I dreamed of paint — that paint everywhere lost its cohesion. Ceilings rained color, and walls wept. As I dreamed, I saw people waking from sleep, slimy with paint. And once the colors made contact with hair and skin, they hardened into helmets and body armor that could not be removed.
I woke up knowing what I had to do. Tonight.
Which was funny. Because I hadn’t known, for weeks. Ever since I’d agreed to perform again.
Sorry not to write you, but I’d been blank. I hadn’t had anything to say, hadn’t spoken. But Dad, don’t worry, it won’t be anything like last time — I promise, I won’t set anything on fire. That was a whole year ago, I was only seventeen, and I’m not doing any pyro ever again.
And Dad, don’t tell Mom any of this, okay? I know she was so worried she almost packed you off to do the homecoming tour on your own. I still have no idea how you talked her into going.
Anyway, I don’t think anyone noticed my blankness. I mostly kept to myself, except when I needed caffeine. And then, I nodded and smiled, and stuck to my regular places, where they brought me coffee whether I asked or not. After I’d been silent for a week and a day, I noticed the coffee they brought me was gray. But it tasted okay, so I pretended everything was fine.
Until last Monday. As my regular handed over my coffee, her hand went gray. You’ll be glad to hear I managed not to take the cup. I turned and pushed back through the line, out the door. I had to slip between the cracks before I lost my own colors.
I ran out into a silence in the hiss of traffic, a pause that turned into a scream. A pause that vibrated, as loud as plates of stone crashing together under the earth. As loud as a building falling. On 92d Street, just a block away, a building was falling. Like a heavy rain of dust and dirt, a dump truck emptying out the sky.
Right, the spirits were out of control.
But you’d be proud of me: I stayed calm, turned my back, and remembered a safe place, where the spirits couldn’t follow me. I stopped at a discount store, bought a flashlight and stuff, and marched myself through the subway tracks to that unused platform below the other fallen building. Remember the one where the entrance to the station had been crushed and they’d shut off the U line? Well, they shut off the heat, too, if there ever was any. I had your old camel hair coat, two of grandma’s crocheted shawls, and my own thick black hair. Did you know it’s made it down to my knees? Even with all that, I shivered, molars rattling. Good thing there weren’t any doors in or out, or it would have been even colder. At least a little light made it in each day, sneaking down through the gratings that drained the sidewalks above. And at least I wasn’t hungry. It turned out I didn’t even need half the food I’d brought. There was an abandoned newsstand. Lots of bottled drinks and packaged snacks — Gatorade and potato chips, beautifully chemically-preserved, waiting for me. Piles of papers and magazines, too — old news, for free.
Yes, I’d started rhyming my thoughts, there, in the thin air.
I must have been speaking out loud. Because there it was again, “Stop!” The parrot ordering me to be quiet.
Had I mentioned the parrot? It was here when I arrived. It was the only one here. Funny, right? Remember when you got me my first pair of ballet slippers, and I wouldn’t stop imitating you, and you called me “Little Parrot”?
At first, I was so grateful to see it. And to hear another voice. I mean, obviously, if Mom was right, and my friend Natasha really was imaginary (Mom can be so strange), Natasha would have been in the subway. Funny, right? Anyway, there was a parrot. I gave it a sign, called it Scorpio — and told it my name. It was so sweet, at first.
It would say, “Zodiac, I love you.” Then it would snatch the food from my hand. So maybe not that sweet.
But, all in all, in the beginning, things weren’t that bad. I’d been so much on my own since you and Mom left, I was grateful for any company. And it seemed as though Scorpio and I were settling in. I ate and slept and did a barre every time I woke up, and my technique seemed to be holding up. I even choreographed. Some cool stuff, to be honest with you. Even Scorpio liked it. “Dance, Zodiac,” it would say. Actually, it liked the dancing a little too much. Whenever I nodded off to sleep, it would wake me, mid-dream, demanding “Dance!” I hadn’t slept more than an hour here or there, for days. Or whatever. Though I made myself keep track of what day it was.
Then, Scorpio became a critic. When I danced, it started yelling, “Dunce,” instead of “Dance.” If I kept going, it would command, “Stop!” as if my movements pained it. It got to the point where any time I ate, drank, or even breathed, it would moan, “Stop!”
I put up with it, with all of it. Until I decided to risk using a little of the bottled water to rinse my socks and feet, which were filthy from practicing my barre on the subway platform. The second I took off the first sock, Scorpio bombed down and stole it.
“Give it back,” I screamed, and then added, more softly, “Please.”
Scorpio flew off, laughing. It came back, without the sock, mimicking me, “Pleeeease.”
After that, all it ever said to me was, “Pleeeease,” in this horrible, whiny voice.
That’s when I realized. The parrot was evil.
I tried to shoo it away, but it wouldn’t go. I got so mad I screamed at it, but it just screamed back. And, of course, you would have warned me about this — I strained my voice in the cold air.
That’s when my cough started. “Cah, ca, caaaa.” Just like when I was little, and I got bronchitis, and oh, how you worried about me.
And just like when I was little, I couldn’t stop coughing.
And Scorpio imitated it, exactly. “Cah, ca, caaaa.”
It made me so mad I actually managed to suppress the cough.
Then the parrot changed its mind again, and went back to ordering me to dance. “Dance!” it screamed. Except that, the second I started, it laughed: “Dunce, dunce dunce!”
I told myself to forget the parrot. And who else was there to see my dancing?
Tonight. Tonight, everyone would be there to see.
The posters had been plastered all over the city. Without my permission.
Posters with my face in my hands, as paint poured down on me.
When the posters first went up, the paint spewing onto my head was blood red. Within days, it had turned black. Then the posters had disappeared altogether. People must have stolen them. Does that surprise you? If I hadn’t hidden, would they have stolen me?
What was I to do about tonight? What? Was?
“Caaaa aaa a a a . . .”
Right. My cough was back. Everything was pixelating again, just like the last time I got sick. Even my stupid cough had to pixelate.
Maybe I could slip in between the pixelations. I would disappear and reassemble while everyone else was still looking for their lost pieces.
Stop. Dreaming. Again.
Why couldn’t I stop dreaming? “Pa bumph ah, bum, bum, bumph ahh.” The dream of the drums. In my dream, my limbs detached and started to drift off, between the beats. In a panic to catch them before they could float too far, I stopped coughing long enough to gnash out at my own flesh, using my teeth to reassemble my arms, and reattach my hands. I suffered a long retaliatory coughing session while my nerves reconnected to my fingers and toes. Then I reached out to grab my flashlight and catch the pixels off guard.
Of course, I caught the damned parrot instead.
I was awake, coughing on the parrot. And the drums were still playing. “Pa bumph ah, bum, bum, bumph ahh.” And yes, there was a drummer, a Rastafarian-looking dude, standing a few yards down the track. Although the longer I hacked away, the farther he seemed to slip off.
I didn’t know why I couldn’t let him go — I just couldn’t. I began by grabbing his smell. Incense, nothing worse. Then my light captured more bits and pieces: A long coat here, a yellow and green head wrap there. Then boots, walking away. As they walked, they left his hands behind, still drumming. So maybe I was still asleep.
“Hi,” I said to the hands.
“Hiiii . . .” Scorpio the parrot echoed back.
And with that, the drummer changed rhythms. “Ah ah bum, ah ah bum, bum, bum.”
Too late, I realized his drums had been leading me. While my light had been distracted by random body parts, I’d been following the beats down a dark, empty track.
And no, I was not asleep.
Now all I could do was scramble to keep up with the drummer. And pray the track where he was leading me wasn’t in use. Or, if it was, that the train would at least kill the parrot.
Dad, don’t worry, I wasn’t hit by a train. And I made it to the theater on time. To the poster with paint pouring down on my head. Blown up to billboard size. Over a box office door.
You’d have laughed at the producer’s relief when he saw me. His grimace when he smelled me.
The shower. The sweet-smelling soap.
Stepping out of the water to find soft towels. To see that Scorpio the parrot was waiting for me, and my clothes were gone. The kind of joke you’d pull, Dad.
I put my wet hair up in one fluffy, white towel, wrapped another around my body, and went in search of the producer. An unshaven guy in a sweatshirt and jeans intercepted me.
“Who are you and where are my clothes?” I asked. It wasn’t more than a whisper, but I was surprised to hear my voice come out at all. “My clothes?” the parrot screamed.
And I started hacking away again. Between coughs, I was pretty sure I heard the unshaven guy say, “I’m Steve, the stage manager, and dude, they reeked.”
“That’s my father’s coat,” I whispered. “My father’s!” screamed the parrot.
As I broke down into another round of coughing, Steve gave me a therapeutic pat on my toweled back. “I hear you. I got a dad, too . . .”
“No . . .” I mouthed, shrugging off his hand, and vowing never to cough again. “No! No!” the parrot mimicked, making me sound like an uptight girl refusing her first kiss.
Steve made a peace sign. “Dude, chill. You smell fine now. Dry cleaner’ll fix up your stuff.”
I tried again. “Where’s my costume?” I said, swallowing a cough, while ignoring the parrot’s echoing “My costume!”
Steve laughed. “Under your towel.”
“No, no,” I said. “They didn’t leave anything for me.” For once, the parrot was quiet.
Steve just looked at me.
A beat later it sank in.
“Excuse me?” I asked, followed by the parrot’s indignant “Excuse me!”
And Dad, Steve was smooth. Like he expected it. He flipped a contract right out of this pocket. “Remember?” he asked, tossing it over to me. “It’s why they decided to take a chance on you again.”
“Remember what?” I asked, bursting out coughing again. The parrot stuck to “Excuse me!”
At least Steve kept his hands off me this time. Instead, he grabbed the papers, flipped to the last page, and pointed. “Your signature, right?”
It looked like it. He went on, “Remember clause three?” He folded the pages open, and pointed. “Look ma, no clothes,” he said, laughing again.
I clutched at my towels. Had I really signed for that? Had I read it?
He shoved a can at me. “Here’s your paint. The paper is set out on the stage.”
The paint was red, just like on the poster. I watched my fingers close around the handle of the can. Obviously, this was just an unusually realistic dream. Nightmare. Whatever. Quite realistic.
And in this nightmare, I heard the curtains sliding back, and felt the stage manager grab my shoulders, steer me into the wings, and give me a gentle shove. At least he didn’t try to pull off my towels.
I staggered out into complete darkness, trying to balance one towel on my head, while clutching the other towel around my body with one hand, and holding the paint can in the other hand. I could hear people breathing in the black well of nothingness beyond the stage, their exhalations reaching out to me, their inhalations pulling me to join them. Too much breath to resist. Too many people. I began to feel dizzy. But before I could freak out entirely, the stage lights flashed on. And the parrot flew at me, right at my eyes.
Now, paint spread out before me, like an oil slick. Obviously, I couldn’t risk dropping the towel covering my body — so when that demented bird came at me, I’d used the hand holding the paint can to shield my face. And as I’d brought my arm up, the paint had flown. Kind of beautiful, actually. Streaking the paper on the stage with red, shimmering into purple in the pools of blue light.
But leaving Scorpio untouched.
And leaving me awake, onstage, stuck with the parrot and the creepy breathing that still ebbed and flowed from the rows and rows of shadows. Any other noise would have been better, even a jack hammer. The drums were set, upstage center, but there was no one to pay them. Where was the drummer when I needed him?
At least I can ditch the paint — I ceremoniously set the can a few feet in front of the drums. To drown out the ins and outs of audience breath, I begin to sing a soft, sustained note, my voice actually managing to hold up as I build the note louder and higher, as I let the head towel drop off behind me, and I shake my hair down around me — as I start to walk in my follow-spot toward the parrot. I turn, inside my curtain of hair, and then clutch the towel to my body with both hands as I twirl and give a flying karate kick. The kick lands, and Scorpio’s feathers fly. And I rise up on demi pointe, raise my face to the ceiling in triumph, and drop down into the pool of light, still safely wrapped in my body towel as my back sinks to the floor. There is a gasp from the audience in the darkness as Scorpio whimpers, “Dunce!” and begins to drag itself off stage left.
And finally, the drummer makes his grand entrance, from stage right. And the drums begin. “Pa bumph ah, bum, bum, bumph ahh.” Thank God, they mask the breathing sounds. And they keep playing as Scorpio slumps into the wing of the stage. I even relax for a second.
A mistake. It’s an obvious invitation for the spirits to possess me. As usual, they start by grabbing my hair, and yanking it wildly from side to side. As I do my best to fight them without losing my towel, they flip me over, as if I were a bug. While I manage to angle myself upstage, to avoid revealing anything to the standing-room-only crowd, the spirits push me up into a dangerously-tilted arabesque, where they leave me hanging, until they whip my hair in a circle around and around, and pull me back into a split. As I battle them, my back arches, my left hand still hanging onto my towel, my right clutching at the sky.
All is still.
Shaking off the spirits, I drop the curtain of my hair and tighten my towel. Then, quietly, I stand and walk to the can of paint, to paint the spirits away from me. I dip a toe into the can, as if it were a too-hot bath. I wait for the waters to cool before I raise each leg and soap it with color. As if savoring fragrant bath salts, I smooth handfuls of color over my chest and the back of my neck.
Only then do I wave goodbye to the paint can, and tiptoe back downstage, leaving bright toe-prints as I try to regain my place. But as I drip color on the white paper that is taped to the floor, the spirits try to steal the towel that’s wrapped around me. And as I fight them, they smear red on my face. They shove me, rolling color all over me, everywhere — until, possessed to cleanse myself, I begin to writhe, frantic to wipe the red from my face, my fingers, trying not to swallow the drops trickling into my mouth. But as I paint the paper on the floor with my body, the drums grow louder and louder, pulling me to my feet. I try to spin the color off my body, turning faster and faster, until paint starts to drip into my eyes, and I lose my spot and all sense of equilibrium, and collapse on my back, grabbing my face, my hair in a circle around me.
And abruptly, the drums stop. Everything stops. And I realize that I am lying, splayed naked in a smear of red, for all to see.
Anyway, Dad, I know even you were nervous about leaving me and going all the way back to Russia, and you’ve probably been worrying since that accident in the Moscow theater has kept you from getting back home — but I’m fine. They gave me a decent paycheck, and I’m back above ground, back at my regular coffee shop. There’s only one thing. Just now, as my regular handed over my usual cup, I realized she was starting to fade into a silhouette. I tried not to take the cup from whatever was left of her. But it was too late. The cup was in my hand.
And as I looked down at my fingers, I could see it was already starting. I’m turning into black and white. I keep telling myself it’s reversible, but it’s all for the best that you and Mom haven’t been able to make it back to the city.
Don’t worry. I’ll write you again as soon as I can.
P.S. You know I never read reviews. But I know how you always like to see them right away, and who knows when (if) the New York press will reach you. So I closed my eyes and pasted the first one in. I hope it’s not too awful . . .
- Young Zodiac has shone her full constellation of star power on an otherwise lackluster season at the Lycenium. Illuminated by her creative genius, her flawless classical heritage and training shone through from the surprising beginning to the bitter end. Dancing utterly alone on the stage, without even a costume, without any accompaniment, she told us more than any corps de ballet dancing in full regalia to an orchestra ever could have.
- At first, shielding her eyes from the audience, she abruptly flung paint at us. Then, she grieved, chasing and kicking her fate, as if trying to capture some an invisible harbinger of doom. Next, she enacted madness under cover of paint. Finally, at the end, she lay still, an exposed victim in a pool of blood.
- It was as passionate a reenactment of loss and grief as the stage has ever seen — a fitting tribute to her parents, legendary Bolshoi defectors Dimitri and Tamara Kursof, both killed a month ago when a chandelier crashed down as they bowed after their first performance in Moscow since leaving Russia eighteen years before, when Ms. Kursof was pregnant with Zodiac.
-refers from the word “black” in Liz Dolan’s poem Ordinary Things – Lewes, 1942