The Dancer
Patricia Petelin

The Dancer's career was no shorter or longer than average and on the night of her final performance—a contemporary revival of La Bayadère—she cried in front of strangers for the second time. The first time was years ago in a dentist's office over the holidays when during a root canal the doctor had said, "Boy that tooth tried awful hard to live." It was the dentist's assistant who noticed the Dancer's tears and placed two tissues in her hand with a squeeze.

The Dancer was the daughter of the Man Who Missed No Eclipse. In fact, the Dancer's father missed hardly any rare astronomical event visible from Earth, but especially those not to occur again for the next 37 or 241 or 1,100 years. The Man Who Missed No Eclipse had made his money as a developer, buying large plots of desert on the edge of the city, the kind of land anyone's grandparent would say was good for nothing. Within a year the Dancer's father had built a mall or network of office buildings, and all of this with his head toward the heavens. The Dancer used to think that if there was no such thing as gravity her father would be the first to float away.

From a young age the Dancer was acutely aware of the unlikelihood that she should have a career in dance. She was, quite simply, too athletic. Though her body was nothing if not the external reflection of a cavernous will, a hunger so old it did not even resemble desire. It grew disproportionately in the dark and caused the Dancer a generalized but relentless discomfort with the whole of the material world. Its only cure was mastery.

But how to make oneself less strong?

Whether she willed it or whether she was the lucky beneficiary of a trend toward more tenacious physiques, the Dancer had become a corps member with the Milwaukee Ballet out of high school. Then to Cincinnati and then to Denver. The Dancer ended her career as a soloist with Ballet West in Salt Lake City, dancing her final performance with two herniated discs while her father witnessed a transit of Venus from a balcony in Bangalore.

The morning of her last performance was a Sunday morning and the Dancer spent it in bed with her lover whom she loved for always looking at her squarely. There were no angles in his assessment; even when vulnerable, he refused to retreat. But what she loved most was that it never seemed to bother him that he took up space.

That morning she nestled against him and didn't speak; it was too early for words. She began to stir, starting with her feet, curling and releasing one against the other, and then both against the small mound of sheets discarded in the night. She closed her eyes, pressed her forehead into her lover's back and took a deep breath. She took another one. She opened her eyes and noticed a small pink flowering along his lower spine, a strange rash of symmetric circlings. She traced it with her finger, but she was too gentle and this tickled him. "Hey," he said. "Hey," she said, "you have a rose on your back." She traced it again. "It's for you," he said.

Because of staging difficulties, the final act of La Bayadère is often left out, even in full-length performances. So by the end of Act III the Dancer prepares to take her final bow as a dancer. She is shifty backstage and cannot help from thinking about the decision of her thirteen-year-old self whose body—or being?—could not, with any measure of ease, move with the effortlessness a ballet patron expects to witness. The Dancer recalls her stubborn evaluation: effortlessness is an illusion achieved only through effort, and if they are looking for surrender, she will elude them, she will seize. And this is what she has done. The stage manager signals to her. She continues the charade. She is halfway across the stage now and cannot contain her tears. The applause. They are celebrating her because they believe. But I have lied, she wants to say as her chest bobs unevenly and her nose starts to run. It is no pleasure being in a body.

The Dancer, already overcome, avoids looking toward the section where her lover usually sits. He is standing and clapping and in a month the flowering on his back will have grown and taken on the appearance of wood grain. Erythema gyratum repens, the doctor will say, and tell him that it is a marker of internal malignancy. How long have you been smoking, the doctor will ask. But it is now and the curtain is closing. The Dancer is desperate for breath. She lowers her eyes and finds roses.

Patricia Petelin lives and writes in Chicago.

Detail of photo art on main page courtesy of Sara Bijana.

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