Finding Your Center
In the beginning, I didn’t even have the right shoes.
“You can’t dance in those!” the instructor shouted, pointing to my running sneakers.
The class, jazz funk, had been listed in the catalog as “beginner,” but from the few steps we’d done so far, I was already struggling to keep up. I wasn’t convinced the shoes were to blame.
It was all Erin’s fault. She’s the one who gave me the catalogue – suggested I take a class – said it would help me get over the break-up with Cal. I knew I made a mistake as soon I walked in the room. All the other women were clad in long black pants and black tops. I had on one of the outfits I used to wear when Cal and I went hiking – a bright pink and blue tank and matching biker shorts. Glancing in the mirror before class, I thought I looked sporty, but now my colorful ensemble could only be described as clownish. I looked down at my naked knees, bending so I could cover them with my palms.
“You’re gonna hurt yourself!” the instructor continued, shaking his head. He looked like Keith Richards, with a Bronx accent.
Finally he decided that I could do most of the dancing in my bare feet, with a promise that I’d have jazz shoes by the next class. “Sure,” I said, even though at that point I was pretty certain I wasn’t ever coming back.
Going barefoot didn’t help much. There were so many things to concentrate on – right foot doing one thing, left arm doing something else, keeping count and trying to stay with the music, all at the same time.
In my teens and 20’s, I went clubbing every weekend. I’d cut loose on the dance floor for hours, lost in the pulsating music and the flashing lights. I thought the class would be easy.
But as my colleagues in black glided effortlessly through the routine, while I flailed about, barely remembering the steps, let alone being able to execute them, I realized how wrong I’d been.
“What do you mean you might bail? You’ve only had one class, for cryin’ out loud!”
Erin was yelling at me on the phone. I was in Central Park, trying to find my way to Belvedere Castle. I’d been there three Saturdays in a row, since I discovered that the Castle overlooks the softball field where Cal’s team practices. I always get a little lost on the path, and Erin’s loud, angry voice wasn’t helping.
“I didn’t say I was bailing. I said I had no business being there in the first place.” My father taught me the “no business” line years earlier, when the pitcher on my Little League team let up three runs and we lost 12-9. I quit the team a few weeks later, before I had to pitch my first game.
“It’s good to be challenged. A lot better than lying around thinking about Cal.”
The Castle came into view. “Look – I gotta go. I’ll keep you posted.”
Cal was behind second base. He was the only one wearing a t-shirt, impervious to the cold. With the aid of binoculars, I made out his small, ice blue eyes as he adjusted his backwards baseball cap, leaned in for the next pitch.
The first time Cal and I went hiking, I led us to a dead end. Cal was able to back track through my mistakes and get us on the right path. He’d never been on the trail before, but as I learned that day, and on the many hikes that followed, he had an innate ability to navigate. He could always get us back to safety, no matter how deeply enmeshed in the forest we were, no matter how many seemingly identical rolling hills beckoned to us from every angle. It was almost as if the terrain adjusted itself to accommodate his footsteps.
Ultimately, it was the turn that made me go back.
At the end of class, the instructor showed us how to do a chaîné turn. He placed his arms toward the left and then moved them to the right, building momentum as he suddenly spun into a blur of action. A moment later it was all over – a deliberate, solid stop, all weight resting on his right leg.
I tried it in class – I couldn’t quite get all the way around – it was choppy and I got dizzy, and I nearly fell over when I tried to stop.
Cal used to tease me, when we went hiking, about having no sense of direction. He said I was like a kid who got spun around, blindfolded, at pin the tail on the donkey.
On the second day of class, I had the right shoes and requisite black outfit, but little else.
Unlike my hiking boots, the dance shoes had no traction. I had a distinct feeling that at some point in the evening I was going to take a step forward, slide uncontrollably, and wipe out.
I walked to the back row and strategically placed myself behind a heavy set woman. I wanted to be as far away from the studio mirrors as possible.
I struggled through the warm up, unable to touch my toes as the other women placed their entire palms on the ground, not at all sure I was “feeling the stretch” when we leaned our torso from side to side.
The combination was even worse. I faced front when everyone else turned to the back, raised my arms up a beat too early.
I thought about how much happier I’d be eating dinner with Cal, splitting paella or another one of his favorite foods at a candlelit restaurant. Erin hated the fact that he never consulted with me before ordering, but it never bothered me, and that night in particular I would’ve gladly eaten whatever he offered.
“This one’s pretty aerobic,” the instructor said as he threw another series of eight counts at us. “Try to keep up.”
One by one, several classmates, foreheads damp with perspiration, ran to the fountain outside for water. Others walked to the front of the studio and sat for a few minutes, breathing heavily as they watched the rest of us perform.
Droplets of sweat popped from my temples, but I didn’t stop.
I kept going.
This, I realized, tasting salt on my lips, was something.
By the end of the fourth class, I’d started to pick up a few of the moves. I loved swinging my leg out for a side kick, delighted in the “catch step” – stepping out with one leg, only to step back and bring the other leg forward.
My chaîné turns were stiff and robotic, but at least I’d gotten the mechanics down. I wanted, eventually, to be able do one without thinking about the discrete elements, to “just go for it” as the instructor said. For the time being though, I was happy enough just to get around.
That week, I donated a Dior purse Cal gave me to Goodwill. I never really cared for it. It buttoned shut with a giant clasp at the top, but there was no zipper, and I was always afraid my stuff was going to fall out.
I learned to do a pas-de-bourée turn – crossing my right leg behind my left, right arm slicing through the air as I spun around, clockwise, back to the front. I was making progress. Not entire routines, but series of steps, sequences. My chaînés were getting smoother, my body more limber.
Some of the women in class smiled when I came in, waved hello and goodbye, exchanged a few pleasantries. One woman, Jasmine, was also an accountant, and we quickly fell into a pattern of catching up before and after class.
Dancing is about claiming space, creating a current as you thrust an arm up, kick a leg out, stamp your feet to the music. At times, I almost lost consciousness of the choreography – I was back at the club in my mid-20’s, back in the middle of an all night dance session.
I skipped one of Cal’s softball practices. And then another. I bought more outfits for dance class, and to make room in my closet, I gave away a Juicy Couture jacket Cal bought me. It was stylish, but not very warm.
My posture was improving.
“No way!” Jasmine mouthed to me from the front of the room as the instructor demonstrated a pirouette. Unlike any of the other turns we’d done, this one involved spinning on a single leg.
“I know it’s tricky,” the instructor said, running his hand through his hair and then showing us how to prepare with our arms, right arm out front, left arm out to the side. He stepped forward with his left leg and lifted up on his toes, his right leg bending as he whirled into motion. He landed on his right leg, left leg extending to the side. “But keep at it. Eventually, when you lift up, you’ll find your center, and then the rest is gravy.”
I could barely keep my balance standing on one leg with my foot flat on the floor. A pirouette seemed out of the question. On my first try, I positioned my arms for the prep, then opened my right arm out to help me get around clockwise, like we were supposed to, but I barely moved. On the second try, I careened from side to side like a top out of control, my arms grasping frantically at the empty space. On the next try, I couldn’t even get started – my left foot refused to lift up.
I imagined toppling over, smacking my knee against the floor, limping out of the room while everyone else continued to dance.
That night, I took out one of the photo albums I kept by my nightstand. Pictures of me and Cal, smiling, at the top of Wameya Canyon in Hawaii, a flower Cal plucked from one of the nearby bushes in my hair. Underwater pictures, blurry, that we took of fish while snorkeling in Key West.
Cal’s blue topaz eyes smiled at me from the congratulations card he gave me after my promotion. Eyes so small that if he closed them, they’d disappear from his face like quicksand.
Cal used to call me “Little Red,” a reference to my petite size and long, auburn hair. Erin never liked the nickname – thought it was sexist, or patriarchal, or something like that, but I never minded.
“Come on Little Red, don’t you want to conquer a new city with me?” Nick asked the night we broke up, when I told him that I couldn’t move to Chicago with him at the end of the year – that I understood being “bored” with New York, but that my job and friends and life were here.
I put the photo albums back by the nightstand, pulled my hair back with my fingers and twisted it into a compact bun. I imagined that all that could be seen from the front of my face were the dark roots. A moment later I let go with my hands, felt the redness swirl reassuringly back around me.
* * *
I touched my toes in class. It happened during warm up, the tips of my fingers stroking the soft leather of my dance shoe, my hands lingering as everyone started to position their bodies upright. I felt an extra boost of energy that day when we did our leaps across the floor. “That’s it, Kristi,” the instructor shouted as he clapped his hands to the beat.
There was still a lot I struggled with. Everyone else had moved on to double pirouettes, and I still couldn’t even do one.
“You gotta take more force, Kristi,” the instructor said, opening his right arm out as he began to turn. “You’re never gonna get anywhere like that.”
I knew he was right, but I also knew I had no more to give. The first class after Jasmine’s “No way!” proclamation, I ran to the bathroom when it came time to practice the turn. It was like I was back in college, dodging the art teacher on campus after, frustrated with my stick figures, I’d tossed my art supplies down the incinerator and dropped the class.
But something changed. I felt stupid locking myself in the stall trying to guess when it would be safe to come out. I waited too long and missed part of the combination.
On what would have been my four year anniversary with Cal, I ditched work and took Erin’s five-year-old daughter, Liz, to a ballet at Lincoln Center. Afterwards, she pranced about, extending her arms and legs like a ballerina.
At her request, we went to the carousel in Central Park. She likes to sit on my lap during the ride. They’re not supposed to let us ride like that, but they do.
My father used to take me to the carousel when I was little. He’d scoop me up and place me in the saddle, help me get my feet in the stirrups. “Hold on tight,” he’d say, placing my hands on the reins before he stepped off the platform. I loved the decorative horses, thick manes and tails like they’d been spun from sugar, and I loved riding around as the music played. But more than anything, I loved seeing my father’s blue, almond-shaped eyes come into view as the carousel completed a rotation, his curly blond hair blowing in the breeze, his big hand waving up at me. Sometimes I’d even crane my neck around to look at him after the carousel passed.
“Careful, little darlin’!” he said one time with a laugh. “Don’t get whiplash.”
“Come on Lizzie, there’s nothing to be scared of,” Erin said gently, patting her daughter on the head. Liz clutched Erin’s leg like a tree stump, her face buried against Erin’s jeans.
“It’s not a stranger. It’s only Kristi.”
Liz peered out at me cautiously, then quickly retreated behind Erin. “Kristi’s Little Red. This lady’s hair is dark.”
I ran my fingers nervously through my newly brownish-blond locks. Liz wasn’t the only one freaking out. After a particularly energetic dance class, I scheduled an appointment to change my hair color, but by the time the appointment rolled around, I had second thoughts. As soon as the stylist finished, I ran home and wrapped a giant bandana around my head.
“It’s still me, sweetie.” I bent down so I was eye level with Liz. “I changed my hair color, that’s all.”
Liz was with me the first time Cal started calling me “Little Red.” We were at the deli, and she wanted a pack of “Big Red.”
“If that’s Big Red,” he said, pointing to the gum, “then she” – here he pointed at me – “Must be Little Red!” Liz started giggling. “BIG Red,” Cal said in a powerful voice, pointing to the gum and then flexing his muscles in a body builder pose. “Little Red,” he said in a squeaky mouse voice, pointing to me as Liz continued to laugh.
Erin shook her head. “It never occurred to me that she wouldn’t recognize you!”
My father used to have a beard, and one night after I went to sleep, he shaved it off. Apparently, when I saw him the next morning at breakfast, I started screaming. I vaguely remember staring at his face, trying to figure out who he was. It took a long time for the familiar vision of my father and the clean shaven man before me to mesh into one.
Six months after my father shaved off his beard, he and my mother separated. Six months later he moved to California.
“This is actually a lot closer to my real hair color,” I said, putting my hand on Liz’s shoulder. I’d gone red at Cal’s suggestion, prompting more than a few snickers from Erin. She was already mad at me for giving up a spot in the New York City marathon so Cal and I could watch the race together at his friend’s rooftop, dropping out of a Tuesday night book club so Cal and I could run together that night. “If he asked you to shave your head would you do that too?” she’d said after I showed her a swatch of the hair color he’d chosen.
I touched a waist length lock of my newly browned hair, held it out for Liz to see. She looked up at me again, slowly smiling, and reached tentatively for my hand.
* * *
Cal called as I was getting dressed for dance class. I let it go to voicemail, then instantly replayed it.
“I guess you’re not around, or (he chuckled) you still screen your calls. Anyway, the other day I was hiking upstate with some buddies, and I thought about that time you and I got caught in the rainstorm at Breakneck.”
Cal and I had laughed non-stop about how quickly a few sun sprinkles – which at the time, seemed harmless enough, almost refreshing – turned into a dark, ugly storm. “Mother Nature is pissed!” I shouted after a particularly loud clap of thunder.
My contact lenses had fallen out earlier that day when we went swimming, and with the rain pounding down on us, my glasses kept fogging up, sending Cal, who had to look at me, and me, who had to look through the glasses, into another round of hysterics.
Even with all our goofing around, Cal was no-nonsense when it came to getting us back to safety. He bundled me up in his coat and took my hand, leading me, with extreme patience, back through the trail. “Come on, you’re doing great. Just a little further to go,” he said after I walked, with his assistance, sideways down a steep hill as the rain pelted down on us.
Cal’s laughter cracked through the phone. “Man, we got our asses kicked that day! Like two drowned rats. You actually looked kind of cute, though. Anyway, just wanted to drop a line – see what you’ve been up to. Give me a buzz when you’re around. Oh, and by the way, the White Sox are horrible! No way I’m leaving the Yankees!”
When I opened my bag in class to put on my dance shoes, I couldn’t find them. I searched frantically in the tote’s various compartments, started pulling random items out. I must have forgotten them after Cal’s call.
“It’s ok,” Jasmine said as she unzipped a long, sleek boot. “I always bring an extra pair for the warm up – we should be about the same size.”
“Kristi – remember to spot!” the instructor shouted as I wobbled through a triple chaîné turn. We’re supposed to keep our heads glued to the front for as long as we can while our bodies spin, and then whip our heads around to the front again. It’s something I constantly struggle with, and that day, it was worse than ever.
“Don’t just let your head travel with your body, along for the ride,” the instructor continued as we repeated the turn. “Stay focused!”
His words were useless. I had my contacts in as usual, but I felt like I was back at Breakneck, trying to see through glasses that were all fogged up.
“Check you out!” Cal said, pointing to my hair. He took my hand and spun me around. “Nice!” He skimmed his fingers through my overgrown bangs and reeled me in for a quick kiss on the cheek. In the instant before he pulled away, I saw a close-up of his soft pink lips against his white skin, inhaled the subtle, musky cologne he wore. In bed once, my nose pressed against his chest, I told him that the scent was hypnotic – that if he gave me keys to a getaway car that minute and told me to rob a bank, I would.
“We missed you at Christmas,” he said as the waitress brought us our second round of cappuccinos. He glided his finger across his cell phone and handed it to me.
Everyone smiled as they decorated a large tree, opened brightly colored presents. His parents and two older brothers, their wives and the kids. There was a group photo in front of Cal’s parents’ house in the Berkshires, the windows lit up with tiny white lights. Cal was wearing the gray and white scarf I knit for him for our first Valentine’s together. “What?” Cal asked.
I learned to knit when I was fourteen, after my father told me that he and his new wife were expecting. I made blue baby booties for my brothers-to-be, Federal Expressed them to California on my stepmother’s due date. About a month later, she sent me a generic thank you card. My father never said anything.
As Cal leaned in to look at the photo, I quickly flipped to the next screen.
I laughed. “You were pretty bundled up. I didn’t think you ever got cold.”
Cal looked down at the table with a small smile, then up at me. “Everyone gets cold sometimes, Kristi.” His hand brushed against mine as he reached for a packet of sugar. “Even me. ”
The night lingered on, coffee spilling into sushi, sushi eventually flowing into jazz at a tiny, hard to find spot in Alphabet City.
“Give me a break.”
I shouldn’t have told Erin, but we were on the phone, and it just kind of came up.
“People can change. Just look at me and that dance class.”
“Look – staying in New York is only part of it. Remember how I used to tell him that I’m not just a jack-in-the-box that pops out when he’s around? He quoted it to me. He’s been listening.”
“Congratulations. He passed parroting 101. Do you want a boyfriend or a bird?”
I looked at the piece of coral on my nightstand. Cal gave it to me as we were leaving the jazz club. I recognized it right away. He broke it off the reef when we were snorkeling in Key West. Even though I knew it was bad for the environment, that Cal’s little souvenir had damaged the reef, I held the piece, jagged and white, in my hand, and was not ungrateful.
The shoes were beautiful, but I could barely walk in them.
Cal got them for me. He had a friend who did PR for Jimmy Choo. I was never much of a shoe person, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Besides, I knew most women would kill for the pale pink stilettos with delicate rhinestones straps that were, I was sure, branding red welts on my feet.
Cal was taking me to the revolving bar at the Marriott Marquee to celebrate our one month anniversary being back together, In the cab ride over, Cal told me to mark my calendar – he wanted to meet me after my last dance class of the semester and take me out to celebrate. He was so pleased that he’d remembered that the semester was ending in two weeks. that he’d planned a date so far in advance. But I distinctly remembered telling him about Smitty’s, a nearby hole-in-the-wall where everyone goes after the last class for three dollar shots and a make-shift dance floor. People had been talking about it for weeks. Jasmine and I had already committed to going together. I knew I’d told Cal about it.
At first Cal suggested I blow off Smitty’s. Jasmine was the only one I was really friends with anyway, and I could meet up with her any time. I told him I wanted to hang out with the group as a whole, despite the fact that, as he’d taken pains to point out, no one but Jasmine was really my friend.
Finally, I suggested that the two of us go to Smitty’s, hang out for a while, then head out for a solo celebration.
“Perfect,” he said as the cab pulled up in front of the Marriott. He helped me out of the taxi, held my hand as we walked toward the lobby.
My ears popped in the tourist-filled elevator. Lights from several nearby buildings glowed against the dark sky as we stepped into the lounge.
“I’ll get us some drinks,” Cal said, glancing at the menu by our table and heading to the bar.
Then it happened.
As we were walking around the lounge, taking in the view, Cal telling me about some new deal he’d just landed, I wiped out on the floor. My left leg lurched forward, and I started to topple over.
All my fears in dance class, and I get taken down trying to walk in a pair of Jimmy Choos.
“I got you,” Cal said, scooping me up before I hit the ground, putting his arm around my shoulders to steady me. He leaned in, smiled. “Hey, I told you a long time ago I’d never let you fall, remember?”
The night we first met, Cal and I were on a harbor cruise, dancing. He dipped me so low I couldn’t get back up if I tried. “Don’t worry, I won’t let go,” he said, peering down at me. His face was close to mine, his eyes the color of the sky.
I looked up at him now, at his smiling, straight teeth. His skin was waxy, like a mannequin’s, his eyes like a baby doll’s you can open and shut.
“You wouldn’t need to catch me if I wasn’t wearing these stupid shoes.” I raised my right knee, slid my thumb through the back strap and pulled off the shoe. Sure enough, there were thick red lines across my ankle.
Cal chuckled lightly. “Calm down, Kristi.” He gestured with his head toward a few tourists that had started to look over.
I pulled off the second shoe, gripped the razor thin heel. “Your shoes,” I added, waiving the stiletto at his face.
Cal pulled me toward a little enclave, away from the crowd of onlookers. “Look, don’t blame me! How was I supposed to know you’d have so much trouble?”
The bar was rotating. I couldn’t feel it, but the skyscrapers in the windows were slowly, almost imperceptivity, passing us by.
Cal put his arm around me, started to smile again. “Look hon, if you don’t like the shoes, I can get you another pair. No big deal.”
I wanted to nod my head in agreement. I wanted to sink into his arms, take a sip of whatever drink he’d gotten me, and call it a night.
I stepped out of his embrace, held out the pair of shoes for him. “I think I should go.”
“Go? What the hell are you talking about?”
“I can’t. Not anymore. You need to take them.”
“It’s just a pair of shoes, Kristi. For Christ’s sake.”
I shook my head. My arm was trembling, but I kept it outstretched, looked at the floor. I felt a sharp tug as Cal grabbed hold of the shoes.
We got a cab right away.
Cal offered to ride back with me, just to make sure I got home safe. Somewhere between taking the shoes from me and leaving the hotel, his anger had faded. He was back to his old self, back to taking care of things.
I told him I’d be ok.
He handed the driver a twenty, gave him my address.
The cab stopped in front of my building. I pushed open the door and stepped out, barefoot, onto the concrete.
The next day, I was late to class.
Everyone else was already on the floor, bodies in motion, music blasting. I squeezed into a corner of the room, hurriedly changed into my dance shoes.
My shoelaces came undone during one of the stretches. I re-laced them, tighter this time, double knots.
“Pirouettes!” the instructor shouted.
I stepped out with my left leg, and lifted up, started to spin. My leg felt surprisingly steady. Like concrete. I went around once, twice. My body instinctively prepared for landing, all weight resting on my right leg.
As soon as class ended, I grabbed my bag and waived quick goodbyes to Jasmine and the others, not even bothering to put my street shoes back on. I went to the gym near my apartment where Cal and I used to work out together when he stayed over, and walked into an empty studio in the back. I faced the mirror, positioned my arms, then quickly stepped out with my right leg, and did a double pirouette. When I finished, I positioned my arms again and did another. And then another.
“This is so much fun!” Jasmine yells over the blaring music. We’re squeezed into a booth at Smitty’s with a bunch of other women from class, sharing and occasionally dodging dramatic hand gestures and toasts.
There’s a two-person table off to the side, the table where Cal and I probably would’ve sat if he came. It’s piled high with an eclectic assortment of bags, purses, and jackets – everyone’s must stop on their way to the dance floor.
I push back my chair, ready to join the others.
For the first time in a long time, there won’t be any choreography to follow. The steps will be up to me, and I’ll have to make them up as I go along.
My arms and hands are already moving to the music, eager to begin.
Holly Pekowsky grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, when it was much grittier and less yuppie than it is today. She was an avid short story writer as a child, then life kind of took over, and it was only in the last several years that she re-discovered writing.
Holly is a trademark attorney and lives on the Upper East with her husband and their cat, Ty-Bo, who loves chasing toy mice.
In addition to writing, Holly enjoys running in Central Park, hiking in coastal parts of Europe, and dancing.