The following story is by Susan Tu. Susan is an accountant by day and writer by night, which means she is really fun at parties. She studied creative writing at Cornell University and has been published in About Place Journal and Gravel Magazine. She also runs a daily poetry blog at http://versegram.tumblr.com.
As the lights dim and the curtains open, my heart beats its own symphony. I realize I am trapped. The only two open seats left when we arrived were in the middle of a row, so not only would I have to clamber over the laps of those innocent bystanders to leave, but there is also the problem that Ellie is the one who drove here and Ellie is the one who holds the car keys. And on top of that, we’re a hundred miles away from home and millions of miles out of my mind. I’ve been wiping my hands on my jeans ever since we got off the interstate.
I look to my right. In the darkness, the red EXIT sign glows, the last beacon of hope.
But this time I don’t flee. This time I stay, sweaty palms and heart palpitations in all.
The story began in a bathroom. In my mind, I remember the moment in third person, detached from my actual self, because that was how it felt. Surreal, false, and impossible.
A girl sat alone on the cold tiled floor. She stared, wide-eyed.
It didn’t even take two minutes.
By raw determination and a small miracle, I got through it alone. My friends were concerned when I stopped hanging out with them, but no one pushed the matter. (I didn’t have friends like Ellie back then.) My parents weren’t even the slightest bit suspicious when I said I would be away all winter for some exclusive ballet camp that did not exist. The world was too trusting and I was too good at lying. Secrets were easy to hide under woolen scarves and parkas.
I had never told anyone until I told Ellie. She listened intently and then reached out to grasp my hand tightly.
“Do you still want her back?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” A pause. “Yeah.”
Seven years have passed and I still saw her everywhere. Standing on street corners, jumping in rain puddles, waiting for the bus. Every time I would stare, wide-eyed, until it was clear it was the wrong person, a trick of the light or a trick of the mind. It’s like I thought if I just looked hard enough, every day, she would simply reappear right in front of me.
Before, I never cried. I was immune to blockbuster tear-jerkers and guys were stupid anyway. My old ballet teacher Madam Anaïs taught us that pain was part of art and sadness was as precious as happiness. Never waste it on petty tears.
After, I cried like it was one of my favorite pastimes. I would be in the kitchen halfway through preparing dinner when a lyric from the radio or a derailed train of thought would trigger something inside of me and suddenly, I’d be sitting on the cold tiled floor, sobbing out a masterpiece.
“I was chopping onions,” I’d say.
The orchestra tunes and plays the opening bars of the overture. Soon, the entire ensemble comes twirling in under the bright lights.
“Which one is her?” Ellie asks in a hushed voice, alternating between squinting down at the program in her lap and scanning the rows of ballerinas on stage.
It’s difficult to tell anyone apart in the mass of top buns and white tights, but I know the moment the dancer leaps in from stage left. Second row, center. More beautiful than ever.
Ellie was the kind of person who came into your life like a reverse hurricane, obtrusive and intrusive but leaving you in better condition than when she found you.
She had been the first to respond to my ad for a new roommate. Fresh out of grad school, Ellie was suburbia thrown into the city with too much spring in her step and too much energy in the mornings. She could not be contained. Her enthusiasm seeped into your pores. After a certain point, her antics stopped being annoying and started becoming endearing.
“What?” Ellie had asked once, after she stopped for the third time to give a homeless man a few dollars, prompting me to pop my hip and give her an incredulous look.
I shook my head. “You care too much.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“You’re still young. It means the world hasn’t broken you yet.”
We walked in silence for a few blocks more before Ellie suddenly stopped and turned to me, looking right into my soul.
“So what broke you, Dem?”
It was my choice. I was too young with an entire future as a dance prodigy ahead of me and a detailed ten-year plan that was not subject to change. My destiny was mapped out for me and all I had to do was stay on the path. I couldn’t stray or go about things out of order. That would be blasphemy. At night, I confessed my sins to the sky.
It was my choice. But nine months was a long time to wait. In the end, it still felt like abduction.
Another nine months later, it was still winter. I quit dance and pursued something else, anything else that didn’t require passion or emotion or heart because I discovered I had nothing left to give. An all-consuming void grew inside me that tasted like regret. I went back to the agency but the receptionist told me it was too late. She was already gone.
Once, when I was twelve, Madam Anaïs told me I needed to put more love in my grand jeté. I didn’t understand how a jump could convey emotion. I didn’t understand how Madam Anaïs expected a twelve-year-old to know what love even was.
But now I understand. I had never loved anyone until I loved her. And I don’t dance anymore, but if I did, I would perform a grand jeté that could make Madam Anaïs weep.
The drive upstate took three hours and I fretted the entire way. How Ellie found the Johnsons or how Ellie compelled the Johnsons to invite two twenty-something strangers to their home would remain a mystery to me. Sheer persistence with an accompaniment of uncanny luck, probably.
Mrs. Johnson opened the front door before we could knock. She smiled kindly at me. “You must be Demetria.”
She showed us inside and we sat down on the living room couch. I tried to sit upright but the soft cushions pulled me into an upholstered embrace. I caught sight of the family portraits on the wall, but I quickly averted my eyes to look at the patterns on the rug instead. It was too much to take in. She lived here. Her presence lingered between these walls, heavy and tangible, making it hard to breath.
Mrs. Johnson told us her husband was picking their daughter up from ballet rehearsal but they would be returning soon.
I immediately looked up. “She does ballet too?”
Warmth spread inside me, like drinking hot tea in January.
The tiny dancer has a small solo in the end of the first act. As everyone else clears the stage, she performs a series of fouettés and pirouettes, captivating the entire audience.
“Amazing!” The parents around us say. “A prodigy!”
The word cuts me like a blade in the best possible way.
Ultimately, it was still too much for me to bear. Mrs. Johnson’s stories. The pictures on the wall. The longer I stayed in that house, the more I missed her. I was suffocating. I needed air.
I abruptly stood up in the middle of Mrs. Johnson’s sentence. “Sorry. I have to go.”
“But they’re not back yet,” Mrs. Johnson said with a confused look on her face.
I kept backing away towards the front door. “I’m sorry.”
“Well, at least will you come to the show next Saturday?” Mrs. Johnson called out.
I didn’t respond, only made a mad dash to the car. Sobs wracked my body and I crossed my arms, trying to hold myself together. Ellie must have accepted the tickets from Mrs. Johnson because when she got back in the driver’s seat, she shoved them in my direction. I leaned away, as if the paper would burn right through my skin.
“I’m not going,” I whispered.
“I thought this was what you wanted.” Ellie looked at me with sad eyes.
Sure, this was what I wanted. But it had been seven years. I had long since left home, quit ballet, and shed an entire past life to wallow in eternal winter. I had spent so long searching for spring, I had become terrified of the sun.
“I’m just not ready,” I replied, sounding as pathetic and afraid as I felt.
“That’s not it, Dem! You use self-depravation like a crutch. You’re not giving yourself a fair chance.”
The car ride home was silent.
Sometimes, I wondered what would have happened if I had met Ellie sooner.
If I had known Ellie back when it happened, would I have confided in her then? Would it not be one girl sitting alone on the cold tiled floor, but the girl and her best friend who made assuring, unfulfillable promises that things would be okay? Would she have talked me out of it?
At the very least, would there have been someone in the hospital waiting room to tell the good news?
When I first started ballet, I was the only one in my class who couldn’t do the splits. I used to practice every night against my bedroom wall but never got any closer. Finally, Madam Anaïs came up to me during stretches one day and forcefully pushed me down until my legs were parallel to the polished floor. That was the last time I cried as a child. I was a prodigy ever since.
Now, Ellie morphed into Madam Anaïs in my mind, looming overhead and pressing down on my shoulders. I knew what I had to do but this was still going to hurt like hell.
Saturday morning, I knocked softly on Ellie’s bedroom door.
“I’m sorry.” A pause. “You were right.”
The door whipped open and Ellie already had her coat on with keys in hand, checking the time on her phone.
“We can still make it!” she said with so much enthusiasm, I couldn’t help but smile back.
We sped down the interstate going ninety. I got scared and changed my mind fifteen minutes in, but by then Ellie had already put the child lock on. Nervous excitement turned to sheer anxiety as my hands started to feel clammy and my heart began its ascent up my throat.
At precisely one minute before curtain, we made a sharp turn into the parking lot of the performing arts center, screeching and leaving tire marks on the asphalt. We ran towards the entrance and Ellie hurriedly threw the two tickets at the attendant. Above us, the marquee spelled out:
BY CENTRAL YOUTH BALLET TROUPE
The only two open seats left were in the middle of the row.
In the finale, the tiny dancer is back on stage in a trio with two older girls. She looks so happy, that tiny dancer. Happy and healthy and safe and loved. She might grow up to be someone like me. Or better yet, she might grow up to be someone like Ellie.
Even before the orchestra’s last note ends, the audience erupts into glorious applause. I leap to my feet, leading the standing ovation. I’m crying, but what else is new. At long last, I have found her, my hamartia, my undoing. Not as small but just as lovely as the day they took her away.
I got to hold her for just a minute.
“What you’re doing is very honorable, honey,” the nurse said. “She’s going to have a wonderful life.”
I got to hold the baby for just a minute.
The baby was so small, like she could fit entirely in the palms of my hands, like she could easily get lost if I looked away for even a second. I didn’t dare blink. Then the minute was up and the baby was taken from my arms and the forms were already signed and second thoughts rushed in like tidal waves.
Parents swarm to the lobby after the show to wait for their children. Ellie and I linger by the side. When the door leading backstage opens, a stream of dancers still in their brilliantly-colored costumes pours out into the lobby. My eyes are inexplicably drawn to the tiny dancer who runs right into Mrs. Johnson’s arms. Mr. Johnson grins and gives her a bouquet of flowers almost as big as her.
Over the little girl’s shoulder, Mrs. Johnson catches sight of us. She waves, beckoning us over. Ellie takes a step in their direction, but I grab her arm to stop her. I politely shake my head at Mrs. Johnson, hoping she understands. I didn’t come here for a reunion; I came for resolution.
The tiny dancer turns around, wondering who her mother is waving to. Through the crowd, her eyes lock onto mine and I am paralyzed. But then she smiles and in that moment, I find release. I am a frayed rope hanging by a strand, finally torn in two.
I smile back.