a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
[content warning: internalized homophobia]
Grace stares out the bus window, watching through lazy eyes as the buildings whir by, their cement walls hazy with unfocus. Dotting the sidewalks are street lights that refuse to dim, despite the creeping up of the Sun through the clouds. The last few determined moths buzz around the bulbs with fervor. Grace can’t help but wonder what they hope to find there. Her gaze shifts to the shadows under the trees, and she is transported to a different time.
“Grace! Wait up!” Grace looks over her shoulder at the girl chasing her. Laughing, she spins back around and takes off running once more. “Grace!” The girl calls out, struggling to get the name out between giggles. “Wait!” Grace slaps her hand against the tree, victorious. “Ha! I won!” She shouts, leaning against the trunk gleefully.
“No fair! You got a head-start!” The girl, Ailee, protests. Her small hand flies up to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She pouts, but she can hardly do so without laughing. “It’s not my fault you forgot to tie your shoes first! Who doesn’t check that?” Grace teases, stepping forward to meet her friend in the middle.
“My shoes never come untied!”
“Obviously they do…” Grace mumbles, and Ailee playfully bumps her on the shoulder. “Don’t start,” Ailee warns, chewing on her cheek to keep herself from smiling. “Start what?” Grace asks, eyes going wide in fake innocence.
“Just… don’t,” Ailee repeats, eyes gleaming with mirth. “Now, come on! We’re going to be late.” The two girls sprint the rest of the way to the studio, side-by-side. The bus jostles Grace from her thoughts as it makes a sharp turn around the corner. For the rest of the bus ride, she bans Ailee from her mind; she will be seeing her, live and in person,
soon enough. She focuses instead on her impending performance. She has waited a long time for this; she won’t allow any distractions.
When the bus finally reaches the concert hall, Grace finds herself unable to wrap her mind around the sheer size of it. She’s been here before, many times, but never as a performer. After twenty-five years of waiting, it is finally her turn. It is a relatively small gig amongst dozens of other small gigs, this she knows. The chances are that most audience members won’t even remember her as more than just another one of the ballerinas by the show’s end. None of that matters. She cannot remember the last time she felt this happy. Hoisting her dance bag higher up on her left shoulder, Grace allows her legs to carry her towards the double glass doors in long strides.
“Welcome!” A perky blonde smiles at her from behind a long folding table. In front of her are a stack of papers threatening to spill over, two clipboards, and five or six capless pens. “Are you here to sign in?” She asks, reaching for her glasses.
Grace nods, adjusting the strap on her arm. “Hi, yes, I am. I’m Grace…” she zones out as she introduces herself, allowing her body to go on autopilot as she takes in her surroundings. The lobby is a vast, open space, dotted with other dancers and their coaches here and there. To her left is a spiral staircase leading to the second floor. On the back wall, behind the receptionist, are half a dozen sofas, each adorned with decorative pillows. To her right is a group of people waiting to move through a set of oak doors. That’s when she sees her. Her back is turned, and she’s at least fifty feet away, but something in Grace recognizes her. She instantly feels sick.
“ … and that’s dressing room 7b. Do you know where that is?” Grace looks through the receptionist. “Ma’am?” Grace snaps out of it.
“Sorry. Uh, yes.” She feels her gaze moving to shift back to her right.
“You know where your dressing room is?” The receptionist clarifies, her fake smile beginning to waver.
“Oh, sorry, no,” Grace shifts her focus back to the blonde in front of her, not the one standing halfway across the room. “Where is it?” She’s vaguely aware of the woman’s voice as she gives her the directions, but her thoughts have already drifted elsewhere. Not wanting to make the receptionist repeat herself again, she smiles and thanks her before setting off towards the oak doors.
As she nears the group, Grace confirms what she already knows about the other young woman. She’s taller than she was when they last saw one another by at least two inches, bringing her closer to Grace’s height. For years, Grace towered over her, Ailee’s head hardly reaching where Grace’s dark hair spilled over her shoulders. Now, if they stand facing one another, they would probably see eye-to-eye.
When Grace nears the group, she watches as Ailee freezes in place. She hasn’t yet turned, but it’s like somehow, against all reason, she knows Grace is there. Grace wonders if Ailee senses her presence like she had sensed the blonde’s. The woman turns to look at her, and suddenly, everything feels as if it is in slow motion. She cannot decide if time itself has actually slowed down or if this feeling is the effect the other woman still has on her. She doesn’t know which answer she prefers. Seeing Ailee like that, light blonde hair pulled loosely in a ponytail, dance bag hanging from the crook of her right arm, Grace is reminded of the past. In the seconds before they lock eyes, the invisible hands of a memory clasp around Grace’s arms and tug at her, transporting her to another time.
“Did you hear what Mae was saying earlier?” The question rushes out of Ailee the second the bedroom door clicks shut behind them.
“About her neighbor’s dog?” Grace asks, face scrunched in confusion as she lets her school bag drop from her hands with a thud.
“What? No!” Ailee laughs, kicking off her sneakers and flopping onto Grace’s bed with as much comfortability as she does her own. “About the new kid! The boy!” She waits for a response but earns nothing. She continues, “One of us is going to have to dance with him.”
“What? Who told you that?” Grace frowns, not sure if she believes her friend. She reaches into her backpack and pulls out her math packet.
“Nobody told me, but it’s obvious! We always dance with partners at one point or another. And since Lea moved away, we still have an even number.” She says this matter-of-factly before rolling onto her stomach. “Do you think he’ll be my partner, Grace?” “Is that what you want?” Grace asks, looking up from her homework.
“I don't know. I mean… that’s what all the other girls want, right?” Ailee asks. “Probably,” Grace shrugs. “Not me, though. I’m fine just partnering with you. It’s easier! I don’t want to have to hear their teasing.”
“Oh, Grace,” Ailee rolls her eyes, laughing lightheartedly. “There are worse things! We’re twelve, most girls have already had three boyfriends by now.”
“Is that what you want?” Grace repeats her previous question. She digs her nails into her suddenly sweaty palms as she awaits the response.
“No,” Ailee admits, and Grace feels instantly better. “No, I don’t think so. But I’m still young, so it’ll probably change.” Grace doesn’t respond to that. “Don’t worry,” Ailee reassures her, “it’ll change for you, too.”
Grace snaps back to the present when Ailee’s gray eyes meet her own. A hundred things happen at once. Both women freeze in place. Ailee’s dance bag slips down her arm. Grace’s ears start ringing. Then, another dancer speaks, and time returns to normal speed again.
“Oh, Grace, there you are! These are Robert, Catie, and Ailee, they’re from another company. Guys, this is Grace,” Elle, a dancer in her group, introduces them. “We’ve already met,” Ailee tells her, softly.
“That’s great!” Elle grins. “Now you can catch up!” Grace nods.
“We were sixteen the last time we performed together,” Grace says, just as much to Ailee as to Elle. “So much has changed since then.”
“It looks like we’re all in the same dressing room!” Elle tells them both, examining the identification sticker on Grace’s jacket. She doesn’t even remember putting it there. “Perfect,” Ailee speaks again, softer still. She fiddles with her wedding band. Grace looks away.
Grace races through the side doors, eager to see her parents. It takes her a moment, but soon enough, she sees them pushing through the crowd. Her dad holds a bouquet of flowers. Her mother holds his hand.
“Honey!” Her father calls out, grinning when he sees her. “You did so amazing, sweetheart,” he tells her as his wife envelops her in a hug.
“Thanks, Dad,” she smiles, taking the bouquet from his hand.
“That was beautiful, honey,” her mom tells her, taking her dance bag from her. “Are you ready to go? Your grandparents are already on their way to the restaurant.”
“Almost, I just have to find…” She trails off, scanning the crowd for Ailee. “I need to congratulate her. I’ll be right back.” Grace’s dad offers to hold the bouquet for her, and she complies. Then, “wait, can I-” she gestures at the flowers, gently pulling a rose from the side. “I’ll meet you guys at the car,” she tells them, and then she’s off in search of the blonde. She spots her outside, standing off to the side.
“Did you get stood up?” Grace jokes, dodging a family of three and a lone photographer as she approaches her.
“Ha-ha,” Ailee deadpans, rolling her eyes playfully. “My parents are using the bathroom. We’re leaving soon.”
“So are we,” Grace tells her, leaning against the wall.
“Going for your celebratory dinner?”Ailee asks, although she must already know the answer. It’s been a tradition for Grace and her family every year since she and Ailee met. “You know it.” A few seconds pass where neither of them speaks, and Grace searches, desperately, for something to say. She remembers the rose. “Here, this is for you,” she extends her arm, holding the flower out for her.
“Grace...” Ailee starts, her eyebrows raising slightly. A warning.
“No, it’s just... for the show. I wanted to say congratulations. You were amazing.” Grace moves her hand, signaling for Ailee to take the rose.
“You don’t have to take it,” Grace cuts in, trying to backtrack. “Honest. My dad got me a whole bunch of them, so I just thought...” she trails off. She doesn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” Ailee shakes her head, backing away from Grace. “This isn’t... this isn’t me.” She picks her dance bag up from the ground, preparing to leave.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Grace asks, trying to keep her voice from rising. “Don’t try to turn this on me,” she warns, her hand clenching the flower.
“I’m not… that’s not what I meant. But I can’t do this. I'm sorry,” Ailee says in a voice barely above a whisper.
“You don't have to!” Grace rushes out. “But don’t try to blame it on me. Please! It was you too, you said it-”
“No. Please stop. I need to go,” Ailee interrupts her, gripping the strap of her dance bag. “Ailee! Please!” Grace pleads. She’s close to crying now. “But you said it too, you told me you loved me too-”
“No! I was wrong, it wasn’t true-”
“Don’t say that! Why are you saying that?” Grace’s voice is rising now.
“Because it can’t- I’m sorry. This isn’t... this can’t be me. I have to go!” Ailee turns and all but runs away. Grace watches in disbelief.
“Ailee! Where are you going? Your parents are inside!” No answer. She lets the minutes tick by as she stands there, tears streaming down her cheeks, alone with a single flower and her shadow. Already she feels Ailee’s absence in her chest; it’s like someone has wrapped their slender fingers around her heart, and they won’t stop squeezing until they’ve drained all the blood from the muscle. She allows herself a few moments more, and then she’s walking to the parking lot, bringing her shadow but leaving the rose behind. She only makes it ten steps before giving in and turning back for the flower.
As they wait for their respective numbers, Grace and Ailee test the limits of the uncomfortable silence of their shared dressing room. Grace twists her dark hair into a bun, focusing on her own reflection as she holds it in place with bobby pins. Ailee stands to the side, reapplying her baby pink lipstick simply for something to do. The music from someone’s performance is carried from the stage, faintly drowned out by the bustling of other dancers preparing for their turns. Ailee glances at the clock; no time has passed.
“Will you say something already?” Grace breaks the silence, not looking away from the mirror. Her hands are still working away at her bun.
“I’m sorry, I was doing my makeup-” Ailee starts, voice soft, features softer. “You’ve been doing your makeup for an hour,” Grace interrupts, staring at the other woman’s reflection. “We both know it doesn’t take you that long.” Ailee says nothing. “You used to finish your whole face before any of us had even had the time to get out our mascara.” They chuckle awkwardly at this, neither willing to fully commit to the familiarity of the memory. “And that’s not what I was talking about. I meant-”
“I know what you were talking about, Grace,” Ailee sighs, setting her lipstick to the side. She looks at the ground. “I don’t know what to say.”
“So you’re saying nothing?” Grace asks, incredulous. Her hands drop into her lap. “Yes,” she responds, voice remaining soft. She hesitates, then meets Grace’s angry gaze in the mirror. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Apologize?” Grace offers, but even she knows it is weak. She may deserve an apology, but Ailee doesn’t owe her one. Pain is funny like that.
“Yeah. I could try that.” Ailee nods, her jeweled headpiece reflecting a kaleidoscope of light. Her pink lips quirk up on the right, forming a sad smile.
“Yeah. You could.” Grace breaks eye contact with Ailee’s reflection and turns back to her own. Her practiced hands return to her head, tucking a loose strand into her bun. Ailee watches her through the mirror. Grace’s eyebrows furrow as she looks for a clip. She starts as if to reach for her bag. Then,
“Here,” Ailee steps towards her, bobby pin in hand. “Do you want me to…” she gestures at Grace’s bun.
“I can do it,” Grace tells her, taking the pin from her hand. A beat. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” Ailee’s lips twitch, forming a small smile as she sits back in her chair. She puts her lipstick away.
They sit in relative silence for the next couple of numbers. At some point, their eyes meet in the mirror once more. They hold them there. The muted notes of classical music drift under the door.
The two stand in the wings, waiting for Ailee’s turn. “Hey, um…” Grace starts, facing her. “Before you go on, I wanted to tell you… I’m sorry, for-”
“No, Grace, you don’t have to apologize,” Ailee sighs, exhausted. For the first time all day, Grace sees how different the woman in front of her is from the girl she last saw ten years ago. “I get it. You were angry at me, at what I did. I was, too.”
“Not angry…” Grace corrects. Ailee’s eyebrows raise in half-amusement. “Okay, maybe I was a little angry,” Grace chuckles. Ailee joins her. “But mostly, I was…” she trails off. How can she sum up how she felt, how she feels, in a word?
“Me too,” Ailee tells her, and Grace nods. When she puts it like that, Grace thinks it makes perfect sense.
“And it’s okay. That you weren’t… I don't know, ready. If you’re not now,” Grace says, as delicately as she can. Ailee doesn’t answer. The music on stage comes to an end. They only have seconds, now. “Good luck,” she tells her, moving as if to step back. Ailee grabs her arm, gently. It doesn’t matter— Grace freezes all the same. For a second, Grace swears nothing has changed, that they’re still fifteen and pretending to just be friends, choosing not to question the ease at which their hands fit together. Then, the song stops, and the dancers shuffle past them as they spill off the stage. Ailee’s hand leaves Grace’s arm and falls slack at her side. “It’s too late, isn’t it?” Grace leaves out the “for us”; it isn’t necessary. They both hear it. The lights dim, and then Ailee’s slipping away from her once more.
Her performance says more than words ever could. They never were very good with words, anyway. Dance was always their language. Grace supposes that will never change. The final note rings out, reverberating in Grace’s ears as she watches Ailee exit off the opposite side of the stage. Watches as she accepts a bouquet of roses from her husband. Watches as she pulls a flower out from the bunch. Watches as Ailee shifts out of her husband’s embrace and searches for Grace, from a distance. Always from a distance. The women lock eyes, and melancholy smears a smile of surrender across Grace’s face. Her past pain echoes in her chest when Ailee smiles back a desolate apology. “It’s okay,” Grace thinks. “She’s still not ready. But I can’t wait anymore.” She raises her arm in good-bye. Ailee raises the flower in turn.
The lights dim, and Grace glides onto the stage. She waits, for the first time in a long time, for nothing —nobody— but the music. The spotlight hits her, the music cues, and she allows herself to move on. She begins to dance.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.