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11 minute read.
After the earthquake happened and we lost most of our belongings, me and my sister moved from Odessa, Texas to a small town in Pennsylvania. My childhood ended when we moved, as it sent my sister into overdrive. She studied night and day ballet school, tuition costs, training, and salary for professional dancers. I had no say in what was happening; I just saw this as an opportunity to bond with my sister. What she saw as practicing at dawn, I saw as more time in the day to spend with her. That was naïve thinking.
She forbade dating, sleepovers, and parties, because as she always said, time spent not practicing is time wasted. Her words were engraved in my mind and body. The more we practiced, the more my body ached. The hot baths were no match to the sores on my feet. Blisters became part of my feet like the tears on my face. I had to keep reminding myself that in the end, this will be worth it. My sister and I will have money and I will finally be free.
As the sun peeked on the horizon, I snuck out of the bed and left our apartment. I continued creeping until I reached the lobby. A lanky man was at the door, holding a croissant sandwich and coffee. I let him inside the building and breathed in the aroma of the freshly baked meal. I tipped him and ate my food in the lobby.
Each week I rewarded myself with a meal of my choice. My sister counted my calories every time she cooked, which left me hungry plenty of times. When I was in middle school, I believed it was healthy eating until I reached junior high. Back then, I wasn’t gaining much weight and couldn’t help but compare myself to the other girls in my school. My doctor advised me to eat more protein and to my sister’s dismay, I followed the doctor’s orders. It wasn’t long until I gained a healthy amount of weight and began developing.
“How many ballerinas do you see with hips and big breasts?” she would ask me when I wanted a snack.
There wasn’t a correct response, and so I began listening to her again. She would purchase the groceries and leave the sweets and sodas in her mini fridge which she kept in her locked bedroom. Then, I discovered the magic in food delivery, but even now at 19 years old, I’m still sneaking behind my sister’s back like a child.
I chugged the coffee and hurried back to our apartment. Along the way, an older man passed by me and whistled, and I gave him the cold shoulder. In my mind, I was smiling.
My sister awoke to sounds of music from my room. I was painting a canvas of a building and a woman with wings standing on the rooftop. How I longed to dive in my painting and be erased away. She tapped my shoulder and motioned for me to meet her in the den. She was sitting on the couch when I entered, and had a stern look on her face. I remained standing with my arms crossed.
“Your instructor called me this morning.” Her voice was upset, and I wanted to sink in the floor.
“I only skipped one lesson. There was an art exhibit nearby and I just had to be there.” I could see my words pour into her and then be drowned away by her own words.
She stood and paced the floor.
“Do you know how much it costs to send you to that school?”
$350 a month, I thought to myself.
“And how many hours I have to work at the clinic just to afford it?”
40 hours plus overtime, and sometimes overnight.
She faced me but looked right through me. Perhaps, she was looking at the sister she wanted. The one who didn’t kill mom when she was being born. The one who didn’t need raising or maybe the sister who dad took away that day he never returned. I couldn’t be the sister she wanted because in the end, she didn’t want a sister. She needed an easy way out, and since mom left her with so much debt, she needed someone to make up for it. For some time, I understood that she just wanted a better life, but it was at my expense.
“I’m really sorry Vera,” my words poured out and she caught every bit of it.
“No, you’re not. Look, this school is serious about attendance, and I can’t get refunded if you’re kicked out.” She explained.
She waved me off and I headed back into my room. There was the sounds of slammed cabinets and the front door before it got silent. I assumed Vera left to take a walk to calm down, and so I headed in the kitchen to find that nothing but fruits, veggies, and yogurt.
Mom loved seafood, at least that’s what Vera would tell me. She would also tell me how mom collected music boxes and loved buying vintage clothes. I wished I could have met her. I wished a lot of things. The night was darkening as I spent the day painting, running errands and trying tacos from food trucks. My money was nearly spent, and I wouldn’t have a day like this until Vera gave me my allowance or when she had an episode and left for the entire day. She returned as I finished the painting, and was holding milkshakes.
We slurped on the shakes and talked on the roof of the apartment, watching the stars sprinkle the sky. We would retreat here occasionally just to watch the stars. It wasn’t long until Vera wanted to discuss business. She mentioned about an upcoming audition at an urban theater. She believed I would stand out there.
“The dancers there learn from what’s around them,” she went on, “they don’t have the same training that you do. They will think you’re another black girl who had no professional training like them, but then you will flourish in the spotlight as if you’ve performed in Swan Lake.”
Her words were slippery, and I found myself falling on everything she said.
“I think their dancing style is just different. They might look at me and think I have no idea what I’m doing.”
She scoffed and adjusted herself to be slightly turned from me. I watched the stars and wondered what it would be like to look down on this world. Looking over at my sister, who began scrolling on her phone, I realized that I was already like a star, shining brightly in the night, yet still not seen.
My sister was 37 years old, never married and had no desire for kids of her own. I was her sole focus—her only project. I stood in front of the mirror in my room and stared at the freckles on my cheeks, something I inherited from mom. I lightly ran my fingers through my hair, which wavered down like honeyed waterfall. There was no favor between my sister and me. She was dark-skinned and I was light skinned. Her hair was always in twists and mine was always in a ponytail with wispy bangs. She told me that I had to always be ready, always look presentable and be prepared to dance. I hated dancing.
I opened the window in my room and stuck my head out, eyeing the sidewalk below. We were on the sixth floor and for the longest I was afraid to look out my window due to my fear of heights. Nowadays, my head is always out and watching the people below. My sister walked in my room and said,
“We’ll be leaving soon.” And then left.
I stood back in front of my mirror as my sister’s words echoed through my mind.
The mirror is your muse.
I only wanted to shatter the glass and find a muse in the broken pieces. It would be more fitting for me. My feelings were like blind spots to my sister—every cry, every forced smile, and every pain I went through—she would pretend to not notice. I looked back out my window and wanted to leap beneath. I desired to fall gracefully and land on my toes, then run away. My eyes averted from the window, and to the lighter on my dresser. I rubbed the marks on my thighs.
The outfit I wore to the theater was her favorite of mine to wear. It was a white tank top, pink ballet skirt and white stockings, but I despised the outfit: a reminder of how much money my sister spent on these things. As I left my room, I looked back at my painting of the woman on the roof top—how envious I was of her. My sister and I arrived at the theater, where the other women and men were busy talking to each other outside. I craved to speak with them, but I knew my words would come out as awkward. My years spent in isolation has taught me to be self-conscience about everything I do or say.
In ballet school, I managed to make a few friends, but keeping them was the hard part. Whenever I mentioned meeting someone at ballet school, my sister’s immediate question would be,
“Are they related to the instructor? Do they have family in ballet or the theater? What’s their background?”
One of the men approached me and asked if I was auditioning. I smiled and glanced over at the other women who were glaring at me. I twirled my ponytail delicately and fluttered my eyelashes.
“I am auditioning,” I spoke in a soft tone, “are you auditioning too, or will you cheer me on?”
He chuckled and just like that, I felt like I was in control of my life.
“What’s your name?” He asked, and his voice soothed me. Was I desperate for male attention this much? My sister’s demands caused me to miss out on experiencing attention like this.
“My name is Sasha.”
“Sasha!” My sister called out.
I swung around in her direction, and she waved me to come over. Sighing, I departed from him before catching his name. It was as if when my sister needed me, my feet carried me away. My life was now back in her control.
She introduced me to one of the directors at the theater, but my mind was elsewhere. Words left from his mouth, and like the birds in the sky, they flew over my head. Vera was nodding though, as if he was speaking to her. I unconsciously mimicked my sister and began nodding as well. In the theater, we took our turns auditioning. I pushed myself on stage and my eyes were glued onto my sister. She was proud of me as if she knew I’d ace this routine.
Auto-pilot was engaged as I danced on the stage. I remember there was music and awws, but it was always the same. There was only a dark room and my sister in the crowd when I danced, nobody else was around. While she watched me, arms crossed, I never felt so invisible.
Afterwards, the director informed everyone that the results will be in tomorrow morning. My sister said she would be here to accept my place as the lead while I’m at school. It was as if she knew I’d be the lead. I looked over at the guy who said my name so soothingly. He was speaking to another girl.
My sister chatted the entire way home about how well I did at the auditions. She carried the conversation alone, whereas I simply stared out the window.
“Are you listening, Sasha?” Vera said, snapping her fingers in front of me.
“Yeah, just thinking about what to paint tonight.”
She grunted and the car fell silent. As we made it home, the manager of the building stopped us in the lobby. He was a short, frumpy man but always kind to us. There were plenty of times when we couldn’t pay the rent, and he always excused it.
“Listen,” the manager began, “it’s fine to provide the apartment code to the food deliverers. We trust them, ha-ha.” I felt my heart sink to my stomach. “You see that way they can bring your food straight to your door. I just want to let you know since I noticed on camera that you, Sasha, order out often and must make your way all the way down here.”
Vera smiled and thanked the manager for informing us. The silence that I had enjoyed was now uncomfortable. As soon as we made it inside our apartment, I explained to Vera that I rarely ordered out. Hearing myself say this, like a child, felt humiliating.
“Since you were in elementary, I had you in dance.” She began. “You were practicing every evening and had so much fun—”
“I was a child.” I said, trying to hold in tears. I could usually pick up the signs of when an argument is going to begin, but right now I was caught off-guard.
“You never notice how easy this life is for you. When mom passed and dad left, I was the one raising you. I was only sixteen and still in school!” Vera was beginning to get louder
“Do you want me to dance forever? What would you do without me, huh? I might never become a world renown ballet dancer.” My words came out like fireworks.
“Without you? Ha!” She approached me. “If you were never born then mom would be here. She would’ve taken care of me, and not me taking care of you.”
“Is it my fault that our parents had me?”
There was silence again. Vera sat down and I just glared at her.
“I gave up on my dreams you know. So, you became my dream.” She whispered.
“Why can’t I paint and sell my artwork instead? We’re making no money from my dancing, just spending—”
Abruptly, she stood up and walked into my bedroom. I followed close behind. She looked around on my walls at the sketches and paintings.
“If you put as much work into your dancing as you did your damn paintings, then we wouldn’t be in this rundown apartment.”
She reached for one of my drawings and began to slowly rip it apart. I rushed to her, and we began fighting. She grabbed me by my ponytail, and I reached for her earrings. We knocked over my easel and my painting fell. She pushed me away and grabbed the lighter on my dresser.
“I’ll burn all these stupid drawings.” She said coldly. “One day, when you’re not at home. It’s distracting you too much.”
“You are a monster. I never did anything to you, yet you force me to go through all of this.”
“Isn’t it better to burn these drawings than your skin. You think I haven’t noticed?”
Have could she have known? I ran past her and grabbed my phone on the counter, then rushed out. I could hear Vera call after me, but I knew she wasn’t going to follow me. I wanted to peel off my skin, beginning with the freckles my mom gave me. Then cut off my feet and throw them at Vera, she could use them to dance.
The air was cool but didn’t give me the sharpness I craved. Something needed to shatter me into pieces, so I could never be put together again. I found myself on the rooftop of our apartment. I gave notice to the stars, and they shined brightly for me.
I walked to the edge of the roof and stared down. I began pinching my arms again as I breathed in the fall air. It was quiet outside, and cold, but I didn’t mind. I peeked over the edge of the roof again, wanting to shatter and wanting it all to end.
My eyes travelled from the ground to the building opposite of ours, and that’s where I saw her. It was a little girl watching me from her window, admiring me on this roof. I wondered what she was thinking, but then I saw a smile spread on her face. She looked no more than six years old and started dancing for me, beckoning me to join her. I forced a smile and began twirling on the roof. My feet ached but I continued dancing. The girl stopped twirling and just watched me in awe. Every now and then, she would glance at the sky as if she believed I was an angel.
For a moment I was in a trance, dancing and not feeling the pain on my feet. I was in darkness, and the only person in the crowd was the girl. Then, my phone began ringing and I was flashed back into reality. There were missed calls from Vera. It was apparent that my happiness is meant to be short-lived. I crept to the edge of the roof and waved goodbye to the young girl. She smiled at me one last time and then closed her curtains. I dropped my phone off the roof and heard the echoing of when it reached the ground. The door that led back downstairs opened, and Vera emerged, yelling my name. Turning to her, I slowly stepped back and chose to take control of my life.
As I stepped off the roof, the little girl opened her curtains as she heard my sister’s screams. The only thing I wished in that moment, was for her to believe in fallen angels.
Destiny Alexis Royston is a writer, poet and freelance journalist based in Tennessee. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Memphis. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time in her garden, painting or cuddling with her Yorkie, Gypsy.