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The Visible Woman

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I keep forgetting that people can actually see me. The thing is, until recently, I was invisible. I know, it's hard to believe. But I wasn't the only one. I was married to an invisible man. And then one day he disappeared.

We'd been married twenty years at the time so it was a bit of a shock. That is, you know, once I realized he was gone. I thought about searching for him, but I couldn't remember what he looked like.

This terrified me. Because up to that moment I firmly believed that David was the only one in the world who could really see me. Without him, I thought, I will simply cease to be.

It had started that night, in the hotel by the lake. I woke up and I knew he didn't love me. I knew it for a fact. My bones knew it. My blood knew it. His flesh was so cold. I wrapped his arm around my shoulder. it fell limp to the mattress. He pretended to be asleep. My stomach hurt. I pulled the thin sheet up to my chin and stared at the ceiling.

The next day I begged him, tell me what's wrong? "Nothing" he said. "I'm tired." I was so good that day. We didn't bicker. I didn't complain about being bored, or that the lake was too cold, or that the food at the hotel was bland. I didn't ask to go into town. On the ride home that night I put his radio station on, and I really enjoyed the music. We stopped at a diner and I didn't say there's nothing I can eat here, lets find somewhere else. I ate an egg on toast. I practiced grace.

David stopped touching me six months before he actually left. He'd come into a room and walk around me. In bed, on those few nights when he actually slept at home, he turned his back to me, laying so close to the edge of the mattress that it was a miracle he didn't tumble out the second he fell asleep. After twenty years I was embarrassed to sleep naked. I would turn out the lights and wriggle out of my clothes real fast, but I'd have to ease into bed slowly, because any sudden movement would have sent him crashing to the floor.

He left for good a few days before Valentine's day.

For a while after that, I hated every woman I saw. Because suddenly they'd all become potential dates for David. It spooked me. Because I knew that one day I'd walk into a restaurant and he'd be sitting there, laughing, with some beautiful big breasted twenty-year-old and I'd march over and stab them both with a fork.

So I decided to go into therapy. I knew my therapist had to be a woman. In my vulnerable state, transference was the last thing I wanted to deal with.

I selected a somber woman with straight grey hair and good posture. Janet was her name. I told her about my fear. How I imagined my children living on Long Island with their grandparents while I'm in jail for stabbing their father to death with a silver plated dinner fork.

Janet smiled and nodded, but her dark eyes were sad. "Lisa," she said, "it's the way of the world. There are a whole lot of pretty women out there, ready to laugh at a single man's jokes, and so few men. Men remarry. Women don't."

I blinked back the tears, thinking how lucky she was that I don't have my fork with me right then.

She told me I better come twice a week. She was worried about me. For a while I did.

And then, one night in mid-March, the phone rang during dinner. It was a telemarketer. She asked for David by name.

I barked my standard: "How dare you call during dinner to try to sell me something. Shame on you." But it still stung, so I added, "Besides, the son of a bitch doesn't live here anymore."

There was a pause. "Who needs him?" she asked. "Am I right?"

And you know what, it turned out she wasn't selling anything at all. She was giving something away, absolutely free.

A dance lesson?

How odd. Two days earlier my daughter Annie and I were walking up Broadway and at 77th Street I had noticed an orange banner hanging from a second story window. A breeze fluttered it, and, for an instant, I saw a couple silhouetted in black, waltzing. Before I die, I thought, I want to learn to dance.

"Is there an orange banner in front?" I asked. "Yes," she said.

But it was when she told me I could schedule my complementary lesson anytime up to April 15th that clinched it.

April first, I said. It was the perfect cosmic hedge. So if things went horribly wrong I could always grin and say, hey, just kidding. This was an important consideration, given that I have two left feet, no sense of rhythm, and view right and left as metaphysical concepts.

But the truth is, I was afraid. I never thought I could learn to dance, and so I never tried. I saw myself as graceless. But as long as I sat quietly on the sidelines, no one else had to know. It was my secret. I had a lot of secrets to keep me company. I didn't see them as successes I'd never have, but as failures I was saving myself from. Besides, I had a husband. Children. Bedrock.

But rock crumbles. Husbands stray. Children grow up. And after a while I wasn't on the sidelines anymore. I was alone, in the middle of a big empty field, surrounded by the fear of all the things I couldn't do. Not any more, I decided.

Even so, I almost didn't make it to that first lesson. As I walked out of the subway I thought, in five minutes a strange man is going to touch me. It was a jolt. I stopped in the middle of the street and nearly turned around. But after a lifetime of trying to figure out what someone else wanted of me, for once I had only myself to please. So what if a stranger got sore toes. Isn't that what he's paid for?

I learned that night why men go to prostitutes. Not the ones who cruise for a random pop, but men who are regulars. The kind who only go to restaurants where all the waitresses know their name, even if it is an alias.

There was something incredibly comforting about touching someone as a matter of right, with the familiarity of two people who know exactly what their relationship is.

At least, in the beginning it was. In the beginning his hand on my back was enough. His palm cupping my shoulder blade, his fingers closed around mine. A few square inches of body contact. It was bliss.

David, he was always late, canceling, rescheduling, distant. But my dance instructor, Mark? I never had to worry when I'd see him again. Because as long as I kept paying, I could schedule him in whenever I wanted. And he had to like me. It was his job. He had to be there, waiting, when I walked in. Nicely dressed, fingernails clean. He had to take my hand and smile and lead me to the dance floor as if nothing in the world would please him more.

It didn't take long until nothing in the world pleased me more than dancing. With Mark, in the make believe world beneath the strands of tiny golden lights strung across the ballroom ceiling. Mark, who the receptionist whispered one sultry night in July, was only nineteen.

Did it matter? For about five minutes. Until I was in his arms, pelvis-to-pelvis, lowering into tango corte. "In tango," he explained, "you love me from the waist down and you hate me from the waist up." He was half right. From then on I scheduled all my lessons at night, so I could pretend not to notice how aged my hand looked resting on his firm young shoulder.

I told Janet about Mark. "We all need our fantasies," she said, "They're healthy. As long as we don't act on them." I smiled and nodded. Then she told me that maybe I better come three times a week for a while. "I can't afford it," I said, "not with the dance lessons." She frowned, "Are they expensive?" They were. I told her the cost. She blanched. "Lisa," she said, "Are you sure you have your priorities straight?" That's when it occurred to me that if I stopped seeing her I could take two, maybe three dance lessons a week. As I left her office for the last time and headed down Broadway toward the studio, my feet barely touched the ground. And it hit me, I hadn't avoided the problem of transference after all.

I stood at the edge of the dance floor and tried not to watch Mark finishing up with a wedding couple. Other instructors said hello. I smiled, but I didn't say much. I didn't want them to look at me for too long. I knew it was on my face. Could they see it? I turned away. Do all students fall in love with their instructors? Is it part of the plan? I imagined Theo, the owner, taking Mark aside and asking, "Is Lisa in love with you yet, because there's a regional competition coming up, and I figure she's good for at least a three day package. Maybe you'd better concentrate on Tango tonight." Standing alone, I blushed.

Suddenly an arm encircled my waist. It was Mark. "Shall we dance?" he asked. And as we walked onto the floor everything up to that moment disappeared.

I never had a husband who left me. My son wasn't at home, terrified of monsters. My daughter wasn't always so sad. Money? Who needs it? For that one hour, I was free.

Suddenly we were doing swing. He spun me back and forth until I was so dizzy I had to grab his arm to steady myself. I leaned into him for support, and for an instant, I let my head touch his chest.

He took my hand and led me to a wall of mirrors. "In order to spin without getting dizzy you have to learn to spot yourself," he said with a grin. "Look at yourself in the mirror as you turn."

I tried. But every time I caught a glimpse of myself, I looked away. It was terrifying, I couldn't believe it was really me, out in the open for anyone to see. For the first time in years, I felt exposed. Mark reached for my hand, and turned me toward him. "Lisa," he said, trying to look earnest, "We all know what you look like." He paused, "I know what you look like."

I smiled, our eyes locked. And I realized, for better or worse, I wasn't invisible anymore.

I probably never was.