We’re going to be late to class and I don’t care. Aly walks along the wall in Rittenhouse Park, her fingers clutching mine above my head. She’s catching me up on the gossip I missed on the whole two days I was back home. I don’t go home often. My parents and I don’t get along for the most part, but my sister was singing in a concert. For Noelle, I’d put up with hearing about how far I’ve strayed. They say they live a “quiet and godly” way of life. I say backward and suffocating. It’s only the start of my differences with them.
Ballet companies can be cesspools of drama, especially halfway through the winter season. I didn’t think much could happen in two days—one of the days I took off was a Sunday, our rest day each week—but according to the stories pouring out of this girl, I missed a lot.
I don’t care who dumped whom or who got what role, honestly, even if I should. I’m just glad to be back here, making sure she doesn’t fall off the snow-crusted wall on our slow walk from the coffee shop by her apartment down to our ballet company’s home on South Street.
“And I definitely walked in on Jonathan complaining to Johan that I was promoted too quickly,” she says, and then holds out both hands. Her gloves against my gloves sends shivers of friction up my arms as she easily jumps down from the end of the wall. It’s only been two days, but God, I want to stare at her forever. Winter does beautiful things to Aly. Her pale gold hair escapes her hat and her eyes are made even more brilliantly blue with all this snow around us.
“Why does Jonathan care?” I tuck her hand into my coat pocket where it belongs. Impulsively, because I can’t remember feeling this happy in a while, I add, “Let’s skip class.”
“Because he’s nuts and he’s decided not to like me, and we can’t skip class,” she says all in one breath, bumping her hip into mine. “Besides, you don’t skip class.”
“Maybe,” I tease, “I just want to spend time with you before we’re in Europe working for the next month. This is our last chance.”
Aly lifts her chin, pouting at me. “Stop, you’re stealing my thunder. I’m the dramatic one in this friendship.”
“You’re bad at sharing.”
She laughs, leaning into me. “I got terrible marks in kindergarten.”
“Wait, you weren’t perfect at some point in your life?” I clap my free hand against my chest, pretending to stumble. “Cannot process this information. Stunned speechless.”
“Shut up,” she says with a smile. “You know I’m not perfect.”
To most people, she probably is perfect. Model-thin, fit, leggy, beautiful, smart. But we’re ballet dancers. Perfection to us is a work in progress. The pursuit is why we do what we do. When I met Aly, we were just kids in the audition line for the prestigous Lyon School of Ballet. When we were both accepted, we didn’t know what to do with each other. I thought she danced because she was good at it. When I stayed in the dorms over Thanksgiving, she accused me of using a dance scholarship to stay out of my hellish house. We both know better now. We dance because we can’t imagine doing anything else. On the worst days, when every part of my body hurts, when I think I might want to quit, I have her. We’re a balancing act, the two of us.
Aly and I make it to the center just as class starts, shedding our snow-covered garments as we tromp up the stairs. I shake out my hat over her head as she tries to pin back stray hairs into her bun. Both of us wore our tights beneath our jeans, so we strip in the hallway, sliding our feet into flat slippers. She won’t put on her pointe shoes until the class after lunch.
“Sorry,” I say to excuse us both. Marjorie, who teaches the morning class, rolls her eyes and gestures for us to go to the barre, and we find space together.
As we pick up the exercise, Aly leans forward, her fingers brushing the ground in front of her, and peers at me through her legs. She smiles, and whispers, “Hey, you.”
“Hey, you,” I whisper back as we straighten and bend backward, checking our lines in the mirror. My body softens and relaxes, any lasting tension from traveling sinking free of my muscles and tendons.
“Reverse!” calls Marjorie.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Aly says for the tenth time this morning. “I missed you.”
I bend backward again, stretching my arms and legs. I don’t have time to tell her that I’m glad to be home too, before Marjorie marches down our row and demonstrates the next exercise. We lose ourselves in the process of warming up our bodies, from our feet to our arms. These morning classes are careful and methodical, but my mind’s not here. It’s still out in the park with Aly’s hand in mine, my heart beating wildly in my chest.
I don’t want to be here, with an audience. I want to be snowed into my house with her, ordering delivery food and watching the snow fall while we watch cheesy dance movies. We fly out tomorrow night for the European tour. I wasn’t kidding when I said this is our last chance for a while to be just us, Aly and Zed, A to Z, the beginning and the end.
“Alright,” Marjorie says at the end of the hour. “Everyone not going to Europe, you’re done until the afternoon. Tour dancers, stay here. Johan’s coming in to run through two of the variations.”
I’m dripping with sweat, my shirt stuck to my chest, and I lean against the barre on the side of the classroom. Being tired feels a lot like being alive. Aly comes over to stand next to me, her water bottle tipped up to her mouth. She raises an eyebrow and I hope, for her sake, that we’re only running through one of the variations that she’s doing.
“Center Stage,” Aly says, naming a movie that came out when we were just kids, still learning how to keep our feet pointed out.
I roll my eyes. “I’m not watching that again.”
“There’s no limit to how many times one can watch that movie. Besides, at least they had real dancers,” she argues.
“Black Swan,” I counter, trying to keep my tone even and steady.
It’s no use. She grins. “We have the Internet, you know. We don’t have to watch the whole movie just for the Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis sex scene.”
“We’re predictable,” I say, stealing her water bottle. She wrinkles her nose as I take a long swig. She used to complain about germs but sometime in the last six and a half years, I managed to break her of that particular phobia.
“Fine,” she says. “We’ll watch Black Swan. But we’re ordering Chinese food.”
I groan. “Okay. But not from that place on Twelfth Street. How do you screw up lo mein?”
“Alyona, Zed. Legitimate question.” Sakura Yakamoto, one of the other principal dancers, has come up beside Aly. Like everyone but me, she uses Aly’s full name. “Are you two still sure you’re not dating? Because this sounds awfully like a couple’s argument to me.”
“Best friends can do that,” Aly says so smoothly that I almost thank her for answering so I didn’t have to.
Because the truth is, it does feel like a relationship. It’s felt like a relationship for years now. But unless Aly gives me express permission, that’s not happening. I’m not crossing some line just to see whether it’d work. It’s not worth the risk of losing her. We could barely handle two days apart. What happens if we can’t handle a breakup?
“She makes enough demands on me as it is,” I tell Sakura with mock seriousness. “Imagine if we added sex to this.”
Aly’s cheeks flush bright pink. “Shut up. I’m not that difficult.”
Sakura snorts as I say, “Sweetheart, you’re impossible. But it’s why I adore you.”
“Are you two twelve or twenty?” Sakura strips off her leg warmers.
“Neither. Nineteen,” we say together, and then burst into laughter. I add, “At least for another month.”
Aly flicks my nose. “Hush. You’re distracting me. I’m contemplating a proper punishment for you being an ass.”
“Shaking in my boots,” I tell her and she sticks out her tongue. She’s adorable when she’s pretending to be pissed off.
“Isn’t that shaking in your slippers?” Adrian McKinley, one of my good friends in the company, is using a low voice, but it carries well in the studio.
“You know, I think you have a pointe there,” I say, stroking my chin. Aly shakes her head and exchanges a resigned look with Sakura.
“Your puns keep me on my toes,” Adrian counters and then busts up at his own joke. Sakura reaches over us to swat at him, and he says, “Hey! It was fair plié! Zed started it.”
I crack up and lift my fist for Adrian to bump as he takes a dramatic bow. Aly snaps her fingers at me, just like Johan, our artistic director does, when he wants our attention in class. “Zedekiah Harrow, focus. We’re talking about your death wish, not your poor sense of humor.”
“I have a great sense of humor,” I remind her, tapping her on the nose. She squints at me but doesn’t pull away or slap at my hand.
Aly reaches to straighten my hair, her fingers light and nimble. She’s always dancing, even in the tiny moments of her life. “You are the neediest. Why haven’t I broken you of that yet?”
“News alert!” Sakura says, holding up a finger. “Pot is speaking to kettle. Again.”
Johan walks into the classroom and claps his hands twice. “I hear too much chitchat. This is a place of work! To the center!”
The center of the room feels like home, and I assume fifth position, watching my reflection and listening to Johan chat about Europe with two other dancers to my right. Aly slips up next to me, putting both her hands on my waist. She touches her forehead to the back of my arm and I glance down at her.
“I wish we’d skipped.”
And just like that, this girl makes me wish we were anywhere but here.