The Checker cab cuts in front of a tour bus and screeches to a stop at the St. Moritz. “Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, please,” Henry Markowitz tells the tiny Yemeni cab driver.
“You got it,” she says without turning around. The cab lurches forward, narrowly missing a doorman loaded with suitcases. “Watch it!” the cabbie screams out the window.
“Dear God,” Henry breathes. He swabs his fleshy face with a white handkerchief. “I had forgotten what the traffic was like.”
“You used to live here?”
“I was a student at NYU.”
“Ah,” she leans forward and shoots her cab into the next lane. The cab license identifies her as Tiki Sofer. Her little face is shadowed by a pouf of grizzled gray hair. Tiki’s quickness makes Henry nervous. He feels huge and swollen in the heat. Suit coat crushed over his bent legs, he holds the tulips for his mother cradled in one arm and leans his other on the ledge of the open car window drumming his fingers on the door.
“I was an NYU student as well,” Tiki continues, “and now I am a poet. I write poetry in Hebrew and English. And I run this cab with my husband. I was an anthropology major. But the professors were such shits I’m driving a cab. If you don’t sleep with them, or do their work for them, or both, you’re going to get some kind of shitty recommendation guaranteed to keep you out of the department.”
“You don’t have to tell me, I know,” Henry sympathizes. “Let me tell you, I’ve been denied tenure at some very fancy institutions. They did everything they could to keep me out. Finally I said, the hell with them. I got my degree at Harvard Business School and since then I’ve been living like a human being.”
“Yeah,” Tiki breaks in impatiently, “but the point is they couldn’t keep me out of the field. I’m publishing oral histories of Yemeni women, and I’ve branched out into linguistics and poetry. Then there’s the cab and I’ve got three children. So I’m pretty threatening on a lot of different fronts. There was a time when I was interviewing for every academic job. But now they’ve got to read me in the journals. I’ve had some real findings, too. Did you know that nearly all traditional Yemeni women were raped on their wedding night?”
“No, I didn’t,” Henry confesses.
“Only one woman I interviewed wasn’t raped, and she’d run away. You really have to understand the Yemeni tradition to understand that. I was fortunate to live in three cultures as a child: my parents’ traditional home, the Orthodox shul, and Israel. But my kids are really lucky. They’re growing up in at least five cultures: the Yemeni at their grandmother’s, the Orthodox shtiebel on the corner, Israel every summer, my friends from the Institute of Social Analysis and Greenwich Village, and our black neighborhood. That combination is just about unbeatable. Their father, by the way, is a real person—none of that academic crap. He runs the cab twelve hours, and I run the cab twelve hours. But don’t think we deprive ourselves. There are some things in life that are important and we make time for them. Since I’ve started with the cab I’ve written a play and almost been assaulted twice. But I handled it. You learn about networking: one friend did the costumes and a painter friend did the sets. We got grants from the park, the rec center, and the Borough Council on Culture and the Arts and put it together with traditional Middle Eastern dancing and instruments. The whole thing was a huge life-cycle pageant of traditional village life. Another friend did the food. Another one reviewed it. Once you have the network going you expand. We’re going to do something big in Central Park next summer. So that’s the way it is. I’m an artist. And I live in the real world.”
Henry stops drumming on the car door. “I hope you won’t be offended if I compliment you on your courage,” he says. His right eye twitches earnestly. “You see, I have great admiration for artists and art in general. I feel there is such a tremendous need in the world to support beauty. There is so much cruelty, such inarticulate violence in the world.” He gestures toward the litter-lined street. “I would like to do everything in my power to help you—the artists, the creators. In fact, if I can find my card—” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his pastel Laura Ashley business card. “No, that’s not it.” He rummages some more. “Here we are.” The card is printed: Henry Markowitz, Publisher, Equinox Press, 217A High St., Oxford, England. “You must be a little startled at this,” he apologizes.
“Not at all,” Tiki smiles. She pockets the card and gives Henry one of her own.
“Look, taxi-lady,” mutters the driver of the tour bus. He tries it several ways—once with a chilling calm, once with a sliding sneer on the word lady.
The bus inches forward in the morning traffic.
“Can you get there on time?” asks Ms. Froelich, the head foundation rep.
“No,” the driver answers precisely. He glances at his passengers in the rear-view mirror. The kids don’t look worried. Just sprawling across the chairs into the aisles. Stretching their legs longer—all bone and muscle. The girls, just bones.
“The rehearsals are going to run late,” worries Ms. Froelich behind him.
“If you can figure out a way to get crosstown faster . . .” the driver starts. How old could this “adviser” be? Twenty-one? Just old enough to hold a clipboard, and they put her in charge of thirty huge teen-agers. Dancers, yet. Encouraged not to sit still.
“Wait, stop the bus!” Ms. Froelich clatters her clipboard and points to a kid out on the street running toward the bus.
The airbrakes shriek, setting off all the car horns. The driver opens the pleated door, swinging the arm handle for the kid dodging traffic.
Sean’s duffel bag slips off his shoulder as he dives for the door. His tap and clogging shoes have sunk to the bottom, and the steel-braced Irish dancing shoes jab his hip.
“You’re Sean McColl,” Ms. Froelich tells him, and sticks a name tag on his sweater. The bus jolts forward, and Sean sinks into the seat next to Brian Wattley / Chicago IL / ballet. Brian is slim and black and wears a white muffler.
“What happened to you?” he asks Sean.
“We drove down from Framingham and my Mom forgot her camera so we were going to go back for it, but then we thought—when we get to Grandma’s, why don’t we take hers? But she was out of film. . . .”
“You can’t take pictures at Lincoln Center,” Brian announces.
“Yes, you can,” the girl across the aisle breaks in. “You get that film you don’t need flashes for.”
“That’s the kind she was out of. I mean my grandmother . . .,” Sean’s story trails off. Cara Novak / Concord NH / ballet. Her hair is long and smooth over her thin shoulders. Sean wonders whether the fuzzy stuff on Cara’s sweater will come off with the name tag. He wants to peel it off and see. He says instead, “I love your shoes. They’re so—blue.”
Cara looks down at her turquoise sneakers. She points her toes out into the aisle. “Yeah, aren’t they cool? I got them at Woolworth’s.”
“Are all your shoes like this?” asks Sean.
“It’s one of the first things I notice.”
“Do you have a thing about feet?” she asks mildly.
“No. I just like looking at them.”
Brian leans back in his seat and lights a cigarette. He smiles at Sean’s freckled astonishment. “I amaze you, don’t I?”
“Well, no,” Sean says, “but doesn’t it do terrible things to your breathing and all that?”
Cara fans away the smoke with her rehearsal schedule. Then she kneels on her chair and tries to open the window.
Sean lurches across the aisle to help, but the window snaps open and Cara leans out.
“Head and limbs inside the bus,” booms the driver.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” Cara tells Sean. “I mean, Dad tried to make the audition tape on this thing that wasn’t even a video machine. This old movie camera. I looked like Charlie Chaplin.”
“What do you mean, old movie camera?” Brian laughs. “Better than nothing. My teacher couldn’t even find anything till two days before all the stuff had to be in. She went to all these clubs, I mean like every animal: Elks, Lions, Mooses, finally she got the camera from the Kiwanis. And my sister works for Video Hut so she got the film. Pain in the ass for three-point-five minutes.”
“I know,” Cara flops back in her chair. “Dad screamed at me the whole time. It would be so funny if the tapes had sound. Then you could hear all the parents in the background.”
“My tape had sound,” Sean puts in.
Brian takes a long drag and stares. “Shit.”
“It’s just because I do step dancing,” Sean says anxiously. They have to hear the clicks. But I got screamed at, too. When I went in to the studio they called me a green cat.”
Brian only raises his eyebrows, but Cara asks, “You went to a studio? What are you, rich or something?”
“No!” Sean splutters. “My grandparents paid.”
“Wow!” Cara laughs. “Mine are so totally cheap. For Mom’s birthday, Grandma sent this little card, and inside she taped a ten-dollar bill. Then on the card she wrote ‘Splurge!’ I can’t wait to see what she’ll get me for graduation. When do you graduate?” she asks Brian.
“I don’t,” he yawns. “I’m a professional.”
“Really? They’re making me apply to college. Dad is heavy into education. He made us all go back with him to his Harvard reunion. He just like stood in his old dorm room and cried for fifteen minutes. Then it turned out it wasn’t even his room. But anyway he keeps telling me and my brother like if you don’t do the whole college experience you’re less human.”
Brian stubs out his cigarette. “Dance now; human-shit later. Hey, let’s have some fuckin’ music! Isn’t that a radio up there?” Brian vaults up the aisle, pushing off from the chair backs.
“Look, young man,” the driver hollers, “This is my bus, and it’s my radio. I’m going to play my music. And I don’t care who you are, or where you dance, there’s going to be no profanity on this bus. You stand in back of that red line.”
Clutching Tiki Sofer’s card and the orange-red tulips, Henry takes the groaning elevator up to the hospital room. In the bed by the door a young black woman with hennaed hair lies stiffly in a body cast. She whispers and giggles into the telephone receiver. Henry’s mother dozes in the next bed. Gray hair is swept back from her sharp forehead. She has kept her Tuesday hair appointment even in the hospital. Henry bends down and kisses her cheek.
“Hello, Henry,” she says, without moving.
“I brought you flowers. Would you like them by the window? How are you feeling now?” Henry puts the flowers down and draws a chair to the bed.
“I had a terrible night. Racking pains.”
“Come, Mother, it couldn’t have been that bad. Does it hurt in your eye?”
“I can’t see.”
“You have to give it time.”
“Oh, it’s not a question of time,” Mrs. Markowitz laughs sarcastically. “He did the wrong eye.”
“He did not do the wrong eye, Mother, we’ve been through this before.”
“Henry, let me be the judge of my own eyes. I know which eye had the cataract.”
Henry sighs and tries another tack. “Well, you’re going home tomorrow; you must be looking forward to that.”
“Four walls. Four walls and some furniture.”
“What’s this you’ve been reading?”
“There on the night table? The new Howatch book. It’s my only diversion. I can’t see the television.”
“Then how do you read this?” Henry picks up the thick paperback gingerly. The cover is blue, embossed with silver lettering: “She Is Young and Desperate—Ready to Gamble Everything for Love in—Russian Roulette.” “You can’t really be reading this. This is filth, pornography at best!”
“It’s not as good as Penmarric, but it’s all I have. I can only read a few pages a day.” Mrs. Markowitz’s eyes begin to water. “Put it down. And stop destroying everything dear to me. You don’t understand the kind of pain I’m in.”
“What kind of pain could you have? It was a tiny operation. Dr. Gold told me it went beautifully.”
“That man doesn’t know or care. He looks at me and sees the new car he’s going to buy. He doesn’t see my pain, and he won’t prescribe me more pills.”
“Mother, you’ve got enough pills. You don’t need pills. Look at the girl in the next bed. She had a real operation. Is she complaining about pain?”
“Some people don’t have pain.”
They stare at each other, baffled. “Guess where I’m having dinner tonight?” Henry tries to restart the conversation. “Do you remember Jemmy? He’s vice-president of Eastern Trust now. He’s taking me to some fund-raising thing for young dancers.”
“How kind of you to fit me in.”
Henry stands up and walks around the bed impatiently. “You know I came all the way from England to see you. But if you insist on making this visit painful, and turn it into an empty gesture, I refuse to argue with you. I can only say that it hurts me deeply that you are never satisfied with, or for that matter the least bit interested in, my life. And I must ask what I could possibly do to earn your approval.”
Mrs. Markowitz looks deliberately at her balding, overweight, thick-featured son. “Get married,” she says clearly.
Sean slouches down in his seat and leans his head back. The empty concert hall looks like a planetarium with its black floating ceiling. The tiered lights of the balcony railings stand distant as constellations.
“My mother has this thing,” says Cara. “She has this thing about summer jobs. But not dancing. I mean, other people did Nutcracker at Saratoga and I worked on this blueberry farm. I had to dance in the barn. And then I worked at a dessert place in Maine. It was supposed to make me eat. I cut up peaches and I made this thing: gingerbread, then vanilla ice cream, then gingerbread, then ice cream, then peaches. And last summer I worked in a candy store. That really turned me off food.”
A modern dancer runs through her dance on the bare stage. She takes a little hop, representing the leap she will make in tonight’s performance. Then she hurries through the rest of her dance in tiny steps as if she were humming to herself a remembered tune.
“You know what I used to like,” says Sean in the audience. “That rubber candy.”
“Gummy bears. They’ve got gummy rats now. They’re like a foot long with these huge tails and they’re black, white, or pink.”
They applaud loudly for the dancer when she finishes her run-through.
“Look at her tights!” Cara points to the dancer’s bronze metallic legs.
“She looks like a Haliburton Zero suitcase,” says Sean.
Ms. Froelich hears them laughing and walks toward them. “There’s Brian,” Cara whispers. Her arm brushes Sean’s on the armrest between them. He wonders whether he should move his arm away. “Look,” she whispers.
The stage darkens and Brian centers himself kneeling. He balances on his knees, arching his back. He thrusts one arm above his head, and stretches one arm behind him, fingers braced against the floor. The technicians are having trouble with Brian’s tape. Brian holds still, clenching his teeth. The cords of his neck stand out. Suddenly the stage lights up with the sprightly music of Coppélia. Brian walks to the edge of the stage and shades his eyes, peering out into the cavernous hall. “That’s not my music,” he tells the stage manager, who follows the script from a lighted music stand.
“We understand that, Brian.”
“And I don’t want the lights to come up that fast. I want it gradual.”
The sweating manager walks down the aisle to the stage. “Cool it, kid.”
Brian stands in a side drape with one hand on his hip. All the house lights blink into darkness.
“All right. Pumpkin time,” announces an adviser. “Everybody into the musicians’ lounge.”
Sean gets up reluctantly. “What happened?”
“It’s the union,” Cara says wisely. “The stagehands have been working four hours without a break. So that’s it; they stop.”
They follow the other dancers backstage. In the lounge, tables are laid out with tuna-salad sandwiches, potato chips, fudge brownies, and sticky tarts. “Just relax,” Ms. Froelich tells the sullen group.
“Oh, right,” Brian says. “When all the dancers after intermission haven’t rehearsed. What are we supposed to do? Slow down so they can follow us with the spotlight?”
“I hope I don’t get Brian’s music.” Cara bites into a sandwich and continues with her mouth full. “My whole town’d freak out. They all drove down from Concord in the school bus—I mean my sister’s coming with her whole softball team.”
Henry rings the bell of the restored Brooklyn brownstone. There is no answer. Six-thirty, Jemmy had said, because they had to go to the young dancers. He backs away from the door and checks the address nervously. All the houses on the street look the same, and they have little signs on the grass informing intruders and visitors of protection by Castle Services.
The door cracks open so fast that Henry and his bottle of Glenfiddich nearly topple off the brick steps into the hybrid holly bushes. A stern dark-browed kid stares wordlessly at him.
“Philip? Good lord, you’re getting big. I always used to hate it when people said that to me, but you make me feel ancient. Do you remember me?”
“I’ll get my father, Mr. Markowitz.” Philip takes the scotch and leads Henry into the house. They walk past the nearly vertical flight of stairs facing the door and enter the white living room with its parquet floor, Boston ferns, old Scan-design chairs, and new Steinway piano. The room is immaculate except that the carpet is littered with empty cassette wrappers, extension cords, microphone heads, and pages of home video camera instructions. Jemmy kneels on the floor filming with his back toward Henry. The rest of the family crowds around helping.
“All right, you should see a green light.” Jemmy’s wife Angela is a broad-hipped woman with a pageboy haircut. She wears a dress of black silk that looks like Qiana. “Do you or don’t you see a green light?”
“I don’t know!” Jemmy protests.
“What do you mean you don’t know? Honestly, Jemmy, you’re mechanically inept.”
“Let me see, D-d-daddy.” Fourteen-year-old Nicole kneels down next to Jemmy and wrests the camera from her father. She wears Guess? jeans and doesn’t stutter as much as she used to. “No, he’s right, Mommy. You’re not sup-pup-pup-posed to see the light. You just push it here.”
“Nicole, give him back the camera,” Angela orders. “Your job is to keep Josh out of the reflectors.” Josh, the fat baby of the family, is rolling his walker steadily toward the shiny silver umbrella reflectors near the piano.
At the center of all this stands three-year-old Sara. With her white smocked dress, curly brown hair, and blue eyes, she waits patiently for the camera to roll.
“The test light is off,” Jemmy tells Angela.
“Finally. Nicole, check the microphone. Just tap it. That’s enough. All right, we’re ready.”
“Jemmy!” Henry calls from the door. But Philip puts his finger to his lips as Sara smiles into the camera and begins to sing “The Eentsy Weentsy Spider.”
Every person in the room watches intently. Sara’s mother mouths the words to herself; her father focuses the camera on her little fingers as they enact the motions. Her older sister pushes baby Josh in a gentle orbit away from the microphone. Her older brother stands guard at the door until she finishes. Sara smiles for the camera and holds out the hem of her skirt.
“Print it!” Jemmy announces and stands up stiffly to greet Henry with, “Well, what did you think?”
At the table, the housekeeper brings out chicken soup. The bowls for Sara and Josh contain bright pieces of carrot, green pepper, and sweet red pepper. “We’ll go to any lengths,” Angela tells Henry. “Sara is a terrible eater.”
“She wasn’t until Josh was born,” Jemmy corrects cautiously. “When Josh was born she got a little j-e-a-l-o-u-s.”
“It must feel very strange to be so much older than your brother and sister,” Henry says to Philip and Nicole.
“It’s a l-lot of fun,” Nicole stammers amiably.
“They’ve been awfully good with the kids.” Jemmy adjusts his round glasses. “Sara and Josh really have six parents with Philip, Nicole, the babysitter, the housekeeper, Angela, and myself. You’re a happy girl, aren’t you Sara? Are you a happy Sara? No. Not now. Sara, NO.”
“Traveling has gotten really ridiculous,” says Angela. “When I was nursing Sara I had to take my breast pump through security at every airport, and it kept setting off the alarm. They insisted on taking the whole thing apart every time, because the guards didn’t understand what it was. And I’d have to repeat over and over: this is a breast pump. It is used for pumping milk from breasts. And then in Greece, when I was pregnant with Josh, my placenta started to unravel and I had to be rushed home, and Jemmy had his leg in a cast from the skiing in Gstaad, so he couldn’t help much. The doctor ordered me to stay home in bed—you can imagine what that was like. I was stranded here up on the third floor. I couldn’t go up or down stairs. That was when we installed the intercom system and the furo, the Japanese steam bath—you know, Jemmy, we’ve got to show him the top floors after dinner—so I was stuck up there, workaholic that I am. I planned my day around the flavor of ice cream I’d get Philip and Nicole to buy me when they got home from school. I blew up like a blimp. Must have gained forty pounds. Four, zero.”
“Did the firm give you trouble about taking maternity leave?” Henry asks.
“Well, I’m a senior partner now, so we’ve solved some of those problems.” Angela passes the fruit salad to Jemmy. The fruit is served in a hollowed pineapple cut lengthwise, so that half its prickly stem hangs over the edge of the platter. As Jemmy maneuvers nearsightedly, the stem topples a glass of red wine.
“Jemmy,” moans Angela, and Philip and Nicole join in.
“I’m sorry,” Jemmy tells the housekeeper as she swabs the table.
Sara squirms out of her highchair and dashes around the room holding her doll by the hair.
“When is her bedtime?” Henry asks hopefully.
“Whenever she decides to go to sleep,” sighs Jemmy.
“We’re sending her to the Newman Preschool,” Angela says proudly. “That’s where she learned the song. You know, they make such a fetish out of preschools now. It’s incredible. They say that you have to send your kids to the Newman School because it’s a feeder for Buckley Country Day, which is a feeder for Andover, which is a feeder for Harvard. But we just send Sara there because we think it’s a good school.”
“How’s business in Oxford, Henry?” Jemmy asks.
“Marvelous. Simply marvelous. The store is doing brilliantly, and my little publishing company is losing less each year. Oxford is such a beautiful place. You really must visit.” He looks at the children and adds, “Unfortunately I live in a microscopic flat. You know, I grew up in the city, but I’d forgotten how beastly it was. To venture onto the street for a taxi is to take one’s life in one’s hands. And the exploitation of it! I am almost afraid to talk to the drivers because they invariably have a Ph.D. in art history or Baltic Studies. Today I took a cab to visit my mother at the hospital and my driver was a petite Yemenite woman who was forced out of academia: simply driven out and forced to run a cab. I was very nearly moved to tears.”
“How is your mother?” asks Angela.
“Impossible. Absolutely impossible. She’ll outlive us all.”
“I never have trouble g-getting a cab,” Nicole puts in. “When they don’t want to take me I just say, “I sup-pose you don’t know who my father is. He’s p-p-president of the Checker C-cab c-c-company of Manhattan. And it usually works. Some of the girls at my school haven’t ever been outside Manhattan at all. They d-don’t even know where Brooklyn is.”
“They don’t know what planet they’re on,” says Philip. And then in a completely different voice, to the baby, “But we like those mashed potatums, don’t we Josh? Yes we do!”
Nicole struggles on, “That’s why this week was c-c-career week and c-c-career women c-came to speak. I went to the banking seminar, and the woman banker t-talked to us about getting jobs. She said the most important thing to do at our age is to make sure to c-c-call for an interview ourselves, be-c-cause if your parents c-called the employer would get the wrong impression. She also t-t-taught us how to sit.” Nicole demonstrates by straightening up, leaning forward slightly, and lifting her chin. She wears a string of pearls with her pin-striped blouse and parts her frizzy hair on the side. “Actually, I don’t want to marry a b-businessman, I’d rather marry someone with b-b-billions of dollars.”
“When I was your age,” Henry tells Philip, “I used to escape to the library and just read and read. Jane Austen, E. M. Forster, Dickens—each of these writers was, to me, like discovering a new world. The language was so exquisite. I never had any ambition to write myself, only to read and study every intricate detail of those delicate plots, those characters and places, which seemed to me then, and still seem to me now, so much more subtle than those in the so-called real world of the 20th century.”
“Yeah. Well I play squash,” says Philip.
“He’s ranked third nationally in his age group,” Angela adds.
After dinner Philip carries Josh off to bed and Jemmy and Angela give Henry the tour of the house. The furo is black with a three-line phone built in. The second best part of the house is the third floor—devoted entirely to the children. Sara opens the door to her room, announcing, “Please enter.”
“I’m afraid she’s terribly spoiled. She’s got every toy on the market,” Jemmy says proudly. “And duplicates at the beach house in Amagansett.” Sara’s bed is covered with dolls and stuffed animals. Fisher-Price maps the floor with urban sprawl. Sara has every model: the house, the barn, the garage, the castle, the store, the shopping center. She has taken all the little plastic cars from the garage and stacked them in the castle. The farm animals ride the elevator in the garage.
The tour continues past Nicole’s room with its larger-than-life David Bowie poster and equally overscaled stereo, and they walk past Philip’s tiny rectangular room with its built-in drawers under the bed and shelf of squash trophies over the bed. The largest room on the third floor is the playroom. Philip sinks into a huge beanbag and flicks a soccer match onto the VCR.
“What a beautiful computer!” exclaims Henry. The IBM is hooked up in its own wall system. “You must use your PC a great deal.”
“No, not really,” Philip yawns. “Just for games and term papers.”
“I have to write a term p-p-paper on street life in ancient Rome,” Nicole tells her mother.
“Well, all the buildings were t-t-taken and the upper c-c-classes were already picked.”
“And so you have to write a paper on street life? I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. Jemmy,” Angela turns to her husband, “Jemmy, I want you to phone that woman.”
“Mrs. D-d-d. . . .”
“Yes, Mrs. Dalton. I want you to phone her tonight. I find her assignments offensive. In fact, I don’t like her whole attitude. You might as well start by phoning the principal.”
“I’ll phone first thing in the morning, dear,” Jemmy says. “We’re taking Henry to the Young Dancers of America benefit.”
Angela snorts. “I’ll stay home and phone. There’s no way I’m going to go watch a bunch of teen-age fairies prance around the stage.”
“It’s truly shocking,” says Henry, “they’ve become so blatantly obvious.”
Sean stands in the open doorway of Cara’s dressing room watching her make up. “Sean, you look so cool!” she breathes, catching sight of him in the mirror. He wears a blue wool kilt with a royal blue velvet blazer and a narrow tie. “This guy wore a kilt to our prom,” Cara tells him, “and this other guy called him a faggot, so the guy with the kilt pulled a switchblade on him.”
“Gosh,” laughs Sean. “What did they do? Stop the prom?”
“No. It was great. We’ve got this really cool new headmaster who does everything by consensus, so we voted on how we wanted to respond. The thing was, the chaperones got to vote too. We outnumbered them, though. It was something like: 428 for the prom to go on, 23 to have a discussion about violence in the school system. Everyone got what they wanted. We got the prom, and the chaperones discussed violence with the headmaster.”
Sean stares. “Why are you putting red circles on your cheeks?”
“Because I’m Coppélia and she’s a doll. I’ve got to dance her in character.”
“I took an acting course once,” Sean says. “We all had to get down on the floor and pretend we were horses. Then we had to pretend one horse died, and we had to think how we as survivors would react. It was really crazy. We were all on our hands and knees trying to make sad horse noises.”
“Floral arrangement for Miss Cara Novak,” the delivery man calls through the door.
“Oh, wow! It’s so huge!” Cara shouts as she takes the box. “It looks like a coffin!” She lifts out a dozen long-stemmed coral roses and reads the card aloud. “For Cara, from her fans.”
“Who do you think sent it?” asks Sean.
“My parents, who else?”
They run to take the elevator up to the stage.
Advisers stand in each of the wings. They wear headphones and check their lists of entrances nervously. Sean and Cara try to see out on the stage and to the audience beyond, but the advisers block their view.
They slip back to the narrow passage behind the stage. The sounds of a brass ensemble drift back behind the curtain.
“I can’t see your eyes,” Sean tells Cara. Her lashes are thick with mascara.
“It’s gross,” she says matter-of-factly, “but you have to plaster your face so they can see you.”
“That much?” asks Sean.
“You’re not supposed to stand so close,” she says impatiently. “It’s for the cheapies in the back rows.”
Sean puts his hands on her waist. “I’ll teach you a German dance,” he says. “Chasse right, two, three, left, two three, hop right, hop left, turn.” She follows the steps twice through, then spins out on a turn and starts jitterbugging to the band music. They dance smoothly, careful of Cara’s tutu and Sean’s heavy shoes.
Someone calls Sean’s name over the intercom. They look up and suddenly both see the dark shaft of the theater vault opening above them. They hold still, trembling with excitement.
“Sean!” Ms. Froelich calls desperately. She pushes him into the wings. “You’ve got five minutes. Do you want to sit down?” She offers him a stool.
“I’m fine!” Sean reassures her. A moment later he jumps out onto the stage.
He stands poised, center stage in the pool of light. Suddenly, bright piano music fills the darkness and he hops up, clicking his feet. He jumps forward and back, arms held straight down—and all the while his feet are dancing together without any help. Sean kicks up his legs and they fling themselves easily into the air. His tapping quickens with the music and he whirls around in the circle of light. As the music fades, Sean clicks and turns off the stage and comes back to bow, one leg pointed in front of his straight body.
“You were so good!” Cara whispers in the wings, and he realizes the dance is over. An adviser gives Cara a push and now she is balanced in the light, her head turned slenderly.
“She has a pretty good figure for a ballerina,” Jemmy tells Henry in the audience. “At least she has some kind of bust.”
“But that Irish dancer was absolutely brilliant,” Henry murmurs. “I do hope we see him at the reception.”
“Actually,” Jemmy confesses during the applause, “I can’t stay after the show; I’ve got to give Philip a driving lesson tomorrow before squash practice.”
After the last curtain, the caterers roll white tables onto the stage. Still in costume, Brian sprays a champagne bottle over the dancers heading backstage for the showers. “Hey, to us,” he toasts. “There better be towels down there!”
In the tangle of guests and plastic champagne glasses Henry sees Sean, out of costume now, his face still glowing.
“My name is Henry, and I must say I thought your dancing was just lovely. This Aran sweater is marvelous, it is so appropriate.” He fingers the wool. “You simply cannot get wool like this in America. Was it imported?”
“Well, I don’t know, but my mother knitted it, and she’s American.”
“What I simply cannot get over is the intricacy of a dance form that yet remains a kind of folk art.”
“That’s what I like about it too,” Sean agrees. “My dancing is a new experience for so many people.”
“How did you learn?”
“Watching my father. And when we had parties someone would yell: ‘Give us some dancing, Sean!’ So that’s how I started. I still dance for them on tables and stuff, but I keep it low and easy unless I really warm up.” Cara rushes by with her second glass of champagne. She has changed into an emerald green backless dress. “This summer I’m going to the Morris Dance Festival in Oxford, England,” Sean continues.
“Are you? Bless your heart, that’s lovely!” Henry puts his arm around Sean. “You see, I live in Oxford. It’s absolutely the most beautiful place on the face of God’s earth. Look, I’ll give you my card, and if you need help finding a place to stay just ring me up. . . .”
“Sean!” Brian calls out from the other end of the room. “Get the hell over here if you want to be in the picture.”
Sean hesitates, confused. “Oh, don’t mind me,” says Henry. “Here, just take the card and run along. I’ll expect to hear from you soon.”
Sean kneels next to Brian in the front row of the picture. The photographer is reloading his camera. “Who was that fag you were talking to?” Brian asks. “He was fuckin’ weird.”
After the reception, Henry takes a cab back to the St. Moritz. His mind is alive with the young images of the evening. He imagines his own heavy body jumping and leaping, heels clicking high in the air. They’re still serving dessert at Rumpelmayer’s, bless their hearts. With a little hop, Henry pushes open the glass door. He sits at a pink table, half dazed by the pink and white light. A waitress passes carrying a glossy peach melba. It’s just too much: this rich pastry wet with sweetness, this sweet ice cream, Sean’s sweet open face. Sighing with happiness, Henry orders a piece of chocolate cake and a glass of milk.
In the chartered bus the dancers are delirious with their success. Brian runs down the aisle of the bus and chins on the luggage rack.
“Do that one more time, son, and I’ll stop the bus,” warns the driver.
Cara has smuggled a carafe of wine from the reception. She puts her roses in the red wine and tells the advisers the carafe is a vase.
“Cara, you’re drunk,” they scold.
She just laughs. Everyone is so funny. When she tilts her head back the bus veers strangely. The wine spills over the coral roses as she sips from the bottle through the stems. Her hair comes loose and falls over her shoulders.
“Have some.” She offers Sean the carafe.
“Oh, I don’t drink,” he says fascinated.
“Just one sip,” she giggles, holding the carafe to his lips.
He sips slowly. “Oh goodness, that went right to my head!” Cara tosses her hair back, laughing. “I think I feel a little tipsy,” he tells her.
“That’s good.” She puts down the wine and settles onto Sean’s lap. “Let’s go swimming,” she whispers.
“Where?” he asks stupidly.
“I don’t have my bathing suit; what could I wear?” Cara wonders. She pauses to consider the question. “I’ll have to wear my pajamas,” she concludes seriously.
Sean pulls off his sweater. A white card falls from his pocket. Tiki Sofer, Poet, it says, Hebrew and English, 370 Richmond Rd., Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Brian was right,” Sean whispers to Cara, “that fat man was weird.”
She nods sleepily and closes her eyes. Sean wraps his sweater around her shoulders.
Brian chins on the luggage rack and sings out, “When you’re a Jet you’re the swingin’est thing. . . .” He chins on the rack again and the bus stops. Brian drops to the floor quickly. “I just thought of something,” he says in a hushed voice. “When you get old, does your pubic hair turn gray?”
The bus is silent. Brian crosses the aisle unsteadily. “Shit,” he says solemnly, “I never thought of that.”