An extract from a novel-in-progress
As Alcazar sat stock-still on the gritty staircase, he thought of all the circumstances that had made him a minor star in Spain in his teenage years, and hoped that those same circumstances would take advantage of his various talents once again, in England. And they had started to, for the most part. When he arrived in London, he had no idea where to stay. The hotels that surrounded the station disgusted him, though they would have been quaint in Mexico or Spain, mostly because a dry wind would have blown through them every day, and every day they would have been scrubbed clean with bleach. He wondered why these northern people were so filthy and why they lived in the north in the first place.
When Alcazar finally wandered into the West End, he looked for the least likely enclave, nothing ostentatious or gaudy, and found it in a place called Shepherd’s Market. He had to pay for the first two nights since the tight-lipped thuggish Brit at the front desk was not interested in Alcazar’s overtures as a form of payment. He soon realized, with this particular desk clerk, that he couldn’t beg for a free room in exchange for favours—couldn’t be overly thankful or say something like “If there is anything I can do.” This man was obviously a ladies man and probably getting his fair share between shifts. He would be likely to call Alcazar a poofter before slugging his glorious Latin nose, with no feeling of remorse. This was a keen sense developed by most gay men, although some were willing to test the waters—regrettably so in some cases—or be rewarded for their stick-to-it-iveness. So it finally took meeting the hotel manager to help fix the bill. When he saw this new face at the front desk on his third night, he called down at two p.m., insisting there was a rat in the room, forcing the manager to abandon his post. The manager arrived in the room—lights on and Alcazar’s bed sheet fallen away—and Alcazar pleaded his innocence, as he stood between the door and the manager with a rising erection, that it must have been a bad dream. Indeed, the manager couldn’t help noticing a large rat had come between them. Alcazar said the long trip from Spain had left him disoriented and that he was a theatre student. He had made sure to say the two magic words—student and theatre—that, in London, are like catnip, and will bring certain favours to your side, while others flee. He then feigned a careless effort to conceal his hardened cock—pretended to try to cover it with one hand. “Could you sit with me for a moment?” On the edge of the bed, the manager found the rat. It would be no problem at all, as long as it was given supervision. And as long as he could make his nightly calls to Alcazar’s room, the room tab would balance.
But Alcazar’s ways weren’t so apparent to the innocent Louis-Marie when he first met him at the Academy. Alcazar was determined to register, regardless of the pert and proper British secretary who had so officiously wait-listed him. To make his point that he would not be defeated, he sat on the grand stairway in the foyer like it was his own, glaring down every new student who came in to register and see the school for the first time. It was this brooding that had hooked Louis-Marie—who was by comparison open, willing, like a two-month-old puppy, to meet new people, sniff other puppies’ bottoms, no matter how many times he was snubbed.
“You don’t look happy,” Louis-Marie said—a small risk. He felt a smidgen of fear that the dark young recumbent man, Alcazar, could bite his head off right there in front of the new students.
“This is exactly how I look when I’m happy,” had been Alcazar’s first words.
But Louis-Marie, having broken the ice, persisted. “You must be in musical theatre.”
“Are you trying to annoy me? I’m not in anything right now and that’s the problem.”
“Oh sorry. I thought you were in the programme.” Louis-Marie’s hopes were stifled for a moment, thinking he was talking to someone he wouldn’t see again. He had no interest in short-lived encounters with those outside his milieu.
“They’ve put me on hold.”
Louis-Marie was back in. He stepped closer, up the bottom steps of the stairway. “What programme?”
“Drama. I’m an actor, but I’d like to direct.”
“Yes. You could say I want to be in control. I’ve spent too long with actors—being the child. Now it’s my turn to be the man. The father. That’s what it is, you know. Actors, children. Directors, parents. Actors cocks. Actresses cunts.”
“I hadn’t thought of it, but it makes sense. I’ve always been a ‘boy.’”
“That makes you a dancer.”
“How could you tell?” Louis-Marie had always been proud to be recognized as a dancer, and made much of it, so the question wasn’t just his curiosity showing through— he wanted to hear Alcazar’s truly flattering observation of him.
Alcazar’s answer wasn’t flattering. “You walk like a duck.”
Being a dancer had its good and bad points. Everything that made one strong as a dancer was a curse to an actor or a singer. It disrupted the natural intake of air, and the constant turnout from the hips down the leg, which was the most basic principle of ballet—the strength upon which the whole technique was built. It could ruin a body, age it by forty years, make it feel like the rusting Tin Wood Man from the Wizard of Oz. Nor could you cheat that turnout; if you forced the knees or the ankles you’d feel it even sooner. And damaged joints and tendons would have made it impossible to spend hours in the studio focusing on that perfect turnout with every leap, plié and step. But Louis-Marie had already spent years having other dancers stand on his turned-out, opened knees as he lay on his back on the floor, so much so that this set of supporting muscles was part of his physical being both in and out of the studio. The truth was that anyone could spot a serious dancer from a mile away. Dancers relished the attention, ignorant that others thought they looked like idiots. “You have a nice ass too.” (Dancers never really talked about these things since they were their instruments. To say someone had a nice ass was redundant. It also meant that you were admitting someone might have a nicer ass than your own. Since no dancer would ever tell you that you had a nice ass, and because you were surrounded by dancers all the time, because dancers travelled mostly in small groups—corps—they grew to appreciate the comments for their physicality, but only from civilians, or even actors.)
“I guess we’re seeing my last days as a dancer,” Louis-Marie said.
“You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I’ll do it the way someone rides a bike, I guess. I will always dance but I can’t—well I’m hoping to choreograph. Be a controller, like you. I mean I’ve got tendonitis from my heel right up to mes feces, my ass, or at least that’s what it feels like today.”
For a moment Alcazar made an attempt to show he could soften his veneer. “That’s tough.”
“It is, but I’d rather it happen sooner, instead of when I really am washed up. Part of me is grateful. Most dancers are in denial much longer.” The love of movement, but more so, the human form, was a curse which Louis-Marie had always embraced whole-heartedly. He adored the human body, occupying the human body, in all its facets, as well the taste and smell and touch of most any other part of other bodies. It went against his Catholic upbringing, but was such a strong drive he knew it was not worth fighting. It was something that represented true freedom—those moments when he’d given in to physical desire. He also knew there would never be anything else he would be happy with.
His recent decision to give up dancing professionally made him sadder than he ever imagined, because he would no longer consider himself, rightly or wrongly, superhuman. Of course he could still dance, take class, move, but it was the intense repetition and over-rehearsing that had damaged his body and his tendons. He realized—from watching other dancers who came before him and were afflicted with the same problem—that the only way he would ever enjoy any of the spotlight was if he became a choreographer of note, and fairly soon. He would have to deal with the absence of the Sadler’s Wells crowd and everyone else who’d so devoted their lives to dance. To maintain some equilibrium and peace of mind, he reminded himself that the Academy would make him a more rounded artist and person. “You must be a fine actor.”
“Why?” Alcazar said, nonchalantly. His tone of voice said he could afford to let a compliment pass him by.
Louis-Marie made his point: “Your earnestness to shock.”
“I’ll be out of here as soon as I get the credentials.”
“Well maybe you can get the Wizard of Oz to give you some credentials—brains, a heart, some talent perhaps, accent reduction. I’m here to learn.”
“You may not like my accent but at least I have a voice, which you seem to be in need of.” Alcazar made the allusion to a dancer’s other handicap, the breathing, which is, at best, unnatural—too much off the top of the lungs, no involvement of the diaphragm. It created a voice with no lower register, something that came solely from the throat, and made it seem to the public like only soft-spoken men pursued figure skating and ballet when, in fact, these questionable occupations simply created soft-spoken men who were desperate to replenish the oxygen in their bodies without losing the unnatural composure of a tight belly and forced-out ribcage. With his comment Alcazar had struck and struck hard: the transition from dancer to person was a humbling experience; there was no justification for the hell the art had wrought on normal human bodies, but Louis-Marie was determined. “Well it doesn’t matter. I’ve never thought about acting. Actors are selfish and empty. There is absolutely nothing interesting about actors, good ones anyway.”
“I still think you have a nice ass,” Alcazar said.
“Do you have to wait here or would you like to go for coffee?”
Go for coffee? Go for coffee was something that dancers from North America did. It was all they did, since they rarely ate. Go for coffee meant: Let’s sit on our tired asses and bitch about everything, eat something starchy and then go and puke, or worry it off.
“Or Tea? Espresso? You’re Spanish aren’t you?”
“I’ll just tell the secretary. I’m really tired of waiting,” Alcazar said, sounding quite weary.
Louis-Marie watched Alcazar through the long window in the door of the Registrar’s office. He realized how biased he had become, since he only regarded his own kind, dancers, as physical beings. There was a doubt among dancers that anyone else could know or care for a body as well as a dancer could. A non-dancer’s body was simply too much uncharted territory for a dancer—too much flesh unaccounted for or, in Alcazar’s case, from what Louis-Marie could see, too much lean muscle. There was a risk for too many imperfections once a non-dancer was naked. Dancers only felt comfortable, if somewhat bored, with other dancers’ bodies, and even then, due to the lack of nutrition from severe dieting coupled with the high level of physical activity, there was little drive left for sex. But Louis-Marie observed that Alcazar was indeed physical from the top of his head and his ragged black hair to his broad pronounced nose—in a word, prominent—from where his lips sat out on his face like a suckling baby to the rest of his sturdy and large form, hidden by loose chinos and a big sweater. Even his hands were big, Louis-Marie noted, as Alcazar reached for the handle on the other side of the door. He wondered, for a brief moment, what it would be like to love so much of a man.
“Let’s get out of here. God, I hate these English people. They have a way of delivering bad news with this idiotic smile on their faces. And their tone of voice makes it sound like they’re forever singing Happy Birthday.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I’m on the waiting list. I’m the only one on the waiting list. In fact, there is no waiting list. Why won’t they just let me in? I’ve got film credits coming out my ass.”
“You’ll get in. I know you will.”
They had tea in an Indian snack bar in Earl’s Court, sitting on plywood banquets littered with colourful cushions. “Do you have a place yet?” Alcazar said.
On the short walk from the Academy, Louis-Marie’s mouth had become dry. He was now even more conscious of his steps than usual. “I’m in a room in Camden Town with some other bun-heads—you know, ballerinas on tour—but I’m hoping to luck out on something bigger. You?”
“A hotel in Shepherd’s Market.”
“For a price. Otherwise Soho has all the street trade. At least that’s what I’ve been told.” Ballerinas seemed fascinated by the fact that they were never only a broken ankle away from being a street-walker, or hobbler. “Maybe the school can help you. There was a girl at the Academy earlier who seemed to want to share an apartment or something.”
“A fat one and her fat friend? God, what a performance. They’re staying at the Dorchester.”
“That’s rough. I guess you met them.”
“Couldn’t miss them.”
“We had this interesting talk but I can’t decide if she’s—”
“No, not that.” Louis-Marie thought about his conversation with the big girl, Carolyn, and her side-kick, Debra. They’d been sitting on the front steps of the Academy, waiting for the registrar to return from lunch. It was as if all Debra could talk about was the overbearing insecurity of being a performing artist. She obviously hoped to create a bond. “I mean it’s an odd business,” she had said, “when you perform, it’s all of you. You aren’t putting just some aspect of yourself out there, you’re putting all of yourself out there. It’s not like painting a picture or writing a book. We are our art.”
What had she wanted him to say? Yes, it was an insecure business?—surely that was a given. That he was insecure?—that was a given, too. To tap her on the shoulder three times with his magic wand and make her feel secure? These thoughts now prompted him to tell Alcazar: “She seemed a bit needy.”
Debra’s large, heavily made-up friend—whose name he’d now completely forgotten—had decided to go on a hunt for some sustenance. So they’d sat on the steps of the Select Academy in the early September sun while the fumes from passing busses and the million other smells of London wafted across their conversation. Louis-Marie had smiled into the sun hoping that was enough to contribute. And Debra—high on London and new friends—had continued to chatter. “I mean, every artist has to deal with insecurity but it’s that very insecurity that makes them raw, and ends up killing them or destroying their art.”
“Or makes it.” Louis-Marie placed the back of his hand to his forehead in a mock-tragic pose.
“I’m serious. Look at the list of us who have died for our art. Will the casualties never end as we search for truth? That insecurity ends up leading us, the so-called artistes, down the path to popularism, to Hollywood, to the big Companies, the Met, the Canadian Opera Company, the big ballets.”
“The Select Academy? Doesn’t everyone want a big company?”
“They just want to say, Look at me. I’ve made it. You finally approve. Now I can hide behind the façade of belonging. Now I can compromise. It all ends up being a big high school and everyone wants to be a football player or a cheerleader. Everyone wants to be married and loved, and not just by one person. Don’t you see? Everybody wants in.”
But Louis-Marie would have very much appreciated being loved by just one person.
“Look at that flash in-the-pan who calls herself Madonna, she’s the head cheerleader. She wants to conquer everything—sing, dance, act. She’s tried to get her finger into each of our worlds. I mean I could talk about some obscure opera singer famous in her own right or you could tell me about some ballerina or, or—”
“Right, whatever, but I would never have heard of them. Everyone’s heard of that attention hog.”
“And who’s captain of the football team?”
“Oh, take your pick. They’re fighting it out in Hollywood. There’s some guy everyone is hot for, Cruise or something. He’s been in about one film. You watch. Mark my words. He’ll be the new hot property, until he can’t live with himself any longer.”
Debra had been so earnest in what she’d said, and all Louis-Marie could do was continue to nod his head. “It’s an interesting theory. All I ever believed was that it was noble to suffer for your art.”
“Suffer? See what I mean? It soon becomes your goal not to suffer, that’s the trap. That’s the stigma. It’s up to us to beat our own path. Don’t you see that all that other stuff is a distraction? It’s our mission to avoid repeating the same old schlock. We have to ask ourselves what it is we want to do with our art. We have to ask ourselves why.”
Louis-Marie had wondered if Debra’s monologue had gone into the realm of pulling-it-out-her-ass, just so he would keep her company. It happened constantly after opening nights that someone would hone in on him, a lonely man or woman, and start to talk about ideas that they seemed impressed with, which would only push him to disagree. Disagreeing meant you were stuck, up to your neck in a conversation with a stranger.
But just as Debra had caught her breath and noticed that this lean man had really been listening to her, and that he had the most lovely lips, Carolyn had returned with gourmet treats, licking her fingers as the wrapped packages dripped a creamy red liquid. “Don’t you love this city? I swear if you have the bucks you can get whatever you want.”
“Where have you been?”
“Food hall, honey. Food hall.”
“Isn’t that way back there?”
“That’s what those cute cabs are for. Now for our new friend the dancer here, looking a little thin, I might say. Has she been boring you? I had to listen to her all the way across the Atlantic, so you got off easy. I got prawn—don’t you love the words they use?—and avocado in an aubergine mayo, and ditto for the two big girls along with chicken breast a la Niçoise, if we’re still hungry—or for later. Let’s eat the avocado first. Hey, I’m wearing most of it.”
Because Louis-Marie was tired of hearing about Debra’s dissertation and because the Registrar’s office was still closed, he’d left the girls with the lame but valid excuse of going in search of elastic for his dance shoes. Upon his return, the girls had left, and that’s where and when he had found Alcazar.
Now, sitting in front of him in the Indian café, Louis-Marie began to relax. The tea returned the moisture to his pallet. But the conversation with the girls left his mind spinning. All those bloody questions. “Don’t you this? Don’t you that?”
“Watch out for the big girl,” Alcazar said, “I think she likes fruits.”
“They’re both big.”
“Oh, the friend knows the score, but the other one, the blonde, she’s the type that is okay with it until she tries to convert you. Then somebody’s heart is going to break.” After a moment, Alcazar continued, “Oh, I get it. You still think there’s hope that you’re not a homo.”
Louis-Marie squirmed. “Labels make me nervous.”
“I just don’t want to be excluded.”
“I don’t know.” But Louis-Marie didn’t want to think about any of this—it left him feeling too vulnerable. “I think they came over in first class.”
“Extra wide seats. They’re quite the characters. I can see why the dark-haired one would be here, but the blonde?”
“It’s the other way around. The blonde, Debra, is here for voice. Her friend Carolyn—”
“Oh, so maybe they’re lesbians.”
“I hadn’t thought about it.” Louis-Marie interrupted himself, “Are you wearing make-up?”
“Are you trying to change the subject?”
“It’s your eyes… eyeliner?”
And with a tone that said Alcazar had put more miles on his machine than Louis-Marie had, and that he might like Louis-Marie’s help in adding a few more, he replied, “Natural, my friend.” Alcazar had a fine line that ran just below his eye on that sliver of skin that protected the eyeball from the eyelash. Louis-Marie noticed it because he always applied eyeliner there when putting on stage make-up. It brought out the eye, made it look more intense, whereas on stage, at a distance, it just kept the eye visible. The drawn line would then extend beyond the eye towards the ear. A complementary line would be drawn from above, along the crease of the eyelid and then above the lower line, at an angle to enlarge the presence of the eye. At a distance, it was alluring; the trouble was, most ballerinas thought it was always alluring and would have their eyes so heavily made-up for civilian occasions that required just a little make-up—a night out or the equivalent. This, mixed with the deformities of anorexia, and hair pulled into excruciatingly tight buns, made them look like alien beings, ponies, large crickets, or distant relatives of Bambi. But, in Alcazar’s case, that line above was matched by his thick lashes. “You’ve got an extra dose of pigment along that little ridge of skin. People would pay a lot of money for that.”
“It’s not tattooed? Not cosmetic surgery?”
“Just my natural beauty.” Alcazar smiled in spite of himself, showing his movie star teeth for the first time. He trusted the innocence that Louis-Marie had brought to the table.
Louis-Marie laughed. “I know. Spanish eyes.”
“Mexico. I’m Mexican. Guadalajara. I’ve spent most of my time in Spain. Shitty movies have paid my way—most of it.”
It wasn’t that Louis-Marie didn’t trust Alcazar, but there was something more he felt he should know about him—it was as if Alcazar was guarding a huge secret. But sitting this close, across from him, knees barely, but self-consciously touching, brought him such pleasure, and simply because of his beauty. He could just sit and enjoy looking at Alcazar’s face, as if it were an added bonus to the conversation. Unfortunately, when the conversation ran its course, Louis-Marie found that there was no reason to move on. He had to be prodded back to life. Alcazar’s beauty was like a drug. But an onlooker could say the same about the two of them, as they sat face to face. Alcazar broke the silence. “I have to go back to the school, and get my admission sorted out.”
The boys parted awkwardly on the street, with a handshake.