Chapter 1: Lauren
Let me put it this way. The day that Serena showed up in my ballet class changed everything. Before her, my life was smooth, like a waltz, moving more or less in one direction. That’s how life in a nice neighborhood usually works. But when the music changes, a new rhythm forces the dancers to change steps. Serena changed my life and Bryan’s, too.
It was the first day of sixth grade. I swerved around the fire station and cruised the rest of the way to the bike rack. My watch said I had twenty minutes until class. Since kindergarten, my mom drove me to the South End shopping center for ballet, but I could ride my bike in middle school.
Ms. Evangeline couldn’t stand it when we were late, so I was in a rush. I couldn’t afford to get in trouble. My parents had enough problems with Josh. They counted on me to be the good kid.
Caroline was climbing out of her mom’s car, zipping up her backpack. She’d grown over the summer, and when she came home from the Mandarin immersion camp her mother forced on her, she’d turned into a taller kid with awkward limbs and braces who looked way more like her white dad.
Caroline and I were super close. We had spent so much time together that we could probably finish each other’s sentences. When her grandma died last year, I cried about it. Her grandma was so nice to me and baked us cookies after school.
Bryan rode up next and climbed off his bike. He chained it up and hurried to catch up with us. I watched out for Bryan in every way I could, but it was getting harder to protect him. Everyone at ballet adored Bryan. At school, well, that was a different story. As if it wasn’t hard enough being Black on an island where most of the kids were white or Asian and sports-oriented, he had to be a boy who danced too. My dad said Bryan had a hard life ahead of him.
“Another vacation over is another missed opportunity for Hollywood to discover me,” Bryan said. He walked with a swish and spoke in a sing-song voice. I laughed, forgetting we were in a hurry.
“Just back from LA?” I asked. His aunt was an actress on a sitcom. “Did you finally get an agent?”
At the end of fifth grade, Bryan told us he didn’t want to hide behind the scenes anymore and intended to be famous. Suddenly, he just wanted attention. He talked about movie stars incessantly.
I caught a glance from Caroline: Tread lightly, you know this matters more than he lets on— “It’s only a matter of time,” she said. Caroline could always be counted on to cheerlead her friends.
Bryan gave Caroline a dismissive flip of his hand. “It was like this. The hotel photographer asked to take my picture, and my fifteen minutes of fame ended in two seconds. It would have been better if I’d appeared with a ballerina or two on my arm. Still, it’s like I always say: dress meticulously, even when you don’t go anywhere special. You never know who might see you.”
Caroline rolled her eyes. “It might not be over. That picture could show up in an airline magazine.”
We headed toward class.
The studio was comfortable and familiar, the same as it had been forever. Parents bustled in the hallway amid the smell of rosin and sweat. Music drifted through the door of Studio A. We jostled our way through the crowd.
I loved to watch the older class of teenagers, intently focused on their steps.
I was nervous about middle school because my friends and I weren’t supposed to be little kids anymore. I wanted to be like those older girls, to have younger kids look up to me the way I looked up to them.
The older girls didn’t know me, not really. I was the wide-eyed face who stared at them and copied their hairstyles. Once, I returned a hairclip to Julie, my favorite older girl, that she’d left in the lost and found. Maybe she remembered?
When I watched the teen class dance, I felt a longing that I couldn’t ignore.
My mind drifted to my parents’ conversation a few nights ago. I’d heard them arguing. “She’s taking it too seriously,” Dad said behind their closed bedroom door. “Dance is a horrible profession, and the lessons and shoes cost a fortune. We don’t want two screw-up kids. Josh might be a lost cause, but it’s not too late to get Lauren on a better track.”
I knew they cared, but Dad was being ridiculous.
The idea of inspiring people…my dream was to dance so beautifully that my love for ballet would spread to others.
Chapter 2: Bryan
The stress I felt at school melted away when I saw Lauren and Caroline. I felt the most myself when I was with them, especially at ballet.
I thought middle school would be different. I’d been through exactly one day of middle school, and I was still trying to remember how to breathe while waiting for the next attack.
To their credit, Lauren and Caroline did their best to look out for me, as they had every day since kindergarten. They used to stick up for me, tell the teachers, and retaliate against the mean kids. But I could see it starting at the end of last year. They were tired. There were consequences. It was easier for them to be silent.
Now my parents wanted me to see a therapist. My answer was a big fat “N-O.” My mom had been trying to get an appointment all summer.
“You don’t even think to keep your hands out of your pockets at the grocery store,” Mom had said when I refused to go to the therapist. “You live in such a bubble because we keep you safe. But when you get out in the wider world, some rude awakenings are heading your way. You’ve got to recognize who you are in the world.” She’d looked so sad when she said it that I almost changed my mind. Almost.
Ms. Evangeline’s voice brought me back to the studio, where we were all preparing for class.
“Students, this is Serena Hoffman,” announced our teacher in her gentle Filipino accent. “She’s new to Mercer Island. I know you’ll make her feel welcome.”
Lauren stopped digging in her dance bag. She glanced up and inhaled sharply, dramatic enough to make me stop talking. When I turned to look at the new girl, I saw why Lauren looked stunned.
Serena Hoffman was a swan, the kind of girl who gave off a mix of confidence and intensity. Lauren and I scrambled to our feet.
“Hi Serena…” everyone said in unison, followed by nervous laughter, whispers, and pointing fingers.
There was no way around the presence this girl had. Serena was more poised than anyone else our age. I didn’t have a clue how someone got to be like that, but I wanted whatever she had. Her blue eyes and delicate features gave her face an adult look that said, “I don’t ask anyone for anything!” She had long legs and an elegant neck decorated with a gold necklace shaped like a pair of pointe shoes. Her black leotard, pink tights, and matching ballet slippers showed she meant business, as did her upward chin and lack of eye contact. Her golden hair, coiled in a bun and sprayed to a crisp against her head, was almost as serious as her expression.
From the moment Serena turned up in our class, I knew the year would be different.
“Thank you,” Serena said. Her politeness came off just as stiff as her body language. Tense neck. Just seemed like she was super uncomfortable—being there.
Her energy brought tension to the room as we went from humming with excited chatter to anxious curiosity. The remaining girls stretching on the floor rose to their feet.
That was when I noticed how messy my friends looked in comparison. Why hadn’t Caroline worn a new leotard and tights without holes? Lauren’s bun was already falling out. What about hairspray, ladies? Her hair looked frizzier than mine, and that was saying something. Ms. Evangeline constantly reminded us that, as ballet students, it was our responsibility not only to follow the dress code but to be neat. To look the part. I told them all the time!
Svetlana, our plump Russian pianist who wore thick oval glasses and was always dressed in black, arranged her music on the piano and settled on the bench. My barre spot was the closest to the piano, as per usual. I scooted closer to her and stuck out a hand. She reached into her purse and pulled out a box of orange Tic-Tacs. As was our habit, she shook a few into my palm.
“Spasiba!” I grinned, spouting off the only polite Russian phrase Svetlana had taught me. I wanted to catch Serena’s attention. It felt imperative that I win her over first before she settled into being one of the kids who didn’t love me, to say the least.
I tossed the candy in the air and caught it in my mouth. The familiar rattling attracted a few of Svetlana’s other usual takers. She filled the other outstretched hands, but everyone knew Svetlana brought the candy for me.
Serena gave me a small smile. If I could have told her anything at that moment, it would have been, I see you. Like, I really saw her underneath her perfect exterior. If anyone knew what it was like to have people stare at you and automatically dislike you, it was me.
I smiled back.
“You can stand there,” Caroline told Serena as if it was her job to give permission. Lauren stared. Caroline pointed to the place at the barre between her and Lauren.
Serena walked to the spot, mumbling a thank you to Caroline.
Lauren and Caroline didn’t seem so happy about the new girl, but I wanted her there. I'd be the first in line when I saw someone who needed a friend. My mother raised me to treat others as I’d want to be treated.
God knows I wanted more kids to be kind to me.