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I hated lying to my mother. It always left an unpleasant, metallic taste in my mouth, like I'd accidentally bitten my cheek and it bled a little. But sometimes, I didn't have any other choice.
She'd given me an ultimatum.
"You may accept the spot in New York," she'd said. My heart had inflated like a balloon. "Just as soon as you send in your deposit to Georgetown."
And so began the slow, sad leak. I could almost hear the whistling sound as my heart collapsed in on itself. At least she couldn't hear it. The summer dance program in New York was supposed to be the first step on my journey toward a professional dance career — one that didn't make a pit stop at Georgetown University. College had always been part of my goals, but if anyone knew about plans changing, it was me.
"And check in with your grandmother every once in a while," Mama continued. "She's recovering from her surgery with a friend in New Jersey, so she'll be nearby."
My free-spirited abuela had recently torn her rotator cuff during trapeze lessons. When my mother scolded her for doing something so dangerous "at her age," Abuela just scoffed and said she was fulfilling her dream of being in the circus. Classic Abuela.
In the solitude of my bedroom I pulled out my favorite magenta notebook, the one my stepsister Tatum had given me on my eighteenth birthday, and debated with myself.
It wasn't even close.
So I'd sent in the deposit holding a spot for me at Georgetown, and then I emailed Sage Oliver, the choreographer, telling her I accepted her offer to dance in a city-wide installation this summer.
What my mother didn't know was that with my deposit submission, I had also deferred my admission for a year. It was a risk — probably the biggest one I'd ever taken — but I needed to give dance one last, real shot. I'd held my breath as I sent the final email, confirming with the dean that I would not be on campus at the end of August. If I was offered a job with a dance company, then I'd cross that bridge with Mama when I came to it. And if I didn't? Well, as much as I liked things planned and in a neat little row, I'd have to think about that one later.
The icky taste in my mouth lingered the whole train ride to New York no matter how much water I drank or gum I chewed. I read my list probably a hundred times on the trip up, reminding myself I was on the right path. The right path for me. I hoped.
The New York skyline appeared out of the summer haze, like a committee welcoming me to the city. I pressed my face close enough to the train window to see my breath. I drew a heart in the condensation and then quickly wiped it away. I'd only been to New York once, so long ago it felt like nothing more than a faded dream. To prepare myself for the frenzy I knew was about to surround me, I'd spent the past week reading traveler reviews, making a list of all the sights I wanted to see, and memorizing subway maps. But the idea of being in such a big city still made my heart race.
As I stepped through the exit at Penn Station, two things struck me. The first was the smell. It was as if a chemistry experiment gone wrong mingled with burnt sugar and grilled meat. The second was the size of the buildings. Back home in D.C., no building is taller than the Washington Monument. Here, they literally scraped the sky. They made me want to rise up in relevé to try touching them.
Amid the Amazonian structures and semi-noxious odor wafting from who knew where, there were people. Everywhere. All sizes and ages and colors, rushing this way and that. And I was right in the middle of them. Though my heart pounded with sheer terror, I pushed the fear aside. This is where my dream could begin. So I slid on my vintage red sunglasses — a gift from my abuela — and smiled. I'd arrived.
My first decision? Subway or cab. The stairs leading down to the subway platform looked miles long. I took one look, felt phantom pain in the ankle I broke last winter, and turned around. Nope. Not a chance. The broken ankle was the reason I hadn't auditioned for professional dance companies in the spring like everyone else in my dance classes. I wasn't going to injure myself a second time, just to turn around and get back on the train home.
It would have to be a taxi. They whizzed by in a blur of yellow — getting one to see me amidst the bustling tourists looked virtually impossible.
"There's nothing to it, Tilly," I coached myself. "Millions of people visit New York every year and they all manage to get to their hotels just fine. You are intelligent and capable and you want this. You can hail a cab."
I hurried to the corner, my barge-like suitcase dragging behind me, and thrust my hand into the air. Ten seconds later, a little canary-colored hybrid pulled up. My eyes widened — that had been much easier than I thought — and I opened the door as the cab driver opened his.
"Let me put that in the back for you, miss," he said, taking my suitcase.
"Thank you." I slid into the back and across the slick faux-leather seat.
The man returned to the driver's seat. He peered at me through the rearview mirror and then cleared his throat.
"Oh. Right. The Marian Dormitory, please." I rattled off the address on the Upper East Side that I'd had memorized for three days. He pulled into the street.
"First time in New York?"
"Yes, sir. How did you know?" Did I look as clueless as I felt? I hoped not.
"Pretty girl with scared eyes. Big suitcase. Staying in temporary housing." He chuckled again, softer this time.
"The Marian has a revolving door of interns and apprentices. Temporary New Yorkers. Kids with big dreams."
"None of them stay?" A lump formed at the back of my throat. Would I be temporary too?
"Some stay. Some get crushed and go home right away. Some stick it out the summer and then go back to college or Iowa or wherever they came from. But some stay. Some get the city in their blood."
I blanched. "Like a disease?"
He laughed, loudly this time. "No, like an electrical current. It pulses through you and you feel like all your blood has been replaced with mercury."
"You're a writer," I said, with a smile.
"Once upon a time, maybe," he said, a note of sadness behind his words. "I was a teacher in my country. Pakistan. But here, I do this."
My abuelo and abuela had been immigrants as well. But a better job than he'd worked back in Chile had been waiting for Abuelo when they arrived in the U.S. I couldn't begin to imagine not being able to do what you love. And then I realized, sadly, I could. I'd spent the last six months not dancing because of my stupid broken ankle.
We drove in silence for a few minutes before I worked up the courage to ask him, "Do you regret coming here?"
Regret was my biggest fear. I didn't want to find myself wishing I'd chosen to stay home and spend my summer days shopping for dorm accessories with my mother and watching cooking shows with my stepsister. I didn't want to fall flat on my face and regret trying. I didn't want to think about the possibility of my mother being disappointed with me for lying, or maybe worse. Trust was a valued commodity in our house, and though I'd lied in the past, it was never about something this big.
The driver looked at me in the rearview again. "It's hard to be a new person in a new place. But do I regret it? No. Never. Not when I have all this." He gestured to what lay before us. Green trees and rocky hills, dotted with tourists. Carriages drawn by horses with red and purple feathers clomped past. "I hope you don't mind. I took the more scenic route for you."
"I don't mind at all. Thank you. Central Park?" The hair on my arms stood up; it was the same sensation I felt every time the curtains opened seconds before I began to dance. Anticipation was more powerful than guilt. I opened my eyes wider so I wouldn't miss a thing.
"The very one."
I watched the scenery to my left as we continued up town, wondering if I'd have time to explore before rehearsals began tomorrow.
And of course, the thought of rehearsals brought me back to reality. So I picked up my phone to text my mom, the metallic taste creeping back into my mouth.
I made it. I'm in the cab on the way to my dorm.
Two seconds later, my mother responded. Thank you for letting me know. I'm glad you arrived safely.
Work hard at rehearsal tomorrow. That was her way of saying she loved me.
I always do. My way of saying it back.
Too soon, the driver pulled up in front of a brick structure, not nearly as tall as the buildings near the train station, but still formidable. The double front door was lined with black iron. A gold sign that read "The Marian" glinted in the afternoon sun.
"So, what kind of dreamer are you?"
"Pardon?" I looked at the driver, who was watching me again, amused.
"You come to the big city and you're going to live in this house of dreamers. What kind are you?"
"Oh. I'm a dancer." Pride swelled in my chest. I loved saying that out loud. Being here made it feel real in a way it never had before.
"Ah, wonderful. My daughter is a dancer. It is good for the soul."
"I think so too."
I handed him the fare and a large tip. It seemed like the thing to do for the first person to welcome me to his city. He set my giant bag on the sidewalk in front of the building and made a small, almost imperceptible bow.
"Good luck to you. I hope you find your dream."
"Thank you, sir. I hope so too."
I gripped the handle of the suitcase and stared up. A fluffy white cloud drifted over the top of the building, and a breeze rustled by. This was home for now. And just like the driver predicted, my veins seemed to crackle with electricity.
As he drove away, I wondered how many times he had driven a nervous-looking non-New Yorker to this residence, whose sole purpose was to house kids like me who were here to test out their dreams. I wondered how many excited whispers and heartbroken sobs this building had heard in its lifetime. Where would I fall among them?
In the small lobby, a girl with bright red hair paced, talking sharply to someone on her phone, and a guy holding a motorcycle helmet rushed past me and out the door. When I introduced myself to the woman at the front desk, she handed me a key to room 4F and said my roommate had just checked in a few minutes ago.
"Stairs are around to the left, sweetie." She pointed toward a short hallway.
Stairs. I did my best to ignore my fear of toppling down steps for the second time that day. I inhaled and squared my shoulders. I was a dancer. My legs were strong. My physical therapist said I was as good as new. I hitched my backpack over my shoulders and wheeled my suitcase to the bottom of the stairs. The fourth floor wasn't that high. Not really. Not at all.
Don't look back. Don't look back.
By the time I reached the threshold of the fourth floor, my calves were burning and I might have been panting. Just a little. In my defense, I'd been off my feet for a long time. I slid my bag to a stop in front of the door that read 4F. The F was a little crooked and the paint was peeling in the corners, but never had I been so excited to get somewhere. Or have both feet firmly on flat ground. I was about to put the key into the faded brass lock when the door swung open.
"I heard your suitcase bumping up the stairs. Figured you might need some help, but I guess I was wrong because here you are. Are you Matilda?" Without waiting for me to answer, a girl with long black hair, even darker than mine, and a shock of black fringe over her orange glasses took my backpack off my shoulders and carried it into the room. She plopped it down on the naked bed across from the one that was already made up with sheets and a beige blanket. "I took the bed on the right, I hope you don't mind. I don't like sleeping next to the window — it weirds me out."
The afternoon sunshine filtered in through the window over what was apparently my bed. I didn't think I'd mind being able to wake up looking out at the city every morning. Not one bit. "No problem. And yes," I offered the girl my hand, "I'm Matilda Castillo. Tilly." I hoped my palm wasn't too gross from the alpine climb up to the fourth floor.
She shook it, her long fingers grasping mine firmly. My mother would have approved of her handshake. "Charlotte Tran." Her fire engine red lips parted in a grin.
"It's nice to meet you, Charlotte."
"You too. I've never been to New York. This should be fun, I think." She sat down on her bed and stretched out her long legs, crossing her left ankle over the right and lifting her arms over her head, almost in fifth position. It was as if she was dancing even while sitting down.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"L.A. The City of Angels." Charlotte laughed at that. Her voice had music in it. "You?"
"A little south of D.C. — Arlington, Virginia. I just got off the train actually. This is my first real trip to New York too." I didn't add that I was more than a little intimidated. If Charlotte was from Los Angeles, she was probably right at home here in this mammoth city.
"Did you brave the subway?" Charlotte drummed her nails, the same red as her mouth, on the bedside table.
I shook my head and pursed my lips. "Not brave enough, I guess. Next time. You?"
"I did," Charlotte smiled broadly, proud of herself. Her lipstick made her teeth look very white. "Nothing to it, actually. You just need to know what direction you're going, that's all."
"That's all," I echoed. Knowing what direction I was going was the whole reason I'd come here. I looked around the room to see if there was another set of sheets somewhere.
"In there," Charlotte said, anticipating what I needed and pointing to the tiny cabinet masquerading as a closet. I opened the door, removed the pile of sheets and blanket, and started making the bed. "That was the first thing I did too," Charlotte said.
"I don't think a room looks right without the bed made, you know?" I scooted around the bed, awkward in the small space, and tugged the fitted sheet down over a corner near the window.
"Agreed. Nice sunglasses, by the way."
I blushed, pleased she'd noticed, and re-centered them on my head. "Thank you. My abuela picked them out." Red wasn't a color I would normally have chosen, but Abuela had ordered them for me and insisted it was the right color. She said red would give me confidence, as if she knew what was in my head and was encouraging my devious plan.
"So, what do you know about Sage Oliver?" Charlotte asked, a sly note in her voice.
"Nothing really. Why? Is there something I should know?" My stomach dropped, just like on a roller coaster, which had never been something I enjoyed.
Charlotte shook her head and her bangs tickled the top of her orange frames. "No, I don't think so. I hope not anyway. I know she's been working overseas for a long time, but that's it. She's a bit of a mystery. But I'm so glad this is strictly contemporary. I love ballet and all, but it brings out the worst in dancers, you know?"
I knew exactly what she meant. The girls in the dance program at my high school had been relentless. If stealing a costume, tripping someone, or starting a ridiculous rumor were guarantees to rattle the competition's nerves, they'd do it. More often than not, though, they tried to sink you with a flash of their eyes, a sneer, a whisper that might have been your name. There was something about tulle and satin that screamed emotional warfare. It was part of what drew me to embrace other styles of dance.
"Yep, me too," I said.
At my intensive with District Ballet Company last summer, I fell head over heels for contemporary dancing. After the introductory lesson, I spent hours playing Alvin Ailey's Revelations and Merce Cunningham's Second Hand over and over on YouTube as study material. It was the expressiveness that shattered me every time. Ballet dancers are emotional, no doubt, but to me, it always felt contained. You could be happy or sad, but only just so much before it looked sloppy. I realized quickly that the energy in contemporary could be so very raw and explosive. When done well, the walls around you fall down and the whole room is stripped to ribbons and confetti. I've been chasing confetti, while my mother's been rebuilding the walls. New York is confetti. College is the walls.
"So what's your story, Matilda Castillo? Why are you here? Why aren't you getting ready to start in a pre-professional program with a dance company?"
Excerpted from "Everywhere You Want To Be"
Copyright © 2018 Christina June.
Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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