BellaOnline Literary Review
A Whale of a Tale by Kim Rumford


The Dancer

Alexandra Burt

Hortensia had gotten into an argument with her boss. She said she didn´t feel well; he said she never did. She asked what did he want her to do; he said to just go. As she exited the frame shop, the bells announcing the coming and going of customers jingled and drowned out her boss’s last words. She thought she heard him say, “putting an end to this,” but she could have been mistaken. She didn´t mind the arguments, even though she could have done without them; but if he ever forbade her to go—and she had thought of this moment in advance—she would leave anyway, and call in sick the next morning in order to avoid his scorn altogether.

The shop with its unnatural lighting and the smell of glue that made her eyes pulsate was all the comedy she could stomach. Daily, she calmed customers whose sudden doubts about matting shades seemed to be of utter importance in their lives. Often, after a customer had returned a framed photograph demanding eggshell matting instead of seashell, pearl instead of old lace, she wanted to say, “It´s just a photograph.” But she delicately unhinged the cardboard, removed the photograph, and exchanged the matting. Every matting was just a shade different, yet she always responded with a kind of ‘what a difference the color makes.’

Hortensia knew that, more than anything else, people wanted to be validated. On several occasions, she didn’t change the matting at all, but returned the photograph in its original state. Every time the insidious deed went undetected by the customer, her belief deepened that it was not about the shade but about the satisfaction of having been heard.

Her days were spent in solitude. She considered herself alone, but not single. Being single implied dating, dining out, friendships, a social life, but Hortensia was alone in every meaning of the word. On certain occasions, when she took the bus home after work, she felt alone standing in line to get on the bus, and she felt alone within the crowds of people on the bus. Her home—a rent-controlled apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone where she had lived with her aunt, and remained after her death—was void of plants and pets. The only notes left at her door were occasional messages from the super, informing her of various renter-related inconveniences, like water shut-offs or possible gas leaks.

On the days she left the frame shop early, she rushed to be on time for the monthly ballet performance. Hortensia’s only passion was the theater and she bought Oracle Empire’s season tickets every year. Hortensia would take the bus to Watertown Avenue and then walk a few blocks to the Oracle Empire Theater. Every time she passed the front of the building, with its floodlights illuminating the structure—she thought of it as brick and mortar holding a flashlight to its chin in preparation for telling a ghost story—she glanced at the glossy posters behind glass in its individual alcoves. The theater hosted an array of performances ranging from opera, magic shows, ballet, and comedy shows, as well as contemporary and classical plays. There was a magic show on Wednesdays, where the main attraction was a Houdini-inspired water torture act with Theodore the Escape Artist. The poster showed countless chains wrapped around a man trying to break free to retrieve a key from the bottom of a water tank that would allow him to escape from his watery grave. Saturday nights featured Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” a performance filled with “love, jealousy, revenge, poison, duels, and a burning at the stake.” The comedians were unknown to her, and Hortensia didn’t bother remembering their names. In her opinion, opera was aloof, magic shows just illusions with predictable outcomes, and plays were better read than watched on stage.

She entered the theater and made her way to the ticket counter. Crowds seemed to magically disperse at the sight of her and she found herself alone in front of a fingerprint-infested window. Agnes, an elderly woman with a crooked wig and a lipstick-stained, dentured smile, verified her season pass. Her name tag had left numerous holes in the shiny fabric of her silk blouse. Agnes had been working at the Oracle for as long as Hortensia could remember. They had never had a conversation in all those years; Hortensia didn’t care to make small talk, while Agnes never looked up long enough to commit her face to her long-term memory. Hortensia inspected her ticket and recognized the first row of the first balcony as her seating area. She watched Agnes’s age-spotted hands, covered in blue rivers that made their way upward just to disappear under a frayed and yellowed sleeve. Hortensia felt the urge to reach through the window and straighten Miss Agnes’s wig, but the moment passed and she imagined a black skirt and runny nylon hose leading to comfortable shoes, the kind elderly nurses wear and which squeak as they make their way over buffed linoleum floors.

Hortensia retrieved her ticket through the small, square hole in the glass window and made her way to her seat. The red and black checkered carpet cushioned her steps. She passed chatting patrons and finally plunged into her seat. Her stomach rumbled but she resisted digging into her purse for the pack of crackers she had saved from lunch earlier.

Hortensia’s body was mighty in its circumference. She liked to think of her thighs as powerful, her arms as potent. She never passed judgment on her own body, the same way she never passed judgment on the difference between pearl and eggshell. She didn’t envy the dancers’ lean and muscular bodies, their long swanlike necks pointing towards the heavens. What she desperately longed for was their ability to move briskly and silently across the stage. She would give anything to feel her own body weightlessly sashaying across the floating subfloor. How different life must be, she thought, if one was capable of moving effortlessly, without restraints and limitations.

As she glanced down at her thighs, which had trouble fitting between the velvet-covered armrests, her binoculars slid off her lap and thumped to the floor. She tried—gracefully at first, then with more gusto—to escape her seat. She knew what the people around her were thinking. A man in a plaid suit jacket finally got up, retrieved her binoculars, and handed them to her. She nodded kindly and mouthed a “thank you” to him while he, with a disdainful look on his face, ducked back into his seat without causing any further disturbance. Heads were shaking and eyes piercing, but Hortensia kept her eyes on the stage.

When the curtain opened and the tuning strings and brasses ceased to disrupt the silence, she held her breath. It was her favorite moment of the entire performance. There was infinite magic in this initial moment in which, upon the sounding of the first note, the corps dancers raised their arms in perfect unison. Seeing them move as one, maintaining their position while in constant motion, she thought the corps dancers to be ballet’s unheralded champions. She imagined the dancers breathing as if they shared a single pair of lungs. A well-oiled machine, demanding dedication, focus, and artistry. Hortensia anticipated every move, every twist, and every step.

Later, as the ballerinas executed their final bows at the end of the performance, Hortensia peeled herself out of the velvet seat while most of the crowd had already spilled out into the street. She was desperate, more desperate than ever, to find out how dancers moved about without their dancing shoes strapped to their feet. She had discovered a door a while back, hidden behind a large curtain near the side of the stage. She patiently hovered in a dark corner, waiting for the employee who oversaw the crowds exiting through the large double doors to be distracted. She slid behind the curtain and opened the door. The curtain’s velvet layers closed behind her as if they longed to swallow her entire existence. Hortensia paused as she took in a narrow and dim hallway. The floor was uneven, and she detected a faint odor of chlorine that she dismissed immediately. If she got caught, she could always claim to be lost and ask for the exit.

Hortensia waited until most of the noise had died down, and made her way down the hallway. She encountered stairs, only four of them, and then the hallway brightened, and she found herself in a backstage area with countless individual rooms where the dancers changed into their costumes. She was immediately reminded of locker rooms in high school and the raunchy smell of the blue, faded rubber mats and the wetness of boys’ armpits. She was startled by a voice.

“Hey, hey, wait. Hold on for a second.”

Her pulse hastened and her chest felt too small for her heart—a feeling simultaneously frightening and exhilarating—and just as her brain relayed the words “I think I am lost” to be spoken aloud, the voice trailed off into the distance. Hortensia realized that the comment was directed toward one of the dancers, and the voice of a man and a woman proceeded to negotiate an after-performance meeting place for the entire troupe.

Just as her heartbeat slowed, she felt something soft being shoved into her hand. Hortensia looked up and into the deep-set eyes of a woman one could only describe as elfin. If such a thing was possible, Hortensia thought, the body of this woman would fit into her own frame fourfold. The woman’s arachnoid limbs moved gracefully as she pointed at the object in Hortensia’s hand.

“I must not have made myself clear yesterday, but the stitches are unacceptable. How do you expect the dancers to perform their best when their costumes are subpar?”

Hortensia observed a pulsating vein on the woman’s left temple and she was torn between correcting her and playing along so she could take the item home and examine it more closely. She lifted the object by its straps and suspended it between them. She recognized a beautifully curved bodice with a low back. The bottom seam was ripped and the attached tutu was barely hanging on.

The woman stepped to the right and looked past the costume at her. The bodice and tutu seemed like a doll’s costume and Hortensia imagined a dancer’s cygnine limbs filling the costume, maybe even having room to spare.

“I think you are mistaking me for…”

“I am not mistaken. Does this look like I am mistaken?” the woman asked and pointed at the costume suspended in front of her. “What if this had happened on stage? What if it had fallen off in front of the audience? You need to take your job more seriously. I will replace you if this happens again. Do you understand?”

Being replaced was nothing Hortensia worried about. It was something that she secretly longed for. It would be pleasant to have someone step in and take over her life and live it better. Be a better employee, exchange matting more proficiently, and pick up her own binoculars. Someone who would start a conversation on the bus, talk to her neighbors, adopt a dog from the shelter. But a seamstress she was not.

“No, no, no. You are mistaking me. I don’t work here; I have nothing to do with your costumes.” Hortensia took in a deep breath. The elfin woman, apparently a dancer once, would certainly understand. “I am here to see the dancers.”

“See the dancers? You see dancers onstage. Buy a ticket and watch them. I don’t understand. Did you come to see someone specifically? Are you a friend or relative of one of our troupe members?”

“No, I want to see the dancers. In real life. In regular clothes. Just being people, I guess. Not as dancers, but as people.”

The elfin woman looked at Hortensia puzzled. “You pay to see them onstage. After their performance, they no longer owe you anything. You are not allowed to be back here. And I really don’t have time for this; I need to find a seamstress and get this taken care of.”

“I just want to see them, the real them. See if they are light and weightless like they are onstage.” Hortensia insisted.

“What do you think this is?” The elfin woman snatched the damaged bodice with the dangling tutu from Hortensia’s hands. “Magic? You think they put this on and they are magically transformed? Dancing is hard work, years, decades of hard work. People like you don’t understand the sacrifices. Weightless?” She looked Hortensia up and down and placed one hand on her scanty hip. “Being weightless means to weigh less, if you get my drift.” She tittered as if she had said something funny. The elfin woman turned around and pranced down the hall. She didn’t bother turning around and called a determined “get out of here, you can’t be here,” in Hortensia’s direction.

Covered in a layer of sweat, Hortensia realized the error she had made. If she had walked around the building and watched the troupe depart, she could have watched all the dancers leave the theater and observe them as they gathered to go to their meeting place: a bar or restaurant a few blocks away. She could have followed them and studied their moves without having to resort to hiding in hallways and behind curtains like a thief in the night. Without this woman telling her that she had no right to be here. No right to be anywhere in this world.

A large group appeared from around the corner and Hortensia prepared herself for more humiliation. She then realized she needn’t have worried. All the dancers, in their street clothes by then, passed her without ever making eye contact. They walked towards her and at the very last moment—before they bumped into her—their limber bodies twisted and continued down the hallway without ever so much as disturbing the air around her. She felt not invisible, but rather like an insignificant architectural column that had to be avoided. Suddenly all was quiet. As she turned to follow the dancers to what she assumed to be the back entrance, she discovered a door with a sign that read “Below-stage Prop Room, Employees Only.”

Getting trapped in the theater overnight may not be such a bad thing, she thought. She could snoop around the building and discover the inner workings of the Oracle Empire. Maybe she would find a pair of dancing shoes that she could examine more closely. She always wanted to see the room in which a ballerina prepared for her big opening night. She had always wondered if the ballerina left behind the flowers the director handed her after her performance.

Hortensia wanted to unravel the fiction from the facts, and now that she knew that dancers looked no different than any other people in their street clothes, she felt the desire to see what else could be discovered. Hortensia opened the door and descended down the stairs.

She followed the hallway and found herself in the prop room under the stage. There were chains and ropes and toothed wheels; levers and buttons and naked bulbs. She realized where the chlorine smell she had detected earlier originated. She stood in front of the water tank Theodore the Magician used to perform his escape artist act. The tank was large, not a run-of-the-mill water coffin, but a large Plexiglas container the size of a very small room. It was propped up on a contraption that allowed the tank to be hoisted up onto the stage. A metal platform in the back allowed for easy access to the tank. Within the tank the solitary flood sat in silence.

Hortensia had no intention of lowering her sizeable body into the tank, but she was curious as to how it would feel to immerse herself in the water. She didn’t remember ever having gone swimming when she was a child. She gently pressed her palm against the tank, and even though the water’s temperature was tepid, the tank seemed to conduct some sort of electricity. She imagined herself in the role of Theodore the Escape Artist, hands and feet bound, sharply taking in a deep breath, clasping her hands, and, with a smile toward the audience, jumping into the water.

Her body seemed to be steps ahead of her thoughts, because the next thing she knew, she had climbed the metal platform. She unhinged the door and sat on the edge of the small platform, allowing her feet to penetrate the water. She inspected the mechanism that would lock securely once an object penetrated the tank and cause the mechanism to lock due to the raised waters’ surface.

Sitting on the platform, she moved her feet back and forth in the water. Even though the water provided some resistance to her movement, she wondered how it would feel to lower her legs into the tank. Immersing her entire body into the tank was more of an afterthought than a calculated action, and before she knew it, her generous flesh broke the water’s surface. Everything seemed to pale in comparison to this moment. As her feet made contact with the tank floor, she held her breath. Her first impression was silence. A silence that drowned out the hammering of nails into wooden frames, her neighbors arguing, her boss’s voice scolding her, yet again. Hortensia didn’t feel panic and she welcomed the impending lack of oxygen. The water also took her sense of smell. There was no glue, no glass cleaner, no mothballs stuck to the back of drawers and abandoned on closet floors in her late aunt’s apartment. All Hortensia knew was that this was her world. If she ever truly belonged anywhere, it was here. The water surrounding her seemed to electrify her. As she opened her eyes and blinked underwater, her body started to move. Her weight was erased, the water counteracting the force of gravity.

She was clumsy at first, but then she mimicked the movements of the dancers she had watched for many years. She performed a pirouette and balançoire; she batted her legs like a seesaw. She whipped and stretched, braided and jumped. She moved her arms up, and down; she bowed, jumped, and leaped. Hortensia was elated when one leg was able to support her entire weight. She was a dancer; a dancer who couldn’t hear the audience because she was wrapped up in her performance. The silence had also swallowed the sound of the tank door locking into place, a lock requiring a key in the possession of “Theodore the Magician” extraordinaire. She felt her lungs approach a bursting sensation and she instinctively raised both arms above her head to float upward to fill her lungs with air. As her titanic body moved heavenward, her head hit the securely locked door. She turned her body one more time, pirouetted a half turn and then panic set in. There was only agony from this moment forward. But not a single sugarplum weighed her down.

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Reader Feedback:
I’m biased; I love all your writings. But to make it to this magazine, someone else must love your writing as well. Keep writing. Love Ya!

Excellent piece....i love how in the end Hortensia both realizes the magic of dancing but is also undone by her isolationist tendencies.....a surprisingly nice balance-

Thank you for sharing this with me. I am more than lucky to be a part of your art. Looking forward to so much more.

Fall Equinox 2011 Table of Contents