The Spurning Point
Several times a year Felicia took her daughters downtown to the Cathedral of All the Stores. One excursion was to do Christmas shopping; another was for Ozzie’s birthday and Father’s Day, which always fell close together and so had to be doubly fussed over. Goofus they could fob off with Montgomery Ward or the Sharp Avenue Toy & Hobby Shop; but for serious womenfolk’s needs, only the Cathedral would do.
Tricia and Vicki’s most critical needs came at the start of Back-to-School season. Tricia made significant acquisitions by herself, or accompanied by Cynthia and other friends, yet she wouldn’t skip out on these early-August pilgrimages with her mother and sister. Every year they’d prime themselves with an ice cream sundae at the Cathedral’s Crystal Palace. Every year the girls would persuade Felicia to buy something frivolous for her own wardrobe, she saying “Well just this once” as per usual. And each year Tricia would look more beautifully grownup as she modeled autumnwear, graduating from children’s to juniors and now misses.
This year Tricia wasn’t the only one on the upward move, as she demonstrated by taking Vicki and a selection of 28AAAs into the fitting room. Vicki expected to be scarred for life by her mother shouting, “No, she doesn’t need a bra yet! Not my little baby girl, Victoria Lorraine Volester of 1710 West Walrock Avenue, Apartment 3W!!”
But Felicia heaved a wistful sigh and took a pensive poke at the selection.
“Even a black one?...”
“Trust me,” said Tricia. “She’s ready.”
And that was that. No need to plead or coax; no Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret embarrassment. Just another great wave of big-sister adoration for Vicki to ride, plus a ripple of gratitude toward a momentarily discreet mother.
In mid-August came the family trip to Canada. Volester vacations were always scheduled after Back-to-School shopping, and funded (Ozzie liked to kid) by “whatever’s left in the bank.” This year, however, money was less of an object. Honda’d brought out a new model called the Civic whose top-notch fuel efficiency was going to make them all rich. Gasoline had gotten so expensive that this Canadian trip was likely to be their last in the Eldorado, which (according to Ozzie) could only manage twelve inches per gallon.
Tricia posed no objection to bidding the old boat farewell. She now had her eye on something sporty, like a Porsche or Corvette Stingray, and was ready to accept the keys to either at her semi-sweet fifteenth birthday dinner in Beansville. No such luck; yet she acted sufficiently pleased by her actual presents. These included a pair of fancy-dangly earrings (for which Vicki’d spent several future allowances) that Tricia not only said she liked but even wore in public.
The good times kept on rolling, into Ontario and up through Quebec. Tricia flirted in French with teenage garçons in Montreal. Goofus made a determined effort to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (whose exercises he admired) and was officially turned down for being an American citizen—not because he was seven years old. And on Prince Edward Island, Vicki got initiated into the wonderful world of legshaving.
“Just think! I’m doing this in the very same place Anne of Green Gables did hers for the first time!”
“I doubt she ever shaved her legs,” said Tricia. “Back in those days, y’know, they wore long skirts and bloomers and so on.”
Vicki felt a pang on Anne’s behalf. Imagine going through life with hairy skinny orphan-legs.
That night she had a dream where Gilbert Blythe yanked her own fine dark leg-fuzz into thick red carrots. Vicki was searching for a slate to break when Tricia shook her awake.
“You are writhing all over this bed!”
“He was a mean, hateful boy!” Vicki lamented. “How dare he?”
“Oh for Chrissake,” went Tricia.
From that point on, the trip home went steadily downhill. Tricia’s good mood evaporated; Daddy griped nonstop about the price, availability, and Caddy-demand for gas; Mom donned her wit’s-end expression; Goofus behaved like Goofus.
And Vicki felt increasingly constricted, even on the Caddy’s wide back seat. Even though she did daily stretches to keep limbered up; even joining Goof in his Royal Air Force morning workouts. It wasn’t that her new bras were too tight, or her Lady Shick’d legs were too chafed—yet the claustrophobic sensations continued.
As did Vicki’s fidgeting.
Which did nothing to improve Tricia’s spirits.
“Take a couple more aspirin,” Felicia told them both in her wit’s-end voice.
Aspirin didn’t help.
Nor did arriving back on Walrock to find the Cypress corner grocery had gone out of business in their absence, and was already festooned with graffiti. It hadn’t been forced out by Hardesty’s Supermarket, said Mr. Tamworth; sales were down there too, since people were having to spend so much on fuel.
“Don’t look at me,” said Ozzie. “I gotta find someone who’ll buy a guzzling Eldorado. Think the Coast Guard could use it to sop up oil spills?”
On Labor Day Vicki tried on innumerable combinations of Back-to-School garments, seeking the perfect outfit for her sixth grade debut. Jerry Lewis’s telethon played on the old black-and-white Philco (consigned to the girls’s bedroom after being replaced by the big color Magnavox) and Buddy Hackett ogled Vicki as she stripped back down to her undies.
Start all over again. Smocks were popular this fall. Smocks as dresses and jumpers and tops to be worn over pants or jeans—or body suits, also in vogue: Vicki had a zip-front one and a pucker-knit one and a turtleneck one that’d be too warm for a City classroom in this weather.
Whatever else she wore tomorrow, Vicki knew what would be on her feet: these red patent-vinyl platform shoes with ultrachunky heels. “Step into the stratosphere!” the ad had said, and Vicki’d gone up-up-and-away when she tried them on at the Cathedral. Rising from 4'8" to practically 4'11"—let any Blue Meanie try to look down on her now!
She slipped the lightest-weight smock dress over her head, smoothed it into place, and sat to tug on the platforms. Which for some reason started to pinch her toes. As they hadn’t done at the Cathedral a mere month ago.
Vicki wrestled her feet out of the shoes and reached for an old pair of Hanes. Nice sleek nylon would help—except that here too her toes were getting squished. And not just her toes. These pantyhose must’ve shrunk somehow; why else couldn’t she fit her rear comfortably inside them?...
(Rasping laughter from Jerry Lewis.)
“Hey Mom?” Vicki quavered through the bedroom door. “Couldja come here a moment? Now, please??”
“What’s the matter?”
Felicia came and looked and creased her brow, and went to fetch the tape measure. Which confirmed that Vicki’s hips—not quite 30" pre-pilgrimage—were spanning closer to 32. And no, her feet weren’t swollen by the Labor Day heat; they simply needed a larger-size shoe.
“But I never got to wear these, and they’re my favorite!” wailed Vicki.
“Brownie, you’re just growing up is all.”
Vicki gasped and grabbed new highrise flares (in a memorable plaid of forest green, rusty orange, and butterscotch). She was able to haul these on and close them at the waist, only to see the mirror display a gaudy tartan half-globe jutting past (way past) her smock-skirt.
“Darling, it’s nothing but a perfectly normal growth spurt—”
“MOM! Eww eww ewwww!... I can’t go to school looking like this! I’ll hafta wear baggy old clothes—I’ll be the only girl wearing old clothes on the first day! I’m gonna look like a frump! With a humongous fat rump!”
“Take off the pants,” her mother said briskly, “and let me see you in just the dress... now then! You look fine and pretty.”
Vicki dismally checked both profiles and over each shoulder. “Still got a big behind...”
“Well,” Felicia murmured, “some boys like that...”
“Mommmmmmm!... And what’ll I do about shoes? I can’t wear sandals to school.”
“Maybe you can fit into Tricia’s now. Or Hayley might have a pair you can wear.”
(Oh great. She and Hayl could be Bigfoot Berthas together.)
“Give me everything we need to exchange,” Felicia continued. “See why it’s best to save every receipt? And before you know it, we’ll have you all squared away again.”
“Squared away” wasn’t the appearance Vicki’d been aiming at. Still, it definitely beat having a basketball-sized bottom. Glance down at your unchanged bustline: oh no, you couldn’t start growing up where it meant something. Probably be stuck at 28AAA forever.
“Red platforms,” she told her mother. “Please? I really, really, really want these in red. Will you remember that?”
“I think I can,” Felicia said drily. “And I’m sure they will have red ones a size larger in stock.”
But, of course, they didn’t; so Vicki had to settle for black.
There was graffiti on the walls of Reulbach too that September. Mr. Coakley had retired, and his successor custodians invested less in caring for the building. Enrollment was down this year so some classes got combined, packing the rooms and reducing the wherewithal per student.
“All the more reason for us to excel,” Mr. Brown told his sixth-graders.
Like his boy-detective namesake, “Encyclopedia” Brown was a mastermind who could memorize entire libraries. Unfortunately he expected you to do all the mystery-solving, a whole chapter’s worth every day in every subject.
“You will turn in reports that are complete—not incomplete; legible—not illegible; and when they are due—not overdue. I have made myself clear.”
“Clear as mud,” grumbled Brenda Pomerantz.
Mr. Brown resembled a computer programmer, with a weighty forehead rampant on a prematurely balding cranium. He laid a lot of stress on “brainstorming,” which meant filling out index cards with notes that you then rewrote into a paper report. (Complete, legible, and turned in on time.)
The sixth grade had to brainstorm through a solemn-frills election for Student Council Representative. Here Melissa Chiese revealed her political aptitude for the first time: she bought off rival Keith Vespa with a carton of Bub’s Daddy bubble gum, which came in foot-long ropes of flavors like sour apple and watermelon.
“Wha’?” went ex-candidate Keith through an immense mouthful. “I like gum! Hey check this out—” as he blew a bubble that almost reached basketball-size before it kablooey’d.
Brenda’s campaign as the Peach nominee did likewise, after she lost her temper when goaded by Melissa during their solemn-frills debate. The only other candidate, Brainwashed Larry Hersenspoel, was ruled ineligible by Mr. Brown for thinking Watergate had been caused by stopped-up storm drains; so Melissa won in a landslide.
“The sixth grade has spoken,” she declared, “and I will be its Voice.”
“Hooray for laryngitis,” whispered Kris Rawberry.
Melissa swiftly formed a coalition with two other Representatives: hardnosed seventh-grader Roxanne Dowell, whom even adults found formidable, and Mitzi Freund, who’d been born a week too late to make the sixth-grade cutoff and consequently tyrannized the fifth. Together their triumvirate pretty much ran the Student Council, disregarding its eighth-grade officers.
“We” (Melissa announced, meaning the triumvirate) “are raising money for a Halloween dance, and everybody’s expected to contribute.”
Abrupt nod to Eileen Agnew, who scurried around passing out lists of stuff for sale: candy corn, popcorn balls, saltwater taffy, and Bub’s Daddy bubble gum.
“We must all of us strive to make Reulbach a better place,” Melissa intoned, “to show our school spirit and good citizenship. And that means placing your orders early and often, so we’ll have the funds for a superfun Halloween dance!”
“Strive,” snortled Brenda.
“Superfun,” snortled Kris.
“I have made myself clear,” proclaimed Representative Chiese, with a smugly mischievous glance toward Mr. Brown.
Gahd! (thought Vicki as she boarded a big green westbound bus)—what could be stew-pider than sixth-graders at a school dance? Girls would loiter on one side of the gym; boys would hang opposite, grossing each other out; only teenage-types would do any dancing. If you could dignify their jigging gyrations with such a term.
Vicki was on her way to do some real dancing. As she did every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning, at the Olivia Fischel Academy of the Ballet. Level Five this fall, with an extended Saturday session to prep for pointe work. Strengthen those feet and ankles! Build up that flexibility and form! In six months she’d be evaluated and then (if wishes came true) receive her first pair of genuine satin toe shoes. Level Six would follow, dancing en pointe four times a week; and at age thirteen she could audition for the professional Norroway Company.
Ballerinahood: her dream of dreams.
Olivia Fischel had danced for Ruth Page, been praised as a virtuoso, and knew no fear when dealing with artists, patrons, critics, or stage mothers. “If you are not prepared to accept my guidance and advice,” she’d always say, “there are of course other schools.”
Her Academy was headquartered along with her Company at the Norroway Theater on Toronero Avenue. It was exactly the sort of setting where true dance should take place: elegant, atmospheric, covered with designs called “Art Deco” that Tricia said were all the rage again. Making you believe that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers might waltz out of the wings at any moment.
Vicki was proud to belong here, to be in her third straight year here, the only girl her age from Pfiester Park admitted to the Fischel Academy. Which was as expensive as it was exclusive, so thank goodness for Honda Civics and their valuable fuel efficiency. (Mr. Brown made them follow the Yom Kippur War day by day, and brainstorm the Arab oil embargo.)
She toted her canvas dance bag into the Academy dressing room and plunked down beside her friend Connie Tang, who was vigorously shaking her head.
“Hi Vicki. I hate my damn hair.”
“Oh please,” scoffed Vicki. Connie’s long black coif hung perfectly straight without needing to be ironed, but it did fight back when she tried pinning it up into the requisite bun. “I’ll help you after I change. I hate my damn butt,” Vicki added, wriggling out of plaid flares and into pink tights.
“Oh please,” scoffed Connie. “Would you rather have a butt like mine, all skin and bones? It’s as flat as this bench. What I wouldn’t give for foam-rubber butt-falsies.”
“Do they make those?” asked Vicki, pulling on her black leotard and immediately having to extract its seat from her hindcleavage. “Arrrggh... maybe we can split the difference. Like, I could donate you one cheek.”
“Like the Old Lady in Candide!”
Vicki didn’t understand the analogy but laughed anyhow.
It was so cool having a Chinese friend—though of course Connie Tang was no more Chinese than Vicki was Lithuanian. She’d been born in The City and lived her whole life in Greenfield, the nice neighborhood west of Bohnsetter Avenue. Which was where Melissa Chiese woulda/coulda/shoulda been the Voice of the Sixth Grade, had her mother not picked a cul-de-sac on the wrong side of the street.
Except that Connie Tang woulda/coulda/shoulda been more than a match for Melissa’s stew-pid Voice. Whenever well-meaning strangers spoke very c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y so Connie might comprehend what they were saying, she’d respond in an Irish brogue or Ozark twang or with frantic sign language. The only thing that really ticked her off was being asked if she were related to Connie Chung, the TV reporter on Channel 2.
“Yeah, she’s my daughter-in-law,” Connie Tang would snap.
Vicki got their hair bunnified and the girls headed for the studio. “Oh, I forgot to tell you!” said Connie. “Guess who’s teaching our class today.”
“M.O.?” asked Vicki, meaning Ms. Olivia.
“Nope. Think hairier-chestier.”
“The one and only. Try not to sweat both our cheeks off, chica.”
Around here “J.J.” wasn’t some skinny black kid yelling Dy-no-mite, but the Norroway Company’s principal male dancer: Juodas Jautis. Who’d started out as a prizefighter before studying ballet to improve his boxing technique, and was still as brawny as he was strapping as he was robust. Ferocity showed in every move he made, onstage and off; it stood him in excellent stead last spring when the Company performed La Belle et La Bête. To denote his Beastly state, J.J.’d needed only a fur chapeau that was easily (though brilliantly) discarded when he resumed Princely form.
Now Juodas Jautis was sauntering with a panther’s tread along the line of Level Five students, issuing commands and corrections in a voice like a cattle prod—but whose accent reminded Vicki of Gran, and so was weirdly heartening.
“Focus, ladies! Leave all distrekssons outside! Even if scenery colleppses around you, a True Denncer must appear ree-lexxed! You there—yes you—do you think you are Ettless, holding up the world with your port de bras? REE-lexx! No hunching! Do not confuse Esmeralda with Quasimodo! Becks straight, ladies! Necks long! You there—”
—oh no he’s looking at me he’s talking to me—
“—yes you,” confirmed J.J., with a surly-burly scowl at Vicki’s derrière. “Thett is meant to be sett upon, not to be sticking out! Pull it in, miss!”
—or your rear may not fit inside your pants—
Petrifaction alone kept Vicki from bursting into shaky giggles. Never wince! Never flinch! But do your Level Five best to retract your backside without protruding your tummy. Keep absolutely straight, and positively long, and move so any spectator would believe you were ree-lexxed.
J.J. prowled away to the end of the line, there to pamper Sonya Medved. Vicki (who breathed again) and Connie beside her (who went “Phmph”) were both in loathing awe of little Sonya. Just ten-and-a-half, the minimum age Ms. Olivia allowed to prep for pointe, she was viewed by everyone as a future prima ballerina—the next Gelsey Kirkland—if she didn’t blow it by ignoring guidance and advice. As had Paulette Schoop of melancholy Academy legend, who’d recklessly squandered her talent, scuttled her promise, and ruined her health.
“The last I heard of Paulette Schoop,” M.O. would say darkly, “she suffered from stress fractures—tendinitis—hammertoes—shin splints—and long-term bunions. Take heed, my dears.”
Everyone at the Academy coddled Sonya Medved as though she were a gosling destined to hatch golden eggs. Her height and weight were charted weekly; her tiny feet were inspected to gauge their growth plates and bone development. Nobody at Norroway was allowed to don toe shoes till Olivia Fischel pronounced them ready for that honor—but readiness could be encouraged as well as anticipated.
And Sonya already possessed a soloist’s attitude. She never took notice of other girls in class, except to brandish angelic potential and Goldilocks nerve. Yet Sonya could rise to almost any challenge, as she proved again when J.J. asked her (asked her!) to demonstrate a five-step combination: glissade, pas de bourrée, jeté, temps levé, assemblé.
Done without error or apparent effort, by the Prima Baby Swan.
Then with wobbles and conspicuous exertion, by Vicki Volester.
Juodas Jartis produced and made use of a duck call. “You may walk like a duck, you may quekk like a duck—but in this clesss you will not dennce like one!”
Brenda insisted the Peaches boycott Melissa’s Halloween shindig and Vicki was happy to comply, though this meant she had to take Goofus out trick-or-treating. But that wasn’t so bad: she and Hayley dressed up Junior Hull as Frankenstein’s monster, with Goofus riding his shoulders as Igor and the girls escorting them as two mad scientists. They scored a respectable candy-haul along Walrock Avenue, and Kris did equally well along Hagenbush as the Ghost of the Sixties (in a tie-dyed sheet).
At school the next day, Stephanie Lipperman reported that the only sixth-grader who’d been properly danced with was Nina Gersh. No great surprise, since Nina looked at least fourteen and emphasized it with a cheerleader costume. Keith Vespa, as Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, had blown a Kung Fu-worthy Bub’s Daddy bubble that unfortunately popped onto April Tober’s Fifties-chick bouffant. And Jimmy Maxwell, who’d come as the Devil, stepped on all the girl-feet he could reach (including Melissa’s, heavily) while repeating “I made myself do it!”
“I wouldn’t’ve missed that,” smiled Stephanie, “for all the green-apple gum in the world.”
November was harsh. Classwork at the Fischel Academy intensified till every adagio felt like an allegro. Most grueling were the pre-pointe sessions: to earn your toe shoes you had to be able to hold a passé on each leg for thirty seconds, balance on each foot for a full minute, do at least four piqué turns on both sides, plus a couple dozen relevés in the center without taking a break. All this while arching your insteps like there was no tomorrow. Even on demi-pointe in soft slippers it could be torturous.
“I didn’t even wanna take ballet,” Connie Tang moaned in the dressing room. “But my mom said it was either that or play the cello. And who wants to practice sitting down all the time?”
“Right now I wouldn’t mind so much,” groaned Vicki.
“Well, at least W.W.’s coming up,” said Connie. “That’s always fun.”
The final two weeks of every autumn course were spent rehearsing the Norroway Company’s annual production of Winter Wonderland. All the Academy students were featured in its Toy Shop sequence: Levels One and Two as stuffed animals, Three as rag dolls, Four as wind-up figures (replacing the original tin soldiers—too warmongery) and Five as marionettes, with Level Six as the Toy Shop elves.
Last year Connie and Vicki’d had a ball imitating R&B robots on Soul Train: “Wind us up ‘cause woman’s gotta have it!” Vicki still treasured the rock-‘em-sock-‘em echoes of audience laughter and applause.
This year they were bound to be even better: fantocinni dancing on imaginary strings! And even if infantile Sonya Medved did do it better, that didn’t mean Vicki Volester couldn’t do it almost just as well.
Except that as things turned out, she couldn’t do it at all.
The turnout came on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. W.W. rehearsals were set to begin that Saturday, and of course the Academy would be closed on Thursday; so this was effectively the last class of the fall.
But to Vicki it felt like the first one of the year. Or of her life—all her ballet muscles seemed to have lost their memory simultaneously.
(What the hell?...)
She’d done hundreds of relevés, maybe thousands of them, without wobble or teeter. She knew how to do each and every one: it was a trained instinct by now, second nature, force of habit.
Yet on this Very Bad Tuesday her weight kept shifting as she rose onto her toes, edging over to the pinkies where it had no business being. Quit it! Do the next one right! But her off-kilter body resisted re-centering, got more and more unbalanced and unstable, even as Ms. Olivia strode up and ordered her to slow down, “You’re sickling, you are SICKLING—”
—which was the awfullest word ever uttered so Vicki tried to slam on the brake but stepped on the accelerator by mistake and that made her left ankle go
just like newborn Goofus.
Exploded in her brain...
Compression, with an Ace bandage.
Elevation, higher than your heart.
(Easy to do, given how down your heart was cast.)
I am not a Paulette Schoop.
I listen to instructions. Remember my corrections. Do everything I’m supposed to and nothing that I’m not.
One supinated ankle, rallied round by its friends. Connie phoned from Greenfield, using all her comic dialects. Hayley encouraged the appetiteless ankle-owner at their Thanksgiving dinner (“You gotta eat, or else I can’t have seconds”). Kris and Cynthia came to visit the ankle, and brought their big sisters along. Kate Rawberry and Jennifer Dollfuss were in training for the Lady Giant Killers (Pfiester High School’s new track team) and recommended several exercises to promote range-of-motion recovery.
“The important thing,” said Kate, “is that you don’t limp. Once you start limping, your foot’ll forget how to walk right, much less run. Or dance.”
“The important thing,” said Jennifer, “is not to overdo your ankle till the ligament heals! Otherwise it’s gonna go and get chronic on you!”
“Which is why she doesn’t want to limp,” Kate serenely added.
“I don’t want to limp,” Vicki agreed.
“Well, you won’t limp if you roll the soup can with your foot and flex it with the towel like we showed you!” ranted Jennifer. Whose bluster was mostly just for effect, like bugging her eyeballs out of their sockets for minutes at a time. This not only rattled sporting opponents and grabby-handed dates, but scared the tar out of trick-or-treaters (as Jen had done last month, playing ogress/hostess at the Dollfuss house).
Authentic bluster was something you’d expect from Brenda Pomerantz—“Get up, run on that leg! There’s no pain in that leg!” But Brenda was visibly squeamish around any injury that couldn’t be walked off, and kept her gaze averted from Vicki’s ankle.
Sarah‑Jill, on the other hand, wanted to psychoanalyze the ankle and deduce why its sprain really happened. (Since her own Incident last spring, she’d been seeing a female shrink once a week, which for Sarah-Jill was like E-tickets at Disney World.)
“It’s a little twisted, no big deal,” Vicki told her and Brenda and everyone back at school. Adding a nonchalant “We’ll see” shrug when the Blue Meanies oh-so-sweetly asked if she could possibly be patched up in time for Winter Wonderland.
But of course there was no hope. Ms. Olivia had expressly forbidden her to set foot in the Norroway Theater till that foot could bear her weight unaided, and Vicki had a doctor’s note testifying to it.
Dutifully she did her exercises. Took no step for granted. Can-rolled, towel-flexed, limp-avoided. Cautiously yet successfully accompanied Tricia and Felicia to the Cathedral of All the Stores for Christmas shopping on the first Saturday in December. A week after that, Dr. Tober awarded her ankle a clean bill of health—and her amnesiac muscles a benign prognosis:
“You’re just growing up is all.”
My mother told me the exact same thing three months ago.
Still, it didn’t hurt to hear this said by a handsome licensed physician. Even if he was snobby April’s father.
That evening the Volesters attended Winter Wonderland at the Norroway. Vicki sat numbly in the audience while Sonya Medved sprang through the air, twirling as though truly suspended on threads: a manipulative marionette who could do quadruple pirouettes.
Ooh and Ahh and Bravissima! went the crowd.
More endurable (for Vicki) was the main sequence, starring Olivia Fischel as the Snow Queen and Juodas Jautis as the Wayfarer lost in a Blizzard (represented by the corps de ballet in spangled tutus). M.O. and J.J.’s pas de deux was more sensational than ever, capped by a jolly coda where two dancers came rollicking on in a St. Bernard suit. The Wayfarer, having charmed the Snow Queen into sparing his life, toasted her and the theater with the St. Bernard’s brandy flask; and down rang the curtain.
Up rang the ovation.
Twang went the strings of Vicki’s heart.
She’d intended to go backstage, congratulate the Company, give Connie a beribboned jar of instant Tang as a joke bouquet.
Instead she told her folks she felt too tired. Could they go home now?
All the way there she stared upward, looking for a visible star. But the usual heavy clouds obscured the sky, so Vicki had to make do with the side alley’s streetlight: casting its same old shadows into her bedroom when she pulled the curtain aside.
Streetlight so bright first “star” I see tonight I wish I may I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight...
Ms. Olivia received her at the Academy the following Tuesday afternoon. Ballet coursework was finished and Vicki had the dressing room to herself. It was kind of spooky, changing in here all alone—yet every bench and locker was an old acquaintance. And would continue to be. Yes, she’d probably have to start Level Five over again. Sure, she’d fall even further behind Connie and Sonya and the other girls in pursuit of toe shoes. After three weeks on the disabled list, it was bound to take a couple months just to get back into shape. But that was okay: she would spend every minute of Christmas vacation exercising. Do everything she was supposed to and nothing that she shouldn’t.
I am not a Paulette Schoop.
(Wish I may wish I might wish I may wish I might)
Olivia Fischel greeted her in the studio and for a long while kept Vicki at the barre, running through the familiar steps and moves. Demi plié; grand plié. Battement tendu; battement fondu. Battements glissé, jetté, frappé. Rond de jambe à terre; rond de jambe en l’air. Rest your leg upon the barre—stretch it out—bend your head forward—touch your brow to your knee.
And wonder, for one hideous moment, whether you’ll be able to straighten back up without help.
“Phmph,” went Ms. Olivia. “To the center floor, please. Let me see an arabesque... a chassé passé... pas de bourrées, over and under... pas de basque glissé... pas de basque sauté... now three grands jetés.”
Run run run leap (thud).
Run run run leap (thud).
Run run run leap (THUD).
“Six relevés in first position; repeat in second position.”
I am a butterfly: I float, I glide. I do not wobble. I don’t, I don’t, I DON’T—
Ms. Olivia stood silently, a hawk in human form: piercing eyes, aquiline nose, predatory cheekbones.
You can demote me to Level Four, I won’t mind I’ll be such a good example to littler girls of never giving up no matter how long it takes I’ll do it I will I promise oh please—
M.O. sighed. “Your sprain did not result from an isolated fault.”
—I’m just outta shape is all gimme a couple months and—
“You’ve had difficulties all through the autumn. You are—what?—eleven going on twelve, and for all intents and purposes you have a new body with which you are not in tune. Rapid growth can dramatically alter proportions, weight distribution, flexibility and strength. Coordination is lost, and with it control over placement, alignment, movement patterns.”
She sounds like Mr. Brown this must be a bad dream I’m gonna wake up from it now—
“We shall refund your mother’s check for the next course. During the winter you may be able to adjust and adapt, but I strongly advise that you not practice without supervision. There are, of course, other schools. If you remaster the basics and regain true form, we would welcome your applying for readmission here.”
“Are... are most girls able to adjust, Ms. Olivia?”
Dramatic hesitation. “It is not impossible. But whatever happens, my dear, I hope dance will always be part of your life.”
Even if scenery collapses around you.
Vicki nodded. Stepped back. Made a deep wobble-free reverénce. Went into the dressing room, changed out of her sweaty ballet clothes. Unpinned and shook loose her hair bun. Departed from the Norroway Theater, away from its Art Deco elegance, to huddle at the Toronero Avenue bus stop. Boarded a big green vehicle that was very late and very full of coughers, sneezers, noseblowers. Transferred to Walrock with her own case of sniffles that had nothing to do with recent events. Shuffled up the street—up the stoop—up the several flights of stairs to 3W.
“Where’s Daddy?” Felicia asked her.
“Um... at the Lot?”
“You were supposed to call him for a ride! You knew we didn’t want you coming home by yourself with your ankle in the dark.”
“Um... sorry. I forgot.”
“Oh... so what did Ms. Fischel say?”
“Um... I need to practice more.”
“Well, that’s not so bad. Go get ready for dinner; I’ll phone Daddy and tell him you’re here. Tricia’s at Cynthia’s and Goofy’s with Bink, so it’ll just be the three of us.”
Shuffle-sniffle into your room. Kick off your sodden clogs. Look with disgust at the feet you’d never liked: massive, monstrous clodhoppers. Make that cloghoppers, blotched and calloused from all those years of lessons. And yet, until just last August, they had done exactly what you wanted them to do. Sometimes even more: feats you hadn’t thought yourself capable of performing.
Now, with a terrible clarity, Vicki saw that however long or hard she might practice, she would never regain True Form. Never become a True Dancer—a professional ballerina—what she had wanted to be, wished over and over to be, more than anything else in the world.
No point keeping Rudolf Nureyev above her bed.
Reach up to untape the poster. Detach its top left corner from the bunches-of-gray-grapes wallpaper that Mr. Hull pledged every year would be replaced the next. Take care to do this cleanly, not mar the poster in any way.
And then rip it right across as a sudden achoo! tumbled her backward onto her caboose. Correction: her gargantuan fat ASS that, along with those huge ugly awkward feet, guaranteed she’d be incapable of delicate grace her whole life long.
Melissa Chiese had told the truth—had perceived it all the way back in first grade.
Her real name wasn’t Vicki Volester.
It would always, always, always be Klumsy Klutzer.
Her folks learned the tearful truth before the end of that evening, and incidentally diagnosed Vicki as coming down with flu.
She refused to be confined to bed till all her dance-related possessions were boxed up for holiday donation. Everything must go: leotards and tights and legwarmers, the collection of Degas postcards, the Drina books and Streatfeild books and illustrated biographies of Pavlova, Tallchief, Fonteyn. Even the Petrushka music box that played Une Jambe de Bois while the Moor chased the Clown chasing the Dancer in a constant circle.
“But Gran gave you this,” Felicia objected.
Gran can see what I see, and hear what I hear.
Remember last spring. Hayley resolutely purging her room of all its kiddy stuff—only to chase Junior and his stack of weighty cartons down the stairs and out to the alley, to retrieve Skipper and Skooter (and all their outfits). Even if they hadn’t played Astro Co-eds for years and years, and never would again.
Petrushka went back atop Vicki’s bureau.
Tricia spent that night with the flu-free Dollfusses, so Vicki had to sleep solo—or would have, had she been able to sleep. Instead of being racked with symptoms, coughing and sneezing and swabbing her nose with bushels of Kleenex. And rerunning her post-mortem with Connie Tang through a sugar-plumless head.
It had been a secondhand post-mortem: Felicia, not letting Vicki near the phone, relayed the call to and fro like an interpreter. Vicki’d wanted to invite Connie over sometime; the two girls had never seen each other outside the Academy, but Connie deserved first dibs on the ballet giveaways. And maybe she’d quit the Academy too, saying it’d be no fun there without Vicki. Maybe they could find something else to do together (learn to play the cello?) and go on being friends, even though they lived in different neighborhoods and went to different schools.
But no invitation got extended. Vicki felt suddenly ashamed of crummy Pfiester Park and the shabby Walrock greystone, and her bedroom with its faded bunches-of-grapes-that-had-probably-never-been-purple. Nowhere near up to Greenfield standards.
So she simply told Felicia to tell Connie “See you on Soul Train,” and Connie told Felicia to tell Vicki “Oh please” and “I’ll miss you.”
And that was that.
Turn your congested face to the wall...
Until the following morning, when Vicki—feeling damp in a place that was supposed to stay dry—threw back the covers and found a small pajama-lap puddle of blood.
Her Godfather-like screams brought her mother on the run. To stare and say:
“Oh my darling Brownie—this just isn’t your month, is it?”
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Copyright © 2010-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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