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(In a large, empty room, with shiny, non-slip floors, a young girl in a white leotard looked in the mirror and she told herself one day she would be a prima ballerina)
‘Raise yourself en pointe.’
Resisting the urge to sigh, she adjusted her arms and raised herself on to the tips of her toes. She held it for as long as possible, then lowered herself down on to the balls of her feet; they were sore from the long hours of work.
‘My toes hurt,’ she whispered, but the quiet plea to stop went unnoticed or ignored.
Plié first position, plié second position, plié third position…
‘Madame,’ she said, slightly louder, ‘can I stop, please?’
She followed through into fourth and fifth position, then stopped. After glancing down at her feet, she guiltily caught her instructor’s eye in the mirror. The woman was tall and slender and twirled through the air like a butterfly and had hazelnut eyes that matched her tight bun of silky hair.
‘Little Miss Parker, you have not finished your exercises. A turnout begins at the hip – why are you using your ankles?’
Little Miss Parker knew she had not finished her exercises. She knew that a turnout began at the hip and she was favoring her left leg because she had recently rolled her ankle; she supposed that could have been a good enough excuse had they been allowed. They weren’t, though, so she bit down lightly on her tongue and turned back to the barre.
She resumed her previous position and continued, angry and bitter and annoyed, blinking back tears that she refused to let fall.
(I hate you)
She hated the barre. She hated the pliés and the pirouettes. She hated the sweaty leotard and the painful shoes and the way she had to wear her hair. She hated Madame Dubeaux and she hated ballet. It wasn’t fun, and her world was so full of shades of grey that she wondered if it ever had been, or if she had merely pretended, for her mother’s sake.
Not that it mattered anymore. Her mother was dead.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Miss Parker knew that she had adored her mother. But her head was filled with lies and hurt and longing and resentment. It was easier to dismiss Catherine Parker as a weak shell of a human that had been unable to cope than to have recollections of a world of warmth and love. Memories like that hurt too much and a dancer had to be light and free so she couldn’t carry weights like that on her shoulders.
(I hate dancing – I always have, haven’t I? You’d take me anyway and I’d work and work until my toes were blistered and bleeding but I wouldn’t care because it made you happy)
Once upon a time, there had been a little girl and she had been pretty and sweet. She had danced like an angel with shining eyes and cotton-soft wings. Until one day, she just stopped dancing.
That girl had been named Catherine. Her eyes had been a beautiful sky blue and her hair had been long and dark – the smoothest you had ever seen. Her legs had been long and elegant and she had carried herself so gracefully that she could have been a prima ballerina.
Until one day, she just stopped dancing.
- - - - -
‘I quit,’ little Miss Parker told the mirror, then straightened and repeated it, louder.
Her slippers dangled from left hand and frazzled wisps of hair had escaped the knot above the nape of her neck.
In a few years she probably would have grown a little taller. She might have started wearing eye make up like charcoal shadows on spider-leg lashes and have more of an interest in boys. She might or might not have dyed or cut her hair and her taste in clothes most likely would have changed.
In a few years, everything would be different.
‘I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to dance.’
She’d told this to her father in the car.
‘I said I don’t want to dance anymore, Daddy.’
She’d received a grunt in reply and Miss Parker had sighed and looked out the window.
‘Why did momma dance?’
Mr Parker had winced (was it with hurt, or resentment, or guilt?) at the mention of his late wife.
‘The thing you have to understand, Angel,’ he began, somewhat gruffly though she was too young to or perhaps too blind to him to notice, ‘is that your mother had very strict parents. They wanted her to dance, so she did.’
‘Why did she stop?’
‘They forced her to dance, against her will!’ he told her, eyes glinting. ‘She didn’t enjoy it, Angel,’ he cooed, in That tone which she was inclined to believe. ‘When she got old enough, she stopped. And so she should have! Dancing is fine for fun, but it’s not worth anything in the long run, eh?’
Miss Parker hadn’t really replied to that – she’d been too sleepy, anyway. She’d sighed and nodded, eyes closing and her head resting against the glass pane.
- - - - -
Miss Parker went to her dance lessons the next week. And then the next, and the next after that. The Madame clucked and tutted at her for landing too heavily, but Miss Parker ignored her because she knew pointe work was difficult and she wouldn’t have gotten up to it if she was half as bad as the criticism suggested.
She practiced hard, because there was a production coming up. There would be an audience, a large one, and many other girls would be dancing, too. Madame wanted little Miss Parker to play the lead, because she could dance en pointe and she was small for her age.
Little Miss Parker still hadn’t told Madame she wouldn’t do it.
(The young girl loved to dance – she would dance all day and she dreamed of when she would perform onstage in front of thousands in an aqua blue costume with sequins, just like her mother’s – she would be amazing and the applause would make her ears ring)
She sat on the floor and stretched – splits with ease for flexibility, a cartwheel for precision and agility and a handstand held for balance. Touching her toes and extending her limbs. She’d known she’d been tense that day and delivered her routine poorly, not that she cared.
Madame noticed and she couldn’t let things go – no one could.
‘You haven’t been trying hard enough, little Miss Parker. You will be performing soon.’
‘I’ve been doing my best, Madame,’ she’d replied with irritation.
Bad days weren’t in the Madame’s dictionary and there was never much room for fault. Excuses made things worse and she knew she should have held her tongue but she didn’t think she knew how.
‘Your mother was a beautiful dancer, mon cherie. Why is it you cannot be the same?’
The words hit her heavily, and stung as surely as if she had been slapped.
‘I’m not my mother!’ Parker hissed, shaking her head and backing away, fingers gathering her belongings as she prepared to flee. ‘I never have been, and I never will be! Why can’t you all just leave me alone? I hate ballet, and I’m not dancing in your stupid production!’
She ran as fast as elegant long legs would carry, until her already-swollen feet refused to move and she had to stop to catch her breath. She threw herself into her room that evening – a blur of tears and angry sobs as she blindly searched for the shining metal that seemed to be the only solution to her problems.
Dancing was about floating and feeling free and she supposed if she didn’t ever feel like she was floating or free, what was the point?
Ballet had always been about her mother. She refused to believe she’d ever enjoyed it – how could she have? It was all discipline and rules and following in the footsteps of someone just because you wanted to make them happy.
Her mother had hated ballet, her father had said. Parker hated her mother for hating ballet and she hated her mother making her hate it too. She hated her for being weak, and for being selfish, and for abandoning her in a world of grey.
The glint of the silver and the sharpness of the blade stopped her tears. Parker was stubborn and bright and precocious and she knew all her multiplication tables and how to divide. She was mature and she knew the difference between being alone and feeling lonely, but none of that really mattered anymore.
She could focus on the metallic shine and for a moment, things would make sense, just a little.
(I hate you for leaving me all alone like this)
- - - - -
Her toes were sore and blistered and the scraps of pale fairy floss pink tutu littered the floor. The scissors lay a few feet away and Parker was sitting splayed on the floor; face buried in her arms on the bed.
(She was sick, Jarod. She was sick, and she killed herself)
Catherine Parker had been a coward. She’d taken the coward’s way out and she had showed how much she had really loved her little girl by disappearing and never coming back.
(All the grown ups wanted to talk – but none of them wanted to talk about what I wanted to talk about)
Books, pages torn out in sorrow and in anger, were scattered around her. Stories of princes and princesses, stories her mother had read her.
She’d gotten to the present she kept perfect on the dresser, still wrapped and breathtakingly beautiful. She’d thought about destroying that, too, but something, a voice in the back of her mind, had held her back.
(Momma – do you think I’ll ever fall in love?)
‘If you loved me so much…’ Miss Parker whispered, raising her head and locating the crumpled photograph with tired and red-rimmed eyes, ‘… where are you right now?’
- - - - -
Sydney – the psychologist that looked after Jarod – often asked Miss Parker how she was doing. He would smile with sympathy and she couldn’t help but resent him for pitying her.
Catherine Parker had been good friends with Sydney. Miss Parker knew that, and she had always sensed that she could trust him anyway. She liked playing with Jarod but since her mother had gone, she hadn’t been in the mood for playing. She’d eaten, drunken, and slept and that was all.
That, and danced.
‘My mother didn’t like to dance,’ she’d told Sydney.
‘Your mother loved to dance.’
‘How did you know?’
‘Your mother had always enjoyed dancing, ever since she was a little girl. She stopped not long after she met your father, not long before a production. But she was delighted when she had you. She started teaching you the moment you were old enough. I daresay you loved it almost as much as she did.’
Miss Parker had opened her mouth to say that she didn’t love it at all, and that her father had told her about her mother’s parents, when for the first time in her life, she questioned the truth behind Daddy’s words. The small voice in the back of her mind that had stopped her from ruining her mother’s gift reminded her that dancing was all about discipline and rules and following in someone’s footsteps – and about realizing a dream and chasing it with everything you had just because you believed in it.
‘He lied,’ she whispered, eyes widening. ‘Momma didn’t stop because she hated it. She stopped because Daddy hated it.’
But she hadn’t replied to that. She’d bit her tongue and stayed silent and made her way home in the evening without speaking to her father, though he didn’t seem to notice.
Mr Parker had found out about the books and the tutu but Angel had talked herself out of punishment and Daddy was helpless to resist the flash of blue eyes and the smile that he believed in because he didn’t know her well enough to realize it wasn’t real.
She went to her lessons but she didn’t practice, she spoke to the Madame with the hazelnut eyes who regarded her, slightly wary.
‘I’ll do it,’ she’d said tonelessly. ‘I’ll do it… but I’m not doing it for you. I’m not even doing it for me. I’m doing it because… because she never got to.’
- - - - -
Miss Parker hated her mother for being weak and for leaving her all alone, but the voice in the back of her head reminded her that once upon a time there had been a girl who had been pretty and sweet, and had danced like an angel with shining eyes and cotton-soft wings. It reminded her that perhaps she had once enjoyed ballet, and that she had loved her mother with everything she had, and that she still did and always would.
She danced in the production as if it were the last wish of a dying woman, and embraced it like finding a dream and soaring on hopes until everything turned out right in the end. She danced the best she’d ever danced - the pliés and the pirouettes and all. She wore the sweaty leotard and the painful shoes and her hair in a neat bun and she lived the music, because dancing was all about floating and feeling free.
When the curtain fell, and she was deaf to the clapping and the cheering, because she didn’t share the broad smiles of those around her; she sat down, removed her shoes, sighed, and got to her feet. She walked offstage without a backwards glance and it would be the last time she ever saw the hall and the Madame, and thought of the barre and the mirror and the music.
‘You did it,’ Madame beamed, cheeks glowing with pride and too much make up, and Miss Parker wondered if it were even a true smile, or a perfected one she saved just for moments such as these.
‘No,’ Parker said simply. ‘Momma did.’
- - - - -
Little Miss Parker moved through the graveyard without making a sound, because she could walk lightly and silently as if she were on stage. When she stopped in front of a grave, she stared at it for a long time before crouching to lower her bouquet. Gardenias – because they had been her mother’s favorite and she was willing to admit she loved them too.
‘I know you… I know you were there watching today. Up there, dancing with me, and I just wanted you to know… I did it for you. I hated you for a long time, but I forgive you.’
(I love you but I can’t pretend it doesn’t hurt)
Hesitantly, she lifted the pair of knotted pink-grey ballet slippers and strung them over the headstone. Closing her eyes, she kissed her fingertips and pressed them, feather-light, to the cold marble.
‘I miss you, momma.’
She left the shoes there, with the bunch of gardenias and the single tear that had slid from her cheek to soak the grass. When she walked away, it wasn't goodbye; it was moving on.
Once upon a time, there had been a little girl and she had been pretty and sweet, and she had danced like an angel with shining eyes and cotton-soft wings. Her eyes had been a beautiful sky blue and her hair had been long and dark – the smoothest you had ever seen. Her legs had been long and elegant and she had carried herself so gracefully that she could have been a prima ballerina.
Until one day, she just…
… stopped dancing.