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Tiny Pretty Things
Author: Sona Charaipotra



   IT ALWAYS FEELS LIKE DEATH. At least at first. Your muscles stretch and burn until they might rip. The bones in your hips threaten to rotate right out of their sockets. Your spine lengthens and twists into impossible shapes. The veins in your arms swell, blood pulsing through them. Your fingers tremble as you try to hold them taut but graceful, just so. Your toes jam into a pretty pink box, battering your feet with constellations of blisters and bruises.

   But it all looks effortless and beautiful. I hope. Because that’s all that really matters.

   Studio B is a fishbowl today, and I wish the three glass walls were blacked out or covered up. I can feel Liz’s glare hot and heavy, her face pressed up against the glass. I knew she wanted this—maybe even more than me—but that doesn’t mean she deserved it. She’ll claim that I got lucky, that it was nepotism, that being Mr. Lucas’s niece has its perks. I mean, Bette told me she said as much in her drunken babblings last night. But I know better. I earned this.

   Morkie barks orders at the corps girls, then turns to the pianist to nitpick a chord pace for the spring ballet, La Sylphide. I’m the only Level 6 girl cast as a soloist, and while the others pretend to be happy for me—well, most of them anyway—I know they’re hoping to see me fail. But I won’t give them the satisfaction. Even though it’s hard being the youngest one in here. And earlier, when one of them asked me if I was fifteen, I wanted to lie and say I was seventeen or eighteen like them. As I watch the other dancers spin across the floor in a series of pirouettes, I keep my smile plastered across my face. I won’t falter. I can’t let them know how hard this is. My muscles ache and my stomach churns, empty from a morning spent reliving last night’s revelries. I never should have let Bette talk me into drinking. I’m definitely paying the price now.

   The music stops abruptly, and Morkie towers over Sarah Takahashi, making her do the turn over and over again, yelling corrections in Russian like Sarah understands her. Sarah bows, and it seems to infuriate Morkie even more. She’s my understudy and a Level 8 girl. An 8 girl should’ve had the lead—an opportunity for the company masters to see her talent and offer her a spot.

   I take every second of this break to review the variation in my head, to think through the music. Morkie does the steps one by one, stamping her little heeled ballet slippers. Even nearing seventy, she’s still a strong portrait of grace—a true danseuse russe.

   Bette slips through the door. And she lets it bang closed so I know she’s here. I hate how she always finds a way to announce herself, but I could never tell her that. Everyone watches—her halo of blond hair pulled taut in its bun, her designer dance skirt floating around her like cotton candy, her pink lipstick expertly applied. She’s told to find a spot in the back, and plops down right near the dance bags. There were rumors that a fat check from her mom secured her a seat in the studio to learn the role, too, but I didn’t dare ask her. She’s been so gracious and helpful. Defending me to Liz and the others when I first got here, showing me the ropes, threatening the other girls if they didn’t stop messing with me.

   Will enters a few moments after. His red hair is gelled up, and he’s wearing a face full of makeup. He blows me a kiss and waves. It was announced this morning that he’d be my pas partner’s understudy. He sits in the back with Bette.

   Morkie calls me to the center. The music starts, light and fluttery and serene. Usually I let it take me, the notes lifting me away so I’m no longer myself, the movements of my arms and legs transforming, allowing me to become the forest fairy romancing the Scotsman. But today I’m very much anchored in my too tall, lumbering body. I can feel the pull in each muscle as I glide across the floor, trying to make sure I land every step in the right spot.

   I catch myself looking down at the tape marking the stage placements, focusing on the counts in the music. I try not to think of each precise motion making up the variation. Old habits. Bad habits. I should know this by heart now. I tell myself I’m as light as air. But my feet are a second too slow, my arm movements too heavy.

   “More! More!” Morkie yells, her voice bouncing off the mirrors. I feel my smile falter. I’m totally graceless in her presence. My confidence seeps out of me with my sweat. Scott waits for me stage left. I flitter over to him, presenting my hand. He pulls me into his chest.

   Morkie yells over the music. “Smile. You’re in love with him.”

   My grin looks pained in the mirror. My stomach muscles clench when his hands squeeze my waist as he prepares to lift me.

   Morkie waves her hands in the air. We stop midlift.

   “You’re supposed to be in love. Where is it? Where is it?” she says, motioning me out of the center. “Did we make mistake in casting, Cassandra?” Her Russian accent makes the words sharp, tiny knives that tear at my insides. “Find it! Find the reason we picked you.” She waves me away with one skinny arm.

   Sarah takes my place with Scott to practice the flying shoulder lift I couldn’t do. I tell myself that it’s fine. Necessary. Both boys have to learn how to lift Sarah, then me. Just in case. Frustrated, I head to the back corner, toward Bette and Will. “You’ve got to,” I hear her whisper, but he shushes her as he watches me approach.

   “Hey.” He grins, patting the floor next to him. “Rough start, huh?”

   I catch my breath, wiping away the little beads of sweat on my top lip. As Bette’s ice-blue gaze settles over me, I feel disgusting and heavy and off. Will gives me a sad frown, like I’m a puppy who’s just been kicked. “Don’t take it to heart,” he whispers again. “Morkie’s a beast.”

   “You okay?” Bette asks, offering a smile that’s half grimace.

   “I don’t know where it all went,” I say, closing my eyes. I stretch my limbs out every which way. “I was fine yesterday. You saw me.”

   “You looked scared of him,” Will says, his eyes on Scott, tracing his every movement. “Have a little crush?”

   “I have a boyfriend,” I snap without meaning to. I wish I was partnering with Henri, but he’s at the Paris Opera School. I trust his hands. “Sorry, I can’t figure out what’s wrong with me.”

   “Hmm,” Bette says, noncommittal. “Too much alcohol is my guess.” And it makes me remember how she kept filling my cup with the expensive wine she’d taken from her mother’s collection, despite my protests.

   I nod my head, eager for an excuse. “I should’ve gone straight to bed after we hung out.”

   “You didn’t?” Her forehead crinkles with surprise.

   “Sometimes I dance late at night, so it can all stick in my head when I finally sleep.” I put a hand on my forehead, not sure why everything is coming out of me right now. But I can trust her. Alec told me so, even when I doubted Bette at first. And Will is Alec’s best friend. “My legs are a mess.” I scoot over a little, pressing my back against the glass wall that faces out onto the street. The warmth of sunbeams erases the cold that’s settled in my stomach. Even though it’s spring, I’m shivering. “What should I do?”

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