Strangers In The Land: Chapter 1
Tendus. Garibaldi ahead of me; Patton behind. Garibaldi looks half asleep. We are at: and pique-pique-close, side, side, side, but he’s sort of doing and pique-pique-close, half-assed fifths. He hasn’t had his coffee yet, can’t seem to straighten his knees, looks like maybe he has a hangover. He would probably live if he missed a day of class, but that’s Garibaldi for you; Garibaldi never misses class, even if maybe he really should. He once came to class in a walking cast. With a fever.
Garibaldi is crazy.
We are running behind. Janessa’s up front, all blond and New York cheerful, which is to say surly, but in a funny way. When she says, “Watch those arms, what, are you a duck? Is this Swan Lake or Duck Pond?”
I know she’s talking to me and I laugh and lose count mentally but my legs keep doing their thing and then it’s tournant and Patton’s in front of me and we start over on the left, front and close, front and close, and pique-pique-close, side, side, side, back and close, back and close, and pique-pique-close… Janessa doesn’t so much give class or teach class as she runs class, like a military operation, but funnier (and also harder; as Peter always says, “If boot camp were any harder, they’d call it ballet.”). It feels like eighty degrees in here and I’m already soaked to the bone, but at least my legs are warm.
This morning Garibaldi has been bitching about being old. In fact, Garibaldi is twenty-eight. I remind him that David Hallberg went to dance at the Bolshoi when he was thirty, so even by ballet standards twenty-eight is far from old. What he’s really bitching about, more or less indirectly, is the bevy of Pre-Pro kids making time in our class, all of them something like fifteen and eager as little raccoons with their bright little eyes.
They’ve been here all week. On the first day, Garibaldi said apropos of nothing: “Oh my God, look, they have little thumbs, just like people!” So now they’re the Raccoon Brigade, forever and ever, or at least until their two week long Winter Intensive — Janessa’s idea (because, as she says, “The holidays weren’t stressful enough!”) — is over.
Garibaldi is just bitter because I’m younger and prettier than he is, and in a company like ours — I Travesti, “New Haven’s Bargain Basement Trockaderos,” as a certain reviewer has dubbed us — that kind of matters. Your standard cocks-in-frocks ballet fare, if such a thing can be said to exist. How on earth Janessa convinced ten sets of parents to lend us their tender teenaged sons for two post-Nutcracker weeks of their winter break, I cannot imagine.
Unless it was by promising them two weeks of teenager-free peace and quiet, come to think of it.
Which isn’t to say that they’re all fruit punch and innocence. If ever I feel old, it is because I was born that way: here are these kids, still in high school, talking about how they’ve hooked up with nineteen people on FindR or FumblR or whatever it is kids these days do; it’s not like I even knew what the cool kids were doing when I was really a kid and didn’t just look like one. The worst of them, Tran, is the most talented dancer (of course). If he doesn’t die of syphilis of the brain before he’s eighteen, he will go on to do great things.
As we turn to begin the combination again, Garibaldi moans, “In my day, we didn’t have time for social lives!”
As if he was sixty years old, and retired, and living in Boca.
As if he should be in a home, in a rocking chair, and not ruling the second cast as the Buttered Rum Fairy in Janessa’s punchy political anti-Nutcracker, “The Muckraker.”
Janessa, by the way, is a genius. Which is why I’m here, in her class, about to be slowly fondu-ed to death, and not at some other company where I might or might not make slightly more money. Maybe.
Not that I’m all that. At 5′ 7″ and 125 pounds, I am only marginally a ballet stud. In a normal company I would run into greater limitations. Much greater. Not to say I’d be a permanent corps dancer (and not that I’d mind if I was); but I’m small, and I know I’m small, and there are a lot of tall girls in the world now who would look funny dancing with a little guy.
Fortunately for me, Janessa does not run a normal company. In Janessa’s company being small works for me; in short (no pun intended), I make a much better lift-ee than I do a lift-er, though sometimes for comic effect Garibaldi and I play at being ballet princes and the biggest dude in the company, Reginald, who got into ballet via football, gets all tarted up in tulle and satin and pointe shoes and we pretend that lifting him is going to kill us, because, as they say, “That’s showbiz.”
Janessa runs an excuse for full-grown men to get dressed up in princess outfits and own the stage in a way wholly different from anything you’re going to see in a drag club on a Friday night. Not that some of us haven’t done that, too — I’m just not one of them.
I have one love; have always had one love: ballet. It doesn’t leave a heck of a lot of time for anything else.
I have no idea why people love us so much.
We are, on the whole, ridiculous.
And not just in the way that all dancers are ridiculous in our dedication to an art that, frankly, most people probably find pretty obtuse. I mean, we are actually funny, half the time. Sure, we do some serious stuff: and then we “put on our tutus and six-foot lashes and wow ’em,” as Garibaldi so delicately puts it.
But every single night, it’s the same thing: flowers on the stage, standing ovations, the whole nine yards. Should I be offended, bothered somehow, by the fact that it’s easier for us — possibly the least serious ballet company that has ever existed — to wrangle a standing ovation than it is for, you know, real companies?
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are some people who would stand up and cheer just because we got out there in our frocks and feathers. Or, to be exact, half of us did, maybe three-quarters. For about half the show. We are still called I Travesti, but now we’ve garnered enough acclaim that Janessa has ventured into the realm of more serious works, by which I mean pieces in which nobody puts on false eyelashes or blue eyeshadow and rhinestones, though we do play with androgyny and generally break The Rules of Gender In Ballet, and I like that even more in a more serious context. But usually we do the serious stuff at dance festivals, and our regular shows are mostly hilarity and riot, with a little Serious Ballet thrown in for good measure, just to show people what we can do.
So tonight we come off the stage after our last curtain call with the usual array of flowers and candy and whatever — I only eat candy after a show, because I figure I’ve earned it; I dance my ass off out there. I am contemplating the relative virtues of a Salted Nut Roll and a Mounds bar when Janessa swoops in from somewhere, grabs my arm, and says, “Have I got a surprise for you!”
Something about her grin makes me wary; I squint at her and ask, “Is this a good surprise or a bad surprise?”
She grins even harder and says, “I don’t know. I guess you’re just going to have to find that out for yourself.”
Then she bundles me — sequins, stage makeup and all — through a door we basically ignore most of the time and into the mostly-forsaken green room (guests use it when we have them; the rest of us cluster together in a sometimes-kitchen that doubles as the break room for the stage crew).
I stop for a moment as my eyes adjust — the green room is dim bordering on dark unless you turn on the ridiculous zillion-watt bulbs lining the mirror, which nobody in his right mind would do after a show. Steeped in the shadows, a man stands studying a poster hung haphazardly on one wall. I step back and into the door, which clicks closed behind me, and — silently — he turns.
The first thing Phineas Rush says to me is, “Jesus, you’ve barely changed.”
It’s exactly what I’m thinking, to the letter, except for the part about Jesus.
He leans against the door, startled and wiry, his clear grey eyes enormous, ringed as they are with color and with kohl. Reflexively, I reach out: he takes my hand, squeezes it once, and says, “My God! Toby Singer! How long has it even been?”
I feel a smile creep onto my lips. “Twelve years.”
His brows seem to shoot into his hairline; into outer space. “I can’t believe it.” He shakes his head; reaches around behind to undo some kind of complicated headpiece he wore in the final piece on stage. “This thing itches like hellfire. Is that a thing? Can hellfire itch?”
A laugh escapes me. I feel a kind of warmth flooding up and down at the same time from the center of my chest — the same warmth I feel every time I see the house where I (more or less) grew up; where he and I first met. My arms, unbidden, extend themselves towards him, and a moment later I am holding him in them, with his burnished-copper hair pressed against my shoulder.
“Phinny,” I rasp, “I couldn’t — almost couldn’t believe it was you.”
A pause. Perhaps I am searching the air for my own truth; it’s like presenting Romeo and Juliet to first-year undergrads in Lit 088. Look past all the funky language. You think you know the story; you’ve heard it a million times: but look closer.
At precisely the right moment — he is, after all, a dancer; a master of timing — he pulls back and holds me at arm’s length, saying nothing.
“I almost couldn’t believe that it was you … and then it was.” I am evidently too dumbstruck to come up with anything better than an elaboration on what I’ve already said.
In the dim light of the room where the irrepressible Janessa Jones, director of the single most preposterous ballet company I’ve ever imagined, has tucked me away, he smiles up at me. In a rush, with a frisson of deja-vu, I remember how he has this way of making you feel taller.
In fact, he is only three or four inches shorter than I am: but where I am merely average, he is exquisitely small, like a whippet, or a heron, or a jewel. He isn’t short: just miniature. A tall person — tall and infinitely more graceful than most of us can ever hope to be — made smaller, as if long ago someone hit him with a shrink ray, but only for a moment.
“What are you doing here?” he asks at last, his voice bright and smooth and lovely.
“Oh, you know. Stalking you.” I pause and toss him a grin; he shoots me a convincing hairy eyeball. “No, seriously–” I wave my open hands at him — “I had no idea; not until I saw the program. A friend from work — Maisie, you have to meet her — wanted to come. I said, ‘Ah, what the hell?’ I mean, it’s a glamorous life, teaching English at a community college, but I made time in my busy schedule.”
He rolls his eyes at my self-effacing gibe. “And then you flipped open the program, and you said, ‘There can’t be two sets of parents cruel enough to name their baby after the kid that dies in A Separate Peace.” He steps back and begins fiddling with the complicated vest he’s wearing — why does my brain pick this moment to register that, excepting the vest, he’s essentially naked?
I possess enough social grace, fortunately, not to comment on that. Instead, I say, “Hm, I never realized.”
“You of all people! Herr Professor Afton-Prize-for-English! I think they were kind of hoping I’d turn out like him. Except for the dying part. You know: original, audacious. I like to think I’ve kinda-sorta lived up to the name. And thus far I’ve done all right with the not dying clause.” He pauses. A slow grin creeps out from the corners of his mouth and eyes. “The plan is to be immortal. Thus far, my success rate is 100%.”
He’s still fiddling with the vest: I realize that, like the headpiece, it probably “itches like hellfire.” Suddenly, I can’t figure out what I’m doing here, or what else I should say. He stops his vest-fiddling, sighs, and slumps back against the door. His weight shifts from foot to foot. I realize two things: first, that he is probably exhausted and sore all over; second, that he is the same Phineas he was twelve years ago — he cannot, even for a moment, be still.
“We could go get something to eat, after,” he suggests, catching me off guard.
“After I get changed, say good-night, yada yada. You know. Just … after.” He shrugs. Even his shrug is graceful.
“Sure. Mind if I bring my date?”
He laughs. “Not that kind of date, is she?”
I smile. “No.”
“Didn’t think so. In that case, you don’t mind if I bring along a friend for her? I think I have just the fellow…” He flashes me a little smile — one that verges on the conspiratorial. “Wait here. I’ll be back.”
“Okay, but … um … will you send Ms. Jones or someone to get Maisie?”
“Maisie — you know, my–”
“No, Ms. Jones — oh! You mean Janessa.”
“Yes. Yes. Janessa Jones.”
He looks at me with his head tilted to one side. “Nobody calls her that. Janessa, sure; Ma’am, all the time; Yes, Grand High Imperatrix, absolutely … but Ms. Jones? Ha! I sort of forgot she had a last name.”
Then he flashes me one more grin, and he’s gone.
I glance down and notice a giant smear of greasepaint on my lapel.
Small price to pay, some distant part of me suggests.
Outside, the air is cold and sweet and sharp with the scent of snow, but right now it’s spitting rain in great heavy drops that shatter on the sidewalk. Maisie and I stand under the awning of the little theater where I Travesti makes its home, watching the last late traffic swish away, waiting. Her laugh — high, clear, and ringing — peals out into the night quiet.
“Imagine! After all this time!” She cuddles deeper into her coat, tucking her grandmother’s stole — the one she wears for the looks on people’s faces when they catch sight of its beady little glass eyes — closer around her neck. On the wind I catch the scent of her perfume: lilies of the valley? She is a fan of Wharton, after all.
I turn towards her, smiling. “Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?”
She raises her eyebrows; her dark eyes glitter out at me. “Coincidence? I don’t know, Toby. I think it might be a sign.”
Just then, the revolving door swings into motion. It deposits first Phineas, then a tall and princely being with a chiseled jawline, on the doormat. I seize Phineas by the shoulder and present him: “Maisie Greenwood: Phineas Rush.”
With a rococo flourish, Phineas bows to Maisie, who extends a hand. He takes it with an impish smile and kisses it. “Charmed, I’m sure,” he quips. Then, straightening up, he gestures expansively toward his comrade. “This is Peter Angelmann. Peter Angelmann, this is Ms. Maisie Greenwood.”
Angelmann sweeps a low bow with none of Phineas’ theatrical irony. “Ms. Greenwood,” he speaks in a low, velvet murmur redolent of Oxford in summer, “I’m honored.”
Maisie flashes her beautiful smile and says, “Please — call me Maisie.”
“And you must call me Peter,” Angelmann replies as he straightens up.
For a moment, they smile at each-other, their eyes full of appraisal and approval. Then, Maisie says, “Oh, Lord, you were the one in the green tutu, weren’t you?” and Peter throws back his head and laughs from the depths of his chest. “Guilty as charged,” he says, “Though I keep telling them green isn’t really my color. Black brings out my eyes.” He pulls a tired-of-the-world moue, then the fetching grin spreads back across his face.
“Aren’t you a caution,” Maisie says, a little breathless, playing up her faded Georgia drawl. Peter is right, though: he’s wearing a plain black t-shirt under a black biker jacket and his eyes glitter like jet. Some distant part of me — the part that knows I am ordinary, with plain blue eyes and plain brown hair and a face that is neither stunning nor startling — pulses with a surprising relief: this man, this Peter Angelmann, smiles straight into Maisie’s eyes in a way that tells me I will never have to compete with him for Phineas’ affection.
I shake myself, and the thought, As if, floats through my mind like a smoke signal. As if that will ever happen.
That, of course, being Phineas’ affection.
Phineas turns his cool, appraising grey eyes on me. “You okay with diner food?”
“There’s a great little place around the corner. It’s close enough to walk, if you don’t mind leaving your cars.”
“We took the train in,” Maisie’s smooth contralto unfurls into the quiet, “We’re just up the line.”
Phineas glances at her, then back to me. “Funny — so all this time you’ve been so close, and I never even knew.” He pauses, then, his head tilted. “Well, you weren’t close when I was in Japan.”
“And tours,” Peter says mildly, “Don’t forget tours.”
“Tours? Like, in France?” I glance from Phineas to Peter and back.
Phineas laughs. “Well, yes — we’ve been there too — but, no. He meant, like, everywhere. I’ve seen the insides of theaters and hotels all over the world.”
“It’s true. We hardly ever see anything but rehearsal spaces and theaters, unless you count what we catch through the windows of buses and trains — and Phinny falls asleep in all vehicles and conveyances.” A pause; Peter battles a spreading grin and loses. “I’m sure you know those Hallowe’en decorations — the spider webs? Once, Alain draped them all over him on the plane to Seattle. We all figured, you know, nice practical joke; he’d wake up and go mental. Instead, he slept through the whole thing. Alain finally gave up and stuffed them all back in his carry-on when we began our approach.”
“To be fair, I had taken a Trazadone that time. I was wrestling a bout of insomnia.” Phineas glances away; his eyes sweep the sidewalk, the road. For a moment, his clear eyes go dark and distant, as if a cloud is passing over the sun that lights them from within. Then he raises them to mine and forces a smile. “Should we go?”
Something moves in those silver-grey depths: some hint of memory, of shadow.
I swallow and look away. “Yeah. Don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
At home, alone, I ease my leftovers into the fridge.
There’s not much in there. It isn’t that I never eat at home — just almost never. I have no reason to. I get lunch at the cafeteria at Housatonic; dinner on the way home.
Mercutio chirps and rubs against my calves. Automatically, I bend down to stroke his silky fur. He glances up at me, copper eyes brimming with fondness and reproach.
“Your bowl is empty, isn’t it?”
He dashes to the cat food cabinet, then back.
“It’s way past dinner time. Of course your bowl is empty.”
I pause to collect the offending vessel. From the cabinet, Mercutio squeaks once, dolefully.
“I know. I’m coming.”
Two thirds of a cup: that’s all he gets. Mercutio is a fat, bright ginger tabby. His vet says he needs to be less fat. The kibble jingles in the bowl — fluted glass, found at the dollar store. Mercutio fires up his purr, as noisy as a turbo Evinrude, and sits before his placemat. I set the bowl down before him. He flashes his copper eyes at me again, still purring.
“Happy now?” I ask him, though of course I know he is. This is our daily ritual; the Rite of Food.
He bends to address his dinner. I toss him one last loving stroke and shuffle off to bed.
On the way, though it isn’t my usual habit, I divest myself of my clothes: white shirt on the back of a chair, wallet and keys on the counter, cell phone next to the sink, Dockers on the bathroom floor. Then, because it is 2:30 in the morning and I haven’t seen the far side of midnight in many moons, I stand there dazed, staring at myself in the speckled glass.
I do not, like Phineas, look almost exactly as I did at Afton: I am taller, of course, and thicker. At this hour a dusting of stubble creeps up my chin and jaw. By the seedy light of the high-efficiency LEDs, I seem a little sallow. I suppose one might chalk that up to weariness; I have stayed up far beyond my bedtime.
My hair is still brown and my eyes still blue. That much, at least, remains the same: as Phineas’ hair is still bronze in shadow, chestnut in the light; his fathomless eyes gleam the same pale grey ringed with bands of smoke that stole my breath when I first laid eyes on him so very long ago.
I shake myself.
“What has transpired tonight,” I tell my reflection, “was a lovely reunion of old friends, and possibly a romantic spark for Maisie. Nothing more and nothing less.”
My reflection stares back at me silent, disbelieving.
He’s single, after all, my inner commentator helpfully reminds me.
“Yes, but probably by choice. There must be a hundred men more interesting than me–”
But they don’t know him like you do.
“As if I know him, now, at all.”
As if I knew him then!
Unbidden, a memory breaks over me: Phineas, thirteen years old, stands alone on a wind-swept beach — before it all began, all the terrible undoing. A single shaft of sun has broken from the Heavens, sought him out, and found him: it casts its golden light upon his copper hair, caresses his slender throat. I am fifteen and nearly shattered by his beauty. Some part of me leaps with weird, wild hope and swears it is destined forever to protect him.
I swallow and think: That part of me will fail before it ever has the chance.
I close my eyes and grope for the light-switch, steeping the room in darkness. Unseen, unheard, Mercutio creeps in and dusts my ankles with his fur. I mumble something; stumble out into the hall.
My bed, at least, is made: percale sheets crisp and cool against my skin, which feels suddenly hot and damp and tight. I settle and the cat leaps up to curl between my knees: another ritual. I know that in the morning when I wake he will be with me, tucked over my bent knee or weighing down the full length of one thigh. He is not a small cat, not by any measure, and like all cats he is a creature of many habits.
For a long while, then — Mercutio’s outboard motor hard at work on a patella — I stare up at the ceiling. In the dark, it seems a long way off. I recall other nights spent staring at other ceilings: especially those first nights, long ago, when I realized that Phineas was never coming back to Afton.
That Artie, too, was never coming back.
And then, though I am Jewish, I feel a mighty urge to cross myself; to ward off the devil as once my roommate, Andrew Chapman, did.
But I have moved too late. Outside, I hear a breath of wind; the tapping of the snowflakes on the glass. Inside, the heat kicks on, and the baseboard radiators taptaptaptaptap around the margins of my room.
I know it is just physics: the fins within the radiators shifting, expanding, as the steam from the doddering boiler rushes through the unseen pipes. The odd transitional snowflakes, almost ice pellets. Yet, still, the small hairs rise along my nape, and a shiver passes through me.
Without meaning to, I think of a half-forgotten ghost story about a young bride who mourned her slaughtered soldier husband so wildly and so long that at last, unable to rest, he appeared at her door and dragged her off to share an early grave.
But who, I wonder, is the soldier; who the bride?
And then, with a shudder, I think: Artie. Artie has always been the soldier.
I guess, then, that makes me the bride.