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That Girl from Stop and Shop
“If you don’t take chances,” said the man in the striped pajamas, “you might as well not be alive.”
I stopped bagging his groceries. I looked up at his scruffy face, into his dark gray eyes.
“What?” I asked him. But he didn’t respond. He just stared. But not at me, past me. And once he was done giving me his worldly advice, he picked up his bag, and stalked out of the store. I stared at his lean back as he walked away, until he was past the door, and all I could see was the orange spray paint graffiti that was plastered to the dirty window.
“Hello?” an annoyed voice buzzed in my ear. I turned my head, slowly, to see a lady sporting a brown bob, a suit that looked fresh from the dry cleaners, with a red leather brief case tucked under her arm. When I didn’t respond, she tried again.
“Look,” she said impatiently, “I have to get back to work, so can you please ring me up?” she shoved a debit card in my face.
“Oh yeah, sorry.” I mumbled, rang her up, and sighed.
Hopefully my boss didn’t see that. Or I would get docked for spacing on the job again. But at least this time, I had a good reason. Growing up in the city, you could say I’ve met my share of strange people. But I never had one actually give me advice before, and never, good advice at that. I breathed roughly through my nose. My life is getting more and more complicated.
The sound of Marcie’s feet scurried behind me.
“Sorry I’m late,” she squealed, “but you’ll never believe what happened to me!” I could barely understand what she was saying, because of the purple lollipop plopped inside her mouth.
“Jason called me!” Her bright blue eyes shone as she flipped her glossy blonde hair from side to side.
“Can you believe it?” she squealed again. And actually, I could believe it.
Marcie has always been pretty, much prettier than me. And even though she never admits it, she knows she’s pretty too. I sighed for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. Jealousy was just another thing that I could add to my complicated life. “No,” I said in a dull voice, “I really can’t, believe it.” She sensed something wrong with my voice and she cocked her head to one side.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. I wasn’t really in the mood to get into a long talk anyone, especially Marcie, about how my world seems to be spinning, like it was when I was 5 years old, and I would spin round and round on the merry-go-round until I threw up. Well, maybe not exactly that kind of spinning, but I still felt like I could throw up. “Nothing,” I put on a fake smile, “nothing is wrong at all” I said, making the understatement of the year.
“Okay,” she smiled, buying right into my lie, “Bye!” I waved to her as I walked out the Stop and Shop door.
My feet shuffled along the dark gray sidewalk as I bit at the straggling cuticle on my left pinky. It was lightly sprinkling rain, which reminded my of the time when my cousin Devin, who had a gift for comedy, sprinkled parmesan cheese on my head so I could be a snow fairy. Where he came up with those things, I had no idea, but God, were they funny. I smiled, like I always did when I thought about Devin. But like all good things in life, the memory soon ended, and I snapped back into reality. Has it been over two years since I’ve seen Devin? Probably. Ever since my mom had her “breakdown,” I haven’t really seen much of my family. I walked in silence, thinking about nothing in particular, when my foot got stuck in a crack on the sidewalk. I flew down onto the dripping sidewalk, and found myself face to face with yesterday’s issue of the Wall Street Journal. Damn! I tried to brush of most of the dirt from my jeans, which only smudged the dirt deeper into the seams. Great. Now my only pair of decent jeans was ruined. Could this day get any worse?
I trudged on, and trying to distract myself, I opened to page four of the paper. That’s when I saw it, the thing that changed my life, forever. It was an ad. But not just any ad. It had big bold letters and a picture of a beautiful ballerina in a flowing pink skirt. Her feet arched in a way that probably took years and years to perfect. The ad had this picture that stopped me dead in my tracks, and captivated me for several minutes, while the rain trickled down my cheek and splattered on my raggedy old Converse. It was an ad. For a dance class.
I ran the rest of the way to the bus shelter in the rain, the paper tucked under my arm. I plopped down on a cold, hard, bench next to a Hispanic lady. She had a crooked umbrella, hair that flowed down to her waist, and for some reason, she smelled like peach pie. She was gabbing into her phone in a language that I couldn’t understand. It was something about the way that the words flowed out of her mouth. She reminded me of the way my kindergarten teacher said “balloon.” She said it as if she were blowing bubbles. I quickly looked away, not wanting her to catch me staring. I was just about to pick up the paper again, when the screeching sound of the bus interrupted me.
There is something about the bus that I’ve always liked. Maybe it’s the way the stale seats crunches under my butt. Maybe it’s was the way the rain trickles down the windows. But either way, I find it so soothing.
Breathe in. Breathe out. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I braced myself for what I was about to do. I stopped right before the door of my third floor apartment. Then, with great hesitation, I jammed the spare key into the lock.
“Mom?” I called. My mother was doing that thing she did. That thing with the rag in the sink. “Mom?” I tried again.
“What Charlotte?” she yelled. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“My name is Charlie” I mumbled under my breath. She stopped automatically. Here we go.
“What did you just say?” she narrowed her eyes in a way that made me squirm.
“I said, my name is Charlie.”
“Oh, so your name's Charlie now, is it?” she added hastily.
“Yes mom. People have been calling me Charlie for about a year now.” I knew I had just hit a soft point. My mother closed her eyes. It’s something her therapist taught her to do. But really, even our next door neighbor, Lenora, who is form Israel, and doesn’t even speak English, knows to call me Charlie. I wanted to scream at my mom. But I didn’t because the only reason I was talking to my mom in the first place was because I was on a mission. “Mom, I have to ask you something.” I had to repeat my question again.
“What?” she said annoyed, without even opening her eyes.
“I want to take dance class.” Her eyes shot open.
“What?” she practically yelled.
“I want to take dance class” I repeated, even though I new it was useless.
“You want to take dance class? Are you crazy? Don’t you remember Helen, the girl that lived down the hall? Remember when she took dance class? And how after only two months, Helen decided to become an exotic dancer. No. No way in hell are you taking dance class!” she yelled, well on her way to a rampage. Yelling and using her hands. But, not like all the other times this has happened, I wasn’t going to back down.
“Mom,” I yelled back at her, “if you had come to any of my school plays you would understand how much dancing means to me! It’s my passion, I love it so much! Please Mom! I’ll do anything! And it’s free!” I lied. My grandfather lied to my grandmother. My dad lied to my mom. I guess it runs in the family. Then she through her dish towel on the floor, stomped over to me, stuck her finger right in my face.
“Don’t you dare yell at me.” She said. I wanted to cry. I wanted to shrivel up into a ball, until I completely disappeared. But before I could say or do anything else, she shoved me out of her way, grabbed her car keys, and slammed the door behind her as she stomped out.
“Have fun at the bar!” I screamed behind her. I sighed. All I could think was why is this happening? Why can’t my life just be normal? Why do I have to be the girl that everyone talks about and says “Oh that poor girl. First her father leaves and her mother goes absolutely insane.” Why did I have to grow up when I was ten? Why can’t I just be happy?
Ten minutes later I found myself outside, in the little ally way between two apartment buildings. I had my headphones shoved in my ears. So much anger balled up was inside me. So much hurt and hate. I was a balloon, about to explode because there was just too much air. With my fists balled up, and the rain cooling my face, I picked up one leg, and started to dance. With the music of my mind playing softly in my ears, I arched my feet ever so elegantly, picturing myself as the girl from the ad.
I kept on dancing there in the rain. Soon my legs began to shake from the cold. I was contemplating whether I should go inside or not, when I heard a noise. Was that someone talking? I pulled the headphones out of my ears and whipped my head around to see a boy leaned up against the cement wall.
“You could make a living doing that kind of thing.” he said. I supposed I could, but I had never really thought about it, until then. But reality struck and I wondered, “Who was this boy?” I’ve lived in the city long enough to know that talking to a strange boy in a dark ally, at God knows what time, probably isn’t the best idea.
“How long have you been there?” I asked. I couldn’t really see his face, and I was getting a little nervous. Was it normal to have strange boys watching you as you dance, and giving you advice? What was up with people giving me advice these days? Do I look that desperate?
“So how long have you been watching?” I asked him. “Long enough.” he said.
“Who are you?” I asked while taking a step back. He noticed my hesitation, and lifted his head up a little.
“Oh, sorry,” he sounded embarrassed, “I’m Erik. I just moved here,” He pointed to the apartment building across the street from mine, “I didn’t mean to scare you or anything.” He said with a grin.
“Okay… then, I’m Charlie,” I said as I stepped out of the ally way. “I live here.” I pointed to the building in front of us. Something about this whole scene, him watching me dance and all, made me think that I should have been embarrassed. But once I saw his face in the light, I felt something else. Erik was cute. You know the boy-next-door kind of cute with his shaggy dark hair and his blue-green eyes.
“I mean it,” he said probably mistaking the way I was staring at him for something else, “You are really good.”
“You should tell my mom that,” I grumbled under my breath. He looked at me curiously. Oh my God. Did I just say that? What was wrong with me? “Never mind,” I said. I took a step toward the stairs. I had to get out of there before I said something even worse.
“No wait” he said. “My mom teaches dance class and I think she would like you.”
“Dance class? Do you mean Kelly’s Dance Studios?” I asked, repeating the dance studios name from the ad.
“Yeah,” he said, “you’ve heard of it?” Trying to suppress my excitement, I kicked a half-eaten tangerine from the sidewalk.
“I just saw an ad for it actually. I asked my mom about it, but she said no.” I said dreadfully.
“Oh” he replied, sounding just as disappointed as I was. I stopped kicking the tangerine and looked up at him. Obviously, God was trying to tell me something. I just happen to run into the owner’s son of the dance studio that I would do anything to go to? And he just happens to be extremely cute? Suddenly my mind raced back to earlier that morning, to the words of the man in the striped pajamas. “If you don’t take chances,” the man had said, “you might as well not be alive.”
With new confidence, I turned to Erik and exclaimed “You know what? Forget my mom. Lets go check out your moms studio.” He laughed.
“I like the way you think” he said.
“Me too,” I thought.
The next day I found myself walking with Erik to his moms dance studio. It was a big brick building, and as I peered through the window, I could see the freshly waxed wood floors glistening under the fluorescent lights. I had painted my toenails just like the girl who teaches yoga form down the hall. The sticky raspberry yogurt that I had for breakfast was still at the tip of my tongue. And the spandex pants that I was wearing were riding up my backside. I felt completely overwhelmed. There I was, just standing there with my hand on the door handle, and was about to do the forbidden. I looked around trying to take it all in, trying to decide whether to turn the door handle or not. And that’s when I saw him. A man in a pair of striped pajamas that looked all too familiar. I looked up at his scruffy face that I had seen earlier yesterday morning. At the same scruffy face that had changed me. I looked into his dark gray eyes, and I swear, as I stood there, in front of that dance studio, defying all the things that I thought mattered: my father because he left, and my mother because she isn’t my mom anymore. I just wrapped them up in a ball and set them free like a butterfly from a cocoon. And I swear that at the very moment, the man in the striped pajamas winked at me.