The Opera House


black swan 5

Still image taken from the film ‘Black Swan’

Evening At The Opera House

A short story by Cameron Alexander Murton

Martin made a series of sweeping gestures with his open hand, the tips of his thumb and index connected as he pushed the air, as if conducting the dancers on the stage from our little box. His grace suprised me, and the two fingers held my interest, how bent they were and gnarled, no doubt result of having been broken many times in different ways.

After the music broke he spoke and I wasn’t sure if it was to me or to himself.

“See-there, the key is not to focus on the pain.”

“What?” I whispered. “Are you talking about us or them?”

“Us, but the principle is the same.”

I laughed, “How the hell is that relevant to what we do?”

“You think it’s healthy for a foot to bend like that? For metatarsals to support the entire body for more than one instant?”

“No, I mean obviously not, but it’s ballet.”

“Exactly my point. Why do you think ballet is so revered as an institution after all this time?”

“I don’t know, cause it’s elegant?”

“A fucking giraffe is ‘elegant’, a fucking Victoria Secret model is fucking ‘elegant’, but you don’t see giraffes and naked girls prancing around the Lincoln Center.”

“Some of the outfits earlier did look an awful lot like lingerie.”

He ignored my quip.

“Okay, so you’re telling me it’s because they’re in pain?”

“No, it’s because they endure the pain. It’s because they make the pain look pretty. It’s because they make us forget about the pain, like it’s nothing. They make it pure, they make themselves pure. And it’s ’cause they’ve been suffering for their damn purity, and the purity of their institution, for the last five centuries…”

He bent over to pick something off his shoe. “Think about the Russians… Nobody loves ballet as much as they do, and nobody, and I mean nobody, knows pain like they do.”

“So is that why you brought me here?”

He didn’t answer right away, instead, he focused his attention on the next movement. The show was Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote, and at present the central character was dancing the ballet dance with a group of gypsies in a gypsy camp. I should note that I could only tell it was a gypsy camp because of the lengths the artistic director had gone to create the backdrop, which really was fantastic—and then the background dancers were sort of dressed like gypsies, so I could put one and two together. That was about as far as I got with the plot. As I watched the dancers, their form, and their immaculate precision, I found myself distracted, and amused by the idea that gypsies of the real world might ever bother to execute such an intricate display of choreography.

“I brought you here because I thought it might be good for you, but mostly because after the show we’re going to go down and meet with someone important, and maybe some of the dancers, if you’re lucky.”

“I do get what you mean though, about the pain.”

“Oh you do, do you.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Okay explain it to me then.”

“It’s because, like, how people instinctively respect people who have endured horrific situations, or people who are in pain all the time. Like cripples, take my aunt for example. She has this problem with her back, where she’s always in pain, but you’d never know it ’cause she’s so damn happy and friendly all the time, and you really can’t just help but like her. And other people like that, you just can’t help but respect them, the fact they can keep a smile on their face, and not get all caught up acting like some grumpy old fuck all the time, like you do.”

He chuckled, nodding. “Not far off.” He paused, to scratch at the grey scruff on his weathered cheeks. “You’re going to have to deal with some real pain sooner or later, and the way you react in those moments is going to determine whether or not you live or die, and ultimately whether or not you want stay alive, or whether you end up blowing your head off in the shower ten years down the road.”

“I have been shot before you know.”

My pride required that I state the obvious, which I immediately regretted, as Martin had been with me at the time.

“Yeah in the leg. But the leg is easy.” He began to whisper, suddenly conscious of the fact that our conversation might be of unfavorable interest to any potential eavesdroppers. “When you’re on the go, a limp is easy, a limp is damn easy… It’s when you have to stop, when have to take a break, with your guts hanging out…” He put on a face, and mimed the action of stuffing his guts back in, jerking his torso around as he kept his hypothetical intestines from spilling out. When he finished the charade his calm demeanor returned. “…When you’re bleeding out and you have to organize a plan – that’s what I’m talking about.”

“Alright, alright. Duly noted…”

I looked at my watch, and saw that it was eight-fifteen. We weren’t even halfway. “Couldn’t you have taken me to Swan Lake? At least I know a bit about that one.”

I tried my best to appreciate everything that was going on. On the stage, and then all the people spread through the rows and tiers of this enormously intricate theater. The theatre really was beautiful, in a very foreign way, and it struck me that the whole venue was a show in and of itself. Some kind of big message that went over my head. The décor made everything all seem so inherently European, effectively transforming the interior of the opera house into an island of culture lost in the midst of New York’s sea of glass and concrete.

“Swan Lake is good too…” He muttered, but his attention was back on the dancers, and I figured correctly that the conversation was over. At the end of the final number we rose and gave our contribution to the standing ovation. Looking down at all the other patrons, as they stood, clapping, these men and women dressed to the nines in their fanciest garb, it struck me that nigh all of them were using this occasion as an excuse to revitalize their own sustained projections of class and sophistication.

I shouted at Martin over the thunder. “You have to respect it, I agree, but I don’t know if this art world is any good for someone like me.”

He responded as the noise died down. “It’s good for everyone in small doses. Common, let’s go down.”

Martin put on his coat and led the way out of the box and down to the end of the narrow red hallway. There, he spoke to an usher standing in front of a door with a glowing red exit sign nestled above the frame. Inlayed in the door itself was a brass emblem that read: Use only in cases of Emergency.

“I am Mr. Richards and this is my colleague Mr. Donaldson.”

The usher stood aside to let us pass. Through the door we found a whitewashed staircase, its blank sterile character severely contrasting the embellishments I had just grown accustomed to. At the bottom, we found another hallway, also white and sterile, which led off around a bend, where another glowing exit sign attempted to direct us out and onwards. Instead of following the designated path we made our way through an unmarked door, into a large unfurnished room filled with people. There was nothing glamorous about the studio, except the dress of its inhabitants. We stood to aside and waited, and Martin filled the void by explaining to me that right now this was the most important room in the building, that for these oligarchs the starkness served to instill the notion that they were part of something real. We watched as they went around shaking each other’s hands, congratulating each other for achievements that were evidently important enough to warrant acclamation. Some people left and more people came, and then three ballerinas entered from the far side, immediately becoming the subjects of nigh everyone’s praise and attention. Except for one man in a tuxedo, who entered with them and came over to talk to us.

“Hey Marty, how the hell are ya’?” He shook Martin’s hand like they were old army mates or something.

“Great Bobby, positively fantastic… Here, this is Chris Donaldson.” Martin smirked at me and waved his arm casually to establish our introduction. “Chris, this is Robert Friday, but most people call him Bob.”

The man Friday laughed and offered me his hand. Like Martin, he was over the fifty-year hurdle, and more than rough around the edges.

“Ain’t that the truth. Hiya Chris, pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise Mr. Friday.” I shook his hand firmly. He did not seem like the kind of person you’d expect to find involved in such a delicate industry, but then I remembered what Martin had said about the daintiness being a front.”

“Please, call me Bob.”

I laughed politely, “I appreciate that Sir, maybe later.”

Bob looked at Martin, pointing his thumb at me. “Good man, this fellow… Alright, let’s introduce you to Paloma.”

He waved at one of the ballerinas, and we watched her thank an old timer clutching to her hand, for the third time, before taking her leave, to join us. Bob introduced everyone, and then the four of us moved back into the sterile hallway.

Once in privacy, Paloma looked me up and down, and then said in a heavy Spanish accent, “So this is my date?” She shrugged, letting me catch only the briefest glimpse of a smile. “He is handsome, I guess.”

Bob laughed, “Well actually either of them can do the job, it’s up to you to pick. I guess the question is whether you like ‘em old or new.”

As I watched Paloma I tried to make a quick assessment. By her looks I guessed that she was probably Argentinian, which turned out to be correct. She could have been thirty, my age at time incidentally, but if someone had told me she was fifty I would have believed them. Her hair was pulled back so tight I thought the fibers might be part of her skull. She was beautiful, but in the harshest and least feminine way I can imagine. And she was very confidant.

She looked Martin up and down, nodding to Bob to indicate her positive impression. “Really? This anciano. HA!” She screeched a short but enormous laugh, and then patted Martin affectionately on his lapel. “But Sir, please do not take offense, I am sincerely impressed, and you are a very handsome man.”

Martin Blushed, something I had never seen happen before. “Thank you Miss Herrera, you are too kind.”

She stepped backwards for a moment. “Hmmm, can you two please stand together?” She motioned for the two of us to move and so Martin and I stood together awkwardly against the wall. I could tell she was enjoying her opportunity to toy with us. As her gaze transitioned back and forth, I did my best to stare straight at her, to meet her eyes and display some level of respectable tenacity.

She spoke to herself as she leaned to one side, rocking her left heal on the floor, like the ballerina she was.

“Whom do I pick? Whom do I pick? Who is going to arouse the least suspicion?” She opened her palm in a gesture towards Martin, and I noticed it was the exact same gesture he had made earlier, though her fingers were fine, straight, and undamaged. She continued. “On the one hand I do normally go for older men, and I must admit I find this one is very attractive.” Martin blushed again, but then she closed her hand and opened the other one towards me. “But on the other hand this one does not look so much like a hardened American spy. In fact he looks a bit like he could be a ballet dancer… Bob, don’t you think?”

It was my turn to blush; I had never before heard that comparison made. My instinct was to disagree vocally, and I nearly did, but I caught myself, to Martin’s visible relief.

Bob laughed, “I guess you could say that, he’d probably have to grow his hair out a bit though.”

“Well we still have a month and a half, and hair grows faster in the southern hemisphere.” She waived her arm to dismiss us. “That’s enough thinking for today, let us go to dinner and relax, I can make the decision tomorrow.”

After that we followed the exit signs the rest of the way and outside found a row of limousines in wait. We took the first one, and by use of her anecdotal repertoire, Miss Herrera took it upon herself to keep us laughing and blushing the whole way to the restaurant. There we ate a fancy meal, and at one point I asked her if it hurt to dance the way she did, if it pained her to stand on her toes the way she did, to spin those endless spirals, to leap and prance and perform those lofty pirouettes, night after night, day after day.

“It used to my dear, it used to, when I was young. But I am not young; not anymore, and so I do not allow myself to notice when it hurts. I no longer notice the pain, you see. I have only maybe one or two or three years left, before I must retire, and I see no point in letting those years be anything less than the best years of my life.”

“Will you stay here, or will you return home? Once you retire.”

“Ah, well isn’t that what this is all about. If I choose you, and if you are successful, and if my country’s government can maintain some level of actual decency, if that is possible, maybe then, I will, I hope.”

At the end of the night she invited Martin to leave with her, and I must admit I feel a slight tinge of jealousy, and after they had left in the first cab, I shook Bob’s hand again and said farewell.

I had told him I would take the next one, but instead I decided to take a walk through the park, to think about everything that had just happened, to think about the future, about the pain in my life, and how as of yet I might soon become impervious.