130. Exit Strategy

SOMETIMES IN THIS TOWN you can't step foot outside your door without bumping into someone you know. When I left Polly, I checked into a cheap hotel. However, as conjugal breaks are often periods of confusion, we decided that we should nonetheless attend a ballet performance to which we had held tickets for a number of weeks. While I was waiting for Polly in the foyer of the theatre, I was thinking that when I'd bought the tickets I didn't imagine that we might have separated by the time of the performance. We had gone to the ballet on our first date, years earlier, as I knew Polly loved ballet and had once been a dancer (as for myself, I don’t care much for ballet). Now here we were, separated and once again at the ballet - and I realised we hadn't been to the ballet once since then. Our dates to the ballet, it seemed, were to bookend our relationship. It was while making these very reflections that I recognised a woman as she passed me, a former work colleague with whom, years before I knew Polly, I had been secretly infatuated – as indeed had many other male colleagues. I had once even asked this woman out, which seemed to take her completely by surprise. She ummed and ahhed and said she was busy for the next couple of weeks and I never asked her again, but for months afterwards my desire for her continued to rage within me like a fire burning out of control. She left work in mysterious circumstances but I was so eager to keep my interest in her a secret I never asked anyone precisely what had happened. In the foyer of the theatre she passed me by, hand in hand with her boyfriend. I saw her but I couldn’t tell if she had seen me. She had cut her hair to a bob but she was just as beautiful now as she had been back then. Having only just left Polly, I couldn’t help but notice the way she and her boyfriend held each other’s hands, the way they smiled at each other, the pleasure they appeared to take in each other’s company. When Polly arrived at the theatre, she looked as beautiful as she had ever looked, but she also looked dazed and slightly unsure of herself. We took our seats, very near the seats we had had on our first date. The two seats immediately in front of us were still vacant and I thought to myself, wouldn't it be funny if those two sat there. Sure enough, just before the lights dimmed, I noticed the woman and her boyfriend shuffling along the row in front of ours. I looked away but in the corner of my eye I saw them settle into the seats directly in front of us. Again, our eyes didn’t meet, and I had no way of knowing whether or not she had seen me. Mercifully, the lights dimmed. Being in a rush, Polly and I had not yet had a chance to read the programme. I didn’t know how long the programme would last or indeed if there would be an interval. As the dancers danced, I couldn’t concentrate on the spectacle for more than a few seconds before my mind again went back to that terrible period of suffering, the period of my secret infatuation. Then the dance finished, seemingly just a few minutes after it had begun, and the lights went on. It seemed we would have an interval. The woman and her boyfriend stayed in their seats. I suggested to Polly that we stretch our legs. In the foyer, I found a programme and saw to my dismay that there would be not one but two intervals. I told Polly I needed to go in the toilet and as I sat on the toilet seat I tried to think of a way out. It was clearly not the moment to tell Polly about the woman in front of me and why she still had such a painful effect on me. I decided that I would simply pretend nothing was happening, and that if our eyes should meet I would pretend I couldn’t remember her name. After all, I forgot the names of so many people. I had never confessed my secret infatuation to anyone, so even if she suspected it (based on the fact that I had asked her out) she herself couldn’t suspect just how profound my desire for her had been, given that I had never asked her out again. As, in my long and unfortunate history of secret infatuations, I have of course had crushes on women and subsequently forgotten their names, as I sat on the toilet seat I asked myself, so why not this one? The truth was, of course, that I had not forgotten her name: her name was Inge. But if our eyes were to meet I would simply pretend I couldn't remember her name, thus cutting short a potentially difficult situation. We returned to our seats and the ballet began again. Again, I spent the entire performance lost in painful memories of that time of my secret infatuation. Again, as soon as the lights went on I took Polly by the hand and dragged her out into the foyer, practically falling over the knees of those seated in the same row as us who were still waking from the enchantment of the dance (in a few moments of clarity, I had realised, despite my disinterest in ballet, that I was allowing my attention to be distracted from a truly intoxicating performance, the kind of performance that would be remembered and talked about many years from now). I bought us a glass of champagne each, and as we are both slow drinkers this ensured that we didn’t re-enter the auditorium until just before the performance. While we sipped our champagne, a curious thing happened: a friend of mine - a woman - walked right past me, so close that we almost touched. Moreover, she was looking in my direction, just over my shoulder in fact. I noticed she was with a man, but the man she was with wasn't her husband. I was tempted to call out her name, but I stopped myself as the bell was ringing to hurry us back to our seats with one last gulp of champagne. Thankfully, Inge hadn’t left her seat. The lights dimmed, the third dance began, and I began to formulate my plan for the end of the performance - my exit strategy. I knew we would stand up and shuffle out more or less at once, and that we would inevitably bump into each other, unless I figured out a way to delay my own departure. After the dance had finished, the rapturous applause ended, the lights turned back on, and sure enough everyone stood up at once and began shuffling out of their rows towards the aisles. Polly was one of the first on their feet, waiting for me to stand, with others waiting behind her. So I stood and took a couple of paces in the required direction, then looked around as if I’d left something lying on the ground under my seat and said, Go ahead, I’ll catch up. Excusing myself to the two or three people behind Polly as I sidled around them and backtracked, I reached what had been my seat and, with all the nonchalance I could muster, bent down under it to pick up an imaginary object, which with a shake of my head I appeared not to find, necessitating some more looking around down there. Finally, with another shake of the head, it appeared I lost interest in finding the imaginary object, and I stood up again slowly and turned around, not before politely allowing a couple more people to pass me, and saw (while trying to appear not to be looking) Polly waiting for me at the end of the row, while Inge and her boyfriend were nowhere to be seen. Afterwards, to be sure, I told Polly I once again had to go to the toilet, and I took my time inside, examining my foolish little self in the mirror on the way out. We dawdled off towards the exit, where Inge was standing with her boyfriend and a few others (presumably all friends), and as we passed the happy couple I looked towards Polly, who was looking so tragically beautiful. That night, even though I was still checked into the hotel, I spent the night at home with Polly and our cat, Sizzle, who, according to Polly, had missed me terribly.