In the District, itself, Susan Wheatly sat at a table in the bar of one of the larger, more luxurious hotels in town. A double Manhattan and a plate of Maryland crab cakes had been placed in front of her, but her attention was riveted to her tablet which was running a video taken that afternoon.
The dance wasn’t working. Two weeks before the premiere at the Artists with Disabilities Festival and her grand debut piece was not coming together. Not even close. Susan knew better than to panic. This would hardly be the first time a piece she was choreographing got stuck. But it was the first time she wouldn’t be able to dance out the problem herself.
The video ended and Susan started it over again, only to pause it and glare at the screen. She wasn’t sure if she heard the man’s voice first or simply felt his presence.
“You’re Susan Wheatly, aren’t you?” he asked.
Susan was about to question the man’s right to ask, but then she looked up. His hair was brown, as were his eyes and there was a small scar on his chin. His tan jacket was just neat enough to be acceptable, but Susan’s eyes didn’t miss the tiny frays at the lapels and the cuffs. And even as she registered the plaid shirt under the jacket, she realized she’d met the man before.
“I’m sorry,” she began.
He held out his hand. “Max Epstein. We met last spring in Los Angeles.”
“Oh. You’re that reporter my sister’s dating or something like that.” Susan gave his hand a brief squeeze.
“Was something like that,” Max sighed and sat down in the chair across the table. “We never really got off the ground and I haven’t talked to her since May? June? Somewhere in there.”
“Kicked you to the curb, did she?”
“No. Just a mutual realization that it wasn’t going to work. We’re still Facebook friends.”
“I didn’t even know she was on Facebook,” said Susan.
“She’s not real active,” Max said. “So I’m guessing you’re in town for the Artists with Disabilities Festival? I’d read you’ve got a dance on the schedule.”
“Not a good time to be asking about that,” Susan grumbled, glaring at the tablet in front of her.
“Ah. The magnum opus isn’t quite coming together yet.”
Susan sighed. “It’s early yet. Today was just the first rehearsal.”
She fiddled with the stem of her cocktail glass, wondering if she should have told Sharon she’d arrived in town.
“These things always seem like they’re going to hell, at first,” Max said gently. “But they come together by the end. At least, that’s what happens when I’ve got a big writing project.”
Susan flipped the tablet face down onto the table. “Yeah. You’re right.”
“And you’ve got crab cakes getting cold.”
Susan grinned and shoved the plate toward him. “Have one. They’re pretty darned good.”
“I know,” said Max reaching over to take one of the crispy brown cakes. “This place is known for the best crab cakes outside of Baltimore.”
“Buy you a drink?” Susan asked.
Max thought about it for a moment. “Sure. Why not?”
“And what brings you to the high rent district?” Susan asked, waving at the waiter.
“An interview. North Dakota’s governor’s in town to beg favors from the president.”
“Does not sound interesting.”
Max shrugged. “It wasn’t. So what brings you to the high rent district?”
“My brother is a rock star and very generous. So I have money and I decided that in this high stress situation, I needed some luxury to de-stress.” Susan took a long sip of her drink. She smiled, suddenly aware of what she wanted. “You want to have sex with me tonight?”
The suggestion clearly startled Max. That was all right. It had startled Susan, who in spite of being decidedly loose of late, was rarely that abrupt. He grinned.
“Sure. Why not?”
Sometime later, after drinks and crab cakes and sex, Max stirred. Susan had pulled herself upright in bed and was again staring at her tablet.
“You okay?” Max asked.
“It’s just not going right,” Susan sighed. “And I don’t know how to fix it.”
Max sat up, himself. “Well, what’s it supposed to be about?”
“About struggle and overcoming and getting back on your feet after a loss,” Susan said.
“Except you can’t get back on your feet,” Max said.
The tablet fell into Susan’s lap and she began breathing heavily. Max wasn’t sure, but thought she might be ready to hit him. Instead, she slowly broke down into sobs. He pulled her into his arms and let her cry. It took a while, but the crying eventually slowed.
“Sorry to do that to you,” Max said.
“You were just trying to help,” Susan said with a sniff. “It’s probably the first time I’ve really cried about losing my legs. I mean, I was at the point where I was going to have to think about retiring from the ballet, anyway. And I knew I wanted to choreograph. I just didn’t think I’d have to do it from a wheelchair.” She blinked back a couple tears, then let them fall. “Everyone thinks I’m being so brave and making the best of a bad situation. But I’m not. I hate the way things are. I want to dance. Really dance. And I can’t. My body won’t let me.”
Susan winced. “No shit. Of course, it’s frustrating. My brother, Michael, says it’s like watching a bird with its wings clipped. That’s why he wrote the music I’m using for the dance. It’s literally called ‘Sparrow Without Wings.’ That’s me. I’m clipped. I can’t do what I was built to do. I feel like I’m a shell of myself. Everyone tells me I should be glad I’m alive. And I guess I am. But who am I? What am I? I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be the good little crip and accept it. I’m supposed to accept that my very soul was ripped out of me and be happy? Horse shit. I’m supposed to be happy with making do? I don’t see how that’s going to happen. I just don’t. I get told that if I just accept what happened, I’ll feel better. What bullshit! There is no feeling better. This is permanent. I can see where maybe the time will come where I’ll get used to this. Or maybe it’ll be tolerable. But better? No. It’s not happening. And, damn it, I’m pissed. I’m really, really pissed. And I am sick and freaking tired of people patting me on the head and telling me to accept my reality.”
“Maybe what you need is an angrier dance,” Max said, softly.
“So I can work through my anger issues?” Susan sneered.
“No. I’m with you. I don’t think this is something you work through. You live with it. You put up with it. But you don’t work through it. And if you’re angry, then maybe that’s what needs to be in your dance.”
“Huh.” Susan picked up her tablet again and re-started the video. “I don’t want it to be just about anger. That would be too depressing. Even for me.”
“Possibly. But it can’t hurt to start there, could it?”
“I think you’ve got a point.” Susan was soon engrossed in her tablet, this time making notes.
“Maybe I should be going,” Max said softly.
Susan looked up, suddenly disappointed. “Oh. Damn. Just when I was getting to like you. Any reason you can’t stay the night? A goldfish to feed or something?”
“Not really.” Max snuggled down into the pillows. “I mean besides not having a toothbrush on me. Or fresh undies.”
“I could call the hotel’s concierge,” Susan offered.
“Nah. I don’t have to work tomorrow, so I can sleep in here and get clean clothes after I get home.”
Susan turned back to her tablet. “Mind if I keep the light on?”
Max chuckled. “Not really. I’m kind of enjoying watching you work.”
Susan rolled her eyes and kept working.