Mercury and the Red Shoes
Only streetlights notice me…
I close my eyes as the turn comes, and the drums add to the violins and piano.
I talk in circles…
I remember the day I’d found his song. Sleeping at Last’s songs were basically poetry put to music, and “Mercury” was perfect. I’d listened to the lyrics probably a hundred times.
I watch for signals…
My song was apparently Daya’s “Hide Away,” and it was fitting for something Russ would pick out. But the fact that he had actually thought of me. And this song of all others… What could it mean? I was so excited to find him a song. And “Mercury” had been written for him. The real him. But that face he’d given me… My heart had fallen through my feet and shattered on the ground.
“I don’t see how this is anything like me at all.”
Like science fiction bending truth…
He would never see it.
I tuck my head and bend backwards as far as I can without losing my balance. The bells sound like they’re attached to my ankles because they chime and ding at every footfall.
He would never understand. He couldn’t see into poetry like me. I didn’t know what he could’ve been expecting when I tried to find him a song. He would’ve hated me if I had tried to explain it, so I’d only forced a smile.
No one can un-ring this bell, un-sound this alarm, un-break my heart new…
I hold my arabesque for too long, but this music isn’t fully lining up with the music in my head.
I am desperate, if nothing else…
I can’t help it. It reminds me too much of Russ’s song, too much for me to not think of it, and just that thought makes my stomach rise to my throat. The violins grow violent, and the bells and piano notes and drums pound against my head. I keep my eyes closed. Maybe I can hide it. The horns shoot straight through my thigh and over my knee, twining around my foot, and out through my toes, and my assemblé goes higher than it ever has before. My eyes open in surprise. I try to focus, but it’s no use. Everytime I close my eyes, I hear the drums and the horns going up and around and around and down into a plié then up again.
“Did you ever figure out why he enlisted?”
“He wants to fight.”
“But there isn’t even a war! Did he say why?”
“I think he just wants to get away.”
I hadn’t been able to look Anne in the eye when I’d said it, so I pretended to re-adjust the ribbons on my shoes. I believed what I’d said, even though he’d told me that the real reason was so he could shoot someone, so he would know what it felt like to kill. But, the way he’d said it, with that huge grin and eyes all glazed over. He hadn’t meant it. He just liked to make people hate him.
“What a jerk. All he cares about is himself. What did his parents say?”
And he’s so good at it.
I know, the harder I try, the further I go, only keeps my eyes closed…
Why? Why? Why?
My spins grow faster to keep up with the bells and drums, and I can barely breathe. I know that my pirouette is too fast. It doesn’t match the recital music, but I can barely hear that anymore. All I can see is his frozen expression, his wide, perfect smile and his lifeless, hazel eyes.
I am desperate, if nothing else, in a holding pattern, to find myself…
I bet if he listened to the song – I mean really listened to it, he would see it. He would understand.
“You’re just messed up.“
“What’s with you, man? What are you doing?”
“I feel sorry for everyone who has to put up with you“
“You won’t let people help you! I don’t know what’s happened to you.“
“It’s like you want people to hate you.”
God knows, I am dissonance, waiting to be swiftly pulled into tune...
The same smile. The same dead eyes.
The voices join, and all of the violins and bells and horns and drums and pianos start going over and over again in circles of notes that my mind can’t keep up with. I’m spinning. I’m jumping. I plié then arabesque, but it isn’t high enough! How do I talk to him? How do I tell him? He just has to listen, but he won’t. He won’t listen! He doesn’t want to listen!
“You don’t want to know.”
“Yes, I do want to know. What is it you think you’ve done?
“It’s more than just one thing, Marrissa. I’m just a terrible person, okay? I really am. Let’s just leave it at that.“
“You say that, but I don’t believe you. No one else does either. You just… I don’t know. Everyone’s got something wrong with them. What’ve you done? Tell me one thing that you’ve done.”
He had laughed and then given me his signature smile. But I never look at his smile. I only look at his eyes.
I talk in circles. I talk in circles. I watch for signals. For a clue.
The music stops, and so does my heart.
It’s coming, but I should’ve known it would come. I turn to meet her glare. Her lips are parted somewhat, and her nose is wrinkled into a snarl. Every line in her face seems carved in the wood of a totem pole face representing death. She’s probably been holding it back for a while.
Her disgusted expression dissipates with her sigh, but she tries to save face by tucking her head down and squeezing the bridge of her nose.
“Marrissa… I know that you’re daydreaming, and unless it’s about being as light as a feather on a bed of clouds in front of four thousand people…” She sighs again. When she looks up, I drop my gaze to the floor and try not to bite my lower lip. “You want to be in the recital, don’t you? That’s what these private lessons are for.”
I could tell by her tone that it was safe to look her in the eye.
“Ok… Start again!” she snaps, and the music starts up again. “One two, three, turn out! One two three, pirouette!” She continues to orchestrate me with her hands and an occasional exaggerated nod.
I close my eyes again. I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. I always get my best ideas when dancing.
But no ideas come to my head. All I can see is the glimpse of his eyes drowning in pain. The moment plays over and over and over again. The drums beat steady beside my heart, and the voices flow through my veins like water. They’re too loose to be blood, and it’s suffocating me. I’m drowning.
Why Russ? Why? Why? Why? I know I get annoyed, and I’m sorry. But I want you to know that I see through it. I see through all of it, and I know who you really are. (I think I do.) I wish I could tell you everything I tell you in my head. I wish I could explain why “Mercury” is your song. I wish you could see that pushing people away isn’t going to protect them. I see you, Russ. I see you hiding behind your Dorian painting – the one Dorian tried so hard to hide while you put it on display for the world to judge. I can see through your lies. (Can’t I?) Why are you running? Why are you afraid of people caring about you? Why do you think they need to be protected from you? I know that you care about them. You care too much. (And I really don’t think I’m wrong.)
Once again, I’m pulled back to a humid, summer night. It was dusk, and a little boy took my hand and led me to the back of his uncle’s garden where the honeysuckle vines grew over the bench and faded white archway, nearly hiding our view of the sky, but we didn’t care. We could still crane our necks back and see them through the three limbs. When I glanced at him, I realized he’d been staring at me, even while fireworks lit up the sky.
“Do you like this place?”
I remember the tickle in my ear left by his whisper.
“This is my special place.”
“Why is it your special place?”
I don’t remember what his answer was, or even if he did answer. That’s one of the only things I can remember of him, and it’s fading. It’s almost gone.
“What are you doing, Russ? Why are you acting this way?”
“Ah, you know.”
He shrugs. Same smile. Same eyes. But when he moves away, that’s when it’s visible, but by that time, everyone else has already turned away. If only they lingered just a while longer, if only they watched his eyes, they would see in the green and gold mixture that stares back that there’s life. And it’s screaming.
But a lifeless mask seals it up into a tomb.
And somehow, all of this mess, is just my attempt to know the worth of my life…
“Marrissa!” I snap back to the studio where Mrs. Leah is gripping the barre so tightly that her knuckles have turned from a pale Russian dance instructor to an unburied, three day old corpse. “What are you thinking about that’s so important!”
“A boyeeesssshhhhhh” She start’s squeezing the bridge of her nose again. I can feel tiny pins traveling through my thighs and shoulders. Had I actually just said that? She slowly exhales into folded hands, and my face is burning enough to make my entire body start sweating. I brace myself for the lecture over my career and this scholarship and my parents and–
She claps her hands once, and my gaze snaps back to her face where she’s glaring at me so intensely that I can almost see every vein in the white of her eyes. She painfully stretches a grin while digging and squeezing at her palms with skeleton fingers.
“Ok,” she manages. “Let’s try this again. Starting from the top.”
“Um, Mrs. Leah? I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do this today.”
“Boys.” The way she says it. Curt. With an edge sharper than a switchblade.
Maybe I shouldn’t do the recital. Not with this music. Her lips are curled, and I rub my hands along the sides of my leotard. They’re cold and damp. I can see her teeth through her lips. How can her skin stretch itself so thin as to make every single bone in her face–
“Since you’ve already taken up half of my evening, why don’t you enlighten me.” She crosses her arms, and I can feel my heart pounding like a battering ram against my chest.
“I have a friend… He’s enlisted.” What else could I say? That my childhood best friend and the potential love of my life is ruining every relationship he’s ever had in some sort of self-destructive defense mechanism that pushes away everyone who cares about him?
“Ugh.” She rolls her eyes, and I almost flinch. I can feel my insides swelling against my ribs. “And why does this concern you? To my knowledge, there’s not even a war.”
I squeeze my hands together as tight as I can. She’s still glaring at me. Why is she still glaring at me?
“And is he flying off today? Or getting on a plane at this very moment?”
“Alright then.” She starts the music again. It’s the solo “Red Shoes.” The drums pound with a fury, and the violins are screaming with a desperation that moves all the way up their neck until they run out of room for voice. Victoria is dancing as hard as she can with all of her power while she’s grieving. There’s little chance of me getting distracted this time. I don’t have to think of Russ’s song because this is my song. He’d been wrong about “Hide Away.” This was the song – the story – that I could relate to.
I jump then try not to fall as I have to throw myself in the opposite direction. My thighs and calves want to twitch, and I know that the bandages on my toes have come off. I know that my feet are bleeding, but I won’t stop. I won’t! I won’t think of Russ or his song! Or of “Mercury,” or the sun, or of any of the stars that make me think about wishes and dreams and the future life that I want so badly to have! He doesn’t deserve me! Why should I care about him? He will never care about me.
I hear it now. The softening. The soft silence that comes after something has been broken, and all the pieces are lying on the ground. Victoria realizes that she’s lost everything, and I want to tell Russ that he’s losing everything. He’s losing me. But he’ll only laugh. He’ll give me that grin, but I’ll see it in his eyes. I’ll see the breakage, and he’ll try to harden himself the way a bone tries to harden after it’s been broken. I know that he loves me.
“I’m going to marry you one day, Marrissa. I really am.”
“Then you’re going to have to straighten up.”
We’d both been laughing, but he’d been looking me straight in the eyes. I could see the life, and it wasn’t screaming. It was dancing.
“Marrissa, you need to let him go.”
“I truly feel sorry for anyone who ends up with him.”
“He made his mother cry, Marrissa! Do you know what he said to her? When she came over to his apartment just to clean it for him? She was cleaning his apartment for him! And he made her cry!”
“He made Beatrice cry today. Can you believe that? Nick was furious. Making his sister-in-law cry! He made me cry, too. Over James. Why would he say this stuff? He doesn’t talk like that around you, but one day I’m going to bring you a recording.”
I realize the music has ended, and I’m lying on the ground where Victoria has fallen into despair and given up. My eyes are burning, but I can hear Mrs. Leah clapping.
“Marrissa, my greatest fear is commitment.”
“Why would you tell me that, Russ?”
“I don’t know.”
He’d shrugged with a laugh, and it had been the fakest, most forced laughter I have ever heard.
I guess I’ve been laying here too long. Mrs. Leah has taken my hand and wrapped an arm around my shoulders.
“Well done, Marrissa! I haven’t seen someone dance ‘The Red Shoes’ that well in a long time. Keep this up, and you may get the part of Victoria.”
“Thank you.” I wipe my nose and eyes.
“You really got into character, didn’t you? Sometimes bad things happen in life that are really good for our art. Now, if only you could stay focused during the first few songs.”
Was she trying to comfort me? This was probably the best Mrs. Leah could manage. I look at her and see… a smile? Had I, Marrissa Alexandria, caused the stone-hearted, Russian instructor to smile?
“During the first sequence – the part you may not have to worry about – you must’ve been daydreaming about a different piece. You were adding your own choreography.”
“It wasn’t bad. It just didn’t match the music very well. But you’ll have to cut all that nonsense out if you get a leading role. I think you should dance Victoria at your audition. Then you won’t have to worry so much about the slip ups during the first few songs…”
I sit down, untie my shoes, and wrench them off. Mrs. Leah continues talking about my solo and the recital and everything that should be consuming my life but isn’t because what I love and what I want don’t fit together. I stare at the bloody wrapping on my feet. That doesn’t make sense. What I want should be what I love. Something inside of me doesn’t make sense, and I don’t know why I would force myself to choose. Russ would never choose me. I’m probably one of the reasons he’s running away.
I know, the further I go, the harder I try, only keeps my eyes closed. And somehow, I’ve fallen in love with this middle ground, at the cost of my soul…
Maybe “Mercury” is my song.
“…and the turn out needs to be a little quicker. You were behind half a beat.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Maybe you can invite this boy to the recital before he gets shipped off.”
I look up at Mrs. Leah, and I see a smile.
What if I did invite Russ? He would never come. But, I could try. I’ve never been too afraid to just try. Maybe if he saw me dance Victoria – maybe if he saw me dance period. Has he ever seen me dance? Maybe if I got Victoria, and he came, I could find him in the audience. I could keep my eyes on him, and he would be able to understand when I said with my movements, I don’t want to give up on us. I don’t want to let you go, Russ. Everyone else will let you push them away until you’re left all alone, until you realize what a mistake you’ve made and how it will all be too late then. But, I won’t give up on you. I’ll keep praying and thinking of you every time I hear your song and how you are just messing your life up for God only knows why. And you’ll finally recognize that someone else sees you drowning. But I’m going to do my best to not let you drown, Russ.
If I stepped aside, released the controls, you would open my eyes…
Yes, maybe if he sees me dance, he would see what I want to say. Probably not. He couldn’t even understand “Mercury.” Russ can be so stupid sometimes, but maybe if he sees the desperation of Victoria, maybe if he hears that music, and the grief, that powerful grief that tears apart someone’s soul when they lose everything, and nothing is left but broken pieces… Maybe he will feel something too powerful to ignore.
I smile and nod my head as I walk. Mrs. Leah has gone to her office, and the violins in my head grow louder.
I’ll go anywhere you want, anywhere you want, anywhere you want me.
Published in Edify Fiction, Fall 2018
Photo by Adam Littman Davis