No Aerial Experience Required

Everything she owned fit into a yellow cab. A year living on Avenue B and all she’d accumulated were calluses from barefoot turns, the bottom of each toe hardened and ridged like the edge of an almond. It was a short drive from her windowless tenement to the furnished one-bedroom in the author’s glass high-rise. She took a mirrored elevator to the eleventh floor. Her new apartment defied gravity—
pendant lights, suspended shelves, cantilever countertops. She slipped off her sneakers. Walked around touching glossy surfaces, her calluses cushioned in ivory shag.

Alyson had never lived alone. She shared a room with her little brother back in Groveton, a town so small the sheriff also drove the school bus. She lived in university dorms with thin walls. After graduation, like all the other small-town girls seeking something their parents wouldn’t understand, she circled ads in the city papers—roommate wanted—until she found a girl with an affordable Alphabet City closet.

The girl was Hennessy, named after her dad’s drink. They spent nights on the linoleum floor in the hallway between their rooms, refining the art of digging chunks out of extreme ice cream flavors. The hallway, too narrow to fit a chair, was also the kitchen. They never cooked, but occasionally Alyson would make tea, or Hennessy would boil her dildos in a pasta pot, filling the apartment with homey steam.

The author had been one of Alyson’s lunch regulars at the Odeon on West Broadway. They’d developed the choreographed intimacy of waiter and regular. A performance in which both pretended they held a profound, unspoken understanding that extended beyond the comfort of repetition (tea, tuna melt, frisée instead of fries), a fantasy that could be sustained indefinitely through conversations tailored to the time it took to set and clear a table.

“What’s on the menu?” The question was theater. The author never altered his order.

“Special of the day is moules frites.” She stood above him. His hand trembled over the cutlery.

“Marcuse Frites?”

“Is that a question?” She tried to sound playful, though she had no clue what he’d said.

“The french fry school of critical theory. Consumer culture has to harness the pleasure instinct.”

Parker, the new waiter, told her the old man was famous. The author’s body was wasted with disease but his eyes were turbulent and piercing. They followed her, smooth as a stage light, as she crossed and re-crossed the tile floor. He didn’t seem disturbed by his disintegrated self. She wondered if he had transcended vanity, was satisfied with living in his character’s skins. His watching empowered her mundane movements.

While endlessly folding napkins and filling salt cellars, Alyson came up with a silly story in which the author rescued her from anonymity and boredom, recognized her unique potential, her special powers. The specifics were foggy. So she was something more than surprised when he asked her whether she would consider coming to work for him.

“I think you’re probably quite good.” It was unclear what the author was referring to. She knew she should be skeptical, but she was tired of covering for the busboy while he and the manager chewed brioche and made lewd gestures by the silverware station. Also, she had just failed another audition. Forgot the choreography, ran out the door and down the steps with a number still pinned to her back, while every other girl twirled, a leg in the air. After a year of rejections, she understood that there was something wrong with her inside, beneath her practiced muscles, something weak and unshapely and overly eager to please. This wasn’t a new feeling, but now it had risen to the top of her awareness and coated her vision, like the film of silt on every city window. She was sure that the author wouldn’t agree with her mother. She wasn’t just killing time, another victim of the art world. She was rehearsing more than impractical poses and selfish steps. She was learning how to get someplace, somewhere higher and better.

 

Now, in the acclaimed author’s unthinkable extra apartment, Alyson’s solitude was on display behind floor-to-ceiling glass. From her bed, she looked out over a dizzying field of downtown lights, and the Twin Towers standing in second position parallel.

The author was evidently dying. He told her the trouble was his body, not his mind. His muscles were decaying, leaving him balanced on a loosely connected structure of bones. He walked like a marionette. He could hold a pen but his script was a jagged scribble. Once or twice he had fallen and was on the floor for hours, watching his cellphone through the underside of the glass coffee table until the housekeeper arrived.

As the author’s assistant, Alyson was to prepare his breakfast and lunch, help him in and out of chairs, run his errands, write out his notes and checks, and escort him on short walks in the sunshine. The housekeeper was in charge of dinner, cleaning, and bathing. In exchange, Alyson would live in her own one-bedroom across the hall, close enough to come to the rescue at all hours. As part of the agreement she would also get her first cellphone, a walkie-talkie-like rectangle with a stubby black antenna, final proof she was aligned with a future beyond her mother’s imagining.

 

She felt exposed standing in front of the author, stripped of her white apron and notepad, as he commented on the metaphysics of her tasks. She pulled socks over his snail-shell toenails and across his wax-paper soles (“What’s good is doubly good, when it’s a matter of two socks. That’s Neruda”). She put items into casserole dishes and placed them in the oven and waited to see if they would turn into food (“Casseroles for lunch please me”). He asked her to fetch books and papers (“The postcard from the box in the bedroom, from my first wife. From France—the winter of solitude”), sent her on errands to the bank, the bookstore, the mailbox (“Prosperity and good fortune, Alyson. You never know what befalls or is destined to befall one’s fate”). She caught his elbow if he staggered on the way from dining room to study. It seemed at any moment he might collapse into a pile of bones.

 

When the author didn’t require her, Alyson went to the dance studio and rolled across marley floors as teachers sang out emphatic koans.

See with your cells.
Down to go up.
Dance with your bones.

She tried to align her body so that weight was supported and transferred effortlessly through gravity. She was supposed to know how to let go. Know how to fall. It was called Release Technique, the name itself a contradiction.

On the best days, her bones were linked like waves. She could almost imagine her skin translucent, her cells seeing and breathing. But more often she was a dull jumble of solid parts. She watched the other girls, their feet and eyebrows immaculately arched. They’d probably never chopped wood with an axe, but they could cut their legs through the air in an arc higher than hers.

 

Only once, in middle school, Alyson dared ask her mom if she could take ballet class after school. But the nearest class was two towns away. There was the drive, and the cost. Anyway, her mother reminded, ballet was for skinny girls. In college, Alyson was the only one in the modern dance department who didn’t know the difference between open and closed fourth position. Her teachers told her she showed talent for improvisation, but her technique was accidental at best.

She wondered what it was like to have lean arms and narrow feet. To grow up wearing pink tutus and pointing your toes, instead of climbing trees. She’d inherited her mother’s body—arms and ankles for shoveling snow and working long shifts on her feet. If she failed in the city, she’d have to go back to Groveton, work at the gas station or be a lifer at the diner, serving burgers and fries until her lips pickled and her boobs turned to flapjacks. Spend all winter looking forward to the Count the Moose Scat Contest.

 

Every August, Groveton closed off Main Street for the Moose festival—the Old-Fashioned Turkey Shoot and Scat Contest, and music and dance shows on an open stage. Each childhood summer, she stood in her rain boots at the edge of the stage, the sky turning pale on its way to dark. The dancers inhabited their bodies so completely. They were so free within themselves, as if they’d never had brothers or summer reading or poison ivy. She felt her arms stretch within their arms, her legs extend within their legs, the rush of air as she spun and swept through space. She wanted to burst out of her skin through their skin.

The festival ended. The dancers disappeared to cities south. The stripped skeleton of the stage stood barren above blowing trash until it, too, was deconstructed into doubtful memory. Then the eight-month winter, the boys with bad teeth and head injuries from snowmobile accidents mooning each other from the cargo beds of pickups, chugging six-packs of Miller High Life. Girls bemoaning relaxed perms, bingeing rom coms, deliberating deeply between Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers. Old drunks, pants around their knees, singing carols as they painted yellow Pollocks into snow banks.

 

“What’s on the menu?” the author asked.

“Special of the day is country-style meatloaf wrapped in bacon, but I always recommend the duck Bolognese.” Awkwardly, Alyson cut tomatoes and buttered bread. She’d never learned to cut out the stem or soften the butter. Her mom made up for dad’s lapses in child support by working double shifts and stocked the kitchen with instant meals—mashed potatoes, canned carrots, and Kraft Deluxe.

The author was as eager to be catered to as a little boy. He threw her ragged little smiles and gestures of generosity. Presented with his lunch plate: “What strikes the layman as a masterpiece.” When she complimented a vase of flowers the housekeeper arranged the previous evening: “An essential feature of neurosis.” Was she meant to be amused or impressed by these little speeches? They reminded her of dance routines with missed steps and unnecessary flourishes. Still, they were preferable to her mother’s favorite phrases over the phone: “What do you want me to do with all this trash in your room?” and, “It sounds like you’re still having a hard time, hon . . .” Implications, unspoken, that provoked Alyson’s conflicting desires to please her mom, and also prove her wrong. She closed her eyes, pulled the phone from her ear long enough for a well-worn, silent promise: she would never be like her mother—a body wide and largely uninhabited, entirely subject to gravity. She felt a swelling pressure under her sternum—how long did she have before the author noticed she was too slow to solve his poetic puzzles and catch his references? She would have to start trying to read the author’s books, and Marcuse, and Neruda.

The author was best known for his novel Fiction Is Dead. He told her his books were about the breakdown in communication, which he sometimes showed literally, with blank spaces between printed words. He described communication in terms of collision, in the scientific sense—the momentary exertion and counter-exertion of force.

“Not a plane crash. An insect touching its antenna to a leaf,” he said.

He gave her a paperback of his latest novel, Law of Mosaics, from the shelf where his works were displayed in a rainbow of spines. She stood in front of him, reading the back cover. Something about dealing with parts in the absence of wholes. She was aware of her body as he watched, hips to the side, mouth closed, toes curled. She was a slow reader. Even before she knew about turnout and pointe, she understood the world in sequences of movement, not words—tables set and cleared, four-wheelers jumping potholes, the back-and-forth sway of wind in the hay fields. A song on the radio in the evening, her mom putting down her beer to dance.

 

Nights when Parker was working at the Odeon, she sometimes stopped by to sit at the end of the bar. If Hennessy met her, Alyson drank seltzer and cranberry in solidarity, because Hennessy was sober now and studying for law school. Otherwise, Parker brought her free cocktails in high-stemmed glasses. Drinks that glowed pink and green with their own inner light. His eyebrows twitched between jokes (“You hear about the new restaurant on the moon?”). He pantomimed a three-point shot (“Great food but no atmosphere”). She experienced his awkwardness as a physical unburdening—the buoyancy of being untroubled by what he thought of her.

If she got a little too buzzed, she stayed to watch him upend the barstools and, to avoid meeting herself again in the mirrored elevator, walked home with him to his ugly apartment in the financial district where his five roommates smoked and self-deprecated about the theater industry. Parker was an aspiring puppeteer. His roommates were trying to break into musical theater. Sitting on their reeking couch, she sensed herself floating through an unfamiliar internal landscape. She’d thought working for the author would make her feel more real. Instead, she’d taken a wrong turn, gone off-road in the story of her life.

 

“What’s on the menu?” The author emerged from the bedroom without his shirt. His chest was a shriveled indent, like the hollow inside a pitted peach.

“Let’s see . . . chicken française, veal française, and fillet of sole française.” She arranged a bagel and hardboiled egg on his plate and set it in front of him. “Want your shirt with that?”

“An excellent waitress.”

On the way to his closet, she thought about being an excellent waitress. The key was efficiency of movement and a high ponytail. Without thinking, she pulled a plaid button-down from its hanger. The author grinned when he saw it and held out his arms like her little brother.

“Haven’t worn this since my last wife. No one to do up my buttons.”

It was too late to swap out the shirt for one of his usual pullovers, so she started from the top, working each button through the hole, smelling his sour exhales. She was aware of being too close. He whispered when he spoke.

“Forgot my shirt because I woke up today and saw my life as a landscape. Aerial view—beauty of old age.” The last button was through and she backed away quickly, but he continued in that bedroom whisper, as if she’d undone his buttons instead. “Know what I’m going to miss more than anything? Not my wives—I had three. Not words. Would probably have been my guess if you asked me years ago. It’s my body.” He brought his fingertips to his chest and then his beard. “Body that went swimming and made—”

To avoid hearing the rest, she cut him off with the first thing that came to mind.

“As a kid I was famous for arm-wrestling the boys. I was stronger than they thought I’d be. I liked surprising them, more than anything.”

They wrestled at the picnic tables, pushing aside corncobs resting in red and white paper boats. Instinctively she knew how to position her body, how to focus her energy through pure force of will, until their knuckles knocked the wood.

“I don’t know if I would miss my body,” she continued, aware of the way he was watching her, wishing now that she hadn’t said anything about the arm-wrestling, the boys. “A lot of the time I’m kind of trying to get out of it. Might be freeing not to have a body at all, just be, you know, part of the air.”

“You know, some days you almost glow.” He bit into his toast, chewed, swallowed, each flexion of his jaw an effort. She wondered if, because he was a writer, he could see through her cells. Could name the nameless things she was trying to expose. “You’re so self-conscious.”

“That’s embarrassing.”

“The condition of youth. What’s it like? I’ve lost the feeling.”

“The worst. Like wanting to crawl out of your skin.”

“People say my writing is very self-conscious. Any writing that plays with the techniques of the medium is said to be self-conscious.”

“It’s like, the other day I was in class and I couldn’t get the steps. The teacher shows them so quickly and then you have to copy them, remember them exactly. And if you don’t know what you’re doing you’re just out there on the floor feeling like a complete idiot. A complete failure.”

“You’re very hard on yourself. But this problem—it isn’t your fault. It’s a cultural problem. The whole culture is plagued by a kind of self-consciousness, a kind of separation from experience, a kind of double-ness, a double image. The only way out is to become self-conscious of this condition and to—” She watched a toast crumb travel on his lip. “And you realize, you’re inventing and improvising reality as you go along, which makes you the artist.”

She studied him for signs of irony or insincerity, but his eyes were absolutely clear and below his white beard lay an absolving smile, level as a lake. For a moment, every fallen crumb and airborne dust mote caught in the light from the floor-to-ceiling windows, recognizing its own artistry. Everything seemed possible again.

 

The author decided he no longer wanted to listen to Mozart. Instead he asked her to pick up an Eminem CD. She assumed he was having an end-of-life crisis. He’d refused to put on his pants that morning, so he sat in his underwear with his hands in his lap, skin draped liked napkins over narrow femurs. He listened, leaning forward as if at the opera.

When the album ended he sat back and said,  “Would you capture it or just let it slip, yo.”

Alyson giggled and the author’s cheeks flushed.

“How about you dance for me?”

The way he said it, she crossed her arms over her chest. He disgusted her. He was just an old man staring at a girl—seeing her, but seeing only what he wanted.

“It’s a Reichian point of view.”

She couldn’t ask what this meant. She couldn’t dance. She imagined a bolder girl bursting from her body, soaring in spirals through the room, taking up space. She was disgusted with her static, stiff self. She would never be able to dance like that, without thinking, without caring what other people thought of her. Why did she want to be on stage when the only reason to be on stage was so people could look at you? Although the thought sickened her, she understood that she needed them to watch. Wanted them to see all the good and special and beautiful things she couldn’t see about herself.

She drank too much that night at the Odeon and Parker took her to the roof of his apartment building with a picnic blanket. At that height, taking off their clothes was a dare. But air on their skin made them awkward again, so they looked out at the smooth sides of the high-rises instead of each other. The top of the night city was surprisingly sheer and still, almost silent.

Finally, they fit their jerking bodies together, like marionettes on a giant stage. Alyson saw the strings from Parker’s limbs to the sky, felt her own disembodied movements initiated from above. Afterward, the city was as it always had been, its surfaces flimsy and two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts that mirrored her emptiness, the impossibility of matching the dance in her mind with her inelegant bones.

She went to an audition that consisted entirely of falling. The choreographer’s name was Doug or David or Bill. He told them to run, slide, and melt into the floor. Treat the floor like a body—pliable, responsive. A flock of girls with numbers pinned to their backs, they beat against the ground, desperate to be chosen. She’d practiced falling ten thousand times. But she felt her hip bounce against the floorboards and knew she’d failed to turn material into pure energy. Doug or David or Bill called out the numbers of the girls who made the second round. The rest changed into street clothes in the dressing room, careful not to make eye contact or catch a glimpse of their bodies in the mirror.

 

“What’s on the menu?”

“Turkey on rye.” Alyson spread the ugly yellow mustard toward the crusts.

“No specials today?”

“Specials aren’t actually special. They’re just what’s not on the menu.”

“On one hand you have a path of logic.” The author was deep in his cushioned chair on the far side of the living room and she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly. “On the other, a path that’s antithetical and self-contradictory and flowing.”

She was still replaying her fall in the audition, as if by going over and over it, like sandpaper her mind could smooth out the angle at which her femur connected with the floor. In middle school, she’d once gotten the wind knocked out of her playing soccer. She lay with her cheek against the grass—she could still remember the green of the grass and the insult and surprise of her body empty of breath. Kids gathering over her, blocking the sun. Her breath finally coming, a sharp gasp, as surprising as its absence. She’s crying, a boy commented above. No she’s not, said another. Get hit like that, makes your eyes water. The gratitude she felt toward that second boy.

Setting the author’s sandwich on the kitchen table and tucking a napkin under the plate, she turned back to the sink.

“Communication eludes us because words can never accurately capture our singularity. The page can never do all that the body does. Writing is just objectifying of the self. Very static. Very dead. As a dancer you know this. Try creating an exact record of what happens in the dancing body—the complexity of its subjectivity, its mental projection of itself, its affections or magnetism. An exact record is impossible, but there’s an unspoken sort of communication. Stories that collide, sometimes, in illogical, anti-linear ways.”

As she turned toward him again with a full water glass, she saw him rising from his chair. He was wearing his pants today, but had forgotten his shirt again, and she hadn’t offered to bring it to him.

“Not so fast. You need your cane.” He swiveled his hip as if initiating a ronde de jambe. He teetered. He threw an arm into the air. Then he began to fall.

She saw the trajectory of his head toward the edge of the coffee table and his hip toward the hardwood floor, drawn in dotted lines through the air. She didn’t feel the water glass slip, hear it shatter against the tiles. Didn’t feel afraid. It was nothing like standing in line at an audition, waiting for her turn to cross the floor. Her body moved with pure, unconscious intention. She was anti-linear. She was an unbroken flow of communicated energy. She was running, jumping, tour, a terre. Around the counter, over the couch, under the coffee table. Barrel turn, split leap, slide. Until she supported his weight through the center of her bones.

She helped him to his feet and back into the chair. He looked at her. It was the look she’d often hoped for from Doug or David or Bill.

“Not one of my wives—” his lips were tight and purple-blue—“ever caught me.” She felt his narrow fingers grasp her wrist, the emptiness under his skin. “I sometimes think this . . .” he dropped his chin, “this is my punishment for leaving them all. For thinking they couldn’t keep up with me.”

She knew she should feel sympathy for him, dying with all his regrets. But she was thinking about the wives, and how he asked her to dance for him, and then another thought swept through her like a cold wind, clearing her vision: getting what you wanted could be the worst thing in the world. And now what she wanted, what she really wanted, was to punch the author hard in the chest. To hear him exhale like a hunting rifle, see his lips twist. Him and Doug and David and Bill, all of them. The corners of her mouth lifted in an unanticipated smile and she was filled with the indistinct sensation that she’d proven something about herself, something she hoped was true.

 

The audition notice said: no aerial experience required.

Alyson stood, as she always did, before the bulletin board in the studio hallway. She felt a strange new intelligence in her bones, an anti-linear alignment, to use the author’s words. Anyway, she was tired of falling.

The windowless audition space was vast and dim, the ceiling, many stories high, trussed with bars and pulleys. Dancers were bound up in harnesses, strung up by ropes, instructed to improvise. From below, Alyson watched a shoal of girls struggle like hooked fish to swim in air. All their ballet technique, their turnout and pointe and port de bras, couldn’t help them up there.

When it was her turn to be hoisted into the scaffold, she looked down at the choreographer’s bald spot and thought about what the author said, about seeing your life from a great altitude. About already being an artist. She couldn’t remember a time when she felt she belonged, and now she was here, nowhere, not caring, for once, about the choreography. She knew how to improvise.

To feel her center of gravity suspended! To be unbound from the limits of surface! Move with all her strength, as if there’s nothing to prove. Untangle each inner thread of energy, turn on fingers and toes like flashlights. She stretched beyond her limbs and flew through the friction and fullness of space.

For two weeks afterward, she checked her cellphone constantly, but didn’t get a callback. Instead she got a voicemail from Parker. “Hey, it’s me. What’s up? Haven’t heard from you in a while. Anyway, ya know, call me. I mean, if you feel like it.”

 

It was impossible to sleep at that height. The glass barrier dissolved into darkness and she was perched at the edge of a cliff, strapped in by nothing but a blanket. Alyson got out of bed and paced through the apartment. Even the couch was pastel and unyielding. She thought: this is what real people want. Out of habit she opened the fridge, although she knew it was empty. The light inside the fridge was the only familiar feeling.

She called Hennessy, asked her to meet at a bar on Bowery instead of the Odeon.

“Parker the puppeteer,” Hennessy chided with predictable ruthlessness.

Halfway through their seltzer and cranberry, Hennessy dialed her answering machine on Avenue B.

“Someone called the landline for you the other day. I couldn’t understand the message.” She punched in her code and handed her cell to Alyson. It was a callback from the aerial show. Alyson had forgotten to put her new cellphone number on her old CV.

 

The apartment on the eleventh floor looked no different after she’d packed her few belongings, so she packed some things that didn’t belong to her: a small chenille throw pillow, a framed sketch of a teacup, a pair of scissor-handled serving tongs. The yellow cab drove over the East River, over the little boats, floating. She’d quit on the author as soon as she knew she was in the show, without giving notice. She hadn’t called home.

Her new roommate helped carry her things up two flights and then she was alone in a room with a small window that opened onto a fire escape. She walked straight to the window, slid open the glass, stood for a while smelling the silt of the city. Then she carried the pillow, the tongs, and the sketch of a teacup down the stairs. One by one, she threw each object into the dumpster across the street.

Not long after, she was suspended in mid-air above the audience when the author fell. The housekeeper called to tell her how she’d found him, his hip shattered, his skull split. After the call, Alyson stood in the middle of her bedroom, two stories running through her. In one she stayed, she saved him. In the other she left and he fell. He was dead. She watched these two stories dancing side by side, slow and synchronized, then gaining speed, a moment in percussive unison, almost colliding, then accelerating, turning, now two tiny fragments lost to each other.

 

&

Ani Weinstein was born in the North Country and lives in Brooklyn. This is her first publication.

No Aerial Experience Required first appeared in TLR: Feverish.