Conjuring their charms in the Venetian mirrors, young ladies condition themselves for a conspicuous debut.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall
Who will be the Queen of the Ball?”
We are twelve privileged couples, all going steady, if not already engaged, destined for a steep social rise. We are gathered to be trained how to duplicate each other’s movements and put this drill in good use as for the dance, as for the future common life. It is an open secret that the Medical Ball is a curtain-raiser for high society and its aim is to groom us for it.
Our dancing partners step back, effacing themselves behind our glamour. Their task is not to shine but to provide for us as future medical consultants or senior registrars at some eminent clinic before moving on to their private practice.
Sylph-like in their breezy gowns, young ladies lean upon their escorts, exchanging quick glances and temperate remarks. We all know each other frighteningly well and have learned what not to expect from being together. The end is foreseeable at the beginning in our kind of life.
Why doesn’t Mirak start the training? My grip on Leo’s arm tightens as my patience is wearing thin. I squeeze him so fiercely he gasps when Mirak and his wife with Milan and Bessie in tow appear on the dance floor.
I try to stay in control, at least of my eyes, if not of my wily feelings, until I cannot help it anymore and anchor my glance at the object of my perdition. Milan confronts me with cool detachment gazing through me as if I were an aching void. I swallow him in one greedy swig. This is not love. This is craving.
I bend under Milan’s unwavering stare. Does he still remember who I am? Out of sight out of mind. How rude of him! How vile!
I turn to Leo with a seemingly noncommittal remark.
“Look at Bessie! Isn’t she gorgeous?”
“Oh well, that’s a matter of taste,” he retorts quizzically and gives me a reassuring smile.
“Nobody is up to you, Irene!”
Dear boy! He must know I am going through hell and I should be glad to have him, the only one who can take me as I am. That proves he has for me some tender feelings. If love is not a search for ecstasy but a forbearance with each other’s failings, then Leo and I have a future, haven’t we?
Mirak has finished his introduction and the crowd is clapping their hands. Now comes Milan’s and Bessie’s turn to demonstrate a perfect waltz.
A starved cat, gloating rapaciously at the birds of Paradise, I would sell my soul to be Bessie. Milan and Bessie, matched to perfection, are gliding upon the dance floor with stunning self-assurance. Milan’s fair beauty enhances Bessie’s ebony lure, setting off her full mouth, lush as a full-blown rose. Milan’s hair, longer than I remember, is neatly brushed over the nape of his neck. Swept through by longing to tousle it, I bite my lips until they bleed.
Milan and Bessie, a couple meeting the mating call of gods, anticipate each other’s moves; unhurried, sublime, untouched by the greed that propels me into Milan’s embrace. They do not smoulder with lust; they gleam like sunrays through the dew-drops of a radiant June morning.
“Irene! It’s our turn,” Leo touches my elbow.
“Don’t be so miserable, please! It will pass, it always does, I promise!”
I take Leo’s arm and follow him blindly through the twirling of a never-ending waltz.
“Excellent!” Mr. Mirak praises us and I should be eternally grateful to my grandmother for assigning me to Leo.
I somehow hold out until the break when I am led to the refreshments room and offered tepid lemonade. I sip it, choking on souvenirs and its dull sweetness, not spiked by Beda’s gin. Milan and Bessie haven’t joined us. They mind they place and our worlds don’t mix.
“Time to go, Irene, finish your drink.”
I turn my face to Leo craving for another place and another man. Always another place, always the same man who holds me in the palm of his hand. I eat out of it gnawing at my heart. I have no another choice. I am starved!
“Don’t sulk, Irene. Don’t let him see that you mind! Come, we mustn’t be late. Be a sport and take it on the chin!” Leo lifts up my inert hand and hooks it into the crook of his arm.
“Ah, here you are! We can start,” the dancing master comments our lateness irritably and Leo acknowledges our breach of decorum with a haughty bow.
Mr. Mirak calls up Milan and Bessie for a flawless pas-de-deux. Bessie has changed into a clinging low-cut gown fitting her curvaceous body like a glove. Milan’s left arm lies on Bessie’s satiny back; his mouth is set into a god-like half-smile. They give themselves up to the heady rhythm of “Jealousy” and I feel their heat ooze into my legless body; my heart is a burning open wound rubbed raw with salt. They have stopped dancing and share their moment of breathless bliss. We are staring at them in stunned silence. None of us shall ever experience anything like this, we, the pedigree creatures told with whom and when an how to mate. The extraordinary innocence of gratification on their faces turns our disciplined bodies to mash.
At one fell swoop, Milan’s eyes hit mine. As hard as a frozen wishing well they slice me thin, not interested in quick cuts but in lasting bruises. Recoiling from them I get ambushed in Bessie’s pitch-dark glance of amused contempt as she clings victoriously to Milan’s body, all shiny and alluring like a nude slut in a “Playboy” magazine, warning me to keep out off her private grounds. “Trespassers will be prosecuted”.
“Now as you’ve seen the samples of the waltz and the tango we’ll go on with perfecting these captivating dances. The gentlemen will line opposite the ladies as you are used to from the dancing class. This time you’ll be divided into two groups, one instructed by my spouse and me, the other one by Miss Klemperer and Mister Zika.”
Leaving me to the dancing master, destiny had mercy on me. First, we have a thorough demonstration of the steps. Then we receive an individual tuition. The ladies from Mr. Mirak, the gentlemen from his spouse. All good and well for me, at least for this once.
When taking leave, I ask Leo for some more sleeping pills. It seems to be my lucky night. He gets a whole tube out of his pocket.
“No more than two at once. Do you promise?”
I peck his cheek and disappear.