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The day Nora and Sophie’s ballet teacher, Mrs. Ogilvy, told their mother after the recital that Nora should continue her lessons, but “I wouldn’t waste any more money on Sophie,” was not a good day in the Hartley household. First, because Sophie and Nora heard. And second, because when Mrs. Hartley told their father about it in the living room before dinner as the girls were going up the stairs, Mr. Hartley said, “What did I tell you?” The girls heard that, too.
Sophie ran upstairs and flung herself on her twin bed in the room she shared with Nora and sobbed for a few minutes. They were deep, heartfelt sobs, and as she sobbed, a tiny part of her listened. It was really very satisfying to think how wronged and sad she sounded. But it was a bit of a waste, too, because nobody came up to check on her for what felt like a very long time, so when Nora was finally finished in the bathroom and came into their room carrying her ballet bag, Sophie was feeling much better. Crying cheered her up, but she didn’t want Nora to know that. Sympathy cheered her up even more. “Even Daddy thinks I’m fat and clumsy,” she said to her older sister in as pitiful a voice as she could muster. “He didn’t say anything about your weight,” Nora said. She didn’t cast so much as a sympathetic look in Sophie’s direction as she opened their closet door and slipped her pink ballet slippers neatly into the two slots reserved for them in her shoe bag.
“It’s your own fault, anyway,” she went on after she had shut the door and turned back around. “Mrs. Ogilvy told you not to wear those shoes, and you did.” “I like them,” said Sophie. She gave a self-righteous little sniff, but she knew Nora was right. Mrs. Ogilvy had told the beginners’ class they were to wear their ballet slippers, tights, and white leotards for the recital, but Sophie hadn’t been able to resist wearing her new shoes. She adored them. They were the most beautiful things she had ever owned.
They were pink velvet covered with red roses. Embroidered roses with bright red petals and delicate green stems. Best of all, each rose had a tiny diamond in the middle. Well, maybe they weren’t real diamonds, but they looked like real diamonds. They sparkled like real diamonds, too. They would go perfectly with the diamond tiara Sophie was saving up for. She had been cutting pictures of people wearing tiaras out of the newspaper and magazines for months. She kept them in the drawer of her bedside table. There were pictures of real queens wearing tiaras, actresses in movies wearing tiaras, and the past two Miss Americas in their tiaras. She even had a picture of a dog wearing one.
Sometimes Sophie put a book on her head and practiced walking slowly around her room with her chin up and her head very still, the way she imagined she would have to walk when she finally got her tiara. She was planning on wearing it all day, every day, for as long as she lived. Everyone would have to curtsy to her. Even Nora. Until then, her pink velvet shoes would have to do. They were wonderful. Even the straps were special. They could be worn up or down.
Which is where Sophie got into trouble.
She was supposed to wear her shoes with the straps up because they were too big. Her mother had bought them that way on purpose. Mrs. Hartley always bought their party shoes a size too big so that Nora and Sophie wouldn’t outgrow them before they could wear them out. She told Sophie to wear them with the straps up to keep them on until her feet got bigger. But Sophie didn’t like wearing them with the straps up. They felt like little-girl shoes. With the straps down, it was a different story. Sophie thought they looked sophisticated with the straps down. She didn’t care if they did slip off her heels with every step she took.
“You were supposed to be a snowflake, for heaven’s sake, and drift across the stage,” said Nora. “That’s what the rest of your class did. But not you! You clopped all over the stage the entire recital. You sounded more like a hailstorm! Everyone could hear you. I was so embarrassed, I almost died.” “I wasn’t embarrassed,” said Sophie. She wanted to say, I felt beautiful, but she knew it would make Nora mad. “Well, you should have been.” Nora shoved her leotard into her top drawer without folding it and slammed the drawer shut, which meant she was already mad. After a life of sharing a bedroom with her sister, Sophie knew that Nora usually took very good care of her clothing. She folded everything neatly and even buttoned all the buttons on her sweaters before she put them away. When she started stuffing things into her drawers, it was a bad sign. Sophie tried one last sniff, in case Nora had a thread of sympathy in her, bbut it was no good. Her nose was dry.
“You hate ballet, Sophie, you know you do,” Nora said in a reasonable, annoying-older-sister kind offfff way. “You only took it because you were giving us all headaches with the violin. And the only reason you took the violin was because Thad takes it.” “I liked the smell of the rosin,” said Sophie.
“And look what happened with your riding lessons,” Nora went on. “You only wanted to ride horses because the girl in that book you were reading rode horses. You hated it.” “It made my bottom sore.” “I don’t know how it could have.” Nora picked up her hairbrush, gave a quick glance at the rounded half moon of Sophie’s belly peeking out between the top of her shorts and the bottom of her shirt, and bent over to brush her hair one hundred strokes. “You have enough padding,” she said from behind a curtain of hair.
Sophie tugged half-heartedly at her shirt. She knew how much her stomach annoyed Nora. Nora was always showing her how she should take a deep breath and suck in her stomach and then throw her shoulders back so she would look better. But when she did all of that, Sophie could hardly walk, much less breathe. And she didn’t understand why a flat stomach was so wonderful in the first place. She was certainly never going to stand sideways in front of the full-length mirror on their closet door and smooth her shirt down over her stomach every night to check on it, the way Nora did. Or watch every little thing she put into her mouth and jump on and off the scale all the time like it was a trampoline. “And now look what you’ve done,” said Nora. She had stood up suddenly and sent a great wave of dark hair flying back over her head. “You’ve made a mess of your bedspread again. Before you know it, you’ll be crying about that.” Sophie looked. There was a large damp spot on her spread right under the edge of her pillow. She wiped at it with the sleeve of her shirt. “Crying makes me feel better,” she said.
“It wouldn’t if you knew how disgusting you look,” Nora said. “Most people look horrible when they cry. Eyes rimmed with red, like horrible possums, noses dripping.” She shuddered. “I never cry, it makes such a mess.” Nora had been telling Sophie she looked disgusting for as long as she could remember; Sophie was used to it. She admired her older sister enormously even so. She could have been jealous of Nora, but she wasn’t. There were too many nights when Nora had let Sophie crawl into bed with her and huddle under the blanket during thunderstorms. And all the times Nora had walked on the outside to protect her when they passed the brick house on the corner because Sophie had been afraid of the huge black lab that lived there.
Besides, back when they were younger, Nora used to come up with the most wonderful plays. Nora assigned the parts, of course, and always got to be the princess because she was the oldest and the prettiest, as she told Sophie. But Sophie didn’t mind. The princess never seemed to do anything except sit in front of the mirror and comb her hair. Sophie had much more fun being the frog and hopping all over. Or sticking a wad of old gum on the end of her nose and mixing everything she could find in the kitchen cabinets in a big pot when she was the ugly witch. Still, it was hard, sometimes, having a perfect sister. Even at twelve, Nora looked like the prima ballerina she said she was going to be when she grew up. Sophie didn’t doubt it for a minute. And lately, things between them had changed. Sophie wasn’t afraid of dogs anymore; now she fell in love with every mangy dog she saw and longed to drag it home. And ever since Nora had started marking off on the calendar the months until she turned thirteen, Sophie wouldn’t have dared ask to jump into her bed even if the whole house was under water and it was the only thing still afloat. These days, Nora didn’t even want Sophie to step on her side of the room. She had actually made a line on the rug between their beds with masking tape. Sophie wasn’t supposed to cross it. For a few days, Sophie had gamely tried jumping from the doorway to her bed without touching the floor, but when she fell short one night and almost got a concussion on her bedpost, their mother made Nora take the tape up. Sophie sighed. She didn’t know what had changed, but Nora acted as if she was angry with Sophie half the time. Being around Nora was like walking on eggshells. Sophie didn’t think she was the one who had changed. But she was careful just the same. “Why don’t you do something you’re good at instead of always doing things the rest of us are good at?” said Nora. “Because I’m not good at anything.” The minute she said it, Sophie remembered her list. She had been working on it for weeks. Now she had one more thing to add to it, she thought with satisfaction.
Sophie hadn’t told Nora about her list. She hadn’t told anyone. A list of things she was bad at was not something she wanted to have fall into anyone else’s hands. Especially not in her family, where everyone else was good at something. In addition to playing the violin, her older brother, Thad, was co- captain of the soccer team. Nora was such a good dancer she was auditioning for the lead in the spring performance their ballet school was putting on. Even John—who at six was almost three years younger than Sophie—could draw funny cartoons. It didn’t seem to matter that his characters were always either blowing things up or hanging from cliffs, and that there was at least one knife with blood dripping from its point in every picture. They made people laugh.
As for Maura . . . Sophie sighed. Maura was good at being a baby, she thought resignedly. That’s the only thing babies had to be good at to get all the attention. Sophie might have started feeling sorry for herself again if it hadn’t been for her list. She had hidden it in a spot where no one would find it. She wanted to get it out now and add ballet.
“You’re good at crying—that’s something,” said Nora. She had stopped brushing her hair and was smoothing it away from her forehead with a hair band. Her dark hair was almost as curly as Sophie’s, but Nora wouldn’t allow it to curl. She dried it with a dryer every night and sprayed things on it and spent a great deal of time trying to tame it until not a hair was out of place. Like now. “You should be good at it,” Nora added. “You do it enough.” It was obvious she was bored with the whole subject. Sophie was bored with it, too, because what Nora said had given her a sudden, wonderful idea. All she wanted was for Nora to leave so she could take out her list.
“Well, you’re not very good at making me feel better,” said Sophie. “I don’t have to be. You’ve already stopped crying. You turn it on and off like a faucet, Sophie. You know you do.” “Oh, go away and leave me alone,” Sophie said ungratefully. She threw herself down on her bed to make it look as if she was about to start crying again. “Fine with me,” said Nora. “There’s far too much navel contemplation going on in this room for my taste.” The minute she left, Sophie sat up; thinking about her list made her feel remarkably cheerful. As for the navel contemplation, that was what their mother always warned them about. It didn’t mean they couldn’t look at their belly buttons if they wanted to. Mr. and Mrs. Hartley laughed when they did that. In fact, back before Maura was born and Thad and Nora got too old and thought it was silly, they used to line up in a row and compare belly buttons from time to time. Thad and Sophie had “outies,” John had an “innie,” and Nora had what looked like a perfect circle divided into two equal halves. There was still a photograph on the refrigerator door of the four of them standing side by side, holding up their T-shirts and grinning. Navel contemplation was something different, Sophie knew. According to Mrs. Hartley, it meant thinking about yourself too much. Focusing on your own worries and problems. She told her children that contemplating their navels would only make them feel sorry for themselves and that there were too many people going around feeling sorry for themselves as it was. The world would be a far better place if people went around feeling sorry for other people for a change, she said.
They were all used to their mother talking this way. Mrs. Hartley was a nurse. Before the children were born she had worked in a hospital. Now she worked part time taking care of people in their own houses. She saw so many people who were in truly in bad shape that she was forever lecturing her children about the need for them to “get on with it,” as she put it. That was fine for Nora and Thad, Sophie thought as she opened the top drawer of her dresser. They both had things they could get on with. She felt around at the back of her underwear drawer. It was filled with clean underpants and dirty socks. Her mother would be horrified if she saw them. She never did see them, though, because while it was her job to wash the family’s clothes, it was each person’s job to put them away. Mrs. Hartley left the clothes in neat little piles in the laundry room under signs with their names. Half the time, Thad and John changed right there. Sophie, however, liked to put her own things away. That way, her mother never saw what was going on. She never knew, for instance, that Sophie wore her socks for a week at a time before putting them in the hamper. Sophie liked her socks dirty. She liked the way they held the shape of her foot so that it looked as if her feet were still in them. She liked the way they got softer and softer the more times she wore them, too. Even the smell didn’t bother her. Sophie felt the familiar crinkle of paper and pulled out her blue socks with the yellow butterflies. She sat down on her bed, took out the piece of paper she’d stuffed into the ball, and smoothed it over her knees. Then she looked at it and sighed. The list of her weaknesses seemed to be getting longer and longer.
Things I Am Bad At:
Sophie was nothing if not truthful, so she picked up a pencil and carefully added “Ballet” to the bottom. Then she turned the paper over and wrote another heading, because the wonderful idea that had come to her while she was talking to Nora was that she would start a second list. This list would be things she was good at. Things I Am Good At, Sophie wrote carefully. She immediately wrote “Crying” at the top and then looked at it and frowned. Did one thing make a list? she wondered. She thought not, and chewed furiously on the end of her pencil for a few minutes while she racked her brain for something else she could add.
And then it came to her. “Stopping crying” she wrote triumphantly. There. That looked much better. Sophie stuffed her list back into her sock and jumped up off her bed. She was glad the job was done, because so much thinking had made her hungry. Judging from the smell of onions wafting up the stairs, they were having hamburgers smothered with fried onions for dinner. Thank heavens it wasn’t liver, Sophie thought; they were due for liver any night now. She knew because she kept track. Mrs. Hartley insisted they have liver on a regular basis because it was so good for them. But they all hated it. At least tonight was going to be delicious, she thought cheerfully. Since she wasn’t going to be a ballerina anymore, it didn’t matter how much she ate, did it? And Nora was wrong about tears, she decided as she looked at herself in the mirror. They weren’t horrible, they were interesting. Hers had left dirty tracks down her cheeks that her mother was sure to notice. Maybe she would be extra nice to Sophie at dinner. With a tremendous sigh of satisfaction, Sophie stuffed her socks back in her drawer. Making lists was another thing she was good at. No other member of the family was as good at it as she was. In fact, there wasn’t another list in any other underwear drawer in the house. Sophie knew, because she’d looked. Any list that wasn’t worth hiding in your underwear drawer wasn’t worth reading, she told herself firmly. She went down to dinner a happy girl.
Copyright © 2005 by Stephanie Greene. Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.