I do not understand why Jacob likes it. To me it seems strangely ironic that someone who has difficulties moving half of his body enjoys watching others do it in perfection.
Jacob guesses my thoughts. “It’s not as if I could have done any of that at any point in my life,” he says and I blush, glad he cannot see it over the phone. How does this guy read me like a book?
“Sure, but… huh… I don’t know. I always thought it was so terribly boring to look at. That’s just my opinion.”
“And exactly how many shows have you seen?”
I put him on speaker phone as I pull my sweater over my head. “One.”
“See. And that’s the problem. No one likes coffee on their first try either. And I presume it was a bad production in the first place.”
I groan. “May I remind you that I already said yes? There is no need to convince me.”
“I just want you to experience the same itching excitement that I feel right now,” he says, his laughter cracking over the speaker.
I grin. He really is in an exceptionally good mood. “Yeah, yeah, I am sooo excited,” I say with a mocking tone in my voice. “Glad?”
He laughs. “Super glad. You made my day. Also thanks for sacrificing yourself for me!”
“I’m going to turn on the shower now, or we will be really late,” I warn him, already standing on the sleek tiles, the curtain brushing against my dry thighs.
“Okay, I’ll head out and pick you up in fifteen?”
“Sure. If you want to take me naked to the ballet.”
I roll my eyes, fruitless as it is, and giggle. “Make it twenty, okay?”
He chuckles. “Aww… well... See you in a bit.”
I stare at the screen for a second after hanging up and grin. His good mood is contagious.
Jacob got tickets to the ballet from a friend who has gotten sick very shortly before the show started. To be precise, the show starts in one hour and my hair is still in lazy Saturday mode.
Twenty minutes later I wait at the curb for Jacob’s Jeep to round the corner. I left a note for Marcus, telling him I will be late. For the umptieth time I straighten my black dress, not sure if I am clothed appropriately. I opted for something classy that hugs my curves, not too short and otherwise plain. You cannot do anything wrong with that, right? My last time at the ballet has been so long ago, I honestly do not remember much of it anymore, even if I told Jacob otherwise to tease him.
I have not asked Jacob about his past at Recom. It just never came up and I do not want him to know that I researched him. In my opinion, his past is his business, and he decides what he wants to share with me. I did not try but I am quite sure that there is nothing in there about him from recent times. I wonder if Recom just sacked him after his stroke, without even trying to integrate him back in their system. Judging from my own boss’ attitude it would be no wonder, I fear. Alas, apart from the obvious physical consequences, I have no idea how severe Jacob’s disability is when it comes to… less visible impairment. I do not know if he is still up to the task of being a manager when a car drive of more than an hour already tires him out.
When I climb onto the seat next to Jacob I think my mouth drops open a little before I can correct it. Jacob looks simply stunning in his black suit and black tie. He smiles at me from the driver’s seat before pulling into traffic.
“You look amazing,” he says. “I think I would have liked the naked version but I guess I can go with this as well.”
I swat his arm lightly. His right hand is gripping the familiar knob on the steering wheel. “You don’t look bad yourself,” I return the compliment. Actually he looks damn hot.
“That was really fast. I am wondering what I would have gotten had I waited another ten minutes.”
“An angry text for leaving me freezing out on the streets, stupid.”
He chuckles and when we stop at a red light he grabs my hand to give it a quick squeeze. “Thanks for being so spontaneous. It means a lot to me. I love ballet and I haven’t… I mean I didn’t go when… I would certainly not have gone alone. So thanks.”
Warmth spreads in my chest as I realize the amount of trust he puts in me, although it leaves me wondering what the big deal is. It is just ballet, right? “Well, don’t thank me before I have ruined your evening because I fell asleep and snored into your ear through the whole show,” I jest carefully.
“I don’t think you are capable of snoring.”
I snort through my nose. “You have no idea.”
The ballet is an enormous building situated at the shore of the lake in the heart of the city, bathing in glittering golden light. I slowly walk next to Jacob, for the first time actually regretting a little that I cannot hook my arm with his as I jealously observe the other couples streaming towards the entrance arm in arm. Before we have reached the wide stairs leading up to several entrances guarded by huge wooden doors, Jacob swerves to the right and we enter the opera through a small door on the side. ‘Wheelchair entrance’ a battered sign on the door reads. A rusty elevator brings us up to the main floor.
Before we get out Jacob pushes the button for closing the doors again and turns to me, exhaling slowly before speaking, hesitant as if he has to force ever single word from his lips. “I… I should probably tell you that I don’t do well in crowds.”
There is the catch, I think. I could tell there was something. “Um... what does that mean?”
“It’s just… um… too much, I guess. Too many people, too much sound, lights, colors…” His shoulders slump forward protectively and he does not look at me. “It varies.”
I remember the time when I crashed into him at Recom in a hallway brimming with people, when I thought he behaved strangely already then, or his preference to sit in the back of a full restaurant. “We can go back home, Jacob. Honestly, I don't care-”
His chin lifts. “No... please, Cait. I want to try. I think it might be okay today. With you.”
I watch him. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I think so,” he repeats. “Just… stay close, or something.” He blinks at me, warily.
“Okay.” I would have liked to get more detailed instructions, though. What is staying close supposed to mean even? I remind myself that this is a first for Jacob, too, and that he is still getting used to the whole situation, even a year after his stroke. Jesus, I feel like we are about to enter the moon’s surface as I turn towards the closed elevator doors. My heart races and my hands are suddenly sweaty. “Okay…” I repeat. “Are you good?”
Jacob nods briskly, eyebrows in a determined line.
“You don’t have to do this,” I whisper.
“But I want to,” Jacob grates and I shut up.
I look back at Jacob a last time and when he nods, the line of his shoulders tense, I press the button for opening the elevator’s doors again. As soon as we exit I sense that Jacob grows rigid next to me. He takes a few faltering steps into the crowded hall before he stops, his gaze fixed on his right hand on the cane, knuckles white. I step up next to him and curl my hand around his right biceps. “Everything okay?”
People are streaming past us under the golden chandeliers and high painted ceiling, a flurry of shining robes, glittering dresses and black suits. Someone nearly bumps into us and Jacob stumbles forward a little, catching his weight on his cane, a huff of breath leaving his lips. Laughter and talking weave into each other, parts of conversations fluttering over our heads busily, barely muted by the thick red carpet under our feet.
Jacob blinks and tilts his head to me. “Yes…” he says slowly, I can see his chest heaving with his breathing, the muscles in his arm tight underneath my fingers. He takes a deep breath, then nods. “Yup… I got this.”
“Do you… maybe want to have a drink?” I propose, hoping to distract him and let the tips of my fingers rest lightly on his arm as I try to guide us to the side and into a less crowded area. “You could sit here and I get us something?”
“Sure, yes,” Jacob murmurs, lowering himself down into an ancient looking armchair. The upholstery gives way more than he anticipated and I quickly grab his arm to steady him. He stores his cane between his knees and sets his position right with his hand on the armrest.
“I’ll be back right away, okay?” I ask, unsure if I should indeed leave him.
Jacob nods again and finally looks up at me. “I’m okay. Really.” When his gaze does not waver I relent.
I fight my way through the masses and jump the line, ignoring the poisonous looks from other visitors to get to buy our drinks quickly and be back with Jacob as soon as possible. When I return to our corner, nearly sprinting, he has his eyes closed and his jaw clenched but not as hard as before when I feared his teeth might splinter. I clear my throat to announce myself and sit down in the other armchair across from him, placing our two glasses on the small table between us.
“Prickling elder-something. Without alcohol,” I say.
Jacob opens his eyes, smiles gratefully at me and we clink our glasses. It tastes sweet and fresh at the same time, not bad for something that is only pretending to be champagne.
After a few minutes it seems that Jacob has relaxed a little more and we talk about the show. “I’ve seen it when they first showed it here. It’s such a great piece, the music is beautiful and the dance is just… it’s incredible, you will see.”
We go to find our seats as soon as a gong announces that the door to the auditorium has been opened. Our tickets could not be better I realize when I study them closer after Jacob handed them to me. Third row is probably around fifty rows closer to the stage than I could ever afford. However, as it turns out, those are non-accessible seats, of course, and the row is a few steps down from the door through which we have entered the auditorium. Jacob studies the small metallic handrail to the left side and I can basically hear his mood plummeting.
I let my gaze wander over the rows of seats while I wait behind him. “Wow, is there going to be life music?” I ask, pointing to the orchestra pit in front of the first row of seats.
“Huh…” Jacob looks up distracted and nods. “Yes, there is.”
“Cool,” I say and when the few people in front of us have reached their rows and the stairs are free for a moment with no one pressing in from behind, I step down next to Jacob. “You manage alone or do you need help?” I ask lowly.
Jacob sighs and finally shakes his head. The steps are okay, I figure, not too steep and certainly wide enough. It is still a tight space for him but he manages, with only a short break in between to readjust the position of his left foot on one step. The following squeeze through the aisle is another thing altogether, an even slower and awkward process during which I can sense his muscles tensing from frustration alone. Fortunately there are not many people in the row because we are yet so early, and the ones who are already sitting stand up readily to let us pass. I can see the relief creeping on Jacob’s face when he closes the last distance to our seats with a calculated turning of his hip and shuffling of his feet in the narrow aisle. I pull down his folding seat next to mine and he eases himself into it, releasing his breath.
“I suppose we bust the statistics tonight,” I whisper into his ear, observing our surroundings, trying not to let show my immense relief that we have made it to our seats finally. “We must be a third from the average age here. Or so.”
Jacob pulls his left leg in next to his right and stores the cane on the floor behind our feet. “Oh yes,” he says, a little sourly and still short of breath, “I’m blending in perfectly, though.” He flashes me a grim smile and I swallow.
We have indeed great seats. I can see down the orchestra pit where the musicians have now stopped tuning their instruments. Slowly everyone settles in, the auditorium is near full.
Jacob turns to me. “This is going to be worth it. Watch out for the crosses.”
Jacob imitates a quarter of a ballet pose and I cannot help but laugh because even his facial expression shifts to a solemn one. I am so glad he seems to have recovered from the ordeal of getting here.
“Um… arabesque, right?”
Jacob nods, enthusiasm from before shining through. He has told me about the meaning of some of the dance poses. It came as a surprise to me how much there is to every single movement, I basically thought they were supposed to mainly look nice. I never imagined there to be a close to literal meaning to every gesture in some cases.
“I look forward to it,” I whisper, leaning over to speak into his ear as the lights turn down and silence falls over the hall.
After a few seconds I hear faint footsteps and then the small screech of a few chairs down from the orchestra pit as the conductor steps forth and the musicians get up as well. I clap along with everyone else while Jacob taps his right fingers on the armrest.
The faint sound of a lone violin starts the evening and the curtain lifts to an empty stage.
I have to admit, with the crash course Jacob has given me during the car drive and our splendid seating, the first half of the show is over quickly and I did not get bored once. I cannot say I am a total fan of watching people alternating lifting their arms to the sides and over their heads, but I think I spotted a lot of crosses – quite literal symbols of death and sacrifice in this case – and in between something that I assume meant “Do you want to have sex with me?” To tell from my right neighbor’s indignant tut-tut as response to my snicker there might have been some misunderstanding on my side though.
When we have all thoroughly clapped our applause and the last dancer has left the stage, the heavy velvet curtain closes and the lights turn up brightly for the break. Jacob bents down and retrieves his cane from the floor, a steep line growing on his forehead the moment the bustling starts around us as people get up and prepare for leaving the auditorium.
The thing is we have really great seats and that means they are practically in the middle of the row, at least not much set apart from it. A sudden idea occurs to me and I turn to the right, where people are already piling up to exit, the old gentleman who is my seat neighbor impatiently tapping his own cane on the floor.
“Um… Sir, would you mind taking the exit this way? It’s not much further but then we can stay during the break and you won’t have to squeeze past us.”
The man looks at me slightly puzzled, drops his eyes to the cane in Jacob’s grasp behind me and finally nods briskly. He turns and ushers his wife to turn around and go in the other direction. Like a domino effect this ripples through the whole line to the middle of the row and slowly people file out the other way.
I sit back down next to Jacob. “I hope that’s okay for you,” I ask, suddenly not so sure he approves of my action.
Jacob shrugs. “Mmm…” He does not look too happy though.
“I’m sorry I should have asked you-“
“Yes,” Jacob interrupts and grips his left hand with his right. I flinch and he inhales and exhales with obvious restraint, lifting his eyes up to mine. “You should have. But it’s all my fault. I should have thought about the break before and we should have discussed what we plan to do… So many things we should have thought of.”
I suppress a sigh as I sink back in my seat. It is hard, always doing the right thing with Jacob. I never know what is going to rub him the wrong way, it is a constant dance between joking about and ignoring the elephant in the room. I know that he wishes he could avoid it but in some cases he just has to deal with the situation and there is no humorous way through or an easy one around it.
We have spent barely two uncomfortably silent minutes in the mostly empty auditorium when a French-accented voice calls from behind. “Mr. Barnett? I knew it was you!”
Jacob startles and we both turn around. An old lady is gliding towards us through the row behind us. She wears a glittering sequin dress with a not-quite-fake fur over her shoulder and a tiny diamond-studded purse dangling from her wrist. When she stops in front of us I can see that her ears, her fingers and her décolleté are glittering with very real looking jewelry.
“Mrs. Gauthier!” Jacob has shot to his feet, clutching the back of his seat, and I get up, too.
“Oh, Mr. Barnett, I cannot express how wonderful it is to see you here tonight!” the woman exclaims and reaches with her hands towards Jacob.
Jacob sways a little as she shakes his right hand with both of her small ones while he is fighting to keep his balance. When she releases him, he stumbles backwards and subtly leans his hip against the back of the chairs in the row behind him. His cane is still on the floor. “Mrs. Gauthier I assure you, the pleasure is all mine,” he smiles, carefully hiding his surprise.
The old lady is wringing her hands, her small green eyes shining wetly. “Mr. Barnett, I was so distraught to hear what had happened.”
Jacob bows his head and forces a strained smile.
“When we heard about it we all prayed for your survival. Such a dreadful, dreadful story. Can one believe it? Terrible things happen on this earth. One cannot imagine what people are capable of... What an awful time we are living in! We didn’t have much hope, to be frank, from what we were told… And now look at you, Mr. Barnett… you look fantastic! I am so glad you seem well!”
I am wondering if she is still talking about the stroke.
Jacob clears his throat and nods, the agonized smile still plastered on his face. “Thank you, Mrs. Gauthier.” His right hand clings to the back of the seat behind him as if trying to refrain from grabbing his left which is pressed to his chest. Fortunately the lady turns her attention to me at that point. She claps her hands, beaming, and then grabs mine to shake them as well.
“Oh, and I see you are in such beautiful company. Wonderful, just wonderful. I am probably interrupting you two young people, forgive an old lady her silliness.”
Jacob coughs surprised and I step in. “Oh not at all, Mrs. Gauthier. We don’t mind.”
Her smile is genuine, her eyes studying me with surprising fierceness. Her voice has gained a sharp edge. “So… you are taking good care of him now, aren’t you, Miss…”
“Cait is a good friend,” Jacob chimes in. I hastily nod along.
The old lady has apparently finished scrutinizing me from head to toe and I am left wondering if I passed the test or not. She squeezes my hands briefly and finally lets go of them to turn back to Jacob.
“Mr. Barnett, I really want to tell you that I support you in all of your decisions and I am not alone in that.”
“Um… thank you, Mrs. Gauthier,” Jacob says. “I appreciate that.”
“We would love to have you back in our midst, regardless of everything, I hope you know that. Your input and guidance has always been important to us.”
Jacob swallows and nods. “Thank you,” he repeats in a low voice.
The old lady smiles one last time at us before she excuses herself and turns to leave the auditorium again in a glitter of sequins. Jacob sinks down in his seat with a shuddering sigh, burying his face in his hand.
“What was that?” I implore, sitting next to him. “Who is she?”
Jacob rubs his forehead and looks at me. He still looks slightly puzzled. “Mrs. Gauthier is a friend of the opera and the ballet. One of the patrons who spend an enormous amount of money to promote art. She is quite well respected around here, not to say she is the opera.”
“Huh… and what did she want from you?”
Jacob squirms in his seat. “I don’t know… I didn’t expect… I mean, I’m not promoting anything anymore, obviously, so..."
I grin. "She must have taken a liking to you.”
Jacob shrugs with one shoulder.
I grin. "She must have taken a liking to you.”
Jacob shrugs with one shoulder.
“Well… she said she wants you to participate still so…”
“Yeah… sure,” Jacob says, with that edge to his voice that tells me he does not want to continue the topic.
Jacob is brooding by himself the rest of the break and I busy myself with wandering around the auditorium, sneaking a look down the orchestra pit and enjoying the view at the hundreds of empty seats from the front. I settle back in my seat next to Jacob when the auditorium starts to fill again.
Shortly before the second part starts, Jacob reaches over and surprises me by putting his hand over mine in my lap. “This is my favorite part. I hope you like it.” I hear the unspoken apology behind his words. His voice is low and breathy in my ear and I suppress a pleasant shudder.
I turn my palm up and lace my fingers with his in an answer, guiltily brushing away the thoughts about Marcus. This is two friends holding hands during a show, totally normal.
The second part is different from the first, the number of musicians has doubled with a choir joining and the number of dancers on stage has gone up as well. The music is powerful and sad to the bone and the dance is a perfect flow of bodies. It completely blows my mind. When the lights brighten around us and the curtain closes one last time to thundering applause I hastily try to remove any evidence that I have been crying my soul out during most of it. I did not need any explanation this time to get it.
Jacob squeezes my hand briefly before freeing himself from my sweaty grasp and bending down to retrieve his cane. Our neighbors to the right seem to have gotten the message and leave the other way without me having to ask again, which makes it less stressful for Jacob as he slowly inches his way out of the row.
Only when we step outside after having made our way up the stairs and down with the elevator and the cool breeze of the spring night hits my face do I start to take in my surroundings again. Jacob watches me, his face dark against the bright golden building behind him.
“How did you like it?”
“Oh god…” I say, quickly rubbing my cheeks to remove any lingering traces of running mascara. “This was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed. Period.”
I think he smiles his small smile in the shadows. “I take it you liked it then.”
“Oh gosh, yes.” I step forward in an impulse and hug him, taking in the unusual but not unpleasant smell of after-shave as I press my face into his shoulder. “Thank you for taking me,” I whisper. Before I can let go again he manages to shift his weight and wrap his right arm around me, still holding the cane. We keep standing like this for an eternity; I have my eyes closed with the orange glow reflecting from the building filtering through and hear the last spectators exit and walk past us. After some time Jacob shifts and lets go of me to lean on his cane again, breathing heavier than he should.
“Are you up for a short walk along the lake’s shore?”
“Of course,” I whisper and release him.
--> Chapter 12
--> Chapter 12