Authors: Maggie Shipstead
Tags: #Fiction, #Family Life, #Contemporary Women, #Literary
ALSO BY MAGGIE SHIPSTEAD
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2014 by Maggie Shipstead
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, a Penguin Random House Company.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Astonish me / by Maggie Shipstead. — First edition.
“This is a Borzoi book” — T.p. verso.
ISBN 978-0-307-96290-4 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-307-96291-1 (eBook)
1. Ballerinas—Fiction. 2. Secrets—Fiction.
3. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Jacket design by Elena Giavaldi
For two beloved friends:
who knows about the place where art and life meet, and
who goes to the ballet with me
SEPTEMBER 1977—NEW YORK CITY
N THE WINGS
BEHIND A METAL RACK CROWDED WITH BUNDLES OF
cable and silk flower garlands and the stringless lutes from act 1, two black dachshunds lie in a basket. They are awake but motionless, their small, uneasy eyes fixed on the dancers who come smiling and leaping offstage and give themselves over to violent exhaustion, standing stooped, hands on hips, heaving like racehorses. The dancers grab fistfuls of tissues from boxes mounted to the light rigs with gaffing tape and swab their faces and chests. Sweat patters on the floor. A stagehand pushes an ammonia-smelling mop around. The pas de deux begins. Two Russian stars are out alone in the light, both defectors. The surface of the stage has the dull shine of black ice; rosin dusts it like snow.
Ordinarily, members of the corps do not dare acknowledge the dogs, but Joan Joyce crouches and strokes their long backs. She fingers their velvety ears and smooth little skulls. The creatures shrink away into their basket, but she persists. In the shadows, other corps girls stand waiting in a clump, tutus overlapping like a mat of stiff lavender blossoms.
“What are you doing?” one of them whispers. “You can’t touch those.”
Joan’s roommate Elaine Costas, a soloist, is sitting against the
wall and stretching. Her pointe shoes are pressed together at the soles like hands in prayer, her face bent to their arches. Her costume is yellow, the bodice embroidered with gold. “If Ludmilla were going to murder Joan,” she says, looking up, “she would have done it already.”
One of the dogs sets a paw against Joan’s wrist and braces away, his hard ebony nails digging into her skin. She kisses at him. He lifts his ears, then remembers himself and flattens them, recanting his interest. Joan has never danced as well as tonight. She is of the corps but also entirely herself, both part and whole. The tiny ball of cells clinging to her uterine wall is a secret, but she feels as translucent and luminous as a firefly.
Arslan Rusakov and Ludmilla Yedemskaya appear in the bright channel between the black stage drapes and stop, glazed with sweat and white light. He turns her waist between his palms, his face set in an ardent mask. Love in a ballet is something that does not exist and then suddenly does, its beginning marked by pantomime, faces fixed in rapture, a dance. After, when they are hidden in the wings or behind the curtain, the dancers will grimace like goblins, letting the pain show.
At home in their apartment, Elaine sometimes does an unkind imitation of Arslan’s love face, dancing pompously and then turning to answer herself with a parody of Ludmilla’s smile: bared teeth beneath flinty eyes. Joan laughs and asks for more, but the mockery stings. Arslan had been her lover. She had been the one to help him defect.
He and Ludmilla had been a couple when they were both in the Kirov, and now they are getting married. They had announced their engagement after a performance of
with champagne for the whole company. Ludmilla’s head was swathed in a crown of white feathers. Joan and Arslan were done before Ludmilla arrived, but still the tiny yellow-haired Russian provokes Joan’s sense of having been taunted and robbed, deprived.
Applause, and Ludmilla sweeps into the wings. The music for
Arslan’s variation begins. Joan keeps petting the dogs, but the animals crane their long necks for a glimpse of their mistress. “They are not nice,” Ludmilla says after a moment, her accent flat and heavy like a stone in the back of her throat. “You should not touch.”
Before curtain, the dachshunds had moped around Ludmilla’s feet while she warmed up, narrowly avoiding being kicked. She never seems to pay them any attention, but she brings them to every class, every rehearsal, every fitting, every performance, every gala. They were a gift from Arslan when she arrived in New York after her defection, replacements for dachshunds left behind in Leningrad. Their bony, penitent faces are always turned, like so many others, toward her. They would never think of barking, not even when cymbals crash or when stagehands pump out chilly clouds of fog from a machine to make an enchanted haze or suggest the surface of a lake.
“They seem sweet,” Joan says.
Ludmilla, dabbing her cheeks with a tissue, gazes at her with amused malevolence. “They bite.”
“I don’t think so.”
“They are my dogs, not your dogs, but if you want get bite, suit yourself.”
is something Arslan says because it is something Joan says. She taught him, and now he has taught Ludmilla. Joan gives the dachshunds a final rub—one bares a set of tiny, sharp ivory teeth at her, as dainty and menacing as his mistress—and stands up. Ludmilla turns away to watch Arslan pirouette at center stage (he is a prince! it is his wedding day!) as the music accelerates and sweat flies from his hair. Arslan is racing the conductor, trying to squeeze in more turns. When he is done, the audience will let loose the huge, docile roar of amazement they always do. The ovation is a given, but he will still earn it. He is extraordinary. The audience loves him for being extraordinary and also for having been born to the enemy, for coming to dance for them instead.
The end of the music. His last turn squeaks around a beat late. The roar explodes from the belly of the theater, blasts out to the
back of the house. Arslan bows, bows again, gives a modest flick of his head. Ludmilla draws herself up, raises her arms over her head, and steps briskly out from the wings. Her variation begins, but Joan does not watch.
Joan has known plenty of pregnant dancers but only a handful who stayed that way and only one who then returned to the company—a principal famous enough to be forgiven for the months of leave, her slow battle back into shape. For most of the women Joan knows, a child is unthinkable. The body has already been offered up; the body is spoken for. She is only eight weeks or so and still not showing, but she is surprised she hasn’t been found out. The dancers keep close surveillance on one another, report suspicions of weakness. Elaine might have guessed, Joan thinks, but it’s not her nature to interrogate or tattle. Usually they share a banana in the morning before class, but Joan, both nauseated and famished, has a new compulsion to toast frozen waffles and spread them with peanut butter. Elaine, eating her banana half, watches the passage of the sticky knife, says nothing. Mercifully, magically, Joan’s nausea tends to dissipate during morning class. She hasn’t betrayed herself by puking.
In July, after the blackout, she had faked a slight sprain and gone to visit Jacob in Chicago. He is not her boyfriend. In high school, they had explained themselves as best friends, proud of their status as a bonded but platonic pair, a relationship that seemed modern and cosmopolitan to them, worlds away from the short-lived, sweaty-palmed hormonal couplings happening around them. But Joan had known Jacob wanted more. For so long, he was too timid—and too proud—to try anything.
He had kissed her once, just before he left for college. It had been the kind of kiss that asks for something enormous. When she pushed him away, he was angry, and she had turned his anger around and punished him with it and hidden behind it. Then he left, and they wrote letters, which seemed safer.