He memorized the planes of his father’s face, so that he saw signs of him each time a member of the audience’s eyelids crinkled or they leaned forward with their hands clasped together. His mind transformed the dimly lit auditorium. He imagined lights ensconced in gold and burgundy velvet furnishing the metal folding chairs. Tomás’s nicotine stained teeth sank into his lower lip as he bit back a smile. He nudged the elbow of the person next to him and motioned toward his son. Jean let the music sink into his bones.
Only here did he feel alive. When the final note faded, the illusion shattered. No amount of thunderous applause brought his father back. Mopping the sweat from his brow, he retreated with a sheepish smile into the musty backroom. Jean loved it because it reminded him of home. Cigarette holes littered the mismatched furniture. Stale tasting coffee sloshed in paper cups and cookies crumbled in plastic containers.
Sometimes he wanted to wrap himself in the scents of strangers and tell himself he hadn’t imagined it. When the footsteps died down and the feedback from the microphone announced a new speaker, Jean rubbed the coarse material against his face. The beige overcoat looked like something Tomás scrounged through a secondhand store for.
“I thought I’d find you back here.” A voice interrupted his thoughts. The fabric seared through Jean’s fingers and he quickly released the jacket before turning to Isobel.
“You scared me.”
“You took off pretty quick.” Isobel studied him from beneath her stringy, red hair.
Jean removed an invisible piece of lint from his leotard. Not a single chair remained empty and yet he hadn’t seen his father’s face in any of them. Tears blurred their features together. Certain this was his best performance to date, he couldn’t bring himself to tell his friends it would also be his last.
“I didn’t want to cut into anybody else’s time.” He lied.
Isobel knew him well enough not to question as he wriggled into a pair of jeans.
“I didn’t know you were coming tonight.” Without meeting her eyes, he reached for his belongings.
“Of course.” She offered. “I wanted to be here for you.”
Bundled in a denim jacket and a hoodie, she seized Jean’s hand. The cold nipped through his sweater. His eyebrows burned and he wondered whether they should wait at the recreation center to see if anybody was willing to give them a ride.
“You never cared before.” He tried hiding the suspicion from his voice.
“It’s your first show without him.”
He didn’t know how to tell her. Sometimes it felt like Tomás was still there. Others, his absence filled the empty spaces and Jean could think of nothing else. His father had been the first person to support him. Whether he said he wanted to dance or change how he wore his hair, the older man never complained. He defended Jean against his mother ’s sharp remarks and that nagging voice that told him he would never be good enough. He would never be a real dancer. Why couldn’t he do the same for himself?
The street lights flickered and he remembered being on stage. A moth with tattered wings lay frozen against the sidewalk. Like the pock marks in his father’s face; he searched for signs of his presence in everything, and the lump in his throat made it hard to breathe. Did he realize he was dying? Did it hurt? Did the moth flit its wings or surrender without a fight? Jean peeled it from the concrete with trembling hands. Isobel wrinkled her nose, but didn’t say anything as he tucked it into his pocket.
He wondered if he lost a piece of himself that night. Tomás waved a hand to dismiss him. The foam from his beer splattered the sofa as Jean reminded him of the doctor’s specific orders not to drink.
“You can’t stop, can you?”
“What difference does it make?” He burped. “It’s not going to change anything.”
It was the first time Jean remembered hating him. He flexed his fingers above where the moth lay and willed himself to forget. What good did it to being angry now? What did it change?
Isobel reached for his free hand and swung it in hers.
“What are you thinking about?”
“What do you think happens to us when we die?”
Applause filled the auditorium, but the audience forgot him as easily as they did the cups overfilling the wastebasket, only to be swept away. Would anybody remember? He doubted it. Like the moth, Jean was insignificant.
“You thinking about leaving me?”
“No.” He answered too quickly.
“I haven’t thought about it.” Isobel confessed. “As big as the universe is, there has to be something else out there. Right?”
“What if there isn’t?”
“OK, what if it’s like when a song ends? You can never get that moment back, but you can still feel it. It stays with you.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to dance anymore.”
He waited for Isobel to accuse him of quitting. When she didn’t, he felt more defensive. As if there were a line even she wasn’t willing to cross.
“Not here. It’s not the same.”
“OK, I respect that.”
“You’re not mad?”
“Should I be?”
“You’re not going to try convincing me to change my mind?”
He tried erasing the images of Tomás from his mind. He poured himself a second cup of coffee. He draped his jacket across the back of his chair because even though he had nothing valuable on him, he said he didn’t trust other people to leave his things alone. Jean refrained from telling him he knew about the flask. It felt like a betrayal and, with nobody else waiting for him in the audience, he didn’t want to risk the argument.
Isobel squeezed his fingers.
“I don’t think that’s what you need right now.”
It didn’t occur to him until later that she said everything she meant to with that one simple sentence. Even after a song ends, the music stays with you.