It’s been a couple of years and I thought you might be interested in what’s up for Mark and Seth from Moving in Rhythm.
“And five, six, seven, eight.” Seth snapped his fingers and watched his first grade dance class fly into their unique chaos. He glanced at the ornate wall clock, a studio-warming gift from his folks. It needed dusting. Ten more minutes. Just enough time to practice the sunflower routine for the spring recital.
He clapped his hands and the kids lined up in a vaguely snaking line, Mackenzie the reluctant tail. She was forty pounds heavier than the other kids and the butt of all their jokes, no wonder she hated dance class. Seth had seen the same thing with his oldest sister, who’d battled weight all her life. She was convinced she would have found her own way to health if their parents hadn’t shoved her into every humiliating group physical activity they could find. Seth had no idea if she was right, but shame didn’t help anyone. He’d offered to give Mackenzie private lessons at the same price, but her parents thought she needed a social life. Right. Some social life.
As he passed out the props, his knee started to ache. Not compared to what he’d made himself endure in the old days, but enough to make him glad the day was almost over. His post-accident life of spring and fall recitals, choreographing small town musicals and teaching exercise classes on the side was a long way from the professional dance life he’d planned. He’d spent years sweating and straining and gritting his teeth against the pain, only to find himself sidelined from the dream. And happy. Amazing.
Ten other girls, two boys and round little Mackenzie tiptoed in a circle, waving their plastic sunflowers. Flowers. He should stop on the way home and pick up some. They hadn’t talked about Valentine’s Day. Did Mark have something planned? Sometimes it was hard to tell what was going on inside that gorgeous head of his.
Half-way round the circle, Mackenzie tripped and went down on one knee. The boy behind slammed into her and stumbled. Kids laughed, a girl yelled. Mackenzie’s bottom lip quivered. Her eyes on the floor, she seemed to shrink into herself. It was heartbreaking. Seth stepped in, broke up the incipient fight and dismissed class. The dance floor thundered with the pounding of little feet as everyone rushed toward the anteroom and their parents. He squatted next to Mackenzie, still huddled on the floor where she’d fallen.
She looked up and nodded. He pulled a tissue from the pocket of his sweatpants and handed it to her. She blew her nose and solemnly passed it back to him. He tried not to wince.
“It gets better.” He patted her shoulder, hoping he was right.
Mackenzie didn’t meet his gaze, climbed to her feet and headed for the front door and her escape.
Seth’s knee complained again as he stood. He carried her soggy tissue over to the trash can. Maybe part of being human was the instinct to rip open anyone who was different. It wasn’t the best part. He gathered up the sunflowers they’d left strewn across the floor.
The parents and children were gone by the time Seth had cleaned up, turned off the lights and shrugged into his coat. February was a cold month in Lacland. Come April they’d be staying to chat, maybe clustering on the lawn in front of the dance studio. But with the snow deep and the wind sharp, they just wanted to scoop up the kid and run.
Seth inhaled the cold air. He felt a flutter of excitement. Valentine’s Day. He still couldn’t believe Mark had agreed to move in with him. Two months, and Seth was still pinching himself every morning he woke up to find Mark’s clothing still hanging next to his in the closet. Even the dogs were happy. Of course, they’d had a couple of years to get used to each other.
As he strode across the parking lot, he pulled up the collar of his coat against the wind. Mark’s stuff in the closet, his weights in the spare room, his dog sleeping on the couch—all that added up to love, right? Mark might not have said it, but that was just Mark. He wasn’t ever going to be a talker. That’s just the way it was. Everyone was born their unique biochemical self. Especially Mark.
Seth rubbed his hands together and blew on his fingers while he waited for the old car to warm up. People always talked about courage like it was something you had when you weren’t afraid to jump out of airplanes or fight in ridiculous wars. Watching Mark, Seth had learned a lot about courage. True courage was walking into a room full of people when the very idea made you break into a sweat. Or talking to a stranger when the words choked in your throat. Or being with the man you loved even though it terrified you. Because Mark did love him. He did. Seth could tell it in the way Mark looked at him and the way his hands felt on Seth’s skin.
Flowers. Was that too much? Not enough? Seth had debated making dinner reservations somewhere quiet where they could have a table away from everyone else. But that might end up as another test of courage, with Mark going along to make Seth happy but sweating bullets the whole time. That would be a cruel valentine. Better to settle for flowers, good steaks and a long night in bed—something they’d both enjoy.
He pulled up to the curb in front of the apartment building. The lights were on. He climbed the stairs, smiling. Mark was somewhere inside. At home. He opened the door, expecting Mark on the other side, big and shy but always ready to kiss, a man whose native language was touch. The dogs bounded up to greet him.
“Mark?” No answer.
The living room was empty. The only other light was in the spare room. Mark would be lifting. The one thing Seth enjoyed about Mark’s constant anxiety was the way he soothed it by lifting weights. His hands around the barbell, his muscles bunching and quivering, sweat gleaming on his skin. Whew, baby.
Seth set the groceries in the kitchen and carried the flowers toward the spare room, which looked like a gym now—a full weight set and bench faced the mirrored wall and barre Seth had installed when he first moved in. It took a moment for Seth to register. Mark wasn’t moving. He sat on the weight bench holding up a dumbbell, his bicep bulging and beginning to shake. He was staring at his hand, a strange look on his face. Seth called his name but he didn’t look up. Shit. It had been a long time since Mark’s last full-blown panic attack. Almost long enough for Seth to forget. Almost.
Dropping the bouquet, Seth crossed the room and squatted beside Mark. He put his hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Hey.”
Seth reached for the dumbbell and wrapped his hand around Mark’s. Mark blinked, looked up at Seth and let him help lower the weight to the ground. Seth held Mark’s gaze. It was the only thing he knew to do, stand witness to Mark’s pain and fear without flinching. Sometimes it helped. Sometimes it didn’t. But at least he was there.
“I’m sorry.” Mark croaked out.
“Nothing to be sorry about.” Seth rubbed Mark’s arm. It had to hurt. How long had he been holding up that weight?
Mark looked away. He swallowed. Seth stroked his arm. He hated watching Mark struggle—it left him feeling helpless, useless and mad at the universe for making life so hard for sweet, sweet Mark.
Seth nodded toward the kitchen. “I got some great stuff for dinner. If you walk the dogs, I’ll cook.”
Mark shook his head. He gestured toward his foot. “Fucked up my ankle. Took the dogs out an hour ago but I need to give it a rest.”
“You hurt yourself? How?” Seth followed his gaze, trying not to panic. His knee seemed to pulse an SOS—injury, danger, scary stuff. “Do we need to get you to the emergency room?”
“Just twisted.” Mark used his tee shirt to wipe his forehead. He met Seth’s eyes. “Stupid. I was trying to dance, and tripped.”
Seth stared at him. Each word made sense but this was Mark and… “Dance?”
Mark looked down. A deep blush colored the back of his neck and into his cheeks. He cleared his throat. “You like to dance.”
Seth stared at him. The dots slowly connected. “You were practicing so we could go dancing?”
Mark nodded, his eyes glued to the floor. “For Valentine’s.”
Seth’s chest ached. All those people crushed together on a dance floor—Mark’s biggest nightmare. “Oh man. You don’t have to… that’s such a sweet thought.”
“No. It’s not. I’m not.” Mark shook his head violently. “For Christ’s sake, I should be able to go dancing with the man I love.”
Seth sat back on his heels. The man he loved. His eyes welled and he blinked. He reached out and brushed Mark’s damp hair out of his eyes.
Mark gave him a sheepish look. “I planned to go out with you tonight, make you happy, and finally get up the balls to tell you I love you.”
Seth buried his face in Mark’s neck and whispered, “Yes. I love you too.”
Best Valentine ever.