by Marika Brussel
The room spun as if I were doing a million pirouettes. My fingers and lips were rubbery and only vaguely recognizable as my own. From the other room came echoes of voices, laughter, the skunky aroma of pot. The floor was cold and dirty. I closed my eyes again to feel the spin.
I started dancing when I was three, and by the time I was thirteen I was dancing at least five hours a day, six days a week. I loved it. I loved the sweat and the blisters and the discipline. I loved the mirror and starvation. What I didn’t love was that the competition made it hard to have real friends. I liked the older kids, the 20-year-olds. They had it all together, I thought. They lived on their own and didn’t have homework. They seemed to be able to be friendly with each other. With me, they acted like I belonged.
In the ballet world, you’re judged on how good you are, not on how pretty or how smart; it’s all about talent and your potential for a successful career. I was good. And because of that, I could be included. I see that now with my own students. If a kid is talented, the older people hang out with her, talk with her, treat her as an equal. The lesser-skilled kids have to hang out with their own. It is a hierarchy based largely on ego.
It was autumn, and the new schedule had just been posted. I was in Advanced, with the older kids, including Frankie, who was about 19 and whose sweat smelled like sandalwood. ”Josh is having a party,” he told me after class, as I uncapped my Diet Pepsi and gulped. “You should come.”
Soda spilled down my chin, leaving sticky tracks on my neck. He wiped it off with one finger. It confused me.
“Okay,” I said, as if it didn’t matter at all, as if I always went to adult parties by myself.
“See you there,” he said, licking his finger and smiling.
Josh lived in the Bronx, a borough of the city I had never been to. I took the subway, creaky and hot, up past Yankee Stadium, a ride that seemed to take forever. I dressed in tight Jordache jeans, and a shirt that reminded me of sugar. The streets in the Bronx were long, wide and empty.
You may be wondering about my parents. Me too. They were pretty hands off.
The apartment was easy to find. Dancers leaned against the railing of the fire escape, smoking cigarettes and drinking from plastic cups. A few people nodded to me as I walked down the hallway looking for Frankie. He wasn’t there, but a tall boy I knew from class put a plastic cup in my hand and smiled.
I sniffed the drink. It smelled kind of like Passover wine, but stronger, less fruity. I dipped my tongue in. Wow! It was just like Manischevitz, but with a kick. Later, I learned that it was Sloe gin, but at the time it was liquid confidence.
With each sip I become enboldened. ”Where’s Frankie?” I asked a girl in the Company.
She laughed. “He and Bethie went into the bathroom about an hour ago.”
I took another sip. And another. And pretty soon it didn’t matter where Frankie was. The room took on a calm echo, and I felt fine, just fine.
“Hey,” the tall boy said. “You okay?”
“Great.” I steadied myself on his arm. Boy, he was tall.
“Wanna go look around?”
Before I knew it we were kissing, hard and deep, in the other room. I didn’t feel anything other than his tongue winding itself around mine. It wasn’t bad. It was fine. Everything was fine. My body felt nothing. Alcohol had made me numb in every way. I kept touching the waist of my jeans to make sure they were still on.
After about a hundred years we pulled away from each other. I squinted. He was older than I thought, maybe 25. I was 13, and my body looked younger.
“Want more?” he asked.
He held up a cup.
“Sure,” I said, lowering myself to the floor. The room spun when I closed my eyes, but I was so tired. The tall guy didn’t come back. The next day I found out that he’d passed out in the living room. I also found out he was gay, but that’s another story. And not mine.
Eventually someone put me in a cab. I remember sitting in the back seat as the city whirled by me. I didn’t want to think about anything. I just wished I could stay in the taxi forever, as the city passed me by in a tornado of color and sound, and I was safe, enclosed, and all alone.