Authors: Kathryn Holmes
FOR JUSTIN, WHO HELPS ME FLY
I FOCUS ON THE
MY ARMS EXTENDING away from my shoulders. My back curving and arcing. My knees bending and straightening. My feet pressing into the floor.
I focus on all that, and for just a moment, I'm able to forget that I'm in a cozy meeting room, not a dance studio. That my ballet slippers are brushing across carpet. That I'm holding the back of a folding chair instead of a barre. That I'm seeing my reflection in a dark window instead of a mirror.
In that window, I'm not much more than a shadow. Ghostly. You can see right through me to the trees outside.
Even transparent, you're fat. Look at you. You're disgusting. You'reâ
I flinch, turning away from the window. I rearrange my face into its usual pleasant mask. I try to let the choreography distract me.
In front of me, Jenna's doing the same series of movements. I watch her extend her leg into a high dÃ©veloppÃ© and then lower it, with control, back to the floor. Her legs are lean, her muscles streamlined. Her thin arms move through the port de bras like clockwork. She's a blade slicing the air, petite and precise.
She's a figure skater, but she clearly has ballet training.
training. Russian, maybe. As we turn to do the other side, I tell her, “You're really good.”
“Thanks,” Jenna answers coolly, giving me a brisk nod as she settles into fifth position. She doesn't say anything else. Just waits for the music to cue up.
I take my own preparatory position, right hand on my folding chair-barre. Then I unfold my left leg into the air in front of me, pointing my toes as hard as I can. I try to keep my port de bras soft and airy, even as my quad quivers with effort. I carry my leg to the side, then to arabesque. I drop my face toward the floor in a deep penchÃ©, my toe pointing straight up to the ceiling.
My muscles feel strong and limber. My form feels perfect. But then I look past my own standing leg at Jenna, behind me.
She's judging you. Your bubble butt and your thunder thighs and your C cups and the way your stomach pooches out. That's why she didn't say anything back when you complimented her earlier. That's whyâ
My knee buckles a little as I pull myself upright. I move from arabesque to a back attitude, lifting onto
demi-pointe. I bring my arms to fifth position overhead. I balance, and I breathe, and I smile.
Because that's what I do. I don't let anyone see what's happening inside my head. Not my friends, not my classmates, not my mom. It's a performance that never ends.
Jenna and I move on to battements. I kick my legs up and up and up, punctuating each downbeat in the music with my pointed toe. I try to bring my focus back to the movement. The movement is what matters.
But just as I'm getting into the zone, the door swings open, slams hard against the wall, and bounces back. Zoe, my roommate for the next three weeks, catches it in one hand. “What are you two losers doing?” She walks over to the stereo and switches it off, midcrescendo.
“We're exercising,” Jenna says, sounding annoyed. “You might want to try it while you're here. Twenty-one days is a long time without a consistent training regimen.”
I ask Zoe, “Do you want to join us?”
Zoe barks out a laugh. “Um, no.
”âshe rises onto her tiptoes and flutters around, mocking usâ“is not exercise. And who says I want to stay in shape while I'm here, anyway?”
“Suit yourself.” Jenna slides into a split on the floor, forehead touching her knee.
I give it one more shot. “Seriously,” I say, “you're more than welcome toâ”
“Whoa, Ballerina Barbie. What part of âno' do you not understand?” Zoe saunters over to the sofa on the other side
of the room and grabs the TV remote. She flips channels, stopping when she comes to a horror film. There's a skinny blond girl in a torn T-shirt and underwear running from a guy with an axe. The camera cuts in close on the girl's tear-streaked face as she screams. Zoe turns the volume up. “This won't mess up your concentration, will it?” she asks, grinning.
I turn around, wanting backup, but Jenna is already standing to leave. “I'll stretch in my room,” she says, picking up her folding chair and leaning it against the wall.
“Oh. Um, okay.” I'm surprised that she's giving in so easily.
And now I'm torn. I don't want to tick Zoe offâshe looks like she could break me in half and would enjoy doing it, never mind the whole we-have-to-share-a-bedroom thing. But I'd planned on getting in at least another hour of strength training and light cardio tonight. It's really important that I stay in shape while I'm here.
In shape. Ha! No such thing.
The panic swirls up. It's like there's a tornado brewing in my belly. But I don't let it show on my face.
I say, “Stay, Jenna, please.”
Jenna looks at me over her shoulder. “Sam, no offenseâyou seem nice and allâbut I'm not really here to make friends.” She pauses. “If you want, we can do barre again tomorrow. Good night.” She glides from the room, leaving me standing there.
“Burn,” Zoe says from the couch. “And props to her
for pulling out
line. Welcome to America's Next Top Neurotic Teenager, the group therapy camp where we are absolutely not here to make friends.” She laughs to herself as, on-screen, the axe murderer finally catches up with his victim.
I consider staying to work out alone, with screeching violins and screams as my soundtrack, but the magic is gone. I used to be able to completely lose myself in dance, no matter where I was or what was happening around me. Ballet was my safest space. Then my body changed. I got curvy, and I got self-conscious. I couldn't stop thinking about everyone looking at meâwhat they were seeing. When the comments started comingâboth painfully kind and sweetly cruelâI heard them echo inside my head. Before long, my nasty inner voice had more to say about me, and worse, than anyone else ever could.
You're fat. You're weak. You're worthless.
You might as wellâ
I can do my conditioning exercises upstairs, in the thin strip of space between my bed and Zoe's. That'll have to work, despite the storm in my stomach. The only way to kill the panic is to dance through it.
Even that barely helps these days.
But I'm coping. I am.
And Perform at Your Peak, a summer camp/treatment facility for elite teen artists and athletes with anxiety issues, is supposed to give me even more coping mechanisms. That's what the website says. It's what Dr. Debra Lancaster,
the director here, talked about earlier this evening, at orientation. When she was telling the six of us campers about all the different types of activities we'll be doingâone-on-one therapy sessions with her, group discussions, simulations of real-life situations we might faceâshe sounded so confident. She's sure we'll get something positive out of this experience.
I want to believe her. It's just so hard to ignore the voice in my head.
Everything about you is wrong. Nothing can make it better. Nothing exceptâ
I look at Zoe, who's lounging on the sofa with her feet propped up on the wooden coffee table. She's drumming on her thigh with the remote, eyes narrowed at the screen. When a guy jumps out from behind a shed and tackles the axe murderer to the ground, only to get immediately axe murdered, she throws her arms in the air and cheers. “Way to die, idiot!”
“So, um, see you upstairs?” My voice comes out more like a squawk than I want it to.
Zoe doesn't even glance my way. “You're still here?”
The other thing Dr. Lancaster kept mentioning at orientation earlier was group cohesion. She wants us to bond with one another, so we feel comfortable discussing our feelings. She made us do all these getting-to-know-you exercises. We had to toss a beanbag around the circle, shouting a random fact about ourselves each time we caught it. And we played a version of Simon Says where we took turns giving
instructions, going faster and faster. It might've all been okayâif we were anywhere else. And clearly, the bonding didn't take. Not with sarcastic Zoe, and not with frosty Jenna, and not with the other three campersâKatie, Dominic, and Omarâwho vanished to their rooms the moment we were released.
Not that I blame them. The games felt so forced. Like a distraction from why we're really here, or a trick to get us to let down our guard. A bait and switch. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be nice to have someone to talk to for the next three weeks.
I walk out into the hallway. It's empty. I'm alone.
I let my face relax. My cheeks are sore from smiling. I massage them with my fingers. I dance more than twenty hours a week, but lately it's been the muscles in my face that hurt the most.
I pass the stairs to the second floor and head for the kitchen. I'm thirsty. I'll need to stay hydrated if I'm going to keep exercising. Plus, filling my stomach with water will distract me from the hunger that's creeping in. I don't eat after eight p.m., as a rule, so water will have to do until morning.
When I enter the kitchen, the fridge door is open. I can see a guy's legs sticking out underneath. At the sound of my footsteps on the tile, the door moves. A head pokes around it. It's the guy counselorâI mean “peer adviser.” Andrew. He and our other peer adviser, Yasmin, are former campers at Perform at Your Peak. Success stories, according
to Dr. Lancaster, who looked like a proud mom when she introduced them earlier.
“Hey there,” Andrew says.
Suck that gut in. Now!
“Hi,” I say, my smile snapping into place as I adjust my posture.
“You hungry?” Andrew steps away from the fridge, letting the door swing closed. He's holding a loaf of bread, a pack of cold cuts, a hunk of cheese, a tomato, a jar of pickles, and mustard and mayo. All crooked in one arm.
“No, thanks. I just wanted a glass of water.” At the sight of all that food, my stomach rumbles. I can't look at it, not for too long, so I look at him instead. He's cute, in a wholesome way. Like he should be on a farm milking cows or something. He has warm brown eyes. A nice smile.
He dumps his bounty on the counter, grabbing the pickle jar before it rolls off the edge. “Well, the first thing you need to know about me is I'm always hungry. I think it's a football-player thing.”
“I think it's a guy thing,” I say, moving past him to get a glass from the cabinet. “My boyfâmy ex,” I correct myself quickly. “He basically never stopped eating.” I keep my voice light. Like thinking about Marcus, what he said to me a few days ago, doesn't hurt a bit.
Andrew laughs. “As a guy
a former football player, I eat twice as much as anyone else I know.”
I barely register that he said
football playerâif that's true, how can he be a Perform at Your Peak success
story?âbefore my nasty inner voice kicks in:
Imagine if you ate twice as much as anyone you know.
You look bad enough as it isâ
I fill my glass with tap water and sit on one of the stools at the kitchen island.
“So, Sam-short-for-Samantha,” Andrew says, quoting my stammered-out intro from orientation. He takes two slices of bread and waves them at me. “Prepare yourself. You're about to see something pretty special.”
I raise my eyebrows and lean forward, resting my elbows on the gray marble countertop. “Oh yeah?” I make eye contact, smile, and then look down. Which is when I see how slouching like this is making my stomach stick out.
Ugh. You're disgustingâ
Slowly, casually, I lean back and cross my arms in front of my midsection.
Better. I don't think he saw.
Andrew assembles his sandwich, stacking ingredients like he's building a Jenga tower. Pull out the wrong pickle and the whole thing falls down. When the sandwich is done, it looks too big to possibly bite. But he lifts it up, grins at me, opens his mouth wide, and shoves what looks like a third of it inside.
“Mmm.” He chews and swallows. “It's good. Sure you don't want one?” He makes the cold cuts and bread do a little shimmy dance on the countertop.
“I'm okay. But thanks.”
“How are you settling in?” he asks, before taking another
giant bite. Chew, swallow. “Orientation is always kind of awkward. Icebreakers are the worst.” He gives me a knowing smile. “But do you feel like you'll get along with everyone?”
I don't know whether I should tell him about “I'm not here to make friends” Jenna or “what are you losers doing” Zoe. As a peer adviser, he's basically a camp counselorânot a trained therapist, but not one of the campers, either. I don't know whose side he's on. “Dr. Lancaster seems nice,” I finally say. It seems like a safe statement.
“Dr. Lancaster's great. She really helped me when I was a camper here.” Andrew finishes his sandwich and brushes the crumbs from his hands. “I think you're going to get a lot out of this program.”
, my inner voice cuts in.
Like anything will make a difference for you at this point. Unless Perform at Your Peak is a front for Dr. Frankenstein's lab and you're about to get a total body transplant, you're out of luck.
“I hope so,” I answer, raising my voice so it drowns out the noise in my head. “I have a ballet intensive to go to when this is done. I'm really looking forward to it.”
As long as they don't see how much weight you've put on since the audition and send you packing.
“That's great,” Andrew says. “When does it start?”
“It actually overlaps with this place by a week. But my momâshe used to be a ballerina, before I was bornâshe and my teacher got permission for me to start the intensive a week late.”
It's the only reason I agreed to come here. My best
friend, Bianca, got into four ballet intensives this summer, including her top choice. I was accepted to one program. I only have one shot.