Lily flushed all her pills down the toilet when she got the call from Thomas that Nina had died in the hospital that night, the night of the opening. After, she hides in her bed, pretending that she's asleep when her roommate comes in.
She knows Nina wouldn’t have taken that spiked drink if she hadn’t reassured her that the effects would only last for two hours. She had just wanted Nina to live a little, live like she didn't care anything about what people thought of her, even for a moment
But she did, and only Lily really knew that.
The familiar routine of bending her feet and stretching before barre time, of breaking in her pointe shoes, of sewing the ribbons and adjusting the drawstrings, of tying the ribbons and burning the ends felt unfamiliar now with Nina gone.
Lily had always thought Nina was too serious, hardly exchanging words with anyone but with the mood now of the Ballet Company with most somber and some unsuccessfully trying to be catty to lighten up the mood, she would have welcomed her safe seriousness, her detail to routine right now, especially with her, Lily, now in the lead role - one she had wanted but now wondered if she could ever make her own, after she saw Nina become it before she fell.
-Maybe she doesn’t want to make it her own, if it comes to that.-
This may have been an uncommon attitude, but based on what some of the soloists whispered about when they thought she wasn’t listening, it may serve her better than Nina’s intense desire for perfection and Beth’s experience ever did.
Lily liked ballet a lot, sure, it was why she had let go of one of her passions, food, at a young age but not enough to throw a fit when others were favored over her. She always knew her time would come, for what she didn’t have in technique she had in execution, in performance, something that made people sit up and take notice. It was what made Thomas cast her as the understudy, after all, even when she was new, over so many other soloists.
Now that her time had come, though Lily wondered if it was really hers to claim, when what ran through everyone’s minds was that she was there because Nina had checked out.
Lily never knew how slowly ambulances moved when someone you knew, someone you thought you knew but really didn’t, was the one being transported. She swore she saw Nina turn paler and paler with each second, a thousand shades of white, even as her lips grew dark and the blood kept on flowing, despite the rescuers’ efforts to place pressure on her stab wound.
“Get her in here, quick!”
“What’s her name?”
“Where’s her family?”
“There’s no heartbeat!”
“Asystole, continue code!”
“Epi given, six minutes!”
Everyone still in their costumes was shepherded out by the nurses, but Lily saw Thomas bury his head in his hands as she left as he tried to find the words to explain to her mother what had happened, even though she knew that he himself didn’t know jackshit.
She could hear the chatter of the others, “Isn’t this like what happened to Beth?” and “Did Thomas push both of them too far?” on their lips as they nervously fidgeted, their voices trying to drown out what was happening inside, the blood and the paleness and the eerily serene smile Nina had as her eyes closed that night.
She couldn’t join in their conversation, even though she knew more than they did, for she was not blameless -maybe she was the most to blame, even- and even if Nina had -had she really?- stabbed herself she would always have her doubts linger in her head.
Lily wished for the days when she couldn’t care too much about practices, when what she did was always enough to satisfy the choreographers. Her ballet was the only thing that kept her from thinking too much, even when it was, in truth, what brought about what she was currently thinking probably too much about. Nina.
Those days were gone now, for now they were in the days Anno Nina, rather After Nina. After Nina, with the production halted for two weeks, to prepare everyone for staging Swan Lake again. After Nina, with everyone having her death on their minds, that her appointment as the Swan Queen and Black Swan was without protest, with many soloists shaking their head now when before, before Nina had gotten the role they would have maybe killed to get the role.
-No one's killing for it now.-
“It’s no good,” said Thomas again, after another runthrough of the third act.
“It was good enough during the practice runthrough then,” she waspishly thought as she sighed, though she knew that while her Black Swan was near perfect, her White Swan was not ever going to be as polished as Nina’s was and they both knew it. Nina always had ramrod posture and walked like a stick was up her ass and death would come if it got dislodged, which was perfect for the White Swan. “Why not?” she added not politely, then for kicks, added a “Sir” at the end.
Thomas shook his head again. “Nina’s mother said that she was rebelling before the performance, you know. Maybe the opposite should be done if you have the reverse problem.”
“Maybe you should stop having sex for now,” mused Thomas absently at first, but then his eyes lighted up as he started seriously considering the idea. "Yeah, that's good."
“And the drugs. Don’t look at me like that, everyone does it in the industry. Well, except Nina, unless she was tricked into it without her knowledge or someone convinced her to do it.”
A brief flash of guilt hit her as he continued to pace around. Thomas couldn’t have known about that incident, or did he? She tried her best to brush away the guilt, after all, that drug didn’t cause Nina to bleed to death, at least as far as Lily knew. Two hours, two hours that had so long a time after it before the play, she said and it was her mantra, her lifeline when she thought about it, and she didn’t want to know if what she knew was actually truth or not, even though she had typed in "Ecstasy side effects" over and over on Google, her mouse pointer hovering uselessly over the Search button. She had seen, heard how Nina had acted that day after she had taken the drug, and of course she knows how it all ended.
He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Look, Lily, your performance is fine, yes, but…”
“You are sensual, certainly and your Black Swan can seduce most everyone when you’re out on the stage, but your Black Swan isn’t as much of an achievement without a similar in level White Swan. Try to remember Nina’s performance as the White Swan, fragile and fearful, perfect and virginal.”
Sorry, but what I remember best from Nina’s performance was when she bled to death after the performance, she thought wryly as she shrugged off his hand. It was kind of hard to forget, even with the incomparable performance she gave out there.
It had been so painful to watch Nina, how she became so subservient when Thomas was brought up, how her mother acted that one time she met her, how Nina hardly ever let go, hardly ever lived. For Lily, these Nina moments: watching Nina accepting the cigarette she offered, seeing her disobey her obviously anal mother to go out with her, Nina knowingly taking the drink spiked with Ecstasy… she wanted to remember Nina that way, even though Nina’s letting go may have also led to her downfall.
But everyone who knew Nina, heck, even she who had come from San Francisco knew that Nina, beneath the fragile perfect surface was a bomb waiting to explode.
-And she did.-
She remembers being the first to see, the horrified gasp that escaped her mouth as she saw the blood, Nina's blood.
She could barely catch Nina’s calm words after Thomas’ exclamation.
“I felt it. I was perfect,” she said before fainting in front of the horror-stricken cast and crew, the applause a macabre accompaniment to Nina’s shallow breaths, steadily weakening heartbeat, and the steadily trickling blood spreading, tainting her white dress.
You were, you were, but your perfection cost you so much that death was the only way you could pay it.
-You’re perfect. You were, you were.-
She didn’t understand what Nina said after that night, how they had… hooked up? In Nina’s possibly Ecstasy and alcohol cocktail induced dream?
Lily knew enough psychology from being in a highly neurotic industry to know that dreams could manifest subconscious desires and thoughts or could similarly be based on hodgepodge thoughts that could just be bull. And that was without the substances involved.
Or maybe when Nina was evading questions about Thomas there was a whole different thing she was hiding, but no, she wouldn’t think that. What she saw of Nina was that she couldn’t lie to save herself.
She still irrationally wonders if she was good in the dream sometimes, even though Nina won’t ever be able to tell her anymore the answer.
Maybe when she gets lit while taking Ecstasy again she'll find out, though she'd probably never try.
She gains a new problem in this new world where everyone is careful, where more dancers try to look out for each other; she forgets herself.
“Now, your White Swan is much better, but…”
“Now, your Black Swan isn’t as seductive.”
“Remind me of why I chose you to be Nina’s understudy, that fire and passion, Lily.” He reaches for her, but she moves away.
“Don’t do to me what you did to her, Thomas” she says darkly.
He looks chastened for a moment, then his expression melts back into his smarmy look. “I don’t know what you mean, Lily.”
“I know you do,” she said. “I’ll work on it. By myself.”
She tries to keep a smile on her face as she allows Thomas to take her around a hastily organized party to try and lure sponsors back, after the news gets out (for even Thomas’ persuasive powers cannot silence the newspapers). It’s easy for her to smile and engage people in conversation, but there is always that elephant in the room (a swan?) that makes all conversation strained and painful under her practiced smile; Nina, Nina, Nina, she thinks while she meets another guest who cannot remember the name of the girl before her, other than that she had died after that one perfect performance. She wants to shout it to the room, but she knows enough to smile and hold back her emotions while answering his questions.
Everyone, all the dancers, are trying their best to placate the ruffled feathers of the gentry, their generosity now clouded by all the slander and suspicion the newspapers have thrown on their ballet company after the incident. She could see Veronica looking strained also, Thomas in a fleeting moment looking impossibly tired before he flashes another practiced smirk at a well-known politician.
Was this how Nina felt, like a swan having to look placid and perfect on the outside yet paddling furiously under the water to maintain her appearance?
Maybe she didn’t know Nina at all before she died, yes, but she was beginning to know her now.
She visits Nina’s grave after asking around where it was. When she comes, there are already two bouquets, one a withered bouquet of lilies with “To my little princess” scribbled on the card and one of pink roses with “to my sweet girl” on the card. She frowns while lighting a cigarette; it must be rude but she doesn't think Nina would mind and her opinion is the only one Lily cares about at this moment.
She leaves behind a bouquet of sunflowers with the card bearing Nina's name alone; after all, Nina deserved to be called by her name and not by whatever caricature anyone had made of her, especially when in the end nobody really understood her at all.
She doesn’t believe in heaven, nor does she have any organized religion to fall back on, but hopefully Nina now, wherever she was, could finally rest and not care about expectations and perfection.
She finds a scarf much like what Nina used to wear and uses it everyday, even as she tries her best to find the part of herself that allowed her to truly have fun again; maybe the physical reminder of Nina would make sure that Lily wouldn’t go too far, to the point of losing herself completely -permanently- like Nina did.
If one made peace with the good and bad, the Black and White Swan, maybe one could swing between them without courting disaster.
She exhales when the curtain falls down on the stage for the last time for Swan Lake.
Later, after the cast party, she steals away the Swan Queen and the Black Swan’s costumes and burns them, watching while smoking a cigarette. She could swear she could smell Nina’s childish perfume now, even if logically it would seem impossible.
“For you, Nina, and for me.”
Now she can move on.
-And there will be glory in living another day, many more days, instead of burning brightly, burning out in the night.-