The weight of expectation.
Five, six, seven, eight. One, two, pas de chat, five, turn, grande jete. Pirouette, three, four, Rond de jambe, seven, eight. Brise volé, step, step, batten en cloche, seven, eight. Assemblé, and arabesque.
Alice closed her eyes as she hit the pose and held it. 90 degree arabesque, no big deal. Hold for two beats then stretch and extend. Her head, arms and shoulders slipped so gracefully down as her leg lifted up, extended to 180 degrees: doing the splits in midair. Her tulle skirt blossomed into a perfect half circle as she clasped her ankle and pulled her face to her knee. The muscles of her base leg began to shake. She could do it. She could hold it. Her muscles burned. People who didn’t dance could never understand how holding completely still in certain positions could be so much harder than leaping through the air. Her top leg weighed a thousand pounds. She couldn’t hold any longer. Not one second more. But she did. Then another. A smile played around her lips, even as she tried to hold the mask of her serious ballet face. She did it. She held it, and release. Slowly, so slowly she brought the leg back down, her body tilting upright, and finally, relax. She lifted the lids of her heavily lidded eyes. Pas de chat, pas de chat, plié, bend, pad de cheval, pirouette, assemble, and bow.
Yes, she nailed it.
After rehearsal Madame Raynaud barked out her name in her odd high-pitched, terrier voice. She was a tiny old walnut of a woman, all wrinkles and bumpy arthritic joints. But once, she had been a Prima Ballerina. She motioned Alice to step up on the scale with one stiff, bony claw. It was an old fashioned scale, the kind with two rows of weights like at the doctor’s office. Alice reached down to untie the ribbons of first one point shoe and then the other, dropping each with a quick clunk as she walked. She shrugged off her cool down sweater wrap and whipped the tulle skirt down to her ankles so she could step out of it on her way. She left a trail of clothing behind her, like a lover on her way to bed. She held her breath and stepped on the scale. Then she released it in case the air might somehow increase her weight.
“124.8 pounds.” Madame Raynaud fumbled with the slide weights and frowned. “You have put on almost 2 pounds this week. What is going on with you?” The old woman’s eye squinted and looked hard at the girl. She picked a spot at the bottom of her rib cage and pinched. Her short crooked fingers felt like a clamp.
Alice frowned down at the length of her leotard clad body. It was her thighs. She knew it. Those awful, massive, muscular thighs.
“I’m sorry, Madame Raynaud. I can take it off. I know I can.”
“Well, if you want the lead you will. And more. Poor Harvey can only lift so much and it has to look effortless. Yes. Effortless, when he lifts you.”
The old woman pantomimed lifting a feather light girl up above her head and beamed up at the empty air that weighed nothing at all.
Two hours later Alice sat slumped on the floor of her country club kitchen, a crumby, creamy, crying mess. A family pack of Little Debbie’s cream filled oatmeal cookies lay crumpled beside her. She didn’t even like oatmeal cookies. She hated them. Especially the cream. She felt revulsion rise up from her stomach into her throat, burning acid. She hated everything with sugar and cream and calories. Yet she ripped the package open and ate them all standing up at the kitchen counter the second she got in. Not just ate them, smashed them into her face as though they were the only thing she had ever wanted to eat in her life.
Why? Oh God why? She was disgusting. She looked down at her hands, covered in cookie goo, then down at her clothes and cried some more.
After some minutes, she stopped. She shook her head. She slapped each cheek with either hand. She had to pull herself together. She glanced at the clock, 7:30pm. Her mom would be home in half an hour or so. Plenty of time to get the mess cleaned up. What would her mom think if she came in and saw this?
Alice tried to imagine the look on her mother’s face. How could she ever explain something like this to her perfectly petite Chinese mother? Sometimes she felt like they not only came from different cultures but from different planets too.
She wiped her hands on the thighs of her jeans. Each one of her strong, gymnastics and cheerleading strengthened thighs was twice the size of her mother’s. Her whole body was twice the size of her mother. Or nearly so. Alice remembered one day when she accidentally put a pair of her own laundered jeans in her mother’s room with the other clean and folded clothes. Connie put them on and walked out holding the waistband up and out, away from her own miniscule waist.
“Two of me could fit in your pants!” she said with glee.
Alice shuddered at the memory. She tensed the muscles in her thighs and even through the pale, distressed denim of her jeans she could see the definition. Horse thighs. Animal thighs. She had the body of a beast. Her exercise obsession backfired. Instead of making her thinner like she wanted, her muscles bulked up. And now she was hungry. Always hungry. And always trying not to eat.
And on top of it all, Natasha was still the top of the pyramid.
Natasha, Alice thought, saying the name in her mind with a nasally whine. Natasha, the itsy, bitsy little Russian “princess” with her weirdly tiny, greyish teeth, who only weighed about 85 pounds soaking wet and was so easy for everyone to lift. Even weak-ass Autumn could hold her up. Sure she, Alice, was head cheerleader and got to tell everyone what to do, but she was not the smallest. She was not the lightest. She was not the top of the pyramid. Thank God Natasha wasn’t in the dance troupe. If she was she’d have been easy enough for poor weak Harvey to lift. The tears came again, with a wave of nausea.
Awesome she thought, let’s do this.
Alice hauled herself up off of the kitchen floor feeling bloated and bigger than ever. She practically ran to the downstairs half bath. Throwing up came easy now. Her stomach and gag reflex were trained to performed on command. All she had to do was stand with her mouth open miming the motion and her body would respond. She rarely had to resort to using her fingers anymore.
The cookies were even worse on the way back up. Most of them came up in three big heaves. Now they were foamy, the cream filling, warm. She kept gagging until all she could bring up was bile. She didn’t want a single gram of that grossness inside. She worked her tongue around the back of her teeth to get a few stuck bits of oatmeal and spat. Her spit was thick and ropey. She had to use her fingers to break the strand, but even so she felt better already. She felt cleansed. She was all cleaned out. Even though it left her throat and mouth tasting sour and strange. She washed her hands and face, gargled with water, then with mouthwash and headed back to the kitchen to clean up. She would be in the bath when her mom got home. Her mom would be none the wiser.
Alice smiled to herself as she wiped the crumbs off the floor and hid the cookie package deep down in the trashcan, covering it up with other trash. What she needed was a nice hot bubble bath. She could read her English book in the bath. And it would give her an excuse to not talk to her mom. She took out the notepad by the phone and wrote her mom a note: In the bath reading for school.
She twisted the round faux crystal cut plastic knob all the way to the left to make the water run scalding hot. Then she scooped up a cup of Epsom salts and poured slowly, spreading the salt out evenly, from one end of the tub to the other, watching the crystals cascade down and dissolve in the steaming water. She let out a sigh as the steam wafted up over her face. God she needed this. She stripped off her clothes quickly and stepped out of the pile. She avoided looking at her body in the mirror. She knew better. Especially right now, after Madame Raynaud’s weigh-in and cookie incident. If she wasn’t careful the sight of her own naked body could send her spiraling down again.
Instead she stepped straight in and felt the burn of the water against her skin. It was almost too much. She almost stepped out. But she forced herself to stay. Hot water was good for the skin and the soul. Her mother had always told her so.
Her mother used to steam the pores of her face with hot towels back when she first started getting acne. Then she’d sterilize a needle tip by heating it in the gas flame from the kitchen range. She’d let it go red, then blow it black. And then came surgery. Alice hated that. She had to lie down on the bed so she couldn’t jerk her face away and her mother would poke and squeeze each pimple, putting alcohol on afterwards so the pore wouldn’t get infected. When the acne got worse her mother put her on Accutane. The acne got better but her eyesight suffered. Now she needed glasses to drive.
“Price of beauty,” her mother said. Eyesight in exchange for clear skin.
Alice slowly lowered her body into the hot water. First down to her knees, then she tried to lower her butt onto her heels. That was always the hardest part, in cold water or hot, when it got to her crotch. Touch and go, touch and go, and then down for good. Ahhh. The hot water really did feel good on her muscles and skin. The Epsom salts were mixed with eucalyptus or something. It made her skin feel tingly and slightly coated in oil.
She turned the water off and picked up the ponytail holder she’d left by the side of the tub along with her towel and copy of The Invisible Man for English. She tied up the massive volume of her curly hair in an enormous bun on the tip top of her head like a sumo wrestler. She lay back against the back rest of the tub and relaxed for a moment before picking up the book.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Alice stopped and thought about the way the big Irish-fro she inherited from her father made people mistake her for being half black. The tight ringlets of her Asian black hair confused a lot of people. Did this give her any actual insight into the African-American experience? No, not really, she didn’t think so. But being mixed race was its own thing. It meant not fitting in anywhere. Not that she had the chance to fit in with her father’s family. She’d never met any of them, including him.
“In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it.”
Alice set the book aside. She slid down until her ears and hairline were underwater. Only the front most of her face was in the air and she could feel where the waterline lapped at her skin. 1,369 bulbs. She imagined it, a room completely covered in lights. She imagined them above her, like a night sky covered in stars, and her floating in black water beneath. Every bulb, every star, reflected on the surface of the water, so it felt like she was floating up in the sky. Alice inhaled a long, deep breath and then sighed. The tension in her body started to unravel. She let go.
She was floating. She was flying.
She was weightless. At last.