Kissing Michele

To say Michele’s  kneebuckling beauty and charm made English my second language would be a falsehood. To say her beauty and charm (along with the scent of Tabu) put my ability to complete a coherent sentence at risk would be closer to the truth.  We were 12 or 13 at the time of this all too brief flicker of romance.

Michele and I  danced with the Orange County Ballet Theatre (OCBT) just outside of Newburgh, New York. At the time this story took place I was dancing a lead role in a ballet called Elegy for the Joffrey Ballet. I would join OCBT for performances on a regular basis.  My first teacher and mentor, Regis Powers, was the co-founder and director of the company. Very often I’d dance the role of the Nutcracker Prince. Michele, as I recall, danced several roles in that ballet, one of which was an Arabian dance in which each of the girls wore a costume that exposed their bellies and lower backs. How I didn’t collapse into a puddle of helpless smittenfication when I watched her in that role was and is a mystery to me.

Never did the phrase head over heels in love find itself more accurately applied then when it was applied to my reaction to Michele. Being head over heels for someone (at any age now that I think about it) can toss many things related to good judgment right out the proverbial window. At the time, I lived in Nyack, roughly 50 miles away from where Michele lived in Newburgh. I couldn’t stand being apart, so, one night I climbed behind the wheel of my grandfathers Mercedes! (I’d never driven a car before, only go karts) and drove to her house in the dead of night just to, well, look at her house. The fact I got there and back safely is a miracle. A few years ago I had the chance to talk to Michele on the phone and told her about this middle-of-the-night drive. “Why didn’t you come in?” she asked (I could feel her smiling). I said it was something like 2:30 in the morning and I figured her family might want to know why on earth was I knocking on the front door at that ungodly hour and, by the way, Peter, whose Mercedes is that?

After a performance of the Nutcracker one night at, I believe, the Valley Central High School in Montgomery, New York, Michele and I walked down a dimly lit school hallway until we were alone. (It was then I learned exit lights are some of the most romantic lighting known to humankind.) There near the wall lockers, I summoned up my courage and kissed her. Our first kiss! When it was over and we began walking back down the hallway I swear I was floating! First, the romance of exit lights, then the greatest kiss that ever took place in the history of the world, and it was true, you could walk on air! At one point I stopped walking and asked, “Can I kiss you again, just to make sure that was real?” And we kissed again! It was real, and I was still floating.

Well, that was, I am sad to say, the beginning and end of our romance. But, then and now, it was a moment I will never forget and always be grateful for. Recently, a close friend of mine sent me a picture of Michele and me. When I saw the picture for the first time I swear there was a hint of Tabu in the air. I even looked down to see if I was floating again. I won’t tell you whether I was or not. (You’d never believe me.)

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Dancing with Laurie

I fell completely in love with her the moment I saw her. And then, when I saw her dance, even more so. The fact Laurie Scandurra was slightly older than me, combined with the sadly unavoidable reality that I was 10 or 11 at the time, probably explains why I didn’t propose marriage to her on the spot.

Laurie was and is one of my favorite dancers – ever. And I’ve seen, without exaggeration, hundreds of dancers.

For quite a few years I was a ballet dancer. And, once a dancer always a dancer, at least that’s how I see it.

I wouldn’t trade in my dancing days for anything. I had the privilege of dancing a lead role for the Joffrey Ballet and I danced quite a number of roles (and quite a number of times) for a regional dance company in Orange County, New York called, the Orange County Ballet Theater. It was there that I met Laurie.

She was then and remains now my favorite female dancer. We all had our favorite dancers back then. We’d compare favorites much like kids would compare favorites in their collection of baseball cards.

My love for the ballet preceded my love for Laurie by about five or six years. It happened when, at age five, my mother took me to see the New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at City Center. At the end of the ballet I was sure of three things: I wanted to dance, marry Clara, and beat-up her brother Fritz for breaking her Nutcracker in the first act. I even mailed Clara a love letter addressed to, well, Clara.

I’m still waiting for a response.

My favorite male dancer was, without question, Edward Villella of the New York City Ballet. When Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union in 1961 and became all the rage, I wasn’t having it. As far as I was concerned he was no match for Villella. And, for pure depth of artistry, no one was a match for Erik Bruhn of the Royal Danish Ballet. Bruhn was, without question, the Laurence Olivier of dance. I’d rather see Bruhn do one pirouette than anyone else do 10.

But when it came to women, Laurie, as I said, was my favorite. She wasn’t just good, she was great. Why? Because like all great dancers, the all of her being, physically, emotionally and spiritually, was present in her every movement. There wasn’t an emotion on the life-scale of emotions that couldn’t flow out of her with breathtaking power and completeness. I could’ve watched her dance forever. And, oh my, how I wanted to dance with her.

Like me, Laurie did not have the over-valued and over-hyped George Balanchine-body, meaning tall, lean, and absent even a hint of curve. As a result, she didn’t get cast in roles like the lead in Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake (she would have soared in both). Had she ever been given the chance to dance the lead in “Firebird” she would have come close to matching the greatest female lead in that ballet, Maria Tallchief. Francisco Moncion and Maria Tallchief owned the “Firebird.”

Back then Balanchine, in the eyes of many at the time, could do no wrong. He was seen as almost a God by some. Not me. Yes, he was a brilliant choreographer, but I was not a fanatical fan of Balanchine like my mother and so many others. In fact, when I first saw his ballet, “Agon,” my mother positively blanched and nearly lost her footing when, as we were leaving the theatre, I told her the only thing that needed to be done to fully capture my opinion of the ballet was to add a Y to the end of its name. I was seven.

I did like some of Balanchine’s ballets very much. I would have given anything to dance “Tarantella” with Laurie. There are other ballets I would have loved to dance with her as well. “Afternoon of a Faun” comes to mind and then, of course, she would have been spectacular in the role of the ballerina had I ever had the chance to dance the part I coveted more than any other, the role of Petrushka in the ballet “Petrushka.”

I’ll tell you this, if we get a do-over in life,  my plan is to propose marriage to Laurie the second I see her, so what if I’ll only be 10 at the time! And then, of course, I’ll ask her to dance.

My Mother Dancing

When someone I love dies the years seem to pick up speed. They fly by. My mother Leona was 68 when she died nine years ago yesterday. It doesn’t feel that long ago. She was and always will be one of the greatest discoveries in life for me. She had to give me up for adoption when I was a baby. We had my first seven days together and that was it. She was only 20 when she handed her son over and returned home utterly destroyed. This is not the missive to explain all this, or how I know all this other than to say we left nothing about the subject and circumstances of my adoption untouched by conversation.

We were reunited on January 8, 1987, a moment in both our lives so filled with emotion for the both of us I’m surprised we didn’t burst. But then again, we were cut from the same cloth. To be more precise, I am cut from hers. She had the ability to not only allow moments of enormous amounts of emotion, she welcomed them.

She also loved to dance, and dancing contains worlds of emotion. She may have suspected that, like her, I found it and still find it impossible to remain physically still when music is on. To this day I find myself utterly baffled by people who can sit still while music with, say, Latin rhythm is on. I always want to tap them on the shoulder and ask, Don’t you feel that? However, she certainly had no idea I’d danced professionally and when I was a little boy my family would play music just so I could keep dancing, I couldn’t get enough.

The evening my mother and I reunited and found each others arms again we went to her home, after first going out for coffee. There my “new” sister, Sunday, said, “If you’re in this family you better love to dance.” My friend Dane was with me. Dane looked at me and said, “You want me to tell them.” And so he told them about my days dancing with the Joffrey Ballet and dancing pretty much every time I ran into music.

On October 2, 1987, the first birthday we had together since the day I was born, my mother and I went out to dinner, and then we went to a club and danced all night. She was a great dancer, the greatest dance partner I’ve ever had.

I love you, Mom, miss you terribly, and I’m still dancing.

REMEMBERING GERALD ARPINO

I loved Gerald Arpino very much. A choreographer and one of the founders of the Joffrey Ballet, Mr. Arpino died this week at his home in Chicago. He was 85. I learned a great deal from him. He was a man of kind and gentle heart. His intelligence was formidable and his choreography was both courageous and extraordinary.


In 1967 at age 13, I danced a principal role in “Elegy,” one of his ballets. Set to Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik’s extraordinary 22-minute anti-war symphony, Sinfonia Elegiaca, “Elegy” was the story of a Confederate soldier from the American Civil War, danced by Maximiliano Zamosa. Just when he is blindfolded and tied to a tree to be executed by a firing squad of Union soldiers, he has a flashback to the halcyon days with his wife and children.



I danced the role of his son and Charthelle Arthur and Susan Magno took turns dancing the role of his daughter. Noel Mason, as beautiful and elegant a ballerina as I have ever seen, danced the role of his wife. It is at the end of a dance between father and son that the flashback ends, the father is pulled back into the horror of his reality and executed.


The rehearsals were extraordinary experiences. Hard working and sweat filled with Mr. Arpino focused and intense, pushing us to breathe life into our characters, and never failing to seek the input of the dancers, including mine!


After the execution, there was a funeral scene. I had a small wooden sword tucked in my belt. At one point I break free of my mother’s hand and dance a solo wielding the sword because, as Mr. Arpino said, “You are following in your father’s footsteps and at the same time you are trying to kill those who killed him.”



Mr. Arpino turned me loose in my solo. He never told me what steps to do and instead sat back and freed me, allowing me to pour my all into it. The solo ended when my mother took the sword from me, determined that her son would not die the way her husband.


But Mr. Arpino taught me more about life than just ballet. He and others in the Joffrey helped me discover that those who are gay are no different than anyone else. I had fallen in love with the ballet when I was five and began training in earnest when I was eight. I was an ignorant little homophobe whose idea of homosexuality had about as much to do with reality as the Wizard of Oz. And, while my dancing career was cut short by a series of unforeseen circumstances, I left that career no longer burdened by the poison of homophobia. Mr. Arpino and others taught me that you you don’t have to be heterosexual to be a real man.


When Mr. Arpino died this week, the world lost a wonderful human being and a real man. Like I said, I loved him very much. Still do.

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GOODBYE SUNDAY: A MOTHER’S SUICIDE

AUTHOR’S NOTE: AS I WORK ON MY MEMOIR I WILL, FROM TIME TO TIME, PUT SOME IF IT, IN-PROGRESS, ON THE BLOG. THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO READ IT.

My mother called me shortly after 9 a.m. that Sunday morning to tell me she would end her life within the week. She was 68.

My mother said she suffered from arthritis and a mysterious condition, never fully identified, that gave her leg pain. She said no one in the medical, homeopathic and psychotherapy communities had been able to help with either condition.

The result of her pain (or the cause, I’ll never know) was a well-developed addiction to painkillers.

That Sunday morning she told me she could bear the pain no longer and the time for her death was at hand.

“I’m looking forward to the next scenery,” she said.

“Can I come see you?” I asked. My hands were trembling.

“No, Peter, that would be too much for me.”

“When?”

“I don’t know, but soon. Within a week.”

“Mom, I need to get myself together, can I call you back today, please?”

“Yes,” she said. “But not for too long, I want to make it brief. I can’t deal with other people’s emotions now.”

Over the last three years of her life my mother had developed an ever-increasing reliance on the possibility of suicide. Something she could control. And in my view, her fear of losing control played a major role in her decision to leave this world.

She seemed unable to understand – or simply could not believe – that all emotions, including anger and sadness, were a normal part of the human experience. Months before her death, this disabled understanding of the human experience made a wrenching appearance when she told me she did not believe anyone loved her.

One year before her death, when her damaged self-image led her to cliff’s edge, I intervened by reaching out to her psychotherapist, Fred Drobin, and her minister, Laurie Ferguson, a remarkable and loving woman. While our intervention was successful, it was met with displays of rage and puffed-up indignation. For weeks she would rocket the phone back into its cradle the moment she heard my voice on the line. When she finally did talk to me again, she accused me of betraying her by bringing about the intervention.

When I called her back that Sunday, I asked if she was going to tell Fred Drobin about her decision at their Monday session. I felt if she intended on telling a mental health professional, a trained mind, committed to her well-being, would come onto the scene. She said yes, she would tell him.

I asked her what her happiest memory was. “When the two of us went on tour with Joffrey in Tacoma and Seattle,” she said, without hesitating.

I began to weep. Inside I knew she was going. And then, thinking of the others in the family who had died, I said, “Mom, would you do me a favor?”

“What?”

“If you see Daddy, you know, if people are discernible, and you see him and Mommom and Poppop and Grandma and Grandpa, would you please tell them that I love them and I’m really trying to do the best I can?”

“Of course I will, Peter.”

“I’ve tried to be a good son to you these last years, Mom.”

“And you have been, Peter.”

“Mom, do you have any advise for me in life?”

And she paused, thinking, and said, “Yes. Be kind.”

“Okay.”

She then told me she had a Wednesday afternoon appointment with her minister, Laurie Ferguson. To me, this meant she was going to tell Laurie of her decision. She was making her goodbye rounds. I believed this gave me until Wednesday to decide whether or not intervention was the best choice. The Sunday afternoon conversation, our last, ended this way:

“I love you, Mom.”

“Thank you, Peter.”

“Good-bye, Mom.”

“Good-bye, Peter.”

I hung up and fell to the floor, sobbed, and tried and failed to remember the last time she told me she loved me.

That evening I placed a call to her psychotherapist, Fred Drobin, and left a message asking him to call me. He returned my call Monday afternoon and told me my mother had again threatened suicide.

I asked if he thought we should let her go. He said he didn’t know and suggested I call him at home that evening. I did. We spoke for 10 minutes or so before he ended the conversation.

“My dinner’s getting cold,” he explained.

On Tuesday I placed a called to Ray Liberati, a detective in the Orangetown Police Department. The Orangetown PD covered the area where my mother lived and I had known Ray since I was a boy. Ray Liberati was a good cop and a good man. I left a message for him. He knew my mother and had helped her out on more than one occasion.

The following day, Wednesday, August 12, Ray Liberati called me. It was sometime after 2 p.m. and I was so relieved to hear his voice.

“It’s good to hear from you,” I said. “My mother is talking about ending her life again and it feels like everyone is standing around waiting for it to happen.”

There was a brief pause.

“Peter, it did,” he said. “I was just at the house. I heard the call over the radio and went right over. You didn’t know?”

“It did what?”

“She’s gone, Peter. She died. Her minister found her, that’s the way she had it set up. Peter, I’m so sorry.”

The Wednesday appointment my mother said would be used to tell her minister of her decision had, in fact, been her the way she wanted her death discovered.

I arrived at my mother’s home less than an hour after her body had been removed. The police were gone. Laurie and some family members were there. Faces were pale, sweaty. The air did not move. At one point I wanted to throw everyone out and fling myself onto the bed where her life had ended and allow the little boy inside me to dream of holding my mother one last time.

My mother designed her suicide with great thought and care. She was found in bed with the suicide manual “Final Exit” tucked under one arm. She wore a nightgown and her Timex watch. She had surrounded herself with pictures of family and friends. I suppose she wanted to gaze at us while the drugs slowly sucked the life from her eyes.

Above her bed hung a large collage of Ballet pictures. Ballet was the greatest love of her life. Her definition of heaven, to dance throughout eternity with Fred Astaire, was a well-known piece of family lore. When I was a boy one of the only times she would let me stay up past my bed was to watch Fred Astaire’s movies over and over again. We both loved the dance and we both lived Fred Astaire moves. When I was in my early teens, I danced a lead role for the Joffrey Ballet Company.

Dance was the one arena in which the two of us could connect safely with each other when I was a child. It was there that she could allow herself to experience me and not be threatened by my intensity. And it was there, in the world of dance, that I was able to safely experience her, without have to her usual onslaught of Peter you’re-too-intense messages and because of this are mentally ill messages. Throughout my childhood I learned to believe that the words intense or melodramatic described horrible emotional deformities that were to be, if not avoided, hidden. The intense drama of her thoroughly choreographed death scene seems tragically ironic to me now.

Weeks later I would be the one to remove the last box of belongings from her home. Before I left that day, I went into the bedroom and sat on the floor and wrote in my journal – and wept.
There was, as I wrote, the bizarre belief in a mother’s omnipotence that perhaps rests in all sons, perceiving her, mother, as the strongest of them all, somehow believing that if she could choose to leave the world, then maybe, just maybe, she could choose to come back.

The movements of the mind in the wake of a mother’s suicide are movements to be allowed, not judged.

Recently I was going through her old record collection. There were the many albums of classical music we listened to as a family.

And then I saw it. An album cover I’d never seen before. It was a collection of songs sung by Fred Astaire. And there, at the bottom, in a handwritten script with a movement as exquisite as his dancing, it read, “For Virginia Kahrmann, Fred Astaire.”

I am sure she is a wonderful partner.