Ten minutes later, I jog onto the field behind high school. Puffy storm clouds close over the sky, the remnants of a typhoon kicked up in Asia, according to the weatherman. The grass is moist underfoot. A guys' soccer match run full tilt, a mad dash of Vail orange jerseys versus blue from Secret, a rival high school. Normally, I'd stop and look, as in look, but today, all I want is to talk to Wendy, my Korean best friend since kindergarten, when we both joined Dance Mom's Ballet Studio. We've danced together all the way through high school, along with our twelve number flag corp and dance squad.
She's by her car, hauling our black-and-gold flags from her trunk, already dressed in our outfit: black leotard with sheer lace sleeves that catch the light, the matching skirt rippling over her long, lean legs. She has a dancer's body. As I veer toward her, I feel a familiar twinge of envy. I'd rather take remedial biology all summer than have my thighs so exposed, but this is the price of dancing, and I'm willing to pay it.
"Suzy, you got out!" She waves, than grabs the periwinkle tote bag slipping from her narrow shoulder. Her mid-length black hair tumbles over her fingers.
"Hey. Wendy." I gasp.
"Hurry up and change." She shoves my tote bag at me, which I'd left in her car last practice for safekeeping from Eomma. She glances worriedly over her shoulder. "Sanders needs this field for some staff thing. We only have one hour."
"Wendy." I clutch my bag like a life preserver. "I got into Tisch."
The poles clatter to the asphalt and Wendy shrieks loud enough to be heard in New York. I'm enveloped in a storm of curls and the scent of rosemary.
"Just now." My body shakes as if I haven't eaten in days. I've tucked the letter under my pillow, but those black lines of type are seared into my mind: We are pleased to admit you to the Dance Department . . . "They emailed too, apparently, but I've been on hiatus since graduation. Now I have to answer by next Friday. I don't know what to do."
"You didn't tell your parents, did you?"
"I climbed down my pipe before they could talk to me."
"Suzy." Wendy grips my arm and walks me toward the school. "You've got to stop doing that. If you break a leg, how will you dance? What if you hurt yourself permanently?"
"I'm not going to break a leg."
She frowns. "So Tisch. You want to go-of course you do, right?"
"Well, even considering it feels ridiculous, right? I've got almost a full ride to med school. You know how eomma feels about dancing-all body, no brain. Practically ion. Anyways, we can't afford Tisch. If they knew I'd applied, that I got in-I really think they'd consider disowning me."
"What about financial aid?"
"It's not enough. The letter mentioned a scholarship."
"No, an arts association. I'd have to audition in Main right after we dance in the parade next Saturday. At one thirty."
"Ballet? Jazz?" Wendy grip is starting to hurt.
"How about this routine? You made it up-that'll count for something, right? Okay to do a duo?"
"I don't have anything else!"
She frowns, thinking hard. "We'll have to Uber from Public Square. ." She shoves me toward the bathroom. "Now we really need to practice. Go change!" Five minutes later, I am seated back-to-back with Wendy on the grass. I lift the bottom of my fiberglass flagpole to form a roof peak with Wendy in the opening pose. A familiar warmth spreads like honey inside me: the anticipation of rhythm and beat.
Low notes. Wind instruments.
Like flowers uncurling, we unfold through our spines. Our legs unwind. Our black flags, cut through by a bolt of lightning, glide together in a sunrise. We line up and pan our flags in opposing-", wrong way," Wendy apologizes-directions, salute to either side, reverse, one slow spin, a faster one, walking from a dream.
Then the music explodes-and so do we.
I spin a half turn. The wind of Wendy mirror movements ruffles my hair. Black-and-gold vinyl snaps at my ear as I hurl my flag skyward and swing into a double pirouette, feet shredding grass, black hair whipping across my face. The scent of grass fills the air and I'm so, so alive-never so alive as when I'm dancing.
Wendy collides into me, our poles scraping.
"Sorry!" she yells. "What's next?"
Wendy is always thinking ahead to the next step. I never have to. The patterns we make, how they change over what space and with what energy and tempo-that's what my body knows.
"Big wheels," I gasp. My hand slides to my pole's end.
As the music races to close, we pirouette apart, hips swaying in a few parent-forbidden measures of y. Our flag sail high, revolving in tandem, once, twice, then we sweep out and back to center, where I land on my knees and throw up my arms.
"Sorry I screwed up the transition," Wendy groans. She shuts off her camera, which we're using to record this dress rehearsal.
"It's okay. We'll run it again." Panting, I fall on my back. My blisters sting, the punishment of hours with the fiberglass pole, and we've more to go. But as blades of grass tickle my cheeks, my heart ricochets off my rib cage in a soul-surging rhythm.
Could this be my future? A lifetime of dancing, this limber-bodied afterglow - insead of waking antiseptic-smelling hallways?
"You are one mean choreographer, you know?" Wendy grabs my water bottle and takes a swing before passing it to me. "Once we perfect this for Public Square, Broadway will bang down our door."
"Ha." I'm obsessed with musicals-dancing on Broadway would be a dream come true. Wendy's just saying, of course, but it's dizzying to think about.
"Seriously. How do you come up with all that? We are so hot!"
"We could be green-haired hags and you'd say that. It just comes together. Your dad gets a medal for scoring us this slot in the parade."
"Well, his firm's been sponsoring it for ten years. It's about time he got something back."
Wendy yanks the gold ribbon off a box of Malley's chocolates, our staple reward while we catch our breath. "Too bad you didn't get to dance the spring show with the squad. That number was the best. And you choreographed half of it." She pops a truffle between her lips. "I still can't believe your mom pulled out of rehearsal like that."
"I can. It's the part where she did it in front of the entire squad that still kills me." I bite into a dark raspberry, shuddering with the memory. "Poor Edwin, she acted like he had leprosy. All because I was partner dancing with a boy."
"I honestly don't get her. I mean, you're eighteen."
"It's just that way." It's a mixed blessing to have Wendy in the know, when her family's so laid-back she can't understand. "Chalk it up to her Korean-Baptist roots. You know, she still hasn't given me the birds and bees talk? All I've picked from her is -"
"' is a by-product of marriage to be endured, preferably through a hole in the blanket.' So you've told me." Wendy laughs and I almost smile, than she sobers. "Are you going to tell them about Tisch?"
"I don't know." Something tightens in my chest. "Med school's been the path set for me since before I could walk." The fulfillment of my parents' lifelong dream for stability. Respect. "The deposit is already paid. Dancing . . . they've already hate how much time I spend on it. They've always expected I'd let it go after high school, when I join the real world." They know I'm in the parade, but I've downplayed it so they're not coming-I can't risk them cracking down on the time , not to mention my outfit.
My chest constricts further, and I rise up onto my elbows. "I can't think about it right now. I just need to nail this dance."
We run our routine and watch our videos a half dozen times, until Wendy finally collapses, pries off her shoes, and massages her toes. "I need a break."
I flop onto my back beside her and dig my thumb into my palms. A few blisters are bleeding-ugh. I rub them on the grass, out of sight. Even a glimpse of my own blood makes me want to vomit-how will I handle a career of hemorrhages and puncture wounds?
Overhead, gray clouds close over the last patches of blue sky.
A rumble of thunder vibrates the ground beneath me.
I'm tackling the small problems, but not the big one.
I can't help but think . . . if Appa gets that bonus Eomma's hoping for. If I catch them in the right mood-
"Three o'clock," Wendy whispers. "Don't look now, but there's a cute guy checking you out."
Unlike Eomma, Wendy knows when I'm not quite ready to talk.
I pinwheel my flag over my face, helicopter-style. I can't deny it-maybe it's because I dance myself-I'm a er for athletes. Not because they're popular, but because of the discipline it takes to do what they do. Also the way they move-confident, purposeful-staking out their bit of space on this earth.
Sitting up, I cast a discreet glance toward the soccer net. The team from Secret in their blue jerseys has formed a circle and are kicking a Hacky Sack. An Asian kid makes eye contact, then we both look away. It's like an unspoken code between us. When you've grown up one of five Asian American kids in your school of less than five hundred kids, you don't do anything to draw attention to your Asianness-his or mine.
"I'd go out with him."
"He's not noticing me, he's only noticing we're Asian." I grab my phone. "Which, to be fair, I notice right back." Sure enough, the guy heads off with his soccer pals as I open the dance scholarship website to register. "See, he's gone."
Wendy sighs. "Because you give every guy like him the when-they-ice-skate-in-hell vibe. Just because he's also Asian American -"
"Based on sheer probability in the state of California, I'm more likely to end up with a fifty-nine-year-old, two-time divorcé than another Asian american. That is my future." I say it like I'm joking, but the truth is, boys don't see me as dating material. Which is why I've only ever kissed one guy-and in the end, he didn't pick me."
"Okay, you're being ridiculous. What about the redhead? He's not fifty."
"Ha. Just give up -" I break off as a blue convertible pulls up with a crunch of asphalt.
Right on cue.
"Nick!" Wendy squeals, shooting to her feet.
The big hockey player steps from his car and swoops her into a hungry kiss. They've been apart for over six months, since his last visit from his freshman year at Rice. The kiss only lasts three seconds, but it feels like an eternity. I scuff the ground with my foot, familiar ribbons of envy tightening round my heart.
"Hey, Suzy." Nick's blond hair is longer than it was at his farewell party. But his chipped-tooth grin hasn't changed. My leotard feels transparent. And as his hazel eyes meet mine, crinkling with that smile, that afternoon behind the shed returns with a rush.
Those big hands on my hips. His tongue pressing my lips apart. He taught me everything I know about kissing that I didn't learn from practicing on oranges with Wendy in middle school.
And then Eomma and Appa ran him off.
"Nick wants to go for a ride." Wendy wraps her arms around me, despite our grueling workout, her hair still smells like rosemary. I sense her guilt for happiness at my expense, her guery, you're okay, right? Wendy knows about that kiss, knows it's in the past. We're still friends because you have the biggest heart, she's said. The truth is, most days, I try not to think about them. Together. She squeezes me tighter. "Let's pick up tomorrow? We're gonna land you that scholarship."
"Thanks." I squeeze her back, not wanting her to worry. Then, because she's standing there, I make myself dare to hug Nick, too. Like he's another friend-
I jump. My foot tangles in Nick's. My ear scrapes his bristled cheek as I leap back to face an audience I hadn't realized was watching.
Eomma. She charges from our car, jade blouse snapping like a parachute. Behind her, Appa pulls his Loyola cap lower, like he's trying to shrink a few inches. He limps forward, that old injury from a fall mopping a spill at work.
I cross my arms over my leotard, a futile gesture. Nick shrinks back as Eomma comes at me, a battering ram of furry. Fat droplets of rain pelt my head and shoulders as Eomma grabs my lace neckline, jerking me off balance despite the fact, at five feet two, she's four whole inches shorter than I am.
"You're wearing this? In public?"
I try to yank free. My leotard is long sleeved, for crying out loud. Wendy pulls Nick out of the firing rnage, but she needn't bother: his eyes are like a wild horse's, facing a blaze that's already scorched him once.
"Why are you here?" I choke out.
Eomma shoves a page into my face. Creamy stationary creased into thirds. The precious purple flame insignia wrinkling under her fingers.
My Tisch School Letter.