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Something Once Learned

By Michael Copperman


One year in my late twenties I lived for a time with a twenty-one year old drug-dealing stripper named Alexa. Being with her required constant restraint, but I was naive enough to mistake pity for love, and so, insomniac, I often walked the dark apartment while she slept, traced circles about the entry, living room, and kitchen, whispered the soles of my feet over the carpet. The thing I never touched was the green mountain that rose from the living room floor, the bounty of her night: a pile of ones. I would stand at the foot of the pile and gaze at the framed poster on the far wall, the promotion for the 91 Winter performance of the American Ballet Company: a ballerina posed in mid-arabesque, hands stretched forward, chin upturned proudly. Everything Alexa had wanted to be at fifteen, back when she spent three hours a day in the studio, practicing and dreaming of bigger things, higher stages, applause so loud even her father would put his hands together and clap. That was her before the back injury, before the surgery that ruined her dancerís posture but gave her torso a certain curve that men found sexual. The doctors had told her she would never dance again. About ballet anyway, they were right.

The last night, we had already fought and she had gone to bed. It was always the same fight: I talked down to her, I was distant; she sold coke, she liked being ogled for cash. I walked a long time, decided I would leave the next morning. When I entered the bedroom the earthy scent of pot enveloped me. She was on her stomach, naked the way she always slept, her salon-tanned skin dark against the white sheets. I lowered myself to the bed so as not to wake her, lay on my back listening to the night sounds. Faraway a train whistle howled once, twice, and then there was the muted click of wheels on track, rising to a roar as the train neared, falling again as it receded. In the quiet the train left behind a woman called out in Spanish, the words unintelligible, only the rhythm giving the language a name. And then I felt a shifting near me, and Alexa crawled cat-like onto me, rested her head on my chest. She wasnít awake, it was only that this was how weíd always slept. After a time her breathing slowed with sleep. She didnít know I was already gone, any more than she understood it wasnít desire that had held me, but fear of being alone. Her elbow dug mercilessly into my ribs, and soon pain bloomed through my back and I was too hot all over. But she was soft and warm and looked like an angel, so I clenched my teeth and after a time the pain ebbed to a throb.

I couldnít sleep that night, not like that, but I didnít move and wake her either. I lay admiring the dark sweep of her hair, the long, clean line of her shoulder blade curving to the hollow of her back. The way her legs bent away symmetrically, ankles together, ballet-muscle memory, perhaps, but also something more. Something that once learned, the body could not forget.

I donít remember who taught me that devotion is a form of mourning for what is lost, just as Iíve forgotten what city Alexa moved to, something starting with an ĎAí or ĎMí; I get it mixed with where other lovers have gone, all the places that might be different. All I still know of Alexa is this: even in sleep she flexes the lean muscles of her calves, extends her toes in a dancerís point.  


 

Michael Copperman teaches composition at the University of Oregon. He has an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Oregon and a B.A. in English with Creative Writing from Stanford University. He also taught fourth grade for two years in the black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. Currently, he is working on a novel about that experience.

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photo by Dinty W. Moore