© 2012 Amy Wachspress
I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not consumed by dance. Fortunately for me, I had talent. How horrible it would have been for me had I not had talent. I perceived my body as an instrument offered for the use of “the dance.” I thought of it always as “the dance,” as if it had a life of its own, as if it was a master, or a lover. From my first days studying ballet, with Annika as my coach and my guide, I worked to build the muscles necessary to allow me to serve the gift of my talent.
When I joined the National Ballet School, I tried not to focus on the possibility that I had a promising future as a prima ballerina. Fantasizing about that possibility seemed like a waste of time. Instead, I poured my energy into learning from my teachers and my peers, who were some of the finest dancers and choreographers of the time; of my time, my lifespan in the world of dance. Therefore, I never expected to become famous. I expected nothing in particular. I simply wanted to dance. When I debuted in a principal role at the National, and made such a splash, I surprised myself even more than I surprised the effusively flattering critics and the enthusiastic audiences.
My trademark as a ballerina became my ability to seemingly defy the laws of gravity. Images that audiences as well as photographers took away from my performances held me in mid-air, as if in flight. The newspapers nicknamed me “Oiseau,” meaning bird. My mother speculated that the mad, terrible state of the world during my early years had left me with an unconscious desire to flee the planet and so I propelled myself airborne as frequently as possible. She was wrong. I had no desire to flee and I did not recall my childhood as a dismal time in my life.
Once, a journalist asked me in an interview to share my first childhood memory. “My oldest memory,” I replied, “is a birthday party held in my honor in Crevecoeur, where I was born and lived as a very small child during the war. My Aunt Miriam, who was later murdered by the Nazis, decorated a pony cart with flowers. I will never forget the thrill of that pony cart. We sang and danced. I was given a huge bouquet of fragrant lavender and bright orange nasturtiums, a little wooden giraffe, and a dress with cherries printed on it that I wore constantly afterward.”
When I thought back to my early years, I remembered sensing that the adults in Crevecoeur were filled with a pervasive sadness. I knew that someone had gone missing, that many people had gone missing; and that the adults in our village suffered for the loss. I believed these missing people lived beyond the fields and vineyards, like a rainbow standing in a meadow, appearing close enough to touch but not really there. Despite the feelings of sadness and loss that surrounded me, I did not suffer for lack of wondrous things to brighten my childhood. My playmate Isabel was raised with me as a sister, in the same house, and we danced, sang, told stories, and drew pictures together with great delight. We ran in the fields and orchards. We picked flowers and shouted at the neighbor’s ducks. Isabel’s presence anchors my recollection of the war years. We continue, even now, to help one another reconstruct our memories, comparing notes to distinguish between a real memory and an imagined one.
When my family first moved to Paris, we didn’t have much money, but I never thought of myself as poor. Sometimes I wanted things that I could not have. The thing I wanted most, though, was to dance, and this I had in abundance so no other deprivation mattered. I adored my adopted brothers from the moment they arrived. After living in a completely female household throughout the war, I had to adjust to living in a male-dominated household in Paris.
After I became a prima ballerina, journalists frequently referred to my “difficult childhood,” meaning the conditions of the war, my father’s imprisonment in Auschwitz, and the poverty of my family’s early years in Paris. I do not remember anything difficult about my childhood. I had a wonderful childhood, embraced in the love of family and friends, which prompts me to ask: How does one measure poverty?
Once I was accepted into the program, my life revolved around the National. When I was fifteen, I met Vivian, who became my best friend. Viv grew up in Nice and had auditioned for the National every year for five years before she finally got in. Since I had been at the National for a few years by the time Viv arrived, I decided it was my duty to explain to her what to expect and how things worked there. We shared simple tastes, unlike many of the other, more pretentious girls, who often frustrated our teachers and choreographers with temperamental outbursts. Viv and I were not divas. We were hard workers. Even though we competed with each other for the best roles in the youth ensemble, our friendship never suffered and we supported and encouraged each other. We went everywhere together; to art shows, the theater, concerts, whatever we could get into free or on the cheap.
When Viv first arrived in Paris, she stayed with a cousin. Following a flurry of phone calls back and forth between my mother and Viv’s concerned parents, she moved in with my family. My mother looked after Viv as if she was another daughter. I remember her poking her head into our room to remind us not to stay up all night giggling when we had a strenuous day of dance ahead of us come morning.
The entourage of earnest and serious-minded young men from the Sorbonne, with their flat-footed attempts at flirtation, who continually followed my father around, offered us hours of entertainment. I was dedicated to my career and had no interest in a serious beau. Viv, who often said she was “just an old-fashioned girl,” hoped to settle down with the right man eventually and raise a family, but certainly not before she had danced for a few good years. Her family plans exasperated me. “Why devote yourself to dancing if you plan to leave it in a few years to raise a family? That’s such a waste.”
“Shayna, please! How can it ever be a waste? I plan to enjoy every minute of it until I’m done. The lifespan of a prima ballerina is brief. I’ll be finished by the time I’m twenty-five. Ballet is not my whole life. I have bigger dreams,” Viv told me.
“What is bigger than dancing? After you’re too old for a principal role, then you can choreograph, and you can perform in modern dance or jazz dance. It never stops. It just changes,” I pointed out.
“I don’t want to keep dancing forever. I want to raise a family and have a normal life. I’m going to settle in a small town and open my own dance studio. Can’t you just imagine those sweet little girls in their tutus twirling around like sugar plum fairies?”
“Crashing into each other with their big feet, you mean. No, I can’t imagine throwing away fifteen years of training,” I bemoaned in dismay.
“Cheer up, Cherie,” Viv grinned, “maybe I won’t meet the right man for another fifteen years.”
“Well, I assure you that you will not catch me raising a bunch of whining, complaining, snotty children.”
“My children won’t whine,” Viv replied firmly. “They’ll be adorable.”
We graduated to the adult company together and made our debut in the same season. Viv’s mother came from Nice to see her dance and she brought a garish bouquet of flowers to Viv in our dressing room afterward, where she cried like a soap opera star and made a scene. We both sighed with relief when we put her on the train back to Nice. “I’m sorry Maman is so maudlin,” Viv apologized to me and my mother as we departed from the train station. “She thrives on melodrama. Once you scratch the surface of all that fuss, you will find a remarkably sensible woman.”
“Don’t apologize for her,” Maman instructed. “You’ve fulfilled her dreams for you and she has a right to express her happiness.”
Viv and I had a glorious first season with the adult company. Isabel and Catherine came to Paris on the train to see me dance. Everyone shared the excitement of my rave reviews and instant stardom. When Viv and I rented our own apartment in the Montmartre, we continued to go to my parents’ house for Sunday dinner every week without fail.
In the spring, a young scenic designer came to the National to design the sets for a new Swan Lake. Pierre emulated good health and had a fresh, wholesome face. He had cornflower blue eyes, straight sandy-brown hair, and graceful long fingers. Pierre was rather young to be designing for the National, but, at thirty, he seemed old to me and Viv when we met him at a cocktail party. Viv and I stood off to the side, giggling and gossiping about the antics of the company members as we watched them become progressively more inebriated. Pierre approached and introduced himself to us and then we took it upon ourselves to brief him on the company dynamics and drama, regaling him with our tales about the people surrounding us at the party, as well as other characters at the National whom he had not yet encountered.
“We know these people much too well,” I explained. “We’re familiar with their foibles, failings, and peculiarities.”
“And I suppose they are familiar with yours,” Pierre suggested.
Viv pushed her lip out with an air of superiority. “We don’t have any failings and peculiarities.”
“What do you have?” Pierre asked.
We replied in unison, “Passion for the dance.”
Pierre asked us about ourselves, where we came from, why we had become dancers. As we talked, we drifted out into the garden, where we could smell the spring flowers and herbs beginning their summer’s journey. We sat together on a low stone wall, Pierre in the middle, I on the left of him and Viv on the right.
“Tell us a joke,” Viv demanded. “We want a good laugh, right Shayna?”
“Yes, we do,” I confirmed.
Pierre rubbed his chin. “I can’t remember any.”
We studied him while he thought.
“I can’t think of a joke with the pair of you staring at me like hungry tigers,” he complained.
“Stop looking at him, Viv, you’re making him nervous.”
“Me?” Viv exclaimed in a mock huff. “Don’t blame it on me.”
“Oh, well, I remember a joke; here you go,” Pierre said. Viv put her arm through his as we settled in to listen. “There was a man who had a girlfriend who was a social climber and she planned to have a fancy party. The day before her party, she asked him to bring her escargot to prepare for her guests. So off he went to the shop and bought a bucket of escargot. But when he came out of the shop he bumped into a beautiful woman who engaged him in conversation and, forgetting about the party, he went with her to a café and they spent the whole night…”
“This is a respectable joke, right?” I cautioned, with a twinkle in my eye.
“Of course,” Pierre reassured me. “They spent the whole night talking.”
“Now you’ve censored the joke,” Viv complained.
I shushed her. “I want to hear how it ends.”
Pierre continued. “The next day they went for a walk by the river. Suddenly, he realized that he had left his girlfriend high and dry without her escargot, and her party would be starting shortly. So he excused himself from the woman he had met and went to his girlfriend’s apartment. When he reached the top of the stairs, he thought to himself that he had better come up with an explanation. So he threw the snails out of the bucket and onto the stairs before he knocked on the door. His girlfriend answered, all dressed up for her party. She frowned at him in anger and demanded, ‘What took you so long?’ He then turned to the snails crawling on the stairs and said, ‘C’mon, you guys, I said hurry up.’”
We laughed and Pierre flushed with pleasure.
While Pierre remained in attendance at the National to work with the scenic shop as they built, painted, and mounted his sets, the three of us spent every evening together. At first we went out, but soon we simply stayed at our apartment, cooking together, playing cards, listening to music, and entertaining each other until we turned in for the night. Pierre often slept on the fold-out couch in the living room. Our friends at the National called us the “Three Musketeers.”
Once Swan Lake opened, Pierre’s business at the National was concluded. While he was still in town, he caught me alone and asked me to go to dinner with him.
“Just me? Viv’s feelings will be hurt,” I said, worriedly.
“The three of us have had some fun together and I expect we will have some more. But I’m asking you to go out to dinner with me; just the two of us. What do you think?” Pierre asked anxiously.
His proposal caused me to view him in a new light and he looked attractive in this new light. I accepted his dinner invitation.
When I broke the news to Viv, she was enthusiastic. “What a natural!” she exclaimed. “You two will be great together. You’re already such good friends.”
“We’re just going to dinner,” I reminded her.
“After dinner comes breakfast, then lunch, then dinner again. I can see the writing on the wall, Cherie.”
Viv’s prophecy rang true. In Pierre I found a companion who never resented sharing me with the ballet. He had an artistic vocation of his own, so he understood mine. My parents approved of Pierre from the start. In addition to his talent and other positive attributes, he argued politics intelligently with my father, who took delight in bashing Pierre’s more conservative views.
Soon after I met Pierre, I advanced rapidly in the adult troupe at the National. I stood out from my peers because I was willing to take risks physically and emotionally. Viv’s fluid style was far more traditional than mine. She had immaculate technique and nearly hypnotized the audience. I, on the other hand, stunned the audience. I pushed my body to the edge of belief. I did not do well with ordinary. Ordinary bored me. I loved nothing better than a challenge. Pierre confided, “When I watch you on stage, you are a stranger, unfamiliar and surprising.”
“That’s because when I’m on stage, I’m unfamiliar and surprising to myself,” I responded. “The dance decides what I will become.”
To celebrate our one-year anniversary, Pierre and I went to Italy for a week. We took the early-morning train from Paris. As the city dissolved into the countryside, I remembered the many hours of my childhood spent in the forests and meadows of Crevecoeur. We admired the splendid scenery as it flashed past the train windows; the fields of bright-yellow wild mustard flowers and the quaint cottages with storybook shutters and fairytale gardens. The scenery inspired Pierre. Just prior to our departure, he had been offered a job in London designing the sets for a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. He took out his sketchpad as the train rushed through the pastoral landscape.
After we crossed the border into Italy, the motion of the train made me drowsy and I slept until we reached our destination. At the station, Pierre hailed a taxi to take us to our hotel. Just that fast we had escaped to a place far away from everything familiar.
Pierre ordered beer and cold sandwiches from the room service menu and we ate in our spacious suite. We made love slowly in the fluffy hotel bed.
The next day I woke to clear sunlight cast on burnt-orange sunflowers in a powder-blue vase on the dresser. I stretched, catlike, in the comfy bed, feeling like royalty. When I opened the partially shuttered windows, I basked in the view of a lake nestled in the mountains. I adored the mystery of arriving in the dark and discovering in the morning that I was surrounded by beauty. The fresh air practically sizzled as it hit my lungs. I padded across the room and slipped back under the covers, where I cuddled into the warmth of Pierre’s shoulder. We spoke softly in our eiderdown nest until Pierre grew restless and got up to shower, dress, and explore.
We were the last ones down for breakfast, so we had the small dining room to ourselves. We sat by the window and drank deep cups of strong Italian coffee. After breakfast, we went for a walk around the lake. Pierre discovered that he could rent a boat so he immediately bought a lime-green parasol for me, rented the boat, and rowed me around. “I have always wanted to row a woman with a parasol around in a boat,” he confessed.
“You designed me into the scenery,” I observed.
After we returned the boat, he shot pictures of me and my parasol dancing in the amber late-afternoon light, weaving in and out of slender trees with white bark that made them look like chalk marks on the landscape. After a supper of fish and asparagus, we strolled by the lake. I paused to gaze up at the clear sky, sprinkled with stars. Pierre took me by the shoulders and turned me to him, “I want to marry you, Shayna.”
“There’s more,” he whispered.
“I know there is.” It was a moment I had dreaded.
“I want to marry you. I want us to have a family together. What do you say?”
He already knew my answer. We had discussed this at length. I adamantly did not want children. He absolutely did. Perhaps he thought that he could change me, that he already had. Perhaps he thought that a miracle would happen and I would have a new answer. But I had the same old answer. “I would marry you if you didn’t mind not having children. But you do mind. You deserve children as much as I deserve to devote myself completely to the dance.” I sat on the low stone wall that ringed the lake and he sat next to me. We had reached this impasse before, but never so definitively.
“This decision will never change with me,” I told him firmly.
“You are sure?” he asked.
“What about adopting?”
“Dear, dear Pierre,” I took his face in my hands that were so carefully trained to gracefulness. “I do not plan to live the kind of life that is good for raising children. I plan to travel, keep odd hours, have the freedom to run off on a whim. I will not stay with the National forever. I will perform and choreograph and follow the dance wherever it leads me. Children need to be put before everything else. I would never put a child before the dance.”
“Then I will put our children before everything for both of us,” Pierre pleaded.
“You know that children deserve better than that,” I said.
We gazed across the lake for a long time in silence. I curled into Pierre’s familiar body, which smelled so fresh from the outdoors. He held me close. We savored the moment because we both knew that very soon I would release him to seek his heart’s desire. I had found mine, and it did not reside in a man.
“There is something I always wanted to ask you,” I said, breaking the silence. “Why did you choose me instead of Viv?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Before, when the three of us were friends. There must have been a point at which you decided on one of us. Why me? Why not Viv?”
“Viv is comfortable. I could not become passionate about comfortable.”
“You chose the wrong one,” I said with a sigh. “Comfortable makes a good wife. You know that if you keep seeing me, you will never get involved with someone else; someone who will give you those babies and that house with the bicycles scattered on the front lawn.”
Pierre took my hand in his, “I will always love you, my friend.”
I shook his hand. “I too. Friends, then.”
We spent a bittersweet, peaceful week at the lake. It was our swansong. When we returned to Paris, we parted ways. Pierre went to England to design his Shakespeare and then he went to America to design two shows in New York. Oddly enough, though neither Pierre nor I shed a tear over the split, Viv cried her eyes out. “You are so stubborn, Cherie,” she complained. “You two were great together.” Although I missed him, I sincerely hoped that he would meet someone with more maternal yearnings soon.
My parents were also terribly disappointed that I split with Pierre; especially Maman, who wasted no time in chastising me for letting a catch like Pierre slip away. “Dance depends on the agility of the body,” she lectured, “and that is a finite element. What will happen when you grow old and your body refuses to obey commands? I want you to be happy. I want you to find a husband who will travel through life with you.”
“I hope to find a husband too. But he must be someone willing to take his place second in line to the dance. And I will never change my mind about children.”
“The sort of warm, generous, and big-hearted man I would wish for you to marry will probably want children,” she said, bemoaning my choice.
“There are many big-hearted men who can manage without children,” I reassured her.
“When your youth fades, will you really be satisfied choreographing and not performing?”
“Maman, you mustn’t worry about me. Surely one day the creaky bones of the Oiseau will drag her to earth. But I will never stop dancing. There’s modern. There’s jazz. I love to choreograph. And even when I stop performing, I will always dance. Dance is my life. Dance is my children.”
“I want for you more than the adoration of fans,” she told me. “I want for you the circle of family.”
“I’m touched by the sentiment; truly, I am. I’m not being facetious. But if you think about it you will realize that I have plenty of family already. There’s you and Papa, Micah and Zac and their families, Isabel and her tribe in Crevecoeur. Lord knows she has enough children for us all. And my friends at the National, whom I have known since I was a child. There’s Viv.”
“I would like for you to have the intimacy of daily living with a husband.”
“I would like that too, but not at the expense of what I hold most dear. I have known where my heart lies for as long as I can remember. The dance is the great point of light at the center of everything. I’m never as completely alive as I am when I am dancing. When I dance, I am pure spirit, burning brightly.”
“Nothing else gives you that sense of burning brightly? Not family, not your contribution to community, not helping a child tie his shoes or learn to read?”
“Aha! You see? Teaching is your vocation, not mine, and you’re looking through the lens of your own perspective. You can’t help it.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake, Shayna!” Maman blurted in exasperation.
“Contributing to community,” I said as I wagged my finger at her. “Helping a child tie his shoes. The creative spirit, the spirit of the true artist, is not content with these pieces of everyday life, which are fodder for the art. Life serves art.”
“I thought it was the other way around,” Maman said, as she put her hand on her hip. “Most artists value their family and community above their art, and the art is work. Good, solid, rewarding work, but work nonetheless.”
I jumped up and pounded the palm of my hand on the table. “I disagree. I’m fortunate in that I’m able to earn a living dancing, but few artists are able to do the same. Most artists must practice their art on the side, during their spare time. I feel sorry for those artists who must earn a living doing something else and are forced to find time here and there to do their creative work, which is their sustenance. And trust me when I say that they are driven to find that time because creating that art is imperative and inescapable. I believe that art defines life.”
“Art is a tool for change,” Maman replied without hesitation.
“Spoken as a true political activist. But, really, don’t you think it’s more complicated than that? The art that endures is the art that contains the deeply human moment, that illustrates the universal condition of humanity, which has nothing to do with politics. It occurs in spite of politics. For instance, a poem written in Auschwitz is a message of universal human suffering that transcends the particular political situation.”
“But what makes the poem poignant? What gives the poem power? Auschwitz, of course,” Maman argued.
“What does it matter where the poem was written? If the poem cannot stand alone in its power, then it will not endure, no matter how poignant it may be in the moment. It must transcend the moment to endure.”
“You could have been an attorney,” Maman suggested.
“I would never have been able to sit still long enough,” I disagreed, with a laugh.
After my separation from Pierre, I went on a tour with the National. Meanwhile, Viv remained in Paris, and we kept up with each other by exchanging frequent postcards.
On that tour, I fell in love with Sweden and Sweden fell in love with me. In Amsterdam I worked with a dynamic, innovative choreographer, with whom I had a wild affair. I went out of my way to watch other dancers perform, particularly innovative modern dancers. While in Sweden, I saw Donya Feuer dance. I had been to see both Arlet Bon and Sara Pardo perform in Paris; and their brand of modern dance gave me exciting ideas for choreography. When my small window of opportunity as a prima ballerina closed, I would be prepared to transform myself and to branch out in new directions.
On my first night back in Paris from the tour, I dumped my suitcase in my apartment and ran out to meet Viv at a restaurant for dinner. As soon as we had ordered our meal, Viv said, “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“My goodness, Viv, you look so serious. Don’t scare me. What is it? Tell me quickly.”
“It’s about Pierre.”
“Is he alright?” I asked in alarm.
“Oh, yes, never better,” Viv assured me.
“Is he back in Paris?”
“Yes. Yes, he is,” Viv mumbled.
“Did he get married or something?” I asked with a laugh.
Viv looked stricken. “No, he’s not married,” she said. “But while you were away, Pierre and I went to a few shows together and we had dinner together. Just like old times.” It was at that point that I figured out what was going on. “You weren’t here,” Viv continued. “I couldn’t ask you how you might feel about it. I couldn’t write it on a postcard. We’ve been seeing each other. Is that alright with you?”
“It’s fine with me,” I told her; and it really was. “I’m delighted. For both of you.”
“You’re my best friend,” Viv said. “I would never want a man to come between us.”
“He won’t,” I promised. I could practically see the weight lift from Viv’s shoulders.
“We have plans to go to Greece together next week,” Viv told me. “He would like to see you before we go. I wanted to talk to you before he did.”
“Let me get one thing straight, though,” I said, in the most severe voice I could muster.
“What’s that?” Viv asked anxiously.
“I want to be the maid of honor.”
I did see Pierre before he took Viv to Greece; but it was hardly necessary for him to warn me that he planned to propose to Viv there. I knew him so well that I could figure out what the trip to Greece meant. Upon their return to Paris, Viv gave notice at the National without a backward glance. I did not understand how a gifted dancer could drop her career like that, but that was the difference between me and Viv, and that was why she was the right one to marry Pierre. They moved to suburban Bourg-la-Reine where Viv opened a ballet studio and taught little girls in pink hairbands how to point and turn. The following winter, Viv called to tell me that they were expecting a baby and they wanted me to be the godmother. I felt only the greatest delight and love for both of them as I moved on with my own life.
I never regretted my decision not to have children. I had plenty of children in my life without having any of my own. I played the role of devoted auntie perfectly for Viv’s children; as well as for Isabel’s brood in Crevecoeur, Micah’s two little girls, and Zac’s rambunctious, athletic progeny.
My parents went to Zac’s house for dinner every Sunday and I joined them as often as possible. They had wrested a comfortable life from the wreckage of the war. My father carved out a fine position for himself as a professor at the Sorbonne. He published a couple of books and he wrote a regular column in a widely circulated Socialist newspaper. Maman taught adult literacy classes at a community college. After I left home, she organized and participated in demonstrations, marches, rallies, and other political actions; advocating for the poor and the exiled and making a ruckus to promote social change. She was even arrested once for protesting the French involvement in Vietnam. I had to bail her out of prison.
My parents took it hard when the truth about the atrocities committed in the name of communism under Stalin came to light. The invasion of Hungary made Maman physically ill. (Zac’s wife was Hungarian and she still had family there.) By the time the Berlin Wall went up and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in French, my parents had left the Communist Party and reluctantly admitted that the practice of communism had irrevocably corrupted their original vision. My father joined the French Socialist Party. Maman had burned out on joining “isms” by that time and chose her causes and battles individually, until the Green Party emerged and she joined on with a revitalized hope for the future. I had no interest in politics, which I’m sure annoyed my parents, but they didn’t bother me about it.
I was delighted when my American cousin Rina visited Paris with her husband and daughter. After her visit to Paris, Rina struck up a correspondence with me, and whenever I went to New York to dance or choreograph, I stayed with her and her family. One summer, I suffered the heat of New York to collaborate on a project with Rina. I had an idea for a dance piece driven by a beat that had captured my imagination while watching dancers in the street. I didn’t want to dance it, I wanted to choreograph it. I had seen Alvin Ailey’s company perform and I had fallen in love with the look of his multicultural ensemble. I held auditions and assembled my own multicultural ensemble to perform my choreography. Rina designed the costumes and her husband brought in teenagers from Harlem to paint the backdrop. My young ensemble company embarrassed me with their worshipful excitement at the opportunity to work with me. We ran the show for ten weeks in a warehouse studio and earned excellent reviews. Working with Rina was the best part of the project. That dance piece broke a barrier for me professionally. I started studying jazz dance with a new dance coach when I returned to Paris.
A year and a half later, I returned to New York with more new ideas. Rina spent two months building masks to incorporate into my dances. I wore the masks, which had dynamic personalities, in front of mirrors as I choreographed moves that brought out the life in each mask. She and I devoured library picture books of African, Balinese, and Maori masks. I choreographed a riveting evening of modern jazz entitled Mask Dance. The dancers who had worked with me the year before returned to work with me again and I even performed in a couple of the pieces myself.
During my glorious, limited time as the Oiseau, I traveled around the world performing. As I grew older, I continued to dance, but less and less in performance. I choreographed for the young talent coming up at the National. Age is not kind. My passion for the dance did not diminish, despite my diminished agility. I was often quoted in the media for saying “My true education in dance began when I left the stage.”
One season, the National toured Israel, and I invited my mother to go along with me. We visited my grandfather where he lived on a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee. The kibbutz was beautiful and the younger residents looked up to my grandfather, treating him with kindness and respect and taking care of him in his old age. He lived modestly. I flooded him with questions about my mother’s childhood in Palestine and early years in Russia. I was grateful for that visit, since he passed away peacefully in his sleep the following year.
My grandfather’s death reminded me that my parents were aging. I enjoyed watching my mother with Zac’s children or Micah’s girls as she sang them the same Russian songs, told them the same stories, and played with them the same quaint games that she had played with me and Isabel when we were young. I lived Spartanly and donated much of my money to charitable causes, including many arts organizations. I chose my friends for their candor, authenticity, creativity, and humor.
Over the years, I met, loved, and parted with a number of men. I lived with one of them for nearly four years. But I never experienced a sustained passion for any of them, and when they tired of my indifference they moved on. I preferred living alone. I had many friends, and more projects going at once than the New York Transit Authority. I adored traveling and collaborating with other choreographers, directors, and dancers.
I made a point of remaining in Paris, though, for the first Bastille Day celebration under the newly elected Socialist leader, Mitterrand. I would not for the world have missed my father’s gleeful celebration party. My mother teased my father by referring to Mitterrand’s ascension to office as “The Coronation.” It might as well have been a coronation with that spectacular display Mitterrand staged on his first Bastille Day in office. My parents threw a Bastille Day party, for which my father festooned the house with red, white, and blue helium balloons. Party guests included their present and former students, their late-night-café friends, my mother’s political activist comrades, and my father’s colleagues from the Sorbonne. Of course, Zac and Micah and their families came. And I invited Viv and Pierre and the children. Party guests spilled out into the hot summer sun that baked the back yard.
I counted five languages spoken just within earshot as I perched on the windowsill and sipped ice water from a tall, green glass, which sweated and dripped onto the floor. My light cotton blouse clung to my skin. I noticed that my mother’s mane of curly hair had gone almost entirely gray and she squinted through amber wire-rimmed glasses. My father’s hair had turned baby-fine and silver. His eyes, though they still burned brightly, had faded in color. His shoulders stooped slightly. I winced. How much longer would I have them with me? Viv slid onto the windowsill next to me. “You look so serious, Cherie.”
“I was remembering what my mother and father used to look like and realized how much they’ve aged.”
“I do that with the children. They grow so fast. I can’t believe they’re the same babies I nursed and tickled. The other day, I was upset because I couldn’t remember the last time I changed a diaper on Stefan. I wish I had known it was the last time. One day I realized that the children had outgrown diapers and I hadn’t used one in ages. I blinked and now I have a house full of teenagers. I wonder if I will know when I make love to Pierre for the last time.”
“Don’t get morbid,” I warned. “How much have you had to drink?”
“Just a little champagne,” Viv replied, defending herself.
I took her glass away and set it on the table. “You know you can’t hold your liquor and you get introspective when you drink. This is a social occasion. Enough.”
As evening threaded the sky, my parents and most of the party-goers made a mass exodus via Metro to the light show and public celebration by the Eiffel Tower. Mitterrand produced an extravagant spectacle for his adoring followers. Slides were projected onto the buildings while music blared and hot-air balloons floated above the crowd. Once darkness fell, we were treated to a massive fireworks display. My father and his comrades danced and drank champagne with the crowd.
“He has waited a long time for such a day to arrive,” Maman told me, with satisfaction.
“I hope that Mitterrand lives up to his expectations,” I replied.
“No leader lives up to our expectations and your father knows it. They all make mistakes. They all make compromises. They all answer to the money that put them in power. They are political creatures; corrupt to some degree or another. The simple fact of his election by the people is enough to sustain us for many years to come, no matter how Mitterrand performs,” she said.
Later that summer, Viv and Pierre took their three children on a family vacation to Crete. They returned home tanned, relaxed, and loaded with beautiful beach photos. The week after their return, Viv went in for a routine doctor’s check-up and they found a lump in her breast. They scheduled her for a biopsy immediately, and swiftly diagnosed cancer. I had lived an orderly life until Viv’s diagnosis. I had supreme control over my own fate, choosing each step in my illustrious career; choosing how I invested my energy. But this, what began to happen to my dear friends Viv and Pierre, and to their friends and their family; this I had no control over. I had forgotten the tenuous nature of happiness; that each of us lives always a hair’s breadth away from losing what we hold most dear.
Viv underwent surgery and chemotherapy; but the cancer spread to her lungs. I took a leave of absence from work so that I could spend as much time as possible with Viv, Pierre, and their children. I camped out in the blue guest bedroom at Viv’s and took on the role of live-in housekeeper. I soon discovered that Viv’s youngest, Stefan, had a passion for cooking, and so we prepared gourmet dinners together for the family. It started out as an effort to entice Viv to eat, but soon evolved into a ritual that seemed to help Stefan, who was fifteen, deal with the pain of watching his mother die.
At the end, large-eyed and gasping for oxygen supplied by the tank next to her bed, Viv begged me to look after her family for her when she was gone. “Not so much the children,” Viv instructed, “for they are resilient and stronger than they know. But Pierre. Promise me that you will look after Pierre, Cherie.”
When Viv finally slipped from her body, at home in her own bed, surrounded by her family and friends, Pierre said, “She has gone someplace where she can breathe.”
I gently corrected, “She has gone someplace where she doesn’t need to breathe.”
Isabel came from Crevecoeur for Viv’s funeral. She had known Viv only peripherally, but she came to support me through the ordeal.
“You know how we cheat death?” Isabel asked me, before answering the question herself without giving me time to reply. “We remember. The more we remember, the longer they live. The more memories of them we pass on to those who come after, the longer they live.”
“Then Viv will live a long time,” I responded.
True to my promise, I continued to spend time with Viv’s family. Every Monday, which was dark night for the dance stages of Paris, I stayed in the little blue guest room at Bourg-la-Reine. I cooked something special for dinner with Stefan, who had decided to become a chef when he grew up. His older sisters, though busy with their own lives, made a point of eating at home on Monday nights to taste Stefan’s creations and to see me.
At first, Pierre could not find his way out of the labyrinth of his grief. I would discover him sitting on the edge of his bed, stroking Viv’s silky nightgown or standing in Viv’s closet, breathing the scent of Viv’s trademark jasmine perfume, which lingered there. He tried to give some of her clothes to me but I couldn’t bear to take them. We had his daughters take what they wanted and then I cleared out Viv’s clothing, jewelry, and other personal items. Pierre and I grieved together for our best friend. Spending time with each other seemed to keep Viv close to us.
One moonless night, nearly two years after Viv’s death, I went to Bourg-la-Reine to cook dinner with Stefan. When I arrived, Pierre explained that a friend of Stefan’s had invited him to go to a concert and to spend the night in Paris. Stefan had expressed concern that he didn’t want to disappoint me, but Pierre told him I wouldn’t mind and sent him on his way. Stefan’s absence left us alone for the night. We cooked a nice dinner together anyway. We made chicken with a mushroom-and-cream sauce, collards with sesame oil dressing, and potatoes au gratin. We made fancy parfaits, with whipped cream and fresh raspberries, for dessert. We made an extra one for Stefan and left it in the refrigerator for him.
Pierre described the set design he was working on for a theater in Brussels. I had been invited to choreograph a jazz piece for the upcoming season at the National and I played a recording of some music I was considering. I wanted Pierre’s opinion about it.
After dinner, we sipped chardonnay on the patio. Clouds sped across the sky and thunder rumbled in the distance. We stood side by side, elbows resting on the wooden railing, talking in hushed tones. I shivered.
“Cold?” Pierre asked.
“Just caught a chill for a moment,” I answered.
Pierre put down his wine glass and wrapped his arm comfortably around my waist. He drew me into the warm circle of a half-embrace.
We stood like that for a few minutes, and then he kissed me, not innocently, as a friend, but with deeper intent. It seemed like an eternity had passed since we had last kissed in such a fashion, while at the same time it seemed that only a short time had passed since we had been lovers. The thunder sounded to me like laughter falling from the heavens. I imagined Viv watching us and chuckling; whispering, “Of course. It makes perfect sense, Cherie.” Given our history together, it did make perfect sense. We knew instinctively, as did Viv’s children, that Viv would have approved. She would have wanted us to find happiness together, and to look after one another in her absence. And she would have thought it a good joke that in the end she saddled me with children, albeit grown-up ones.
The children insisted that we should get married, so we did. At our wedding, my mother put her arm around my waist and told Catherine, “You see how it is not over until it is over? If we live long enough, who knows what will happen?”
“That’s the trick,” Catherine replied. “To live long enough.”