Book excerpt

Various Positions

Martha Schabas

FSG Books for Young Readers


I found the envelope in a pile of letters on the hallway radiator. It was white, flat, ordinary as any envelope except for the strange look of my name across the front. I wasn’t used to getting mail. There was a logo in the corner, the curving, antique script of the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy. I took the envelope up to my room. My fingers were stupid with adrenaline, and as I ripped off the top, I tore the letter too. I read the time and date of my audition aloud and recorded the information on the Gelsey Kirkland calendar above my desk, filling the March 27 box with tiny handwriting.
I observed what I’d written as though I didn’t trust it, staring, squinting, trying to look at the ink askance. I muttered patchy sounds under my breath, little words like yes and good. March 27 needed to be distinguished from its meaningless neighbors, so I drew a green border around the date and added jagged diagonal strokes that tied like a knot in the middle of the square. I stepped backward, examined my work. It all looked a bit like the kind of flammability warning you’d find on a hairspray bottle. I worried this was a bad omen. Symbols of explosions might not lend themselves naturally to good luck. But maybe it could be a kind of reverse jinx, like whispering “Merde” before going onstage, or grabbing your partner in the wings and screaming “Go to Hell!” beneath the opening chords of the overture. That’s what they did in Russia.
Above the March grid of the calendar was a black-and-white photo of Gelsey in rehearsal. She was standing with her back against a studio barre and bending at the waist to fiddle with the ribbon of her pointe shoe. Her oversized leg warmers crawled up to the middle of her thighs and she wore a leotard that reflected light like tinfoil. The material pinched at her chest in the shape of a tiny accordion. On either side of this accordion there should have been boobs, but there were no boobs, there was virtually nothing at all. Ha! It was a laugh in the face of everything.
I had been watching Gelsey on the Arts and Entertainment Network since my mom had ordered specialty cable three months before. I had seen her in five different ballets and I loved her. She didn’t look wet and brainless like some other ballerinas, dancing across the stage as if they were lost in heavy fog. She attacked her steps as though she had something against them, pouncing ferociously from one to the next. These pounces were punctuated every few minutes by close-ups of Gelsey yearning into the camera. Sometimes her pale face would take up the entire frame and just hang there in a look of incurable distraction. Pain hammered deep around her crystalline eyes. A tenderness pillowed her lips. It was a beauty I had never seen before, too extreme for human beings. Somewhere along her vacuumed cheeks, inside the pout of her ruby mouth, Gelsey became less girl and more creature, so feminine she canceled herself out.
I folded the letter back into the envelope and sat down in my desk chair. I would e-mail Isabel and tell her about my audition. I turned on my computer and waited for my e-mail program to load new messages. I had a separate folder for Isabel that I’d labeled “Sister.” This wasn’t really necessary, considering she was the only one who ever e-mailed me. The label also wasn’t technically accurate. But Isabel had told me it was tacky to always call her my half sister in front of other people and I wanted to make up for the mistake. I imagined scenarios where Isabel would happen to see the title of the e-mail folder. She’d be home at Christmas and we’d be hanging out in my room. She’d be telling me about the stuff she usually tells me about, her most recent semester at university, about after-dark activities and theories on gender and meaning. At some point I’d have to get up to pee. Alone in my room, she’d glance at my computer screen, see the only folder in my e-mail account and smile to herself. When I came back into the room she’d poke me in the ribs and tell me how grown-up I seemed.
My in-box loaded zero new messages. I clicked on the “Sister” folder and scrolled through old messages instead. Isabel always filled in the subject lines, titling her e-mails things like “W’sup” and “Hola Infanta,” and “Georgia on My Mind.” I clicked on one e-mail with the subject line “Gelsey.” It was from a few months ago, soon after I’d told her about my new idol. Isabel had written that she was “skeptical of a society so predicated on celebrity-worship.” I had typed “predicated” into and written back that I wasn’t trying to “derive, base, found, proclaim, assert, declare, or affirm anything.” Isabel hadn’t been convinced. She’d done a little googling and had written back that Gelsey was a cokehead who’d dated Pat Sajak in the eighties and that her lips had been injected with an amount of collagen that Health Canada considered “unadvisable.” When I hadn’t believed her, she’d sent me Dancing on My Grave, Gelsey’s tell-all autobiography, via priority post.
I looked at the bookshelf across my room. I could pick out the spine immediately, the font reflective like a speed sign on the highway, the rose wilting onto the word Grave. The spine looked worn, even from a distance, with a deep wrinkle scarred through its middle. I had read the book three times now and knew the quotations on the back cover by heart: “the dark side of fame,” “a descent into drugs and madness,” “a tortured quest for perfection.” I loved Gelsey more with every read. Not only was she the most wonderful ballerina the world had ever seen, but she had suffered something horrifying and her face was brimming with poisonous chemicals.
Isabel had been e-mailing me approximately twice a week since she’d moved downtown for university. She lived in a three-story house with six other girls, one working shower, and no TV. Every time I visited I felt cold inside my kneecaps and smelled old beer and Pantene Pro-V. Still, I loved visiting her. My dad had only been once and he called the house Moldova. How are things in Moldova? he’d ask when Isabel came home for dinner and he wasn’t at the hospital. Have you girls managed to get a land line yet? Isabel’s mouth would fatten into a smirk. Moldova isn’t so bad anyway, she’d say. It has a thriving viticulture industry. It’s the crossroads of Latin and Slavic worlds. My dad would lift his hands on either side of his body, palms facing Isabel as if she were a bandit with a gun. I would stand absolutely still, do my best to embody neutrality so that no one could accuse me of picking sides.
Right before she’d left for university, Isabel had taken me to the park for a talk. We sat on the swings and I followed her lead, digging my heels into the gravel beneath us, engraving hearts and then wiping them clean with our soles. The kid swinging next to me was pumping his legs hard, trying to propel his body toward rooftops, but Isabel was unmoving, so I would be too. I watched a tiny bulge in the middle of her neck and then another, as though she were swallowing her thoughts. Half an hour went by and she still hadn’t done any talking. Pins and needles fried the underside of my thighs. Finally she looked at me. The grayness of her eyes had deepened. They were the color of the sidewalk after a thunderstorm.
“Things might be difficult when I leave, George. You’ll have to be extra grown-up.”
“Just—” She paused, stabbed the rubber toe of her sneaker into the middle of a dusty heart so that a cloud of sand wafted up her ankle. “I know it’s difficult when Dad’s always—” She cut herself off and looked at the sky. “Just don’t let it get to you. They’re adults and it’s not your problem. And call me if you need anything. Like anytime, whenever.”
I nodded slowly, trying to put lots of meaning into it because I knew that’s what she wanted to see. Isabel generally talked about my mom that way, ran circles around the problem without ever stopping to look it in the face. In her last year of high school, Isabel had stayed with us less and less and this had distorted her perception of what was happening between my parents. Isabel never saw my mom’s tiny provocations, the way she would stare out the window and announce the strangest things out of nowhere—that she missed smoking cigarettes in her old Ford Cortina, that she was curious about neo-punk. One time after dinner, I passed my mom the lasagna dish and she said she’d rather ram her head into the kitchen sink than wash it. Another time, when there was a segment on the radio about the fruit bat, she stepped out into the backyard and started to cry.
I swiped my finger on the track pad to wake up the computer screen. I clicked on the COMPOSE button and typed Isabel’s e-mail into the address bar. I told her about my letter and asked how things were going at Moldova. I paused over the subject line. Then I brought my fingers back to the keyboard and typed My Audition. I sat back in my chair and looked at the title. I deleted Audition and wrote Career.
*   *   *
My parents weren’t speaking at breakfast the next morning. Nonspeaking mornings were identifiable by whether my mom got up to kiss me when I stepped into the kitchen, and she did today, bringing her hand to skate down the back of my hair, sighing as though there was something sad about the gesture. She had that cool look around her mouth too, a tightness that paralyzed the corners of her lips. She turned away and traced an unnecessarily wide semicircle to retake her place at the table, fiddling with the pearl at her collarbone. My dad sat perpendicular to her, hunched over a newspaper and a bowl of Cheerios. He shoveled the cereal into his mouth, slurping milk through all the tiny holes of oat on his tongue.
“There are English muffins.” My mom’s eyes were full of feeling. “In the fridge.”
I’d planned on telling them about my audition, but a nonspeaking morning made it impossible. I should have seen it coming. My dad had worked late every night that week and had been on call most of the previous weekend. I pulled open the fridge door, smelled chilled plastic and immobile air, took the baggie of muffins from the shelf. I tore my muffin along its precut seam, slid both halves into the toaster. My mom’s fingers fluttered from her coffee mug to her hair, played quick-fire scales on the table. She wanted my dad’s attention but there was no way she would get it. My dad’s mind was traveling inward, incubating new thoughts. When his practice was busy, he achieved heights of concentration of which few other doctors were capable. It’s what made him the best in his field. Now he thumbed the corner of his paper, flipped the page without looking up. I could see just enough of his forehead to observe the process, one heavy wrinkle like an equator around his brain. I wished my mom would understand.
I took my muffin to the table. My mom wrenched her chair forward, made the linoleum squeak. I wouldn’t meet her eye. I feared the look they would have in that moment, tragic and on the brink of something I couldn’t describe, a thousand times darker than tears. I needed to distract her.
“Could you pass the butter?”
She slid the dish toward me, got up to get a knife. Now I would stay calm because calmness was contagious. Then time would run its course. My dad’s schedule would ease up by the end of the week. He’d come home with flowers or a bottle of wine and things would go back to normal.
“Do you want jam?”
I shook my head. My mom walked over to the counter and poured what remained of the filter coffee into a travel mug. She twisted the lid on with a snap. Again her eyes jogged toward my dad. I wished she would watch me and learn. The trick was to hope for his attention silently, will it in a steady, invisible way.
When I was younger and there’d been no one to look after me, my dad sometimes took me to the hospital with him. He’d leave me in the nursing station, a see-through cubicle that bubbled onto the hallway, and tell me to wait. A nurse would usually give me some paper and whatever colored pens she could dig up, but coloring was the last thing I wanted to do. The nursing station was beside the elevators, so I could see everyone come and go. I planted my elbows in front of me, bones sharp on the desk, made a hammock for my chin. I focused on the people in regular clothing. If they turned right, they were heading toward the neurology wing. If they turned left, they were my dad’s patients. I tried to deduce who was who in the few moments before they turned. I searched their faces for signs of craziness. It wasn’t obvious the way you’d expect. The ones with the strangest ailments, tremors that hijacked their hands, bandages choking their heads, usually turned toward the neurology clinic. The crazy ones looked normal. I remembered tired women in clothes that didn’t fit quite right, not always the wrong size but somehow the wrong idea, a sweater that must have itched, a bag that dug marks in a shoulder. If these people seemed anything, I would call it pensive, or maybe just a little distracted. Most of the time they were girls.
I would watch them again on their way out of my dad’s office, study their expressions for improvement. I was sure I saw ease across eyebrows, as though a bad thought had been removed. This was my dad’s accomplishment. Darkness captured his interest, things that grew moldy in shadows. Loudness, flashiness, the prime-time girlie stuff he rolled his eyes at—all that he couldn’t stand. In the car ride home I would stare flatly through the windshield, let my eyes find the deadness of a patient’s. I tried to evoke my own hospital feeling, the sad chime of the elevator, the bigness of life and death. If I concentrated enough, the feeling would emanate from every feature on my face and my dad would notice it, see a heaviness he understood.
“I’m off.” My mom had her travel mug in one hand and her laptop case in the other. She had three kisses for me, forehead, cheek, and cheek. Her hair swung toward me and the pearl did too, an opaque teardrop knocking the cleft of my chin. “Have a good day, sweetheart.” One last glance shot toward my dad before she turned to leave the kitchen.
I left my dad at the table without a word so that I wouldn’t disturb him the way my mom had. I brushed my teeth slowly in the upstairs bathroom, trying not to look in the mirror. I knew what kind of day it was and I didn’t want my reflection to confirm this. But a mean urge wormed up the back of my neck. I lifted my head and squinted at the little person squinting back at me. It was a small day. I had them every couple of months and they crept up without warning or explanation. It was hard to pinpoint the exact place where I seemed to shrink, but it was there, somewhere, like an invisible weather front pushing in from all sides. I placed my hands on either side of the medicine cabinet and leaned in toward the pale blob of my face. Yesterday it had been normal. Now it was unreasonable in its compactness, as if every feature had slipped a millimeter inward overnight.
I walked to school and stared at the traffic. It was cold and my breath made clouds in front of my nose. The street had been plowed about two hours earlier, before the city got out of bed, but I knew snowplows often missed black ice. I looked for older cars, the ones that wouldn’t have antilock brakes. They were easy to pick out because they were painted dull colors that nobody liked anymore and had long, flat hoods that made me think of alligator snouts. I watched their rear tires and waited for the moment that they’d hit a dark patch of invisible ice. The brakes would lock, the wheels would spin, and the car would swing onto the sidewalk and give me a concussion.
I got to school and walked along the parking lot to the first classroom, trying to crush the maximum number of salt crystals beneath my boots. The school was being renovated that winter and our classes had been transferred to a row of newly delivered portables. They were white rectangles, big metal shoeboxes that extended all the way to the school’s back fence. I walked up the steps of the first one, the grade-eight math portable, kicking my boots on the final ledge to knock off snow and pebbles. The lighting was fluorescent, and I breathed in the familiar smell of something plastic and squeezable, a bit like a rubber duck. I took my usual desk in the middle and muttered hello to the kids around me.
I pulled my binder out of my knapsack and listened to their conversation. They were talking about a party they’d been to over the weekend. Julie Chang’s party. I hadn’t been invited, but that was okay because I would have had to miss a ballet class to go. They were discussing Chicken, the game where male hands wandered up female bodies until the owner of the body decided she’d had enough. I had never played Chicken before; the idea made my stomach feel like it was rotting. Everyone would be watching. I looked down at the small bumps that barely lifted my sweater. Inadequacy slithered up from my groin.
The lesson began and my eyes drifted from the blackboard to the window. It was snowing now; fat white flakes disappeared into the mud of the soccer field. What would I do if I were forced into a Chicken situation? What I needed was a plan. I sucked in my stomach so that my ribs puffed out. I sucked in even harder until it hurt. It would be a tricky position to maintain for more than five minutes, but it made my chest inflate with a buoyancy that might be mistaken for boobs. It did more than that, too, taking me away from my body, lifting me out of the disgrace.
At four o’clock, I took the bus across Bayview Avenue toward the Wilson School of Ballet. The buildings shrank and lost their color, becoming low concrete blocks on either side of the road. The final landmark was a church with gray bricks and a bulging chimney. You wouldn’t know it was a church if it wasn’t for the thousand pieces of broken gold glued to its far side in a big Jesus mosaic. The ballet school sat next to it, separated by a snowbank that, today, made the shape of a long, bumpy creature, maybe a humpback whale. I pulled open the door and walked into the foyer.
A group of older girls were stretching on my left. I loved the older girls, especially the ones with long hair. A few of them were going to make it as professionals, that’s what all the parents said. I looked at their legs, long and muscled on the floor. I wanted to wrap my hands around them. A red-haired girl called out my name and waved. Her name was Emily and she liked me. Once, when I was leaving the studio, she’d tapped me on the shoulder. I felt her slender fingers on my bare skin. “You’re soooo skinny,” she said sweetly. Her friends agreed too. They shook their heads and smiled reprovingly. “Do you eat anything?” a second girl asked me. “She’s so cute,” a third one said. Another time, I found a chocolate bar taped to my locker. A Post-it note was stuck to the wrapper. Eat up! it advised in permanent marker. You need it.
I waved back at Emily. A smile was wriggling up inside me, but I stopped it with my lip muscles so that I wouldn’t look dumb. I went down the hallway to the change room. I pulled on my tights and leotard along with the other junior girls and coiled my hair into a bun. Then I walked toward the studio. As I approached the two steps of its entrance, Mrs. Kafarova glided into the doorway. She crossed her arms over her spandex bodysuit and peered at me beneath two turquoise eyelids.
“You hev your letter?” Mrs. Kafarova frowned. She normally frowned as she spoke, as if language itself was distasteful to her.
I nodded and told her the time and date of my audition. Her frown deepened. Auditioning for the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy had been her idea. She’d pulled me into her office a few weeks ago and stared at me menacingly from her swivel chair.
“Georgia, it iz time you were in proper akedemy.”
I looked up at the posters on her wall. They were from the Soviet Union and the images looked smeared, blue backgrounds that bled into the dancers as if the paper had been held under water.
“Yes of course my school, iz very good.” She closed her eyes for a second, bowed her head, as though accepting applause for her school. “But you will hev future. And to hev riel future, you must hev riel training. Many hours, every day. And then every day, many hours, all again. Yes?”
I nodded solemnly. I knew I was experiencing the kind of moment that people talked about, one I’d remember for the rest of my life.
Now I stepped into the studio toward her. Mrs. Kafarova grabbed my arm and squeezed. She wore enough rings to handicap an average hand and they pushed against the underside of my wrist.
“You must hev good picture for zhe application. You must hev your hair perfect. You must make your lips pink.” She stared hard into my eyes. “Promise me you will hev your lips pink.”
I promised her I would. I joined the other girls at the barre.
“Please!” Mrs. Kafarova commanded the pianist with one dictatorial foot stamp.
Class started slowly, the first piano chords soft, bendable, as we eased our muscles back into familiar tensions. In the wall-length mirror beside me I saw fifteen bodies moving in unison, charging the air with silent effort. The chronically uncomfortable person that possessed me in ordinary life let go of her spindly arms and Tinkertoy legs. A volt buzzed up my spine and I grew between each vertebra. My small day was officially over.
“Girls!” Mrs. Kafarova stopped the pianist with another foot stamp. “Enough.” She dismissed us with the back of her hand, walked away from the barre. “You stretch. We do center.”
As we pulled our legs around our bodies on the floor, Mrs. Kafarova tidied herself in the mirror. She smoothed two hands on either side of the yellow hair that contoured her head like a travel pillow. She reapplied lipstick on her skinny leather lips. She adjusted the sash on her black teaching frock and turned sideways to examine her profile, nodding at what looked back at her. I imagined she saw herself not in this reflection, but in the framed forty-year-old photos that hung in the school’s main hall. There, in black and white, a fire-eyed blonde in a sequined tutu soared across the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. Two white legs scissored the air, her back arched onto a tilting crescent foot.
*   *   *
My mom helped me fill out the application form over the weekend. We sat at the kitchen table and she watched as I entered my height and weight into the spaces provided, moving the pen slowly to keep my writing neat. When it was time to take the required photo of me in tendu à la seconde, I asked if I could use her lipstick.
“It’s a picture of your body, sweetheart. No one’s going to be able to tell whether you’re wearing lipstick or not.”
I nodded as though this was sensible. Then I asked her again in a slightly more desperate tone. She laughed and sighed. She produced a black shiny pouch that whined when I scratched my fingernails along it. I unzipped the top and rummaged through the plastic capsules.
“Lipstick?” My dad had stepped into the doorway. He was wearing a tie and his plastic ID badge; he had just come back from the hospital. “I thought we were in the business of raising a feminist.”
My mom didn’t look up. “It’s stage makeup.”
He moved behind us, peered over our shoulders. I wanted to cover the application with my hands. I knew what he thought of ballet. It was even worse than what he thought about lipstick.
“Oh. Your ballet school application.” He moved around the table to the fridge, where he pulled out the Brita water pitcher, poured himself a glass. “Ballet,” he repeated, shaking his head. “God knows how I ended up with a ballet dancer for a daughter.”
I wanted to laugh at this with him, be a really good sport. It burned, though, the disappointment in his voice. The worst part was that I understood it. Things like ballet tripped on his heels, slowed the world down from more meaningful pursuits. He took a big sip of water. I wished I had some brilliant revelation that drew on history and philosophy to explain why ballet was okay.
“There are musicians on Mom’s side,” I said.
My dad gulped back the rest of his water, ruffled my hair with his hand. “Didn’t you want to become a doctor?”
My mom looked up at him now. “She can still become a doctor, Larry.”
“What are the academics like at this ballet school?”
“Excellent.” My mom smirked. “They’re excellent.”
“Really?” My dad opened the dishwasher and fitted his glass into the upper tray. “Well, great then.” He pushed on the dishwasher door and it snapped shut. He walked out of the room.
My mom sat very still. I waited for her to say something. Finally she pushed her chair back and left the room too. In a minute I could hear their voices in the living room. I pulled all the lipsticks out of the case and uncapped them. The tubes made a forest of iridescent trunks, plastic, titanium, and mother-of-pearl. I twisted the bottoms one by one. My mom’s voice was louder now, shrill even, but I was going to focus on the lipstick. They looked funny together, like a flock of reddish creatures poking out of their shells. I chose a bright pink one with a sharp summit and a clean slope down one side. In the hallway mirror I pressed it firmly into my mouth. It was satisfying, the pull of the waxy edge on the skin of my lips, the sudden invasion of fuchsia.
My parents were quiet now. It always went like this. Fights melted into their opposites, as though somehow the two were related, maybe even different ends of the same thing. I tiptoed into the alcove of the dining room. My parents were sitting in the taupe armchair. My dad’s back was to me and my mom sat sideways on his lap. I could see her foot dangling off one armrest. Her gray sock had a hole at the heel, and she was moving slowly through her instep, keeping her toes flexed. Her head dangled off the other side of the chair, as if she were leaning back to laugh. But then she moved her face toward the back cushion where it met my dad’s in a kiss. I stepped a little to the right so I could see them better. The kiss continued, their faces moving around in flattened figure-eights. My dad’s hands went to my mom’s bum. She made a sound, moved in closer. I looked away because I couldn’t watch this part, the way she slipped her anger into something silky and attractive, like she was putting on a lacy nightgown.
We took the photos of me about an hour later. I attached them with a paper clip to the top right corner of the form. I tested the paper clip’s snugness, shook the pages vigorously with my fingers pinched over the metal edge, slid the clip on and off several times. I was almost satisfied. But then I worried that the tests themselves had compromised the clip’s tightness. I considered using a stapler, but thought that might disqualify me, sort of like using the wrong kind of pencil on a Scantron test. So I pulled a fresh paper clip from the small cardboard box, hyperextended each side with a quick tug, and fitted the clip over the assembled form.

Copyright © 2012 by Martha Schabas

Martha Schabas trained in classical ballet as a child. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she received the David Higham Literary Award. She lives in Toronto, Canada. Various Positions is her first novel.