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The tan, leathery ballet shoes, the exteriors folded and crinkled like little smiles, now take refuge in the blackness of the back of my closet; the slightest touch of pink edging through little mounds of clothes. They’re nothing fancy. Not the silk, adamantly structured point shoes with the long, winding laces that snake up one’s leg in crisscrosses, but more of the pliable, soft-soled beginner’s shoe, forgiving and comforting to the wearer. It has a leather sole, with cotton lining, and a leather upper, whatever that is. Of course, that’s referring to the small rectangular tag inside of the lip of the right side. They were made in Thailand, too, not like that matters.
Placed directly down the centerline of the shoes, near the front, a little, tight knot stays positioned even after all these years. I still remember tying it instead of the usual bow, yet I never fully understood the necessity of this knot because a flexible strap of fabric was already in place to keep the shoe from falling off. The knot was cute though, in a strange, disorganized way that a six-year-old’s tying skill has. In fact, the entire shoe was fairly cute. Even if you smell the pair, not that I highly recommend it, it smells pleasantly of new car; delicate, intoxicating, making one nervous to destroy the fine line of cleanliness. It almost smells of innocence—I guess I was too young to sweat.
Written in big gold letters on the sole is the word BLOCH. It’s slightly ironic, really. All I want is to block out the memory of ever taking ballet classes in the first place, ever stepping foot into those shoes at all. I’m not exactly sure what motivated me to take ballet. I suppose it’s every little girl’s dream to become a prima ballerina at some point in her life, and this time was my time. Or maybe it was that picture…the one that had a filmy thin layer of dust over the glass frame, the one that had been neglected for so long. The same one with the strawberry blonde, large-eyed, stunning girl in it, gracing the scene with her presence, as her faint pink leotard clung tightly to every curve in a fourth arabesque on point. She was the ballerina I only ever imagined was real. But this is surely not the cause behind my ballet lessons. Surely it was not because of Aunt Stella.
I’ve really only met her once. It marked the decline in my love for ballet, for the person I met was not at all like the ballerina in the picture. This person was not the Aunt Stella I knew, this person’s voice sounded like a Texas accent spoken through broken glass, her body was circular, and he hair frizzy, dead, and coarse. Her eyes were slightly wilder than most people’s, her teeth a spotted shade of yellow. I was six and I knew something was wrong, for I rarely heard any mention of this particular aunt. I felt my dream failing me, I felt bad. She was nice, too, which made things worse. Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people.
Most of what I remember from ballet classes was the long periods of stretching, starring determinedly at a large wall of mirror, my face almost comical with focus. Every day, with the little pink shoes squeezing my feet in reassurance, I would ignore the taunts and teasing of my sisters, jealous no doubt, as I patiently continued to learn how to dance. Something deep within me wonders if Aunt Stella ever had this kind of focus; wonders if she ever tried as hard as me to ignore the prodding, pushing, plotting of peer pressure. I hope not, I really, truly hope not.
In one exercise I had to pretend I had a hat on my head, and I had to stand up very straight so that the hat wouldn’t fall off. I stood on tippy-toe, overcompensating my straight back. It was a good exercise and all, but the only problem was I couldn’t think of what type of hat I wanted on my head. The girl in front of me had one that soared upwards to the heavens, flamboyantly decorated with elaborate mixes of bananas, oranges, coconuts, and pineapples. The girl to the back of me had a French chef’s hat, large, white and poufy, but mine? I didn’t even want an imaginary hat on top of my head, because the moment I glanced at the mirror, the moment I came to terms with reality, I would see not the hat, not the princess ballerina I wanted to be, just the little girl in a ugly black leotard I was. Sometimes I a small voice in the back of mind asks me if that’s what stopped Stella’s dancing career, the inability to be confident in whom she was. I ignore it, because it’s not right. I tell it she was boiling over with confidence, too much of it at that, because she and I, we are different people, and different people have different futures. Really, we do.
It’s strange, but to this day, if I really try, I can still hear the soft patters of my ballet shoes on the black dance floor, still feel the symphony’s harmony pulsing through my body as the faces of parents turn to watch my class try to twist and turn like we are supposed to. I distinctly remember feeling like I was doing the steps correctly, too, but now watching six-year-olds dance I realize I was no professional. In my head, the audience was expecting great things from me, while the music’s sole purpose was to accompany me on my brave and beautiful journey into ballet, and yet I probably looked like a spaced-out, jelly-role pink body jumping in circles. But I felt like I was living up to their expectations, and it was, admittedly, addicting.
That nasty little something in me sometimes says that it cannot be that addicting, for if it was, why would Aunt Stella ever have found cocaine a equally comforting companion to become attached to? How could the pure little ballerina find such horrific escape from the world?
I reply that she couldn’t, she didn’t, she had to have always been a bad egg. The innocent don’t rot over night. It’s not right that one can be living peacefully and kindly, constantly climbing the ladder of success till you take that one missed step, one rejection from a New York dance school, that sends you crashing to the ground. It’s not fair, I tell the something—not real. She was always set on the wrong course, because she had to have been. After all, she and I, we are different people and we just must have different futures.
You know it’s funny, on each shoe, right at the toe, a little grey scuffmark contrasts nicely with the pink. I may not have taken ballet for long, but I think I remember making those scuffs purposefully, during one long afternoon. Our instructor, a lady with salt and pepper brown hair, defined cheek bones and crisp, rude voice, lined all us children up, and had us shovel our feet down and forward to pick up, once again, imaginary sand. We repeated this step a million times, and each time I became more frustrated, more anxious to leave. It was my own form of torture, a jail with no escape, just like the place Aunt Stella ended up in. I remember that I started to shovel more forcefully, harder and harder, a large disconnect between the music and I, but my young mind paid no attention. I began to swing my leg full-throttle towards the ground, annoyed as ever, my shoes smacking the floor noisily as the girls around me started to pick up their pace a little too, giggling. I think I may have been loosing control of myself entirely. The teacher took three long strides in my direction from across the room, glaring at me from under thinly plucked eyebrows. I stopped. I still have the scuffmarks, but I stopped.
If only Aunt Stella would have. Maybe then she wouldn’t have been stuck in a halfway house, faking injuries to receive pain medications for the rest of her life.
I lasted about ten weeks before I quit. One hundred hours of ballet, and I had received my final fill. I didn’t start because of Aunt Stella, I started because I wanted to, because I really truly wanted to, and I didn’t quit because I wanted to, I quit because I knew I had to. I was no ballerina. Neither is Stella, not anymore at least.
I still have the ballet shoes, though, sitting and starring up at me. Maybe they are coaxing me, urging me to try them on again and follow the dreams of a dancer; one with strawberry-blonde hair, large blue eyes, and an absolutely stunning fourth arabesque on point. But I don’t think so. I think they are a warning. A warning of how dangerous life can really be, how closely I need to guard each and every one of my dreams so that they don’t become nightmares.
Aunt Stella died a month ago of drug overdose. I didn’t attend the funeral. I still have my ballet shoes.