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.