Two Author’s Notes:
- In my growing collection of Lisa stories I’m attempting to provide an explanation for the change in Lisa from the happy confident girl she was before Father threw her out of the tunnels, to the troubled, deeply unhappy adult we meet later. The story below will make more sense if readers first read the three Lisa stories that precede it: Mother Tongue, part 1 (Lisa 1962) Exile, part 1: Yearning (Lisa 1971) and Exile, part 2: Love and Fate (Lisa 1971) In addition here is the link to the story index in which all stories are listed in chronological order: Story Index
2) In the theatre we have something called the moment-before. It is the moment in the character’s life that comes before what the audience sees. It can refer to a single, split-second moment-before; or to an entire lifetime that preceded what the audience believes to be the first moment of a scene. Every “first moment” in the telling of a story is preceded by a moment-before that must make everything that comes after, inevitable; and it’s a critical part of an actor/dancer’s preparation of a role; it literally defines the character, sometimes far beyond anything that will happen to the character during the course of the story.
As the Bard would tell it, simply, past is prologue.
This is one such moment, from the 2nd season episode Arabesque; it’s how I’m finding my way in to writing an entire episode expansion. [Watch this space.]
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too,
was a gift.
* * *
Even distracted by the courtly, lonely widower in front of her and the merciless throb in her heel, Lisa senses the woman’s presence in the doorway to her dressing room a few moments before she enters Lisa’s peripheral vision. There is a nearly audible hum of purposeful intensity about her that puts Lisa immediately on high alert, her painstakingly-cultivated smile dialed up a notch, the one that conveys warm approachability without inviting further intimacy.
Aware that Lisa’s attention has waned, the widower turns to go and is startled by both the beauty and the sudden proximity of the visitor, and offers her a shy smile as he takes his leave; at the woman’s response, Lisa winces inwardly, willing him not to see the mocking smirk that momentarily transforms the woman’s sensual features as she allows him to pass. Entirely unnecessary; thinks Lisa, her flash of anger safely contained behind her smile. Why on earth— but before she can finish the thought her visitor shifts her gaze to take Lisa in, her expression once again pleasant.
Accustomed to stammering fans, enraptured little girls and the famously unimpressed backstage crew, Lisa is not sure what to make of her visitor. Though seemingly aware that she is out of her element, she is clearly not at all intimidated, assessing Lisa coolly, her eyes traveling unhurriedly first over Lisa’s exaggerated stage makeup and lacquered hair, then the fine film of perspiration that glimmers on the porcelain of Lisa’s face and neck; and finally ending with a slight widening of the pupils in aristocratic distaste as she recognizes Lisa’s antique silk robe for the singular luxury it is– the sort of gift a certain kind of woman receives from a particular kind of man whose intentions, it is understood, will never include matrimony. Lisa finds the familiar and undisguised recoil she observes in her visitor’s face far preferable to the unveiled hostility she is used to eliciting in women.
It strikes Lisa now that the woman carries no program, nor is there room for one in the tiny clutch she carries; the mystery deepens. She clearly has not come for an autograph.
The woman introduces herself– Catherine— and then goes on to offer the usual insincerities. Her girlish voice is another surprise, at once throaty and lilting, conveying both urgency and diffidence underneath her small talk.
The woman is a study in contrasts, her moneyed, finishing school gleam offset by an almost palpable wounded quality not quite camouflaged by her burnished poise. Her growing curiosity safely hidden behind her mask, Lisa puzzles over Catherine’s attire which seems increasingly at odds with her obvious breeding, the dress in particular. Though tasteful enough in a restrained shade of amethyst, it appears for all the world to be a Lanvin from, Lisa is all but certain, at least two seasons ago; the effect is that of a deliberately frugal attempt at subdued femininity, as if it were even possible to disguise the creamy exoticism.
The pumps, however, tell a different story altogether; the incongruity jarring. Their erotic promise entirely contradicts the effect of the dress, suggesting a smolder otherwise firmly tamped down in this woman; their edgy metallic hue reminiscent of a prized vintage sports car, the height and pitch of the stiletto unmistakably Italian, designed to facilitate a provocative, even insolent strut. The vamp is a masterpiece of restraint, high enough on the foot to be classic, low enough to showcase the high arch and slim ankles leading upward to shapely calves defined by something other than running. Ballet. Of course; probably given up (reluctantly?) junior or senior year.
Mixed messages, thinks Lisa. I know something about that. I wonder which one is closer to the truth, and which is the mask? Mentally exhausted, she does not notice her thoughts begin to wander. It’s too much work, too much really– the endless bits of business, as actors call it– of being a woman; being expected to find inner happiness in spending countless hours, weeks, years of one’s life trying to figure out the endless codes within codes of ever-changing female fashion… This is why she never complains or fusses over any aspect of her costuming, ever; it is a godsend to be able to leave to someone else— costume designer, director, producer— the responsibility for the message ultimately conveyed by the garments she will wear to tell a story. Becoming someone else– slipping into someone else’s skin and psyche so fully as to seem to be channeling them– that happens from the inside out. By that time, whatever the costumer’s student assistants bring to Lisa is no longer a costume but a second skin….
And suddenly a faint sense memory from very long ago stirs at the edge of her awareness: it is the first time she can remember having tried to become someone else. Was she four years old? Five? In her mind now she suddenly sees her small fingers paddling covetously through his hair like thick cornsilk, then touching her own scalp with its crusty bald patches before her hair had grown back; and then back to his lush cornsilk again. She remembers tears in the earliest days, and tantrums, and resisting his patient attempts to reassure her; she remembers slipping, so quietly, from the small bed she shared with two slightly older girls, and running barefoot and sniffling through the freezing dark to where he had slept alone that first spring, and softly creeping into his bed, softly softly not to wake him…
She feels a steely band of anxiety across her chest start to dissolve now, just a little, as the memory unfurls for her image upon image: she recalls gently, so gently, teasing out one shimmering handful of his hair after another from under the heavy patchwork quilt, and then, resting her tear-stained face close to his on the flannel pillow, draping it in a warm gold curtain across her head, pretending that his hair was her hair; and, as she matched her breathing to his in the dark, and strained her eyes to make out every feature of his face, imagining that they were one person, and she would never be away from him, and never alone again….
And then she flashes on something that nearly stops her heart: one night his eyes had popped open and she’d been so afraid he would be mad, but he wasn’t; he’d blinked quietly at her at first and then he’d murmured sleepily,
We were breathing each other’s breath. I think it’s like the magic in the book.
What book? she’d wondered, and then she’d held her breath: was this the moment? and how would she know if she were doing her part of it properly, her part of the magic that would transform her from her small unlovely self and make her a part of him? The thought had made her shiver in the best way, but then she’d had another thought, an always worrying one.
Will it hurt? she had asked.
But he had already fallen back to sleep; and in the morning of course she got quite a scolding for having left her own bed, which wasn’t so bad because of course he’d stuck up for her like he always did. And, of course, her hair had eventually grown back, and the day had come when she didn’t want to be called a tomboy anymore but she had never developed any interest in clothes beyond what was necessary for ballet practice and then keeping warm afterward so she wouldn’t tear a muscle. Interestingly, that hadn’t changed much when a hastily arranged spot had been secured for her at ballet school in Milan, nor later, when she had achieved some stature in her profession and famous designers had begun all but hurling their designs at her around awards time; she would invariably point at whatever design happened to be in her line of sight when it was time to get dolled up, and that would be that, no fuss necessary.
That hasn’t changed either; these days, on what passes for her own time, she blindly grabs whatever is at the top of the pile of extravagant and beautiful things Alain regularly orders delivered to her whether at their Belgravia flat, his maternal grandmother’s dacha outside St. Petersburg, or, more often, whichever hotel is currently playing the role of home–
And all at once it hits her.
I want to go home.
The memories are breaking through again, and this time–
No! Don’t go there. Don’t go there.
That way madness lies.
But the word has unleashed an old pain that threatens to engulf her, and when her struggles to redirect her attention out of harm’s way jolt her back to the present, Lisa realizes with horror that Catherine’s expression has taken on a questioning intensity that wasn’t there just moments ago– but how many moments? Dear God! how long has she been tuned out, lost in her thoughts? She is doing this far too often recently, slogging on autopilot through the soul-killing chit-chat that characterizes most human interaction…
Catherine’s lips are moving– she is saying something, her face at a decidedly downward tilt, her frank gaze shaded with worry. Lisa fights back panic, wondering if Catherine has noticed this lapse.
How much has she missed? She gives herself a little shake, mentally, and checks the mirror; thank God; her smile is still in place. Dissociation, the shrink calls it, and in truth she has come to regard it as a gift; when she is forced to be alone with Collin for any period of time she finds it a great relief to be able to just disappear somewhere inside her head because the only other alternative would seem to require opening a deep vein in a hot bath.
But Collin is not here yet, and her visitor will surely be alarmed if Lisa doesn’t say something, anything halfway reasonable, and fast.
She can’t remember; has she inquired prettily yet whether Catherine comes to the ballet often? She can’t be sure, and must give herself another little shake. Pay attention! You’re slipping.
But there has never been any way to make peace with her loss; the only option has been to live her life in flight, literally and figuratively, remaining in constant motion ever since–
Catherine’s voice breaks through Lisa’s confusion.
Actually I’m here for a friend,
she says quietly, unaware she is about to cut Lisa exactly in half with her words.
…a friend of both of ours.
Lisa hopes her tone sounds bright and interested.
And just like that her past crashes into the present. Catherine’s voice is low, hushed; but there is no mistaking the name.
~ ~ ~
[Author’s note: the below, the second half of this piece, is still a work-in-progress]:
They tell you, you can get used to any pain, any loss, if you carry it long enough.
And in fact she has had moments where she might have even said he’s far from her mind; sometimes there are many such moments of forgetting, one after another, and sometimes even flashes of something resembling joy, especially if she does not examine it too closely.
These moments, for Lisa, come in her work, in losing herself in it, grateful to be consumed by the punishing pursuit of excellence; and there have been many days when she believed that she had even turned a corner of some urgent kind, that she had finally negotiated a fragile peace with the past; and that even as the pain in her body slowly crippled her, still her heart might, if not heal, at least be allowed to seek release in the grueling transcendence of spirit and flesh that is the ballet.
Usually her heightened inner faculties would have picked up something in the air, some harbinger or omen invisible to anyone else. Had she missed something, some clue?
Was she slipping? The thought made the room spin.
The hypervigilance of her early life had only intensified through the years, translating in her work to a nearly supernatural ability to read and anticipate other people, her partners in particular, while making every glance and gesture seem invented for the first time. This had catapulted her quickly to the ranks of Ferri, Kent, and Nimiyvskaya; but at a cost which, as she got older, Lisa feared would soon be too high to pay.
Tonight the familiar, crushing grip of panic hadn’t hit her til the very end of the third curtain call, just after the thunderous applause had crescendoed, the last obligatory bouquets daintily retrieved, the artistic part of her performance all but over, and the wearying public-persona part of it just beginning.
She has dreaded this transition as long as she has been a dancer— the terrifying free-fall between the moment of relinquishing the safety of the world of her character, and succumbing to the unforgiving realities of the performer, not only the destabilizing shift in consciousness, but equally the physical attrition; tonight her old heel fracture is sending savage stabs of agony all the way to her hip. When she dances, her injuries are kept in abeyance with a mix of endorphins, will, and feral concentration; it’s when she stops moving that all the old demons overtake her. She wonders if this is what it feels like to get the bends upon returning to the surface too quickly from the lulling, weightless depths of the sea.
But she has had many years to navigate the nightly return from the furious intensity of the role to the dreary cruelties of life away from the stage; by now, by tonight, as she’d handed off the bouquets to the costume assistant and headed to her dressing room— yet another place in her life which should have been a sanctuary and never has been— by now it is reflex to dial up her smile a notch, to slow her breathing, to steady her glide, the risks in being observed favoring an injury surely calamitous; by now it is reflex to double check that the impenetrable mask she has worn since the night she left the tunnels is still riveted in place, admonishing herself day by day, night by night, that her mask must remain in place just a little longer, just long enough, just long enough…
for what? until when?
Until she can shake Collin and ice her heel, for starters; until she can be alone long enough to excavate the dwindling stash of pain meds from their hiding place in her hotel suite and down a double dose with a gulp of white wine before he smashes her increasingly fragile equilibrium, thrusting himself into her small, brittle sphere at every opportunity, taking malignant pleasure in even the smallest invasions like the born predator that he is.
She has long known that he goes through her things every time he gets the chance; in the early days of Alain’s courtship, back before her nearly career-ending accident and the lengthy surgical reconstruction of her ankle, back when she still had the mental energy for such nonsense, she took grim satisfaction in thwarting Collin’s efforts with little cat-&-mouse games, telling herself it kept her sharp, telling herself she could still escape before the trap closed around her for good.
That was part of it; more importantly she must give nothing away until she could flee again to the theatre and the sanctity of the stage itself, one of the few places where even Collin knew he could not follow and bark orders, unlike her dressing room.
Others whisper about her seeming indulgence of his boorishness and abruptness, of the liberties he takes with a star of her stature, as if closing her door would keep him out; but of course no one could have guessed the reason for her long custom of always leaving the door of her dressing room wide open. The uncharitably inclined sniffed that it was surely due to an insatiable need for attention, a star dancer’s exhibitionism, and Lisa encouraged this line of thinking, in keeping as it was with the cherished stereotypes of prima ballerinas to which most people subscribe. Maintaining the unquestioned illusion of the prima encouraged others to grant her a measure of privacy as a gesture of respect which she knew better than to confuse with genuine affection.
The truth s she leaves her door open to soothe herself with the familiar comfort of the fretful hum indicating the grinding, distinctly unglamorous part of maintaining the illusion. This is the part she loves best— the finished performance is deceptive, artifice, the tip of the iceberg; a furious churning of webbed feet below required to secure the illusion of serenely gliding swan above. Price willingly paid. The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd will never grow old. The hum of the hive, the comforting grounding smell of resin and old wood, the silent whir of machinery that transforms the stage in seconds from battlefield to opera house to tenement to vineyard straight from Breughel and back again to Agincourt; she loves the incongruity of beefy stagehands and tattooed grips working side by side with the sequined, sinuous dancers in easy community.
More importantly, the huge cavernous mysteries of the world backstage remind her of another place deep behind and beneath the surfaces of things that everyone else takes for granted both in geography and in the human imagination; a world she carries with her, always apart but never faraway. To keep despair at bay, to endure the wild grief of the exile she tells herself perhaps it only existed in her mind; perhaps this magical world of her childhood is simply an artifact of her long loneliness. Having never belonged anywhere, she tells herself that perhaps she conjured an imaginary world the way some children dream up an imaginary friend….
Allowing even the ghostly comfort of remembered— or imagined— happiness to lap at the edges of her mind now quickens her stride, rendering her once again oblivious to the pain in her foot. This life, this vocation had saved her; she has carved out a tenuous, transitory place for herself in this world-unto-itself that mirrors the earlier one, in which all that is most beautiful lived inseparable from the relentless, grinding effort required to support it— both the lofty aspirations of the soul and the human needs and frailties of the body–
this mortal coil
this too too solid flesh
—reminding her, deep down in the depths of her subconscious, of another life, a happy life, a holy one lived in a state of grace, and redemption, before the fall; almost as if she had been cloistered, willingly, in an earlier, similarly enclosed community of outcasts and foundlings, kindred souls;