Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sweet Irony

A Faux Memoir

Part One

The woman may have once been attractive but she had gone to seed like some bit of autumn thistle, her hair dried out like Spanish moss, her face blotched with too much sun, her long limbs droopy with flesh. Even so you could see the original clean lines of the legs when she pointed her feet to demonstrate the exercises at the barre; her arch was so high her feet looked like hands crippled by arthritis, bent in on themselves. She taught us ballet, the modern dance students, those of us who had given up on the ideal, who only still wanted to dance. She had been handpicked by Balanchine when she was young, one of the baby ballerinas, all eyes and extension, burned out now to a frazzled woman with a bad perm and a belly like a permanent pregnancy.

It was the summer of 1986. Everyone had now heard of AIDS and no one knew what to do about it, the gay disease, easily denounced by slick-haired men as righteous judgment upon the wicked Sodomites. I was seventeen, the only dancer in the hallway between classes reading a book, toting my paperback copy of Catch-22, that war-world of insanity identified and named, and all around me girls in positions of pornographic lissomeness remarked upon my oddity. I lay on my back, ass against the wall, legs V-splayed, hoping gravity would help my tight hips give way, the paperback held out before me, my arms lovely in suspended port-de-bras, Young Girl Reclining with Book.

Breakdowns come to everyone; even my husband’s Depression-era raised parents, stoics with canned good pantries, once had a breakdown apiece on a family vacation tour of the large geometric states of the American West. Sobbing was involved, my husband tells me. Tears are the handmaidens of breakdowns, the first thing reached for, used up, swept away. When the aged baby had her breakdown, she rolled in the floor weeping. We watched, teenage dancers on the edge of competency, as this woman crumbled before us, this woman by God who had danced for Balanchine, who had probably sucked him off, one of his tissue-thin girls, always another one waiting in the wings. We were without sympathy. My own breakdown took place in the shower, an atheist in a wet foxhole, praying.

I knew I would never have arches like the fallen madwoman. My body took issue with ballet. There were the tight hips, to start with -- I’d been born with pigeon toes. As an infant I had to sleep with my feet tied into special shoes and the shoes attached to a board to twist those hips out out out. My mother says I cried as if I was being tortured, which if you think about it, I was. Perfect turnout, the rotation of hips and thighs and feet out into a board-straight line, would always elude me. And without it, I was nothing, invisible -- a pale-pink-legged ghost in the world of ballet.

A dancer can’t help but obsess over their figure and lines, limbs and arches, the tensile shape of themselves upon the air. They build their instrument out of raw flesh and bone, hollowed-out abdomens and hunger; high-strung and strung out on over-the-counter diet pills, their ability to make conversation is about equal to that of racehorses. I read between classes because I had always read when I was bored; I continued to dance because I had always danced, in the womb my mother said and then swaying to radio music in my high chair. I starved myself because it was necessary, and I was good at it. It was something I would always be able to do well.

I met Sally in the registration line that summer. She was thin, as thin as I was and bore a striking resemblance to Olive Oyl. Her sleek black hair was slicked back in a New Wave duck flip at the nape of her neck, her eyes covered by sunglasses with wings like the tail fins of a 1950’s rocket car. She was wearing fishnet pants with green and black plaid boxers evident beneath, and her Cramps concert tee was ripped and pinned to great effect. I fell instantly under the weight of an asymptomatic crush.

Sally said, “I saw you at lunch.”

I thought of the cafeteria where I had eaten with my parents, filling myself with a vegetable plate, knowing that in a matter of hours there would be a summer’s worth of meals to avoid with the assiduousness of an Indian saint.

“I didn’t see you,” I finally answered.

“I noticed you,” she said, and a great wing of light fell around me, enclosing me in the protective embrace of the Cool Girl.

In a matter of minutes I knew she lived in Colorado, where she had seen U2 play Red Rocks, that she was Armenian, that she was in the modern dance track too. She had back trouble. Ballet had done its number on her already. She was eighteen, a year older than me. She had a boyfriend. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to wonder what she saw in me, I was so lovely then, and didn’t know it, still infused with a Lolita-like charm, a skittish natural thing not yet able to scent danger.

Classes began Monday morning. I lay on the floor, a spindled swastika of arms and legs. The instructor, a curly-headed boy of about fifty, pressed down on my hips with both his hands.

“Inflexible,” he said, rising from my side. “Graham developed her technique around a loose pelvis, her own loose pelvis. You must dance from your ovaries,” he said, opening his hands out in front of his groin expansively.

He led us through the floor exercises and then an hour-long series of enchainements, connected moves and steps, ending with a lesson in falling.

“Tuck in,” he told us. “Gently. Don’t throw yourself on the floor. Roll. Roll.”

I thought of a potato bug prodded with a stick, protecting its soft parts.

“That’s it,” he said, nodding.

I rolled, falling but suspended, my ribcage collapsed, knees sinking weak to the floor, a defensive faint. We added the fall to the end of a series of stag leaps, all of us shot out of the air on the count of seven.

Two or three classes a day and an abundance of missed meals and I skimmed the ground, buoyantly light, gravity at bay. I saw Sally in class and we discovered in each other an unwillingness to submit to the inanities. We rolled our eyes and exercised our eyebrows, our bodies absorbing the steps effortlessly and our proud heads rising above it all, soft smiles playing on our lips, elegant with disdain. We did this in every class but one, improvisation. The instructor was a hard-lathed woman with a buzzcut and she drilled us in spontaneity. I feared the woman and the class; I didn’t respond well to her sort of encouragement.

“Hey, Flashdance,” she said, coming over to rearrange my arms for the millionth time. “Save it for Marcus.”

Marcus was our Broadway-style jazz teacher, a white man who, like Steve Martin in The Jerk, seemed to think he had been born a poor black child. His class was very popular and practical really, considering that there are very few ways to make a living as a dancer. Hoofing it is what most everyone around me was going to end up doing, that or running some Dolly Dingle dance school in their hometowns. Jazz was really the only idiom that could be made to pay.

In addition to ballet and jazz and several modern classes, we had character dance where we learned polkas, tangos, and waltzes. It was a dream, led by a small man with a mustache. All the girls had to wear knee-length, flounced skirts and character shoes with a little heel. I was never completely clear on the purpose of the class, as none of us was likely to find ourselves among the rabble of peasantry in a ballet like Giselle. But it was easy and fun, the girls with their hair down for a change, skipping like innocents.

One of the few boys in the program, a tall gay blond, could never get over the difference in my appearance when my hair swung loose past my shoulders.

“You should wear your hair down more,” he said.

Sally agreed. “It suits you.”

We bounced in a line, chatting over the music, the teacher leading us forward heel-toe, heel-toe, in a sort of German jig. I sighed to see my stubborn young breasts jiggle under my chest-hugging leotard. No matter the weight I lost, they clung to me roundly, foreign objects on the smooth landscape of my body.

* * *

Sally’s lips were thinly drawn but soft and her breath was sweet with cinnamon. I drew away from her after our kiss, first and last kiss, uncertain of the intent. We were standing on a stairway, an old wood stairway with a large window on the landing letting in a wash of sunshine like a spotlight. The kiss, unanticipated, unsought, was not unwelcome. Sally and I had stopped on the stairs during conversation, Sally pausing to emphasis her point, a point having to do with why anyone would do this to themselves; that is, why would any one want to be a dancer.

“But when you dance, sometimes,” she said, “when you’re relaxed, you move – you move like water.” Then she leaned forward and kissed me.

I didn’t see all that much of Sally outside of class. Being a year older, she was allowed to stay in the college dormitories and had no curfew. She had also fallen in with a group of theater students whose wardrobes all more closely resembled her own. But she paid me attention enough and we shared our circle of privileged sarcasm during classes. She wasn’t much of a reader but she respected my own literary tendencies. She had at least heard of the books I read even if she hadn’t actually read them herself.

The truth of the thing, discovered later, was that I was Sally’s shameful little secret, one she kept from her other, cooler friends, the fact that she really was more attracted to a normal sort of a girl, with long curls and a scrubbed-clean face. But when she stooped to kiss me on the stairs, I didn’t know these things; I thought only that I had been graced with something special, unnamed -- a thing simpler than what a boy might want from me. I followed her up the stairs to class, a happy scrambling skinny puppy, hungry for attention.

After the kiss, there weren’t only the usual whispered subversions during class, but little touches not so unusual in such a place, a place where our bodies weren’t our own. An instructor was always grabbing some part of you, grasping your leg in an uncaring hand and lifting it past its point of control, holding it in the air above your ears, and then saying somewhere behind you, “Look what you could do if you only tried.” Sally and I made small caresses out of tiny gestures, fingers on the small of backs and trailing down between shoulder blades, dainty prompts filled with hesitancy. And then the letter came.

The letter was from Sally’s boyfriend, who had led by the age of twenty a life like a character in a novel by Nin. Sally knew about her boyfriend’s male lovers; she had told me as well, proud of him, his lack of inhibition, his sensitivity. I imagined him as looking quite like Sally, bisexual Bobbsey twins draped in tattered Christian Death t-shirts.

Sally and I made our usual pas de deux in ballet class the afternoon the letter arrived, mimicking the overblown instructor, pulling our bodies up tight, our waists carved out and corseted by air.

“Lovely,” the teacher said, her left hand resting on my hipbone, her right hand flat against my lower back, before her gaze drifted away over our heads.

Most of the students were flying well under the radar of the faculty, myself included. Students were only noticed for one of their many faults, sickled feet and drooping elbows, imperfections never quite connected into a whole person. The woman found me beautiful just as I was beginning to disappear. In the mirror I could see that my abdomen was a shallow vessel, my ribs articulated like the thin bars of some exotic birdcage. I was flat, a beaten metal sculpture.

After class, Sally sat in the hall to read her letter and I sat close to her, stretching, pushing my knees down in a butterfly, soles of my feet together. I tucked my chin and rolled down my spine until my head touched my feet, and then unrolled one vertebrae at a time, up level by level, stacking them like blocks until my head tilted up to see Sally crying.

“What?” I said. I put one hand on her neck and scooted close, dipping my head down to see the paper in her hand but I couldn’t read the handwriting.

“He has AIDS.”

The words set off a chain reaction in my torso, opening a whirlpool in my gut. I fell into it and away from Sally, my hand lifting away from her without thought, an instinct for retreat pulling me to my feet. I stood over her, thinking of sweat and breath, all the naked bleeding toes in class, all of us with our soles cracking from neglect and misuse. I staggered there a moment and then walked away, walking fast but not running, leaving Sally alone in the hallway to pick up the pieces of herself as she could.

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