I was five or six years old when I last put on a pair of ballet shoes.
It’s more than thirty years later and I pull the pink slippers out of their flimsy cardboard box and do it again, very consciously this time. My best friend is not dragging me into an activity of her choosing; my mother is not dropping me off so that she can have an hour or two to herself. The reasons this time are more complex.
I am overweight. I am unfit. I have always been uncoordinated. And yet here I am, a bus ride across the city, in this ballet studio, in a class I am assured is for beginners.
I am the only beginner.
The room is long and thin, like many of the women here. There are mirrors everywhere. They are unavoidable. I learn quickly to avert my eyes, to not look directly at them.
I am here, ostensibly, for the sake of The Novel. My thesis advisers have told me that my characters need more definition. I have become increasingly fascinated with ballet in the last few months, which mostly means that I have been reading fiction about it. Here is a chance to put that fascination to good use. I could give one of my characters the backstory of a former ballerina. I am here to learn the language, to learn how it feels in the body to dance.
I am here, though, let’s be honest, for the same reason my passion for ballet began. For the same reason I am in America. I am here, in this dance class, because of him.
He has a teenage daughter who is in love with ballet. Obsessed, he called it, when we had lunch together six months ago. If I’m going to be a worthy stepmother someday, a supportive stepmother, it is important that I know what an arabesque is, or how the back of my calf pulls when I stand in coupé, or what it means to spot as I spin across the room so that I arrive where I am meant to and so that I don’t get dizzy. It somehow seems important that I be able to ask her if the dizziness ever goes away.
I try not to wonder what it means that I am identifying with his daughter in order to feel closer to him.
His unattainability. My absent father. Our age difference. It is all so textbook.
Stretching at the barre, arching my back, every muscle in my leg pulling, I feel graceful. There’s a weightlessness, almost a high. To see the mirror, even if I wanted to, would require contortions. I forget what I look like. I picture instead a book from my childhood, see myself as the dancing girl from its cover, almost Barbie-like in her grace and beauty. I am a master of delusion.
Weeks go by, then months, my dancing always as an approximation of dancing.
Our friendship, too, is an approximation. Minutes snatched at events months apart—almost years apart, sometimes. Warmth in his voice as though he is genuinely delighted to see me.
Sometimes, at ballet class, I make it to the bathroom in time so that the teacher doesn’t see me cry about how stupid I feel when I don’t get the moves. Sometimes I don’t make it.
My progress comes in tiny increments, imperceptible to anyone other than my teacher and me. But there are moments, too, when it comes in what feels like a leap. Moments when, after class, I stand on the metro platform practicing the steps of the combination I have just achieved, moving diagonally across the studio floor with what felt like grace though it may not have looked like it. Moments when I am brave enough to ask the teacher to show me slowly what a dégagé is, how to achieve one without bending my knee, and I conquer it, and I go home feeling nothing is impossible: not ballet, not the publication of my novel, not even this dream of marriage, of family.
Our relationship, too, has its grace-filled moments. The increased frequency, for a time, of our not-so-chance encounters. The time he calls me baby, the times he pulls me to him and kisses my cheek or squeezes my hand or lets slip that he has thought of me, wondered about me. But the music stops, eventually, and he is still him, and I am still me.
I will dance until my teacher leaves this studio, until I try another studio with a true beginners class and a real pianist and sunshine streaming through the wide, curved windows.
I am no longer the worst student here. Ballet is now nothing comparable to torture. I don’t cry anymore. I don’t come close to crying. But neither do I reach for the impossible. The difference between the two classes, I suppose, is something like the difference between loving the unattainable and loving the requited.
I will dance until I notice that my knees have started to twinge when I walk up and down stairs. Though I am not young, I am too young for this.
I blame ballet. I blame him. I leave.
But the real reason I have stopped dancing may not be the twinge in my knees. The real reason may be that I am addicted to reaching beyond the ostensibly possible. That I am addicted to the extremes of emotions that come from reaching and failing and reaching and, improbably, achieving.
My teacher told me sometimes what a good pointe I had. She told me once that I am beautiful when I dance. I pretend that he will someday think this, too.