My fingers close tighter around the handle of the cane as a hurricane of applause rises around me. Cait’s hand lifts to cup mine, squeezing lightly.
“You’ve got this,” she says into my ear, her eyes shining in the half darkness.
I nod curtly. Yes, I’ve got this.
“Smile,” she says, holding my hand tight before she lets go of me.
Smile. I give her my best grimace in answer and rise from my first row seat pushing off the cane, my hand suddenly sweaty and the tie around my throat about to throttle me. I try not to concentrate on the impossible number of people clapping behind me as I make my way to the right front of the stage, try not to sneak a look in the auditorium where people are standing up from their seats now, raising their hands, the applause growing stronger instead of fainter as I tackle the six steps leading up onto the stage. It seems impossible that there has been a time when I enjoyed the attention, enjoyed being the center of it and now it just makes panic press onto my lungs and my heart beat frantically as if trying to escape through my chest. I can feel the hundreds of pairs of eyes on me, on my bent left arm and my weak left leg, the foot bumping into each step, and I grit my teeth because I should not feel ashamed, I should feel proud and I should be brave because the dancers have been so much braver than I have ever been.
Smile. My face feels like right after the stroke, only now both sides are paralyzed.
Audrey will take the ramp that has been installed leading up to the stage on the left and we are going to meet in the middle of the stage as planned, in front of the ballet dancers standing in a line behind us.
Miraculously I manage the steps well, slowly but steady, no noticeable struggling, and I do not stumble as I cross the stage, my eyes on the stretch of floor in front of me, watching the dancers float by to my right out of the corner of my eye, some of them clapping now as well. They have lined up alternating, about two dancers standing left and right of one in a wheelchair and sometimes I catch the glimmer of crutches.
Audrey greets me with a wide beam, winking at me as I approach her. We have met in physiotherapy still at hospital and got along well from the start. She has a bubbly and sparkling personality that managed to pull me out of my miserable shell when no one else could. She is also a professionally trained dancer which let us to spend countless of otherwise boring hours sitting in the hospital’s various waiting rooms talking about our shared passion. Since the accident she is a C7-quadriplegic. We stayed in loose contact even after our ways had parted but I never knew she had started working at her old working place again, the theater in the capital, before she called one day, a few weeks after we had moved to the city, and asked me if I wanted to join her on a new dance project. “We could use your taste,” she had said, good-naturedly. “I mean, we might not always agree with each other but I respect your opinion, Jacob. You have some experience in doing this. And… well… I will give you all the details later but… you are one of the few people I know who might get it. We need you.” We had talked for two hours and in the end I had carefully agreed to become part of the management of the first inclusive ballet group, provided my own requirements regarding working hours and workload could be met.
I turn to face the crowd, my eyes roaming over the faces, trying to find someplace to hold on to. There had been endless discussions about this night. I did not want to go on stage, I do not think I should be on this stage, but Audrey had insisted. There was no way the managers could not be up there on opening night, together with all the other people involved, from director to head costumer, she had said. I had only given in when in return I would not have to give a speech at the gala afterwards.
There are flowers pressed against my right hand and my attention snaps to them. I scowl a little because no one seemed to have thought about the cane business, but Audrey next to me gestures with her head to dump them to her bouquet in her lap. She places her limp hand on mine on the cane and the guy that has appeared on my left, the conductor I remember, looks at me a little wary before he plucks up the courage to grab my left elbow. Then we all bow to the seemingly never-ending applause.
My eyes finally find Cait in the first row to the left and lock onto her. She is stunning in her dark green dress with the wide skirt that goes a little over her knees, and the small diamond on her chest reflects the light in a wondrous way. I feel the corners of my lips tuck up as I bent my head in the resemblance of a bow a second time, and I smile weakly after the third. I watch the people in the auditorium in a more collected way, and I feel something very light expanding in my chest. We all achieved this. We all deserve this. I look down at Audrey to my right, she mouths something I cannot understand over the noise and I shake my head and laugh and look back at Cait. She has stopped waving or clapping, is just watching me, and over the distance I can see the love in her eyes and know that this is all the praise I need.
After the curtain has fallen and the noise from the auditorium is cut off, there is a lot of hand-shaking following on the still lit and crowded stage, people falling into each other’s arms and clapping each other’s backs. Everyone is all smiles and suddenly released tension, the dancers are stripping off their shoes and are high-fiving, yelling their joy into the air, some are crying. Audrey and I receive lots of compliments and good wishes, and we thank in turn every single dancer whom we all got to know during auditions and accompanied the entire way from the first rehearsal to the opening night today. This would not be a project that could be carried out from a desk, Audrey had warned me, because there has not been a project like that in the capital ever before.
The opening night gala is a buzzing event under golden chandeliers, with even more people, extensive handshaking, speeches and greetings, and copious amounts of golden sparkling champagne floating past on enormous trays carried by the waiters, and soon I start to feel overwhelmed from the sounds and lights and tired from the exhaustion of jumping conversations every other minute.
“I think I need some fresh air,” Cait says, tugging at the sleeve of my suit and I gratefully take the excuse to extricate myself from a very persistent reporter of some regional newspaper the name of which I have already forgotten and follow her outside on the empty terrace.
“Better?” she asks, leaning against the stone balustrade, the park in her back below us dark and silent.
“Much better,” I sigh and carefully lean in to kiss her, her lips sweet and soft below mine.
Cait frames my face with her hands. “I’m so damn proud of you, Jacob” she whispers.
I let out a long breath. “This is as much you as it is me. Thank you, Cait.”
Cait says nothing and embraces me, her hair tickling my chin.
“If I could I would stay out here with you forever,” I whisper into it.
“I’m sure people will be disappointed,” she mumbles and pulls back a little, her hands following the taught lines of my shoulders, her fingers kneading the muscles. “You are a very wanted man.” She grins.
I groan and shift more weight on the cane, wish she would go on forever, dig out all the aching of my body. “Let them be. I don’t care a thing.”
Cait stands on tiptoes. “Hm…” she purrs in my ear. “I could live with that.” Her hands have reached my ass, caressing the curves in a way that makes my pants feel suddenly very tight. I start sweating in my suit although the air is cool and make a stumbling step forward, pressing our bodies together against the balustrade, my right hand with the cane braced on the rough stones, my left hooking behind her neck to feebly pull her in for another deep kiss.
At that moment the door flies open and a drunken and giggling couple spills out of it and joins us on the terrace. They laugh and shriek and try to kiss and grope at each other before they realize that they are not alone.
“Oops…” one of them hiccoughs. “Ssssplace is already… taken.” I recognize him as one of the background dancers. He lost his left leg below the knee in a skiing accident but the prosthetic is barely noticeable now that he is wearing dress slacks instead of his ballet suit.
“Come, we won’t disrupt,” the other says, a guy I have never seen but who moves like he is a dancer too, and pulls his companion out through the door again.
“Huh…” Cait smiles at me. “Maybe not the best time and place.”
I pout but I agree. “Tonight? After everything?”
We stay on the balcony for a while, wrapped around each other, breathing the cool late summer air and listening to the muffled sounds coming from the party inside. After some time I let myself be reluctantly complimented back inside by Cait, right arm over her shoulder while she carries the cane.
“Smile,” she whispers into my ear before pushing open the door, winking at me. “You’ve grown quite good at that.”
“Shut up,” I mumble and steel myself for the onslaught.
We have barely entered the corridor when a group of people swarms around us, talking fast and loud. I recognize Cait’s co-worker from Recom, she is wearing a turquoise long dress and a matching ridiculous large hat. She hugs us both, grinning madly and tells me she has never been to the theater, but that this has been the best thing she has ever seen. A few people from TalcTech are here as well, they pat my shoulder, shout what a great job I have done and shake Cait’s hand politely. Vito kisses Cait on the cheeks and pulls me in an embrace that nearly knocks me over, he is aware enough however to steady me afterward until I have regained my balance.
Cait has told me about Vito’s role in their joint search for me after I had disappeared, the fact that he had alarmed her and that he had not wanted to give up on finding me, and I feel forever grateful towards him.
“Awesome, man!” Vito cheers. “I guess the ballet stuff here is better than repairing computers, eh?”
I grab Vito’s shoulder swiftly, both in a friendly pat and to brace myself in the surging crowd; Cait has been swapped away and she and my cane are nowhere to be seen. “It's fun. I miss solving problems simply by turning things off and on again, though” I joke, grinning now.
“I’m glad for you,” Vito answers.
Then the crowd parts and I barely believe my eyes as Mrs. Gauthier comes gliding towards me, her dress complete with a long train and behind her I briefly catch the form of someone I would never have expected to see ever again.
“Mr. Barnett! What a lovely, lovely show. I am so proud of you. Well done, well done indeed!”
Fortunately Cait reappears at that moment on my side from somewhere and I sling my arm around her waist after Mrs. Gauthier has released my right hand, trying to ground myself because the floor is suddenly heaving under my feet.
“Thank--- Thank you, Mrs. Gauthier,” I say, my voice hollow and my eyes fixed to that point behind the old lady where I had glimpsed her.
Mrs. Gauthier smiles and nods and pats Cait’s cheek before disappearing in the direction of the exit.
I am swaying, my fingers clenched into Cait’s shoulder, her large, worried eyes looking up at me.
That has been her.
I would recognize her voice everywhere.
“That was… a great opening night. Congratulations.” She is still beautiful although as close as she is standing now, much closer than at the court, she looks also older; her auburn hair floating past her shoulders shows a few early white streaks in it.
“What do you want?”
I flinch because that voice, cold like steel, has been Cait’s. I feel a sudden rush of sympathy toward my fierce girlfriend.
“It’s okay,” I assure, although the air feels alarmingly like all oxygen has been sucked out of it. I squeeze Cait’s tense shoulder before I let go, to stand upright on my own, acutely aware of my left arm pressed against my chest, and face the woman I have been married to once, the mother of my child that should never be born.
“I thought…” Maren’s eyes flicker from Cait to me and her breath hitches as if she is about to cry. “I thought we should talk without lawyers. Sometime.”
“Yes…” I say, my voice the opposite of my inner tumult. “We should. Sometime.”
“Okay,” Maren says. She looks at the cane in Cait’s hand and back at me, her purse pressed with trembling fingers to her chest like a shield. “Okay,” she repeats. “I… I need to go now.”
I nod, my eyes fixed on her. “Good.”
She turns to go and I feel Cait’s arm in my back, holding me because the tremor inside of me has worked its way to the surface and I am about to shake apart, when Maren stops and comes back again.
“I am sorry, Jacob,” she whispers, her eyes full of held back tears.
I wrap my arm around Cait’s shoulders, holding her slim body close to mine, inhaling the scent of her hair until I am dizzy. “I know.”
“Can you… can you forgive me?” Maren asks, her voice pleading.
I stare into Cait’s face, her lips are pressed onto each other and her eyes are full of liquid fire. “I forgive you,” I hear myself say.
Maren is gone when I look up again and collapse into Cait’s arms. Somehow she alarms Vito without anyone noticing and the two manage to hold me up long enough to get us outside. Cait is sitting next to me on the top of the great stairs, squeezing my hand so hard it hurts, telling me “I love you, I love you, I love you,” all over again until I start breathing to the rhythm.
My cheeks are wet with tears as I come to with my head in Cait’s lap, and she is stroking my hair in soothing motions.
“Jacob,” she whispers. “It’s over.”
I push myself up with her help and look into her pale face, marveling at the perfection of her features. “It’s over,” I repeat hoarsely and lean my sweaty and cold forehead against hers.
And it is. I have hoped, fooled myself into thinking it would be over after the divorce but it has not truly been over at all. Not until now. The moment I have forgiven Maren for leaving me, for not being able to rescue our child, for being part of a disaster that has changed both of our lives forever, I have realized that I needed to forgive myself.
I pull Cait closer to me and she buries her head in my chest, my trembling fingers stroking the side of her face. I am convinced it will not be easy, not in the next months, the next years, maybe never. But I will not have to do this alone. I kiss her forehead.
“It’s over. And it has just begun.”