Claire buys a padlock from the hardware store, buys a latch, installs it herself. The wood splinters a bit. She strips two screws. She tests the lock with all of her weight, gripping it with sweaty hands and pulling over and over again to see how much it will give.
Claire packs her whole life into a suitcase and a duffle bag. She watches the door. It rattles in its frame when he tries it, buckling, like he could shake it open.
The lock won’t hold.
Claire goes out the window.
This is how it feels to be Claire Robbins, delicate.
Nothing so precious as crystal but spun like glass, transparent.
You are pressed into a mold of ballerina and when the light catches you right, you throw marvelous colors. You are a prism under the hot follow-spot, refracting off every surface.
In the dark you are nothing. You are nothing, but you are there, taking up invisible space.
Under big hands, you don’t break; you shatter.
They call her Bambi when she starts. They barely acknowledge her to her face; call her frigid and virgin and whatever else behind her back. As if it were an insult to be numb, to feel nothing, to be untouched.
She carves out a tiny place at the barre, in the back, next to someone who jokes about fucking her.
Claire says nothing, eyes straight ahead, moves into first position. Her adagio is sharp and fine, it is a needle under skin the way it’s precise. She moves through her grand fouetté en tournant and feels the eyes on her. They are pinpricks between her shoulder blades. Claire feels them like the flush in her cheeks, like the protest in her muscles: inconvenient, but necessary.
It is a reminder that she is flesh and blood, even if she’s not real.
This is how it feels to be Claire Robbins, weak.
You tried to kill it, tried to cover it up, tried to hide it away under floorboards like some telltale heart.
If it is a heart, then it has a pulse, and it pounds a staccato in the cage of your ribs, bloody and obvious. You hate it.
You hate him.
You hate you.
She’s fourteen the first time it happens. And Claire doesn’t think about it often, except that she thinks about it all the time, because it is always there. The acrid, festering truth of her is always alive inside her. If she lets it, it pulls the color from her cheeks and steals the air from her lungs and sucks the marrow from her bones. It leaves her this sallow, sunken, breathless thing that can do nothing but shiver in the dark.
When Claire thinks about it she tries very hard not to, but sometimes the thoughts find her anyway. If it is very late, Claire will get up and set her feet and hold the back of a chair and count pliés until her legs burn and won’t hold her up anymore. She will count them out in English, in French, and in Russian to give herself something to focus on.
When she gets back in bed, Claire will set her books about her. Hardbacks, all, and Claire will bear their weight like every other thing set upon her shoulders, but this is a comfort. It is a blanket and it is a fortress and it is an alarm that will wake her if anyone tries to move them.
She sets “Catcher in the Rye” at her knees, “The Virgin Suicides” at her right hip. Claire hugs “The Velveteen Rabbit” to her chest and thinks about being loved so much she’s made real.
This how it feels to be Claire Robbins, disgusting.
Shame is a feral, black, animal thing and it waits for you to remember it. Sometimes it hides between dog-eared pages, spun like letters in a spider’s web, spelling out your disgrace. Sometimes it is the angry thwack-thwack of splintered wood keeping time when you don’t deserve music, when you are below even a metronome.
Sometimes it sits in the shadows, in the corners of rooms, in the wings of a stage. Sometimes it is there on your face, in your eyes, when you look in the mirror.
It is the cold sweat that blooms at your hairline, under your arms, across your top lip. It’s the uptick of what’s left of your heart because it’s still there, the bastard.
It’s the heat that curls low in your belly like a snake coiling, writhing and alive: excited.
Claire calls her brother from a burner phone. Like a criminal. Like she’s selling something.
“You there?” she says, after the line’s been silent. She hears the whine in her voice, hates how needy she sounds, and strains to hear if he’s still breathing on the other end of the line.
“I’m here,” he says, finally, and something inside Claire relaxes like a fist uncurling.
She thinks about her brother bruised and bleeding under the boots of Russian henchman in a dirty alley. Somehow, stupidly, this is worse than thinking about him under gunfire, at the mercy of enemy combatants in some unnamed desert a million miles away, bruised and bleeding with nothing between him and a Spartan death but a vest full of metal plates.
This is worse because Claire did it. This is worse because Bryan found her, would always find her, and Claire let those men drag him into the alley by the scruff of his neck and beat him like a dog. It is worse because Claire, in her wig and her negligée and her stage glitter, told them to give him more and meant it and couldn’t even watch while they did it.
Claire is every scrape and bruise and welt on her brother’s face. She’s the line in his brow. She’s the hard set of his mouth. She’s the hot blood in his veins, god, is she ever that.
She hates it so fucking much, with how twisted up inside of her it is, how lecherous, how toxic. And she goes home to him anyway.
If Claire’s life were a scrapbook, here are some snapshots:
Claire’s father, sober, watching with polite interest while she pointed her toes, rounded a perfect pirouette. He at least pretends to listen when she explains the five principal arabesques. He doesn’t complain about her French. His eyes don’t stray to the Steelers game.
Claire’s mother, there—just, there. Maybe she’s brushing Claire’s hair, or tying her shoe, or making coffee or doing anything, really, besides leaving and not looking back.
Claire’s brother, when he was her brother, and it stopped there.
And if Claire’s life were a movie, this is what hits the cutting room floor:
Her father; drunk and broken, in his chair, in the bathtub, in his bed, raging like a hurricane over empty ocean; violent and impotent at once.
Her mother; back to her, face turned away, unaffected. A wall between what Claire is now and who she might’ve been. (Claire doesn’t remember her mother leaving, she only remembers that she's gone.)
Her brother; his hips working between her thighs, his hands on either side of her head, his breath hot on her neck. He loves her and this is how he shows it and he cracks her open and Claire lets him.
This is how it feels to be Claire Robbins, flayed.
You are laid bare, exposed, all your red shiny insides out on display. This is not new. You have been here before. You have been skinned alive and you did not die, but all the ugliest, darkest, worst in you spilled onto the floor.
There is a difference.
You chose this. You put yourself in this costume and you put your feet in these shoes and you put yourself on this stage and—
You chose this.
When you let yourself sweat and bleed and transcend, you are choosing it, so it is beautiful.
There is a difference.
You are prima.
You do not say it out loud, but you think it. You know it with all the quiet, careful parts of you because you feel it when you are on stage. It is perfect and you are perfect and you feel it like a new beginning. What was old and rotting inside you has been cast off, cut away, like the hair you took to with dull scissors. This is you and you are real.
You dance and you are real.
You dance your Dakini and you think about what it means, what being dakini means. You think about how you are a sky dancer who carries the souls of the dead to the sky, how you are volatile, how you act as a muse.
It is fitting then, that after the curtain falls, after the ovations and the roses, it is fitting that you learn your brother was dying while you were dancing.
It is a rug being pulled out from under her. It is a hard slap in the face. It is her head under water. It is teeth, sharp and spit-wet, at her jugular.
It is a blade, between her ribs, in the soft meat of her fucking goddamn heart, twisting.
Claire doesn’t know what it means that she is relieved and she is devastated and that she can’t tell the difference because they become the same thing.
She loves him.
She hates him.
...she loves him
This is what it feels like to be Claire Robbins.