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THE FORMER DANCER’S HUSBAND by Cathy Ulrich

This man who’s in love with you, he’s married. You play in the symphony orchestra together. He’s a second violin. You play the oboe. What he likes best about you, he says, is the purse of your lips when you play. He is sharp elbows, good posture, freckling of gray hair at his temples. His hands are very soft with you.

His wife used to be a dancer when they met. She doesn’t dance anymore.

You know how it is, says the married man. How there were things you used to do and now you don’t, you know how it is.

I love you, he said once, tipping your head up, kissing you on the chin. Looked at your face. I love you.

Thank you, you said.

You saw the brief flicker of his face. You can’t remember the last time you wanted something.

He spoke to you the first time after a concert, said something clever about Chopin. You thought it was charming, how his flirtations all involved dead composers, how his fingers trembled when your hands brushed.

You meet the married man for furtive dinners at an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of town. You always order the lasagna, pick at your salad, let him select the wine. You sit across from him, generic strings playing on the speakers overhead, reapply your lipstick after you’ve shared breadsticks, liking the way he watches the color spread across your mouth.

Did I smear any?

He says: I can’t tell.

He says: Let me get closer. Leans across the table, wipes at your lower lip with his fluttering thumb.

There? you say.

There, he says.

This is what he tells his wife that nights he meets you: rehearsal ran late. You don’t know if she believes him, don’t care if she does. You would like to have known her when she still danced, would like to have watched her onstage, legs shuddering with effort, beautiful. You wonder what he loved about her then, cleft of her knee, pigeon-toed walk, tendril of hair escaping a ballerina’s bun.

Do you love playing the violin? you ask him.

He tilts his head. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t.

You nod, dab at the corner of your mouth with your napkin.

You love the oboe, of course, he says.

Of course, you say, flick your eyes to one side.

You always get to the restaurant early. There is something romantic about the waiting, you think, in a restaurant you don’t like, for the man who loves you. The hostess is always the same hostess. She knows your face, knows your table. Doesn’t offer you a menu anymore, doesn’t make small talk. You like that about her, and the way, once, you found her in one of the bathroom stalls, tissue wadded in her hands, balanced on the lip of the toilet, crying.

Sorry, she said, sorry, I’m sorry, so sorry.

You didn’t think her apology was for you, pulled the stall door closed on her. Left before it came open again, relieved yourself in the men’s room, one finger tracing graffiti on the wall, for a good time, call, wondered if it was the hostess’s number.

When you met the married man again the next week, neither you nor the hostess mentioned it. She didn’t even blink, just took you back to your regular table, poured two glasses of water.

Have a good dinner, she said like she always did.

You never finish your lasagna, let the waiter take it away with the remains of your salad. They used to box it up, but you left the box behind, again and again. The waiter smiles blandly when you order your lasagna and side salad. The married man is always trying new things, always offering to split dessert.

What’s the special? he asks, selects a wine that pairs well. You leave traces of your lipstick on the rim of your glass, rub at it with the broad part of your thumb until your skin is stained too.

When dinner is over, you let the married man walk you to your car, let him put his arm round your waist.

You say: Dance with me.

Above you, the moon is half hidden by clouds, and you think how much larger it is, really, than it seems, and how hard it is to believe that anyone has ever touched it.

You say again: Dance with me, and the man who loves you pulls you close to him, desperately, you think, the way your oboe teacher used to kiss you, sways you back and forth to the sound of music playing from your car radio.

The lights go off in the Italian restaurant; you have the parking lot to yourselves.

You’re a terrible dancer, you say, keep your voice kind. How can your wife stand it?

The married man stiffens, tries to smile.

I guess, he says, she can’t.

The hostess comes out the side door, a bag of garbage in her hand. You smile to her, tiny cat-smile, and let the married man tilt your head up, run his mouth along your throat. You stare up at the moon until you hear the latching of the restaurant door.

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