It all started with a green tutu. My mother and I were strolling down a New York street in the fall, and it was a day of hidden sunshine. The buildings of this city block out the sun on even the most brilliant days, making it so that rays of light have to fight a path through the labyrinthine rooftops and spires. Sometimes you can find the sun’s reflections glinting on the very tops of mirrored buildings, like a sudden spotlight. But then there are the days that the sun perfectly aligns with the avenues during long summer dusks, an urban Stonehenge, and the sun arrives with fanfare and applause, as if a god had just descended from heaven.
We were quiet, my mother and me, a year out of Ukraine and still finding our way through the city. I was three years old, full of bounding energy, tugging my mother along. We used to take walks during the early afternoon, when she made it her mission to map her new land. We were used to quiet in our apartment, so when we hit the streets and let the concrete guide us, the noises were deafening. My mother had never known such noise before, this constant caustic symphony of harsh tones and bleats and long, protracted wails. Everything was violently alive in New York.
I was holding my mother’s hand, soft, lined, unyielding, when I saw it: an absurd Kelly green tutu on a mannequin in a dirty shop’s window. It jutted out from the model’s shapeless plastic waist with precision, a precision that was at odds with the flamboyant color. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Dropping my mother’s hand, I skittered up to it, pressing my fingers against the glass to get as good a look as I could. I remember signing to my mother, exclaiming in Ukrainian, and in proto-English toddler noises that I wanted it, using every single linguistic tool at my disposal to express my obsession with the ugliest thing known to man: neon green tulle wrapped in tufts around a plastic doll’s shining body.
My mother, always calm and solid, ushered me away from the window, calming my baby wails. I didn’t go quietly. That tutu was the first thing I saw in New York that I thought was a complete mystery, totally unexplainable, and thus endlessly interesting to me. My mother reclaimed my hand and we continued our journey through the labyrinth, but this time, the silence didn’t persist. I badgered her all the way home about the tutu, what it was, why the fabric was so fluffy like that. I wanted to know who wore it and if I could, too.
She told me that was a tutu, a pachka, something a baleryna wore.
“What’s a ballerina?” I can’t remember which language I used. In any case, my mother understood me.
“A ballerina is a dancer. She wears a pink tutu, not a green one, and she dances onstage.”
“Yes, she dances. In circles, very carefully.” She put her hands over her head. “She twirls. It’s beautiful.” And then she gave me one of her rare, melting smiles.
I had high hopes for that green tutu. Even though my mother had yanked me away from it, I secretly wished it would appear one evening, laid out on my bed as if it had traveled there just for me. And then I’d toddle up to my mother and take her hand, and she’d look down at me with her warm brown eyes and give me a genuine, but very hesitant smile. She’d cup my chin in her hand and pat the top of my head, saying a lot of things with no words. That was just her way: she spoke with her gestures and her silences, and she saved her smiles for when they truly counted.
Oksana smiled, and the whole room took notice. Oksana smiled, and everyone felt like there was nothing wrong with the world. My father told me that once, about my mother when she was young.
My mother didn’t buy it for me the way I knew she wouldn’t, but I didn’t hold it against her, a displaced immigrant in this concrete labyrinth. Even at three, I knew we had more important things to spend our money on.
A few nights later, my mother came into my room with a board book tucked under her arm. She brandished it, and the first thing I saw was a little cartoon bear wearing a pink tutu, dancing with her furry arms over her head. She sat down at the edge of my tiny bed, gave me a square of her precious dark chocolate, and began to read in broken English. I sucked the corners of the chocolate square diligently as she read to me about this pink bear-ballerina.
For two years, while both my parents looked on with a mixture of amusement and exasperation, I scavenged material from around our apartment, pulling apart my mother’s old dresses, curtains, and tablecloths to drape around my body and twirl around every single room I entered. The color didn’t matter; I hopped and leaped around our apartment in blue, a dingy white, and even sometimes green that I would fashion into some semblance of a tutu.
It was a full two years later before my mother scraped together the money to put me in a children’s ballet class on the Lower East Side. She told me she was annoyed at my constant dancing around the house in mock-ballet poses and wanted to see me do it right for once, but even at five years old, I could tell that she just wanted to give me what I wanted. Whatever her motive was, she fully expected me to hate it within a month.
But I was in love. Or as close as I think I’ll ever get to it.
The perfect feet for ballet have high arches, curved like a crescent moon. The toes should all be the same length, providing a strong base for the rest of the body—a body that ideally is a combination of several key characteristics. A short torso. Long legs. Big-ish feet. A long, swan-like neck. And thin--very thin.
At five years old, I already looked something like that. Every limb of my body looked like it had been stretched, and I was slightly underweight, with long, light-brown hair that hung in wispy sheets around my face. I was pale, freckled on my nose and cheeks, and I could never sit still. But one day a week, I would make myself channel the energy. I would let my mother twist my hair up into a ball on top of my head, I would sheathe my tiny body in pink, and I would dance.