Thank you, author and editor Dennis De Rose for responding to last Wednesday’s Visual Writing Prompt. Your story was vivid and alive, I’m happy to be sharing it here! He’s happy to hear any feedback so comments are welcome!
My Prima Dreams
… by Dennis De Rose
Bonjour mes amies, have you got a moment? Let me tell you a little story. My name is Mathilda and I am not what I used to be…
It was 1945 and the Big War had just ended. I remember the American soldiers freeing us from those German war dogs. That’s what my Maman called them. All these years later I am still haunted by my memories: looking out my bedroom window, seeing mothers and their children shot and killed or reduced to bits of bloody flesh thanks to German Sprengebombes, so many falling from the sky. I would go to bed shaking and wake up still cringing under my covers. I was only ten years old.
I will never forget the day Maman told me we were going to take a little walk, just a few streets down from our home. After lunch she bundled me up, grabbed a small bag from the floor and we began our little journey, I remember looking around, seeing people who appeared to be dazed as if they were looking for something that should be there but wasn’t anymore. The Americans were busy moving huge blocks of stone with giant growling machines. Ladies in uniform were handing out water in metal containers and sandwiches wrapped in heavy brown paper while talking to the lost ones, trying their best to comfort them. One of the ladies smiled at me and gave me a piece of bread and cheese. That little act of kindness will be etched in my memory forever.
Oh that building, it was like a giant stone masterpiece with its huge arches, two winged angels looked down on me from maybe 500 feet, at least that’s what I saw when I looked up. The golden façade nearly blinded me. And when we stepped inside it took my breath away. The Grand Foyer was magnificent, mirrors everywhere, parquet floors, sculptures and paintings, colored marble all around.
Maman had enrolled me in the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris and we were inside the Palais Garnier, a monument dedicated to producing the best opera and ballet worldwide. You see, Maman knew I had my heart set on becoming the best ballerina ever, she had watched me as I pirouetted through the halls, dressed in my pink tutu. But I did not know I would be staying here for a very long time, only allowed to see my Papa and my Maman every Sunday.
I kissed Maman on the cheek. She handed me the cloth bag and Mme. Carlotta showed me to my tiny room on the very top floor. She had a grumpy face and she was very quiet. Quiet people make me nervous; they cannot be trusted. The room was dusty and very hot, too hot for winter. Looking around, which didn’t take long, I spied a small rickety bed, a wooden chair in need of serious repair, a little beat-up wooden table, an old desk light with a funny looking bulb in it and a clay pot under the bed. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the dust motes flying all around. The one saving grace was the small dirty window that actually opened so I could see outside and get some fresh air.
The hot air in the room, my room now, made me tired so I decided to nap; I hadn’t slept well the night before. A sharp knock at the door shocked me to attention. Opening the door, I expected to see the sour Mme. Carlotta. The lady gestured and mentioned her name, Mlle. Yvette. I followed her down a set of backstairs and into a small poorly-lit dining room.
Our first meal was not gourmet, a bowl of warm thin soup, a crust of bread, a slice of goat cheese and a small glass of watery wine. Mlle. Yvette sat at one end and Mme. Carlotta was seated at the other. Suddenly, it struck me, no one was talking. I raised my hand to ask a question and before I could utter one word, my fingers were whacked with a long narrow stick courtesy of Mlle. Yvette. I cannot tell you what I was thinking, it was very unladylike. If my Maman ever heard me say those words I would have soap in my mouth before I could blink an eye.
Another sharp bang on my door, and I was awake at 6AM the following day. Fifteen minutes later we were seated at the same table drinking weak coffee and eating a slice of stale bread with butter and a slice of the same goat cheese. It looked moldy but I dared not utter a peep. Without a word spoken, Mme. Carlotta grabbed me by the hand and yanked me toward a small closet on the other side of the room. She glanced at me as she opened the door. I remember thinking she might be going to shove me inside and lock the door. Instead, she handed me a dirty white tutu and an old pair of pointe shoes, obviously one size too small, while gesturing toward a screened-in alcove.
My first day of beginner instruction and it continued until 10 that night with only two short breaks in between. I found out the hard way that my pirouette was a disaster, my plie was horrendous and my pointe work was shoddy at best. Over time, my grand plie, my demi-plie and my pointe work improved.
Let me rest. I need something to drink. All this reminiscing is making me thirsty. Now where did I put that bottle of Dom Perignon? Here it is. Half a glass, there we go. You know, I have to laugh. We French must be in love with the letter P, so many ballet words begin with that letter. How funny is that?
Now, where was I? Oh yes, the second day things started to look up. I made a friend, very quietly I might add. Violette Verdy was a third year student and at the top of her class. She was blonde to my black and tall to my short. Maybe she felt sorry for me but we became friends and I never questioned her motives. She was the Ying to my Yang. We became inseparable, on the sly of course.
You know, from that day on, my tutu seemed cleaner, my shoes no longer pained me and the long hours didn’t seem as long as before. But the food was still substandard, nothing could fix that. I felt lighter on my feet and my dancing improved (Violette worked with me afterhours up on the roof). But don’t tell Mme. Carlotta or Mlle. Yvette, that’s our secret. My room was still hot and dusty but I found out Violette was no better off.
I saw Maman and Papa every Sunday and I would show them what I had learned. We talked about the school and my new friend, Violette. But I never complained about what went on at school or during classes. They laughed when I told them the students had a nickname… Les Petite Rats. Maman was such a good cook but when she asked me what we were eating I would change the subject.
In 1950, Violette graduated at the top of her class and was given the coveted title of Prima Ballerina. I graduated from Intermediate two years later, dancing in several shows in and around Paris until I met my future husband, Michel, a pastry chef. By that time, Violette was touring all over Europe but we still kept in touch by post. We spent as much time as we could together whenever she was performing in and around Paris.
Violette gave up dancing in 1965 when she married Charles, a famous singer, and settled on the outskirts of Paris (I remember teasing Violette because Charles was five years younger). Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris was looking to replace Mme. Carlotta and Mlle. Yvette due to their age and less than desirable disposition. Violette was a welcomed addition to the staff. In her free time, she often played with our three children, Mireille, Michelle and Michel Jr. Violette and Charles never had any children of their own.
Time flies when you’re having fun, that’s what they say. After my children were grown and had families of their own I decided to do something else after helping for years in our bakery. I never forgot that little dusty room and how it bothered me so much. I spoke to Michel and we agreed that I should clean houses to help me pass the time. We didn’t need the money. A few years later Michel sold the bakery.
I’m ready for another glass of wine. When I think about it, I have done quite a bit in my life. The love of my life, Michel, passed away eight years ago but we were happily married for almost 60 years. Violette, God bless her, died one month after my Michel. Luckily, Charles is still around and we spend quite a bit of time together. He still sings like he’s 30 and he fills my days with joy as we sit around remembering the “old” days.
Say, it’s been awfully nice chatting with you. I have to rush off. Charles is meeting me at the old bakery (I still get a discount). I’m not what I used to be but I’m happy.
Dennis is a wonderful storyteller and a good friend. See below for links to his other writing and his editing business.