8:30 to the City

By Jilly Pretzel

Amy pushes her right foot in straight, controlled lines on the linoleum floor, mimicking the warm up routine she learned in Madame Maria’s Ballet 4. The walls of the New Rochelle Train Station echo with the mumble of hurried voices and the hiss of a train lingering in the station. Amy, waiting patiently in the ticket line, closes her eyes and focuses. Silently, she recites the exercises as she glides her feet across on the floor.

Front, fifth position. Side, fifth position. Back, fifth position.

Repeating her warm-ups outside of class is not just a habit formed after years and years of practicing the movements. She has done ballet for so long, and with so much heart, that the movements have become a part of her. Her body is constantly working, improving. She is not able to stop, even when the exercises become painful.

Front, fifth position. Side, fifth position. Back, fifth position.

Amy pushes a loose strand of blonde hair out of her face and back into the neat ballet bun on top of her head. With the exception of her ballet slippers, Amy is dressed and ready for her Juilliard audition: her hair is pulled back, she is wearing her new tights and leotard underneath her sweatpants, and chalky stage makeup covers her face. Despite her primping and her youthful glow of excitement, Amy looks old and tired for a high school senior. Her thick foundation cream can’t hide the way her skin droops on her thin face and her large, fake eyelashes can’t take attention away from the bags under her eyes. Even her sneakers are worn down to the point of no return: the rubber on the sides and bottom are scuffed from being scraped against all textures of floors and the middle of the shoe, the arches, have been bent so far from pointing her foot that the soles are almost split in two.

Amy’s mother, a small, nervous woman with a sharp nose and hair the color of cement, shuffles her feet as she approaches Amy, returning from the snack machines outside.

“Call me when you get there,” her mother says quietly, stuffing a plastic-wrapped muffin and a bottle of water into Amy’s duffle bag. Amy nods. She looks nervously at the large clock above the ticket window, and then turns her head as she looks down the train tracks, waiting.

Front, fifth position. Side, fifth position. Back, fifth position.

“Will you promise to be careful?” Amy’s mother says again in a hushed tone, her large eyes glued on Amy’s gliding feet.

“I promise,” Amy whispers.

She pushes her foot forward, taps the side of her smallest toe onto the floor, lifts it inches above the ground, and brings it back into fifth position.

Front, batma, fifth position. Side, batma, fifth position. Back, batma, fifth position.

Less than a year ago, Amy’s knee had given out during a rehearsal. She had pushed herself too hard: she had taken too many pointe classes, worked too hard in her ballet company, and finally, her body was getting tired. She had already suffered a partial tear in her ACL, but had insisted that her knee didn’t hurt enough to require a brace. One day during class, she heard a pop as she came out of a turn and she fell, hard, onto the studio’s rehearsal floor. Almost immediately, Amy’s knee began to swell and her pink ballet tights stretched around the grapefruit sized bulge that used to be her knee. Her friends and instructors had rushed around her, frantically trying to help; they had brought her bags of ice and called her parents on the studio’s landline. Her friends told her that it would be all right, but Amy just sat on the floor, cradling her swollen leg in her shaking arms. She had known immediately what had caused the pain the very instant that her ACL had torn.

Tests and doctor visits led to more tests and more doctor visits, which finally led to surgery. The surgery was a success, but Amy was warned that her knee could be injured again if she continued dancing as much as she had been. Still, Amy would not listen. Ballet was a part of her, and she simply couldn’t stop.

Front, batma, fifth position. Side, batma, fifth position. Back, batma, fifth position.

Amy takes another long step forward in the ticket line, her mother shuffling beside her. Amy can feel her knee aching, but she pushes on, continuing her exercises.

Front, batma, fifth position. Side, batma, fifth position. Back, batma, fifth position.

For months, Amy put on her pointe shoes in secret and practiced late at night in her room. She knew that her dancing was against doctor’s orders and her instructor’s advice, but only when she practiced, sweat dripping down the side of her face, her body aching and the arches in her feet screaming, did she finally feel like herself, and she couldn’t convince herself to stop. She couldn’t stop dancing when the air in her room became hot and thick or when the wood floor of her bedroom was peppered with droplets of sweat. She couldn’t even stop dancing when her knee began to throb with pain.

Amy stretches her right foot out in front of her, pulls it back and then pointes it, stretching the muscles in her calves.

Point, flex. Point, flex.

“This is your chance to choreograph or direct the ballets,” her father said one day at the dinner table, sifting through pamphlets from NYU, Columbia, and Fordham between bites of garlic bread. Amy’s parents, always calculating and looking to the future, had been trying to lead her ambitions away from Juilliard and towards anything that resembled a back-up plan.

“Opportunities to write, direct, and perform in student productions,” her mother read from a booklet, “That sounds like fun.”

Amy’s parents had tried to entice her with the promise of joining a range of clubs and study abroad programs at other schools, but Amy held her ground. She swirled spaghetti on her fork, telling herself that Juilliard’s audition invitation would come soon. And one day, it did.

One Saturday afternoon, the letter fell heavily from the slot in the door, and Amy, who had been anticipating the mailman’s arrival, pounced on the letter. She ripped opened the top of the envelope with nervous, shaking fingers, and then squealed with joy when she read that her application had been accepted to the next round.

Point, flex. Point, flex.

For months Amy was obsessed with her audition routine. Despite the aching in her knee, she rehearsed the routine more than she had ever rehearsed anything before, pushing herself to do things that she hadn’t even tried before the surgery. She told herself that she needed to keep going, to keep pushing through the pain. Every day she convinced herself to work through the aching in her knee, even when the pain became nearly unbearable.

Point, flex. Point, flex.

A muffled voice comes over the loud speaker, announcing a train’s departure. The walls of the station quiver as the train outside begins to roll away. Amy turns her head, watching the empty tracks behind her.

Point, flex. Point, flex.

Amy takes another step forward in the ticket line, the rising pain in her knee forces her to pad softly forward, rather than glide. The pain makes her want to sit down, but she is almost at the front of the line. She just wants to push through and finish her warm-up routine, to prove to herself that she can do it. She bends her knees and then pushed herself up onto her tiptoes, tightening her legs, and then, with control, places her heels back on the floor with a bend in her knees.

Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé.

Amy bends her knees and strengthens them again, feeling a throbbing sensation deep down in her right knee, and still, ignored it. She tells herself that this is not the time to let her knee hurt, that this is the time to get ready for the audition she had worked so hard for. She just needs to push through the pain.

Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé.

Finally, Amy is next in line. She takes a step towards the ticket window, but as she puts weight on her right foot, a pain shoots through her knee and she stumbles. She catches her balance by grasping the ticket counter with both hands and regaining her balance slowly. Amy takes a deep breath, ignoring her mother’s hand when it lands on her shoulder.

“8:30 to the city, please,” she says to the teller through clenched teeth, trying to ignore the wretched pain in her knee. The uniformed man takes Amy’s mother’s credit card and hands Amy a ticket, a small white slip of paper.

As Amy feels the paper, warm from the printer, she thinks of all the hours she spent working through the pain in her knee, all of the time she spent in class, all of her determination, all of her focus. She can almost see herself at Juilliard, she can almost imagine herself dancing on the stage, performing in front of the judges, and she smiles.

Plié–

Amy feels her knee go pop. Then, before she can stabilize herself, she stumbles and lands on the floor with a thud.

Time seems to glide to a stop, slowing down like a train coming to a halt in a station. Amy lies with the cold linoleum at her back, clutching her leg to her chest, already feeling her knee swelling under her sweatpants. Voices around her drop to a whisper, and then rise again in excitement. The clicking of shoes on the floor quickened and grow louder before Amy is lifted onto a wooden bench.

Commuters rush around Amy, offering water, asking if she needs anything. Her mother calls her father, strangers offered assistance, even the ticket seller comes out from behind the counter to see what had happened. Everyone tries to help, but none of it matters to Amy then.

There is a rumble, and then the hiss of a train finally pulling up to the station causing the walls to tremble and the ground beneath Amy’s bench to vibrate. Soon, though, the noise is snuffed out by the sounds of men and women rushing onto the train, bells ringing, and of hurried voices.

Amy closes her eyes and focuses, not able to move, not able to cry, just reciting the warm up routine she learned in Madame Maria’s Ballet 4, not able to stop.

Plié, relevé. Plié, relevé.

——————–

Jilly Pretzel is a fiction and nonfiction writer with a twisted last name. She earned her BA in philosophy and is currently working towards her MFA in fiction at Chapman University in Southern California. She lives with her cat, Kierkegaard.


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