Why I left Ballet (from my essay “Cat among Crows”)

My dream of becoming a ballet dancer had come true.  The thing was, I’d outgrown it.

            Summer, 1992—Seattle’s had less rain than usual.  It’s so hot, even through tights my legs stick to the window ledge.  My aching feet, in pointe shoes, beg me to end this torture.  The little toe on the right is bleeding; I see red coming through the satin, but there’s no time to treat it.  The corps de ballet is on a ten minute break, just long enough to pee and smoke.  The other girls who didn’t remain in the studio to stretch headed for the smoking room for a quick round of bitch and moan.  I declined their invitation, retreating to this hideout that I discovered my first day here.

            It’s getting harder to pretend I’m like them, though I once was.  All I wanted was to be a dancer in a major ballet company—to be one of the four cygnets in Swan Lake; to dance the Balanchine masterpieces.  Now I am living the dream of that former self.

To be fair, there are some aspects of my job that still give me a charge, like dancing the opening in Who Cares?, where the music’s all Gershwin, and you whack your legs up in the air, flick your wrists and jut out your hips. Or Swan Lake Act II, after the corps’ entrance: where you tear around the stage, flapping your arms like a maniac and then stop on a dime when the prince comes.

I’ll be so into it, remembering at last why I do this in the first place and then, after a performance, I’ll get notes—the director’s list of everything I did wrong during the show.  (Everyone gets notes, but lately I get more than average.)  And I think to myself: I’m having a great time out there (not counting the pain) if you don’t like my dancing, watch someone else.

So I know it’s time to stop.  To become that other me, who went to a fancy Ivy League University and then lied about it, so people would believe I was only eighteen and consider me for their corps de ballet.  Before I left for college, my ballet teachers begged me:  “Dance now!  School will wait!”   I should have listened.  Princeton changed me, removed my blinders to the world outside ballet.  Once they’re off, they never fit right again.  All you see is yourself on the other side of the looking glass.

And speaking of looking glasses—what would it be like to have a job where you don’t spend ten hours a day staring into one?   The mirror is for checking your line and position, your spacing in relationship to the rest of the girls in the corps.  But mostly you’re just taking measure after measure, scrutinizing every flaw.  Thighs, hips, stomach, butt.  You are the fattest one, my reflection tells me, a matron among the sylphs.  It’s not your imagination; you will get another weight warning.  I catch a glimpse of myself in line with the rest of the corps; there is no angle from which I can pretend the above is not true.

And sure enough, the artistic directors—a married couple of aging ballet stars—call me into the office.

“You’re not looking you’re best,” they tell me. “We miss seeing you in your aerobic svelteness.”

            Oh, right, I imagine myself replying, when I was anorexic, you mean.  Yeah.  I miss it too.  Those were the days.

On weekends I devour whole loaves of bread in minutes, throwing up only occasionally.  My bones have begun to drown in flesh.  My thighs, especially in pink tights, become unrecognizable.   I must weigh over one hundred twenty pounds—unthinkable for a ballerina of my height and build (anything over one hundred is pushing it, frankly)—but who’s counting?  It’s just another way to distance myself from this place, this life.

From my perch, I track a spider, tiptoeing across the air a few inches from the stone exterior of the building.  The Good Shepherd Center, in the Wallingford section of Seattle, is the home of Pacific Northwest Ballet, though a move to Seattle Center is planned in the coming year.  The center itself, a former orphanage, later a home for wayward young girls, is an aging beauty of a place, made of stone, wrought iron and dark wood.  The window I’ve claimed is at the end of a quiet hall, with just one office leased by Greenpeace.  I push the window open and take in the wild, rain-enhanced outdoor smells.  Everything is wet and green, the air thick with the mixed-up scent of mildew and wildflowers.  There are crows gathering in the nearest tree: big, black, fixated on something.

“Hey.”  It’s Douglas, invading my solitude, uninvited, undesired.  He’s come straight from wardrobe in his Steadfast Tin Soldier costume, jaunty blue cap and all.  Douglas puts a hand on my neck and starts massaging the wrong way.  “You didn’t come up here to smoke did you?”

“Of course not.”   I turn to give him a smile, to which I’m hoping he’ll respond with a kiss and make tracks.

One of the Greenpeace guys—the lanky, Mediterranean-looking one with the beard—walks past.

“Nice duds,” he tells Douglas and catches my eye for a split second, which is actually better than a cigarette.

Ignoring the guy, or failing to notice someone out of tights—a lowly civilian—Douglas turns around to model his delt-and-pec-accentuating costume for me.  I dutifully acknowledge the improved fit, glancing over Douglas’s shoulder to watch the Greenpeace guy disappear into his office.

Douglas goes back to the seamstress before my ten is up.  No time to smoke now; I’ll just enjoy the smells and watch those crows for a minute more.  They keep on coming, filling the branches of the tree.

“They’re sure going Hitchcock out there.”

I turn, surprised to find that the Greenpeace guy has returned.  He points: “What’s that?”

I look: the crow at the center of the mob is the same color and size as the others, but its movements are awkward; it doesn’t have wings.

“It’s a kitten!”  I say, and the guy leans close.

He says, “Holy shit—it’s a kitten all right.”

I give him a clandestine once-over; he’s about five years younger than me: early twenties.

I say: “Can you climb that tree?”

*

            “So just come home,” says my mother, a few nights earlier.  She waits, listening to see if her words have stemmed this: my weekly crying jag.

It’s two here, but eleven in New York, which means I didn’t wake her this time.  Curling up on the sofa, under the red and orange afghan she made me (Douglas has the AC up high), I try to speak: I’m on contract here.  All that comes out is a juicy, snot-filled sob.  I reach for a tissue to muffle the sound; the bedroom door is closed, but Douglas is a light sleeper.

Mom says, “Oh honey,” which makes me cry harder.   She starts her monologue: “We learn from our mistakes …”  She lists mine: Seattle, signing the contract when I knew it was time to hang up the point shoes and be a real person.  She lists Douglas.

“He was fun in Philly.  But since you moved out there together, you’ve done nothing but complain about him.”  Be kind, she says: let him go.  Jump ship and come home.  She reminds me about a job I can have if I’d just call the number she gave me.

When we hang up, I wrap myself in the afghan and walk into the kitchen.  Douglas forbids smoking in the apartment, so I switch on the fan and open the window before lighting up.  I can see the lights downtown, beyond them the pier and the Puget Sound, all of it facing the wrong way.

*

The Greenpeace office is full of cheap card tables, covered with pamphlets and papers, clipboards and empty Starbucks cups.  One of the sturdier ones supports the weight of two Macintosh computers.  On the floor beneath it is an old-style printer, noisily running something off.  The only person still here when I stop in at six is a girl standing at a table, collating something.  She looks up.

“Can I help you?”

I describe the guy with the beard.

“Jonah?” she says.  “He left for the day.”

She takes in my rehearsal outfit, on the verge of a smile.  She’s younger than me too, with a gangly skinniness I suspect is natural.

I hesitate.  “Did Jonah mention anything about rescuing a kitten?”

She locks eyes on me, knows just why I’ve come.

“He climbed the tree,” she says.  “There was nothing there.  Just crows.”

The printer stops; the girl gets up to gather the accordion of pages, but I beat her to it.

“I’ve got it.”

My fingers quickly find the perforations; fold gently and tear.  Thin paper ribbons ripple to the floor, leaving the edges of the paper clean as a book.   I stack the pages, tapping the bundle on the table to make it even, and suddenly I’m back in college.  I can feel the pleasant weight of pages in my arms, the headiness of seeing my own words in print, the tedium of the chore sweetened by the euphoria of accomplishment.

“Thank you,” says the girl, bringing me back.  “I really hate doing that.  We were supposed to get a laser printer.”

“No problem.”

Now, eyeing my feet, she says, “Do those shoes hurt?  I’ve always wanted to know.”

I tell her, “Yes.”

As I keep folding, tearing, gathering, I start wondering what happened to that cat.  I know I didn’t imagine it; Jonah saw it too.  If the crows had pecked it to death, he would have found something—a carcass—still up in the tree or down among the roots.   I’m sure Jonah would have told this girl, and she’d have told me.  Then I remember that cats have nine lives.

*

A few days later, I’m walking alongside the Puget Sound, which I do whenever I get the chance.  It’s Seattle’s best feature, making up for the haphazard architecture that someone decided made it look like a real city.  But this walkway by the Sound—it’s why I’ve survived here this long, this far from my beloved New York.  I walk.  I gaze at the water, soaking in the view of the mountains, the impossible range of colors in the sky and suddenly, it comes to me: you can stop, you know.  A week goes by, and the thought grows into a promise.

Gradually I release myself from my old dream.  Bit by bit, the weight drops off because I’m not using food as an anesthetic any more.  I stop hating ballet (I am no longer its prisoner) and begin to really dance full out again.  During a petit allegro combination in company class one day, Douglas watches me.

“That was pretty,” he says when I’m done, but his face is sullen.  He says, “You’re leaving.”

It’s not a question.  If it were a question, he would specify: him, the company, or Seattle? Of course, I’m leaving all three, but he doesn’t specify.  I just take his hand and squeeze it.

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2 responses to “Why I left Ballet (from my essay “Cat among Crows”)

  1. Hello, Lisa. You had me entranced from start to finish. Found you on SheWrites. Will follow!

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