Connie and Ashlee. They’re the love story, the great one, the star-crossed lovers of their 2015 preteen dance team. Because, fundamentally, things are simple for them, simple and also deliciously hard in a way that pulls everyone around them in, because for so long their relationship was just playing, giggling for too long in dressing rooms when they were both still dancing, toeing their way around each other at high school parties after they stopped, Connie getting too drunk, Ashlee driving them both home afterwards, leaving whoever’s house it’s at that weekend before anything’s really over because inevitably on the car ride home Connie will dive across the barrier between the two front seats and press Ashlee against the armrest and they’ll make out on the curb for at least half an hour before actually moving the car anywhere. No one talks about the lives of dance girls when they stop dancing. When they care about something else more. When they’d rather spend weekends on the couch, hand up their best friend’s shirt, music playing gently in the background (but not the like music they used to dance to) than sweating and aching in a freezing dance studio. (They are ferocious, they are wild untamed unbeaten beasts and they don’t need dance to make that true.) When they start dating, happily and easily, everyone cheers silently, because this is a relationship that works, this is beautiful and functional and we can believe in love again.
Everything with them is good, their affection shines through their pupils so strongly that cold hallways get warmer and they go to the same college (not for each other, not because ConnieandAshlee have to be together, but because they are similar, because they both like it, because they work.) It’s perfect. They are perfect and happy and beautiful and everyone knew they would fall in love when they were thirteen years old. (they have liked each other this whole time, no more complicated feelings have ever managed to get in the way) They break up after college, Ashlee going to med school across the country, Connie throwing herself into a shiny new job, and almost every week they talk on the phone for hours, but it changes and time passes and they learn how to be without each other and grow whole new lives and for a while it is good, even apart. And then, because they are everything anyone would want, their lives crumble, their barriers break and they are thrust back together, slammed into a new level of intimacy and honesty and they cry on Ashlee’s living room floor and talk about the why didn’t you tell me’s and here we are’s and after that they never leave each other’s side again. They are home and it feels good and easy and everything bad is circumstantial and so yes they are the perfect love story. They are nice to each other, soft and gentle, and sure things aren’t easy, because life is hard, but things are simple, simple because the answer is always each other.
Amina and Zuzu (Susanna, but Amina can never bring herself to call Zuzu anything else) are a different story. Best friends, and archnemeses and no one’s idea of a fairy tale. They’re messy, SO messy, ridiculously so, and if Zuzu was gonna love anyone on her childhood dance team forever, think about someone every day, it would be Luke. It should be Luke, because he’s there and a very nice boy but who actually grows up and dates the person who had a crush on them at twelve??? (Had a crush on ,I>them. Not the other way around.) Zuzu and Luke end up at the same high school (they all do) and wave at each other in the hallways and have semi-real conversations once every couple of months until junior year when they suddenly become friends again because they’re in the same class for once and it’s nice, Luke is really nice and there but when Zuzu looks at Amina it feels like there’s a hot ball of something lodged in her chest and it burns. Luke never feels like that. (Zuzu will berate herself, in the grand inquisition of her mind, asking why couldn’t it just have been him and whywhywhywhywhy but it is not. It’s just not him. Not him, because (she tells herself) normal people don’t stay in love with someone from middle school from that elite dance team I used to be a part of and it seems like an airtight reason. (it’s a lie, of course it is, because she and Amina have been circling around each other like they’ve been magnetized for the past eternity and when Amina’s in the room Zuzu feels like her molecules are being pulled apart, aching to be free, but the thing about two magnets is that they can’t ever touch.)
The very first moment she sets foot into Dance Teacher Pat’s studio, into the cacophony of other kids, there’s a tall, serious girl in the corner, displaying a kind of focus that Zuzu’s never really seen before, and for a second she is enthralled in the careful dip and sway of the other girl’s movement. When Amina looked up their eyes locked, and even at nine years old Zuzu wanted to reach out and touch. After that there is no real question about it, they are friends, easy as breathing. (it’s the last time anything is that easy.) It’s very weird, feeling like the world rests on your shoulders at nine, or ten, or eleven, and sometimes when they’re giggling under the covers of a pillow fort on Amina’s living room floor, or decorating cookies with mom at Zuzu’s kitchen counter, or in the studio, stretching, practicing, dancingdancingdancing, Zuzu will look over at her friend (her very best friend) and deep in Amina’s eyes there will be a flash, like something’s breaking. (maybe what’s breaking is them.)
The thing is, Amina’s the best dancer Zuzu has never seen. The best. The best dancer any of them have ever seen, even if Dance Teacher Pat pretends otherwise, even when all their teammates put hours and hours into their solo audition work, when all the moms cheer just as loudly for their kids. Amina is the best. And in the beginning at least, it doesn’t really matter. She’s the best, but they’re all good and there isn’t so much of a reason to compete, the stakes are lower. Amina is Zuzu’s best friend and Zuzu is Amina’s best friend and all their teammates are other friends and for a while it’s pretty ok. Pretty happy. For a while, friends are more important than dance. Amina spends hours at Zuzu’s house burrowing under giant pillow piles, and Zuzu comes over to Amina’s almost every day to go on adventures in her giant backyard, full of shrieking and “soup” made from rainwater and leaves. In those first few years, ages nine to eleven, they spend enough time together that their sentence begin to meld, Amina loses track of what her own shampoo smells like, because Zuzu’s head is usually right next to hers. They invent secret languages, read books together, and dance, always dancing. They both get better, they all get better, but Amina is still the best. She starts leading warmups, which is fine because she deserves it, but suddenly she’s not just their friend anymore. She gets solos, she gets all the solos which makes sense because she is the best but she is supposed to be their friend and somewhere along the line this starts to feel like a betrayal. (Zuzu cries watching her, but so does everyone, because Amina has this way of reaching into your soul with her arms and legs and long, dark hair and pointing out all the places you’re broken, something in her smile whispering I can fix that, don’t worry and sometimes Zuzu closes her eyes and imagines that Amina is just dancing for her, that she could be enough, that she could inspire something so beautiful.)
And still, even as they get older, even has things get more intense, they are best friends they are AminaandZuzu always talking with noses only a few inches apart, one’s hands rubbing the other’s stiff calves, Zuzu’s fingers digging into Amina’s sore shoulders, Amina rubbing arnica onto Zuzu’s bruised legs, chatter spilling from their mouths in an unintelligible stream. (Later, Amina will think about those days with newly jaded eyes and wonder if they were setting themselves up for destruction, being so happy together) Then, when they are both thirteen, the rubber band made up of them snaps. It needs to. Zuzu feels it, knows what she needs to do, but it hurts, when she tells Amina that she can’t talk about dance with her anymore, maybe can’t see her, when Amina’s face crumples and she asks about what kind of pizza they’re eating (which is a stupid question because Amina usually eats pizza with them and she knows what they always get) but Zuzu can’t keep doing this because Amina is like this star, this nebula, this radiant interplanetary body, and she is bright and beautiful, and burning Zuzu up. (years in the future she will tell Amina this and they will both cry because they were planets but they were girls first and leaving totally fucked the gravity in their solar system.) (or universe, Zuzu will say, because she and Amina have always felt like a universe) Amina cannot pull back, should not have to, because she is the best and cannot apologize and wants to win so, so bad and deserves to win, Zuzu would never contest that, but they are too wrapped up in love and need and competition and Amina doesn’t sleep for days because she wants the best for Zuzu, but she wants to win and for the first time they are incompatible goals. She has to pick, and she picks wrong.
After that, they stop being friends. Zuzu’s whole body buzzes when Amina enters the room and Amina throws her body around Zuzu in a despite hug before each of their performances, but then she takes the solo and cannot find a way to fix that, and Zuzu can’t find a way to want them to be fixed and the day she quits dance, the day she and her mom go tell Dance Teacher Pat that she is done, maybe to go play the clarinet, or write poetry, when Ashlee and Sofia and all her friends run out in a sniffing, crying mob to hug her goodbye (before following her away from the studio, Connie the next month, Sofia the next year, until they get together sometimes at school, and talk about dance, but it is past tense for all of them) Zuzu hugs them back and remembers how this feels, the spandex of their clothes and the smell of sweat and deodorant and dry shampoo and the warm giggling aura of preteen-girl-wisdom that surrounds their dressing room, and then she wipes her tears and walks away. She feels empty, oddly, and then she realizes Amina’s voice is gone from the fray, no one smells like her coconut lotion, and through the window Zuzu can barely see the crumpled form of a girl on the floor, shaking with tears. She walks up to the window, almost touching her nose to the glass, watching as Amina stretches out each leg, stands slowly, and begins to spin, in circle after circle, tight and perfect, and Zuzu can see the tension in her body, can hear the phantom demands of Dance Teacher Pat, and as tears continue to stream down Amina’s cheeks, all Zuzu wants to do is run to her, because now she is crying too, crying for real, and standing by that window she cannot understand how she and Amina managed to abandon each other so quickly.
For the next few years, they rarely see each other. Amina is dancing, more than ever, increasing every day and she is so good, but she never wears her hair down anymore and doesn’t laugh, doesn’t even really smile, and maybe Zuzu is wrong, because they don’t talk anymore, but sometimes they make eye contact across the hallway and Zuzu still feels like she’s burning, looking at Amina her feet begin to ache like they did after dancing all day, and she can see a familiar limp in Amina’s gate, as her feet and joints undergo more and more stress. Amina The Prodigy Dancer, The Queen, Our Greatest Inspiration is consuming Amina The Girl and Zuzu mourns her friend - her not-friend, the person she used to know. Once, she steps out of a bathroom stall and Amina is there washing her hands and for a minute they don’t say anything, but Zuzu wants to melt under the light of Amina’s gaze, wants to start talking, wants to say everything that she’s thought for the last three years, because nothing feels real if Amina doesn’t knows about it, but then Amina turns to leave and when she’s gone everything feels wrong again. Zuzu spends the next period crying in the bathroom, sucking the last bits of Amina out of the air. (Amina goes to the studio and dances harder than she has in months, dances because she is good at this and it has to be worth something it has to and her neck hurts because no one has rubbed it the right way in three years and she can’t remember how she got here. Going home, she drives by Zuzu’s house, peeks in the lit windows to see Zuzu’s mom in the kitchen, dancing around while Zuzu does her homework and laughs and Amina wants to be in that kitchen, wants to feel like she’s ten again. (wants to be with Zuzu, wants it more than she’s wanted anything) (except dance, because that’s why she’s in this mess to begin with, right?)
The thing is, they don’t make sense without each other. But they also don’t make sense together and by know the Amina Zuzu knew has to be long gone, now she is fully Amina the Dancer and is more so every day, but Zuzu can’t stop thinking about her in the bathroom, underneath the layers of makeup and dark shadows around her eyes, behind the façade they’ve both spent the past three years building, her pupils still look the same, her breathing sounds the same, and Zuzu misses her. She thinks about it, their heady years dancing together, when it turned from fun to purpose, when Amina outpaced all of them and when they decided it mattered, when she had to decide between being good and being their friend and she was the best so how was it ever going to end differently. An impossible choice, now Zuzu can see that. An impossible choice for a thirteen year-old girl who was blisteringly good at something. Zuzu pulls out old videos of their performances and watches herself, doesn’t feel anything, no pang of nostalgia, just sympathy for the small, terrified girl on the stage. She doesn’t miss it, not a bit. Watching Amina, on the other hand, is different. If Zuzu were to see her now, she would undoubtedly be blown away at a girl who is miles beyond her skills three years ago, but Zuzu watches her traverse the stage, Zuzu falls and Amina steps in and she is terrified and proud and too freaked out to smile but suddenly something tugs in Zuzu’s gut, a wave of want and come back come back come back washes through her leaving something like anguish in its wake.
This is how, halfway through her junior year, Zuzu ends up at a party on a Saturday night, because Ashlee’s parents aren’t home and everyone is desperate for something fun and Zuzu wouldn’t normally go, because she has soccer practice (she plays soccer now. And she’s good) tomorrow morning, but she hasn’t seen Ashlee in a while, and Sofia and Connie and Maeve are probably gonna be there too, so she goes. The first thing she sees is Luke with his girlfriend on the porch, giggling and less-than-sober about something that she just said and they wave as she opens the front door. Inside everything is loud, because Ashlee knows how to throw a party, and Zuzu can feel the music in her bones. (she has always loved this, feeling music, moving with it, and she’s going to dance tonight, because there is a whole world of ways to move your body that Dance Teacher Pat never taught them, there are ways to move with joy, to move just because it makes you happy) It smells like a party, cheap beer and a tinge of vodka spilled on the carpet and teenagers moving around and against each other and she closes her eyes, welcoming the chatter and aliveness that fills the room. Ash waves at her from the other side of the room, Maeve and Sofia are dancing nearby, and she’s about to join them when a flicker of movement, drunken movement, catches her eye and she spins around to see Amina, Amina who doesn’t go to parties because she has to be at the studio at 6am every day, holding a cup of something and she’s not that drunk but Zuzu can’t help but stare because Amina has perfect posture, she’s a dancer, and right now her spine is crumpled in on itself in a way that Zuzu hasn’t seen since they started high school.
Amina’s eyes are bright and her hair is down, and Zuzu remembers how she used to fold her fingers through that hair, help Amina put it up before shows, (even though Amina didn’t need help, she could do it by herself, but please Zuzu it’s better when you do it) and when Amina’s eyes meet hers it’s like staring into the sun. (except this time Zuzu doesn’t want to turn away, she wants to stand there forever, warmed by the heat of Amina’s gaze, because she’s not twelve anymore and she is ready) (later, Zuzu is sitting on the floor of Ash’s upstairs hallway, because Sofia ran into the bathroom crying about something a few minutes ago, and suddenly she is overwhelmed by coconut shampoo and a warm body pressed against hers as Amina rests her head on Zuzu’s shoulder. She sits for a moment, frozen, and then carefully turns her head, looking straight into Amina’s laser eyes and the wanting pulls at her stomach again, because this is the same girl she has always known, except that something about her eyes scream I’m alone and all Zuzu wants to do is make it better, wants to press their foreheads together or tickle her until she forgets her problems, like they used to. Amina lifts her head, blinks those hypnotizing eyes, and suddenly blurts out “IusedtothinkaboutyouwhenIwasmasturbating.” It’s not what Zuzu is expecting, not at all, and Amina must take her signal as a cue to keep going because she says, “Like when we were thirteen. And Sofia said to think about something. And I tried to think about other people, fake people, people I didn’t know, but I was thinking about you all the time, always, because I missed you, because I was scared of losing you and then I did so I thought about you even more and once time I accidently thought about you and it worked.” Amina’s eyes aren’t too unfocused and the flush is fading, like the words have summoned sobriety into her system and Zuzu can taste her breath and the want is pulling, just like when Amina’s hands used to rub up her calves during warmups, or when their eyes met in the bathroom last week, and before she really knows what’s happening Zuzu is leaning towards Amina and Amina meets her halfway and they’re kissing. Her mouth is warm and tastes like vodka and lipstick and Zuzu wonders if she can get secondhand drunk like this, kissing her best friend on Ash’s cold floor at a party, but then Amina’s hand winds through her hair and Zuzu makes some kind of sound that makes Amina kiss harder and after that she doesn’t have a lot of time for thinking)
(they talk, with words like, I’m sorry, I’m so, so, so sorry and but you’re not, you deserved it more and I miss you, I miss you more than I wanted it and it’s ok. you don’t need to choose and I’m happy. Maybe you freed me and I hate not being friends and me too and those are the words that really matter.)
The next day Amina is waiting by Zuzu’s locker before first period and Zuzu feels like she could fly.
They don’t ever date, not in high school, not really, because they’re learning and what are the words for your soulmate that you meet in elementary school who you hates for a while but this thing between them, it makes sense. They eat lunch together, and do homework together and Zuzu goes to the studio to watch her dance and Amina comes to her games and they make out every available place in their admittedly small town and it turns out that they do not need to be alone that loneliness is not a necessary punishment for success because Amina dances better than she has before, and Zuzu still cries when she dances, and their pushpullpushpull makes sense now, because they have been wrapped up in each other for so long and now they have words to makes sense of it and feelings that are good.
So, they are not the fairy tale, because in fairy tales people are supposed to know when they meet a soulmate, not supposed to be so confused by wanting and winning to accidently hate the other person for years, but it works out. it makes sense. And not in any grand way, but in the way that their hands fit together, the way Amina’s hair curls in the wind and Zuzu’s eyes sparkle in the sun, because they get it now and when five, ten, fifteen, forty years later Zuzu still falls asleep to Amina’s gentle breathing, because they are not alone it all feels pretty perfect.
(it’s easy to mistake wanting for hate, easy to get lost in competition, easy to overlook those that you love because you are so scared by the enormity of your caring, they are both happy, Amina is the best dancer and Zuzu doesn’t need to be. They are happy and together and understand)