Friday, July 13, 2018

Dancing for Buddha by Bethany Jackson

Ballet dancer Faith endures the crushes and disappointments of adolescence as she grasps for her true self; by Bethany Jackson.

Before Val came, Faith was certain of one thing concerning her time at the dance studio: Where you sat determined your social status.

She'd stepped through the front door for her first day of ballet at age eleven, starting behind in skill from the other girls, who'd been dancing since they could walk. Faith knew that choosing to sit near the back corner booths, where her peers gossiped and flailed about, would garner unwanted side-eyes and giggles into palms. They would sense she didn't belong immediately. On the other hand, the booths closest to the entrance contained haggard mothers with sensible haircuts wrangling three-year-olds into tights. Not ideal either.

So Faith belonged to the basement staircase, hidden behind a curtain in the second practice room deep into the building. After her mother dropped her off, Faith walked through the front doors and into the vestibule, where a giant laughing Buddha statue, a leftover relic from a time when this building was a Chinese restaurant, seemed to gaze down at her, amused. The feeling of being watched always made her sweep a little faster past the receptionist's desk, where a retiree named Gladys handed out suckers and yelled at the older girls to keep it down. Faith never acknowledged Gladys, but instead dashed across the performance space facing the booths - a small stage of glistening hardwood that had once propped up buffet tables - through the middle practice room where Miss Beverly herded the little kid class through warm-up games, and into the far practice room and her sanctuary on the third-from top step, her step, out of view of the classes taking place. She did homework, read, or simply daydreamed until Miss Beverly announced that it was time for Ballet II. Having a head start from the rest of the girls in the lobby, Faith simply appeared at the back of the room each class, unnoticed by students or teacher.

But all of this was before Val came.

Faith spent three years sitting on that step. Her mother had suggested dance classes as a last resort, Faith having flopped silently into the front seat after school too often, saying nothing, just letting out a dejected sigh. Maybe she could make friends outside of school or learn some grace. After shopping around, Faith's mom realized that the majority of dance schools in the area - with flowery words like "Academy" and "Company" - were out of their price range. Miss Beverly's didn't promise professional dancers, but it was affordable. Every semester Faith said to herself, "I'll tell mom I want to quit after Parents' Night." And every Parents' Night, Faith looked into the audience and saw the pride on her mom's face, the joy at the two nights a year she could brag to other parents that her only child was a part of something, was showcasing her "talent." So Faith begrudgingly went to Miss Beverly's Dance School every Tuesday evening.

And then Val came.

It was Faith's first day of Ballet III. She was 14 by this time, and no more ready to mingle with her peers than she previously had been. Scurrying past the mocking Buddha, Faith was stopped momentarily on her journey to the basement by the boy at the receptionist's desk, who greeted her with a congenial smile and a wave. His name was Judson. Faith recognized him as Rolf in the local community college's recent production of The Sound of Music. Faith was so surprised at her immediate attraction to him that she almost turned heel to bury her face in the crook of the Buddha's large gilded arms. Instead, she rushed past the desk, allowing herself one last glance at Judson as she pattered across the performance space. In her hurry, she found herself smacking into the chest of another girl, THUD! The girl didn't fall, to Faith's surprise, but only floated sideways a little, grabbing onto Faith's shoulders for support. Shaking it off and bringing herself once again to her full height, the girl first displayed surprise, then humor.

"Oh my God, I almost smashed your little body to pieces!"

Faith felt dainty arms encircling her in a hug. Looking up through the curly dark hair that suddenly obstructed her vision, Faith could just make out two other students staring in wonderment. And why wouldn't they? Faith had never said anything more than "Hi" to her fellow dancers, and now found herself in the prolonged embrace of one that had every outward appearance of popularity.

"Val, are you coming?" The spell was broken by a nasally voice made moist by braces.

"Give me a second, darling." Val turned and smiled, seemingly unaffected by the previous tone. Patting Faith on the shoulder now, Val giggled, "Sorry, I'm new, but I promise I'm a little more coordinated than this. Are you in Ballet Three?"

"Yeah, just this year," Faith managed to squeak.

"We'll have to rely on each other to keep up then, won't we?"

In the moment between Val stepping backwards to wink and then running to join her friends (who, by this time, were playing rap music on the loud speakers in the now-empty practice room), Faith was able to imprint a mental picture of Val onto her memory: one ear containing a sparkling chandelier monstrosity, the other adorned with a simple silver stud; a black leotard similar to the kind worn by all the other girls, but with a hot pink "X" of fabric hand-sewn onto the chest; moth-eaten purple leg warmers; a pixie-cut of curly black hair held together by a single barrette. Faith came back to this image more times than she'd care to admit. In her mind, it represented the ideal of total abandonment, of living freely, not caring what classmates or mothers or grownups thought.

Once Val had disappeared behind the curtain separating the middle practice room from the rest of the lobby, Faith realized that she was standing alone in the middle of the performance space with more than a few eyes pointed in her direction. It was the same old problem, where to go? In a stroke of happy chance, she locked eyes with Judson, who motioned to the dingy metal chair next to his desk. Relieved, Faith dashed to the invitation.

"You look shaken, I take it you've never been graced by the presence of Valerie Hart?"

"Was that her?" Faith knew how dumb she sounded, but her first instinct had been to ask Judson how it felt to dance on a real stage, so she figured this question was preferable.

"Who else? You probably aren't even in high school yet, are you?"

Faith felt more than a little insulted, "I'm old enough to know that Miss Beverly is about to come in from her cigarette and scream at those girls."

Judson had a reply ready, but his attention was diverted when he noticed the previously mentioned teacher enter to his right.

"Afternoon, ma'am." He crooned, but the tall figure with the long, stone face marched past Judson and across the performance space, flinging the curtain aside.

"Ladies, this will be your only warning for the semester," her voice icily steady, "I trust I won't need to explain my distaste for this vulgar, misogynistic music."

Miss Beverly turned heel, apparently assuming that would be the end of it. She was walking back toward her office past the booths when Faith heard a familiar voice call out, "I think you might need to explain it for us, we're not that bright."

The entire lobby sat motionless for a few stretched seconds, waiting for the music to reappear or for the teacher to turn back around and kick the girls out of her practice room. Neither happened. With a silent acknowledgment of defeat, Miss Beverly changed direction toward someone guaranteed to cower before her stature.

"Judson," Miss Beverly's staccato tone startled both occupants at the reception desk, "I trust you'll be able to keep the peace around here next time I step out for a cig-- to take a phone call."

"Yes ma'am," Judson replied.

"Well little Miss Faith," the teacher seemed genuinely surprised to see her, "it's nice that you've climbed out of your rabbit hole to join us."

Faith could feel the heat coming from her face, weighing down the "Thank you" she was able to force from her tongue.

Miss Beverly spun without another word, heading towards her office and slamming the door. That's when Judson finally felt comfortable enough to quip, "See? Even those immune to Val's charm still can't bring themselves to action."

Faith wasn't sure what to say, so she just giggled lightly like she'd seen other girls do around cute boys, trying to ignore how aggressively her hands were fidgeting. What to say next? Thankfully, before the silence became too pronounced, a now-composed Miss Beverly emerged from her office and announced the beginning of Ballet III. Faith stood, wondering if Judson's kindness only extended to today. Turning back as she walked away, Faith look at Judson, who gave her a quick wink, sending a flurry of butterflies to her stomach as she skipped to the practice room.

Faith's usual spot for warm-ups was at the very back of the left-hand barre, which ran perpendicular to the mirror. Here she could watch everyone else, their moves and their habits. However once Faith entered the room, Val excitedly demanded that her "new friend" stand right behind her at the front of the room, directly opposite the mirror. Overwhelmed for the first few positions, Faith couldn't shake the feeling that everyone behind was watching and judging her. She realized quickly, though, that the remedy was watching Val. She was transfixed by the teenage ballerina, a smile gracing her face even during tedious warm-ups, her feet seeming to float a few inches above the ground as Miss Beverly droned, "Second position, ladies... 6, 7, 8... third position." Whatever the direction, Val predicted it a split second before the teacher's announcement, drifting from one movement to the next as though suspended in space.

And so began what felt to Faith like a markedly brighter chapter in her time at the dance studio. The metal chair next to the reception desk was now her territory. She even had her mom drop her off thirty minutes early before each class to provided sufficient time to talk to Judson about musicals and upcoming local auditions (though Faith never found the courage to actually attend one). Judson even allowed her to borrow from his collection of bootlegged show DVDs. Faith would skip into the building after each viewing and spend sublime minutes discussing David Hasselhoff's horrible singing voice in Jekyll and Hyde or Heather Headley's sheer perfection in Aida.

Of course, conversation ceased the minute Val entered. This ritual of basking in the aura of the goddess was so familiar to Faith that she practiced its movements some nights in the moments before sleep: Val strode in, patting the Buddha statue on his protruding belly before opening the doors separating the vestibule from the main lobby, the bells on the handle announcing her arrival. She first stopped by the front desk, sprinkling compliments like fairy dust.

"Faith, girl, I'm digging the new haircut."

"Jud, are you trying out colored contacts? Your blue eyes are striking today!"

From here, Val would flit about the lobby, playing the part of a busy hostess-socialite, ensuring every occupant was entertained. Sometimes she'd dart around with a paper ball, hopping over backpacks and pretending at soccer. Other times she'd shout song lyrics, leading even the moms in impromptu karaoke. One afternoon, she pinned down Tiffany Evans and began an interpretive dance on top of her, Tiffany laughing so hard she curled up and began coughing. Even on days when Val simply studied, Faith watched her. Pacing around with a book balanced on her forearms, she made social calls to each booth where the other girls slumped over their books like sad turtles.

Inspired after each dance class, Faith usually spent Wednesday mornings hurriedly trying to put together a Val-like ensemble before school. Walking into school with asymmetrical earrings or multi-patterned layering, the assuredness Faith felt immediately dissipated once someone shouted, "Where's your other earring, Faith?" in the bustling hallways. Her classmates just didn't get it.

It was a blustery November Tuesday when Faith entered the dance studio expecting a wonderful evening, going so far as to smile back up at the Buddha statue as she walked through the front door. A moment later, the smile was ripped from her face. Through the glass of the vestibule door, Faith could see Val sitting in the metal chair - her chair - putting on her ballet shoes and wearing Jud's letterman jacket. Slowly she opened the door, the bells hanging against the frame, silent. Unsure of where to go once in the lobby, Faith stood lamely in front of the desk, listening.

"...take the Amtrak up to New York all the time," Val was explaining.

"You're kidding me!" Judson's eyes had fireworks going off behind them.

"Yeah, I go to whatever auditions I can squeeze in over the weekend and sometimes during school break. My mom spazzes about it, but she can't really say no if it pays." Val sounded as though she was describing a day at school.

"So you've been booked?"

"On a few shoots, mostly catalogue stuff, but I've been looking at ballet schools in the area."

"That's wild. I've always wanted to go to New York. You know, if you ever want some company -"

"Hi Jud!" Faith couldn't take it anymore.

"Oh, hey little one," Jud replied, strained, using the ridiculous nickname Faith hadn't yet found the courage to tell him she hated.

Val surveyed the situation, looking Faith up and down before removing the jacket from around her shoulders and flopping it onto the desk.

"I won't keep you now that your girlfriend's here."

With that, she sauntered off in the direction of the practice room. Noticing this, a few girls in booths followed after her, wanting to be in on the action that was about to drop.

"Why would she think you're my girlfriend? That's disgusting," Jud wasn't looking at Faith, but rather intently at the curtain, which now hid the goddess from view.

"She was probably just joking," answered Faith, more than a little hurt at the denial.

"I was so close too!" Jud exclaimed dejectedly, coming back around to face Faith, "She was talking up New York, I thought I had a chance to join sometime, maybe lead up to asking her to Winter Formal."

Faith had a hard time holding in her giggle, "You want to date Val?"

"What's the problem?" Jud asked, obviously upset.

Faith wasn't sure how to respond. Rumors about Jud had been circulating around the studio from the beginning, even in spite of his obvious infatuation with Val. Why else would an 18-year-old boy work at a dance school? His probable sexual orientation was old news by now, but the idea of broaching the topic with Jud himself made Faith uncomfortable.

Before Faith could respond, a vibrating bass came rattling from the practice room. After the startled jumps of nearly everyone in the lobby punctuated the change in atmosphere, the moms darted their gazes toward Judson, wondering what he'd do. He simply looked down at his desk, pretending not to hear.

"Are you going to do anything about that?" Faith asked after a minute of inaction.

"They're not hurting anyone," Jud answered defensively.

"They're hurting my ears," one of the moms rudely interjected.

"You might be scared to yell at those girls, but I'm not," another chimed in.

Jud didn't retort, but finally stood up from the desk and walked toward the practice room, with Faith feeling the need to pad behind. The old pickup window, still stained with vegetable oil, seemed perfect for the confrontation. Poking his head through, Jud mimicked a tone most often used by preschool teachers.

"Um, ladies, could you turn the music off please?"

Val spun from the middle of the floor, where she'd been the center of delighted squeals, and gave Jud a look that said, "Are you kidding me?" That was almost the end of it, as Val made to turn back towards her adoring fans. But then she noticed Faith peering over his shoulder.

"And what'll happen if we don't? You'll have 'little one' run and snitch?"

With blood rushing to her face, Faith couldn't decide if she wanted to cry or scream or run away. These simultaneous urges intensified when Jud said spat, "Why couldn't you just stay there?" and sulked back to his desk. Thankfully, one of the moms had already alerted Miss Beverly, who whipped into the room, chastised the girls, and announced that Ballet III was beginning.

The back of the room had never appeared so welcoming. Fantasizing a dozen scenarios of retreat, Faith resolved that she'd give the minimal amount of effort and rush out to the safety of her mother's SUV the moment class was over. This train of thought was interrupted, however, when Val grabbed the hand of another girl and scurried to the back, squeezing into the spot directly in front of Faith and pulling Tiffany with her.

"Miss Faith, are you in la-la land? Third position, please!"

Faith did as she was told, not wanting to draw more attention to herself. The shock of Val's action did not wear off, however, as she saw Tiffany turn her head back to look at Val.

"I saw you talking to Jud out there," Tiffany's volume told Faith that she thought she was whispering, "I think he has a little crush."

"He has a little something, that's for sure." In the mirror, Faith could see a smug grin spread across Val's face, "It wouldn't be so sad if he'd just hurry up and realize it about himself."

Tiffany let out a nasal giggle loud enough for Miss Beverly to snap her fingers in their direction, the typical warning for excessive socializing. Val usually received three or four per class.

Undeterred, Tiffany once again leaned back after a few moments and half-whispered, "Did Josh end up coming over last night?"

"Yes," Val replied coyly.

"And...?" Tiffany asked impatiently.

"We... watched a movie!"

The girls broke out into a fit of giggles. Faith had never seen Val laugh so hard, doubled over at the waist and holding her sides. The whole thing seemed very staged.

"Alright, that's it!" Miss Beverly shouted, "Tiffany and Val, you can leave."

Val stared the teacher down for as long as people paid attention, even though Tiffany had already fled from the room. When it became obvious that the other students were studying the ceiling or had suddenly found pieces of fuzz on their tights, she ungracefully muttered, "Fine," before turning around for a moment to give Faith a sarcastic smile and stride backwards from the room, not removing her eyes from the awkward figure in the back until the curtain closed.

Faith spent the rest of the class period in her head, absently imitating the moves Miss Beverly had devised for Parent's Night. This part of rehearsal was usually spent watching Val. The way her back arched in an elegant curve, the serene smile she donned, the way her fingers remained steady but soft; Faith had previously convinced herself that soaking in Val's aura would eventually rub off and maybe transfer some confidence and grace to herself. But now it all seemed so pointless. Faith felt as though she were eight years old again, discovering that Santa Claus wasn't real and therefore questioning every bit of magic she'd previously believed to exist.

When the music stopped and Miss Beverly announced that class was over, Faith flew to the door, eager to put the evening behind her. What Faith saw at the front jerked her forward motion to a stop. There at the reception desk, Jud and Val were putting on their coats, seemingly engaged in a playful, flirty conversation. Faith couldn't hear, but watched as Jud pulled his car keys from his pocket and opened the door for Val, placing his free hand on her shoulder blades to guide her out. He was driving her home.

As Faith stood rooted to the wood-paneled floor, her heart magnetically pulled in the direction of the door, urging her to run and stop Jud, to pull him aside quickly and reveal what she'd heard. Picturing the scene as though remembering the shots of a movie, she saw Jud's face fall from hope to anguish as Val stood by, looking indifferently away while the yellow light of a streetlamp betrayed the faintest hint of guilt around the corners of her mouth. It didn't happen, of course. With the other girls whirling around her, throwing their shoes into bags and calling parents for rides, Faith glided over to the large window behind the reception desk and watched Val sink into Jud's car.

Surviving the next week of increased rehearsals for parents' night was achieved by operating on autopilot. Faith didn't acknowledge Jud at all. Instead, she averted her eyes from both him and the laughing Buddha when she walked through the front door, not wanting to disappoint either. Silently, she rushed to her old cove in the basement staircase. Once there, she simply sat and listened intently for Judson's shrieking over the din of chattering girls to announce the run-through of Ballet III's number. After watching from the pickup window to make sure everyone else was present, Faith made her way to the performance space, cloaking herself from sight simply with the students' preoccupation with talking. Faith never understood why they all liked to talk so much anyway.

From her spot behind the bolder, more experienced girls of the class, Faith noticed Jud's inability to watch any other dancer but Val as they rehearsed. The first few days after Jud had driven her home, Val had been a fixture in Faith's old chair, laughing animatedly each time Faith passed. Val began ignoring both Faith and Jud shortly after, but even Faith had to check herself every time she flubbed a move, as her instinct was to look to Val to steady herself. And though Judson tried to hide his fixation every now and then with rattled glances to his clipboard, his attention always returned to Val, and Faith's attention always returned to his watching Val.

Jud had to know whom she was going to Formal with by now. The topic of conversation among the high school girls during rehearsal had focused solely on dresses and hair appointments with increasing fervor. Concern over Jud's determined crush clouded Faith's thoughts on Parents' Night as she sat behind the curtain, the thin fabric separating her world from that of the other girls, who were using the rehearsal space as a dressing room. The difference between dark stillness and bright chaos was only a few inches, but Faith felt she was listening to the conversations happening on the other side through a vacuum in space, separating two vastly different universes.

The voices came in spurts, a million teasers to a million stories:

"I told her to sit her ass down and get out of my face..."

"...freaked out over nothing. I mean I paid for it with my own money..."

"...has rhinestones going down the chest in a V-shape. Josh and I are going to look so fly at Winter Formal."

Faith picked up Val's intonation and cadence immediately with this last phrase. It moved her to comb through the other voices, hoping for more. Out of a strange combination of shock and anger, Faith willed herself to listen, trying to pick out Val's speech like antennae catching a signal.

"...can't help it if someone's feelings were hurt. I'm not going to say 'yes' to everyone who asks me."

She was not only brushing off getting a nice boy's hopes up for no reason at all, Valerie Hart, model of all things transcendental, was also speaking excitedly about something as boring and clich├ęd as a school dance. Faith couldn't decide which upset her more.

Not allowing for time to think or weigh options, Faith stood up, swept the curtain out of the way, and marched across the room. She would later remember categorically ignoring the startled whispers that darted from one end of the room to another as she set out on her mission. In reality, she was hyper-aware of all of them as the comments zipped past her like arrows. Faith, however shaken, still kept her eyes on the opposite door, on her purpose.

She found Jud by the pickup window in the next room, staring at the Ballet I number, but not really watching it. The room was dark except for the light coming through the window, illuminating his face. Faith rushed up to Jud, startling him, and whispered a quick string of words before she lost the courage.

"Val's talking to some guy named Josh. I don't know if you know, and I don't know how long it's been happening, but she was talking about watching a movie with him the night you gave her a ride home, but I don't think they really watched a movie, and they're going to Winter Formal together, and I'm sorry for not telling you, but you were already out the door with her, and -"

"Hey, hey little one, breathe!" Jud's hands were gripping Faith's shoulders.

"Don't call me that!" Faith exclaimed louder than she meant to. Miss Beverly looked around the corner and through the pickup window to give them a stern look and hold up a finger. No longer armed with a mission, Faith looked down at the floor, wondering if this would be a good time to run away. Using his fingertips to pull her chin up, Jud's gaze captured hers and would not let go.

"You're a good friend, Faith."

Her lips curled into a smile as she felt the burden of her second-hand secret melt away. The joy at finally being recognized as a peer rather than a little girl rose and then crumbled when Faith noticed tinges of sadness creeping back into Jud's eyes.

"I'm really sorry," Faith repeated, unsure of what else she could say at the moment.

"This is silly, I already kind of knew anyway, and I actually got some good news today," Jud was smirking forcefully, his eyes still blank.

"What is it?" Faith asked eagerly, relieved for any tidbit that might improve the boy's mood.

"Well, Beverly wants to start offering ballroom dance classes next fall and asked me to teach them. The studio is paying for me to go to a six-week intensive in New York, and I'll have a teaching certification once it's over. I didn't know what to do after high school anyway, so -"

Jud was cut off by Faith's excited squeals and hugs. Maybe it was an overreaction, but she felt the need to latch onto this good thing and squeeze all of the bliss out of it like juice from an orange.

"This is so exciting," Faith whispered, trying to avoid another run-in with Miss Beverly, "and the best part is that now you don't even have to ride the Amtrak with Val to see New York!"

Jud's face fell momentarily before he broke into a condescending giggle, "Oh Faith, honey, do you still really believe all that stuff she said about New York?"

A few blinks restored Faith's mental processes as she realized that of course it had all been made up. A moment of understanding passed in the darkness between Jud and Faith, a moment they wouldn't put words to until some years later, when rumors would be validated with affirmation and acceptance. This moment was interrupted by the murmurs from the door, which spilled into the middle room as Ballet III lined up for their performance.

"My God, get a room, you two," the poison in Val's voice corroded its usual musical quality.

Calmly, Faith strode over to her place in line and whispered back to Val, as though it was an afterthought, "Have fun at Winter Formal, shame that you'll miss your weekly trip to New York for a stupid high school dance."

"Please welcome Ballet Three, as they dance their selection of the Waltz from Coppelia!" Miss Beverly's voice was muffled by the curtain hiding the audience, then light applause began its crescendo as Jud pulled the curtain back, giving Faith a high five as she rushed out to the floor, found her spot, and began to dance. She hadn't looked back for Val's reaction, and in fact wasn't looking at Val at all. Faith knew the steps, and knew that she knew the steps. More importantly, she wasn't dancing for Val anymore, or for her mother who sat with the same smile on her face that she'd donned in years past. Bringing her imperfect arms up over her head in an almost-perfect curve, Faith danced for the Buddha statue, unseen but grinning on the other side of the wall, for Jud who watched beaming from the window, and for herself, as Faith finally emerged from the constrictions of her body, shredding it like an old skin, and realizing that what was underneath had been plenty the entire time.

2 comments:

  1. Lovely coming-of-age story, sympathetically delivered, many thanks, Ceinwen

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  2. The confusion, the indecision, the angst...very realistically described. And we all remember bitchy girls like Val. I was proud of Faith finding her strength.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Stacey

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