A Time to Dance
Niki thought it would be fun to surprise Alex and show up at his apartment. They rarely had a day off together, but this morning Niki arrived at the Astoria School of Ballet Arts, where she taught ballet, and found out the air-conditioning unit had fried an electrical outlet. So her Monday classes were canceled, and she decided a hot weekday in mid-June would be an ideal time to head for Rockaway Beach with her boyfriend. Most of the kids were still in school, so Niki and Alex could enjoy the first heat wave of the season without too many radios blaring and too many oiled bodies swarming the sand like overgrown ants.
Surely Alex would be thrilled to spend such a beautiful day with her. It was spontaneous. It was free-spirited. It was all the things Niki Katona never really allowed herself to be.
She didn’t even bother waiting for the bus. After changing into her swimsuit and a weightless yellow tank dress, Niki trekked across her Queens neighborhood in a pair of comfort slides. She could feel the heat of the sidewalk through her light shoes, but it only incited her to walk faster as she looked forward to treading on the hot sand in her bare feet. Men of varied ethnic stripes sat at the open cafés along Thirtieth Avenue and gawked as she hurried by—a long-limbed dancer in skimpy summer garb—but she paid them little mind. Growing up in New York’s immigrant borough had taught her more than tolerance for many cultures. She’d learned at an early age that men had one very fundamental trait in common, no matter where they came from or whom they prayed to.
For Niki, only one man’s opinion mattered at the moment.
Her skin was moist with anticipation. She guessed Alex would still be asleep when she reached his apartment. He was a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and was usually exhausted after their weekend performances. Niki remembered her days with the ballet company and how physically sapped she felt the day after a show.
It was the first time in a long time she was dating a dancer. At the age of thirty-four, Niki had experienced her share of heartache inflicted by a string of self-absorbed partners. Some of the male dancers were gay or bisexual, and those who weren’t often flitted from one female dancer to another. Simply because the physicality of their art led them there. And simply because they could. The ratio was that disproportionate.
Everything Niki learned about the artistic ego and the vanity of the creative spirit, she learned the hard way. That was why she had vowed never to date a dancer or anyone associated with the performing arts ever again.
But two years ago she met Alex. He was different from the start. He arrived in New York with the Moscow Ballet and decided he wanted to stay. Niki was still with the American Ballet Theatre at the time, and she was drawn to him on a deeper level. Her own parents defected while in New York with the Hungarian National Ballet Company—her mother was a corps dancer with the ballet and her father played the oboe—and Niki felt a connection to Alex that went beyond looks and talent. He was an artist who wanted to live the American dream, and she could relate to that. So she helped him with his English and to get an apartment. She found an immigration lawyer for him and even paid the legal fees for an extended work visa. Little by little, their friendship morphed into romance. And Niki allowed it to happen because she knew trust and loyalty had been planted at the footings of their relationship. Alex was attracted to her, indebted to her, devoted to her. Because of her family history, they had much more in common than their passion for dancing.
Niki passed under the noisy elevated train and turned off the avenue. The apartment house where Alex lived was right behind Denkert’s Bakery, and the aroma reached Niki as she turned the corner. What could possibly be better than surprising Alex with an invitation to the beach? Padding the invitation with coffee and fresh croissants.
Niki retraced her steps to the bakery and went inside. “Good morning,” she called to the old couple behind the busy counter.
The German owners knew her since she was a young girl, and they returned the greeting as if she were a longtime friend. This was one of the things Niki loved about growing up in Astoria. Situated across the East River from Manhattan, it could have been a city in its own right, with two separate subway lines, a booming retail economy, and a highly diverse population. Yet Astoria was still a conglomerate of working class neighborhoods with a few old-fashioned perks. People might still shovel snow for an elderly woman next door, and a few places like Denkert’s Bakery were still around, thank God. It was the kind of mom-and-pop establishment where children under ten years old got free cookies.
“We haven’t seen you in a long time,” Mrs. Denkert said to Niki, while boxing a pound of rugelach for a customer.
“I don’t take the train anymore,” Niki replied. She used to stop in every morning for her buttered roll before getting on the el into the city. “I’m teaching full-time right here in Astoria.”
Mrs. Denkert finished her transaction and thanked her customer politely before continuing her conversation with Niki. “You’re not with the ballet anymore?”
“I haven’t been for a while. I broke my foot two years ago.”
Even Mr. Denkert gasped.
Niki just shrugged it off with a smile. “I think it was meant to be,” she said. “I’m really happy teaching.” She would never admit it out loud, but she was relieved to be away from the drama and the angst of performing. In a way, breaking her foot had been a blessing in disguise because it forced her to think about the rest of her life.
The Denkerts took care of two more customers and gave Niki their full attention when it was her turn. She asked about their five grandchildren, whose pictures graced the side of the cash register.
“Maybe they’ll take over for us someday,” Mrs. Denkert said. She used to say the same thing about their two daughters.
Niki dug in her small purse for cash. “You’re not old enough to retire,” she said, garnering a laugh from the old pair.
The Denkerts didn’t ask about Niki’s brother. People who knew Kris Katona in his troubled teens knew him as a juvenile delinquent, and they generally didn’t taint the conversation with questions about him. Even if they had asked, Niki wouldn’t have an answer. Her brother had fallen off the face of the earth two years ago, after she had exhausted every effort to help him kick the drugs and straighten out his life. She hadn’t seen or heard from him since.
Mrs. Denkert handed Niki the paper bag with the coffee and croissants. “I put in a Linzer torte for you. I remember how you used to like them.”
Niki looked in the bag and inhaled. “Mmmm. Thank you.”
The Denkerts were the salt of the earth. “It was nice to see you,” they told her.
“You, too,” she said, and left the bakery with a bounce in her step. Redirecting her thoughts to the glorious day ahead, Niki turned the corner once again. Approaching the front door of Alex’s apartment building, she rested the bag of goodies on the step and fished once again in her purse.
She had her own keys. She would let herself in.
Alex would be sprawled out on his bed. He liked to sleep naked, being a person who worshipped the human body. Maybe he wouldn’t hear her come in, since he probably had the bedroom door closed and the small air conditioner whirring white noise from the window.
Niki opened the heavy front door and picked up the bag of treats. The vestibule was a wall of mailboxes and worn steps leading to an inside door. After a year of dating Alex, she felt as if this building was her second home. Neighbors already said hello to her. She had even begun to suspect he would soon ask her to move in with him. Maybe even marry him. For Alex, it would be the practical thing to do on his way to American citizenship. For Niki, it was the first time she imagined sharing her life with someone. It was all she ever wanted.
Alex had even started looking for a two-bedroom condo in one of those modern high-rise apartment buildings a few blocks away.
Three flights of stairs brought Niki to his apartment door. She unlocked it and tiptoed in, smiling to herself. Everything was just as she expected—the bedroom door was closed and the hum of the air conditioner could be heard like a purr from within. With the stealth of a cat, Niki crossed the floor without a single creak and turned the last doorknob. It didn’t make a sound. She cracked the door and peeked in.
The sound of her world collapsing was just as silent.
Alex was indeed sprawled naked on his bed, but so was the woman with him. They were both fast asleep with their limbs entwined and their mouths open as though their rapture had overwhelmed them and took their last breath away. The daylight was muted because the shade was drawn, but their flesh gleamed in the center of the room like doomed figures turned to stone. The sight was simultaneously revolting and fascinating.
Niki’s vision blurred. She refrained from blinking for a long moment, hoping the hot tears wouldn’t fall down her face. She didn’t want to give Alex—or anyone—that kind of power over her. Her parents died tragically when she was a teenager, and she didn’t cry too easily. But the tears were too heavy, and they spilled over.
Of course, the woman was a dancer. Niki recognized her. She was his latest partner. This was some inevitable resolution to their passionate pas de deux onstage. At least that’s what Alex was going to try to tell her. She had heard it all before.
It would have hurt less if she’d found Alex with a man. Niki could have accepted it if he was struggling with latent homosexuality and was seeking to resolve the conflict. She already experienced losing a boyfriend to such a coming-out. At least they could have remained friends.
But Alex had deceived her. He had used her and betrayed her.
She felt like such a fool. There was no trust, no loyalty. There was never any thought of commitment or marriage. There was only a willing American woman who could help Alex settle into the good life. There was only one female dancer in the whole company who would give and give without the promise of receiving, because that’s what Niki did all her life. Alex probably had her pegged the first week he arrived.
She should have known better.
Niki closed the door as quietly as she had opened it. Alex never would have known she was there if she hadn’t left her keys to his place and the bag of croissants on his kitchen table. She even forgot to take the Linzer torte Mrs. Denkert had given her.