Helena's father walks with a limp.
It is, perhaps, the oldest piece of information she knows about him. She remembers not-knowing how he met her mother (at a friend's birthday party) and how he came to be an accountant (after the accident, when he could no longer dance, he learned his father's trade).
But she doesn't remember not-knowing about the car that clipped the back end of his bicycle in the roundabout, the fall that sent him spinning and destroying the joint and musculature of his hip.
As a child she is surprised to learn that most people's fathers walk with an even clop-clop-clop, not the clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop that she's heard every day of her life.
Helena receives a set of resistance bands for her eighth birthday.
In their hard, clear plastic packaging, she turns them in her hands. They are purple; she likes purple.
"So you can start getting ready for pointe," her father says, smiling.
In the living room, she sits on the floor with her legs outstretched and he shows her how to loop the bands behind the balls of her feet, ends pulled taut in her hands. She points her toes, then releases, one foot, than the other, back and forth. Twenty times each foot, her father says, and she'll be ready for pointe before anyone else in her class.
It is three months after her ninth birthday and her father has sent her to wait in the car while he talks to Miss Monica, her ballet instructor.
In the passenger seat she points her toes, one after the other. Then she curls her knees and lifts her feet to rest against the closed glove compartment. She turns her toes out, and out, and out, until her feet form a straight line. She imagines a line pointing straight from her right big toe, going all the way around the world until it reaches her left big toe and stops.
Miss Monica had smiled at her, today, and said she had lovely turnout in her feet. Miss Monica had the most beautiful red hair, Helena thought. When Miss Monica smiled at her, it made her want to do anything, everything, just to make her smile again.
She hears his clip-clop, clip-clop coming up the walkway, so she isn't surprised when the driver's door opens and her father drops into his seat.
"Feet off the dashboard," he says. "Watch your posture."
She drops her feet to the ground, brings her knees together, and sits up straight.
"You won't be taking ballet classes here anymore," he growls as he guides the car away from the curb.
Helena's head snaps over, fouetté. "What? No more ballet?"
"I didn't say that," her father says. "I said you won't be taking classes here, at Miss Monica's studio anymore."
Helena blinks. "But I like Miss Monica's class. She's nice and I like to stand at the barre beside Sophie."
Sophie sits next to her in History at school, too.
Her father sighs, softens. He reaches over and squeezes her shoulder. "Darling," he says, "don't you want to be the best ballerina you can be?"
Helena looks at his hand, then at his face, which gazes out onto the road. "Yes."
"Well, then it's time for you to move to a different studio that can help you be even better than you already are. All right?"
Helena thinks of Miss Monica's pale skin and freckles, the way her voice sings—down on "pli," up on "ée;" down on "je," up on "tée,"—like her words can push you and lift you up on their own. The way she smiles and says "well done, Helena!" when Helena's relevé streteches high, when she remembers to pull her shoulders back like she so often forgets.
But Helena wants to be the best. So she swallows, and she says, "Yes."
Helena is crouched on the stairs, her face pressed between the railings of the bannister.
She is supposed to be doing her homework for school, but her parents are talking in the kitchen, and they're talking about her.
"But what if Monica is right?" her mother is saying. "What if she's too young for pointe?"
"She's not too young for pointe," her father says. "The sooner she learns the technique, the easier it will be for her to master."
Helena jumps up when she hears the footsteps, but she's not quite quick enough as Charles comes thundering down the stairs behind her.
"Mother! Dad!" he yells, "Helena isn't doing her homework!"
"Prat!" Helena yells at him, before sprinting up to her room.
She flexes seventy-five times per foot with the resistance bands before sitting down to her maths problems.
Helena goes through four more ballet studios before they find one that will let her start pointe on her eleventh birthday.
"Finally," her father says.
But when she is thirteen he grows frustrated with that studio, too. He pulls her from all school at the end of the eighth grade and says, "You've got the foundation for me to teach you technique now," he says. "We'll do all your education at home. Ballet, academics, all of it."
It ends up being more ballet than academics. Helena takes to borrowing Sophie's books from class, and then Charles' textbooks from sixth form—biology, pre-calculus, anthologies of literature—and reading them in the evenings, while she sits with her feet in buckets of ice. Most of her days are spent in the basement of their house, where her father has gradually built a fully-equipped dance studio, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, smooth wooden floors, and a barre.
When she is fourteen, her father takes on one additional student: a boy named Steve, whose parents work for the American foreign service and are stationed in London for another two years.
"He's not bad," her father says. "He's quite good, when he wants to be. But you require a pas-de-deux training partner and he's a good match; beyond that, I can't say I'm all that worried about him."
"So, what else do you, like, do? In your free time?" Steve asks, one day, when her father has left the studio to fetch a different CD for your practice.
They are sitting side by side beneath the barre, leaning against the mirror. Helena shrugs. "Dance is about it," she says.
"Aww, come on," he says, and butts his elbow against hers. "You've got to have other things. Everyone does."
"I don't need other things," she shrugs. "I love ballet. That's enough for me."
He squints at her, then cocks his head to the side. "I don't think that's true," he says.
She hears her father's uneven footsteps coming back down the stairs, and she stands up. "It's true," she says, but she doesn't look back at Steve.
At fifteen, she's at the supermarket when she spies a red hair and pale skin she vaguely recognizes.
She approaches slowly. "Miss Monica?"
The woman turns and Helena knows it's her; she remembers her smile, her warm encouragement, her sing-songs of words.
Miss Monica smiles. "Yes?"
Helena grins. "I was your student. Awhile ago. When I was a kid."
Miss Monica cocks her head and furrows her brow and Helena wonders if the lines by her eyes are new, or if she just never noticed them. "I've had so very many students, over the years, I'm afraid…"
The rush of disappointment catches Helena off-guard. She swallows once, twice, and nods. "Yes. I… sorry. I shouldn't have bothered you." She pulls her fingers through her hair and turns to walk away, when—
Helena turns back.
"Your father. He wanted you in pointe when your feet were still growing."
And of course, she remembers Helena's father more than she remembers Helena herself, but warmth blurs through Helena's face, pushes up through her skin, just the same. She shrugs. "Probably," she says.
A lopsided smile pulls across Miss Monica's (always Miss Monica, to Helena, never just Monica; the title may as well be part of her name). She says, chuckling, "I'm glad to see you walking." Her eyes dart down over Helena's frame, then, evaluating the angle of her feet, the straightness of her spine, and she says, "I'm glad to see you're still dancing."
Helena says "I am, yes," and her fingers tangle together and she has forgotten, in this moment, what she was meant to buy at the store.
Miss Monica says, "Well, it was good to see you, Helena," and she turns and pushes her cart away.
When Helena is sixteen, Steve's family moves back to Washington DC.
At the end of their last practice together, she shakes his hand and wishes him good luck. He tips his head to the side, then reaches out and pulls her into a hug.
That night, she pulls the resistance bands around her toes and flexes, flexes, flexes until her calves cramp.
At twenty-two, she travels to Leeds to audition for the Northern Ballet. Her father comes with her and he watches from the theatre floor. She can feel his eyes gauging the verticality of her penché, the angle of her arabesque, the weightlessness of her jetées, the clarity of her smile.
At the hotel, that night, he growls, "Your second arabesque is unsteady, and how many times have I told you to work on your penché? You weren't vertical. You still aren't vertical. Fix it."
She spends thirty minutes stretching on the floor before she goes to bed.
The Northern Ballet accepts her as a corps dancer, imperfect penché and all.
The artistic director is named Caturanga and the first thing she says to him is "I've been working on my penché."
Caturanga smiles at her and says, "Penché is not what you need to work on."
Helena blinks, uncomprehending.
Caturanga pats her on the shoulder as he walks by and says, "You'll learn. Don't worry."
So she works. She has trained alone for years, between performances, and now must practice matching her movements to others; flowing with them to create the perfect patterned mass.
Every night, her father calls. "Are you still wobbling in the second arabesque? How is your penché?"
Another corps dancer, Wolcott—Woolly, she remembers—texts her one evening, ten days into rehearsal:
Nite out with some of the group. The Vic, behind town hall. Join us?
She blinks at the text, then glances over to where her resistance bands rest draped over the arm of a chair in the corner.
She smiles, grabs her jacket, and heads out.
The dancers cluster around tables in the back, the men with their tall pints of Guinness and ale and the women with smaller glasses of clear liquor. Helena orders vodka neat for its low calorie count and then takes the offered seat beside Wolcott.
There's talk of movies Helena hasn't seen, and news she's half-followed on the radio over breakfast. There are off-color jokes and ribbings and stories about ballet lessons and good teachers and bad teachers and everyone, everyone, has at least one tale involving participation in a production of The Nutcracker (Helena tells of the time she played Clara and the director had truly unreasonable expectations regarding how high a twelve-year-old could reasonably be expected to throw a shoe such that it might land squarely between the ears of a moving, dancing, fighting man in a mouse costume. She doesn't tell of how she and her father practiced every morning for weeks until her shoe bounced off the top of his bald head with every throw).
She goes out with the dancers again. And again. And she makes friends with their friends, and sometimes goes out with them, even when the other dancers stay home.
(Helena's father is not a priest but when she lets herself look she finds herself desperate, craving, thrilling to be free of the omnipresence of his eye. He is in Essex, and she is in Leeds, and it would take him hours, at the fastest, to travel to her. If she does not work with resistance bands against her feet every night, he will never, ever know.)
Her second arabesque does not improve. She begins to wobble in the third, too. She rehearses often with headaches that make it difficult for her to focus on the choreography.
The show goes on tour – just a short tour of the cities of northern England –and she finds places, finds people, even when the other dancers don't, even when they say they must stay home to be prepared for the following night's show or travel.
Helena goes out. She makes friends. When the urge overtakes her, she finds men or women and coaxes from them invitations for nights in their beds. She is honest: she is clear about her intentions and makes no promises she doesn't intend to keep; she enjoys herself with relatively few complications.
She knows the risks she's taking, she knows the irresponsibility, and those are the things that make it freeing.
When the tour ends, there is no hiatus; they move, immediately, into rehearsals for Swan Lake.
One day, in rehearsal, she is bent in penché when the urge to vomit overtakes her. She drops her leg and dashes to the toilet and vacates her stomach, empties it of the alcohol of the night before and the breakfast she'd forced down in an effort to soothe the roiling that had greeted her in the morning.
During a water break, later, Caturanga says sadly to her, "This is not the lesson I'd hoped you'd be learning."
Helena wakes one morning with cramps, and deduces it must mean that her body has decided to have a period this month.
(Helena has never had a regular period. She doesn't know a serious ballerina who has: their bodies work too hard on other things. They don't menstruate by the calendar and many of them don't menstruate at all.)
She rolls her eyes, digs a handful tampons out from the box in the back of the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink, takes ibuprofen, and heads to work.
She's mid-rehearsal, standing in relevé, arms raised, when the pain becomes too strong and she collapses. And then there's blood, tracking through her leotard and down her thighs—far more blood than any woman's period would warrant. Woolly spots it before she does, before she's cognizant of anything beyond the pain, and he kneels down and holds her while, around her, a flurry of activity, dancers scurrying away from the blood or off to fetch water or towels or to call for an ambulance.
Eight hours later, she's lying in a hospital bed with a saline drip in one arm and the other arm curled across her belly.
It was an early-stage pregnancy, the doctor had said. First trimester.
She hadn't been aware she was pregnant.
She thinks of all the work she's been doing: the spinning the leaping, the high kicks. The drinking. Oh, god, the drinking.
Helena feels her breaths becoming shallower, faster, and she knows there will be tears here soon, she knows it, which is why, for the first time she can remember, she's actually relieved when her father walks into the room, and all inclination to cry evaporates.
It's confusing, at first, that he arrives, before she remembers that she's listed him as her emergency contact with the Ballet.
He parks himself by the bed's metal footboard and his eyes are thin and dark as they look at her. "Are you all right?" he asks.
She nods. "Yes, sir."
"When you're ready to travel, I'm going to take you home."
Her eyes fly up to his at that. "I have rehearsals," she says.
"No, you don't," he replies, shaking his head. "Caturanga suggested that you come home and take leave, at least for the duration of Swan Lake, and then come back and re-audition."
Helena's breath stops, as though the air's been sucked from the room.
She's been dismissed.
"He said you needed to 'find your center,' or some such nonsense," her father continues. "What you actually need to find is your second arabesque. And you need to rediscover your third."
She swallows once. Twice. She's been dismissed.
"Okay," she says.
She lasts two months at home.
Two months back in the basement studio, dancing eight hours a day. Alone, always alone. There is no Steve to practice pas-de-deux—just her father, with his firm instructions and his expressionless face, and her mother, who cooks her meals designed to keep her energy up and her body-weight down.
Charles has gone away to university, but he comes home one weekend while she's there.
"Do you do nothing but dance?" he says, before sinking his teeth into an apple as he watches her stretch against the barre.
She recovers her third arabesque. She learns to steady her second; it's not perfect, but it's better.
Woolly writes, sometimes. "You're missed here," he says. "We hope you'll be back. We're doing Cinderella after the hiatus. We're doing the stepsisters in travesty so I'm hoping to get cast as one of those. You'd be wonderful as one of the fairies. Winter, I think."
She opens reply windows, but somehow, no matter how long she stares at them, they never fill with text.
She is surprised to find that she thinks of Steve constantly—more than she ever did after his family left. Thinks of his smile, the solidity of his hands that would lift her.
In her sleep, she smells baby powder and hears wailing violins.
It's an impulse, one day, to google Steve. She does it on her phone, at night, lying in bed.
He's easy to find: her world tilts on its axis when she learns he's in the corps of the New York City Ballet.
Immediately – before she can think better of it – she digs up his old email address from when they danced together. It's Yahoo; she hopes it's still good.
It's an email full of pleasantries. Hi, how are yous and I'm happy to see you've been so successful and I had a position in Leeds for awhile but it didn't work out; back home training with my father again.
The email doesn't bounce back, but she hears nothing for a day. Two days. Five days. Then:
Sorry for the slow reply, I had to take care of a few things first. I got you an audition here, November 13th. You'll have to book your own ticket but send me the details and I'll pick you up at the airport. You can stay with me. The sofa's not a fold-out or anything but it's pretty comfortable and my roommate says it's cool.
PS: I was so happy to hear from you. Come dance with me again!
She has money in the bank, left over from Leeds. She doesn't spend much as she's living with virtually no expenses now, after all.
The morning of her flight, she scribbles a note and leaves it on the kitchen table before running outside to her taxi, duffel over he shoulder.
Steve is older. Of course he is. His cheek is rough against hers when he wraps his arms around her, and the tiniest hints of crows' feet mark the sides of his eyes.
"I was pretty sure I'd never see you again, except maybe onstage," he says, smiling, as he leads her to where his car is parked in the lot.
"I never thought I'd see you again either," Helena says, "but here we are."
As the car slowly winds down the parking structure, Helena says, "I wasn't looking for an audition when I wrote to you."
Steve laughs. "Tell me that again later, when I'm not driving, so I can look at you and see if you're lying."
Helen frowns and sinks back deeper into her seat. "I mean it."
The mirth fades from Steve's face and he glances over at her as though she's a boiling pot whose lid has begun to rattle. "It's okay," he says, "I believe you."
After Helena makes the corps, she emails her parents to tell them she will not be coming home.
"We are proud of your achievement," her father writes back. "Keep working on that third."
She writes to Woolly, too.
"Well, that's one way to move up in the world!" he writes back. "Don't know if I trust that Steve guy, though. You sure he's not working an angle on you?"
(She sees the way Steve looks at Liam, one of the lead dancers of the company, and knows that he is definitely not working an angle. At least, not on her.)
The first show she's to dance is La Bayadere.
She stays on Steve's couch until she gets paid, and then she finds a small studio to sublet in Queens. The commute is long, on the train, but she can afford to live there alone. She will be quiet, she will live a quiet life. She will strengthen her arabesques—all four, not just the second. She will stretch and strengthen every day. She will go to rehearsals daily, and come home in the evenings.
Occasionally she makes exception for Thai food with Steve, but always makes sure to be done in time to catch the 7 home and be in bed by 10.
She thinks of the hospital. There will be no more mistakes. No further… accidents.
She gets herself on the pill anyway. Just to be safe.
La Bayadere goes well. So does The Nutcracker. Helena's parents fly to New York to see her in Don Quixote and her father praises the lightness and crisp movements of the production's Kitri.
"Your arabesque seemed better, too," her father says. Her mother nods.
They take Steve and her out for dinner.
"You were wonderful, my boy," her father says. "You should move up from that corps. Really."
"I never realized what a slimeball he was when we were kids," Steve says to Helena, later, after her parents have taken a cab to their airport hotel and while they are walking together to the train station.
"He's my father," she says.
"And he's terrible. You were amazing tonight. Amazing. And I didn't hear him say one nice thing."
Helena shrugs. "That's just the way he is. He knows what he's talking about when it comes to ballet."
Steve passes a palm over his fuzz of hair. "I know he does," he says, "but, to be blunt, he doesn't need to be such an ass about it."
They board the train but Helena is surprised when he doesn't change at 42nd st like he usually does.
"I’m going to Liam's," he says shyly, in response to her cocked eyebrow, and looks down. She grins at him, elbows his arm, and tells him to have fun.
But she sees him less, outside of work, after that. She is happy for him. She truly is. But she finds herself missing him, nonetheless.
She begins to ignore her father's emails, after that, too.
Steve is a magnificent dancer. He truly is. Albert Evans retires and Helena isn't surprised to see Steve promoted to soloist. They do a string of more contemporary ballets and he is featured in more and more prominent solos.
Helena is, remains, a solid member of the corps. She knows few of her fellow corps members, beyond their names and their preferred brand of pointe shoes. She keeps her head down, and she works.
Then, suddenly, a string of changes happen.
Arthur Nielsen, an American choreographer who has been successful in England and Russia but never at home, is invited to produce a breakthrough performance in New York. This falls shortly after Darci Kistler retires, which in turn happens not long after Evans, and their absence inspires the need for a string of adjustments in the dancers' rankings. Nielsen joins the company directors in auditions for new corps members.
Helena has been working. She has kept her head low and she has worked, she has practiced, she has breathed ballet every moment she could since she arrived in New York almost two years ago. She is in the corps and is beginning to fear she will remain there, and new choreographer and all of the reshuffling offer her a chance for change, for improvement, for something new.
But she has to be noticed, first. She has to be seen.
So she volunteers to act as an audition partner for a new prospective dancer in his pas-de-deux.
Her audition partner is a broad-shouldered, muscle-bound man; he doesn't look like a dancer at all. He must lift weights outside of the studio, she thinks. He grins at her, square-jawed, and holds out an over-sized hand to shake. "I'm Pete," he says, and everything about him is over-eager. As she takes his offered hand, Helena begins to wonder whether she's made a grave mistake.
They are stretching and limbering at the barre when Helena notices a heavy sound getting rhythmically louder as it approaches down the hallway.
"She made it!" Pete says, too loud, and dashes across the floor between the dancers. Helena steps into the fouetté she had intended to practice and when she stops, she sees, in the mirror, Pete hugging a woman. As he steps back from her, Helena notices the dark blue plastic walking cast on her foot.
"Sorry I'm late," the woman says. "I had to bat my eyelashes at security to be let in. I didn't think it would be a big deal since I'm technically still on the audition list but apparently they were suspicious of my ability to do an enjambé in this thing."
Helena has lifted her leg to the barre and is leaning into the stretch and it conceals her observation of Pete and the woman in the mirror. There is an intimacy between them, a familiarity, that she struggles to pin down. Not likely lovers. Not likely siblings, either. But now the woman is making her awkward, uneven way the few steps to the lone chair in the corner of the studio and Pete is standing behind Helena and saying, "Okay, so, we should practice together, right?”
Of course, Helena thinks, dance partners. They were dance partners.
She thinks of the heavy tread of the woman’s boot and the sound of her father's limp.
Helena drops her leg from the barre and turns. “Yes,” she says.
He doesn’t understand, when they practice, that this is as much an audition for her as for him. He grins, cracks jokes. There is a flair to his gestures that she dislikes—he is all aura and no precision. Still, his hands, when they lift her, are firm and steady, and his timing is impeccable.
When Pete crosses the hall for his solo, Helena runs through her half of the choreography in the practice studio, counting measures and replaying the music in her head.
Absently, she notices that the boot has not clunked away.
As Helena rises from penché her eyes, ever so briefly, catch green ones, glued to her form. The gaze is enraptured but also mournful and Helena is captured—uncharacteristically—by everything they convey. And Helena realizes the injury inside that boot must be serious.
Helena would bet everything, her shoes, her apartment in Queens, that that is a ballerina who will never dance again.
The gaze sears her, it burns her, and something about it compels Helena to keep dancing, to keep moving so she need not confront it, until one of the other dancers rushes over and says "Helena! They're waiting for you next door!" and she finally stops, exhales, pats her hair into place. She brushes past the woman who sits near the doorway and mutters a hasty "sorry" as her boot tucks back out of the way.
Helena takes her mark opposite Pete and exhales once as she waits for the music to start. It's the white swan's pas-de-deux and she channels her best, most powerful inner bird as she flutters around him, flits and teases as he moves toward and away from her until she finally tips penché into his outstretched arm. Then she turns and stands and looks at him, and—and her mind calls up, from nowhere, the image of melancholy green eyes,.
She blinks once, twice, almost panicking; her mind reaches for the music as a lifeline—the road-map for the steps her body must take.
But just then the violins come to crescendo and slide over into a cascade of longing tones and her mind drifts, again, to the woman in the walking boot in the next room.
At the end of the dance, she retreats to the dressing room in embarrassment before she can be cornered into justifying that travesty of an audition to anybody else. Before she can be made to apologize to Pete for jeopardizing his chances.
Helena is dumbfounded—absolutely flabbergasted, and initially suspicious that someone may be pulling a prank—when she finds out, two days later, that Arthur Nielsen has cast her as Odette and Odile in the New York City Ballet's upcoming production of Swan Lake.
Steve shows up unannounced at her apartment with a bottle of champagne and two glasses.
"I got the prince! It's you and me!" he exclaims giddily. "We have GOT to toast this together. Ten years after your dad's basement studio – who would have thought?"
Helena lifts her glass to Steve, smiles, and thinks of green eyes as she drinks.
By the time she sees the woman again, her infatuation has dulled somewhat.
The situation is surprising, but then, she hadn’t expected to see her again, ever, and definitely not standing in the doorway of Helena’s dressing room (her own dressing room!) with a tape measure in hand.
“So I guess I’m going to be your dresser?” she says, and Helena, who has nothing to do with these decisions, nods and steps back from the doorway.
“Helena,” she says, holding out her hand. The other woman’s grasp is firm and solid as she says “Myka.”
“You came to that Peter fellow’s audition,” Helena says, as Myka flips a pocket-sized notebook to an empty page and sets it on the makeup table with a pencil beside it.
She glances up, smiles a little, and says “yeah.”
Helena stands in the center of the small room. Myka stretches the tape measure between her hands experimentally before holding it up to various parts of Helena’s body: the lengths of her arms, her legs, her spine; the circumference of her hips, her waist; her chest below, at, and above the bust. Myka’s movements and note-taking lack the efficiency of a more experienced wardrobe assistant, but they’re methodical, her hands steady, firm as her handshake. The whole time Helena finds her ear drawn to the thump-and-roll of Myka’s hard plastic boot as it makes its way around her body, inches, or less, from her own feet. She thinks of the clip-clop, clip-clop of her father’s stride, thinks of the sadness in Myka’s gaze on the day of the audition.
“Watch my toes when you wear that around me, yes?” she says, without thinking, and immediately wishes she could recall the words, reframe them to sound less horrible.
Myka doesn’t even look up. She just swallows, says, “yes, of course,” and keeps working.
“They’ve assigned me a know-nothing novice for my wardrobe,” Helena complains to Steve over green curry.
Steve’s eyebrows furrow. “I heard you got Myka?”
“Who has clearly never worked in wardrobe before. Should I take this as evidence of how they think of me? My first turn as prima, and they trust my costuming to a neophyte?”
“You need to give her a shot, HG,” Steve says, placating. “She may be new to wardrobe but she’s not new to ballet. Pete says she was good. Like, really good. Before her foot, you know.”
Helena sighs and reaches for the sriracha. “I fail to see why her career-ending injury should somehow qualify her to work in wardrobe.”
“What would you do if you couldn’t dance anymore, HG?”
Helena hears echoes of plastic boots and limping strides. Her next bite is hot enough to burn as she swallows it.
“You’re like a totally different person in rehearsals,” Steve says. “You’re so intense.”
Helena only shrugs, because it’s ballet, and ballet is intense, and she will never be asked to take a lead again if she can’t hold these steps perfectly, if her second arabesque isn’t steady.
(It does steady. It becomes perfect.)
Nielsen—Artie, he tells them to call him—seems only to be frustrated with her. “No, no, no, no!” he shouts from across the room at her. “You’re a swan! A swan, not a soldier! You’re dancing like the height of your grand jeté is a math problem!”
(It is a math problem, Helena wants to retort, but she’s wise enough to know better.)
Helena is convinced this will be the only lead she ever dances for the NYC Ballet. She is packing her belongings at the end of the day when she realizes she has left her spool of ribbon in the studio, where she’d brought it to fix her slipper in the afternoon.
She walks through the quiet building and up the stairs to the second floor. Everyone has gone home. But no, not everyone—when she opens the door from the stairwell, she hears music, drifting down the hallway from the direction of the practice studio. She recognizes the piece: it’s a solo from Giselle. Strange, she thinks. She’s heard that Artie would like to direct Giselle for them next season, but that’s merely been rumor.
In the studio doorway she freezes, then tiptoes back quickly enough to think she has likely not been spotted.
In the otherwise-empty studio, Myka—sans boot, Helena notices—is at the barre. She wears tights and a loose-fitting shirt and no shoes; Helena can see the angry red surgical scars in the mirror reflection of her right foot. Myka’s eyes are closed and she is flowing through modified choreography that she clearly knows by heart. She keeps her fingers on the barre and dances in place but even with her half-tipped relevés substituting for pointe she seems to float, to drift inches above the ground.
When Helena dances, she seeks to put emotion to her movements. Myka moves like her movements are her emotions.
Helena lurks in the shadow and watches, but she needn’t: Myka does not open her eyes, not ever, even as she turns against the barre; her foot tucks itself back instinctively, so it does not collide with the mirror.
Helena finds herself craving to enter the room, to stand behind Myka and place her hands on Myka’s waist as would the danceur in a pas-de-deux, to feel Myka moving like that, the way she moves, so close to her.
She imagines the moment that happens in every ballet, where the male and female leads find themselves clutched in intimate embrace. Some directors have them kiss. Others prefer to have it implied, lips brought close but never touching. She has heard of dancers instructed not to kiss who do it anyway, spontaneously, so caught up in the music and the performance and the moment.
She imagines her face that close to Myka’s—to this Myka’s, the one who moves so beautifully, who, even now, is touched with melancholy—and wonders what it would be like to tip her head forward for the kiss.
The strains that indicate the end of the music wind their way into Helena’s consciousness and she comes to attention with a jolt. Myka is standing still at the barre, now, eyes still closed as the music fades, and Helena realizes she must leave, now, if she doesn’t wish to be caught.
As quietly as possible, she slips away to the stairwell.
(She’s four stops into her commute home when she realizes her spool of ribbon is still on the studio floor.)
The next day, in rehearsal, is worse than the day Helena danced with Pete at his audition, because she can’t stop thinking about Myka. She remembers closed eyes, fluid movements, the way Myka’s body encompassed a full spectrum of feelings, the way images of that body kept Helena awake the previous night.
The day starts with one of Helena’s solos. Steve is there, stretching against the barre while Helena exhales and then runs through the choreography under Artie's scrutiny. She is furious with herself for the lack of precision of her movements, the imperfection of her form, but in her mind all she sees, all she feels, is Myka, the way she imagines Myka’s body would move (which is not the way Helena’s body would move, and this is Helena’s part, Helena’s time to prove herself).
At the end of the piece she stands at the center of the floor, feet in third position, arms down, and holds for a breath, two, three. Then she hazards a look over at Artie.
Artie, who is smiling, hands clasped before his chest. “There she is,” he says, quietly. “There’s our Odile. You’ve found her.”
Helena blinks, puzzled, and then settles. That’s the formula, then. She knows what made the difference, and she knows better than to question it.
When Steve steps behind her to begin rehearsing the pas-de-deux, she closes her eyes and imagines Myka, imagines everything that she had imagined the previous night, if she could have danced with Myka.
“Whoa,” Steve says, afterward. “There was a second there where I thought you were actually going to kiss me.”
Helena stops and watches Myka every day, after that, just for a few minutes, ten, fifteen, before she goes home.
Myka’s dancing becomes a thing she craves, longs for on the days she hasn’t the time to stay, or the days that Myka does not dance.
And when she dances, she thinks of Myka. She imagines Steve is Myka when they dance together. She imagines Myka watching her when she dances alone. And suddenly Artie is smiling, Artie is praising her, Artie is confessing that he had doubted her for some time but is thrilled to see that she’s come through like he thought she would.
(Artie is, fortunately, a director who prefers not to have the dancers kiss.
“For one thing, there is no step called ‘kiss’ in ballet,” he grouches. “For another, there’s little less compelling to an audience than a resolved romance. Make the characters kiss and everyone stops caring. But give the audience longing, tension, and they’ll be on the edge of their seats the whole time. Possibility is more engaging than actuality.“
Helena tells herself her relief stems from the fact that there’s no way she could kiss Steve without laughing.)
On intermittent days, Myka comes to Helena with a costume in hand for her to try on.
Uncharacteristically, Helena finds herself nervous to undress in front of Myka. She has undressed in front of other dancers since her earliest childhood performances, but this… somehow…
She swallows her nerves and disrobes down to her tights. Myka is unflinching as she wraps Helena in this new gown and fastens the laces and hooks up the back. Her hands drift along the fabric of the bodice, twisting and tugging and adjusting. Her fingertips follow the line where the bodice meets the skin of her chest and back and Helena feels Myka's fingers leaving gooseflesh in the wake of her touch.
“How does it feel?” Myka asks, and Helena wants to say, it feels like I wish there were no costume in the way of your touch.
But she says, “It feels mostly fine. Maybe a little loose through the chest.”
Myka nods, serious expression on her face, and then pinches and pins some of the fabric at Helena’s back.
“Better?” she asks.
In the mirror, Helena sees Myka’s hands resting at her sides and wants to say no, just so that Myka will put her hands on her again. But she says “Yes.”
Dress rehearsals begin, and if Artie wants tension and longing to be the emotional fuel of the show, Helena builds enough of that to supply the entire cast. Because in her mind, every dance is danced with Myka, or for Myka, and then she steps offstage and real Myka is waiting for her in the wings; she practically falls into Myka’s arms and Myka steadies her, then turns her, businesslike, and begins to quickly, efficiently unlace or unhook or untie the bodice of whatever she’s wearing at the moment. When the clothing is loosened, Helena tugs it off and Myka is already waiting with the next costume to tie on or pull on and before she fastens it she checks the way it lies, checks the fall of the shoulder-pieces or the sleeves or the corset, runs her fingers along the line where the top of the frame meets Helena’s skin to check for pinching and if she notices the way Helena trembles, the way Helena clenches her fists to keep her fingers from darting out to touch, she gives no sign. And then Helena takes all of that want, all of that bottled need, and throws it at Steve on the stage.
“I knew you had it in you!” Artie exclaims. “I knew it!”
(When Myka calls in sick to work two days in a row, Artie compliments Helena less. “Claudia’s just not as good at lacing me properly,” Helena explains to Steve, who cocks an eyebrow and says “Remember when you were nervous about the rookie wardrobe assistant?”)
Opening night comes. They’ve sold out Lincoln Center and Helena is both thrilled and terrified of everything she needs to bring to, and leave on, the stage.
Her hair and makeup are done and she’s sitting in her dressing room, breathing, decompressing, waiting. A knock on the door; Helena recognizes it as Myka’s.
Myka has her first of the five costumes she will wear.
“You’re on in twenty,” she says.
Helena nods and stands, slipping out of her robe. She turns to drop it over the back of her chair and when she faces the mirror again she catches Myka’s eyes flitting back up from where they’d darted down to Helena’s bare chest.
The moment has vanished in time—Myka is the picture of professionalism, as always, dressing and fitting her perfectly, fingers never straying from where they belong.
(Helena has imagined so, so often what it would be like if those fingers did stray, if they touched her in the places professionalism prohibits.)
“Good luck,” Myka says as she steps back and opens the door for Helena.
Helena smiles, tight-lipped, and nods, because she fears what she might say if she opened her mouth.
All of this—the craving, the desire—she takes to the stage with her.
At the end of the night the audience applauds for her through two curtain calls; they are standing, a few whistle, and Artie is waiting in the wings to hug her when she gets there.
Myka is waiting for her in her dressing room and it’s all Helena can do not to leap at her, not to claw at the loose-fitting black shirt she wears as a member of the stage crew, because she has been wooing, been wooed by, longed for and died for Myka on the stage and received two standing ovations for it and she must say something, must do something, to this living, breathing Myka with her in this small space.
She settles for, “God, that was amazing.”
Myka’s hands still for a moment against the hooks of Helena’s back before continuing their journey downward. “It was,” she says quietly. “You were amazing.”
There is something about the softness off the “you,” the way Myka’s lips linger on it, that fires right to the quick of Helena, wraps around the core of her and pulls until she can barely breathe. It’s routine, more than anything, that guides her tights down her legs and her robe around her torso while Myka hangs the dress on the rack along the wall. Helena feels electric, she is high on endorphins and applause and craving and infatuation and she is standing behind Myka before she even knows she’s moved. Myka turns and Helena watches her eyes trail up along the V-shaped opening of her robe and she’s biting her lip now and Helena can’t help it, can’t help herself and she grabs the front of Myka’s shirt and leans forward and kisses that lip.
Myka freezes, locks up for an instant before stepping forward, stepping into Helena and fitting her hands around Helena’s waist and responding eagerly. Then Helena steps backward, three steps to her makeup table and the moment she strikes it Myka’s hands around her waist tighten and lift her because she’s strong, of course she ‘s strong, she’s a ballerina. Helena leans back against the mirror and the robe slips off her shoulder and Myka, unafraid, brings her hand exactly where Helena has longed for it—well, not exactly, but it’s the first of many places. And that, that was a dangerous thought because now she wants more, now she’s fumbling with the knot of her robe and she’s coaxing Myka’s hand lower and Myka seems more than willing to be coaxed, guided until OhGod, Oh God—and Myka is half crouched for the angle, Helena hunched forward and down into their unrehearsed kiss and her body needs now, it needs and demands so Helena fists one hand in Myka’s curls and steers it downwards, feeling Myka’s shallow pants across her breasts and down her sternum until Myka drops fully to her knees and gives and gives with her tongue and her lips and her fingers until Helena shudders through everything she has dreamed of for these past months but never thought she’d actually receive.
Helena slouches back against the mirror for a moment, then slides forward and drops onto her feet. Myka is eyeing her, wiping her lips against the back of her hand, and Helena smiles and tugs the robe around herself as she reaches for the makeup remover. There are places where stage makeup does not belong, such as Myka’s pristine crew black clothing, and even more places on Myka’s body that Helena can’t reach without first removing those pristine blacks.
She doesn’t say anything, can’t say anything for fear of breaking this tenuous thing between them, this thing that’s just happened, whatever it is.
But then it breaks anyway, because Myka blinks at her for a moment, and then another, and then turns without a word and lets herself out the door.
So that’s how that ends, then, Helena thinks, that night, in bed. Not with a bang but a whimper.
(Actually, she corrects herself, with both a bang and a whimper.
The base joke is the first thing that has made her smile since the door closed behind Myka’s retreating back.)
It’s better this way, she thinks. She thinks of Leeds, of women and men and their broken hearts and the way she broke herself. She thinks of the disappointment on her father’s face – her father, with whom she has not communicated in nearly four months, who may not even know that she holds this lead. Of Caturanga, who told her that she was learning the wrong things, but refused to tell her what the right ones were.
She wonders if she will be able to think about Myka tomorrow.
She wonders if she will be able to perform well if she cannot.
She lies there, that night, and retraces the paths of Myka’s fingers and lips on her skin. Eyes closed, she remembers the last time she watched Myka dance—it was improvised movement without music, just steps flowing into one another, always barefoot. She closes her eyes and pairs that memory with the memory of Myka’s touch and when her eyes open again, several minutes later, she blinks through moisture and realizes that, for better or for worse, the longing, the aching desire are still there.
The show goes on tour. Helena and Myka don’t talk, not really; Helena begins to wonder if she’d merely imagined their tryst.
(She doesn’t really wonder that. The memory is too vivid, and the look in Myka’s eye, sometimes, even now, is too… too…)
Myka continues to dance in the evenings whenever the venue has a space she can use (and most venues do; the dancers need a barre where they can stretch to warm up before they step onto the stage).
When she approaches the warm-up room one evening in Philadelphia she discovers that someone else has arrived to watch before her. But Pete doesn’t hide in the shadow like she does. Pete leans in the doorway and Helena hangs back, watching him watching her. Then quick as a fly she sees him dash into the room and Helena takes the opportunity to slip closer. Pete’s hands are at Myka’s waist as she holds third arabesque. Then he leans down, says something quietly and Myka grins and nods.
Helena immediately recognizes the pose Pete takes in the center of the room. She recognizes Myka’s, too, but it’s strange to see that pose held by someone who is not her—like watching oneself on video, but a different version of oneself. And then there’s no music but they’re dancing, whirling through the choreography and Myka adeptly modifies all of it on the fly so that she can do it barefoot, off-pointe. Helena has heard from Steve that Pete and Myka were regular dance partners for years, training together from the time they were teens in South Dakota and then cast together at a small company in Denver before they came to New York. Helena tries to imagine how well she and Steve would dance together if they had that much history. Myka and Pete are wonderful to watch, their rhythms so perfectly synched. They have different personality, each of them, but they complement one another. The grin Myka offers Pete at the end of their dance is the greatest and truest that Helena has ever seen on her face.
It isn’t until she gets home that night that Helena has an epiphany.
Myka can dance. She can dance with her bad foot. She’s been doing it for months, every evening.
She simply can’t dance on pointe, which means she can’t dance ballet anymore.
But Myka’s remarkable talent could be shaped to dance in some other way.
It’s 10:30 pm and Helena should go to bed but instead she powers up her computer, does a quick google search and pulls up the Tisch school’s MFA in Dance webpage and hopes to see—yes. Just as she thought.
Barefoot contemporary dancers.
She prints the pages and staples them and tucks them in her bag. After the show, tomorrow, she thinks. She’ll hand the paperwork to Myka after the show. She’ll say, “Please don’t think this is creepy, but I’ve seen you dance, and I think you're incredible. Have you thought about something like this, as an alternative for your foot?"
But the evening after the show comes and goes and when she goes home the paperwork is still in her bag.
The following day is a travel day, and Myka sits with Pete on the bus and Helena tells herself that’s why she can’t have this conversation.
The day after that she realizes she is, quite simply, going to chicken out. So she finds Myka’s bag before the show and tucks the printouts inside.
The reviews are amazing. The best they’ve had for a touring show in years.
Artie gushes at her: “I want you as a principal. I’m going to see if I can get you promoted to principal. As long as you can dance like this, I want you in the lead of every show I do with this ballet.”
Their Chicago performance is taped and televised on PBS.
A day later, Helena gets an email from an unfamiliar address:
You learned, and I could not be happier to see it. I congratulate you on your successes, and wish you the best of luck in your future in America.
With all good wishes,
And another from Woolly:
Bet they’re regretting giving you the sack in the offices here! Congratulations, mate.
It’s good to hear from them. She hadn’t been in contact with Woolly in some time, and Caturanga since she left Leeds. But with the contact come the memories, the horrible collapse in rehearsal followed by the hours in the hospital, the loss of a life she would have cared for, would have nurtured, if she had only known it was there.
She thinks about longing. About nurturing. And then, of course, about Myka, whose attention she longs to nurture.
After the show, she thinks. When the tour is over, she will either step away from Myka or start something with her that’s clear, well-defined.
Myka will laugh at her, later, when she tells her of that plan, because really, whose plans can ever survive Los Angeles, let alone Los Angeles after the closing night of an uproariously successful touring show?
(But my failed plans had nothing to do Los Angeles in particular. Things happened at the theatre and then at the hotel. It could have been Kalamazoo, it wouldn’t have mattered, Helena will say.)
(Rationalizing it doesn’t work, Myka will reply. It still happened in Los Angeles. It’s in the air.)
When Helena comes downstairs after the show she feels euphoric, positively ecstatic, because the finale was the best-received performance yet and Artie is over the moon and she’s thrilled because she feels safe. She will dance again, she will dance lead again, because she did well, she did, everyone is saying so and she feels it, too.
She feels thrilled and powerful and there, in her dressing room, is Myka, whom she still wants more than she has ever wanted anything, or anyone. But Myka rebuffs her. Rebuffs her with words that make everything—that night back in New York, months ago—make more sense.
Myka hadn’t rejected her. Myka felt used. She felt used.
And Helena wants to laugh and cry at the same time because all that heartache, all those months of desire that could have been averted if they had only spoken about it, if Helena—who had been the instigator, after all—had just insisted that they talk.
And so Helena, at the end of this enchanted tour, sets out to work one more piece of magic. She finds Claudia, the set manager who officially rooms with Myka but functionally rooms with Steve ever since Steve and Liam broke up, and finds out Myka’s room number. Then she walks from the theatre to the hotel and stops in a liquor store along the way, where she buys the best bottle of champagne she can afford and a gift box of two champagne flutes.
At the hotel, she showers and changes into street clothes. She takes the glasses out of the box (it would be too formal to leave them in, she thinks) and grabs the champagne and heads for the elevator. The whole time, in her mind, she’s rehearsing the words she wishes to say: “I think we’ve confused one another, Myka, and I’m sure it’s all my fault, because I read people wrong all the time, it’s a thing that I do. I hoped we could start again. Have a drink with me to celebrate the end of the tour? And then I’d love to take you to…” Dinner? A movie? She wishes there were better options, but that much she can figure out in the moment.
But then Myka opens the door, looking tired and sad, still wearing her blacks, and all of Helena’s carefully rehearsed words fly out the window.
The words that come anyway work, though, apparently. Later, she will be able to remember them only in fits and starts, so nervous and taken is she with being here, in a bedroom, alone with Myka.
And then she is in a bed alone with Myka, with no stage makeup or crew black clothing to interfere, and Helena brings her lips, her tongue, her fingers, her breath to all the parts of Myka where she has longed to place them since that night in Manhattan. When Myka reaches for her, stretches herself out overtop of Helena's body, Helena does not struggle to soften and yield to kisses and gazes that are more tender than any she thinks she has ever felt.
It isn't love. They want each other but they barely know each other, so it can't be love, not yet.
But as Helena teasingly insists on placing and fastening Myka's bra for her in the morning –
("How does this feel?" Helena asks playfully as she trails her finger along the line where the fabric meets her skin. "Too loose? Pinching anywhere?"
"Mmm, I don't know," Myka replies, "but I think you should keep doing that until I figure it out.")
as they laugh together over breakfast at a café near the hotel—
("You watched me how often? That's just creepy," Myka says, but the expression on her face tells Helena that she doesn't mean it.)
as Myka abruptly gets up mid-coffee to squeeze herself in beside Helena on one side of their shared booth—
("Humor me. I just want to be close to you," she says, slipping her fingers through Helena's under the table.)
it feels like potential. It feels like promise.