Let’s talk about my days as a ballerina. Dennis Schubert, five-foot-two, lost and pimpled, stuck in a pair of battered flat shoes that my mother found in her closet. I had begun to suspect that life was more of a tumble down the stairs than the prophesied string of successes. At the very least, watching myself in the mirrors of the dance studio, I knew that I was all on my own from here out. When I look back, it is one of those periods that — in my mind — explains everything.
A dinner with my parents.
“Schubert,” my mother said. “I applaud your decision.”
She was wearing these floral flow pants that made her look like a pair of curtains, holding up some drink too complex for her to have mixed herself. For some reason, the maid was at the table with us. Carmina. I think it was Carmina’s birthday, but I’d smoked too much weed after school to be sure. I had been spending the remainder of the afternoon trying to hide this from my mother, only at dinner beginning to have a sneaky suspicion that she would never notice.
“Dance is a beautiful art form,” my mother said.
My father must have just walked in the door, late, because her voice had a tone that indicated she was not only speaking to me; she was holding an undeclared argument with my father who, at some point in the past, must have decided that dance was not a beautiful art form.
“Are these chicken pot pies?” he said. “Carmina, you forgot to put salt on the table.”
However beautiful an art form dance may be, the class was not. It was an excuse for me to fill the remainder of my high school gym credits. After all, I was a boy like many others, blunderingly awkward, sexually constricted, deeply bored, wandering through the emptiness of adolescence, 15 years of world-weary experience tucked under my 28-inch belt.
And why not take dance? I was also super, super homosexual.
Somehow, my mother had failed to notice this.
“It’s very masculine,” she was saying. “It reminds me of those football players who learned ballet. You read about this, dear? The football players who learned ballet. It’s about perfecting the control of your physical power, which translates into grace.”
My father grunted something. It sounded like “cockhole,” but ita was really almost inaudible.
But again, graceful as dance might be, the class was not. It was populated by two categories of girl. The first possessed an innocuous stupidity that would have straight men dropping like flies by the end of the school year. The second category was the intimidators. These were the ones who refused to change into loose clothing, sitting around the studio in acid-washed jeans and heavy jewelry, snapping their gum to punctuate the rise and fall of their voices, the Boston streets in every syllable.
“You can’t wear denim. You can’t move in denim,” the teacher would tell them.
“Whatevah,” the girls would say in a loose chorus. “I don’t have no othah pants.”
“Are you chewing gum?”
“I think you’re chewing gum.”
“I don’t have no gum.”
What would follow was an embarrassing inquisition that often ended with the teacher’s inspection of the offending girl’s mouth, jaws pried open. One day, however:
“Class,” the teacher said, whipping around, “do you know why gum is not allowed?”
“Because you might choke?” I said.
“True, but why else, why would I make this rule?”
“Because it might get on the floor?”
The teacher looked slightly absent, remembering something from long ago. “You are not to chew gum because once, when I was dancing, I was chewing gum. It was cinnamon gum. I held it in my mouth as I did a handstand, and the juice from the gum went up through my sinuses and leaked out my tear duct into my left eye. I had cinnamon gum juice in my eye. It was excruciating. It hurt like a godforsaken rack of knives. Like a knife rack in my eye, do you hear me?! Now spit out that gum and pliZ
Something in the czardom exercised by the teacher would have amused my mother, who was a fanatic for discipline, having never had any of her own. She liked to think of herself as artistic and might have even studied dance herself had she not abandoned it for painting, and then piano, then thoroughbred horses, and then marriage.
“I had a very cosmopolitan upbringing,” my mother liked to say. “I wish you could have met my father.”
Her father was some minor diplomat, tangled in the Washington bureaucracy while her mother taught astrophysics at Georgetown. Her mother, being too smart — it seemed — for the rest of the family, retired to their summer house on the Virginia coast, and from there disappeared forever.
By this point in dinner, my father was talking about bonds, and it must indeed have been Carmina’s birthday because my mother apologized whenever Carmina had to leave the table to serve the next course. I am fuzzy on the apology. But if it was anything like the others offered up to our wizened maid over the years, it ran along the lines of, “Sorry that you have to expend effort, but then again, you are bound into servitude for a living,” but in somewhat simpler terms.
“This will be good for you,” my mother said to me. “It will make you very fit, and it will stop you from being so skinny. Have you seen the body on Baryshnikov?”
She said that last bit louder, a personal jab at my father, who knew as well as anyone that my mother had seen the body on Baryshnikov from much closer than her box seats. But that was years before, and the matter had been added to an increasingly complex list of topics never to discuss, penciled in alphabetically between “balls” and “boy-love.”
After my mother’s mother fled the family, my grandfather had been distraught and lost no time in foisting my mother into the New England capitalist dinner parties where she met my father. It was the closest thing you could get to an arranged marriage. My grandfathers made most of the decisions, but my mother claimed to have been swept off her feet, and they let her choose the flavor of the wedding cake. Not long after the vows were set, my mother went for a weekend of solitude at that same Virginia beach house. Her project this time was, ostensibly, “to write.” It was there that she met Baryshnikov, walking his terrier along the sand. The dog chewed through my mother’s bottle of sun block and proceeded to vomit on her blanket. One thing led to another.
“It will tone you,” said my mother. “And the exercise will improve your mind as well. It will channel your energy. It will heighten your awareness of all things. In short, it will make you strive for physical perfection in a way that leads you to perfection on all counts. Grace is perfection. And grace you will achieve.”
But in dance class, I found my feet got too sweaty to do any sort of rond de jambe on the polished wood floor. I was writing in a circular script my impending failure, moist on the floorboards. I could picture my mother watching me, trying to admire my dedication, willing me to excel through persistence before she got bored and went to great expense and trouble to entertain herself again.
“Let’s have cake,” my father said, “with ice cream. Every now and then discipline has to go.”
“Happy birthday to me,” Carmina whistled softly, “Es un mundo de ricos y de putas, y son lo mismo.” n