Swimmer Under Water
Theresa Benaquist

Cora used to cry at night. I knew this because she lived in the room below mine in the dorm on Fenway Street. One night, I woke at 3 AM to a yowling coming from inside the building. It was almost an inhuman sound—an insistent, animal cry. I opened my door. The light came in weakly from the stairwell. I moved silently to the doorway at the top of the stairs. The walls of the stairwell had dark brown wainscoting, and the drywall was painted a dingy aqua, like the bottom of a sun-bleached swimming pool. The stairs wrapped around a dusty elevator shaft that had been encased in chicken-wire. Cora sat in the bend in the staircase. She was wearing a white camisole nightie with flowers on it. She hugged her knees to her chest. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes closed.

There were stories about Cora. Father, brother, stepfather, friend of the family, uncle—there was no consensus on who had done it, but the stories agreed on one point: someone had gotten to her, and whoever it was, had done a job to end all jobs. Many of my classmates at the conservatory, male and female, had similar stories. Some from their childhoods, some from when they were teenagers, sometimes it had gone on for years, and sometimes it had happened just once. With Cora, I don't think anyone knew for sure. Maybe whatever made her curl up in the stairwell under the light of the bare bulb at three o'clock in the morning had another source entirely.

Cora had a prominent upper jaw, and her teeth were perfectly straight and white and slightly too large. Her two front teeth extended a bit farther than the others, which gave her a slightly rodentine appearance when she smiled. She didn't talk much, and her voice was thin and small. In spite of this, she had a laugh like a jackhammer. She would be speaking quietly, and then suddenly she would laugh, an excessive, loud, almost violent laugh. Then, she would sputter and fall back again into silence, smiling, showing her rabbit teeth, her little brown eyes gleaming.

I'm intruding, I thought, as I watched her through the chicken-wire, when she thought she was alone. Maybe I should have approached her, but she might have been embarrassed, or angry, or worse, frightened. If I'd gone out and sat on the stair next to her and handed her a Kleenex and asked something useless, like, "Are you all right?" she might have bristled at my presumption in thinking that she was desperate enough to take consolation from someone she barely knew. There was also the chance if she was interrupted in this state, her reaction would be as bizarre as her grief. She might cry louder, or yell, or even hiss—and my good intentions would actually have made things worse. So I stood hesitating in the doorway, unwilling leave her by herself.

Until that night I'd thought her problems were a school legend; like the ghost of the girl who has been killed in the elevator shaft, or the stories that the basement had once been a morgue, there was Cora and her grief.

She was a year ahead of me. She joined my variations class mid-year, when rehearsals began for the spring production. She insisted on taking pointe, which I didn't understand, since she wasn't much of a ballet dancer. That she wasn't was not for a lack of effort; most of it was physical limitations. Her legs were short and muscular with bulky thighs. Her back was swayed, and she had boxy hips, and a waist-less, sausage-like torso. Her arms were short, and her feet were wide and didn't point properly. She had very little turnout because of her swayed back. To her credit, she did not compensate for her lack of leg rotation from the hips by "cheating her turnout," by grinding a few more degrees from her knees and ankles. She did all of her ballet technique from a turnout of 90 degrees, something I respected, because I wasn't above cheating my own turnout.

The first day she came to class, we did a centre combination. It went like this: step up on pointe with the right leg, and kick the left leg as high as possible to the side (piqué, grand battement a la seconde, or, "prick [the floor], big kick to the second position"). Then let the left leg down—slowly, with control, not dropped—and come down from pointe into a kind of sweeping, diagonal gallop (plié, chassé, or "bend and chase"). Then spring up to pointe, feet scooping together, and arms arched around the head like a frame of garland (sous-sus, port de bras en haut, or "under-over, carry your arms up high"). Anyway, it was a very grand, sweeping, long-necked, wind-in-your-hair sort of dance. The kind of dance that made me pull my knees into my legs and my stomach into my spine.

I stood in the back waiting for my turn, and watching Cora, who was dancing in the first group. There were five girls of uniform height; they were slender and delicately muscled. They danced with the viscous fluidity of taffy being pulled. Cora was at the far right: her face was red, her stringy blonde hair was pulled up into a stingy bun the size and shape of a garlic bulb, her feet in their dingy pointe shoes, flat and stiff as hardcover books. "Because she's amazing," my friend had said, when I asked her why Cora even bothered training, "You haven't seen her on stage," she said, "She's a performer."

I could see that Cora understood music. I watched as she compressed and extended pieces of the choreography in such little ways they were discernable only as a cumulative effect. The music wasn't dictating her timing or dragging her along or nipping at her heels; she was playing with it. Sometimes she danced through the music, sometimes on top of it, sometimes anticipating it, sometimes lagging slightly behind. The five other girls—for all of the precision of their timing, for their clean technique, their long, fluid limbs, their uniform height—were wind-up dolls; they were soldiers marching in formation. Cora's relationship to the music was a feast, an overflowing stream, a long-anticipated embrace. In comparison, the five little dolls could have been dancing to a metronome.

Cora also happened to be crying. She didn't stop dancing when she started crying. She didn't stop when she started sobbing. She danced and sobbed until the combination was over, then she sat under the wall-attached bar and took off her pointe shoes. "What's wrong with her?" I asked another dancer. "Oh, she always does that," she said. "She cries every class." Cora put her pointe shoes away and finished class in her slippers.

Cora had one of the leads in the spring concert. The piece was José Limon's There is a Time, which is broken up into ballets that work like vignettes. Each action has a dance: A time to kill, laugh, cry, mourn, love, etc. Cora danced A Time to Laugh with Danny, who had been double-cast in Laugh and Kill. Danny was beautiful, his body a masterpiece, created by and for dancing. He had straight but flexible posture like an antenna wire. He had long fingers and toes. The lines of his tendons and muscles and veins were legible even through a pair of tights. He could move any way a choreographer wanted. He could be light or weighted, bound or free, sharp or fluid. In improvisation, left to his own devices, his tendency was to contract and unfurl. He hardly ever spoke. When he did, his voice was thin and light, and almost inaudible. In conversation he would smile so often I was never sure he was paying attention. His feet arched like spoons. He was a monochrome of brown: brown skin, dark brown hair, and wide-set brown eyes. His forehead was broad and he had a white, animal smile. His body was practically hairless. His arms and legs and hands and back and feet were as articulate as a mouth. He, like Cora, understood music.

I don't think they were supposed to be in love in Laugh. Or if they were, it wasn't like the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux with its swelling strings and averted glances and big romance delivered with the subtlety of a baseball bat to the head. Love was the backdrop, rather than the main event. The impetus of the dance was laughter, joy, concentrated happiness. For what exactly, the choreography isn't clear. It could have been anything: first snow, last day at a bad job, the test came back negative, summer road-trip with the windows rolled down, think of your happiest thought. It might have looked like romantic love to some because it was a guy and girl dancing together, but romantic pas de deux have hesitation. Cora rocketed across the stage, smiling, bounding, her legs flying and kicking her skirt up to her waist. She was looking up and out; he was watching her. She wasn't euphoric because of Danny; she was euphoric and he was witnessing it. But there was some kind of love, romantic or platonic seemed to be less the point than his protective air, and the pleasure he took in it. There was a moment when they faced each other and embraced. For a moment, he had her, and then she was off again. She was in flight and he was grounded. His happiness was in the reflection of hers.

What I noticed most of all was Cora's face, and the unguardedness of her expression. Her large, open-mouthed smile; her nose, small and pointed; her hard, close-set eyes, they were set into an expression of joy that was more intense than joy, which I think actually looks something like shock. She was beautiful and terrifying in her ferocious happiness. She had captured it, or maybe she was possessed by it, the moment of laughter—the breath, the teeth, the squinted eyes, the unchecked impulse, the forgotten reserve—she had it, and stayed within it for the three minutes of the dance. I was later told that each night, she had bolted, crying, from the theatre, barely taking the time to hang up her costume. I think that for the length of that dance, she had been a swimmer holding her breath underwater.

Theresa Benaquist is an adjunct professor of writing and literature at SUNY Purchase College. She has published articles and essays for Babble.com, The Keene Sentinel, and Williamsburg Greenpoint News Arts. She is the founding editor of Anthem Journal, has written several children's books as a ghostwriter for Media Blasters, and holds a master's in nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College.