Author’s Note: My experience in the ballet world, and the close friendships and sisterhood cultivated among us dancers, provided inspiration for this story: “Coffee From Arabia” follows a young up-and-coming ballerina as she navigates growing up, identity, and desire both on and off the stage. In writing, it has been enchanting to peek behind the curtain at this life again!
Coffee from Arabia
I OFTEN MARVELED AT THE SLOPE OF ANYA’S BACK, milky skin against the bright fabric of her leotard. We’d started in light pink, then lilac, then powder blue. I’d stand behind her in adagio and concentrate on the tautness and slow uncoiling of her muscles as she moved, trying not to lose my own balance, my focus. It seemed strange and wonderful to me that I was intimately familiar with the curve of her spine, rather than my own.
We wear black, now, but Anya remains my anchor. As I study my body in the mirror, making sure my neck is long and my shoulders are square and my elbows are soft and the entirety of my core is pulled in and up, up, up, I often catch her gaze, both of us smiling. Or, I catch the steady concentration in her face, her determination to reach farther, lift higher, hit each intricate angle stronger, even when she’s not aware anyone is watching. Her grace, her beauty, her preciseness, everything I want, laid out in the mirror before me. A reflection, solid and fleeting. The casting for this year’s The Nutcracker will be posted tonight; my favorite season has finally begun. Unlike our other productions, we tour with this show. The show where everything began. The curtain rises.
Anya and I met at eight years old. She was tiny, with big doe eyes that seemed to take up most of her face. We had both been cast in The Nutcracker, as the girls who attend Clara’s Christmas party in the opening act and Mother Ginger’s little clowns at the end of the second. Ours was the youngest age they started the casting, the year that students metamorphosed—like the winged, butterfly-like sylphs in La Sylphide—from casual dancers to serious, upcoming ballerinas. I like to think of my time with Anya as one of our many performances—after the overture, an opening act, intermission, a second act. A start, a middle, a continuous end.
I had been fitted with what I considered at the time a glorious, old-fashioned party dress for the party scene. Violet and heavy velvet, with an obscene, swallowing amount of lace and ribbons and layers. I spun off while the costume mistress pinned my name to it, but when I next turned around, there was Anya in my dress. She was too small for any of the others, I remember the costume mistress explaining patiently. She gestured to the rack of cheerful colored garments that remained, the ghosts of Clara’s friends. I had ended up in a burnt, tired kind of gold, with a sometimes-there greenish sheen in certain light.
This became a sort of truth of this new world I was being invited into, the world of ballet. An envy that was not quite green, a chameleon kind of color. Layered with other, nameable and unnamable, things. That day, what I felt was mostly a marbled purple. But Anya was made my partner for the Polichinelles dance during that first rehearsal—due to our similar height—and she squeezed my hand excitedly when the huge skirt we’d be jumping out of was described to us and when we met the man who’d sit on the ladder, dolled up and beautiful on opening night. She was as mystified and awestruck as I was by the magic we were allowed to see, to touch, on this side of the curtain, yet serious and solemn as she went over our little steps, over and over. Shy among the older dancers, as I was, but I knew that they saw she stood out, as I did.
“We’re not even on stage very long, you know,” I’d say, as she practiced her curtsey to Drosselmeier yet again, intent on her reflection in the mirror. You cannot escape the floor-to-ceiling mirrors in a ballet studio; they always see what you are. “But we’re on stage, anyway,” she’d say, feet pointed perfectly, back straight, head bowing at just the right angle. And she was right. We sat next to each other nervously on the tour bus, heading for that first show right after Thanksgiving, hair done up in curlers the night before by our dutiful mothers, and by the end of the ride we’d become the closest of friends in that easy, unquestioning way young kids do. And after we’d done the warmup and marked the half-hearted run-through in wooly socks and sweaters, then disappeared backstage to help each other take out the curlers, pin in hairbows, carefully lay out our small costumes, and painstakingly apply stage makeup in the way our mothers had shown us—beauty queens at only eight years old—the transformation was complete. As I watched Anya twirl in delight while Clara received her nutcracker, smile reaching to her eyes, her transformation resonated the most. I hardly recognized her, and I recognized her more closely than I ever had. She deserved my perfect, violet dress.
Our ballet studio was well-known, difficult to get into and prosper in, a hidden gem in the busy interior of sparse Maine. Our teacher, Ms. Iris, was as fiery and passionate as her graying red hair, a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre at only seventeen years old. You came to her to become a dancer, and she could make you one, if you had it, that abstract concept spoken about in hushed tones. Our parents knew this, of course, and they sent us there explicitly for this purpose.
My mother, who played principal clarinet in the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, was ever the artist. She did not believe in wasting talent, and she did not believe in giving up if said talent dawdled in the shadows, taking its time to make an appearance. She also did not believe that any daughter of hers could not be graceful. Half her motivation for choosing ballet was my clumsiness as a toddler, my tendency to ram into things, too grabby, too eager, too impatient. She was as familiar with Tchaikovsky as I was, his Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake and, of course, The Nutcracker steadily running through my veins as I grew older. I grew up going to symphonies, imagining my mother making music, making magic, in the secret underbelly under the stage. She took me to concerts, to plays, to museums where she’d hurriedly shuffle me past the paintings of naked men and women. Never too young for art, but too young for art, I suppose. Or reality.
Nakedness, nudity, was a norm in my new world, though, the world I was beginning to keep as a secret to those outside, those who wouldn’t understand. The dressing room had the pace of an accelerated heartbeat, dances passing on the stage too fast to call for modesty. In our early Nutcracker years, speed was not a problem for us youngest dancers, appearing only in the beginning of the show and at very nearly the end. But the toy soldier who had successfully helped vanquish the Rat King had four minutes to become a Snowflake, and she did not care who watched her do it. None of us were really watching, after all; we were existing as ballerinas, together, and even at a young age this camaraderie swelled warmly inside me. I was slowly taught that the female body, our bodies, did not need to be hidden, did not need to be judged. It was a shock at first—I remember my first time in the dressing room, eyes widening at the suddenly-there, largest breasts I had ever seen as the Chocolate from Spain dancer laced up her heels before bouncing into her long, fitted, ravishing red dress. But, as with the initial iciness of the Maine sea during a summer day at the beach, your body adjusts, grows warm, becomes used to it. I was fascinated that each body was new, unique. There were no two that were the same, yet they all fit together. And I would fit, too. There was beauty here, different from the beauty of our movements on the stage, but present still.
The dressing room—here were women in a way we were not allowed to see them, to know they existed. Reality.
We grew, as flowers are prone to do. Scenes passed quickly, lost in a haze of memory and a blending together of childhood years. A thousand moments that felt incredibly important or funny or joyful or sad jumbled together and forgotten. We went from curly ponytails to real ballerina buns, from soft ballet shoes to tentative pointe. To more pain—in our toes and backs and hips as we stretched, as we danced. I remember being fitted for my first pair of pointe shoes, the store owner bringing me pair after pair, until finally she slid Gaynor Mindens on my feet and asked me to relevé. I clutched at the barre and imagined that I looked beautiful. The store owner studied me for a long time. “Not many girls start with these or can ever wear them.” She clucked her tongue. “It’s a unique shoe. But if your claves bulge and they look right, feel right, then that’s your shoe. Nothing you can do about it. They’re yours, and that’s you.”
Anya and I remained partners, still almost identical in height. We were given party dresses that used to fall to the floor, too long; we graduated into battle, as toy soldiers; we peeked onstage as we always had at the dancers who were Chocolate, Tea, Coffee, Trepak, Flowers—roles we knew we’d soon be getting. We began to care more about what clothes we wore outside the studio, what we looked like, what we gossiped about. We slowly began to have a place in productions outside of The Nutcracker. Change whistled in my ears, but The Nutcracker remained my favorite. Anya remained my favorite, too.
There were other girls, of course—we’d started together and were learning to fill the mold of one of Iris’s ballerinas together. Neves, the last of us to grow out her bangs and whose mother never let her forget that making it meant everything was a competition. Elena, the one with the strikingly beautiful face who always seemed to be a half-count behind. Andi, who had the prettiest painted fingernails and whose dedication was already wavering due to her newfound love of running. Mallory, possessor of the longest legs who tried to make us laugh at the worst moments. The two other Marys, one of them also blonde, distinguished by our last initials. Mary L., Mary C., Mary O. Millie, the most innocent, who I once handed a tampon to under the bathroom stall during the break between matinee and evening shows and explained how to insert it, while Anya murmured encouragement. A family, we liked to think, but the envy-thing pulsed louder than before, even as we tried to ignore it, for parts in each ballet of the season and for parts of each other. Mallory’s legs in the perfect arabesque; Neves’s early conquering of the double pirouette; Elena’s stability while the rest of us wobbled on pointe. Andi could eat anything she wanted and stay petite; Mary C. could bend far, far back; and Mary L. was strong in her shoulders and had a deep plié. My eyes often glanced at my feet, as if to make sure they were doing what they should, but I had natural turnout that the others had to work for. Anya; Anya stood alone. As our bodies changed more, hers changed correctly for our craft. My thighs allowed me to jump high in a grand jeté, but the power came from their thickness. Anya was slim and narrow and powerful still. All eyes were drawn to her on the stage.
We became the older dancers in the dressing room almost without my realizing it. I remember glancing down between the others’ legs while they took off their tights to see if there was a darkness there that matched my own. We all fretted over if our boobs would grow too much; I was relatively flat, but some of the others weren’t so lucky. I’d find myself comparing leg and stomach circumference in my head, calculating if I was safe, knowing that the others must be doing the same.
Around the end of middle school, Anya and I were put in the Tea from China dance as partners, though she was faster and more precise in the footwork than I was. A costume mistress tugged at the black capri pants and tutted. “You have birthing hips,” she fretted, pulling at the material. In all my times in the costume room, this is the moment that does not blend together with my other fittings into one long, erratically patterned bolt of fabric. I felt heat crawl up my face as I studied the swirling gold pattern of my green tunic, somehow duller than before. “Oh, don’t worry; they’ll come in handy someday,” she added hurriedly, as if for atonement. Examining and discussing every inch of our bodies was not new, nor were the stretch marks crisscrossing over my widening hips and backside—I hoped Anya hadn’t heard her, anyway.
The first year our ankles were strong enough to audition on pointe, Anya and I were cast as Snowflakes. I remember her squealing and clutching me in a hug, her usual poise of Anya the Prima Ballerina lost in a moment of excitement. We were in, we knew—real ballerinas danced on pointe, after all. A triumph.
Anya and I were Drosselmeier’s dolls, brought in to enchant Clara and her party guests. Matching purple tutus and pointe shoes, jeweled masks, giant Washington-esque wigs. I remember sitting next to Anya on our downtime in rehearsals, her hip against mine, heads bent as we painstakingly colored our shoes with purple Sharpie. Anya hummed along with the Arabian dance, sewing purple, shimmery ribbons to her shoes. I watched her nimble fingers. I knew the feeling of them against my skin from our regular Thursday massage classes and at intermissions of performances, carefully smoothing out the knots in my back, my calves, my feet, before I did the same for her. I looked at my own shoes, a perfect match. We mirrored each other in the choreography, her hand holding mine strongly, steadfastly, as we went through the mechanical doll-like movements. When I came out of a piqué turn blind, the winking stage lights edging into the corners of my eyes, reaching for her hand while I lifted my leg up in a battement, I never doubted that she would be right where I expected she’d be. Our bodies were in tune—I felt her next move even as I began my own, recognized her tells. I could read the tilt of her head, the twitch in her fingers counting the music, the deepened plié before she sprang upwards, the quick inhale to set up a spin.
I did not share this synchronicity with my male partners, as we became old enough to dance with another in our classes. I had always been dancing with a partner, I wanted to protest, remembering the fairy waltz from Sleeping Beauty and the quiet shadowing of wilis in Giselle. We did not need the pas de trois that Iris kept hinting she was preparing us for; we had been our own pas de deux. But Anya was beautiful and lithe next to her partners, fitting her body against theirs, trusting them fully to lift her up to their shoulders or plunge her inches from the floor in a fish dive. She was stiff yet supple while they turned her, held her, breathed as one with her. I wobbled and doubted and could not find a big enough trust that he—whichever one he happened to be—wouldn’t drop me or forget me or let me slide past his fingers. I watched Iris purse her lips and gesture for me to try again. I watched Anya lean into her partners, skin on skin, grip their hands tight; they grasped her legs and arms and waist and then the two of them would laugh off to the side during the water break, talking through each move. Iris smiled, nodded her approval. I watched Anya pull ahead, wishing she’d stay back here with me and our previous dances.
I had always sensed her body, her elegance, her passion, but her gift had lingered underneath, like in the depths of the ocean. Now it pulsed near the surface, teetering between the moment it had been and the moment it would break free from the water, tilting its face to the sun.
But there was still the Waltz of the Snowflakes, which became my favorite dance. The whisper of our pointe shoes against the stage, the swirling of pure white, the increasing speed and fervor of Tchaikovsky’s music and desperation—I began to feel I lived for it. The urgency, the agitation that rose and rose amid the snow. Before we danced, Anya and I would warm our feet up together, massage soreness and tightness out of each other’s limbs. Anya would pin my crown into my hair before we went on, ruffle my dress; I buttoned her bodice up her back, rows of tiny hooks tracing up her spine, her skin warm under my hands. We sprayed our pointe shoe ribbons with hairspray to keep them in place and rubbed rosin onto the tips and heels of our shoes—for stability, Anya always said. We flitted on and off the stage. In the wings, her hands on the back of my neck as she stood behind me waiting for our next entrance, moving to smooth my hair and brush out the fake plasticky snowflakes. At another exit, my diving to the floor to tuck in her misplaced pointe shoe ribbon; she hadn’t noticed. A few seconds to massage out someone’s ankle, fix someone’s arm puffs, catch our breath. A few seconds of reality before we were boureeing back onto the stage, tiny precise movements of our feet, all smiles, all magic. We had a story to tell. There was nothing quite like the feeling of twirling and twirling as the final notes resounded, mingled with the voices of the choir, the fake snowflakes falling onto our hair and faces and shoulders as we smiled at the ever-present audience.
And later but not yet latest, as Anya was passed over for Clara—the role we all suspected she’d get—to be buoyed up early to the more advanced parts of Coffee from Arabia and a Waltz of the Flowers Flower, we still had Snow. I progressed as expected, to the less significant Cotton Candy and ever-present Tea from China. As I waited in the wings to scuttle onstage with my paper umbrella, I’d watch the grace that was Anya. Anya, in her Arabian golden bra and harem pants, coffee hair and skin glowing, effervescent under dimmed stage lights. She seemed almost too exquisite to exist as she moved through the stage from one elegant lift to another, the lines of her body and her movements immaculate. Her body hummed with an energy I could feel. Her partner held her easily, pressed his body against hers. More pain, like the persistent cramping of my feet on pointe, but a different kind of ache, a new slinking feeling, as I watched her.
And still, the Snow. The curtain falling to signal intermission, performance after performance, snow pooled at our feet. We’d relax from pointe and exhale together, and Anya would chatter excitedly as she held my waist or my hand on our way to the dressing room to prepare for Act II.
Intermission, a pause. A bridge to change, something different, something new. And it’s always a gamble whether the audience, the dancers, like the first Act or the second Act better. In The Nutcracker, the break comes right after the Snow. I have so long been a Snowflake, but I only learned a short time ago that snowflakes—a universal emblem of uniqueness—are born the same. Their differences are from their falls, their separate, distinct descents.
There are certain rules in ballet, rules all ballerinas must follow. A body shape, for one. Certain arms go with certain positions of the feet; the order of the barre that takes up at least half an hour of every class is unwavering; each step and movement has a corresponding locked position of every part of the body. There is a constant striving for length, the illusion of height, a pulling up. There must be beauty, there must be grace. You must tell the right story. There must always be improvement. You cannot do a turn without spotting. You cannot forget that you are here for the audience. You cannot show them the pain of a split toenail, the looseness of a headpiece, the falling of a costume element or a perfectly tucked-in pointe shoe ribbon, the mistakes or missed steps in the choreography. You cannot show them what you are really feeling.
“No, no!” Iris shouts as I am lax about one of the rules, as I forget something essential, as I grimace at the blistering of my toes. “You must work harder. Again!” She taps her foot and points at the corner of the room where I have done chaines, tight turns, down. I bite my lip, I set my body and start again, dizzy. Auditions for universities, companies, intensives will be starting soon. I’ve been told I need to be ready. Anya has been ready all this time.
We were sixteen when Anya was made the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, now seventeen when she’s made Katrina in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in the fall. I was to be the double-casted witch in the company’s smaller production for children of Hansel and Gretel. It’s strange, looking at casting calls, going from chatting with one of the other girls in the dressing room about the mundanities of high school, to quick hate and cursing some aspect of her dancing when you see her name next to a role you feel you deserve or want better, then going back to complimenting her sneakers or picking up her fallen water bottle during class. The swish of green in your stomach, its inevitable settling of itself. The pushing down of your want. We help each other, we dance with each other—and yet. And yet, when Mary L. twisted her ankle during dress rehearsal and I became the sole witch in Hansel and Gretel, what was I supposed to think? I didn’t want her to be injured, but I also had to congratulate myself on my gain, didn’t I?
Anya and I had both profited from injury before—in the middle of The Nutcracker last season, between Anya’s performances in the golden bra costume, the Dew Drop Fairy had hurt her shoulder and Anya, the understudy, took the stage. I remember her weeping in the wings during intermission, telling me that she couldn’t do it, there would be too many people watching and she wasn’t ready. I held her face in my hands, stroked the purple flowers woven into her hair, and felt her tears on my fingers. Of course you’re ready, I said, and I was right. In all our time, I had never felt that nebulous jealousy towards Anya. Of her, I was proud.
After, I hurriedly wiped my fingers off on my Flower skirt, feeling somehow ashamed of having a piece of her without her knowing.
And now, the same certainty in Anya fills me up as after another long class I scan this year’s casting sheet for The Nutcracker. She’s to be the Snow Queen and Dew Drop Fairy in addition to Coffee from Arabia again. There’s a pulse in my stomach as I think of watching her dance the Arabian dance from the wings—the seduction and the dimmed lights, only her and her partner, intimate in their dancing. I wish I was her partner there instead, our golden bodies weaving around each other. I quickly shake these thoughts away. My parts remain the same. Soldier, Snowflake, Tea, Flower.
This year is not the same, though. As I go through our usual rehearsals and we begin to hit the road on the bus to a new venue each weekend, I feel the magic of The Nutcracker ebbing away. Perhaps this is where the slinking thing came from, which has stayed with me since last season. It adds jolts of confusion and something lukewarm that lingers in me at odd moments with Anya, a kind of ache when she laughs or smiles at me as we partner up again for grand allegro or wipe sweat from ourselves during a difficult class.
She twirls through the snow in the snow globe of my thoughts in her impressive white and sparkling tutu. She flickers in the shadows of a desert, eyes flashing under her Arabian headpiece, her stomach flat and skin bare under the golden bra. I want her to touch me, to share with me her balletic gift, herself.
We sit in the back of the bus after opening night, away from the front seats we had clustered in in our younger days. All of us—Neves, Elena, the Marys, Mallory, Anya—squeeze into two of the bus seats, laughing and piling on top of each other. Anya sits on top of me, and I feel the bones of her hips poking into my stiff thighs. I don’t, I cannot, move. Her skin is warm, and it feels smooth and solid and different from all the times before.
“Truth or Dare?” One of the Marys is whispering gleefully, stage makeup still smeared across parts of her face where she hasn’t fully removed it. The others stop their gossiping about peeks and silly raids in the boys’ dressing room; I’d never found any of that amusing. It’s dark outside the bus, dark enough that we can barely see each other’s faces, only lit eerily for quick moments by strange, streaking colors as we pass by storefronts and lit up signs.
“Truth,” says Anya, and the Mary giggles.
“How far have you gone with your boyfriend?” she whispers, and these are the kinds of questions we ask now, the kinds of things we’re supposed to think about. When Anya first described the homecoming dance she’d gone to earlier this year, I had to force a thin smile. She’d interpreted my look in her own way, reassuring me that I’d know the right boy when he came along. I’m still waiting.
Anya’s smile is shy and sneaky at once. I feel her breath as she murmurs, “Second base. And you know I hate sports.” The others cackle as if this is the funniest thing they’ve heard all day.
“Too bad Millie quit, we’d have to explain it to her,” Neves grins. We had not all made it this far—there is a straggling parade of girls somewhere with newly shorn hair and retired toe shoes who do not look back. Mallory says in a hushed tone, “He touched your boobs?” When Anya nods, she shrieks.
It’s not that special, I want to say, to shout, as they bombard her with questions. We’d all brushed against each other’s chests at some point, while buttoning up costumes and lacing each other into tight bodices. We’d certainly seen each other. Not worth shrieking about, I think, as I know I’m lying, as I feel a squirming inside me. There’s the chameleon’s green in my eyes, I think, electric green, directed towards someone faceless, someone who isn’t one of us. I push it away.
The game continues. It feels as though hours have passed when I know it’s not so. The other Mary whispers, “Truth or Dare?”
“Dare,” I say, as I’ve had enough of chatter.
“Kiss someone!” Mary squeals, and there’s a dissolving into high-pitched laughter again. I can feel a headache starting behind my eyes and I sigh, happy for the darkness that shadows my face.
“Who?” I stutter. The boys are in the middle of the bus, and none of us seem willing to move from our entwined positions. “One of us!” Mallory half-yells, then covers her mouth with her hand while Elena throws a legwarmer at her. I realize that they all think this is a daring, impossible act. Then, Anya shifts in my lap.
“Oh, I’ll do it,” she says, and grabs for my face. I can barely make out the leftover lipstick smudging around her mouth before she’s kissing me. Her lips are soft; she pulls away. The others shriek in delight. Anya grins, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth. “See?” she says, “Not a big deal.” Passing lights slice her face into sections of red and blue and green. The ache is a purring in the small of my back. I look out the window, ignore the saltiness of desire on my tongue. Anya, the Prima Ballerina.
The game continues.
I don’t trust myself to look any of them in the eye anymore, but I especially cannot look at Anya. I turn away from her in the dressing room, feeling unworthy and ashamed. When we talk, I mutter, keeping my focus on the floor, on her feet. I shouldn’t be looking at her body; I see it in a way the others do not, curves and valleys to admire and explore. I can feel her looking for me, wanting to stand next to me at the barre, stretch and massage each other out, share snacks—is she wondering what has happened? I wonder, myself. But she is too caught up each show with her demanding parts, her costume changes, to linger on me and my awkwardness for long. I do not allow myself to linger on her. Save for in the wings, while I watch her swirling solos through the snow, my own shoes sticky with rosin. She is beautiful, with magnificent piqué turns and pas de chats and waltzes with her Prince. I had been her partner, once, but I don’t deserve it anymore. As we flow through performances and looming auditions, I feel I am not a part of this world anymore, that it isn’t what I thought it was. My muscles, so well-trained, feel heavy, sluggish, disobedient. My body is slow, ugly, wrong. I’m telling a story I no longer believe in.
I had before been able to differentiate my times on and off the stage, between the magical façade and the reality underneath, between the audience and the alone. I cannot seem to keep them straight anymore. I feel as if I am always being watched, judged, expected to smile and perform some charade. Leap higher, spin faster, dance stronger and with more sureness. Perhaps it is only Anya who is watching, or no one at all. Perhaps all are watching. I feel now I am always performing.
There is the conductor’s head poking out of the orchestra pit as I wait for an entrance in Snow, and his white hair and whiskers could make him Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky, our Tchaikovsky, whose final symphony Pathétique perhaps still rang in his ears as he toasted his lover with a glass of tepid cholera. Were his tears from laughter or pain? Can I, will I, join him?
Iris tells me in class I am not concentrating, I am not reaching my potential. We are mastering fouettés on pointe. I fall from relevé again and again, kicking myself off balance, afraid that I’ll fall, so choosing to fall early and on my own terms. Anya’s are ideal form, of course, arms opening and closing as they should, pointed foot whipping in and out in succession. “Again,” Iris says, while my core crumples and I teeter off balance. Everyone knows you must be able to do thirty-two fouettés if you want even a chance to reach that dream of Odette/Odile in Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, Swan Lake. I can picture Anya as the white and black swan, fluttering her arms, flying, as the other swans standing stiffly in the background. She pirouettes around the shimmering lake. I can see that I am not there.
I despise my body; it won’t do what I want it to do, what it’s supposed to do.
At the end of class, I lock myself in the bathroom to cry. I bump into Anya as I emerge, knowing my eyes are still red.
“My contact lens flipped over,” I say in a shaky voice, “I had to fish it out.”
“Ouch,” she says, studying me. She reaches out, slow, to tuck a stray piece of hair from my bun behind my ear. It’s the first time I’ve lied to her, out loud. Did she remember the taste of my mouth, our kiss? Had she kissed me back, really? Has she even thought about our kiss at all? Was it possible to long for impossible things?
When I remember my dreams, they’re of Anya, spinning, spinning, spinning.
I lace Anya into her tutu’s bodice as the number of remaining shows dwindles. I focus on the crisscrossing ribbons, make them smooth and even. I’m quiet. I do not easily chatter or laugh with her as we used to, though she gives me a small smile when our eyes meet in the vanity mirror. I chew on my lip, try to concentrate. The top of the bodice is wrinkled and crooked, and I slide my hand up her back to adjust it, pull the sides of the bodice in place. My hand slips under the bodice, from her back to her boob—it is warm and round and small and firm, and I’m not thinking save for how good and right it feels, and I’m not moving my hand. I can feel her heartbeat, I am so close to her heart; I feel my own heartbeat speed up. I ache, between my legs, in my chest. Anya draws in a breath sharply, and my eyes dart back to the mirror. Our eyes meet, again, and the look I see on her face—
I stumble to the wings, empty still before the ten-minute call to curtain, and cry.
Anya doesn’t mention it. Neither do I. I owe her words I can’t taste, can’t find.
I could always read her, sense her next move. Here, I don’t know what she’s thinking, feeling. She acts as though nothing has changed, nothing has happened. Her usual poise. Uncertainty splinters through my core. Is this also a performance? Is she waiting until The Nutcracker is over to confront what happened, confront me, hate me, leave me? I feel like I’m spinning all the time, jerky, uncentered, flailing off balance.
I will not touch her. Only on stage, if we brush past each other during the dance—when we are playing parts, when we are not ourselves. Off stage, in the dressing room, at the studio, in the wings, I make myself a phantom, flit away from her when I can. I won’t wonder if she notices, how she reacts.
The first Snow after, I dashed and weaved through the other girls retreating offstage while the Snow Prince was still lowering Anya down from their final shoulder lift. Before I could disappear behind the side curtain, leave the melting winter wonderland behind, the glint of her tutu caught my eye. Inadvertent, distracted, I turned to see her start to massage out her own ankle, bent awkwardly at the waist, hand clenched into a fist. Muted light now and her face in heavy stage makeup looked garish, enchanting. She wobbled while she finished the massage and straightened up, graceful. I pushed my thoughts, my want, down, away. She unpinned her tiara herself, letting it dangle, sparkling, from her hand. She started to brush snow off her neck, out of her hair. I turned, left the stage behind.
He comes to one of our final shows. Anya’s boyfriend. He is wearing a crooked tie and holds her firmly around the waist, and her head is back, laughing. He admires her tutu, her crown, and she glows as though she is a real queen. He’s given her roses. She holds them against her chest delicately, as though they are the most precious things in the world. I pause in my usual rushing to find her and the others after a performance, to mingle with the audience together—a semblance of our lost normal—to congratulate her and the rest on another job well done before finding my chance to slip away. I pull back and linger against the hallway wall. I feel suddenly self-conscious in my Waltz of the Flowers costume, the petals that adorn my headpiece and skirt as fragile and fleeting as the petals of her roses. I had never thought to bring her roses. I turn around and head back to the dressing room early. I’m not sure if she’s seen me, if she was looking.
The final show of the season comes quickly. I pick up my plastic, useless sword and put on my red toy soldier sticker cheeks one last time, go into battle. Emerge unscathed, mostly. I concentrate on lacing up my pointe shoes, adjusting my crown, while the music of Anya’s flawless pas de deux wafts from the stage. We haven’t spoken much since the incident in the dressing room, despite Anya’s trying. I stand in the wings, studying the floor. Iris told us earlier this week to enjoy the few days of holidays we had, as we’d have to go back to working hard and preparing for the new year’s audition season.
“Your futures are nearly here,” she told us, beaming, “You are so close to getting where you want to be! You cannot waste opportunity!” I no longer am sure of what I want; or if I can find it here. I think of myself at eight years old, in greenish-gold, wide-eyed in the wings watching the giant Christmas tree, the Sugar Plum Fairy I thought I’d someday be. I didn’t think I would, I could, fall out of love with ballet—or in love with something else. Yet, here I am, waiting for my entrance, my exit, the curtain. For all there was before, it unraveled very quickly, and I cannot grasp a strong enough thread to hold on to.
The Snow falls, and there is a numbness, a cold, as though the snow were real and not manufactured, plastic flakes that will only be swept away. Anya beams at the crowd, and they love her—who wouldn’t, the perfect Anya, at their fingertips but always out of reach. The brass section reaches its climax as she whirls around the stage, then leaps, airborne. The rest of the Snowflakes enter for the final time, arms up and towards the sky, the snow, feet light and quickly boureeing. I find myself standing alone backstage. Will she notice my absence, the hole in my usual spot? Not knowing is easier. I turn away.
I am not on stage to see the final curtain, the thud of sudden velvet.
Abby Provenzano is an MFA candidate in creative writing-fiction at Emerson College. She is the fiction editor of Redivider, a writer/contributor at Interlocutor Magazine, an editorial intern at Art + Deco Agency, and an affiliated faculty member/instructor in the Writing Studies Program at Emerson College. Her work has been published in Stork Magazine, The Black Fork Review, Blind Corner Literary Magazine, The Foundationalist, The Michigan Daily, Blueprint Literary Magazine, and Runestone Journal, among others.
Delmarva Review publishes evocative new prose and poetry selected annually from thousands of submissions. Designed to encourage outstanding writing, it is an independent, nonprofit literary publication. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.
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