Photo: Leslie Kendall Dye
Photo: Leslie Kendall Dye

A Thing of Beauty

Lunch at the Fournets is just as I imagined it would be. Their apartment is tidy but stylish, colorful but understated. The two girls, aged three and six, wear matching navy blue jumpers from Petit Bateau. The children eat the same meal as the grownups and are expected to sit at the children’s table and wait until the adults finish lunch before they can have their dessert. A bouquet of red roses adorns the round dining table, and despite the postage-stamp living conditions of a New York City apartment, the place feels spacious and bright. Late November winds swirl outside while we eat our lunch.

We are deep into our beef stew and wine when Julie asks about my hip.

“I know exactly what the MRI is going to show and there’s no way out but surgery,” I say. “How can I possibly manage a four-year-old after arthroscopy? You’ve seen my child, she runs like a Labrador.”

Julie leans into me.

“I want to tell you about my mother,” she says.

“When I was only two, we had a car accident. We were on a road in Allevard, a city in the Alps. We had spent the day in the mountains and we were coming home. The brakes failed and we all were thrown from the car. My mother, she became paralyzed. She told us that in the darkest hours, in the hospital, while she prayed for death, people reminded her that she had children, that they needed her. She told me this fact, this need of her children—this is what pulled her up to fight. She fought to get use of her hands back. They told her she wouldn’t use them again, but she did. She is in a wheelchair since I am two years old —I have no memory of her any other way—and she is happy. She is just—my mother.”

“Are your parents still married?” I ask. I’m from Los Angeles, where staying married for life is exotic, almost eccentric. But really I want to know if love can remain when someone is badly hurt: Can romantic devotion conquer calamity?

She looks surprised. “Of course they are still married. Why not?”

She takes me to their front door, where she has taped glossy snapshots from home.
“Here is my mother and me.” A white-haired woman in a delicate cardigan is laughing as the camera snaps; Julie, crouched next to her mother’s wheelchair, is smiling too. They are in a garden, surrounded by flowers.

“Look—here is a picture of the girls with their cousins in Montmartre. Our apartment was not far from where this picture was taken. If you look in the Madeline books, you will see a sketch of our street.” She strokes each photo as she narrates their adventures, their life at home.

“But you see, things happen. And people told us when we were little, “Oh, you have to be careful with your mother, she is sick! And we were confused, or we laughed. Our mother is not sick, we told them. She is in a wheelchair, but she is not sick! It is how you look at it. You must have your surgery to repair your hip. How you see it will be how your daughter sees it. I am not saying it wasn’t a struggle, of course, it is a serious thing. But we never saw our mother as sick—never!”

 

I first met Julie Fournet that September, at a toy shop on the Upper West Side, though I’d seen her in our neighborhood before. That day, she was talking to her daughters, and I knew before I heard her voice that she was not American. She spoke quietly, with attentive regard for her surroundings. If her children were noisy, she silenced them with a warning glance. Her every movement reflected an awareness of the public nature of a shop.

We made eye contact. A flash of recognition passed over her face—Oh good, I thought, she recognizes me! We talked about small things—she admired my daughter’s dress, I asked where her children were going to school. We leafed through the books the shop had set out to commemorate the Jewish holidays—a rare sight in Paris, she told me. Her French Jewish babysitter had come to visit New York City last autumn, Julie said, and had been amazed to see so many menorahs unapologetically on display. We spoke solemnly of the implications, and then moved on to easier topics, laughing about our exuberance at the children starting school. A few hours of free time! What would we do with it? And suddenly, having bonded over topics light and grave, we were friends.

“Why don’t we get a coffee when the school year starts?” she asked.

A week later, we met at Joe’s Coffee and chatted about raising young girls in the area, and about what Julie had observed: birthday parties that were unacquainted with proportion: parents renting out rooms at The Plaza or Dylan’s Candy Shop. She told me that her elder daughter Héloise wanted a big American style birthday party, but that she had explained to her how much more it means to bake your own cake, to have a few friends, to show those friends your room and your toys, to decorate for the party yourself.

I told Julie that my daughter had been at my breast, by my side, or in my arms ever since she’d been born four years earlier. Now that preschool had started I was returning to work. I’d been a performer all my life—since I was a child in Los Angeles. Pregnancy had stopped me cold. I surrendered a part in a play because it debuted a week before my due date; I’d lost my agent too. Amidst birthing and feeding and nap times and diapers, five years had elapsed.

I had tried to keep my foot in the door. When she was a baby, I nursed my daughter on a bench outside The Cherry Lane Theatre. I was acting in a staged reading and I didn’t want the director to know I was a mother. I also didn’t want to leak through my dress. All day my breasts swelled, relentlessly producing milk and pushing against the taut surface of my costume. My husband brought the baby, red-faced from the summer sun, to the theater, and I ducked out fifteen minutes before curtain. After I nursed her, I adjusted her sun bonnet, gave her a quick kiss, and waved goodbye as my husband and child departed for the subway. Then I darted back into the darkness of the theater.

Toddlers, I learned, were harder than babies, and hours away for rehearsals strained our resources. We calculated costs, both financial and emotional, and I said, “See you later” to my work. (“Please wait for me,” I whispered.)

Five years is a long time to be away from any career, but for a performer, it might as well be five hundred. “Time marches on,” as Truvy says in Steel Magnolias, “and eventually you realize it is marchin’ across your face.”

 

Shortly after meeting Julie, I stood at the ballet barre for the first time in a year. My studio overlooked Broadway to the east and the stately Ansonia Hotel to the south. Sunshine spilled through the enormous windows. I stretched my foot, extending it through a degagé. Blood flowed and my muscles loosened in a pool of autumnal sunshine.

Then, as my toe traced the circle of a ronde de jambe, pain ripped through my hip and down my thigh.

I knew instantly that I’d just torn the tissue in my hip capsule. Six years earlier, I had shredded my right hip.

A second shot of pain pierced my left leg as I tried to complete the circle—defeat. Pulse racing, I gathered my bag and pointe shoes and hobbled to the glass door. I closed it carefully behind me and walked to the dressing room as the pianist played “Ain’t Misbehavin'” for grand battement.

I sat on the bench.

Silence.

But you see, things happen.

 

By the time I visit a specialist, acquire prescriptions for imaging, and fight my insurance company for reimbursement, the autumn has vanished. I wrangle a spot for an MRI on the hospital’s calendar in early December. By this first week of the holiday month, I’m limping badly. I bring a cane to the hospital—it’s a way to ask for help without asking for help.

I sit down in the waiting room. A labral tear causes a disruption in proprioception: No matter which way you stretch or bend your wounded leg, you can’t “find” it, and there is no peace for your restless muscle receptors. The niggling piece of jagged glass in your joint seems to slide around, cutting the tender tissues of your thigh. I bend my knee to my chest and hold it with both hands to alleviate the pressure on the joint. Enfolded like origami, I pluck my phone from my bag and open the gallery of recent photos. I come across video footage from the night before.

My husband and daughter are dancing to the overture of Guys and Dolls. It was only last night and in our living room—but they seem far away. My daughter giggles and climbs up her father’s leg as though it is a staircase. “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” soars from my phone into the atrium of New York Presbyterian Hospital.

I hit “play” again.

An hour later, I crawl out of the white tube tunnel of the MRI machine and weep. Holding the hip at any angle for that long is torture, but there is no help for it. You can’t move or the image will blur. Tears pool on my jawbone as I wait for my copy of the scan. The receptionist looks down, embarrassed by my sobs. Then he holds out a dish of candy. I shake my head.

A week later, my internist phones to tell me what I already know: I’ve shredded my hip.

 

Here is what I am: a dancer. I am small and pale and I could never compete with the robust, tanned girls at my Southern California high school. I have never felt pretty. I am thin, I am serious, and I have chronic tendonitis. But I can cling to my sort of beauty—the sweaty determination that plays out in a ballet studio. It is my struggle, my daily work, my fascination with conquering physics that nourishes my pride and elevates my carriage. Dancers cut tights at the soles so we can pull them back and attend to bleeding blisters. It is our labor and our endurance that alters our character. This alteration is—to me—beautiful.

What happens when a dancer is denied the ability to labor? How we endure this insult becomes all we have left of our beauty.

 

As December and the mistletoe swell of Christmastime begins, I take a taxi to The Hospital for Special Surgery. It’s just across the street from New York Presbyterian Hospital, where the previous week I silently cried in the MRI. The Hospital for Special Surgery is trimmed in silver: silver picture frames outline images of dancers and basketball players, padded silver chairs stand on tall legs to accommodate the weak and injured. The lobby looks like a spaceship: fittingly modern, given the kind of high-tech, cutting-edge work they perform in the operating rooms upstairs. I meet with Dr. Kelly and his team of residents, all furiously taking notes. It’s odd being a hospital’s lesson plan, but the pain looms larger than my social discomfort. I know the tear has deepened; my foot has now lost feeling.

At last, Dr. Kelly is going to tell me he can perform an arthroscopy, like last time, when the other hip tore. He is going to tell me it will be done by Christmas. I wait for him to smile and say, “We’ll do a scope, clean out the labrum, and you’ll be up on your feet by January.”

He doesn’t smile.

He doesn’t even look at me.

“It’s a different problem this time,” Dr. Kelly says. “The left hip is dysplastic. You need a bone surgeon to reposition the hip.” The team files out.

His nurse, Katrina, stays. She puts up an X-ray of a post-surgical patient. She points to the pelvic area, where I can see the illuminated shards of steel screws, holding a pelvis in place.

“It’s called a PAO, short for Periacetabular Osteotomy. They will sever the hip from the pelvis, reshape the femoral head, cut into the bone and shift it into a better shape, so the hip is not dangling out of the socket. Those metal screws will hold the bone together while it heals. You’ll be hospitalized for several days and you’ll be on crutches for three months, at least. Many patients require a blood transfusion, so shore up your iron.”

“May 18th is available,” Katrina continues coolly.

Wolves gnaw at my thigh.

“That’s five months away. Isn’t there an emergency spot?”

Katrina smiles at me.

“Do you think anyone who comes here isn’t an emergency?”

 

I sit at the secretary’s desk, scheduling the series of appointments leading up to my surgery.

The waiting room walls are covered with framed jerseys from famous ball players. Their owners have written on the jackets in Sharpie. Thanks for saving my life! Thanks for fixing my hip!

A Victoria’s Secret Angel’s jacket holds pride of place in the reception area.

Dr. Kelly, you’re the best!

“How did a model break her hip?” I ask Dr. Kelly’s secretary.

“Do you know how tall those stilettos are?” she asks, stretching the distance between her thumb and forefinger. Try walking the runway in those!”

“Well, I’m not a supermodel, so I won’t make the wall after my surgery,” I joke.
“Oh, we’ll get something from you! You’ll be up on the wall when you’re back on your feet !”

She uses the word “when.” Rivers of eyeliner flow down my cheeks. She hands me a box of Kleenex.

 

Julie Fournet sends me an article about a French ballet dancer who is retiring at forty-two. Here’s Benjamin Pech’s plan for the day after his last performance: surgery. One thing that helped him excel at ballet—having loose hips—is ultimately his undoing. “My hips are a paradox,” he says. “The opening of the hips for a classical dancer is very important; the extreme rotation of the femur in the basin allows the hips to open. I was very off; the coverage of the femoral head relative to the pelvis is very low, which allows me great rotation, but causes the joint to break down.”

He is describing dysplasia. I instantly recognize it.

Pech tells the magazine that as you live with pain, it restructures your brain. “Because of pain, I know my body by heart, and at the same time I have to find ways to escape it.” He poses without his shirt for the article, leaning against the slats of a Parisian rooftop. The rooftop is that of the Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera Ballet. He is an exquisite bird nesting in the eaves—exquisite but grounded.

 

Every day my four-year-old asks me not to use my cane when I pick her up at school. She reminds me I’ve vowed to be “young and glamorous” for her whole life. It sounds like just the sort of unreasonable thing I’d promise. So when I pick my daughter up at school, I smile brightly, squat in a deep plié, and hold my arms out. She runs at me full-throttle and lands on my left leg. I wince, but only on the inside.

Our mother is not sick, we told everyone. She is in a wheelchair, but she is not sick!

The roses atop the Fournet’s dining table were a perfect dozen, and spectacularly red. Once plucked from the ground and used for their beauty, roses are not long for this world. When they shrivel and brown, we toss them in the garbage.

Dancers have a ritual for flowers we receive after performances: we hang them upside down until they are dry, to preserve them. We build a graveyard on the wall with upside down bouquets that recall triumphant performances past.

Julie Fournet spoke with preternatural Parisian authority:

“How you see it will be how your daughter sees it.”

On that cold November day, after we looked at Julie’s snapshots, we had raspberry tiramisu. The girls mashed up their dessert and told us they were trying to turn it into the color of a sunset. “Good luck with that,” said the girls’ father, Manu. It was icy outside and we were not in a hurry to leave. We looked through picture books. I saw a pair of pointe shoes dangling from Julie’s wardrobe and held them up for inspection.

“I never got very far with ballet because I didn’t want to pursue something I couldn’t be the best at,” Julie said. “Still, I save these shoes because I love ballet. There is nothing more beautiful.” Her passion is not—like mine—corroded by regret.

“Any weight on my left hip caused me terrible pain,” says Benjamin Pech. “As if a knife were planted there. I remembered the opening notes, before the curtain rises. Mozart’s notes. And I finished unable to walk, unable even to set foot on land.”

On me prend pour un illuminé quand je dis que c’est pourtant un très beau souvenir.

“You take me for a fanatic when I say that it is nevertheless a very beautiful memory.”

 

We are still waiting for the first snowfall.

My surgery won’t be until spring.

Do you think anyone who comes here isn’t an emergency?

It is mid-December. Julie and her girls come over for dinner. She has a funny story. Her parents have been in Manhattan recently and her father had to go the emergency room—for laughing. “He laughed so hard he passed out!” she says.

“What was he laughing at?” my husband asks.

“He was reading the side effects on a bottle of Amoxicillin. He thought there were too many of them. Of course my mother was very concerned and she called an ambulance. And then he was fine—his heart tests, his brain scan—they were normal. It was just—laughter. They asked him, did he want a wheelchair to take him to the taxi?”

“My father says, ‘No, I have already my wife in a wheelchair, that’s enough for one couple, thank you!’ And he starts laughing—again. They thought he would pass out again.”

I realize that her mother has traveled to New York City and seen the sights and cared for her grandchildren and taken her husband to the hospital for excessive laughter, all from the confines of a wheelchair. My thigh is stiff today. I stand up to clear the dishes, feeling suddenly fortunate that I can feel the pain in my leg.

I don’t know what my husband and child see when they look at me these days. Do they see the exhaustion? Does my daughter notice the limping? Is that why she has been in a “Mommy phase”? Does she think I am vulnerable to unseen forces? I spend most nights in her bed now, her arms twined around my neck, her face pressed into mine. While she sleeps, I calculate. Five months to go. Does one count the days in pain pills? Or by the number of smiles achieved?

Is it because I am Mommy—that wondrous thing that my own mother was to me—that she clings so ferociously? Does my husband look back on an image of me at twenty-nine, the year we met, and long for the sprightlier version of his wife? Or does time spent together—taking trips and throwing parties and having fights—create something more exquisite than a perfect hip? When he strokes my arm, does he feel the same silk he described to me in our earliest nights together?

 

“Let’s bring the menorah into the bedroom so that Mommy can be a part of candle lighting,” my husband whispers to our child. I hear her scampering the length of our hallway. She’s gone to fetch the candles.

Today has been a bad day. I wandered the endless halls of the hospital, keeping appointments with doctors and nutritionists and submitting to one final procedure: a cat scan of my pelvis. The surgeon must have this detailed image so he can form a plan. He must know where to cut into my skin, and the route through my thigh he must take. By day’s end, my body ached so ferociously that my husband had to pick our daughter up from school. They went for ice cream so I could come home to a quiet apartment. I’ve taken a Flexeril for muscle spasm, and crawled into bed.

I open my eyes. They’ve placed the menorah on the bedside table.

“Oh, look Daddy, her eyes are open. Mommy, we are lighting now!”

Radio Days is playing on the television in front of me. The film is shot in sepia tones; the soundtrack is a steady flow of music from the 1940s.

“The scene is Rockaway. The time is my childhood. It’s my old neighborhood, and forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past,” Woody Allen tells us over a shot of a seaside row of apartment houses. “It wasn’t always as stormy and rain-swept as this, but I remember it that way because that was it at its most beautiful.”

I find the remote control among the bedclothes and press “pause.”

My husband is saying the prayer. My child is jumping like an over-wound toy. He hands her the shamash candle and while he sings, she lights. I count the candles through fuzzy vision: We are on the sixth night.

Somehow, it is December 12th. Just yesterday I was at Joe’s Coffee with Julie, waiting for the first autumn day, waiting for the leaves to change and the wind to rustle as it does in early fall.

Yesterday it was September.

I will my lips to move, but the Flexeril is too strong.

My child’s voice is muffled as though she were talking to me underwater.

“Mommy, did you see me light the candles?”

This time I succeed in sitting up and answering.

“Yes, my love, I saw you do it.”

She races down the hall again. She is all movement and noise. The flames of the menorah dance. The candlelight casts shadows on the wall. My family goes to finish a jigsaw puzzle of Coney Island. I press “play” and sink into my pillow, listening to the soundtrack of a bygone era.

Tomorrow I will feed two pigeons named Max and Maxine. They sit on my bedroom’s window sill each day. In November, I watched as they gathered twigs and leaves to warm their nest, which sits opposite our window. One day I sprinkled sunflower seeds on the ledge. The pigeons clucked happily. I named them and we became friends. When I forget to feed them they squawk at my window. I talk to them as I rub my leg and head to the kitchen for seeds.

My world is now quite small. I can’t walk to the local park; I can’t maneuver a grocery cart along the aisles of a shop that is too many blocks for me to get to.

A world can shrink so quickly.

By 2 pm each day I am showered and dressed, ready to pick my child up at school. I join the line of parents at the gate; I’ve perfumed behind each ear and lined my eyes with precision. The gate opens at 2:20, and so we must stand for many minutes in the cold, upright on concrete. Parents chat, some look down at their phones. Desperate to remove that shard of glass from my joint, I rub my hip.

Even as my eyes lose focus, I note dry leaves rustling in the periphery.

I see the red roses at the Fournet’s apartment.

I see a Frenchman passing out from laughter.

I see a daughter who loves her wheelchair-bound mother.

I see a dancer named Benjamin Pech perched on a rooftop in Paris.

I see the East River flowing behind The Hospital for Special Surgery.

I see a surgeon’s scalpel repairing my wound.

 

I dismantle our tree the day after Christmas. I hate leaving it up after the holiday has passed; there’s something sad about it—like a dancer lingering on stage, hoping for one more curtain call. My daughter comes running to my side, breathless.

“Mommy, what are you doing?” she screams.

“It’s time. Soon it will be January.”

“Can’t we keep the tree longer, Mommy?”

“Soon we’ll be sledding. Okay?”

I reach to pluck another bulb and stop midway. I catch my daughter’s reflection in the shiny glass.

I remember something my mother liked to say about me and my sister.

“These are my jewels.”

I am not a twenty-year-old ballet dancer anymore. I will not always be a mother to a young child. These things are mine only for a time. It is elusive, this act of making something beautiful, but in the moment I catch my child’s reflection in a Christmas tree bulb, I know—with certainty—that this act of creating beauty is tangible. Sometimes it is only in noticing it—in not missing it: the red roses in a perfect dozen, the straightness of my spine after the indignity of an MRI, the warmth of Julie’s mother’s smile emanating from a snapshot. Sometimes it is by force of will: a friendship with pigeons, an embrace—through tears—with my child after school. I can find this substance, this beautiful stuff, or I can create it out of any material at hand.

There’s my little girl, dancing with her father in a tiny living room to the overture of Guys and Dolls. They are always there: swaying, laughing, joking, while the music plays. Even when my daughter is my age, she will still be in that moment, dancing in her father’s arms.

Because they once were mine, they are always mine.

 

At December’s end, we meet the Fournets at Bryant Park. It is a gray day, the sort that makes you feel you are inside a box and need to jump and flip the lid off so you can let some light in.

My husband snaps photos of the girls going round the carousel. Edith Piaf warbles from the speakers and the carousel’s bright stage bulbs sparkle against the darkening sky—afternoon is succumbing to evening. He takes a photo of Julie and me, sitting in chairs on the cobble-stoned path.

Julie says she is going to Maison Kayser to get some decent bread.

She returns with a baguette, and some flowers, too. The children have lined up in front of a balloon folder; we can’t leave the chilly park until each girl gets her twisted rubber animal. It’s dreadfully cold now and a razor is slicing through my thigh. I need more pain medicine, but I don’t have any—I left the house without it to make sure I wouldn’t take another pill. The razor twists; my muscles lock against the wind.

I imagine the two flights of subway stairs that lead to the C train and catch my breath.

I glance back at the carousel.

Edith Piaf still trills from its speakers; its bulbs light up the night like a movie theater’s marquis.

How you see it will be how your daughter sees it.

It’s time to go. I join the group descending the stairs to exit the park in the dark of night.

 

I never print unflattering photos.

I linger over the photo of Julie and me at the carousel. Impulsively, I add it to my Shutterfly cart.

In the picture, my face is pinched with pain and my body is hunched, trying to protect my hip from the freezing metal of the wrought-iron chair. Julie is sitting next to me; we are smiling for the camera. The light is terrible; there are shadows underneath my eyes.

It is how you look at it.

The photo is framed in my apartment: a memory of the day. I look dreadful in the picture, but the photo itself—it is a thing of beauty.

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