I used to think if something was really important, I’d never forget it. I have a good memory, not photographic or anything, but good enough to ensure Bs in school with little effort. I can also keep my mouth shut, so people tell me secrets, intimacies I’d often times rather not know. Maybe that’s what fouled me up — how I managed to keep the biggest secret of all from myself. I’m not kidding. I cleanly forgot the event that governed the first seventeen years of my life.
To this day, whenever I show a model of the brain to the families of my stroke patients, I can’t help probing its folds for the best place to tuck valuables. I’ve made a career of it, devising therapies with food and odors, music and art for people who’ve lost whole parts of themselves. I understand their loss. In a way, I’ve been one of them, though at the time, I didn’t know it.
I thought I was normal the day I left Illinois, a month after my seventeenth birthday. Mother knew the truth. She drove me to the airport, Mother did, eyes speaking a language of doe-brown sadness, though her lips didn’t move. I looked away and focused on the hot air blowing the hairs on the arm I dangled out the open window. I had little room for her sadness, exhilarated as I was. The future stretched before me, boundless and bright as the sapphire sky, and I was a brand new kite, riffling in the wind and anxious to be launched.
Da wasn’t with us. He said he had to work, but that wasn’t true because it was Sunday, and only ministers, farmers, nurses and waitresses worked on Sunday in the Midwest of the late sixties. No. He didn’t like my prospects, and absence was his protest. His little girl, living in New York. He hadn’t raised me so tenderly to “throw me to the dogs.”
At the edge of Deerfield, where the houses dwindled into cornfields, Mother turned the car in suddenly at the A and W Root Beer stand. As she braked to a stop, the overhang of the V-shaped roof cast a shadow across us in the front seat. How many times had we stood in the shelter of that overhang, skin glowing yellow under the bug bulbs and flickering orange from the neon tube that lined the roof? On long-gone summer evenings when Da couldn’t make it home for supper, we’d come, just the two of us. Pink mare’s tails faded on the western horizon and lightning bugs flashed in the dusk while we ate hot dogs, doused in catsup. Her arm kept me from falling backward off the picnic bench before my feet touched the ground.
Mother opened her car door. “How about one last root beer float?” she asked. Her eyes were hopeful.
“Okay,” I said, pointing my toe inside my sandal straps and watching my calf muscle form a hardened ball while she limped off to the window to place the order. I couldn’t really drink it, not the day before my New York debut, but neither could I bear to disappoint her. The froth on top, well, I could taste it now, sucked up through the straw: hint of vanilla ice cream flavored in the licorice sweetness of root beer. Then — straw tossed aside — its cool, creamy texture plunging down my throat, making me shudder.
Mother slid back into the driver’s seat and ceremoniously handed me the waxed cup, its contents welling up to the rim, then overflowing on my fingers. She sat and watched while I unwrapped my straw, then waited to see my face when I took a sip. “MMmm,” I said, tongue licking my fingertips. Then I inserted the straw and sucked, smiling and watching her watch me, but didn’t pull the liquid as far as my mouth before letting go and allowing it to drain back into the cup. “Your turn,” I said, and watched her take a real sip. With the diabetes, that was all she could have. Then she had to be content to watch me drink.
I was sorry to deny us this one last indulgence, really I was, but I couldn’t afford an extra ounce on my body. I’d see it in the mirror the next day and hate myself. And even one good sip — well, I just couldn’t trust myself. I didn’t know what might happen. At best, I’d drink the whole thing down and gain two pounds. At worst, I’d lose my nerve entirely and cancel my future, stay home with Mom and wallow in root beer for the rest of my life. No, it was better this way. Best to make a clean break.
We sped on toward the airport in the blue Buick wagon Da had bought for her fortieth birthday, me taking pretend sips. The cup sweated in my hands and cooled me in the humid air. When Mom turned into airport parking, I scouted the lot and spotted a space near a landscaped median up by the terminal. “To the right, Mom. There’s a good place. You’ll be close enough to get a sky cap.” Then while she hobbled to the back of the car to unlock the tailgate, I ran to the curb to hail some help, stooping at the median long enough to pour the cup’s precious contents into the dirt.
Mom stood in the airport, her toeless right foot confined in its oxford, and that look on her face, well, I couldn’t look without crying, so I looked at the floor and the ceiling and anywhere but at her eloquent eyes. She pressed a folded check into my palm, then I felt the weight of her clutching arms, wanting to hold me to the earth, to Deerfield’s Midwestern soil. “You’re sure about this Emma Kate?” she whispered into my hair. “You can still change your mind. You don’t have to go.”
We’d been over and over this. “Bye, Mom,” I said quietly, wresting myself from her grip. It was now or never. I kissed her cheek lightly, then turned and marched off to the plane without looking back.
The stairs rose to the sun-baked jet, and as I climbed, the heat radiating from its steel met the energy inside me and kindled excitement so intense it threatened to burst through my skin.
In the doorway, I paused and almost looked back, the way I once had at the top of the huge wooden slide at the funhouse. But then, ashamed to chicken out before the crowd of kids rushing up the stairs, I counted three and pushed off. Heart in throat, I slid through the dark wooden tube, banked on the high side of one curve, then flew over to the high side of the next, before reaching the nearly vertical drop on my way to the brightly lit rotunda at the bottom. For days afterward I watched scabs heal over the stinging floor burns wherever my skin had rubbed against the slide’s polished wood. Never, despite the sting, had I considered them too high a price to pay for the thrill.
I wouldn’t look back now either, but I wanted Mother there with me at the top of the slide. That was stupid though. At her age, with her stubby foot, her kite had a hole. She was permanently earthbound. Tears pooled in my eyes and blurred my vision. Once in my seat, I flattened my palm to the window. One last good-bye. My fingers made Vs against the glass. When I looked between them, she was still there.
And now Da was beside her. He’d almost held out, but not quite, which was why I knew I could leave. In the end, no matter what he said, Da was there for us.
While the plane taxied down the runway, I clamped my eyes tight to keep the tears from escaping. The plane turned, then stopped and revved its engines. I felt its power vibrate through the seat. As the plane took off, the air under its wings buoying it up over the acres and acres of farmland that was Illinois, I mentally told Da how badly I wished I could still be content to see the world from my little girl perch on his shoulders.
Opaque black nylon clung to Daniel LaVal’s sculpted body like a second skin. The midmorning sun glared off the window beside him so that half his face reflected white light while the rest receded in shadow. My five-foot, four-inch self — red-haired, freckled and stupid with awe — stood facing him in the office of New York’s Ballet Internationale.
“Ma-rie, so good to see you a-gain,” he said. “How was the flight? Are you set-tled yet?” His French accent cut a scalloped edge in his voice. Piano music, mechanical in its regularity, filtered through the walls in the background.
“She says her name is Emma Kate Thomas,” his receptionist said, standing up abruptly so that her roller chair clattered into the wall. Her straight skirt, hollow cheeks, and severely pulled-back hair made me flatten my stomach and tuck it up under my rib cage.
“Be sure to give your new ad-dress to Mrs. Mayhew, Ma-rie,” Daniel said, dropping his chin and staring at Mayhew as he took a drag on his cigarette. He would call me any name he liked, the look said, and defy anyone to object. Not that I dared. My head barely made it to his armpit.
Daniel stretched an oversized hand toward me, kneaded my shoulder, exhaled smoke through his nostrils, and planted a kiss in the depths of my hair. His musky cologne and the scent of my soap lost themselves in tobacco fumes. “Put her in my class,” he said tamping his cigarette in a foil ashtray on the marble sill.
Mayhew’s eyebrows rose to her hairline. “You want her in the company class? What about Bobby? Everyone starts with Bobby.”
“I want her with me.”
With that declaration hanging over Mayhew’s desk, Daniel turned and left. The room was instantly larger.
I locked my knees to keep from dancing on Mayhew’s dismay. The company class. On my first day. He had to mean the performing company, or she wouldn’t be so shocked. Maybe I could make my way in three months after all. I’d collect a paycheck and land a role by September — no problem. Never have to go back and listen to Da again.
“Stars and Stripes Forever” began blaring in my head, tossing me around with its rhythm and noise. You read about this stuff in the papers — some kid from the cornfield discovered by an industry giant and launched to stardom overnight. But me? Shoot. Mother would know I was the real thing.
That did it. “Which way is the dressing room?” I asked Mrs. Mayhew.
The studio was cavernous and empty. Cars coughed and garbage trucks grumbled through the open windows. Close-up shots of tall buildings filled each window frame. Otherwise, the room looked so much like the studio back in Deerfield, it might have flown in with me from Illinois. Strips of fluorescent lights hung from a high, plastered ceiling and cast a green sheen across the expanse of wood floor. The scent of Jean Naté lingered on dancing ghosts. Low and high barres, turned on a lathe and varnished, lined three walls. Mirrors covered the fourth. A tall stool stood in front of the mirror, the grand piano squatted in one corner, and a shallow resin box — big enough for both feet — sat in the opposite corner, dotted with orange crystals that crunched and smelled faintly of pine pitch when I shattered them with my shoes. Along the barre, white circles of powdered resin patched the floor like spotlights, tacky enough to keep the dancers’ feet from slipping without thwarting movement as they warmed up. I seated myself in a patch and began to stretch, soles of my feet together, knees flat to the floor, torso bending forward with rounded and then flat back.
Minutes passed and the company dancers drifted in. Each one claimed a resin patch, hung a hand towel over the low barre, and began to stretch. Very familiar so far. Maybe I’d lain awake all night in the strange bed for nothing. Maybe I’d pick up in New York this Monday where I’d left off Friday in Deerfield — the director’s little darling, lauded in the daily paper, acknowledged citywide, bound for greatness. Maybe this wasn’t such a giant leap after all. Maybe Mr. Barrie had exaggerated — so New York itself wouldn’t overwhelm me.
Daniel entered the studio followed by the pianist. Twenty women got up from variations on the lotus position and straddle splits and stood silently at the barre next to their towels. Daniel walked to the center of the room, fit his feet into a tight fifth position, and said, “Give me two de-mi and two grand pliés, fol-lowed by full ports de bras and back bend in se-cond, first, fourth and fifth. The arm moves from se-cond to fifth high and down through first on the grand plié.” He executed a perfect fifth position grand plié in the middle of the room, left arm holding an invisible barre, right arm floating up from his side, over his forehead, and down the midline of his body in opposition to his bending and straightening knees.
Two pliés into the combination — back straight, knees bending, and arm floating from an unperturbed torso — I knew Mr. Barrie hadn’t exaggerated. All of Illinois offered no adequate preparation for Daniel LaVal. When Mr. B. set combinations, he stayed tidily inside himself, conducting class with the quiet discipline of a convent. Occasionally he left his own space to tap lightly on a dancer’s elbow or knee, but just as quickly he retreated inside his skin.
Daniel LaVal didn’t teach class. He occupied it. While we warmed our muscles, he sang to the music in syllables — yaaa-taaa-ta-te-da — his rich baritone rising and falling on the phrase, playing tag around the corners of the ceiling. He walked the length of the barre carrying a paper bag in one hand. At intervals his hand disappeared into that bag and then, right in the middle of the class’s bending and bowing their homage to him in the plié and ports de bras, he stopped the singing short and began sucking on a plum. His upper lip — or the space between his nose and his actual upper lip — became the focus of his face. I watched it move as he sang or suckled on a plum from that sack, the delicate curve of his bowed lips curling around its circumference. His lips glistened and he didn’t wipe them, except on my hair when he came up behind me and kissed the top of my head. None of the other dancers seemed to think his behavior odd.
The music was some comfort. Familiar Chopin waltzes and Schumann variations. So were the steps. Battement tendus, jettes, fondus. Daniel’s combinations were not particularly intricate. We did each exercise with the right foot, then faced the other way to do it with the left. I looked in the mirror at the line of us doing our ronds de jambes, drawing semicircles on the floor with pointed toes at the end of long, straight legs. The elegance of line and unison movement mesmerized me — until I fastened upon myself. My one hundred and eight pounds, thin enough for a five-foot, four-inch dancer by Illinois standards, jarred my eye. Didn’t fit. Among Daniel’s Chosen I looked childish and chubby, an ungainly puppy disrupting his swanlike corps de ballet. Even my name was wrong. The dancers in front of me were named Kendra and Camille and Patrice, which spoken in Daniel’s voice sounded like rare species of orchids. He moved among them, tending his hot house, purring and pruning at their loveliness, sovereign god of his personal Eden.
Emma Kate was a geranium name.
The others looked delicate, especially their necks and through the midriff where their ribs corrugated their leotards. Their collarbones sculpted their shoulders above very low necklines. A fine gold chain circled Camille’s throat, an amethyst pendant resting just inside the dimple, center front. Kendra wore tiny diamond stud earrings. Her skin was the white of my Japanese geisha doll’s.
My neck looked sturdy and my collarbone hardly showed at all. I was the only person in the room wearing a bra. My hair was too red and too thick. My skin had a freckled, Midwestern glow and I wore pearls on my ears. Clip pearls. Compared to the feathery curves penciled over their eyes, my eyebrows looked colored on with crayon.
Their grand battements were crisp, perfect, pencil thin legs kicking high in the air, front, side, and back, folding automatically into perfect fifth positions between each one. My legs — the envy of dancers in Deerfield — felt sloppy and heavy, as if my hips had been injected with Novocain. My knees strained to achieve a more turned-out fifth position than my hips allowed.
Daniel didn’t appear to notice. He offered no correction of my barre work though he rearranged the others, repositioning an arm, the tilt of the head, the lift of the chin, the direction of the hips. But me he did not correct. Geraniums made it on their own, stuck outside is some clay pot in the sun and the rain.
Each time he passed, he kissed me. The pressure of his lips on my part made me shorter, stubbier, even chubbier than I already felt. I kicked away on the beat, breathed deeply and applied all my concentration to suppressing the shudder that erupted in my gut. Inhale . . . 2, 3, 4, exhale . . . 6, 7, 8.
Daniel put us in groups for floor work, assigning me to the back line of the last group. He demonstrated the adagio for us — slow, controlled movement from plié and ports a bras into various arabesques. Daniel’s adagio was exquisitely controlled, sustaining itself on top of perfect balance. The lines he drew with arms, legs and head extended on in space, to outer space, dividing it in brief freeze frames that dissolved when he moved on to the next step and carved the space some other way. When Daniel danced I saw not only the sculpture his body made, but also the shape cut out of the air around him so that I didn’t know whether the figure or the background was more bewitching.
My adagio was a feeble imitation. If Daniel didn’t judge me, the watching dancers did. I saw the looks they exchanged reflected in the mirror. Patrice rolled her eyes at Kendra as I botched the arabesques with little hops when I lost my balance. Only one of the unnamed dancers — a peony among the orchids — looked on me kindly. But I hated the mingling of pity and fear in her eyes.
When class finally ended after the waltz combination, jumps and turns, I fled to the dressing room. It was rectangular and windowless, the walls lined with coat hooks and crude wooden benches. The Camille crowd congregated together at one end near a white vanity table and mirror, opposite where I dressed behind the door, as if they feared that clumsy was contagious. I looked for the peony, but without her faltering balance to distinguish her, she’d disappeared in their ranks. They all looked older to me; at least their underarms were more hollowed out than mine. Their eye make-up was black, so that their faces were overtaken by their eyes, like elegant insects — praying mantises. They didn’t talk in my presence. Their mantis eyes watched me roll the sweat-soaked leotard down my body, inspecting each inch of my flesh. The hair on my arms stood at attention; my flesh grew warm inside my sweaty skin. Hadn’t their mothers taught them it was impolite to stare? Stupid question. They had no mothers. Stork deliveries. Every one of them.
The early afternoon sun cast a skewed rectangle through the screenless window of my boardinghouse bedroom. The window faced west, which meant my parents were out there somewhere, standing behind me, for all Da’s protests that I should go to college, his certainty that I was throwing my life away. I pictured them in the airy glass house Da had built on a hill top, its roof sloping gently like a bird alighting, ready to fold its wings.
My room here was a simple cell, gray-painted wood floor and green walls, furnished with a mattress on an iron bed frame, a wooden bureau with four drawers, a shabby brown-cushioned chair and a wooden wardrobe with two rusty hangers that tinged against each other when I opened the door. A fluorescent circle mounted in the center of the ceiling provided the only light at night. After I’d unpacked the day before, I positioned my footlocker against the wall at the head of the bed to serve as combination bookshelf and nightstand. I put Grandma Nonny’s worn leather Bible on the trunk — I’d tucked it in for good luck — and spread her quilt on the bed, but its bright morning glory appliqué looked feeble, drowning in the room’s drabness. But what did I expect to get for thirty dollars a week with two meals a day and sheets and towels included? Besides, it didn’t matter. I’d come to dance, and this was the price I paid for the wondrous skyline of skyscrapers, the evening of multicolored lights flashing outside my window — so much more exciting than the endless expanse of plowed farmland in Illinois. Mother loved how the clods of dung-colored earth clung to the newly sprouted corn plants, inhaled deeply the manure worked into the soil that was so much a part of June in Illinois you ceased to smell it after awhile. She didn’t understand that growing corn was boring, each row the same, one after another, forever and ever, corn without end, Amen. That beauty was stage light and music and movement, bodies in motion, carving sculpture in space, not endless sky as far as you could see in a huge dome over the flat cornfields. Life in Illinois meant farming inside a blue basketball. I just didn’t get it.
I pushed myself away from the window frame, grabbed my bunched-up leotard and tights from my dance bag and Ivory flakes from the closet shelf, then headed for the bathroom down the hall. The bathroom door said Water Closet. I closed myself in the green-tiled room.
As for Daniel — hmmm. He’d put me in his class. My success depended on him, and if he wanted to kiss my hair, well . . . . I filled the basin with warm water and squeezed soap into the water until suds bubbled up. Was that so bad really?
I pulled the leotard from the tights. If I were going to be governed by feelings, I’d better go home right now. I doused the pink tights up and down in the bubbles and shoved them up next to the faucet. Water pooled around the faucet handles and ran onto the floor.
The black leotard clouded the water. Maybe my technique wasn’t all that bad. Maybe I was just feeling defensive. It made sense to feel awkward your first day in a new place. Maybe the others stared at me because they were jealous. Maybe I was better than all of them. Yeah. That was it.
I rinsed each garment in cool, clear water. Daniel was a genius. That’s why only he could see my potential. Daniel and Andrew. I wrung the leotard out, twisting its length into a corkscrew. I stared at myself in the mirror while I wound the tights blindly.
Andrew was the other person who really believed in me. He’d told me so on the all-night train trip when we traveled to Washington, D.C. with Mr. Barrie to perform his ballet Night Song at the annual festival of regional ballet.
“Emmy, I need to talk to you,” Andrew had said when Mr. Barrie left his seat in the row behind us to go smoke in the club car and the train swayed on and on in the dark.
I looked up from my book, a paperback copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles I had to read for Mr. Noble’s English class. Angel Claire had just spotted Tess at a country fair maypole dance. Weird name for a man — Angel, though less weird with the hypnotic singsong of the train crossing joints in the track for background sound. “I-am-a-broken-roller-skate,” said the train, over and over again. The child in the seat across the aisle was about to spill her milk and Andrew reached out to steady the glass. Her mother smiled a tired thank you at him, but he wasn’t watching.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” Andrew said. His words didn’t quite penetrate. I was stuck in my train trance, though my mind registered that his chin-length blond hair, held in place by an Indian headband, softened the sharp line of his jawbone. He grabbed my chin with one hand, jostling my shoulder with the other. “Emmy,” he said. His stricken brown eyes came into focus. “I’m just realizing . . . how important it is.”
“What’s to worry about, Andrew? What could happen?” We rounded a curve in the tracks and the train chanted more slowly, as if to emphasize my words.
The chant speeded up again. Andrew took a deep breath and sighed. “For a long time I’ve known we were good together, Em. As dancers, I mean. It’s not just height, stride. All that stuff is right. But you’re different from the others. Some of them have better technique, sure, but anybody can improve technique. Good technicians are a dime a dozen.” He paused for a moment, looking down the aisle with his eyes out of focus. “You hear the music with your whole body, down to the soles of your feet. You dance because the music does, not because your brain tells your body what to do.”
Andrew had my attention now, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know he thought my technique was weak. I didn’t know he’d noticed my peculiar ability to speak the music’s language. I could speak Chopin, which was different from when I spoke Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven. It wasn’t that I’d had to learn it either. It was a sixth sense I had, like he said.
“I don’t want to lose you, Em.” His hand found mine and held it. “We’re both seniors. We need to decide what we want, before someone makes the decision for us.”
“We’re not puppets, Andrew. We have minds of our own.”
“You know I have to go to school in the fall, Emmy. School or Viet Nam. I want you to go to college with me.”
“You sound just like Da. But don’t worry. I’ve got nowhere else to go. And, if my technique is as bad as you say, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“I didn’t say it was bad. It’s just not your greatest strength.”
“Same difference. Nothing to worry about. And, if you really want me to stick around, try not to be so honest.”
He pulled his hand away. “You’re impossible,” he said. “You don’t ever hear what I’m saying.”
Andrew had thick, square hands with blue veins that protruded on their backs in a way that looked vulnerable and appealing. I reached for the hand he’d pulled from mine and stroked the top of one vein, back and forth with my finger, to comfort myself as much as him. What could I say? He was right. I was impossible. I hungered after the kind of praise he was giving me, dreamed of soaking in it until I couldn’t help but believe it, but then, when he sat right next to me saying lovely words I’d been waiting all my life to hear, I couldn’t receive it. I was sorry I couldn’t. Didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. The wall I built between us — brick on brick of intentional misunderstanding, patched with new misconceptions whenever his kindness broke through — made no sense. Why did I do it, when I really cared about Andrew? When what I really wanted was to dance with him, to accept his devotion, to feel his arms around me, his warm, sweet breath in my ear?
The curtain glided open. In iridescent tunics — not pink, not blue — we held our opening pose in silence, shimmering in muted stage light. Andrew’s palms were soft and dry. His arms wrapped round me firmly, and he whispered through the half of my hair that spilled down my back, “Block them all out. It’s just you and me and Chopin.”
The pianist positioned his hands over the keyboard. I watched his head out of the corner of my eye, waiting for the nodded upbeat. Andrew’s breathing quickened, the head nodded, the piano sounded the opening bars of the Chopin E-flat Nocturne. Enlivened air filled my lungs and ran through my blood in a rush. My spirit opened. My mind retired. My body began to dance.
With the nocturne’s sinuous sighing, our bodies under-and overlapped. We wove its two melodies into a shawl of gently dissonant harmony. To remove the wall between us, I didn’t guard my center of gravity, maintain my own balance, or preserve my freedom. I trusted Andrew’s strength, released my muscles to rest in his arms, and allowed him to support me while I explored the subtleties of each phrase. His arms tightened and accommodated my weight. I felt him exhale and matched my breathing to his. His energy flowed through my body. He grew fluent in my language, and we spoke Chopin in tandem.
Our harmony of mind and body brought a new freedom. On the aerial lifts, gravity loosened its grip. Andrew no longer had to lift me, hold me suspended and then cushion my descent; I had become airborne as a kite. He had but to launch me, guide my flight, and reel me in when the phrase wound down.
It lasted twenty minutes, our tryst with each other and Chopin. At the end of that time, Chopin dropped out.
We held our final position until the curtain glided closed. When it met center stage, Andrew dropped his raised arm onto my shoulder and turned me to face stage front. The audience began applauding, slowly at first, then more deliberately. When the curtain flew back, leaping in its track, we walked forward to the apron. The applause rang in my ears, in counterpoint to the beating of my heart, the panting of my breath, and the exhilaration of the moment. We bowed to the audience. My knee touched the floor, and I rose from the révérence, looking to Andrew who moved one step back with his arm extended toward me, eyes clinging to mine. The applause thundered louder, and I turned back to the audience and bowed again. Bravos sounded from around the theater. Then Andrew took my hand, and we retreated back to center stage. The curtain retraced its path, slowly this time. The clapping continued, and we found ourselves out on the apron again, drawn by the mysterious pull of applause, ebbing and flowing with the opening and closing of the curtain.
After the curtain closed the fourth time, the applause died and Andrew took me in his arms. His tunic absorbed the perspiration on my chest and glued us together in a happy bond of heavy breathing. When we settled into a less frantic, more sustained rhythm, I tried to move. Silk stuck to my back where the palms of his hands held me.
“Emmy,” he said.
I looked up into his face and his mouth grazed mine. Not a proper kiss really, just a passing suggestion. Familiarity rather than intimacy, though our familiarity had never before extended this far. He released me then and traced my arms from elbow to shoulders with his finger tips. The sensation rippled through my body, reverberating, expanding, rioting. I didn’t move and he plunged his hands into the thick of my hair at the nape of my neck, fingering through its depths and spreading it in a cloak that grabbed at my sweat-dampened shoulders. His eyes narrowed, and a soft mist covered their penetrating brown. Then, placing a hand over each ear, he tilted my chin downward and gently kissed the length of my center part from the crown of my head forward, as if to erase it at the same time he satisfied a deep inner hunger. I closed my eyes and he advanced on down my forehead, pausing briefly to press one kiss more firmly in the center — his invisible mark — before moving on down where his lips found my mouth and lingered. Soft. So soft. Lost. So lost. Down. Down. Deep. Very deep. So very soft. And then it ended, as gently as it began.
That was the night before Daniel LaVal’s master class. Before Daniel camped out next to me at the barre as if I was the only person in a gymnasium full of dancers from the eastern half of the country. Before I noticed how puny and babyish Andrew looked next to him. Before Daniel asked Mr. Barrie how soon I was available to come to New York.
“June,” I told Mr. B. “Tell him I graduate in June.” I spoke emphatically, sensing Mr. Barrie’s hesitation, Andrew’s devastation, and knowing my father would never allow me to go.
It was June. I’d managed Da. Here I was. In a tiny bathroom surrounded by an enormous city.
I carried the sodden dance clothes to my room, and hung them to dry over the empty curtain rod. Garbage from the alley below soured the air my open door pulled through the window. Shadows of arms and legs danced on the patch of sunlight. Water collected along the nylon toes, crotch, and sleeves and dribbled onto the floorboards. I threw a towel onto the puddle.
The photo I’d carefully set up on the paint-chipped bureau caught my eye. “Can you see me, Mom?” I asked the woman who looked out at me from her blurry image on Kodak paper. She stood in the back garden leaning on a ladder, wearing one of the floor-length caftans she’d disappeared behind in the days after my sister’s death. Her prematurely gray hair lay over her shoulders in wisps as if it were about to fly off, uncertain if it wanted to stay on the planet. My fingers automatically found the base of my neck and began combing through my hair. An old, self-comforting habit.
I’d repositioned the picture on the bureau to give her a better view of my room when a crotchety voice crab-walked down the hall. “Damn these kids. Can’t clean up after themselves. Pigs, all of them. Think it ‘ud kill ‘em to lift a finger.” An old woman shuffled out of the bathroom, waving an arm weighted with a raggedy plaster cast. I stepped back out of sight. “You, there. I caughtcha! Don’t you try to hide from me.” She flew at my doorway like an injured hen, arm flailing at my dripping laundry. “You’re the one left water all over the bathroom floor. Just you try and deny it.”
My heart pounded in my ears. “I’m sorry.”
“I bet you are. Same as the other kids around here. Only think about themselves. You’re not the only ones living here, you know.” Her eyes narrowed into little slits. “Who do you think I am? Your mother?” She shook her head. “You couldn’t care less if I fall and break my bones. But your day is coming . . . .” With that threat she wagged an arthritic finger at me and began to laugh. The laughter triggered a coughing fit that doubled her over. She disappeared through the door next to mine.
I pressed my palms against my ears, but the pounding in my head got louder. I sat down on the bed, hugged the pillow, and drew my knees to my chest. Tears puddled in my eyes and I wiped them with the flattened white pillowcase the rooming house provided.
The old woman was wrong about me. I hadn’t meant anyone any harm. Mother had taught me to be thoughtful and considerate. I didn’t even know old people lived in the building. But the old witch would never believe that. She’d made up her mind and it would take a bulldozer to change it.
The plaster walls muffled the sound of her hacking. Still, my throat felt its clawing. I ran down the hall to the bathroom where I couldn’t hear. If the water were mopped up quickly, maybe she’d forget. Calm down. Quit coughing.
When the hallway was quiet again, I retraced my steps, closed the door, and grabbed Grandma Nonny’s quilt off the bed. I wrapped myself in it and rubbed the soft fibers into my cheek. I picked up the ivory hand mirror Nonny had given me — a substitute eye to watch me grow up. Subtle street make-up stared back, eyebrows thick over doe-brown eyes. The Ali MacGraw natural look had been cultivated in Illinois since Good-bye Columbus. It looked homegrown in New York.
I took tweezers from my make-up bag and scrutinized my browline. The quilt fell from my shoulders into a nest on the floor. I pulled a hair from my right eyebrow, then yanked a matching one from the left and massaged my brow bone in circles to relieve the pain. But then, for some reason, the pain seemed an essential part of the ordeal, so I continued plucking but stopped rubbing, watching the skin redden and tears well up in my eyes as I tore each hair out by the root. The fine hairs on the underside slid out almost painlessly, but the coarser hairs in the main brow line had roots that bulled through the skin with an excruciating twinge.
It took me twenty minutes to tweeze the year’s growth into a feline curve. The act became a small statement to myself, a commitment, a covenant with some great high priest, that said I would stick it out at any cost. I signed it on the mirror, in the pinpoints of blood that popped forth in tiny rosebuds as each hair broke free.