Authors: Helena Newbury
by Helena Newbury
Dedicated to my mailing list, who keep me honest and (mostly) sane.
This novella runs in parallel with the events of Dance For Me, and will make far more sense if you’ve read that first.
My roommate, Natasha, says I spend too long choosing what to wear each morning. This is funny for two reasons.
it’s impossible to spend too long on your outfit.
Secondly, she doesn’t realize that I do most of my choosing the night before. The ten minutes or so that she’s aware of in the morning is just me picking from the shortlist.
This particular morning, I’d teamed some sumptuously soft calfskin boots (chunky heel, little silver ring dangling from the zipper for no other reason than it looked marvelous—I
Prada) with a black leather pencil skirt and a rather severe gray blouse. It was sort of reinvented 1960s office worker, especially because I’d hidden my ballet gear in a giant vintage purse instead of my usual gym bag. I like not looking like a ballet student some of the time. I mean, I get the ballet student look—you crawl out of bed all grungy and messy-haired, and you know that in an hour you’re going to be pulling your hair back into a bun and changing into a leotard anyway, so why bother? Why not just throw on jeans and a hooded top and de-sex yourself for the commute, and then emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis? Why would anyone set their alarm a half hour early so they could put on make-up and pick out an outfit? You’d have to be insane.
Or a control freak.
I did my hair, tonging and spraying it until it hung razor-straight. Somebody, somewhere in my lineage must have hailed from Sweden—my long blonde hair and pale blue eyes are very Euro
Unfortunately, that’s where the DNA benefits ended. Instead of getting the bountiful chest of a Valkyrie, I wound up with a couple of gentle swells that barely nudged my sweaters out and a distinct lack of anything you’d call
All very beneficial for a dancer. All very good for wearing the latest clothes. All lousy for actually feeling like a woman.
I leaned out of my room and shouted in the direction of Nat’s closed bedroom door. “Nat! I’m heading out in ten minutes!”
No response. That didn’t completely surprise me, because I’d been woken at three and then again at four by the groaning and choked screams that meant “nightmare.” I stared at her door, willing her to emerge so that I could comfort her…but nothing. She was either still asleep, or in hiding.
I don’t know what happened in Nat’s past—only that it was too awful for her to talk about. She’d found…other ways of coping with it.
We’ll come to that later.
I did my make-up. Eyes. Cheeks. Lips. Checked my nails. Grabbed the salad I’d made the night before from the refrigerator. Still no response from Nat. I picked up my purse, checked my appearance in the mirror and—
Everything was perfect—that wasn’t the problem. Or maybe, weirdly, that
I’d been getting this feeling, ever since the start of my junior year that month, that something was wrong. Nothing had changed—my grades were good, my rent was paid, I was living the dream in New York City. I had everything exactly as I wanted it. I should have been happy.
Sometimes I felt as if I was balancing en pointe, even when I wasn’t dancing. I had to make a thousand decisions a day, trying to keep everything perfect, and if I got even one of them wrong I’d topple and crash to my doom. Spend an extra hour rehearsing? That left Nat all alone at the apartment. Enjoy a drink with Jasmine? I’d regret it the next day. Eat out? I felt as if I was frittering money away. Eat in? I’d feel sad and lonely.
Sometimes, I just wanted someone else to make the decisions for a while.
Then I shook my head at myself in the mirror. Who the hell did I think I was? Some of my friends had
problems, and here I was griping about some existentialist melodrama. My knuckles whitened on the strap of my purse. Poor little rich girl feels dissatisfied with her perfect life? Boo fucking hoo.
A friend of mine, Jasmine (an actress—she has curves where I don’t and I have self control where she doesn’t) says that my BMW is like my dog, which is completely ridiculous. The car may be my favorite possession, but I’d never treat it like an animal, or a person. I mean, okay, I gave it a name, but Bartholomew is just a play on B-M-W and when I buy him a full valet or a new part, that’s just part of his annual service, and the only reason I had it in my diary, when Jasmine saw it, as his “birthday” was…well, I don’t have a good explanation for that, but there is one.
I don’t drive Bartholomew to Fenbrook, though. There are places you can find a parking space and there are places I’d feel safe leaving him unattended, but the two don’t co-occur.
Instead, I have a carefully-planned route, timed down to the minute, that gets me there on the subway. I pulled the apartment door shut behind me at exactly eight. Down the stairs (good for the thighs) and out onto the street at three minutes past. Walk half a block, past at least three perfectly good coffee shops, and go out of my way twenty paces to pick up my morning espresso.
Yeah. That bit isn’t very efficient. But Giorgio wears these white shirts that hug his body, rolled up to the elbows so I can see his thick, tan forearms as he works the machine. His teeth are super-white and, as he leans forward to pass me the little thimble-sized paper cup, I can see down his shirt to the thick swell of his pecs.
I wouldn’t, of course. He’s unsuitable in just about every conceivable way. I tell myself that it’s just a harmless diversion, a bit of eye candy on my commute. But the truth is, that little glimpse of Giorgio sends a hot thread of fire right down between my thighs, every single morning, in a way that Roger never did.
If it was a hundred years ago, Roger is the man my parents would have married me off to. He wasn’t—I actually met him in a cocktail lounge—but they couldn’t have been more delighted when we got together. Roger is an investment banker, plays squash twice a week and has a Rolex that cost about the same as Bartholomew. He was considerate in bed, always going down on me for exactly three minutes (I counted) and making sure I came first (to the point I started to fake it). We went through the dating stage and the talking about moving in stage and I think he was even starting to think about proposing, and that’s why I had to break it off. Everything about being with him was ostensibly perfect—I could see, in my mind, the house we’d have in the suburbs, the two perfect children we’d have, the Mercedes mini-van I’d replace Bartholomew with when I became a soccer mom.
It was perfect. And it felt utterly wrong. Wake-up-at-three-in-the-morning-sweating wrong. And so I broke it off, and I could see the hint of relief in his eyes, even as he railed at me. He’d known, too.
When I’d told my parents, on my next monthly visit to Boston, my dad had nodded and looked at the floor and said he was sorry, before returning to his paperwork. My mom had folded me into a level two hug, the one where she uses her forearms
her shoulders, and there’s a little rub on the back (although no actual body contact). Everyone agreed that it was good that it had ended so amicably. The phrase
at least it ended amicably
seemed to be all I said for the entire weekend. There were no tears and there was no shouting, which was pretty much the way of things the whole time I was with Roger.
The weird thing was…it almost felt like that’s what had been missing. Like things never went deep enough with Roger to trigger any tears, or any shouting, or anything
It had been six months since the break up and Giorgio had been the nearest thing I’d had to a man in my life since then. Less than thirty seconds of chit-chat over the traffic noise and hissing espresso machine and a few lingering images that stay with me the rest of the day. My little commute fantasy, as safe and contained and isolated from the rest of my life as my lunchtime salad in its Tupperware box.
Eight minutes after I left my apartment, I was at the subway station. Two minutes later, I was reading on my Kindle and ignoring the guy across from me whose eyes were trying to crawl up my skirt. Eight thirty-four and I was climbing the stairs at Fenbrook, past the actors and the musicians to the third floor. Eight forty and I was changed and warming up at the barre.
It was forty minutes of life that repeated every day, and would continue to repeat every day for the next two academic years. It was neat and efficient and perfect. So why did it feel like it was slowly suffocating me? Like no matter how many layers of nice clothes and careful make-up and painstaking daily practice I built up, there was still something missing inside?
Miss Kay, our venerable ballet tutor, arrived five minutes after I did and cast her glare over the assembled dancers…and the spaces at the barre that indicated missing students. I bit my lip, because Nat was one of them.
She burst in at ten to nine, five minutes after we were supposed to be there. Late enough to earn her a glower from Miss Kay, but not quite late enough to trigger one of her legendary rants. My relief was tempered by the knowledge of where Nat had been.
Nat had a problem.
About a year earlier, Nat had been balancing on a chair to put the waffle maker back on top of the kitchen cupboard when she’d slipped and wound up on the floor. I’d run in just in time to see her sprawled with her skirt up around her hips and red scars across her inner thigh.
She’d only just broken up with someone, so my first thought was that the bastard had been abusing her. The truth, when it came out, was much, much worse. She’d been cutting herself—her way of dealing with some trauma in her past, one so bad it still gave her nightmares. She wouldn’t tell me what it was—whenever I tried to talk to her about it, she’d clam up and shake her head, eyes on the floor.
For about a month, I was a wreck. I was convinced she was going to kill herself—I actually went as far as “accidentally” breaking the lock on the bathroom door, because I was paranoid about her slitting her wrists in the tub, and burst in on her naked more than once when she’d been quiet for a long time. Not trusting her didn’t exactly do wonders for our relationship, and I started to wonder if we were going to be able to keep living together.
Eventually, after reading up on self harm, I slowly came to accept that she wasn’t looking to die. She still cut, and she knew that I knew but, by silently agreeing not to discuss it, we managed to repair our friendship. We even became closer, in a way, because of our shared secret. But I still hated the fact that I hadn’t been able to help her—I felt like the worst friend in the world.
Nat put a tennis ball between her ankles and started doing rises at the barre. I moved in next to her and looked at her in the mirrored wall. “Nervous?” I asked. She had an audition that afternoon and I wondered if that was why she’d been cutting. And she’d definitely been cutting—I was close enough now to see the tiny, almost undetectable bulge under the fabric of her tights, right at the top of her thigh, that meant a fresh dressing.