“Ordinary,” originally published as an audio recording with original music by Nathan Corder, is no longer available online at The Flexible Persona. I’ve re-published the story here.
(approximate reading time 30 minutes)
The first time I saw her, she was looking in the window of Timeless Treasures on West 9th Street. I knew exactly which store it was because I lived in a one bedroom walk-up on Thompson Street a few blocks away. This was years ago, when a local thrift store could still pay rent in the West Village.
It was April, the callery pear trees lofting soft and white, and I spotted her from down the block, a seam running up the back of her pink tights to where it trailed beneath the hem of her denim skirt. Her chestnut hair was scraped back into a bun. More than anything, though, I could tell she was a dancer by the way she stood, as if she were being lifted through the crown of her head like a puppet on a string, everything falling into line except her feet, which splayed out beneath her like something spilled.
I pretended to browse in the shop window, but really I was peering at her reflection in the plate glass.
“Which one do you like?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied. “There are so many pretty things.”
We stared at the display crammed with glassware, religious effigies, a stuffed ferret on a stand and necklaces draped over a velvet-lined box. I remember it as if it were yesterday, the acrid, metallic scent of the city drowning out whatever whiff of saltiness might have remained on her skin.
“Do you like the necklaces?” I asked.
“Maybe the amber one.” She peered closer, then pulled back abruptly. “Well, have a nice day.” she gave me a sideways glance before hurrying away.
Lily Parrish, from her journal April 22, 1981
It was one of those spring days where it felt as though the earth was swollen up from all the soft, warm light. The flowers were tumbling from their buds, and it was too nice out to go straight back to Katherine House with its chintzy furniture in the lobby and scowling Ann manning the switchboard. On Sunday nights, when my parents call, a buzzer sounds in my room, and I run down the hallway to one of the dark green, wooden phone booths on each floor to tell them that everything is going great, that I’m learning a lot and making friends. I’m not lying, not exactly. Today, though, I decided to walk beneath the white lofting trees in Washington Park, the sun like a Monet painting on the sidewalk.
I’ve been in New York since September, but today was the first time that Mme. Petrovskaia put me in the front row with the scholarship students during point class. I wish Carey Giannoulas had been there to see.
Thinking about Carey Giannoulas, though, reminded me of Becky’s party, when Carey cornered me in the stairwell of her basement just so he could yell in my ear over REO Speedwagon, You’re not going to make it. This was after I had told him that I was graduating high school early and moving to New York, which was after we’d shared a bottle of Baily’s Irish Cream in the parking lot behind Filene’s on New Year’s Eve and he kissed me, and I teetered home with the taste of Carey Giannoulas and Baily’s on my tongue.
He seemed so certain what it meant, to make it, but since coming here, I’m not so sure. At my latest audition for the Seattle Ballet there were hundreds of dancers divided into groups of twenty-five, for two spots in the company. Not everyone had the perfect proportions, the most exquisite arches or épaulement, but after the first few cuts, if I squinted in the mirror, I couldn’t tell us apart. How do you define an aura, though, something that glows brighter when certain dancers perform onstage? Whatever it is, I’m not sure I have it, and I wonder if that was what Carey saw when we huddled on the low wall behind Filenes in the thin, cold air, the salt glittering on the asphalt, not talking much but held together in the sweet warmth of our kiss? When I dance my body carves through space and time and I dissolve into the music, transformed into something both less than and greater than myself. I’m not sure it matters to me, though, whether there’s an audience to see. I was cut after the sixth round.
Today as I stepped into the sunshine there was a sense of possibility in the air, people walking around in too little clothing. I wandered into the park and the drug dealers whispered promises under their breath – Smack ludes blow mama – everyone looking for something.
I found a spot on a bench, but just as I got settled someone sat next to me, jostling my elbow. When I looked over I saw that it was the same guy who had talked to me in front of the thrift store window.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “Fancy seeing you here.” Then he giggled.
I ignored him, which wasn’t easy considering there was barely an inch between us. I also realized that he was old, like fifty or sixty, which made me feel sorry for him, sitting there in his cardigan, surrounded by pushers and college students in miniskirts. I thought maybe he was a professor, but he seemed too shy, and his clothing was a little shabby.
“You must be a dancer,” he said.
“Um, yeah.” I stuck out my pink, tight-clad leg.
I was suspicious that he had followed me, but then he smiled with a gentleness that made me wilt inside. Only now, sitting in my room in Katherine House, do I realize that no one has looked at me that way since I said goodbye to my mother on the Amtrak train platform seven months ago.
At the time, though, a group of NYU or Parsons students walked past reeking of pot, and I glanced at my neighbor, but he didn’t seem to notice. I wondered if maybe he was famous, a choreographer or director. The city is like that, you never know who you might bump into. Once I walked right by Woody Allen and didn’t realize until after he had gone.
The guy asked where I was from and I told him, Waltham, Massachusetts. Then he asked if I was visiting with my family, and I said I was taking classes at the Joffrey Ballet School and staying at Katherine House. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him that, but he seemed harmless.
“Is that the residence for young women on 13th Street? It looks nice.”
I told him that I liked it okay, but some of the girls complain because of the rules, like you’re not allowed to bring guests above the first floor, and they have an eleven o’clock curfew. I didn’t tell him that even though Ann acts as though she’s doing a huge favor just to hand you your key, I like knowing that she’s there with her gray hair aerosoled in place and her canny eyes watching everyone who comes in and out.
My journal lay unopened on my lap, but it was nice to have someone to talk to, even if he was old enough to be my father. He didn’t remind me of my dad, though. For one thing my father has thick, tortoiseshell glasses and unruly eyebrows. He’s also convinced that the only reason I like ballet is because of the glamour. I guess he doesn’t see the pale moons of skin that peel away from my toes no matter how carefully I tape them, or the blood that I wash out of my sweaty tights each evening.
I didn’t say any of this out loud, but when I turned to my companion and saw his doleful, expectant expression, I had the urge to tell him what it feels like to step into an arabesque, every muscle and ligament straining for a perfection that I might never achieve, but which I sometimes brush against, or that moment when a pirouette gathers into the music, and I become an instrument of light.
The clouds, meanwhile, had drifted over the sun, and a shiver of goose bumps rose over my arms. I slid my journal into my bag and rose to go.
“It was nice meeting you. I’m John Berger.”
“Lily Parrish.” I reluctantly shook his pale, clammy hand.
Lily. Lily Parrish. Her name flitted to the corners of my mind like a creature kept in the dark, a butterfly, easily bruised. When I closed my eyes I imagined her creamy skin, the plumpness of childhood still clinging to her flesh, and I stood quickly, trying to shake off the image. Once the thoughts start, they’re difficult to get rid of.
I followed Lily from a safe distance as she left the park. She never looked back, skipping up the steps of Katherine House as she fumbled for her key. When the door swung open she disappeared inside, leaving me to contemplate the brick façade with its five stories of windows looking out over the street, wondering which small room belonged to Lily, or whether, perhaps, she was peeling off her damp clothing in one of the interior chambers that probably looked out over a courtyard.
I hated myself for imagining her this way, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave so I stood across the street, watching the girls come and go like bees bringing honey to and from the hive. When I finally tore myself away, I stopped by the Joffrey Ballet School to pick up a schedule of classes before heading home.
Lily Parrish, from her Journal May 6, 1981
It poured all day, and since it’s Sunday there aren’t any classes. All day is a long time to spend alone, imagining my friends back home. They’re probably thinking about graduation and prom, and even though I have no desire to be doing any of that, it’s not as glamorous here as they probably think. The Joffrey is cliquey, and a lot of the girls already know each another. There is one girl, Amanda, who I’ve become friendly with, but as soon as class ends she stuffs her point shoes into her bag and rushes outside to the Lincoln Continental that’s waiting to whisk her uptown to where she lives.
I had another audition this week for the Kansas City Ballet. The number 176 was pinned to the front of my leotard, and we were crammed in so tight at the barre that we had to stand at an angle to make room. I recognized several of the Joffrey scholarship girls, but without their pale blue leotards – everyone at the audition had to wear black – they looked like everyone else. I was cut after the fourth round.
Unless something changes, my parents will drive down from Waltham in a couple months to move me out of Katherine House, and then I’m heading to Rhode Island and college at the end of August. So this is it, almost the end of my grand adventure. And Carey Giannoulas was right. I didn’t become famous or even make it into the corps de ballet of a small, regional company.
When I left that audition, knowing that I was failing at the one thing I had wanted ever since I was seven years old, watching The Nutcracker on TV, I felt as though pieces of me were crumbling away, pebbly chunks disintegrating faster than I could keep up, but then I realized that this sensation was happening not outside of me, but inside. I couldn’t figure out what was worse, knowing I wasn’t good enough, or having to tell my friends that I was coming home, that I hadn’t made it. As I walked down Sixth Avenue, my dance bag bumping against my thigh, I wondered who I’d be without it. What if I was ordinary, just like everyone else?
This morning I sat in my room and watched the rain blur the gray-streaked bricks across the courtyard, and I thought of the audition as Carey’s words echoed in my mind. Such certainty, I thought, from someone who had never grand jetéd across a room, that split second – weightless, suspended – before tumbling down in a whirl of limbs like water rushing over pebbles in a stream. Did the pebbles make it, or the refracted light off the water?
My room is just big enough to fit a bed, a bureau, a small desk and a sink, so on Sundays I go wandering. I’ve gone as far as the Brooklyn Bridge and as high as the Cloisters. Today I pulled on my rain boots, snapped up my raincoat and headed out the door.
There’s a reading room in the public library on Forty-Second Street filled with carved oak bookcases and a ceiling painted with pink and blue clouds. I’d packed The Sound and the Fury and my journal, and soon I was settled at one of the long wooden tables, reading, when I got the uneasy feeling that I was being watched. Everyone around me had their heads bent over their work, though, so I figured I must have imagined it. When the sensation didn’t go away I put a marker in my book and got up to go to the bathroom. On my way up the aisle a person in the reference section looked familiar, and when I glanced back I found myself staring into the face of that guy, John Berger. His stringy gray hair was plastered over his forehead, shadows rimming his blue eyes. The sight of him singed a trail of goose down up my spine, and all I could think to do was walk out of the room. When I came back he was gone, but I was too unnerved to concentrate, so I left a short time later.
Now that I’m back at Katherine House eating a bowl of granola, the rain still pelting down outside, I keep wondering how, in a city as big as New York, I could run into John Berger in the reading room of the public library, thirty blocks from where I saw him the first time. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he secretly wanted to be seen even as he cowered behind the shelves.
The first time I talked to Lily, when we were looking in the window of Timeless Treasures, she reminded me so much of Jean Marie that it was the most I could do not to cry out Jean Marie’s name, as if it was really she, unchanged after all these years. There have been other girls who have shared Jean Marie’s features, her auburn hair or clear complexion, but as soon as these Jean Marie look-alikes have spoken, their coarse manners or bold way of speaking have been so unlike Jean Marie’s playful intelligence that I’ve known right away that they were nothing like the real Jean Marie.
Several weeks after being discovered by Lily in the library, I followed her up to Central Park and watched from behind a parked car while she talked to one of the horse drawn carriage drivers. I could tell he was trying to lure her into his wagon, and I wanted to rush up and warn her that he would know all the deserted nooks and crannies in the park, and she shouldn’t go. I was afraid that I’d startle her, though, the way I had in the library.
It had been a Sunday, pouring rain, and it was pure chance that Lily had come outside Katherine House in those few minutes when I had been lingering in my usual spot beside the gingko tree. I hadn’t seen her for a few days, which always makes the thoughts worse, as if they get trapped in my head, circling round and round like fruit flies over a bowl of pears. I knew that if I could only see her I’d be reassured that she was okay, and I’d worry a bit less.
I almost couldn’t believe it, then, when she appeared in her Wellingtons and a bright yellow rain coat. I followed her up to the library and watched from the stacks. I wasn’t as careful as I usually am, though, and on her way up the aisle she turned unexpectedly. I know she saw me, I was sure of it, but she continued out of the room, leaving her journal on the table, practically begging me to pick it up, to run my hands over the red, suede cover. My heart had been racing too fast for me to comprehend what I was reading as I sifted through the pages, afraid that she would return, or that one of the people sitting at the table would ask me what I was doing. I had been pretending to write her a note when my name, John Berger, scrawled in loopy, blue ballpoint jumped out from the pages of her diary. My vision blurred, but not so much that I couldn’t see the old crone staring at me from across the table. I pushed the chair back over the stone floor with an excruciating scraping noise and stumbled from the room, giddy with what I had seen, my name etched in Lily’s journal as though it was engraved on her heart. That’s when I knew that Lily and I understood each other, the same way Jean Marie and I had before everything got ruined.
It was not easy, then, to crouch behind a Buick Regal, trying not to draw attention to myself while pedestrians glanced at me curiously as they walked along the park. I wanted so badly to warn Lily about the carriage driver’s intentions, and as he chuckled slyly at something she said it was as if I could see his hands groping under her purple Haagen Dazs T-shirt, and I closed my eyes to try and block it out, but the sound of horses whinnying and pawing the ground echoed in my ears. The vision was so real that I pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the car’s window to steady myself. It was too late, though. I was already tumbling back through a murky, ominous past.
Until the day she died, Mother assured me that I hadn’t to hurt Jean Marie. When the thoughts started coming into my head, she said I shouldn’t listen.
What no one understood, though, was that I loved Jean Marie, and she loved me. Whenever I start to doubt myself I remember the way she would stop and talk to me on her way home from school, accepting a gift of a fresh apple or a sprig of forsythia in the spring. She was a freshman at Baruch College, and after high school I got a job working at Gristedes in the produce department. I liked sorting through the apples, picking out the bruised ones and lining up the rest into symmetrical, even stacks. Jean Marie had lived down the street from me my whole life, and we were friends. She would tease me about my white produce jacket or what she called my fancy way of speaking. Then one day on my way home from work I saw her kissing Joey Damutto, who was a year older than she and wasn’t worth her pinkie finger.
I wanted to charge up to them and shove him away, but I didn’t. I waited until he had gone, my breath shallow, pinpricks of light in my eyes. He didn’t even walk her home.
Oh hello, she said when I stepped out from the alley where I had been hiding. Fancy seeing you here. She trusted me and knew I wouldn’t hurt her. I told her I had something I needed to tell her. It was July, a hint of light still rimming the sky. I could see the stoop of her building down the block, but she agreed to walk with me. I waited until we had turned the corner, and then I told her that I loved her, that I wanted to marry her. She laughed. I told her again, and she said she had to get home, that her parents would be expecting her. She didn’t seem to be listening to me, and I thought maybe I should do what Joey Damutto had done, that this was what she wanted, but it went all wrong. She misunderstood, and I got scared.
After that the bad thoughts started coming all the time. I kept trying to see her to make sure I hadn’t hurt her, but no matter how often I was able to reassure myself, I still worried. Even sorting apples didn’t help, and one raw November day, the sidewalks slick with rain, Mother took me to the hospital. When I came home, Jean Marie was gone. Mother told me that she had transferred to a school in California, but I kept thinking that it was because of something I had done. At the hospital they had taught me ways of distracting myself from the thoughts. Ruminations, they called them. The medicine didn’t help, but sometimes walking did.
Then two years ago mother passed away. She had put the apartment on Thompson Street in my name, though, and with the small annuity she set up, I have more than enough for my needs. I was starting to think that I would never find anyone after first Jean Marie, then mother went away. Until I saw Lily, and everything became brand new.
Lily Parrish, from her Journal July 16, 1981
I’ve been seeing John Berger all over the place, stepping into shops, disappearing down side streets. Last week I was walking along Central Park South, and one of the carriage drivers offered me a free ride. I was tempted, thinking it could be fun to clip clop around the park watching the people pass by, but I also didn’t want to have to sit next to the driver. He was handsome in a seedy kind of way, with stringy blond hair and a frayed, black satin vest, but one of the things you don’t get from the pictures of horse drawn carriages is the smell of horse dung. I thanked the driver and said I had to meet a friend, and as I was walking away I swear I saw John Berger turn into the Seventh Avenue entrance to the park. I’d become almost accustomed to his lurking around down town, which is where I assume he lives, but I couldn’t believe that once again he had found a way to follow me uptown, so I rushed after him, but when I got into the park there was no one there.
I know that what he’s doing is creepy, and it should bother me more than it does. Sometimes, though, in a city where I’m surrounded by people, I’ve never felt so alone. Knowing that there’s someone who cares, even if it’s John Berger, and even if he doesn’t actually know me at all, can be oddly comforting.
Two weeks ago I woke up feverish and achy and couldn’t get out of bed. On the second day the buzzer in my room jolted me awake, and when I stumbled over to the intercom, I heard Ann’s raspy voice telling me that there was a bowl of soup outside my door. Sure enough, when I opened the door there was a bowl of chicken noodle soup, a slice of toast and a cup of tea sitting on a tray in the hallway. So Ann and John Berger, that makes two.
I waited for Lily at the end of the day, when she’d be returning to Katherine House. It was a hot, stagnant August afternoon that left a greasy film on my skin, and I was so nervous about missing her that I had been waiting for two hours. Finally I saw her coming, and I rushed across the street with my present in my hands.
“Are those…what are they?” she frowned.
“They’re for you. They’re called Streptocarpus.” I’d spent all week searching for the perfect gift, and when I saw the purple blooms, their moon-white throats curving towards delicate stems, I knew that they were for her, for Lily.
“But what are they for?” she demanded, her hands stuck by her sides. “Why are you following me?”
“I…wanted to give you…” There was a sound in my ear, like rushing water, and I was afraid I would drop the pot. “Please –” I whispered, pushing the flowers towards her, thinking that if she would just take them everything would be okay.
Lily Parrish, from her journal dated August 1, 1981
I was coming home from class, and when I turned off of Sixth Avenue the first thing I saw was John Berger balancing an earthenware pot on the banister of a brownstone across the street. As soon as he spotted me he rushed towards me with a smile on his face as if he’d been waiting all afternoon, an entire lifetime, for me to arrive. I glanced desperately at the door of Katherine House, Ann ensconced just a few feet away behind the brick façade, wishing fervently that I had told him to stop following me before he showed up on my doorstep.
I demanded to know what he was doing, but he became so flustered that I thought he was about to cry. There was a tremor in his hand, and I didn’t know what to do, so I took the flowers.
“Thank you,” I stammered. “They’re pretty.”
“They’re for Jean Marie.”
“For…I’m sorry –” He giggled, dark patches of sweat staining his shirt, and I felt sorry for him.
“Did…Jean Marie…did she like flowers, too?” I asked gently.
“I don’t know,” he murmured. “I never had the chance to ask her.”
“I’m guessing she did,” I said tentatively, the petals fluttering in the updraft of a passing car. “She probably would have thought your flowers were lovely. In fact, maybe they can be for both of us, for me and for Jean Marie, wherever she is.”
“She went away. A long time ago.”
“That happens, doesn’t it? I’ll be leaving soon, too. I’m going to college.”
“To college? In California?”
“No. Not California, but still far away. I’ve decided that I want to learn a lot of new things besides just dancing.”
“Jean Marie went to college,” he said, twisting his long, boney fingers.
“I was thinking. It might be hard for me to water your flowers at school. But if you brought them home, maybe you could take care of them. It could be a way of…remembering.”
He lifted his tired blue eyes, his expression haunted and hopeful, and I reached out and put the Streptocarpus in his hands.