A NEW joke was making the rounds of the ballet company, and Lawrence Duvernoix made sure he was the first to tell it to Nathaniel Deventer.
“Hey, Nate,” Larry said. “Have you heard about Kitri’s new pet?”
“No,” Nate admitted.
Kitri Vesey was one of the company’s principal ballerinas. She and Dane Stockton, the company’s shining male star, were living together despite the fact that Stockton was openly bisexual and unashamedly promiscuous. Neither Kitri nor Dane struck Nate as the responsible pet owner type, so he was surprised by Larry’s revelation.
“It’s a dog,” Larry specified.
“Really?” The unsuspecting Nate fell right into the trap: “What kind of a dog?” He envisioned something small, fluffy, and irresistibly cute.
“A Great Dane. Kitri’s having a little trouble keeping him on the leash. And he keeps sniffing guys’ butts and trying to hump their legs. So Kitri is going to have to take him to the vet to be neutered. The sooner, the better.” Larry could barely get the last part out before he started sputtering with laughter.
Nate had to laugh, too. “That’s terrible, Larry! That is just plain mean.” But Nate knew that he would be telling the joke himself, at his earliest opportunity. Dane Stockton was such an incorrigible joker, always making cracks at other people’s expense, that Nate was delighted by the prospect of being able to get his own back at him for once.
Nate always enjoyed what he thought of as his “guy time,” one on one, with Larry Duvernoix. The fact that Larry was straight and Nate was gay only made their relationship seem more special, as far as the younger dancer was concerned.
Unlike many of the other dancers, Nate had no previous connections to the dance world in his family. His parents were both college professors who had instilled in their son a love of books. When, seemingly out of the blue, their precocious adolescent son developed an interest in dance, they saw no reason to do anything but encourage it.
Some male dancers could walk down the street in their mufti and pass for obviously athletic young men who might be involved in any number of possible professions. Nate, however, looked like a dancer, even when he was in repose, and moved like a dancer, even off stage, with an innate grace and buoyancy denied to other mortals. He was small, compactly and tautly muscled, with corn silk-blond hair, flawless pale skin, and light blue eyes. He looked like everyone’s conception of what Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Prince should look like, so it was not surprising that he had first danced that role at the age of fourteen, when he’d partnered a Clara who, since she was a few months short of her eighteenth birthday at the time, could almost be considered the proverbial Older Woman by comparison.
Nate’s parents had attended that performance, which took place in the auditorium of the building that housed the college’s cultural center.
“Try not to embarrass me by sniveling the minute the curtain comes down at the end, the way you did the last time we saw Nate dance,” Mr. Deventer told his wife, as they took their seats in the auditorium. “God, you’d have thought we were at a funeral!”
Mrs. Deventer, who, like her husband, was a PhD and thus could call herself Dr. Deventer when she so chose, said nothing but gave her husband a look that was more eloquent than words.
At the performance, Mr. Deventer was in fact the one who succumbed, and he made it only until the end of the Act 1 pas de deux. Then, at the climactic moment when the Nutcracker Prince lifted the ecstatic Clara high to the accompaniment of a swelling crescendo in the orchestra topped off by a cymbal clash, he was the one who started blubbering like a baby. His wife opened her purse and handed him a tissue.
“I couldn’t help it,” he told her during the intermission. “There’s just something about the way he looks when he’s up there that makes you want to bawl like a baby.”
“You old softie, you,” his wife told him. “I can’t take you anywhere.”
But without being altogether conscious of it at the time, Mr. Deventer had sensed one of the qualities that would define his son as a performer: a kind of innocence and openness, vulnerable yet fearless, that instantly put audiences on his side. Those who saw Nate dance wanted him to succeed, and when he surpassed their expectations, they were as excited as though the boy next door or a family member had made good. They felt that they had a personal stake in Nate’s excellence.
When Nate auditioned for the New York City company and was accepted, joining the company meant a move from a quiet college town to the big, potentially wicked, city. His mother had expressed the same fear for her openly gay son that she might have had for her daughter. “I’m so afraid some older man is going to take advantage of you and break your heart.”
But Nate was not so easily taken advantage of. His angelic exterior could be deceptive. The discipline that dance had imposed upon his body was mirrored by a certain toughness and independence in his personality. It was entirely possible that he’d end up as the one doing the heartbreaking rather than the other way around.
When he met people and told them he was a dancer, their invariable reaction was to remark about how exciting and glamorous his profession must be. Nate didn’t always disillusion them. The truth, of course, was that being a dancer required self-denial and a willingness to embrace drudgery and routine. The seemingly endless cycle of practice, rehearsal, and performance left very little free time for a social life, especially when one factored in the need to rest up and hoard energy in anticipation of further practice, rehearsal, and performance and the even more pressing need to recuperate and begin amassing fresh reserves of energy all over again after these activities. At times, a dancer could feel like a caged hamster running inside its little plastic exercise wheel.
During his first season with the company, Nate was scarcely in any danger of becoming entangled in an ultimately heartbreaking love affair. He was too busy to have much more than a cursory sex life. Living and working in the city did have one advantage: casual partners were readily available, provided you could fit looking for them into an already crowded schedule. From time to time, Nate did indulge himself with the erotic equivalent of fast food.
Manhattan seemed to be teeming with gay men of all ages and degrees of desirability who were perfectly willing to suggest “Let’s go fuck” to a stranger after the briefest and most cursory of acquaintances. Nate was protected, to some extent, by his innate dislike of the more extreme forms of promiscuity. And night life, to him, usually meant work, i.e. a performance. He had no interest in the club scene, with its late hours, its tolerance of drinking and drugs, and its loud, raucous music, which to his taste was banal. Still, as an attractive young man, he had his admirers, and adventures occasionally came his way.
There was also a longstanding, if not entirely respectable, tradition of the members of a dance company, who inevitably spent so much time around one another, turning to their colleagues for sexual or romantic gratification.
Contrary to an equally longstanding popular misconception, not all male dancers were gay. Enough of them were, though, to explain the stereotype, and to make it almost too easy for them to hook up with each other, either in pairs or other configurations.
If anything, though, Nate preferred to trick with guys from outside the hothouse dance world, guys who knew little or nothing about dance, who were far from being obsessed with it, and who could actually talk about other things. Nate heard enough shop talk and company gossip twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week without being subjected to it while on a date or in bed.
The company, like any organization, had its cliques. Some of the dancers were friendlier and more outgoing than others. A few were preoccupied with their careers to the exclusion of everything else, including normal family and social ties. Others formed their own tight little circles not open to outsiders.
For all their apparent friendliness, competition between the dancers could be fierce, even when it remained on a subconscious level. Not everyone could perform all the time, and as a result the younger dancers developed an instinctive sense of urgency about assignments and opportunities along with a hypersensitivity about criticism. Each of them hoped to be among the lucky few who would be “noticed” and singled out for larger parts. No one’s ambition was to remain indefinitely in the anonymity of the corps de ballet, far back from the magical glow of the footlights.
To the extent that a straight man could act maternal toward other men, Larry Duvernoix mothered the younger and more vulnerable members of the company, especially the corps boys. He had gone out of his way to welcome and mentor Nate when Nate was a naïve newcomer, and Nate had developed an instant and enduring crush on Larry as a result. Larry, to coin a phrase, was eminently crushable, with his good looks, his shock of caramel-colored hair, and the way his trimly muscled torso filled out a T-shirt. He also possessed a most ingratiating, easygoing manner. Since Nate couldn’t actually have Larry, sexually, except in his fantasies, Nate had settled for the next best thing: friendship, not only with the older dancer, but with his wife, Cara.
Larry and Cara knew an impecunious, hungry young dancer when they saw one. After all, it had not been so long ago that they had both been impecunious, hungry young dancers themselves. They often invited Nate to their apartment for dinner. When Cara got pregnant and took a leave of absence from the company, Nate did his fumbling best to help out. After Cara gave birth to baby Allegra, Nate found his true calling: babysitter. Cara had now returned to work and was dancing better than ever. Whenever the busy couple needed a break from parenthood in the form of an afternoon or evening out together, and Nate was free, he gladly volunteered his services.
Larry and Nate frequently managed to put in their Guy Time together, one on one. On one of these occasions, their conversation did turn toward the question of sexual orientation.
“But you must have guys hitting on you all the time,” Nate speculated.
“Aren’t you ever tempted?”
“No. I’ve been tempted to cheat on Cara with another woman once or twice. Not recently, and not with anybody you know, so don’t waste your time trying to pry the names out of me, or out of anybody else.” (Larry knew only too well that their fellow dancers were incorrigible gossips.) “I must be weird, because I do believe that most people aren’t one hundred percent gay or straight. But I can remember, back in high school, sitting there in those sex education classes, you know? Where the textbook goes on and on about how it’s perfectly natural to have homosexual feelings and be curious about other guys’ bodies and engage in mutual masturbation, and all that shit. I’d just sit there, squirming and thinking, ‘Oh, gross! Looking at another guy’s dick, let alone touching it… yuck!’” Larry laughed. “I’d probably be a better dancer if I did pick up a few guys and ball my brains out with them.”
“Really? You really think so?”
“Sure. Just like you’d be a better dancer if you let some experienced older woman have her way with you. I think we need to be well-rounded human beings to be well-rounded performers. Well-rounded sexually, in addition to in all sorts of other ways.”
“Larry, you are just ribbing me, aren’t you?”
“I’m afraid I am. You should’ve seen the way your face kind of lit up, went all hopeful for a moment, when I raised the possibility of me ever whoring around like Dane. God, you’re cute. I promise you, if I ever do decide to play on the other team, you’ll be the first guy I’ll call.”
“I want that in writing.”
“Yeah, like I’d put that kind of incriminating evidence down on paper. Let’s stop thinking up ways to wreck my marriage and start concentrating on finding you a boyfriend. And preferably not a dancer. Somebody who’s stable, mentally and otherwise.”
Larry was a dancer, but he was eminently stable. Unfortunately, he was already taken. Had he not been, Nate would not have been above making a play for him.