The way Theresa thought about it, a lot of life, when boiled down, was really based on juxtaposition.
From the moment she was born, she’d learned that everything about her—her family, her life, everything —was at a stark contrast to nearly everything else in the world.
The trick was, according to the unspoken rule, to keep the contrast as stable as possible. Not minimize it, not maximize: stabilize.
He wasn’t that hard to spot in a crowd.
Theresa excused herself from the small knot of distant relatives she’d been politely pretending to make conversation with and hurried off to the area where she’d seen a man in what appeared to be a pilot’s uniform—slightly at odds with the white tie and occasional military uniform of the other men attending this function.
“Martin,” she called out once she was sure she’d approached within earshot, and the figure turned. Her heart jumped a little, and she smiled at Martin. Stepping forward, she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “I’m glad you could make it,” she greeted as she pulled away, hiding a smirk at the shade of crimson his face had turned.
“I know, me too,” he managed to reply with a rather shy smile. “It’s good to see you again.”
They didn’t cross paths like this often. But she was in Vienna for a younger relative’s first ball, and Martin’s airline was flying in some sommeliers to see some of the products of a village about an hour away from the city. Simply put—they took whatever they got.
Even if it meant bending the unspoken rules she’d been taught never to touch—tweaking the contrasts a little higher than she’d been taught to keep them.
“How is the rest of your airline?” Theresa had the distinct feeling that what she’d said had not gone unnoticed by the group of nobles and executives standing nearby.
If Martin, too, felt the stares of attendees around them, making note of the contrasts between them and him, he didn’t comment on it. “They’re fine,” he nodded. “It took me so long to get out of the hotel room tonight, though. I think Douglas suspects…”
They linked arms casually to walk a lap around the salon, chatting about what they’d been up to since their last meeting.
Theresa wondered if there would ever come a time when they didn’t have to meet like this. If they would ever meet in other terms than a tryst in whatever city they happened to be in at the same time—significant looks under the chandeliers of ballrooms and salons—mystique and speculation swirling around them like the young people on the dance floor, swirling to the melodies penned by the hands of long-dead men.
“Come on,” she said suddenly, after spotting one of her mother’s relatives by an ornate mantelpiece and feeling a sudden desire to flee. “I know a place.”
Of course Theresa had been to this palace before—her ancestors had been politically close to those who had formerly lived here. Of course she knew where to hide when the contrasts—between her newness and this oldness, between her and the younger girls, between this room and the ordinary streets that lay outside it—were too much to bear, too much to maintain without screaming.
When would they be able to stop hiding?
The balcony was significantly cooler than the salon, and Theresa shivered. Without a word, Martin took off his jacket and hung it gently over her shoulders. It was a sweet thing, something from an old movie, something eternally tender, and she nodded in gratitude as he joined her at the railing.
“Do members of...your family...live here?” Martin asked after some hesitation, gesturing to the courtyard below them. From anyone else, it might have been a rude question; from Martin, it was fuelled by a gentle curiosity.
“No.” Theresa shook her head. “This was a different family’s. Now the president lives and works here. Our city palace is not very far from here.” It occurred to her how strange this was, how she was speaking of our palace to a man whose home was a room at the top of a stairway.
Thinking about it now, Theresa reckoned that that was something that applied to music, too.
From inside the salon, they heard the first notes of a song picked out from the quiet chatter of the guests.
“They do love a waltz.” The observation was out of Theresa’s mouth before she could stop it. She wasn’t looking into the salon; they were still gazing over the courtyard. She could imagine a long row of women curtsying to a long row of men. Gloved hands comically white against flushed skin.
“Do you dance?” Theresa’s smile was a little bit more vibrant than usual, and Martin looked over at her, reading it.
“I could try?”
She laughed a little, took control of the juxtaposition, and they danced to the music.