she turns right, and pedals her way into the heart of Moscow State University. There are some students milling about, most of them on their way to class. Héloïse slides off her bike, securing it to a nearby rack, and follows a group of them toward a large building, its sign declaring it ‘1 Humanities’. Her hands are conspicuously empty; she tucks them in her pockets. No one gives her a second glance.
The lecture hall that she follows the students into is warm, and Héloïse gratefully strips off her coat, draping it over a chair at the edge of the sixth row back. As she rubs her hands together to warm them, she looks about the grand hall. No professor in sight. The chalkboard is scrubbed clean. The other students are chatting amongst themselves, pulling papers and notebooks from their bags. One girl, noticing Héloïse’s empty hands, slides a few empty sheets of paper and a pen down the long table toward her, and winks.
“Thank you,” Héloïse says.
“No problem. Wake up late?”
“I was,” she says, delicately, “caught up in something else.”
The girl smiles, clearly thinking the worst. “Oh, yes. I know those types of mornings.”
Héloïse is saved from further discussion of her supposed sexual habits by a sudden quiet over the classroom, just as the clock tolls eleven. But still no professor. Héloïse waits, breath hushed. It feels almost like the backstage at the Bolshoi, just before the curtain comes up.
After a long moment a woman stands up in the front row, walks to the front of the room, and stops, turning to regard them. Though she is one among fifty, Héloïse has the distinct feeling of being watched. The silence stretches on for another long moment, then the woman raises her eyebrows, an infinitesimal gesture.
“Bonjour,” choruses the class, immediately, without any more prompting than that tiny tic of the face. It catches Héloïse off-guard. French?
“Bonjour,” the woman- professor- responds. She seems pleased, and with her tiny half-smile she looks just like any other university student. She is hardly older than Héloïse, if at all.
The professor turns to the whiteboard and scrawls, in French, ‘Past Tense: Passé Composé vs. Imparfait’. Below it, she translates it into the Cyrillic, and the class groans in unison.
“Oh, always whining,” she says good-naturedly, in barely-accented Russian. “So difficult, I know.” Now she switches to French. “We will be having a quiz on this next week.” Back to Russian, quick as whiplash. “Passé composé! Who can explain it to me?”
Immediately at least five hands go up. The professor points in the Russian style, whole hand extended, to a boy in the third row.
“Past tense for things that you’ve already done,” he says.
“Sure, okay, more specific.” She points again to a girl in the same row as Héloïse.
“It describes a single action that doesn’t repeat,” the girl says, her voice pitching up at the end in question.
“Yes, good. Here’s a way to think about it.” The professor draws a single slash of white down the middle of the chalkboard. On the left side, she writes “parfois, souvent, toujours, chaque, tous les jours”. On the other she writes “un jour, une fois, tout à coup”. She turns back to the class.
“Imparfait,” she says, tapping the left side. “Passé-composé. Comprenez?”
“Oui,” choruses the class.
“Repeat after me,” the professor instructs, raising the piece of chalk like a conductor facing her orchestra. Héloïse repeats dutifully along with the others. She feels laughter brimming up in her chest, but keeps it down. It seems that centuries have passed since she last sat in a school, chorusing along.
“Translation!” the professor all but sings. She writes out a simple sentence in Russian, and makes a show of covering her eyes before pointing to someone in the fourth row. Dutifully he translates it into halting French. His accent makes Héloïse wince, but the professor smiles encouragingly and corrects him along the way.
She eases the class through five more translations before finally she scrubs the chalkboard clean. Héloïse lets out a breath, disappointed at the end of the class, but pauses when she notices that no one else is moving to leave. Instead their eyes are fixed on the professor as she picks up the chalk once more.
When at last she steps aside and looks at the class, the board is all but covered in her looping handwriting, every word of it in French. The students shift uncomfortably in their seats, nobody willing to take on her challenge. The professor waits a long moment, before shrugging once and picking up the eraser.
Héloïse raises her hand.
When the professor looks at her, gaze sharpening, she feels it. This is a stare that reduces the room to the beholder and the beheld. Héloïse swallows, her hand dropping. She is nervous. Why is she nervous?
“Yes,” asks the professor.
Héloïse’s eyes land on the board. She knows this passage in sleep, even when translated into French. In unaccented Russian she reads: “He knew she was there by the rapture and the terror that seized on his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the opposite end of the ground. There was nothing striking either in her dress or her attitude. But for Levin she was as easy to find in that crowd as a rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her. The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable, and there was one moment when he was almost retreating, so overwhelmed was he with terror.”
The professor, after a long stillness, taps the fingers of one hand against the palm of the other, an unconscious gesture. She looks surprised, and pleased, almost. Héloïse blooms with some fierce heat under that look- pride, she recognises. An irrational feeling given she is fluent in French.
“And who are you?” the professor asks, the first thing to disturb the silence. It feels like a conversation in code. As if the words are bypassing all other ears but their own.
“Héloïse,” she repeats. It sends a thrill through Héloïse’s stomach to hear it said so, even as the professor’s eyes narrow. “That’s a French name.”
Héloïse nods, as guilelessly as she can. The professor’s gaze lingers a moment longer. Then it slides away, abruptly as it had come. Héloïse feels its absence as acutely as if a wall she had been leaning on had suddenly disappeared.
“Okay, everybody,” the professor says sharply, with a clap that jolts the class to attention. Nothing has changed. She is just as energetic and precise as before. Except now her gaze over the class, instead of sliding over Héloïse as it had before, fixes occasionally on her. There is a hot burning thing in Héloïse's stomach. For the first time in a while she would like to be looked at.
Minutes, or perhaps hours, later, the professor dismisses class promptly in time with the tolling of the bell. Héloïse lets out a breath, unexpectedly disappointed.
“I guess you still came prepared,” quips the girl next to Héloïse. She sticks out a hand. “Katya Ivanova.”
“Héloïse,” she returns, and reaches over to take her hand. Katya, like the Bolshoi dancers, has an iron grip. By the time she lets go Héloïse is considering icing her hand tonight.
“Nice to meet you."
“You as well,” Héloïse says politely, her attention fixed on the professor at the corner of her eye. “Would you mind showing me your syllabus?”
Katya digs through her bag a moment before producing a sheet of paper. “Here,” she says, passing it over. “We’re in the School of Translation and Interpretation, class one of Russian to French.”
Héloïse tunes out the rest of her words as she takes the paper. She has eyes for one word only- next to ‘Professor’ at the top of the page. Marianne. A French name, too. Héloïse lets it sit on her tongue, tastes it. Marianne, Marianne. Marianne.
She realises with a start that Katya has stopped talking, and is fixing her with an expectant stare.
"I said, you're joining the class?"
"Oh." Is she? There is only one answer, really. "Yes."
“Good,” Katya says brightly, and takes the syllabus back. “See you, Héloïse!”
Katya, accompanied by her group of well-dressed friends, trickles out of the room. When at last all the students have left, Héloïse walks, each step a miracle, toward the woman at the front of the room. Her back is to the hall, her hands involved with with some papers stacked on the table, but as she hears the footsteps she straightens, and once more that gaze rests on Héloïse.
“Bonjour,” Héloïse says, bravely. The professor- Marianne- smiles wryly.
“I liked your class.”
“Mm.” Marianne’s fingers tap against her palm, again. “I liked your translation.”
“I must confess,” Héloïse says, and when Marianne’s eyebrows go up she fidgets a little, “that I know Anna Karenina by heart.”
“That makes two of us, then.” Marianne holds out a hand. Héloïse takes it. Her skin is soft, but for a faint callous where a pen would rest on her index finger. Héloïse feels almost drunk on these smallest of details, caught up in the dizzying clasp of their hands.
“So, Héloïse.” Again that faint shudder, a delicious tremor up her spine, as their hands drop. “What brings you to my class?”
“Chance,” Héloïse says, then tacks on, “and curiosity.”
Marianne’s eyes crinkle at the edges. The corners of her mouth turn down, but she is smiling. “And is your curiosity sated?”
“I’d like to know when the next class is,” Héloïse says. Marianne, surprised, drops her hands, and busies them with tidying a sheaf of paper. Her gaze skitters from Héloïse’s; she seems almost to be blushing.
Héloïse has never felt like this in her life. She thinks of Anna Karenina- if only this was old Russia, in the age of ballgowns and callers, then she would have the words to say I should like to see you again, today, or tomorrow, whenever you will have me here.
“We meet every week here,” Marianne says, when finally she recovers her words. Héloïse blinks in acknowledgment and turns on her heel, pulling herself away from Marianne’s gaze on her back.
She feels giddy, she thinks, pressing a hand to her stomach and wondering at this burst of euphoria. Here is what she expected of Moscow, this city of music. With some strange joy she picks up her bicycle and coasts between the cars on the road. On her way back to her apartment she stops at the winter market, and buys a bunch of red grapes. One by one she plucks them from the bunch and tosses them up, making a game of catching them in her mouth as she pedals along. She brings the bike up to the apartment and sets it in the entryway, flings the doors to the small balcony open for the first time in weeks, and eats the grapes outside until her hands go numb from the cold.
Chapter 3: an ode to the indisputable importance of page numbers
The next week the choreographer insists that they come in to revise one of the ensemble pieces. Héloïse is a soloist but they call her in anyway, to do little more than stand on the sidelines and watch the pissy Russian choreographer bark ‘Brisé! Come on, en dedans, are all of you incompetent!’ for six hours. By the time they finish Marianne’s class is long over and Héloïse is in a foul mood. She returns to the apartment and lies facedown on her enormous bed, stewing.
The week after Héloïse arrives early, only to find four students already there in the first row. Marianne sits on the table at the front of the room, one leg folded over the other, discussing something with them in slow beginner’s French. When Héloïse walks through the door Marianne’s gaze darts to her, and sticks. She smiles, slowly. Héloïse knows with absolute surety that Marianne has looked to the door at the other people that came before her, and she had not smiled at them as she does now. She tamps down the feeling and nods at Marianne before making her way to the seat on the edge of the sixth row.
Katya comes in soon after, her friends trailing behind her. She lights up when she sees Héloïse.
“Héloïse!” she calls.
“Katya Ivanova,” Héloïse returns, gripping her hand in the familiar greeting.
“Long time no see! Here, this is Grisha Mikhailovich-” a friendly boy with glasses- “Arkady Ivanovich-” this one blond, bored, and lazy-eyed- “and Levka Evgenovna-“ the tall frowning girl who sits next to Katya. Héloïse exchanges bone-crushing handshakes with each of them before the clock tolls and they fall silent by mutual unspoken agreement.
Today’s lesson, Marianne declares, is Past Tense: Constructing Passé-Composé. She underlines this twice on the board.
“Let me give you an example,” Marianne says, and writes, ‘Vronsky had not even tried to sleep all that night,’ in French. When she looks out her gaze pointedly avoids the sixth row, but Héloïse smiles regardless, a pleasant heat rising in her cheeks.
Héloïse causes no more trouble this class, content to soak in Marianne’s cheerful encouragement and almost-dancing manner of pacing the front of the lecture hall, pointing here and there to the students. When it ends, Héloïse bids farewell to Katya and her friends, and stays in her seat, waiting out the few stragglers who talk with Marianne. Absentmindedly she presses her thumb to a particularly bad blister, despite a long-standing familiarity with the sharp pain that is sure to follow. The tape that usually adorns her feet had peeled off halfway through rehearsal yesterday and Héloïse hadn’t had time to fix it. Blisters are to be expected, anyways, in this line of work. She stretches out her ankle lazily, rotating it through the sore patches.
“Héloïse,” Marianne says, and Héloïse startles at finding her unexpectedly close, on the step beside the fifth row.
“Yes,” she says, hastily letting go of her foot. Marianne notices (of course she does), her mouth twisting up in suppressed amusement.
“I’m glad you’re back."
“So am I.”
She smiles, pensive. “Good.” Her eyes are narrowed as if she is trying to put something together. What, Héloïse doesn't know, but she feels open, every nerve bared and singing.
Marianne turns then, descending the steps toward the professor’s space at the front. Héloïse rises to follow her. Over her shoulder Marianne calls, “You missed the quiz.”
Héloïse smiles. “Yes, I did.” She follows until she stands almost behind Marianne, regarding the smooth curve of her neck disappearing into her shirt collar, the lovely vertebrae, the rebel wisps of her hair that curl down from their tie. When Marianne turns she catches Héloïse’s gaze, and blinks as if she’s not sure what to make of it.
“Here,” she says, and thrusts out a slim stack of papers between them. Héloïse glances at it- translations, Russian to French and back- and looks back at Marianne, brows raised. Marianne has the nerve to smile guilelessly at her.
“You come to my class, you do the work,” she says, and dismisses Héloïse with a wave of her hand. Héloïse departs, vexed in the most pleasant of ways.
Next week Héloïse comes an hour early, and finds the door of the lecture hall still locked. She leans on the wall beside the door, and occupies herself for a stretch of time with a battered secondhand copy of Faust.
“Goethe?” someone says abruptly, unexpectedly close. Héloïse jolts in surprise. Marianne is smiling, eyes crinkled, a keyring dangling from her hand. “Sorry to startle you. Have you been here long?”
“No,” Héloïse says, but Marianne reaches out and grasps the bookmark that pokes out from the middle of the book, eyeing the distance between it and Héloïse’s thumb trapped amongst the pages.
“About a hundred pages’ worth,” she says, and lets go of the bookmark.
“Not that long, then,” Héloïse says, without a hint of boasting. She thinks- she has never bothered to calculate- it has been perhaps twenty minutes. Marianne smiles, amused, and unlocks the door.
“I have office hours, you know,” she throws over her shoulder, almost casually. “If you don’t want to stand around waiting.”
“You do?” Héloïse catches up in a few steps, exhilarated. Office hours. She imagines an office occupied by Marianne’s things, her books and papers, the chair where she might sit. It seems a magic place.
“Yes,” Marianne says, and, frustratingly, refuses to elaborate. “Did you do the work?”
Héloïse has done the work, of course. She had brought it to the Bolshoi and sat in the studio, scribbling away with a spare pencil, conscious of the other dancers’ stares only when she looked up. On the last page Marianne had written out, by hand, an entire passage from Anna Karenina. Héloïse had traced her fingers over the loops of the letters, the faint indents where the pen had pressed into the paper. She had written out the translation simply for the feeling that Marianne had set down each word on the page just for her, as a sort of letter, and that to write back was as natural and essential as breathing.
“Yes,” Héloïse says, and pulls the folded sheets from her coat pocket. Marianne finds a red pen behind her ear and uncaps it with an easy grace that Olga Smirnova might envy. She sits in the front row, absorbed in the papers- her own writing, Héloïse thinks with elation, her own hand had set down those words- every so often humming to herself and turning the page. Héloïse hops up on the table at the front of the lecture hall and catalogues each exquisite line of her face.
By the time Marianne reaches the last page she is smiling. Her pen dances, unused, in her hand.
“You have a poet’s eye,” she says. Héloïse flushes at the praise, but Marianne is, as usual, not content to leave it at that. “Though to translate attraction-“ this she says in Russian- “to ‘amour’, that is-”
“Accurate,” Héloïse says, with a loose shrug, and points to the paper. “If I were a man, Kitty says, I could never care for anyone else after knowing you. Translation, interpretation. What’s the difference?”
“The difference is the subjective,” Marianne leans back in her seat, fixing the full weight of her gaze on Héloïse. “Applying the beliefs of the translator to the text.”
“But how else can it be done?” Héloïse does not mean to argue but it rises up in her anyway, this need to be heard, to listen. “There is no word that can deliver the weight of the original. So the next best choice is up to my discretion.”
“Your discretion,” Marianne repeats. “And if it changes the story? If the author’s original intent is not communicated?”
“So be it. I have told you what I see there.”
Marianne laughs mildly. “Ah, yes. The subjective mindset.”
“There is no such thing as a non-subjective mindset. So long as the words pass through someone, they are indelibly changed.”
“But the intent may remain the same.”
“It may,” Héloïse allows. The gaze holds, Marianne’s mouth ticking up in a smile. A student comes in- one of the boys who constantly raises his hand- and the moment breaks.
“Hello, Stepan,” Marianne greets him, tucking the papers into her bag, and Héloïse slides forward off the table and retreats to the sixth row feeling as if some ground has been made.
Once class ends a student approaches Marianne with some dilemma. After perhaps the longest ten minutes ever endured she pats the boy’s shoulder, sends him blubbering off on his way, and looks to Héloïse. Finally that yawning ache in her stomach is satisfied. Héloïse goes to her as a magnet to its match, tucking Faust under her arm.
“So,” Marianne says, and seems to run out of words.
“So,” Héloïse echoes, smiling. “You mentioned office hours?”
Marianne rallies at the reminder. “I did, yes.” She pulls the pen from behind her ear and looks about for a spare sheet of paper. Héloïse offers up her copy of Faust, and Marianne blanches.
“I don’t want to mar your book,” she says.
“Then-“ Héloïse holds out her arm, and after a moment’s hesitation Marianne’s free hand curls around it, just below the inside of the elbow. Héloïse’s breathing changes at the touch- not irregular. Just deeper. Suddenly more aware of her own body now that Marianne’s hands are on her.
Marianne uses her teeth to uncap the pen, and holds the cap there in her mouth as she scribbles on the pale canvas of Héloïse’s forearm. The skin is so soft that the ink doesn’t quite take, and Marianne murmurs a quiet apology as she retraces the lines. Every nerve sparks. Here the single tiny point of pressure of the pen nib, there the warmth of Marianne’s hand, the occasional brush of her fingers against Héloïse’s skin as she re-adjusts the pen in her hand. Héloïse watches, entranced- Marianne’s bent head, lips pressed together, eyes half-lidded in focus, unmistakably close enough to-
Marianne drops her hand from Héloïse’s elbow, and with the other smooths her pinky over the writing there, as if brushing away some dust.
“There,” she says, and in a neat motion slides the pen back into its cap. Her cheeks are pink. Héloïse glances at her arm, the red ink, and thinks, ecstatic, I will carry Marianne’s writing for days. Suddenly days do not seem quite long enough.
“Thank you,” Héloïse says.
“Of course,” Marianne says. She turns away, an obvious dismissal, her hands still fiddling with the pen.
The very instant Héloïse is out of the classroom she is tugging at her sleeve to read the message. There in Marianne’s red scrawl- ‘There were no other eyes like those in the world.’ Then, next to it, ‘mardi, jeudi, 2-4.’
Héloïse presses a hand to her face, trying to stifle her smile. She sets Faust in the basket of her bike and swings back onto Universitetskiy Prospekt. With reckless energy she pedals between the cars, and, coasting along the bank of the Moskva, she whoops, a single triumphant sound, echoing from the concrete buildings so loud that she imagines all of Moscow can hear it.
When Héloïse finally stumbles out of the elevator and into her apartment, she doesn’t bother with stripping off her coat, instead pulling a book from the shelves. She finds the words in moments.
“He could not be mistaken,” Héloïse reads, out loud. The next line she translates into French, as Marianne had written it- “There were no other eyes like those in the world.” Now in Russian again. “There was only one creature in the world that could concentrate for him all the brightness and meaning of life. It was she. It was Kitty.”
Héloïse closes the book, and drops inelegantly onto the bare wooden floor, sprawling out. She looks up at the white ceiling, where the paint is peeling away, and smiles.
Chapter 4: an exploration of the concept of epiphany grapes
Héloïse is at the barre before anyone else in the morning; she loathes ballet but she likes the time at the barre, the stretch of her muscles, the delicate motion of her arms. Balakov folds his arms and watches her with a scrutinizing eye. He is a perfectionist but that’s why he works at the Bolshoi- here he can demand perfection and receive it.
“What is that,” he barks.
Héloïse is wearing one of those horrible shirts where the sleeve clings to her skin, and the material is so thin that Marianne’s writing can be seen. Balakov comes closer, inspects Héloïse’s outstretched arm.
“Wash that shit off,” he snaps. “Don’t bring your love notes to the Bolshoi.”
“Not a love note,” Héloïse says in French, mostly to herself. Or- was it? There were no other eyes like those in the world. Perhaps-
“How good is your grand jeté?”
Balakov indicates the studio floor. “Do it.”
Héloïse lines up, takes a a glissade, a few long steps, and flies into the grand jeté, weight pushed slightly forward, arms lifted above her head, forming a perfect split midair. She lands, turns the momentum into a neat saut de chat, and pivots to face him. His expression is blank, which means he’s impressed. He hmphs nonetheless, refusing as usual to give praise to anyone beside the principals.
“Why are you here so fucking early anyway?”
“Nothing else to do?”
Well. Héloïse bites the inside of her cheek, thinking for a moment of Marianne. Balakov’s eyes narrow. Crafty man.
“That little love note better be gone by the break,” he orders. Then, to the dancers now coming in, “On the barre, you’re late.”
It takes Héloïse two and a half weeks to convince the bastard director to remove his claws from her and let her leave early on a Thursday. Balakov gives her a suspicious stare under those bushy grey eyebrows when she asks.
“Where is the passion?” he demands. “You stay here every day till five and now you want to go gallivanting off at three on a Thursday?”
Héloïse nods silently, eyes wide. He frowns. Then-
“If your arabesque penché is shit tomorrow you’re doing nothing else.”
Héloïse’s arabesque penché has never been shit in her life. She smiles, does a little plié, and darts out of the room before he can change his mind.
The bike ride over is longer than Héloïse had remembered, or maybe her impatience is flaring. Two and a half weeks of nothing but ballet had made her snap at both the woman with the frozen meals and the man renting the bikes. But now- now every press of her foot against the pedal brings her closer.
Héloïse secures her bike to the rack and nearly jogs into the Humanities 1 building. She jabs the button of the elevator and grimaces at the creak, shifting impatiently from foot to foot as she waits. Damn Russian elevators.
The 11th floor looks the same as every other bureaucratic building in Moscow- mostly beige, and dusty. Down the hall there is a door bearing a sign that reads ‘Professors’ Offices’. Héloïse opens it carefully and steps inside. The receptionist at the desk in front spares her a single bored look before turning back to her computer.
Inside the suite, there are a few potted plants scattered about, and the dim whir of a radiator keeps it almost stiflingly warm. Héloïse prowls down the small corridor, inspecting each of the doors, until she comes to #488. She sets her hand on the door handle, takes a breath, and pushes the door open.
The first thing she sees is a veritable mass of plants, propped up on every available surface and hanging from the ceiling. Then a massive bookshelf, completely covering one wall. Then a window- below it, a desk- and then an open book, its cover obscured partially by three fingers pressed against the spine, and the two elbows resting on the desk below it, and behind it all a glimpse of dark hair.
Héloïse clears her throat.
Marianne startles, nearly dropping the book. When she sees Héloïse her face brightens as if she has received an unexpected gift.
“Héloïse!” she exclaims, and jumps to her feet. “Please, sit.” With one hand she clears the potted plants from the chair at the other side of the desk. When she leans over the desk Héloïse can see the smooth skin below the jut of her collarbones. She doesn’t look, because she has manners. (But she files it away as something to think about later.)
“I’m sorry for the delay,” she says, dropping into the chair.
“Yes, I was starting to worry that you weren’t up for the challenge.”
Héloïse scoffs without meaning to. Marianne’s brows go up, eyes gleaming.
“I told you, I know it by heart,” Héloïse says.
“Hm. What else?”
“What else do you know by heart?”
Héloïse shifts her weight back, balancing on the back two legs of the chair. “Dumas, Hugo, Sartre. Crime and Punishment. Doctor Zhivago. Goncharov, Lermontov. Strugatsky, both brothers. The Librarian. Pisan’s Book of the City of Ladies. Proust.”
“Okay, that’s enough.” Marianne seems somewhere between amused and impressed, hands steepled neatly on the desk. “By heart?”
Marianne stands, goes to the bookshelf. After a moment she tugs a copy of Doctor Zhivago from the rest, opens it to a random page, and reads, in Russian, “It was more than a year since Yurii Andreievich had been taken prisoner by the partisans.” She looks up at Héloïse expectantly.
“The limits of his freedom were very ill-defined,” Héloïse says, eyes closing. The words come to her like water to a fresh-dug well. “The place of his captivity was not surrounded by walls; he was not under guard, and no one watched his movements.”
“Unbelievable,” Marianne says, closing the book and sliding it neatly back onto the shelf. She shakes her head. “Unbelievable.”
Héloïse smiles, almost preening. “Thank you.”
Marianne’s gaze sharpens then. “But,” she says, like a needle through the balloon of Héloïse’s ego, “those are all by Russians or Frenchmen.”
“Except for Pisan.”
Marianne rolls her eyes; it is astonishingly unbecoming, and Héloïse delights in it. “Frenchwoman,” she corrects. “Fine, then. But what of the other writers?”
Héloïse shrugs. “I know Shakespeare.”
“There is a world beyond Europe, you know.”
“But all the epics are here.”
Abruptly Marianne looks almost angry. She reaches over, and, without looking, plucks a book from the shelf. She barely so much as glances at the cover before handing it to Héloïse.
“Naguib Mahfouz,” she says. “Midaq Alley. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Another book, pulled from the shelves at random and handed to Héloïse. “Kulit Khuri, Ayyam Maahou. One of the groundbreaking Arab feminists. She wrote in French as well.” Another book. “Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Some two thousand years old. These are not some trifling-” She cuts herself off, ramrod stiff, her breathing harsh.
“I understand,” Héloïse says. She looks at the three books, then back at Marianne. “Do you mind if I borrow these?”
Marianne relaxes at that, letting out a quiet huff. “Of course not.” She drops back into her seat. “What have you come to see me for?”
Héloïse fumbles for a plausible excuse for about two seconds before giving up. “Just your company.”
Marianne smiles, politely incredulous. “Well then. I suppose I should try to be a better host.”
“You’re perfect,” Héloïse says, and tacks on, “company, that is. Perfect company.”
Marianne scoffs, her ears turning pink. “Nonsense. I haven’t even offered you anything to drink.”
“And I was two weeks late.” Héloïse spreads her hands expansively, nearly knocking a potted fern off Marianne’s desk. “We are both rude and horrible, hm?”
“Hein? You are not horrible. And it is not rude not to come. Office hours are for the people who need to see me.”
“I wanted to see you,” Héloïse corrects, brazen. “I am sorry I could not come sooner, my schedule is awful.”
“Every day, seven to five. And in four weeks, eight to eleven.”
Marianne whistles in amazement. “How are you here now?”
“I’m playing hooky.”
“Well, thank you for keeping me company, then.”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“You,” Marianne starts. She rephrases something in her head, hands twisting and re-folding on the desk. “When I read out from the book, and you knew the rest of the passage.”
Nothing seems to be forthcoming after that. Héloïse makes an inquisitive sound. Marianne smiles self-deprecatingly, a rare bashful look, eyes dipping to the table. “Sorry. How do you remember it all?”
Héloïse considers it, squinting. “I don’t know. It just happens. The words are there, a long line of them, and every word has one that comes before it and one that comes after. Like they are arm-in-arm.“ She sets her fists on her hips in demonstration, elbows jutting out, linked with two imaginary others. “If I know one, I know what comes after it.”
Marianne smiles ruefully, shakes her head. “You are- no.” Her eyes shy away from Héloïse’s. “No, don’t look at me like that.”
Héloïse is feeling bold today. “Like what,” she asks.
“Like-” Marianne’s gaze, flitting around the room, alights on something over Héloïse’s shoulder- she looks relieved. “Stepan!”
Fucking Stepan. Héloïse reins in her annoyance and turns, offering a polite smile and an outstretched hand to the boy in the doorway.
“Sorry, I know it’s a little past office hours,” he says, and winces at Héloïse’s iron grip. “I just have a quick question. Sorry to disrupt.”
Héloïse tunes out Stepan’s voice in favour of scanning the bookshelves. Some of the books are written in Chinese, some in Arabic. She wonders how many languages Marianne knows, if she could translate this odd fluttering feeling into some perfect all-encapsulating word. Perhaps no one else has ever felt like this.
Héloïse’s gaze slides back to Marianne, who leans forward attentively, nodding at Stepan. The sleeves of her shirt are rolled up, probably because of the heat from the radiator. Her hands are lovely, steepled neatly. Looking at her makes Héloïse feel almost breathless.
Stepan clears his throat loudly, nods politely to Marianne and Héloïse (his hands folded behind his back to avoid shaking her hand again), and goes. Héloïse watches Marianne shuffle the papers on her desk into a precise stack.
“I think he has a crush on you,” she says, without fully agreeing with her mouth first.
Marianne looks at her in surprise. “Hein?”
Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a pound. “Stepan.”
She laughs, waving her hand dismissively. “No, he doesn’t.”
Héloïse shrugs. “He is always here.”
She realises her mistake only after Marianne gives her a scrutinising look. Héloïse, after all, has been here longer.
“Yes,” Marianne says. “He is.”
With that she stands, putting the stack of papers into her bag. Héloïse picks up the three books- Marianne smiles very slightly- and follows her out of the office, past the receptionist.
“What is your favourite place in Moscow?” Héloïse asks, catching up to her.
“Moscow… hm. Hleb Nasushchny.” At Héloïse’s questioning look, she sketches out an invisible map with her hand. “A bakery. On Nikolskaya.”
Héloïse knows exactly where that is. It is hardly two streets from the Bolshoi. Which means, because the bakery is probably (though not surely) near where Marianne lives, and because Héloïse lives very close to the Bolshoi, which is near the bakery that is Marianne’s favourite place in Moscow- this means that Héloïse, probably, but not surely, lives near Marianne.
The elevator doors open, and they step out onto the ground floor. Marianne is looking at her, eyebrows raised.
“I know where that is,” Héloïse says, approximately forty-five seconds after strictly appropriate.
“Of course. Excuse me, Miss Moscow.”
“I was raised in Paris, actually.”
“Ah bon? Me too, in the 10ème. Though I was born in Toulouse.”
Héloïse is from the 16ème. Which means-
“What are you thinking?”
Marianne makes a vague gesture at Héloïse’s face, and opens the door to the outside. Héloïse has never seen Marianne in the sunlight and she is devastatingly enchanting, even in the cold that Moscow calls springtime.
“See, just like that. You wander off up there.” Marianne reaches out, and taps once at Héloïse’s temple. Héloïse just barely manages not to shiver at the touch.
“You never seem to stop.” She pulls on her coat, a dark grey wool affair with a high collar. “Do you take the Sokolnicheskaya train?”
“No, I bike.”
“You bike here every time? In the winter?”
“Of course,” Héloïse says. She points at her bike proudly; she had bought it last week, realising that there was no point in renting one if she was to keep traversing the city twice a week. “It’s a used racing Peugeot.”
Héloïse nods. “Pink brake sheaths.”
Marianne covers her mouth with one hand, her cheeks hollowing as she hides a grin.
“What?” Héloïse demands, suppressing her own instinctive smile.
“Nothing. It’s very nice.”
“Thank you,” she says primly, and sets the three books carefully in the basket before bending to unlock the bike from the rack.
When she stands, Marianne holds out a hand. Héloïse shakes it, their palms pressing warm and dry against each other.
“I’ll see you,” Marianne says, like a promise.
Héloïse throws a leg over the seat and fits her foot in the pedal. As she wheels around and coasts off down the street, she looks over her shoulder, and sees Marianne, hands tucked in her coat pockets, smiling after her.
They are friends, perhaps. Héloïse has not had many friends but she thinks this might be why people like having them so much. She feels as if she could talk with Marianne forever, sit in that tiny warm office and read the endless books piled on her shelves, shake her hand in greeting and goodbye with the assurance that they would see each other again within the week. Friends. That is the word for this push-pull perfect match of breath and intellect.
Héloïse lets her thoughts wander after that, content. After a peaceful few seconds of pedaling, she thinks, absentmindedly, of that brief glimpse of smooth pale skin, the lovely hollow between breasts under Marianne’s shirt, and very nearly falls off her bike at the sudden gut-punch revelation. She pulls over to the side of the road and catches herself with one foot against the sidewalk, breath coming fast.
This is it, she thinks, wildly. She unzips her coat to splay a hand against her stomach. Its shape is unmistakeable, pressing against her organs, filling all the empty spaces. It's been there all along, but now it is- this is- she is-
Héloïse goes to the market, still reeling. The fruit-seller gives her an odd look.
“You alright, miss?” he asks, while handing her the grapes. Epiphany Grapes, Héloïse terms them, and nearly laughs out loud. Perhaps she is going insane.
“Hm? Yes. I’m alright, yes.” She holds out a hand for the coins, then changes her mind. “Nevermind, keep the change. Have you ever been in love?”
He frowns. “What?”
“And if you have- did it hurt, sort of? Right here?” Héloïse points at her stomach.
At that he laughs, though there is nothing funny in it. “That sounds right to me.”
“Oh. Good. Thank you.”
“God bless you, miss.”
Héloïse takes her grapes and goes back to her bike, numb in a sort of shell-shocked way. She looks at Marianne’s three books stacked in the basket of her bike, the now-invisible lines on her arm where Marianne had written the code for her office hours. She thinks- ‘There were no other eyes like those in the world.’ She thinks- she wonders-
Chapter 5: a warning concerning reckless assumptions of marital status
Two days after her epiphany, Héloïse enters the lecture hall and beats a hasty retreat to the sixth row. Marianne is busy discussing something with Stepan at the front. Héloïse finds that she cannot look at her without feeling overcome by a peculiar heat in her cheeks. Pull yourself together, she thinks, tapping her knuckles against her cheek in reprimand.
“Privyet, Katya,” Héloïse says, willing the blush away and waving. Katya slides into her chair near Héloïse and surveys her curiously.
“Kak dyela, Héloïse, you look all red. Sick?”
“No, just warm. Zdravstvujtye, Levka, Grisha, Arkady.”
“Zdravstvuj,” they chorus.
“My God, they heat the hell out of this building,” Katya continues. “You should feel the fucking Psychology halls. Like ice.”
“Ah, the wonders of funding allocation,” Levka says flippantly. “Maybe if Professor Arkadyevitch's husband was also a bigshot then they would get better heating.”
That catches Héloïse’s attention. “Husband?”
“Yeah, the professor’s husband-“ Levka gestures at the front of the room, at Marianne- “runs all of humanities, which is why she gets to use the lecture halls down here. And a baby on the way, she said a couple weeks ago. So she’s taking time off in a few months.”
Married? Marianne has never so much as mentioned a husband. But then again that would be improper to bring up with a student, and they have only ever really talked about literature. And Héloïse has never seen her wear a ring. Yet many employed women don’t wear rings; it’s a fashion now to wear it around the neck, or even not at all. But a baby- she would have said something. Maybe. Héloïse has read into this, she knows. And time off? No classes, no office hours? Not to mention that Marianne has loved- loves- some man, who has likely read all those books on her office bookshelves and knows Arabic and Chinese and can quote Kulit Khuri as easy as anything and- Héloïse’s gaze shifts to Marianne, who has started the lecture, her hands orchestrating some grand perfect notion in front of her. She glances, for a moment, at Héloïse, and smiles a little, her eyes warm and bright. But Héloïse sees now what has always been there- the distance, the politeness, the professor to the student.
For the first time, Héloïse doesn’t stay after class.
Toe spacer, toe pad, pointe shoe. Ballet is reliably detestable, at least. Put on your shoes in the morning, take them off at night. Then physical therapy to mend the body, to reshape the tired muscles and prepare them for the next day. It may be relentless but at least there is always a way to heal.
In the morning Héloïse works at the barre with the rest of the dancers, and in the afternoon she practices the pas de deux. She stays after everyone else has left, and by early evening the studio is empty but for her and Balakov. Héloïse finds a baked sweet potato, wrapped in crumpled aluminium foil, in her dancer’s bag. She digs into it with a fork. It’s cold, and a day old, but after five hours of non-stop ballet Héloïse is willing to eat anything.
“Staying late yet again, hm? Let me guess, you got in a spat with your lover.”
Héloïse very nearly stabs herself in the cheek with the fork. “My lover?”
“The one who wrote that note.” Balakov points at her arm. Héloïse glowers. The whole day she has tried to do everything but think of Marianne, and now he has brought it up again. “Right, okay. Not a good subject. Hurry up and do your stretches, I want to go home.”
Héloïse stretches lazily into a full side split and takes another bite of sweet potato.
“Rehearsals for Figaro begin in three weeks,” Balakov says. He sits cross-legged across the studio, looking out the window.
“Mhm,” Héloïse offers.
“Then after that, Ratmansky’s Romeo & Juliet.”
“Everyone and their mother has done Romeo & Juliet.”
“So they are trying something new.” He still isn’t looking at her, eyes fixed on a promotional poster for Balanchine’s Jewels on the opposite wall.
“Making it more modern. We’re bringing in Ratmansky to teach it.”
“Isn’t he at the American?”
“A nice fat cheque will do wonders.”
“Good for him.”
Balakov laughs. “Sure. They’re trying to switch up the casting.”
Héloïse foregoes the fork and bites into the sweet potato. “Okay,” she says, around the mouthful.
He curls his lip at her in exaggerated disgust, then continues, “Nikulina, Krysanova, Stashkevich, they’ve all done it. Which makes them good candidates, usually, but everyone’s out looking for fresh blood.”
Héloïse makes a face upon discovering a clump of dirt still clinging to the skin of the sweet potato, and delicately removes it. “So they’re looking in the academies for a lead?”
“Not the fucking academies, are you crazy? Sure, some of them will be in the chorus, or soloists if they’re really good. But God forbid they put a little baby ballerina in the Bolshoi.”
“God forbid,” Héloïse echoes.
“Anyways, they’ve got everyone they want for Romeo, all the casting’s done.”
Héloïse lets out a silent breath of relief. Balakov stares out the window, now dark in the late evening, for a long while.
“Except,” he says, measuredly, “that they want a French girl to play Juliet.”
It settles like an ice-cold rock in Héloïse’s stomach. With absolute numbing focus she slides her thumbs along the inside of the sweet potato skin and pulls them apart until it rips.
“This isn’t the reaction we usually get,” Balakov says drily. Héloïse doesn’t respond, still staring at the torn papery skin. After a moment he adds, “They’re offering you a principal spot at the Bolshoi. Those girls-“ Héloïse, in her peripheral vision, sees him indicate the empty studio- “would give their left tit to be that.”
“I like my left tit just fine,” Héloïse says.
Balakov laughs. “Well, they like it too. Juliet at the Bolshoi, prima ballerina at- how old are you? Twenty-three. Not fucking bad for a French girl in Russia.”
Héloïse says nothing. She feels leaden, limbs exhausted. Principal.
“Do you like ballet?”
Balakov is, methodically, cracking each of his knuckles. “Do you like it?”
“See, that’s not the answer we usually get either. We don’t even ask except for in the bullshit interviews. But everyone says, oh, I love the art form, the precision, the blah blah please give me a solo.”
It’s very cynical, even for Balakov. Héloïse rolls out of the side split and lowers herself into the front split, hips square. Perfect technique. “Do you like ballet?”
“Of course I like ballet, I fucking love it. I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t blow my pants off every time I saw a performance. I think it’s the most beautiful thing that the human body has ever come up with.”
“Svetlana was here the other day to prep for Etudes- Svetlana Zakharova, that is- and she looked in on rehearsals here while you were doing your solo. And she said to me, she said, ‘my God, Balakov, her legs must be made of steel’. So you’re not bad, you know.”
“Svetlana is better.”
“Svetlana is busy doing Etudes.”
“There are eight principals,” Héloïse says, a note of hope finding its way into her voice.
Balakov leans back on his elbows, stretching out on the studio floor. “Why don’t you want to do Juliet?”
Héloïse shrugs. Balakov, sharp as ever, squints at her.
“Or it’s not Juliet,” he says. “Why don’t you want to be principal? You could do it, even if your triple fouetté is sort of garbage.”
Héloïse rolls her eyes. “Who does multiple triple fouettés anyway?”
“Don’t change the subject. Why don’t you want to be principal? Why are you even a ballet dancer if you don’t like it?”
“I don’t not like it.” Héloïse shifts out of the stretch and sits cross-legged. “I think it’s beautiful.”
Balakov sighs. “Well, it’s none of my business. Show opens in three weeks. They’re expecting the Dupont daughter to be at full form.” He gets up, and goes to the piano, closing the lid unceremoniously.
Héloïse blinks, surprised at the nickname. “Is that what they call me? The Dupont daughter?”
“Some of them. I mean, what, your mother was an étoile at Paris for decades, until the injury. And then she had a kid with Valery Maximov? Born-and-bred talent, that’s you. Ballet royalty.”
Héloïse laughs without humour, the sound grating to her own ears. “Sure, Balakov.”
“Just between you and me- your grand jeté is better than your mother’s. Generational fucking talent. Fix your piqués en dehors; I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He closes the door behind him. Héloïse gets to her feet, picks up the torn sweet potato skin between two fingers, and hurls it at the wall. It smacks limp and quiet against the wall, and leaves a little mark, a smear of orange. Principal.
Héloïse goes to see Marianne two weeks later, simply because her resolve to stay away no longer outweighs the ache to see her. She arrives around six o’clock, long after office hours. The door is unlocked but the office is empty; Héloïse sits cross-legged in the chair, the three books stacked on top of the desk in front of her, and gazes at the bookshelves.
A few minutes later the door opens, and Marianne comes in, clutching a cup of tea. At the sight of Héloïse she nearly drops the mug.
“Héloïse,” she says. She sounds half-breathless, but Héloïse is simply imagining it. “It’s been a while.”
“I know.” Héloïse fidgets- should she get up? Should she stay seated? She has yet to be alone with Marianne since her epiphany and every part of her is throwing her off balance.
“You finished the books?”
“Yes. They were very different.”
“I’m glad.” Marianne hovers for a moment in the doorway, then comes forward and sets down her cup of tea on the desk. Héloïse, haplessly, breathes in the scent of her shampoo as she passes, and kicks herself.
“So,” Marianne says, dropping into her chair and folding her hands. She gives Héloïse a radiant smile. “What brings the busiest person in Moscow here to see me?”
Héloïse has no idea. “I-“ she begins, and then, abruptly makes up her mind. “I don’t think I’ll be coming to class anymore.”
Marianne’s face changes at that, her eyes widening. She looks- distressed? Almost upset, though Héloïse can’t fathom why. “Why not?”
“I can’t,” Héloïse says, plainly.
“Is it the scheduling?”
“Yes.” Don’t lie. “No.”
Héloïse looks down. What to say? I am in love with you and you are married. If I am going to be horribly unhappy from never ever seeing you again then I would rather have it be now than in a month when I am a principal dancer and have to please the Kremlin every night. I am exercising self-restraint.
“Héloïse,” Marianne says, so soft as to be almost unbearable. Then her tone changes. Harder, more calculating. “What other classes do you take?”
Héloïse pauses. “Dance,” she says.
“At this university?”
“Are you a student here?”
Héloïse shakes her head mutely. She looks at the polished surface of Marianne’s desk, watches the faint reflection of Marianne’s folded hands.
“Have you gone to university?”
“No.” She went to the Bolshoi Academy, was given a cursory education and not much else before being swept directly into the soloist rank at the Bolshoi.
“Hm?” Héloïse looks up, then. Marianne’s jaw is set, tense. She seems angry, though not at Héloïse.
“You should go to university.”
Héloïse barely keeps herself from laughing. If only her mother had heard that. She would have dismissed the idea quick as a blink of an eye. Everyone knows a ballerina’s formative years are the most important.
“Is it the money? The hours? Héloïse-”
“I can’t go to university,” Héloïse says, and stands. She pushes the stack of books toward Marianne, a peace offering. “I’m sorry. I very much liked your class.”
“Don’t go,” Marianne says quickly. She rises to her feet too, steps around her desk so that they are face-to-face. “I’m being selfish. I think that your memory, your intellect- those are very rare things, especially uncultivated. You have-“ she pauses, a strange look coming over her face, as if on the brink of something- “you have the most extraordinary mind.”
Héloïse looks back at her. Marianne’s eyes are clear, beseeching, her head tipped slightly to the side. Her hand is almost outstretched to Héloïse. Her left hand. The ring finger bare. Married nonetheless.
“Why don’t you wear a ring?”
It surprises both of them. Marianne blinks rapidly. “Hm?”
Héloïse’s gaze shifts pointedly to her bare hand. “A ring.” Then, just to taste how foul it is, “Your husband’s ring.”
She keeps her eyes on Marianne’s unmoving hand, unwilling to look at her face. A long moment of silence. Héloïse has trespassed, has gone past even the loose boundaries that they have. Marianne will never want to speak to her again.
“What on earth are you talking about?”
Of all the things Héloïse expects her to say, this is not among them. Her eyes jolt back up to Marianne’s. She looks confused, brows pulled together and eyes narrowed, as if Héloïse is the one playing a trick on her.
“Your husband,” Héloïse repeats.
“I don’t have a husband.”
“What?” Marianne laughs, incredulous and amused. “Why would I have a ring? I’m not married.”
Not married? Héloïse gapes at her, unable to think anything beyond that. Marianne topples back against the desk, her head tipping back in laughter, loud and raucous. Héloïse gets stuck momentarily on the long curve of her bared throat, her collarbones peeking through her shirt, before she remembers to say something.
“Levka Evgenovna said you were married.”
“And to whom have I bestowed my hand in marriage?”
Héloïse fidgets, looser now, mouth pulling up in a small smile. “The head of the humanities department.”
That sends Marianne into further peals of laughter. “You thought I was married to Petrovitch? Petrovitch? And- his wife is having a baby.” She stares at Héloïse, who looks steadfastly at the ceiling, flushing. “Did you think I was pregnant, too?”
“Maybe,” Héloïse allows.
“Unbelievable,” Marianne says. Her eyes are crinkled at the edges. She leans toward Héloïse, hands braced on the desk. “Now, if you’re done gossiping about me-“
“Not me,” Héloïse corrects. “Levka Evgenovna.”
“Mhm. Come, walk with me. I have to go home to my husband.”
“You are horrible,” Héloïse complains, but she lets herself be shepherded out the door.
“Did I say my husband? I meant my cat. She gets annoyed when I’m not home promptly at seven.”
“You have a cat?”
“Her name is Tolstoy,” Marianne says. When Héloïse laughs she beams as if she has won the lottery. “No, don’t laugh, it’s rude. She’ll take offence.”
“Did you name her?”
“Of course. She bit me when I picked her up for the first time. Love at first sight.”
Love at first sight? Héloïse wants to bite Marianne not in the way that hurts but in the way that makes her blood sing. This is a dangerous thought when they are side-by-side in an otherwise empty elevator, hands scarcely inches apart. She shakes it off.
“I’ve never had a pet,” she offers.
“Really? I highly recommend a cat. They are very low-maintenance and they can jump off high things. Are you planning to get out of the elevator?”
Héloïse nods, half-sheepishly, and steps out of the elevator. “Sorry, I’m thinking.”
“I know.” Marianne pauses to hold the door open, and Héloïse’s feet stumble to a stop. Up close her eyes are twin star-bursts of brown in circles of grey. Héloïse has never seen eyes like that in her life. “Are you going to go outside, or…?”
The air outside is unseasonably warm, the sky crowded with puffy angry clouds. It smells like the first of the spring storms. Héloïse tips her head back and breathes it in.
“Where’s your bicycle?”
“I didn’t bring it,” she replies absentmindedly. “I was worried I might miss you, so I took the train.”
“We’ll walk, then. Do you live this way?” At Héloïse’s nod, they turn onto the sidewalk leading to the bridge. Their hands brush, once, and it sends lightning all the way up to Héloïse’s shoulder. “Tell me something.”
“I don’t know how to swim,” Héloïse says. She feels full, anxious- is that a normal thing? Will Marianne think that she is joking?
Héloïse affects a casual shrug. From the look on Marianne’s face she is not sure she succeeds.
“I think I can swim,” she says. “I think it is one of my hidden talents.”
“Your multitude of hidden talents,” Marianne agrees. “Like memorising entire books and terrorising professors.”
Héloïse splutters in offence. “I never terrorised you!”
“You came into my first-level class and translated an entire paragraph of Anna Karenina,” Marianne says, without any bite. “You grew up speaking Russian?”
Héloïse nods. “Yes, I had a Russian nurse.”
Marianne tsks. “See, I taught myself.”
“Really? Your Russian is impeccable.”
“Thank you. I started early.”
Héloïse nods, impressed. “I’ve never tried to learn another language.”
“I could teach you,” Marianne offers. “Mandarin, German, Arabic, Greek, Bengali, English, Spanish.”
“Self-taught. Except for Literary Chinese, that was hard. Ah, shit.”
Héloïse looks over, surprised, and finds Marianne looking mournfully up at the grey sky, squinting.
“I forgot my cup of tea. And it’s raining.”
“Is it,” Héloïse asks, just as a raindrop splatters on her cheek, leaking ice-cold down to her jaw. Marianne laughs.
“Come on,” she says, and practically as she says it the rain begins in earnest. Within minutes the downpour has turned the sidewalk into a coastline, and both of them are drenched. Héloïse’s hair is freezing cold and stuck to the back of her neck, and where Marianne’s coat opens at the collar her shirt is distractingly translucent, like a second skin. Héloïse focuses instead on the wet grey sidewalk in front of them, the soft sound of her own breath coming through the rain, the squelch of her waterlogged shoes.
Marianne says something, but over the torrent of rain against concrete Héloïse doesn’t quite catch it. She turns to look at Marianne, who shifts closer, so that Héloïse can see the tiny droplets of water on her eyelashes, and repeats, “Where do you live?”
Héloïse looks around. Marianne has taken them on a different route, and this neighbourhood is only vaguely familiar. She shrugs, shivering.
Marianne’s cheeks hollow briefly in thought, and then she comes to a decision. “That’s my building,” she half-shouts, pointing down the street. “If you want, you can wait out the storm?”
Héloïse hesitates only a second. The rain is battering against her shoulders, seeping through her dress. Marianne’s face is open to her, eyes half-closed in defence against any stray droplets, the rain slicking tendrils of her hair against her cheeks. Not married, Héloïse thinks, in disbelief.
Chapter 6: an analysis on the subject of sharing clothes
Marianne’s apartment is untidy but somehow still neat, the piles of books and papers a hint into the workings of her brain. The front door opens into a large living room lined with bookshelves, the wood floor disappearing under a plush dark red carpet. A large couch sits facing the bookshelves, bedecked with pillows of mismatched colours, and to the right is a small kitchen, separated from the kitchen by a half wall painted a tasteful cream. Between the kitchen and the couch is a small wooden dining table, on which a cat is perched. It meows testily when they come in.
“Tolstoy,” Marianne cries joyfully, and pauses only to pull off her shoes before she goes to the cat. “I’m so sorry I’m late. This is Héloïse. Be hospitable, please.” Then, to Héloïse, “I’ll get you a change of clothes.” She disappears down the other small hallway and emerges after a moment with a pile of clothes, which she drops unceremoniously into Héloïse’s arms.
“They might not fit,” she says apologetically. “But they’re better than dripping all over the floor. The bathroom’s down the hall, on the left.”
Héloïse nods mutely. She waits until the bathroom door clicks shut behind her to bury her face in Marianne’s clothes and breathe in. Lilac, honey, a sharp-sweet smell. In a matter of minutes Héloïse will smell like that too.
Marianne has given her a pair of grey sweatpants, a green shirt that reads 'Sorbonne - Depuis 1257', and two mismatched socks, one purple and one green. With some effort Héloïse wriggles out of her dress, dropping it to the floor in a tangled wet heap. She hesitates a moment before reaching for the fluffy white towel hung nearby. One quick toweling-off later (trying her best not to think about what this towel has touched before), Héloïse strips off her socks, pulls on the new ones, and hangs the wet pair up behind the dress on the towel rack. She balances carefully on one foot to pull on the sweatpants. The material drags, dry and soft, against the inside of her thigh, and combined with Marianne’s scent it sends a not-unpleasant shiver up her spine. Héloïse ignores it in favour of tugging the Sorbonne shirt over her head. She dips her chin to sniff at the collar, and nods, satisfied.
Héloïse opens the bathroom door, and scarcely takes one step before she trips over something- soft, very much alive- that lets out a pitiful yowl. She catches herself, barely, and looks down to find two enormous green eyes looking up at her in reproach. For a bewildering second she thinks, Marianne has turned into a cat. But no. Just Tolstoy. Héloïse steps carefully over her, murmuring an apology.
Tolstoy evidently forgives her for the previous transgression, because she winds her way between Héloïse’s ankles, rubbing her chin against her leg with a quiet mew.
“Salut,” Héloïse whispers, crouching to stroke the soft silver fur behind her ears. Tolstoy headbutts her palm in response, not so gently.
“What? What do you want?”
“Are you hungry?”
A plaintive meow.
“Well, I don’t live here. So you’re out of luck.”
“Tolstoy!” Marianne emerges from a different room- her bedroom, Marianne sleeps there every night- and leans down to scoop up the cat, who makes no complaint at being nestled in Marianne’s arms. Héloïse feels very much the same way. “Are you begging for food again? My God, have some dignity. Sorry, I’m going to feed her, and then I’ll change.” She goes to the kitchen, setting down a whining Tolstoy on the way, and opens the refrigerator. From inside she pulls out a half-empty tin of cat food, emptying it into a little monogrammed bowl. Héloïse follows her into the kitchen, leans back against the opposite countertop, and watches her rinse out the tin in the sink.
“She gets so moody,” Marianne says affectionately, tossing the tin in the recycling. “Isn’t that right, Tolstoy? Don’t get up on the countertop or I’ll have to clean it again. I’m serious.” She shakes a finger at Tolstoy, who mews innocently. Then she turns, and, as if compelled, her gaze settles on Héloïse. And stays there.
“The clothes fit,” Héloïse says, after a moment of silence, and Marianne nods.
“They do,” she agrees, her eyes drifting downward. Clearly she doesn’t have the same compunctions about looking. Héloïse flushes a little, feeling suddenly too warm. If Marianne looks at her like that, does it mean- maybe-
The cat takes advantage of their momentary distraction to leap up onto the countertop, making a mad dash for the food. The moment breaks. Marianne whirls.
“Tolstoy!” She snatches the cat up and taps her disapprovingly on the nose. “You little devil. Here, I’m putting your dish down.” She takes another quick look at Héloïse, and smiles to herself. “Okay. I’m going to change. Make yourself comfortable.”
Héloïse occupies her time with inspecting the bookshelves. She examines the books with interest, letting her fingers linger on the spines. Some in French, some in Russian. Some of the books are in languages Héloïse hardly recognises. Eventually she settles on Voltaire’s Candide, in the original French, and opens it to the first page.
It seems that hardly ten seconds pass before the creak of a floorboard interrupts her reading. She looks up, and finds that Marianne has changed her clothes, and is sitting at the table with a cup of tea and a stack of papers, Tolstoy lolling out on the table beside her. Her hair is down now, loose and clinging to her neck, her shoulders.
“Excuse me,” Héloïse says, alarmed at her own incivility, but Marianne just smiles.
“Go on, keep reading,” she says, and pushes the tea kettle toward her invitingly. “You can sit down if you’d like, you know.”
Héloïse hesitates a second before making her way around the couch and dropping into the chair across from Marianne’s. She pours herself a cup of tea, and it’s scarcely gone cold before she snaps Candide shut and sits a moment lost in thought.
“What do you think?” Marianne asks. She is holding her cup of tea- her second, perhaps even her third- in front of her mouth, so that the steam curls into her face.
“He rejects optimism,” Héloïse says.
“Senseless optimism,” Marianne returns, setting down her teacup. “Only that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.”
“Is there any optimism which is not senseless?”
“Hope,” Marianne suggests. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin. Can that not be a sort of optimism?”
“We must cultivate our garden,” Héloïse repeats, in Russian. Then, in French, “That’s the philosophy of ballet. You work eighteen years. You train day and night. And perhaps your ankle breaks just before your first show as principal. Then what?”
“Then you find something else. You plant a new garden.” Marianne watches her with eyes wide open. “You are a ballet dancer?”
“By trade, yes.”
“Are you training here?”
Héloïse almost laughs. “No.”
The shortness of her answer would be rude to anyone else. Marianne just tips her head to the side. “You dance at the Bolshoi?”
A tiny change in words, a minute beat, and Héloïse spills forward, a mess of hands. She slides her hand into Marianne’s hair- half-wet, she must have bathed while Héloïse was reading- and bares her teeth to her. Marianne doesn’t look scared. Why would she? ‘You dance at the Bolshoi,’ she had said, a tacit unspoken understanding. Héloïse had flinched, maybe, or something had given her away. Not a Bolshoi dancer. You dance at the Bolshoi. Héloïse wants to eat her alive like this, to rip her apart for the cardinal sin of knowing. Marianne watches her, her eyes enormous and in constant motion, mapping every detail of Héloïse’s face, and now, of all times, is when Héloïse thinks of her mother. Arms crossed. Standing in the studio. Don’t neglect your training ever again, she had said, and then, deceivingly tranquil, Call your nurse here, will you? I’d like to speak with her. Héloïse has made a monumental mistake in doing this, her hand a loose fist in Marianne’s hair, letting herself be known like this. She has changed everything.
Marianne touches the inside of her wrist. The barest touch, two fingers gentle against the pound of her heartbeat. Héloïse wrenches her hand away, and jumps to her feet. She finds her way, stumbling, to the door, and yanks her still-damp jacket down from the hook.
She turns, briefly, the door yawning open in front of her. Marianne is behind her, eyes beseeching, hair mussed. She is holding something out between them, an offering. Héloïse hesitates, leaving agony and staying even worse, and finally, she takes it, just before the door closes between them.
The rain has stopped outside. Héloïse walks four streets in Marianne’s clothing before finally she looks down at this thing in her hands. Candide. Héloïse feels the sudden urge to howl. Anything else, anything else. But Marianne would not- could not- have given her anything else. Except-
Héloïse returns to the vast colorless apartment and tears the avant-garde artwork from the walls, shatters the ugly vases on the floor in twin arcs of broken glass. When she is finished she steps over the glass and goes to the bookshelf, hunting for something.
Too late today. Tomorrow, then. No. There is no such thing as soon enough. Héloïse agonises, pacing. She is furious, too warm, feverish, she is driven almost to insanity. She is out of the door before she even agrees to it, her feet pulling her with horrible swiftness. Outside night has already come, and with it the freezing cold. Héloïse ignores it all. Her thoughts are muddy but one is clear in its unbearable brightness.
Within minutes she is outside the apartment building, following a polite man who holds the door for her. She presses the elevator button, waits impatiently for a second, then goes to the stairs, taking them two, then three, at a time. Marianne lives on the second floor, apartment B. Her door is exactly the same as the others except that it holds behind it the single best thing in Moscow, perhaps the whole world. Héloïse holds up her fist, knocks once, and the door swings open.
Marianne’s eyes are wide. Her hair is still down, and dry now. She is in her sleeping-clothes, a loose white shirt and a pair of worn grey shorts, and, inexplicably, a pair of blue fuzzy socks that almost reach her knees.
Héloïse holds out the gift she has brought before she loses her nerve. Marianne’s eyes trace over her face, her shoulders, her outstretched arms, before finally settling on the book in her hands. Finally Héloïse has the words she needs.
“But for Levin,” says Héloïse, in Russian, her eyes fixed on Marianne, “she was as easy to find in that crowd as a rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her. The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable.”
Marianne, finally, meets her gaze. Héloïse sees just the bob of her throat before she says, hoarse and almost a whisper, in French, “Come in.”
She steps back, opening the door further, and Héloïse walks inside, through the hallway into the living room. She turns, and finds Marianne watching her.
“Come closer,” Héloïse asks.
Marianne comes to her, reaches out. Héloïse is not sure what she means to do- for a single ephemeral moment she thinks that Marianne will touch her, press her hand between her legs- but instead her fingers close around Anna Karenina, and she pulls it from Héloïse’s hands. Not to take it. Just to set it down on the table beside them.
Héloïse’s heart starts a hammer-beat in her chest. Marianne is still looking at her, some fond exasperation mingling with the wonder there in her face. She shakes her head, eyes closing for a second, and then steps unimaginably closer, and Héloïse has only to press forward before they’re kissing.
Marianne’s mouth is warm and soft and inconceivable against Héloïse’s. The sheer intimacy of it, the closeness it demands, the sudden awareness that she breathes from Marianne’s lungs, and Marianne breathes from hers, that the air will pass between them and thus will never be lost, that they could stay like this forever, it all sparks something deep and untouched high in Héloïse’s stomach. Héloïse touches Marianne’s cheek, her throat. She is conscious of a rush of heat everywhere, the quick pulse of blood. She wants to- she wants-
Marianne pulls back. Her mouth is red now where it had been pink before, her pupils dilated and eyes half-lidded. Héloïse makes a soft grieving sound at the sight.
Then, bewilderingly, Marianne turns, and walks in shaky steps down the short hallway past the bookshelves. Without a single look back she opens one of the doors and disappears inside. She leaves it open behind her.
Héloïse stands still a moment, her legs unsteady beneath her. She looks to the open door. Then to the door of the apartment.
Chapter 7: an enquiry into the moments before seduction
Héloïse steps out into the street.
Everything hurts but she has never felt so light in her life. She tips her head back and pirouettes without any regard for technique, hands reaching up to the sky, feet lifting, pressing against the cold damp concrete. The Moscow night air is frigid, and everyone else has had the good sense to go home. Not Héloïse. Héloïse is so warm her mouth feels as if it is burning.
She finds her way back down the same path she had taken before, eight streets down and to the right. Her hands are so numb that she can hardly hold the key that unlocks her door.
Inside the entryway there is broken glass everywhere. Héloïse sweeps it off to the side with one foot. The path cleared, she takes a few long steps, and jumps into a soaring grand jeté, flying over the remaining glass and landing in a rush of momentum.
Finally, finally, it clicks. Héloïse laughs, startling herself, and in a rush of steps she comes to the edge of the living-room-turned-ballet-studio. She peels off Marianne’s socks- now damp and grey on the soles, Héloïse had forgotten to take her shoes with her- and tosses them over the barre. Now, a coupé jeté en tournament en manége, an endless stretch of grand jetés interspersed with quick turning steps that sends her flying around the room, legs outstretched and toes pointed, arms in a perfect rounded ellipse above her head. When at last Héloïse comes stumbling to a stop she drops to the wood floor, breathless and panting, arms lifted.
“Thank you,” she calls, and gives a little bow to the barre. Then another to the bookshelves, and one to the window. “Thank you, thank you.”
Héloïse wakes with her face pressed against a hard wooden floor. When her eyes open they are accosted immediately by sunlight, spilling into the living room-turned-studio. Usually Héloïse is on her way to the Bolshoi before the sun is even up. Something is out of the ordinary.
She sits up slowly, bones creaking. For the first time in years she had forgotten her nightly ritual, and as she goes to stand, her muscles scream in protest. It’s almost eight o’clock. She’s late. Why is she late?
Oh. Marianne. Héloïse gives up on rising to her feet in favour of smiling like a lunatic. Marianne had kissed her. With her mouth! On Héloïse’s mouth! And then she had gone to her bedroom, and Héloïse had-
She had- left?
No, surely not. Marianne had left the door open, and it was as clear an invitation as any. There was no way that Héloïse had really gone outside in the face of that.
Héloïse buries her head in her heads with a dawning sense of mortification. Okay. So she had left. That was alright. That could be no worse than anything else she had done that day. Including leaving the first time. And also forgetting her shoes at Marianne’s apartment. Héloïse looks around- two socks draped over the barre, a pile of glass by the wall in the entryway, and beside it, a pair of pointe shoes. No other shoes. Make that forgetting her shoes at Marianne’s apartment, twice. And reciting Anna Karenina. And tripping over Tolstoy. And kissing her.
Kissing her. Héloïse closes her eyes and breathes in, splaying her hands on her cheeks. That alone makes up for everything else. The softness of Marianne’s mouth, the smile that she had worn in the moments before leaning in, the rub of her thumb over Héloïse’s jaw.
And, perhaps, there is some redemption. Héloïse remembers, vaguely, opening Anna Karenina, and scribbling down her address. So Marianne, if she looks, will know where to find her. And Marianne will look. Héloïse trusts in this more than anything.
Héloïse stays another minute in rapture before the trilling of her phone jolts her back to the present. She rises to her feet, wincing, and goes unsteadily to the phone.
“Quoi,” she says into the receiver.
“Where the hell are you?”
Ah. Balakov. “At home.”
“And what the fuck are you at home for? It’s dress rehearsals. I expected you here an hour ago.”
“I think my muscles are broken,” Héloïse says, honestly. She leans against a nearby chair and tentatively stretches out her calf.
“You do sound sort of fucked up,” Balakov says after a moment. “What did you do?”
“Over-exerted, I think.” Héloïse grasps her ankle with the hand not holding the phone, and pulls it up until her leg burns.
He tsks. “Typical. You stretched after rehearsal, I remember. But what did you do afterward?”
Héloïse has no response, cheeks colouring. Balakov makes a knowing sound, tinny through the phone.
“Off with your lover, hm?”
“Not lover,” Héloïse says automatically. Though Marianne had kissed her like a lover. And touched her like a lover. So-
“Will you be alright for tomorrow?”
“I think so.”
Balakov huffs, but he is concerned, sappy old bastard. “You better be here tomorrow,” he growls. “Fucking Alexey still doesn’t know where to put his arms in the fish dive, you’d think he was still in academy. Well, take the rest day. And don’t call me on this cell, I’m a very busy man.”
“Thank you, Monsieur.”
“Tch! French people.”
Héloïse waits a second. “Balakov?”
“I don’t hate ballet.”
“I know that. And I don’t care. Witchhazel nut oil. Show opens in six days.” He hangs up.
Héloïse rubs the oil into her feet. After she hobbles to the kitchen she sits at the table, legs draped over the tabletop, and eats a baked sweet potato. She imagines her mother- ‘you’ve overdone it’, an admonishment with an approving note.
Oh, God. Her mother.
Héloïse picks the phone up again with a mounting sense of dread, and dials the only number she knows by heart.
“Oh, Héloïse. Good. I called you last night but you didn’t pick up.”
Because she was with Marianne. Kissing Marianne. Being kissed by Marianne. Héloïse quells those thoughts. “I was busy.”
“Hm. How is your training?”
“Fine.” The standard noncommittal answer.
“And how is Balakov?”
“Good.” Héloïse hesitates for a moment. If she tells her mother about Juliet, then there is no chance at all. “I don’t know if I want to do ballet anymore,” she says, very quietly.
An incredulous moment of silence. Then- “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course you do.”
“You are one of the best in the world,” her mother says sharply.
“Since you could walk you have trained for this. Odette and Odile, Giselle, Nikia. You were born to-”
“No,” Héloïse interrupts. She looks at the copy of Candide sitting on her kitchen counter and thinks of Marianne’s calm gaze. Il faut cultiver notre jardin. “I was not born for anything.”
A pause, then a soft sigh. “You had a lot of these, when you were little,” says her mother. “These flights of fancy. Where you said, I don’t want to dance, I want to be a pirate, or a musician, or an Olympic swimmer. But always, always, you came back to ballet.”
“I know,” Héloïse whispers.
“What else could you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Exactly.” Back to the brisk no-nonsense tone. “Go to the studio. It’s dress rehearsal, isn’t it?”
“I went to a class at the university,” Héloïse says. “The professor says I could study in any field I wanted.”
Her mother makes a dismissive sound. “You are on track to be one of the great names of ballet. And you want to give it up to study at some low-level university?”
“What is it to you?”
“You are my daughter,” her mother says, sounding as livid as she is surprised. “What is it to me? Everything, Héloïse.”
“Do you want me to be happy,” Héloïse whispers.
“Of course.” A pause. “But ballet will make you happy, my dear. Go to the Bolshoi. Rehearse. Things will be back to normal soon.”
She hangs up with a click, and Héloïse throws the phone down on the table.
Some time around eleven o’clock, Héloïse puts on her pointe shoes out of sheer boredom and practices the arabesque penché in her living room. Extension, lift, bend, the feet arched, all her bodyweight put onto the single point. Then a dip forward. It is immensely difficult to do unsupported, practically contrary to the rules of physics. But Balakov has given it to her nonetheless for the solo; three times, repeated, with a glissade in between. Héloïse does it over and over until her calves lock, and then she sits on the floor and stretches. Midway through a half split, a tentative knock comes at the door.
Héloïse almost steps on the broken glass- she should probably clean that up- in her haste to get there. When she opens the door Marianne is standing behind it, an amazed smile on her face, holding a little gift bag. She is so beautiful she seems impossible. Héloïse runs through the possible greeting options- a handshake? No, too formal. A hug? Will Marianne want to kiss her again?
“My God,” Marianne says cheerfully, “you live in a-“ and suddenly something very odd happens. Halfway through her sentence Marianne abruptly cuts herself off, her eyes flitting over Héloïse for a second before settling firmly at the ceiling.
Héloïse frowns at her, confused. “I live in a what?”
“A penthouse,” Marianne says. Her voice is pitched higher than usual. She is still looking at the ceiling.
“I do,” Héloïse says. She looks up at the ceiling too, but there is nothing there. Maybe Marianne is going insane. “Do you want to come in?”
Marianne nods and takes a few jerky steps forward. She almost walks right onto the shoe rack, but Héloïse grabs at her wrist and tugs her out of the way.
“Why are you looking at the ceiling?”
Marianne lets out a sound halfway between a huff and a squawk. Héloïse has no idea what that is supposed to mean.
“You,” Marianne begins. Then stops. Then opens her mouth again, then closes it.
“What?” Héloïse asks, distinctly worried now.
“I think that you,” she begins again. Nothing more. Héloïse makes a concerned noise and shifts closer, at last pulling Marianne’s eyes back to hers. Immediately Marianne turns pink, and resumes her staring contest with the ceiling with renewed vigor.
“What is it?”
Marianne lets out a sigh so long Héloïse is surprised she still has air in her lungs to speak. “You’re not wearing pants,” she finally spits out.
“Really?” Héloïse glances down at herself. Shirt. Underwear. Pointe shoes. No pants. Hm.
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘really’,” Marianne mutters. It seems mostly to be directed at herself. “I think I’m maybe three BPM away from a heart attack.”
“I didn't know you were coming,” Héloïse says apologetically, secretly thrilled by the blush high in Marianne’s cheeks. She finds Marianne’s sweatpants folded neatly on the floor nearby- she must have discarded them at some point in the night- and pulls them on. When she looks up Marianne has migrated to the bookshelves and is surveying the selection with a critical eye.
“I’ve expanded,” Héloïse says. She hovers, a touch awkwardly, by the wall.
“Yes, I noticed.” Marianne pulls one of the books from the bookshelf and flips through it with a small smile. “Hónglóumèng. One of the Four Classic Novels. I’m writing about it for my dissertation.”
Héloïse blinks, confused. “You don’t have a PhD yet?”
“Then how are you a professor?”
“I’m not a real professor, technically.” Marianne fixes Héloïse with a quizzical stare. “How old do you think I am? Nevermind, don’t answer that. I’m twenty-three. My mentor is friends with Petrovitch, so he got me this job teaching first-level French.”
“And the office?”
“The original French professor left last year, so I just took his.”
“And you’re qualified?”
Marianne’s eyebrows go up. “You’re really asking me about my qualifications?”
“Okay,” Marianne says, and counts off the degrees on one hand. “I finished high school early, graduated at twenty, and did one year of my master’s before starting my PhD, which I’ll have in two years, maybe three. Are those qualifications sufficient?”
Something about the way she says it- ‘qualifications,’ dripping like honey off her tongue- makes Héloïse squirm. Marianne smiles, and, in a deliberate motion, sets the book back in its place on the shelf. Héloïse panics for no reason at all.
“Do you want to see the arabesque penché,” she blurts out.
The confusion on Marianne’s face deepens. “Yes,” she says, nonetheless.
Héloïse takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders. Don’t do anything stupid, she tells herself, and extends a hand.
“Come here,” she says.
Chapter 8: an examination of the grand pas de deux and other forms of poetry
to those of you that are not here for sex, this chapter is not for you! m rating cheers
In a matter of steps Marianne is sliding their palms together, her fingers brushing over Héloïse’s wrist. Without looking away Héloïse backs up, tugging Marianne into the middle of the studio. Even when her hand drops its heat lingers. She still has her coat on, the grey high-collared one.
Héloïse hesitates for a moment before, bravely, she reaches out and sets the tips of her fingers on Marianne’s bared collarbones. The skin there is delicate, the bone solid underneath. In a sudden rush of boldness she drags her fingers over the twin lines of her collarbones, catching briefly on the cream silk collar of her shirt before slipping over the fabric. Marianne’s breaths are shallow in her chest; Héloïse doesn’t dare look at her. Carefully she slides her hands beneath the shoulders of the coat, trapping them between the warm silk and the rough tweed. With a tiny motion of her thumbs the collar gapes open, and the coat slips off without any resistance. It falls in a heap to the floor. Marianne makes no move to pick it up, stock-still under Héloïse’s hands.
Héloïse opens her fingers over Marianne’s shoulders and presses, slightly. “Kneel,” she asks.
Marianne blinks, eyes wide. Her lips are parted, breath coming fast and quiet. Héloïse is going to explode if Marianne keeps watching her like this. “Kneel,” she says, again.
Slowly Marianne drops to one knee. Then the other. Her chin tips up, her eyes staying on Héloïse’s. Like this Héloïse can see down her shirt, the rapid rise and fall of her chest. Don’t look. Be polite.
“The arabesque penché.” Héloïse closes her eyes now, and keeps them shut. If she looks at Marianne looking back at her then she will probably fall over and that will be embarrassing and also Balakov will shout at her for injuring herself. “It starts with the arabesque, the elevation of the leg behind the body.” With a strain of sore muscle she lifts her right leg behind her. Halfway up, the sweatpants catch and pull tight around her thighs. Héloïse lets go of Marianne’s shoulders to tug them higher, until the elastic at the ankles reaches her knees and the material bunches at her hips.
“And then," she says, hushed, "the bend forward. Put your hands on my waist- there, yes.” Marianne’s fingers are barely even on her but the slightest touch burns, sending trails of heat up her ribcage. Héloïse shivers, feeling at once grounded and unsteady. “Arabesque,” she murmurs, and shifts, en pointe, leg lifting higher behind her. A single deep breath, centering herself. “Penché.” She leans toward the ground, core tightening, both legs outstretched in a single straight line, feet arched, chin lifting, briefly contravening the laws of gravity. As close as possible to perfection. “And hold.” Her arms move almost unconsciously into third position, elbows settling on Marianne’s shoulders.
Héloïse opens her eyes. Marianne is so close that Héloïse can taste her breath. Like this they are face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Mouth-to-mouth. Héloïse trembles. When their gazes catch she cannot look away.
“Are you going to run away again,” Marianne whispers.
No. Héloïse has never in her life wanted so badly to be touched. She shifts forward, relishing Marianne’s tiny intake of breath, and fits their mouths together.
Marianne kisses her back with unexpected heat. Her hands disappear from Héloïse’s waist and reappear moments later at the nape of her neck. She tugs, gently, and Héloïse drops down from en pointe, the arabesque falling away. In a single graceful motion she rolls Marianne back onto the floor, one hand cupping the back of her head so as not to hurt her.
The image is a blow to the chest- Marianne outlined by the grey coat rumpled underneath her, her knees unfolding and limbs splaying out. Héloïse hovers over her, one leg on either side of her hips. Marianne’s eyes are half-lidded and dark and Héloïse thinks, Everything was made bright by her. She means to say it but she runs out of breath.
“Come here,” Marianne asks, the hand at Héloïse’s neck pulling her down. She has not let go of Héloïse all this time, not even to keep herself from falling.
Their noses brush as Marianne’s lips press to hers. Like this she can feel the tickle of eyelashes fluttering against her cheek, the solid warmth of Marianne below her. Marianne’s hands seem to be everywhere- now sliding down between Héloïse’s shoulder blades, now smoothing over her ribcage. She traces the seam of Héloïse’s mouth with the tip of her tongue and makes a soft noise of approval when her lips part.
Héloïse’s heartbeat is loud in her ears, pulsing low in her stomach. Inadvertently she clenches around nothing. She pulls back a second to look- Marianne’s eyes almost-closed, lips parted and shining. Héloïse’s eyes slide greedily down the marble of her throat to the lovely expanse of skin at her collarbones. Her shirt has a seemingly endless amount of buttons; Héloïse tugs at the top one, unsure of the etiquette.
“Yes,” Marianne says, softly. “Yes, yes.”
Héloïse needs no further encouragement. Her fingers are clumsy in nervousness as she undoes each button. On the last button her hands are so sweaty that they slip twice.
Marianne’s shirt falls away in a ripple of silk. She is wearing nothing underneath. Héloïse is going to faint probably but then she will not get the chance to touch. Touch. Can she touch?
Slowly, her hand trembling, Héloïse touches the warm bare skin over Marianne’s ribs. Then up, brushing the underside of her breast before retreating. She hardly dares to look. It seems rude, somehow.
“Héloïse.” Marianne is smiling, somewhere between exasperated and reverent. “Look at me.”
Marianne has three perfect freckles, one slightly off-center above her breasts, one on the inside curve of the right. One by the- oh, God- the dark pink nipple, sitting low and pretty on the left side. Below that her stomach is soft, rising and falling steadily with her breath. Lower still there is a faint trail of hair that darkens past the little divot of her belly button. Héloïse is overcome by every detail. Carefully she kisses each tiny freckle. On the last her lips graze against Marianne’s nipple, and beneath her Marianne’s chest rises in a deep shuddering breath.
“You are unbelievable,” Marianne tells her. Héloïse flushes with pleasure at the low husk of her voice, and kisses her there again.
Perhaps in retribution Marianne’s hands settle at Héloïse’s waist, and slide up, a slow deliberate motion. She cups her hands loosely against Héloïse’s chest, the heat of her searing through the thin cotton of the shirt. As she does so her thumbs brush over Héloïse’s nipples, so innocuously that Héloïse might have thought it an accident if not for the tiny smirk curling at Marianne’s mouth.
“I like this shirt,” she says, plucking at the fabric. “Green suits you.”
Héloïse is still recovering. “Hm?”
“I would like it off.”
At that her thoughts stall. Off? Marianne wants to- to see her. To put her hands on her. Héloïse nods, not quite trusting her voice, and Marianne pulls the shirt up and over her head, tossing it aside. Héloïse shivers at the sudden rush of cool air against her skin. For a moment she thinks she is burning.
When Héloïse leans down she feels first her own nakedness and then Marianne’s. Both are electrifying, both are overwhelming, both are not yet enough. Héloïse learns where to kiss to make her tremble, notes each place with unerring care. Behind her ear. Over her pulse point. In the divot above her collarbones. Her dusk-pink nipples. Héloïse takes one into her mouth, marveling at its velvet firmness. When she closes her teeth around it Marianne makes a low sound, her hips twitching up into Héloïse’s. The sound more than anything sparks a low buzz under Héloïse’s skin.
Soon they will be lovers, Héloïse thinks, dizzy. Perhaps they already are. At that thought she is suddenly conscious of the sultry burn at the back of her throat, the pulse between her legs. Lovers; Marianne will touch her and know her and possibly even be in her, she will see Héloïse at her most unguarded, she will understand her deepest breaths.
She drops her face into the rumpled fabric of Marianne’s coat and inhales shakily. Marianne makes a concerned noise, her hands stilling on Héloïse’s waist.
“Are you alright?”
Héloïse nods wordlessly.
“Do you want to stop?”
Héloïse shakes her head so vehemently that she hits Marianne in the nose.
“Ow,” Marianne says, laughing. Héloïse, alarmed, lifts herself immediately to fuss over her. Marianne smiles, her arms coming up to wrap around Héloïse’s back.
“I think I am dreaming,” she says quietly. Héloïse traces her fingers over her nose for a moment before settling on her full bottom lip.
“Yesterday I thought you were married,” she says, and feels Marianne’s smile bloom under her touch.
“Someone should tell Tolstoy.”
“One of us,” Héloïse agrees.
Marianne’s eyes slide shiftily to the side. “Russian is my fifth language.”
Héloïse laughs and rests her head against the coat again, ignoring the way it scratches at her cheek. After a moment Marianne’s hands resume their slow motion, mapping the muscles of Héloïse’s back.
“You have the most magnificent shoulders,” she says.
Héloïse hums. “They’re not good for ballet.”
“I like it.”
Marianne turns her head; her next words are a caress of warm air over Héloïse’s throat. “How strong you are,” she murmurs.
Héloïse’s next breath is unsteady, and Marianne shifts closer. In Russian now she whispers, “Your hands, your arms.” Then in French, “Your legs.” In Russian again. “Your intellect.”
Each word sends new heat prickling along Héloïse’s skin. She breathes quick and shallow, fingers curling in the coat below her. She had not known she would like this but it makes sense. Marianne presses her mouth to Héloïse’s ear and murmurs something in a language Héloïse does not understand. Chinese, perhaps, from the lilting tones. Is she- translating? Unmistakably she is. She purrs something else, in- Arabic?- and bites gently at Héloïse’s earlobe, and it’s too much, far beyond too much- Héloïse’s hips jolt forward, seeking pressure and finding it, briefly, against Marianne’s thigh.
Marianne goes still. Héloïse burns in embarrassment, shifting away and pressing her face to the cool wooden floor. Now that she is trying to quash it the heat flares even brighter.
After a moment Marianne splays a hand over Héloïse’s bare back. The other creeps lower, fingers hooking in the band of Héloïse’s- Marianne’s- sweatpants.
“Do you want to,” Marianne breathes. There is no mistaking her meaning but Héloïse is bewildered.
“I do.” Marianne lurches up to kiss at Héloïse’s throat, her lips. She bites open-mouthed at Héloïse’s shoulder, and whispers, “I do.”
Héloïse sits up for a moment to pull the sweatpants down to her knees, then shifts awkwardly between each knee to yank them down and over her pointe shoes. She is acutely aware of Marianne’s stare; for a moment she thinks to be sexy but the way Marianne is looking at her negates any need. After the sweatpants have been tossed to the side she crawls back up to Marianne and crushes their mouths together.
Immediately Marianne’s hands replace the lost heat. She slides her hands over the back of Héloïse’s thighs, draws her nails lightly over the sensitive insides, brushes her thumbs over her hipbones. With a single finger she traces the waistband of Héloïse’s underwear. All the while between kisses she is whispering something that sounds like a poem, her voice low and wanting.
“Translate,” Héloïse huffs.
Marianne obeys. In French she murmurs, “As she makes me like dust of powdered gold.” A kiss to Héloïse’s collarbone. “Shine of my life.” Now to the base of her throat. “My fan, my lantern.” Just beneath her jaw. “Declaration of my orchards.” The corner of her mouth. “Stretch me a bridge with the scent of oranges.”
Héloïse makes an animal noise, wolves at the moon, and kisses her, bites at her soft bottom lip. She feels as if she is holding something precious on her tongue. Her knees have started to ache against the hard wooden floor but she would rather die than have Marianne be uncomfortable.
“Come here,” Marianne says, against her jaw. She smooths her hands unashamedly over Héloïse’s thighs, just below the glutes, and pulls until Héloïse’s weight presses down against her bare stomach. At once both of them realise that Héloïse’s underwear is damp. Marianne has the nerve to look surprised.
“Yes.” Héloïse kisses her closed-mouthed and grinds her hips down against Marianne’s stomach, legs bowing open with ease. Her eyelids flutter in relief, core tensing. “Yes.”
“You’re so flexible.” Marianne lets out a laugh that is halfway to maniacal, eyes roving down Héloïse to where they are pressed together. “How did I not think about that?”
“Marianne,” Héloïse murmurs. She stills the motion of her hips and kisses her lovely cheek. “I would like you to touch me now.”
Marianne lets out a breath. Her gaze settles on Héloïse’s. “Okay.”
Héloïse nods once determinedly, and rolls off her to slide her underwear off. She had forgotten to shave the last few days so the hair there is sparse and prickly.
“For ballet,” she explains, tugging her underwear off the toe of the pointe shoe, “to prevent disruption of the lines.”
“I see,” Marianne says, her eyes caught there. It feels unbearably intimate; Héloïse flushes and hooks her leg back over Marianne’s waist. With her legs spread she can feel her own wetness, searingly hot against the cool air. Marianne’s hands settle on her waist again; one traces up her ribcage, the other meanders down the front of her thigh. Down almost to the knee. Up the inside now. Héloïse’s focus zeroes in on that tiny point of contact, as it slips up, over the prickle of hair, and-
Marianne breathes something in what is perhaps Bengali. She looks- reverent. Awed. Her eyes are wide and dark and she looks up at Héloïse like nothing else in the world has ever mattered.
When her hand shifts Héloïse sucks in a sharp breath and drops her face down into the coat. The motion sounds slick, obscene, holy. She can smell the clean sharpness of Marianne’s sweat, and her own, and the sweet lilac of her soap, and the lanolin must of the tweed coat.
Marianne’s fingers begin slow lazy strokes against Héloïse, her thumb circling in search of something. When she finds it Héloïse makes a low hungry sound, and the tendrils of heat swell up into her stomach. Her spine turns liquid; it feels almost like dancing but without the composure, without the refinement. The rhythm is there. Marianne’s mouth presses hot against her neck.
“What do you want,” she asks.
“Faster,” Héloïse breathes. She sinks her hips down into Marianne’s hand. “Yes. Like that.”
At the end Héloïse’s eyes close. The last thing she sees before the zenith, then the sublime trembling spill, is Marianne’s face, tipped up to her in rapture.
Afterward they are both sticky with mingled sweat. For a moment Héloïse thinks, nonsensically, that they have fused together, their two bodies crushing into one. Marianne pulls her closer and licks almost lazily into her mouth. Her hand slips away; Héloïse feels her wipe the slickness away on her own stomach.
“La petite mort,” Héloïse says, thoughtfully.
“Is that what it felt like?”
Héloïse shakes her head. With intention she bites at Marianne’s earlobe. “Not really.”
“Surely you know.”
“I would like to hear.”
Héloïse kisses open-mouthed at the curve of her breast. “It feels like sneezing.”
“Truly you do wonders for my ego.”
Héloïse rolls her eyes and cups her over her dress pants. When Marianne’s eyes go wide she smiles, thrilled at her own audacity. “The best kind of sneezing.”
“Is there a good kind?” Marianne helps her with the zipper, lifting her hips to let Héloïse tug the pants down her legs.
“Of course.” Héloïse stares a moment at her underwear- nice underwear, lovely dark blue lace with the dark hair curling out underneath it. Beneath it is where she will touch Marianne and she will probably not do it wrong but even if she does Marianne will maybe still like her. Love her? Like her. No, love her.
“Are you getting nerves?”
Héloïse scoffs in a show of bravado. Marianne sees right through it.
“You don’t have to,” Marianne says, so sincerely that Héloïse wants to headbutt her for being ridiculous.
“I know,” she says, touching at the pale expanse of Marianne’s thighs. She kisses at her hipbone, tugs the waistband down to mouth at the skin underneath. “This underwear is nice.”
“Really? Which one?”
Marianne lifts her head up to give Héloïse a pointed look.
“Ah.” Héloïse hides her smile between Marianne’s legs. When she kisses lightly at the lace there Marianne’s hips jump a little. The fabric is damp. Which means-
“You’re doing that again.”
Marianne isn’t even looking at her- her eyes are fixed on the ceiling. Héloïse likes this view, she decides; the underside of Marianne’s jaw, her breasts, one hand resting on her stomach. “Wandering off.”
“I know. Would you like me to?”
Héloïse kisses the lace again, harder this time. Marianne makes a soft sound like the air has been punched out of her. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, God, yes.”
“Good.” Héloïse takes a breath to steel herself. She slips one finger under the lace, careful not to touch anything, and tugs it away.
Beneath it Marianne is a dark pink, the sparse dark hair curling down the sides of her folds. When her legs spread Héloïse sees the glossy heavy wetness between. The inside of the lace is warm and slick to the touch.
Héloïse leans in and licks, with the full flat of her tongue. Marianne’s hips buck; she curses in a mess of words. She tries to slide her hands into Héloïse’s hair but is foiled by the pins keeping it in a bun. With clumsy hands she plucks the pins out and tosses them haphazardly away. Héloïse hears the faint metallic clinks as they hit the wooden floor, and licks deeper. Marianne tangles both hands in her hair, nails scratching against her scalp. Her thighs shift like butterfly’s wings around Héloïse’s head.
“Héloïse,” she breathes, from far away. “Héloïse.”
Héloïse hums against her. She tastes musky and sharp and gorgeous, painted over Héloïse’s cheeks, smeared on the tip of her nose. Héloïse licks at her opening, notes that there the taste is a touch more sour. Up higher she is most sensitive. With the delicate tip of her tongue she traces circles through the slickness.
The traditional grand pas de deux of ballet has four parts. An entrée, the introduction. A grand adage, the slow winding together. The variations, a solo for each of the two dancers. And finally, a grand coda. Of the four, Héloïse has always liked the solo best.
Marianne is drenched satin against her mouth. She is so exquisitely sensitive that the slightest slide of Héloïse’s nose against her makes her hips quiver. Héloïse licks in short hard strokes and thinks, This is it. The grand pas de deux at its core, at its most exalted. But one more thing.
Héloïse lifts her mouth for a moment, replaces it with her fingers. “The poem,” she asks.
Marianne tilts her chin down. When she meets Héloïse’s eyes she shivers in understanding.
“Raise me more love,” she murmurs, in French. Héloïse closes her eyes and crooks one finger just inside of her, returns her mouth to its resting-spot. “Raise me my prettiest fits of madness,” her voice breaking into a sigh, “sink me further my lady.” Her hands stroke through Héloïse’s hair, fingers brushing behind her ears. “O taste of snow, and taste of fire.” Her stomach tenses, thighs pressing against Héloïse’s head so hard that she can hear the low throb of Marianne’s heartbeat, can feel her very arteries. In a choked voice she gasps, “lost in a dragon’s mouth.” She grinds hot and messy against Héloïse’s tongue, hands digging in at the back of her skull. Héloïse understands that she is near; she presses her finger deeper into the warm silk flesh and sucks, gently at first and then harder as Marianne goes taut and perfectly still, her hips arching up, and clenches hard, the inside fluttering around Héloïse’s finger. Marianne shudders, glorious, and comes down, Héloïse’s mouth on her all the way.
“Like sneezing,” Héloïse says, when Marianne is spent and shaking on the floor. She presses her lips once more to the slickness there, and wriggles up to kiss her. Marianne untangles her hands from her hair and kisses her back, humming at her own taste.
“Like sneezing,” she agrees. Her eyes are impossibly full when she smiles up at Héloïse. “You are remarkable, you know.”
Héloïse preens. “I am.”
“And- is there a reason there’s so much broken glass on the floor?”
Héloïse turns to look at the heap of glass in the entryway. Ah, right. “I broke two vases,” she explains.
“I had an epiphany.” Héloïse trails her eyes down Marianne, lit to gold by the now-afternoon sunlight coming through the window. “Do you want to see my bedroom?”
“I’m an old woman,” Marianne complains, but the way she kisses at Héloïse’s throat says otherwise.
When after much distraction Héloïse finally tugs her into the bedroom, Marianne takes a moment to look around. Again Héloïse has nothing but books piled everywhere, even on the bed. She flushes and hastily puts them away.
Marianne doesn't seem to mind. Her fingers feather up the inside of Héloïse’s wrist- gently she pushes her back on the bed. Héloïse scoots back up to the headboard to make room, pushing the pillows aside. Marianne follows, sits with legs crossed across from her. Héloïse forgets her manners for a moment and lets her eyes wander down, her gaze slipping to where her mouth had been just minutes before.
“You are insatiable,” Marianne says, fondly. She shifts forward, her fingers sliding beneath the silk ribbons that spiral up from Héloïse’s ankle. “And you’re still wearing your pointe shoes.”
Héloïse searches Marianne’s face for any sign of how she feels. “I can take them off,” she offers.
Marianne gives no response. Instead she bends to kiss at the ribbons, her mouth warm through the silk. Héloïse’s legs shift, the muscles of her calf tensing. It feels like nothing else in the world. Slowly Marianne presses a wandering trail of kisses over the silk, up the inside of her knee, drifting across her inner thigh. When her hands press down, Héloïse’s thighs open with no resistance.
This time is slower.
Afterwards Héloïse lies with her head on Marianne’s chest and her leg hooked over her hips as Marianne braids her hair. She has never felt so full, so warm, in her life.
Before she drifts into a contented doze, she thinks to ask- “Marianne?”
“What was the poem?”
Marianne’s hands card through her hair, scratching lazily. “Your body is my map,” she says, her voice a low rumble against Héloïse’s ear. “Nizar Qabbani.”
“Sounds familiar,” Héloïse murmurs, her eyes fluttering shut.
“I imagine.” Marianne shifts; Héloïse feels a gentle kiss pressed to the top of her head. “He and Kulit Khuri were lovers.”
Héloïse smiles, slow and radiant. In the afternoon sunlight dappled across her eyelids she needs nothing more than the slow rise and fall of Marianne’s breath beneath her.
It is the last thing she thinks before she falls asleep.
Chapter 9: an investigation into the prospect of eudaimonia
Héloïse wakes in the late afternoon.
In the first bleary seconds, she notes only the blankets strewn over the bed. The light almost orange through the window. The faintly sour taste that comes after sleep.
Then suddenly- Marianne. Marianne! Her lovely clever hands, and smiling eyes, and- and she had- they had- yes, yes, yes! Héloïse tugs the mess of blankets over herself and wriggles down into the covers in helpless delight.
But. Where is she?
Héloïse sits up and looks around, the blankets pooling around her waist. No sign of Marianne, though the pillows are arranged against the headboard as if she had sat there. The covers are still warm. Another odd thing; the bookshelves have been tidied, the books set carefully along a perfect line. Héloïse is on the verge of panic- Marianne would not have left, would she?- when she hears the whistle of the tea kettle, and the creak of the kitchen floor yielding under familiar footsteps.
The smile comes again, full-force, and refuses to leave her. All her muscles are pleasantly sore- she will have to stretch tonight, and tomorrow will be hell. But it will have been worth it. A million times over, it will have been worth it. Héloïse pulls on an old faded shirt and underwear, and goes to the kitchen.
Marianne is humming to herself, her hands orchestrating some silent melody above the tea kettle. Her hair is still loose, spilling down her shoulders. She is wearing one of Héloïse’s shirts and no pants. There are two mugs on the countertop beside her and Héloïse feels like she could burst. Instead she slides both arms around Marianne’s waist and kisses her shoulder.
“Salut,” Marianne says, her smile warming her voice.
“Privyet,” Héloïse returns, and rubs her cheek against the soft down at the nape of her neck.
“Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Mm.” Héloïse’s hand slips underneath the shirt; with the tips of her fingers she traces a lazy spiral over Marianne’s belly.
Marianne’s breath hitches, gratifyingly. “No fooling around,” she warns, but when Héloïse tries to pull away she finds herself held in place by the hands around her wrists.
“Those are very mixed messages,” Héloïse informs her.
Marianne, in lieu of a response, slides her hand up Héloïse’s arm, across her shoulder, and up into her hair. She sways, slightly, and Héloïse sways with her. They are pressed so close that Héloïse can feel her every breath.
“I feel-“ Héloïse starts. It cannot be said, not really. “Like-”
Marianne’s other hand finds Héloïse’s and pulls it up to her heartbeat, steady and sure. “I know,” she says. “Me too.”
Marianne makes them both a cup of tea and, while it steeps, bemoans the lack of nice food in the pantry.
“Do you eat anything besides sweet potatoes and kale?” she asks, staring into the fridge.
Héloïse nods, propping one knee up against the table. “Yes. Tofu.”
“And grapes, sometimes.”
“Unbelievable.” Marianne shakes her head and closes the fridge door. “I’m ordering food.”
Héloïse shrugs in happy confusion. Marianne can do anything at all as long as she is here. “Okay.”
“You’ve never ordered food before?” Marianne asks, disbelief lacing her tone.
“I don’t know.”
“What about takeaways?”
That strikes a bell. “Yes, I’ve seen restaurants with that.”
Héloïse frowns. “I’m not good with technology.”
“I’m going to order Chinese food,” Marianne decides. “Do you like Chinese food?”
“I don’t know.”
For the next few minutes Héloïse explains- practically her whole life she has been on a nutrition plan, made for her by a very rude Russian nutritionist. Every other day the woman lets herself in and deposits the ready meals in the freezer. No, she doesn’t eat anything else, except fruit she finds at the market. Yes, she’s had chocolate, a few times. No, she hasn’t been to any restaurants in Moscow. Yes, really. Would she like to try it? With Marianne, yes.
Héloïse watches with interest as Marianne orders in fluent melodic Chinese, and somewhere in the middle of a sentence she climbs into her lap and starts a methodical line of kisses up her throat.
“Haoba, haoba, xiexie, ershi fenzhong, okay,” Marianne gets out in a rush, and hangs up. One hand slides to the back of Héloïse’s neck; she tips her chin up to allow for better access. “You’re a menace,” she whispers, without any heat.
Héloïse smiles. She plucks the phone from Marianne’s unresisting hand and sets it down somewhere behind her on the table.
“Mm.” Héloïse’s hands have already found their way to the hem of Marianne’s (Héloïse’s) shirt. “I’ll be done by then.”
It’s a barefaced lie, and both of them know it. When the doorbell rings some time later Héloïse sighs and reluctantly pulls her hand away.
“I’ll get you some clothes,” she says. She takes a second to look- Marianne resplendent, naked, eyes warm and legs still open- and goes to find some pants.
Helping Marianne put them on is entirely unnecessary and complicates the entire matter, which is why Héloïse offers in the first place. When the doorbell rings again Marianne is reduced almost to tears from laughter, still hopping on one leg with the other wrapped around Héloïse’s waist.
“Okay, okay, go away,” Marianne orders. She kisses Héloïse’s cheek and tugs the pants up.
“Do I have to?”
“You don’t like it?”
Marianne looks down, her bottom lip caught momentarily between her teeth. At once Héloïse is more than ready to get distracted all over again. “You know how I feel.”
The doorbell rings a third time, impatiently, and Héloïse retreats. On her way to the bedroom she hears Marianne say something in cheerfully flustered Chinese.
Héloïse returns fully clothed and finds Marianne sitting at the table, as natural as anything, her head bent over an open book. In front of her there is a collection of little paper containers spread out over the dining room table.
“What are you reading?”
“Your Shakespeare collection.”
“Which play?” Héloïse asks, dropping down in the chair beside Marianne’s. At the smell of sauce and carbohydrates her stomach rumbles in anticipation, and she tugs the nearest container closer, peeking inside.
“Two Noble Kinsmen.” Marianne closes the book and sets it aside for later. “Those are xiaolongbao. From Shanghai.”
Héloïse inspects them. The xiaolongbao- down down up, the tones are odd and Héloïse will have to learn them, maybe Marianne will teach her- are pale and shiny from the steam. They are most certainly not on her nutrition plan.
“You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to.”
“No, I do,” Héloïse assures her. She sniffs the- dumplings?- with interest, folding back the top of the paper container. “It smells good.”
“It is.” Marianne shifts closer, looking concerned. “I told them no salt, and there are vegetables.”
Héloïse catches her hand and kisses it with immense fondness. “I’m eating it now.”
It tastes much better than sweet potatoes. Héloïse makes a noise of bliss and picks up another by its curlicue top.
“Shh.” With her other hand Héloïse presses a finger to Marianne’s warm mouth. “I’m focusing.”
“You’re supposed to put it on a spoon first,” Marianne says, muffled slightly by Héloïse’s finger. “And pop it.”
“Why would you do that?”
“So the soup cools. It’s burning hot, you know.”
“I have an excellent constitution,” Héloïse tells her, chest puffed out, and flushes when Marianne gives her a lazy up-and-down look.
“I’m familiar,” Marianne purrs. She nips at the tip of Héloïse’s finger, and Héloïse feels her ears go pink.
“Just-“ Héloïse redirects her gaze to the dumplings. “That. It’s hard to concentrate.”
“Okay,” Marianne says peaceably, and changes the subject. “I went to the doctor’s a few days ago.”
Héloïse drops the dumpling in her haste to scan Marianne for any sign of injury. She would have seen it, surely. Unless Marianne is-?
“No, no, just for a checkup.” Marianne snags the discarded dumpling and pops it into her mouth; Héloïse is too relieved to protest at the theft. “I was sitting in the waiting room, and I started reading one of those fashion catalogues.”
Héloïse wrinkles her nose. “Ah.”
“I had forgotten how much I liked looking at them.”
“Really? You like that?”
“Sure.” Marianne opens another container, some sort of noodle dish, and takes a bite. With a half-full mouth, she says, in Russian, “The idea of shaping art around the human body is very appealing.”
“And your preferred method is designer clothing?”
“It’s not about the brand,” Marianne says, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “It’s the concept. The elaborate kimono, the lace, the embroidery. Zuhair Murad. The exquisite, the sublime.”
“The contrived,” Héloïse says in challenge.
There- a spark, starting under her skin. Marianne sits up, at attention now, the food forgotten. “I don’t think so.”
“Really? All that machine-constructed fabric? All the waste?”
“Do you consider beauty a waste?”
“Strawman,” Héloïse says reprovingly. “Is it beautiful if you can only look at it and think of the labour?” She leans forward, sketches out an abstract shape on the table. “High fashion is one of the few arts where the doing is separate from the making. The painter’s hand shapes the tableau. The sculptor carves the body from marble. And the clothing designer draws a picture and sends it out to be fulfilled.”
“You could say the same for dance.”
Héloïse scoffs. “Really.”
“The choreographer.” Marianne’s smile is cunning, sharp. She intends to shift the winds. “Their work is the same. The planning, the theoretical, the intellectual labour. And the dancer realises it, just as the seamstress realises the designer’s plans.”
“But the dancer is part of the art.”
“And the seamstress is not?”
Héloïse frowns, on the back foot now. “Not recognised as such.”
“Then you think the point of art is recognition?”
“No. The seamstress is as much an artist as the dancer.”
“And the choreographer?”
Balakov, Ratmansky. Marianne wins this one. “Fine. Yes, it’s art, it’s artistic work.” A new point occurs to her; she switches back to French. “Then what of the waste? The carbon dioxide suffocating the atmosphere?”
“Aha. The artist’s guilt.”
“The human’s guilt,” Héloïse corrects.
“But the artist’s most of all. What is the point of art?”
Héloïse blinks, unimpressed. “What is the point of life?”
“Rhetoric. Answer the question.”
“That is my answer.”
“So you agree that art is necessary.” Marianne’s hands unfold. On the table they start their dance.
“That to live without it is hardly to live at all.”
Héloïse looks at her for a moment: eyes gleaming in anticipation of the next words, hair messy from Héloïse’s touch, brilliant. “Yes,” she agrees.
“Then the question is in defining art.”
“No, don’t change the subject. Your high fashion is art even if it’s contrived. The question is in value.”
Héloïse grins. “Let’s not call each other names.”
“I’m not calling names. It’s exactly what Bentham thought, and Mill after him. You get one point of pleasure- one hedon, they called it- for a bawdy poem, two points for theatre. Low art versus high art. Eudaimonistic utilitarianism.”
“Really,” Marianne says, surprised. “You think that some art is worth more than others?”
Héloïse shrugs. “It’s impossible to judge by quality.”
“Then your metric is-?”
“Sustainability.” Marianne’s eyebrows go up; she leans back, crossing her arms over the Bolshoi logo on her shirt. Clearly she intends to be persuaded.
“High fashion is a gross show of wealth,” Héloïse says, rising to the challenge, “and it’s not shared, unless on the catwalk, or in a museum. Take the sensation out of art and what is it worth?”
“What do you mean by sensation?”
“The experience of it. Lock up a piece of art and you’ve robbed it of what makes it alive.”
“Then by your definition anything in public view is art.”
Héloïse nods. “Anything perceived.”
“Anything perceived,” Marianne repeats. She shakes her head, and points to the plant sitting by the window. “That?”
“Yes,” Héloïse says, without looking, and waves off her next point. “It’s all art. But the art that can be indulged in without guilt- that’s dance. Butterflies. Michelangelo’s sculptures. Theatre. The human body. That which will become the earth again after its making.”
“And in the making? What about the damage done in the meantime?”
Héloïse sighs. “To live as we do is to defile the earth. You might as well say ‘don’t breathe the air’. It’s the minimising of our impact.”
“Not extravagance.” Marianne’s mouth is twisted up at the side, which means she is thinking. Héloïse is going to argue with her forever just to see that face. “Is that why you’re so opposed to high fashion?”
Héloïse pauses. “Not just that.”
“Something else? What other objections could you possibly have?”
Neatly Héloïse steeples her fingers, draws in a deep breath. Then, with gleeful finality, she says, “It’s ugly.”
Marianne laughs. Héloïse loves Marianne’s laugh, especially when it surprises her.
“Like books,” Héloïse says, lighter now. “I love them. But I can’t look at them without a sense of guilt.”
“That is very impractical.”
“It is. That’s why I dance.”
“In the Bolshoi.” Marianne’s tone shifts to something more serious. “Which has lights, and velvet, and running water.”
“I know.” Héloïse sighs, her brow wrinkling. “I know. It feels impossible.”
“It isn’t. Durability. That’s what you meant by Michelangelo, isn’t it?”
“The quality argument. People tend to put more effort into things that will last forever.” Héloïse opens her mouth to interrupt, but Marianne waves her off. “No, I’m not done yet. I’m saying that what you’re doing, or at least trying to do, is to bring that quality to the fleeting, to keep it on both ends of the spectrum.”
“Now who’s the utilitarian?” Héloïse teases, nudging Marianne’s chair with her foot.
“Shh, I’m tired.” Marianne pilfers another xiaolongbao; Héloïse squawks in offense. “Anyways. I believe in you.”
The debate isn’t over. But for now Héloïse is hungry, and Marianne is smiling so softly that the very sight of her tugs at something deep in Héloïse’s chest. “Thank you," she says.
After Héloïse does her stretches they sit side-by-side at the table in companionable quiet. Marianne hums when she reads Shakespeare, her fingers tapping on the table. After a while Héloïse recognises it- iambic pentameter, a heartbeat’s patter.
“How their lives might breed the ruin of my name, opinion,” Marianne says, almost absentmindedly. Héloïse looks up from where she is bent over Kulit Khuri’s Vingt Ans. Act III, Scene VI. Emilia.
“Shall any thing that loves me perish for me?”
Beneath the table Marianne’s ankle hooks around Héloïse’s. In a thoughtful tone she finishes the phrase. “That were a cruel wisdom.”
Some immeasurable time later a distant church bell rings, and on the seventh toll Marianne sits upright.
“I have to go,” she says, rising to her feet.
Héloïse frowns. “Why?”
“Tolstoy is expecting me.”
“Tolstoy can wait.”
“I’m already late, and she hasn’t seen me for lunch. She’ll be furious.”
Héloïse sighs, put out. “Okay.”
“Do you want to,” Marianne begins. She looks down, fingers winding together. “To come over? Tomorrow.”
Héloïse almost laughs. What a ridiculous question. “I do.”
“Okay, good. You go in at seven?”
“And you finish at-?”
“Five. Dress rehearsals might go later.”
Marianne darts closer and kisses her, soft and closed-mouthed. “Come by when you’re done.”
“Okay,” Héloïse says. She follows Marianne to the door and watches her put on her shoes. Helpfully she offers up the tweed coat, retrieved from the studio floor. Marianne pauses. Looks at her. Smiles.
“I can’t believe it,” she says, and touches Héloïse’s wrist. “Last night- I thought-“ she shakes her head, eyes full- “and now.” In a sweep of her hand she indicates it all- Héloïse in sweatpants and pointe shoes, Marianne in a purple Bolshoi shirt that hangs off her shoulders, and this thing between them, this alive and wondrous thing.
Héloïse kisses her again. Just once, because she has self-control.
“Goodbye,” she whispers.
“Give Tolstoy my best wishes.”
Marianne smiles. “I will.”
The door clicks shut behind her and Héloïse goes limp against the kitchen counter. Tomorrow, she thinks. She will see Marianne again tomorrow. Even now she is just moments away.
Héloïse meanders back to the bedroom in a happy daze. The sheets still smell like Marianne, and there is something on the bed that only she could have left behind. Anna Karenina, Héloïse’s copy. A bookmark tucked like an afterthought between the pages. Héloïse flips it open. In light pencil Marianne has underlined:
All that night and morning Levin lived perfectly unconsciously, and felt perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life… he moved without muscular effort, and felt he could do anything.
The next morning Héloïse wakes to the most wonderful six-in-the-morning there has ever been. On the counter she finds the bag that Marianne brought yesterday- inside, her dress, washed and neatly folded, and her socks, and her shoes beneath them. If she could feel anything other than helpless joy there might be some embarrassment, but the dress smells like Marianne and so the bare threads of logic that remain dictate that she must wear it.
Héloïse hikes up the hem of the dress and pedals into the Moscow morning chill. The sun is new in the sky, the birds are singing, the grey pavement winks back at her where the light catches its imperfections. There is nothing in the world that is not beautiful today. Here the fruit-sellers at the market, with the lovely lines in their faces. There the miraculous trees lining the road. Here the charmingly nondescript apartments. Héloïse is going to knock on their doors and shake all those people’s hands. You live in the most marvellous city in the world, she will tell them. You and I, we are the luckiest people on earth.
Héloïse leaves her bike in the rack outside the Bolshoi and takes the stairs up to the studio. Inside there are already a few ballerinas stretching on the barre. Balakov- wonderful brilliant man- stands slouched by the piano, his arms folded. When he sees Héloïse his cloudy face lightens a little. Héloïse has never felt so glad to see him.
“Oh, good, you’re back,” he says, uncrossing his arms. “Did you do all the recovery?”
“Yes,” Héloïse says, and beams at him.
He blinks at her uncertainly. “The stretches?”
“Yes, all of it.” Her smile grows even wider. She remembers- Marianne holding her leg, running her fingers along the muscles of her calves, her thighs, her feet. Héloïse has never taken sacrament but it must be something like that, the making-holy.
“And rolling out?”
“Yes, Balakov, everything. Don’t frown. Isn’t it beautiful out? Did you see the sunrise?”
“No. I was busy. What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, Balakov,” Héloïse sighs, and if she could manage a pitying tone in this euphoria she would. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Well,” he says, slowly. “Okay. That’s- good. Get on the barre.”
Héloïse skips away, toward the barre. During her stretches she looks around, and each new face she sees fills her with an overflowing sense of goodwill. She fishes out her pointe shoes from her bag and slides them on over the spacer and pad, then joins one of the corps on the barre.
“Zdravstvuj, Elizaveta Arkadyevna,” she says, joyful. She feels so full she can do nothing but smile; it bubbles up through her chest.
Elizaveta looks over her shoulder. She seems surprised. “Zdravstvuj.”
“Are you excited for dress rehearsal?” Héloïse asks. Then she adds, “Your form is lovely, by the way. For the pas de quatre.”
“Thank you,” Elizaveta says. “And yes, I’m excited.” Each of her sentences lilts up at the end as if in question. Why? Nothing in the world is in question.
“It’s going to be extraordinary,” Héloïse tells her, and does a little jeté battu, just for the pleasure of clicking her heels.
“Elevé, I said. Are you perhaps open to doing that?”
“Of course.” Héloïse rises easily to en pointe and grins at him over the other dancers’ heads.
“Okay,” Balakov says, in a tone that suggests Héloïse has gone mad, “grand plié. And one, two, three, four, engage the core- this isn’t fucking academy, please, passé, good, retiré passé, okay, one, two, sus-sous…”
After dress rehearsals finish, Héloïse stays only a few minutes to help Alexey Medvedev practise the double tours en l’air. She has never talked to so many people in one day and liked them all, but now here she is, whirling around with Alexey. They stop the tours en l'air only when Alexey is laughing too much to continue.
“Let’s do a lift,” Héloïse says, wildly.
“Okay. You run and let’s do a fish dive-“
“No, I’ll do the lifting. Here, Alexey Medvedev, arch your back- very good- and just lift your legs all the way up in the air, I’ll hold you upside down-“
“Dupont!” Balakov barks.
“One minute! Sorry, I’ll put you down, Alexey Medvedev. Yes, see you tomorrow.” Héloïse floats over to Balakov. “Yes?”
“Come here.” Balakov puts his palm to her forehead. “Hm. No fever?”
“I’m not sick.”
“What the hell has gotten into you, then?” At Héloïse’s bewildered expression, he elaborates, “All rehearsal. You’re-“ he gestures- “prancing. It’s scaring the corps.”
“I had a good day off,” Héloïse explains.
“I’ll say,” Balakov mutters. “You’re running around looking like fucking Vaslav Nijinsky. You know this ballet is supposed to be a tragedy, right?”
“No one can look sombre and mournful while you’re clicking your heels. You’re a rococo courtesan.” He claps in her face. “Courtesan. Frivolous. Sexy.”
“Yes, I know.”
He pauses for a moment. Then he says, so plainly that he must understand, “You’re in love.”
"Yes!" Héloïse cries, elated, and does a plié.
Balakov’s bushy eyebrows tick up, minutely. He looks very close to amused. “I was going to say, you’re in love with the attention of your admirers. As a courtesan. A rococo courtesan.”
“My God. Four days now till opening. Dupont?”
“No bruises.” And before Héloïse can go red- “Take a shower before you go anywhere, hm? And stretch. No more over-exertions.”
“I mean it.”
“And roll out.”
“I’ll do it all, Balakov.”
“It’s rude to walk out of the room when you’re having a conversation with someone, you know.”
“Yes, right, goodbye.” Héloïse does some quick calculation as the studio door swings shut behind her- if she goes by the apartment then she can shower and eat and then she will be at Marianne’s before six o’clock and then maybe she will- stay the night? At that thought she quickens her stride, clattering down the stairs to the bicycle rack.
The cars move like snails today, and the key turns too slow in the lock. Héloïse flings her apartment door open, barely bothering to close it behind her before she rushes toward the bathroom, already reaching for the hem of her dress.
Behind her, someone coughs.
Héloïse freezes. Slowly she turns. There at the dining room table, where only a day ago Marianne had sat- her mother, posture impeccable, so out-of-place that it seems that Héloïse could do nothing more than blink and she would disappear.
“Hello, Héloïse,” her mother says in precise clipped French, Anna Karenina snapping shut between her hands. She cannot be real. Yet surely she is. “Why all the hurry?”
Chapter 10: an inquest into the topic of exercising in offices
extra bolshoi chapter to soothe my troubled soul! i'm very sorry i promise this is going to end eventually
also m rating for a brief lapse in professionalism (sorry!) & all thanks to @twohundredthousand for the inspiration behind the image
“I’ve come to see your show.” Her mother’s smile stretches painfully across her face. She always smiles like she’s being held at gunpoint. “As a nice surprise. You won’t mind if I stay in the apartment?”
“You paid for it.”
“I did. What’s the matter with you?”
Marianne is expecting her. Right now Marianne is in her apartment listening for her knock over the whistle of the tea kettle. Tolstoy is probably trying to sit on her. Tolstoy had tried to sit on Héloïse.
“I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Yes, I can tell.” A pointed gaze settles on the paintings still stacked near the entryway. Marianne must have done that. Even now the faint smell of her soap still lingers in the air; Héloïse imagines the suspicion in her mother’s face.
“I’m redecorating," she explains. “How long are you going to stay?”
“Only a week, I think. I have the academy to attend to.”
“Right.” Only a week. Héloïse can handle a week. How will she see Marianne? What can she say? It will have to be after rehearsal, perhaps during. Maybe she can foist her mother off on Balakov.
“Clean yourself up,” her mother orders, with a barely-polite wrinkle of her nose, “then let’s have dinner together.”
Dinner is silent. Héloïse eats a sweet potato and pokes at the half-thawed tofu and avoids her mother’s stare.
“You’ve been icing your ankles?”
A tsk. “You should ice your ankles the week before a show. At the very least four days. I’m going to get the ice pack.”
Ice. Witchhazel nut oil. Pumice stone. Héloïse lies in bed with her eyes on the ceiling and thinks of Marianne wrapped around her.
She devises a plan.
Even years after the injury her mother still maintains a prima’s schedule. At the break of dawn she is already in the kitchen with a bowl of oats and a disapproving look, but Héloïse doesn’t mind her as much now that there is the promise of Marianne. She permits herself the brief humming of a tune- three notes, nothing more. Else her mother might be suspicious.
“You’re not wearing makeup."
“I put it on at the studio.” Héloïse busies herself with the search for fruit. In the back of the refrigerator there is a nectarine, bruised but sweeter for it. She bites into it and leaves it there between her teeth as she rummages through the freezer. By the time she fishes out her lunch the juice has trickled down her jaw. Her mother sighs and stands, her oats finished.
“I’m going out,” she says, picking up her purse. “Do you know any bakeries around here?”
“Good.” Her mother smiles- one of her jokes- and disappears out the door.
Héloïse deploys every ounce of charm in her arsenal. For all of the morning class and then the first hours of rehearsal she wheedles and hints and cajoles, to no avail. When the second hand of the clock passes the 6 she descends into a foul mood. In a show of solidarity Alexey Medvedev sulks with her.
“Okay, enough,” Balakov barks, after ten minutes of gloomy silence from their corner of the stage. “Dupont! Manon’s death scene, once more, and then you’re free for break.”
Héloïse leaps to her feet, nearly tripping over Alexey in her haste to get to center stage. “I’m ready.”
“Second movement, Romance,” Balakov tells the conductor, who sighs and flips loudly through his book. “Where is Egor? Des Grieux!”
“He’s in the dressing room.”
Damn Vodopetov. At this rate Héloïse will be there after everyone has already left.
“I’ll do it,” Alexey offers, from somewhere behind her. “I know Des Grieux’s part.”
Balakov scowls at them for a moment. “You understand the point of dress rehearsals?”
“Well, she’s in a hurry,” Alexey says with a shrug. Lovely lovely man. Héloïse will have to buy him a bouquet after the premiere. Maybe some daffodils, they will complement his hair.
“You!” Balakov points at one of the corps. “Go find Egor. Alexey, the sentiment is appreciated, but stupid. Go take a break, we’ll do Armand’s confession of love next.”
“Okay.” Alexey taps her hand, once, and wanders off. A minute later Vodopetov emerges, looking harangued, and joins Héloïse at center stage.
“The death scene again?”
“Yes, at the ballet. Corps!”
A wave from Balakov and the piano flutters down. Héloïse focuses on her breath, attention turned inward. Perfect technique, legs extended. En pointe. Vodopetov catches her and holds still for a moment with his face at her ear. He is meant to be whispering beautiful words of courage. His hands are sweaty. Now, forward, the arabesque penché. He spins her by the waist; she arches into the poisson and falls back into a loose bridal carry so low that her fingers brush the floor. Then, back on her feet, attitude à la seconde, first at ninety degrees and then up till her leg nearly touches her head. Again Vodopetov lifts her, this time into a grand écart. By now it is all muscle memory, instinctual. Still unnatural in spite of the hours of practice.
Instead of the fish dive, Héloïse imagines- a brisé. A slow piqué. A grand écart into an unholy death, lifted up only to fall. The cough will come, it will drive her back a step; retiré derrière and she will topple back, barely caught by Des Grieux’s desperate hands. A jagged series of movements leading down.
They are at the soubresaut variation now and the music is trickling away. Héloïse spills back into Vodopetov’s arms with a wilting sigh, and is carted unceremoniously to the edge of the stage.
“Okay, good.” Balakov claps; the violins come to a halt. “Dupont, less mechanical. You’re dying of consumptive fever. Egor, are your hands slipping?”
“Get some chalk. If you drop her during the fish dive I’ll never hear the end of it.”
He nods. Héloïse is already on her feet, edging her way to the door.
Balakov gives her a frown that suggests he knows exactly what she plans to do. “Be back in two hours.”
Two hours. She can manage that. “Okay.”
“The final scene with Marguerite.”
“Okay.” Her hand on the doorknob, her back to the door.
“You’re free to go. Alexey! Someone go find Alexey.” His voice trails off as the door swings shut. Héloïse stops only to change her shoes and pull her coat down from the rack. Class is about to start. At the slightly increased risk of being run over she can make it there in twenty minutes.
Héloïse opens the door as quietly as she can, but even so the entire lecture hall turns to look at her. Including Marianne.
She beams, helplessly, when their gazes meet. Marianne looks surprised for a second before it melts into a tiny smile. Her hair is sensationally tousled and, at the turning of her head, one errant curl springs free. Héloïse has never been so glad to look at someone in her life.
“How kind of you to join us,” Marianne says drily. Surely her voice has not always sounded like that.
“Sorry,” Héloïse says, without meaning it at all.
Marianne coughs. “Anyways,” she says, with an attempt at her earlier vigour, “The past participle changes depending on whether the verb is regular or irregular. Would anyone like to give me an example of the latter?”
Héloïse, sliding between Katya’s seat and the desk behind, raises her hand.
“I ran to get here,” she says. The class titters.
Marianne doesn’t even bother hiding the roll of her eyes. She looks unspeakably fond. “Thank you. Yes, couru, j’ai couru. Any others?”
Héloïse raises her hand again.
“Yes,” Marianne says, deadpan.
“I lost something along the way.”
More titters. Marianne colours a marvellous shade of pink, her smile stashed away for later. “Perdu. That’s right, thank you. Anyone else?”
Stepan’s hand shoots up. “J’ai dit que j’avais faim,” he recites, and Marianne nods, looking pleased.
“Dit, that’s right.” She grants him an approving smile, a quick flash of teeth. “Excellent. Using both the passé composé and the imparfait.”
Fucking Stepan. Héloïse could have said that in her sleep. She retires to her seat with a dignified scowl and props her chin up on her fist. She will outdo him later. In private.
Not a minute later a wad of paper hits her in the elbow. When uncrumpled it reads, in Cyrillic so messy that Héloïse has to squint to decipher it, ‘you did not!!!’ She turns to look at Katya, who opens her eyes very wide and mouths the words. Héloïse shrugs; Katya rips out a new sheet of paper from her book and scribbles madly. The next message says, ‘you-‘ the accompanying verb is crossed out as if to protect Héloïse’s dainty sensibilities- ‘the professor?’
Héloïse goes fire red. Yes. Yes, she did. But Marianne may not like that being common knowledge among the denizens of Moscow State University. They will have to talk about it soon, maybe? Héloïse thinks that is what comes next. After-
Anyways. Héloïse shakes her head and makes an attempt at a shocked face. Katya’s eyes narrow, and she retrieves the paper only to return it ten seconds later, with ‘then why is she smiling at you’ scrawled below the previous message. Héloïse gives her an exaggerated shrug, and writes, in neat Cyrillic, ‘I am very charming.’ Katya snorts, one hand clapping over her mouth.
“Excuse me,” Marianne says, a touch frostily.
The grin drops off of Katya’s face and she sits bolt upright. Héloïse turns deliberately slowly just to see the annoyance flicker into life on Marianne’s face. She smiles, insouciant, a challenge.
“Is there a problem?” Marianne asks. Honey-sweet, with an edge. Héloïse knows what she looks like without her clothes on. What a marvellous thought.
“No,” she says, just as sweetly.
“Then I’m sure Katya won’t mind translating this sentence for me.”
Katya stumbles through the translation, and glowers at Héloïse once it is done. Héloïse musters up a brief feeling of guilt but it is dampened considerably by Marianne at the front of the room. She is magnetic, bright, wonderful, her hands sketching in front of her. In the rest of the lesson there are a few moments when she turns around to write something on the chalkboard. If Katya is not looking then Héloïse ogles. If she is looking- well. It grants Héloïse just as much pleasure to stare peacefully at Marianne’s indecipherable scrawl.
Afterward Stepan stays behind to ask yet another useless and boring question of Marianne. Héloïse waves off Katya and the rest and waits for his prattling to be over. When he is finally dismissed she is there to take his place.
“Hello.” Marianne smiles, a touch bashfully. That errant curl makes Héloïse’s fingers itch just looking at it. She glances at the door- open, but the hallway is empty- and, in a fit of daring, reaches out to smooth it back. Marianne allows the touch, her eyes fluttering.
“I missed you,” Héloïse confesses easily. Her hand lingers on the smooth line of Marianne’s jaw. Only when a gaggle of students drifts past outside does she let it drop.
“I missed you too.” Marianne catches her hand and presses a quick kiss to the palm, her lips warm and dry. It is not a practised movement so Héloïse very nearly hits her in the mouth but still it spills warmth throughout her belly. “Would you like to come up?”
“Very much so.”
By the time they reach the professors’ suite Marianne has, regrettably, remembered her earlier irritation.
“I can’t believe you are my problem student,” she mutters as she unlocks her office door. “Would you like some tea?”
“If you don’t mind.”
While Marianne busies herself with the thermos Héloïse takes the opportunity to look at her, up close now. She is leaning over the desk next to Héloïse’s chair which provides an excellent view of the strong lines of her forearms. And her throat. And the lock of hair clinging to the skin behind her ear.
Marianne turns in time to catch her gaze. "Do you need something?" she demands.
Héloïse shrugs, unapologetic. “I like looking at you."
Incredibly- Marianne flushes, her eyes dropping. “You are very distracting, you know.”
Pleasing. Very pleasing indeed. “Am I?”
“Yes. I can hardly teach.”
“If you were not so immensely erudite-“
Héloïse smiles. “And such an intellectual-“
“I won’t hear it.”
“And such a pillar of the literary tradition. And-“
Marianne offers her a chipped mug of tea and a mild glare. It would only encourage Héloïse but unfortunately the slant of her eyebrows suggests that Héloïse will lose clothes-off privileges if she pushes her luck any further.
“Tolstoy bows before you,” she finishes.
“Only when she is demanding her dinner,” Marianne says. But she is smiling. Héloïse drinks her tea, content.
“I am sorry to not have come yesterday,” she says, after a moment.
Marianne’s brow wrinkles. “Yes. I did wonder.”
“My mother arrived. I was not expecting her.”
“I see,” Marianne says. She very likely does. But Héloïse presses on regardless.
“She is here for the show. The opening is in four days.” A thought occurs to her. “Do you want to see it? You don’t have to, if you don’t like.”
“Of course. But isn’t it sold out?”
Héloïse waves dismissively. “I’ll get you a ticket.”
“And your mother will be there?”
Oh. Right. “Yes. But you don’t have to talk to her.”
“I will, if you want me to.”
“If you would like to.”
“I would. Is she in ballet?”
“Yes. She knows everyone there is to know.” Héloïse picks at the chipped edge of her mug. “She danced for years.”
"She would like me to do the same."
“Are you going to?”
Héloïse shifts in her seat, suddenly restless. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.” She glances up at Marianne and amends, “Not all of it." Then, ducking her head, "I like ballet, I do. Even the stupid costumes. But I don't know how long I want to dance for.”
“You think the costumes are stupid?”
“Look how horrible this dress is.” Héloïse plucks at the gauzy purple fabric with great distaste. “I feel like an oyster.”
Marianne has some difficulty swallowing down her smile. “You wore one of the Bolshoi’s costumes to my class?”
“I came straight from rehearsal,” Héloïse says defensively. Then her brain catches up- Marianne is surprised, why is she surprised? “You thought this was something I would wear?”
“You tend to surprise me,” Marianne says, grinning openly now. “I thought it might be a foray into high fashion.”
“I stand by my convictions.”
“You do. I was-“ and then nothing, as if she has swallowed the words down.
“You were-?” Héloïse prompts.
“Worried. For a moment.” Her hands fiddle in her lap; she looks down. “Last night. I thought I might have scared you off.”
Héloïse sets down her teacup carefully so as not to make a mess. Gently she puts a hand on Marianne’s leg.
“I have not been good to you,” she says, plainly. Marianne makes as if to protest but Héloïse shakes her head. “I haven’t. I’m sorry. It was my mother, and- all of that, and I couldn't tell you. I will be better.”
“You are wonderful the way you are. Just- I would like to know. What you want.”
“And you’ll tell me the same?”
Marianne nods. Héloïse thinks for a moment.
“I want to see you all the time,” she says. “I want to kiss you. And Tolstoy. And I want to go swimming with you.”
“I want to see you dance,” Marianne says. Her eyes are bright. “I want to kiss you too, even if you forsake me for Tolstoy. And I want to sleep next to you.”
Then it is decided. “So,” Héloïse begins.
Héloïse chances a look at Marianne, who is similarly blushing. “Are you going to say it?”
Marianne shakes her head.
For her pains Héloïse receives a few mumbled words in another language.
Marianne says something else with a cheerful shrug and a smile that suggests she has realised an advantage.
“Stop it.” Héloïse pushes her. “Do you have a phone?”
“I do.” Marianne peers down with a twinkle in her eye. “Demanding my telephone number?”
“I dare not be so bold.”
“Not Shakespeare again, love,” Marianne says flippantly, but already she is fishing out a phone from her bag and holding it out. Héloïse is still staring blankly at her. She had said it so casually- ‘love’, easy as anything.
“Are you going to-?”
“Oh, yes.” Héloïse takes the phone. After a moment, she adds, “darling.” Not quite subtly enough to pass for casual. But when she sneaks a look Marianne’s ears have gone pink, so she counts it a resounding success.
Once the business is concluded Héloïse returns the phone. “There,” she pronounces. “Now you can call me, next time. Or I’ll call you.”
“Next time? I’m not sure. I had a very nice night yesterday.”
“Candles, a nice dinner, Tolstoy.” She is teasing now. “What more could I ask for?”
With care Héloïse relocates three potted plants to the other side of the desk, and shifts a pile of books to the side. Then and only then does she stand from her chair. Marianne stays leaned back against the desk, arms still folded, eyebrows raised in playful challenge.
Héloïse pulls her arms apart and kisses her, warm and melting. Both of them taste like tea; in the press of tongues it is difficult to tell from where it comes. Marianne is deliciously pliant against the desk, her hands stroking over Héloïse’s shoulders.
Héloïse gets an idea.
The first kiss is innocent enough, sweet and chaste on the curve of her jaw. Further down not so much. Marianne tenses up, her hands falling away. Héloïse tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and kisses open-mouthed and wet over her pulse point. Just a hint of teeth, enough that Marianne shivers and falls back a little further.
“Héloïse,” she says, a warning. Her hands curl white-knuckled at the edge of the desk. Héloïse hums, kisses a trail down to her collarbone and leaves a little love bite.
“Héloïse,” Marianne breathes, again, her voice breaking a little. Much better. Her hands come up to rest, feather-light, on Héloïse’s shoulders- not pushing, just the lightest of touches. When Héloïse stills, she whispers, “If anyone walks through that door, I am going to be fired.”
Héloïse- well, she cares, yes, but- not really. “Fired?” Her hands slip, luxuriously slowly, down the front of Marianne’s shirt, and settle at the waistband of her pants.
“Yes. And then I won’t be able to-“ she trails off, then swallows, and forges on- “to provide for Tolstoy.”
“You can move in with me.” Héloïse’s thumb rubs over the button of her pants, warming the metal. “Do you want-?”
Marianne sucks in a breath, her eyes flickering between the closed door and Héloïse’s face. “Yes,” she says, after a moment. “Yes. But quickly.”
When the zipper slips down Marianne’s hands drop back to the edge of the desk, and her teeth leave an indent in her bottom lip. Héloïse shifts closer, one leg parting Marianne’s. Today her underwear is plain cotton, white and pretty, which when tugged down gives way to the dark of her hair. Beneath she is wet already, enough so that Héloïse’s fingers slip at the first touch.
A curious sensation, in her own body and yet in Marianne's too, all at once. Wrapped up in the whir of the radiator and the faint green smell of plants, some earthy warm thing that might be the heat or perhaps the echo of Marianne’s breath on Héloïse’s bare shoulder. If only they were in bed, Héloïse thinks- but this is good. This is more than enough. Marianne’s brows furrowed in concentration, half-shut eyes fixed on the rhythmic tense-and-release of Héloïse’s wrist where it disappears down her underwear. Her bitten-off sighs, still mindful, barely, of the world outside the door. Cheeks flushed and lips parted. Héloïse draws a teasing little circle around her velvet-soft entrance, one finger pressing inside, just to hear the hitch of her breath. Then two fingers, and a potted succulent tumbles off the desk with a muted thump. Héloïse’s hand has started to cramp and the zipper is chafing against her wrist but she doesn’t mind, not at all. Not for Marianne.
“Quiet,” Héloïse whispers, and kisses her to catch the sound. There is no rhythm to it now, not anymore, just the frantic motion of Marianne’s hips against Héloïse’s hand. She mutters something insensible into Héloïse’s mouth, the words quick and soft as a prayer and rising into a silent shudder. Her lips part, her eyes close, she goes still and taut. Something like Héloïse's name comes from her mouth and, and-
There is a small confusion in the afterglow where Héloïse very nearly wipes her hand off on her dress. She remembers just in time to save herself from Balakov’s wrath and licks it off instead.
“I’m going to be fired,” Marianne says ruefully, but she doesn’t sound too unhappy about it. Instead her eyes are caught on Héloïse’s fingers, slick and shining. “Come here.”
“I have to go in five minutes,” Héloïse tells her, but kisses her anyways open-mouthed and sweet. “Rehearsal. The Bolshoi is calling.”
“I’m calling, too.” Hands insistent at her collar, pulling her back in. She is magnificent like this, indolent in the flush of after-orgasm, pants still open at the front and underwear pushed down. Héloïse can deny her nothing at all.
“Mm.” Another kiss, softer. “I could get used to this.”
“Don’t, it’ll ruin my nerves. Next time you come to class you have to behave.”
“I did behave!”
Marianne zips up her pants very pointedly. Right. Well. Who could blame her? Héloïse whistles an innocent tune and avoids her glare by way of rescuing the succulent that had fallen.
“Fyodor!” Marianne makes a distressed sound and snatches the plant from Héloïse, cradling it to her chest. “Oh, Fyodor, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
Héloïse will not be put out. She will not begrudge a small stupid-looking plant for Marianne’s attention. Nevermind that the damn thing sees her every day anyway. Héloïse is much taller and also a better conversationalist. And almost certainly better in bed.
“It’s fine,” she says. “Look, I put all its dirt back in the pot. And it didn’t break.”
“Still.” Marianne kisses one of its leaves. “Forgive me, Fyodor. Next time I will be more careful.”
Beyond ridiculous. Héloïse folds her arms and waits to be paid attention to. It takes all of thirty seconds of Marianne crooning to- Fyodor, probably after Fyodor Dostoevsky, except it does not quite live up to the name- before finally she sets it back down on the desk with a few little pats.
“If you’re quite done,” Héloïse says, miffed, “I would like a kiss.”
“I am healing an injured soul,” Marianne says, but relents and grants her the kiss. Héloïse hums, pushes her gently back onto the desk, tilts her head to deepen it. By the end of it Marianne’s hand is fisted in the front of her dress, her legs hooked around Héloïse.
“Do you want to hear a secret,” she murmurs.
Héloïse nods. Marianne tugs her close, kisses teasingly at her earlobe. With a rush of hot breath at Héloïse’s ear she whispers, “If you were not already late I would be on my knees by now.”
Immediately the image comes to her- Marianne’s dark head between her legs, the tickle of her curls sweeping over Héloïse’s bared thighs, the purple dress rucked up to her waist and underwear tossed to the side, steadying herself on the edge of the desk. Héloïse swallows, feeling very lightheaded all of a sudden.
“I’m late,” she says, rather feebly in the face of Marianne kissing her ear. “You said so yourself.”
“I know.” Marianne’s hands come from nowhere, stroking up the inside of her thighs, the dress pulled up. “I’m not going to do anything.”
Héloïse shivers, trying desperately to stay on her feet. “You can’t do that and then-”
“And then what?”
“And then just- stop.”
“What am I doing? This?” Marianne’s hand creeps upward, just to the edge of Héloïse’s underwear. “This is hardly anything.”
Marianne laughs. Her hand drops away, a blessing and a curse. “You’re going to be late to rehearsal.”
Héloïse kisses her again with a pleasant sort of frustration. The bike ride back is going to be agonising. But the clock reads forty minutes past twelve and if she doesn’t leave now she will stay here forever in this warm office with its hundred plants and Marianne and then she will miss the premiere.
Which is not such a bad thing, really.
“Okay," she decides. "I’m going.”
Héloïse pauses. “Right now,” she adds.
“I mean it.”
Marianne sighs and uncrosses her ankles, her legs falling away from Héloïse’s waist. “You’re free to go,” she says magnanimously.
“Thank you.” Héloïse goes to the door. Then changes her mind and darts back to kiss her again. “Okay. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” Marianne echoes, smiling.
“Sorry, Fyodor,” she adds. A show of sportsmanship. “Bye.”
“Tell Tolstoy I said hello.”
“I will. Call me.”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“Joking. Sorry. Okay. I’m going.”
She is five minutes late to rehearsal. But the image of Marianne, leaned back against her desk among the plants, her hair a mess from the heat, her eyes soft and smiling- that is more than enough to sustain her through Balakov’s annoyance, and the extra two hours of rehearsal, and another silent dinner. Thankfully her mother doesn't comment on her inability to stop smiling. All she grants Héloïse is a suspicious glance and an order to sleep well.
Before bed she calls Marianne.
"Hello?" Her voice raspy and low. Héloïse imagines her apartment in the night-time, two steaming mugs of tea, Tolstoy draped over the table between them.
"You called me."
"I did." Héloïse tugs the covers up to her shoulders. "Hi."
"Hi." Marianne is smiling.
"I didn't really call for anything."
"Okay. What are you doing?"
"I'm in bed."
A pause, the rustle of the blankets. Héloïse is content to listen to the faded static of Marianne's breathing. Already she is almost asleep.
"Héloïse," Marianne whispers.
"I am glad to have met you."
Héloïse's smile is big enough to shift the phone up where it is pressed to her cheek. "Me too."
"Okay." A yawn. "Good."
The call disconnects with a little click and Héloïse rolls over to deposit her phone on the nightstand. She is still smiling even when she falls asleep.
Chapter 11: a look into the process of coming full circle
terribly grateful to all of you for sticking with me through the writing of this odd little thing. endless love! and m rating once more (sorry)
The next two days are an endless slog. Her mother comes to the Bolshoi and greets Olga Smirnova like an old friend. Which- they are, Héloïse supposes. But still. Olga Smirnova is not in the business of being friends with people. In any case Héloïse is granted a salad and a few stilted encouraging words and once she has gone off again rehearsal resumes as normal.
The break time is spent competing with Alexey on important matters such as who can lift their leg higher. Héloïse wins, but barely. Alexey’s cabriole is very narrowly better (because it is his signature and also he has just done Spartacus) which means he poses an excellent challenge. Gaily they accuse each other of cheating. There is a referendum led by Elizaveta Arkadyevna which ultimately settles for a tie.
But that is about all the fun Héloïse has on the first day. Something is always going wrong. One of the violinists is out of key, the tempo is too slow, Vodopetov’s hands slip and Héloïse nearly goes face first into the floor, the lights are a half-second behind and the enormous wall behind them is lit the wrong shade of pale fuchsia. Again and again Balakov shouts “No, no,” and the violins screech to a halt and everyone goes back to where they started. Héloïse has the energy to do nothing more than beg an extra ticket from the office before she returns to the apartment and falls asleep with makeup still on.
By the second day Balakov has pulled almost all his hair out and even Alexey is getting snappy. Héloïse, in desperate need of air, calls Marianne at the lunch break. She is perfect although she spends much of the time cooing over Fyodor’s new pot which is apparently gold and sequined and undoubtedly stupid. In any case she patiently listens to Héloïse’s whingeing, and, once she is done, suggests a game.
“Yes, a game. Get Alexey to play. Lighten things up.”
The idea of a game is instantly seized upon and grapes are hurled across the stage with near-meteoric force. It ends in Héloïse and Alexey having to go around and pick up all the squished ones, complaining loudly when one is particularly messy. But it gets everyone in a better mood. And Alexey shares his quinoa with Héloïse.
It is good to have a friend, Héloïse thinks.
On the day of the show Héloïse arrives promptly at seven. They go through the motions of class for an hour before Balakov gathers them with a weary wave of his hand.
“Go home,” he orders. “Stretch, roll out, everything. Yoga if you need to. Eat a light lunch before one. No overexertion. I don’t want to see anyone here until four o’clock. Thank you.”
And they are dismissed. Héloïse packs up her things and changes and when she goes out Alexey is waiting by the door for her, wearing the tiniest backpack Héloïse has ever seen. They spend all of the bike ride to his bus stop attempting to do a grand écart on the handlebars of Héloïse’s bicycle and only cease when Alexey nearly tumbles into the road.
She tells him about Marianne while they are waiting at the bus stop. In vague terms, because there are people around. But he lights up and she knows he understands.
It is hardly past eight by the time Héloïse returns and finds her mother is already up and coiffed. Between quick neat bites of oats and milk she informs Héloïse that she will be out for the day but a healthy lunch must be attended to and bandages must be applied prior to performance. And the pointe shoes have been painted, yes? Good. And, added after a moment’s hesitation during which she lingers at the door, she is proud of Héloïse.
Then the door closes behind her and Héloïse makes a flying leap for her phone.
The call goes through after four rings. In a sleep-cracked voice Marianne mumbles, “Héloïse?”
“Hi.” Héloïse squirms guiltily. “Sorry to wake you.”
“No, it’s alright. What are you doing? Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Just- there’s no rehearsal today, and I was wondering-“
“Do you want to come over?”
Héloïse lets out a breath. “Yes.”
“Of course.” Marianne sounds slightly more awake now. “Please. Tolstoy has been asking where you went.”
“Yes. Every hour. Insistently. What time, do you think?”
“Whenever you’ll have me.”
“So unhelpful.” Marianne yawns. “Okay. Ten minutes?”
“I’ll be there.” Héloïse balances the phone between her shoulder and her chin, and, with minimal swearing, manages to get on the bicycle. For the first time in a while the sun is shining and the temperature has crept up overnight. Spring is sneaking into Moscow, slowly but surely coaxing tiny green buds from the wary embittered trees. Soon it may even be warm enough for shorts. The season will only last a few weeks, so the best must be made of it- maybe Marianne will take her to go swimming.
Across the street Héloïse sees an old couple come tottering peacefully out of their front door, practically swaddled in enormous coats and fluffy scarves. Upon feeling the warmth of the day they exchange matching looks of pleasant surprise. The sight stirs a memory buried somewhere in earlier years– “when people know each other for a long time,” her nurse had said, nodding to the crotchety old men playing chess in the park, “they start to look the same.” Héloïse listens to Marianne’s soft tinny breaths over the phone and wonders if perhaps they will start to resemble each other. If one day she will look in the mirror and see little pieces of Marianne mixed in.
Suddenly there is the blare of an impatient car horn behind her. Héloïse whirls and delivers a glare that would have warmed Balakov’s heart, but the damage has already been done. Marianne makes a startled soft sound and wakes up.
“No, it’s fine. I have to open the door for you anyway.” But already she is dozing off again, her words slipping together.
“Don’t sleep,” Héloïse whispers, “don’t sleep, don’t sleep. Just until you let me in. Here, I’ll tell you how it looks outside. There’s lots of birds around, and the sky is sort of blue. But mostly clouds. It’s cold but in a nice sting-y way. There’s a woman selling those potato pastry things from a cart. Are you asleep?” A little humming sound. “No? Good. I’m sorry for waking you up. Just five more minutes.”
“Mm. I’ll be awake.”
When she reaches Marianne’s door it is already open and Marianne is smiling back at her, the phone dropping from her ear.
Her hair is sticking up in directions Héloïse hadn’t known were possible. She is wearing Héloïse’s purple Bolshoi shirt and grey shorts and blue knee-high fuzzy socks. She sleeps in Héloïse’s shirt?
“Are you planning on coming in?”
“Right. Yes.” Héloïse wheels her bike inside and takes her shoes off. She lines them up painstakingly even with the other shoes in the rack because Marianne does not like mess. And then she kisses Marianne.
“Your hands are cold,” Marianne murmurs, but kisses her back, slides her arms about Héloïse’s shoulders and lets herself be crowded back against the wall. After she has been appropriately greeted Marianne grabs Héloïse by the wrist and pulls her in past the kitchen, turning down the little dark hallway, and into- the bedroom.
Héloïse needs a moment.
More bookshelves, lining all of one wall. A window, the curtains open just a crack. Plants, of course, everywhere. A large bed with its white duvet flung to one side. A frankly irresponsible amount of pillows. And Marianne, already climbing onto the bed with a sigh.
“Are you getting in,” she mumbles. Her eyes are closed, but when Héloïse makes to join her they shoot open. “Wait!”
Héloïse freezes. Marianne sits up, roots around in the sheets, finds nothing. Turns to the duvet and picks it up, shakes it a little. From within a mrow issues forth, and, shortly after, Tolstoy, looking slightly disgruntled to have been woken.
“There you are. Okay, you can come up now.”
Héloïse resumes the undignified crawling motion. The very instant she reaches the pillow Marianne is curling around her, their legs tangling together. Her breath is warm on Héloïse’s neck and in a matter of minutes she is asleep. Héloïse might have been bored if it were anyone else but luckily it could not be anyone else and so she is perfectly content to lie there and trace little hearts over Marianne’s bare arms.
Then, from behind her-
Another mew, but quieter.
“What? What do you want?”
Tolstoy hops down off the duvet pile and makes a rapid advance toward Héloïse’s head, who for fear of waking Marianne can do nothing but blink very threateningly. After a brief inspection she is deemed satisfactory and a fluffy silver tail brushes over her cheek.
Héloïse wrinkles her nose. “That tickles.”
This time it lands in her mouth.
Beside her Marianne stirs a little and Héloïse freezes, shushing the cat. Who is a cat. So the injunction is not heeded. Instead Tolstoy starts toward her.
“Don’t-“ Héloïse warns, but already there is a tiny paw on her ribs, testing out the new walkway. Immediately a second paw; Tolstoy stretches luxuriously in both directions and then flops down on Héloïse’s chest. All the air leaves Héloïse’s lungs at once. She is astonishingly bony for such a small thing and seems very content in her new sleeping-place judging from the sudden steamboat-like purring.
“Tolstoy,” Héloïse wheezes, but cannot find it in herself to be too upset. “Tolstoy, get off. Bad cat.”
The purring intensifies. Somehow a tail ends up curling around Héloïse’s ear, flicking occasionally against the side of her head. Marianne sighs and presses closer, too, her chin tucking over Héloïse’s shoulder.
And from there she is trapped.
An hour later Héloïse has managed to extract Alain Mabanckou’s Verre cassé from the stack on the bedside table and is nearly at the end. After a brief whispered argument Tolstoy had agreed to serve as a book-rest in exchange for scratches behind the ears. They have reached a happy compromise and Héloïse is reading about Holden Caulfield’s appearance in a Congolese bar by the time Marianne makes a little snuffling sound and wakes herself up.
“Mm.” Marianne’s hand, meandering over Héloïse’s belly, encounters the fluffy mass stuck firmly to her chest. “Hi, Tolstoy.” She is exquisitely bleary, her face pushed into the pillow beside Héloïse’s neck. “What are you reading?”
“Ah, French colonialism.” Marianne rolls over and blinks up at the ceiling. Then her head turns and she brushes her nose against Héloïse’s cheek. “It’s nice to wake up to you.”
Héloïse tries to kiss her but Marianne pushes her chin away, her brow wrinkling. “No, don’t. Morning breath.”
“You already brushed your teeth once. And I don’t mind.”
“You will when you taste it.” She is insistent unfortunately on this matter, already rolling out of bed and landing on her feet with a muted thump. There is the distant sound of the sink, then an eternity in which the book is finished and Tolstoy is paid some absentminded attention before Marianne returns with her hair now tied up. She leans against the doorway a moment, sunlit. And they look at each other.
“Come on,” Marianne says. “I’m hungry.”
In the kitchen Héloïse is put in charge of keeping Tolstoy off the counter while Marianne opens the can of cat food. It proves a difficult job and by the end of it Héloïse has very nearly broken a sweat.
“Here, you little rascal.” The dish is set on the floor and Tolstoy pounces on it with such vigour that it goes skittering across the kitchen. Marianne rolls her eyes and goes back to stirring whatever outrageous caramel concoction is being reheated in the little pot. Which leaves Héloïse free to come up behind her and kiss her shoulder. And up her neck. And to her ear.
“Stop that,” Marianne chides, without any bite. “What if I burn my hand off?”
“I’d take you to the hospital.”
“And coddle me?”
“Very well. Continue.”
At breakfast they sit side-by-side and hold hands on Marianne’s tiny kitchen table. There is fruit involved, with a heap of disintegrated muesli (“It’s the healthiest thing I have. Might be stale, though.”) for Héloïse, and a muffin with plenty of whatever was in the pot (“Dulce de leche, I had it in Chile.”) for Marianne.
“Do you want to try it?”
Héloïse is very sceptical but opens her mouth anyway. It tastes about like how she expects it to- sweet, rich, very sticky.
“Oh sue me, not all of us have ballet diets,” Marianne grumbles. “I think it’s good.”
“It’s alright if you don’t. That’s- mmph.”
It tastes much better in Marianne’s mouth.
Some time later there is a pitiful yowl from Tolstoy, who is-
“Oh, no. Must you always make a mess?”
She has just sat in the rapidly cooling pot of dulce de leche. Now there is treacly caramel stuff all over her behind. Marianne sighs.
“We will have to bathe her,” she says mournfully. Then, realising, “or- I will. You don’t-“
“We,” Héloïse corrects, somewhat bewildered. “Unless you-?”
“No, I- I mean if you plan to stay-“
“Then you can help.”
“It shall be my pleasure,” Héloïse says magnanimously.
Famous last words. They make an attempt at conversation while wrestling Tolstoy into the bathroom sink but it is difficult to hear any salient points on the French colonial legacy over all the shrieking. Once it is done Tolstoy stalks off with her tail sticking straight up.
“She’ll be back in a few hours,” Marianne says. Now that the problem has been addressed her full attention is on Héloïse. “You are very-“
“I am what.”
Marianne clears her throat politely. “Soapy.”
“Yes, well. Your cat is a demon.”
“She is not so bad when the heating goes off. Sorry about your shirt, by the way. Would you like to take a shower?”
Héloïse leers. Marianne goes delightfully pink.
“Stop that,” she says, and swats at Héloïse’s arm. “No, I can’t. If I shower with you then I will get nothing done the whole day. And you told me yourself you’re supposed to be resting.”
“Fine.” Héloïse strips off her wet shirt, consoling herself with the thought of pilfering more of Marianne’s clothes. When she reaches for the waistband of her pants there is a soft choked sound from where Marianne has frozen by the door.
And then Héloïse is pushed back against the sink and kissed within an inch of her life. There is nowhere to balance so she clings to Marianne, one hand in her hair and the other at the back of her shirt trying to stabilise but there is no use when Marianne is palming shamelessly at her chest and they won’t even make it to the shower at this rate but-
Marianne hauls Héloïse forward and off the sink but unfortunately keeps backing up afterward, all the way to the door. Her hair is deliciously mussed. “Okay,” she says. With finality, but her eyes linger. “Okay. Go. Goodbye. I’ll bring you some clothes. No, don’t look at me. I have work to do.”
After a quick shower and an exploration of the various soaps and shampoo bottles, Héloïse puts on the clothes that Marianne has furnished her with- an oversized white shirt, a pair of sweatpants, and underwear. Underwear. Pretty lace underwear, a dark forest green, which Marianne has almost certainly worn. Which Héloïse will now wear. And which Marianne will, hopefully, take off of her.
But all things in due time.
Marianne is sitting cross-legged at the head of the bed with an stack of papers in her lap and a pen tucked behind her ear. She is using a different pen to scribble notes in the margins of the paper. Very likely she has forgotten about the other pen.
Héloïse snags a slim book at random from the bookshelves and sits in the space that Marianne has made for her. She has gotten very comfortable, her shoulder pressed to Marianne’s and a few pillows propped up behind her, by the time she opens the book. And finds that it is in Japanese.
From beside her Marianne snorts.
“What,” Héloïse demands.
“Nothing.” Marianne’s eyes are still fixed on her papers but there is a smile twitching at her mouth. “Just glad to see you’re venturing into Bashō.”
Well, Héloïse can hardly put it back now. She inspects the book closer. Luckily in the margins Marianne has made a copious amount of notes, including writing out the Latinised pronunciation. Beside each poem she has written a French translation, and something that might be Bengali or perhaps Thai. Still, much of it is lost on Héloïse. She forges valiantly through a few poems before Marianne takes pity on her and sets her stack of papers on the bedside table.
“Give that here,” she says.
Héloïse willingly surrenders the book and scoots back so they are facing each other. “Are you going to read to me?”
“Not if you make fun of me. I’m still learning Japanese. But- here. This one’s well-known, you’ll likely have heard it before.” Marianne clears her throat, eyes darting self-consciously up to Héloïse for a moment before settling back on the book.
“Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto." Then, in French, “He paints a picture. Often the first line will have something about the season, you know, autumn’s wind. But here he shows us a pond. An old pond- and then the ya which acts as a separating element but also brings the next line, like a- I don’t know exactly what we’d call it, maybe anticipation. Then, motion. A frog leaps. Something changes, we see this pearl of an image behind our eyes. And then after that, the splash. That’s kanji, in Chinese it’s shui, water. Same thing here. The Cid Corman translation is my favourite, even though it doesn’t keep the syllabic form intact. Old pond / frog leaping / splash. One point for your subjective translation argument, hm?”
“It is,” Héloïse agrees. Her hand is starting to drift, sliding now over her thighs, tugging at the thick warm fabric of her sweatpants. There is a restlessness but it could be the heat. Or something else. “Read me another.”
Marianne turns the page. “Kare eda ni / karasu no tomari keri / aki no kure.” Her voice lovely and melodic, the accents lilting. A lazy familiar pressure begins to coil in the bottom of Héloïse’s stomach. “He describes a withered old branch. Ni stands for ‘on’, as in on top of, so we see something perched on the branch before we see the thing itself. Karasu no tomari keri, the crow on the branch. And aki no kure, our setting. The evening in autumn.”
“Mm.” Héloïse’s hand slips down now between the waistband and the lacy green underwear. This is a dangerous game but Héloïse is listening, she is being very good. She is paying attention.
“Akebono ya / shira uo shiroki / koto issun. The first line sets the scene at dawn. Early dawn. Daybreak, perhaps.” The angle is all wrong and Héloïse’s wrist starts to cramp. She wriggles a little, pushes her sweatpants down to her ankles. Better. “Shira uo shiroki, a- whitefish? Whitebait. A tiny white fish, gleaming. The last line, koto issun. One inch long.”
Her fingertips drag over the rough paper as she turns the page. A raw sound, rubbing right against Héloïse’s very nerves.
“Aki ki nu to / tsuma kou hoshi ya / shika no kawa. Again, the seasons. Describing how autumn has come.” Legs opened, knees pressed to the mattress, an almost-stretch. Underwear tugged to the side. “Tsuma kou hoshi ya, the ya as an anticipatory particle.” Beneath she is wet already. “Next line- this translation is difficult, it’s- loving a wife. With stars. Though whether the stars are in her or on her or even part of her- that, I’m not sure. Just with stars.” Two fingers sliding down, circling. The sound is quiet but Héloïse’s breath is not. It is a matter of waiting, now. “And shika no kawa, to signify that they are lying on deerskin, buckskin, I suppose. As they make love. The structure of description is like- we would say cuir de cerf but it isn’t- isn’t- you-” and finally Marianne stutters to a stop, her eyes wide and stuck to Héloïse’s hand working between her legs.
She swallows. Makes a move to set the book aside.
“Keep reading,” Héloïse says. Quiet, with authority. There will be time for that later.
With great reluctance Marianne’s eyes shift back to the page. “Hana ni ee ri,” she reads, halting. “Haori ki te katana / sasu onna.”
“And what does it mean,” Héloïse prompts.
“Drunk on flowers.” Marianne shifts closer, the book still open in one hand. “The woman armed with a sword.” She is seeking permission. Héloïse leans back onto one braced hand, her fingers never ceasing their motion. “Wears a man’s jacket.” She is on top of Héloïse now, her legs bracketing Héloïse’s hips.
“Tsutsuji ilene / sono page ni / hidara saku onna.” Marianne bends down, the book’s spine finding a resting-place on Héloïse’s chest. Still she does not touch. Just keeps reading, her voice a soft rasp above Héloïse’s breath harsh with want and her fingers slipping over the wetness. “A branch of wild azalea thrown into a bucket. Behind, a woman tears the meat off a dried codfish.”
“I like that one.”
“Me too.” Marianne’s eyes are sharp on Héloïse’s face, the book forgotten. “Are you close?”
Yes. She is. “Yes,” she breathes.
“Do you want me to keep reading?”
“Okay.” Marianne skips over the next page. Then the next. She is looking for something. When she finds it she smiles, a filthy slow smile that makes Héloïse’s hips twitch just watching her. “Hyoro hyoro to,” she reads. “Nao tsuyu kasha ya / ominaeshi.”
Héloïse waits. She can be patient. Even as her motions speed up and she is starting to lose all rhythm.
“Trembling, teetering,” Marianne whispers. She closes the book, leaves it there on Héloïse’s chest. “Laden with dew.” First touch- her mouth at Héloïse’s ear. “Lady flowers.”
Héloïse huffs out a breath. “Marianne.”
“You liked it.” Marianne draws back to watch her. “I know you did. I can hear it.”
“Hear what,” Héloïse asks, even as she- oh. Right. The sound. She flushes, a little embarrassed but too far gone to really care. “Sorry.”
“No, don’t be. I want to hear you.”
“Okay. I’m- I-” But the sentence is left unfinished. Her eyes close. Always it is the first thing. Her spine arches, her head tips back, the breath flees her lungs, and- and-
The shudder throws Marianne off balance but she catches herself with a hand beside Héloïse’s head. When Héloïse opens her eyes she is right there, her eyes intent and heavy on Héloïse’s face. The pen has fallen from behind her ear. Her hair is messier than ever.
“Hi,” she whispers.
“Hi.” Héloïse pulls her hand out of her underwear and, in a daring move, presses it flat against Marianne’s stomach where her shirt has been rucked up. Her belly is warm and down-soft and when she sucks in a breath Héloïse feels it against her palm.
“You-“ She laughs, sort of, except it is not a laugh and she is trembling. “I’m going to have to take a shower.”
Héloïse tips her head down, toward the book still resting on her chest. “Give me the book.”
“I’m going to read you one,” she says, conversationally, “and you’re going to translate it for me.”
“Okay, yes, fine, yes. That’s fine.” When the book is handed over Héloïse sees that her hands are shaking.
“Even in snow,” she reads, in French, “the noon-flower does not wither in the sun.”
“You’re not-“ Marianne laughs, an unsteady sound. “The syllables. Give me the syllables. Each- each line.”
“Even in snow / the noon-flower does not wither / in the sun.”
“Easy.” Said with confidence even as Marianne’s hips twitch, seeking friction. “Yuki no naka wa / hirugao kare nu / hikage kana.”
Héloïse hums. “That’s right. Between our two lives / are the lives / of the cherry blossoms.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t-“
“You try thinking like this,” Marianne snaps. Her hair is falling out of its tie and curling around her face and her arms are trembling with the effort of holding herself up. “Watashitachi-“
Héloïse shakes her head. “Again.”
“This is- impossible, how am I- can you just-”
“Inochi,” Héloïse prompts.
“That’s not helpful. Okay, fuck, I don’t know. Inochi futatsu- no? Is it one of those?”
“I don’t- oh.” Marianne’s eyes close, tight enough to leave little lines at the corners. “Wait. Wait. Move your hand, I can’t- I can’t concentrate when you’re doing that.”
Héloïse blinks. “I’m not even touching you.”
“Well, I can feel it. I think I- fuck, can you please- no. Wait. I remember this one. Inochi futatsu no / naka ni ikitaru / sakura- what is it? Sakura kana.”
“Good,” Héloïse tells her, and Marianne lets out a sound that seems to startle both of them. Her head bends forward and suddenly there is a hand displacing Héloïse’s, except it slides under the waistband and rubs, quick and frantic.
This necessitates some thinking. If Héloïse could muster that up it would be nice.
“Are you-“ she begins. But does not know quite how to ask.
“It just,” Marianne bites out, high and rushed. “It just sounded- when you said that.”
“Yes. That. Don’t look at me, it’s embarrassing.”
“It’s not,” Héloïse says, low and pleased. She brushes her nose against Marianne’s cheek, kisses behind her ear. “I like that.”
Marianne growls. “Again,” she demands.
“Patience. Next poem.”
This goes on for some time, mostly because every time Marianne cannot remember a line she gets annoyed and tells Héloïse to stop distracting her. Héloïse is beginning to worry that she will run out of poems by the time Marianne lets out the noise- The Noise, she calls it, privately, because it is the sound Marianne makes when she is very very close and such a thing deserves capital letters- and asks, “Now, please.”
Héloïse obliges her, shifts her hand down and presses her wrist against Marianne’s and slips two fingers inside her. “One more,” she tells her. “A fine house / the sparrow is delighted by / the millet at the back gate.”
“Yoki ie ya.” Her breath shaky now, her motions jerky. Héloïse can feel each one of them. Can feel how tight she is, how quickly she is circling. Their hands bump against one another and Marianne groans, a beautiful sound. “Suzume yorokobu- Héloïse.”
“Héloïse.” Marianne’s lips part. Her shoulders convulse, one hand pulling taut the sheet around Héloïse’s head. “Héloïse, I- I’m going to-“
“Good,” Héloïse says, and rubs, hard, with the heel of her palm. Marianne lets out a low agonised sound and clenches hard around Héloïse’s fingers. Her head bends down, one strand of hair falling loose from its tie to tickle Héloïse’s cheek. She is so beautiful it seems impolite to look.
“I don’t,” she tries to say, but the wave overtakes her, bears her up and away, and her hips jerk down and her mouth opens and she is gone.
“You don’t,” Héloïse prompts, once she has returned.
“I don’t,” Marianne repeats, blankly. Héloïse’s fingers are still inside of her and it is a very pleasant feeling, sitting there in the afterglow. “Oh! You mean- just now. I was going to say, it’s very convenient that you read that one last. Because I don’t know the word for millet.”
“Marianne,” Héloïse scolds, the smile spreading.
“What?” Marianne shrugs, impenitent, and bends to kiss her. Héloïse has neither the heart nor the will to resist. “I borrowed the translation. And it’s hard to remember in the heat of the moment.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Mm.” Marianne stretches up, sitting back on her heels. Like this Héloïse’s palm presses flat against her and she fears they will soon be distracted again. Marianne seems to have no concerns. All she does is roll her hips down, slick and slow, against Héloïse’s hand. It sinks her fingers a little deeper and Marianne’s eyes flutter shut.
“I think so.”
“You think so?“
“Take your shirt off first.”
“Why,” Héloïse asks, already reaching for the hem. Marianne helps her tug it over her head.
“I like looking at you. Obviously. All that rehearsal has to be good for something, right?”
Héloïse looks down at herself- dancer’s body, a little broad but not out of the ordinary- then back up at Marianne. Marianne with her gorgeous jutting collarbones and pretty dark nipples and her shirt sticking to her belly where Héloïse’s hand had been.
“You, too,” she says. “Off.”
Héloïse stares for a long moment. Then sits up, so abruptly that she nearly dislodges Marianne from her lap, and kisses her on the sternum.
“What was that for?”
“I wanted to.” Héloïse starts the motion of her fingers, just slow tiny movements for now. “You are- just. There are no words.”
“O yellow eye,” a kiss to her collarbone, “I am your sweetmeat,” the swell of her breast, “your priest,” her nipple, “your mouth-”
“Shut up,” but Marianne laughs and grabs at her shoulders, her eyes warm. “You didn’t tell me you’ve read Anne Sexton.”
“I’m a woman of many talents.”
“That you are. Come here and show me some of them.”
And so the rest of the morning is passed.
For lunch Marianne tosses some chicken in a pan and orders Héloïse to make a palatable salad. Which she does. Mostly. The leaves all look the same and with some exceptions they taste the same too. So Marianne cannot fault her for putting them all in there.
Tolstoy emerges a little later, sniffing about in a manner that suggests she has smelled the chicken. Upon finding it gone from the pan she leaps up onto Héloïse’s thigh and noses disappointedly at her empty plate.
“Hello,” Héloïse coos. With a few scratches behind the ears Tolstoy is reduced to an ecstatically purring floppy rag draped over Héloïse’s lap. There is a minor worry that she will fall off but she seems unconcerned at the prospect and besides cats are supposed to land on their feet.
“Excuse me,” Marianne says, as affronted as she can be around a mouthful of salad. “I was planning to sit there.”
“You know what they say about missed opportunities,” Héloïse tells her. Tolstoy concurs with a smug little mew.
“I feed you,” Marianne starts, glowering at the small engine sat in Héloïse’s lap, “I house you, and this is the thanks I get? Hm? And you-“ an accusing finger pointed at Héloïse- “trying to start a mutiny in my household? I won’t have it.”
“Do you hear that? We won’t be ruled by a despot. Isn’t that right, Tolstoy?”
“You conniving little rascals. Expect no more from me, then.” And with that she goes off to the bedroom, taking her plate with her.
Héloïse and Tolstoy share a perturbed stare.
“Well, we’ve got to go after her.”
A mew of agreement.
“Do you think she’s really angry? She’s not really angry, is she?”
“No, I didn’t think so either. Shall I go ask? We, sorry. Yes. We’ll go ask. I’ll do the talking.”
“It’s part of communicating better. I read a book about it. Did I tell you I’m going to communicate better? With her, not with you. Though I suppose this counts. Yes, let’s go, sorry.”
They are forgiven, fed a piece of lettuce, and sent back out to amuse themselves while Marianne grades the rest of her papers. Héloïse tries to read in peace but Tolstoy is fixated on the idea of using her head as a bed and thus will not cease trying to dash up her shoulder. She is tiny so there is no harm done, except for that caused by her sharp little claws. Balakov will be furious.
Marianne cannot seem to decide between pity and laughter.
“This isn’t funny,” Héloïse informs her.
“Oh, not at all. Would you like a plaster?”
In the small cabinet below the bathroom sink there is an enormous collection of children’s plasters, decorated with an assortment of unfamiliar cartoon characters. Marianne unwraps at least ten. Héloïse musters the nerve to protest only when there is a small orange fish about to be applied to her nose.
“No, you’ve got a little- hand down.”
“Good, thank you. Tolstoy, that was bad. The goal is to keep her around, you hear?”
Tolstoy mewls pathetically. Héloïse is too busy thinking about being kept around to react appropriately.
“I’m sorry about that.”
“No, it’s fine,” Héloïse says, with a lunatic’s smile. “Doesn’t hurt at all.”
“Still.” Marianne strokes gently down the side of her cheek. It feels almost unbearably nice. “And right before the show, too.”
Héloïse’s eyes go wide.
“What time is it?”
“Three… forty-five, I think? Oh, God. When do you have to be there?”
They share a look.
“Why are you still sitting here!”
“You’re holding my hand!”
“You’re holding my hand!”
“Okay, I’m going. Wait, kiss me. For good luck.”
“Mm. Good luck.”
Héloïse pauses at the door. “Oh! Your ticket.” She digs around in her backpack and comes up with the carefully preserved slip. “Here. You’re invited to Lady of the Camellias, courtesy of your-“ your-? Your what? She has to say something they’re just staring at each other and Héloïse doesn’t know what to-
“Sorry. I’m- here.” Thrusting the ticket out. “I- I’ll see you after. Come to the stage. Bye.” Beating a hasty retreat. She catches the door just before it closes and adds, “I’ll miss you. Til then.”
“Dupont! You’re late.” Balakov marches toward her looking ill-tempered as ever. “What are those things?”
“The plasters? They’re not-“
Balakov has already pulled one off. Beneath it is a dark pink scratch, left over from Tolstoy’s vicious attacks. He peers at it for a moment, then looks skyward in quiet disbelief.
“What did I say,” he demands.
“No. Marks. What are those?”
“They’re not from- not- no! They’re from a cat. Cat-scratch. Look.”
“Mhm,” he says, clearly unimpressed. “If that’s what you call it. Makeup. Now.”
Héloïse accepts defeat and goes off to the makeup station, where Alexey is getting his nose powdered.
“You look like you got mauled,” he says, without moving his mouth.
“Send her my regards.”
The foundation is caked onto Héloïse’s face. She winces. This is her least favourite part by far. It feels as if someone has filled in all of her face with clay.
“It was from her cat,” she adds.
“Yes. Her name is Tolstoy.”
“Very cute. Do you have a picture?”
“Oh!” Héloïse lights up. “I do!” She digs out her phone and pulls up the picture, taken just last night- Marianne beaming with one arm draped around Tolstoy, who is trying to eat the camera. Héloïse had looked at it for probably half an hour. Alexey is similarly impressed.
“Oh my God, she’s gorgeous.”
Héloïse preens a little. “She is. I know.”
“You don’t have any pictures of me.”
“And? I see you all the time.”
“So rude.” He puts the camera very close to his nose and takes a picture. “There. A beautiful picture to remind you of me.”
“Perfect. I’ll sell it.”
“No, you’re right, no one would buy it.”
“No moving,” snaps Alexey’s stylist. Héloïse smiles peaceably at the mirror.
More stretching. Last-minute rehearsal. There is a scene where Héloïse is meant to be sitting on Alexey’s shoulders while Vodopetov fans his arms out, and though their technique is excellent Alexey will not stop laughing. So they do it again and again until it is perfect. Olga Smirnova and Alexey practise the pas de deux, which is gorgeous even if Alexey is terribly nervous and keeps changing his turns. Vodopetov puts half a bag of chalk on his hands and they do some half-hearted lifts.
“Let’s race,” Héloïse suggests, and Alexey joins her on a sliding half-run through the Bolshoi- the velvety red rooms, the grand staircase, the pink hallways patrolled by frowning ushers, back through to the clean white studio, into the theatre itself, huge and gilt and red with the gold curtain still down. Then up on stage, ducking around the curtain, sprinting through to the dim black backstage. Héloïse wins. The satisfaction of that is more than worth Balakov’s ire.
Six o’clock and Héloïse is getting nervous. People have started to arrive. She fidgets and watches for Marianne but cannot see her.
Six thirty and time is flying. Alexey keeps adjusting his jacket. Héloïse’s dress has started to pinch even though it has been fine for months.
Twenty minutes left. Olga Smirnova starts doing little fouettés. Héloïse does them too. En pointe she is focused, precise. She can think of nothing else. What is there to be nervous about? Right. Slipping. Falling over. Being dropped on her face. Injury. Et cetera, ad nauseam.
Ten minutes. Balakov says- “Remember, you’re the first dancer they see.” Which is not exactly helpful. But Héloïse has done well under pressure her whole life.
Five minutes. The bell rings.
Two minutes. She squeezes Alexey’s shoulder. “Good luck.”
“You too. I won’t drop you.”
One minute. Héloïse goes into the wings and waits, shifts nervously side to side. Beside her Vodopetov whispers a prayer.
The curtain goes up.
And the show begins.
It is all silent onstage. The music is there but not there, Héloïse feels it instead of hearing it. She doesn’t dare look at the audience. Just her eyes on Olga, maybe Vodopetov. Distant. Perfect technique. She counts the beats and lifts- arabesque penché, now spinning round, the patter of pointe shoes deafeningly loud on the wood- and then draws back, stepping into the wings of the second stage. Alexey approaches Olga. The lights are uncomfortably hot and Héloïse feels like she is being roasted on a spit. Once more, lift, spin, then they take their bows and run offstage, leaving Alexey and Olga behind.
Héloïse likes it.
A great deal, actually. Not so much for the audience but for the quiet. In rehearsals it is never quiet, there is always someone practising in the corner or pacing along the wall. But here there is none of that. Just the silence stretching out from her shoulder to her fingertips. She is self-contained, there is no space beyond her skin, she could with nothing more than the closing of her eyes be reduced to simple raw motion.
This time around Héloïse keeps her eyes open.
The first pas de trois. Alexey doesn’t drop her. Arms curved, legs extended. Lifted up. Tremendous applause. Intermission afterward is brutal. Something is going on with the lights and Balakov bustles about looking disconcerted. Héloïse sits cross-legged in the wings while Alexey eats a raw carrot and goes through all the positions of the feet and tries to get rid of the nerves.
Act Two and Héloïse is in the wings again. She had not counted on spending so much time backstage. It is endured through tossing grapes up in the air and doing more fouettés. And whispering with anyone around, except Olga, who is terrifying.
More dancing. Another intermission. Héloïse puts on a jacket then changes her mind and takes it off again. She is meant to die in this act, which will be fun if Vodopetov doesn’t drop her.
“Why is intermission so long,” says Alexey, who is very sweaty as well.
“No more,” Héloïse agrees fervently.
There is another pas de trois and then the death scene. Then so much clapping at the end that Alexey has to stand there for five minutes looking sad before he can finish the scene.
And then suddenly it is over.
Here is all Héloïse remembers-
Bows are taken. Alexey and Olga are in front of Héloïse and she is overwhelmed by the cacophony of a standing ovation so she focuses instead on the ruffles of Alexey’s shirt. The whole thing is entirely surreal. She imagines, for some reason, that her mother has stayed seated, that she is sitting with one leg folded over the other impassive as always. But when Héloïse dares to look she is there, in the front row, on her feet. Smiling. Out further beyond her in the mass of cheering people there is Marianne, like a rose among nettles. Héloïse knows when their gazes meet even though she is far away and could very well be looking at anyone on stage because Marianne whistles, a high piercing sound flung up toward the vast ceiling, and also because there is no one else that either of them could be looking at.
She bows, again. And again. And one more time when the cheering goes on as strong as before. Alexey steps back and takes her hand; on her other side she finds Vodopetov. They bow together. A group of ladies in red come through with bouquets, so many of which are deposited in Héloïse’s arms that she is unable to carry them all and has to stack them at her feet. At some point the cheering starts to seem redundant. Héloïse fidgets. There is a brief moment where she starts to wonder what will happen if they just never stop. Maybe she will be turned into a bobblehead, or one of those little waving cats on Marianne’s bedroom windowsill. Not a bad life by any means though Tolstoy had knocked one of them off the other day. Héloïse is so busy pondering this warm inanimate future that she misses another round of bowing, and only Alexey’s sudden vice grip on her hand is enough to shock her back in time for the next one.
But eventually the clapping trails off, and it is then that the real horror of the night begins. Almost immediately Héloïse is swept up by a few men in suits, who smile like sharks and make some appreciative remarks. Héloïse can hardly remember words, let alone what to say to them. But her mother’s training takes over and she says something back and they leave her alone which is good. She moves through the crowd as quickly as possible. Looking for Marianne.
In snatches- Alina Somova, as tall as Alexey, clapping his shoulder. Some government bigshot flanked by two bald men in suits. A pomaded man. Two exceptionally old ladies in dresses. Someone who might be Baryshnikov. She is polite to all of them but her attention is clearly elsewhere so they say a few words and let her move on.
Marianne is the one who finds her. A tap on her shoulder. In Russian, “Excuse me. Are you by chance ballet’s rising-” and then Héloïse throws her arms around her.
Marianne’s hand splays over the back of Héloïse’s dress, the silk pulled into a taut spiderweb of wrinkles. A secret kiss is pressed to Héloïse’s shoulder. “Unbelievable,” whispered into her ear.
“Did you like it?”
“Shut up,” Marianne says, pulling back to inspect her. She is wearing a pretty red dress and her hair is down and Héloïse might very well die on the spot. “My God. You couldn’t have told me you were playing Manon? When the curtain opened I thought they would have to scrape me off the floor.”
Héloïse laughs and grabs her hand. “If you want I can sign your playbill. Come on, I’ll introduce you to Alexey. Alexey!”
Alexey turns, catches sight of Marianne, raises his eyebrows at Héloïse, and, upon receiving an affirmative nod, lights up. He excuses himself politely from the wad of people contending for his attention and bounds toward them.
“Alexey Medvedev,” he says, and shakes Marianne’s hand with great enthusiasm. “I’ve heard about you endlessly, I’m serious, it never stops. You’re Héloïse’s-?”
“Yes,” she confirms easily. Héloïse’s. “Marianne. You were incredible, by the way- I don’t know anything about ballet but it was just wonderful to watch.”
“Oh, thank you. Héloïse, go away and do something else.”
“Rub some elbows. Get them off our backs. Look, there’s Alina Somova, all the way from the Mariinsky. You know her, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Héloïse says, slowly. She is loath to leave Marianne but she does have to go say thank you to the corps. And Olga. A terrifying prospect.
“Bye,” Marianne says. She catches her hand again, squeezes it. “I’ll find you in a few minutes.”
“Okay. Goodbye. Bye, Alexey.”
“Goodbye,” Alexey simpers, and Héloïse is shooed off.
Unfortunately there is to be no mercy. Olga is only a few steps in front of her, and the cameras are flashing away.
“Congratulations,” she says. They shake hands and Héloïse makes an attempt at looking her in the eye. Her cheekbones are simply relentless.
“Thank you. It would not have been possible without you at the lead.”
“Yes,” Olga agrees. Her smile sharpens. “We are lucky to have you. But if you ever return to France, I’m sure your competition will be glad to see you go.”
“Of course. Best wishes, Héloïse Dupont. I’ll see you at our next show.”
“Best wishes,” Héloïse echoes, bewildered. Olga nods politely, kisses her cheek in a breeze of expensive perfume, and wafts away.
Héloïse escapes the clutches of five different bald men before reaching the relative safety of the wall. There she paces a moment, tries to blend in. Though it is hard in the purple dress, especially with a few stray flower petals still sticking to it. She makes a face and plucks them off one by one.
Maman. Héloïse straightens, turns to face her. She has brought an entourage- three girls from the academy, and a few people that Héloïse recognises vaguely as sponsors.
“Excuse us for a moment,” she tells them.
Then, to Héloïse, “You danced well.”
“Everyone in the audience was saying, at intermission, ‘did you see Manon?’ The seat next to mine was the ballet master at La Scala. He came all the way from Milan to see you.”
“I don’t want to go to Milan.”
“Yes, well, the Bolshoi is better anyway. You like it here?”
“Good.” Her mother is looking somewhere else. Across the stage. Héloïse follows her gaze- Alina Somova. A gaggle of people. In the center of attention, next to-
“He is not a bad match.”
Héloïse’s blood turns to ice.
“He is my friend,” she bites out.
“These things change.”
“This one won’t.”
“How do you know? Sometimes life surprises you.”
“There you are,” Marianne interrupts. In Russian, thankfully. “Alexey’s leaving in twenty minutes, he said to ask you if you’d like to escort him.”
She pauses. Looks inquisitively to Maman, who is standing still, her hands folded, her eyebrows raised.
Héloïse musters all her courage. “Marianne. This is my mother. Maman, this is Marianne.”
Marianne doesn’t so much as blink. In French, she says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise.” Her mother takes the outstretched hand. Shakes twice. “How are you acquainted with my daughter?”
“We met at the university.”
“Ah. You’re a student?”
“A lecturer, actually. Though we’re all students.”
Marianne looks to Héloïse, who has nothing really to offer but needs to say something.
“She reads more books than anyone in the world,” she says.
“Oh, that is very nice. Do you like any in particular?”
Her mother is making an effort. Her mother. An effort.
“I quite like French literature. Candide, Molière. All of that.”
“Good. That is- good.” A stiff bow of the head. “Did you like the ballet?”
“I loved it. Héloïse, you were unbelievable. Like there was air beneath your feet.”
Héloïse goes pink. “Thank you.”
“I had wanted to see a tutu, though.”
“Sorry to disappoint. Maybe next time.”
“I’m going to speak with Mikhail,” Héloïse’s mother interrupts, smiling very strangely. She nods to Marianne. “It was nice to meet you again. Héloïse-“ a brief pause- “Well done. I’m having dinner tonight with the directors, and Olga. I won’t disturb you at such a late hour, of course. Though I’m sure you’ll be up by nine. Goodbye.”
She disappears off into the crowd. Héloïse looks after her, bewildered. And Marianne- starts to laugh?
“What? What’s so funny?”
“I think she just gave you permission to sleep over.”
“That’s exactly how my Papa told me when I was a teenager.” In a deep cheerful voice, “I’ll be making breakfast at seven sharp, and if no one’s there to eat it then there’ll be trouble.” Back to normal- “Every time. I don’t know how he always could tell when I was planning to sneak out.”
“You think she knows, then?”
“Yes. Does that bother you?”
Héloïse thinks for a moment. “No,” she decides.
Marianne grants her a slow dimpling smile. “I’m glad.”
“Come on, let’s go. I have to say goodbye to Balakov and then I’m free.”
Balakov cries, the sappy old bastard.
“Proud of you,” he says gruffly. His eyebrows are un-furrowed and his voice is wavering a bit which is about the closest Balakov gets to blubbering. “You’re going to do some incredible things, Dupont. Hear me?”
“Balakov, I have a question.”
“You’re not even going to acknowledge what I said?”
“Yes, thank you, you are the best ballet master. I have a question.”
He sighs, clearly giving up on sappiness. “Fine. What is it.”
“Who’s playing Romeo?”
“In the matinee it’ll be Sergei, I think. And then Alexey Medvedev for the- what do you call it? The Stars of the Stars.”
“And when are auditions for Juliet?”
Balakov’s eyes go wide. Or- slightly wider. “Next week. You’re going to do it?”
“I think so.”
“And the prima contract?”
Héloïse shakes her head. “I don’t want it.”
“Then where are you going? Paris? The American?”
“Yes, that is a good question.” Héloïse mulls it over for a moment. But she has time. And Marianne is waiting for her. “I’ll think about it later.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “Later, hm? Why are you in such a hurry?”
“Well, I-“ Héloïse motions toward the exit. “I have to go. I’m in very high demand, Balakov.”
“Yes, I must be going. Thank you. You’ve been lovely to work with.”
He stills her with a hand on her arm. And tips his head toward Marianne, who is discussing something animatedly with Elizaveta Arkadyevna. “That’s your friend?” he asks.
Héloïse frowns back at him. Surely he knows. What on earth is he talking about?
“Your friend,” he repeats. Insistently.
He draws her in for an unexpected hug. In her ear he whispers, “Remember Serebrennikov.”
Serebrennikov. Serebrennikov. The Bolshoi director. Nureyev. House arrest, the trial.
“Careful, Dupont. Not the best thing to be in Moscow.” He releases her. “Take tomorrow off. I’ll see you at the next show.”
“See you,” Héloïse echoes, and goes back to Marianne.
Héloïse shakes her head. Not here.
She changes back into street clothes- Marianne’s green Sorbonne shirt, sweatpants, boots- while Marianne retrieves her coat from the cloakroom. On the steps of the Bolshoi Héloïse is briefly accosted by one of the theatergoers, and can do little else beside smile awkwardly and nod as he rambles on about her technical form. Eventually he wishes them goodnight and staggers off. Only when he is out of earshot does she dare look at Marianne, who is- as predicted- trying unsuccessfully to hide her laughter.
“Stop it,” Héloïse groans. “No, it’s not funny.”
“The way you smiled-“
“What was I supposed to do!”
“Look at me.” Marianne grabs Héloïse’s face with one hand. “Now smile.”
“You haven’t said anything funny,” Héloïse points out. But at the sight of Marianne she can hardly help it and in a matter of seconds she is beaming.
“There. Like that.”
“You’d like me to smile at him like I smile at you?”
Marianne chews on that one for a moment. “No,” she decides, then tugs at Héloïse’s wrist. “Come on, let’s go down to the fountain.”
The grand fountain in the Teatral’naya Ploshchad is rarely on. But tonight they have cleared out the snow which often stays packed inside till spring, and set the pipes to running. Of course it is freezing out but the cold is the type where the air reaches right into her lungs, and Marianne holds Héloïse’s hands between her mittens. Her nose has gone a delightful shade of red and very sneakily Héloïse manages to kiss it. Marianne goes still and when Héloïse pulls back her eyes are closed and she is smiling.
Héloïse clears her throat. “Your nose is cold.”
“Yes, that happens.” Marianne’s eyes open. “Is yours?”
“Is my nose cold? I don’t know.”
“Let me feel it.” Marianne puts a mitten over her nose and adopts a very serious expression.
“What’s the verdict?”
Héloïse plays along gamely. “Thank you, doctor. What do you suggest?”
“A cup of tea. And a kiss.”
“Maybe two,” Marianne allows. “Three depending on how long you spend in the cold.”
“How long am I spending in the cold?”
“However long it takes Alexey to get here.”
“Oh, we’re waiting for Alexey?”
Marianne nods. “I like him.”
“Yes, he’s very funny. How was the show?”
“Beautiful. How was the show?”
Héloïse groans. “So much time backstage. But the dancing was good. Were you watching me?”
“Was I watching you,” Marianne repeats, deadpan.
Point taken. “Did you have a favourite part?”
“I did, actually. The part when you put your arms up like this-“ she demonstrates, adorable with her coat buttoned up to her chin and arms straining above her head- “and jumped. I don’t know how you can jump so high.”
Héloïse melts a little. “Oh my God. Do that again.”
“I can’t do the jump.”
“I’ll lift you.”
“Oh, I don’t know if that’s- Héloïse-“
“There, that’s high enough. Now hands up.”
Marianne grasps blindly at Héloïse’s shoulders. “If I fall-“
“You won’t,” Héloïse says, with certainty. “Can you feel my hands?”
“Yes. I think.” She stills. “You won’t drop me?”
“I won’t. Go on.” Héloïse presses an encouraging kiss to one of her coat buttons. “Lift your arms.”
Marianne breathes deep. Very slowly, she pulls one of her hands back from Héloïse’s shoulder. Then the other. And she reaches up.
Héloïse spins in a slow careful circle. From this angle it looks as if Marianne is touching the moon with the tips of her mittens. A sweet delicate touch, her face turned skyward. The splash of the fountain beside them, the Bolshoi’s floodlights in the distance, no one else around.
Then Marianne’s chin tips down and she beams at Héloïse, hair spilling all over her face. Her coat has been rucked up a little by Héloïse’s hands and there is a hint of the very pretty red dress and Héloïse is, without a doubt, the luckiest person in the entire world.
A few minutes later, after Marianne has been set back on her feet and Héloïse has complained some more about the choreography of the death scene, Alexey comes tumbling down the steps.
“Hello!” he trills, and does a pirouette. “I’m here to be walked to the bus stop.”
He and Marianne spend the walk poking fun at Héloïse, who can do nothing but scowl and push her bicycle along. Embarrassing stories are recounted in painful detail. Inside jokes are conceived. Alexey speaks a little Ukrainian and they have great fun discussing Old East Slavic in the Kievan Rus. Héloïse sulks but is (not-so) secretly glad.
Once he has been deposited safely on the bus and waved off, Marianne sits down on the bench with a groan.
“Yes. How can anyone walk in heels?” She makes a face at her shoes. “Idiot designers.”
“I’ll carry you,” Héloïse offers.
“No, it’s alright. You must be exhausted. And I’m heavy.”
Héloïse puts the bicycle up against the bench and crouches with her back to Marianne. “Come on, hurry up.”
“Are you sure?”
Reluctantly Marianne slides her arms around Héloïse’s shoulders and lets herself be hauled up. She is very warm and her legs bounce a little as Héloïse walks.
“What did Balakov say to you?”
“He asked about you.”
Marianne stiffens, arms tightening around Héloïse’s shoulders. “He did?”
Héloïse hastens to reassure her. “Not in that way. Just- it’s not easy to be like that, in the Bolshoi. Because so much funding comes from the state. That’s all he said.”
“I see.” Marianne is quiet for a minute, her breath soft and warm on the side of Héloïse’s neck.
Then- “Will it be hard, do you think? To walk the line?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Fortunately you are unbelievably good.”
Héloïse preens. “I’m not bad, am I?”
“Darling, you were so exquisite that I might even forgive you for that nonsense with the arabesque penché.”
“I had to practice!”
“Please. You were seducing me.”
“And it worked.”
“It did,” Marianne agrees. “Though I was already prepared for that.”
“I’d made it perfectly clear.” She turns her head, chin bumping into Héloïse’s cheek. “Didn’t I? From Candide.”
“Did you?” Héloïse is stupefied.
“I expected you to- after that first time. Why are you surprised? I went to the bedroom.”
“I thought you were tired!”
“Tired-“ Marianne splutters for a moment- “You can’t possibly be serious. I expected you to come in after me, I was so nervous, and then I heard the door. I couldn’t believe it. I was-“
She cuts herself off. But it needs to be said. “You were-?” Héloïse prompts.
Marianne blows out a breath. “I don’t know. I thought you didn’t- I mean, I felt like- I just. I called in sick the next day and sort of laid in bed for a while. And then I thought I wasn’t ever going to see you again so I opened Anna Karenina and found the passage and then you’d put your address right next to it and it was like- I think I cried. Which is ridiculous, I know. But I couldn’t help it. Suddenly you were there and you loved- liked- me back, and I went from feeling shit to just-“ her hands miming an explosion- “in a second. Like all the lights had suddenly turned green. And then- after. When your mother came. It was the same thing all over again, I thought I’d gone too fast or- or asked too much, or-” a tiny alarming sniffle- “sorry, I don’t know why I’m, I mean you’re right here. Sorry.“
“I’m going to set you down,” Héloïse says, very softly.
Marianne’s eyes are a little red and she doesn’t quite meet Héloïse’s gaze. Just scuffs her shoe against the side of the pavement and looks steadfastly at Héloïse’s shoulder.
“I didn’t realise.”
“It’s okay. I mean, we’re here. Sorry, I’m being all-“
“No, don’t apologise.” Héloïse catches one of her flailing hands, just for a moment. “I’m sorry. You’ve been so patient with me.”
“Well, yes. Because I liked you. Like you.”
“Oh, you still do?” Héloïse jokes. But perhaps it is bad timing because Marianne starts to tear up again.
“Oh my God-” she laughs, a little watery- “Why am I crying? Yes, I do. So much.”
“I like you too.”
“You do.” Not a question, not a statement. Somewhere in between.
“See, I wish I could have known that a little earlier. It would have saved Tolstoy a lot of time.”
Héloïse frowns. “Really?”
“Yes. She charges by the hour, you know. Very expensive.”
When Héloïse laughs Marianne grins too, and the worry starts to dissipate.
“Well,” she says, looking off down the lamplit street. “It’s good to know, in any case. For a while I didn’t think you wanted me.”
She spins on her heel and starts walking again but it can hardly be left at that. Héloïse gapes after her for a moment before jogging to catch up, pushing the bicycle alongside.
“Ever since the first class," she tells her. "Anna Karenina, everything was made bright by her. Then.”
Marianne smiles down at the footpath. "Since you asked me when the next class was."
"Yes. You were so- brilliant. So confident and so shy all at once. And of course there was the Anna Karenina."
"I didn't know."
Her eyes crinkle. "I didn't know either. Funny how these things turn out."
Héloïse kisses her, quick and glancing, under the flickering lamplight. When she pulls back Marianne gives her a slow sweet smile. Wanting. But mostly an overwhelming simple fondness.
“Take me home,” Héloïse asks.
The night is caught in pieces, refracted back through the cold clear air. The click of the key in the door, the tiny meow from the black chasm of the living room. Héloïse laughing, half-afraid of the dark. Marianne’s hand in hers. Into the bathroom, side-by-side. The light is blinding so Héloïse flicks it off and they brush their teeth in the dark, co-conspirators. “Let’s fly to Venus,” says Marianne, wildly. A spaceship is constructed and Tolstoy is stuffed inside. Héloïse makes a vroom sound and puts her hand over Marianne’s on the imaginary steering wheel.
“What are we doing?”
“Everything,” and it is pitch black, so dark that the sink can only be found by team effort, but still Héloïse thinks that she catches the flash of Marianne’s smile. “Absolutely everything.”
The moon spills through the bedroom window and catches at Marianne’s hair with greedy hands. She mimes a plié and spins, lazily, on bare feet.
“Teach me something,” she asks. It seems impossible that Héloïse could teach her anything. Not like this. With every secret in the universe held under her skin.
“In that dress?”
Marianne considers this for a moment, then spins neatly so her back is to Héloïse. “Zipper, please.”
Héloïse tugs the zipper down. Down the bare expanse of her back, with its perfect geometry of bone and muscle. She kisses, once, at the shoulder-blade, and feels Marianne’s breath catch.
Once over the hips the dress drops, and lands in a pool of red silk at Marianne’s feet. When she turns she is entirely naked but for a matching slip of red lace, which she is already tugging off. She looks up at Héloïse from where she is bending to pull the lace over her feet, and gives her a cat’s-smile. “You too.”
Héloïse swallows. And reaches for the hem of her shirt.
The nakedness feels unexpectedly clean. Héloïse shifts, self-conscious, as Marianne’s gaze wanders all the way down and back again.
Marianne gestures, loosely, at their bodies. “Teach me something now.”
Héloïse finds her wrist. With one finger she brushes over the delicate skin there. Where Marianne’s heartbeat is. “Bourrée,” she murmurs. Slides one hand over the soft skin of Marianne’s hip and guides her, slowly, through the motions. “Ronde de jambe en dehors. Good. Now plié-“ and as Marianne’s legs bend open Héloïse trails a hand up the velvet inside of her thigh, diverts the trail at the last moment up her belly. “Frappé, once, twice, then extend.” She wraps one arm around Marianne’s waist, supporting the slow slide down. When Marianne can go no further Héloïse whispers, “And lean back.”
She does. Héloïse takes her weight with one hand braced and lifts her hips so that Marianne’s back arches. Holds for a moment. “Now slide down. Yes, sitting.” Without question Marianne complies. Oh, this is- this is something new entirely. Héloïse breathes deep, then shifts back, legs spinning out under her. In one languid motion she is back on her feet. Glissade in fifth position, three fouettés, and once in front of Marianne she reaches out a hand. Marianne’s fingers close around her wrist and Héloïse pulls her easily to standing.
“Now what?” Marianne asks, softly. So as not to disturb the magic.
“The solo variation.”
“Go ahead, then.”
Héloïse dances. Light. With her eyes closed, slipping into the rawness. Marianne’s eyes like a touch on her bare skin. Anything, anything at all is possible. Outside the constraints of choreography. Just thoughtless motion. Piqué turn en dehors. Tombé through second, glissade, chassé to a double tour en l’air. Landing in a neat fifth that turns to a deep plié that shifts out, ronde de jambe, into a grand écart.
There Héloïse stops, though she could have gone on forever. Marianne is staring, open-mouthed.
“What is that from,” she asks.
“The-? Oh. It’s not from anything.“
“You mean you made that up?”
Héloïse flushes a little. “Yes.”
“Unbelievable.” Marianne shifts forward, onto her hands. “I thought it might have been Romeo and Juliet.”
“No. That was just because- you.” Shyly she looks down. But Marianne understands.
“A ballet for us, hm?”
A moment’s silence. Then Marianne says, thoughtfully, “I think you could be an excellent choreographer.”
Héloïse blinks. Somehow, she hadn’t- she had never- thought of that. Even though she knows ballet as well as anyone, knows the particular pieces and the precision of it. Has breathed it from since she was born. Slowly it comes to her- a studio. In Paris, perhaps, or somewhere in London. The swell of a violin crackling over the old speakers. Barefoot on the wood floor. Like this. The taste of possibility.
And, unbidden, she imagines something else.
An apartment. Two sets of keys on the hook. Plants everywhere, an enormous watering can on the windowsill. A silver cat prowling the kitchen. Endless bookshelves. Pointe shoes lined up next to loafers at the door. Not a sure thing. But– maybe.
“A choreographer,” she repeats, trying to fit her mouth around it.
“Or you could keep dancing. Or leave ballet entirely. If you want.”
“No, I-“ Héloïse shakes her head. “I think Juliet will be my last show.”
“And then. Choreography. I’ll ask Balakov, or Ratmansky. There are people in Paris. I could- I could.”
“You could,” Marianne agrees, with a soft smile. “Will you teach me how to do that turning thing?”
“The piqué turn? Okay.” Héloïse slides out of the grand écart and rises back to her feet. “Stand like- yes, both legs straight. One in front. Arch your foot- good. Now turn this leg out, and- onto the ball of your foot, it’s bad form but you don’t have to go en pointe- that’s the turning leg. And as you turn you’ll lift your other leg, bend the knee, arch the foot, as high as it goes. Then bring it down and shift your weight there, and your turning leg swings out, sort of a rond de jambe. Yes. Perfect.”
Marianne’s face screws up in determination. “Do it again,” she asks.
Héloïse does three in a row, slow enough to easily follow. Marianne copies her. Once, twice, then she laughs, arms falling back to her sides, and kisses Héloïse right on the mouth.
“Will you do that in Juliet?”
“A piqué turn? I don’t know. You’ll have to come see it.”
“Of course. I’ll get you a ticket.”
The wood floor creaks when Marianne steps closer. She slides a hand over Héloïse’s bare shoulder- oh, she had forgotten she was naked- and then down her shoulder-blades. Over her waist, her hips. Pressing into the sore muscle. Héloïse sighs and melts into her hands, her lovely hands.
“Juliet,” Marianne hums, to herself. Up Héloïse’s stomach, under her breasts, along the piano-keys of her ribcage, the moonlight pooling in her collarbones. Everything slows, narrows, tightens into a tiny bubble. Up the muscle of her neck, down her spine, fingers tripping over the vertebrae. Héloïse lifts her arms, feels her body change beneath Marianne’s hands. Instinctively it is a ballet position. One arm extended, the other curling loosely around Marianne’s shoulders. She sees their bodies as if from a step away, one asymmetrical shape between the bookshelves and the bed, shadows of leaves over the back of Marianne’s bare thighs. Heads bent together. The lightning-strike pale stretch marks over her hip bones. The broken and re-formed arches of Héloïse’s bare feet. Marianne’s warm hands settling on her cheeks, fingers brushing just under her eyes. Pas de deux. Grand coda.
“It is my lady,” Marianne whispers, her eyes luminous and full. “O, it is my love.”
When Héloïse wakes there is light filtering through the curtains, and an arm draped over her. It smells like lilies and Marianne’s shampoo. The clock on the bedside table, balanced on a precarious stack of books, tells her it is just before nine.
The lump under the duvet makes a sleepy sound of complaint when Héloïse sits up. So does the smaller, fluffier lump in her lap.
“Good morning,” says Héloïse.
“Nnnngh,” says the large lump.
“Where are you under there?”
After a moment the duvet shifts aside and Marianne’s head emerges, her eyes still closed. “Kiss,” she orders indistinctly.
“You want a kiss?”
A tiny nod.
Héloïse tugs the duvet away a little and bends to kiss her, sweet and closed-mouthed.
“Mm.” Marianne blinks lazily up at her. “God, you’re beautiful.”
Héloïse smiles, flustered and warm. “You’re beautiful.”
“You too, Tolstoy.”
Marianne extricates herself from the duvet and stretches up, a luxurious slow movement. “D’you have to go?”
“In a minute.”
“Come here, then.”
Tolstoy is deposited on top of the duvet with minimal fuss. Héloïse wriggles over so she is on top, her arms wrapped around Marianne’s back and their legs tangled together. She buries her face in Marianne’s neck and lets their breaths match up.
Five minutes later Marianne has dozed off again and Tolstoy is making a sneaky effort at going to sleep on Héloïse’s back. Carefully Héloïse tucks her in next to Marianne’s head. She scribbles a note on a spare piece of paper– ‘Off to see mother. Love, H.’– then adds a quick doodle of Tolstoy curled up on the pillow, and sets it on the bedside table.
She pauses at the bedroom door and looks back. Marianne, splayed out over the bed, her shirt tugged up past her belly button. Hair like a halo around her head. Tolstoy sleeping peacefully next to her, fluffy silver tail flicking lazily back and forth.
Héloïse puts a hand on her stomach. And feels it.
Her mother emerges from her room seconds after the front door closes. Héloïse freezes from where she is hanging up her coat. But there is no remark made and her mother only nods in dismissive greeting before going to the kitchen.
“Good morning,” she says, with an unfamiliar smile. It takes Héloïse a moment to place it. And then re-place it, thinking she has certainly gone mad. It cannot possibly be- teasing?
Héloïse slips her shoes off, keeping a wary eye on the stranger at the kitchen counter. “Good morning.”
“Did you sleep well?”
“I did. Did you?”
“No, not really. That bed is creaky. Have you eaten yet?”
“Come have something, then.”
With great suspicion Héloïse approaches the refrigerator and pulls out a bag of grapes. Her mother says nothing, just stirs her oats and milk and looks vaguely self-satisfied. Only when Héloïse is sitting at the table, idly plucking grapes from the bunch, does she finally broach the subject.
First a clearing of the throat. Then the clink of her espresso cup on the table as she takes a seat across from Héloïse. Then, deceptively casual, “How is she?”
Héloïse’s stomach drops but her expression stays neutral. In the same casual tone she asks, “Who?”
“That university girl.”
“Have you seen her lately?”
“Yes, at the show.” With the edge of her thumbnail Héloïse peels back the skin of a grape. “Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering.” The rustle of the newspaper opening, being folded back. “And how is Monsieur Mikhalyov?”
Héloïse blinks. “Who?”
Not Alexey again. “He’s fine,” she says tersely.
“Oh, don’t be like that. I’m afraid that you’ve missed the point of what I said.”
“You said he was a good match.”
“Of course he is a good match. He is a principal at the Bolshoi.” A loud sipping sound, grating enough to make Héloïse’s jaw clench. “And that's the only thing that matters with these things.”
Héloïse looks up, suspicious. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Watch your language, dear. I’m trying to help you plan for your future.”
"Are you- no. No. Absolutely not."
“Don't be so quick to dismiss it. Ballet is run by backward-thinking people.” A small shrug, the turning of a newspaper page. “There is little tolerance for certain things. But if you are careful, if you preserve the dynasty. Then they are willing to overlook whatever business you have on the side.”
Héloïse can hardly believe what she is hearing. “The dynasty,” she repeats.
“You mock it now. But they take these things very seriously in Russia. Your father came from a long line of dancers. So do the Mikhalyovs. It will secure an excellent future for your children.”
She says it so casually. As if it is not Héloïse’s life on the line. As if this is the kind of future anyone would want. “I won’t marry Alexey.”
“Fine, then. There are others. The Ganio boy, Khalfouni’s son. Both étoiles.”
“I will never marry a man,” Héloïse interrupts, her voice sharp. “Never. Not for children, not for ballet, not for all of Russia.”
Her mother smiles as if indulging a small child. “Then what? You do anything else and you will never see a solo again.”
“I wouldn't mind.”
“Twenty years of training and you give up now? For this?”
“This is the rest of my life!”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Don’t condescend to me!”
“Fine. You want the truth? You will be the best in the world. You know it. Everyone knows it. Olga, Nikolai, the whole of the Bolshoi. Already they are writing you into the books. But-”
“They offered me Juliet.”
Her mother stops, her eyes widening. “They did?”
Héloïse nods. “I’m taking it.” Then, before she can say anything, “and then I’m done.”
“I’m done dancing.”
“You can’t quit.”
“Yes, I can.”
“What are you going to do?”
This time Héloïse has an answer ready. “Choreography.”
A dismissive shake of the head. “You’re too young.”
“You said I’d be the best.”
“As a dancer, not a choreographer. Let’s say you stop just as you become a prima. Then what happens? You’ll be a half-rate choreographer. A waste of potential. And-“ raising her voice when Héloïse tries to interrupt- “you still won’t get what you want.”
“What do you think I want?” Now it is Maman that will not meet her gaze. “Tell me.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Your university girl,” her mother bites out, her mouth pursed like she has eaten something sour.
“Her name is Marianne.”
“I know her name. And it doesn’t matter if you’re God’s gift to ballet. They-“ one sharp finger pointing at the living-room-turned-studio- “will make your life hell if they find out. I am trying to help you, Héloïse, there is still- even a marriage of pure convenience will do. Just enough to keep eyes off your personal life.”
“I will not marry a man,” Héloïse repeats, a rock against the tide. “And I will still have ballet.”
Her mother sits still for a moment. Then suddenly she snaps, quick as a snake’s bite, “You cannot have both.”
“You wouldn’t know.”
But her mother is smiling. A grim harsh smile. The sort of smile that says she- she does know.
“It is not unusual.” She picks her words carefully now, each one enunciated and separate from the next. She is not angry anymore but something far more bewildering. “This thing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You do.” One hand, spindly and smaller than Héloïse had remembered it, shifts across the table, barely bridging the gap. “It was common, back then, for two étoiles to share a dressing room.”
Héloïse has nothing to say. Whatever revelation is about to come, she is not prepared for it.
“You remember Alice?”
Yes. Alice Louvet. She had taught Héloïse the fouetté, years and years ago, on one of the few days her mother had come home before dinnertime. I work with your mother, she had said, bending until she was no longer ethereal and Héloïse could see the traces of makeup still left on her face. You look just like her, you know.
“She was a prima at the Opéra national.” Her mother shakes off some invisible cobweb and looks to Héloïse, suddenly beseeching. “I would not- I could not be angry with you. Not for this. It would not look well upon me.”
That is all she will say, Héloïse understands. That is all she can say.
Her voice splinters, an awful hopeful thing. She is human, too, then.
“I understand,” Héloïse chokes out. Even though she does not. There are a thousand things she could ask- does my father know? How long have you been unhappy? And why, then, do you want me to do the same?
“Good.” Back to business. “That’s that, then. I’m going to have a walk.”
The door closes behind her with a click.
Héloïse sits for a moment.
“Hi. What’s wrong?”
Héloïse blinks. “How did you know?”
“Lucky guess. You sound off.” The rustle of papers. She is at the kitchen table, or maybe still in bed. “Tolstoy liked your drawing, by the way.”
“Did she really?”
“Well, she tried to eat it. High praise.”
Marianne keeps talking, her voice soft and sweet. Telling her about what Tolstoy has been up to this morning, how the old lady at the laundromat had asked if she was a prostitute, that the hot water has been turned off and the neighbours are furious. It is the sort of rambling long story that asks nothing more of Héloïse than to listen. Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best / Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice. Héloïse stares at the half-empty bag of grapes and waits until the tightness eases.
When the anecdote comes to an end she says, “I talked to my mother.”
“And what happened?”
Héloïse explains, halting and slow. Whenever the words stick in her throat Marianne is there to offer a reassuring hum and a gentle question.
“It’ll be alright,” Marianne says, once it is all out. It is an easy enough thing to say but she sounds so certain that Héloïse finds herself believing it. “Do you think she means well?”
“I know she does. But she doesn’t- she couldn’t understand. The idea of risking ballet, for anything. It just doesn’t fit in her brain.”
“Are you- risking ballet?”
“No. God, no. Just maybe the Bolshoi, and a few other companies. But the Bolshoi might as well mean ballet to her.”
Héloïse shrugs and picks at a half-peeled grape. “It is the best in the world, technically.”
“If you want to stay,” Marianne begins, hesitant.
“No. I don’t. Not for that.”
“Alright.” Then, lighter, “On to more important matters. Do you think I’ll have to fight Alexey for your hand? Because I would probably lose.”
Héloïse laughs. “Alexey wouldn’t fight a pumpkin for my hand. But if it ever came down to that I’d help you.”
“Oh, good. What are you going to do, then?”
“Romeo & Juliet.”
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks. And after that?”
“University. And- if I’m leaving the Bolshoi-”
“You’re leaving Moscow.”
“Maybe. In a few months.”
Graduation. She means university graduation. Is she-?
“Yes,” says Héloïse.
She cuts herself off fast but Marianne is faster.
“Am I what?”
“Well,” Héloïse hedges.
“Come on. Ask me.”
“Ask you what?”
“What I’m going to do after graduation.” Marianne is smiling, it is scrunching up the consonants and stretching all her vowels.
“What are you doing after graduation?”
“And going where,” Héloïse dares to ask.
“Hm, I don’t know yet.” The light-hearted sound of a Parisien shrug. “Anywhere with a university, I suppose.”
With a university. Héloïse is going to a university. Though she mustn’t read into it- of course Marianne will want to go to a university, especially if she means to teach. So really she could mean anything at all. But she is talking to Héloïse. Who is going to university. And Marianne is very careful with her words and these things, being a linguist. So she may very well mean that she- though of course it is very new, it’s all very new, and things must not be rushed into. But-
“Héloïse? Have you listened to a word I’ve said?”
“Sorry. Say it again?”
“I said, I’m looking into a few places. Paris, of course. Havana. Boston. Should I look anywhere else, do you think?”
“Oh, good idea. I’ll be able to see the ballet at Lincoln Center.”
Héloïse’s heart leaps right up into her throat. “Are you going to come with me?”
“Well,” Marianne says, sounding a touch miffed, “I won’t be coming with you. I will be going to a university of my choice, and finishing my doctorate. And if we end up in the same place then that will be the luck of the draw.”
“So. With that said. What are you doing today?”
Héloïse smiles. “Taking you to the museum.”
“Good answer. When shall I expect you?”
Her mother leaves two days later, after Héloïse’s second show. Without any fanfare. Just one day she is there and the next she is not.
For the next three weeks there is silence from Paris. Camellias is finished and a bouquet is bought for Alexey. Héloïse does well at the audition. At the same meeting where she is offered Juliet she formally turns down the prima contract. There is a great deal of hubbub and the higher-ups are furious but eventually it is agreed that they will advertise it as her last show. Rehearsals begin practically the next day.
Héloïse spends most of the time not at the Bolshoi with Marianne. On one day she comes sweeping in at the rehearsal break and takes Héloïse to Hleb Nasushchny, which is a warm place full of the smell of fresh bread. Héloïse returns bearing a small macaroon for Balakov, who hmphs but accepts it. On another day they go to look at Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which they agree is very nice though can get a little dispiriting after five minutes of staring. They decline offers of a tour and instead go to a nearby café to discuss Seni Saowaphong’s Pisat (Ghosts) over cups of too-strong tea.
Romeo & Juliet is full of solos and dramatic death scenes. Alexey is picked for Romeo which means that Héloïse gets to do her last show with him. Only very occasionally does she remind him of this because he tends to get weepy and then has to do little entrechats to calm himself down.
“You won’t forget about me at the next company?”
“Alexey, I don’t even know where I’m going yet.”
“And you’ll call me when you need a male dancer?”
“Yes, even if you’re in Moscow.”
“I’ll fly out. They loved me in New York, did I tell you about the one girl who asked me to sign her-“
“Yes, Alexey, ten times already.”
Usually around this time Ratmansky claps loudly to remind them that rehearsal is still going. He is a nice man and with nothing more than a few words from Balakov he is willing to teach her how to choreograph a whole show. Héloïse takes notes throughout rehearsal and during her solos Alexey writes them for her (and makes a painstaking effort to keep his handwriting legible).
Her mother calls somewhere in the middle of all this. She offers a stilted apology, a very rare thing indeed. They talk about the academy. The weather. When asked Héloïse explains her plan- work with a small company, develop a few one-act shows first, and then maybe come back to the Bolshoi. Or the Opéra national.
Héloïse cannot help the note of pride that sneaks into her voice. “She has offers from a lot of universities. To research there. Some to teach, too.”
“Yes,” Héloïse agrees curtly.
There is a sigh. They sit in silence for a moment. Héloïse is on the verge of hanging up before-
“All I ever wanted was for you to be happy.” Her mother’s voice cool and quiet against her cheek. “I am glad that you are.”
Héloïse looks instinctively to Marianne, who has taken a break from grading the final papers (a translation and analysis of any page from Anna Karenina) to scratch behind Tolstoy’s ear with the blunt end of her pen. She glances up a moment later as if feeling Héloïse’s gaze, and winks, eyes crinkling at the corners.
“I am too,” Héloïse says, softly.
It is a long-overdue beginning. But a beginning nonetheless.
Afterward they go out for a stroll. Spring has overtaken Moscow and Marianne is wearing tiny shorts which is truly a sight to behold. They discuss the eight Rasas and make plans to go swimming and argue with the peculiar satisfaction of people who know they will be happy for quite a long time indeed. Any person fortunate enough to be walking ahead would likely have thought them the strangest people in Moscow.
And, Héloïse thinks, beaming, they would be right.
quotes from walt whitman's 'leaves of grass', shakespeare's romeo & juliet, and of course leo tolstoy's anna karenina
(tolstoy was fed dinner promptly at 7 by the neighbour)