This is the third time you’ve been to the city. When you were a child, a teenager, and perhaps even a young twenty-something, you knew that if you got to this place, unknown and unaware, you could burrow in it with your saved funds and all-weather shoes, and this city, with its foreign smells and overwhelming chaos, would accept you into the fold, hide you, and cover you like a blanket. But it didn’t, so you study maps and glace back and forth at the high-rises, looking confused and stupid. Your college roommate, Delia, has a small apartment on a busy street and will dance at the ballet this weekend, so you ask for subway directions and pass with many others through the vast, echoing mouth of the tunnel, jostling and yawning along with them. You arrive at the theatre and melt into a cushioned chair, sipping from a paper cup, to watch the rehearsal, surrounded by other, empty chairs.
There is no music, just a director shouting odd names of dance steps, so you hear the swish of slippers on the wooden stage and the thud that follows every leap. At one time, Delia crumples with the landing and breaks the fall with her forearms. She rubs the red skin while the director berates her with erratic hand gestures and violent shouting. Delia pushes her hair, which is sticky with sweat, from her face, exasperated with incessant trying.
You’re surprised when the director wants to know who you are, and you frown back because this is the opposite of what you wanted, to be singled out when there was so much business going on around you that shouldn’t stop on your account. All the dancers on stage have settled their eyes on you by now. The girl dancers have their hands on their hips, their feet positioned unnaturally, their tutus as flat and wide as dishes.
After the rehearsal, you retire with Delia and some others to the dressing room, exhausted just from watching, and sick with too much coffee. The girls dart in tiny, hurried steps around the huge room from lit mirror to lit mirror, in full makeup, momentarily unencumbered by their skirts, while Delia lounges in a folding chair and tells you that she hopes you enjoy the ballet, and hopes also that she won’t fall and make an ass of herself. You only tell her that you enjoyed the rehearsals very much.
“It’s okay if you hate it,” she says. “It’s not your thing.”
You ask what she means by this.
“I mean, it’s stupid, really, what we do. We are literally a bunch of skinny girls running around in leotards and tutus. Like some three-year-olds having a birthday. It’s so shallow.”
You say, “That’s true.”
“It’s ridiculous,” she says.
“And it’s sexist.”
“I’m a girly stereotype I guess, ‘cause I love it, even though it’s a damn waste of time. These guys, though, they don’t have a chance. A man can write poetry or make baked goods or arrange flowers or whatever the hell he wants and it’s just fine, but strap a pair of tights on the guy and shoo, forget it.”
You don’t quite know what she means about forgetting it, and want to know the ramifications of being a male ballet dancer in tights, but don’t get a chance to ask. She waves her cigarette vaguely toward the other corner of the room, where a teenager with a shadow of stubble bends over his smooth chest to stretch his massive legs, wearing pale blue tights and nothing more.
“Marco can balance my entire body by my one foot, all on the heel of his right hand, right up over his head.” She straightens the entire length of her body, leaning back in her chair with her arms stretching behind her as far as they will go, almost like a dance pose if not for her crumpled fists. She looks like the longest person in the world. “I mean that’s pretty manly if you ask me.”
You glance haltingly at her leotard clinging to her pronounced hipbones, every narrow, arching rib, the fabric pressing her nearly imperceptible breasts and inverted nipples. She stretches for a very long time until you feel uncomfortable and look quickly away, back at Marco, who is now both reading a piece of paper and leaning with his leg up on the bar. Your eyes go to his reaching arms. The circumference of his biceps exceeds that of Delia’s thighs. Her claim seems frightfully dangerous but not improbable.
On the night of the performance, you have to get your ticket and enter the theatre with everyone else, and as you do, you inhale the antiquity and mustiness, discovering them again, and turn your face to the reflective ceiling. You are a black coat in a torrential influx of black coats. You could be anyone.
When the lights come up on stage, you are settled in your seat among formal, perfumed audience members with all their layers still on. The voices go from chattering, to hushed, and then cease altogether. Delia is the first on stage, and dances beautifully, alone at first, and then with a male counterpart. They coax each other back and forth to opposite ends of the stage in a dizzying dance. Delia flits away to gather a prop that the other dancers will toss around later, and bends over at an impossible angle, her tutu tilting vertically behind her. The audience chuckles as the male dancer pretends to check out her backside. Delia glances back, lifts her hand to her lips, smiling demurely and wagging her behind in an exaggerated gesture. The audience roars with laughter, and so do you, even though you saw the rehearsal.
Delia meets you outside much later, in a tank top and swishing nylon pants, with her duffel bag slung over her shoulder, and an overwhelming bouquet of flowers in her arms, which she holds like a giant baby. After conversation, a promise to stay longer next time you visit, and a hug goodbye, you walk back toward your car, but look back once to see her bag slip down her white arm, and she slumps against the building, stooping to gather the shoes and shirt that have fallen to the cement. Her loosening bun unravels.
Escaping the city, you find yourself frozen in traffic on a bridge, one of dozens you never learned the names for. Of course, everyone is angry, because being stuck in traffic is the paragon of wasted time, an insult to an already abbreviated existence. The lights along the suspension cables glare as white and nebulous as the headlights of the cars behind you, as direct and plain as stars. Stars on a very large grid framing a portion of sky, like points on a graph or a sheet of music. You imagine the invisible clouds shrouding the real stars beyond that, which are everywhere in a sphere. Just miles from your home, on the beach, you can lie on a broad stretch of sand with stars on every side of you like an enormous theatre or chapel. A wild spray of them, stretching, as you know, below the horizon and on without end—as a poet you love once wrote, stars in a wilderness of stars.
A man rides his bicycle back and forth on the bridge, waving something above his head, and shouting something unintelligible, probably selling something; your window is shut so you don’t know.
A driver three cars ahead of you gesticulates out his window, conversing with his passenger about the annoyance. The cyclist passes a fourth, fifth, and sixth time, each time in a different vein of traffic. The driver shouts expletives at him and the cyclist glances back fleetingly a couple of times. The driver laughs with his passenger, pleased at his anonymity.
The cyclist turns and passes by your door, and the laughing driver opens his car door so the cyclist crashes with a thwack. For a moment he lies prostrate on the bridge, awash in lights. (Everything appears urgent and tragic in a shaft of headlights.)
You flush, feeling your hand grasp your door handle as the driver responsible laughs with the passenger next to him. The cyclist stands, brushes at his pants for no apparent reason just as you get out of your car, making like you will spring forward, but with the open door in front of you. The cyclist makes eye contact with you and your abrupt interruption for a prolonged moment, while you look back open-mouthed and stupidly. He picks up and straddles his bike.
You stand there holding the open door in front of you until he gets back on and leaves, until he pedals out of sight. Until traffic and taillights begin to move around you, and the car behind you honks his horn to bring you back. You take your time climbing into your car and go, away from the bridge and the city, letting yourself trail behind the other cars. You push a classical music tape into the tape deck and replay the ballet in your mind, seeing all those dozens of dancers projected in the street in front of you in a show of dust particles and mist from the road to entertain you, gliding through the moves the way you remember them, their arms stretched upward like so many branches.
Rhea Kelly lives in Oviedo, FL, and she is a recent graduate of Austin Peay State University. Her poetry has appeared in the Red Mud Review.