I wonder how long I have loved her. From the beginning, I think. I remember not being able to take my eyes off her. I had never seen anyone like her. Everything about her was strange and wonderful. There were no women like her in my little village. Now I know there is no other like her in the world. I will never see another like her. I will never see anyone else.
We have been good friends to each other, but the road to friendship was a rough one. I left her once. I couldn’t bear to see her hurt or to be the cause of it, and so I played the coward and went home. I hurt her more by that than by anything I might have done to endanger her. But she waited for me. I have spoken out of turn and made her turn away from me. She has sometimes had to go where I couldn’t follow. She still goes places in her mind where she won’t let me near. But I have always waited for her.
I have wondered what it is about her that draws me. She is strong, but I am stronger than I have ever been. I don’t need her strength as I once did. She is courageous, but I have found my own courage to be as great as hers. I don’t need her courage any more. She goes her own way. I have always been her equal in that. I left home to go my own way. My way was with her.
Our friendship is a dance between us. Sometimes we move together for a common cause or against an enemy. Sometimes we move apart as life separates us for a while, but always we come back together as partners in a circle dance. Side by side we stand. We move in unison. If we separate to weave among the other dancers, we will come full circle to join hands again.
But now we have begun to dance a different dance. We are no longer side by side. More and more we stand and face each other. I move closer; she moves away. She reaches out to me; I step back. Sometimes hands touch, sometimes bodies. The movement of the dance will bring us close, almost too close, then carry us apart again, but my eyes are still on her, and hers on me.
When did this dance begin? Is it new or have I just begun to notice? I see it now in everyday things we do and say. Sometimes words are spoken that can mean one thing or the other. No one asks which meaning was intended. Sometimes things are almost said, and then held back. With this new dance has come a distance.
I feel the change in her. I miss our easy friendship. She seems far away. I ask for reassurance. She denies the distance that I feel. How can I partner her in this dance? Would I move towards her if I were not assured of her retreat? Would she move towards me if she were not assured of mine?
Sometimes this dance feels like a dance of war. An approach feels like a challenge. To be too close feels dangerous. Each step back is a retreat. Sometimes this dance feels like a dance of love. An approach is a promise. To be too close is overwhelming. A step back is an invitation. But in love the distance between the dancers closes. How can the distance close between us? When did I begin to want it to?
If I had married, as my family wanted, I would have spent my life with one man, in one place. I couldn’t stand the thought. But if I could marry her, I would. The rest of my life wouldn’t be long enough. If I could marry her. Why can’t I? Why can’t we spend our lives together? Why can’t we agree before each other and the world that each of us is first with the other, that nothing, no one, will come between us?
If I had married I would have slept in one man’s bed, in one man’s arms, for the rest of my life. I couldn’t stand the thought. But I would give the world to sleep in her arms for just one night. To sleep in her arms. Is that all I want? No, I want more than that from her. I want all that she can give me, her love, her trust, her faithfulness. And as a seal upon that gift, I want the gift of her body as well. And that is the distance in our dance. That is why our coming too close is dangerous. That is why we both retreat. Once we close the distance there is no going back.
When I was much younger and kept company with the village boys, they made a game of it. For them it was a conquest. It meant little more to them than a stolen kiss, forgotten by morning. For us, there will be no forgetting.
How can I partner her in this dance? This is a dance that I don’t know. A maiden goes innocent to her marriage bed, but my innocence puts me at a disadvantage. If I could count on her to court me, I would know the part that was mine to play. I know the coy refusals that draw a suitor closer until he has committed himself. But one refusal and she would be gone.
And of course she will never court me. I know that. And if I court her, what then? She will laugh at me. But how can we remain the way we are? I think she tires of dancing.
We can’t remain the way we are. If we don’t close this distance, the distance will end our friendship. It has become a painful distance, for both of us. I have tried to be her friend again, to stand beside her, to take her hand as I used to do. Nothing is the same. She mistrusts me. She pulls away.
Now I am afraid. It’s already too late. We can’t go back to being friends again. I see how this will end. Unless we come together, we will break apart. Friendship will not hold us. Not even love will hold us, unless we acknowledge it.
I must be the one to do it. She won’t. I know her well enough to know that. I must do what I don’t know how to do and I must do it without any help from her. I must do it in spite of her.
What if my feelings have misled me? What if she doesn’t feel as I do? What if she doesn’t want what I want? What will I do then?
If anything can overcome my fear, it is her face this morning. Her unhappiness shows plainly in her eyes. When I try to joke with her, she just stares back at me. She isn’t listening. She listens to another voice. What that voice tells her I can’t even guess, but I fear it, more than I fear revealing myself.
I already have a plan, but to carry it out will take more courage than facing any enemy. Still, I have to try.
She rose early but she is still tired. She lingers before our breakfast fire. She pays me no attention. I am able to approach her before she realizes I am so close. I lay my hand on her forehead and when she draws back I scold her. You have a fever. Just a slight one. You must be coming down with something. You should have told me. It’s too cold at night now to sleep outdoors. We need to find a room for a few nights at least, until this fever passes.
She protests. I will not take no for an answer. She gives in too quickly. She doesn’t seem to care, one way or the other. I press my advantage. You must be sick, I say, or you would still be arguing with me.
We are in the village I have chosen by mid-afternoon. Tomorrow there will be a festival. She hates festivals. She hates crowds. But I need to surround her, so that she will find it difficult to run. And I need to distract her, so that by the time she realizes what I’m doing, it will be too late.
My first worry is that we won’t be able to find a room, but there are plenty to be had today. I plead poverty to the landlord and finally accept a room with one small bed and a fireplace. It is perfect. The evening is chilly and a fire has already been lit.
When I have mothered her before, she has been good-natured about it. Tonight she submits without complaint. I fuss over her. I feel her forehead. I feed her bread and broth. I help her to undress and get ready for bed. I tuck her in. When I do not join her she looks a silent question at me. I’m going to go downstairs and tell some stories, I say. Go to sleep, now. You need your rest.
If I didn’t know better, I would believe that she is really sick. She does everything I tell her without a word. When I return a few hours later, she is fast asleep. The moonlight falls upon her face. How beautiful she is. I stand and look at her while time stands still.
I undress as quietly as I can and slip into the bed beside her. How many times have we slept this close and I thought nothing of it. Tonight I feel her living body next to me. My body melts against her. My heartbeat deafens me. I am ashamed of my own innocence.
By this time tomorrow, if I do not lose my courage, I will be innocent no more. I have never felt more the coward. I lie beside my love and dream, but the thought of acting on my dreams frightens me to death. In my dreams she is willing. In my dreams, she loves me as I love her. In my dreams, I know what I am doing. What am I going to do tomorrow? I have no idea.
In the morning when I wake, I expect her to be up already. She is an early riser and does not lie abed once she is awake. But when I wake I feel her arms around me. She is not asleep. This is a good sign.
She feels me wake. She moves away from me a bit. Before she can tease me about sleeping late, I tease her for lying so long in bed. You must be getting worse, I say. I turn to her and feel her forehead. Maybe you should stay in bed today. I’m fine, she says, but she doesn’t move.
I get up and dress and go to fetch her breakfast. The streets have begun to fill with carts and children. Vendors are setting up shop for the festival day and the children are too excited to wait. They are everywhere underfoot. Their laughter reminds me of home.
For just a moment, I stop and think, if I had married as my parents wanted, I would have this life every day. I would have festivals and laughing children and always the comfort of home. My cowardice shames me. That was not the life I chose. I chose her. I could have had all this. I didn’t want it. My nerves are playing tricks on me.
When I return to our room, she is up and dressed and looking out the window. What’s all that, she asks. It’s a festival day, I say. She isn’t happy. If you’re feeling well enough, I say, why don’t we go down and see what’s going on? She rolls her eyes, but I know she will come with me. We eat our breakfast in silence. I fuss over her some more. I touch her when I fuss. She is used to it.
When she and I were first together, she didn’t like to be touched. But I have always taken friends by the arm when we walked together, and little by little she has grown accustomed to it. Now if I take her arm when we are in a crowd, she doesn’t flinch or startle as she used to.
The streets are full. I take her hand. Hand in hand we walk through crowded streets. There is so much to look at. I look at everything, but she is all I see. Her hand in mine distracts me. The crowd jostles me and I bump against her. When we stop to watch a juggler or a puppet show, I let the crowd press my body against hers. I want to turn to her and put my arms around her. I want to hide my face against her. I want her arms around me. Just thinking of it takes my breath away and makes me dizzy.
I laid this snare for her, but I have caught myself in it. I wanted to coax her out of hiding, but it is my own heart that stands revealed. What’s the matter? she says. Nothing. You’re white as a ghost, she says. She leads me to a bench and we sit down. I just need some air, I say. I’ll be all right. She is still holding my hand. She looks at me with concern in her eyes. I am ashamed. I am lying to her but I don’t know how to tell her the truth.
She tells me not to move and leaves me here. She returns with a cool drink. I make her share it with me. I hear music. Soon the dancing will begin.
We make our way towards the music. We find a place beside a low wall next to the brick courtyard where the dancers make ready. She places me against the wall and shields me from the crowds with her body. It is a tender gesture and not long ago I would never have noticed it.
She pretends to watch the dancers but I catch her eyes on me. She is worried. I slip my hand in hers and squeeze it. She smiles. She is so beautiful. The sunlight glances off her raven hair. It shines like silk.
The dancers are in costume. Their colors swirl before my eyes. The music fills the air around us. I am thinking of a different dance.
Her fingers touch my face. She startles me. Sorry, she says, and takes her hand away. This is not going well. You’re overheated, she says. Yes. Shall we go back? she says. Yes. She makes a path for us through the crowd. Soon we are in our room again.
She closes the shutters against the afternoon sun. Soft light filters through and a soft breeze. I hear the music and the noise of the crowd. It sounds far away. She bathes my face with cool water. I think you’re the one that’s coming down with something, she says. I’m just tired. Why don’t you take a nap, she says. I think I will too. I am too surprised to answer her. I lie down on the bed and she lies down beside me. She smiles at me. Then her eyes close and she sleeps.
I could not have planned this better. We are alone here. We will not be disturbed. The entire town is making merry. No one knows us here. No one will be looking for us. No one will notice our absence. But my conscience bothers me. I have been dishonest with her about everything. I tricked her into coming here. Even worse, I planned to lead her into something she might not choose herself.
I planned to seduce her, to take her unawares before she could think it over, before her head could betray her heart, before she could reject me for my own good. I planned to do to her what I feared that she would do to me. I feared that she would make a decision for me that was mine to make. I can’t decide this for her now.
I have been dishonest with myself as well. I made myself believe that this is what she wants, if she only knew it. But she either wants it or she doesn’t. She either knows her own mind or she doesn’t. If she needs more time, I must give it to her. If she needs to be alone, I must give her that too. I didn’t know I loved her quite this much.
Her face in sleep is lovely. She is unguarded, as she never is when she is awake. It makes my heart ache to look at her. If she leaves me, how will I ever gather up all the pieces of my heart.
I lie beside my love and watch the light of afternoon fade into evening. I lie beside my love. I will not waste the time in sleep. In her sleep she turns away from me. I turn to her and let my body fall against her. I lay my face against her back. What I have been afraid to do all day, now I could do easily. I could slip my arms around her. I could cover her shoulders with kisses. When she turns to ask me what I’m doing, I could stop her questions with my lips. I could tell her with my body what my heart knows. I could do it easily.
I awake alone. The room is dark. A blanket covers me. She must have put it there. Where is she? I hear music coming from the common room downstairs. I hear the dancers’ feet keep time. Where is she? If I go downstairs will I find her there or is she gone? Where do these thoughts come from? She wouldn’t leave me. Where is she?
I find her downstairs. She has saved some supper for me. The music is too loud for us to talk. I eat my supper and watch her watch the dance. Where have I heard that tune before? It is like a dance we did at home. I turn to watch the dancers. I know this dance. The men stand still and let the women dance around them. They keep time with their feet, but they don’t dance. Each man’s eyes are on his partner. The women’s steps are intricate. I know because I found them hard to learn. But I could still do them now. Each woman dances for her partner. It is a courtship dance. I learned it as a child. I will never dance it now. I have learned so much that I will never need to know, and what I need to know no one can teach me. The music speaks of love. It makes me sad. When will I have my dancing day?
We go outside to get some air. The streets are full of people who have had too much to drink. She puts her arm around my shoulders. She draws me close to her. She stares down any that would come too close to me.
There was a time when I would have been angry with her for being so protective. I would have taken it to mean that she had no faith in me, that she didn’t believe that I could take care of myself. Now I am glad for her protection. Now I want to walk these streets all night, just to keep her arm around me.
But at last we must go in. The music and the dancing will go on till dawn. In our room we can still hear it. Neither one of us is tired. She lights the lamp. Are you going to tell me, she asks.
What? I feel the blood rush to my face. Does she know?
Whatever is the matter with you. Are you sick?
No, I say. She doesn’t know.
Have I done something wrong?
I am speechless. What can she mean? And then I understand. It is a lover’s question. I had forgotten. She too is a dancer in this dance. While I have been distracted by my feelings, she has had feelings of her own. I hold out my hand to her and she takes it. They are playing the wrong music downstairs, but it will do. I begin the steps. I can’t dance, she says. Your part is easy, I say. You stand and watch. I dance for her. The steps are intricate, but I know them all. I dance for her as I learned to dance for the one I choose to marry. I dance my love for her. I dance my desire for her. I dance for her as if my life depended on her answer.
She is watching and she knows the meaning of my dance. If she wishes, she can stop me. She has plenty of time now to think. Whatever happens next will not take her by surprise. I move behind her and touch her lightly on the shoulder. When I see her eyes again I see that I have touched her heart. Her eyes on my body are a lover’s eyes.
The music stops. I stop and stand before her. She doesn’t move. Her eyes are on my face. They tell me everything I need to know. They tell me that the distance between us has hurt her too. They tell me that she wants what I have offered her. They tell me that she doesn’t quite believe me. But at last she moves and I am in her arms.
We both stand still. It is our hearts that dance. I am out of breath, but not from dancing. Her embrace is strong. There is a fierceness in it. She is my warrior. She is my love. She is my choice. And I am hers.
Her fierce embrace turns gentle as her hands caress me. She lifts my face to hers. Her kisses on my face are soft. Her lips find mine. There can be no going back. I will not forget her kiss or her embrace. I will need her like this every day. Nothing will be the same.
She hesitates. Take me to bed. She starts to undress me. Her hands are shaking. I have to help her. I help her to undress. When we lie down together she takes me in her arms and holds me. She is not what I expected. She is shy with me. So I begin. Her body isn’t shy. Her body burns under my hands. She won’t let me take my time. She takes me with her.
But we have just begun to dance. I learn her body as I learn my own. I learn the touches that arouse her, and the touches that prolong her pleasure. I learn how to satisfy her desire. I learn her heart as I learn my own. I learn the comforting she needs after I make love to her. I learn the tenderness in her touch I never would have guessed. I learn the sounds she makes and what they mean. I learn her shyness and how to free her from it. She is not what I expected. She is so much more.
There can be no going back. I will not forget her touch or her desire. I will need her like this every day. Nothing will be the same. This is my dancing day.
© Copyright 1996 Catherine M. Wilson