Who touched you, Daphne? Who touched you, Daphne? Who took you away from me?
She was a ballet dancer, from the New York City Ballet. Our point of connection was the Russian novels we both loved, and the geese that I loved to watch gliding in towards the lake. I did not even know she was a dancer when I first met her in the park: a small pensive woman wearing a sweater and leotards, sitting down on a bench underneath the bare trees, the breath of life hovering in the cold autumn air by her warm mouth, hesitating to leave her before it let itself be carried away by the universe towards something she could give but not have. But I could see the wings of the geese in the way she walked.
When I told her that, as the geese flew in, honking in homage to the lake and in gratitude to my eyes, which were like a feather upon their wings, she smiled, but it was as if from behind a fence. Her grace was made of glass, afraid to be dropped and broken; yet there was courage in her also, the birds do not fly without hearts that know how to fight. You cannot live in the wind without being brave.
"The geese, they are the leaves the trees are missing," she said in that heavy Russian accent that was for me, a kind of auditory make-up, rouge and eye-liner in the air.
"You are a poetess," I said.
"A dancer," she replied. "A poet of the body." She lifted up one agile leg and gestured to her foot simply by moving it. "This is one of my words."
"And can you say more than that?" I asked her.
She moved the other foot; then she raised an arm, not like we humans raise our arms, like bulldozers and cranes, but like a green plant growing; then her wrist moved, and a bud was there, then her fingers, and a flower. "I have a very large vocabulary," she said, and she laughed. Her lack of modesty always amused her, but she did not repress it, any more than a bleeding person takes off his bandages.
"And that book in your hands," she said to me. "Is that really a book? Here, in this city, people only read the newspaper. And in the newspaper only the sports."
"Yes, it’s a book," I assured her. "Dead Souls."
"Russian!" she exclaimed. And she blurted out something to me in Russian that felt like a kiss on the lips of my soul, even though I didn’t understand a word of it. But her shining eyes were easily translated by my hope.
We became great friends. In this huge city of artists, with a million chambers of ambition, loneliness abounded; dreams of being taken home by everyone’s soul left one in utter solitude, concealed from the living by one’s discipline. For me, I was not good enough to dwell among men, I must write my way back to them, I could only cross over to humanity on a bridge of greatness; for her, the wounds that made her eyes deep and her body display itself like Jesus on the cross split her off from the rest of mankind, she became like a beautiful splinter that could not be reattached to the world. In the empty space between us and the rest of humanity we met, and loved each other with thoughts and glances that were not consummated. We shared the camaraderie of stars falling side by side from heaven.
Of course, I could not keep her out of my poetry. She crashed into the pages I used as breaths, she set fire to the paper on which I played with tame things, turning my art wild, ripping holes in the craft so that men might spy directly on gods. My pen ceased to wear clothes, I clawed madly like a man trying to dig to the other side of the earth in my effort to reach her with the words that would lift her high enough to see over the wall of my age. She was younger and more beautiful than I, and she danced with men who were savage, animals who could devour me, Rembrandts of motion in the bodies of lions. With words I tried to fight them off, with words: words stolen from dragons, words bled from my veins in the night, words solved by the clues on a blank piece of paper, words given to me by the geese.
Her soul was mine, her eyes glowed as I spoke, like a piano under the hands of a master; but her flesh withdrew, it fled like a wild animal in the darkness whenever I shined the light of desire on it. I could not understand how this woman whose art was her body could not close the circle of her soul with a touch. I loved her, madly, as no one had ever loved her in the past, and would never love her in the future! I rose to be twice the writer I was like smoke on the draft of her beauty, I worshipped her with my growth, and laid dances of my loneliness at her feet. But she withdrew.
I grew angry. Did not the princess kiss the frog? Did not the beauty love the beast? Did not the romantic heart always seek out a monster to love, just as snow seeks the dirtiest part of the earth on which to fall, to bury it in pure white? Was I so repulsive, even more than the creatures of the fairy tales? No one had ever said I was, though I was no match for the gods she danced with. I knew her soul was strong enough to desire me; was the body that survived the rigors of so many leaps and pirouettes, so much galloping and so much torturous slowness, like a turtle in the air, incapable of love?
One day, after weeks of candlelit dinners that always ended with me alone in my bedroom writing poems, I came to meet her after a practice, through a garage-like tunnel known only to the performers and support staff. Ballerinas still dressed in white and handsome men, bare-chested and in leotards, walked around as though this were another planet, inhabited by different beings. I heard someone raging from a room: "You are cold! Your dancing is cold! I feel like I am dancing with something cold-blooded, not human, like an iguana! There is no fire inside you, no molten core in your earth! You must lean into me, give yourself to me! You must fall inwards, lose your power, become a part of me! I cannot hold you as though you were poison!"
And suddenly, horrified but somehow expecting it, I heard her voice in return, throwing jagged pieces of English back at him: "You are groping me! You want to steal my life! You want to use the dance to put your dirty hands on me! You are not from the myth, you are ordinary! Why aren’t you gay?"
Then a third voice hurled itself into the fray: "Ludi, this is dance! Your body must be open! It is sex, it is kissing turned into air, it is copulation turned into gold! You have a beautiful body, you must throw it into his, you must hurl yourself onto the funeral pyre of your last reservations. Dance has no mercy, no modesty! We are trying to save the world from shame, we must not succumb to it!"
"I am not ashamed!" she raged. "He is dirty! His hands betray the dance!"
"He is a dancer, and this is beautiful!"
"She’s crazy! I won’t work with her!"
"Go to hell, you son-off bitch!"
I heard a door slamming, and her repeating, "He is a son-off bitch! Son-off bitch," then the man who was more quiet, obviously a director or choreographer, asking her, at last: "Ludi, what’s wrong? Do you have a problem with being touched?"
"He is dirty! No, dancers carry me all the time, but not like that! He is like a pervert who grabs women on the train!"
There was a long silence, I was probably suffering as much as them, on my side of the door, out among the dancer-ants, scurrying about to change their costumes, to get drinks of coffee or rush in a cigarette.
"Ludi – do you have a problem with being touched?" he asked again. "Your reactions have been very strong. To James and Alexy, both. The other dancers haven’t complained."
"Maybe they don’t have the high standards I have," she said.
A ballerina with a cup of coffee in her hand, and a long coat draped over her flimsy costume, recognized me, and told me, "Last week she almost scratched Alexy’s eyes out when he lifted her. Mr. Nelidov wants to give her good parts, but she’s blowing it." The dancer made the shape of a gun with her free hand, pointed it at her foot, and said, "Boom!" Then she told me, "If she’s your friend, you better try to talk some sense into her head before she ends up at Starbucks."
I listened to the director’s words from behind the door, unable to prevent myself from feeling invasive, and yet, unable to live without grasping at any straw that might keep me afloat in the water of loving her. "You know, as dancers we can have neuroses. We can have phobias. We can be afraid of riding up elevators, or cry when we see spiders, we can spend hours arranging the angles of the papers on our desk, or vomit when we smell cinnamon. What we cannot do is withhold our bodies. We cannot cringe, we cannot retract, we cannot be unfree. Our bodies cannot break, they cannot wear the chains of anything, of any tyrant or of any crime. Ludi – you are a magnificent dancer – if you have a problem – if anything ever happened to you – something that made you turn your beautiful body into a shell – we can help. There is so much help out there."
But his good will was not well-enough expressed. Dynamite needs lullabies that only the poet can compose. "I am insulted!" she said. "I have no problem except for dirty men!" and then suddenly, she was barging out of the door, practically crashing into me. Convincingly, I acted as though I had just arrived. She held me by the arms for one minute burning me with fierce and desperate eyes, as though she did not want to let me go, yet simultaneously needed to keep me at a distance. "I am glad to see you!" she exclaimed, at last. "A man who is as wise as a serpent, and as harmless as a dove!" Somehow, I did not feel flattered. In fact, I felt as though she had just kicked me in the balls. Was that the secret of our closeness: that I was a non-man, a penis entombed in romantic ideals, the next best thing to a eunuch? A beast firmly on the leash of words? An omnivore able to survive on a diet of fantasies when there was no reality to be had? "I have to change," she told me, grateful for my presence; the sun was always kind to frozen Pluto. "I’ll be back! Wait here!"
On the way back to a restaurant that took the place of my home which she would never go to, I gave her an opportunity to talk about her day - her problem - but she merely said, "It is just the Trojan Horse once again. That’s all. In everything, the wolf in the sheepskin. The priest wants little boys, the president wants the movie star while his wife is sleeping, the hero wants a blow job. He saves the world to get a blow job. Everything, the whole world, was just invented to get laid. Jacob’s ladder leads to the bedroom. Lord and Master is behind every door." And then she said, "Come on, it’s cold out here, more cold than I am! Tonight I will order the chicken with cashews! Thank God, there are so many Chinese, we will never run out of restaurants!"
Not long afterwards, Ludi was let go by the ballet. It was a devastating blow, though she raved until she was able to make herself proud of the loss, talking to me and to herself at the same time, sometimes in English, and sometimes in Russian which slammed me against the wall of my desire to know everything. "Well, that’s fine, maybe I go back to Russia and dance for the Bolshoi, real ballet! Garcia Lorca was right, this is a city without art, just pigeons, stupid pigeons fighting for bread crumbs, taking baths in dirty puddles; they shit on you, and you don’t win any money like you are supposed to! Grandmother said! You come like a fairy, they shoot cannons at you, you come like a mermaid, they stab you with a spear, is that how you say, the spear to kill the whales! Yes, the harpoon! They don’t want art, make horse stand up on back legs and that is ballet! If I was Chinese, I could work in a restaurant!"
I listened to her patiently, like a martyr who would be thrown to the lions before he would renounce his religion. I held up the regal train of her downfall, as though she were a queen, followed her regret and rage everywhere with whispers of my passion, blowing the counsel of angels into her ear; but even collapse would not drive her to me, would not make her body relent. Instead, she kept the fire burning in her head, not allowing it to spread, she translated letters from home which reprimanded her, so I could hate her family as much as she did. "They think my troubles are because I am undisciplined! How little do they know! My own flesh and blood! They break a branch from the tree and throw it on the ground, this fruit will not bear the family name. Burn it! Listen to this: this is Aunt Paulina, mother’s very own commissar. ‘You have been possessed by the devil since you were a child! Do you remember how you beat Ivan with a stick, just like he was a dog? Your very own brother! For stealing imaginary apples! For sure, you slapped Mr. Nelidov in the face, or spit in his eye. You loved to spit! Remember when you spit in your father’s food?’ See this? My own aunt?"
I tried to get to the bottom of these stories, but could not, there was too much passion, she was beginning to fall out of the sky and demanded solidarity at all costs. If you asked a question that made it seem like you had climbed out of the river of her suffering, she would stab you with a knife. And you had to swim, she had no patience for those who paddled the boat of the intellect in such personal waters. Neither did she have any tolerance for healing. If you approached her as a doctor, she drove you away as though you were seeking to enslave her. There were times when I felt that my hands were tied, that I could not take a single step closer to her torment. How I wanted to embrace her, to make my soul-love physical, but for her, it seemed, there was nothing between distance and violation, though she teased the planets into orbit with a radiance she refused to bring to its logical conclusion. I could only be her grandfather or a rapist. This delicate land, beyond the terrain of our relationship, was mined by terrible secrets, I was sure, but by what? By whom?!
One day, I remember her sitting in shock with me in a coffeehouse telling me about a movie she had stayed up late watching on TV the night before, as I wrote poems in the separate universe of my apartment. We could have been touching each other, loving each other. "The movie was about incest," she said. "It made me have goose bumps. Like a spider was crawling over my skin. Terrible. How could a father do that to his own daughter? Smash a hole in the wall of trust – and then, when she gets older, who else will enter through that hole?"
I looked at her, over a cup of hot coffee, and said, "Maybe no one. Maybe she will close the hole forever."
But she did not bite the hook, she was not a fish, she was a dancer. "Thank God, nothing like that ever happened to me!" she said. "Could you imagine? I would be like a crazy veteran from Afghanistan, running from everything, shooting at everything with my heart, turned into a gun."
I nodded, over the steaming crater of the coffee cup. I would never know any more about her than she would let me know, or let herself remember. In her eyes there was not any trace of a lie, only a furious effort to have amnesia. And if you tried to reach the answer, your hand would be blown off.
Ludi, Ludi, dear Ludmilla, princess of the closed doors! How many in a row are closed? How many locks are there, and, in the universe, is there any key?
Time and futility slowly pushed us apart. She became ashamed of living on the edges of the life that God had given her, and also wary of me, for I had lingered too long by her wounds and discovered too much. My eyes suspected things she could not live with, and she had to run from them. The next step in our relationship would have been for her to reveal the dark treasure that made her her self-contempt so wealthy. Since she would have had to come out of hiding, there was no next step.
And the nights out became less frequent. Then she changed her telephone number. I mourned, for I felt that something beautiful was melting like snow. I wanted to hear her voice, to see again the face that had fooled me in the beginning, fooled me by seeming to be on her shoulders. I wanted this powerful love to survive, I could not bear to think I had written so many poems that had died like moths flying into the flame, poems that made the sun shake in the sky but did not win her; poems that made the moon weep words to pens that could not sleep, but left the world the same. I could not bear to be alone after having loved like this! But all arguments were in vain. She, like infinity, could not be understood, nor embraced.
The park was once more filled with empty trees, after a season of unrequited love, a season of joyous green, blossoming as it headed towards the auto wreck of the autumn. I had come to see the geese, who were not there, but caught sight of her, instead, practicing her dancing which from now on she must do alone. Her body was still light, graceful, filled with life as long as no one else approached it. She did not see me watching her, but danced for herself. I saw her movements, fast, at first, with elegant bends from the waist as though she were leaning away from some outrage, trying not to be kissed on the cheek by some god or demon. Then, there was flight, she leapt through the air, she bounded like a gazelle, escaping from someone, something, she turned the park into the surface of the moon and gravity receded to let her movement flourish as though her life had been different. Then the body tired. How expertly she made it heavy, infiltrated lead into her legs, atom by atom, transmuted wind into metal, turned herself into a captive of her beauty, her greatest limitation. She panted, but with the gestures of her body. He came closer. I could see him now, invisible but beside her. At first, she seemed to surrender to him, her body hung drooping, defeated. Then, desperately, she rose up against him, like a storm, but it was hopeless. Now I knew, it was the God Apollo she was fighting against. Again she fled, like one bird flying from another during the mating season. She proved her intentions with her velocity, but she could not get away, no matter how she tried. Then suddenly she stopped, the frantic dance developed a center and she began to slowly spin around that center, her body stiffening and becoming erect, her hands stretching upwards like the branches of a tree. I could see the god beyond the ring of her rejection, standing back in awe. She slowed down, she took roots. The flesh continued to solidify, until it was bark, she finally ceased to move, except for what the breeze could do to her, she was a laurel tree. She was Daphne, and would never again be the prey of man.
Short Fiction Contents
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