Before I ever dipped my toes into blogging, press releases, or journalism, I had a passionate love affair with creative writing.
It was my thing.
I loved crafting short stories and essays. I’ll never forget making books out of folded paper in kindergarten, submitting a narrative to my small town journal (and getting published!) in the fifth grade, and absolutely doing the most on every single Language Arts and English assignment through middle and high school.
(Note: I’m so glad I outgrew that whole “start every paper with a quote” phase. Yikes. Sorry, Mr. Searle.)
Picking my major in college was easy. I knew as a 16 year old that I wanted to be a writer and wanted to pursue an English degree. Once I got to my university, I did face some heavy decisions: there was a creative writing and poetry English track, or there was a straight-up writing degree. I wanted to go in a direction that would lead to for-sure employment (lol), so I went with the more technical option, and played around in journalism and truth-telling over fiction.
Luckily for me, I still took several courses that allowed me to explore my creative side. Fiction workshops were my absolute favorite, and where I grew the most as a writer. Shout out to my teachers, Emily Ruskovich, Eliot K. Wilson, and Teague Bohlen, who each helped me find my voice, in different ways.
If you’re interested, I’d like to share my work with you. I present: “New Shoes.”
Diane knew that when red blotches started to stain through the tips of her pointe shoes, it meant that it was time to buy a new pair.
Blood never looked good against pink satin.
It crusted and crumbled and rusted the material, though the small drops of blood were barely visible. Just like the pain of her feet, aching with blood-and-pus-dripped toes after hours of ballet rehearsal, the stains went unnoticed by anyone other than Diane.
When Diane first noticed the ruin of her pointe shoes, they were on her feet. The moment came after she’d landed a perfect pirouette—the beginning of her routine for the upcoming recital. She wasn’t yet at the level of a soloist, but she was working toward that accolade; she chased her dream in every practice and rehearsal, pursuing fluid movements with sharp, beat-hitting footwork. Perfection comes first, then a solo career.
As Diane came down from eight consecutive spins and prepared to launch herself into an arabesque, she felt the sticky dampness on her heel. No, no, no, she thought to herself. Not now. After her practice, Diane met her father outside the studio, as she walked on her heels.
“Are you limping?” Diane’s father, Mark, asked as she got in the car. He scanned her, to make sure that there were no serious injuries. “Do I need to take you to the doctor?”
“No dad,” she said, forcing a smile in a way that only a 15-year-old can, “I’m alright. My toes started bleeding and I’m just trying to give them a break. Thanks, though.” As she reached for the radio dial, Mark intercepted her hand.
“Honey, we’ll get through this. You’ve been working so hard, and it’ll be worth it in the end.” Diane wondered how long it would be before she would need to get new shoes. First, though, she would need some ice.
High school is where Diane spent the majority of her time outside the studio. Each morning she’d wake up early, walk to Franklin High, and work on her homework before the bell rang, surrounded by the other freshmen dancers.
Classes were easy, her relationships with teachers were pleasant, and dance made making friends simple. Sometimes Diane would joke that teenage angst was created by people who didn’t know how to handle responsibility. At least, that’s what Diane told herself. If she ever spent too much time thinking about everything—classes, homework, dance, the mounting pressure of perfection—dizziness crept in. It was usually easier to dive into her work, keep going, and strive for better.
Diane’s parents were the supportive, if not over-involved, type. At conferences, they showed up hand-in-hand, and beamed when teachers spoke of Diane’s abilities and nodded encouragingly when they spoke of her challenges. In the dance world they acted no differently. Diane’s mother had been the one to sign her up for dance as a toddler, reassuring Mark that it was “important for good balance, of course!” As a new dad, Mark shrugged and went along with it. Eventually, though, he jumped into the dance-dad role. He took her to buy all of her leotards, picked her up from class each day, and even surprised classes with cupcakes on her birthday. He was even there the day that Diane was told that she could begin wearing pointe shoes. Sometimes Diane wondered if her placement in class was more apart of his identity than hers.
Diane was in the eighth grade when she came home with an envelope. Inside, a letter was addressed to her parents, detailing that Diane had advanced to a level of ballet where she had outgrown her flat, canvas shoes. With her parents’ permission, Diane would be placed in a class for pointe, where a satin slip encompassing a wooden block—the shoe of professional dancers—would become her new footwear.
“Dad, it’s here. Read it, I just can’t do it.” Diane handed the envelope to her father with her eyes closed.
“Sweetheart, breathe.” His voice was kind, but urgent. Mark fumbled for his reading glasses. “Darn eyes,” he said as he struggled to unwrap the legs of his brown-rimmed frames, “thank goodness you were blessed with your mother’s vision.” He was nervous too.
“Dad, please?” Diane began to hop from foot to foot; her knees buckled.
Moments later, Mark dropped the letter to the floor, picked up Diane, and spun her, yelling, “You did it, Di! Everything you’ve worked for! We did it! Just wait until we tell your mother!”
The next day he took off an afternoon of work to drive her an hour away, to the closest dance footwear shop. Mark sat with Diane as they took measurements of her feet and ankles for a custom pair of pointe shoes. He smiled reassuringly the entire time, nodded when the sales associate showed Diane how to sew on her ribbons, and paid for them at the end.
“Here,” he said after the appointment, as he handed her the bag with the shoes inside. “These are yours. Take care of them. And dance, kiddo. You earned this. We did this.”
Every day Diane went to school, then dance, then home with her father. It was her routine, right up until it wasn’t.
Typical to an overachieving teenager, it was at Franklin High when Diane first met Jaqueline. Diane had been a freshman when she met the dark-eyed senior—they’d signed up for the same elective class together, drama, and were paired as partners for a two-person dialogue. Diane had initially felt relieved when their names were called out together, instead of hers and one of the upperclassman boys’. She’d been watching the junior and senior boys in her drama class closely: the way they stared at her teacher as she bent over, how they would casually scroll through the nude pictures on their camera rolls, and how they licked their lips when freshmen girls—herself included—spoke, made Diane feel anxious.
“So, what are you into?” Jaqueline had asked Diane, initiating their first-ever conversation.
“Uh, what?” Diane hadn’t expected any chatting outside of their scene work. With a smirk and a toss of her waist-length hair, Jaqueline shrugged. “What kinds of things do you do? I heard you like to dance.”
Diane was caught off-guard by her comment. People know about me? As she spoke to Jaqueline, she started to notice the girl in front of her. Really notice her. Her hair, a fountain of sleek and jet-black streams, had a streak of silver tucked behind a pierced ear. Three piercings lined her lobes, evenly spaced with dulled studs filling the void of skin. All of her nails had chips in their polish, and her lips seemed perfectly chapped. When Jaqueline spoke, her eyes made contact without any aversion. There was an intensity to each glance, where blinks seemed far and few in between.
Diane wasn’t sure why, but she liked being looked at so fiercely. She liked it a lot.
“Yes,” Diane said, “dance is my life.” Her face turned blushed auburn. Why did I say that? She’s going to think I’m a psycho. Diane pretended to be busy with her notes, scribbling a few fake sentences before returning her attention to the conversation.
“Oh?” Jaqueline replied. “You must be good then. I took tap classes when I was five, so I guess I’m kind of a big deal too.” She paused before breaking her straight face into a large smile. The bottom row of her teeth were covered in braces; Diane saw this and found her more approachable. There was something likable about a strong, poised, and confident girl with train tracks in her mouth.
Diane couldn’t help but grin back. The girls laughed together.
The two of them talked for the rest of class, about everything besides their skit. Diane explained that she’d been dancing since she was three, and recently tried out for a competitive ballet team at her studio. She loved everything about it, from the discipline to the beauty. Diane brought up how her mom wanted her to study dance after high school, and that even though her dad preferred watching sports to recitals, he was still her biggest fan. Jaqueline spoke about her love for painting, and how both of her parents were mostly supportive of her plans to go to art school, even though they’d always expected her to pursue her mathematical talents instead and sometimes dropped a passive aggressive comment here-and-there. She spent most of her time outside of school tutoring algebra and geometry students, trying to pay off her parking tickets.
Both girls left the classroom that day smiling, and looked forward to the next drama period.
Over the course of the semester, the girls became closer. Emails reminding one another of class assignments turned into text messages talking about hopes and dreams. Smiling at one another in the hall transitioned into walking everywhere together, side-by-side, fingers brushing every now and then. Homework dates slowly became flirtatious, where Jaqueline would steal away Diane between school and dance, driving around in her car blasting her favorite songs with the windows rolled down. One Tuesday, Jaqueline took Diane to the park.
“Why don’t you skip today?” Jaqueline asked. She turned down the music and looked intently at Diane.
“Ballet? Skip? Why would I do that?” Diane crossed her arms and crinkled her nose, before collapsing into giggles. “But really! It’s conditioning today, and I can’t miss.”
“Does ballet ever seem like a waste of time? Wait, wait, hear me out,” Jaqueline started, noticing the offended look on Diane’s face. “Just think about it. You spend every night working your ass off, you push your body. You can’t spend more than an hour with me,” she paused to bat her eyelashes, “and you do the same thing every day.” Jaqueline looked at Diane square in the face. She did not blink. “What do you have to show for it? One show at the end of the year?”
“I guess it comes down to the principal of it all,” Diane replied, after a few moments of silence and a settling sadness. Her finger was tapping the car armrest, and her eyes settled on the sky outside the window. Cloudless, with a bare sun.
“Ballet is so hard. It can be so hard to commit. To not break. But when I do, I feel—stronger. And yeah, maybe it is once a year for that recital. But when I get on that stage and do my thing, the world knows that it’s my thing. Mine.” Diane’s voice trailed off. She noticed that the music had been turned down all the way. Jaqueline was staring at her again.
Jaqueline reached for Diane’s hands. They were warm and soft, though Diane’s palm was moist from sweating. She didn’t care for confrontation, or going into heavy detail about her emotions. Jaqueline traced her index finger over Diane’s hand, very gently. It tingled. “Diane,” she asked, barely above a whisper, “are you mine?”
Without hesitation, Diane leaned in for a kiss. Their lips connected, while their hands were still locked. “Yes,” Diane said, after pulling away, “I am.”
Diane had never kissed a girl before—she’d never even thought about it. Suddenly, though, it was no longer about boys or girls, it was about Jaqueline. There were fireworks, but she didn’t know whether to stoke or extinguish them. In middle school Diane had crushes on boys, but they were never serious. Now, her priorities centered on dance, and she was too busy to navigate the gross and misogynistic attention of her male peers. It just seemed like a lot of energy she couldn’t afford to spend.
It wasn’t like that with Jaqueline, though. She fell in her lap, out of nowhere, and nothing seemed difficult when they were together. She was fresh and easy and honestly, a welcome break; she was cloudless, too.
Outside of their bubble, the world assumed that Diane and Jaqueline were best friends. Diane assured her parents that she was getting a little extra help with her math homework before dance each night. No one else knew the truth, or bothered to ask. Diane didn’t like to lie, and the guilt showed easily on her face. There were so many unknowns, though. It seemed too late to open up, and too soon to know what to say.
Sometimes, without Diane knowing, her parents would stay up late into the night, wondering if Diane was okay.
“She just seems so distant,” Diane’s mother whispered. It was past midnight and the two could hear their daughter still up, pacing around her bedroom. “Do you think something is wrong? Do you think if something was wrong, she would tell us? What if she’s doing drugs instead of talking to us?”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Mark replied, smoothing his wife’s hair out of her face. “It’s okay. She’s just stressed from the big show. You know if something serious was going on, she’d tell us right away.” He pushed the covers over her shoulders before turning over. “Diane would never, ever, lie to us.”
It was before Diane’s end-of-the-year recital when she and Jaqueline were caught.
Mark had stumbled upon the pair kissing outside Diane’s dressing room, where he’d been called to drop off a fresh pair of tights before the show. Dutifully, he’d come, hours before he was needed, just to check on Diane’s pre-show nerves. There were flowers in his arms—carefully wrapped tulips, Diane’s favorite—which crunched slightly on the ground as he placed them on the ground before walking away. Wrapped in shiny purple plastic, the flowers wilted on the floor.
The girls, shocked at his sudden arrival and even more at his silent departure, separated from each other immediately. They did not resume their embrace.
Later that evening, standing in the wings of the stage, Diane scanned the audience. Jaqueline had decided to leave, unwilling to risk another encounter with Mark. Diane picked out her mother in the third row, uneasily shifting in her seat, with a stranger sitting beside her.
Mark never brought up the kiss, and Diane chose not to explain.
A few weeks after the recital, Diane and Jaqueline drew their relationship to a close. The parting came naturally and was mutual: Jaqueline wasn’t willing to be tied down as she headed off to college, and Diane wasn’t sure she was so tied down on being with a girl.
It was still hard. Diane couldn’t help but remember whispering, “Mine,” and feeling like their secret promise wasn’t all that true. She respected Jaqueline and was still attached all the things that made her unique; her strength, beauty, and confidence—even the quiet softness the world rarely saw—and wasn’t entirely sure that she was ready to let go.
Diane often wondered if all of it was worth it. Her dad, his silence, his dejected looks around the house as he failed to meet her gaze. Their relationship, once a force, was now punctuated with lost words. She wondered how strong it ever was. Diane’s mom picks her up now from dance class.
Diane’s emotions, once focused and centered, are more often confused and deferred. There’s a feeling of loneliness. Still, Diane wanted the best for Jaqueline.
They shared their final hug in the car, as Jaqueline dropped Diane off at dance one last time and waved a somber goodbye. Diane stayed late that night at the studio—she practiced her leaps until her legs crumpled. She laid on the marley floor, a heap of defeat, with her chest rising and falling as her breath slowly steadied.
It became clear to her: she’d never be perfect. Never.
I brought the new shoes, I taped my toes, I brought a backup pair of tights. Diane went through her checklist, nervously scrolling through her pre-recital requirements. This was it, this was her night. Finally, as a sophomore, Diane would have her solo on stage. Oh, she remembered, the shoes.
Walking on her heels, Diane picked up her brand new pair of pointe shoes, pristine and preserved in thin, plastic packaging, from the wooden toes to the elastic heels. Her mother had gone with her to pick them out, and nodded enthusiastically as the man at the store reminded them that a dancer must always sew her own ribbons onto the shoes, without any help.
Diane found her clear thread, and settled her nerves through careful movements of her needle. Her fingers pushed in and pulled through, a rhythmic series of embroideries. At the end, she had her shoes, elastic and ribbons secured in time for her solo. As close to perfection as possible.
She frayed the flat surface of the toes with a lighter, to ensure that she would not slip on the stage. The flame ate away the fabric, bite-by-bite, until rough edges framed the pink silk. Diane knew that wearing brand new pointe shoes for a show, without breaking them in, was a risk. However, she still slipped them on and laced the ribbons up her ankle, running her fingers over the shine and newness. Better than blood, she thought. No one wants to see the blood.
Outside the dressing room, there were tulips waiting for Diane. They sat on the floor, propped against the door. She picked them up and inhaled their sweet fragrance, and admired their purple wrap. The attached note read “Break a leg.” With a smile, Diane practiced her routine one last time in the dressing room. Her pirouette was flawless, her leg lifted into an arabesque with ease. Her toes, tightly wrapped in athletic tape and soothed with jelly lining, would not bleed through this time. She made her way backstage, greeted by the smiles of the production crew, and quietly tapped her feet in the rosin box.
As Diane’s song began, she jeted to center stage, gracefully gliding to the eight-count beats she’d practiced, over and over. Diane paused, as her choreography allowed, and looked to the sea of people staring back at her. Past the glaring lights, she made out the faces in the audience. There was her mother, off to the right, in the second row, surrounded by strangers.
Diane began to dance, and did not look up again.