“You just don’t have to try so hard,” you said. “Don’t think about your face, I can tell it’s psyching you out.” I pursed my lips and looked around the room I had been intentionally turning my back on for the past ten minutes. It was warm and stuffy from so many bodies in motion. All around the barre, which spanned three walls, girls—and the few and far between boys—were stretching, practicing, whispering excitedly as they massaged their legs and stretched their feet and wrestled their pointe shoes into submission. None of them had to dye their ribbons and straps to match their skin tone. They didn’t have to specialty-order mocha-colored tights online because none of the dance supply companies considered “brown” a variation on “nude.” You were right; I didn’t have to try so hard. I had to try twice as hard, every day, just to get half as far.
When I was ten, my mom had clipped an article from the New York Times that still clung to our refrigerator, held up by two novelty magnets from our family trip to the Grand Canyon. Where are all the black swans? the headline asked. I swallowed hard, looked back at you, and practiced my fake smile. Wherever they were, they weren’t in the room with me. I was paddling all by myself.
The accompanist, Mr. Stratechuck, started warming up at the piano then, banging out an off-key version of the overture from La Sylphide, which drowned out the nervous chatter. Every single senior ballet major was gunning for the same coveted Showcase solos. Janus was the kind of place that only took students who were already the best in their classes. “Look left and look right,” Ms. Adair had told us on the first day of orientation. “The days of being teacher’s pet are over. Now you really have something to prove.”
“Hey, zombie.” Your voice swam up through the clang of piano keys and I realized that I’d forgotten you were there, for the second time in as many minutes.
“Sorry,” I said, unconvincingly—because I wasn’t. “I’m just trying to relax.”
“You better.” You leaned in and gripped my arms, the corners of your mouth curled in a teasing smile. “’Cause if I end up with Lollipop in the pas de deux, I’ll never forgive you.”
I glanced quickly to my left, where Lolly Andersen was admiring her form en pointe, her sleek auburn hair swept back in a chignon so tight it threatened to drag her eyebrows right off her face. Lolly had what most people considered the ideal ballet body, as pale and fat-free as a diet vanilla yogurt. She thought she was hot shit because she’d understudied a Marzipan in The Nutcracker when she was twelve. She was a self-described “bunhead,” which is why, I guess, she thought it was her place to tell me, in the locker room freshman year, that I had “more of a modern dancer’s body,” before trying to touch my hair without asking. I’d never forgiven her.
“If that happens, I really will look like this—permanently,” I said, baring my teeth in a psychotic fake smile. You had to press your lips together to keep from laughing.
“Good,” you said. “You and me, blowin’ up like spotlights, right?” I can’t remember when you’d started saying that, but it was an inside joke by then. You held up a closed fist and I bumped it, both of us sending our fingers splaying out backward like fireworks. It was never a question whether you’d get a lead in Showcase. I, on the other hand, was a long shot. I’d seen the performance every single year, so I knew the kinds of girls they picked to do dance solos: the willowy, flat-chested ones with the perfect form and delicate bones and all the stage presence of a feather. Not the ones with strong, curvy thighs or breasts that had to be squished into too-tight leotards so they wouldn’t “be a distraction.” Being a distraction meant that a part of your body was acting like a curve instead of a line—or that your skin didn’t match your tights, or that your short, natural hair refused to transform into a gleaming, flat-ironed Barbie bun. I heard it a lot, and every time it made my blood boil. Nobody had ever told me outright, You shouldn’t be here, but I’d gotten wise to their code words. I knew what they meant.
Still—“Just like spotlights,” I said, holding my breath.
? ? ?
At 4:30 P.M. sharp the teachers filed in and we all sat down along the periphery of the room. I ended up between Lolly and Eunice Lee, but both of them immediately turned away from me to whisper to the person on their other side. Not about me—at least, I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell who rejected who first, me or them. All I know is I came in on the first day, kept my head down, clung to Liv in between classes like an oxygen tank, and then showed up on the second day to find everyone had found their people already, and that there was no room for me. Except with you.