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Performance Happiness -- creative nonfiction by Grace Jiang 

There is foundation caked in the grooves of my face. The sweat soaks into the crumbling, dried liquid, but it doesn’t ease the skin-colored crusts back into its former velvety suppleness. It’s heavy, it’s itching, it’s joined everything and everyone else in their epic endeavors against me in ways both miniscule and outright. I open my mouth wide to stretch out the shriveled skin on my face, the caked product peeling apart and sticking to my skin like sun-dried mud. 


The blinding disco ball in the dressing room backstage flashes its pervasive cacophony of colors in my eyes. Long ago, I gave up on trying to fish the little bits of gossip from the other girls’ impenetrable circles. A breakup here, a secret about someone I wished I never heard there, and everything else blended together. And here I was, tucked alone in the corner, scribbling across my eraser-ridden book, coaxing, begging, tugging all the smart-sounding things I could out of my brain. The red disco lights loathe me in particular, temporarily drenching the room and the pages of the novel in darkness to skid my progress to a halt. My pen pauses its dance, frozen in movement across the paper for a few seconds that drag themselves on for fun, stretching my remaining patience thinly. A frown settles back into my red-painted lips, as a sigh curls my shoulders forward into their familiar position. I’ve become awfully competent at finding the worst in omens like this. The sudden interjection disrupted my sentence, the last fragments of my thoughts dissipating like steam that escaped through my fingers that left the half-written sentences hanging forever. Even if I hastily recollected my ideas, it would never be the same, never caught in its rawest form. Not as eloquent, not as smart sounding enough to give my teachers a reason to smile at me and tell me my way of thinking fit perfectly with what they asked. It was all a show, much like this one, but on paper. 


Stricken with reader’s block like stage fright, I finally relent. To the side the book goes, as I blindly dig in my bag through my hazy drowsiness. It settles over me like a thick fog I can’t see or think through. Through this haze, I can still recognize one thing that registers in my mind – phone break. Out it emerges from the soft, spongy pink ballet tights haphazardly shoved in my bag, still radiating warmth from its last overuse. My finger runs over the lines, some crumbling with clear little shards, others smooth and sharp. As I open it, hearts are dotted in comment sections, camaraderie explodes from photos of the girls in my dressing room in hugs and laughs frozen in time. Friends from school in the mirror of a bathroom in a place I knew they wouldn’t invite me to join, all over each other as they toppled over one another. I sigh, closing the app with a resounding, hard swipe. This mental game of whack-a-mole had its wretched little creatures poking and gnawing at my resolve and will as I bruised my nails blue trying to hammer them back down. The most painful reminders of my deteriorating relations were always captured in the images of people at their happiest with everyone who saw them as enough to keep that way.


The girls around me brought disco balls, bluetooth speakers, and heaps of snacks piled on top of one another as they exchanged hands. They brought the most clever of quips, the latest of gossip, the shouts of encouragement running across and over each other like a tumbling brook and secretly exchanged backstage like love notes. What did I have? I had silence, I never knew what to say from the heart that created a thick, invisible barrier around me. It slowed down time as I watched the world outside blur past me. It made the minutes ticking by lackluster and twice as long, yet all too precious and seldom regained after wasting. It made homework my constant and often only companion, yet it was too large to fit into the packed, heavy blocks of time I tried to wedge it into. Everyone else had years on their hands, spending it away as the well-off, socially adequate teenagers they were. There were moments we shared together sweet and brief as a sugar high – raucous laughs at a new clever quip I rehearsed in my head and couldn’t wait to use, gone as fast as they came, leaving me more deflated and isolated than before as they turned their attention back to another friend who could hold theirs longer than I ever could. My newest catchphrase expired as quickly as I’d spoken, and it was time to ransack my brain for another before they could turn away for good. 


From the start, my parents sold my time and all the other ways I could have spent it, my fluency in their ever-changing social dialects for flawless transcripts, for acceptance letters, and the need for more bedroom hangers for my medals and ribbons. In turn, I would sit listening to people at school and the dancers in this dressing, trying to detangle the patterns of the language I could never learn. I only went by the words and characters I recognized by sound and never the layers of meanings beneath them, the false ones especially. That was the only way I could understand the ways of these friends. Ma smiled as she placed her orders for shelves to hold my plaques and told me, “It’s a good problem only the best get to deal with”. With Ma’s favorite “good problems” came what I called Success Inflation – the value of an achievement declining as I pursued what I hoped were enough to translate to even greater things in the eyes of everyone I lived to please. After all, the Gold Medal weighed more than the previous year’s Gold Key, the award more than the nomination. With new highs now possible, it only widened the stark gap between it and disappointment. They watched me, expecting me to climb higher and higher without fearing the precipitous drop that grew bigger as the ground became smaller. The fall from grace would only leave more painful aftershocks as people learned to expect near-flawlessness from me. 


And now, with more previous accolades diminishing in value came a new trait of theirs – fragility. The way my pride and resolve crumbled even quicker as I saw more of my friends counter me with something that no dance scholarship could ever win for me – digitized love in pictures, bonds that stood through time and conflict that put my own crumbling, saccharine friendships to shame – sweet, buzzing, and fleeting, leaving me hungrier than before, just like a sugar high that had no substance to keep them filled long enough the way others could. Smaller and smaller my tall, tall plaque would become as the sigh sinks my shoulders downwards.


Then, what if I laundered away everything my family and I cultivated for me, my last hope of reveling in my solely academic path to respect as great as my suffering, to have the same time they had too much of, to saunter through dazzling city streets with these people, to effortlessly perform a dazzling ensemble of the art of conversation with them? A deal with the devil it would be – something so rooted deeply inside of me I would be forever bound to the shame of losing it when I wasn’t wildly drinking the intoxicating sweetness of what I gave it up for. These people I parched myself to let drink were becoming snakes, coiled snidely around the forbidden fruit with a knowing smile as I stared on, both of us choosing not to state the obvious – it would never be for me. Sacrifices like these didn’t need to be made by the friends I cling to that see me as nothing more than an acquaintance hanging outside the circle. They are desensitized, immune to the sharp prods in my side I feel whenever I am painfully reminded of all the ways they could turn on me from a single miscommunication. Their parents didn’t drill into them the notion that these years would determine the rest of their life, the way peoples’ eyes would widen with reverence as they told them the name of their university no one could compete against. They didn’t have Success Inflation making them embark on frenzied climbs to the top with parents following close behind, berating them to keep up. Not caring was their weapon, their bargain. Not caring didn’t make their falls from grace so steep, not caring kept their grip stable so they didn’t have to fall in the first place. They didn’t feel the need to climb, they didn’t have people beneath them pushing them upwards who would also be stuck, be exasperated if they stopped. They hung one-handed from the sides, rested on the ledges in impenetrable groups while I made my lonely ascend. That was how they never had to make a deal like mine. Now, I understood why life was an adventure to those who didn’t care, who didn’t need to. After all, no one likes being stuck on a mountain, too scared to climb and fearful of falling. 


The blood in my toes sends them pulsing, throbbing. I recoil from it, as it suddenly jerks me from my distant state of mind, like tripping over and falling from a cloud. I had to be brought back down to Earth, a world more physical where my lack of action weighed even more heavily than my surging thoughts. No one could see, hear, or ever understand what rushed behind a facade as blank and compliant as mine. It could still quietly drive me to take part in this drift, to sit and watch the divide between us grow more, to perhaps only provide them even more confirmation that I wasn’t worth spending time on. The rushing blood inside my feet pounds once more to remind me of my earthly suffering. As if the people who left me like this weren’t occupying this same Earth. Time to get up. 


Pointe shoes are fickle, just like the friends who made me tread on thin ice so as to not disturb them – their ideal state of comfort, of stable relations were difficult to achieve, and how I could make that happen was a shadow, a constant marauder in the back of my mind. The parameters were endless: how new were they? How much more did I need to break them in? How much toe tape was needed at the heel to fill the space needed between my heel and the back of the shoe while concealing the blisters, while not plastering enough of it for it to start wrinkling underneath my tights? And how could I find new ways to accommodate them? Ah, yes. It was called toe tape for a reason. One sticky, spongy strap over my bruised toenail, the other wrapped around it to secure it. 


But all those things I did, all the odds, ends and pieces I stuffed inside the killer shoes feigning daintiness, were all for me. I took effort, spent time, took every blister and sore just to know how to make them go away so I could have a performance without pain jolting up my feet and peeking through my delicate, flirty stage smile. No one cared how much toe tape I used, the timing between going onstage and warming up, or if I used gel pads or lamb’s wool. As long as my stubborn left ankle didn’t buckle when I lifted myself on my throbbing toes, as long as the sticky rosin’s stubborn tackiness held the satin heel to my foot, it was all I needed. 


What did other people do for all they needed without laying their entire selves down for others? What were their odds, ends, pieces, or labyrinth-like inner workings used to draw others to themselves as the flowers draw the bees? What made their nectar so intoxicatingly sweet that its delicate, yet iron-gripped scent overpower me? All sugar, yet with substance. They knew what to say, past the small talk and phrases I recycled in order to use at just the right moment. Conversation was an art, one where I grew past the perfect age of learning to master. It was just like what the ballet world, in all its revered majesty and haughtiness, told me. Learn too late, and your limbs wouldn’t be as pliant, chiseled and slender enough to weave together strength and elegance so seamlessly. Learn too late, and you wouldn’t be young and malleable enough to be formed into a being as divine and lithe as a swan. Yet, conversation and social adequacy were beyond something physical that could be easily captured and witnessed like dance, or the awards that reminded me that I could only grow smarter or fail. They were unchanging, unrelenting, unspoken rules as timeless as my growing lack of being able to understand them. 


I tie the last ribbon on my pointe shoes. I glance up. The TV, the one whose images trailed behind the sound like an afterthought, introduces the star of the show. The docile, regal Sugar Plum Fairy glides onstage, never quite touching the floor. Some of the other dancers, piqued by this cue, rise and begin to make their way backstage. The others, when it finally registered in their preoccupied minds, left shouts of encouragement as we left. They interject over one another, like grasping raised hands waiting to be called. None were for me. 


We push our way through dark, shadowed bodies, our tutus wide open like flowers that make a wide enough berth for us as they hurriedly walk past. The muffled music suddenly becomes clear as we open the door to stand waiting behind the curtain, as if someone took their hands off my covered ears. But there was time to spare. The other girls prodded their tight buns with bobby pins to secure them and quietly practiced the choreography. For me, it was finally time to drift back into my headspace.


Life would always be a performance. My best onstage was carefully concealed by the tumultuous, ever-changing backstage scenes. Everyone carefully (and I, desperately) orchestrated everything they let show to the world. But sometimes, the noise behind the curtain would disturb the poetry in motion across the stage, letting the onlookers know things they shouldn’t, things that would disturb the steady stream of the lovely shapes formed to the music by the dancers. Perhaps my friends just had better concealed curtains. Or, they knew how to tame the intricate workings of what went behind their scenes to work better. Maybe they just knew how to put on a better show that kept crowds raving and flocking back for more. Perhaps some strings were pulled, or their craft of choice was pretentiousness. I would never know. 


The lights backstage now shine into my face. Blinding, but not painful. It settles onto my face, gently caresses it, allowing my bleary eyes to adjust. The Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince now leap towards the right wing like a pair of graceful stags. That was our signal, for the other soloists and I to run onstage, flanking the spotlight duo for the finale. My red painted lips lift their corners. My shoulders heave up and down from a deep exhale. I lift my head higher, lengthening my neck like a swan. It was a performance. No one needed to know.


 

Grace Jiang is a sophomore at St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. Her work primarily explores Asian American identity and belonging, coming-of-age, and introspection. Some of her favorite authors include Ada Zhang, Sandra Cisneros, and C. Pam Zhang. She has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and was a fiction mentee at the Iowa Young Writer's Studio in 2023. In her spare time, Grace enjoys listening to the satisfying crunch of new pointe shoes being broken in. 


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chnovelero
Apr 28

Wow. Props to you on writing such a vivid, heartbreaking piece. But what really amazed me was this: I could've written this.


As in, your story was exactly me last year. I'm a creative writer and a ballet dancer of 12 years. Last year (freshman year) was complete misery because I had no real friends in dance, only fake conversations. I'm Asian-American (Filipina, specifically). I live in Texas. I even have a piece published here ("i cry at the pinoy store, not h-mart").


I'm not sure if you're still in this situation now. If you are, no matter what path you take next, it gets better eventually. I promise. I found my peace (my place) in the end, so I'm…


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