“Can I kiss you?” he had asked, staring down at her in that affable, yet intimidating, way.
Ilsa often thought about what might have happened had she responded differently, or if Abigail hadn’t walked in just moments later. She even wondered sometimes if she had heard him correctly. He had said it so softly it was hard to tell. But knowing what she knew now, it made sense, in a terrible, messed up sort of way.
And yet when people said something about him, asked her if she had suspected anything, she always had the same brief, defensive answer: “Of course not. He was a wonderful teacher, they should never have fired him.”
In some ways she really believed it. He had been a wonderful teacher. He had been kind, and patient, and understanding. He had even helped her get more height in her grand allegro, so that she could hang midair for a moment with her legs in a perfect 180 degree line. None of her other teachers had been able to help her achieve that, even though she’d been struggling with it for years.
But as for the other bit, the bit about how he shouldn’t have been fired, that was the harder part. Sometimes she believed it and sometimes she didn’t. She certainly didn’t want to think that he had raped a student only four years older than herself, but there seemed to be a lot of examples of things like that happening in ballet companies and schools recently. “So many girls in leotards,” one of Ilsa’s friends had pointed out with a mirthless laugh. “What do you expect?”
It was comments like these that made Ilsa feel guilty whenever she did begin to think that he deserved what he got. Maybe it was too much to ask, that a man should be able to resist a room full of scantily-dressed dancers. Or maybe it had all been a big misunderstanding. Sometimes girls did flirt with their male teachers in an effort to get a role that they wanted, or extra attention in class. Perhaps this time it had just gone a little bit too far.
Which made Ilsa think, once again, of that night back in February.
She had stayed late that night to stretch, like usual, along with her friend Abigail. That’s what the good students did. It apparently didn’t occur to anyone that leaving a couple of thirteen year olds alone in a drafty old opera house wasn’t the greatest idea.
Ilsa pulled her leg off the barre, bringing it up with effort towards the ceiling. Just an inch or two farther and it would touch her ear.
“I have to pee,” Abigail announced rather crudely.
“Want me to come?” Ilsa didn’t really want to, but the bathrooms were on a different floor, where a total lack of windows made it dark and creepy. It was only polite to offer.
Abigail shrugged as she walked away. “It’s alright. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Okay.” Ilsa went back to stretching, this time pulling her leg behind her into arabesque until her spine was in a sharp C curve. Normal people would break their backs doing it, but she had trained since she was six. It no longer hurt to contort her body into these unnatural shapes.
The door squeaked as it opened, but she didn’t look back, automatically assuming that it would be Abigail.
“Hey.” It was a man’s voice, and Ilsa spun around, startled.
She exhaled in relief when she saw who it was. “Hi.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, walking farther into the room.
Ilsa lowered her gaze diffidently. “It’s okay.”
“How’s everything going?” he asked, with a charming, lopsided smile.
“Fine,” she answered. “How are you?”
He chuckled, as if he was surprised by her formality. “Oh, fine. Working late. But I guess so are you, huh?”
It had been strange, Ilsa remembered, because as he had asked these tedious, unimportant questions, she had realized that they had never spoken before. Well of course they’d spoken – the perfunctory hellos when she passed him outside the building, where he often stood chain-smoking cigarettes. All the times he had corrected her in class. But they had never had an actual conversation, not even one so superficial as this.
“Your summer intensive auditions are going well, I heard?” he continued. “You got into SAB?”
Ilsa nodded, with a shy smile. Yes, she had gotten into a number of prestigious programs, which despite everyone’s encouragement, still surprised her.
“Good for you,” he said, taking a step closer. She could smell the thick, stale smoke on his clothes.
Ilsa blushed. He was really as handsome as everyone always said, and in fantastic shape. Young, too, at least relatively speaking. Probably around forty. “Thank you,” she replied.
“You know, it’s lucky that I ran into you, actually, because I was thinking about the trouble you were having with your turns yesterday. Do you mind trying something for me?”
“Sure,” Ilsa said with a smile. It was flattering, to think that he was willing to put in time outside of class to help her.
“Go ahead and try a pirouette.”
Ilsa did as she was told, and went around twice without difficulty. On the third revolution, though, she faltered.
“I don’t think it’s your standing leg that’s the problem,” he commented, watching her thoughtfully. “It’s your working leg, you’re not engaging it.”
Ilsa went to the barre and brought her leg into retiré, trying to understand his correction. “Like this?”
“Try to engage where my hand is.” He put his palm on her inner thigh to indicate the muscle she needed to use. No, this wasn’t harassment, it was just what ballet teachers did – how many times had Ilsa heard that? But something about this felt different – awkward – and she couldn’t stand to look him in the eye.
“Here,” he instructed, placing her hand on his own leg, “put your hand here. Feel that?”
Ilsa nodded. She did feel something, although it wasn’t the muscle that she needed to use in retiré, that was for sure.
“And then when I relax, see the difference?”
Again Ilsa nodded, and quickly pulled her hand away.
The corner of his mouth twitched up in amusement. He came even closer to her, so close now that the stench of cigarettes made her feel nauseous. He was watching her intently, his eyes wandering over her face. It was unsettling – no one had ever looked at her like that before.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
Ilsa looked up at him, too shocked to reply. She hadn’t heard him correctly, surely. “What?” she said finally, her own voice almost too quiet to hear.
Less than a second passed before the door opened. He took a step away as Abigail entered the studio.
“Hi.” Abigail smiled at him politely.
“You girls have a good night,” he said, walking swiftly towards the exit.
Once the door had closed behind him, Abigail turned to Ilsa. “What was he still doing here?”
“I don’t know.” Ilsa shook her head. “He was just asking me all these questions, and then he asked if he could kiss me.”
“Really?” Abigail’s face was eager, as if this was just another bit of gossip.
“Yeah, isn’t that funny?” Funny was the only way to describe it without saying what it had really been.
“Yeah,” Abigail said with a laugh. “Funny.”
Her response was too careless, almost, and for a moment Ilsa wondered whether Abigail had experienced anything similar. But Ilsa couldn’t bring herself to ask, and instead went back to stretching. It was just how things were, so what was the point of making a big deal of something so inconsequential? What harm could come of it?
Image – Pixabay.com