Kelly almost missed her turn. The clinging mantle draping over the coast obscured her way. “North Coast Academy of Dance” unexpectedly emerged out of the fog on her left, framed by lush fingers of evergreen. She turned sharply and just made it into the driveway.
Once parked, she shut off the engine and sat for a moment, listening to it ping as it cooled. Then she gathered her things, locked the door and headed for the entrance.
She felt foolish going back to a childhood hobby now, ten years later. That’s all it had been, a hobby, even though the hair pins, the pink, seamed tights, the endless sewing of elastic on shoes had been her life at eighteen. On her own she would never have gone looking for the studio, descending into the fog of the valley.
Andy, her husband, had bought the classes, had spread the pink school schedule out on the kitchen counter. “You could try it on Thursday nights,” he’d said. “See, Advanced Ballet Technique.”
His trump card was his knowledge of her. If he’d already spent the money, she’d go. When she got angry with him, saying she didn’t have the time, he covered her hand with his.
“Please, honey. Just try.”
How could she argue? He wanted her to heal.
She didn’t argue. But she didn’t agree, either.
They had chosen these roles back in the hospital. Somewhere, buried in the mass of paperwork, there was a Polaroid of their son’s face, taken by a staff member. They did it for all the stillbirths, consent or no. Andy had wanted it. Kelly refused to look.
The front lobby of the studio–“Academy” seemed a little grand, she thought–was cramped, worn, and smelled of sweaty feet and bad plumbing. Not that Southern California Ballet, her old studio, was spotless, but it at least lived up the specificity of its name.
She felt thankful that Andy hadn’t bought her lessons there. Above all else, she didn’t want to see someone she used to dance with.
Several ballet mothers flipped through magazines and chatted in the lobby’s plastic chairs. The usual dance posters covered the walls: soft-focus shots of perfect bodies and torsos, rainbow-colored pointe shoes, pink roses.
A young girl of about two sat in the middle of the floor. She had dark, curly hair and large eyes that turned down at the corners. She’d strewn a kitchen set all over the lobby: plastic food, miniature pots and pans, wrinkled and smashed cardboard boxes. She navigated the clutter on tiptoe.
At the battered desk in the corner, Kelly checked in with the receptionist, then turned to find the dressing rooms. She passed several labeled doors: an office, a men’s bathroom, and finally, the women’s changing area. At the end of the hall, the rhythmic thump of jumping feet marked the main classroom.
Inside the dressing room she set down her bag and changed. She pulled on her old favorite leotard, a black velvet spaghetti-strap. She ran a hand over her stomach, wistful that her body had lost even the memory of third-trimester roundness. Sometimes, she’d jump at a bubble of indigestion, betrayed by her body into thinking she felt her son moving again. But stillbirth was just that. Still.
Andy had grieved with her, but he was beginning to surface. He’d mention their son every once in a while, ask her if she remembered different parts of her pregnancy, the ultrasounds. He tried to make her remember.
“I’m not ready yet, Andy,” she’d say.
He never pressed her.
She wanted him to protest. She wanted to fight, to scratch, to tear. She would tell him he didn’t understand, that he only grieved for an idea, while she mourned the living child she’d felt within her. Instead he would touch her shoulder and leave her alone.
She ached from trying to be nice to him. It felt like lifting her leg above her waist and holding it still until the muscles quivered from exhaustion. They had grown so careful with one another, always avoiding injury. Even as he prodded her to take this class, he didn’t insist. “You should do something you’re good at,” he said. “Something you love. I think it would help.”
He didn’t understand that ballet was only the first time her body failed her. She’d taken twelve years of lessons only to realize that she had no hope of making a life of it. Her body was simply not suited. How would it help to revisit that?
Back in the hallway, she sat on the floor to warm up. She settled close to the door, so she could get a good space at the barre when her class begun.
She mostly didn’t regret the years of training. Ballet had given her good posture and shaped her body (‘child-bearing hips,’ her mother called them) into something more lithe and graceful. Years of training left their mark, even a decade later.
The other students for her class started arriving in ones and twos. High schoolers, all different colors, skin tones, and hair styles, and the same perfect sameness in all of their bodies: the molded cheekbones, the duck walk gait, the long torsos and elegant legs. They entered the dressing room and emerged, minutes later, in baggy sweatpants, draping t-shirts, and legwarmers. One by one, they sprawled in feline laziness on the floor. She caught a few of them giving her appraising glances. Deciding where in the pecking order she would be. No one said hello.
Kelly slid into the splits and bent forward to rest her arms over her knee. Feigning indifference.
At the other end of the hallway, the door to the office opened. Kelly just caught a glance of a woman–the teacher?–crossing the hall into the lobby. A minute later, the woman came back with the solemn little girl from the entrance balanced on her hip.
Kelly caught her breath.
It was Thalia.
The dancer’s dancer, the studio favorite back in high school, Thalia possessed everything Kelly did not: perfect feet, long, thin legs that unfolded like flower petals when she lifted them, a body straight as an exclamation point, and almost as thin.
They hadn’t been friends, or enemies, really. Kelly hadn’t been friends with any of the girls in the studio. She still didn’t know if that was her fault or theirs. She remembered one Christmas when a semi-organized gift exchange occurred in the Nutcracker dressing room. No one had mentioned it to her ahead of time, so she’d been the only one who hadn’t gotten gifts for anyone. The only one who hadn’t received any, either.
Thalia had departed the studio in triumph at seventeen. An apprenticeship at the Houston Ballet. As lucky as if she’d won the lottery, except she’d earned it.
Why was Thalia walking down the hall towards her now, with a child on her hips like a serene Madonna? She had breasts now, discernible curves. Her face looked fuller–healthy even. The bones of her upper rib cage no longer protruded. Kelly had always envied Thalia’s slim tracery of skeleton.
A look of recognition moved over Thalia’s skin in a crimson wave. She stopped and stared. “What are you doing here?”
Kelly got up. Better to speak eye-to-eye than sprawled on the floor in supplication. “I could ask you the same question.”
Thalia shrugged. “I work here. In the office. As a teacher. I’ve got the next class, actually.” She paused and pressed her lips together. “Which–let me guess–you’re taking.”
“I didn’t know you would be teaching it.” Although Thalia didn’t ask, she decided to remind her. “If you don’t remember my name, it’s Kelly.”
“Of course I remember. Kelly Prince, college girl.”
She noticed Thalia didn’t ask if Kelly remembered her. “I’m Adamson now.”
“So you got married, huh? Congratulations. What else have you been doing with yourself? Dancing?”
“Not since I graduated.”
“Ah.” Her tone reflected her lack of surprise. “Well, what then?”
She shrugged. What was the point in sharing? “College. Job. Marriage.”
“So no kids yet, then. A peaceful life. I envy you.”
As if Thalia had ever needed to envy someone else. Kelly let herself really look at the little girl. She had Thalia’s hair, her nose, her perfect plum-blossom lips. Though she knew the answer, she asked anyway. “She’s yours?”
Thalia gave the little girl a kiss on her forehead. “Yep. Meet Giselle.”
Kelly felt the rough edge of nausea when the little girl hid her face in Thalia’s chest.
Thalia nuzzled her daughter’s head. “Someone’s being shy.” Giselle lifted her arms to cover herself more. “Ah, well.” She kept silent for a moment, her eyes on Giselle’s hair. “I’ll bet you’re wondering if I’m still dancing.”
“Well, are you?”
“More or less. When I teach. Who would have thought that I would give it all up to have a baby?”
Kelly shrugged. Truth was, she wouldn’t. “So you did? Give it all up for her, I mean.”
“Lock stock and barrel. Well, sort of.” She nodded at the students sprawled on the floor.
Kelly realized with a start that they were all watching the two of them intently. She looked down, uncomfortable with the scrutiny, but willed herself to ignore them. “So how did you end up teaching here and not SoCal Bal?”
Thalia bounced Giselle up and down, but without enthusiasm, as if buying time to think of her answer. “I don’t know. I guess when I left Houston, I didn’t feel like explaining myself to everyone.” She curved her lips into an approximation of a smile. “Like now.”
Kelly knew what she was talking about. But she kept prying. “But why teach here?”
Thalia glanced backwards, towards the lobby, as if someone was watching. “I danced here as a kid.”
“Really?” Kelly didn’t try to keep the surprise out of her voice.
“The owner, she was a friend of my mom’s. When she saw that I had talent, she told me I should go to SoCal Bal.” She looked at Kelly, as if willing her to challenge the assessment. “For better training. I don’t know, I always thought that was the mark of a good teacher, to know when someone else could do better.”
Giselle started wriggling. Thalia let her slide to the floor. “Anyway, there were no hard feelings when I left. And open arms when I needed a job.”
A wave of polite applause emerged from behind the studio door. A second later, the door burst open, and a flood of elementary-aged kids rushed out. They swerved around Giselle like rushing water around a rock.
Once the smaller students and their teacher finished their exit, the older girls pushed past each other to get into the studio first for barre spaces. Even in a non-competitive sport, someone always won.
“Here we go,” said Thalia. She walked past Kelly, as if the conversation had ceased to interest her.
At that moment, Kelly wished to God that Andy hadn’t paid up front for the classes. She longed to leave Thalia, her memories, and the fluorescent light emanating from the doorway for the peace of her car.
Instead, she followed everyone into the classroom, a large, rectangular space with mirrors along one wall. A row of barres protruded from the glass, breaking all reflected bodies in two. It was too small, really, for a real studio space. They’d have been better off combining the two classrooms. But running two classes at once means you pay the bills.
Kelly found a place, a lousy one, with almost no view of the main mirror. She stretched her calf muscles, pushing against the barre for resistance. It felt flimsy under her weight.
Thalia set Giselle into a square, green playpen in the corner. It had a few stuffed animals strewn across the bottom. The little girl whimpered and stood up, reaching out to her mother. Thalia bent over and whispered to her, poked her, until Giselle started giggling. But when Thalia walked away, Giselle stamped her feet. “Out, Mama. Out!”
Thalia ignored her and walked to a barre in the center of the room. “Sorry about this, ladies,” she said. “Babysitter fell through.”
Kelly caught one of the girls rolling her eyes.
All business now, Thalia placed her feet in first position, and moved her arm to the side. “Let’s begin.” Even the simple movement of her arm and the precise placement of her feet was a miracle.
“Two demi pliés and a grande in first position,” said Thalia, demonstrating the shallow and deep knee bends. She looked like fabric billowing in a gentle wind. “Port de bras forward, back.” She bent forward, mimed the backbend, and moved her feet to the open second position.
Giselle started to wail. Thalia glanced at her, sighed, and increased the speed of her demonstration. “Same in second, except port de bras side to side.” She mimicked the side bends with her hands. “Fourth same as first, fifth same as second. Balance in sous sous.” She drew her legs together taut, like a pillar, and moved her arms into an oval above her head. Then she broke the pose just as quickly and moved towards her daughter. “Questions?” she called, over her shoulder.
Kelly knew no one would raise their hands. The combination was beyond basic.
“Good. Let me find the music.”
Thalia lifted Giselle out of the playpen. The child calmed down, but started to squirm. “Giselle, keep still.”
Giselle began thrashing with her feet.
Thalia let her down. The girl scurried over to the nearest barre to grab hold of it. She stood about a foot too short.
“Oh, you want to take the class, is that it?” Thalia’s face softened. Then she noticed everyone waiting. “Sorry. Let me just find the right track.”
While Thalia picked through CDs next to the diminutive CD player, Giselle waved her arms around, obviously relishing having everyone’s eyes on her. Kelly couldn’t help but smile. The girl had certainly inherited her mother’s desire to woo an audience.
The music started. Kelly cringed at the banal piano recording, a bad interpretation of Phantom.
She exhaled and moved her arm front and side in preparation. She bent her knees into the right positions, followed the ebb and flow of the music.
Giselle ran past her, giggling. Apparently the little girl had tired of mimicking the steps. Thalia followed, pursuing her around the room, trying to catch her, which only sped up the race.
Kelly, distracted, almost forgot the simple steps. What was Thalia thinking, bringing a two-year-old into a ballet class? The girl would never last an hour and a half.
As Kelly moved into the grande plié in second position, her groin throbbed. The pain frightened her. It had been six months. Was it still too soon? But what would Thalia think if she gave up after one ridiculously easy combination?
She kept going, gritting her teeth to move through the discomfort. At the end of the first combination, her legs trembled. How she would make it to the end of the class, she had no idea.
Thalia returned to center barre, Giselle now balanced calmly on her hip. The little girl had grabbed a fistful of her mother’s long hair. “Very nice, ladies. Would someone demonstrate tendu for me?”
The girl who’d earlier rolled her eyes nodded, yawning. She completed the steps as Thalia spoke them, but seemed utterly uninterested. She stood with a hand on her waist instead of placing it into the correct position.
Judging from the half-smile on her lips and how she gazed directly at Thalia, the girl aimed for insolence. And yet the steps were so basic, so straightforward, that she managed to do them perfectly.
Kelly couldn’t decide whether to be angry at the student, or Thalia. Disrespect for the teacher had no place in a ballet class, but if Thalia didn’t pay attention, no wonder discipline went out the window.
When Thalia started the music again, Kelly found energy in making them both look bad. She threw herself into the music, despite the boring combinations, Giselle running loose, and her lousy view of herself in the mirror. Even despite the second piece of music, from Oklahoma!
She pressed herself into the pain of her groin and abdomen, testing herself, testing the months-old weaknesses. Her body trembled, it protested, but it stayed in one piece. And she felt something new–something she had not felt for years. She felt joy and astonishment at her body.
The combinations kept coming. Thalia tired of Giselle’s antics and put her back into the playpen, where she screamed. The other students whispered to each other over Thalia’s voice. Thalia gave in to Giselle’s cries and lifted her out of the playpen.
Kelly stopped caring. She felt like an errant nun returning to the stations of the cross. Safe inside ritual.
She exulted in the burn of her arches as she completed dégagé, the disengaged step–releasing her working foot from the supporting leg and letting it fly into the air just off the floor. Then she made a slow circle of her leg on the ground in the rond de jambe à terre, as if stirring coffee with a spoon, almost hearing the slow slur of a utensil against the rim of a cup. She struck sparks against the floor with the ball of her foot in frappé, while her head and arms floated, detached, in relaxed repose.
It almost helped that she couldn’t see herself. She couldn’t contrast her imagination of the steps with her body’s faltering execution.
But the reality of her limitations came back to her during the rond de jambe en l’air, when she lifted her leg to the side, and made circles with her calf and foot, as if they were the free end of a marionette’s hinged arm.
Her pain changed keys, from annoyance to warning.
She ignored it, fought it. Lifted her leg and pushed her foot in and out with force. To relax would be to let the house of cards disintegrate.
She counted to herself. Three more circles. Two. One.
But just as she swung her leg out to complete the last circle, her moving foot hit something.
Kelly spun around. What had she kicked?
Giselle sat in a heap next to her. Her eyes were wide-open, looking up at Kelly in shock. The side of her face was bright pink from Kelly’s swinging leg.
After a long, still moment, Giselle opened her soft, pink mouth and howled.
Kelly knelt down next to her. She smoothed back the girl’s hair, wishing she was someone to Giselle so she could take her in her arms and comfort her.
Thalia stepped past, scooped up her child, and swooped her towards the door of the studio. Giselle’s howl quieted as her mother cradled her. Kelly could hear the soft shushing and low moans, the two cries matching each other.
Thalia’s voice reached them over the cry. “Take ten, girls. She should be fine once I get her some ice.”
The other students murmured for a minute, then left the room in twos and threes, their voices growing louder and less worried as they left the room. After a minute or two, they were laughing and shrieking in the hallway.
Kelly stayed on the floor, breathing. She felt a hardness in the center of her chest. Always Thalia had moved through the world as if she understood something basic about the way air flowed, and was able to slipstream into a different plane than everyone else. Even when cradling her child. Especially when cradling her child.
Out in the hallway or lobby, Giselle stopped crying.
Kelly got up. She gathered herself, her things from the barre and left the studio. She stepped past the laughing girls in the hallway to retrieve her bag from the dressing room. Head down, she made eye contact with no one.
Which is how she almost collided with Thalia, who was coming out of the office.
“Sorry.” Thalia held up a little pink bundle. “She’s okay. Ice. These little piggie packs are–”
She stopped, finally noticing Kelly’s gear. “Wait. You’re leaving?”
Kelly knew that if she said more than about three words she would no longer be in control. She twisted up her mouth in a sort of grimacing smile. “Thought it best.”
Thalia’s face registered alarm. Then surprise. She opened her mouth to say something.
There was a wail from the lobby. “Piggie pack! Piggie pack!”
Thalia put her hand on Kelly’s shoulder. “Hold on a sec.” She brushed past, towards the cry.
Kelly heard her murmuring, the soft smack of kisses. Her stomach twisted. She needed to get out of there now. She went into the lobby, but Thalia and her child were right in front of the door. Outside, the fog had covered the parking lot and Kelly’s car.
Giselle’s chubby hand now held the ice against her cheek. She was smiling up at her mother, waving her other arm. “Piggie–pack! Piggggiiiie pack! Piggiiiiee–” She stopped, waited.
“Pack!” Thalia said. She caught sight of Kelly, hovering close to the door. “Okay. Let me just–” She stood up, and went behind the receptionist’s desk, which was thankfully empty. It seemed to be the last class of the day; all of the waiting mothers had abandoned the building.
Thalia rummaged through a sweater hanging on the back of the reception chair and came up with an iPhone. She handed it to her daughter.
“Hate using that thing as a babysitter,” she said. “But desperate times–” She shrugged, as if that clarified things. Then her eyebrows creased, focusing on Kelly and her clear desperation to get out the door. “You don’t have to leave. You know I’m not mad at you, right? If anything you should be mad at me.”
Kelly looked down. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
Thalia seemed to take that as condemnation. “I know, I know. It’s not safe, her running around. You think I’m a terrible mother, don’t you? God–you’re probably right. But the way things are with her dad right now, childcare is just, well, complicated, and–”
Kelly raised her hand. “It’s not that.” Her voice trembled. “No. I just really need–” She was going to say “to go,” but she couldn’t. Instead, she started to weep.
“Oh–” said Thalia. “Oh.”
Kelly sank down to the floor, only wanting to fold into herself, to curl up so small into her belly that she would disappear. Instead, she sat on one of Giselle’s toys–a cup or a plastic mug. It made an audible crunching sound, and its molded plastic jabbed her hip bone. She shifted to one side and flicked it away.
God, she destroyed everything.
Thalia’s voice was close to her ear. “Kelly. Kelly. She’s okay. She’s fine, you see? She’s a toughie. You don’t need to worry.”
She felt Thalia’s hand stroking her hair, running into the hard lump of a bun at the nape of her neck. Then a lisping, high voice asked, “She sad, Mama?”
Thalia’s cool hand kept smoothing back Kelly’s hair. “She’s sad she hit you, love bug.”
Then a little hand patted Kelly’s foot. “I okay. See? I have my piggie pack. You see? See?”
Kelly took a long, shuddering breath. There was still a torrent someplace behind her breastbone, but she found she could just shut the door on it and look up.
Thalia was kneeling in front of her, Giselle perched on her lap, the both of them leaning toward her, hands extended to touch her and offer comfort.
The torrent threatened to start again. She breathed, looked down. Breathed.
“Please don’t leave,” Thalia said. “Take the rest of the class.”
Kelly shook her head and wiped her eyes against her hand. “I can’t. It’s better if I go home, anyway. I’m going to hurt myself if I keep going.”
“You were doing fine,” Thalia said.
Kelly laughed. “Hardly,” she said. “I’ve been–well, I’ve been sick. I think I’m not ready to be exercising this hard.”
“Really? God, you look good for sick. I always envied how you could practice half as much as the rest of us and keep up anyway.”
Kelly squinted, but could detect no trace of irony in Thalia’s face. She didn’t know what to say to something so preposterous. Keep up? Keep up with Thalia? When had she ever?
Thalia rocked back on her heels, trying to gather up Giselle, but failing. The little girl tumbled forward onto Kelly. She caught a scent of lavender. Also sweat in the dark forest of her hair. She lifted her hands to help Giselle get her footing, but instead the girl turned and plopped into her lap.
The toddler held up the ice. “You need piggie pack?” She turned to her mother. “What her name?”
Giselle smiled. “Mrs. Adamson,” she said.
Giselle pressed the cold, soft pink ice pack into Kelly’s hand. “You take it, Miss Amson,” she said. “Piggie pack soft, see?”
Kelly took the little bundle. She touched it to her cheek. “Like this?”
The girl nodded.
“You mind staying with her a sec?” Thalia said. “I need to go get the class going on the next combination.”
Kelly nodded. She and Giselle sat. The little girl started moving her body to and fro, as one would with a crying child. Kelly found her body swaying along.
“You want the piggie pack back?” she asked her.
The girl took it and gave it little kisses. “Piggie pack,” she crooned to it. “Piggie pack.”
Kelly closed her eyes, and swayed gently, back and forth, the tight space in her chest loosening from the scent of Giselle’s hair. An outdoor, slightly sweaty smell from Giselle’s recent crying. If she could just stay right here, forever, if she could just be someone again, hold someone again–
She used to hold her belly when she pregnant. Whenever she was waiting for things. Hold it while waiting in line at the post office, hold it while on the phone, one hand cradled along the mound of the baby, hold it while waiting for food to be served, at night, when she was falling asleep. It was as close as she’d ever gotten to her little boy.
Her husband would hold her if she asked, she thought. She wouldn’t have to explain.
Suddenly, she was immensely grateful that she’d been pregnant with her son. Her son. She savored that word for a second. She realized it had been months since she’d been grateful. Being pregnant with him was something.
It was not enough, but it was something.
Thalia was there again, and the girl pushed out of Kelly’s lap and ran to her mother. “I got piggie pack back,” she said, holding it aloft as though she’d won it in a contest.
Thalia patted her head and looked at Kelly. “If you need to go you can. I’m just really sorry.”
“But will she be okay?” asked Kelly. “I mean, in class.”
“I’ll figure it out,” Thalia said. “The iPhone. It’ll do.” She bent over and lifted up Giselle. “But what about you? Is there anything I can do?”
Kelly shook her head no automatically, and then she paused. “What if–”
Thalia looked at her, her whole face open. That was what was remarkable about Thalia’s face when she was dancing, Kelly realized. The repose, the detachment, even as her body was vanquishing gravity.
Kelly bit her lip. “Do you want me to watch her? We could play here, in the lobby. But I mean, only if she wants.”
Thalia knelt next to Giselle. “You want to play with Mrs. Adamson while I teach class?”
Giselle jumped up and down. “Yaaaay!”
Thalia hugged her daughter, but kept her eyes on Kelly. “You sure? We really can make do with technology.”
Kelly nodded. “It’ll do me good, I think.”
“Thank you. Really. That’s amazing of you.” She let Giselle slide down to the floor and gave her a kiss on the head. “Be good, love bug.”
Giselle ran to Kelly and took her hand. “Come on! I show you what to do. Come on!”
Kelly let the little girl lead her toward the toys. Everything else in her life–her husband, her house, even her car–was hidden right now in the foggy bewilderment of how to keep going. She was so weary of having to find her way alone. She let Giselle lead her to the toys scattered on the floor. She let her pull her down near the dog-eared box of milk, the plastic ear of corn, the slice of pink, round ham. And she waited, patiently, for Giselle to show her how to begin.