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The walls around us, p.18

The Walls Around Us, page 18


The Walls Around Us

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  The fence feels so flimsy. I’ve got my hand on it.

  I should say something. Hello. It’s good to see you again. You look nice—even if she doesn’t. You look good, Ori—even if she looks like crap.

  But what words are there? Some actions remove words entirely from your vocabulary. Then all you’ve got left is your dry tongue.

  Before I can find the right words, or any words, she lowers her gaze and goes back in with the shovel. It glints in the low light. Made of silver-gray steel. Wood-handled. Heavy-weighted. Curved. I let my own gaze lower down to where she’s digging. There’s so much soil to remove, if she wants the hole to fit a body. And I’m taller now, by two and a half inches, and now she’s got to adjust for that.

  Behind me, I hear voices. Boys’ voices. A girl’s. They are calling for me. They have come.

  But they can’t remember the things I remember. They weren’t there, they weren’t close to her then the way I was. Those are the years that count, the memories that make us, the time before all the bad. She’ll remember.

  There we are. We’re both eight years old, in our first pair of soft ballet slippers with the little strips of elastic sewn in, doing sloppy turns on the kitchen floor. Her dad is late picking her up again, so she’s at my house. She falls, I fall, we help each other up, we go on, spotting our turns, skidding on the kitchen floor, fumbling, laughing.

  Ten years old, we both are, running through the wings backstage, fake silk flowers perched with pins in our stiff-sprayed hair. One fake bloom pops out from behind her ear and drops, rolling behind the curtain. I dig my hand in until I find it. She’s lost it, but I’ve got it back for her. I pin it back in.

  Now we’re twelve years old, or are we thirteen? We’ve advanced together to pointe class, finally. She’s waited, and I’ve caught up. Here we are, standing one before the other, me in front, her behind, at the long, gleaming wooden barre. We relevé. We demi-plié. We relevé. We demi-plié. We tendu from fifth position. We tendu. We have a light touch at the barre, holding on but not giving it all our weight. We are one, all except her turnout is better. We’re two of a kind, all except she picks up the steps faster than I do, her grand jeté is more grand than anyone else’s in class, and then she’s out front demonstrating, and I’m the one following her moving feet, I’m the one behind.

  We are fifteen, both of us, just turned fifteen. Our last year together. She’s caught me in the back rehearsal studio, having a little tantrum. I was kicking the floor and throwing my balled-up leg warmers. I was beating on the barre with my fists. She catches me with my mouth wide-open, silent-screaming. “Oh, Vee,” she’s saying. “It’s a good role, really it is. You’ll steal the show, really you will.” She pats me, thump-thump-thump, like she’d burp an infant. She doesn’t say I’m acting like one. She says, “Don’t let them see you like this.” And, “You can always show me. But don’t show anybody else, okay?” I say okay. She retrieves my leg warmers. She fixes my face. She straightens the bobby pins in my hair. “Stand up,” she says, and I stand. “Smile like you mean it,” and I widen my mouth into the position of a smile.

  There she was again, trying to make me feel better about what I didn’t have, when she had it all.

  Does she remember? She’s the only one who could.

  I’ve circled the last fence, and now I’m in. The plot of land is so pathetic, but now that my ankles are in it, my sandals sinking, I see it’s been tended into rows. A long time ago this was a garden. Something’s been planted here, but it hasn’t been harvested off the vine in a long time. I bend down. I reach my hand into the mass of green, and there’s mulch, wet and expanding, and there’s muck, slick and sticking, and there’s a rotting round thing stuck on a hairy vine that I twist a little, and then with a hard tug pluck off.

  A small, shrunken tomato. When I squeeze, it bursts open like an animal that got run over in the road.

  The hole she’s digging is getting larger now. A girl could lie down in it and stretch out her arms, point her toes. She’s a glare of orange. She’s practically toxic.

  “Aren’t you,” she says, stopping for a breath, “going to tell me you’re sorry?”

  Has she really said that to me? She has. Her ghost has. Her memory has. Ori, my Ori, has.

  That’s what she’s been waiting here for, why she’s come out, wanting me to find her. All along, all these years, she’s been hoping for an apology.

  But that’s complicated. If I were sorry for what happened to her, I’d have to be sorry for all the other things that went along with it. And I’m not sorry about where I’m headed, or that I’ve gotten so good. I’m not sorry about New York City. That I’m happy. And alive. That I have everything now even though that means she has nothing, because I do wish she had something, like maybe I should’ve sent her a letter, one time, filled her in on all the things going on with me. I wish things were different, but I’m not going to give up everything so she can go dancing off into the sunset, even if I could.

  She nods. She understands. I didn’t have to say it.

  Also, she knows the truth.

  In the smoking tunnel, maybe she didn’t tell me to get out of there. Maybe that’s not how it happened at all.

  Maybe she held the bloody weapon, waving it in the air, and I got scared, and I thought I might be next, and I took off, pushing through tree branches and stumbling over tree roots, and I almost rammed into the Dumpster, and I did run, but only to save my own skin.

  Maybe that’s how it happened, or maybe not.

  She continues to dig. She knows I’m not going to say I’m sorry.

  I’m in the fenced-in field, one of the rotten things in the rotting garden. I stand, spine straight, two and a half inches taller than when she last saw me, not willing to take it back and put up my hands and turn myself in. The hole gets bigger, and I’m not sorry.


  NONE OF WHAT happened was my fault.

  I mean, not at first. It started with a girl named Harmony. With Rachel and Harmony and all of what they did, so really this is on them, if you want to be pointing fingers.

  They’d saunter into the studio in identical black leotards, caramel-colored hair up in same-shaped buns, the ribbons on their pointe shoes trailing. As they passed where Ori and I were stretching out on the floor, bending forward so our heads touched and our four hands made two, they’d always have a comment. Sometimes they called me ugly, or they’d point out my big stick-out ears. Other times I was fat for no reason, or a skeleton for no reason, it was one or it was the other. A few times they called me a lesbo, even though they, too, were best friends and shared leotards sometimes when one of them forgot a clean suit. Sometimes I was a pathetic virgin, and other times a vicious slut. It didn’t matter. They never bothered Ori much, but maybe because she was so great, they had to pour it all out on me.

  Some girls make enemies out of other girls, and you don’t even know why. It’s always been like that, like how every April the town floods with rain, and we have to set out a few buckets or bowls on the dance floor to catch the drops because the roof leaks.

  Forever and always, Harmony and Rachel hated me. They’d slither by in the ballet studio, Harmony a whole stack of inches taller than tiny Rachel, but otherwise basically the same person, moving and sneering in unison, and they’d skank-cough at me, so if Miss Willow was nearby, it’d sound like they were regular-coughing, and then they’d take the best spots on the barre along the wall.

  Outside, to the oblivious eye—adult eyes are always oblivious—they were the practically perfect ballerinas everyone expected them to be. Pretty and lithe and always able to control the frizzies in their buns. “Really nice,” Miss Willow would compliment Harmony on her quick-moving assemblés. “Brilliant,” Miss Willow would tell Rachel on her développé. “Girls,” she’d say, to all four of us, like we were the same, “good energy today.”

  Our teacher saw only our steps on the dance floor. She didn’t know who we were when we peeled off our
pale pink tights and pulled up our skintight jeans and took down our hair.

  It turned worse once boys got added in. We were fifteen when the boys invaded. They were what pushed everything over the edge. There were three of them, and at least thirty of us, so they were outnumbered and easily outvoted during rehearsals, when we got to order pizza. Having boys in our classes changed the whole dynamic. They saw us in our skimpy leotards, adjusting our wedgies. They witnessed just how much we could sweat after a floor routine. They were on our turf, quiet mostly and clumsy and not worth competing with, except for Jon, who never once dropped a girl on the floor during partnering class, which couldn’t be said of the other two.

  The other two weren’t even dancers. They were football players. Which was ridiculous. Those two came to class once a week and goofed off in their athletic socks at the barre in the back. I think they were there because their coach made them, and they got special treatment and didn’t even have to wear tights. Miss Willow let them keep their sweatpants, even though you can’t see the muscles in a pair of legs covered by sweatpants, and the sight of them in their floppy socks, snickering, eyeing our asses, made for a distraction I didn’t enjoy.

  Harmony preened whenever they came close, even wearing lipstick to class, though she’d sweat it off by the end. Rachel tried looping them into conversation, asking inane questions about games that involved balls, and when she did her splits, she made sure to do them right where they were watching, eyes cast downward, coy.

  It was embarrassing. It was the way the boys looked at us and, equally, the way we looked at them. The charge in the air. Once, I was in the back hallway, wanting some focus, and I was leaned forward, I guess, and there were my legs wide-open and my chest flat on the floor. My leotard was low cut, and if you were walking straight down the hallway toward me with your gaze pointed to the ground, you could see down my front. Stretched out like I was, thinking I had some privacy, I was more exposed than I thought.

  Before the boys, I never would have given a second thought to stretching in the hallway.

  But then there was Cody, and there was his sidekick, Shawn, and Cody goes to Shawn, “Hey, I guess she does have some.” And Shawn goes to Cody, “Nah, not worth it, may as well feel up a nine-year-old. All nip and ribs and skin.” And Cody goes, “That ass is still worth tapping, though, admit it.” And Shawn says, “Nah, she’s a two.” And Cody defends me and says, “A six. For the ass.” And all of this is said right in front of me, because voices do carry down that hall, and Cody has the nerve, as he’s turning away and skating on dirty socks into the ballet studio, to lean back out and wink at me. Actually wink. Like we’re in on this together, after he upped my rating to a six. Like now I owe him.

  The saddest part is how I felt, standing at the front of the studio, at the demonstration barre with Harmony, knowing my back would be to him and that was his view. I did my pliés and my grand pliés, and all the while I was feeling his eyes. On my ass. As I moved through the warm-ups. His eyes. Moving over my thighs. I’d bend over, and he’d be watching me bend over, and I was aware of that. And I kind of felt electrified by it.

  That’s why it can’t be explained, what happened next, and I know Ori wanted me to explain. I was in the back rehearsal studio, but I wasn’t alone. I was in Cody’s arms, on the bare floor. He was a senior, and I was still only a freshman, though it’s not like I thought of him that way. We went to different schools, and here at the ballet studio I was so much better than he was, so it was like I was older. I only mean he was experienced. And his mouth on my neck and behind my ears, one ear at a time—it felt so good, I wasn’t sure what to do apart from lie back and let it happen. At one point he told me to be quiet or someone would hear.

  Then I was on my knees, crouched over him. Ori asked me later if he made me do it, if he talked me into it, if he shoved my head down there and pulled down those sweatpants I can’t believe he was allowed to wear to class and told me to go to town. He didn’t. It was just one of those things that happen without planning, a thing you’ve heard about, from other girls, or seen online, maybe. Something you think you’re supposed to do, because everyone does, don’t they? Didn’t Ori?

  I’m not even sure I knew what I was doing, what my mouth should be focusing on, what, if anything, I should do with my hand. There was a point when I got all fumbled up, lost my rhythm, and he shifted, and something happened with my teeth getting snagged, and he cursed.

  I heard laughter coming from one of the mirrored walls. I was confused, and suddenly on high alert. My leotard top was rolled down, stuck somehow, and I couldn’t get it back up. The laughter was bright and tinkling. Girl laughter.

  The second wall of mirrors was not only a wall—it was a sliding panel behind which was a crawl space, a storage area for old costumes and props, large enough for someone to be hiding.

  Even knowing that, I don’t think I understood what was happening until I saw the flash. Bright and swallowing us in the dark rehearsal room, glaring with judgment and peppered with mocking laughter.

  “Who’s there?” The top of my leotard still wouldn’t come up, but Cody had his pants back up, fast. He was sauntering over to the mirrored wall. He was saying hey.

  Everything else fell away and time focused in on itself. The mirrors, darkening. The floor raising me up. And Harmony, and at her tail Rachel, cell phones in their hands, wormy smiles on their faces. Cody didn’t even matter anymore. What mattered was what they’d seen, and captured, and would hold over me now, forever.

  “Later,” Cody threw back at me, like we’d meet up later. The two girls followed. The door shut, and I was alone then, in the center of the wooden dance floor, on my knees like I’d just collapsed after a grand jeté.

  To this day, I’m not sure what had been planned before Cody and I went in there, and what had been an accident of bad luck, and what had just happened because things happen.

  When Cody had said, “Later,” I thought he meant it. Like I took it literally. I waited for him after class, but he grabbed his bag and took off with Shawn, like always. I thought he might call or text, but he didn’t have my number. We weren’t friends online. I didn’t follow him, and he didn’t follow me. I saw him the next week, at the basics class the boys attended and that I did demonstrations for, and at the partnering class that followed, in which twelve or fifteen girls took turns with the three boys, letting their bumbling hands lift us up by our armpits. He hung by Harmony’s side. Once, with sweat darkening her hair, Harmony looked right at me, her mirror-eyes on my mirror-eyes. Now she was the one who winked.

  Maybe I should’ve been embarrassed, ashamed. Buried it and never let myself dwell on it ever again.

  But any embarrassment had gone away. I didn’t feel dirty, and I didn’t feel ashamed.

  I felt enraged.

  I knew I had a temper. But then it started affecting my dancing.

  When roles were announced for the next showcase, Miss Willow gathered us together to say which pieces we would each be dancing. I caught the pride in her eyes when she came to Ori, who would dance the role of the Firebird, and even Harmony, who would play the thirteenth enchanted princess, the one who gets her happy ending with the prince.

  I would be princess six or seven. Even Rachel was the first princess, first row. I would dance around with a yellow Hacky Sack that was supposed to be a golden apple from the enchanted golden-apple tree. I’d watch the proceedings like a nobody. There’d be no standing ovation for any of the background dancers at curtain call. No one would remember me.

  When I asked Miss Willow why, she said she felt like something had been off with me lately. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Something that was distracting me and showed whenever I stepped out onto the floor.

  I knew who it was. It wasn’t just one distraction—it was two.

  “I want to kill them,” I told Ori late one night, and I’m sure I would’ve been crying if my eyes leaked tears like normal people’s eyes did. When I was sputtering
out those words to Ori, I did have emotions. They were in there, even if I have a hard time finding them now. I think back and I’m all raw. I’m filled with frustration, and it’s mostly at myself, for letting it happen, for getting caught, for having hormones, for being stupid, for thinking I liked some boy, or if it wasn’t that, for wanting some boy to like me the way Ori had a boy who liked her, and thinking that was the way to do it. I kept seeing the flash of light. How it bounced off all the mirrors and seemed like many flashes of light. How maybe it had been, how I couldn’t be sure. I kept expecting to get a forwarded message from an anonymous number and I’d open it and there’d be an attached picture—worse, a video, with sound—and it would be me, and everyone would know it was me, and my parents would see it, and the kids at my school would see it, and Miss Willow would see it, and whoever I was as a ballerina, the person I’d been for years and years, would vanish because of that thing I did one day, in the rehearsal room, just the one time.

  Ori and I were upstairs in my bedroom. If my parents heard the shouting, the spat-out froth of hate I was spewing as Ori and I took turns sipping from a borrowed bottle of their Bacardi, they didn’t climb to the landing of the stairs, as far as they’d ever climb, and peek up through the banister to ask if we were okay. They didn’t even call up on the intercom, or try my phone. I could have been chopping up a body up there and they’d never have known until the smell drifted down.

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