Poetry: The Ballerina by Marisa Webster
“The Ballerina,” by Marisa Webster, holds together with the glue of its own unmistakeable question: when does a ballerina stop being a ballerina? i.e. When does an identity become a story and no longer a lived reality? Through prosaic syntax and sticky, meaty, thick-dancing imagery, Webster searches for the answer.
You move the cardboard box with your ballet slippers
towards me, the ribbons frayed, the pointes made of
fabric and cardboard. You self-treated your blisters
with glue, wrapped your feet in old tights, prepared yourself
for what your life would be like to dance five ballets
in seven nights as a member of the corps.
There is an offending odour which seems incongruous
with the dainty shoes. You shuffle to the stove, your rump
now a large, meaty turkey. Black tea is poured in two
ceramic mugs, the one with the chipped handle is handed
to me. Sorry, you say. No cream or sugar — some habits
you just can’t break. I assume this is from your days as a dancer
where you lived off of boiled chicken, yogurt and vegetables,
some days, even, just an apple and porridge. I am handed a
photograph tucked in the bottom of the shoebox.
It is a young girl, maybe fourteen sitting on a brick wall
outside the ballet school in tights and a leotard. A black coal
train sits idle in the distance. She is not smiling. She is skinny.
I can see her ribs. I imagine her heart beating like a butterfly
trapped in a bony cage. As you talk, I examine your kitchen.
It is basic: on the fridge are a few tropical fish magnets,
the tablecloth is the colour of Lake Louise with a handful
of roses sprinkled on the surface. A stained tea towel is
draped over the handle of the oven door. The sink is filled
with dishes. There something Soviet-Era that permeates
the apartment, but not a hint of ballet. You continue to talk,
tell me that the leotards were purple, so that when
the girls danced together, they looked like fields of lavender
swaying in the breeze. Your training occurred at one of the
finest institutions in Russia. At three years old, you danced
around the house; at twelve, you trained full-time, lived at
the school, a four-hour train ride from home. You did your job,
twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week: raised your brow,
tilted your head, fanned your fingers, forgot about the ankle
sprains, the hunger, the pulled hamstrings. You were scolded
because you trembled when you tried too hard. Staring at the
mildewed pink satin shoes, I muster up the courage to ask
what has been between our words: So why did you stop?
You kick off a pair of worn disposable hotel slippers.
There is a large scar on the ball of your right foot.
It had been a beautiful day, you said. You snuck outside
to feel the sun on you face. You were spinning, pirouette
after pirouette — the fog of dancing indoors started to lift —
until, suddenly, you stepped on a nail. You point to a jar filled
with an orange creamy substance — it pierced a nerve like a knife
through Velveeta. In the hospital, you were tremulous, feverish,
jaw clamped tight. They thought that maybe it was tetanus,
but you were in shock and simply couldn’t speak. That day, the
ballet mistress came to the hospital, told you you’d be sent home,
might never dance again. Ballet is refined, elegant, she said.
Your job is to create an aesthetic; a work of beauty, so
transient it can’t be touched. Her expression remained perfectly
impenetrable. Back at home, you received nothing—no letters,
no well-wishes — your life as a ballerina now nothing more
than a myth. You learned how to sew, got married, moved to
Canada and became a seamstress. I can see my prom dress
hanging in the corner of the living room. Do you miss it, I ask?
You rub the bottom of your foot, say to me: You know that feeling
you get when you leave the house, but you fear that you have forgotten
something? You can’t go back, but it runs through your head over
and over, every hour throughout the day? This is my life.
Marisa Webster is a second-year anesthesiology resident at the University of Calgary. Her work has been published in the Dalhousie Medical Journal and Canadian Family Physician. She is the past winner of the Cynthia Davis Writing Prize and the Hunter Humanities Award at Dalhousie University. When she is not putting people to sleep or poking them with needles, she is an avid yoga practitioner, and enjoys spending time with her husband and her tuna-addicted cat, Penelope.