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.