from Splice of Life: A Memoir in 13 Film Genres
I’m already drunk when he takes me by the arm and says hello. We’re at a bar; it’s crowded. Men in twos and threes fuck each other on several televisions mounted high on the walls. There’s music—something forgettable. We introduce ourselves. He offers me a shot of something, and I drink it. We talk, but I won’t remember this conversation. Nothing sticks in my memory until I realize I’m kissing him in the parking lot after last call. His friends have shoved themselves into a yellow Ford Fiesta and idle a few feet from us. The horn bleats with insistence.
He invites me to join them, but I know when my hourglass has run out. We exchange information. I’ll hear from him again. What happens next will unlace everything about my life: Where I live. Who I am. Who my boyfriend is. How much I want to live.
* * *
Black Swan is the story of a woman trying to keep it together during a period of intense turmoil, scrutiny, and uncertainty. Set against the backdrop of the prestigious New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, the film, directed by Darren Aronofsky, leverages the excruciating physical demands of ballet—exacting technique, the punishment of repetitive movement, the crushing expectations of bodily perfection—against the pliable psyches of the dancers, the artistic director, and the people they orbit.
* * *
I study a much-photocopied sheet of instructions, the type gray and faded, before the first meeting of my adult beginning ballet class. It instructs me to buy shoes, and to wear comfortable clothing to class. I should be prepared to move. I find the nearest dance supply store and after trying on what feels like every shoe in their back room, I find the pair that hugs my feet without strangling them. “When you get home, attach the elastics so that the slipper fits snugly but not uncomfortably,” the salesperson tells me, showing me with her finger where I should sew it with thread. I go home, pull out the sewing kit I have never used before, and do my best.
The studio is a large square space with high ceilings and a wall of windows looking onto Los Angeles’s new Broad museum. It stares back at us with its architectural “oculus,” a window bulging through the concrete of the museum’s façade. The room gets a lot of natural light and feels spacious.
The teacher, Amy, is in her forties with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and a petite frame covered from head to toe with a light jacket, long pants, and leg warmers. She has a direct demeanor and speaks with an occasional accent that I can’t pin down. We all help pulling out the barres and placing them in straight lines around the room. She asks us our names and memorizes them almost immediately, then launches quickly into a series of steps at the barre. Her nylon pants rustle like dry leaves while her feet become blurs near the floor, flicking, pointing, tapping. Her arms swoop up over her head and trail back down in graceful arcs that are so perfect they seem robotic.
I try as best I can to repeat these movements with my own limbs, with varying results. At six feet four, I tower over my petite classmates. They wear leotards and sheer wrap skirts and look much better prepared than I do in my striped tank top and gym shorts.
Though I am barely moving, I break a sweat. Then a hard sweat.
I see myself in the mirror, a praying mantis among swans.
* * *
There’s a lot of mirror imagery in Black Swan. This makes sense: mirrors line the walls of every ballet studio. The dancer must observe herself to assess her movements, make corrections, understand her placement on the stage, how she travels through space. But the obsession with reflection threads deeper. In one of the first shots of Nina (Natalie Portman), she rides a subway train, staring into the glass, where her own face is a ghostly reflection in the darkness outside the car. Then she sees a different image: a woman in the adjoining car, dressed similarly to her, hair in the same kind of bun. Nina strains to watch this figure exit the car and push through a crowd. We learn later this is the company’s new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis).
It’s easy to say Lily is Nina’s enemy in Black Swan. The vivacious, carefree dancer is in almost every way her opposite. Nina would certainly agree. But Nina’s enemies are more complex than just the woman who poses the greatest threat to her achievement in the role of the white and black swans. Thomas (Vincent Cassel), her artistic director, who sexually assaults her as she begs for the role and whose intermittent reinforcement of his approval keeps Nina subservient, is also an enemy. Her mother (Barbara Hershey), who both lives through her and tries to stop her from succeeding so she can never leave her, is an enemy. Beth (Winona Ryder), the prima donna she replaces, is an enemy who suggests Nina’s ascent is due only to fucking Thomas, not her talent or passion.
In another scene, walking alone through a construction corridor, Nina passes a figure who for a moment has her own face, a Cheshire smile blooming there, unnerving the real Nina. Her ultimate enemy is herself, her own distrust in her abilities, her own fears. She learned this: to doubt everything, except her own ambition.
* * *
The man I met at the bar becomes a regular hookup. I keep his identity, and the identities of all my hookups, secret from the rest of the people in my life. Except for my partner of seven years, whose blessing I have to participate in this ethical nonmonogamy.
For a while, it was good. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. Bar guy tells me one night at a bar he’s not in it for the long haul if he has to share me. When he leaves my house that night, he leaves for good, wrecking me. In the aftermath of that heartbreak, I split from my partner. All of this exposes fundamental flaws in our design. And even though my partner and I love each other more than anything else in this world, we don’t work. I lose a passionate love, a domesticated love, a best friend, a companion in the course of a few weeks. I no longer know who I am.
A few months later, bar guy reaches out to me. I let him back in. Just us.
* * *
THE BLACK SWAN
Lily doesn’t understand why Nina is so serious. Why she can’t let loose, have fun, live a little. Lily is free, liberated. She chases experiences more than achievements. It’s what Thomas loves about her, the way she loses herself in life and in dancing. Nina is a perfectionist; her self-awareness overpowers all her other desires. She knows when she is being watched, and she knows she is always being watched.
But Nina wants to be like Lily, though the closer she gets, the more she realizes she can’t have it both ways. She can’t be the technically proficient and demure white swan if it also means being the dark, seductive, calculating black swan. The white swan, like Nina, is aware men are watching her and so she performs for them. The black swan, like Lily, performs so that men will watch her. It’s a subtle difference, but ultimately the one that defines them both. The difference is who controls the performance.
* * *
What strikes me about ballet in the beginning isn’t necessarily how hard it is. I once took a break in the work day to watch New York City Ballet alum Wendy Whelan teach the advanced students of my school’s Dance Academy, my first real peek behind the curtain of what goes into a ballet performance. Wendy’s body, made of only muscle and bone, swam through space calculated to be perfect yet graceful—precise but effortless. I watched the students follow her instruction, her adjustments, having no clear idea what was happening within their bodies to make these steps come to life.
And that, for me, is the struggle in ballet. The carriage of the body, even its placement at rest, requires muscles I’ve never thought about before. To stand in first position—heels together, feet turned just above nine and three o’clock—engages the thigh and hip. Fifth position, the most challenging one in which to feel comfortable, looks almost comically difficult, feet stacked and pointed in opposite directions. To stand in this position is a feat; to stand with grace, to seem natural, is athleticism.
* * *
BLACK AND WHITE
Those around Nina convince her she’s not good enough to be both white and black swans. Nina knows they’re wrong; after all, she’s smart enough to do the work to get her to the top of the company. The face she presents to the world—uncertain, flappable—invites them to underestimate her, but we the audience know with greater certainty what lurks within.
However, their words resonate in her. Her psyche splits. She feels pulled taut between mastery and misery. Rather than battling her critics and her rivals, she fights herself. She stabs Lily, only to discover she didn’t stab Lily; Nina stabbed herself with a shard of broken mirror—an object in which she sees herself the way others do. It all becomes very bloated with metaphor.
Black Swan suggests that psychological dismantling is necessary for artists to reach their full potential. Nina dances both swans, and expertly. She embodies the allure and violence of Odile and the fragility and pleading of Odette. Swan Lake is almost happening within her. At the climax of the performance, when she, as Odette, leaps off the peak and we see her plummet through an overlay of mirror shards, her face is pure ecstasy. She’s done it. She defied all the expectations, her own included, and earned stardom. Yet, when she lands on the mat backstage, we realize her self-inflicted stab wound is extensive, perhaps even fatal. And cruelly, the film withholds her fate from us.
Earlier in the film, Thomas, pacing around the rehearsal room, waxes poetic about Odette’s tragic fate. “In death,” he says, “she finds freedom.” The film campaigns for us to believe the art transcends its maker. Art trumps life. Nina fulfilled her purpose. Nothing else about her matters.
Thomas fails to add that Odile, the black swan, was already free.
* * *
It starts off with little things.
Getting ready to go out to a bar for a second, third, or fourth time that week, I pull off my shirt and reach for a new one. My boyfriend steps into his jeans. My chest, a glass-smooth sea mostly unbroken by hair, catches his eye. He says, “You know I’m really only attracted to hairy guys, right?”
Playing a round of Settlers of Catan with another couple, when he senses I’m going to win the game, he targets me and me alone. He places roads and settlements to stunt the growth of my empire, leaving me to languish and lose, even as his focus on me has allowed one of our friends to take and hold the lead until the end of the game. His pursuit of me is punishing, and personal. I am not allowed to beat him, even if destroying me means destroying himself.
Another night, a bar night like most of our nights, he leaves me waiting for the karaoke DJ to call me up. Maybe he’s smoking outside. Maybe he’s chatting with friends in the back. But then he’s standing in front of me. I see his eyes bobbing on whisky’s choppy waves. The dread rushes into me. He puts his arm around a short man next to him who can’t be more than twenty-six years old. “This is Sam,” my boyfriend says. Sam’s face has a dog’s eagerness all over it. As I shake Sam’s hand, my boyfriend leans toward my ear. “Let’s take him home with us.”
We’ve never spoken about this kind of thing—what it means to us, what it might do to us. I’ve learned to stay sober no matter how late the night gets to stop mistakes like this from happening. “No.”
He doesn’t say a word. Just turns and storms out of the bar. Sam stands there, reading me with his optimism. He holds up his phone. “Can I give you my number?”
Another night, a neighbor pounds on our door at four in the morning. It yanks me out of a deep sleep. My first thought: police. A crisis. An accident. Still mostly asleep, I answer the door naked, hiding my body behind the wood. The neighbor points to a rideshare service idling in the street. The back door yawns open and the interior light reveals my boyfriend, cradled in the back seat, passed out, unresponsive.
I drag him back.
Over time, it becomes a kind of dance. I work hard not to be noticed, to anticipate what will set him off or open myself up for criticism, and correct it before he can comment.
And the undermining. Well. Eventually I hit bottom.
The exhaustion I feel pulls me toward the earth with its own gravity. I pass out before ten almost every night, usually in front of the TV while he struggles through ADD to complete his graduate school coursework.
I go into therapy for depression. Between the complexities of my work environment and the needling at home, I have no peace.
We explode. Shouting from one end of the apartment to the other. Me screaming (again) that it’s over. My body filling up with despair like a cistern in a hurricane. Then I’m crying. I’m telling him how much he’s hurting me. I ask him to help me feel better. He tells me he just can’t with me, that I need too much, ask too much, that I’m draining him dry, that I’m holding him back, that he can’t anymore.
I remember saying the words, “Maybe I shouldn’t even be alive anymore.”
He locks himself in the other bedroom.
I don’t recognize myself. The saying those words.
I have been shrinking and shrinking for months, but now I can feel how close I am to blinking out.
* * *
BLACK AND BLUE
Nina’s body weathers aggression throughout Black Swan, both as a dancer and as victim of self-harm. In an early scene, her mother notices a rashy patch of skin on her back. Nina doesn’t know what it is and shrugs it off. It’s the last injury she’ll ignore in the film. Later, that area on her back bleeds, reveals a deep scratch. Her toenail snaps in half while she practices pirouettes en pointe, and she yanks a hangnail from her finger during a celebratory gala. All of these wounds manifest the stress Nina is under; as viewers, we worry both that they are real, and that they are imagined. Because a ballet dancer’s body is the tool of their art, it is sacred. Nina cares for hers like a priceless violin. When it begins to break down, she’s stressed and concerned.
Yet the physical harm can’t compare to the self-harm she endures at the film’s climax. Or is the self-harm the inevitable evolution of the harm she endures from others? Beth’s slut-shaming. Thomas’s psychological abuse. Her mother’s overprotective and volatile attention. Lily’s constant glittering on the periphery of her vision. The ire of her company members. The being-a-woman in a world where everything about her—her body, her sexuality, her interiority—are owned by everyone else around her.
By the end of the film, Nina resolves to defy everyone’s expectations and embody herself and her opposite. She thinks she is doing this for herself, but it is actually the outcome everyone has been pushing her to realize. And it (probably) kills her. And perhaps, in death, she’ll find freedom.
* * *
The moment I walk in, I know something is wrong. Off. Hollow. The way the sound of the door opening echoes when it should absorb. The click of my steps on bare tile.
The realization swoops into me with a breath I feel all the way in my gut.
I look in the bedroom. The closet gapes, the bare hangers there dangling like teeth in a broken grin. I rip open a dresser drawer: disemboweled. The master bath, his bath, empty; even the shower curtain gone.
I call him. It rings and rings.
I call him. It rings and rings.
I call him. It rings and rings.
I feel like a conduit. Electric. Things are rushing into me (air, panic, images) and rushing out of me (breath, sweat, anger).
I text him. You moved out?
I see the bubble with three dots pull up on the screen. I don’t wait. I call him again. He declines the call.
Then the message appears: I do not want to talk right now.
I text back that he can go fuck himself.
The phone shaking in my hand.
The emptiness of the rooms, how hollow and dead they feel. A discarded cocoon.
The fear and panic and anger and devastation washing over me in waves, taking turns.
Was this freedom?
* * *
There are weeks when being a failure in the ballet studio is the very best thing I can do for myself. The fall ballet teacher, Lucy, is Amy’s opposite in almost every way. She has red hair, is maybe ten years older than Amy, and has a Southern accent that fades in and out depending on how informal she’s being. She’s loose, casual, funny, loves chatting throughout class, and laughs loudly and often.
I attempt one of the valse combinations Lucy demonstrates. It’s a delicate waltz-based step with a PUM-pum-pum rhythm and combinations of steps forward and pauses. I just can’t do it; I get so deep in my head about what each foot is supposed to do and how my arms are supposed to wave and swan around me.
Lucy stops me and gestures to stop the music. “Why don’t we do this.” She presses my arms to my chest. “Let’s not worry about these. Just step to the music.” She claps out the waltz rhythm with her hands and demonstrates for me a significantly dumbed-down version of the footwork. I’ve been assigned ballet for babies. I don’t protest. I follow her instructions.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to actually do something, and do it right.
Then there is the day Lucy asks us to spin across the room with our arms up, bent at the elbows, fingers touching our shoulders. This, she says, is to force us to spot, which in turn prevents us from becoming dizzy, which in turn allows us to spin and spin and spin. To spot, you choose something on the wall ahead of you and hold your gaze there as your body turns, your head stationary, until the very last second when you whip your head around and snap back to that same spot, over and over. Unless you are me, in which case you reel around until the floor rises up to catch you.
I am awful at ballet, and yet I find myself leaving each class in high spirits, smiling even, ready to try again the next week. There are weeks the drive home from ballet is the only time I feel any joy at all.
* * *
Black Swan does a great job of keeping Lily elusive from the audience. We are so forced inside Nina’s perspective—even experiencing Nina’s delusions and fantasies with her, unable to discern what is real and what isn’t—and Lily is always just outside our view. Her role in this film, and in Nina’s psyche, is to always be just out of reach. This is the dance of the black swan: to be available, but unattainable.
We don’t know why Lily is so free and confident. She’s just a company dancer, and she doesn’t even seem to take it that seriously. Nina, who is practiced and technically perfect, lives in constant fear and doubt, yet of all the characters in this film, it is she who should be confident.
But successful women in our culture don’t get to be the objects of desire. More often, they’re the hurdles for others to clear. Take Beth, who in this film is as accomplished and flawless as Nina. But she’s also ancient in ballet years. This, too, is a distinctly female problem. But why is this film, in which we occupy a woman’s psyche, blind to this double standard? We know Beth is aware of what’s happening, and Nina, for what it’s worth, seems to agree it’s time for Beth to step aside, that it’s her time to rise. Yet Nina cannot ignore Lily, who is years behind her and, with her work ethic, will never reach Nina’s level of success.
Lily is no threat to Nina on the stage—only in life, where she has learned to live, while Nina has learned to succeed.
* * *
In the winter when I’m out at a bar with friends, my now-ex-boyfriend leaps out of nowhere, lands in front of me, and says, “Hi.” Before I even know what my body is doing, I turn on my heels and scurry away, heart pounding. I’m not ready to see him. He has been engaged to a man for several months. The insult and injury are inseparable from one another. Rather than deal, I don’t.
I walk into the room with the dance floor. The Boulet Brothers, dressed in their trademark twin drag looks, have just announced they need three volunteers. They clutch their mics with taloned fingers painted blood red. I don’t know what they’re looking for, but I raise my hand anyway. They choose two young men and then, straining through the crowd, they say, “You, the daddy with the mustache, come on up.”
I climb up onto the stage, joining the others. Below me, the crowd is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with men: Men in tank tops. Men with glitter beards. Men holding beers. Men as far as the eye can see.
“Now what we’re doing here is a dance contest,” the taller Brother says.
“You have one minute to strip down to your underwear. Make it sexy. Make the crowd love you,” the shorter Brother says.
“We’ll choose the winner by audience vote.”
“Gentlemen, are you ready?”
My hands start to sweat. The other guys are in their twenties. I see triceps popping on one of them, groomed eyebrows and a flat tummy under the tight shirt of the other. They nod at each other with respect, but I’m off to the side, maybe not even registering to them.
The beat drops, hard and loud and demanding. I don’t waste time. I tear my shirt right off. The crowd cheers for us, hollers. I hear an encouraging “Yes, daddy!” bubble up through the music. I unbuckle my belt, but I have never felt less sexy in my whole life. I unbutton my pants. I lower the zipper, grateful in the moment I had the foresight to wear cute underwear. I slide the denim down my thighs, rippling with the muscles ballet class has earned for me. I show them my ballet butt, bouncing my hips to the music. Eventually I forget the other men onstage. I forget about the men in the crowd. All I hear is the music, the breath flowing in and out of my body.
When the audience votes, cheering loudest for me, I win a crisp $100 bill and what feels like some dignity.
* * *
Amy returns to lead the class for summer. Now her style feels radically different after my year with Lucy. Amy’s teaching asks us to focus our bodies on activating the right muscles. She wants precision in movements and positions. I stand in sous-sus on the balls of my feet, one heel crossed over the top of the other foot, trying to maintain balance as I raise my arms over my head in fifth position. She wants us to keep our legs “sewn shut” using the inside thigh muscles we mostly don’t use for any other reason. “Charlie!” she calls across the room. “Keep your legs closed. I can see light through them.”
But Amy’s insistent methods come at precisely the right time. Now that I’m more or less familiar with the positions, the names of our movements, and a bit of the technique, I can address skill. And Amy’s astute eye sees all. At one point, seeing my struggle to balance on my demi-pointes, she hunkers down to the floor and tilts my foot away from balancing on the four small toes to planting from the big toe and the second toe. The shift is fortifying. I stop struggling to stand straight. She gets up, looks me in the eye. “That’s easier, right?”
In the next class, she corrects my chaîné turns. “You’re keeping your arms too low,” she says. “When your arms are low, you lean forward. When you lean forward, you don’t make complete turns, and then you don’t cross the room in a straight line.” She demonstrates my movements through exaggeration. She stops, comes back, and pushes her shoulders back. “Keep your arms here.” She makes a perfect oval and raises it just shy of perpendicular to her body. “Then when you turn through,” she goes on, sweeping her right leg and her right arm open and slamming closed again by pulling her left leg and arm toward the right, “everything stays connected.” I try the turns again, keeping my arms elevated. Now instead of nearly toppling over, I’m turning—maybe a little too fast. “Good!” Amy says as I move. When I walk back toward her, she looks me in the eye again. “That’s easier, right?”
* * *
Natalie Portman took a year of intensive ballet prior to filming Black Swan. During production, she fell in love with her ballet teacher, Benjamin Millepied, who would go on to serve as the artistic advisor to the preprofessional Dance Academy where I worked.
There’s a moment where all these lives and stories converge. A happier time. A few weeks after meeting him in the bar, I snag free tickets for my future ex-boyfriend and I to see Millepied dance in the galleries at MOCA. We stand in the crowd, watching Millepied leap and turn in an empty room, surrounded by art and two floodlights pushed into the corners.
I am falling in love, though I don’t know it. Before the year is out, my life will be unrecognizable to me in this moment.
As Millepied dances, I look to my left. There, beside me, stands Natalie Portman, her eyes fixed on her husband, drinking in his performance with an eagerness that is equal parts love, pride, and learning.
I hold the hand of a man who will never look at me like that.
* * *
When spring semester begins, ending our holiday hiatus, Lucy joins us again in the studio. She wears her all-black leotard, her red hair pulled back into a low ponytail. “I know some of you have been away from the barre for a few weeks, so we’ll ease back into it,” she says. We start with tendus, our backs to the barre, to warm up the feet and ankles, then move into pliés from each position, and then into fondus. It feels good to be back again.
Near the end of the barre exercises, Lucy waxes poetic for a moment. “Ballet is a process,” she says. “We come into the studio each day and our goal is to be better than we were the last time.” She nods to Kathy, our accompanist at the back of the room. “Just like with piano. There’s a layering of experience. We just want to get better. We just want to be better.”
We move to center floor and chaîné turns. You can see shoulders slump on everyone when Lucy announces it; no one likes these. But we do them. I do them. In fact, I do them well. My feet feel stable. I even spot successfully. We move into a combination that ends with a jeté, a full leap into the air with legs extended in either direction. Lucy instructs us to throw our arms over our head as we launch into the air to direct all the energy in our bodies straight up. The move takes power, confidence, and complete coordination of mind and body.
I complete the first steps across the floor correctly and then, my feet landing on the floor in perfect time, on the correct beat, I leap like taking a giant step. My legs extend. My arms rise over me with the authority of an exclamation. I feel so light. My body hovers over the ground. And then the floor and my feet meet again, softly, gently, and I’m done.
Charles Jensen (he/him) is the author of the poetry collection Nanopedia and six chapbooks of poems. His third collection, Instructions Between Takeoff and Landing, was published by the University of Akron Press in 2022. He received the 2020 OutWrite Nonfiction Chapbook Competition for Cross-Cutting, a diptych of essays that hybridize memoir and film criticism. The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs designated him a 2019–2020 Cultural Trailblazer, and he is the recipient of the 2018 Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, the 2007 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, and an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Journal, New England Review, and Prairie Schooner, and his essays have appeared in 45th Parallel, American Literary Review, and The Florida Review. He founded the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explored creative work on a city-by-city basis. He hosts The Write Process, a podcast in which one writer tells the story of crafting one work from concept to completion, and with Jovonnie Anaya co-hosts You Wanna Be on Top?, an episode-by-episode retrospective of America’s Next Top Model. He lives in Los Angeles and directs the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.