of the Wicked Boys
“You’re never going to make it, Rafael. You know that. Why bother?”
He stood before his stepfather in his leotard and tights, breathing hard after hours of practice, hours of hard work. His stepfather gazed down at him and shook his head with contempt.
“You’re never going to New York. They’ll never take you. You’re just a pretty little gay boy who’s never going to be more than a dancer in a regional ballet or a teacher at a dance school in Kansas or Nebraska. You don’t have it in you, Rafael.”
“Yes, I do!” he cried. “I’m good, Stephen! I am! I’m the best! I’ll show you! Watch!”
And, he began desperately to dance, anxious to prove to Stephen that he was a good dancer, that he was the best, that he was going to New York. But, his stepfather simply turned and walked away, telling him, “You’re a wicked boy, Rafael. A wicked boy. You’re too wicked to be a good dancer. Too wicked...”
He sat up in bed and frantically looked around his bedroom. The morning sun shone through the curtains as it rose. He heard no sounds in the house. He was alone. There was no Stephen. He was not on stage in his tights and leotard. He was naked, in bed, and covered in sweat.
His mouth was dry as he lay back down and stared at the ceiling. The only thing Stephen hadn’t said to him in his nightmare this time that he normally said to Rafael was, “You’re only good for one thing and it isn’t dancing.” He had awakened before Stephen could say what the one thing was.
His fists were clenched and there were tears in his eyes as he cursed himself, Stephen had been dead for three years. Rafael had been in New York for three years. He was one of the best dancers at the Ballet Academy of America. How much longer was he going to be cursed by this nightmare? How much better did he have to be before the ghost of his hateful, bastard stepfather would leave him alone?
It would never happen, ever, because Stephen was right. There was only one thing he was good for.
No! He could not give in to the self-hatred, the self-loathing today. He had something to do today, something important. But, before he could do it, he had to work out, he had to practice, he had to dance. Every day. Every day. He could never lose his edge. Ever. There were dozens of other teenage dancers at Ballet Academy of America, School of American Ballet, Boston Ballet School, San Francisco, and any of a dozen other schools around the country ready to knock him off his pedestal. No. He had to be the best. He had to be.
He rose from the bed and pulled his robe on. He stepped out into the hallway, but heard no sounds from the rest of the house. With relief, he went to the bathroom and then walked through the house to the kitchen. Claretta was not on duty yet, so he opened the refrigerator and prepared a glass of orange juice, a bowl of cereal, a bagel, and yogurt and, placing them on a tray, descended the stairs from the kitchen to the basement. He opened a door and stepped into a darkened room and flipped the light switch.
He was home. This was his sanctuary when in Greensburg, his refuge from the world, from his mother, from his memories. Before him was a dance studio, complete with a proper wooden dance floor, a mirrored wall, a barre, a stereo and a piano. His stepfather had installed it during one of his personality swings, during one of those rare periods where he loved Rafael and didn’t hold him in utter and complete contempt. This was where Rafael had retreated during the last two years at home before going to New York and Ballet Academy. There was even a bed here where he often chose to sleep on nights when he danced late—and when he wanted to escape Stephen’s intrusions into his bedroom and his life.
Rafael sat in silence, eating his breakfast and feeling the pain and shame ease. Just being in the studio helped. Just being in the environment made all the difference. It was as if dance was the only anesthetic in his life.
Well, not the only anesthetic, but the only one over which he felt no shame.
He finished his breakfast and set the tray aside before rising and walking over to a dresser beside the bed. He withdrew a dance belt and a new pair of dance shoes, put them on and, wearing nothing else, walked to the barre, where he began his stretches and warm-ups.
He hadn’t thought of the boy for years. That fervent declaration made the night Jeremy had seen Rafael perform as Fritz and as one of the soldiers in Nutcracker... it had just seemed like some little kid’s typically hyperbolic excitement. Rafael never thought he actually meant it. Yet...
There was another night, years before that night, when another boy, one with dark curls and dark eyes, had been entranced by the splendor he had seen on the stage, by the beauty of the women and the men, by the marvelous dancing and the wonderful music, by the spectacular scenery. There had been something else, though, that had captivated the boy. It was the power and strength of the man who danced the role of the Nutcracker, his muscles and energy... and his grace and elegance.
As he sat on the floor doing his stretches, looking back on those two nights, Rafael was amazed that he hadn’t seen the parallels between the two. What a dolt! How could he not have seen the same excitement in Jeremy Fenwick’s eyes that he, Rafael, had felt just six years earlier when he, too, had seen The Nutcracker and discovered what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Yes, he should have seen it. He shouldn’t have been so self-absorbed and so self-satisfied that night when a hero-worshiping boy had come up to him and declared that he was going to learn to dance “just like you!” He should have understood. He should have known.
Well, he would make it up to the boy. Jeremy Fenwick’s brother might be an asshole- Rafael had known Brian at Breckenridge Academy and the guy had been an asshole even then —but Rafael was going to do what he could for Jeremy.
But, what? What could he do when a crazy preacher who hated dancing had control over the boy?
When he was finished with his stretches and his barre, he moved to the center and continued his morning routine, but unlike normally, his concentration was not on his dancing and his moves. That was one of the reasons he loved dance; he could focus entirely on what he was doing to the exclusion of everything else. If he was feeling pain over something or someone, he could clear his mind of everything and concentrate on his dancing, on his movement, on the rhythm, on the music, and escape from the reality of his life. However, at this moment, he didn’t seem to be able to focus. He stopped and grinned as he remembered Madame Pulchova’s exhortations, “Focus! Focus! Focus!”
He wished he had someone to talk with about this. There was Uncle Teddy back in New York, of course, and Rafael would talk with him about it. But, what Rafael wanted was a friend to talk to, a friend to share his thoughts with. Surprisingly, after four years at Ballet Academy of America, he had no close friends. Oh, there were dancers there with whom he worked well, dancers who understood Rafael’s love for dance, dancers whom he partied with occasionally. And, there were the men, the adult dancers who came to help and work with the boys, the faculty whose own careers on stage were over and who were now passing on their experience to the next generation. But, in all those four years, there was no one Rafael could actually consider a “friend” in the real, true sense of the word.
He thought he had found that friend... in London, an English dancer, Anthony Harcourt. Eighteen, tall, strong, beautiful—inside and out. They had danced and flirted for several days before Rafael brought him to his room and his bed one night. Anthony had taken the lead, just as Rafael liked, and the younger boy had even had to stop himself at one point from using the dreaded “L” world with him. But, as they were lying together in their post-coital cuddling, Anthony had surprised Rafael by admitting that they could never be more than a fling. Anthony had told Rafael that the younger teenager was simply too into himself, to self-absorbed, too narcissistic for them to have a relationship, even just a friendship. He was enough for a fling, but that was it.
Rafael had been shocked by the other dancer’s brutal honesty. Anthony’s statement was simply a variation on Stephen’s most hurtful insult, that Rafael was only good for a quick fuck. It wasn’t true, though. It wasn’t. Rafael was a great dancer and he was a good person. He was.
Perhaps he could prove it by helping Jeremy escape this nightmare. Here was a boy who loved to dance and who, apparently, was as good as Rafael, thrown into an untenable situation and no one seemed able to help him. Perhaps Rafael could help Jeremy and prove to himself, in doing so, that he was good person and not the self-centered narcissist that Anthony seemed to think he was or the loser who was good only for a fuck, as Stephen had said so often. And, perhaps, Jeremy could be a friend... maybe, possibly...
Rafael really had no one with whom he could share his feelings, his deepest and innermost fears and insecurities. Oh, there was Uncle Teddy, of course, but Teddy was thirty years older than Rafael and... it just wasn’t the same. Rafael needed someone closer to his age, someone who knew what he was feeling, what he was going through, who understood. Could Jeremy perhaps be that person? Would Jeremy understand?
Rafael stopped his routine. There was a piece he loved to listen to when he was in one of these moods, when he needed to feel his emotions, when he needed to tear down the wall that kept his emotions from escaping. He walked over to the stereo and took an album of the shelf above, The New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein performing Dmitri Koronov’s The Ice Prince. He took the second record out of the dust jacket and placed the “B” side on the turntable, setting the needle partially through the next to last track. As the music began, he walked to the center of the dance floor and stood in First Position, his feet turned out, one before the other and he gazed at himself in the mirror.
Yes, he was beautiful, with his slim, strong, adolescent body, his thick, shiny dark curls falling over his head, his deep, dark eyes. He wasn’t arrogant about it. It was just a fact he had lived with for years. Women and men found him beautiful. It was too bad it wasn’t enough.
The Ice Prince was Koronov’s masterpiece, his greatest work, and told the story of Prince Andrei and his friend Sasha. There were women in the ballet, but unlike all other works, especially Russian works of the nineteenth century, the women were not at the center of the ballet. The story focused on Andrei and Alexander— or Sasha as Andrei familiarly calls him. The two pledged their undying friendship to each other early in the ballet in the famous “Dance of the Friends,” which had been the piece Rafael had danced in his audition for admission to Ballet Academy. But, now, in the final dance, the great tragedy of the ballet was about to occur. This was the most difficult and energetic dance in the entire work, in all of Koronov’s works, and the most emotionally challenging for Rafael.
The next to last track ended and Rafael shifted to Third Position. And, then it began.
Slowly, moving across the floor in careful, vigilant moves, Rafael—Prince Andrei—was searching for the forces of the evil Prince of the South, who was demanding that Prince Andrei release his betrothed from her vow to marry. Sasha and Andrei’s Army were prepared to fight to the death to defeat the Prince of the South. And, then, the music suddenly explodes and the battle begins! Every difficult and energetic move known for men in classical ballet came into play as Rafael leapt and spun and ran across the floor, swinging his imaginary sword as he slew one after another of the soldiers of his nemesis with Sasha, his friend, his comrade, his brother-in-arms at his side. Princess Maria had come to watch the battle and Sasha suddenly saw that she was in danger. He rushed to her and saved her from the clutches of the evil Prince of the South, but in doing so, suffered a severe wound. Andrei saw his friend fall, but had to continue fighting until finally the Prince of the South fell in defeat. Only then could Andrei rush to his friend’s side.
Gasping for breath, his body glistening with sweat, Rafael/Andrei knelt at the side of his friend, the one friend, the only friend he had ever had. Their love for each other apparent, Andre watched as the life flowed from Sasha’s eyes and at the last, Sasha died and Andrei cried out in anguish as Maria joined him. They stood and watched as Sasha’s spirit rose and looked down upon them with a smile, his arms spread wide to encompass them, symbolizing that Sasha would be guarding them from Heaven. And, the curtain fell.
But, Rafael never rose when he danced the battle scene. Every time he was alone and danced this, he was never able to rise to his feet. He always remained on his knees, holding the nonexistent body of the friend he never had, mourning not the loss of his friend but the friend who never was. And, at this moment, that loss was even more painful than it usually was. Tears flowed down his cheeks as Rafael looked up from the nonexistent corpse of he who never was and as he saw himself in the mirror, crying like a child, he turned away with contempt for himself.
Rafael was not a crier. When he was in deep, emotional pain, he could never release the anguish he felt and cry... except in dance, and the one time he knew he could force these tears from behind the wall he had built around his emotions was to dance the climactic battle scene from The Ice Prince.
For several minutes, he lay on the floor and cried until he was exhausted. Slowly, he rose and walked over to the stereo, where the record was still spinning, the needle at the end of the piece. He lifted the needle and moved it to its resting place, turned off the turntable, and returned the record to its dust jacket and cover. And, then, he sighed heavily.
He was now ready to face the day.
“I was wondering if you were ever going to drag yourself from the bed.”
Rafael stood, freshly showered and dressed in Madras shorts, a Navy Lacoste, and Topsiders, at the doors leading to the patio where his mother sat, primly drinking her coffee in her perfect dress, her perfect blouse, her perfect hair, and her perfect make-up.
“Actually, I’ve been up for three hours. I was downstairs doing my morning workout before I showered and dressed.”
His mother simply raised an eyebrow as she returned her attention to the morning newspaper. Claretta handed him another orange juice and he walked out and sat down at the table. It was a beautiful morning, though still too warm for Rafael’s taste. Blue jays were squawking and a mockingbird sat on the limb of a dogwood tree running through its repertoire of songs. The sky was cloudless and as the young man looked up, he smiled, the depression and self-loathing of earlier safely put back in its place, behind the wall he had built for his emotions, where they belonged.
“What are your plans for the day?” he asked his mother.
She gave him a suspicious look and asked, “Why?”
“I’m sorry. I was attempting to have a conversation,” Rafael replied. “That’s what people do who love each other. I thought it might be fun to play make-believe. You can be the mommy and I can be the son.”
His mother gave him a narrow-eyed look and, after a moment, replied, “We are having lunch with Betty Sue Longstreet and Ruth Anne Claiborne at The Tea Room. Fortunately, you won’t have to change your clothes. That should be sufficient. Try to act reasonably heterosexual, though.”
Rafael nodded and declared, “I’ll chew on a toothpick and hook my thumbs in my pockets as we walk in. Maybe spit some chew on the floor. You think it might be a bit much if I kick the snot out of one of the queer busboys? Of course, I’ll be going in there with one strike against me to begin with: I’ll be a male having lunch with my mommy in the Tea Room.”
“I know you think you’re amusing, Rafael,” the woman responded, “but, if you could refrain from sharing your wit with me, I would appreciate it.”
“You’re no fun.”
“I’m your mother. It’s not my job to be fun.”
“Mother! You made a joke!” Rafael exclaimed with excitement. “I thought you said you didn’t have a sense of humor!”
“I try not to, but you tend to bring out the worst in me.”
He grinned and said, “There it was again. You know, we could actually have fun trading ironic wordplay until I leave Sunday.”
Rafael winked at Claretta as she refilled his mother’s coffee cup. The housekeeper smiled professionally at him, though he could see the twinkle in her eye.
“The two of you don’t need to take pleasure at my expense,” his mother declared, her eyes locked on the newspaper.
“Well, God, Mom,” Rafael exclaimed as he rose from the chair, “you just won’t let me have any fun!”
He decided to spend the rest of the morning swimming laps in the pool and then listen to Tchaikovsky as he re-showered and re-dressed. Lunch with his mother’s friends was not too trying an experience. When asked about his time in London and replying that it rained a lot, he managed to move his leg out of range of his mother’s sharp-toed shoe and described in detail all the wondrous sights and experiences of his six weeks. Afterward, in the car as they drove home, his mother actually complimented him on his behavior.
They were driving along the busy parkway in the early afternoon traffic when Rafael noticed, through his expensive sunglasses, that they were nearing the Greensburg Ballet School.
“Mom, could you do me a favor and drop me off over here at the Ballet School?” he asked, sitting up.
“I’m not spending the afternoon with Anna Pulchova,” his mother replied. “I can’t stand the woman.”
“That’s good, because she can’t stand you, either,” Rafael replied, “which is why you’re just dropping me off.”
“How are you getting home?” she asked. “I’m not coming back to pick you up.”
“No need. I’ll walk.”
“Mom, it’s six blocks! I walk farther than that in Manhattan to take a leak.”
She looked at him with exasperation as she pulled into the school’s parking lot and said, “Language, Rafael! I swear. New York has stripped you of all your southern heritage.”
“Mom, you were born in Boston and Dad was born in Madrid, for God’s sake. What southern heritage? You act as if we’re direct descendants of Robert E. Lee.”
She gave him a cold look as he opened the door and stepped out. He smiled politely and said, “Thank you.”
She said nothing as she drove off. Rafael sighed with relief and walked along the path to the front entrance. As he opened the door to the lobby, he could hear a piano playing somewhere deep in the building. Even though the summer session was completed, he knew there would still be students working here, though there was a good chance that Madame Pulchova would already have left for her annual trip to Europe.
The receptionist jumped up from behind the desk as she exclaimed, “Rafael! You’re back!”
He grinned as she hurried around the desk to hug him. Squeezing him tightly, she said, “Let me ring Madame! She’ll be thrilled to see you!”
He waited a moment until the woman, holding her phone to her ear, nodded, and he thanked her before he started up the main hallway. The piano, even the smell of the place, made him nostalgic for the years he had trained here, and he almost wished he was once again that eager seven- and eight-year-old boy, dreaming of someday going to New York.
An older woman wearing a loose, flowing dress, with her silver hair pulled back in a ballet bun, appeared in the hall before him. She extended her arms wide as she declared in a voice deepened with age and a Russian accent she steadfastly maintained despite the more than fifty years since she had left Leningrad, (he was never permitted to say “Leningrad” in her presence, only “St. Petersburg), “Rafael! You look like a god!”
“Madame Pulchova! You look like a goddess!” he responded chivalrously as they embraced.
“Yes, I do,” she replied with a twinkle in her eye. “Come. We will drink tea and you will tell me all about London and New York! You know, I talk to people and write letters. I hear and read great things about our Gazelle!”
Rafael laughed with surprise as he followed her into her office. “How do you know about my nickname?”
“I told you. People talk about The Gazelle and they tell me how energetic and elegant he is, how beautiful he is, and how you have the potential to be one of the greats. I am so proud of you, Rafael.”
He smiled modestly as she stood at a table at the side of the office and prepared two cups of tea. As he sat in one of the leather chairs before her desk, she handed him his cup and said, “Alistair tells me that he is preparing a piece just for his gazelle. He intends to call it The Gazelle.”
“Really?” Rafael replied with surprise as Madame Pulchova sat down opposite him. “He’s never said anything to me about it.”
“He will,” she said with a smile. “It’s to be your crowning achievement before you leave Ballet Academy.”
Rafael looked away, embarrassed. Madame Pulchova smiled and said, “You have much to be proud of, Rafael.”
He looked down and replied softly, “I owe you a great deal, Madame. You’re the reason I’m where I am.”
“Partly,” she admitted, “but most of it is you, Rafael. You’re gifted. I’ve had only one other boy in the last few years as talented and as determined as you.”
Rafael looked up. He said nothing for several seconds before quietly asking, “Jeremy Fenwick?”
She smiled and nodded.
“Tell me about him,” he asked.
Madame Pulchova sighed and looked at her tea as she shook her head. “He’s every bit as good as you, Rafael. In some ways, he’s even better. He has the same drive, the same determination, the same need for perfection. Possibly he has the same motivation as you.”
Rafael was surprised by the last comment and was about to ask what she meant, when the woman said, “I am afraid for him. That Neanderthal may push the poor boy to do something rash. He lives to dance and I don’t know if he can live without it.”
“There’s no way the uncle can be persuaded to let Jeremy dance?”
She shook her head and said, “I tried. I tried to visit with the man. I went to his house and he wouldn’t let me in. He actually called me a ‘foul temptress’ and said I was leading my students to perdition.”
“God, what an idiot,” Rafael muttered as he looked down at his tea.
“He is criminally stupid,” Madame said. “Someone must offer to take Jeremy away from him. Someone must offer the boy a home. I cannot believe the uncle would turn down such an offer. It is my understanding that no one has come forward. If someone would...”
Rafael looked up and their eyes met. He pressed his lips tightly together and then looked away.
“I... I don’t think my mother would do it. I can ask her... My Uncle Teddy might, but he lives in New York and... well, I don’t know if the court would...well, Teddy...”
Madame smiled and nodded as she replied, “I understand.”
Rafael frowned and asked, “Madame, you said he has the same motivation I do. What did you mean?”
“Come now, Rafael,” she replied. “Surely you see it. You’re need for absolute perfection, your almost, how do they say... pathological need to be the best. You are compensating for something. You are compensating for your shame.”
Rafael felt sick. He swallowed as he stared at the woman. He said nothing.
“I think I know of what you are ashamed, though I do not believe the shame is justified. I know of Stephen Hampton. I know what kind of man he was. Rafael, I am an old woman and I have been dancing since I was a little girl in St. Petersburg, before the Revolution. I know how the world is. I know how the ballet world is. I do not judge. I accept. I accept that you are the magnificent dancer you are, in part because of the shame you feel about your stepfather. Many of us, over the years, have had to do things we might not have wanted in order to achieve a greater good. We try to overcome the petty emotions and morality of the masses. We are above that. To reach the pinnacle, we must sometimes accept that which would be unacceptable to others. Perhaps it will not be that way someday. Today, however, it is.”
Rafael was trembling. He looked away.
“Rafael, my dear, what Stephen Hampton did to you, what you may have done with Stephen Hampton, you had to do to survive, my dear. It was not of your choice. You had to survive. You should feel no shame for that. I want you to find that strength in you, that desire, that motivation that drives you to perfection not because you need to compensate for shame, but because you love dance, you love beauty, you love perfection, you love these things so much that you cannot live without them.”
Tears trickled down Rafael’s cheeks as she spoke. She set her tea down, took his away and set it down beside hers, and took his hands in hers. “Rafael, you will never dance well enough to forgive yourself. Never, because you did nothing for which you can or should forgive yourself. You must simply accept what happened and move on. Dance, Rafael. Dance and be free and be happy.”
He could say nothing. He looked in her eyes and saw her compassion as she looked back. After a long moment, he wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist. Madame Pulchova handed him a box of tissues from her desk and he took them with embarrassment. As he wiped his face and nose, he asked, “So, is Jeremy ashamed of the same thing?”
Madame Pulchova took a deep breath and replied, “No. Jeremy’s shame is much different. He’s ashamed of being a dancer.”
Rafael looked at her with surprise and replied, “What?”
She smiled and explained.
“Poor Jeremy’s family never truly accepted his ballet training. He’s always been embarrassed that they weren’t as proud of him as they were of his older brother. Do not misunderstand. Jeremy loves dance. He lives for it, but he is, underneath, ashamed because he knows, or knew, his parents, his father in particular, were not happy. They paid for his training. They were going to send him to New York. They planned to give him every help and advantage he needed, but they weren’t happy about it. Jeremy feels, or rather felt, that he had to be the best. He had to put forth every bit of effort he could to be the best. Anything else, he felt, would justify his parents’ lack of emotional support. He was constantly trying to prove himself to them and to himself.”
“But, they’re dead now,” Rafael said. “I know it’s awful, but... I mean, he’s free now. If he can free himself of the uncle, then, he won’t have to worry about that. He can dance to be happy, now.”
She shook her head and replied, “No. Their ghosts will always be there. He will always see his father standing before him. He will always see his father’s disappointment. No matter how well he dances, no matter what heights he achieves, he will always see his father’s ghost before him and that look of disappointment in his eyes. Jeremy, if he is ever able to dance again, must free himself of that, just as you must free yourself of your shame.”
Rafael paused a moment and then asked, “Forgive me, Madame Pulchova, but, do you know this much about all your students?”
The woman raised an eyebrow and replied in her deep, Russian-accented voice, “I know everything.”
Rafael looked in awe and then grinned as he saw the twinkle Madame Pulchova’s eye.
The two drank more tea and then switched their conversation to other topics, Rafael’s work at Ballet Academy, Madame’s memories of London, Paris, and St. Petersburg, and the upcoming ballet seasons in New York and Greensburg. When Madame finally rose and announced that it had been delightful seeing Rafael again, he felt restored to emotional stability and was smiling as he left the school. Standing in the bright, afternoon sun, feeling the heat of the late July summer, he felt more confident than he had all day.
Perhaps he could overcome the shame of his years with Stephen. Perhaps, even, he could find a way to help poor Jeremy. Certainly, if the boy was as good a dancer as he, Jeremy deserved to have someone care, someone help.
Yet, there was still that doubt in the back of his mind, still that image of his stepfather, still that doubt.
Rafael looked to the right, in the direction of his house, but instead, turned to the left and walked up the sidewalk toward downtown. There was someone else he needed to speak with.