I am eight years old. I am standing in a line with other eight-year-old girls, wearing a pink leotard and black tights, my hair trying madly to escape a haphazard bun. I have glasses, enormous plastic coke-bottles that frame my face. I have read Ballet Shoes and Angelina Ballerina, and one year earlier, I have clutched my dad’s arm in wonder and awe as Clara from The Nutcracker defeated the Rat King with a toss of her slipper, her skirt twirling and catching the light.
At the far end of the line is Tiffany. She is wearing pink tights and a pink leotard and pink ballet slippers and her bun is perfect and her hair is blonde and her ballet bag even has little pink ballet slippers embroidered on it. She is very good at all of the moves and the teacher picks her to demonstrate everything for the rest of us.
I immediately hate Tiffany.
We learn first position, second, third. We work our way up towards a grand jeté – the flying leap across the studio.
In my head, it’s a lot more graceful than what I actually accomplish. I feel like a flying gazelle, beautiful and powerful, until I see Tiffany and the teacher both hiding little smirks behind their hands.
I tell my mom that I don’t want to take ballet anymore. I spend a lot of time that summer pretending I’m a mermaid instead. I dive down into the lake as far as I can go, and try to feel my hair whirl around me as I spin faster and faster up towards the surface. Underwater, you have to keep your eyes closed, so it doesn’t matter what you look like. It matters how you feel.
I am fifteen years old. I am in line at the Saratoga Mall, with my mother and my grandmother, in the checkout line at the Express. I am three weeks into my freshman year of high school, and I’m the new kid, and I hate it. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve never worn a uniform to school, and I don’t know what to do. My boobs are too big and my hair is too frizzy and I’m too sweaty and all my clothes are all wrong. I have exactly one Seventeen magazine tucked away under my mattress from that time my older cousin left it in my bedroom, hidden because I fear my mother will disapprove and toss it away. I study it exhaustively, trying desperately to learn what is cool, but it feels hopeless. No matter what I put on, I still look nothing like Sarah Michelle Gellar and I fear I never will.
The skirt is a pink-and-purple suede patchwork miniskirt. It cost thirty-nine dollars, which seems outrageous, but my grandmother is in town, and she insists on buying it for me, telling my mother that I’ll wear it again, it’s a classic piece. My mother says nothing.
(A brief interruption to mention: I just found the exact skirt on ebay with a five-second google search. It is, in fact, STILL thirty-nine dollars, and while I could never fit into it now, I suddenly regret giving it away).
I pair it with a black turtleneck sweater and tights and my Mary Janes with the Velcro straps that I used to wear to school with my uniform, back before everything changed. I drive with another girl from my old school to the homecoming dance.
I realize as soon as I walk inside that I have no idea what happens next.
Sweat pools in my bra, around my neck, and in the crotch of my tights, which are bunching uncomfortably. I’m trapped in a prison of black cotton and suede, staring at the dimly-lit gymnasium. A girl with frosted hair who looks exactly like Drew Barrymore is grinding on a dude who looks like Marky Mark. I have just learned who those pop culture icons are from my contraband Seventeen, so admittedly I might be mistaken about the exact likeness, but in the instant that I realize they are cool, I am suddenly aware of the depths to which I am not.
I have never seen people grind before. It’s a few days later before I even learn the term “grind.”
I don’t know how to dance.
I have no idea what to do.
I have read a lot of Judy Blume, but Judy couldn’t prepare me for this. How do you move your arms and your legs and your head? How does everybody else already know this stuff? Did I miss the day we covered this in class? I make a sprinkler gesture enthusiastically before realizing that everyone else is doing it ironically. I am like that scene in every sci-fi movie when the protagonists are disguised inside the costumes of the locals, trying and failing miserably to imitate those surrounding them.
A boy who sits behind me in World History asks me to dance to the final song of the night. He’s on the mathletes and he will grow up to become a really nice dentist and one day in the not-so-distant future I will experiment with alcohol, drink an entire bottle of limoncello at a party and aggressively beg him to kiss me. But for now, we sway awkwardly together to the final theme song from Dirty Dancing. He is much, much taller than I am. My arms hurt and begin to cramp. His arms rest on my lower back. We avoid eye contact. We don’t really talk. His hands are sweaty, too.
Ohhhh, I’ve had the time of my life. And I swear, it’s the truth, ‘cause I owe it all to you.
On one hand, I am relieved beyond words when the lights come back up and I can bolt away, deeply comforted to spy my mom’s car waiting in the parking lot.
On the other, it’s the most romantic thing that has ever happened to me.
I am twenty-one years old. I have pre-gamed on the fourth floor of the apartments and my breath is hot with rum and diet coke. It’s February and it’s freezing but we sprint through the snowy campus towards the waiting cabs, giggling in our thin tops and jeans and heels. It’ll be packed and sweaty inside the bar and the line at the coat check is absurd, so we’ll just make a run for it in the snow. Whatever.
I wait in line for about fifteen minutes to order at the bar. I’m surrounded by people, most of whom I go to school with, but a lot of whom I don’t recognize. There are dudes in polo shirts and baseball caps, ordering Bud Lights in bottles and jerking their heads back in a nodding, mutal acknowledgement of one another. Sup bro.
I push my way towards the bathroom. It’s downstairs and it takes me a long time to make my way back and forth in my shoes, which is actually okay because I don’t really have to pee, I just want an excuse to be someplace where I’m not being shoved, where it’s a little quieter. I don’t take too long in the stall because there is a huge line, but part of me wants to linger, check my phone, daydream, be still.
Rihanna is playing. Bum bum be dum, bum bum be dum-dum. Krissy grabs my arm when I emerge from the bathroom and drags me onto the dance floor. We both love this song. She is wild and laughing and fearless, shaking and stomping and singing at the top of her lungs. There are other bodies surrounding me everywhere, bumping against my shoulders, my hips, my back, my head. But somehow she manages to carve out her own space – enough to do her thing, enough that when she bumps into someone who isn’t paying attention, she rolls her eyes, implying, Wow, rude.
I envy her, her confidence. I envy the space that she occupies. I fear that I am in everyone’s way, apologetic when someone bumps into me, even though it’s not really anyone’s fault. I feel so very on display, and simultaneously so very invisible.
I want another drink.
It is Saturday night. This past one, two nights ago.
My friend Rachel is throwing a dance party. She does this every so often – she rents out this dance studio in South Philly and calls our friend Michael, who is a DJ, and she buys some starter beer but encourages everyone to bring their own booze, and she puts out some pretzels on a folding table. And she turns out the lights and plugs in a disco ball and she invites a few hundred people and we dance.
She started throwing these parties because winter is the worst and she was tired and she was cold and depressed and she figured that putting a bunch of people in a room together and making them dance about it was the cure that we all needed. Rachel is basically a ray of sunshine encapsulated in human form, this little tireless ball of humanity and energy and empathy, the kind of person who seems so effortlessly cheerful that you almost think it’s an act. Until you get to meet her, until you realize that her enthusiasm for life isn’t saccharine or obnoxious but rather completely genuine, startling in the way that experiencing actual sunshine after a long winter is surprising and warm and good.
I mix a drink and I hug some friends and it takes me awhile to get into it but then, oh, it hits and I move. I like to sing along even though I know it’s not cool, lifting my hands and yelling the words at the top of my lungs. Jackson Five and The Proclaimers and Robyn and Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and Beyoncé and Beyoncé.
I am fearless. I am sweaty and I am peeling off my sweater and throwing it on the ground, stomping my feet and laughing and twirling and shaking and side-stepping and shimmying. I don’t know what I look like, and it doesn’t matter. I make eye contact with a bunch of people I love, and watch them wave and wriggle and stomp and jump, watch them be fearless, watch them not care what anybody else thinks, either.
I run into a friend outside who mentions casually that she’d brought a friend here who didn’t know anyone, a quiet dude whom she was nervous might be overwhelmed by the scene. She laughs and tells me, “Katherine, the first thing he said was that he looked at you and said, ‘Wow, that girl in the yellow shirt can really dance.’”
I make a joke and say what I always say, which is that – oh god, I can’t dance. Not really. I’m still eight and fifteen and twenty-one, and I don’t know how to dance, and my arms look weird and my legs don’t work right and I don’t know how this works. I don’t know how to dance.
Except I am twenty-nine and I am sweating and I am smiling and I feel awesome.
And it only took almost thirty years, but maybe that girl in the yellow shirt can dance, after all.