I slouch backstage, knees together; ankles sprawled to the sides like an injured child. My stomach is stuck in a rollercoaster drop, carried off by thoughts I cannot stop thinking.
Why am I doing this, how am I doing this. All the ways I can and will trip over my feet or step on Markus’ toes. He’ll give me that glassy smile that may say: you’re doing fine, but actually means: move your goddamn hips like I taught you. The pound of make up applied to my face feels as if it is melting off. I’ve become Two-Face, Holy lip-liner, Batman!
These fake eyelashes are too heavy, too droopy and the glue still burns my eyes. When I stand up, I have at least at least five inches on all these other dancers. They are little pixies from East Russia, with their high kicks and low splits. When they throw their bodies, it takes a moment for gravity to catch them. Me, I am a tree, an ex-power forward of a tree. My high kicks will cause the judges to stiffen and lean back, fearing I might catch one of them in the chin with the pointy end of my shoe. When I throw my body, I am heavy feet, an earthquake, my muscles burn and my knees squeak, rivulets of sweat stain my back.
The announcer introduces the next couple. Petro and Anna, but it’s not 'A' as in 'ant', it's 'A' as in 'O'. On-nuh. She won’t have it any other way. On-nuh struts past me camouflaged in sparkling toucan feathers of blue, orange, yellow and red that shiver with every heel kick. She keeps one hand swaying away from her body as if she treads water. I teeter back, avoiding her sharp red nails that beg to graze my throat as she breezes by. We meet eyes. Her face is more icing than cake, a strange ripened peach color with a cook knife nose, Ferrari red lips, and lacquer black slits for eyebrows and eyes. On-nuh sniffs at me, or in my direction, I don’t even know anymore, and says in that thick and swallowed accent of hers, “Your shoes.”
I look down at my flesh tone heels splayed in the middle of the pathway. I mumble an apology and retrieve them but On-nuh has already joined Petro at the entrance-when did he even get there? The spotlight catches them, shading them into shimmer-lined silhouettes. No sooner than they face each other, the music begins. Petro pulls her close. Their bodies bleed together in a fury of yellows and reds. Their hips unhinge from their bodies and swivel to the bass and the drum. On-nuh strikes a heel forward he slides his toe back and soon the couple is twirling around the stage in a burst of sexual East Russian delight. I ask myself: How am I supposed to compete with that?
Markus joins me by my side, and I know now that we’re next.
I tell him, “I am not ready.”
He says that I have practiced more than anybody.
I tell him, “I have forgotten the steps.”
He says that they will come involuntarily, like the breaths I breathe.
I shift my gaze to the performance I know I will never give. Petro lifts On-nuh over his head. They spin like whipped chocolate, melting to the ground until she holds him desperately in her lunge, those red nails clawing for his pant leg. And in one mighty stroke, he rips away. Petro looks back at her, hard black lines break through his make up and etch all over his face. He looks as if disappointment has ravaged him with hate, and in that moment, she is I, as her face crumples and her shoulders heave, mocking violent sobs that escape her throat.
The audience crows in delight, and I return to me when On-nuh rises to her feet, her arms held out in front of her, as if she is so brazen to believe that the hoard of flickering bodies beg for her embrace, and if they do, she will take them all. Me, I am not Anna. I am as thin and lifeless, washed up with only a hint of splendor, like a crumpled dress at the foot of a bed.
I try to stand but my legs sour under me. I don’t feel Markus’ hand take mine. His words of encouragement are stale against the little hairs in my ear.