Madeleine Can’t Dance

Once, my French-Canadian uncle told me a story about a caribou crushing his tent and leaving hoof marks on his sleeping face. One of the branches of an antler got caught in his left nostril and split it apart. He never looked the same, he said. Now, I don’t know if that’s true—this incident happened before I was born, but Mom got drunk and said his nose was fucked up because he was always picking it. One Christmas, she drank a half of a pitcher of sangria, and when I asked her if maybe the Lord didn’t like that, she said, “It’s Christ’s blood.” Hiccup.

That was the year she took me to visit my Aunt Irene in Florida. I can’t remember what my parents were fighting about, but the word “impressionable” was bandied about. I didn’t even know I had an Aunt Irene. On the way back, I begged Mom to take me to Disney World, but instead we went to Clearwater to see the Virgin-Mary-shaped stain on a glass building. The aura fractured into rainbows, and the sunset blinded me with faith. I was eight. I didn’t know any better.

My uncle survived his encounter by pretending to be a log, which cemented in him the belief that “wood is good” and it’s best to “always lay low” during crises. Sometimes, when he’d come down during the winter, he’d watch me while my parents worked and prayed.

Uncle Davie was fun. I could mess with him easily. After school, I insisted on watching Rocky & Bullwinkle because Bullwinkle terrified him. He’d get flashbacks. He complained to my parents, but they were Catholic and anti-communist and thought bad Russians and American Agents Squirrel and Moose provided me with “context” in the late 80s and early 90s. Revisionist Soviet dissolution be damned. My parents’ generation always needed a bad guy, whether a Russian spy or a curious caribou.

So, of course, naturally, inevitably, my childhood was spent sucking on my lavender (“purple for repentance!”) rosary and lusting after Natasha Fatale, the female ne’er-do-well Soviet spy in the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons. Her thin-lipped, wine-colored smile; the absurd angles of her eyebrows; the swell of her hips; and her musky “dollinks” were so foreign and forbidden—the exact opposite of my round, fat-faced, and pink globule Irish mother—that I felt dangerous every time I looked at her. The heat would rise up from my thighs as if a new, misty day was dawning. I learned to appreciate the tingles after my best friend, Stacy, admitted on the playground that Aladdin was hot.

She carved “Stacy + Aladdin” into her desk and pushed the girl in our class whose name was Jasmine into the dirt. It rained later that afternoon, and when Stacy came back the next day, she cried because they’d scraped off her desk’s engraving and Jasmine pulled her hair.

There were no Borises in our school.

Stacy said, “Thank God.”

During these days of my post-Cold War childhood, my parents made me do a lot of things I was against. My mother painted my nails and bought me bows the size of Montana, and she conspired with my dad to make me take piano lessons. I needed discipline, they said. Something productive to occupy my time but also something that was fun and creative, so they wouldn’t look so damn constipated whenever someone mentioned me.

Mrs. Pennyworth was the epitome of calm, cool, collected, and non-constipation. A delicate creature. Only not. When my dad watched football on Sundays after mass, I often replaced the defensive tackle in my mind with Mrs. P. When my mother found out I was learning about football, she offered pony lessons over Sunday dinner. I laughed in her face, spit out some casserole. “I never got into Black Beauty. Besides, I can walk just fine,” I said.

Dad chimed in: “She’s not a pony worshipper like all the other sad girls. She has substance.” He sat up in his chair. “Maybe treat Davie to ‘em. A horse could fight off a caribou, right?”

My mother rolled her eyes and enrolled me in ballet.

A whole new world (forgive me, Stacy) opened up to me in ballet. First, there was the leotard. My mother had to bribe me with green apple Jolly Ranchers to get me to wear that thing so by the time class was over my tongue was solid green. Until I started smoking in eighth grade, Jolly Ranchers were my cigarettes.

Everyone needs a little motivation, my dad said.

Really, my motivation was Katerina Parlov. At first glance, you might mistake her for evoking the elegant yet quick strumming of a balalaika, little feet high-pitched pinpricks of sound. When I first saw her, though, I felt the noise of a slide guitar between my legs. Blood flow explosion. For the first time, I felt my pulse anywhere other than my chest, wrist, or neck. Sweaty cavern, an undiscovered red button, ripe. My tongue swelled in salt. I bit down on my lip. My skin was sweltering. I needed some sort of sinner’s sunscreen. I bit harder until a little blood hit my tongue.

I was all saliva, sweat, lightning, and iron.

This must be why my mother prayed so hard for me. For me to never know this feeling.

It’s like my body had a brain of my own, which is not not true. Only that brain became my body or vice versa, and I didn’t belong to God or my parents or even Katerina because she just stood en pointe like some artefact from another place, another time, another melody, until the world resumed. The girls were in motion, and Ms. Claire warbled some command, so I pretended to follow her, mimicking.

That Floridian Christmas five years ago, I heard Aunt Irene and Mom out on the patio facing the beach.

“Remember when we were young?” Irene asked.

“No. My time machine doesn’t go back that far.” Mom downed the rest of her wine glass.

“Martha, we’re not old. We’ve aged like this wine.”

Mom burped. “Do you remember the first time we saw Mick Jagger?”

“Oh, as if the delicious devil himself would grace the streets of Clearwater!”

They started a rancid rendering of “Satisfaction.”

In the morning, I asked Mom, “Who’s Mick Jagger?”

Still in an air of fantasy, she said, “He should be your father.”

Aunt Irene and I looked at each other. We didn’t say anything for two hours, until our goodbyes.

Irene grabbed my arm before I got in the car.

“Take good care of your mother.”

I nodded.

Irene winked. “I was more of a Jim Morrison girl myself.”

My leotard stank for three weeks. My mother bought me a new one along with some panty liners and Summer’s Eve once March started. A baptism down under.

For the first month, I didn’t say a word to Katerina. The other girls did. Hell, even Joseph was in on it.

He was the token male. Eleven years old and already well-versed in the eye-driven language of gossip and shame.

They all knew something and flashed cheap smiles at me, those smiles quickly fading into smirks. The end of class had them in whispers, and whenever I walked by or looked at any of them or Katerina, they burst into giggles, like there was some kind of social Morse code I couldn’t decipher.

What mattered, though, was that I got to bask in the glow of Katerina.

That first month, she didn’t say a word to me either.

Our fifth Thursday of class, while we waited for our rides, Katerina and I stood behind the Dumpsters. Her fingers fumbled in a box of Marlboros.

“You smoke?” I punctured the silence.

“Yes.” She shrugged. “All the girls back home do it.”

I nodded. She drew small circles on the concrete with her right foot.

I looked around, like I was about to cross a street.

“Can I try?” I said.

Another fumble in the box. “Here.” She lit it as it dangled from the corner of my mouth.

The smoke caught in my throat. She laughed.

I stopped coughing after a minute and handed the cigarette back to her.

“Not for me.” A slight touch of our fingers.

Her hand went limp with the cigarette.

“Can I tell you a secret?” she asked.


She walked closer and leaned in.

Before she could turn her head, I kissed her and blew smoke into her mouth.

She coughed, smiled, and ran back in to the studio, hiccupping with giggles.

Surprise! My dad’s shit brown station wagon pulled up. “Ready to go, Mac?”

I stomped on the dying cigarette butt and climbed in.

That night in bed, I sucked hard on my rosary.

If it’s possible to have nothing by knees and elbows for fingers, I’ve got that disease.

As for my body, my natural position is closed fourth.

My knotty, wiry limbs get tangled easily, and I am always pulling a muscle. Somewhere. Never fails.

All this made ballet impossible. The Thursday after Katerina and I kissed, Ms. Claire invited my parents to chat with her regarding my suitability and progress. Of course, only Mom came.

I put my ear against the thin wall outside Ms. Claire’s office.

“Now, Mrs. Moran. Madeleine is a fine girl. She’s got tenacity and hope. How often do you see her practice outside of class?”

Mom said, “I find her stretching in her bedroom a lot. But I don’t let her practice in the rest of the house. I’ve got fine valuables.”

Ms. Claire replied, “So you know?”

“That she’s terrible. Yes!”

My heart shattered the rest of my body.

“OK. We’re on the same page. Has she tried any other sports or extracurricular activities where she’s shown promise?”

I knew Mom was sharp with her words, but Ms. Claire, in her supreme elegancy, used a soft whisper most of the time. Except with me.

“We’ve tried soccer, piano, geography club, polo (technically not because although she signed me up, I refused to get on a horse), and theater. Nothing has worked so far.”

“Was the problem mainly because of interest or related to a lack of talent?”

“She didn’t try.”

“But she’s trying in ballet?”

“I guess. This is the longest she’s ever stuck to anything.”


“Giving you the old heave-ho? ‘Bout fucking time,” Hannah said, and I lifted my head off the wall.

“Shut up, bitch.”

“This one’s got talons. Too bad she’s got no talent.”

Crystal, Tabitha, and Sara were behind her, the little three-person cloud that followed Hannah everywhere.

They giggled.

I sighed.

The door creaked open.

Hannah and her cloud posse smirked and went over to the barre.

“Thank you for meeting with me, Mrs. Moran,” Ms. Claire said loudly, as if it were a signal.

“Yes, yes, Ms. Claire.”

Mom put her hand on my shoulder and nudged me outside.

“What was that about?”

“Oh, Maddie, you know. You’re no good at this dance thing. But I’m very proud of you for your determination and sticking with something this long.”

My eyes widened.

“No more ballet.”

She patted me on the shoulder, a “there, there” with her hand.

“You get to pick what you want to do now.”

“Ballet!” I screamed.

A rush of burning. Acid of anger shot up from my stomach to my mouth.

“Fuck you, cunt!”

I ran past the parking lot and the dumpsters. Somehow I managed to climb the chain-link fence and jumped over it. I landed on asphalt on my right side, and before the pain could set in, I ran across the street and behind a church. Fortunately, there was a lot of traffic, and the dark was setting in.

In that moment, I don’t think Mom was capable of thought, let alone movement. She stood there frozen.

Katerina told me that Mom collected herself. She held her purse, then got in the car, slow motion. She was still hot pink with fury. She made sure the car windows were up, then emitted some kind of growl. Even outside the car, everyone could still hear her. “She had gravel in her voice,” Katerina told me.

Mom drove off, running the stop sign outside the studio and into a blue minivan.

Mom took to bedrest, Dad holed up at work, and Uncle Davie came to make sure I didn’t leave the house during Spring Break. He stayed on the couch most of the time, alternating between the National Geographic and History channels, with a one-hour break for Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!

For the first time in history, none of us went to church on Easter Sunday.

The next weekend, Mom and Dad decided that I should go camping with Uncle Davie. Immediately, I imagined him in long underwear screaming at squirrels while the tent continued to fall on me as I tried to assemble it. “This is a weird, extreme form of punishment,” I told them.

“It’s not punishment. It’s another hobby you might pick up,” Mom said. She was batshit crazy; her dilated pupils had the thinnest of irises from the oxycodone. Dad nodded, his eyes on today’s Dow results.

Uncle Davie put up a good tent, then walked out 1000 feet by himself, measuring each step, and put out enough Funions and pork rinds to feed an army of hungry bears. “It’s a decoy,” he explained.

“They hate Sublime,” I joked, and he decided to play 40 oz. to Freedom while we slept, thereby stranding us out in the middle of nowhere with no human willing to endure the possibility of bear attack and/or ‘90s ska. Yes, I brought this upon myself. Fun fact: The song “Date Rape” gives Uncle Davie nightmares.

In the morning, everything was fine, but where he put the Funions was trashed.

“Safe another night. You have some good suggestions, kid.” I told him that bears also hate Lou Reed, fingers crossed, but he thought I was making that up. While we cleaned up the remains of junk food, I managed to grab the Sublime CD and toss it into a pond. I swirled my sneaker and stepped on it for good measure.

“Your mom says you’re having some difficulties fitting in,” Uncle Davie began. If anyone was the epitome of a well-adjusted person, it was him.

“Oh, dear Lord,” I huff.

“I never fit in myself,” he continued.

“No shit.”

“Don’t be a bitch, little Mad.”


“Did I ever tell you about my time in a psych hospital?”

“No.” I am not surprised.

“I’m not crazy, never was. It was the drugs.”

I nod.

“There were some real crazy motherfuckers, though. There was this guy named Billy. We were roommates. He thought he was God. He said I should pray to him to help with detox. The nurses caught me strangling him one night. I was put in solitary.” He sighed. I didn’t know where he was going with this.

“My advice, little Mad: Always be yourself.” A pause. “Except ‘round wildlife.” He winked, and I laughed.

Before ballet class the following week, Katerina was smoking out by the Dumpsters again. I flashed her a smile. She giggled and blew a kiss. I walked into class, and Joseph was comforting Tabitha.

“What happened? Where’s Hannah?” I asked.

“She was attacked by a bear!” Sara wailed.


“She was camping out with Jacob Geller. They were making out, and they heard a roar!” Sara said.

Crystal pitched in: “Someone left Funions all over the place, and the bear was hungry!”

“Jacob ran faster than Hannah, so he got away. But the bear caught her and bit off part of her leg! She’s in the hospital!” Joseph said.

“Fuck,” I said. Sublime had drowned out my enemy’s demise.

Ms. Claire erupted from her office. “My star dancer was mauled! She has to have the damaged part of her leg amputated!” She crumpled, leaning against the wall. “Class is canceled. Forever! Call your parents!”

I called Mom, and when she came to pick me up, I told her. “No more ballet.”

“Okay, fair enough.”

“Uncle Davie says the guitar is pretty easy. You don’t have to read music, you can just read tab instead.”

“Fine,” she said through a sigh.

“He’s not so bad, your brother.”

“If it weren’t for the drugs and the constant nose picking, he would’ve been great.” She smiled.

“He is great.”

“You know, he taught me how to play guitar when I was a teenager.”


“Yes, I was obsessed with this guy, and I wanted desperately to be cool and understand him.”

“What was he like?”

“He looked like Jim Morrison.”

“What happened?”

“Your Aunt Irene dated him for two years.”

“That dirty whore!” I shouted, and believe it or not, Mom smiled.

“I’ve always been more of a piano girl myself. But Davie’s a good teacher.”

“Mom, I think I’m more of a guitar girl.”  

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