Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Pas de Deux

  

 

Bridget was standing in a Marie Callendar’s trying to decide between Coconut Cream and Key Lime. The young man behind the counter was staring at his fingernails; he could care less which pie she ordered, although he might find it gross that her plan was to eat the whole thing right out of the logo-stamped tin while standing at her kitchen counter. Maybe she would set her purse down before picking up a fork but she wouldn’t take her coat off. 

“I think my son would prefer the Coconut.” She looked at the young man’s nametag. “Thank you, Kyle.” She did not have any children.

Kyle walked over to a large metal box with a pump. He turned her pie with one hand as he squirted whipped-cream rosettes on top of the custard. The contraption looked sturdy and functional; it reminded her of something German. Kyle finished and she smiled at him. She hadn’t lied completely; she did have a family—a cat and a husband until the divorce papers were signed.

She felt her trench coat flutter from the suction of the front door and turned to see her former ballet teacher entering. She hadn’t seen Madam in almost ten years. She panicked, sucked in her stomach muscles, straightened her spine, then looked for a place to hide. She had imagined running into her someday, but expected it would be in I. Magnin’s or at a museum, not Marie Callenders.

Madam was holding tightly to the forearm of a young man, obviously a dancer by his turned-out feet and thighs, which were straining against his jeans. The dancer made sure Madam was steady before he let go and spun around to pull the door closed.

When Madam turned to watch him, her whole body moved. She was as stiff and flat as a cardboard doll. With her purple coat, matching turban and preternaturally long neck, she stood out like a spindly, blooming cactus in a patch of municipal-park daisies. Granted, the restaurant had been decorated in earth tones and calico prints to resemble a middle-American farmhouse, but Madam would have stood out in a Four Seasons.

The dancer turned back and grabbed Madam’s elbow. Madam always had a young male dancer in tow. The boys were rare and Madam fawned over her small cadre, inviting them to dinner and stuffing them with pierogis and lasagna. They were allowed to pad their bones with meat. Contrary to Tchaikovsky’s ballet, the boys were the swans. The girls were storks—skinny, abundant, pink and disposable. They’d even gossip like birds in the dressing room at the ballet school, talking about food the way men talked about women, alternating between lust and hate. One bragged about a recipe she had for soup that had no calories—that in fact burned calories when eaten—but she wouldn’t share it.

The dancer was guiding Madam toward the hostess podium. Madam was ethereally thin—her wrist a tiny stick, her ankle a bird’s bone. Bridget could have picked up her pie in one hand and Madam in the other and carried them both out of the restaurant. Everything about Bridget felt enormous around Madam, even her own name was round and bulbous, filling the mouth when spoken. That alone should have been her first clue she’d never make it. Who ever heard of a ballerina named Bridget? It was the name of a stripper or a waitress at Marie Callendars.

She remembered being at the barre for ronds de jambe when Madam lifted the needle off the record, strode over to her, and grabbled her buttocks with a claw-like hand.

“What is this?” she’d asked in her deep, patrician voice. None of them could place her accent, which sounded foreign although there were rumors she was from Brooklyn. “Are you saving for winter?”

Bridget knew the only thing to do was nod in agreement and so she did.

By seventh grade, she had stopped eating and dreamt about food, nothing decadent, just buttered toast and soft-boiled eggs.

Once she was accepted into the corps de ballet, Madam said she’d need to lose ten more pounds. Bridget had curtsied and thanked her.

Her mother asked her if she might be anorexic. She’d read about it in Time magazine. Actually, what she’d said was, “You’re not one of those anorexic girls, are you?”

”I wish,” Bridget whispered.

“What?”

“No,” Bridget had yelled. Her mother didn’t understand. She’d been a swimmer and was now a tennis player with the thick legs and massive forearms to prove it. She told Bridget how she used to eat a grilled cheese sandwich and a milk shake after school and still have room for dinner, as if gluttony were something to brag about.

Another dancer—not the soup-recipe girl but the one who went on to dance with Joffrey ballet and died of heart failure in her twenties—shared her secret for weight loss when they were waiting for their turn to do grand jetes. Soon Bridget, too, had peeling, chapped lips and red knuckles from disposing of unwanted calories. She ate and puked until her teeth started rotting and her dentist eyed her suspiciously, but she couldn’t keep those ten pounds off. 

That was more than fifty pounds ago. Bridget realized that Madam probably wouldn’t recognize her and so she gave up the idea of escape and watched Madam and the boy shuffle along the burnt-orange tiles. Their walk was a macabre pas de deux.

When Bridget’s purging and dieting program worked, Madam would put her in the front row during the adagio. The rows were supposed to be arranged by height—shortest in front, tallest in the back—but they all knew Madam would place the boys and her favored girls, no matter height, in the front row.

“You,” she’d say, “here,” and she’d point to a spot on the floor, sealing Bridget’s fate.

The last year or so of dancing, Bridget was banished to the back row where she watched the buns on the other dancers’ heads bouncing along in their tightly wrapped hairnets. To Bridget, they were an awful lot like the dancers themselves—delicate, strong, and nearly invisible.

While she continued to receive minor corrections from Madam, an adjustment to her port de bra or something, the front row eluded her, and she longed to be insulted and humiliated by Madam again. If it were a contest about who was more disgusted with Bridget—Madam or herself—Bridget won, polluting the back row with her self loathing. In the end, Bridget decided that this—this dance between their wills—was the real dance.

Madam and the boy reached the counter at the same time that Kyle set her boxed pie on the counter. Madam had shrunk but her features were still defined.

When she quit, Bridget was 22 and had been dancing for 14 years. One morning while driving to rehearsal she passed the off-ramp that took her to the studio. She continued driving until she reached the city where she found a park and sat on a bench. She never called. She just stopped showing up. It wasn’t a choice. Something had just died. She entered a period of mourning during which she ate loaves of buttered toast and dozens of eggs. She cut off her hair and grew a colony of pimples around her mouth. She got rid of her bathroom scale. She stopped listening to classical music and it was still too painful for her to watch a ballet. Just the smell of leather ballet slippers and the muffled sound of toe shoes on the stage brought tears of regret to her eyes.

She kept her head down as she searched through her purse for her credit card.

“I’ll be right with you,” Kyle said to Madam as he took Bridget’s card. She could smell Madam’s perfume, L’Air du Temps. Bridget bought a bottle for herself years ago but only to smell, not wear. The bottle had two crystal birds on the lid. They were either kissing or fighting.

Madam turned her body to say something to the boy and saw Bridget. Her eyes were large and grey, but shrouded in a cloudy film. Bridget wondered if she could even see clearly but Madam smiled, “I know you; you were one of my dancers.”

“Yes,” Bridget said, “Bridget.” She began to curtsy but Madam stumbled toward her, pushing the boy aside, then put her arms around her in a sort of hug. She was tiny as a child but bonier.

Madam pulled back and looked at her. “How are you, dear?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” she lied.

“You’re married?”

“Yes.”

“Children?”

She looked over to see if Kyle was listening but he was staring at the credit card machine. “No.”

They stood for a minute looking at each other. Madam smiled dumbly. Bridget thought she might be going senile. She signed her receipt and picked up her pie.

“It was nice to run into you,” she said to Madam. “Nice?” she thought. She felt her belly jiggle. She prepared herself, that fleeting moment before a difficult lift or jump when the dancer drops her character and you see her fear and determination.

“Actually,” she said to Madam, “I’m not fine.” She was holding her pie in front of her like a shield; it felt huge. She shifted it to a hip, wondering if she could count how many pies she’d eaten since she’d last seen Madam. How many diets she had failed.

Madam raised one eyebrow. “You look fine to me.”

“I’m ruined inside. My therapist thinks you gave me PTSD. I’m bulimic. Divorcing for the second time.” She felt a familiar humiliation, as comforting as the scent of Madam’s perfume. But Bridget was tired of the familiar.

“Why did you hate me?”

“I didn’t hate you,” Madam said. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled her shoulders back and down, making her neck seem even longer. There was a hint of frustration in her voice.

“You never invited me to dinner.”

The young dancer moved closer, as if to protect Madam but she held up her hand to hold him off. Her fingers were spread like a dancer’s, her pointer finger straighter than the others, her arm automatically assumed first position. The body never forgets.

She stared at Madam’s knobby knuckles and yellow nails. “Didn’t I have talent?”

“Talent is overrated. Hard work is what matters.”

“It’s all I wanted.”

“We don’t get something because we want it.” Madam waved her hand toward the glass case of refrigerated desserts. “It’s not like choosing a pie.” But it was like choosing a pie, Bridget thought. After a certain point, everything was subjective: pumpkin over berry. Rosine over Bridget.

“It didn’t have to be that way,” Bridget said and she meant it. She realized she probably never would have been a professional ballerina, but she could have enjoyed her small slice.

Madam lifted her chin slightly. She hadn’t changed. Bridget didn’t know what else to do.

“Goodbye, sweet pie," she thought and opened her fingers, releasing her grip on the box. She watched the happy logo as it fell toward the orange tiles. It hit with a splat and whipped cream exploded out of the box onto Madam’s pumps and her own red loafers.

"Oh!” Madam said, looking genuinely surprised.

Bridget stood there trying to figure out if this was progress.

The young dancer leaped to the counter and grabbed a handful of napkins, then bent over to wipe Madam’s shoes. Watching him, Bridget heard Madam’s commands in her head: “Bend from the hips, imagine there is a metal rod inserted in your spine.”

Bridget picked up her destroyed pie and set it on the counter.

Madam looked at her. “I’m only sixty-one but I can’t bend over. This is what the ballet did for me.” 

“Goodbye, Madam,” she said and lifted one arm above her head and executed a beautiful, graceful curtsy, bowing so low that her nose touched her knee.

 

***

 

Madam was frustrated. Just getting out of the car and walking into the restaurant had been difficult, then a former student at the front counter had dropped the pie she was carrying and now she had to stand here waiting for Luke to finish wiping whipped cream off her shoes.

“Your booth is ready,” the hostess said.

“No booth. A table.” She needed a straight-backed chair, not a bench that had been kneaded into mush by a succession of large bottoms. The hostess led her and Luke to a table.

“Enjoy your meal.”

Luke began to sit down before noticing that Madam was standing by her chair, and he jumped back up to help her into her seat. They ordered the grilled chicken. She would take half of hers home for dinner tomorrow but Luke would finish his. She liked watching her boys eat. They shoveled food in with gusto, guiltless and childlike. Her girls ate like little birds, picking at their food, chewing every bite, adding up calories as they swallowed. She knew the routine. It bored her.

That was one of the reasons she never invited the girls to dinner, but there was more to it. All her girls came from money. They lived in large houses with vast lawns and swimming pools that never got used in hamlets called Hillsborough and Atherton. The small house where she and had Lenny lived for the last thirty years would not fit their little girl dreams.

“What was up with that student?”

“Bridget.”

“She seemed upset.”

“She’s a girl.” She set her napkin in her lap. “They’re always upset.”

She tried to remember if Lenny ever forgot to pull out her chair. She’d met him when they were both in the corps de ballet with American Ballet Theatre. They traveled with the company and saw the world together, throwing sweats over their leotards and running out between rehearsals to sightsee. They stayed in shabby hotels with communal bathrooms, but they performed in grand theaters in front of invisible audiences whose mélange of expensive perfumes wafted up to the stage.

They married, then retired and started their own company. In the early days, they lived in the studio’s office with a toaster oven and a sofa that became a bed. She would open all the windows in the morning to air the place out before the dancers started arriving. After they had a full class schedule and staged their first ballet, they had enough money to buy a double-wide trailer which she decorated using her nimble fingers, sewing machine, braided cord and chintz. Nobody had to know that the floors underneath her carpets were scarred linoleum.

The waitress brought her tea and Luke’s milkshake.

“I probably shouldn’t have ordered this,” he said as he unwrapped his straw.

“You worked hard today.”

“I think I’ve finally nailed the entrechat six.”

“You are close.” The boy’s accent was atrocious and made her smile. The waitress set their meals in front of them.

“Close?” Luke spit out his straw. “You hit six or not.”

“You could jump higher. Eat your chicken.” Nobody would ever mistake her for maternal but she played that role with her boys. He would eat his dinner and work on his jump. He would not go home and cry because she suggested he could improve.

She and Lenny had talked about having children but it never happened. There were months when she didn’t have her cycle at all. It was hard to plan for a pregnancy when she wasn’t ovulating. Her doctor had asked her if she was eating enough. What did he know of a dancer’s life?

“When did that woman, Bridget, dance with you?” Luke asked between mouthfuls.

“Years ago.” She tried to do the math and snorted. “You were still in knee pants.”

“You’d think she would have got over it by now.”

“Over what?” She stopped separating her meal into two piles.

“Over you.” Luke blushed, then grabbed the passing waitress and asked for a glass of water.

“What do you mean?”

“Your high standards. Some people have a hard time with them.”

“Then they aren’t cut out for this life.” Dancers, even former dancers, could be so dramatic. Bridget was definitely wrong about one thing. She didn’t hate her girls. If anything, she loved them too much. She was trying to protect them. They didn’t understand how difficult it was going to be for them. Girls were a dime a dozen. It took more than talent to stand out in this world. She worked harder than all of them.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” Luke asked her.

She looked at her plate. He had finished half his meal and she hadn’t taken a bite. All these years of training had paid off. She had forgotten to eat. She lifted her fork to her mouth. Not all her girls were like Bridget. Certainly there were others who were fine and successful—the one who danced with the Stuttgart ballet and that other one who was with Joffrey ballet.

“What was the name of the girl who went to Joffrey?” she asked.

“The one who died?” Luke asked.

“Oh.” She’d forgotten that part. It was in all the newspaper, including the name of Madam’s ballet school.

She shifted in her chair. Her hips ached, but pain wasn’t the problem. She could ignore pain and hunger and had done so all her life. Her problem was the lack of flexibility. That felt like a betrayal. She’d always had supreme control over her body, manipulating her limbs into positions that seemed impossible. Now she couldn’t bend over to cut her own toenails. She was hardening up like a piece of clay left in the sun.

She swallowed a lump of chicken. “What’s it like for you?”

“What’s what like?”

“Dancing. The ballet. What’s it like for a man?”

“I don’t know, like flying.”

“Sometimes I wished I’d been a man.”

“Why? Except for Baryshnikov, women are the stars.”

“Men don’t lose their toenails.” Before she met Lenny, a non-dancer had asked her to the beach. She was embarrassed about her feet, especially the fact that she’d lost both her big toe nails from dancing en pointe. The night before, she’d painted the skin where her nails used to be with red polish.

“True, but there are fewer roles for us; it’s not like the corps is full of men.”

After they opened the studio, Lenny had quit dancing. He decided to run the business end of the studio and that’s what he did. He just hung up his shoes and never looked back. She couldn’t have done that. Dancing was her life. And yet, dancing was slowly taking her life. She was riddled with osteoporosis and arthritis, bones like balsa wood and joints like rusted steel.

When Lenny died six years ago his body still looked hale and healthy. He’d taken the garbage out for her an hour before his heart attack. He never even looked sick.

Luke was staring at her.

“What?” she asked, annoyed.

“Are you going to have pie?”

“No. Go ahead.”

“What do the girls say about me, Luke?” The boy looked up from his pie. He had whipped cream on his lip.

“Nothing.”

“I know they talk. Tell me.”

He swallowed. “I’m serious; they’re too afraid to say anything about you.”

Lenny was the kind one. She saw him chatting with the girls at the front desk. They brought him cookies. He tap danced for them and made them laugh. She had grown to resent him—the one true and good thing in her life. That last morning, she had admonished him for not tying the top of the garbage bag properly. She’d seen the bag by the front door; he left it there and went to get his shoes.

“Lenny!” she’d screamed down the hallway even though the house was small.

He’d popped his head out of their bedroom door.

“It looks like a monkey tied this bag. The trash is going to spill into the can and attract flies.”

He’d just stood there. When she was done, he’d bowed, smiled, said, “Whatever you say, Madam.” It’s like what Bridget had told her, it didn’t have to be that way.

“Are you all right, Madam?” Luke asked her nervously.

She looked up and was realized she was crying. She never cried, not even at the funeral; she’d been composed and dignified, Odette in Swan Lake. She greeted people, thanked them for coming, then went home and drank a bottle of scotch.

“Was it that woman?” Luke looked around for somebody to help him.

She shifted in her chair—her hips—she should be lying down. “Maybe it’s all this calico.” She smiled at her joke. If it weren’t for these hips, she could float away up into the brass light fixtures and disappear.

Luke stood. “I’ll take you home.” He came around to her chair and helped her up. She linked her bony arm through his and collapsed into him.

“Lift me.”

He cradled her legs with his other arm.

“Oh Luke,” she said, blowing a wisp of cottony breath toward his cheek, “It is like flying, isn’t it?”

 

 

Eileen Bordy lives in Northern California with her two sons. Her work has appeared in Oxford Magazine; Brain, Child; Skirt; The San Francisco Chronicle; and Chicago Tribune. She supports her children and shoe addiction writing ads for high-tech companies. She is currently at work on her first novel, Some Ghosts are Mothers.