Fear is what lets us breathe
Seth Remington watched from behind his desk as his students bent their heads over their semester exams, the final one before the start of Christmas break. Twenty more minutes and he'd take them up, all the young men and women would go home. So would he, but he wasn't nearly as anxious to do so as his students.
Sure, Seth would be relieved to leave Hogan University for two weeks, to not have to stand in front of his large class of mostly bemused and uninterested students as he attempted to teach them calculus. He hated his job, hated having to wake up and stand in front of a room of 100 teenagers, each staring at him with nearly identical expressions of boredom, and what he could swear to be smirking self-assurance on their faces. He had yet to make it through an entire day without stumbling as he spoke, dropping tools used to teach, or completely losing his track of thought and having to begin again. With each blunder he flushed hotly, certain his students were mocking him, sure they were thinking what an idiot he was, and how they were expected to learn from a guy who couldn't even look them in the eyes.
It would be a fair question, Seth thought to himself despairingly. There was no chance of him ever becoming one of the professors who had worked on campus for years, earning the respect and admiration of students and colleagues alike, the confidences of students having problems. At 25, he knew already that this was not his fate. He simply was not and never would be a very good teacher. It was not in his character to be.
His eyes came to rest on a student in the front row, a young woman of about 19. Small, thin, nearly to the point of boniness, with dark hair and eyes, Natasha Valletta was bent almost flat to her desk, her head resting in the crook of her arm. He saw through her thin blue shirt how tightly the muscles of her back were contracted from her tension, observed the anxious concentration of her face as she wrote. He found himself unable to look away from her, for Natasha Valletta captured all of his attention.
Even with only the slight movement of her hand, he could see the evidence of her dance training from the delicate way she held the pencil, the straightness of her spine, even when bent over work. The slimness of her limbs and shoulders, sinewy muscles, with few of the softer curves of most women…Seth was fascinated with the frame of her body, its nearly flawless construction of perfectly spare flesh and bone.
He often watched her when her back was to him, embarrassed at his daring but helpless to look away. Her every movement, however ordinary, seemed extraordinary to him. Natasha moved with such lithe grace and fluidness that it seemed to Seth that every action was a small part of one drawn out dance, a dance telling the story of her life. Seth knew his thoughts of her, his student, were strange, and he was half disgusted with himself for having them, but they never went away.
She was lucky, Seth thought to himself, that at her age, she knew what she wanted to do with her life and was well on her way to accomplishing it. Although Natasha rarely spoke of it, everyone knew she was a dance. She was enrolled in the afternoon classes of Martha Graham Conservatory, a school for young dancers preparing them for careers in dance. The Martha Graham Conservatory was very prestigious and well known, and those involved in the school were nearly guaranteed success in the dancing world. it wouldn't have been easy to be accepted into such a school, Seth knew.
He had always enjoyed dance, appreciating the aestheticism of the dancers, but never had the opportunity to observe or study it. His father would have put a stop to that, and now it was too engrained in him to do so on his own.
Seth could see how all the discipline required of Natasha in her classes transferred itself to other aspects of her life. She was a hardworking, dedicated student, maintaining an A in his class, and always completing all her work, regardless of the busy life she must lead. She seemed to him a quiet, focused person, very much in control of her actions and emotions. She was different to him from the other girls he taught, girls who seemed a slave to whatever emotions came over them. Natasha seemed more mature, more wise.
Yes, she was lucky to be able to choose for herself.
Seth had always been enthralled with all areas of art, music and acting as well. Somehow, though all were performed on stage, in front of people, it didn't seem the same as teaching in front of others or giving speeches. The thought of artistic performance didn't make him nervous at all. It would not be him they were watching, after all, but the character, the performance his body gave. Seth had enjoyed the visual arts as well, experimenting with drawing when he was younger and fancying himself to be fairly good, a judgment he rarely passed on himself.
However, despite his appreciation of art, Seth had never as a child been able to develop his talents in it. His father, a man whose sternness and definitive views had suppressed Seth's meeker nature, had thought of art as unmanly, not befitting a son of his. The one time he caught Seth sketching, he had been upset, telling him that only men who were effeminate were interested in such things. His father was determined to raise his only son to live up to the Remington name, and he had done everything to make him appear up to his masculine standards. Hunting trips, despite the fact that Seth hated killing, signing up for sports he had no interest in, never showing him more affection than a rough thump on the back of handshake.
It had been because of his father that Seth ended up a professor, a career he had no desire or talent towards. It was expected for Seth to become a professor, for the three previous generations of Remington men all had done so. His father took great pride in the education and respected position that this career would indicate, and expected no less of Seth than to establish himself into it.
It was because of this that Seth pursued a career as a calculus teacher, despite his dislike of teaching and unenthusiasm for math. He was naturally gifted in math, but did not particularly enjoy it. However, Seth had by high school developed enough of a fear of his father to be wary of bucking family tradition. And that fear had led him to the present moment, sitting in his professor's desk, watching his students take their winter exam.
It was also for this reason that Seth couldn't be glad of the Christmas break that would soon begin. During it he knew he would be visiting his parents' home again, for that was also expected. Visits home always returned him to the tongue-tied boy he had been, worsening his feelings of inadequacy. He knew he could never be less than a disappointment to him, but every year when he again failed to meet his father's approval, his self-disgust only increased.
He found his eyes drifting back to Natasha, tracing the angles of her face, her neck, and he found himself comparing her body to a work of art before reprimanding himself sharply. She would never even look at a man like him, he knew…and beyond that, she was his student. He was making a fool of himself to even glance in her direction, for no girl like Natasha would ever speak to a man like him.
Soon the end of the exam period came, and the students got to their feet, one by one shoving their exams in Seth's direction. Seth forced himself to wish them a merry Christmas, feeling his face turn red as most did not smile back. When all the students streamed out, Seth slumped in his desk, sighing, relieved to have them gone for a few days.
He was not happy to be destined for his parents' home, but then, what good would it do to stay in his own? Seth had no girlfriend or wife, no close friends and no children…not because he did not want them, for he sometimes longed painfully for someone to have in his life. It was his awkwardness, his shyness that kept him apart, and his solitude only depressed him further when the holidays came.
He stayed in the classroom for another twenty minutes, preparing the room to lock up, then picked up his bag, putting his stack of papers inside, and exited the room, locking it behind him.
Ambling down the hall of the university, Seth noticed the Christmas decorations on the walls and above the doorways. Garland and wreaths, ribbons and stockings, even a small Christmas tree in the entrance room, elaborately decorated with colored balls and lights. To be politically correct, there were also candlesticks for Kwanzaa and a menorah for Hanukah, but Christmas decorations dominated the decorations.
Nodding with reddened cheeks to a colleague who greeted him, Seth quickened his pace, not wanting to have to stop and talk. And you wonder why you're alone, he told himself bitterly, but did not slow his pace. Opening the door to Hogan University and stepping outside, he blinked in surprise at the cold entering his unzipped coat. With fumbling fingers he zipped it up as far as it would go.
Walking down the gravel path in front of the university, he took in the multi-colored lights strung along the trim of the building, along the tree trunks and gates in the front. All the scene lacked for a Christmas feel was snow, and it certainly was cold enough for that to remain a possibility.
Seth was about to turn toward the teachers' parking lot when he noticed a small figure sitting on the bench alone in front of the university's lawn, underneath a tree whose trunk was decked in blue lights. Even from a distance he recognized the straight posture and dark hair as that of Natasha Valletta.
What was she doing sitting outside in the cold, he wondered. Didn't she have a car?
She must be waiting for a ride…but he found himself hesitating, pausing rather than going on to his car. She was so small and alone, and it was very cold…maybe he should make sure she was all right.
Who are you kidding? Of course she's all right, why wouldn't she be?
She looks sad…and if she is, and you're her professor, don't you have a responsibility to make sure she's okay, or safe, or…
Why are you trying to talk yourself into this…are you just making an excuse to talk to her? As if you could do such a thing without going as red as the lights on that tree over there, or stammering like a moron. She doesn't want you to see if she's all right. Girls like Natasha, especially ones who have witnessed your stupidity daily, aren't interested in giving you the time of the day. Trust me on that. And no one's going to harm her in broad daylight, and if they did, what would you do to stop them, Seth, beat them up? Don't make me laugh!
Go to your car, Seth told himself. Leave her alone.
But somehow his mind was not connecting with his feet…and he found himself drawing closer to Natasha on the bench, rather than to his car. His mind was racing in panic, but his feet kept moving, and then he was right beside her, watching where she appeared not to notice his proximity as she stared straight ahead, shoulders squared, hands clinched firmly in her lap. Seth's ears burned as he shifted his weight awkwardly, clearing his throat.
She jerked, her head turning toward him sharply. Seeing him, her expression remained guarded.
"Hello, Professor Remington," she said carefully, her eyes flickering away. "Is there something wrong with my exam?"
"Oh, no, no. I just…" and to his horror, Seth couldn't finish his sentence. He shrugged, blushing crimson as he screamed at himself on the inside.
The silence seemed unbearably long and awkward to him, and from the stiffness of Natasha's body, the way her eyes looked past him, it was for her too. Finally he managed, "Are-are you waiting for a ride?"
"Yes," Natasha replied.
And that was all. Seth flushed harder. It was clear she didn't want to talk to him, that he should go away, tell her merry Christmas…but instead he found himself fumbling along in grim desperation.
"Why don't you w-wait inside where it's w-warmer? It's p-pretty cold out."
"I'm fine," Natasha said shortly.
She stared down at the street as if half hoping, half dreading the approach of someone, her ride, he assumed. He told himself again that he should go away, but something behind her careful gaze struck him. He thought there was something strange about her eyes, a glimmer of something that struck him as loneliness…maybe even longing.
But that had to be wrong. What could she possibly be longing for…HIM? Ridiculous. She had as good as told him to get lost. He was imagining things.
And yet he heard himself speaking to her again, the words escaping before he could haul them back.
"Well, j-just until your r-ride shows, do you m-mind if I keep you company? I wouldn't feel right to leave you alone."
Natasha looked over at him slowly, her face openly suspicious. She stared at him for a moment without replying, so long that Seth squirmed in discomfort. He felt warm from his awkwardness to the point he barely noticed the cold air.
Finally she nodded, a small jerk of her head, and lowered her eyes to her lap. He noticed she was twisting her hands in her lap, her knuckles pale, nearly bloodless.
Rather than being flooded with relief at her approval, Seth felt his stomach knot- for now he had no reason to leave. He couldn't leave, in fact…he had put himself in the position where he would be forced to stay and make conversation.
"Is it all right if I s-sit with you?" he heard himself ask, to his further shock and horror. He couldn't believe what he was doing, his own nerve…why now, why today, this student…and what was it he was trying to do?
Another pause, and Natasha looked down at her hands, saying quietly, "Yes. That's okay."
Somehow encouraged by this, Seth eased himself down beside her on the bench, setting his things on the ground. The bench was long, and he sat as far from her as he could get. Natasha did not look at him, and though she remained upright, something about her nevertheless gave off the impression of being slumped in dejection.
The silence between them stretched for a few minutes, and Seth's mind raced with paranoia of what she must think. He tried not to look towards her, but found it irresistible to attempt to interpret the blankness of her features, the tension of her jaw.
Talk…you wanted to talk to her…then do it, Seth. Talk!
He cleared his throat, forcing the words from his mouth. "So…um…you going home to your p-parents?"
She shot him a glance, returned her gaze to her hands. "Yes."
"Do you l-live with them?"
She nodded, still inspecting her hands. He caught himself watching them too…they were small and delicate as the rest of her, artistic and lovely…perfect for the rest of her.
Stop it, Seth. Just stop it!
"Do you live nearby?"
She shrugged, a movement so slight he wouldn't have noticed had he not glanced over at her. "About thirty minutes away. But they'll be always are."
Something about her tone, a slight edge to it, made him study her face more closely. He thought he saw a flash of anger, but her eyes were guarded, and he couldn't be sure.
"How do you g-get to your d-dance classes on time then?" he asked. "On r-regular days, I mean."
"I take the bus," she said, her voice still lacking inflection. "I take it to my lessons, and then to a stop near my home. Then I walk."
That was the most he had ever heard her speak, and it surprised him. Of course, it was the most he'd ever spoken to her either.
"You must really like to dance," he commented.
As soon as he said it he could have kicked himself. What an idiot thing to say…of course she liked to dance, she was a DANCER. Could he get any dumber?
But Natasha surprised him. Instead of giving him a contemptuous look, as he expected, or one of her pointed nods, she hesitated, sucking in a long, sighing breath.
"I suppose so," she said finally, and her voice sounded conflicted even to Seth.
He looked at her quickly, frowning. "You suppose so? Th-that doesn't sound very definite."
He flushed again when he realized how he sounded, so nosy…what was with him? Why was he being so shameless…what was it about Natasha Valletta that made him so different, so open?
"Y-you don't have to answer if you don't want to," he added hastily, blushing. When he finally dared to look over at her, she shrugged, the nodded.
Another horribly awkward silence ensued, at least for Seth, who was mentally squirming. This was one of the worst ideas he'd ever had- and the worst thing about it was it was all his, he had no one else to blame, no one who had pushed or guilted him into it.
But then Natasha was speaking, and with such surprising loudness that Seth turned to stare at her.
"It's just- I don't know. Lately…lately I just don't know. I always thought I loved to dance. I mean, I've been doing it for years, ever since I was three. I've been dancing all my life…I've spent so many hours doing it, and preparing for it. My parents paid so much over the years for it. Lessons and costumes and tickets, ballets, summer camps, tuition…so much of my life revolves around it. If I didn't dance, I don't know who I would be."
Her eyes met Seth's, searching for his understanding. "I've danced so much and thought about it so long and gave up so much for it, and I don't know what I would do without it. I always thought I did it because I loved it. Or why else would it be worth giving up my life for? But lately…I don't know. I wonder, I guess…if I really do love it, or it's just…that I don't know any other way to be."
She cut herself off, flushing, and turned away, staring straight ahead once more. Seth could see the embarrassment in her face, the half angry look of her set jaw, and realized she was inwardly berating herself for her outburst.
He could hardly believe her words. Not just because she had said them to him…but also the words themselves. Natasha didn't know if she loved dancing? How could that be? How could someone devote years of their life to become something they were not sure they wanted?
Then a wry realization came to him, for he had done the same thing.
It was clear Natasha regretted having spoken. Her head was bent so low he could not see her eyes, and she gripped her hands together hard. He could not see her lips, but he was sure they were pressed firmly together into a thin white line.
Seth's reticent instincts told him to leave her be, that he should not encourage her to speak more if she did not wish to. But somehow even as he thought this, part of him rejected it, the part that had been speaking up so amazingly all this time. and it was this part of him that caused him to reach out and touch Natasha's thin shoulder while asking, "Do you know what makes you th-think you don't like dancing a-as much as you thought?"
It was a brief touch, and a gentle one, but it was the fact that he had done it at all that stunned Seth. He did not touch women, especially young, beautiful women like Natasha, women who were his students. He glanced at his hand, wondering in half fear if some stranger had taken control of his body, his mouth. And yet his eyes did not leave hers.
At first he thought she would not reply as her body remained drawn into itself, her head lowered. But then she sighed, her shoulders sagging.
"It's just so hard. It's constant, every day, at least three hours. I get maybe two weeks total of the year where I'm not dancing. And still I'm not where I should be, I'm not good enough. I work as hard as I can, every day, hours, and I'm still not good enough. My piourettes aren't fast enough, my leaps aren't high enough, my legs aren't straight enough, I'm not flexible enough. In dancing, every move you make has to be perfect, and I'm not. I'm just not, and I don't think I ever will be."
She fell silent, lost in a despairing reverie, but then spoke again, her words pointed to her lap.
"I'm beginning to resent it when my instructors point out what's wrong with the way I dance. They do it so loudly and harshly, in front of the other girls…they focus on whichever person has the most talent, and they tell the others we will never measure up to her, that we do not have what it takes. It can hurt to come in every day and push yourself, just to hear them sneer at you and tell you it is not enough."
She breathed in slowly, her shoulders rising and falling in a way that made Seth catch his breath at their movement. Her face lowered further still as she added in a near whisper, "Even when I know they're right I still don't like it. I know they're just doing their job, trying to make us strong and lovely and flawless- but I don't know. I hate when they make remarks about my body and what's wrong with it, where I need to firm up or slim down. It's…it's hard to stand in a room of all these thin, thin girls in your leotard and have a man announce to them what's wrong with your body."
What Seth could see of her face was pink, and she would not look up at him…and he was utterly astonished. Was it possible that a living, breathing human male would dare to even think of Natasha's body as less than stunning, let alone criticize it aloud- in front of her? Could anyone possibly look at her as not thin enough, when her fragile bones could already be seen through pale flesh? Could someone possibly not see the beauty in her structure, in her every move?
"He criticizes you….he says there's something wrong with your body?" he said in disbelief.
Natasha nodded slightly, her small ears reddening at the tips. Her body was stiff, her dancer's posture gone- and from the clinching of her jaw, she appeared to be fighting tears.
"You don't believe him, do you?"
She shrugged, her shoulders rising and falling wearily.
"You can't weigh more than 100, 105 pounds in dancing. There aren't many tall dancers, and those who are taller feel the same pressure to weigh as little as the smaller girls do. There are girls who weigh 70 pounds…85 pounds is probably the average weight, maybe as much as 90. I weigh 92 pounds…so…." She shrugged again, not meeting his eyes.
Seth shook his head, dismayed. How could anyone look at a body like Natasha's, devoid of tissue less than necessary to keep her healthy, and think it necessary for more to be taken away? Why, she as a woman already lacked the extra flesh around her hips, stomach, and thighs that even slim women naturally tended to have, and even her breasts were so small and modest as to barely exist.
Seth flushed at his wondering thoughts, the way his eyes were scanning her body, and he tore them away sharply.
"You shouldn't," he told her, dragging his eyes back to hers. "Your body is perfect. It's beautiful…the way it moves, all its parts working together, beyond what most can…it's like art. I would love to watch you dance."
Suddenly realizing what he was saying, he stopped short, biting the inside of his cheeks hard. He could not believe what he had just said aloud…what the hell was getting into him? She would think he was a pervert, a fool….he couldn't look at her, afraid to see her reaction to his words. Would she be horrified, angry, embarrassed?
When he got up the nerve to sneak a quick glance at her, he saw that her face was still flushed, and she was trembling slightly. But her face was lifted slightly as well, a faint, pleased smile on her lips. She wasn't offended…and that was something as incredible to him as his words.
"Thank you," she said quietly, shooting him a fast glance. "That is nice of you to say."
"I'm not just saying it….I mean it," he dared to say, and she looked up at him, holding his gaze. He was startled by the unhappiness he saw there, by the realization that he had never looked into them long enough to see them before.
"Look, I'm sorry. I've been ranting at you, and it was childish and silly to expect you to listen to me. It's not really that bad…I'm being ridiculous, and I want to apologize."
The careful, guarded chill had returned to her voice, and she straightened her posture, scanning the driveway for her parents' car. Seth bit the inside of his cheeks again, flushing. He had gone too far, pushed too much…how ironic that he, Seth the Silent, as his middle school peers had once jeered, had made someone else feel threatened by his boldness.
"I-I don't think you're being silly," he said softly. "And I don't think you're being ridiculous…I…I think you're unhappy. Because…you're being pressured into something you d-don't enjoy or want anymore. It makes sense…I can understand."
He paused, hesitating, debating, but ultimately the words came.
"I do understand, Natasha…because…that's me. I was pressured into my career, and…I'm unhappy. You…you shouldn't let that happen to you."
Some of the wariness in her eyes remained even as she looked at him curiously, softening.
"What do you mean? You didn't want to teach?" she asked, then added hastily, "you don't have to tell me if you don't want to. I don't want to be rude."
"It's all right," Seth told her, and to his surprise, it was. "I don't mind telling you…you m-might be helped buy it." He cleared his throat, trying to find the words to begin. "I…I never talked about it before….but…I guess I should try. I…I'm the only child in my family. The only son….are you the only child in yours?"
"Yes," Natasha said softly. "My mother always dreamed of having a daughter who would dance. She always wanted to and never could as a child…so when she had me…" She shrugged.
Seth nodded. "I-I think that explains a lot for us both." He took a long, slow breath, attempting to settle his nerves. "It's a family tradition. Sort of, for the oldest sons to become professors. My father did, his father, his father…back four generations. As the only son, my father expected me to do the same. He expected a lot of me…and I was never…any of it."
He cleared his throat, shifted in his seat, itching to look at Natasha but not daring. Both of them had long ago forgotten the cold, Natasha's coming ride, even Christmas…they only saw each other.
"I-I'm pretty shy. I have…I have a hard time, with people. I don't like sports or hunting…my father was disappointed. He tried to make me learn, but it didn't…I couldn't…"
He sighed, wondering uneasily if she was bored. But when he met her eyes again, he saw that her face was fully turned towards his, her eyes on him, intent on what he was saying. She didn't look away when he caught her gaze.
"What I really liked was art. Any art…that's why I like your dancing, I guess. I loved to look at paintings and sculptures and statues, wanted to make them myself…but I knew my father disapproved. He would never support my being an artist, even as a hobby. I'm not someone who likes confrontation, so I just avoided it by going with what he wanted. And now…I'm here. Teaching…a job I don't like and am not very good at…in fact…my job kind of scares me. because I let it happen. I even worked to obtain it."
Natasha was silent for a long moment after, and Seth again began to doubt his words, wonder about her thoughts. He had never spoken anything like this aloud before…he could not remember, in fact, the last time he had said so many words at once.
"Wow," she said finally, her voice soft. "You do understand."
Seth was relieved to see the lack of criticism in her gaze…if anything, she looked softer, contemplative as she continued. "We're quite the pair…so much for the spoiled only child syndrome."
"We are not who we are," Seth said slowly, and Natasha looked at him, puzzled.
"What do you mean?"
"Did you ever read Othello in high school?" he asked, and when Natasha shook her head, he explained, "Iago, the villain, is manipulative and a liar, but he portrays himself as honest to get his way…but also to keep the peace. He says, "I am not who I am…" and he isn't. He behaves as another person, s-suppresses his true self, to fit into other people's idea of him and what they think he is." Seth paused, then added quietly, "Like us."
Natasha lowered her eyes, lost in a private inner space, but eventually, she lifted her head again, nodding slowly. "You're right."
Encouraged, Seth continued to share his thoughts. "Both of us worry about pleasing everyone, making all of them happy…but meanwhile…we aren't happy."
Natasha nodded again, her eyes bright, but sad. "Yes."
"Natasha…when I came to you earlier…you d-didn't want to talk to me, did you?" Seth asked slowly. "You didn't want to sit with me."
Natasha hesitated, then shook her head, looking away.
"Why did you let me then…w-why did you say it was okay?"
"Well…you were my teacher. You're older than me, and-and a man…and I don't know…I didn't want to look rude," she muttered, looking embarrassed.
"But…" Seth paused, trying to find the right words, and to his astonishment, they actually came. "I'm not that much older than you…what are you, 19? I'm only 25. Not exactly an elder. And as for me being a man, and a professor- how does that give me a right to have my will over yours? You should have told me you preferred to be left alone…you didn't have to be rude, just clear."
Natasha nodded. "Yes, but…I'm glad I didn't. Then…then we wouldn't have talked." She blushed, but continued to look him in the eye as he continued.
"I want you to try and be honest with me…with everyone, but especially me. If you aren't happy with something or don't agree, then tell me. I won't be mad…I'll respect it."
Inwardly Seth was still astounded by his own forwardness, the fact that he had in the past several minutes only stuttered a few times…why had it taken meeting this girl to change so drastically, so fast? Or had it been that he couldn't change unless he found someone he needed to help change too?
Natasha nodded slowly, her expression grave. "Okay. Okay…I'll try."
The silence between them came back again, but it was companionable, thoughtful, rather than uncomfortable.
"What should we do?" Natasha asked finally. "I mean…we're not happy, we don't like what we're doing…so…what can we do?"
Seth thought…for that was the trouble, he didn't know any more than Natasha did.
And yet…he did know. He knew…it was just that he didn't know how to do what he would have to without fear.
But no other thoughts came to him, as hard as he tried to find another, easier solution. At last he was forced to admit there was none.
Turning his eyes back to Natasha's, he exhaled.
"This is the only thing I can think of, Natasha, and the only thing that is fair to us. We have to stop…stop letting others decide our courses of action, stop letting others decide for us who we will be. We have to let them see who we are instead of being something we aren't…we have to decide what it is that does make us happy and pursue it."
He looked at her searchingly. "What makes you happy, Natasha? What did you always want to do but never seemed to be able to?"
Natasha thought, her face creasing. "Not to be a suck up…but I always liked math," she said shyly. "I aws always good at it."
Seth smiled. "You have a good grade in my class…we should swap places."
Natasha smiled briefly, but her smile soon faded as she looked at him solemnly.
" I know we should go after what we want to do…but…are you saying we should quit? That I should stop dancing, and you should stop teaching?"
Hearing his thoughts spoken aloud, Seth wanted to flinch at their harshness, but he made himself keep still, looking her in the eyes.
"Yes…I guess…I do."
He could see his words hitting her, how she went still and panicked at the thought, eyes flickering to his with shock and fear in their surface.
"Quit? But they won't understand…they'll be so angry…"
"You can't worry about that, and neither can I. We have to do what's best for us…we can't pretend for all our lives. We'll make them understand," Seth told her, gaining belief and strength in himself as he reassured her. He would never, ever have thought an hour earlier that he could even speak to Natasha, alone…and now he was thinking of quitting his job…even planning on it.
What had happened? And yet…how could it not have happened before? What had stopped him from letting it happen before…only his own fears?
Natasha's mouth was open, and she stared at him in unabashed horror. Her body was rigid as it turned towards him.
"But Professor Remington- we can't! They'll talk about me, they'll be so disappointed! My parents, they've spent so much money, they'll be so angry…and you, you'll lose your job, what will you do?"
"I'll worry about that later," Seth replied, even as his stomach cramped. Could he really do this- throw away all the years spent getting his degree, invoke the anger and shock of his colleagues, his parents, start over completely, just because he didn't like his job? Was it really worth it?
But then he remembered his fear when standing in the classroom, the way he dreaded going to the university, the growing indifference he felt towards the subject…he thought of years of enduring that, and he knew what he had to do.
"It will be hard, Natasha, but I know now I have to…you showed me, that I could be happy…thank you," he stammered, his face going hot.
Natasha was staring at him, dismayed. He tried to push aside his own doubts and focus instead on Natasha, on convincing her of her own duty to herself.
"You have to do it too. If you ever want to be happy…if you ever want to respect yourself as a person, you will have to do this. You know that, don't you?" his eyes probed hers.
Natasha held herself still, the emotion in her eyes heavy. Finally she sighed, her shoulders sagging.
"I know," she whispered, sounding near tears as she blinked. "But I'm afraid."
"I know," Seth said quietly, then added without thought, "But fear is what lets us breathe."
She looked at him sharply, eyes narrowing.
"Where did you get that from?"
"I-I'm not sure," Seth admitted, for he had wondered himself as soon as he spoke. "But I know it's true…if we live in safety, our fear so encompasses us we can't really live at all. But if we feel our fear, acknowledge it, but move despite it…then that's really living. Only by the fear, the overcoming of it, can we really live."
"Why do we have to have the fear at all?"
"Because…it tells us we're alive. There is no life without fear, because….fear tells us we have a future. fear of the future assures us we're alive…but to have the future, we must learn to overcome the fear," Seth said slowly.
Natasha stared at him, emotions naked in her usually guarded eyes, before she nodded, breathing shakily.
"Will you do this, Natasha….will you pursue your own happiness?" Seth asked softly, and she hesitated, then nodded, closing her eyes as she hugged her elbows.
"Do you promise?"
The answer was longer in coming, but then she nodded. "Yes. I promise."
Seth dug into his briefcase, drawing out a post it note and a pen. He scribbled hastily and handed it back to her.
"I want you to call me and tell me how it goes, and I'll tell you too. If you don't call me in less than four days, I'll call you…if that's okay?"
Natasha nodded, taking the note from him. "I'll call you."
Her eyes drifted, and both realized then that a small red car was coming up the path. Natasha stood.
"That's my parents…" she began to pick up her things, then turned to face Seth. "Goodbye, Professor Remington. And…thank you."
"Seth," Seth told her, "My name is Seth…and soon, it will be appropriate for you to call me that."
Natasha nodded slowly, beginning to smile.
And she began to walk away, her backpack only slightly affecting the gait of her movements. Seth watched her go, admiring her swaying form, the way her neck stood pale and white above her coat.
As she climbed into the car, he sighed, the realization of what he had convinced himself to do hitting him hard in her absence. Could he really do this…did he really want to do this? Could contentment really come out of scandal and disappointment?
He would never know if he didn't try…and he did know it could not come from his present life.
He summoned up an image of Natasha in his mind, her small, slender form, the fragility that hung about her, her dark, foreboding eyes…if she could do it, then so could he. He could become at last a real man…not his father's idea of one, but his own.
With his thoughts focused on Natasha, summoning strength from her, Seth turned, walking back inside the university.