WAITING

Monday April 16th

At the barre at Miss Allie’s
I lean and dream:

onstage alone
where the spotlight glows,

fears of an audience
scatter like stage dust.

Music flows through me –
it always does

like air and blood
moving my limbs

to dance in ways
that push me out

so close to the world
right up against the edges of the sky.

 

NEW GIRL

We plié-two-three, up-two-three
when a new girl comes crashing
through Miss Allie’s door

feet
pounding
down
the floor.

She flings her bag
flicks her hair
flips off shoes.

She shimmies her skirt off
slides into slippers
hooks her leotard on sharp-edged hips

the kind
real
ballerinas
have.

She says Sorry I’m late
but doesn’t look sorry
hands on her hips.

I’m hoping
she’s
not very
good.

 

UP AND DOWN

She’s looking at me
from behind, up and down –

I watch the mirror opposite,
sneaking a look.

Sasha’s eyes run up and down
the back of me.

 

UN-BRAVE

Miss Allie asks me
to come to the front

and something changes inside
like a tingling frost

on a winter window
that never melts.

Mom says my shyness will pass
but I wonder when.

I slip to the front:
I love it and hate it

and try to pretend
no one’s watching,

un-brave always
I wish I weren’t.

 

BACKBEND WITHOUT HANDS

It’s quiet now, no music, we’re stretching,
then time for backbends without hands.

One at a time she helps each girl
gently holding her back as she bends.

Now she’s in front of me, circling my back
not touching, but tapping, Right here, I’m right here.

I backward-bend slowly, smoothly,
half a circle down to the floor

and everything seems to disappear
but the strength of my thighs and belly

holding me steady, safe and strong
in the circle of her arms.

 

YES AND NO

Miss Allie grabs my hand
after class when the others leave.

She looks at me now
her eyes, crystal blue locking on mine

and says the time is here
for me to do a solo.

She says to choose a piece
and choreograph the steps.

She says at Spring Recital
I will be the one to watch.

No, no! I think and cringe
while my heart flies open.

Okay, I say and smile
but am sick inside.

I don’t understand how
you can want something

so much that you fear
so much.

 

IT’S TIME

I call Beck, my best, best friend
too excited to text her this kind of news.

I tell her what Miss Allie asked,
say I’m terrified – she understands.

You’ll be fantastic, Beck tells me,
She tells me this is my big chance

to be the dancer I’ve dreamed.
Now you can make it real! 

Beck says.

 

CLOSE

Wednesday April 18, 39 days until recital

After dinner Wednesday night
Mom and Dad want to see my dance

I mumble Not yet
and escape downstairs.

When I was four and five and six
I’d show them my dances –

only them, and Jules, but nobody else.
Mom would sing while I spun around.

Little dancing Reeni girl
Sway and swirl, whirl and twirl
Little dancing Reeni girl.

I’d spin across the room and back
but never far from their hugging arms.

 

GROWING

In my morning shower –
the new shape of my chest

surprises me more
every day.

Mom says I’m growing
becoming a woman

but I think I’m growing
out of my clothes.

 

MORE THAN HALF

Way more than half
the girls I eat lunch with
talk about food and diets.

I guess I grew up differently
than Alex, Jess, and Morgan
who say what foods are good or bad

and how much of what
you shouldn’t eat
and when and how or even never.

But most of them
don’t seem to like
themselves either

anymore.

 

OPPOSITES

Beck’s always there at synagogue
where we giggle and talk
when Hebrew School’s over.

We find a cozy couch
and I tell her about my solo –
she’s so proud of me.

We’re eye to eye
in height and friendship
but when we high-five
her little hand whacks half of mine.

We laugh about her shoes
fitting into mine.
Her body isn’t changing yet.
She wishes it would.

 

BECK’S ADVICE

I ask Beck
who knows me inside out

Do you think
I’m getting fat?

You’re regular, Reeni,
says Beck, and shrugs.

I say, I don’t look
like a ballerina.

Beck smiles and says,
You dance like one.

 

INSIDE

Thursday April 19, 38 days

In class on Thursday I can’t help
wondering: will I grow up to look like Miss Allie?

She moves as softly
as water flows, and when I watch her my heart

dances with her –
it’s that powerful,

her dancing.
I wonder

why she was never
a star.

When I was four
I hid in her skirts

a rainbow wound around her legs
tucked up for moving.

She made a place for me at the barre
and touched my chin to lift it up

and said, You’re a dancer, dear,
I can see it inside.

 

OUTSIDE THE DOOR      

I show Miss Allie my solo so far
then go to change.

I hear some giggles
and then these words:

Reeni’s a little chubby
to be a swan.

It’s Sasha’s voice.
Then Dhara says,

Reeni’s the best
dancer in the school.

And how would you know?
You’re so skinny

a pencil would be fat
next to you.

Now I have to walk in
and pretend I didn’t hear.

 

THE WORD

It circles around me
like the cold wet wind
of Chicago in spring.

Chubby. Chubby. Chubby.

The word wraps and squeezes
l
ike a winter scarf
and hisses in my ears:

Chubby. Chubby. Chubby.

It breaks up and sounds like
fake word

CHUH. Bee.
Ch. Uh. Bee.
Chubby.

Chubby: now it sounds ugly.
And it’s about me.

 

NOT TODAY

There’s Mom grading papers.
S
he’s up from her chair to give me my hug

but I can’t hug today–I’ll be right back, I say
then I race up the stairs, lock my door behind me,

a huge pressing lump inside my throat.
There are the posters on my wall,

They’re old-time ballerinas a gift from Grandma:
I’ve studied their positions, arms, legs,

muscles, necks, faces, and arched, pointed toes.
I’ve pictured myself in a poster someday.

I always thought I’d look like them
when I grew up.

 

NEW PLAN

While Dad’s stirring soup
I search how to diet
on the computer
in the family room.

It’s written by someone
with a lot of initials
who says there’s a way
to lose weight fast.

Eat less, exercise more.
I don’t understand the calorie part.
Limit salt and starch.
Note to self: what is starch?

Oh my gosh, what can I eat?
Focus: fruits, veggies, egg whites, soy,
skinless chicken breasts and fish.
Nonfat dairy, very lean meat.

Then more instructions for the diet:
eat vegetables to feel full
                          More vegetables than I already eat?

drink lots of water
I already do.

get tempting foods out of the way
Don’t know what you mean.

stay busy
I already am.

eat from a plate
I already do.

don’t skip meals
I don’t skip meals.

write down what you eat
Okay.

make a note how you’re feeling
I already know: I feel hungry before I eat.

 

DINNER

Dinner is Dad’s steamy, spicy
tomato soup

perfect for cold and rainy
days,

creamy grilled cheese on crisp
brown bread

everything I shouldn’t
eat

I blurt out, I can’t eat
this stuff

I have to lose weight before
my solo.

Mom says your body’s changing,
you eat well, you dance every day

your body will take care of itself,
Reeni-beeni.

 

FRIDAY NIGHTS  

Mom’s roast chicken with carmelly carrots
and slithery onions
creamy-crunchy potatoes

and Dad’s homemade challah
baked every week
after cartoons meet the deadline.

The smells, the warmth
mix and surround me
with soon-to-be-Shabbat quiet

Mom lights the candles
I watch the flickering
Jules rushes in

and our heads bow together
to get Mom’s and Dad’s blessing
at sunset Friday night.

We’re not Orthodox
but we observe the Sabbath
each week, tonight and tomorrow.

We kiss each other and say
Shabbat Shalom
and no one notices

I leave my potatoes and challah
untouched on my plate.

 

NOT USUALLY

I usually don’t do homework on Shabbat
but tonight I write in my journal before bed:

now I understand what “tempting food” means:
those are the foods you’re not supposed to eat on
your diet

that you start thinking about
eating all the time.

 

CLIMBING OUT 

Monday April 23, 34 days

Sasha’s full of advice for me
cheering me on:

you’ll feel so much better
and be less shy.

And she says, besides
it’s not just about dancing

Thin gets you everything,
that’s what my Mom says.

The words feel like
some new language

I don’t understand
but also they feel

like a ladder out
of a hole I’m in

alone.

 

SHE SAYS, I SAY

Wednesday April 25, 32 days

When I tell Beck all about Sasha,
about wanting to change my shape and size

She says, that’s stupid.
She says, What do you think you’re doing?
She says, You better stop.

I say, you don’t get it.
I say, just leave me alone.

And when she does, alone eats up
all the space inside of me.

 

DIET, WEEK ONE 

Thursday April 26, 31 days

The only good thing is,

I feel as light
as a feather
and fly downstairs
to whirl my solo.
I’m hungry
but that doesn’t
matter right now
I feel a million times
better
just knowing I’m on a
diet.

I suck in
my stomach
and stare
in the mirror
my new breasts
still there
but I’m sure I
look thinner.

I’m sure.

 

TURNING

Sasha steps into the boureé turn
feet not pulled tight

her elbows out, her turns not whipped–
she spoils the line.

I’m in sous-sus, half-pointe, feet tight
and elbows in

I feel the rush and choose my “spot” –
Miss Allie’s smile,

My third time ‘round my whizzing head
spots Sasha there waiting

eyes right on me, I stumble, hop
then try to spin

the floor’s like water and I thud
off-balance now.

Miss Allie catches me and moves
me to the barre.

You can’t turn right when you don’t spot
right.

 

HALF                        

Sunday April 29, 28 days                   

I practice my solo on and off
I don’t remember how many times.

I want not to think about Beck or food
I want not to think about me in the mirror.

I try to get to the magical place
where I dance and dance and have no thoughts

but by the time I dip my curtsy
to the imaginary audience out there

I realize that half my brain
was thinking about what I could eat

and missing my time with my best friend—
we haven’t talked in such a long time.

 

TOO HUNGRY TO SLEEP

Every time I close my eyes
my stomach growls and keeps my brain awake.

Dinner was stir-fry. I didn’t have rice
and nobody noticed my one chunk of chicken.

I’m so empty, I’m out of bed in a quiet minute
and Jules’ bedroom light shines under her door.

Down the staircase two steps at a time
but softly, toe-touch, heel-light into the kitchen.

The fridge hums to me. I pull the door
and a package of cheese seems the perfect thing.

One slice. Then Sasha’s voice: don’t eat that stuff –
It’s fat! Resist! Resist!

 

A LIE LIKE A SANDWICH

Don’t skimp on lunch, Mom says.
I won’t! I turn my face away

and hide my sandwich from her view,
a hollowed out bagel cut in half

a slice of turkey so thin it’s in pieces.
With fumbling hands and a pummeling heart

I wrap the thing and stuff it away.
My lie like my sandwich

will never satisfy and leaves
Mom’s eyes asking for more.

 

MATH IN EVERYDAY LIFE 

Wednesday May 2, 25 days

Mr. Avery’s talking about
least common multiples

and how math can be useful
in everyday life

It’s true: I spend my time
adding calories for the cheese I sneak

subtracting weight I think I’ve gained
from what I thought I lost

multiplying lies
I’ve told Mom and Dad

dividing days left
into diet and dance.

One still seems strange,
and the other used to be heaven.

 

CAN’T DANCE

Too tired.

Pliés hurt.

Arms flop.

Turns jiggle.

Miss Allie scolds

then apologizes.

Reeni, are you sick?

I’m worried about you.

I’ll call your mom to let her know.

I tell her no, that I’m okay –

just tired from homework,

too much math.

 

TICKETS!  

Thursday May 17, 10 days

Mom’s late –
Was there a meeting at school? –
but her hands reach tickets out to me.

They’re for Swan Lake
for you and me.
A New York company, Tuesday night.

I can’t believe it.
We’ve never been
to a fancy ballet in downtown Chicago.

I’m bubbling
bursting
flying sitting down!

 

AUDITORIUM  

Tuesday May 22, 5 days

I’ve never seen a place so grand
with ceilings several stories high
and crystal lighting shooting rainbows
golden trim around the walls.

No wonder Mom said to wear my best,
the blue silk dress with jacket to match,
synagogue shoes and a blue-green pashmina
Mom bought to match my eyes and dress.

Mom squeezes my hand and slides her arm
around my shoulder while we move through the crowd.
It’s hard to stay mad when I’m with her like this.
We wind our way around small groups.

I notice pink tights on some of the girls
as if they’ve just come from ballet class
and want us to know they’re special somehow.
I can’t help noticing that they’re thin.

 

INSIDE

The stage and walls shimmer
with blues, greens, aquamarines
as if we are in water.

Lush with deep glimmers
dark shadows surround us
tucked into our velvety seats.

I know the story, the curse of the princess
becoming Odette, the beautiful swan.
To break the curse she needs undying love.

Mom chatters to me about the stars,
Here’s a picture of the ballerina dancing Odette.
I only half-listen, tighten my pashmina.

Lights darken, mystery settles, the music begins.
The Sorcerer’s behind the curtain
and a shadow princess becomes a swan!

The Sorcerer brings the swan onstage –
its huge wings open. It tries to fly.
I grab the edges of my seat as the Sorcerer disappears.

The curtain rises!

 

OH!

My heart leaps out anyway and whirls onstage.
Oh, the costumes! the greens and the purples
and blues

split in front so the whirling shows legs and
pointe shoes
and leaves room for leaps, kicks and arabesques.

Oh, the music, and the twirling
twirling
twirling!

 

WHAT I SEE

Then something grabs my eyes,
forcing them toward the bodices
above the whirling skirts.

One, then another, ten and twenty,
and suddenly all I see
is the upper half of ballerinas

flat and hard, straight across,
no breasts, tiny waists, strong
arms and shoulder to shoulder bone.

My breath sounds fast –
my eyes zig-zag from one
to the other, looking and looking

for signs of roundness anywhere
breasts, thighs, anything.
All I see is no one like me.

And the screams in my head
are louder
than music.

 

NEVER

Silent on the car, then stomping, slamming
to my room, locking myself inside.

I rip my clothes off, grab my flesh,
hiss, I wish I could cut you off!
I scream at the mirror I hate you!

I poke and pinch and push
at bulges

pound, pound, punch.

I hurt myself, I hate myself, squeeze flesh
’til I leave marks all over,
then I wrap myself inside a robe and collapse

in the corner, sobbing, sobbing.
Reeni, we love you, please open the door.
They call in again and again, jiggle the lock

again and again, but I can’t answer.
The ballerinas on my wall look down and laugh.
You’ll never be like us.

Never. Never. Never.

 

NOT ASLEEP

They leave me alone when I say I’m asleep
and promise I’ll come out in the morning for school.
But I wait for the quiet, tiptoe down the stairs.

Refrigerator open, air cooling my face.
Pulling out leftovers from Shabbat,
casserole into the microwave,

opening the door before the timer dings
burning myself with the steam pouring out,
pot roast hot and tender, juice dripping from my fingers.

Carrots, onions, potatoes and meat –
scooping it straight from the casserole
into the empty cavern of me.

I slump, sickened with too much food
and Sasha’s warning voice
and with knowing she’s right:

I can’t dance the way I am.
And there’s not enough food in the world
to take that away.

 

BROKEN

Mom’s voice outside presses in through the door,
soft and warm. I roll away and let her in

and she drops to the floor to crumple me gently
in her hugging arms.

I cuddle close. I can’t dance anymore.
I cough out the words. I’ll never be thin.

Mom wipes my face, my hair. She’s crying now.
No! She’s mad, but not at me.

No, no, no, no, Reeni!
She holds my face between her hands

and I can’t escape her eyes.
I won’t let you do this to yourself.

She holds me tighter, then I pull away
and find the place in her lap

that’s always been mine, and sob ‘til I sleep
Mom’s hand soft on my head.

But even her hand can’t find all the hurt
and the broken pieces inside me.

 

HOW MUCH I LOST ON MY DIET

Wednesday May 23

Mom and Dad trusting me,

my best friend,

and my ballerina dream:

these are what I’ve lost

instead of weight.

 

THOSE BLUE EYES

After school I run to Miss Allie’s house.
The little kids bounce out from movement class.
One girl’s dressed in pink and black, I bet
already dreaming about spotlights and applause.

Miss Allie’s blue eyes find mine and ask
What’s wrong? I can’t.
Can’t say.
After the silence, when I do, I tell the truth –

about feeling scared, then fat,
about Sasha and my diet
about Swan Lake and flat chests
and never being the right size for a ballerina.

When I say I’m quitting she steps away
her hand still holding mine
and says things about don’t and can’t and shouldn’t
and how I should let myself be special

but all I can feel is the hurt in my throat
and I pull away and run because
those blue eyes stare and I can’t stand
the sadness.

 

NO MORE DAYS                 

No more days for me,
no more waiting, no more diet
no more being afraid of my solo.

Instead of dancing I remember dancing
when it was like taking deep breaths
of clear mountain air.

Once on vacation
we stopped by a field
high up where our ears popped.

The field was flat
like a rest between mountains
with a pine forest at the far side.

The air gushed through me
and my deep breaths came fast
and faster as I ran for the trees.

Dad said he couldn’t believe
how I’d run without stopping
in that thin mountain air.

But I did it – I loved it.
Dancing used to be that way,
almost flying.

 

AFTER

At dinner tonight
I tell Mom and Dad, I’m sorry I lied

Jules watches me without saying a thing.
Dad says, Reeni I’m proud of you.

I feel better now
but I don’t feel right.

 

NO CHOICE

Mom says she’s taking me somewhere tonight –
that I don’t have a choice, and she’s smiling.

But I’m sick to my stomach when I see tickets
on the seat of the car that say DANCE!

 

DANCE!

Wider than the opera house,
not elegant, but chocolate-colored walls
instead of gold and velvet.

I’m cozy and warm in jeans and sweater.
The stage is right here,
up close.

No glowing blues, greens and purples.
No lake, no swan,
No orchestra.

High school kids and families
settle into seats and it’s noisy
until the lights dim down.

The music’s not Tchaikovsky
but it’s music all the same,
rap and pop and folk and blues.

Group after group of girls and some boys,
all sizes of kids in dance after dance
slithering, tapping, leaping across the stage.

Ballet, modern, Irish, jazzy
and I can’t help it – I bounce and sway.
I’m in the music, and the music’s in me.

 

JULES TELLS ME

That night I tell Jules all the things I’ve wanted to say

about bodies and ballet
about me and my solo.

She talks about girls in high school she knows
who diet and binge, or who starve themselves thin.

But she tells me Mom’s right,
that my body is just the right size for me.

I can’t say what you saw in Swan Lake isn’t real –
but if you’re a dancer, how can you not dance?

 

NOT SURE

I wish I knew the answer.
Mom says questions are part of growing up.

If I am a dancer, how can I not dance?
And if I am a friend…what should I do?

I decide to call Beck and apologize,
say she was right and I was wrong.

My hands are sweaty and shaking
but when Beck says, I really missed you

it’s all worth it and we plan
to meet on Shabbat.

I am braver
than I thought.

 

SHE SAYS YES

I call Miss Allie, ask what she thinks:

Yes, she says, your name’s on the program.

Yes, she says, I’m sure you can do it.

Yes, she says, I know you’re still scared.

 

BACKBEND WITHOUT HANDS  

Sunday May 27

Before I dance, before I’m on,
she stands in front of me
face to face.

My hand is right here,
and she circles it around
just an inch

away from the catching place,
and I bend, arch back,
and she taps, taps lightly.

Her deep voice reminds me,
I’m here, right here,
and my head leads the way.

In an arc, my hair, eyes, nose, mouth
continue downward, backward
upside down.

And in the safety of her circle
I forget chubby, forget ugly.
I’m Reeni again,

arching backward, then up again,
gently, gently with a guidance
never touching, always safe.

 

STAR 

Darkening stage, the audience softens
and curtains open. The spotlight glows,

carving a space for me, for my solo.
It took me this long time to know

I don’t need to be thinner.
I need to be brave.

One breath, and I dance. Brave,
light overflowing like a shooting star

streaking above, sparkling itself
into fingers and toes, hands and feet

shining bits of me all around
into the far corners of the sky.
THE END