Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Stories, Part 1

About a month ago, in another post, I briefly mentioned the first story I'd ever submitted to a workshop, my first piece of fiction reviewed by peers. I was so terrified I couldn't write straight. I ended up submitting a story I'd written a few years previous, when I was thinking of becoming a dancer, taking lessons and everything. My professor, Matt Bondurant (maybe you've heard of his family), hated it. He didn't say so, of course, he just had a general air of disapproval. Actually, I think he was pretty much disappointed in most of our class on a whole. In the end, he did like my other writing and encouraged me to write non-genre fiction, which kind of annoyed me at the time, but I think it made my creative writing education better in the end. Plus, the horror story he asked me to rework to mainstream literature got published, twice in a way, regardless.

Anyway, this isn't about Prof. Bondurant, or college, or writing workshops, or any of the above. Instead, I just wanted to post the before and after affect. So, this post is the before story, the short story I wrote when I was 21 and taking the first steps to becoming a dancer. Steps that only lasted until the first performance and a severe case of stage fright diverted me to another course. That course wasn't writing just yet, but it was always there in the background, thus this short story. When I wrote this, I'd been writing as a hobby for 9 or 10 years, giving up and starting over at various times. No one but my mom and maybe a couple of Xanga friends had read my work and even I didn't take it seriously. I think I revised it a bit before I submitted but not enough to make it much better.

It has all the hallmarks of my early stuff: super angry heroines, foul-mouthed and full of rage for no reason, a knight in shining whatever who saves her from herself, a villainous asshole whose super mean for no reason, and bad writing.

All right, that's enough ado. On with the fiction.

The Love of Dance - By Stephanie Thompson, 2,770 words

The Performance

“Get out of my way!”
“Bitch diva.”
“Faceless body.”

The stage manager whispered nervously from the wings, “Would you two knock it off?”
An audience, sitting not twenty feet away, was entranced by the dancers on stage and blissfully unaware of the words of the dueling ballerinas.  Younger up and coming soloist Joslyn Dembec danced the part of mother to the experienced prima soloist Daphne Calistrati.  The performance was “Le Casse Suite” by the Kansas City’s Ballet Company’s newest choreographer Jacques Dupree.  The scene changes.  On stage now were Daphne and her newest prized partner Carlos Hernandez in the last movement of the suite.  They were dancing the parts of lovers at their last meeting before being tragically separated by war.  Again words are being exchanged unbeknownst to the audience.
The audience was in awe of the dancers gravity defying lifts, delicate holds, and delicate solos.  The partner’s love seemed tangible.
On stage the dancers sparred.

“Oh, fuck me! Did you scarf the whole buffet at the premier or did you take it easy with just half a cow?”
He lowered her.
“Would you like to break my legs slamming me down like that?”
They held each other face-to-face.  Their expression was of heart breaking sadness; their words were far from it.
“Fat bitch.”
“Ugh, mouthwash much?”

The performance ends.  The company and crew take their bows.  Daphne’s arms are laden with bouquets.  Carlos stands on one side of her and the director and choreographer on the other.

“I’m not dancing with that bastard again.”

Her smile didn’t falter.  Carlos paused mid bow for a split second.  He knew he shouldn’t have made the fat joke, now he’d be back in the corps he was plucked from.  Neither Frank Hershey, the director, nor Jacques were surprised.  Carlos was Daphne’s third partner since rehearsals began. They were more surprised that he had lasted so far into the season.

“Well, we only have one more male good enough for the roll.”

The curtain closed for the last time.  Daphne threw the flowers down but it was too late her eyes were already watery and itching.

 –Damned allergies—she thought.

“He better be good I’m tired of all the shit heads.”

The stage was empty of people now.  Daphne turned back to see the remnants.  Flower petals were trampled all over stage.  She sighed then lit a cigarette.

“Daphne?  Are you listening?” Frank called.  “If you want this new partner you have to be in rehearsal room B tomorrow at 8am.  And be prepared to practice until the matinee performance.”

The Rehearsal
“ . . . 7, 8, 1, 2 . . . No, no, no,” Jack put his head in is hands.  Since he was in dancer company only, he dropped his fake French accent.  He was just Jack from Macon, Georgia.  And he was frustrated at the continuous failure of this particular lift.  “Jason, you had this on par with Valerie.  What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry Jack, she’d just so much lighter than Val.”
“Kiss ass,” Daphne interjected.
She was sucking on the same cigarette she had been working on since the beginning of rehearsal.
“Would you put that shit out, Daphne?  You killing yourself and us,” Jack scolded.
“Bite my ass,” she responded.

A cell phone began ringing.
Jack sighed, “I have to take this.  You guys keep practicing that lift.”

“Pretentious bastard,” She said once he left the practice room.

Jason watched her as she practiced at the barre.  Her every move full of grace and beauty while her words were laced with ugliness.  But his eyes could only see the beautiful delicate dancer.  Her brown hair was pulled back into a harsh bun.  He imagined letting it down, seeing the waves fall soft around her face. He tried to ignore the image while he practiced his variation solo.  Daphne examined him in the mirror.  He didn’t have the typical dancer physique.  Where he should have been slender he was broad.  His muscles were bulky compared to the other male dancer’s strong and lithe muscles.  She tore her eyes away and concentrated on her pliés.

“We should practice this lift before he returns,” Jason suggested.

For once Daphne was without a snide comment but was she was still comfortable with her smug silence.  Jason counted the beats to the lift.  Daphne approached in her fluttering gallop.  Jason’s hands clasped her waist; his strong arms lifted her from the ground.  And again he used too much strength.

“Holy fuck!” Daphne exclaimed just as both dancers toppled over. “Goddamn it,” she added as she got up off the floor.
“I’m sorry,” he started.
“Are you trying to fucking kill me?” she demanded.
She lit another cigarette.
“You’re going to kill yourself with those things,” he warned.
“Oh, fuck you.”

They stood at odds on opposite sides of the room.  At that moment Jack returned.

“You two lucked out, some tornado scare has got the theatre worried.  They cancelled the matinee performance.  But they haven’t decided about tonight,” he paused while looking at the two dancers.  
“Have you even been practicing?”

His eyes flitted between the two dancers.  He started his attack on Daphne.

“Frank told you he’s our last male.  You can’t have a strop now.”
“You don’t know what the hell is going on, do you?”
“I can’t believe your doing this to me again,” he raised his voice.  “Every season it’s the same damn thing.”

The stressed choreographer had forgotten about Jason.
“Get your head out of your ass and listen,” Daphne tried to reason.

He interrupted again, “You should remember, you are replaceable.  There’s only one reason Frank keeps you on, and everyone knows it.”
“Shut the hell up,” her voice was low and stern.  Her words were deliberate.
“You had me, you’ve probably been off with half the company.  Who’s to say you aren’t fucking Frank too?”
“I am,” her voice trembled.  “You’re just jealous that you couldn’t keep me.”
“Nah,” he dismissed.  “There’s nothing to miss.  You’re just an overrated second-class ballerina, Daphne.  Most of the chorus are prettier and much more willing to do what it takes to get your spot.”

Daphne’s slender body trembled with emotion.  Tears built up in her eyes.
“Fuck you! Fuck all of you!  If you think someone else can dance this shit half as well as I can then let them!  This entire company can kiss my ass!  You tell Frank I quit and there is nothing he can do about it.  You can’t pay me to take this shit any more.”

Daphne stormed from the practice room.  Jack watched with a sinister smile.

The Rescue
Jason had stood in disbelief during the fight.  He was new to the company and unaware of the continuing viciousness.  He couldn’t tell if the fight was professional or personal.   He didn’t know that it was always both.  He was unsure if he should step in or not.  But now that it was over he spoke.

“Are we done?” his voice was steady and strong.
  Jack was startled.
“Uh, yeah. Um, take a half hour break,” he tried to compose himself.
He never met Jason’s eyes.  His cell phone rang again.
“What?” he answered aggressively.

The following words of conversation were lost as Jason left the room.  He wanted to find Daphne.
On either side of the hall were practice studios filled with chorus ballerinas.  Jason went straight towards the changing rooms.

Daphne was crying at her locker.  She pulled tights, leotards, extra shoes, packets of ace bandages, and a slew of jars from the undecorated metal box.  There were no pictures of loved ones, or newspaper articles of success.  Just the cold metal.  She was crying and muttering to herself.
“Five years! Five fucking years! That’s it, I’m out.  Nothing, absolutely nothing is worth any of this shit.”

Jason approached quietly.  Her last statement stirred him to speak.
“Dancing,” he said.  “Dancing for the love of dancing, that’s worth everything.”
She wiped her tears away quickly. She sniffed and zipped up her duffle.
“What do you know, newbie?”
Jason stood in the way of her leaving.  She tried to walk around him but he moved.  There was a stand off.

“Would you move?”
“Look, I don’t even care enough about you to insult you, just let me by,” she said.
“Why are you so mean?” he inquired.
“Oh what the fuck?  Are you Doctor Phil now?”
“I just don’t understand.  You are a magnificent dancer, a beautiful woman.  What is with the attitude?”
“I really don’t need this. Move, Mr. Fix It.”

With a surprise shove she pushed Jason out of her way.  He hadn’t suspected her to become physical.  But he quickly recovered and chased her down the hall. He gripped her arm.
“We have to be back in half an hour,” he informed her.

“Are you dense or something?  I’m not going back, I’m through.   The world has lost the light of Daphne Calistrati, thanks to a company full of assholes and backstabbers.”

Daphne tried to pull away but Jason pulled her towards him.  He kissed her with a startling passion. She mildly resisted at first.  Then she melted into the warmth of the kiss.  Until she heard a noise, a stifled giggle.  Joslyn had entered the hall in the middle of the kiss.  Daphne opened her eyes at the slight noise.  She saw the gloating contempt in the other dancer’s eyes, the smug smile on her face.  And she pulled away from Jason.  She ran out of the building and into the street.  Her taxi wasn’t there yet.  Stinging tears rolled down her cheeks as she waited.

Jason looked behind him after Daphne ran.  He saw Joslyn the same as Daphne saw her.  A vindictive selfish child.  Beautiful and cruel. He followed Daphne onto the street.

The Explanation
“Where are you going?” he asked.

Daphne exploded again.
“What the hell do you want from me?  Are you just trying to save this role for yourself?  Because you will go straight back to the chorus when I’m gone.  Is that it?  Because that part, this company, is not worth it.”

“I just want to know why.”

“Oh, right.  Why am I so mean right?  Fine!  ‘Dancing for love of dancing.’ That’s what you said earlier, right?  Well, I’ve been dancing my entire life.  25 years.  Dancing was my first and only love.  But it crushed my soul; it devoured my heart and gave me back shit.  At 15 a company in Nebraska accepted me.  At 16 I was the youngest prima ballerina in the company history.  At 20 they replaced me with a younger prima who took my . . . everything.  When I came to this company they didn’t even have a prima spot.  The girls use to rotate for the lead parts.  I auditioned and they created a spot just for me.  And a year later Jack came along when he was just Jack.  He started making these fantastic parts, again just for me.  So I started dancing just for him.  Because I loved him.  And overnight I wasn’t a dancer anymore.  One day I became a whore.  Everyday the jeers and sneers got worse.  I was just a second rate dancer who fucked everybody so she could to stay on top.”
She stopped.  Tears were streaming down her face now.  Her throat and lungs hurt from her screaming and crying.  Jason easily heard her yelling over the busy city traffic.  She looked tragic with her red eyes and her odd mismatched outfit: half street clothes and half practice clothes.
“For 25 years I danced through injuries, through changes, through days and nights.  I’ve starved myself and worked to the bone.  I never danced for fame and I sure as hell didn’t do it for money or a career. I danced for the sake of dancing,” she got quiet.  “And now I’m done.  I’m tired.  I don’t have anymore love to dance for.”
The taxi pulled up.  Daphne got in without another word to Jason.
He was standing frozen in the middle of sidewalk.  That wasn’t so much what he had expected to hear in the middle of the street.  And he didn’t know what he was going to do about it yet.

The Resolution
An hour before the knock on the door Daphne had sat in her darkened apartment chain smoking.  She didn’t know what she was going to do now. She had no job skills, no education.  There wasn’t a place for an emotionally exhausted dancer in the job market.  After the knock she couldn’t decide whether to answer it or not.  There was no peephole in her door, so once she opened it there was no escape from the person on the other side.

Jason waited anxiously for the door to open.  He was completely changed out of his dance clothes.  His braised cheek was throbbing again.  In one aching hand he carried a pizza and in the other a case of beer.  He hoped to win Daphne over as he waited for the door to open.

And the door did open.  Daphne cursed herself silently.  Jason released a sigh of relief.

“What do you want now?” she asked.
“I brought beer and pizza.”
“Well I can see that.”
She didn’t invite him in; she didn’t even leave the door to let him in.
“I want to talk.”

She sighed, and then she did let him in.  Free beer was a blessing to the unemployed dancer who could have barely afforded beer when she was working.  In the dark Jason blindly navigated his way to a couch.  Daphne got a bottle opener and began in on the beer.  She sat opposite him.  They sat in silence. No one touched the pizza. Daphne took notice of his cheek.

“Did you mug some one for the pizza?” she started.
“No, I had a, uh, confrontation.”
“No kidding,” she said dryly.

He told the story of the fight with Jack.  How he had gone back to tell Jack that Daphne had gone.  Both Jack and Frank had been there.  The night’s performance had been cancelled due to the tornado scare.  But Jack didn’t say a word about Daphne quitting.  Jason asked him about it.

“That slut will be back.  She always comes back begging for more,” had been his response.
Jason pulled a surprise punch.  Jack recovered quick and hit back. Mild violence ensued.
The only response he received from Daphne was a flick of her lighter.  The sheen from the fire reflected off her fresh tears.  Then the sounds of another beer opening.

“I have a secret,” he said softly.
“What are you five?” she scoffed.

She was determined to keep up her hard exterior despite that Jason already knew it was fake.

“I have followed your career since you started in Nebraska.  It’s been my dream to dance with you.”
“Another one dashed,” she said still sarcastic.

There was silence for a moment.

“How old are you anyway? I mean really.”
“I’m 27.”
She had underestimated his age by nine years, but she didn’t tell him.

“I got a late start in dance.  And I know I’m just a mediocre dancer, I will always be in the corps.  I am grateful that I get a chance to dance at all.  I’m overjoyed that I can even dance in the same company as you.  When they told me last night that I’d be dancing as your partner I thought I was in heaven.”

She was speechless for an instant.  Her whole life has been choreographed for her and now Daphne was lost.

“What do you want from me?  I mean what is it that you want me to do?”

She sounded very vulnerable.  He longed to reach out and hold her.

“I know a choreographer with a company in Denver.  They just lost their prima to San Francisco.”
Daphne kept her eyes transfixed on the floor.  If he asked her would she say yes?  Should she?  There was nothing for her here.  She had every reason to leave.  It would be the easiest thing in the world to disappear.

“The Mile High Ballet would be blessed beyond their dreams to have a dancer like you.”

“And you?”

Her second question was almost inaudible.

“There has always been a place for me there.”

They sat in silence for the better part of an hour.  The pizza became cold.  The beer warmed.   But Daphne didn’t light another cigarette and Jason never doubted what her decision would be. 

“I’ve never been to Denver,” she said at last.

Thanks for reading, if you did. Hope you didn't vomit, even I threw up in my mouth a little just skimming it. You don't have to say it's not so bad or there are worse things out there because I know. The truth is, it gets better. Not just this story, but every story. I could write something now, start something completely new, and come back to the piece in the week and make it better.

I recently found a quote I'd written out in an old notebook. I don't remember ever reading it or actually writing it down. Plus, it's Faulkner, who I hate because 11th grade forced me to read As I Lay Dying and I haven't forgiven him since, so I can't even figure out how I came across it in the first place. But it's perfect suited for me and this post and I managed to find the full thing in an interview by Jean Stein in The Paris Review, Spring 1956, No 12.

In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide. I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing. --William Faulkner

Anyway, check back tomorrow for the revised version of The Love of Dance, now called Ballerina, to see the improvements.