Living the Dream by Allison Wolcott

On Larry Cornbluth’s first morning as himself in New York City, the sky was blue. The coffee began to make itself at six-thirty, and when it was ready, the three-beep signal cued Miamor to begin yowling for food. Upstairs, old Mrs. Niles’ television roared to life when TheToday Show came on. Everything was the same as always, except Larry.

Several years ago, Larry Cornbluth boarded a bus in Nebraska as himself and disembarked at Port Authority as Leif Corneille, danseur. He dialed back his age and enrolled at a Broadway studio, training for hours each day until his muscles cramped and burned.  He worked two restaurant jobs just to make rent. But even then, when he was going for it with everything he had, his midwestern pragmatism nagged at him.  If he couldn’t make it as a professional dancer, then at some point, he had to move on with his life.  There was something unseemly about an aging wanna-be striving away forever among all the young hopefuls. So at midnight on Larry Cornbluth’s thirtieth birthday, poof went Leif Corneille, dead at twenty-three.

Larry rolled onto his side in bed and looked around at the large dust balls where his furniture had been. Soon he would drive west and hope that a plan for the rest of his life would come to him before he ran out of highway.  But first, he had to figure out what to do with Miamor. Taking her on a cross-country road trip with no real destination seemed prohibitively cruel. She was an old cat.  Even short cab rides terrified her.  He reached down and rubbed her head, scratching behind her whiskers the way she loved.

As Miamor kneaded the blankets, Larry listened through the ceiling to what sounded like Ann Curry and someone who desperately did not want to talk to her. A pattern emerged: a long question in a soothing voice followed by a halting, one-word answer that did not make for good television. After a few minutes, Larry understood that the interviewee had been held captive and raped repeatedly for years until a neighbor’s landscaper stumbled upon the trap door to her basement dungeon. The way Larry did with radio personalities he’d never seen, he composed a clear picture of the rescued woman in his mind: malnourished, dishwater blonde, pale irises, slumped on The Today Show couch beneath Ann Curry’s signature gaze of compassion, wishing she were anywhere else, even back with her captor. Ann Curry tried to coax elaborations out of the woman’s mother, who sounded ruddy and stocky. Definitely a smoker. Southern, or just rural—it was hard to tell which.

An avid viewer of all sensationalist media, Mrs. Niles had a perverse streak that drove her to turn up the volume when a news story got worse. Though Miamor’s kneading and the smell of fresh coffee grew more insistent by the minute, Larry remained in bed, listening.

“Hedy, see, she had one of her dogs with her that day,” the mother was saying.  “When the dog came home alone, whimpering and shaking like a leaf, we about died.”

The thought of Miamor wandering outside alone and scared moved Larry to gather her against his chest.

The mother choked off a sob, then cleared her throat.  “Hedy was fifteen and innocent then. Now she’s full grown.  Her life’s a do-over starting now.”

Larry suddenly needed to see just who this Hedy was, so he turned on his own television. The degree to which he had been wrong about each woman’s appearance shocked him. The mother was wiry and small. Her daughter towered over her, big-boned, with long dark hair and black eyes that were deep-set and vacant. The mother sat pressed against Hedy, one hand on her knee, and the other wrapped around her waist like she’d never let go again.

Hedy stared into the camera and let a flood of tears pour down her face without brushing them aside. Larry sat up in bed and locked eyes with her.  As crazy as it sounded, he felt like he knew her. Their lives were both a do-over starting now.  He wondered if she’d someday be able to do ordinary things like shop for groceries, hold a day job, love somebody. Her face was all pain and revealed nothing else. A flash of anger came over Larry then, a protective feeling, and he wished he could push the camera out of her face. He switched off the television and got out of bed.

In the kitchen, Larry poured coffee and dumped dry cat food into a bowl. Beside the dinette set lay a box containing neatly folded ballet tights, jockstraps, tee shirts, legwarmers, and slippers, topped with an envelope of photographs. He wrapped his bathrobe across his chest and leaned forward, peering into the box. Coffee dripped onto a pair of tights as he lifted out the envelope. Flipping through the photos, he noticed reason after reason why he was becoming Larry Cornbluth again instead of dancing through life as Leif Corneille. His ankles were just this side of thick.  His torso, however beautifully chiseled, was much longer than his legs. His port-de-bras always looked stiff.  His arches were low, though from most angles, when he winged his foot, it was hard to tell just how low they were. And the look on his face never said Here I am, master of this stage. It said Please, let me dream a while longer.

Gilles stood beside Larry in half the pictures, with one long arm slung over Larry’s shoulder. In his favorite of these photos, they were sitting on Gilles’s piano bench after a performance, Larry in a nude unitard with glitter dust sparkling on his arms and face, and Gilles in black clothes that let him blend in with the baby grand. He gazed at his own smiling face, the simple round shape accented by deep dimples, a rosy complexion, sandy hair, and the otherworldly blue eyes that everybody in his hometown inherited from their northern German forebears. It was this youthful combination of features that had made Leif Corneille a believable teen that first year in New York.

Larry slipped the photo in the pocket of his robe. The rest of the photos he tucked back in the envelope, which he placed inside the box. He sealed the box with an extra strip of packing tape and hurried out to the garbage chute in the hall. Before he could change his mind, he opened the metal door and shoved the box inside, a birthday present in reverse.  He listened to it fall until the sound faded away.

*

For five years, Larry had kept his false identity and the ticking bomb of its expiration date a secret. He planned to simply disappear when the time came, without explaining himself or saying goodbye. Unfortunately, he’d given up Leif Corneille’s life in the middle of a pay period, which made a graceful disappearance financially impractical.

Larry walked slowly to Café Verano. People hustled down Broadway with their phones in one hand, coffee in the other, jostling him as they passed. He crossed Seventy-Second Street as a train rushed to a stop under his feet, the pavement rumbling beneath him.  Outside the café, he leaned against the wall and checked his messages. An on-again, off-again fuck buddy had already texted him a birthday booty call. His aunt Rachel left a voice mail that a package should be arriving soon. And Gilles sang “Happy Birthday” to him in French, then reminded him that they were supposed to have drinks that evening.

“Leifito, que paso, dude?” his boss shouted out the door.  Another employee gave Larry a dirty look as she handed a coffee to a customer. “You’re late!”

Larry didn’t hesitate with the lie. “I got a job with a dance company, so I’m quitting. I’m sorry, Nic.” A film of sweat covered his face even though it was cool inside the café.

“Iliana!” Nic called over his shoulder.  His wife hurried out from the back of the shop, her hands covered with flour. “Wash up, baby. Leifito here is bailing on us. He’s gonna be a ballerina at last. And we are happy for him, even though it really sucks he’s ditching mid-morning rush.”

Ay, niño,” Iliana said. “Leifito, good for you. Nicky, go give him his money. I take care of this.”

Larry’s stomach twisted, sick at the undeserved congratulations. He followed Nic to the back.

“Good luck with the dancing company, muchacho,” Nic said, handing him a wad of small bills. “We all knew the day would come when you make it big time. Can’t everybody make a good latte, though, Leifito. Foam, it’s tricky. It takes the right touch.”

The sweat on Larry’s brow dried as he strode away from the café in the crisp morning air. He soon found himself at the park and sat down on a bench near the entrance, watching people pass. In a gap between crowds, Larry caught sight of a New York Post vending machine with a familiar face splashed across the front page of the day’s issue.  Hedy from The Today Show stared out at him above the headline KIDNAPPED GIRL, NOW WOMAN, FOUND AT LAST.  Hedy Plunkett of rural PA, missing for ten years, was found in the basement of a Syosset home. Beside the large present-day headshot, there was an inset of a young Hedy smiling in a yard teeming with pets—all animals she had rescued, according to the caption. Larry dug a handful of quarters out of his pocket and bought a paper.

Fayetteville, Pennsylvania. Population three-thousand, give or take. The paper’s description reminded Larry of where he came from in Nebraska, a town of about the same size.

Like Hedy, Larry grew up surrounded by animals. The cats were his favorite.  Planning on veterinary school, he had been a biology major, and straight, when he started college, but in the middle of sophomore year, he went to see a dance company perform for extra credit in some required liberal arts class. Much to his surprise and horror, the give and take of the movement, the pure lines, and the embodiment of music all combined to overpower him. He felt clammy in the auditorium, his heart thundering in the dark, tears burning his eyes. He blinked them back so the kids he was with wouldn’t see. He had never felt anything like this, anything that made him say to himself, yes, that’s for me. As much as he loved animals, the idea of vet school was less yes, that’s for me and more this would be a logical career. It was humiliating, this sudden passion.

In the lobby at intermission, he made a break for it.

“Hey, I don’t feel so good,” he told the friend from class he’d brought with him.

She pursed her lips and squinted at him. “You’re that bored?” she said. “It’s only another forty-five minutes. You won’t get the credit.”

He clutched his stomach for maximum effect. “See you later,” he said. “Sorry.”

After pretending to leave, her circled back to the stage door and waited. Finally, the company dancers emerged. One young man caught sight of Larry lingering there, twisting his hands.

“Come along for a drink,” he said to Larry. “You look like you could use one.”

At the bar, after Larry had confessed his passion, the dancer told him that there was no choice but to go for it. Be a dancer. “It’s just something you are,” the company dancer said. “It’s not something you become. Now you just have to learn to be yourself.”

After an awkward night in the dancer’s hotel room, Larry awoke alone and sore, next to a new pair of canvas ballet shoes and a handwritten note jotted on hotel stationery. You really need a stage name.  Larry Cornbluth is not going to work.  Good luck.

Once the chaos of his biology scholarship’s termination was over, Larry settled into the life of a dance major, rejected by his old friends and putting himself through college part time. A taste for freedom from ordinary expectations grew in him during those extra college years. Sure, he was beholden to the overnight shift and staggering bills, but once he finished his BFA, he would live in a world apart from the millions of grey offices, a more beautiful world. Even after he came to New York, he clung fiercely to that separation. Once in a while, he would buy a subway fare and sit on a bench by the track during morning rush. Never actually boarding a train, he’d watch people in suits get on and off, rushing, distracted, frowning. And he’d sew a pair of slippers, or listen to a score on his iPod, remembering why he had followed that dancer’s advice in sophomore year.

Still, sometimes the more beautiful world was lonely, and he missed being around animals who needed him. Despite his full schedule that first year in the city, he began volunteering at an animal shelter once a week. His job was to groom the cats, and he always stayed to play with them, holding them if they’d allow it. One Saturday, a skeletal Miamor arrived at the shelter with matted fur and a strange metabolic disorder that the vets couldn’t quite figure out. They feared she might be contagious, but quarantine was full, so Larry offered to take her home. The head vet was sure she’d be dead within a month, but to Larry’s surprise, she rallied. She grew plump, and feisty, and her fur became glossy. And now he had no idea how to let her go.

*

As lunchtime approached, Larry wandered south, intent on spending the day far from the New York of dance studios, workout wear stores, Pilates coaches, and diva boy bars he knew best. He had planned to explore unknown parts of the city in search of something or someone that would make him say yes, that’s for me, or at least maybe I could stand doing that for a while. He would keep his mind open. He would embrace the new and different. As he passed a busy coffee shop, Café Verano came to mind, and a flicker of shame flared in him. Perhaps he should cancel drinks with Gilles so he wouldn’t feel compelled to lie to someone even closer to him.

In Nebraska, his ballet teachers didn’t have accompanists, so they played records for barre and center exercises. When Gilles sat down at the piano bench for Larry’s first ballet class in New York and began to warm up his fingers, Larry could barely concentrate on the teacher’s instructions. Then Gilles began to play for pliés, and Larry almost forgot to move. His body language was more animated than some of the dancers, his fingers alighting on the keys as though he were playing in a grand concert hall instead of a ballet studio. There was so much joy in his music. When it was Larry’s turn to dance across the floor in grand allegro exercises, he thought he saw a glimmer of recognition of his own joy in Gilles’ eyes. Larry hoped then that they would become friends, and they did.  He wouldn’t be able to pretend with Gilles tonight.

Gilles picked up after two rings. “Allô?  Birthday boy?”

Larry smiled. “Hey. Thanks for the song.”

“You are sad,” Gilles said. “I can hear it. Tell me why.”

“I’m not sad,” Larry said. “I just…I’m under the weather.” He felt his throat tightening. “Can we reschedule for next week?”

“Absolutely not. You’ll feel better later. I pick you up at nineish. I have a class now—got to run.”

Larry listened to the dead line for a moment, helpless. He would either have to ignore the buzzer when Gilles rang, or tell him the truth. He wasn’t sure which would be worse.

He headed for Fifth Avenue, which offered the grandest view of the city.  Glancing in every window he passed, Larry imagined the other lives inside and tried them on in his mind. Once in a while, he’d see another dancer. They were unmistakable, always. That extra lift in their posture, their apparent inability to look down, their precise movements as they paid for takeout, lifted a load of laundry, bent over to pick up a dropped dollar bill. But mostly, he saw regular people leading regular lives.  They weren’t intriguing to him. They weren’t beautiful. They didn’t give him that yes, that’s for me feeling.

 *

After several hours of criss-crossing the island, Larry plopped into a chair at a tiny outdoor café in the Village. He ordered a glass of pinot noir, then another. He read every article, ad, letter to the editor, and photo caption in the New York Post twice, and he re-read the Hedy Plunkett story a dozen times. By six o’clock, it had grown chilly, and the sun was long gone from the tabletop. Uptown at the studio, technique class with his favorite teacher was beginning, with Gilles accompanying. He always played the same music for pliés that he played that first day. Larry didn’t know what it was called, or who composed it, but he knew every note, and every nuance that Gilles would bring to it as he swayed gently on his bench.

Hedy Plunkett had told her sister that each morning, when her captor raped her before going to work, she’d hum her favorite song in her head, over and over again, just to get through it. Larry ordered a third glass of wine and a sandwich as the streetlights came on. He imagined himself sitting in a cubicle row in some nondescript glass skyscraper, humming Gilles’ six-o’clock pliés to himself.

By the time he reached his block, it was eight o’clock, and he felt sick from the wine. He stopped into a deli and bought a huge bottle of water. Outside on the sidewalk, he began to drink. He felt his belly expanding, and the sour taste on his tongue dissipating. Miamor, he remembered. She was long overdue for wet food. He hurried home to feed her and brushed her for an extra-long time. When his buzzer rang at nine-fifteen, he jumped. Gilles. He had forgotten.

“I’ve been calling you all afternoon and evening!” Gilles said, giving Larry the usual three kisses on the cheek. “Where were you? Nobody knew.”

Larry’s head swam, trying to keep up with the head motions under the influence of pinot noir.

“This was downstairs for you,” Gilles said. He handed Larry a brown paper package. Aunt Rachel was the only person from his life as Larry Cornbluth who had rolled with the Leif Corneille name change. Larry looked at his pseudonym in her flowery script and wanted to cry. Instead he tore open the paper.

Gilles looked past Larry into the apartment. “My God!” he said. “Where is everything?”

Aunt Rachel had sent a camera and a birthday card explaining. I’ll probably never come to New York, so take some pictures for me, sweetie. I want to see your life. I charged it up, so you should be good to go. Happy birthday, Larry Leif. 

“Leif, where are all your things, cher?” Gilles asked.

“Oh, I ordered some new stuff, so I sold it all,” Larry said. He glanced around at his studio apartment, which looked so much bigger with only a few pieces of furniture left. “Look, my aunt sent a camera!” He snapped a picture of Gilles.

“Hey! Not until I compose my look!” Gilles peered at the camera. “That’s a really nice one,” he said. “Your aunt is very generous.”

Larry walked over to the window and took a shot of the street life below. His apartment in its current state was nothing he wanted Aunt Rachel to see. Miamor ran past, lashing her long tail at Gilles. Larry took a bunch of shots of her winding around his ankles, then of her by herself, leaping after balled-up wads of paper he tossed across the floor; then a close-up of her high cheekbones, green eyes, and fluffy white chest.

“Come on,” Gilles said. “Let’s get a drink.”

Larry took the camera with him, capturing the front door of his building, the shops on his street, and the inside of the old neighborhood pub where they sat down at the dark wooden bar.

Everywhere Larry looked, there was a television. Gilles waved hello to the bartender.

“Hey Froggie,” Bill said. “Usual?”

Gilles nodded. Bill carried pastis only for him. Nobody else ever ordered it.

“Have one,” Gilles said to Larry. “You will enjoy it, I promise.”

Larry shrugged. “Okay, thanks.” Almost no one else was there, which made sense at ten o’clock on a weeknight. “Bill, since nobody’s watching, would you mind turning off the TV?”

“I’m watching,” Bill said. “But I’ll do it for you, Twinkle Toes.”

As Bill reached out and pointed the remote at the main TV, Hedy Plunkett’s face appeared on the screen.

“Wait!” Larry said. “Nevermind, Bill. Can you turn it up?”

Bill sighed. “Dance, monkey, dance.”

Hedy Plunkett must’ve gotten used to reporters. She had gone from one-word answers to Ann Curry on The Today Show to multi-sentence elucidations on Dateline.

“What is this?” Gilles asked, but Larry shushed him. Bill brought their drinks.  Gilles took a sip, but Larry ignored it, glued to the TV.

“What was the hardest thing about your captivity?” the interviewer asked.

Hedy pursed her lips and tucked a stray lock of long, black hair behind her ear.  “At first, it was not knowing what happened to my dog,” she began. “I was walking Callie when he grabbed me. She ran after the van, and I remember looking out the window at her before he made me lie down.” She took a deep breath. “It was the first thing out of my mouth when I talked to my mom yesterday. She said Callie had found her way home.” Hedy smiled for a second at the memory of the good news.

“It’s your birthday,” Gilles said. “Stop watching this sad story.”

“Shhh,” Larry hissed. “It’s a happy story. She was found.”

Gilles rolled his eyes. “I’m gonna drink yours.”

“Fine,” Larry said.

“And now that you’re home,” the interviewer said, “how will you readjust to being back?”

“Well, I’ve been through a lot,” Hedy began. “But I’m still—” her voice broke then, and her eyes filled up.

Larry leaned in, afraid to miss a single nuance. Hedy looked down at her lap for a moment. She was shaking. She gripped the sides of her chair tightly, and the shaking stopped. Come on, Hedy, Larry thought. Keep it together. Her breathing steadied. When she looked at the camera again, her face was steel. She had composed herself completely.  Larry wanted to cheer out loud for this small victory, this refusal to give her captor the satisfaction of her trauma.

“I’m still me,” Hedy said finally. “I’m not going to let what he did be the last word in my life. I’m still the person who rescues animals, and paints pictures of people’s pets, you know? I hate it that everybody sees me now as that poor thing on the news. I’m still me.”

Serious music cued up in the background, and the interviewer promised more with Hedy Plunkett in a moment. The station cut to a commercial for air fresheners.

“Bill, it’s his birthday,” Gilles pleaded. “He’s making himself crazy. Can you please turn off this depressing program?”

Bill rolled his eyes and cut the TV, but Larry didn’t complain. He had seen everything he needed to see. Gilles ordered another round, and they toasted.

“Thank you for being a friend,” Larry said.  “I’m glad you’re here.”

Gilles clapped him on the back. “Isn’t that the song from The Golden Girls? Does this mean I am becoming an American because I know this reference?”

Larry laughed. “Um, I think it just means that you’re gay, honey.”

“Well, that is not a lie,” Gilles said. “Unlike the lies you have been telling me tonight.”

The smile fell away from Larry’s face.

“You try to cancel, you don’t come to class, you’re drunk when I come to pick you up, and your apartment is almost empty.” Gilles touched his friend’s forearm.  “Something is wrong.”

“I failed, Gilles,” Larry said.  “At a dance career. I’m done. It’s over.”

Gilles laughed softly. “When something’s in your heart, you’re never done.  You find a way to keep it in your life. Do you think I trained for years to play for ballet classes?”

Larry placed a hand on top of Gilles’. “God, your paws are enormous,” he said, smiling.  “You’re like a giant French bear.”

“All the better to grab your ass with, my dear,” he said, and they laughed together for the last time.

Alone in his dark apartment, Larry scooped up Miamor and stroked her as she purred. He kissed her face and scratched her chin. After a while, she wriggled in his arms to be let down. He double-checked that all the pictures of her on his camera were saved.

 *

The next morning was sunny. At the usual times, the coffee pot started up and Mrs. Niles’ television did too. Instead of lying in bed, Larry was up and packing. I’m still me, I’m still me, I’m still me ran through his mind as he assembled a few duffel bags. He double-bagged Miamor’s food and litter, and gingerly laid her brush and a few toys on top.  After she had eaten and drank her fill, and used the litter box, Larry hustled her into her carrier, kissing the top of her head as she protested being shut inside.

At the car rental place, he bought a map of the United States, and a map of Pennsylvania. If he made good time, he’d get to Fayetteville by lunch. Miamor gave up her yowling after a half-hour, probably figuring if they weren’t at the vet’s office by that point, then she was off the hook. Eventually the buildings of the cities and suburbs grew farther and farther apart until Larry found himself in the middle of nowhere. Welcome to Fayetteville, the sign said.

It wasn’t hard to find the Plunkett house. Larry cut the engine at the edge of the yard under a tree, where he’d be less conspicuous. Two cars were parked in the carport.  There was a fence in the backyard. Maybe Hedy’s old dog was still alive. The Plunketts’ front lawn was covered with Welcome Home signs and all kinds of decorations. The biggest sign was planted firmly by the mailbox: No Press Allowed—Thank You For Understanding.

Looking back at Miamor sleeping in her carrier, he wasn’t sure he could do it.  He could still just drive away. But then he thought of Hedy, and how his affectionate little miracle cat would wind her way around Hedy’s ankles and purr. He read the note he’d written one last time before taping it to Miamor’s carrier.

Hedy, my name is Larry Cornbluth, and this is Miamor. I heard on the news that you were an animal rescuer. Well, I am changing my life, and I don’t know quite where I’ll end up, so I don’t think it would be fair to put Miamor through that, as much as I love her. I know you’ll take good care of her. She likes wet food best, and she loves to be brushed. Thanks, Hedy. I appreciate this.

Larry got out of the car and set up Aunt Rachel’s camera on the roof, aiming it at the Plunketts’ front door and double-checking that it was on video mode. He hoped Hedy would smile when she saw Miamor sitting there. He hoped seeing her reaction on video whenever he missed his cat would be comforting. He grasped the handle of the cat carrier in one hand and the bag of supplies in the other and quietly strode up the front walk.

The front curtains were drawn. It crossed his mind then that he’d have to knock, unless he wanted Miamor sitting out here indefinitely. His arm was shaking as he reached out and rapped on the door. Immediately he heard muffled footsteps coming from the back of the house. He bolted down the walkway and made it to the edge of the yard, under the tree, before the front door of the Plunkett house creaked open.

There she was. Hedy. A completely normal-looking person in jeans and a long-sleeved tee-shirt. Her hair was in a loose braid than hung down her back.

She saw Miamor. He was too far away to hear it, but he could tell by her body language that she’d taken a sharp breath of surprise. The smile on her face was unmistakable, though.  She bent down and peered into the carrier, resting her hand on top of it.  She felt Larry’s note then and peeled it off.

“Mom!” she called behind her, into the house. “Someone brought me a beautiful cat!”

In the grass, Larry found himself preparing his arms, and extending his right leg before him in a tendu. Gently, he began a piqué attitude turn. He made one slow revolution, registering each yard and each house as he spun, and stopped on a dime, balancing for that extra moment dancers hope for but can’t ever count on. When it comes, when the physics and technique line up just right, it’s exhilarating.

“Hey!” the mother’s voice shouted. He grabbed the camera, gunned the engine and drove off, nearly blinded by tears.

Larry would surprise Aunt Rachel and stay for a week or so, spoiling her with cooking and cleaning and evenings out in Lincoln. She was the kind of person who’d be proud of him for having given New York his all even if he came up short. He wasn’t afraid to tell her he’d failed. But he wasn’t sure what he’d tell her when she asked what he planned to do next.

When he tried to imagine what I’m still me looked like for himself, he didn’t see an audition schedule, or an army of young dancers sizing him up and dismissing him.  Instead he pictured a few friends and the occasional lover. He saw the sun setting over the ocean, and the Hollywood sign in the hills. A shelter cat with long black and white fur. A ballet studio where he’d take classes every evening just for fun, after he left work at the café that he’d own. He would make lattes and cappuccinos for people enjoying a leisurely afternoon or rushing off to their cubicles. He would watch them come and go.  And he would hang a sign out front that said Living the Dream.

_________________________________________________________________________

About the Author

Allison Wolcott started out as a ballet dancer, then had a change of heart, earning an MFA in Fiction Writing at the University of Arkansas, where she was a Walton Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in SHENANDOAH, THE BELOIT FICTION JOURNAL, and THE JABBERWOCK REVIEW, among other places. Wolcott lives near Chicago and is working on a few novel manuscripts for young adults.