Ana stretches her legs on the bamboo lounger, listening to cold drops of water and sharp splashes reverb off the tiles, as people enter the plunge pool. She lies in a liminal state, between hot and cold, a boisterous gush of blood pulsing like icy fire along her legs into her toes, which ache from pointe work. Nightly, after curtain call, she ascends the staircase to the last sauna session of the day, with rising anticipation. The orchestra of sensation in her body fills the void—she misses being held.
She is lifted and embraced daily by her male dance partners for pas de deux but none of them could hold Ana the way he did.
This season she is dancing the role of Ondine. As the curtains open, she emerges from a backdrop of sea, dancing with her shadow, which the water-nymph has never seen before. She rests her head on her dance partner’s chest; Ondine is astonished that the sailor, Palemon, has a heartbeat as she does not. Like all great ballets, the heroine is betrayed. She falls off the chipboard ship in a storm, and Palemon assumes her dead, taking off with another woman. In Ana’s romance too, her lover left her shipwrecked, heart shucked open like an oyster. Doesn’t every love story end with someone jumping ship, one way or another, she should have walked the plank from the start. For the final scene Ana kneels by her dance partner’s limp body. Ondine’s heartbroken kiss kills the mortal man.
“Your fingertips are electric,” he said to her. She thought it odd as high voltage touch didn’t sound like a pleasant thing. But he said it was wonderful, ecstatic. The same way, when he slipped his finger inside her, she felt a warm hum of pleasure, like a hot pool tide, lapping over her body.
In absence of his touch, the sauna holds her, wrapped in warm vapours. Embraced by heat, and then blissful tingling from immersing herself in the wintry water, she lies back, watching the ceiling gently blur as her whole body vibrantly throbs.
Focusing on the drops of water in the pool, she remembers the sound of him drinking from a mason jar, water sliding down his throat with small gulps, his eyes shining brightly like blue glass. Her thoughts cannot help but return to the session at the studio where she lay on the hard upholstered bed of the apparatus, her toes pressing firmly into the barre, the echo of the springs as she pushed the carriage away like a discombobulated jellyfish, gliding through depths. His gaze was everywhere, and she could feel it. She felt held without touch. He asked her to breathe through the movements.
“This one is the ‘breath of fire’”, he told her. They practised together, rapidly drawing and releasing breath, continuously, as they rhythmically made love, their bodies billowing with desire. She curled her fingers through his caramel hair, while the morning light shone down on them, watching through slumberous eyes as he rose from the snowy sheets to the shower, naked, wakeful, sleek. She waited for him to come back to bed and kiss her, the wet tresses of his hair touching her cheek like cold silk.
Ana stares at the ivory marble pillars, which wave as if they are dancing. Sensations don’t last. We lose them; we come to them. There is a thin line between joy and pain, between warmth and chill, the sublimation of one for the other. A dolphin can hold its breath underwater for ten minutes. After that, it needs to break the liminal space between the water and the sky, to come up for air, out of the depths of dreams. From one feeling, to another, one realm to the next.
Her eyes refocus as a willowy man with a pale, fusiform torso climbs down the steel ladder into the pool, the palm fronds on the poolside obscure him as she thinks back to the warm summer day they swam across the bay.
“Do you think we can reach the island?” He smiled.
She returned the smile as an answer. They lay on the hot sand, his hands under her bikini, awash with lust. He swam them back to shore, her hands upon his shoulders, their bodies bracketed together, his back like warm milk. They both grew up by the ocean, missing its rolling cadence. At night they slept to the waves’ pink noise, rippling with tenderness.
When things ended, sleep which usually came easily to her did not. She wasn’t sure whether it was a dream or a waking vision with her eyes closed, yet all she could see in the dark was a hand outreached, disappearing slowly, into unfathomable bottle-green depths. Water and kelp closing in on everything.
It ended because she had served her purpose, a mysterious creature of the depths who had fallen short of his ideal, just as Ondine had become mortal under duress, her aura had flaked away, like makeup at the end of a performance, like a descaled fish, thrown back into the ocean.
“I idolised you before I knew you.” He said, the words caromed around her mind for days, a buoy resurfacing in the waves.
The late-night sauna has become a refuge from this interminable aftermath. A place where she is distracted, at least a short while from the strange feeling of heartbreak, which left her like a gasping fish, drowning in air. The ritual of steam-to-plunge tires her body and mind, slows her breathing, and all she has to do is to get from the sauna to her downtown apartment, bundled and drowsy. She might make a cup of tea, listen to the boiling water sing and whistle on the stove, then fall into bed, late, in the exposed brick darkness, exhausted, waiting for dolphins, messengers from the blue, to rescue her and lead her to dreams.
Her eyes close as she leaps from the stage lights into the dark whale’s belly of the curtains, and disappears.