Lillie was always the understudy. So when Maud grabbed her one afternoon after advanced class and whispered, “We have twenty minutes.” Lillie followed.
In the empty dressing room, where dance bags and street clothes hung onto hooks, Maud dug through her backpack and brandished a pair of kitchen scissors.
“What are you doing?” Lillie frowned.
Maud ignored her. She wore the usual—her powder blue leotard safety pinned in the middle and her nails painted sky blue to match. Glittery lipstick covered her mouth and hoops dangled from her ears. Maud was born lucky. She was extra bony and super long legged.
“Get Kozziera’s audition tights,” Maud said. “I’ll explain later.”
A fast waltz on the piano resonated from the smaller studio. Lillie rummaged through their rival’s stuff and pulled out brand new salmon colored tights still wrapped in plastic.
“These?” Lillie asked.
“Yep,” Maud said. Then, added, “Stand guard.”
Jittery, Lillie cracked the door open and peeked her head out to see if anyone was coming.
Behind her, Maud sat on the floor Indian style. She scrutinized the new tights, then began cutting into them. As the blade sliced the fabric, Maud chewed onto her bottom lip. She seemed as serious as when she sowed her ribbons onto pointe shoes, or when she did her piqué turns.
“She’ll be wearing shorts,” she snickered. “I can’t wait to see her face.”
Lillie nodded but wasn’t sure she felt the same. Sure, she hated Jennifer Kozziera. Her pug nose, her tiny waist, and pretty turn out. But still. Sabotaging stuff? Was that necessary? Maud’s scissors clicked and snipped at full speed.
By the time the waltz was over, Maud had cut both legs and cried, “Done!” She folded the torn tights, the remaining crotch back into the plastic bag. “Want one of the severed legs?” she asked.
“No thanks,” Lillie answered.
Voices now boomed in the hallway. Boys were taking a break from jumps. Girls needed to change for the student company auditions.
Lillie’s stomach rumbled. Her breath stuck in her throat. “What if we get caught?” she asked.
Maud slid the scissors back into her backpack. She walked over to Lillie and kissed her cheek. Warmth spread down Lillie’s shoulders. “Sweetie,” she said. She smelled musky, like the woods behind Lillie’s mother’s house. “There are two openings for the student ballet company. Not three. You and I can’t chance this.”
The door of the dressing room swung open. A bunch of advanced girls rushed in, including Jennifer Kozziera.
Lillie averted her eyes from her. She began changing into her own new tights and sleek black leotard. God, what would Lillie’s mother say if she knew? Lillie’s heart pounded like crazy. For a second, she thought to apologize but froze. What would Kozziera do when she was done gabbing, when she discovered her ripped tights? If Lillie told the truth, she and Maud might get kicked out of the ballet school. The thought made Lillie flee from the dressing room.
It wasn’t until everyone stretched in the studio, minutes before the auditions began, that Jennifer Kozziera walked in. Tears of rage streamed down her face. With legs half naked and pointes shoes on, she begged the ballet mistress to give her a chance. She tried to explain that someone had pulled some awful joke on her. The pleading did not work. That night, Jennifer Kozziera was sent home. Maud danced her favorite Paquita variation. Lillie followed with an adagio from La Bayadère, which won them both the two spots inside the student company.
Post-auditions, Lillie and Maud drove to ballet together and took barre next to each other. It was as if ripping the tights had solidified their “best friend” status and brought on new solidarity. The Kozziera incident, its silence around it, fused them. At the barre, Maud stood at her favorite spot by the piano while Lillie hung behind her. During rehearsals, they giggled and shared tape and tutu bottoms. They bumped sides and corrected each other’s moves. At school, during lunch, they split oranges and analyzed variations. Bliss reigned for three full weeks. But one day, while they chatted outside on the stairs leading toward the track of their high school, Lillie pointed to a boy walking by.
“That’s Neal,” she whispered.
“I know,” Maud said.
Lillie thought of science class that morning, third period, how Neal had drawn stars on her forearm. How the tip of his pen had glided on her skin. “He wants to be a tattoo artist,” she said. She lifted her shirtsleeve up and showed Maud the stars he’d drawn.
Maud pressed her thumb onto one of them as if she were trying to smear it.
“Hey,” Lillie said. “Don’t.”
“You like him, huh?”
Lillie blushed. “Can I tell you something?” she asked.
Maud pressed her ear against Lillie’s mouth. “What?”
“I think Neal’s lips look like satin. I dream about him.”
“Yeah?” Maud said. She snuck a cigarette from her pocket, then stood up. “Let’s smoke. It’ll kill the hunger.”
In one bathroom stall, they wedged themselves in.
“Why are you worried about weight?” Lillie asked. She was dizzy from Maud’s Winston Light, from Neal, and from the absence of food.
Maud leaned her head against the wall. She had a swan-like neck. Her collarbone protruded. She wore a lavender leotard beneath her T-shirt. She lifted it, ran her fingers against her chest.
“One, two, three, four, five.” She counted the ribs leading from her collarbone to her sternum with her index finger. “Five ribs above the line. You always want five, if possible six.” She dropped her cigarette in the toilet and startled Lilly by unbuttoning her shirt. She counted Lillie’s ribs too. “One, two, three.” She pushed Lillie’s black leotard down. “Three is better than none,” she said.
Maud’s fingers tickled. Before Lillie could close up her shirt, Maud cupped Lillie’s breasts and said, “Can I tell you something?”
“Yeah,” Lillie answered, grateful that the stall wall rose behind her.
“They’re full,” Maud said. “Way too full for a classical dancer.”
Back at the studio, the words too full haunted Lillie. Every day, she tried to eat less. During class, she did not mark steps. Instead, she danced them full out all the time. “Be careful,” Ms. P, her teacher, warned. “Take a break or you will be prone to injury.” But Lillie ignored her. She held her positions longer than everyone. She jumped higher. But all she saw in the mirror’s reflection was her too full chest and the back of her thighs, how everything jiggled when she moved. How Maud’s breasts, two tiny dots, disappeared beneath her pastel leotards. Everyone said it. Maud was lanky and had the best arches.
“It’s okay that you don’t have the perfect body,” Maud explained a few nights after they’d wedged themselves inside the bathroom stall. They were on their way home from ballet.
Lillie’s sore feet hung out the window of the passenger seat of Maud’s Chevrolet. Wind blew. Reggae blared from the radio.
“Easy for you to say,” Lillie snapped back. Her stomach turned in on itself from hunger. “You’re scrawny,” she said.
Maud smirked. “I have an idea.”
Next thing Lillie knew the Chevrolet deviated onto Grove Avenue and pulled in front of an apartment complex.
“What are we doing?” Lillie asked.
Maud parked the car by the sidewalk and turned off the radio.
“I wanna go home,” Lillie said.
But Maud texted someone. Soon, the door of the ground floor apartment opened. Neal stepped out into the evening light.
“Hey,” he said.
He wore shorts falling from his hips, a torn shirt, and flip-flops. With the sun dropping behind him, he looked bigger than life.
Maud giggled. In a pair of cut-off jean shorts, she pressed her skinny legs up to her chest and waved.
Neal hopped down the steps and poked his head through the driver’s window. His eyes shone post card blue. Stubbles grew on his chin.
“Wanna go for a ride?” Maud stroked his cheek.
In the car, reggae blared once more. Lillie tried not to turn to stare at him. She wanted to ask Maud how she knew Neal so well that she’d touch his face and that he’d get in a car with her, but something in Lillie refrained.
“You know my friend, right?” Maud asked.
“Of course,” Neal said, his voice grumbling low. “The other ballerina.”
“Well, she likes you.”
“Maud!” Lillie cried.
At an intersection, Maud slowed the car down. Seconds later, in a deserted parking lot that led toward a public park, Maud killed the engine. By now the evening turned dark. All the windows of the Chevrolet were open. Cicadas buzzed nearby.
“Lillie says she doesn’t like her body shape,” Maud began.
“Stop,” Lillie ordered. She wished she’d gone home. Her mom would worry. Lillie didn’t like how Neal hung in the back of Maud’s car. She didn’t like the strange heat in her belly, a fireball circling inside her.
“I like your body,” Neal said.
Lillie blushed in the shadows.
“I thought she could do an exercise,” Maud offered. “She could show herself to you and you could rate her body parts on a scale of 1 – 10. Make her feel better about herself.”
Neal sat up. He wore a leather bracelet around his wrist. “Okay,” he said. He smiled at Lillie, his eyes boring into her, his satiny lips parting.
Lillie elbowed Maud. “Stop it,” she ordered again. But the fireball seemed to spread. Something in her awakened. Maybe it was the scent of sweat and Neal’s cologne in the car or Maud taking down her hair, but Lillie closed her eyes. Her body shivered in the heat.
“You guys are crazy,” she said.
“Take your hair down too,” Neal asked.
As if this was the next step, natural, a Pas de Trois, things that sixteen-year-old dancers performed together, Lillie turned toward the back seat. She untied her bun. Her shoulder blades rammed against the dashboard. Maud ran her fingers through Lillie’s sprayed hair. Neal sat immobile and watched. Maybe because it was nightfall and because she’d had a crush on him for months, Lillie wanted to impress him. She wanted to do something electric, something that would make Neal like her more than Maud.
She began an elaborate striptease. Tentative at first, Lillie dropped the spaghetti straps of her leotard onto her shoulders, then she unhooked her ballet skirt, but the tingle of Maud’s fingers sliding through her hair made her more daring. She slipped her leotard down to her hips, revealing her pale breasts—two moons, glowing in the car.
“Nine,” Neal whispered.
“Why not a ten?” Maud said.
“A ten only if I can touch them.”
“No way, Cowboy.” Abruptly, Maud turned to Lillie and added, “Pull up your stuff. Lesson’s over.”
On the way home that night, Lillie and Maud did not speak. All the windows stayed down. Maud clutched the steering wheel. Neal’s ghost seemed to flutter above them, and the blue of his eyes took away the hunger toiling inside Lillie.
Their clandestine trips to the deserted parking lot improved Lillie’s self esteem. In the car, she and Neal never touched. Maud did not allow it. Some nights all they did was get out of the car, lay blankets down in the park, and talk. Neal sketched their body parts, Lillie’s back—its curve at the bottom. Maud’s foot, the steep rise of her arches. During the day, Lillie also wore cut-off jean shorts like Maud. When she passed Neal in the hallway, a wave of desire mixed with unease shot through her. Her hunger was more manageable too. She didn’t think of whipped cream and pastries anymore. Instead, Lillie thought of the Chevrolet, of the yellow air freshener Christmas tree dangling from the rearview mirror. She thought of the cicadas singing, of Neal’s leather bracelet inches from her skin, and of Maud, of the way they borrowed each other’s lip-gloss, how they shared cigarettes the way best friends did.
At the studio, Lillie laughed more easily too. She wore a bright red leotard to show off her figure. Neal said her hips and shoulders were like an hourglass. He liked her slightly rounded belly. He’d judged it a nine.
But one day, after jumps, after Ms. P congratulated Lillie on the height of her tour jetés, Maud moseyed over and said, while slapping saliva on the wisps of hair around her forehead, “Neal and I kissed yesterday. He pushed me against my locker. It was accidental. But we’re going steady now.”
The reflection Lillie had just seen, the nine of her belly and the red of her leotard turned sour, like a poorly executed pirouette. She wanted to throw up air.
“What do you mean steady?”
Maud placed her hands on her hips. “Steady, she said. “As in going out.”
During the rest of class, Lillie couldn’t concentrate. She fell from her attitude turns. She missed her fouettés. Ms. P dismissed her early.
That night at home, starving, she tossed and turned in her flimsy nightgown on her twin bed. Lillie hugged her sweaty pillow and felt the familiar surge of nightly longing she had for Neal. She imagined him in his ripped T-shirt, his fingers holding down her wrists, his leather bracelet scratching her skin. She imagined his mouth pressed inside her neck, how heavy he might feel pushing down against her. She also remembered Maud’s words: We kissed against a locker. Heat traveled through her body coiling up from her toes into her legs, between her hips. Lillie couldn’t tell what was real and what was not. Her pillow turned to flesh, her sheets to flames. She ran her palms under her nightgown, along her skin. Pearls of sweat pooled around her belly button. She let out a yell, one throaty sound that woke her mother and send her running to her room.
“What’s going on?” her mother asked.
Curled up on her bed, Lillie told her everything from the heat inside her, to the hunger, to the Kozziera event, to the parking lot, to Neal and Maud going steady.
“Now, now,” her mother said, stroking the hem of her nightgown. “Kissing someone’s crush is like stepping into a neighbor’s flowerbed. Stand up for your self,” she said. “Know what you want and go after it. Be brave. Eat a little. Dump Maud and apologize to Kozziera. Let the planet realign itself.”
That night, Lillie dreamed of Neal and of blood-red roses thrown on stage. When she woke, she knew what to do.
At ballet, she stole Maud’s place at the barre. It was low—the ultimate dancer’s blow, like shooting someone in the back. But Lillie stood tall as she opened her feet in first position. A blister rubbed against the inside of her right pointe shoe. She gritted her teeth and warmed up anyway. The studio was empty. Only the fan wheezed. As she pressed her chin toward her chest to stretch her nape, Lillie thought of Neal and Maud squished against his locker. Damn them.
She would stay in Maud’s spot, Velcro herself there if she had to. As she placed one heel up above her head snug inside her palm in a pied dans la main, dancers filed into the studio. Lillie stared at herself in the mirror. She debated if this was day twelve or thirteen of her diet. She placed her foot down and bent forward. Upside down, the brouhaha seemed to increase. Eat something, she could hear her mom’s plea. Yet, like sweat, it washed over her.
Minutes later, Maud hissed. “Out of my spot,” she ordered.
Lillie loosened her hips. After blood rushed to her brain, she rolled back up one vertebra at a time. Her ankles didn’t wobble. The room spun. Skin on Lillie’s blister stuck to her band-aid. Her stomach rumbled.
“I was first.” Lillie clutched the barre and faked a smile.
“Sweetie, I don’t share this spot.” Maud half-laughed, then dropped her bag against the wall. She releved in her new Frieds. “I already told you. Neal grabbed me.”
Lillie kept on stretching. Maud cursed under her breath but the piano started. Ms. P waltzed in the studio. Her purple tunic swooshed around her two hundred pound body.
“An adagio,” she said, her voice sandy. Turning to Maud, she added, “Adjust the loose strap from your shoulder.”
Loose, Lillie thought, but then she felt one hard push against her shoulder blades.
“Move,” Maud said.
“Your strap’s still off,” Lillie whispered as she scooted at most a half an inch forward. She smiled at Ms. P as they began their series of grand pliés.
Music filled the studio. Entranced by the eight-count rhythm, Lillie bent and swayed. She tried to focus on her craft. Her stomach rumbled again. She closed her eyes. What and when had she last eaten?
Ms. P brushed Lillie’s fingers “Get rid of tension.”
“Sorry,” Lillie exhaled. Out of habit, she watched for her friend’s reaction in the mirror.
Behind her, Maud rolled her eyes.
Lillie smirked back and loosened her fingers.
An apple she’d eaten that morning. Hidden in her mother’s California closet, Lillie sucked the sweet juice. She rubbed her hand on her ribs, counted how many bones poked out from above the line of her leotard. Four bones. One less than Maud. As she dropped into a back bend and opened her chest to the ceiling, Lillie felt skinny enough. Skinnier.
Ms. P walked by again. She lifted the fallen strap of Maud’s leotard back on her shoulder.
Maud moved her feet into fifth position as if to thank her. She tucked in her bottom and sucked her stomach. Her pointe shoes locked together like two pieces of a puzzle and the lines in the back of her tights shot down like arrows into the ground. She lifted both hands above her head. In her soft colored leotard, she looked almost translucent like a beam of light, blinding Lillie.
“Beautiful,” Ms. P murmured.
Beautiful? Lillie gagged. She let go of the barre and tried to find her balance.
“Are you done being a moron?” Maud whispered during a thirty-second break. Her cheeks were flushed.
In the hot studio, Lillie followed Ms. P’s exercise. It’s like digging in the neighbor’s flowerbeds, Lillie’s mother had said.
“Grand battements.” Ms. P threw an arm into the air, showing what a dancer’s leg should do. “Battre means to hit in French.” The purple of her tunic swayed around her thighs. “Your pointe shoe should break an imaginary brick as it swings. Lillie? Care to demonstrate?”
Lillie lifted her leg up and down, like scissors that cut through the air. She heard swoosh, followed by the fast thump of her shoe. She kept her chin up. This was one of her favorite movements because she felt divided. The top part of her body needed to feel light, poised, and graceful, while the bottom stood like a weapon, exploding with brute strength. She turned diagonal and kicked her leg back. But in that same instant, Maud leaned forward. Lillie slammed her leg against her friend at full speed.
“God, move! Damn it!” Maud shouted. Her eyes welled. “My hip!”
“Move? Where to?” Ms. P asked, her voice still sandy. Diamonds in her ears glimmered.
One of the boys rubbed Maud’s shoulder. “Still standing,” he said. People laughed. But Maud stood, her arms crossed over her chest. Lillie knew that before today she would have already apologized. She would have longed to be back in her friend’s good graces. But now, she waited for the power to shift.
“She hurt me, Ms. P.” Maud shook her head. All her unruly wisps danced around her forehead.
“If you’re unhappy you should move,” Ms. P replied. She walked toward the piano. “A waltz, Mary,” she added.
Everyone grabbed the barre. While Lillie should have felt a sense of victory or at least a boost to her dignity, wooziness overwhelmed her. I need juice. Her leg slid back and forth on the barre.
“Honestly, I didn’t think you had it in you to fight like this. You’re schizoid.” Out of breath, Maud stomped her feet and waited for center to start as if none of the fight had anything to do with her, as if she were the victim.
“You’re gonna blow our friendship over this?”
Lillie’s stomach lurched. For half a second, she felt bad, even guilty. But she remembered that she wasn’t the one who’d kissed Maud’s crush, and that she’d just bought Kozziera a brand new pair of tights with her own money.
“Whatever,” Lillie answered.
“Don’t whatever me.” Maud said. She pushed her arches as far over her pointe shoes as possible. “I thought I could count on you.”
Lillie tried to swallow. “You’re selfish.” She let go of the barre and slid down into the split.
“That’s not true,” Maud replied. “No wonder you’re anorexic or bulimic or sick. Neal says, ‘You’re so insecure, it’s sad.’”
Lillie lifted herself back off the ground to get water. The stars Neal had drawn once on her forearm danced like blotched ink above her head. Was she sick? Had Neal said that? The fan spun faster. Maud’s voice became strange as if a non-musician tried to blow into a saxophone. Lillie’s ears rung. She shut her eyes. Neal’s stars zoomed back and forth against a night sky. She tried to breathe but all she saw was the rosy pinks of Maud’s cheeks, her ribs protruding from the hem of her leotard. Schizoid, anorexic, bulimic, sad. Lillie cried. Her head ached. She felt herself pirouette into a thousand turns, then fell flat to the ground.
When Lillie opened her eyes, her head rested on Ms. P’s lap. She smelled the lavender oil her teacher wore and saw the line where her foundation stopped just below the fat on her jaw. Voices clamored around but Lillie couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Fainted, hungry, water, sip.
“Sip this,” Ms. P whispered. “It’s Sprite. You need sugar. Lillie?”
Lillie felt her head tilt back. Bubbles filled her mouth.
“She hasn’t been eating,” Maud said beside her.
Lillie pushed herself up. Ms. P sat her on the floor with the cool can between her hands.
“I know you want to lose weight. Do it wisely.” Ms. P touched Lillie’s chin with the tips of her fingers. “Congratulations. You got a new part. You’re a soloist in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Lillie nodded and gladly drank.
Minutes later, the studio was empty again, except for Maud who sat a foot away from Lillie. Her long legs were folded beneath her. Under her grey cover-ups, her hipbones jutted out like tiny triangles. Maud glanced at herself in the mirror, seemingly pleased with her reflection. “You scared the crap out of everyone.” She readjusted the clip in her hair. She slicked her wisps back. “Anyway, I have to go. We have rehearsal in the other studio.”
Lillie sipped from her drink. For one instant, she was grateful for Ms. P’s sandy voice, for the way the pianist earlier swayed her head to the music, for the three hundred and fifty bones in her body. How they lifted her up. And, for Studio A where Art, like a giant God, always presided. Lillie finished the last drop of soda, then stood up. In the mirror, the red of her leotard shone against her skin. She prepared her feet into fourth and pirouetted. She spotted, her eyes glued to the exit sign. Three clean turns. She held her right foot above her knee and froze. The tip of her Pointe shoe dug into the ground like a knife.
Maud clapped. “You’re not that sick.” She snarled, then swung the side door of the studio open.
In the lobby, a siren whined in the distance. New sheets of papers hung from the wall.
“Which part did you get?” Lillie asked.
Maud pointed to Lillie’s name. Next to it were the words: Lillie’s understudy. Maud’s name was written beneath it.
“I’ll give you back Neal, if you fake an injury,” Maud said.
“Neal doesn’t like me,” Lillie replied.
“He does like you. I was lying earlier.”
“Whatever,” Lillie answered.
But then, as she readjusted her red leotard and decided to eat the yogurt her mother packed and the saltines along with it, Lillie smiled. Life in the arts is not always fair, her mother also said. Lillie hung onto Neal’s post card blue eyes. She hung onto all his “nines” and onto the cicadas, the loud buzzing on those summer nights. Then, she led Maud into the other studio and everyone began rehearsing.