That winter I began watching TV while sitting in splits. I would plop on the floor in front of the set and watch cartoons while stretching my hamstrings. Groaning, I would bring my stomach to the beige fuzzy carpet of our small North Jersey apartment, pulling as far as I could, not minding the pain. The farther I could split, the more likely my mom was to smile.
Most afternoons, my mom taught dance at a studio in Manhattan. The babysitter would pick me up from pre-school and take me to the apartment. I’d munch celery sticks, each crisp crunch in rhythm with the point and flex and point and flex of my toes. When my mom came home, she would sit on the couch next to me, nodding, while she bathed her raw feet in an ice bath. Usually she still wore her work clothes: a black long sleeve leotard, thick beige tights, and a pink chiffon wrap skirt. She might have one piece of celery, but only a small piece. At night when I asked her for a bedroom story, she would tell me stories from her favorite ballets, Giselle and La Bayadere.
The next year I was old enough to start going to the dance studio where my mom taught. Same routine, different wallpaper. Hours of flex and point and flex and point, fondue, rond de jambe, over and over again.
One day, a principal dancer from the American Ballet Theater visited.
“Amy has the perfect body to be a ballerina,” she said to my mom.
I’d been stretching every day for a year at that point and I had my arabesque penchée. I could balance perfectly on one leg while floating the other behind me up towards my back. My mom smiled. It was amazing.
The feeling didn’t last long because five minutes later I told her I was hungry.
“Hunger is for fat people,” she said.
The other time she smiled was during The Nutcracker. Her ballet studio would put on the production every year. My mom loved the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy and always put the most effort into that scene. We would also go see The Nutcracker once a year on my birthday when she took me to the American Ballet Theater. The ballerinas on stage were always young and their bodies were webs of graceful contours. My mother would cry as she watched them, but she would smile too and squeeze my hand. “That can be you,” she would whisper.
But those were special occasions and that only lasted until my twelfth birthday. Most days, she did not smile. I thought she pulled her hair too tight as she wound it into a braided bun each day and that it made her irritable. It became my mission to get her to wear her hair down. Every time I asked her to let her hair down, she would tell me to go watch TV and leave her alone.
On my birthday, I took a scissor to all of my tutus. I finally figured out that she loved that the kids she taught weren’t hers. She thrived on when their mothers were fat and older than she was. She could grande jeté around them until their heads spun, with each graceful launch around their orbit making her lighter in comparison to their gravity. I knew that no matter how many hours I spent at the barre, going through each position again and again, my mother was not going to be home more, was not going to smile more, and was not going to eat more.
The day I slashed my tutus was not spontaneous. I planned my Échappé, my escape for some time. I started making money at school, French braiding girls hair for quarters, and spent it on brownies. I also bought brand new scissors so that they would slice through the tulle as sharply as I used to pirouette. But I planned to never pirouette again.
I spent hours that afternoon cutting the tutus into itty-bitty pieces. When my mom walked through the door, I threw the tutu pieces like confetti in the air.
“Amy, what the hell is going on?”
“I’m celebrating,” I said, scooping up the fallen tulle fragments to throw up into the air again.
“What is this mess?” she snapped.
“I’m not going to be a ballerina. I am going to be a person. A happy person.” I said.
She did not seem excited for me. “Where did this confetti come from?”
“I cut up my tutus.”
Her face turned white. “You’ll have to pay to replace them.”
I knelt on the floor, scooping the scattered flakes of tulle into a pile. The celebration, I thought, was probably over. I thought about the hours I spent on raw feet, the box of the pointe shoes pushing my toes into an unnatural shape and the way they throbbed, red and swollen, when practice was finally over. I thought about how broken my mother’s feet were and how she hated to look at them unless they were in the constricting shoe. “I won’t be a ballerina,” I said.
“Then don’t,” she said. I ate a celebratory brownie.
The days when she was home grew awkward after that. I kept braiding hair for money and buying food from school. I’d eat cookies and brownies, openly in front of her. It wasn’t just to spite her but also because we didn’t really have food in our refrigerator. At most, we would have yogurt, celery, and bottled water sitting lonely on the shelves.
Once I stopped ballet, my mom needed to send me somewhere after school. She was done paying for a babysistter and I wasn’t going to be going to her studio anymore. She signed me up for the after school extended program while she taught lessons. I did a lot of crafts there. We painted and made paperweights or pen cups. Sometimes we’d do sculpting. I loved the feel of the clay in my hand, so much more flexible than a person. Clay could morph into anything. It could go from a round, full-bodied lump to a fine figure. It could take any shape, without pain.
The first sculptures were just blobs really. The next round of masterpieces included cars or trees or shoes or puppies. After that, I started figures. I always made them plump and round and smiling.
After my mom stopped talking to me I began asking questions about my dad. She hated it, but I figured at that point, I didn’t have much to lose. I wanted to know who he was and why I didn’t know him. I wanted to know why my mom was so much younger than my friends’ moms. I wanted to know why my mom didn’t talk to her parents. I wanted to know why my mom liked other women’s’ children more than me. I asked all the time. She never answered though. She would pull on her fingers until they cracked and then she’d find an excuse to leave.
My middle school art teacher recommended me for the Manhattan School for the Arts.
When I told my mom, she said, “If you want to go to an arts school, why don’t you go for dance? You could catch up.” But I wanted to go for art so I did.
At the school for the arts, I spent half of my day in the art studio. I had to learn everything from drawing to printmaking, but it was sculpture still that I loved best. I could use any material. After I learned to make jewelry, I began making it and selling it for extra money. I bought pizza, gyros, donuts, fried chicken, hamburgers, cupcakes, dried fruit, and potato chips.
Once or twice, I used my jewelry money to buy extra containers of yogurt and celery to put in the refrigerator at home to see if my mom would eat more if there was more to eat. She did not touch them.
At the end of my first year at the Manhattan School for the Arts, we had our first gallery showing. My mom didn’t come.
I supposed it was fair considering I never came to the recital shows her older students put on. I hadn’t gone to any recital since my last one. I had even ceased going to see The Nutcracker during the holidays. But that thought didn’t conceal my pangs of jealousy as I watched other parents walk around, telling their children, my friends, how beautiful their artwork was and how talented they were. Mrs. Brookes, the teacher, would give me hugs and told me that she was proud of me. I liked hugging Mrs. Brookes. I didn’t usually hug my mother. Her bones protruded and poked my body. Her hugs were cold. Her body didn’t have enough fat to stay warm.
On my birthday, I finally got a clue about my dad. That night, my mom handed me an envelope.
“What’s this?” I asked as she stood before the edge of my bed.
I opened the envelope. Inside were packages of condoms. “What is this?”
“Don’t get pregnant,” she said.
“You’re talented. Don’t ruin it like I did. Don’t throw away your career, whatever you’re doing.” She left.
I took the condoms to school, to my sculpture class. Shaping them with wire hangers, I forced them into the shape of a ballet shoe.
There were ballerinas at the Manhattan School for the Arts, but I didn’t really mix with them. They flocked together, almost as if each individual was too brittle to travel alone. They could snap in an instant. At lunch, they sat together and helped each other pretend as if they were eating, when they were really just pushing the food around on their plates. They all wanted boyfriends, but the few guys in the ballet program were all gay. Not that I had a boyfriend. But there was Michael, a jazz guitarist. At the end of the year, he wrote me a song, about how I was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, and he serenaded me in the lunchroom in front of everyone before asking me to the prom.
It was an open secret that Cecilina, one of the ballerinas, had a huge crush on him. The next day I passed her in the hallway.
“Fat slut!” she yelled at me. It was hard to care with the notes Michael’s song still in my ears, but her words echoed off the walls.
My mom had an old dress I had always wanted to wear. It was a costume from a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where she had played Titania. When I asked to borrow it for the prom, she looked unsure.
“I don’t think it will fit.”
But I tried it on anyway. It was snug, but I was able to pull it up over my body. The whole dress had a shimmery finish. The bodice was made of green and gold silk with flowers and leaves sewn in from the shoulder to the hip with sparkling wired wings coming out of the back. The topskirt was pink with gold spots with tulle layers below to make it fan out.
I twirled around my mom’s bedroom, making the skirt billow.
“Well, it’s a good thing it’s stretchy,” she said.
I began brainstorming plans for my senior project. Over the last year, I had been exploring non-traditional sculpture mediums and I had finally settled on an idea.
Pointe shoes are always depicted as pretty, shiny, and beautiful. Any ballerina knows this is a lie. They come that way out of the box but the first thing you do to a new pointe shoe is break it or it’s physically impossible to dance in. Most dancers have their own methods. Some wet the toe boxes, some heat them to soften the glue inside, and some just hit the toe box really hard with blunt objects. During a dance, the satin frays pretty quickly to the point where the box is completely exposed. Suction sweeps all the dust off the stage, which stains the remaining satin in a pattern like curling exhaust from a smoke stack. Feet bleed and the shoes soak up the blood. Even stained shoes can still be used until the shank gives out, but generally pointe shoes get nasty quickly and they don’t last long. Given that my mom danced for hours a day, she went through a pair about every two weeks.
I began collecting my mom’s pointe shoes as they ran out, pulling them out of the trash. My mom noticed me pulling them out of the trash bin and noticed the collection stacking up in a box in my closet.
“You’re obsessed,” she said, standing at me door, her feet pointing naturally outward to resemble first position.
“It’s for a project,” I said.
At school, I snipped off the ribbons. I ripped the soles off the back and cut the satin fabric off the shank. Then I tore the fabric into strips. I began laying the strips and ribbons around a small simple mannequin, sealing it up to be a mummy.
My senior year of high school, my mom slipped while teaching and snapped both her leg and her ankle. The doctor said she had osteoporosis with more injuries likely to come as her bones had decayed from years of malnutrition. My mom was suited up in a cast that went from her foot to her knee. It was clunky and huge.When we got home, she collapsed onto the couch and sobbed.
“I’m never going to dance again.” She winced and closed her eyes. “I love it so much. “
“We’ll make up a new dance,” I said. “You can do The Nutcracker but we’ll call it The Ankle-cracker and there will be a lot more hobbling than the original version.”
My mom eyed her cast. Finally she said, “I don’t think this will pass for a ballet shoe.”
I stared at the hard orthopedic cast and I remembered I had a whole bag of extra pointe ribbons in my backpack.
“Hold on,” I said, hurrying to my backpack and pulling out the ribbons, along with a tube of glue. I ran back to my mom with my arms full and put the strips of pink satin, taken from pointe shoes, over the long strips of plaster cotton strips that composed her cast. When I was done, I had turned her cast into a large bloated version of a ballet shoe, the worn satin still shining with mature pride.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“It’ll do,” she said. Then she hugged me. At first, I didn’t know what to do. Her shoulder bone was jutting into my neck. But I thought about the last time we hugged. It was before I stopped dancing.
Over the next few weeks, I came home everyday to be with my mom as soon as school ended instead of staying late to work in the art studio. I sat on the floor with my sketchpad, thinking with my pencil. My mother sat on the couch, watching old recital videos. I tried to cook for her. She didn’t want it. If anything, she ate less.
“It would be one thing if I was dancing, but I’m just sitting here.” She glowered then turned the TV back on. It glowed with the image of the ballerina, paused in the middle of a grande jeté, suspended in mid air. “That could have been me,” she whispered. “It should have been me.”
I sketched the ballerina from the neck down. I caught the sweeping slopes of her arms and the perfect port de bras, the arching slope of her center, the flare of her tutu, the tulle bursting out in stark directions, as stark as the sharp line of her split. Above her neck, I drew my mother’s face, but I took freedom with the lines. I left out the lines of tension and the lines of worry and drew them instead as lines of laughter. Instead of drawing her hair in the tight bun that she still wore, I let her hair down, each strand free to flow behind her as she flowed to the music of the orchestra.
The next day at the studio, I grabbed some clay, opening one of the art history books to The Birth of Venus. I began working on a statuette. As I molded the soft cold grains of clay, I looked at the glossy print, trying to capture Venus’s features perfectly even as I forced her to change. I couldn’t leave her in her iconic stance. Instead, my Venus statue stood in an attitude, casting her arms into the air, with one leg lifted and turned out behind her.
I carved every detail, accentuating her round belly, allowing her body to curve into the position, and letting her hair, her wild free flowing hair, wrap around her in lieu of the restrictive leotard ballerinas had become accustomed to. Only her face, I left blank.
At home, every day while my mother watched different ballets, I watched her face. I sketched it everyday for hours, familiarizing myself with every line, every turn, from each hair of her eyelashes to each striation of her irises.
At the end of senior year, we had a graduation art show.
By that time, my mom had worked her way out of her clunky cast into a subtler brace. She left the house for the first time. I can’t imagine she was comfortable standing in the gallery as people idled and milled about her as she stood in one spot, stuck with her crutches.
She looked startled when she saw what I had made: the goddess Venus with my mother’s face. Venus stood in my mother’s favorite dance position and her face showed the joy of the posture. The body was not quite typical though. Her figure was full and brimming, her features plump and comely. She was the classic definition of loveliness, but she’d never make it at the American Ballet Theater.
My own mother was as thin as she had ever been, the depression of the accident eating away at what little body fat she had.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Beauty,” I said.
Dana Eckstein Berkowitz hails from East Brunswick, New Jersey. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from University of Hartford as well as a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. Poetry, fiction, drama, and essays have appeared in Words Apart Magazine issue 6, the Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle Volume 88, and Aerie Magazine Volume 16. She is an alumna of Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society. You can connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/danaberkowitz or @nomnomdeplume