In which Protagonist David "Lizard" Hochmeyer narrates a little of an unlucky (and, as it turned out, extraneous) trip to Italy.
My VIP tickets gained me entry to the box of fate all right, early arrival, the ushers tripping over themselves to be the one to help me. I watched the auditorium fill, keeping an eye out for Emily’s officer. That would please Dad, to see me shot in a duel, or shot in the back of the head in my theater box like Abraham Lincoln. The Children of War performance when it came wasn’t as glamorous and spontaneous as it had been in New York, but it was more cohesive, more polished, more in mind of its subject, which was suffering, after all. The music had been boiled down to a small rock band led by Georges, and they were tight beyond belief, hard-driving, hot and loud. The first piece was the Carlos Santana number, Sylphide appearing onstage in public for the first time in over three years. The audience swooned and I did too, all those men around her, something new afoot: this wasn’t classical ballet anymore, even I could see that. She bobbed through the air on a dozen hands, ethereal. When it was done I stood and cheered with the crowd, an absurdly long ovation full of shouts and cries.
Emily’s first entrance came twenty minutes into the evening, and it was startling, as if she’d fallen out of the lights, a great crash onto the blank stage after a full minute of music with the curtain open, and feral after that, almost frightening, a new species of dance you couldn’t imagine someone else doing. The band perked up, the other dancers brightened. The fans stood before Emily was even done, ravished and amazed, chanting for more, I among them, brava this and brava that.
I sat alone in the velvet mausoleum during the long, long intermission that followed, barely stirred, even when Marcello Mastroiani gave a speech about the goals of the Children of War Foundation, elegant man, glass of red wine in his hand, Sylphide’s date, no doubt, the special guest she’d mentioned, her evening all arranged, all right. The next several pieces were light, even comic, rock-and-roll inspired stuff with prominent roles one-by-one for pretty much the whole company. And then the final long piece: Emily again, looking vulnerable, almost fragile, not at all herself, no music, a piece offered in the utter silence suggested by Nureyev’s memorable turn in New York, just her bare feet squeaking as his had done, a long solo pass choreographed for her by Sylphide, the music a threnody, haunting. Halfway in, the door at the back of my box opened, band of candlelight.
Sylphide lit in the chair beside mine, her hair still wet and fragrant and limp from a dressing-room shower, stage makeup scrubbed off. Onstage, a male dancer joined Emily from the wings. He bounded behind her, his feet squeaking out a hard counter rhythm to her more pensive beat, several circuits of the stage around her, then gone. Emily danced on, a series of open, off-kilter spins on two feet that ended with her frozen, bent backward in space longer than humanly possible. Then the squeaking again, the awkward leaping, the hard landings, a studied gracelessness. She dived, hit the stage with a bodily thump. Silence in the theater as she laid her head on the boards. Silence as the curtain came down, a full minute of silence. Then a shout, then another, then a roar, unbelievable, the whole huge crowd leaping to its feet, a single spotlight on the curtain. The male dancer appeared in the gape, took an elaborate bow, was appreciated, but only in the breach.
The theater went still and then silent, holding its breath.
Sylphide was rapt, too, watched the crowd, the air of the room, the magical thing she had wrought. I leaned at her but found no opening, no acknowledgement even that I was there. Soon she’d be sharing canapés with the greatest actor ever of Italian film, Marcello Mastroiani himself, and he’d be in awe of her. Her mouth was very serious, not a mouth a mere lizard could kiss. She watched the stage, watched the orchestra pit, watched the audience till the curtain parted slightly at the tugging of some unseen hand and … Emily Bright slipped through. The girl curtsied ironically, disappeared as quickly as she had shown herself. The crowd roared, roared louder as she reappeared, roared again as the whole corps de ballet skated out onto the proscenium, roared as they departed, roared as they came back, roared and shouted and swooned as Emily appeared a dozen more times alone, shouts and cries, bouquets flying, the spotlight bright in her face, a battle scene, very nearly, her huge presence like cannons going off, the clapping of the crowd like breakers on the battlements, a kind of human mist rising into the lights.
The musicians rose to their feet in the pit, Georges’s famous face beaming.
Now here came the corps de ballet again, still the single spotlight, the crowd shouting as one, roaring, pounding their hands together, all that slapping flesh, then actual chanting: “Emily, Emily!” And, pregnant pause, and … here she was! Another roar, Emily’s edgy grin. She pointed to Georges down in the pit, and he stood on his bench in front of the organ, pumped his fist, great beaming smile unlike him, pointed back at Emily, cheers and shouts and just plain adulation.
Sylphide in the mayhem leaned at the railing, clapped her hands fulsomely, tears starting to her eyes. Marcello Mastroiani would be kissing her neck in a few hours, would be helping her out of her jeans (I’ve read his biography, and their liaison is well known). Out in the theatre a spotlight searched through the cheering crowd, Emily trying to bow her way back behind the curtain, one of the members of the troupe pushing her forward comically, then a group bow at her insistence, elegant dancers, musicians laughing heartily.
“Sylphide!” someone shouted when a lull finally came. Then the whole place: “Sylphide, Sylphide!” My dancer wiped her tears on her sleeve like a kid, squared her shoulders, stood regal for the spotlight. When it finally found her (someone had been told where she’d be, of course) I was standing like the rest, clapping like the rest, shouting my dancer’s name like the rest, backing away from her, backing out of the blazing light while the crowd below us surged, shouted, ecstatic to a man and to a woman at the spotlight’s pale discovery, heat I could feel. A bouquet of tulips crashed into the box, then another, then a single rose, a basketful of petals, a handful of coins, more flowers, more coins. Sylphide waved, never flinched at the fusillade. Emily and the rest of the company clapped in her direction a moment, then one-by-one slipped out of sight behind the curtains until there was no one but Sylphide for the crowd to adore. The great ballerina waved humbly, tears again coursing, curtsied elaborately in t-shirt and jeans, the cheers mounting, mounting more. Before long Emily would reappear, and Georges, and the whole corps de ballet, all the musicians. That’s the way it was in Italy: curtain calls forever.
In which a David narrates a scene later in life when he meets up with his troubled sister, Kate, in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in NYC. This scene was written and cut long before I knew that Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill would be publishing!
The lobby of the Algonquin
The Algonquin Hotel retains its fame, for me at least, and I always feel a sense of history when I stop there, which is seldom enough. Kate was coming in from Connecticut and we planned drinks, an unspoken reconciliation in the guise of a celebration: my fiftieth birthday was upon me. The reconciliation was unspoken because we’d not had any kind of falling out—we’d just grown distant, had not spent any time alone together, had not spoken beyond the obvious for many years, very many years, thirty years nearly, the fault of Sylphide, I would say. Not the woman, but the fact of her. And of course, the fault of the Great Choreographer. I’d seen Linsey, actually, and I thought that would give Kate and me a place to start.
And of course there was the fact that it was my birthday, that date now drifting into the past like all other dates, like all old friends, like everything we cherish, God bless us.
I made a point of walking up from SoHo, enjoying all the changes thirty years have wrought in the cityscape, hiking my way up Bleecker Street to West Fourth, over to the suddenly fashionable meat district, then uptown through gallery-chic (but still dumpy) Chelsea, and further, through the old garment district, and to a partially sanitized Times Square. The Algonquin is on West Forty-Fourth Street, but I’d forgotten that and had to troll the blocks back down from Forty-Eighth till I spotted the façade. The lobby of that place! It had air in it, sky almost, and rectilinear columns in dark wood and a welter of comfortable chairs and couches, the odd grandfather clock, arched and decorated doorways, stained-glass lamps hanging, people all around in various stages of New York City fever: excited with it, inspired by it, flushed with it, scared of it, weary with it, dead. This was before the hotel’s celebrated renovation in 2004, and there was still a shabbiness about the place that appealed to me: flaking paint, a fold of wallpaper coming down, a general tattering and threadbareness. A couple quietly argued in something like Swedish under a portico while their young boys, dressed for 1912, hurried politely by me: bowties and bowl cuts! I found a couch under a warm lamp by a dark column, the couch nicely accompanied at one end by a stiff red armchair for Kate, a cocktail table between, over which my sister and I could lean as we talked.
I went unnoticed. A person with nice enough clothes could live right there in the lobby, I thought. But then an elderly fellow tottered up and smiled gently. I thought him a Midwesterner on vacation until instead of making conversation about how actually friendly New York had turned out to be he said, “May I get you a cocktail?” From somewhere in his pockets he produced a fancy paper coaster, laid it on the little table.
In my father’s waggish style I said, “I’ll have whatever my sister’s having.”
“I could ring her room,” said the waiter, gravelly voice, slow syllables, two beats ahead of wags from experience.
“Not necessary,” I said, easier than explaining that my sister was not staying there, but only driving over from a day at Forest Hills. The US Open was in progress, and tennis was still a large part of her life: she’d sponsored and shepherded a Special Olympics group who’d got to meet the stars during the course of the tournament, and played a few exhibition matches of their own. Driving was also a large part of her life, city or no. She wouldn’t dream of taking the train. I was guessing she’d order coffee—she’d be beat after days with all those kids.
My waiter slipped away. A group of nervous Indian men in perfect gray suits bumped each other huddling into the lobby from the elevators, came my way, found seats all around me, sat silently. The waiter returned, put a glass of water in front of me. “Older or younger?” he said.
“Older,” I said.
“Big sister,” he said. “Always bossy.”
“Not Kate,” I said, and the waiter smiled with me, lingered gazing at me in the way of old men, blue eyes liquid. He was easily in his eighties. I imagined him a bellhop in knickers, depths of the Great Depression.
He let a long pause speak for his emotion, said, “I have four sisters. Two older, two younger. All living. My big sisters are eighty-four and eighty-nine and do you know? I still want to impress them. My little sisters are seventy-nine and seventy-seven. And I still want to punch you if you look too long!”
I laughed, and we had a pleasant moment of enjoying our status as brothers. He turned on heel—a slow process for him—shuffled off toward the bar. I sank further into the sumptuous couch, let my eyes close, nearly napped.
But then the Indian men stood as one to greet an insouciant young woman joining them in a blood-red Sari, all of them suddenly voluble, as if she’d pick the cheeriest one to wed, a babble of jokes in Hindi and English and some other quick tongue, until on some unseen signal they all bumped through the lobby and toward the grand entrance behind the floating Sari.
Against that strong current a familiar force of nature entered, a tall woman in Venus Williams braids and beads, tennis whites, tennis shoes, tennis sweater, blond as a beach hoyden, deeply tanned, that super-model mouth. Movie star? She was older than she looked—you saw it in her step—but she’d kept herself in magnificent shape without bulking up into muscles or down into fat, moved as a nineteen year old moves, light on the balls of her feet, self-consciousness mixed with self confidence, self love and self hate barely balanced, full speed ahead with the brakes on, that kind of thing, a plunge into the room’s cold water, a look of brisk delight on her face, a look of being cross, too. The Indian men closed ranks behind her athlete’s gait, looked after her, looked at one another, looked after her again, even while keeping the pace of their orderly exit. Kate was a beauty still.