There were murmurs of agreement, the shuffling of books and bags, the metallic swish of zippers.
“Are you OK?” you asked. I looked up; the others were waiting impatiently.
I shook my head, tucking my knees up under my chin. Getting off the bench suddenly felt huge, like a step I wasn’t ready for. I knew you were right—that there was nothing I could do to predict what was about to happen in the audition room. But it didn’t make me feel calm; it just made me feel powerless. I wanted to fast-forward, skip ahead to when everything had already been decided. (If I could go back, I would stop time, just so you know. Freeze us forever when we were all together, when nothing had broken. I’d give it all up to go back to that day.) “I need a minute,” I said.
“You know you’re gonna own that audition,” you whispered, crouching down next to me. “You’re gonna blow the doors off that room.”
“Yeah?” I smiled.
“Yeah. And someday—” you pointed to the banner stretched across the front of Avery Fisher Hall, advertising the New York City Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty “—that’s gonna be us.”
“I’m holding you to that,” I said.
“Hurry up!” Liv yelled. But I still wasn’t ready.
It never got old: the theaters rising up out of the square like mid-century modern monoliths; the twinkling lights, like distant stars; the water that leapt tirelessly behind us even when temperatures dropped below freezing; the tourists crossing back and forth, arguing in foreign tongues, snapping pictures of our city; the dancers we could sometimes spot with their telltale duffle bags and muscular calves, walking quickly with spines so straight they could balance plates on their heads. It felt like the center of the universe, especially with those tiles that radiated out to the edges of the square, drawing paths to the door of each theater, fifty feet and a million dreams away. The future seemed tangible and invisible all at once back then, like a specter, like a promise. Like seeing your breath on a cold day.
There one second, and then—gone.
127 days left
I LOCKED EYES with myself in the mirror, scanning my features for signs of tension. Another thing Ms. Adair was always telling me was that my face hardened when I danced. “Make it look joyful, Joy,” she would say with an audible smirk, and it was all I could do not to rise up en pointe and give her a joyful double finger.
While the professional ballet track had its moments of rapture, it was anything but easy. As my parents liked to remind me, it was essentially a full-time job exempt from child-labor laws: four hours of intensive classes every morning, followed by afternoon academics, followed by another two hours of rehearsal and conditioning, followed by homework, followed by stretching, alternating applications of ice and heat, and then, finally sleep—which was the only part of the routine that was optional. Add to that sore muscles, bruises, tendonitis, bunions, blisters, rubbed-off skin, black toenails, aching feet covered in callouses, and you had a recipe for exhaustion, fierce drive and competition, and sometimes flat-out resentment.
But Ms. Adair was right: ballet was about appearances—people wanted to see the sleek swan floating on the lake, not the crazy paddling beneath the surface. The hard part wasn’t supposed to show, and my expression gave me away every time. When left to their own devices, my eyebrows knit together, my lips thinned out, my nostrils flared. I looked like I was trying to move something with my mind, or solve an advanced calculus problem. But it seemed impossible not to tense up when the whole point of ballet was being in control—I never understood how anyone could expect the real estate above my neck to look all slaphappy when I was concentrating so intently on keeping everything below positioned perfectly. I shook out my muscles and did a few warm-up plié relevés, forcing a wide smile on every exhale. (Ms. Adair also liked to tell me that smiling, even when I didn’t feel like it, could stimulate feelings of elation. So far, it wasn’t working.)
“OK, you look insane.”
I hadn’t even noticed you walk over, but suddenly there you were in the mirror, leaning against the wall behind me in your warm-up sweats and JANUS FOOTBALL ringer T-shirt (which was ironic since our school had no organized sports unless you counted the tap elective). You broke into a grin that slowly morphed into a cartoonish grimace, like something you’d see on a deranged clown.