Ellen O’Connell

Kissing the Pavement

by Ellen O’Connell

Somewhere in Soho, on a street corner that could have been on the northeast side of an intersection on Vandam or Broome, a woman lay dark among the December buildings.  She had landed from a floor many feet above the heads of pedestrians or cars, far above awnings or the tops of plane trees and maples.  The sidewalk was bald, mostly, and the woman anchored herself to it as though she was facing winter, right out to the thronging streets.  She was perhaps around forty years old, although it is hard to say, as I have never tried to guess the age of a dead body.  She was black, dressed professionally, or at least warmly.

In an office building, the woman felt the smooth plastic of a wooden-looking desk beneath her feet before she jumped.  She could have spread her palms over the panes of glass, which trapped the December air outside the room.   She would have stood for just a moment, looking out over the city of New York, not an ancient city like the kind you find on the sides of mountains and the mouths of rivers, but a city full of the most secretive people, all alive at the same time, looking askance at each other as they pass through the veins of boulevards.  She stood on her desk as though the figurehead on a great ship, with all the sound turned down to a peaceful lull.  Papers were stacked on her desk, her potted plant watered.  This all began years before, perhaps with an isolated incident, or perhaps with a slow-spreading disease that began in her aching temples and worked its way down to the sore arches of her feet.  And so she did the only thing she could think of.  She found the latch of the window and opened it.  Her hands were not shaking; that would have passed long before.

Someone saw her and shouted something.  Something like, “Wait.”  But she had done nothing but wait.  The person, let’s say a man, took slow steps toward her and reached his arms out from far away, so far away, in a still life of inaction.  He wondered if his sudden movements would startle her and if it would be a better approach to walk slowly and speak calmly, to gather a group to stand behind him.  He could not have known that this climb to the window was the result of nothing but waiting.  And so just as easily as a dropped napkin or a scattered dandelion in a wind gust, our woman jumped.  Or at least that is what I imagine happened.

Here is one thing about a body after it has died: it is ageless.  There is not a one of them that doesn’t have hair and nails that keep on growing long after it has stopped showing any other signs that it was once filled with breath and thoughts.  There is also the ugliness of bladders and colons relaxing, the ugliness of lying in liquid as life leaves.  We have read about that too.  Neither education nor wealth nor inner peace can make a body decay any slower or more prettily than another.  Death ignores those pleas for dignity.

This woman planned this, though.  She must have climbed out on a ledge and thought, this.  This view, the reflection of this building in the one opposite, this is the last thing I will ever look across to see.  This, this heaviness in my hands and the fist clenched in my stomach, this is the last sadness I will ever have to feel.  Perhaps she took one last look around her to remember it.

When she landed her body tried to keep right on crashing through the sidewalk.  Although the skin on the woman’s face was just skin, there was something horribly distorted now, a certain and soundless shatter of her bone structure until it was not a face, but one continuous line of eyes and nose and mouth, all vertically arranged. The way her face was turned it looked like she had her ear pressed to the sidewalk to hear what was beneath.  One arm was flung behind her body, a jutting tree branch wrapping around its own trunk because it has run out of room to grow any other way.

I passed this woman on the 13th of December, 2008, during my first winter in New York.  All I had wanted was to find a Spanish grocery store to buy some smoked paprika for my mother and sisters.  This was to be the key ingredient that had been missing in their cooking, the part that would make the whole finally come together.  There was nothing I took more pleasure in that first year in New York than the determined pursuit for a specialty, with the idea that it was most often easy to find the one thing I had set out for, something I could answer, as I imagined real New Yorkers did, oh yes, I know what neighborhood to find that in, here is my favorite place for it.

I welcomed the surprises of the city streets, but one thing that was not supposed to crop up on my way was a dead woman’s body.  It made me remember a night in Santa Barbara earlier in the year with Alejandro, as we sat in a late night restaurant on lower State Street.  He had picked me up from a ballet rehearsal because he liked sitting in the theater watching me for the final five minutes and then waiting for me to change into the clothes of a pedestrian.  From far away he memorized the shape of my legs, and then at dinner he touched them up close.  I looked across the dinner table at him and thought to myself, I am always wondering what he is doing, and right now, he is sitting and is telling me a story.  It felt nice not to wonder.

“Have you ever seen a dead body?” he asked me.

“Only my grandparents,” I had said.

“You’ve never seen one on the street?”

“No.”  I replied.  He always tried to ask me the questions that no one ever had.

“I don’t think there is anyone who grows up in South America who has not seen a dead body on the street.  In Spanish we call it besando el pavimento.  Kissing the pavement.”  I remember thinking, up here, that is something we would never see.  Like a fool, I did not knock on wood, and the table we ate off that night was made of it.

Kissing the pavement does not make sense as actions go.  No one would stop to press their warm lips against concrete unless something or someone put them there.  Bodies lie down in private.  Kissing the pavement was a poetic way to say that a body had stopped working as it was designed to.

When I passed the woman, a police man was crouched a short way behind her, looking like this might be the dullest thing he had done all day, maybe all his life.  All around, people wassailed by, barely allowing themselves the luxury to look down.  No one stopped, yet there was nothing they could have done anyway.  A block away I sat down on the curb next to a mailbox and let myself cry.  I knew if no one stopped for the woman with the vertical face, then they would not stop for me either.

Here is one thing I realized about people: we are composed of so many parts.  I learned in ballet that a human foot alone has 26 bones, and when even one of them breaks, we say the foot is broken.  The entire body, mostly filled with water and roughly 75% more bones than the foot, sometimes has one small part of it that fails.  Sometimes when the part that fails is an organ, we say the body is dead, when really the rest of it could have kept on working for decades.  When the woman landed from the ledge she left, her body smashed and smashed until there was not a part of it that could have gone on.  And yet.  Only some of her bones might have splintered, only some of her organs may have been taken by death.

I wanted to poke her, to step hard on her with my whole weight, to punish her for having jumped where I could see her, to show her my contempt for her being dead.  By being dead she was different than anything I had ever seen, and I hated her for that more than I ever could have hated someone who was alive, or someone with a broken foot.  Death and its reasons were unknown that day.  There is no armor better than understanding the particular set of circumstances surrounding death and its laws.  I wanted to hold this death down under my thumb so it wasn’t loose and hanging over the intersection, being ignored in this way until someone like me noticed it enough to care.

And then I thought of something else.

*          *          *

Those days began with a warm-up class with the company, all of us bundled in rubber shorts and woolen socks, lifting our feet off the floor with the articulation of a tongue.  There were laws that only existed in ballet.  There were things our bodies knew without having to be told.

That the foot beveled to the side when pointed, the toes reaching for the floor, for example, we knew.  To relax our ankles into plie, to line our bent knees over our feet.  To tuck ourselves into neat little packages to surprise each other with when we danced together in rehearsals.

I was 15 when Sayat and Olga came to my ballet school with their Russian words and their overly turned out feet.  Olga wore her flaxen hair like a girl in a serious painting, pinned just above the nape of her neck in a golden fist.  She seemed to be nothing but eyes and feet, and the rest floated between in a pretty liquid way.  Sayat with his hooked nose and smooth hands, spoke for both of them, and at the end of his stories we looked in each other’s faces, searching for the meaning that would help us dance the way he wanted us to.  I fell in love right about then, first with the room full of dancers, and then with the two of them.

I imagined them holding each other at night and whispering in Russian. Oh, Sayat, how difficult it is to be so lovely. She would run her fingers through Sayat’s curls and know that he would never leave her.

The first time I saw Olga dance it was through glass, and she sipped in the air she passed through, vague as a cloud.  She was demonstrating something to a class before mine, showing them something she could not explain.  With her back arched, the girls watching leaned into her.  She didn’t seem to notice a thing.

“She’s perfect,” I said in the hallway, where I stood safely watching.  I loved perfection, which only seemed like an option in ballet, and in ballet, it was the only option.  “Her back is more perfect than mine will ever be.”

“Baby Ballerina, use your long back so it’s not your enemy,” an older girl named Rou said.  She said she was from South Africa, but she never sounded any different than anyone else.  She had the kind of face that you look at once and it is stamped in your brain, and she sat in the hallway before class and listed all the things she had eaten that day.

“Coffee, pomegranate seeds, popcorn,” she said triumphantly.  She drank gallons of water and then danced in rubber shorts to sweat it out, and when she danced all you saw were legs and arched eyebrows.

“Will you stretch my feet, Rou?” I asked her.

She pushed the flats of her hands into my feet and the movement touched me with its insistent kindliness, but it didn’t change me yet in any way I could have named.  It did not threaten to hold me back.

Rou stared at my locked knees in pink tights and counted down from ten.  She would become other things as well, but she would always be that, an older girl pushing hard on the feet of a younger girl.  Other dancers milled around us like a snowstorm, and I looked at the pink bridge of Rou’s nose before I turned away to stretch alone.

She traced my spine down from the nape of my neck with one clammy finger, and each bone she touched made me grow taller.

“Baby Ballerina, someday you’ll grow hips and I will laugh,” she said.

They lined us up in a room with numbers on our chests and high cut black leotards in a cattle call of hipbones.  Sayat’s movement was like a long yawn in front of us, steps rolling one after another.  He showed us something and by summoning up everything we had ever learned, we could mirror it back to him as though we had just thought of it ourselves.  The only way to differentiate myself was to be superlative at something, and as we built our movements up through the audition, and people were called on, and the florescent lights flickered, I thought, I might as well.

I danced right behind Rou during the audition, following the steps she did until I was surprised to look in the mirror and see my own face and not hers.

There were cuts after the first hour, girls separated into groups, until the room bulged with girls dancing to themselves until they could dance for someone else.

“Wait to jump with the boys,” Sayat told me.  “You are in the air more than you are on the ground.”  And just like that, I was chosen, and I revealed my goals only after I had accomplished them.  I was light, and any direction felt like progress.

“You are Cupid,” Sayat said finally, after we had all made our way across the floor alone, trying to make old choreography look new.

“Who is Cupid?” I asked.

“Baby Ballerina, Cupid is the star of the dream scene,” he said.  “It’s because of your arms and your size and your jump.  But when you dance, you must look your mama papa,” he told me, and pointed to the corner of the room, where the balcony would be if we were in a theater.  It was a ballet studio in California, with wooden floors and a grand piano.  It was my ballet studio.

Cupid moved like I did, like a quick argument that you look back on and laugh.  During the following months of rehearsals, Olga walked apologetically around me as I danced, laying her cold hands on my shoulders. I took comfort in seeing myself in the mirror and knowing exactly what I was doing wrong, and what part of my body needed to be grabbed by someone else’s hands and twisted and pulled.

In school during the day, I sat in my desk and ran through the dream scene in my head. In those bright white classrooms of high school, colorful bodies crossed back and forth, saying hello to everyone in sight.  I saw myself dancing as though from far away, and then I saw the world as though I were looking at it spin by as I danced.  I saw Olga doing the steps, and Rou, in her own long and sultry style, as though Cupid were trying to make anyone watching fall in love with him rather than with each other.

After school I rushed to rehearsals with Sayat or Olga, where their Russian accents were by now familiar.

“One summer in Moscow, I hold watermelon and walk all over the streets,” Sayat said loudly before he started the music one of those young afternoons.  “Everybody look at me and ask what am I doing.  You must do something big when you dance, like holding a watermelon in the city.  You must make people ask you, why do you do it like that?”

Behind him, against the piano, Olga nodded quickly.  She knew just what he meant.  The important thing just then was how he looked when he said it.

“You have costume fitting after we rehearse,” said Sayat.  “Costumes from Bolshoi Ballet in Russia.”  He leaned toward me and pulled my sweater down over my narrow shoulders, and in his eyes I saw my beautiful shape begin to form.  Olga looked at him without expression, without blinking.  I wondered if that’s how two people looked at each other when they are alone.

The very small costume I was to wear as Cupid turned out to smell like cigarette smoke and had gauzy small wings.  Upstairs, above the studio, the seamstress and Olga pulled the fabric away from my skin.

“Is too big here,” Olga said, “And not big enough here.”  I stood on a stool and turned around and around and then when I stepped down they looked at my measurements with genuine concern.  My costume, it seemed, must fit for the ballet to go on.  Without my costume, there would be no performance.   I had never contributed to something that could not hold itself up without me, and it became more important to dance for the ballet than for any personal reason that had been important when I first started.

This is not a story where someone crashes or falls or is beat up.  This is a story where Rou pushed her hands into my feet, each day a little more, until one day her hands were not enough and I asked her to sit on them.  I wanted them to curve toward the floor like a body bends against the cold.  When Rou sat, there was a gentle and slow crack.  We were sitting in the hallway before a class in our rubber pants, and girls around us heard it too.  They all lay on their backs with their legs in the air, or pushed against a wall, forcing their stretches a little more.  There were bodies everywhere, and they all froze for the second when we heard a crack inside my foot, and then the second was a long time passing.

“What was that?” Rou asked after jumping up, hands covering my feet.  People stood and the air moved wildly around us all.  Someone handed me a bag of ice and wrapped it around my foot with a leg warmer.  From inside the studio, the slow music of the end of another class hung in the light.

My foot didn’t swell immediately, but by the time I unwrapped it in front of Olga, it was round and hot.  Her eyes darted around, searching the room for a solution.  I saw the wisps of hair at the nape of her neck when she turned her head from side to side, and in her face and her form was something I had not seen before.  It looked like pride.  I learned from her face the necessity of sacrificing the body to contort it into something perfect.  The room was mostly dark, but for a few overhead lights buzzing, streaming over our heads and then down to the floor.  She leaned over me in the semi-dark, and I knew she wanted me right then to give my life to ballet, as she had done.  With my foot still in her lap, I lay down on the floor, submitting.

“I am here,” my mother said, coming in the doorway, and she was.  Someone had called her to come take me somewhere.

If I had known then the exquisite violence that would follow in the years to come, two ruptured discs and fractured spine, the dislocated collarbone, the eating disorder, the sprains and tears and rejection, I would still have stretched out there on the floor and let Olga move my foot around in her hands while my mother worried in the door frame.

We went to an orthopedic surgeon soon after, my mother and I, and on the white exam table, I made up my mind that I would not be absent from the theater in a few weeks.  That season I had already sustained a sprained hip flexor and pulled my back.  The doctor, predictably, and perhaps wisely, advised me not to dance, but if I had been the type to laugh in his face, I would have.  I thought he was the one who didn’t understand, but years later I see that I am.

My mother told me after some considerable time had passed that my father had begun to whisper the day I broke my foot.  “You have to make her quit dancing,” he said.

“How can I?” she answered.

She knew if a doctor could not make me stop, she could not either.  I was grateful at the time, and thanked her in my own silent way.  She never gave me a reason to fight back against her, and so I never did.  Instead my mother gritted her teeth and drove me to rehearsals and packed me dinners to eat late at night, in the studio, stealing bites between dancing.  She believed me when I told her my foot had healed and took me to the theater to perform.  I went backstage to be a spy in the house of perfection.  It was a world where people paid to see fleeting beauty onstage that I would dance a little differently each time.  To dance the same each time would be dangerous.

Downstairs, below the dressing rooms, was a nurse, who had been called to administer Novocain through a needle into my foot before I went on stage.  She had a metal box which she would not open until I sat across from her, my foot in her lap.

It wasn’t until years later that dancing on a numb and fractured foot seemed like anything other than survival.  My movements in onstage rehearsals were economical: abridged and inelegant.  As I said, ballet wrote its own laws under the pretense of art.

My father said he winced in the audience every time I stood on my right foot, but here is the only thing I remember about being onstage:  the spotlight draped across the audience like a hand.  I danced to show how much I knew, and all the things I didn’t know but wanted to learn.  From the wings, Olga looked so near.

This is the way all stories end when one bone is broken, but not the whole body.  I do a final arabesque, and cannot come down.  The audience is still clapping as I stand on my right foot, and backstage I see people jumping up and down, beckoning me to come join them.  Rou is laughing with her hand over her mouth to catch the sound.  When I finally come down, I run backstage and pass Olga who is on her way out to dance the part of the prima ballerina I have made fall in love.

*          *          *

After I passed the body in the street, I could not bring myself to confirm its suicidal status in the newspapers.  That way I could always blame the inaccuracy of memory, and say perhaps her vertical face was a trompe l’oeil caused by the bruised air of winter.  When I first left home I learned quickly that other people’s stories are always sadder or funnier, and you couldn’t rely on people to pray for the things you asked them to anymore.

Still, I got back to my tiny Brooklyn apartment well after dark and turned on all the lights and small space heaters in each room.  I put on a wool sweater that my father bought himself in Portugal because it was my most interesting looking outfit.  In those days my family could always count on me to steal their sweaters and take them from the sunny chill of the California central coast to New York.

I sat and wrote letters to the few church goers I could think of, asking them all to pray for eternal rest for the soul that had once lived in a body I had seen.  It reminded me of asking St Francis to intervene when I was a teenager, and thinking if he knew me, we would fall in love and live in the mountains.

I wrote three letters.  To my parents I wrote that I had run out of memorized prayers and needed them to add their own freeform for me.  I wrote next to a high school English teacher who always knew what the Catholic Church would forgive.  And finally I wrote to Ian, the boy I had loved a few years earlier.  He responded by asking me which author’s pet parrot I would be if I could choose, and told me not to worry too much about the reason for an unknown death.  The reason might well have been the stars.

I poured a glass of wine, swept the floor. I changed the water in a vase of flowers and made empanadas, enough for more people than I had ever made laugh.  I baked the empanadas, crimping the edges with a fork to keep the beef and raisins neatly inside the pockets.  And then I sat down to cry right there in the kitchen, realizing I didn’t have enough friends in New York to eat them.  I ate two before I put the rest in small bags and set them in my freezer to feed me through the coming winter.

When there was nothing left I could think of to do, I said,

“Eternal rest, grant unto her, O Lord,

And let perpetual light shine upon her.”

I tasted the relief of each word on my tongue, not because it was right, but because it was familiar.  I ran my hands over the books on my bookshelf and loved myself for having read so many of them.

My brain filled in what was missing.  I was looking for a live woman, and if I had seen one standing below my living room window right then, I would have thought she was the exact person I was looking for.

What was simple and ordinary filled the room.  It came back.  What my grandmother’s knees looked like when she danced, the jealousy I felt of the miniature Irish brides at my first communion.  There was the wholeness of searching for something so simple like refuge from the cold and finding it in my own apartment, after having chased so many more complicated philosophical solutions.

Had this been two days ago I might have been a lot angrier.  Or a lot sadder.  Two days already felt far away- I was so much younger two days ago.   So I pulled my quilt beneath my chin, pretended to dream, and dreamt.  I wanted to talk about being a pet parrot and how the body breaks down before the mind for some people, and for others it is the complete opposite.  Sometime in the night I thought I smelled coffee and a room full of moving young bodies, and since something about it seemed just the same, I started again.

Ellen O’Connell, originally from California, just completed an MFA in nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. In addition to publication in several literary magazines, she has an essay forthcoming in a collection called “The Moment,” to be published by Harper Collins. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010. Ellen teaches creative writing at UC Santa Barbara and currently lives in Los Angeles, CA.