by Lisa Lang
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Wing Johnson had been featured in a magazine and two newspapers: Northern Lights! Aussie dancer set to shine at Vesterbro Dance Theatre. Nobody outside the industry knew, or cared about, the Vesterbro Dance Theatre. But it made a good story because she was young and supple and photogenic, and because she’d overcome tragedy (the death of her mother) and beaten the odds (dropping out of school, not dancing for over a year). The thing was, as she sat on the quilted bedspread in her small, wood-paneled apartment, she didn’t feel gritty or determined or courageous – the adjectives the journalists had so easily employed on her behalf. The dance company had made all the arrangements; all she’d done was pack and get on the plane.
From her window she watched the street. There were people in good coats – with no pilling, no unflattering bulk – walking with clear purpose, cyclists gliding by. It was late afternoon, night was falling, and the alien, blue-rinsed light settled on her like a kind of despair. She had a sense of being adrift on a vast, indifferent ocean. Whether she ate her dinner or not, went to sleep or stayed awake all night, or even stopped existing, who was to know? The wall heater shuddered and paused. Across the street, lights were coming on inside some of the apartments. In one, a woman in a skirt suit was vacuuming, pushing the machine away with almost violent force. In another, a boy was sitting cross-legged on the floor playing video games, aquatic light flickering over his face. Few apartments seemed to bother with curtains or blinds. A third light came on and she watched a man pour something from a carton into a bowl, then set the bowl on the floor. She assumed it was for a cat – a beautiful cat with long, white whiskers and soft, ash-grey hair. How kind his gestures were, almost tender. She imagined him good-looking in the angular, style-conscious manner she’d begun to admire in Nordic men. When he crouched below her line of sight – to stroke the cat, she thought, and whisper endearments – she turned from the window, disgusted to find herself growing misty-eyed.
This was the first week, before rehearsals began. Her first week in a new country – what did she expect? It would take some adjusting, that was all. For this reason, she’d banned herself from calling home, either to talk to Max, her oldest friend, or Jamie, the boy she’d been seeing in the last few months. But the next morning as she lay in bed, shrouded in the thinnest layer of sleep, the phone sounded its shrill, foreign bleat. She thought at first it was some kind of alarm. It took her a while to answer it.
“Don’t be mad,” he said. “I had to call you.” She could hear the long summer’s afternoon in his voice: heat and cut grass and cold beer. She thought of his skin, salty but with an underlying milky cleanness, like a child’s. They were the same age, twenty-one, but he struck her as innocent.
“I’m not mad. It’s good to hear your voice.” She blinked and rubbed her eyes. “Hold on, I’ll get my jumper.” On her way back, she turned the heater on. She sat on the couch and tucked her bare feet between the cushions and the base. “Don’t tell me – you’ve been to the beach. It’s forty degrees. You’ve got sunburn.”
“I’ve been to the milk bar. I’ve got a Magnum.”
“Ha. Are you outside?”
“I’m on the steps. The cord’s not long enough.”
He told her he was hungover. He’d been out to see a band with friends, then ended up at a karaoke bar in the early hours. She knew this place, they’d been there together once: office workers in shirt sleeves, pub rockers in flannel, and suburban girls with long hair and short skirts. Part of her was relieved – he wasn’t pining his life away – but part of her was crimped with anxiety – why wasn’t he pining, just a bit?
“What did you sing?”
“It must have been bad. Let me guess, Bon Jovi? Aerosmith? No, wait – I’m sensing something truly shameful. It was Meatloaf, wasn’t it?”
“I told you, I’m not telling.”
She laughed and swapped the phone to her other ear.
“You’re paying whatever it is – a dollar a minute – to not tell me? Why mention it at all? You’re the one who brought it up!”
“Alright. Ok. I’ll tell you.” He dropped his voice. “It was ‘Tiny Dancer’.”
Cold fury swept away the warmth she’d felt just moments before. Why couldn’t he guard his own feelings, like normal people did? Why let everything show? Did he expect, like some giant baby, that she would take care of him? She needed to be free, free to make a life here, not weighed down by a human anchor.
“I’m cold,” she said. “I need to put more clothes on. Make a coffee.”
“Yeah, no worries.” He paused, and she thought she heard a magpie’s warble, insouciant and sweet. “Keep warm. If you go out, put your scarf on.”
The studio they rehearsed at smelled like studios everywhere: the sour, slightly acrid notes of feet, sweat and intense human effort, the muffled sweetness of deodorant and dust. Wing drank it in. She immediately loved the space, with its cathedral ceiling, exposed wooden beams and the wall of angled plate glass facing onto the harbour. Outside, the sky was grey and the water gave off the half-sheen of pewter.
Their director and choreographer, Torben Dahl, gave a brief speech where he welcomed them back from their holidays, and welcomed Wing into the fold. He stood with his bare feet wide apart, a pale green scarf around his neck. He wanted to share, he said, his vision for the year. He was thinking German cabaret and Mexican soap opera and Hollywood musicals of the forties and fifties. Character, he insisted, was the key. The absence of character had led contemporary dance into a cold, cerebral abyss. Without character, they were nothing more than animated footnotes in an essay on meaninglessness.
Fine, thought Wing, but when where they going to dance? She shifted her weight from left to right, from the balls of her feet to the heels. At least he was speaking in English, and not just for her benefit. She’d briefly met Ricki who was American, and Ilka who was German, and been told the rest of the troupe was a mix of Danes, Norwegians and Swedes. They were twelve in all. The Vesterbro Dance Theatre was only five years old, but had already made a name for itself in the contemporary dance world for embracing narrative and storytelling, for rejecting the trend towards abstract, impenetrable works. Everybody told her she would love it.
At last, they were moving. A slow warm up, followed by a languorous floor sequence. She rolled, and stretched her spine, her muscles, until she felt a deep uncoiling. When she stood, she was somehow more firmly in her body, like the lead inside a pencil. Torben showed them a longer, more complex sequence, one that travelled the length of the room. He led them through twice. Then he stood back, hand on chin, to watch them.
She was nervous, there was no mistaking the double-time of her pulse. But the feeling! To be unlocking the caged bird of herself, her true self. Flex, curl, drop, roll, release, repeat. The swoop of air, the intimate tug of floor on skin. Reach, fold, lift, kick, drop. When she landed hard on her knee, she felt pain that would surely bloom into a bruise, and was happy.
The afternoon was taken up with administrative tasks. Forms to fill, papers to sign, payroll, insurance, schedules, lists. As she was leaving the building, it began to rain, and she paused to pull out the hood on her parka.
“It’s uncanny,” said Torben, stopping to hold the door for her. “How much you look like Leslie Caron. You must get tired of hearing it.”
Wing paused, the hood still an inch from her head.
“I don’t even know who that is.”
Torben let the door swing closed, and ushered her back inside.
“Gigi? An Amercian in Paris? But this is sacrilege. You really haven’t seen An Amercian in Paris? Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly?”
Wing shrugged in apology. Torben ran a hand through his wavy, camelish hair.
“Well, now, I must set you homework. Tonight you go to your video store – you have a machine at your flat? Go home and watch An American in Paris. Homework on the first day, but you’ll thank me for it.”
He pushed open the door, and she hurried out into the wet.
“We don’t have it.” The sales assistant shrugged, and pushed his glasses back up his nose.
“You’re kidding me.”
“No. It’s like, a really old film. We have Singing in the Rain, though.”
“But it’s a classic.” Why was she arguing – did she hope to change the outcome, for him to produce the film out of thin air? People stood behind her, waiting to be served. A man stepped up to the counter beside her.
“The lady is right. This is a classic film. You should really have a copy.” He wagged his finger in mock reproach, and lowered his videos onto the counter. He placed his membership card on top of the stack. The sales assistant sighed.
“I’ll make sure to tell the owner. When he gets back from Ibiza. He’ll be so ashamed.”
She and the man left the store at the same time, and she watched him stoop to untie a brown and white terrier from a pole. The dog licked neatly at his hand. It dawned on her then, who he was.
“That’s your apartment? Over there?” She pointed down the street, and he nodded. “I was so sure you had a cat!”
He shrugged, and wrapped the lead around his hand. He was just as she’d pictured him: tall, thin, austerely handsome.
“Oh, I mean I saw you once, through the window, with pet food? I live right across from you. I just imagined it was a cat.” She spoke rapidly, her spirits buoyed with the pleasure of a new connection. She was practically a local! He smiled with his lips closed, and gave the lead a little flick. He moved off towards his apartment, the dog trotting beside him, and raised a hand in farewell.
She knew it was silly but watching them go, Wing felt abandoned.
Rehearsals were intense. Torben demanded effort, but he demanded a particular kind of effort. Technique, he told them, could conceal as much as it revealed, and he exhorted them to reveal, reveal, reveal, to tell the truth about themselves in their work. Wing was confused. How was she supposed to play her character, and at the same time show something of herself? More than anything she wanted to shine, to justify her selection from the hundreds who’d auditioned around the world. When she floundered, when Torben looked disappointed or displeased, it scalded her deeply. She wanted to ask the other dancers, does this make sense to you, is it just me? But she found them wildly intimidating. They were, if not better dancers, at least more worldly, more sophisticated. Well-travelled, they spoke multiple languages, held firm opinions on global politics and art. They went skiing, rode mopeds. They gleamed, lacquered in Europeaness.
Wing raised the blind in her bedroom. Across the street, the apartment windows were uniformly dark. It was three ᴀᴍ. Still, she’d hoped for a sign of life, a single companion in sleeplessness. She’d woken from a dream of her mother. They were driving dodgem cars – not the usual cramped and battered kind, but spacious, elegant machines of glass and steel. The track ran along a black clifftop, above an ocean the colour of blue stained-glass. Each bend was sharper, more perilous than the last. When they finally stopped – elated, breathless – her mother had trouble getting out of the car. Wing ran around to help; the seat belt was caught in her mother’s clothes. No matter how much Wing rearranged and tugged, she couldn’t free her mother from the belt.
“It’s alright,” said her Mum. “I’ll just nap here, in the car.”
Wing’s joy flipped over into fear. Other cars were racing around the track at great speed. What if one smashed into them, pushing them over the cliff?
“Mum! You have to help!” Teeth clenched, one knee braced against the car, Wing yanked hard and woke, her nerves seared with panic.
Sleep was out of the question. She drank from the water in her mug. Earlier that day, after finding a phone jack in the wall beneath the bed, she had moved the phone to her bedside table. Now, on impulse, she reached for it in the semi-dark.
Her brother’s voice filled the earpiece: the mellow drawl, the slight rasp that caught on certain words.
“Hey Sis, how’s it going? You killing it yet, or what?”
It was great, she told him, it was going really well. The city was cool, what she’d seen of it. The dancing was hard, but in a good way. If it was easy, what would be the point?
“Even when you were little,” he said proudly. “You were amazing up on stage. You had that Shirley Temple shit going on.” He told her everyone at work had seen her in the paper. One of the apprentices had even taped her picture to the wall, next to the Honda Hotties calendar. He’d made him take it down, of course.
Still, it was a real compliment.
“Tell me what’s happening with you,” she said. Her finger pressed the bruise, like an ink smudge, on her knee.
He was still doing up the Holden. Shelley was talking about babies, maybe even a wedding. He was just watching a really great doco, on Thai kickboxing, when she called. He told her about all the moves, the punches, blocks and kicks, the conditioning and training, in great detail, and at such length, that she finally realised he was stoned. It was only mid-morning in Melbourne, and the image of Robbie with his TV, his bong, on his couch with the curtains drawn, suddenly struck her as lonely and sad. It shocked her, the sprout of pity breaking through old affection. Practical and easygoing, Robbie was not someone she’d ever had to worry about.
It was Thursday, and she was changing back into her street clothes when Ilka approached. Wing was fully dressed, but Ilka’s gaze was so direct, so unyielding, that Wing glanced down quickly at her own jeans to be sure. For a wild moment, she imagined that Ilka had come to voice some displeasure on behalf of the troupe. Short and compact, Ilka’s strawberry blonde hair was clipped close to her head. A small bee was tattooed on her neck, beneath her right ear.
“Look, you probably have plans, but some of us are going out to a bar tomorrow night. If you want, you should come.”
Wing swallowed. She had an urge to throw her arms around Ilka, to kiss her rosy, Germanic cheek.
The bar was in a small boat, anchored to a canal, a stone’s throw from some of the better clubs. It was a place to go beforehand, and was already crowded when Wing arrived. Easing her way past the tables she felt a quickening, a response to the rippling, coltish energy around her. Everyone had dressed up. The women had left their coats at the door and were baring shoulders and cleavage, the men showing plenty of teeth. Electronica gathered up the human noises into its own rhythmic net. She recognised the back of Ilka’s shapely neck at a table in the far corner, but chose to go to the bar. She swallowed most of her drink before squeezing herself into the last inch of space at the end of their booth.
“You found us.”
To her left sat Kirsten and Sofie, two dancers from the company. Ilka and Torben sat across from her. A porthole looked out onto black water, scribbled with light.
“Cool place,” said Wing. She was rubbing the sweat off her glass, making a single clear channel. They leaned towards her, straining to hear.
“It’s crazy now,” said Ilka. “But in half an hour, they’ll all go to the clubs. Then it’s perfect. More chilled.”
“The music’s good,” added Kirsten. “If you like alternative?”
“Torben’s cousin’s the owner.”
“One of the owners.” Torben stood. He wore a rumpled linen shirt and dark jeans. He left, returning to the table with a thin, frosted bottle and five glasses on a tray.
“I don’t like my dancers getting drunk,” he said. “But when they do, it should be quality.”
“He’s just a control freak.” Ilka flapped her hand. “Even controls what we drink.”
The vodka was syrupy, cold and clean. It made Wing think of icebergs. She’d never had vodka straight before, and she loved the way it made her feel, bright and sharp as a chip of ice. They asked her about Australia, and her replies delighted them. They could not hear enough about Christmas at the beach and kangaroos on the golf course. She exaggerated her accent, made it broad and flat as a Queensland farmer’s, waffled on about sheilas and Eskies until Sofie was wiping tears from her eyes. She understood now that Sofie was not aloof but simply shy, and that Ilka’s bossiness was undercut with kindness. They were wonderful, really.
“We thought you were a bit of a snob,” said Kirsten, as if following her train of thought. “But you’re really great.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” said Ilka proudly. “The first week is really hard for people. Your chilly Nordic charm doesn’t help.”
“Chilly!” cried Kirsten. “I suppose in Stuttgart they throw you a Hawaiian Luau on arrival?”
“Being new is always hard,” said Torben. “I’ve never told you this, but I joined a company in Chicago when I was eighteen. I lasted six months.” They listened as he spoke of his loneliness, his immaturity and low self-esteem. How he walked for miles every evening, seeking human contact, but was too shy ever to approach anyone. One time he found a local sauna and, in a moment of Nordic nostalgia, eagerly went inside. The place turned out to be a beat. “They were pretty happy to see me.” He smiled wryly, and the others laughed as if there was something more to this comment. He glanced at Wing and topped up her glass and she felt a flicker of empathy pass between them.
“How did you enjoy An American in Paris?” he asked. Then he turned to Ilka, refilling her drink. “Doesn’t she look like Leslie Caron?”
Wing admitted she’d been unable to find the film. She told the whole story for laughs.
“You can borrow my copy,” said Torben. “I taped it off the television, and there’s ads. But it’s better than nothing.”
That was how she ended up on Torben’s couch at two ᴀᴍ, while Fred Astaire moved as though his bones were helium-filled. Everyone danced and fretted over who to marry. Paris looked like something assembled from a flat-pack. Torben made her a cheese and pickle sandwich and she screwed up her nose as the vinegar hit, but was soon licking the crumbs from her fingers. When he kissed her gently on the temple, she was neither surprised nor unsurprised.
“You’re magnetic,” he said. “There’s something about you.” Then, taking her by the hand, “This is a very bad idea.”
Wing woke with perfect recall. There was no confusion about where she was, what she’d done; it was as if the words had rolled all night across the dark screen of her mind. She was elated, and a little in awe of what had happened. Torben Dahl was a very big name in the world of contemporary dance.
She felt the hard leanness of his arm where it draped across her hip. Where Jamie had been tender and hesitant, Torben had been assured, adept, almost clinical. It was, she supposed, the difference between twenty-one and thirty-eight. The thought of Jamie made her throat ache; she pushed it away.
Instead, she thought about Torben. The dry heat of his skin. The large, pillowy lips. His slow, deliberate rhythm, which gave the sex a dreamy, unhurried quality that was entirely new to her. She looked over at him, half-pressed into his pillow.
“Hey,” she poked lightly at his cheek. “Got any Vegemite? Or whatever you people put on toast. Herring-mite?’
She watched him smile, and open his eyes. They were the same grey as the harbour.
He took her to a café full of low-ceilinged dark wood, and ordered her the cinnamon rolls.
“They’ll make me fat.”
“If you eat a thousand.”
The cinnamon smell was dusky and insistent. It made her mouth water. She tore off sticky pieces and ate them, alternating with sips of her coffee. Outside, storm clouds sagged in the pale sky, and people lugged boxes home from the market. The sugar and butter and caffeine, the dark, European interior, filled her with an old sweet longing. Torben’s arm rested against hers, and she realised the longing was for this, to be exactly where she was. It hadn’t sunk in yet. In the window she saw her reflection: last night’s clothes and her hair tangled from bed.
“I look a mess.” But she secretly approved of this version of herself. She looked like the sort of girl who tumbled out of bed to drink coffee with her lover. Torben reached over and pinched a piece of pastry off her plate. She watched his face – not handsome, but rumpled and easy to adore – through the glass.
“I need you all to dig deeper, to get to your core emotions. I don’t want to see lovely, empty movement.” Torben waved his arms gracefully above his head, and let his face go slack. “Like trees blowing in the wind. I can see that in the park.” He clapped his hands, a gesture of both encouragement and dismissal. He’d been pushing them hard all week, and several dancers had begun to produce some extraordinary work. He’d singled out Ilka for particular praise, and the company stood and watched while she danced a ragged, off-balance piece, almost clumsy, but full of raw power. It reminded Wing of a newborn foal, trying to stand. It was electrifying; they all felt it. That Torben could provoke something so beautiful and elemental from blunt, pragmatic Ilka! Wing felt a spurt of jealousy, urgent and hot, like blood from a vein. For the next ten minutes she danced in a daze, working hard not to cry.
“Wing!” called Torben. “I’ve seen more emotion on people waiting at a bus stop.”
Wing packed a few things in a bag: toothbrush, deodorant, underwear. She stepped out of her apartment, felt the cold on her cheek and took a moment to rewrap her scarf. It was evening, and although the rain had stopped, the wet pavement was dark as slate. Her back ached below the right shoulder blade, her pride hurt too. Waiting at the bus stop! It was humiliating, and she’d seriously considered standing him up. But she’d thought about her spare, chilly apartment, and the promise of the café’s dark warmth. She’d thought about Torben’s intensity, his laser-light attention on her, and her alone. Besides, she already knew she wasn’t working at that level yet, the one Ilka had shown them that afternoon.
It was an in-between time, late enough for the city to be emptied of its workers, but too early for the first of the party crowd. The road gleamed like black glass, like a path carved out of jet. On impulse, she ran out onto the tarmac, and danced a fragment of Ilka’s dance. Staggering, loose and uncertain, it made a kind of sense, there, in the empty dark. It was not about performing – performance was camouflage, disguise. What was needed – she couldn’t put it into words. But it was like the feeling from her dream, where she’d taken those hairpin bends and the water flashed beneath her, blue as eternity.
He was at the café when she arrived, a glass of wine on the table. Whatever made her think he wasn’t handsome? Not conventionally perhaps, but he had the rough, care-worn beauty of a Viking. She kissed the top of his head, and it was malty-sweet, already familiar. He reached up and touched the side of her face.
“I can’t stop thinking about you.”
She slid onto the seat beside him, pressed her arm against his.
“You need to focus,” she said. “Director.”
“I know, I know.” He sighed and dropped his head. Wing felt her body tense. She picked up the wine glass, took a sip.
“Alright. What is it?”
Torben shook his head.
“I can’t concentrate. We open in three months. Madrid’s less than four. I should be – ” He held his hands to either side of his head, like blinkers. “But I’m like a dog with his tongue hanging out.”
She raised the glass and took a longer drink. When she put it down, he took her hand.
“I’m thinking we should put this on ice. Until we’re ready to open, that is.”
On ice. What was she – a tuna? A can of beer? Wing felt trap doors opening inside her, bundles of hope plummeting through. In three months, she could die of loneliness. It was essential to keep this to herself.
“Look,” she said. “I should have told you, but I have a boyfriend back home.”
“In Australia?” Torben scratched his head. She was gratified to see him look uncertain. “But your contract with Vesterbro is for two years?”
Wing allowed herself a faint smirk.
“You were prepared to wait three months. And you don’t even know me.”
Her pillow was filthy with snot and tears. She flipped it over, and tried to calm herself. It didn’t help that she’d had a fair slug of vodka, or called Max, only to listen to the phone ringing out. God, she hated her apartment. She was used to living in share houses, with their clutter, and their chaos, and someone always up for a cup of tea, or a joint. She reached over, and roughly jerked the blind up. That was better. She could see three squares of light in the opposite apartments. One belonged to the man with the dog. She watched anxiously for a glimpse of him. After twenty minutes, she saw him moving around the kitchen. She sat up, and put her finger to the glass. Only he didn’t look right. He was too stocky and short; he walked like a wrestler. A lover, thought Wing. She was crying again.
What she wanted right now was her Mum. Oh, it made her grit her teeth, to be such a child. Her mother? Just what would her mother do, if she were alive? Advise her on her love life? The woman whose own marriage had been so bitter, that she’d once told Wing the great disappointment of her life was not getting cancer, but getting married.
She couldn’t think about that. So she picked up the phone and by some miracle it was Jamie – and not his parents or his brother – who answered. She told him all about Torben, and waited for his anger and reproach.
“Wing,” he said. “Listen to me. The guy’s a fuckwit. He has no idea how lucky he is.”
She held the phone to her cheek. It felt almost like a hand, resting there, in the hollow.
“Thanks,” she said.
“I mean it. If you ever decide to come home, I’ll treat you a hundred times better than that ponce.”
The words were a revelation. It had simply not occurred to her that she could do that: decide to come home.
It would never work with Jamie. He was too kind, too uncomplicated. He worshipped Sting, and thought Riverdance was kinda cool. And she would never, ever get a better gig than Vesterbro. She’d be throwing away her golden opportunity. No more reveal, reveal, reveal, day after day under Torben’s grey gaze. No more cold apartment. No more rattling around the world, alone.
“If I come home,” she said. “Can we take your van down the coast for a few weeks?”
Static crackled down the line, buckling his words.
“Wi-ing?” They both already knew she would break his heart. “Wing, are you really com-ing home?”
Lisa Lang is the author of Utopian Man, co-winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. She was a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist. She lives in Melbourne, Australia and is working on a collection of linked stories. View interview with Lisa Lang at Literary Minded.
Alan McCord is a Canadian photographer. View more of his work at Flickr.