Smoke fills the small, dark club and my brain continues to wander to—Elaine Bellacroix—the girl who got into Bryn Mawr last week. I remember the day Elaine skipped kindergarten and entered my first grade class because she could already read. The second week of school, a small, dark girl in a Pixie cut, stood in the doorway, holding hands with the principal. Her big, brown eyes shifted about the room. I hadn’t seen Elaine in ages, and then she showed up in the Advanced Placement crowd. Today I found out for the last three years she’s been at the American School of Ballet in Washington, D.C., a professional program where you perfect your grand jetés at the same time you’re learning geometry. I guess being back at N.H.S. means she flunked getting into the corps-de-ballet.
In first grade I started ballet at Miss Ramsey’s studio, held in a brick Victorian with double front doors opening into an elegant foyer. On the wall were hooks where I hung up my coat and a long bench where I sat to put on my slippers. When the older girls poured out the French doors at the other end of the hall, they took my place on the bench, and I took their place at the barre.
Miss Ramsey’s light brown hair was wound in a bun on the back of her head, just like mine. She wore a black, long-sleeved leotard and pink tights, just like mine. But she was big, especially on tip toe, and added a short, pink chiffon skirt tied with a ribbon around her waist. She stepped to a cupboard on her side of the room and placed the needle carefully on the record player. We began with pliés. Then tendus, rond de jambs, and finally out to the center to practice the dance for our recital.
The music had a busy, buzzing quality, so our part was about flies at a picnic. I was first fly. I led my class on stage and chassed in a circle. A few glissades to the side and we held for a moment in an arabesque. I chassed the flies back around the circle and off stage.
The day of the dress rehearsal, my mom couldn’t find the paper that said where we were performing. We drove to several high schools, but they were the wrong ones.
By the next day, she’d dialed enough numbers to know my performance was at Mont Pleasant. We entered through the front doors, and headed to a classroom opposite the auditorium. I didn’t see any other flies. Only big girls with blue eye shadow and spidery fake eye lashes. After my mom helped me into my black tutu, she left to sit in the audience. A skinny lady with a hard voice called my name. When I turned, she took me by the shoulders and marched me in front of the fly lineup backstage. A swift finger to her very red lips shushed any giggles. It was almost our turn to go on.
I heard our buzzy music, and on cue moved into the glaring lights. Startling front-row faces jumped out of the darkness. I began my chasse, but somehow everything felt backwards. I was entering the dance from a different side than in Miss Ramsey’s studio. Center stage there was a large gingham table cloth that I’d never seen before. Not a fly was following me, but circling the red and white cloth in the opposite direction. Laughter surged as I tried to hold my arabesque while motioning to the rest of the swarm. I chassed toward the blue velvet drapes on the far side, to discover I was the sole fly among the big girls waiting in the wings. I brushed through a prickly web of eye-level tutus and into the cool hallway.
I looked for mommy, but there was only the lady with the hard voice herding the rest of the flies to the dressing room. I followed at the end of the procession.
When Miss Ramsey called in September to see if my mom wanted to sign me up for another year of ballet, I shook my head no. I loved to dance, but I didn’t dare make a fool of myself at another recital.
Instead my parents bought the piano of my Liberace dreams, an old Mahogany upright and signed me up for lessons with Mrs. Horowitz, an old lady with fire red fingernails who wore ankle socks under her snakeskin heels.
When I sat beside her on the bench and opened my red John Thompson Teaching Little Fingers to Play, I made more mistakes than I did when I practiced alone in the rec room side of our basement. I could plink “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by heart, but not when Mrs. Horowitz was watching.
By fourth grade I could pound out “God save the King” as if Queen Elizabeth the first was seated on the black vinyl couch in our cellar. If only the suspended ceiling tiles could ask for an encore.
But in front of a living room full of parents, seated on Mrs. Horowitz’s bench, in a stiff, crinoline dress, my fingers forgot what they knew. Once I made a mistake, all I could hear was the swish of a mother crossing her nylons, a dad’s yawn, the expanding silence between notes. I wanted to lift the lid of the bench and hide under a pile of Beethoven until my turn to perform was over. That was my last recital.
Why do I rehearse childhood train wrecks instead of enjoying someone else’s gift?
I’m not sure until our evening is over, and Neil turns into my driveway. He puts the car in park, and something fragile inside me cracks. I stare at the radio. “How can you love me when I’m… nothing?”
He puts both arms around me. “What are you talking about?”
My chest heaves. “You’re all so smart. You all know what you want to do. I’m… lost!”
Neil kisses me on the forehead. “No, there’s no one like you. You’re mine.” I’ve never heard such cooing tenderness from Mr. Brainiac.
I wipe my tears on my mittens. My stuttering breath returns to almost normal. I open the door and wave good-bye.
That night at the Blue Note, I couldn’t name what held me in its sway.
But looking back at Elaine Bellacroix, that frightened little girl—the first to read— the first to fail, I realize she wouldn’t have been accepted at Bryn Mawr if she hadn’t been rejected by American Ballet Theater. How many circles in the wrong direction to discern our destiny?
And Neil Mankiewicz, a boy who doubted God's existence, used by God to demonstrate His unconditional love. A boy from the academic upper crust who understood, perhaps even better than I did, the desperate human need to be first fly.