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The walls around us, p.19

The Walls Around Us, page 19

 

The Walls Around Us
 


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  “I want them to die,” I was saying, “horribly.”

  “Who?” she asked. “All of them? Harmony and Rachel . . . Cody, too?” She seemed truly concerned, and I wasn’t sure if she was worried more for me or for them.

  “I don’t care about Cody. He’s just a boy, and he plays football. I mean them. I mean Harmony. I mean Rachel.”

  She nodded. She’d been hearing me complain up a storm about them for years. She’d long stopped trying to analyze them, to come up with long-lost traumas to explain away their wicked behavior or at least make them into something halfway human. Usually she’d just listen while I insulted them. But that night she had questions.

  I remember the pink of the bedspread and the pink curtains. I remember how, at one point, I toppled off my bed and spread myself out like a starfish on the pink plush carpet and felt like I had in the rehearsal room after Cody had left with Harmony and Rachel and they closed the door and kept the lights off. Heavy. Dancers were not supposed to feel like lead.

  Ori joined me on the carpet, sitting cross-legged beside where I was lying on my back. She rubbed my arm.

  “But what’d they do this time?” she asked.

  “I don’t know for sure, but something!” I may have shrieked it. She may have covered her ears.

  “But why’d you go off with Cody, anyway? I didn’t even know you liked him.”

  “You have Miles,” I said, as if the two were connected.

  “So? So what?”

  “So I don’t know,” I said, losing patience.

  My fists were balled. My sight was clouded. I really only wanted to talk about Harmony and Rachel. “I want to flay them alive with their straightening iron. I want to cut off their ears and mail them to their mothers. I want to shoot them in both feet and make them dance all night. I want to hang them by a rope and watch them turn purple and suffocate, and I’ll take pictures.”

  “Okay, but you’re just kidding,” Ori said. “You drank too much rum.”

  She wasn’t getting it. They never teased her. They never followed her around with their phones, trying to catch her in a compromising position. They never called her a ho-bag or a troll or said she danced like an elephant on crank. They never, not once, dribbled pee in her ballet bag or stuck shaved pubes in her ChapStick. They never told her she wouldn’t ever be good enough to make the New York City Ballet, and that they’d wave to her from the stage, maybe, one day, if they remembered who she was when they were famous.

  “I want to take this”—I lifted the box cutter from my ballet bag, where I kept it for making adjustments to our old pointe shoes, deshanking them to use them for practice, as we were going through a pair every few weeks—“and”—I waved the box cutter, but it was kind of sharp and the plastic cover on it was loose, so I just put it back in my bag. And forgot what I was going to say.

  Ori was the quietest I’d ever seen her, her brown eyes wide.

  “And what?” she said. “Why don’t you put that in a drawer or something?”

  “And I’ll . . . slice up her face,” I said halfheartedly. I was kind of scaring myself, too.

  The night went on. We didn’t do much more than say hateful things on my plush pink carpet—I said them, she listened—and we didn’t bother hiding the rest of the Bacardi, because it wasn’t like my parents would come all the way up the stairs and find it.

  At one point there was a tapping on my window, pebbles from the rock garden plunking one at a time on the glass. I rolled my eyes, but my stomach was sloshing too much to tell him to go away.

  “I’ll deal with him,” Ori said. “I’ll tell him to go home.” She checked her rum breath against her hand and then slid open the window. Miles was down below in my backyard, dodging lawn ornaments, aching to climb the lattice.

  I heard her hissing at him, and him whisper-shouting back, but I tuned out what they were saying. It was all the lovey-dovey stuff that turned my stomach. He hadn’t said, “Later,” and closed the door on her and left her on the floor of a dark room with her top bunched around her waist and her mouth kind of sore and her body kind of warm all over even though she didn’t want it to be. Miles and Ori had been together for six months. They’d had sex, and he didn’t dump her after. He’d even dropped the L-word on her, though she told me she hadn’t yet said it back.

  I was thinking about the showcase, about what happened. I wasn’t sure what wounded me more—that Miss Willow thought I was so insignificant, or that Harmony and Rachel and definitely Cody did. Maybe it was all hammered together, and one couldn’t be pulled apart from the other. I wanted to be important to someone. To matter. To have the spotlight on me and have no one able to pull their gaze away from the gorgeous shape of me under the bright-hot, mesmerizing beam of light.

  The way Miles looked at Ori, actually.

  I closed my eyes and let the room spin. Even with the spins, my mind was bloody and sharp. The pictures were vivid and spotlit on the stage of my deepest fantasies, where, like usual, I was a prima ballerina for the New York City Ballet and won the heart of every director and choreographer. But then the stage showed other things.

  Bad things. Murderous things.

  Things I would never really do. And things I would forget about in the morning, because I’d wake up feeling a whole lot better. I knew right from wrong, Ori and I both did. We were not terrible people. We were not fools.

  Red Feathers Everywhere

  THE FIREBIRD IS only a fairy tale.

  The story of the ballet goes like this: In an enchanted garden, a bird is kept captive. An evil magician holds sway over this garden and won’t release the beautiful, red-feathered bird, who glows like the moon in a patch of darkness. But one day when a lonely prince is passing through, he catches sight of that stunning red bird over the garden wall and decides he must have her.

  Soon the prince has scaled the wall and gone after the bird, chasing her through the enchanted trees, determined to steal her. She begs him to leave her be—she wants to stay in her garden, where she’s been her whole life—but he won’t stop, so she has to come up with a plan to make him go away.

  She gives him this feather, from her own body, bright red like her skin. Says, if he ever needs her help for any reason, he should take out the feather and call on her. Then, fast, she flies away.

  The rest of the ballet is all about the prince finding love and defeating the evil magician, with the help of the Firebird, who does come when he holds out her feather, and the show ends on a happy note of celebration. But I keep thinking about the bird.

  All focus—plus the stage spotlight—is on the prince and his beautiful dancing bride, their happily ever after. Everyone forgets the bird who made it possible. Does she fly off into the great blue sky, or does she stay put in the garden now that the enchanted walls have come down? Does she die, alone, because she’s given away too many of her feathers and everyone’s always wanting something from her and plucking them off her and she doesn’t know how to put herself first and say get away from me, you greedy bastards, say no?

  It’s just a story, a fairy tale fit for the stage.

  Because if it were a real thing, with real people, she would have said anything to save herself. She would have lied. And then, when she was called on, when the guy stood up with the drooping feather in his hand and said he needed her, she would have ignored his call.

  You can’t ever blame someone for putting herself first.

  In the ballet world, the role of the Firebird is an intimidating one. You have to be powerful on your feet and with your turns. You need real stamina. You’ve got to be worthy. We weren’t doing the whole ballet in our spring showcase, just a few variations, but Ori, at only fifteen, got the starring role.

  Miss Willow was having her try on the Firebird costume for fittings, and a hush came over the whole studio when Ori stepped out from the changing room with it on. It was bloodred with sequins over the sheer sections, like the skin of her chest, and her arms and back were rouge hued and n
aturally gleaming. The tutu was stiff and red feathered. The toe shoes were dyed as red as a vodka cherry, the ribbons making slash marks across her arches and her ankles.

  My own costume for that showcase was plain. Pale, cloudy blue. Flat, droopy skirt without any tulle. I was watching Ori in the mirror like anyone else. I was kind of coveting the red, the sharp shape of her tutu. Kind of imagining myself in her costume, as her, blazing so vivid bright, no one would ever leave me behind in a dark room.

  “She looks scary,” Ivana, one of the other dancing princesses, was saying, eyeing the red reflection in the mirror. “Is the Firebird supposed to look so scary?”

  “You mean nasty,” Harmony said. “And slutty, too, don’t you think?”

  Ivana agreed, as girls tended to do when Harmony or Rachel asked anyone an opinion. Ori looked like a nasty, dirty slut in her beautiful red costume, and now no one would be able to see the Firebird of our show any differently.

  I don’t think Ori heard, but then again it wasn’t even meant for her—Harmony was looking right at my reflection in the mirror when she said it. Mirror-Harmony was doing something with her mouth and her tongue, something pornographic. She wanted me to know she hadn’t forgotten and she’d make use of what she had (pictures? videos?) later. When? I wanted to ask her. When? She grinned and licked her pink lips. She’d never say when.

  Rachel sashayed over then, all done up in her princess costume, but somehow she made it look better than I did. Her delicate frame was graceful and refined in the simple costume, and she’d been given a small gold crown to wear in her hair, and no one had asked if I wanted a small gold crown for my hair.

  Ori didn’t get a crown, either—but she didn’t need one, because she had the headpiece. The costume designer had created this contraption that seemed made entirely of red feathers, like plumage on a tropical bird, with a masked wire frame making the feathers burst out of the back of Ori’s skull and trail down her spine. The feathers moved as she moved. When she breathed, they seemed to tremble with breath, too. It was how I would always remember her—in red. And it wasn’t just because that was the color of her costume.

  The costume designer wanted to see how the contraption would move. Ori did a halfhearted spin. She shrugged and said the headpiece felt good, moved fine, and then went to get back into her plain leotard. When she walked out, our eyes met in the mirror, and I could tell that the attention embarrassed her. She knew I was upset. She knew I cared so much more than she did, and it made her feel guilty. She’d rather I be in the bright sequins and she the one who had to dress like a milkmaid. I think she would’ve quit ballet years ago if it weren’t the one main thing we had in common.

  Still, no matter how effortlessly good she was, the most flexible in class, with splits we all envied and arches we stretched and deformed our feet for hours to match, I don’t think there was anyone at the studio who hated Ori. You couldn’t hate her. She once helped Chelsea P. search for a lost set of keys for a whole hour after class one night. The senior girls that year treated her like a pet, when she overheard in a bathroom stall how one of them was getting an abortion, and she wouldn’t tell even me who it was because she didn’t want to reveal someone else’s secret. Her loyalty said something about her character.

  But she was far more loyal to me.

  The plan was to swipe their phones and delete the pictures, if there even were any pictures. We weren’t positive there were pictures. We needed their pass codes, though, to get into their photo albums, and it wasn’t like we could ask. We’d have to trick them somehow. Or do some threatening. There was thinking that needed to go into this, and I hadn’t gone through all my thinking by the time dress rehearsals started.

  That was when Ori came up to me backstage, between numbers, to warn me. “I heard them talking, being kind of weird, and they got quiet when I walked by.”

  A bolt of panic seized me. I thought of a picture of me in a compromising position. I imagined it enlarged and projected onto the stage during the performance. I saw myself doing a pirouette in front of it, having no idea. Lifting my arms, pointing my toes, having no idea. And every last person in the audience gasping. And my mother getting sick in her pocketbook and my father too shocked to cover his eyes.

  Dress rehearsals always introduce something unexpected. Some new problem the director has to iron out before the show. Choreography that proves itself too complicated with the stage scenery and has to be changed. The final show never ends up being what you thought it would be, not exactly. Ballet is this living, breathing thing. It’s not prerecorded and set in stone or celluloid. It’s in the moment. It’s live.

  Sometimes I forgot that life was, too.

  Harmony and Rachel were acting as if nothing at all was going on. We were onstage. The number was blocked and working fine, and in the V formation of dancing princesses, Miss Willow had given me center spot.

  Anything could’ve happened onstage during rehearsal. Rachel could have beaned me in the head with one of the golden apples we tossed to each other during the enchanted garden scene. She had good aim. Or Harmony—the thirteenth princess, the one who captures the prince’s heart like he tries to capture the Firebird, played by Ori—she could have tilted her arabesque just a few ticks to the left, and the hard-packed box of her pointe shoe could have caught me square in the eye.

  But we rehearsed it in costume once, twice, and nothing. They were on their best behavior while Miss Willow sat out in the auditorium, calling out adjustments, nodding her head, a few times smiling.

  Ori did her solo, and she couldn’t remember half the steps. Sometimes she’d just make up some of her own, and other times she’d fudge through to get to what she did remember, the next sequence where she got to do some spins. Out in the empty audience, Miss Willow had lost her smile, but even she had to give up and simply watch when Ori found her stride and the music grew to encompass the thrilling shape of her movement and the magic descended.

  I was watching, and then I was fiddling in my ballet bag, looking for some cheese or something to eat. I let my guard down, I guess.

  The note was inside one of my pointe shoes. It was scrawled on the back of an old program. Cody wanted to meet me out back, behind the theater, during my break. The note didn’t say more than that.

  I left without telling Ori. She was still onstage. She had other things to do. She was out there, effortlessly being brilliant, and I was in the wings, trying so hard at being me.

  I knew where to go. I took my ballet bag with me. The smoking tunnel behind the Dumpster was where girls could go and sneak a smoke, then spray themselves with garden-scented Febreze and saunter back in, saying they’d only needed some fresh air from all the dancing.

  The entrance to the tunnel was covered over, some leafy branches carefully arranged to be in the way. When I parted the branches and stepped inside, I found them there in the leotards they’d had on under their princess costumes. Waiting for me.

  “Hey there, Vee,” Rachel said, lifting and extending her leg to stretch out the muscles, multitasking. “Looking for someone?”

  “Not really.” The lie must have showed on my face.

  “She hasn’t heard,” Harmony said. She always did have this way of speaking to others about me when I was standing right there and could easily be spoken to directly.

  “She thought he really left her that little note,” Rachel said.

  “She doesn’t know he quit the show.”

  “Cody quit?” I said. “Why?”

  “Oh, you know . . . ,” Rachel said, which probably meant she didn’t know, either.

  Harmony had an idea. “He’s probably too embarrassed to wear the tights. What he should’ve been embarrassed about is hooking up with that.”

  I was pointed at, like one of the trees.

  They both shuddered theatrically. Harmony played at gagging with a finger down her throat. Then they went back to talking as if I weren’t standing inches from them in a space the size of a prison cell. It wa
s all so boring, so tired, so unnecessary. And would it keep on going through the rest of rehearsals? Were they saving the big finale for the Saturday night show, when they’d whip out the photo and I’d be mortified within an inch of my life?

  I should have turned around and walked away, but something kept me rooted to that spot. Some solid part of me did not want to leave and let them get the chance to win.

  In the dim afternoon light, shielded by the thicket of branches in the tunnel, we looked like we were putting on a show of our own. But this one would not have any dancing.

  “Harmony,” I said. She didn’t answer, and kept chattering, hand shielding her mouth.

  “Rachel,” I said. She didn’t answer, and kept nodding, eyebrows raised, little ooh sounds coming from her mouth, as Harmony whispered into her ear.

  “You guys,” I said.

  In the distance, faintly, coming from inside, I could hear the lilting sounds of the music. It was the very last piece before the death of the evil magician. Before the Firebird reveals the secret way to kill him. Before everyone onstage gets to dance around gleefully, celebrating their freedom and his downfall. Ori danced in that piece, too. Ori wasn’t here, and this was all on me.

  “What do you guys want from me?” I said. There was this desperate edge to my voice, and it sounded like someone else’s voice. Someone whining. And I guess that’s the last thing I remember clearly, from inside that tunnel, before it happened.

  They might have answered my question, made it really clear what it was they wanted and why it was so much fun to poke at me, like with sticks. But this is where my memory skips. We’re talking—I’m saying something, and then they’re saying something, and I’m standing there being talked about—and we’re in our costumes, with socks pulled over our ballet slippers to keep the pink satin from getting stained and jackets over our leotards to keep out the crisp spring chill. Harmony has a cap perched up like a trucker’s over her bun, and Rachel has her neat little bun and the gold crown ringing her head. It’s like that—and then it shatters.

 
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