I love writing in the summer, so the title Midsummer Metaphors is literally what I'm doing in these mild months -- often outdoors, in a nearby field or on my decks overlooking trees full of birds and squirrels and breezes. The flow of nature encourages my creative work in a way that being cooped up inside in the winter does not. Childhood in southern California is to blame, where we opened up all the doors and windows and ate outside on the patio every night. I didn't know a house was meant to contain everything a family does. And the beach. Lots of beach time changes you.
So her's the taste -- "Eight en Croix," a story of growing up as the bipolar rocket scientist's kid.
Eight en Croix, Four on a Side, Every Day Until You Die
At age thirteen, you need something glorious in your life just to breathe. My mother was at Long Beach State afternoons earning her teaching credential, and Dad was at his new apartment. Everything was changing, so I needed a daily dose of tradition. I found it at Rosalie and Alva’s Ballet Theatre on Weymouth Corners, next to Perry's Five-and-Dime, where after four o'clock class I could load up on bubble gum and chocolate bars.
"Raychelle, point your toe!" shouted Rosalie. Six years of study, and she never pronounced my name right, but she was like radar on an unpointed toe.
Rosalie pounded her stick on the floor and bull-horned another order – something about a bent knee. With her hair tucked under a white turban and her coral-painted lips and hair, she looked like Rhonda Fleming playing a female yogi. Rosalie raced around the room, bending an arm here, poking a leg there, shouting. Everything about her was theatrical and excessive, from her fabulous arches to her rusty garage door shriek.
"You have great potential," she had told me. "You may even have talent, if you can find the drive. If you want to dance, you can't think about anything else."
This was a problem for a shy dreamer with too many hobbies, but I was a faithful student, taking four classes a week. Rosalie was a model of her own philosophy. Though her dancing had been in movie musicals and night clubs, not in ballet companies, she was devoted to high art, and hoped her students would exceed her career of high-lift ballroom dancing with Alva.
Talent was a potent word, one my mother shied away from when I showed her my stories and poems. "Very few people have talent," she said. "It's inborn." Dad said even straight A's did not mean you could rest on your talent. I was desperate for someone to discover it had been born in me, talent for something. I knew I had a destiny that had something great about it. Rosalie seemed to think I might have talent, which in her view had nothing to do with being born.
In a studio filled with music, passion and pink satin, springing to my toes on a pliant wood floor, despite intense pressure on my knees and toe joints, I could feel talent steaming off my skin. It propelled me into the air. I imagined I might pause in mid-air, as they said Nijinsky did. So I did my eight en croix, four on a side, figuring I would do these exercises every day until I died, because satin toe shoes were levitation devices. With them, I could float onto imagination's gauzy stage, a soloist at last. The cavernous, raftered studio had once been a warehouse and still smelled faintly of walnuts, but it was so capacious that I could leap and spin across it far and fast, feeling myself an object of pure momentum. Ballet was one thing girls could do better than boys, better than anything in my father's supersonic world of satellites, apogees and payloads. Music was energy flowing through me, and I needed no quadratic equation to catch its waves and ride.
Rosalie said I had some physical defects, but determination could overcome almost any defect. I had just seen Margot Fonteyn dance at the Hollywood Bowl with that handsome Russian defector Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet. They were so perfectly paired and he danced behind her with such reverence that I felt I could do pliés forever to dance like that.
"Talent will out," my mother said mysteriously.
I did not know what this meant, but would rather hear Rosalie say, "Raychelle, you must work, work, work."
With my tendons stretched so taut in an arabesque I thought they might snap, I thought, if this isn't talent, I give up. Rosalie came over and whacked my leg with her stick.
"That's where your arabesque must be. Have you gained some weight?"
I had no reply, but she had moved on to her next demolition.
I was three inches shorter than everyone my age and getting worried, but Rosalie said that at twelve, no one knows how your body will come out. She kept yelling at me to tuck my bottom under, and there was that thing about my knees, but I could do three pirouettes in a row and jump so high the class once broke into applause. Surely this was talent outing.
At Thanksgiving dinner, I looked at my father's squat Russian family, their muscular legs and unwaisted torsos. Aunt Fritzi and Uncle Ed both had paunches and necks so short they looked like those Russian wooden dolls that nest inside each other. They had munchkin-stumpy legs. Thanks to Rosalie, I possessed a power of concentration that was going to shape my growing body. I studied photos of Pavlova, Karsavina, and Nijinsky. They were Russian, weren't they?
The next week, I lifted my leg so high I could feel it pull at the back of my tongue. I would never be able to do this again. I waited for Rosalie as she walked slowly down the line of girls, frowning. She stopped.
"Good, Raychelle." She whacked my quivering foot. "Now don't sickle your foot."
That was the week Dad moved out for good. It was just like another of his trips to Cape Canaveral for a missile launch, only Mom said he was never coming back. You would think after all the fighting, I would have been prepared, but never was so huge a word it made me nauseous.
Everyone kept telling me that I was starting the best part of my life. My English teacher said that in high school I could be on the school newspaper. Joyce's mother said high school was the best time for a girl, with cheerleading and proms. Lana's mom said I would be adorable in poodle skirts and as a dancer be a hit at sock hops. Rosalie said I could not afford to be distracted by these things. In a year or two, I should be auditioning for a major ballet school.
"But what about college?" I asked.
She looked surprised. "Dancers don't have time for college."
So it was time to decide, and it was no contest. Ballet – one hundred, other stuff – zero. Ballet was my talent, the single thing right with my life.
This was a shock, since my family had always assumed I would go to college, but it was not hard to decide. Ballet was the single thing right with my life.
In 1962, America was just inventing divorce as a social institution, but in San Pedro, it lowered your standing. Once, we had been the well-off newcomers on the hill, but now our Italian, Portuguese and Croatian neighbors, with their relatives crammed into tiny bungalows, pitied us. My brother and I showed up at PTA meetings and Fourth of July barbecues with only a mom. My girl friends subtly flaunted their intact families. My parents said none of this was our fault, but I knew it was my fault, with my smart mouth (Dad said), my fusses (said Mom). Clearly, I was the family wrecking ball and it was up to me to fix everything.
"It's just a garden party to you girls,” Rosalie said.
We had just done a series of leaps across the huge floor – not once, but three times. Rosalie shook her head so hard her dangling earrings hit her cheeks. She made a mock tragic face and put her forehead on her arm, pretending to sob, always getting more out of us with laughs.
"Once more! Just so I don't have to jump off the roof!"
The summer show was coming and soon Rosalie would be casting. We summoned what little breath we had and did the fourth series of jumps.
Rosalie stopped me after class. "Raychelle, for this show, I have something special in mind for you."
She explained that the part she had in mind would be a short Russian dance, a duet with Alva. I became so excited that it was difficult to concentrate as she explained that it would be a showy folk dance, as authentic as possible, with shoulder shimmying and foot-stamping, perfect for me, since I was part Russian.
"Are you interested? Do you think you can come to a lot of rehearsals and work very hard?"
I never worked so hard at anything in my life. When I had been a butterfly or a snowflake, all I had to worry about was not stepping on the feet of the girl in front of me. This year, there would only be two of us onstage for two and a half minutes. That was one hundred and fifty seconds. A second is a long time in ballet. A pirouette only takes five. A leap, including preparation and landing, only ten. Basically, I had to be perfect and then leap onto Alva's shoulder with split-second timing, because that was when the music stopped.
I nearly quit the first few times we ran through it, but Rosalie was very patient, talking me through my first lift by demonstrating with Alva. After only four tries, I found myself atop Alva's shoulder, staring down at the world from a height of eight feet. Talk about levitating!
Rosalie shrewdly made use of my rhythm and jumping ability, as well as Alva’s strength and presence. She had a sense of pizzazz that wowed them in San Pedro. It was going to be a magnificent work, the centerpiece of our show.
We were responsible for our own costumes in the shows, either purchasing or making them. Since this was a solo, Rosalie left its design to me. My mother and I got a library book on Russian costumes. She took me to the May Company and we found a white cotton blouse with loose sleeves. Mom sewed a peasant skirt out of an embroidered tablecloth and made me a little black vest. Rosalie banished the thought of toe shoes – this was a folk dance! I had to wear something that looked like boots, but softer. We made cloth leggings to pull over my black ballet slippers. Rosalie found a garland of fake flowers for my hair. She arranged for the local newspaper to photograph me and Alva in our finale pose.
"This will make a great picture for the papers," she said.
It did. There I was, looking like a real Russian dancer, my waist-length hair pulled over one shoulder the way the Moiseyev dancers wore it. The San Pedro News Pilot actually mentioned my name. They also wrote about the bleachers Alva had installed to accommodate a larger audience, along with their new, machine drawn velvet curtain.
I heard from friends and neighbors that they were all coming, though not all approved of my plan to become a dancer. Lana's mother gave me advice from a movie. This was to be expected from a one-time actress.
"You must see 'The Red Shoes' darling," Mrs. Malloy said. She was always telling me to pattern my life after some movie. "You don't want to end up like that poor girl, throwing herself off the roof of the theater because she couldn't choose between love and the stage."
I thought anyone who had a ballet career and killed herself was a moron.
'Why don't you think about joining the Peace Corps," said Joyce's mom. She thought everything President Kennedy did was wonderful, especially this new program to send rich kids around the world to help poor kids. "After you've been to Ghana or Chile, you can decide about the stage." She said 'the stage' as if it were akin to leaping off a roof.
My mother responded with, "Well, if that's what you really want" and changed the subject.
A week before the performance, my mother decided we should go all-out for my appearance. She took me to the corner hair stylist for a chic new haircut. The stylist’s hand swashed through the air, as he lopped off my waist-length mop. A cut here, a cut there; he said he was making the most of my "Oriental eyes." I waited to look until he swooped off the cloth and there in the mirror was a Chinese doll with a chin-length bob.
"Fabulously chic!" he said.
I went to sleep that night secure of stardom. I looked like those girls on American Bandstand with velvet headbands and dimples. I knew my part so well I could dance it in my sleep.
Rosalie walked into the studio the next day, took one look at me, and shrieked. Her face twisted like a dishrag. I thought she was having a seizure. Alva came running out of the shop.
"What have you done?" she screamed.
For a few moments, we were in a standoff of mutual disbelief.
"Alva! What are we going to do? Just look at her!"
Alva's voice was, as always, deep and slow. "Now, Rosalie, calm down. What's all the fuss?"
"Her hair! Look at her hair – it isn't there! Raychelle has ruined her appearance! She doesn't look Russian now, she looks like all the girls."
I had never seen her so angry. She would not even look at me. "Alva, what about a wig? We can put a wig on her."
"Oh, Rosalie, I don't think so. She doesn't need it. She looks plenty Russian."
Rosalie turned to me, now composed in fury: "NEVER alter your appearance before a performance. NEVER make a change without asking your director. I only gave you that part because of your long hair!"
She turned and stomped out. Alva smiled sadly and mumbled that I should not worry, Rosalie was always getting worked up. I walked to the dressing room to change back into my clothes feeling dizzy under the sudden, palpable absence of hair. All these years of hard work gone in a few snips.
I was thinking I would call in a few days and tell them I was sick. Let Rosalie dance the duet. She would be better, with her glazed smile, her showy gestures and beautiful feet.
Carmen came around the corner and said, "Don't let her get you down, honey."
Great. She had probably heard the whole thing and by tomorrow everyone would know that I had only been given a solo because I could grow hair.
Carmen put her hand on my shoulder, but it did no good. "She does this every year. Last year she picked on me because I streaked my hair! Cheer up, honey. She'll get over it."
My father called to say he was coming to all three performances. "I want to see my little star get lots of applause." His gravel voice did its best cooing, trying to make up for leaving us, but I was not going to give him satisfaction.
"Great, Dad," I said and hung up.
After another miserable day, I decided that the best revenge on Rosalie would be for me to give three knockout performances.
In the wings before the first performance, my legs were shaking so badly I thought my teeth would fall out. They continued to shake as I went on, forcing the top half of me to shimmy and my lips to smile. The critical moment came. I jumped so hard I almost hit Alva in the head, but there I was, on his shoulder, looking out and the audience was applauding. I smiled into a blur of light. I don't even remember taking bows, but I walked off triumphant.
My nerves were better by Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, I was actually looking forward to it. I shimmied with verve, twinkled at Alva, and then twirled out to the end of our extended arms to prepare for my leap. The penultimate chord sounded, I jumped – and missed Alva's shoulder, sliding down the side of his body.
That was it. There was no more music. I could hear the audience draw a collective breath as I looked frantically into the wings for Rosalie. What was she signaling? Try again, try again!
In silence I spun out again arm’s length from Alva, thinking that if I did not make it up there, I was going to just walk offstage. Then I jumped. Alva yanked my arm so hard I thought I might fly right past him.
And there I was again, eight feet high. They were cheering and whistling! Someone came out of the audience toward me. It was my father, holding a bouquet.
My exhilaration did not fade when the bouquet did. I pressed it into a scrapbook, along with the article, pasting down a rare spotlight.
When Dad came a couple weekends later to take me out on a jaunt, he exclaimed, “My beautiful daughter! You're growing more beautiful every day.”
He never said a word about the performances as we went on his usual round of errands. Coasting down Seventh Street hill, he talked about his new painting, a study of the bait tank on a fishing boat. He said Connor did not like his impressionistic style, but what did Connor know, he couldn't tell crap from a good grade of clay, and what were those crazy numbers he painted all over his canvases?
Dad talked about the stupid woman in the car ahead of us, who failed to signal at every right turn. He asked me how my school work was coming.
"Okay, I guess. I got an A in English, but Dad, I really want to talk about dancing. I want to be a ballerina like Margot Fonteyn."
"Damn it! You shouldn't talk to me while I'm making a turn. Now I have to go all the way around three blocks. So you got an A, huh?"
We cruised by the docks and the bobbing tuna boats. My life goal seemed to hiss away with the gulls. If my own father found it unimportant, who would? Of course my life was never going to get started, not here. What San Pedran worried about arabesques and turnout? Art? I could almost hear the longshoremen mutter. Ballerinas? whistled the pelicans. I’ll give you Art, frowned the man behind the counter at the Army-Navy Surplus Store – for a nickel. I had a feeling only the cold, shifting sea could describe.
In a rare silence, I again broached the subject of dancing professionally. This time Dad seemed to hear me, but his reply was puzzling.
"My father was an architect during the Depression," Dad said. "Now there was a useless profession." He hummed a jazz riff in a tuneless bass and tapped rhythm on the wheel.
"I really want to be a dancer," I said, leaving out the last part: "instead of go to college."
“Whatever my beautiful daughter decides, she will do it well.”
He said it as if a beautiful girl was something to roll up and fire off into the stratosphere. At that moment, something was born in me, but it had to find a way to thrive in a world of women making scratch pies and handmade Christmas ornaments so their husbands could invent better living through chemistry and outer space.
I made up my mind. I was going for a different stratosphere, even if I had to invent it. And Rosalie was going to launch me. Just as soon as I grew some more hair.