Being The Shoes

February 7, 2010
It was getting to be my favorite part of an October day. I remember the sun was shooting through the spaces between the trees like fire beams and I was just an 11 year old lost in 11 year old thoughts. I remember the air had a bite to it; a promise of colder weather just around the corner and I was inhaling the blend of smells that made the irreplaceable one of fall. The smell of fallen leaves, the smell of pine needles, the smell of a bird’s flight south. I remember a lot of things about that day.
I opened the door to the James School of Dance in McLean and was greeted by a rush of noise. The familiar waiting room had shelves lined with pictures and trophies. Worn leather tap shoes and a small desk where Miss Anderson smiled at me. I grinned back as I carefully inscribed my name on the attendance sheet and then entered the main dance room. My friends and dance mates were already in there lacing up their jazz shoes, doing twirls and sashays in front of the mirror. “Natalie!” they called and my closest friend Jessica rushed over to join me on the floor where I was already busy lacing up my own dancing shoes. This was my favorite part of a Monday night. Where I could leave homework and my sixth grade woes behind and come to dance class like I had been since I was four years old. I would talk and laugh with Jessica and the others and dance with Miss Ally and forget everything with each turn, each pirouette, each lift. Tonight was to be no exception and as Jessica and I discussed animatedly our weekends while warming up we didn’t notice the tall new girl enter the room quietly and begin warming up on her own. Nobody noticed her until Miss Ally came in and clapped her hands loudly for us to gather around. “Everyone we have a new student today. She’s an exchange student from Frankfurt, Germany and she just moved here a few days ago. I want you all to be very nice to her,” she said, smiling encouragingly at the girl and then turning to give us a stern look. The girl smiled shyly at us saying softly and in a thick German accent, “Hi I’m Jenny.” “Natalie you will be Jenny’s dance partner for the June recital,” said Miss Ally and with a note of finality she turned on her shoes and went to start the warm up music. Just like that all the air deflated from my chest as I gave Jessica an annoyed look. I turned to look at the girl and looked her up and down, taking in her tall thin frame, her long golden hair, her gold sparkle polished fingernails, and all the way down to her strange choice of dance footwear. While the rest of us had on the standard black leather jazz shoes, this new girl, this “Jenny” was wearing a ratty old pair of rainbow sequin shoes. Despite their obvious wear, the shoes still reflected brilliantly the sequins of pink and green and gold and blue as Jenny moved across the polished dance floor to sit next to me. I rolled my eyes and stood up as the music began to play.
The first few dance classes we did not talk. I showed her the dance steps and she’d smile and laugh as she tried to get them right and I‘d smile tiredly at Jessica as she shot me funny faces and mocked Jenny from across the room. Each class without fail Jenny came wearing her worn sequin shoes, never seeming to care what people thought of her and how different she seemed from the rest of us. At break she’d sit alone and eat sausage out of a plastic bag that she kept in a red tin lunch box with German written all over it. The rest of us chewed on carrots and apples. No one ever really talked to her, including me.
One class in December, I came feeling upset and during the break I went to the bathroom and started to cry. When I came out, wiping my eyes and face with a tissue, the others were all in the dance room except for Jenny who was standing in the bathroom hallway. “Chocolate?” she said in her thick accent, holding a piece of some foreign candy bar out to me. “It’s good for bad day.” I stared at her a moment, taking in the scene of this strange girl I had never been nice to holding out a piece of chocolate to me. Then I reached out and took the chocolate, our fingertips brushing slightly as I did so. She smiled warmly at me. I took a bite of the chocolate. It was smooth and rich and melted on my tongue and suddenly her smile was contagious. I felt the corners of my own mouth stretch out with a mind of their own.
After that first moment in the bathroom hallway Jenny and I became fast friends. At break we sat and ate sausage together. During the dances I’d smile and laugh with her. I couldn’t always understand what she was trying to say and I couldn’t always understand what she was doing and why but it didn’t matter because she was fun and she was kind and what difference does culture make? One class I asked her where she got her shoes. “They were my grandmother’s. She was dancer too. She always used to tell me before she died that I should ‘be the shoes,’” replied Jenny. “Be the shoes?” I asked feeling my eye brows wrinkle in confusion. “Yes! You know. Be different. Be sparkly…be the shoes!” she said pointing at her sequin covered feet. I tipped my head back and laughed. I had never thought of it that way.
It was late April and as I ran from the parking lot to the dance studio there was rain pouring down and the wind was blowing petals from a nearby cherry blossom tree around me in a floral scented fury. I opened the door and signed in my name as usual and was greeted with complete silence in the dance studio. Everyone turned to stare at me as I walked in and I stared back, feeling a ball of confusion and anxiety take form in my stomach. Jenny had died in a canoeing accident on the Potomac. Jenny from Frankfurt, Germany with the sequin shoes and the chocolate and the sausages. Jenny my dance partner. Jenny my friend.
It is getting to be my favorite part of a summer’s day and it’s my first time back to the Potomac since it took Jenny’s life. The water is a mystery in the fading summer sunlight and I sit by it in quiet reflection, twisting in my hands a stem of velvet green grass. I lay back and watch the big puffy pink clouds of sunset drift lazily across the sky. I close my eyes and bring in the scent of barbeque and fresh cut grass. Of freedom and popsicles. I hold the smells close to me and think of how good a friend Jenny was. A pair of ducks drift by, their beady black eyes take me in and in the quiet a single thickly accented voice threads through my open mind: “Be the shoes.”

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