Books I Read This Month - July 2014

Room by Emma Donoghue

Whoa. This is a hugely powerful novel about a woman who was kidnapped at nineteen and held in a room for several years, repeatedly raped by her captor. It is told from the perspective of her five-year-old son, Jack, who was born in the room and has never been outside and never met anyone other than his mother and the kidnapper (from whom his mother fiercely protects him, never allowing the captor to speak to him or touch him). The writing perfectly captures what you’d expect to be going on in his mind, since this is all he’s ever known, and it’s evident that the author did a lot of research about developmental psychology. The first half of the book is creepy, since the reader gets hints of what's going on based on narrator Jack's observations, and the second half is heart-wrenching. Through Jack's eyes, we are shown some of the things in our world, often socially, that are strange and constructed rather than psychologically innate. It’s fast-paced and emotionally moving. Very much recommended.

The Abominable by Dan Simmons

Three men are sent on a mission to climb Mount Everest to uncover the body of a man who went missing on a climb the year before. But when they get there, they realize their mission is not quite what they thought. The book is very long and split into three sections. The first part details their preparation and is interesting, though it made me impatient wondering when they would start the trip; the second part details their climb, which is also interesting but doesn't yet include the suspenseful elements that the description of the book claims; and the third part details a scary chase up and down the mountain by creatures which the climbers must identify and attempt to escape from before they are killed. The legend of yetis is used here in a terrifying way, and the historical details in all three parts (especially the first and third) add a lot of depth and meaning to the plot. I found this to be an adventurous (albeit long) book, and I'd recommended for people who like big travel stories.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

I’d been meaning to read this for a while, since Upton Sinclair was in his twenties when he wrote this (and I am also in my twenties), and it contributed to economic and environmental social movements. I can definitely see why it is considered a classic, as it follows an immigrant’s journey from his arrival in the US through his adulthood, which consists of many up and downs through poverty, success, tragedy, happiness, and more. His life is a roller coaster, which at times seems unrealistic, but the plot works perfectly for conveying Sinclair’s political and social messages. The narrative is also largely "told" rather than "shown" in its writing style, making it extremely plot-driven and lacking in emotional depth (except when discussing the main character's family, who goes through some heart-breaking experiences). Otherwise, it is a fascinating look at poverty, immigration, and labor unions in the US.

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

The front cover of this book and the description make this sound like a steampunk novel, with a lot of sci-fi elements, but it’s really not. It’s an extraordinary and fun adventure in the vein of Jules Verne or Charles Dickens. Set in Victorian England and following three main characters who each deal with time travel and romance in some way, this book is seriously fun. It’s split into three parts that each can stand alone as individual stories, but when straight through, they create a tapestry of a story where all the parts fit together. The characters and their dilemmas are unique, often hilarious, and sometimes over-the-top romantic. Anyone who loves a good time travel story will adore this.

Dancing in the In-Between, Part 4 of 4 (A Summer of Flash Fiction #9)

The days ticked slowly by. I hid in the embrace of my blankets and left my room only for necessities, the food I prodded with a fork and destroyed with its prongs, the bathroom which used to give me a prickle of bitterness but which now left me angry and empty each time I walked in. No attempts were made by my parents to help me reconcile my sorrow—even they knew it was futile. What they did discuss with each other and try to discuss with me was the choice I would have to make now. They presented me with options: returning to public school and attending the dance studio I went to before; other all girls academies which weren't as prestigious and where I would have to continue to hide; a place called the Havenwood Dance Academy, the only coed teen institute in New York, extremely prestigious, like Frieda, but offering no scholarships or lead roles for first-year students.

Nothing was as good as Frieda, and no one would want someone like me. This indelible stuckness encroached on my each and every day, each minute dripping with a truth I knew I would soon have to face: I could never enter a dance studio again. Returning to the public high school would be my fate, the boring, dreadful, mind-numbing fate I, the bumbling, masculine monster, deserved. Though even going back to school, facing my old friends and teachers, would be a humiliation in itself. I had been set up, since the day of my birth, to fail.

During the following three weeks, I was out of school, luckily—only in the sense that I wasn't missing many lessons—as they coincided with the week off for autumn break, my relatives meeting up for a Thanksgiving feast, me laying low through the whirlwind of cousins and aunts and uncles spinning through the house. The children played tag throughout the labyrinthine living room and kitchen. They moved so swiftly it seemed, it was a wonder they ever caught each other at all—or perhaps it was me who was moving in slow motion. The adults helped cook and drank wine, inviting me to join, but I opted to stand around, sit around, watch movies, trying not to think of ballet.

When the holiday was over and my cousins all returned home, the cleanup seemed to emulate a metaphysical process of recovery. I swept up the kitchen floor, its renewed sheen catching a ray like the last glint of a metal ballet bar before the evening sun drops beneath the window ledge. We removed and threw away any evidence that the messy family had ever been there, just as I attempted to destroy any final thoughts of Frieda and Miranda and that young man in the front row who could have, in another life, been my artful soul mate.

The cleanup was done, and I went to bed, imagining what my life would be like in these next few years without my daily dance practice. But without the tinkling of piano keys and tapping of wooden-toed shoes against the plastic-covered floor, I realized that night, my life would be devoid of meaning.

The next morning, huddled in my blankets, I heard the sweet lullaby of the chickadees and finches. Those peaceful chirping birds outside my window as I woke to the pleasant sun created the same atmosphere I felt when witnessing a gracefully extended limb penetrating an audience’s awed breath. As I imbibed through my skin the warmth of the sun, streaming in through the translucent lavender silk of my curtains, I knew I could never feel this early morning bliss if I did not have a day of dance ahead of me.

I didn't need to know my identity as a woman or a man, as a dancer, as a friend, lover, daughter, or son; I knew my identity as a human person. I realized it was unnecessary to feel the need to get the lead in the ballet, to be the center of everyone’s attention. I was satisfied to be a background dancer, as long as I had a chance to take part. Each dancer is necessary to complete the flow of the final artful dance. Each tiny metal gear plays a significant role in turning the hands of Big Ben. There was no need for desire, for ambition; if I could be at peace with myself and my situation, then my goals would already be achieved. All the world’s a stage, Shakespeare once said; but with the pale pink lace string up tight around my ankles, the black leotard hugging my ribs, the pins stretching the hairs from my scalp into the perfect bun, the stage was the only stage in the world.

I swung my feet over the side of my bed, like I’d done so many times before, but it was an act I now performed with a reaffirmed sense of grace. As I approached the kitchen, seeking out the welcome greeting of a cool glass of orange juice, I heard some dishes softly clatter in the sink. A heavy footstep echoed through the dining room, followed by the soft clink of a wedding-ringed hand landing on a doorknob.

Today was the day, it seemed, that my father had decided to approach the local public high school for registration paperwork, the day that he would laconically give up on me—unless I changed my mind: the Havenwood Dance Academy application lay bare on the kitchen table. My father’s hand was on the porch door doorknob, but he waited—when I cleared my throat, and he saw me in the archway between the foyer and the kitchen—as if he knew I still had something to say. His back to me, he took in a breath, and I watched his torso expand as the air filled his lungs, so much warmer than the deliberate, almost robotic breaths of a dancer.

“Wait,” I said, turning to my right and leaning slightly to open the smallest top drawer embedded in the kitchen counter. “There’s a thing I need to do.” Once I had the small item in my hand, I slid the drawer closed. He turned to face me once again.

I took a deep breath and smiled. “Will you help me?”

He hesitated, searching my gaze for a decision, and when he saw that it was really what I wanted, he let go of the doorknob and took the pen from my hand.

After I moved to the Havenwood Dance Academy dorms, I did not keep in touch with Miranda, nor with any of the other girls. I knew, though, that she would continue to dance with every beat of her heart, with every rise and set of the sun; she would dance in order to hold onto that feeling elicited from the audience’s first quick intake of breath as the dancers leap into the air. She would hold onto that freeing moment, and rightly so.

If you were to see me now, upon the Havenwood stage, you would never know that I am different. Male and female dancers both shave their legs and underarms and are both thin and wear tights and make-up just the same. We both move with the same grace, we practice with the same vigor, and we jump with the same desire to reach the sky.

Dancing in the In-Between, Part 3 of 4 (A Summer of Flash Fiction #8)

I woke in the morning to the sound of my alarm clock buzzing a hearty, generic squawk. Groaning, I rolled over to see the numbers flashing quarter after eight. The blankets exploded off my body, and my legs scrambled over the side of the bed without me even acknowledging the intention to do so until I had smashed the clock’s button and found myself in the tiny bathroom I shared with Miranda, yanking out a foot of sturdy tape and scouring the toiletry cabinet for hairpins. I slicked back my hair—now greasy from not having showered after the show last night—into a bun the best I could while shoving my legs into my pale pink tights and rinsing away the leftover makeup that had smeared across my face in my sleep, like a camera capturing a moving person gliding mysteriously across a backdrop.

I snatched my ballet shoes from my bag, which still sat in a lump on the floor next to the door, and I ran outside, leaping from the dorms to the practice studio the building over in time for our daily eight thirty class. The familiar scent of chalked-up dance shoes blending with the rubbery floor pervaded my senses, slowing my speed as I reached the studio entryway and slid inside, in time to meet the other dancers while they laced the faded pink silk around their ankles, winding it around their steel-hard calves. I landed on the floor with a quiet plop, banging my pelvis sharply against the wood that masqueraded as an inviting black plastic floor.

Shoving my toes inside my shoes, I glanced warily around the room, searching for Miranda. She hadn’t woken me, as she had gotten used to doing in these past few weeks as my teenage—“normal, but annoying,” as my mother called it—sleep cycle had shifted. I saw her, already standing at the bar, next to our fellow dancer Katherine, whispering something under her breath, an ugly smirk encroaching on her naturally succulent lips. I could not discern from the shape of her mouth what she was saying, but gaging by Katherine’s stark reaction—eyes wide, hand delicately placed in front of open mouth, eyes darting and seeking me out—it was nothing I would have liked to hear.

Katherine’s expression of horror, Miranda’s of sly exploitation, burned into my mind, but, as it turned out, the image did not require my memory, as it repeated itself infinitely over the following handful of days. These were the expressions that riddled my routine for the next week, stifled gasps, likely spread by the flaky command of “don’t tell it you know” and the rebellious urge to expose the truth to any of the other girls. The whispers infiltrated my every day, but no one confronted me. I returned to the dorm room to find Miranda either gone or already sound asleep. I knew the girls were talking about me, but not an unambiguous word was spoken. They dodged my gaze, they snickered, and, the most humiliating of all, they looked afraid.

But only one week after the incident with Miranda, after one week of hardly seeing her, not speaking to her at all, I was sent for by the president of the academy, the secretary finding me in my room after dinner and asking me to come to his office. She led me to the office building, across the campus and down a long hall, and when she opened the door and ushered me in, he sat there in his big chair with his bald head shining and his hands folded nervously on his desk over a thin manila-enveloped file. The secretary closed the door, leaving me there alone with the president, her comforting demeanor outside that dark and heavy office door, though, transmuted by her curiosity, and she was undoubtedly pressing an ear up against the wood of the door.

A nod announced that I was meant to sit down, and the president heaved something I could only imagine was a regretful, anxious sigh.

“I’m afraid,” he began, “that some recent evidence has brought to our attention an incongruence with the academy’s policies.” Already understanding what was about to happen, my eyes began prematurely to fill with haphazard yet perhaps long-anticipated tears. He continued, “We can, unfortunately, no longer offer you placement at the Frieda L. Johnson Academy of Dance. We have no choice but to withdraw your scholarship and ask you peacefully to vacate your position here.”

“What?” I choked, it seemed, on the constriction of my throat. The tears began pouring out, burning my eyes as if someone were holding a match to them. They boiled over and spilled onto my cheeks, my vision going blurry. “I don’t understand,” I sputtered. “Why are you doing this now?” I’d had one of the biggest parts in the last performance, and I had the promise of the lead role in the next. To leave now would be career suicide.

He cleared his throat, looking at the file on his desk, then toward the office’s window to his left, covered by a heavy, maroon curtain that blocked out all distracting sunlight, then back to the file, with which he fiddled, his pudgy fingers ever so slightly shaking; he looked anywhere but at me. “The Frieda L. Johnson Academy of Dance is a female-only institution, and I am afraid you do not qualify.”

“But I’m a girl,” I insisted, though I knew it was futile.

He shuffled the papers on his desk and lifted one from the pile. “The records sent by your physician,” he said, pretending to read the page, “indicated that you were in fact female. But we received some complaints from several students, which provoked us to reach out to your parents. They permitted us to look at your birth certificate. It tells us that you are not female.”

He couldn't look at me, even as he said it. He couldn't reveal to me the disgust that he felt at my presence. His awkward shuffling of papers, his scratchy clearing of his throat, his compulsive, intermittent rubbing of the underside of his nose—all of these behaviors attested to me his belief that I was less than human. And if he, the president of the institution which I had entrusted to designate my future, believed it, then who was to say otherwise?

By the time my disheartened parents arrived that evening to collect me, I had resigned myself to a life of rejection, humiliation, and disappointment. No ballet elite would ever accept me in my physical condition. No normal girls would ever attempt to befriend me without some form of curiosity attached. No boy would ever find me attractive unless intrigued by my body as a novelty act. It would be best if I hid in my bedroom and sulked, perhaps beginning an odd collection of hoarded stamps, or taking in a hundred stray cats, or tending to a jungle of plants. I could easily have settled on becoming the crazy witch who lived in the Gothic mansion at the end of the street.

My parents helped me pack up my dorm room, placing my dancewear and regular clothes in a big box, tossing my school papers into another, tucking knickknacks and jewelry into the crevices of those boxes. Though I hadn’t expected her to, I had at least hoped that Miranda would see me off, would at least come help me pack up my things; but I realized as I taped up the box of my dance performance costumes that there were no goodbyes to be had.

To the car, my mother carried the packages of my street clothes and miscellaneous items, my father carried my bedside table, the drawers filled with trinkets and makeup and textbooks, and I carried the box of costumes—filled with frilly pinks and purples, sexy reds and blacks, and sweet, lacy sky blues and pale yellows; these costumes I had worn with pride, letting their airy fabrics glance against my skin, but today, I realized, all donned together in one big box, they all felt so, so heavy.

We walked as a sad, sulking trio toward the car, my father futilely fuming, though only on my behalf. “We should sue,” he said. “Or petition to get you back in.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want to go back. They wanted to get rid of me. I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted.”

“We should sue,” he repeated. The words sounded like an empty threat as they echoed through the parking lot. The prospect of taking the institute to court was thrilling, but we were not likely to succeed. And I just wanted to get away, to forget about the Frieda L. Johnson Academy of Dance altogether.

The car ride home was difficult, as I slumped in the back with headphones blaring macabre symphonies into my ears, though I was faced with a familiar sort of compassion in my parents. My father was gentle, his shoulders stiffly supporting the weight my incident had heaved onto him, his hands revealing a particular strength as he steered us toward our home. My mother cried silently in the passenger seat, shedding delicate tears for the loss of her child’s ability to pursue a long-held dream. But they both stared forward, blank-faced, out at the road weaving ahead, as if they were resigned, having known that something like this was bound to have happened eventually.

Arriving home a few minutes after midnight, we drowsily slinked into the house, my parents retreating to the lamp-lit den to whisper about what to do with me now, me retreating to my big, empty bedroom upstairs, in which I had not set foot in the four months that I had been living at the academy.

There wasn't much to say, as I knew what they had both thought of me since the day I was born—having waited for the discovery of whether I was a boy or a girl, only to be surprised to find I was both … or neither: I baffled them. That was the truth of it.

Dancing in the In-Between, Part 2 of 4 (A Summer of Flash Fiction #7)

The excited shouts of praise continued even as we filed out of the dressing room—likely leaving behind a forgotten ribbon or a smattering of hairpins—and into the wide hallway to greet various members of the audience and wave hello to those we recognized. With Miranda’s fierce and fearful eyes painted in my vision, the chaos of the lobby sounded muffled, as if I had cotton in my ears. A bright smile I pasted to my face, swearing to myself that the tears, if anyone asked, were of joy. Some gorgeously-garbed people hung around, conversing with dancers and fellow voyeurs, and after a middle-aged woman patted me on the shoulder and congratulated me, I saw across the crowded room the glorious face of that young man from the front row. My hand lifted, unconsciously, but I couldn’t go through with approaching him to ask what he thought of my performance, not after the episode with Miranda in the back room.

Before I could change my mind, he was out the door, and I watched the soft skin of the back of his creamy neck wrinkle as he turned his head to the left, hearing another handsome young man say, “There you are, Harry,” and grasp his hand.

Spinning around toward the north exit to avoid torturing myself further with their affection, I brought my attention back to the other dancers. Most had begun to lose that post-performance glow, and a few of them eyed the north exit that led back to the dormitories. Miranda was nowhere to be seen, likely having already left. Hesitant, though I knew I had nowhere else to sleep except in the room I shared with her, I inched my way to the door. I pushed it open, my heavy dance bag slung over my shoulder, and met the cool breeze of New York’s autumn night. The sun had only just set, leaving behind a residue of majestic pinks and oranges splayed across the horizon. I yearned to make the lonesome walk back to the dorms as long as I could. Not certain what Miranda would say or do when I returned, I went over some vague possibilities in my head: she could ignore me (not probable, due to her outgoing nature), she could express distaste, perhaps anger (possible—she was a feisty girl), or she could inquire and chat, inciting the intimate confidence of a good friend (what I hoped for, but of which I was also terribly afraid; I had never been so close to anyone in my mere sixteen years).

As I walked along the winding concrete path, under the sidewalk’s lamplight, I recalled my elementary school years, when my male friends and their parents referred to me as “just one of the boys” when I joked with them crudely, still searching for the side of the binary to which I belonged. The boys were my experiment, and, at the time, ballet was too, though it soon morphed into my passion. Puberty exacerbated my physical tragedies but planted me firmly on the female side of the line. None of my friends were ever aware of my circumstance. But perhaps Miranda would understand.

The lights bordering the path led me to the dorm building, where I regrettably found myself at the doorstep of my and Miranda’s room, having traversed there on autopilot, those few minutes of my journey slipping out of my memory. Taking a deep breath, I turned the doorknob and entered the place I called home but which tonight did not feel like one.

To my surprise, Miranda sat on her bed, her legs dangling over the sides, leaning back and using her hands to support herself. Her bare feet swayed slightly, grazing the blue and purple polka dotted duvet and generating ripples that rolled through the fabric. When the door clicked closed, she turned her head to look at me, and a friendly yet wary smile snuck over her lips. Her hair was already free from its binding hairpins, laying out across her shoulders, black and sleek, the creases from her bun still evident—these were constant nuisances for dancers, these pleats that remained for days after washing one’s hair, like the indents left pressed into soft chairs even after standing and walking away.

“Nicola,” she said. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, but can we talk?”

I lowered my dance bag to the light brown tile floor—made to look like wood—but did not yet approach her. With an expression of forced ambivalence she urged me toward her. I shocked myself when I found my feet moving, slipping off the flip-flops I’d worn for travel between the buildings. My dark purple quilt was shoved hastily to the end of my bed, evidence of my having struggled to wake up at the second slamming of the snooze that morning, something that had become a habit for me in the past few months. I settled on my bed, facing her, my now bare feet also brushing against the blankets that dangled over the edge.

“Can I ask?” Miranda said. “I know we haven’t known each other very long, but can I ask you about … about you?”

I’d been anxious about the arrival of this day, when someone besides family would discover my deformity and inquire. I’d imagined explosions of disgust, hideous laughter, cruel exclusion, but friendly curiosity was not something I’d believed could have happened; hoped, surely, but not anticipated.

“I guess so,” I said, staring at my feet. Blisters orbed on the sides of my big toes, but I did not feel them any more.

“First, the obvious.” She let out an awkward chortle, belittling the legitimacy of her own question. “You are a girl, right?”


“Are you sure?”

No amount of preparation, no hours of practicing a speech on biology, of probing my own emotions and instincts, could have unearthed the best response to this. “There’s a difference between my brain and my body, I think,” I said. “I was born with both parts, and my parents were afraid to choose a surgery for me, in case they got it wrong. Most people like me turn out to be girls, but they didn’t want to risk it. My brain tells me I’m a girl, but my body is stuck like this for now. I’m not able to have the surgery now until I’m eighteen.”

“So it is what I thought it was?” Astonished, her eyes grew wide. “What’s it like?”

“I don’t know,” I said with a blush. “I’ve been like this my whole life. I don’t really have anything to compare it to.”

Her lip curled into a frown but then bounced back like elastic to a warm smirk. “No, I guess you wouldn’t.”

“I’m meant to be a girl,” I continued. “One hundred percent a girl. I think girl thoughts and like girly stuff. I wish I didn’t have this thing.”

“Thing,” Miranda chuckled. “Do you really think of it as just some extra thing? I’m sure it has some advantages.”

Her comment was greeted with my loud, unexpected laugh. “No way.”

“I mean, what does it do?”

“Do?” I gulped, about to reveal something I never told anyone before. Might as well—I’d never discussed the matter with anyone before at all, besides the brief, annual interview from a doctor to check everything was working properly. “The normal stuff any boy’s can do, I guess,” I said with a shrug.

The thick of fog of misunderstanding cleaved between us; a moment of clarity arrived. As Miranda searched the air to capture a handful of words, I traced with my eyes the shape of her smooth shoulder. Her collarbone swooped from her shoulder into the fibers of her neck, the concavity of her skin around the bones begging for a gentle fingertip. This was a real girl’s shoulder, so soft and sensual. I burned with something akin to envy.

“Have you ever?” She paused. “You know.”

“What?” Heat rose in my gut. By her lowered chin and lifted gaze, inviting and penetrating, I knew the direction her investigation was headed. “No,” I answered before she could finish.

A playful roll of the eyes, a gentle hand on my knee, a light sigh at my naivety—her gestures indicated that the culminating objective of the conversation was imminent. “To be a true ballerina,” she said, “you have to have confidence in who you are as a person. You have to be comfortable in your own body. You don’t seem sure of yourself, Nick. You seem like you don’t feel like you know exactly who you are.” She leaned forward slightly, parting her moist lips. “But I know what you need.”

My first kiss, my first kiss, were the only words to crash through my thoughts, flashing like fire alarms, warning me. When she released, after only a second, I opened my eyes to see her looking at me with a bewitching, querying gaze. She nodded, ever so slightly, a question. In the absence of answer, I lifted my chin an inch, leaned in again, nothing at the forefront to impede me. If it wasn’t for the self-conscious flood of confusion resulting from the fear derived from the scene in the dressing room not one hour ago, the soft pressing of her lips against mine would have been pure bliss.

And then, across the darkness of my closed eyelids flashed the marvelous face of that handsome young man in the front row of the auditorium that evening, jovial and sultry, perhaps about to wink. I felt Miranda’s hand against my leg, sliding gently toward the thing. A warmth rushed into my lap.

“Stop,” I said abruptly, louder than intended. It came out as a gargle; I swallowed the lump that had grown large in my throat. “Stop, please,” I repeated, gentler this time. “This isn’t what I want.”

Miranda looked up at me, her eyebrows knitted together, her brown eyes narrowed and boring into mine. “It’s not?” she snapped.

“No. I- I like men.”

She sat up abruptly, pushing the blanket away to expose her body and mine, half clothed—our leotards and tiny shorts seemed now, more than ever, like whorish, condescending garbs intended only to attract the attention of hungry, women-seeking, masculine men. The vindication in Miranda’s eyes seemed to dissipate, revealing a sensitivity I didn’t know she was capable of possessing. But her face quickly hardened again.

“Do you?” she said, more of a statement then a question. “I thought I knew you, but I guess I was wrong. Maybe you are just an awkward, stiff loser of a girl then.” She snorted in attempt to sound derisive and mocking, but there was a definite slurp of wet in the noise, her rejected emotions betraying her. “No, you’re not a girl. You’re a freak.”

With that she turned away from me, returning to her own bed, laying on her side, and pulling the blanket up to her chin. She reached back to switch off the lamp, not bothering to put on her pajamas. In the dark, I listened to her breath slow, passing from lively to sleeping in only a few minutes. I rolled onto my side to look out the window to watch the stars, realizing that at this time of night it was impossible to determine the line between sky and sea.

My Short Story "Choice" Was Published Today!

My short story "Choice" was published today on S/tick magazine's blog. I'd love to hear your comments! S/tick is a feminist magazine based in Canada. My story fits with their mission because the subject of the story is a contemporary feminist topic. I feel like I should mention that my story is not based in experience, as it is a sort of controversial topic. I hope you enjoy it, if you venture over to read it.

Thank you!

Dancing in the In-Between, Part 1 of 4 (A Summer of Flash Fiction #6)

We, the ballet dancers Frieda L. Johnson Academy of Dance, reached together, across the warm air of the auditorium, sweat sliding gently down our temples, and as I followed the line beyond my fingertips that unfurled over the audience, I allowed myself one secretive peek at the front row, their mouths agape, forming plunderous smiles of joy. There was always one in that first row whose gaze penetrated the guise of the performance, who saw the truth of the ballet. This time it was a young man, not much older than twenty, with skin that looked as soft as a ballerina’s lace. He appeared to be in a trance, mesmerized by our movements, our thin, muscular legs and arms, our identical pastel lavender costumes and taut, pulled back hair, the lightness of our steps on the creaking black plastic-covered wood of the stage. His wide eyes sparkled with awe, and I found myself drawn to him.

Yet, my gay-dar shot through the roof. There was something about him, his atmosphere, his aura, which let off an effeminate vibe, an out-of-sync-ness I could smell from a mile away—and of which I was severely acquainted.

I leapt forward across the stage with the next lift of the music, as it had been choreographed, sending my energy through the fibers of my outstretched legs and out my pointed toes. I heard the audience’s blissful intake of breath while I hesitated in the air, and then the exhale of their pleasant sigh as I landed gracefully with a delicate, extended arm on the last note of the piano’s melody. Though my gaze was centered beyond the tips of my fingers, I could discern from the direction of the sound that it was that epicene young man in the front row who began the round of applause, his hands meeting each other first, before any other member of the audience had lifted theirs. I could not cede control of the enlivened smile I found emerging from my lips.

An audience of enthusiastic ballet-lovers like him elevated the act of performing to new heights: we weren't doing it for ourselves, for our choreographers, for the pianist, for our parents—we were doing it for those who observed and absorbed themselves into our art, who saw beauty and meaning in our expressive movements. The only meaning our distant yet proud parents could derive from a perfect dance was a sense of achievement, that the being to whom they gave life could give life to others.

Far across the reaches of New York, in a small, quiet, green community, my parents sat on their wooden kitchen table chairs, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee and dreaming of a mystical land beyond the hills, where their one and only child glided and whirled across a stage. They remained there, attending their office jobs and going to dinner parties for friends, only vaguely aware of the greatness their sixteen-year-old ballet dancer was achieving.

Flitting behind the curtain, I found my greatness, my skill. I hid myself behind its velvety gloss and escaped into the blackness. Darkness swept over the stage as the lights edged on over the clapping audience, exposing to them the truth of their voyeurism. The dancers navigated the dimly lit backstage, their exalted whispers and the brushing of their soft soles kissing the floorboards supplanting the fading clatter of applause. They zipped through the thin corridor, anxious for light and the privilege of the dressing room, where, secluded from the audience, they could bolster their chatter and talk excitedly about the successful performance. But I embraced the darkness; in it, after the dance, I could see myself for who I truly was.

As soon as the dancers entered the dressing room, even before the heavy door was closed, they began stripping down to the essentials, preparing for the arrival of the family and friends who had come to see them. Bones were exposed through transparent skin, muscles’ sinews ebbing just beneath the smooth, pure layer that separated their flesh from the world.

The diet of infinite salads and the constant intake of lean proteins prevented us from accumulating excess body fat, from losing muscle mass. The hours of rigorous practice did things to the female body that any common woman would be repulsed by. Menstruation was scanty, though most dancers were relieved by this: no blood to seep through the thin layer of the leotard, no cramps to cripple them during rehearsal. Calves and quadriceps and biceps became bulky, masculine. Breasts shrank, hardened, disappeared. Most girls were regretful of this latter effect. They could deal with pain in the toes and hunger for birthday cake or chips, but when the thing that revealed them to be a woman withered, they no longer felt attractive to the opposite sex. They had to embrace the different sort of appeal in ballet.

I, however, was never comfortable with those things on my chest anyway. When they first began to grow, I danced them away. They didn't feel like they were a part of me. They didn't belong on me. Ballet was my outlet, my conduit to beauty, the thing that made me feminine. I didn't need breasts to reveal my femininity to the world.

But I did need the tape.

And the tape, I could feel, was slowly coming loose. After thirteen years of practice, I had perfected the process of taping, but this performance, that final leap, had exerted just enough force on my groin, had stretched my legs just enough, that the tape came undone, and the thing slipped out from my leotard, just as I rolled the fabric over my hips. It flopped out like a fish from a pond. I felt the warm flesh brush against my upper thigh.

A sharp gasp pierced my left ear, followed by my fellow dancer and dorm roommate, Miranda’s definitive voice spurt, “Nicola! What?” Her hushed query flushed my cheeks red. I turned to her, witnessing her terror, no doubt akin to my own. Curling over to hide it from any of the other dancers, I yanked the leotard back over my hip bones to remove the thing from view. I puddled to the floor, reaching into my bag to locate my shorts, avoiding Miranda’s eye.

“Nicola,” she whispered, leaning in close. “What are you?” Still sifting through my bag, my hands shaking, I swallowed my fear, only to find all my saliva had dried up. I averted my gaze, but Miranda’s quick arm squeezed my shoulder, urging my face toward hers. “Are you a boy?” Her eyes were wide, darting over me in horror, though pulsing with a secretive curiosity I could recognize in her quiet voice.

“No,” I said harshly. “I’m a girl.”

Through her teeth: “But you have a … a penis.”

“I just have both.” My fingers found the soft cloth of my shorts, which I ripped from the bag and placed in my lap. “Please don’t tell.”

She hesitated, then nodded, and I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I pushed my legs into the shorts and stood. As I looked down at her to judge her reaction and her promise, I did not see an expression of understanding but rather a look of sly, internal inquisition, as though she were sharing a secret joy with an invisible best friend whose identity I would never know.

IWSG - Just Doubt

For the first time, my insecurity I’m writing about in my insecure writers’ post does not stem from me not having the time, energy, or will to write. For that I am immensely grateful. Instead, my insecurity is coming from me having nothing stopping me aside from myself.

I have graduated from college, so, even though I’m now working full time, I have more time to write now than I ever have before. I’ve been slowly finishing up and removing other responsibilities in my life in order to make more room for writing and reading, essentially simplifying my life to keep myself focused. This means I have to use my time wisely, obviously.

The thing I’ve noticed about myself in this regard is that I’m a major procrastinator. I’ll look at the empty page for a minute and feel dread at writing, then go check Twitter. But, if I set my mind to it, as soon as I start writing and get a sentence or two on the page for the day, the words just spill out. It’s the starting that’s hard. The rest comes easily.

Now, though, it’s my skill that will hold me back. It’s only the “my writing’s not good enough” that’s holding me back. I have time, I have will, I have energy. It’s only my own doubt that’s preventing myself from writing, and from practicing in order to get better. I’m realizing that I was only using time and energy as excuses before. So now, I must write, and not be afraid. Maybe it will get me somewhere some day?

Peace, Aimee